It is an irony not lost on Brooke, and Peggy too, that his accident occurred about four months after he retired from the University of Utah, after teaching there for thirty-two years. What kind of retirement is this??? Not like any others, it seems. Many of our friends and colleagues who have retired are spending their newly free time in ways they’ve planned and dreamed of for years: one close friend has been running an environmental organization; another has organized his life around traveling to interesting foreign places and reading extensively in preparation for these trips; one became a lawyer, at an age when other people are often giving up; others are involved in public service of various kinds; some keep writing books and lecturing and pursuing academic interests even if they’re not receiving paychecks anymore; some sit on boards and do extensive community service; or spend years observing bird life or sailing or mapping the flora of a region, becoming expert as they do. One even got a theological degree, then ran a museum, and now writes for a local newspaper on politics in the Middle East. Some say that they do “nothing,” although if you watch them carefully, they actually do lots of interesting things. There are even Candides who have retired to their gardens--but beautiful gardens they are! We admire all these things, and envy being able to do them.
Brooke himself had planned to switch over into adult education and to do various treks in the mountain ranges of the world, as well as enjoying the freer life that retirement would bring. But in truth, he says, I had no particularly focused retirement plans. I retired simply because, at 66, I felt that I’d reached the end of something. Between the actual time I retired, June 30, 2008, and the accident that November, I must have done something, but I can’t remember exactly what it was—
Peggy would sometimes quiz me about my retirement plans. I’d tell her I wanted to be able to walk around downtown and explore the little side streets; that I wanted to ride the FrontRunner train to Ogden; that I wanted to go on treks, read books, plant a better garden. I never really had much of an answer.
But I’m ”retired” anyway. It is pretty strange kind of retirement, spending this year and a half in the situation we’ve been recording in this blog, way more of a retirement in one sense than I’d ever expected and at the same time in another sense far and away the hardest work I’ve ever done. It’s ironic in the extreme. In contrast to the traveling I’d thought we’d be doing, I’ve spent over a year in one room. In contrast to visiting friends, seeing where they live, how they live, doing whatever they like to do with them, they have to come to me. I don’t read books, though thanks to loyal friends and to Books-on-Tape, they are read or read themselves to me.
I’ve spent most of the first year and a half of my retirement breathing, breathing; and now that the diaphragmatic pacer is in place and really working, I for the most part don’t even need to work at that anymore. Unfortunately but not unexpectedly, there are interruptions, like the pneumonia I’ve just had, when I’ve had to go back on the vent as well as the pacer—but the pneumonia is abating and I’m working up my times on the pacer alone again. But even when I’m doing 24-hours-nonstop off the vent, on the pacer, that doesn’t end the trials: now I’m working on coughing, since coughing up secretions is part of normal respiratory function, but I can tell you that coughing isn’t nearly as nearly as much fun as breathing.
Just the same, this “retirement” seems like a real retirement in the sense of embarking on something completely new. For one thing, it has engendered this piece of writing, and what I suppose could be called, if it didn’t sound excessive, gaining some kind of terrible wisdom through suffering. What I’ve experienced is in fact terrible, but so close to the bone, it’s like a postgraduate education in The Real, in something that brings you very close to the extreme of what you think a person can endure, what you think you can endure. It’s certainly not what I thought I’d be doing when I was 68, way outside the usual retirement plans for travel, visiting friends, exercising, gardening.
Working on this piece of writing is also unlike anything I’d thought I’d be doing. I hadn’t planned to write; I thought I was finished with that. But finding myself, or rather ourselves, keeping this journal-blog is astonishing, to both of us. People had asked me, when I was contemplating retiring, “are you going to be writing anything?” and I’d always said I didn’t think so, I’d written enough academic papers on Wordsworth and Winnicott and so on, but just the same here I am.
You know, you’re supposed to retire and change your life somehow, move to Tucson or take up chess or learn to play the piano, but here’s a real change. I still get these flashes, could this really be happening? Or, is this really happening to me?, when I thought I’d be hiking up trails, traveling in remote places in the world, spending the evening curled up with books I really enjoy, and of course cooking. It’s like turning a completely sharp corner in one’s life, finding oneself on a wholly different journey than one ever expected, or could or would have chosen. It’s said that suffering leads to some kind of wisdom; certainly this has brought me, both of us really, to a psychic watershed and forced us to change our lives and our relationships with other people (and with ourselves) in absolutely drastically different ways; it’s a terrible way to get there (whatever ‘there’ is), but can it be that whatever the way to get ‘there’ must be through something as extreme as this? Surely not; but the alternative, or one of the alternatives, seems to be something that might be called the inertia of maturity.
Think about our house, for instance: it’s been rather drastically changed, but it wouldn’t have been changed much at all if this hadn’t happened—we’d have been too set in our ways, too familiar with our much-loved collection of miscellaneous objects from around the world, too comfortable, really, with what we were doing to change much of anything. But this, awful as it is, forces you to rearrange everything. Not just the furniture. Not just the doors. Not just a few of the walls. But you rearrange your whole life.
Your friendships rearrange themselves too, and some that were casual become far more profound and important; others ebb a bit. Getting to know the hospitals’ staff is part of this. Making new friends in new circumstances is part of this. Meeting people, like other patients and their families, is part of this. I don’t want to make this sound like a glamorous, exciting new life; in many ways it’s hideous, with way too much daily and nightly extreme discomfort to be even slightly attractive, let alone glamorous, but it’s something so deeply changed that it’s paradoxically more than one could ever have expected from retirement.
This isn’t some privileged road to take; it’s just that, having been forced by circumstances to take it, one makes every effort to extract meaning from it. There’s no choice. Or rather, there is a choice: first you choose to try to get something out of it, to use it for some kind of self-purification, so speak, and then all the other choices follow from that.
Something in the tone of this note may seem to trivialize other people’s retirements, as if mine were somehow special. It isn’t that at all; it’s that we need to think about what we have in common as some of us grow into retirement, people stepping off so to speak in different directions from their familiar worlds. Perhaps my world is more different, and not one you’d ordinarily purchase a ticket for, but all of us I think are engaged in transformations into new lives, just some more subtle than others. Our activities change; our friendships change; we extract new meaning from our changing circumstances and impose new meaning on our worlds. That’s part of the reason for making this writing so central in what we do—to explore not just the stark differences in our activities, your “normal” ones and our non-normal ones, but to try to understand some of what we’re all going through—it’s a way of trying to stay as “normal” as we can in this strange sort of retirement without losing the good parts of what’s new.