Preparing to Go
As you distill your life, some sounds you keep:
The creak of joists, the refrigerator
Humming through the night, lulling you asleep.
Even in the dark you know every door
And how to find the switch for every light.
This house for all these years has been your home
But very soon you know will come a night
When you must leave these rooms, perchance to roam
Down fairer streets to dwellings not yet seen.
You’ve read the ads and glossy sales brochures,
Which promise life both active and serene.
You’ve bought the dream and all that it ensures.
You’re guaranteed a lot next to a green …
And yet … you fear your life there won’t be yours.
NOTES: About 20 years ago, I travelled back to Missouri to visit my father in a nursing home. He’d been there for several months, and I could tell he was going stir crazy.
I thought he might want to go for a ride and maybe get a meal in a restaurant for a change of pace. But when I asked him what he wanted to do, he just said, “I want to go home.”
Fortunately, it was still possible to honor that request. He had kept his house and left it empty. I’m pretty sure was holding out hope to move back, when and if he were ever able to take care of himself again.
I was more than happy to help him escape the nursing home, if only for a short time. So we took the drive from Slater back to house near the old hospital in the southeast part of Marshall.
Dad had trouble walking on his bad leg, but we located the key, open the door and found the place just like he had left it. The air was stuffy, but everything was still in its place.
Dad plopped down in his big recliner and sat back with a big smile. “Home!” he said, drawing out the word for emphasis.
I checked the refrigerator, which was empty except for a few cans of beer, left by some visiting relative two or three years earlier. You see, dad never drank, and we never had alcohol of any kind in the house when I was growing up. But the refrigerator was still running and the beer was cold. When I asked him if he wanted a beer, he said sure.
So I opened two cans, and we sat together in the living room sipping stale beer and talking about the past.
He was as happy as I had ever seen him.
After awhile, the beer made him sleepy and he took a little nap in the chair where he had napped a thousand times before.
When he roused from his slumber, he knew it was time to head back to the nursing home. On the way, I swung by the Dairy Queen to get him an ice cream cone–something he had done for me countless times when I was a boy. It made me sad to deposit him back in that new residence that was most certainly not his home.
In the ensuing months, he went downhill pretty quickly. It turns out that was the last time I ever saw my father alive.
Transitions of my own
Dad had lived in his house for nearly four decades. My wife and I have lived in ours for only 25, but it represents the longest I have ever lived in one place.
We’ve raised our children here, made friends, and become part of a strong community.
A recent transition to part-time work, led to a discussion of retirement timing, which naturally led to a discussion of potentially moving.
For me the inertia is strong. My wife says we should downsize and move. I ask where. Neither of us has a good answer that satisfies both of us for long.
Whatever we do, we know we have accumulated a lifetime’s worth of stuff that must be pared way down.
Our kids are far flung. One lives in the San Francisco Bay area, the other in Memphis. Neither place appears to be a great place for outsiders like us to retire.
We avidly read articles with titles like “Best Places for Baby Boomers to Live,” and “Where Your Retirement Nest Egg Goes Further.”
We try to balance factors like weather, tax climate, cost of living, cultural attractions, and quality of healthcare.
We know there is a whole lot of marketing going on to people our age, but we keep coming to the conclusion there is no perfect place. So we put off decisions and fret.
Transition of a different sort
At the same time, I have been noticing intimations of another transition, more inevitable and more drastic than retirement. As I mentioned, my father passed away years ago. My mother preceded him in death. My three brothers–all much older–are gone now, too.
When my last brother died eight years ago, it hit me that I was now the last leaf on the tree. It feels strange for me, who was always the baby of my family, to now be the elder.
With troubling regularity these days, I get reports of schoolmates who have passed away. A couple of years ago I learned the first girl I ever kissed had died.
While previous class reunions marked the passing of a small number of our friends, these seemed like exceptional cases. Now we’re beginning to see our numbers diminish at an accelerated rate.
The prospect of my own death has never seemed very real or imminent to me. And it still doesn’t. I’ve got so many things left I still want to do. Places like Spain and Portugal and Norway I still want to see. Grandchildren yet-to-be-conceived I still want to hold. Poems still unwritten. Tender moments still to share with my wife.
While I have a measure of attachment to the house where I’ve dwelled for the past quarter century, I’ve got a far greater attachment to this world, this body, this life.
And while I have faith in Jesus and assurance of eternal life, the attachment to this life strongly persists.
I know a very spiritual man who tells me not to worry about retiring because retirement is not a biblical concept.
He argues that we all have gifts we can put to good use until we die. And the best way we can prepare for the next life is to keep exercising our God-given talents doing something meaningful until the next life overtakes us.
He may be on to something. That perspective makes it seem less important where I’m physically located during the next phase of life, and more important what I’m doing with my time.