One chapter closes and a new one begins

“At Dusk,

“We all must choose,

“To watch shadows lengthen,

“Or to let our faces reflect Sunset.”

—Helen Sue Isely

 

This poem is one I’ve contemplated often in recent weeks. Written and published long ago by my husband’s mother, an accomplished poet, its message of how best to live life during one’s final chapters has always seemed a perfect guidepost.

So why has it been on my mind so much lately?

For a couple months this spring, my husband, Karl, worked seven days a week trying to get everything done before retiring from his job of 35 years at the U of M. 

On his final day he said his goodbyes, turned in his office keys and, after everyone else was gone, switched off his room’s lights for the last time. For years he had looked ahead to retirement as “an undiluted good,” but now, as the moment to leave had come, his feelings were those of disorientation and loss. 

Good work, good times and good friends were harder to leave behind than he had thought they would be. I think it was a prime example of the mixed emotions that often accompany big changes. 

But major endings are often followed by new beginnings. The next day, his retirement took flight — in a big way — when he spent the day hiking in nearby parks, compiling a bird list of over 70 species and coming home bone tired and happy.

 

The years flowed so swiftly

Now he and I are embarking on the next leg of our journey together, one that began decades ago when we were introduced by our college roommates, who were dating. While their relationship soon broke off, ours took root and lasted a lifetime. 

The day after his big farewell party, I wistfully reflected that we’ve gone from college sweethearts to newlyweds, from young working professionals to busy parents of twin boys, from excited first-time homeowners to empty-nesters and now to retirees. 

“What’s next?” I mused.

He chuckled and replied, “Death?”

Well, yes, there is that. 

But before that inevitable end, we find ourselves adjusting to new daily routines and to some subtle changes, like grasping that we’re both retired and figuring out what that actually means. 

For my husband’s part, he finds that, at least for the moment, the sense of “being on vacation” seems to fit the parameters of what his brain can accept as a definition of this new reality.

 

Another new beginning

But the feeling of freedom does have its limits, as the daily chores of life are still ever present. Bills need to be paid, meals prepared, clothes washed, grass mowed. That said, hobbies and favorite activities have begun to occupy our time as well.

Birdwatching and gardening are just two of our mutual avocations, and both were put on hold this spring as Karl sprinted non-stop to the finish line at his workplace. But now we are making up for lost time. 

He recently told a friend, “We have walked many miles on many trails in many parks in the last several days, and logged many bird species at the height of spring migration. We go to bed worn out and are ready for the next day.” And it’s a good fatigue — the sort that comes from exercise and doing what one enjoys. 

We have plans for trips, too, with the first one up the North Shore of Lake Superior, and then later this month driving to the Black Hills to visit our son, Kevin, who has a summer job as an interpretive naturalist at Custer State Park.

Now that we have the much longed-for leisure time, one of our biggest worries is whether we will have the stamina to do everything on our bucket list. The hope is that we will be able to ward off (or at least tolerate) the aches, pains and stiffness that so often emerge during the “golden years.”

For decades our jobs gave our lives structure and purpose, and moving forward we hope to find new directions and passions. That’s another reality that is going to take some time to develop and get used to. 

With retirement, one major chapter in our lives has closed. But that’s just how life is; chapters regularly end and new ones begin. 

It happened the day our sons were born, and we shed our former lives of “married/no children” Five years later our little boys climbed aboard a big yellow school bus for the first time and headed off to kindergarten, and then, seemingly in the blink of an eye, they graduated from high school and were off to college. Those were some of life’s greatest moments and hardest ones, too.

Life is a series of transitions, and now comes the beginning of a new one: shared retirement. We do not plan to watch our shadows lengthen. But instead intend “to let our faces reflect Sunset.”

 

Mary Lee Hagert retired as executive editor of Lillie Suburban Newspapers in 2017. She can be reached at roseville@lillienews.com.

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