By Judy Catterton
A copy of AARP Magazine arrives unexpectedly on our 50th birthdays signaling our official entry into the world of “seniors.” In the beginning it feels strange, maybe a bit insulting, to be included in this group. We disdain the articles titled: “Your Life Reimagined,” and “How to Protect Your Brain From Shrinking,” and “Are Your Senior Moments Normal,” and “Top Five Regrets of the Dying.” And the ads for prescription drug discounts, long term care insurance, heart healthy foods, “stairlifts,” walk-in bathtubs, hearing aids, medical alert services? None of this interests us. Some of us trash the magazine as soon as it arrives every month. Others flip through it, thinking, “Thank God nothing in here applies to me.” After all, we still have jobs and kids and mortgages and parents to tend to.
But then our parents go to assisted living facilities and nursing homes and funeral homes. Our children grow up. They drop out of high school, go to college, to graduate school; become businessmen and computer programmers, professors and psychiatrists, bartenders and cooks, stay-at-home mothers and fathers. They make us proud and break our hearts.
They move out, move away, move on.
They don’t need us any more.
And so, after a few years we start thinking of retiring. We ask: How long do we really expect to live? and How much money is enough? We wonder how often we will want to eat out and how many cars we’ll require. And what if the house needs a new roof? or What if we decide to build a screened-in porch? What if my mother comes to live with us? We wonder if we should buy Euros or annuities, government bonds or CDs; if we should sell our house and down-size; if we should move closer to the kids or go where it’s warmer, or cheaper, or where there are more golf courses, more colleges, more theaters, more hospitals. We talk to friends, stockbrokers, bankers, financial advisors, relatives, estate lawyers, investment gurus.
Soon we realize there’s really no way to figure out the amount of money we’ll need. There are too many variables. What’s the formula? Life expectancy times life style, plus cost of living, minus health costs, minus investment losses, plus dividends, divided by travel interests, plus clothing allowance, minus prescription drug costs.
Some of us have spouses who are ready to quit working before we are and now the five-year age difference that didn’t seem like much when we married is a chasm we struggle to bridge. We lay awake at night, staring at the ceiling and wondering: How will it work if he retires and I don’t? and Should I try to work part-time? and Will he want to travel without me? We wonder if we’ll resent him spending money if we’re the only one earning it, and without jobs and kids if we’ll sit at the dining room table struggling to find something to talk about. He sleeps next to us in our king-size bed, snoring blithely, oblivious to our anxiety, our fear that retirement may strain our already fragile relationship.
And then we do retire, though we still worry that it may have been too early. We now get Social Security, but it’s not enough to live on. Maybe the Stock Market will crash or we’ll outlive our investments or we’ll need medical care we cannot afford. Jim worries that he will contract Parkinson’s disease like his father who first had difficulty walking, then dressing, then bathing, then eating, then swallowing, and finally breathing. Would Jim’s wife, Elaine, be able to care for him by herself or would she need aides, nurses, a nursing home? And how much would that cost?
We all know that if one spouse needs a nursing home it will bankrupt the other.
And what if a child needs money for a house, a baby, a college degree, an illness, a drug rehab program?
We leave cities and towns where we had jobs as bankers and doctors, lawyers and architects, housewives and social workers, teachers and artists, dentists and engineers, nurses and salesmen. We worked in shops and universities, office buildings and clinics, restaurants and laboratories, hospitals and our own homes.
Some of us loved our jobs. Dave used to feel like a detective in a crime novel when trying to diagnose a new patient’s ailment. But over time, fewer and fewer new patients were making appointments with him and the other doctors in his practice consulted him less and less frequently. What was it they saw lacking in him that he didn’t or couldn’t?
Sandy once loved watching the wide-eyed faces of her third graders when she reached the end of the story she was reading in class. But then teaching became more and more about paper work and meetings, reports and tests, discipline and bullies. Sam grew tired of arguing with insurance companies and struggling to collect fees from his uninsured dental patients. Paul was the victim of DuPont’s cutbacks and, his wife, Cindy, felt her health was suffering from the stress of making payroll at the fitness club she operated.
So we leave our jobs with regret, relief, maybe both. It is the same mix of emotions we feel when we leave our homes. We sell five-bedroom houses with wrap-around porches and three-car garages in upscale, suburban neighborhoods and buy two- bedroom condominiums in the city and one-bedroom houses in retirement communities. Some of us install elevators, handrails, “stairlifts,” walk-in bathtubs. Others construct wheel chair ramps.
Those of us who can afford it, plan to buy our dream houses in the places where we once vacationed. Sandy has her eye on a house in Sun Valley where for years the family skied in winter and played golf in summer. She thinks she might have time now to try her hand at fly-fishing in one of the mountain streams she loves. Maybe she’ll buy a plant book in the local bookstore and learn the names of the tiny white and purple wild flowers she has long admired that grow beside the banks.
Paul and Cindy, who own a condominium in Sarasota, think if they sell it and their Trenton house, they can afford to build on the Intercostal Waterway. Sam wonders if he can keep his cottage in Nantucket and buy a pied a terre in Boston so he can stay connected to the city.
Jill has inherited the summer cottage her parents’ owned on Cape Cod. The family only went there in the summer. But now, she wonders what it would take to winterize it and what it might be like to live on the Cape in the off-season. Would it be too cold? Too quiet? Too lonely? Too far from the kids? Maybe it would be the perfect place to settle in and concentrate on writing that memoir she has always thought she had in her. She pictures herself by a fire, “good dog, Buddy” at her feet, and next to her laptop, a cup of tea perched on one of those silly coasters with a picture of a lobster on it her mother bought twenty years ago.
Jim heard on NPR about a couple that sold all their stuff; bought a 20-foot sailboat and are sailing around the world. He wonders how good a sailor he would have to be to try something like that and if Elaine would be up for it and would close quarters and too many days at sea drive them both crazy?
Dave recalls when he and Harriet talked about selling everything, buying an RV and driving around the country. Harriet said they could keep an eye out for a place to settle down when they grew tired of roaming.
Harriet’s been dead now for almost five years. Maybe, Dave thinks, he’ll do it on his own.
Of course, before we move to smaller houses, we hold yard sales and estate sales, place ads in newspapers and on E-Bay. We also give things away. The cedar chest that belonged to Dave’s grandmother and contained his Christening gown goes to his son and daughter-in-law. The cast iron frying pan that Jill’s mother always put away with a thin coat of Crisco is given to the newly-weds along with the newest edition of The Joy of Cooking.
We part with antique dressers, Stifle lamps, kids’ bicycles, car seats, our Encyclopedia Britannica, our Bose speakers, crates of CDs, our fathers’ carpentry tools, and that leather Stressless chair from Scan that we bought the year we moved into our first house. We take with us our mothers’ china and the silver serving pieces that were wedding gifts, though we never use them and they are tarnished beyond recognition. We know we are keeping some things only because we are letting go of so much.
Once we actually retire, we find, at first, that we are content to go for walks, play golf, plan trips, read books, play bridge. We luxuriate in mornings where we sleep late, sit at the kitchen table in our bathrobes, drinking coffee and reading the New York Times from front to back. But then we begin to wonder about our lives. Were they well spent? Did our work have a purpose, a meaning? Did we help anyone or advance any cause? Paul wonders about his days at DuPont crafting pesticides that people now say poison the water. Elaine thinks of her days as a loan officer at a bank and wonders if those couples she turned down for mortgages were ever able to buy their dream houses. Sam tries not to think of his tour of duty in Viet Nam where he thought he was serving his country.
To this day, Dave doesn’t know what possessed him to order the CAT Scan that saved his patient’s life. After all, the man didn’t have any signs or symptoms to make a doctor think, “ I better rule out kidney cancer.” Still he did. He holds onto this now, the words, “one life saved.” And Jill is proud of the work she did at Walter Reed, helping returning veterans with post- traumatic stress syndrome. But, she’s prouder still of the three girls she raised, on her own, after Tom left, a betrayal that, all these years later, still stings.
We feel this too. Not only the new hurts but also the old ones that never went away. Sometimes, it seems, time doesn’t really heal wounds, it only deepens them. We feel loss and regret and know they are not the same. We’ve lost friends, relatives, ambition, idealism, purpose, respect, dreams, range of motion. We regret the choices we made: having children, not having children, careers, education, places we lived, husbands, wives, risks we took, risks we didn’t take, time we wasted, things we did, things we didn’t.
Is it to make sense of our changing lives that we find ourselves repeating clichés we’ve heard about aging: Growing old is not for sissies; and If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself; and I hate celebrating my birthday, but I like the alternative even less. We try to laugh when someone adds, I have CRS, can’t remember shit.
We learn in these years that there is much we didn’t understand about retirement. How could we? How could we have known that when you’ve trained to be a doctor, a nurse, an architect, a lawyer, a teacher, an engineer, and you’re no longer working, you wonder who you are? “Think about it,” Dave says, “We don’t say, ‘I work as a nurse.’ We don’t say, ‘ My job is as an engineer.’ We say: ‘I am a nurse or I am an engineer.’”
So who are we when we no longer are what we did?
Nor could we have predicted before we retired that, when there’s nothing we have to do, we might do nothing. We wake up at seven with an entire day ahead of us and nothing on our agenda: no meetings, no lunch engagements, no teleconferences, no appointments, no letters to write, no reports to finalize, no traffic to contend with, no one any where expecting us or anything from us. We think this should feel great, this unbridled freedom. It should feel like when we were kids and play was our only responsibility. But what we didn’t know until after we retired is that life has trained us to feel that doing nothing is bad.
So we look for ways to fill our time, to feel more useful, more fulfilled, more alive. We join book clubs, volunteer at a church, at an animal shelter, the library, a farmer’s market, an art league, a film society. We take classes in Civil War history and French cooking. We go to writing workshops and art exhibits. We offer to teach seminars about subjects we used to know: chemistry, law, architecture, literature. We go to movies on weekday afternoons where the theater is virtually empty and though the management tells us to be quiet, when we miss some dialogue we say, “What did she say?” in our best stage whisper.
We create bucket lists: take an African safari, climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, visit India, visit Big Sky country, learn French, run with the bulls, raft on the Colorado River, hike the Appalachian Trial, go to baseball camp, swim with the dolphins, see the Aurora Borealis, sky dive, bungee jump, learn to Tango. Cindy wants to drive a Zamboni; Jim longs to throw out the first pitch at an Orioles game; and Elaine wants to live long enough to see her grandson bar mitzvah’d. Last month, the preschoolers at Sandy’s YMCA were asked to make “bucket lists” which were then posted outside of the exercise room. One little boy had written: “ Go to Australia; learn to cook; see my father.” Sandy thinks that this could be her list.
Of course, we know that many of the things on our list are unachievable. We have neither the strength nor the means. But we like seeing even our unrealized dreams and ambitions on paper. Still, for others of us it’s what’s not on the list that matters most, for the list of what we have already accomplished is long. We’ve raised children, designed buildings, decorated homes, tried cases, taught classes, developed software, written books, built bridges, patented medicines, eased patients’ pain, helped loved ones die.
As time passes, our most worrisome concern is our memory loss. At first, it’s only something we tease one another about. But then it doesn’t seem funny any more. We think of those AARP articles we once scoffed at that asked if our senior moments are normal; that gave advice on how to protect our brains from shrinking. We can’t remember who played in last year’s World Series, but we remember when, in 1967, the Jets upset the Colts in Super Bowl III, and Broadway Joe Namath became a household name. We get stuck in mid-sentence while telling a story and trying to remember a name, a place, a simple noun. Maybe someone finishes the sentence for us or we describe an object we cannot name. “It’s the small boxy thing in a hotel room that has food and drink for sale,” Cindy says. “You mean the mini-bar?” Sandy suggests. We laugh, but secretly worry if this is the first sign of Alzheimer’s.
Recent memories feel threadbare, hazy, like looking through a lacy curtain. We can’t remember what we had for lunch yesterday or what the name of that movie was that the Cavanaugh’s said we should see. Paul says he remembers a conversation he had last week about global warming, he just can’t remember where he was when he had it or who he had it with.
Oh, but we have no trouble reminiscing. Our old memories are vivid, rich, textured. They comfort us like that Afghan we wrap around our shoulders on winter evenings. Sandy can still visualize the grin on her son’s face when he scored his first soccer goal at the Boy’s Club that Saturday afternoon 30 years ago. Jill can almost smell the pungent scent of Canoe, the aftershave popular in the ‘60’s, that her first lover wore the night she lost her virginity. Dave can almost feel the soft skin on his mother’s hand as he led her into her room at the nursing home the year before she died.
Elaine closes her eyes and resurrects the taste of her father’s western omelet, the only thing he ever cooked. Sunday morning, while her mother read the Washington Post in bed, he would put a large pat of butter in the iron skillet. Then, careful to use the old, stained, wooden cutting board instead of the plastic one reserved for cutting up chicken, he would slice an onion and a green pepper. He added bite-sized cubes of Hebrew National salami, the eggs, salt, pepper, and his “secret” ingredient, which she knew, even then, was dried chives. Calling the family to the breakfast table, Elaine’s dad would insist that no one take a bite without first slathering his creation in Heinz ketchup. It is that combination – – the crispy salami, tangy ketchup, and of course, the chives that gave the omelet the unique taste that Elaine so well remembers.
Jill can still taste the buttery, salty taste of the Lobster Thermidor they served at the restaurant in Nantucket where she worked as a waitress the summer between her junior and senior years in college. Waitresses were not allowed to eat food off the menu, but sometimes they would purposely place an order, pretend it was a mistake, then take it to a far corner of the restaurant where they secretly devoured it.
Jim remembers the unique smacking sound of a line drive landing in the well-oiled pocket of his Stan Musial baseball mitt the summer before his junior year in high school when his dad gave him fielding tips in the park near their suburban home.
Along with our memories, are our “used to’s.” I used to hit a golf ball much farther. I used to run. I used to walk without pain. I used to be able to stay up till midnight on New Year’s Eve. I used to be able to have sex for longer. I used to have sex. I used to be so busy. I used to think there would be more time: more time to play with my kids; more time to say “good bye” to my parents; more time to learn to be a better parent.
We remember when there was only one kind of pasta and it was called, “spaghetti.” Bagels were only available in Jewish Delicatessens, telephones had cords, Blackberries were fruit, drones were bees, and “light” beer referred to the color.
We miss the days when we would bend down to pick up a nickel off the pavement; when we kept pennies in our pockets or in piggy banks; when a meal out was at McDonalds where the kids whined for milkshakes and a hamburger cost 35 cents; when we planned all year for our one -week vacation. But what do you call a trip when you’re retired? It can’t be a “vacation.” What would it be a vacation from?
We agree that Angelina Jolie and Hugh Jackman are pretty; that Nicole Kidman and Jude Law can act; Lady Ga Ga can sing and Lewis C K is funny. But we miss Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, Frank Sinatra, Sid Caesar, and Jackie Gleason. We remember an episode of The Show of Shows where Sid Caesar and Imogene Coco satirized the Mikado, parading around in kimonos and pretending to speak Japanese. We can still picture Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden on the Honeymooners, lifting his fist to the ceiling in his small New York apartment and shouting, “To the moon, Alice, to the moon!” We can still hear ‘ole blue eyes singing, “I Did it My Way,” and ourselves whispering, “so did we, Frank. So did we!”
When we look back at those good old days, sometimes we forget that they were also the days when it was lawful to refuse to hire a woman because she might become pregnant; when doctors could be prosecuted for prescribing birth control pills; when black men and women could be lawfully excluded from jury service because of race; when young men left friends and family to avoid being forced to fight a war they didn’t believe in; when women who refused to have sex with their bosses could be fired with impunity; when consensual sex between people of the same gender was a crime; and want ads in newspapers read: “Help wanted men” and “Help wanted women.”
But what else that is good has evolved over time Sam wonders, looking up from the editorial pages of the New York Times. The list must be longer. Polio was wiped out, he reminds himself, at least in this country, and seat belts have saved lives. And there have been lots of technological advances: cell phones, personal computers, cable TV, digital cameras, GPS. This is progress, isn’t it?
We look at the pictures in the obituaries for faces from our past and we go on Facebook in search of old friends, classmates, ex boyfriends and girlfriends, ex lovers, ex husbands and wives, former colleagues and teachers. Is that really him? and Where’s his hair? and How old he looks! and Boy, she’s gotten fat! and Wow. He gave up his law practice and became a vintner. And I can’t find her.
Maybe she’s dead.
As we age, we become increasingly aware of the changes in our bodies. Maybe it starts in our forties or fifties, when we notice our hair getting thinner or those first down-turned lines at the corners of our mouths or maybe it’s our stomachs getting bigger while our asses grow smaller. At first we think, I can fix this. We walk the aisles of grocery stores and pharmacies reading the labels on lotions and creams and potions that promise to remove wrinkles, to tighten skin, to eliminate age spots, grow hair, remove hair, cover the grey, get rid of cellulite — even something that promises to fill lines with collagen. We join the Y, take Hot Yoga and Zumba, Jazzercize and spinning classes. We wonder if we are fit enough to run a marathon, a 10- K, take the Marine Corps challenge, do the Insanity Workout.
We look for undergarments to lift our sagging breasts and hide bulges that we don’t remember growing. We speculate about who we know who’s had “work” done and we think maybe we should. We wonder which works better to decrease belly fat—liposuction or a tummy-tuck? and How much does it cost to lift our faces, eyes, eyebrows, chins, breasts? Jill asks at her monthly Red Hat Ladies’ luncheon, “ how do you suppose they came up with the idea of injecting Botulism into your face? Do you ever wonder what the failures looked like?” Every morning now Cindy looks in her bathroom mirror and places her hands on either side of her face, pressing her fingertips up and under her ears. “This,” she says to herself, “is how I would look if I had a face-lift.”
Some of us are paying off a debt we owe because of the cigarettes we smoked in our 20’s or 30’s, the dope we used, the whiskey we drank, the food we ate, even the shoes we wore. We carry tanks of Oxygen, use walkers, take shots of insulin, wear orthotics, have artificial knees and hips, crowns, implants, hearing aids and dentures. We have special diets—low fat, low sodium, vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, fat free. We sign up for arthritis water classes, chair Yogi, maybe low -impact aerobics. We hear Tai Chi is good for balance and flexibility.
We talk about colonoscopies and endoscopies, our irritable bladders and bowels. We compare doctors, dentists, and chiropractors, consider alternative medicine, naturopaths, acupuncturists, acupressurists, nutritionists, rolfers and massage therapists. We look for drugs to lower cholesterol, increase testosterone, lesson the number of times we wake during the night to use the bathroom. We worry about our PSA’s, our IRA’s, our HDL, and our LDL. We buy life insurance, extra health insurance, long term insurance, travel insurance.
Cindy asks, “ Why don’t we talk about sex anymore?”
But what begins as an observation of changes that we figure we can undo, slowly morphs into the realization that we will not be able to stop this. We look in the mirror and see our mothers and fathers and wonder when we got old. Elaine asks: “Where did my figure go?” Jim thinks, “Where did my life go?” One morning, Cindy hears an NPR commentator refer to the process of aging as “incremental loss.”
We are in a free-fall.
Immortality is not an option. We’re three quarters of the way finished with our lives. Or we might be five years from its end.
We think about dying. If we dare, we talk about it.
Some of us are religious while some of us eschew religion in favor of some amorphous ill- defined “spirituality.” Some are agnostics; others atheists. Jill was raised Catholic, the whole drill: parochial school, no-meat Fridays, Sunday Church, confession and communion. But she stopped going years ago and now . . . now what? What is she? She still gets the Catholic journals and reads despairingly about the priest pedophile scandals, the Pope’s resignation. It feels like a huge whole in her heart where belief used to live.
Sam meets with a Rabbi once a month to read the Talmud. He doesn’t consider himself an observant Jew. He’s not even sure he believes in God, but he loves kissing the Mezuzah at the door of the Rabbi’s study; donning a yarmulke and his father’s tallis, and puzzling over the of meaning of the ancient Hebrew text. One of his favorite passages translates: “Man is born with his hands clenched; he dies with his hands wide open. Entering life he desires to grasp everything; leaving the world, all that he possessed has slipped away.”
For Paul, religion has never been an answer. Sometimes late at night, he gets what he calls, “the swirly whirlies.” He feels he is looking into the abyss, like the time he was at the Grand Canyon with the kids and, showing off, he walked too close to the edge, and looked down. His legs trembled. He felt tiny and vulnerable and scared.
Jim thinks that being dead is just like it was before we were born. Elaine finds that thought terrifying. Sandy worries only about pain and disability. Dave quotes Irving Yalom, the Psychiatrist from L.A. who compares death anxiety to “staring at the sun,” dangerous, but almost irresistible.
Some of us deal with the notion of our death by trying to leave tracks that prove we were here. Paul is trying to get a patent on his formula for an antibiotic that kills a particularly virulent type of TB. Jill is writing a book. Dave has set up a scholarship fund for prospective doctors. Every year Jim and Elaine take one of their nine grandchildren on a special vacation in the secret hope that the memory of that time will live on after they are gone.
For some of us the sense of limited time makes what is left seem more precious and valuable. We appreciate in a way we never have before the daily setting of the sun and the rhythms of the changing seasons. We are acutely aware of the return of the birds in spring, the buds on our trees. The idea that this may be our last snowfall doesn’t panic but rather soothes us.
Jill sits at her kitchen table, sipping a glass of Chardonnay as she sorts through the day’s mail. She lingers over the March edition of her AARP magazine which has a picture of the 75-year old Dustin Hoffman on the cover. She knows he has directed his first movie and she is anxious to read the interview. She loves what he says at the end: “I’ve discovered that as the body becomes more limited, the soul expands. And there is a full circle. A 2-year old will pick up a leaf and look with fascination. You get to the other end and again are looking at a leaf.” She puts down her wine glass and looks out the window of her cottage on Cape Cod. It’s snowing and the tree limbs in her yard are already bending down. She knows exactly what Dustin Hoffman is talking about. She too has come full circle.
We all do, in a way. We sense that we are starting fresh, starting over, starting anew. Yes, we’ve seen men walk on the moon and a pop star “moon walk.” We’ve seen explosions of planes, buildings, rockets and towers. We’ve seen the death of the iron lung and the Iron Curtain. We watched a president’s head shatter in Dallas and a wall come down in Berlin. We saw a beautiful preacher crumple one evening while standing on a hotel balcony in Memphis. We watched young men zipped into body bags being loaded off airplanes and a small black girl walking to school while crowds lined the streets to taunt her. Governors stood in doorways and one lone woman refused to give up her seat on a bus. We have survived cancer, strokes, aneurisms, heart attacks, the death of our parents, brothers, sisters, even our children. And we can’t help but wonder: “What’s next?”
About Judy Catterton
I spent over 30 years practicing law, first as a prosecutor and then as a criminal defense attorney. I currently write essays, many of which are about my courtroom experiences. I was the 2015 recipient of a fellowship for non-fiction writing from the Delaware Division of the Arts. A number of my essays have been published in literary magazines and I have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. I currently teach memoir/essay writing for the Rehoboth Beach Writers Guild.