I don’t spend much time thinking about my death, in fact hardly any time at all, but I did share with my father a dread of nursing homes and the hellish loss of freedom and dignity we associated with them. I’d walk out naked into a blizzard at 2 A.M. and find a copse of trees where I could lie down and sleep until the coyotes found me before I would voluntarily (the key word of course) stumble into one of those places. No one wants to feel less vital. No one desires to walk the long road down. Two years ago I answered a student’s question “What follows retirement?” “Death” I joked. The shade of truth in most jokes was in that one.
In June I methodically packed away framed documents that referenced my achievements, and I gave my yearbooks to the Emotional Support teacher with whom I worked so that our (now only her’s and another’s) kids could have historical points of reference. I stacked letters from students and fellow teachers in boxes and set them in my closet. I folded and packed 41 ties for donation to Goodwill. As I performed these tasks, I felt nothing except the small pleasure of tying up loose ends. I think I was trying to make a space for the next ….?
I have been anticipating some twinge of pain or regret or a day of second guessing about retiring from teaching, but when I heard the first cricket of the summer this morning, I felt nothing but relief. Crickets have always provided the initial sound that let me know that it was time to go back. I would have been in my room for a week by now. August 1 was my traditional starting date. I would have been arranging my kids’ desks, filling the boards with information for my first lesson, making copies, answering e-mails, solving Department problems, unpacking and distributing new books and repeatedly walking the 200 yards from our hallway to the main office, but this morning instead, I spent an hour sitting on the grass with my best man from my second marriage.
Joseph* walks a long loop many mornings that takes him past my home; he just turned 65 but looks years younger, like a retired fighter pilot, all intense gaze and compact body. He was a health teacher and the athletic trainer at my HS and worked longer hours than anyone I have ever known. Alone, he covered all boys’ and girls’ sporting teams and events and cared for their athletes’ dings and pains from the beginning of August to graduation in June. He taught a full load and at 2:10 started in the training room and on the fields. Joseph has not returned to the HS since he retired 6 years ago. He made a calculated choice to “turn toward his wife and family.”
I am … is a definitive beginning to a statement: I am the Prince. “I am hunting wabbit.” I am an idiot. I am a teacher. No more. I was a teacher. For all those years I entered my classroom on fire. So now what? I do not feel as if a part of me is gone. No amputation metaphors here. I feel as whole as I have ever felt. However, I have a growing awareness of how much time there is to fill. I want to do it purposefully. I do not want to reel down that long hill. However, I also cannot buy all that therapeutic, infantile nonsense about “60 being the new 40” and so on. My body is crankier, my knees less resilient, and sciatica sometimes arcs along my right leg. That matters but can be endured. As long as I can stay mobile and curious, whatever time is left can be made as open as the sky.
Just before he left this morning to continue his walk, Joseph spoke of Colorado and a trip he made recently with his son and brother to hunt elk in the high country. For days they hiked through thunder-snow and squalls under peaks all covered in snow. They did not get an elk, but Joseph’s eyes shone with a good light as he traced the story for me under the trees where we laughed and talked some more.
*I changed the name.