Over the past few months, five people I have known have died---two were in their eighties but two were in their sixties(my decade of life right now). One friend now has metastatic cancer. She has been posting pictures of herself on Facebook--from a beautiful wide-eyed child in Ireland, to her now still beautiful thinning visage with a huge head of curly white hair and an endearing smile. The last picture was on Mother's Day with her daughter, both with their cheeks touching, her daughter's eyes, sad and a bit terrified. After all, it is a mother who first tethers you to this earth.
We don't know what the "finish line" of our lives will be--or how the energy of our lives, our atoms will live after we die. But we can, at least some of us can, make choices--when to leave our jobs--where to live--how to live, perhaps, more cheaply some place else. I know that when my body felt depleted- in those five months before retiring---I didn't want to get sick early. But at the same time, I was afraid I would get sick--before I had this chance of a new life.
I wanted time to enjoy the last decades(or however long it will be) of my life without the constant pressure of grading papers. I would feel small lumps--and bumps--those growths that seem to sprout more when you get older. My almost 15 year old dog, for instance, has big lumps on her ears. "Just part of the aging process" the Vet says, feeling that it's still movable and not growing. But I would, at times wonder if I would make it. I didn't want to die on the job.
My husband, six years older,left his job a couple of years before I left mine. We were both going to work longer--me until 63 at least and he until 70 but we both had to get out when we did. Jim would come home and say he had to talk himself through the day. "Now I'm filling out the forms. Now I'm putting on the coffee." The brain was drained, the body felt like it was following. He checked off days on the calendar, making big X's like a homesick boy at summer camp. He says this:
"Once I had set a definite date for my retirement, I became plagued with the fear that death or disability might strike me down before I could reach the goal I had labored for. Though I was in excellent health, thoughts of heart attack, stroke, or a fatal accident haunted my "final days" of work. It didn't help to acknowledge those fears as irrational. What mattered most was that after 54 years of paying into Social Security, I was going to be stopped short of the finish line. Whoa to the wage slave, who doesn't receive his or her pittance."
But he did get to retire. He goes on hikes, visits museums, does his art work--lately Egyptian hieroglyphs, follows his beloved team, The San Francisco Giants, reads and does a lot more house repairs than he had expected to do. He cooks for the student who lives with us. And I got to retire, as well, though I teach and write both part time. We're going to Pt. Reyes this Thursday, a typical work day-- a beautiful hiking area filled with water, birds, and spectacular views.
Sometimes, when those fears surface--it's good to take a deep breath and visualize--the healthy body--all the cells humming in perfect harmony. And perhaps, remember, that even though people die-- babies are also being born.
Causes Louise Nayer Supports
Southern Poverty Law Center
Doctor's Without Borders