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retirement

Guest Posts, Relationships

Crossing the Threshold

March 29, 2024
prayer
The bridegroom carries his new wife over the threshold to start a life together and we all sigh at the romance! But I have crossed more than one threshold in my life. In some cases, like the birth of my son, they were new beginnings filled with joy.  Others, like the death of my husband, left me in despair.  At times these thresholds were decision points, but others were crossed before I even understood what I had done. That was the case with my retirement and a move across two states.

My husband died in 2010 and for the next six years I immersed myself in my job as a school superintendent.  I spent two Christmases at my son’s house and loved being with my grandsons.  Retirement and a move to their town started looking very attractive.

Signs that this transition might be a challenge popped up one Thanksgiving a few years before I moved, when we all gathered at my sister’s house for Thanksgiving.  I joined my son for breakfast at their hotel the day they were leaving.  I brought up Christmas and assumed I would be joining them again.  He studied the menu and then scrolled through his phone, not looking at me.  Still scrolling he casually announced, “We don’t want you to come on Christmas this year. Why don’t you come after Christmas.” I sat there, mute for a few minutes, then I got up and left the hotel in tears. The atmosphere was tense when we said our goodbyes at my sister’s house several hours later.  Never one for outright conflict, I tucked this memory deep in my brain’s filing cabinet.

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A recent blog on retirement statistics announced: “On average, 10,000 baby boomers reach the average retirement age every day.”  In 2016 I was one of the 10,000, retired, widowed, and living in a new town, where my son and his family also lived. I have often wondered if this move was a good idea.  I justified it to myself as a favor to my only child. When I get older and need assistance in daily life, I won’t be a day’s drive away.  It may be more honest to say I was lonely without my job and without a family.

Navigating this new life has been a challenge. The big stuff happened, as it usually does, in relationships.

My son was in high school the last time we lived in such close proximity. Two- or three-day visits and sporadic phone calls have been the norm since those days. That fact did nothing to quell my expectations that we would spend the rest of my days in a loving, close relationship.

One evening a few weeks before I moved, my son and his family had dinner with me at a local restaurant a block from their house. The place is a beloved Greek eatery with a deck, umbrellas, and picnic tables. I chose a spot facing my daughter-in-law who looked as lovely as she always does.  I thought: “This is what I’ve been waiting for…a family dinner in a favorite spot…”  My mind took off, imagining Sunday dinners at my house……my son stopping by after work for a drink…babysitting my grandsons. Heaven!

My son got up to greet friends and acquaintances in the restaurant and my daughter-in-law focused on helping the boys decide what they wanted to eat.  Her long blond hair draped over her shoulders, onto her fashionable black maxi length dress. She began to tell me about the news from her large extended family in the Delta of Mississippi, not far from Oxford. Several sorority friends from college stopped by to say hello and they all talked over each other excitedly.

“Don’t you look the cutest”.  “I love your hair that way”. “How’s your grandmother, she’s so funny!!”   Her infectious laugh drew smiles from nearby tables, and she was the center of attention at ours.

My son, who had been quiet during our meal, gathered up the boys after dinner and they started home.  My daughter-in-law and I lingered to drink our wine and chat. The buzz around us got louder as the deck filled up with diners.

“…..worried about you moving here….. doesn’t know what to expect”.  Those words found their way through the noise.

“ Who?”

“R—”

“Why?” My stomach tightened.

“What’s he think I’m gonna do?  I’m not gonna butt into your lives!”

We stopped to pour more wine…She continued to tell me what she apparently thought I needed to hear.

“We’ve got our own traditions and routines, Ruth.  And you need to make your own.”  I thought, “you are one tough cookie” and I grudgingly tipped my imaginary hat.   I said, “I am glad you are being honest. Part of the tension last year around Christmas happened because R___ was given the job of telling me I wasn’t welcome on Christmas Day. It might be better if you and I talked.” I mimicked the blunt way he had blurted out the news.

“Oh, I didn’t know that”.  Heightened emotion and the wine tinted her porcelain cheeks. I ruefully noted to myself “She would be quite a formidable opponent if I chose the competition path.”

As we walked back to their house, she unexpectedly remarked,” I feel so much better”.  I realized it had not been easy for her to tackle the boundary issue with her mother-in-law. I had plopped myself into their pond and the ripples seemed threatening.

I had bought a house, moved my furniture, and there was no going back now.  Somehow, I needed to build a new life and accept that it would not look like a Norman Rockwell painting.

A prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr, the great theologian, eventually became the famous serenity prayer, a staple of all the 12-step programs.  It became mine.

“God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.”

This became my daily and sometimes moment-by-moment prayer over the next seven years.

My son was chairman of the school board during the COVID mask controversies.  He rebuffed any advice I had as a former school superintendent. Serenity prayer.

The mythical Sunday dinners that took enormous effort by an inadequate cook (me) lasted 45 minutes because everyone was busy.  I gave away the dining room table and created a study nook for myself.  I took them out to eat when it was convenient for everyone.  Serenity prayer.

My grandsons, 7 and 9 when I moved, enjoyed coming to my upstairs floor full of their video games, board games, and order out menus.  It dawned on their parents that this was a safe place for the kids to be and it afforded them some free time.  Serenity prayer.

I deliberately found volunteer activities that used my skills and enthusiasm, involved myself in community organization that focused on building  better government, and made many friends along the way.  I took control over what I could do and let go of what I could not make happen.  Serenity prayer.

I ask my son to lunch one or two times a month and he has started suggesting it himself sometimes.  That is the only time I am with him by myself, and it has taken seven years for those conversations to become more personal.  He is married to a strong woman, has a law practice, is maneuvering the teenage years of two boys, and I am not his top priority.  Serenity prayer.

And then one day, during a family trip to Ireland, my daughter-in-law sought me out to talk about a personal issue that was troubling her. Somewhere in the time we spent together that day, I heard: “I love you” and “I trust you”. Serenity prayer.

Ruth O’Dell is an emerging writer with a previous publication in Atticus Review. Ruth is a retired educator living, loving, and writing in Oxford, Mississippi.

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Wondering what to read next? 

This is not your typical divorce memoir.

Elizabeth Crane’s marriage is ending after fifteen years. While the marriage wasn’t perfect, her husband’s announcement that it is over leaves her reeling, and this gem of a book is the result. Written with fierce grace, her book tells the story of the marriage, the beginning and the end, and gives the reader a glimpse into what comes next for Crane.

“Reading about another person’s pain should not be this enjoyable, but Crane’s writing, full of wit and charm, makes it so.”
Kirkus (starred review)

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Guest Posts, aging, Health

Resonant Imaging

March 10, 2021
mri

By Cynthia Stock

I recognized the radiology tech, a gray-haired woman named Danielle. A ponytail, looking as apathetic as Danielle could look after a long day, limped down her back. Lufkin, Amarillo, and North Dallas complicated her lilting drawl. She didn’t recognize me, but I remembered her.

Shortly before I retired, I transported a critically ill patient to Danielle’s subterranean world. The MRI room reminded me of the Chilean miners, trapped for days without light or contact with the “real” world, struggling to stay sane while facing off with death in a very small space. My patient, fully equipped with a ventilator and nine life sustaining IV infusions, required two ICU staff members and one respiratory therapist to travel to MRI. When we arrived, Danielle’s face collapsed into a web of wrinkles.

“I don’t think we have enough MRI safe pumps for all those drips,” she said.

I knew the patient’s blood pressure hardly tolerated a quick change to fresh IV tubing, much less a complete stop of one of the drips. “Let me call the doc.” I don’t remember which one. None of the doctors either experienced or understood the logistics of taking an ICU patient to another universe far, far away from critical care for a diagnostic that ultimately, would not, could not, alter the plan of care. After a terse risk-benefit analysis and an explanation of the equipment dilemma, the doctor canceled the order.

“I’m so sorry,” Danielle said, resigned. Her head nodded, side-to-side. I remembered using that gesture to voice my own frustration with job responsibilities. Her body expressed regret more clearly than any words.

“Not your problem. Thanks for trying.”

Danielle helped push the patient and his mechanical paraphernalia down the hall to the elevators, something some of the younger techs would never do. Danielle and I, almost the same age, found ourselves conjoined by a dated work ethic.

Facing my own MRI, I slipped into my “health-compromised” persona. Danielle explained things about the MRI as if I had no medical knowledge. That was okay by me. I laughed at the irony of MS, not a master’s degree, although I had one, but Multiple Sclerosis. The acronyms gave me two separate identities, neither complete. My first symptom of MS appeared in the early 70s.

Fresh from nursing school I remembered all the landmarks I memorized for my anatomy class. Mixing some sterile saline in a vial of the white powder of some antibiotic, I bumped the plunger of the syringe against my wrist. It felt numb. I finished giving the drug to the patient. Then I traced from my inner wrist up to my elbow and mapped the roadway of my radial nerve. No feeling, cause unknown. Just as mysteriously, the feeling came back.

I didn’t interrupt Danielle’s explanation of the procedure, didn’t ask if she remembered me or our day of futile labor. The almost saccharine sweetness of her voice grated, but then it soothed. Or maybe it was the Xanax I’d managed to sneak before a tech led me though the labyrinth of the radiology maze. I was almost ready for the forty-five-minute claustrophobia challenge.

I often I wrestled with feelings of invisibility, except when it came to my career. I didn’t often tell people I was a nurse. At the gym, I didn’t want to hear about poor nursing care in such and such hospital or offer information in conflict with doctors who practiced medicine by recipe rather than individualized care. I only allowed my family the luxury of free nursing-medical advice. For my MRI, I didn’t want to be the retired nurse in MRI Room 2. You remember her, she took her job way too seriously. Such a control freak. I wanted to be the frightened, anxious person who loved to workout, read, write, hold her husband’s hand, and dote on her two new kittens.

Danielle secured my head in a padded support as if it were a precious piece of art in need of safety and stability. Six ceiling rectangles boasted a beach scene complete with striped beach chairs and cherry red umbrellas. I weighed the benefits of wine versus margaritas at the beach, while Danielle admired my ample veins, poked my hand, and inserted an IV. So far, so good.

“I’m gonna flush it with a little saline,” she said.

A jolt of cold shot from my hand towards my elbow.

“Do you know what we’re looking for today?”

I knew what I was hoping for, no new white spots highlighting a most unpredictable, aggravating disease. “They want to see if my lesions are stable.” Since I’ve had to stop taking my Tecfidera. I remembered losing seventy pounds in six months and then losing sensation as if I’d had what in the old days was called a pudendal block. Dammit, since retirement I can’t afford the drug that enabled me to work at the bedside for forty years. I didn’t say what I felt, nor did I mention the meningioma nestled like a pearl in the oyster of my frontal lobe. Anger can kill you just as easily as any disease.

Sixty-seven-year old backs become ardent protesters with immobility on a flat surface. Danielle eased a triangular pillow under my knees. My back stopped complaining. When she snapped the plastic cage over my head to keep it perfectly still, I ordered myself not to open my eyes again until the test was over. I’d done that once. Through the plastic matrix I saw an infinity of ivory plastic looming inches away from the length of my entire body. It closed in on me and spawned an adrenalin rush so potent I started screaming. “Let me out. I can’t do this.” Not this time. I had to get this done.

Danielle’s voice changed into a something hollow and distant. The table shuddered and moved by inches. “We’re gonna get started.”

I clutched the call bell, my panic button. It was soft, round, no bigger than a plum, but knowing my body slid through the gullet of a heartless, automaton, it became my lifeline.

I wanted to shout at the sounds. First a riveter. Then a jackhammer. A soprano wasp nesting in my ear. The thunderous NUNUNUNUNUN. I wondered about damage to my hearing. The sounds shattered any sense of time. The bane of my MS existence, bladder urgency, remained at bay.

Unlike other techs who occasionally chatted over the intercom, Danielle remained quiet. So quiet, I imagined the worst, a national crisis requiring all employees to go to designated posts as part of a disaster plan. A bomb threat that cleared the building and left the helpless and entombed. My favorite, a zombie apocalypse where the only safe place to hide was an MRI machine. A new story line for The Walking Dead. After a brief hum, the riveting started again.

I made it through the MRI. Danielle helped me sit up. My head spun for half a second. Danielle held my arm for support when I jumped off the table and headed for the dressing room. Danielle never recognized me. However, when she grabbed me, for the first time I noticed she wore a compression sleeve on one arm. The well-worn seam suggested Danielle had worn it for a long time. With retirement, I saw things differently. With retirement, I saw different things.

After forty plus years as a Critical Care Nurse, Cynthia Stock is in the process of reinvention at the age of sixty-nine. Writing represents a great part of that and Cynthia’s work can be found here. We are thrilled to be part of her journey.

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A book about tears? Sign us up! Some have called this the Bluets of crying and we tend to agree. This book is unexpected and as much a cultural survey of tears as a lyrical meditation on why we cry. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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