As my retirement turned into an unplanned roller coaster ride with ups and downs I’ve wondered about my readers’ experience in the time of Covid, inflation and other uncertainties. I think of all the retirees planning to travel by air or land or spend leisurely days on the golf course or tennis courts, beach or lakes. There are the dreamers of a long awaited tour of other countries or an RV adventure. People who want to start a second career or volunteer, take classes, start a new hobby, spend more time with grandkids. You’ve heard about my journey; now tell me something about your experiences.
By asking you to share your experience with others I believe we’ll find we have a lot in common. Sharing can create change, a feeling of community and the knowledge we aren’t alone. Oftentimes, we keep our battles hidden. I deliberately exposed mine through this blog hoping to help other retirees work out what I saw as common dilemmas from identity loss to how to fill our time. Reading the comments to some of my posts helped me realize I wasn’t alone and gave me insight and ideas I might, otherwise, have not encountered.
At one time I really thought my retirement was over. Maybe even an enjoyable life would never come again. But, I found I had more resilience and strength than I ever thought possible. Enter Covid. I thought the world had gone to hell in a hand basket. Being house bound was difficult; going out with a demented husband was even more difficult. Getting him to wear a mask, social distance, use hand sanitizer took all my patience some days. I thought retirement couldn’t become more difficult, but then I thought of the people around the world suffering far more than I and Martin. For years now, I call Tuesday Gratituesday as a way to be sure I count the good things in my life at least one day a week. That kept me going with hope.
What have you faced my friends? Did Covid or some other event derail your retirement plans? Did you work and continue to work? Did you retire early? Did you shelve plans to travel or golf or visit museums or wineries or other parts of your country? Now we are experiencing high inflation. It’s higher than it’s been in decades. There are supply chain issues. Travel is expensive and from what I’ve seen on TV air travel is frustrating as flights are canceled or delayed. Are you like me and experienced a health crisis with your partner or yourself? The list can go on and on.
Retirement is much like our pre-retirement lives – stuff happens. What challenges have you encountered. How have you handled those challenges? Did you handle the challenges? Let’s help each other by sharing. We’re all on this journey together.
Over the last several weeks I discovered a luxury I’d been missing. I didn’t know it was a luxury. I didn’t know I was missing it. I never thought of it as a luxury. But, it is. For the moment I’m indulging in doing nothing. Yes, nothing. Oh, I know we can’t ever be doing nothing. Even when we’re asleep, we’re doing something. One of the greatest challenges I’ve faced during the last year is overcoming the habit of being in constant motion both physically and mentally.
After two months of decluttering, donating, selling, cleaning, paint touch ups, spring garden tidying, mulching, cleaning some more, making everything sparkle, the damaged deck replaced, it was show time. The house went on the market. The new deck, which is the result of two cherry trees falling on the old one, the downsized amount of furniture and the fresh feeling of the house and yard almost make me want to stay here. Almost, but not really.
Following the major clean-up I spent a week or two fidgeting as I looked for activities to fill my time. Like a leaf in the wind I blew here and there doing whatever I convinced myself needed doing.
Then, I went to Detroit for a few days with a friend. With tickets to experience Immersive Van Gogh, which was mesmerizing, but way too short, we decided to spend a couple nights so we could shop (I bought one tiny little thing) and visit The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. Three days of wandering through museums and shops and art space. Leisurely breakfasts and lunches and dinners. Talking and sharing. Sleeping later than usual. I felt like I hadn’t felt in years.
Returning refreshed I decided to just be for a while. To do nothing. Easier said than done. Years of caregiving had my monkey brain still engaged full tilt. Over my caregiving years I learned to anticipate the next need, upset, crisis putting myself into forever proactive mode. If my predictive efforts didn’t anticipate the next caregiving event, there was, of course, flight, fight or freeze. Rarely did I freeze because I never stopped thinking or doing. And, there was never a time including respites where I focused on just being. Now, I realize what a luxury it is to do nothing.
Remember mindfulness? I wrote about it, practiced it and left it behind probably at the time I needed it most. Mindfulness is achieved by being mentally present. I’d been thinking for so long about the future and replaying the past in my head that I lost the habit of being conscious of my surroundings, my body, my emotions and not even paying slight attention to my current thoughts as they were swallowed up by stressing over what was to come. Somehow, I had to unearth the ability to live in full awareness of the present moment. It was there once; I could relearn it.
Enter neuroplasticity. Remember that? I also wrote about neuroplasticity, took classes on the brain and brain research at Furman University OLLI. Since then, the research on mindfulness and neuroplasticity continues to support the fact that we can create new neural pathways, even in cases where the brain is injured. When we learn something new, we rewire our brains. I’m on a track to rewire my brain with new neural pathways to respond to situations sans flight, fight or freeze. I’m reorganizing the connections in my brain. Doing nothing is helping me. By deliberately slowing my days I’m choosing what to do with intention each day, to be mindful and conscious.
Intention is not the same as having a to do list where you tick off each accomplishment. It’s not setting goals. My goal is to rewire my brain, but it is the daily practice guided by my intentions, which enables me to reach that goal. To me an intention sets the tempo for my day. It guides me. Working in my garden carries an intention such as, “I intend to be aware of the beauty and life in my garden.” Other intentions could be “I intend to eat a healthy diet today” or “I intend to practice mindfulness today” or “I intend to forgive others and myself”.
We often tend to believe if we put ourselves on idle, we’re being unproductive, lazy, wasting time. For me, doing nothing is not actually doing nothing, but, instead, being present, mindful of the moment with intention. Remember meditation? I was always good for about 5 minutes and that’s where I’ve started over with my meditation practice. Years ago I took a course in Buddhism, which is where I was introduced to meditation. The one important part of the practice, at least for me, was learning thoughts enter our minds even as we want to empty the mind. My instructor taught me to identify each thought as positive, negative or neutral, then let it go. It works leaving me with a clear mind, which affords room to consciously rewire of my brain.
During my years of working I prided myself on what I could get done in a day. In the early years of retirement I felt the same way. Following Martin’s diagnosis and years of caregiving, however, I’ve changed my mind. It’s taken the last year, and at times, I still find myself feeling as if I accomplished nothing in a day. And that’s ok. Letting go of old habits takes practice and time. For the most part, I now cherish the ability to slow down, reflect, feel joy, be grateful, create and live in the moment. It’s the luxury of doing nothing.
In order to reinvent my life I must divest myself of fragments from my past. Like my best memories of Martin, I’m keeping the possessions, which are dear to me. I’m not seeking a minimalist lifestyle, but one honoring our past while giving breath to what lies ahead of me. Unlike past decluttering this one requires a wisdom imbued with greater purpose.
I had a longtime habit of cleaning out closets and drawers each January as my version of out with the old, in with the new. Somewhere along the path I’m on that annual ritual went by the wayside. When we sold our South Carolina house, I did a major declutter. Or, so I thought.
In preparation for the sale of my Michigan house, I began going through drawers and closets with the purpose of decluttering. As I cleared drawers of stuff, I also considered furniture, which won’t fit in my new smaller home. Lists of things to donate and items to sell forced me to realize I wasn’t decluttering; this was the big purge.
There were obvious items that must go, like Martin’s bicycle, gear and outfits along with sport coats, dress shirts, slacks, leather belts and shoes. No reason for any of it to languish in closets and cubbies when someone else could make good use of it. It took two weeks for me to act on selling Martin’s bike. I cleaned it, polished it and looked at it day in and day out. I felt frozen in time, slogging through quick sand. After mustering the courage to drop his clothing at Good Will, I felt relief. Then, a few hours later, came a serious meltdown as grief washed over me in a torrent of tears. Divesting myself of his belongings was accepting he would never walk through the door again. Once I was all cried out, I let go of the bicycle as well. It was a kind of release.
As I sort through our lifetime with a mostly clear head I didn’t have in 2019, I often ask myself why I paid to have this or that hauled from South Carolina. Taking a page from organizational expert Marie Kondo, so much of what I had didn’t spark joy. “Did it spark joy for me?”, became my precept, albeit one which is resulting in keeping a few things that may not evoke a modern farmhouse style. Looking at my Great-Great Aunt Josephine’s crystal jewelry box, I opened it. I lifted out a chestnut. Hard and brown my Mother carried it in her purse as a talisman. As I ran my fingers over its smooth rich decades old surface this memento from my Mother was now my symbol of juju, mojo, good luck. A practical woman, a strong woman, her spirit would help me push through this arduous task.
As with the chestnut, possessions carry energy in the memories they summon in our spirits. I looked at the five sets of dishes from the dinner group we belonged to in the 1990’s. I hadn’t needed nor used all this entertainment paraphernalia in decades. The dishes, napkins and rings, table clothes and serving dishes. In an epiphany I realized it was the memories I was holding onto, memories of those evenings when we gathered monthly to break bread. Fun nights like the mystery dinners where we dressed up as various characters in a whodunit. And then, there was the toga party where neighbors must have thought we were crazy traipsing through our garden, glasses of red wine in hand, with our guests, all of us dressed in bed sheets! I would keep the memories and some of the accoutrements, but it was time for most of the physical trappings to go.
Following my second car load of memories taken to Good Will the picture was becoming clear. There were certain objects, furniture, glass ware, keepsakes I would never part with. Antique pieces from both our families needed to stay with me a while longer. A few pieces of the furniture we bought during our marriage were now vintage, slightly marred with scratches or glass rings where a coaster went unused. There is no place for a couple of items in my to-be-built new home, but I’m making a place.
The large marble coffee table in the great room was originally on the chopping block. Then came the evening I sat in front of the fire place mindfully looking at its smooth surface and rough edges, the tiny scratches from grandchildren running toy cars across it along with a few water marks from spilled drinks. Martin and I had gone to The Street of Dreams charity event while living in Seattle. In an 11,000 square foot show house sat a marble coffee table dazzling us both. A couple weeks later Martin went on a motorcycle ride returning to announce he’d found such a table at Frederick and Nelson Department Store. He wanted to buy it. And so did I. I knew now I couldn’t part with it. It represented a joint purchase, a joint love of beautiful things. Though now imperfect with blemishes from nearly 40 years of use, this table also represents the joyous imperfection of our lives. As with ourselves, we looked upon the blemishes as character. There are possessions, which are just baggage. And, then, there are things, which warm my heart each day, that spark joy and must continue to color my life. Despite its ultra modern look the marble table stays.
As I empty the house of remnants of my past life I feel less overwhelmed, lighter, more forward looking. I’m honoring my past. And, making room for my future.
While this post seems strange to me on Valentine’s Day eve, it is the approach of February 14 which fostered my curiosity about my current sense of singlehood. I began looking closely at what it means to be on my own after half a century. While searching within, I also, of course, searched the web. There are lots and lots of articles and blogs on being single. I had to diligently drill down in order to find articles, which weren’t how to’s on dating again or finding a new partner. Searching my heart and soul, I already knew I want neither. According to the Pew Research Center living without a spouse or partner under the same roof means I’m single.
Yes, yes I know. I can already hear someone saying, “But…but it’s almost Valentine’s Day”. For those of you with another partner after the death of a spouse or a divorce, I wish you a happy life together. You are all very fortunate people. You are also people who most likely made the choice to seek another partner. Or, perhaps, there was a bit of serendipity at play. Although I’m now single by chance and location, I’m choosing to remain single for several reasons.
I had the good fortunate of a long, long marriage to a man who enjoyed cooking together, shopping together, working with me in the garden, while I went on motorcycle rides and hikes with him and cheered him on at bicycle time trials. If something needed repair whether bicycle or house, I was the extra pair of hands. We supported each others careers, with Martin even becoming the trailing spouse for my job move. Fun for us was creating great meals at home, stopping at our favorite pub for lunch or supper, going to art galleries, museums and historical sites, an occasional play or concert and later creating our art. We raised two kids and were rewarded with wonderful grandkids. We had good times and some bad times. It was all a lot of work, compromise, give and take. It took years and a mutual commitment to create what we had.
Then, this unthinkably horrible disease took away our beautiful life together, making me Martin’s caregiver and slowly stealing his mind and spirit. And, now, leaving me to carve out a future of my own, on my own. I still have our loving family as does he. They give me support and advice, but the reality is I’m single, alone, but not alone. As I do today, I will always have a hole in my heart for this profound loss.
However, at this juncture in my journey I’m also savoring buying my land, planning my new house and making the inherent dozens of decisions with no other consideration than what I want and can afford. While it’s sometimes scary because all errors in judgment fall squarely on my sagging shoulders, it’s also exhilarating to be forging a new identity. I feel like a kid again, only with lots of experience.
As is my habit I didn’t make New Year’s resolutions. But, I did write goals for 2022. Perhaps, they are one and the same. Topping my list is self-care. Self-care is not being selfish. It’s putting your own oxygen mask on first so you can help your fellow passengers. More than one well-meaning person recommended I volunteer as a way to handle my grief. When I’m fully breathing again, I’ll go back to volunteering. Following years of caregiving and putting Martin’s needs first, self-care is putting my needs, health and well-being first. It doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten Martin. It doesn’t mean I don’t still love him. It doesn’t translate into I’m no longer grieving. In fact, part of my grief is finding myself without my lifelong partner. It’s possible to grieve and, at the same time, feel joy again.
Accepting my single status allows me to envision my future. I was one-half of a pair in an egalitarian marriage. The chances of finding another partner wanting or even willing to cook, shop, clean, do laundry and be supportive of my activities outside the home is pretty much nil, especially since at my age, there are far fewer single men. The reality is women still live longer than men. Consequently, we outnumber them in the millions.
I’m also set in my ways. After five decades with one man, adjusting to a new partner is not anything I want to tackle. While there is a void with Martin’s decline and subsequent absence, it’s not one I feel a need to fill. I handled all the finances, paperwork and our social calendar. As he declined I even learned to make repairs around the house by watching YouTube how-to’s. I’m most proud of unclogging the dishwasher drain after a glass broke filling the drain with shards. With family and friends, as already mentioned, I’m not alone or lonely. I’m finding new meaning and purpose in my life, including my return to blogging. I’m quite capable of caring for myself and have every desire to continue doing so.
All of the above adds up to my choosing to continue living my life in singlehood. One of my other goals for 2022 is finding me, the real me, the self-directed me, the me without a partner. I have a house to build, classes to attend, books to read, people to meet, places to go, music to listen to, art galleries, museums and historical sites to visit, trendy and not so trendy small towns to explore, along with locally owned restaurants where I’ll savor good food and wines, cooking great meals at home and creating a new landscape to go with my new house. Whoopee, more plants, more gardens! And, of course, not doing anything at all…just being…just me…and my cats.
Another snowy day. Watching a Blue Jay on an oak branch outside my window, I feel a sense of peace. That feeling is not the norm for me this time of year. Following the holidays I’m usually overcome by the winter blues. It doesn’t matter where I lived, north, south, east or west, a certain melancholy always set in. But, not this year. This year I decided to embrace the season.
Instead of pining for spring I would make a conscious effort to enjoy the snow, the cloud cover and even the cold. I would be mindful of winter’s beauty. Instead of seeing a stark landscape I would pay close attention to the birds flitting from tree to bare tree. I would eye the snow covered branches and listen for the sound of the wind. I would smell the clean cold air on my walk to the mailbox and filling the bird feeders and shoveling the walkways. I would arise every morning with gratitude for waking up in a warm bed, having a roof over my head, food to eat, cats greeting me at the door and all of us herding to the kitchen for breakfast. I would drink coffee and write about the smallest of things in my gratitude journal.
It is working. By starting each day with an attitude of gratitude, I find my spirit lifted. In the past I wrote in my journal in the late evening. The small change of writing in the morning or sometimes the afternoon turned my mind in an unexpected way. I also occasionally write in real time right after something as simple as watching a Blue Jay on an oak branch occurs. By doing so it keeps the feeling of gratitude alive throughout the day. In addition to a reflection upon the immediate past, my journaling becomes part of the present, creating a more mindful approach to life.
Embracing the season seems easier with retirement. I never thought I would enjoy living in the north again. Yet, here I am. Since I don’t have to go out on the roads during stormy weather, the luxury of settling in for the day with a fire going, instrumental jazz playing, a pot on the stove filled with water and scented oils like orange or cinnamon and later a hot cocoa or tea conspires to fend off the blues.
Self-care is my main agenda this year. This past month of indulging myself in simple pleasures not only brought that goal into focus, it renewed my sense of purpose. I started by preparing my house for sale in the spring and I started that by decluttering. I thought I’d done a bang up job of decluttering when I left South Carolina. Now, I look at what I dragged to Michigan and wonder why I brought so much stuff. And the old paperwork! I went paperless years ago. Yet, I still found a couple of boxes of old records. I proceeded with a shred-a-thon. Having a clear space allows for clear headedness, at least I think so.
Living in a basically neutral space also brings a certain serenity. I like using furniture and art to bring in color. Being homebound with the pandemic raging while also caregiving, I spent many days stripping wallpaper covered with oversized roses, plaids and wild game and painting over walls of bright pinks, greens and browns to create a more relaxing space. For someone looking for a calming peaceful space neutrals did the trick. Add that to how buyers prefer a clean palette that’s move-in ready and it’s a win-win.
My mornings after coffee, breakfast, cats on my lap, writing in my journal and catching up with friends, I head for the shower. There I sprinkle an essential oil before starting the water flow. Lavender or camomile if I want calm, peppermint if I want invigoration. My favorite is grapefruit, the light citrus smell creating a spirit lifting mood. I also treat myself to hand milled soaps with similar scents of lavender, peppermint or lemon honey. Finally, I make my own sugar scrub with a half cup of sugar, enough almond oil to moisten and a dash of essential oil. That’s my spa-like routine adding to my self-care.
As I finish this it’s the day after the snowfall. The sun is shining from a blue sky dotted with ghosted clouds. The glistening snow reflecting warmth into my writing space. I shoveled sidewalks yesterday and recovered my garbage curb cart from under a drift left by the snow plows. I’m off now to feed the birds and enjoy the beauty of the season.
I’d like to hear what you do to beat back the winter blues or perhaps you aren’t effected by them. Let me know. Enjoy you day!
First I want to say, “THANK YOU” to all my loyal readers for staying with me. I humbly appreciate all of you as well as the kind comments and encouragement. For those of you on a similar journey as mine I wish you a clear path to ease your way forward. It will take some time for me to figure out WordPress all over again as they made many changes in my absence. Time, however, is what I have. My return to blogging is part of my self-care as I share my retirement story once again.
Most of us retire with deliberateness. We plan and dream. As I sit here writing with the serenity of lightly falling snow in my view, I think of all the plans Martin and I made. None of them included a life shattering illness. Yet, here I sit mapping a new retirement path. And dreaming.
As spring 2021 arrived with arrangements to place Martin in memory care, my doctor counseled me. Don’t make any major changes for at least a year. Do engage in a period of extended rest and self-care. After all, I was grieving and dealing with the attendant guilt, which comes with such a decision.
Seven months later I went straight into the deep end feet first with a major change. It felt right and still feels right. On the surface my actions appear to be on a whim, but I assure you much thought went into it.
I knew from the moment we bought this huge house I’m living in it was never going to be permanent. It was too big for the two of us, let alone just me. But, only five minutes from our daughter, it served its purpose. I had the nearby help and support I needed as a caregiver.
After placing Martin, as the months wore on, my mind turned to moving back to South Carolina with its mild winters. Then, there were the blazing summers. So, I thought about two homes, summers in Michigan and winters in South Carolina. Guilt over not visiting Martin for the months in South Carolina chewed at the edges of my heart. Even with Hospice attending now, his disease is so unpredictable. The end will come when it comes.
Yet, while recognizing the fluidity of our situation, I couldn’t help ruminating about my future. With winter approaching, I also realized I still loved living in a true four season climate. Wandering online through homes for sale in both markets, hot markets where nothing remained for sale for very long, I found my future.
Following a visit to Martin one sunny day this past fall, I drove down a pothole riddled road in dire need of replacing. Forget repairing it. The asphalt was beyond mending. But, I noticed the nice homes, the small farms and the seemingly never-ending acreage of a very large farm. Surprisingly, I was only five minutes from a desirable village where I had established relationships with doctors, dentist, a bank and a few businesses.
A large wooden For Sale sign heralded the two acres I came to see. Flanked on one side by freshly painted red barns and the original white farm house, my neighbor’s property looked like a beautiful greeting card. Idyllic. My acreage – I was already calling it mine – was a long and narrow meadow with oaks lining the frontage. I could picture the meadow dotted with wildflowers and paths for walking. And gardens around the house. Gardens with lavender and thyme and rosemary and vegetables in summer.
Wanting to stick with my doctor’s advice, however, I hesitated even after my daughter affirmed, “Mom you should buy this.” Even after my builder son-in-law seconded her motion. Instead I looked at other properties and communities. Self-doubts about what to do floated in and out of my mind.
Eventually, I realized artificial deadlines were exactly that. Yes, I bought it! I determined to forego the one year moratorium on major decisions. This property, this place called to me as no other in my life. It had been on the market for two years just waiting for me. There had been other offers, but mine was the one the sellers accepted. I was giddy with a renewed sense of excitement for my retirement.
Though bittersweet, I dream of the small house my son-in-law will build for me and the wildflowers in the meadow. I’m working on a plan with an architect. A modern farmhouse look, it will be just the right size for my needs. I plan to sit on my back porch with good friends and family and my cats and good wine and great music. And writing and drawing and, of course, gardening.
Oh, the road? Well, I tried to drive down it one day to find heavy equipment being used to tear up the old road before building a new one. Potholes no more. Instead, my new road for my new beginning.
It’s one day short of a year since I last posted. I promise not to stay away so long in the future. That said, fair warning, this is not a cheery, Happy New Year post. It is a post recognizing the pain of my/our year amidst a global pandemic. It is also a post about hope and faith, for without those, we are lost.
As we enter our third year with Covid laying over the globe in a pall like a soft haze cloaking what was once normal life, we struggle to make sense of it all. For me, 2021 became a raging battle with grief as I placed Martin into a memory care home. It was no doubt the worst day of both our lives.
Over the months which followed, I watched Martin decline further into oblivion. My grief over the loss of his personhood, that citadel of self, grew in so many unexpected, public ways. I was surprised at the depth of my anger, the feelings of profound loss, immediate, primary, secondary, anticipatory. Unrelenting spirit robbing emotions. My anger was so prevalent I initially thought there was something wrong with me. This is where grief counselors, social workers and doctors come in. Along with feelings of helplessness, sadness, loneliness and depression, anger is a very normal emotion of grieving.
Viewing news clips of people acting out in various ways over restrictions fostered by Covid, I understood, even as the pandemic took a backseat to my private sorrow. I say private. However, like those tearful or angry people on the news, my sorrow, feelings of loss, of no control, of loneliness declared itself in what’s known as grieving out loud. The downside of grieving out loud is the revelation of our society’s discomfort with the emotions of grief. Judgment abounds, even within our pandemic worn medical community. In my grief I’ve been characterized as “too emotional”.
However, even when grief is publicly displayed, it is personal. We each grieve in our own way, in our own time. For example, to someone who grieves in a cognitive way, volunteering may help them find solace. But, for someone grieving out loud, volunteering may cause the grief to be internalized and never resolved. For caregivers in specific, it may be trading one caregiving role for another. I’ve given myself permission to grieve for as long as it takes, engage in a period of extended self-care and rest, and most importantly, not internalize my feelings due to societal expectations and discomfort.
Knowing this, I would like to wrap my arms around the big wide world in a huge hug of comfort and reassurance. Grief is about what was lost, what is and what may have been. Grief is complicated. While the world seems to be roiling in madness, grief is not a negative. We may not be comfortable with the public displays of grief we see and hear, yet these emotions can give way to a better world. Grieving is necessary for our mental, emotional and spiritual selves to recover our lives and move forward. I have hope both for myself and our global community. Hope lights our path to the future.
As I strive to light my pathway I have faith we, as humans, can transcend beyond the seeming hopelessness of our current situation. As a species, we have overcome so many things in our past including other pandemics and epidemics. Gathering strength from the lost past I mourn, I have faith we can collectively emerge with greater strength and resilience.
In the midst of uncertainty, let us go into 2022 with hope and faith. Faith that humanity will conquer this dark time. Hope for a better day than we ever imagined. Faith in the resilience of the human spirit. Hope for overcoming what appears insurmountable at this moment. Faith that we can care for ourselves and each other with kindness, forgiveness and comfort. Hope for turning our grief into renewed meaning and purpose.
As we look to the New Year, let us embrace it together with hope and faith.
A year ago I was busy thinking about a Word Of The Year (WOTY) to define my personal tempo for 2020. I eventually chose the word “engage”. In retrospect it should have been “acceptance”. I think we can all accept 2020 as a tumultuous year requiring acceptance of so many changes to our way of life, as a Black Swan of massive proportions, altered everything we accepted as normal.
Yet, on this last day of 2020, I sit by the fire looking out a window at birds fluttering around the feeders. Snow melts off the hill. A pot of three bean turkey chili bubbles on the stove. Portia cat insists on snuggling against my thigh while my laptop occupies her usual space. Miles Davis plays softly in the background. I’m writing again. I feel better than I have in years. This peace was a long time coming in an unpredictable year.
Staying faithful to my WOTY, as January gave way to February I arranged for home care help, allowing me a weekly respite to engage with my new community. During January I joined several local organizations for both Martin and me. I planned for yoga and art classes at the Community Center as well as a bookclub. Being the social creature I am, I reveled in the anticipation of making friends. I similarly planned for longer timeouts from caregiving starting with an April spa visit and winery tour at The Grand Traverse Resort. That was to be followed in June with a long trip to storied Mackinac Island.
Then, as we all know, the unthinkably devastating bug known as Covid-19 took over our lives. By early March I became a presumed positive as a local hospital triaged me. There weren’t enough test kits for everyone. Tests were reserved for the worst cases. Mine was mild. Having spent January recovering from bronchitis using a regimen of Prednisone, my doctor later suggested the steroids may have made the difference. Regardless, the experience heightened my awareness of the consequences of the virus. I canceled the trips and home care help. The Community Center shuttered its doors. During the next month we went nowhere, saw no one, excepting our daughter dropping off groceries.
Yet here I sit feeling peace, serenity. I could ask the rhetorical question of why, but I know why. Acceptance. I’m paraphrasing here, but the Dalai Lama said if you can’t find a solution to a problem, then the solution is acceptance. It took me several months to accept even the idea of acceptance. I don’t like change anymore than anyone else. I mentally kicked and screamed a lot. As a result, the thought of acceptance steeped in my consciousness for quite some time before the morning in late November when I awoke to feeling lighter, emotionally, mentally, spiritually.
In the months previous, there were plenty of days playing victim, especially as Martin declined. Feeling emotionally defeated by his disease, wanting to think about anything but that, I indulged myself with negative thoughts about the state of the world, political divisions within the United States, my inability to focus long enough to write anything other than my journal, how much I hated the style of the house we bought, missed my South Carolina social life and anything else that came to mind. But, whenever I have felt this way in my life, I get moving physically. And, that’s what I did.
Despite feeling exhausted after recovering from Covid, I stripped more wallpaper and painted more rooms. I’m becoming quite good at painting walls and ceilings. Looking at the ceilings one day I realized the great room ceiling showed a huge leak coming from the master bath above. I didn’t know whether to cry or do the happy dance. The bath was in dire need of updating. Old toilet plumbing caused the leak. Ick! While I saw dollar signs, lots of them, if the floor had to be torn up, I also saw an opportunity to replace the entire bathroom. I went shopping. Mostly virtually but also in person to a showroom open by appointment only. As a bargain hunting enthusiast I was thrilled to leave paying 20% of retail price for floor models, which just happened to fit my plan.
My son-in-law, the builder gutted the master. In the process, we could see mold where the leak found its way into the hall. Ick! Ick! Carpet was ripped up. New hardwood and tile flooring was laid. My oldest granddaughter ran the table saw while my son-in-law and grandson laid flooring. I tried not to think about the cost.
While the interior was being completed, I stained and sealed the front porch deck. Another new house maintenance experience for me. Then, I began digging out the old gardens, dividing plants to spur renewal and settling them into spaces more attuned to their needs. Martin helped with the gardening, moving soil, digging holes and spreading mulch. By this time I had lost 15 pounds. Yippee! And, the style of the house was being transformed. I was beginning to like it.
By the end of August I finally had a much needed respite. Not 15 minutes from the house I rented a cabin from Michigan State University. Quite by accident I discovered the rentals in an email from the MSU Bird Sanctuary. With about 4,000 acres bequeathed to MSU by W.K. Kellogg, it’s used for various types of research including the Kellogg Research Center on beautiful Gull Lake. The Center boasts the former mansion of W.K. Kellogg along with three cabins for rent on a private beach head. I rented Cabin A, took long walks in the research gardens, swam in white sandy bottomed Gull Lake, laid in the sun. Best of all, thanks to Covid, I was the only guest. However, these pleasant surroundings sans caregiving duties renewed me for but a few days.
Upon my return home I was struck by another virus. Sent to the ER for a Covid test, which came back negative, I received the dubious diagnosis of having a virus of the brain or spinal cord. After a week of fever, stiff neck, excruciating headache, extreme exhaustion and soaked sheets, I recovered.
Also, Martin’s neurologist, for many reasons, recommended committing him to assisted living. During a pandemic? With people dying in residential facilities? My soul and heart screamed, “Noooooo.” But my mind and body started going through the process of finding a suitable residence.
Still tired in every way imaginable, by late September, my frayed emotions gave way to a cosmic meltdown. Geez. The loss of my husband to his dying brain, the move to another state, my illnesses, the isolation, the worldwide pandemic, the division within my country all collapsed inward on me. Logically, I knew I was better off than so many in so many ways. That didn’t help. I felt guilty for feeling this unshakable sorrow. A pall settled over my immediate world. But days of crying, introspection, journaling did help.
As I settled upon an assisted living residence, an entry date was chosen. It was to be a Wednesday. I would have scheduled weekly visits as long as I had no Covid symptoms. Then the Thursday prior to admission, I received a call from the Executive Director. They were in lockdown due to a Covid outbreak. Of 20 residents in the building, 14 had Covid. Although there were separate apartments, communal meals and activities allowed it to spread. Subsequently, even after the residence was cleared of Covid, I made the decision to keep Martin home until there was widespread vaccinating.
If you can’t find a solution to a problem, then the solution is acceptance. We are universally in a difficult situation. Some days it’s intolerable. We all have a story about how the pandemic has upended our lives. Though isolated, we are not alone.
Although I spent many months attending to my material surroundings, what I miss most is not material. I miss other people. The material things were just to occupy time. It’s the touch of a hand, a real hug, not a virtual one, a smile not hidden by a mask, a meeting over lunch with friends, sharing thoughts about a recently read book or another students work of art. That’s what I miss. I accept it may be a while longer before those acts are again normal.
Yes, for 2021 my word is acceptance. Within that word lies inner peace and outer calm, the capacity to be comfortable with oneself, the freedom to look at our current state with an open mind.
Events of the past few months have left the world reeling in a collective grief on a scale which most of us have never experienced. I’ve written in the past about sociologist Robert Atchley’s views on grieving the loss of our work identity. We are way beyond anything he or any of us could have imagined. We have lost so much in such a short time from an invisible enemy that grief is an inevitable emotion. Having spent the last several years adjusting to a heart-wrenching life situation where I was overwhelmed by grief I’m offering my perspective.
Years ago as we grappled with the impact of Martin’s disease I remember sitting in a popular local restaurant lunching with a friend. People bustled past the windows on that sunny day. Inside seating was filled, glasses clinked, servers brought delicious food and drink. In the midst of cheerfulness, as I poured out my despair, disappointment, uncertainty and anger over this unexpected disease, my friend said, “You do realize somebody else has it worse than you?”
Surprised and hurt at how a friend invalidated my feelings, I recognized in that moment what we all crave in life. We want everything to be normal, usual, positive, happy. Perhaps even mundane. I thought about all the people who told me to look on the bright side, think positive, at least you still have him. Few wanted to listen to my grieving.
Today I read this post on Facebook:
Without thinking, I shared it. Then, I realized I was diminishing someone else’s grief. I did exactly what I complained about in other people. I was no different. We want to look on the bright side. Yes, most cases of COVID-19 are mild. Going to the hospital and being put on a ventilator is not a death sentence. Yet, for some there is no bright side. A person they love died. In actuality people are losing a mother, father, sister, brother, son or daughter. They are grieving. And we must recognize the death toll. We must recognize the grief – their grief, our grief.
This is now a melancholy time. As with Martin’s disease so it is with COVID-19 – there is no vaccine, no cure, no surgery, no nothing. Many of us may feel alone, helpless. Our lives forever changed. Normal is no longer normal. Our usual day is replaced by shuttering ourselves in isolation. If we are lucky we have at least one other with whom to share our space and our fears. We have the internet, Skype, FaceTime, but we are social creatures wanting to go out into the world, rub shoulders with other people, go to work, shop, travel, have fun, be happy. We mourn the loss.
In order to have someone to listen, just listen, I spent six years expressing most of my heartache to a therapist, at first weekly, then every other week. Six years. Without her I could not have found even a morsel of happiness again. I learned that suppressing negative emotions leads to other negative feelings such as resentment. Quashing grief only heightens stress levels, which leads to health issues. Talking about my grief was cathartic. For me it was a release that allowed me to go on. I was able to discard the negative thereby making way for some enjoyment of life. Grieving is necessary for letting go of negative emotions.
I’ve read many articles on grief. Most of the articles refer to the loss of a spouse or significant other. And, every author points to people telling them exactly the type of comments I encountered. Get over it. Think positive. Move on. Most people who give this advice probably think they are being helpful as I did by re-posting the above quote. But, for the person going through the grief process, it can feel belittling of their situation. It can also make them think they shouldn’t be feeling the negativity of the situation – ahhhh – the guilt.
Now, today, we are also hearing about grief over what may seem trivial to some of us. Grief, however, is personal. For my young granddaughters the closing of school for the year brought tears. Our 17-year-old will graduate without making “the walk” to receive her diploma or attending a senior prom or the planned mystery tour for seniors following graduation. The celebrations, which are so much a part of this experience have vaporized. To those of us with wider life experience this may seem small. To her the loss is real. She deserves to shed tears and feel the loss.
This is a time for compassion. Whether we see the loss as large or small is irrelevant. What matters is that we respond with compassion. We must honor the feelings of the person. Grief is personal.
Both my doctor and therapist talked to me about anticipatory grief, meaning I was anticipating the final loss of Martin and grieving over that future event. I had no idea when it would occur so I felt a loss of control. Our future was uncertain. I venture to say many are struggling with the same feelings surrounding the pandemic. We have no idea when it will end or how it will end. We have no idea what the final toll in human life will be. We worry about money and jobs and the economic impact. We worry about our children’s education and socialization. We mourn the loss of our social ties, work, clubs, sporting events, classes. Normal provides comfort. When our normal, usual life is upended so is our sense of safety.
I say it’s important to give ourselves permission to grieve the loss of our lives as we knew it. Grief, whether it’s because of a death, divorce, an empty nest, retirement or the catastrophic assault of a modern day plague, plays a very important role in our very ability to give way to the bright side, to move ahead, to adjust to our altered reality. Depending on a number of factors, from our personality type to our personal circumstance to our support system, each of us has a different grief meter. Divesting ourselves of the negative emotions allows us to move ahead sooner rather than later. By grieving we also honor that part of our life. It’s ok to mourn the loss.
We are in a time when an abundance of compassion is needed as never before. Having a meltdown is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of someone requiring comfort, understanding and love. In this time of coming together, albeit virtually for most of us, lend a willing ear to anyone wanting or needing to express their sorrow. It will be good for both of you.
It’s that time of year again where we made our New Year’s resolutions, face a clean slate, decide what we want to write on our slate.I feel like I started with a clean slate in September.I’m still working on it.If someone told me a year ago, at the beginning of 2020, I’d be living in a new house, different climate and culture, changing my reality, I’d most likely have thought them daffy.Yet, here I am.I didn’t make resolutions again this year.However, I am pondering some revelations.
Rhetorically, does a move to another state change our reality?Decidedly so.
Despite my trepidation about living in the snow belt, our Christmas was not white with snow, but sunny with temperatures in the high 50’s.By Thursday it was 61.I washed, waxed and detailed my car while Martin bicycled 18 miles.Major storms, which made national news, went either north or south of us revealing a short winter season.I’m ready if we get hammered as today it appears ‘The Iceman Cometh’.My new reality includes a snow plowing service for the driveway as well as generator for power outages.
But, compared to my altered emotional, spiritual and mental reality, the change in my physical reality is a minor aspect.
Christmas night, as we prepared to leave our daughter’s house after a day of family, our grandchildren offered up hugs, our son-in-law backed my car out of the driveway and our daughter said, “Watch out for deer.They’re scampering all over the place.”
“I know.We see them scampering.I’m tired.Glad it’s only 5 minutes to the house.”
She smiled.“A lot better than 12 hours.”
Having family, assistance and love just 5 minutes away has granted the measure of peace I hoped for.I’m happier than I’ve been in years.My only regret is not making the move sooner.While being a caregiver is still strenuous, it is now a shared responsibility.The kindness, acceptance, attention, effort, compassion, empathy, time together – I could go on and on.
This hasn’t been easy.After 21 years in South Carolina, even with the help of family, adapting to a new culture is a challenge.Fortunately, we’ve lived here before.Some things never change.At the same time, growth renders cities and streets unrecognizable.Family ties, of course, make it easier to find doctors, hair stylists, the best places to shop and other services.When we moved to South Carolina, we had to rely on maps to get around.GPS makes a new locale a lot simpler, especially wending our way through those now unfamiliar high growth, high traffic areas.
While not making resolutions, I did reflect on what I wanted 2020 to look like.Nearly two weeks into the new year and new decade, I decided to take a page from fellow blogger Pat Doyle’s post (https://retirementtransition.blog/2020/01/06/woty-2020-release/) and choose a Word Of The Year (WOTY) as a guide. I wanted a word to lead the way to the emotional, spiritual and mental growth I sought in this new reality.I wanted a word to aide my focus.I wanted a word to define 2020 for me.My WOTY is ‘Engage’.While I’ve been busy settling in, locating services, changing licenses, address, painting walls and whatever else was needed to make this home our own, other than family, I haven’t engaged in the community in a meaningful social way.
We live in the country.However, looking around at what’s close to home revealed a wealth of interests hinging upon our natural world.Small town activities abound.Then there’s always the big cities, a bit longer to get to, but filled with many pursuits to choose from.
Martin’s Painting of Canadian Geese
Keeping it local, as a first step to engaging Martin and I joined the Michigan State University Bird Sanctuary and Manor House only a few minutes from our home.Similarly, we joined the Kalamazoo Nature Center – yes, there really is a Kalamazoo, Michigan – a bit further down the road.
As a caregiver one of the challenges of engaging is finding activities, which will engage and satisfy both of us as well as finding community involvement for me alone.The Bird Sanctuary is home to Trumpet swans, Canadian geese, ducks and rescued birds such as a Bald Eagle.With nature trails surrounding a large pond and a monthly Birds and Coffee Walk, as longtime hikers, it’s the perfect place for both of us to get some exercise, engage with other people and nature.On our last visit we met a photographer who drives over an hour just to take pictures of the once endangered Trumpet swans.Martin took his own photos of geese, translating them to his artist canvas.For me, there’s also the Richland Area Community Center with yoga and art classes.It’s a beginning.
With an open mind and an open heart and ‘Engage’ as my WOTY, we’ll see what I can draw upon my slate by the end of 2020.Engaging is under way!More revelations to come.