“We can hardly wait to retire!” she confided with a grin. I was too surprised to respond. I looked deep into my best friend’s bright blue eyes and saw that she was absolutely sincere.
“But Cheryl, you guys haven’t even started working yet!”
“I know! We’re excited to move to Miami, and I think Tom’s going to love his new practice, but we want to save hard and retire as soon as we can.”
Forty years later, I still remember feeling shocked and confused. Maybe I just wasn’t far-sighted enough, but the thought of retiring had never crossed my mind in all my twenty-nine years. To me, “Retirement” was the “R word” and not to be spoken . . . until necessary . . . and only in hushed tones.
Cheryl and I had been “resident widows” together while our husbands slugged their way through medical residencies at the University of Michigan. Cheryl’s husband had just finished (one year ahead of Alan), and they’d found an excellent opportunity to join a thriving practice in Miami. They were just about to embark on the greatest adventure in their life. Could they really be overlooking the next 35-40 years? What was so attractive about being old, grey, and tired? It all sounded scary and threatening to me. At this same time, my own parents were considering when to retire, and my Dad was fighting with the State of Michigan over an upcoming mandated retirement from his professorship at age 65. He didn’t want to retire!*
Cheryl’s two kids and my two oldest had played together incessantly through all those years of medical combat. Some weeks Alan was gone for 117 hours (I counted). Aaron and Michael got all excited when Alan was on overnight call, because on those nights we got to go “to Daddy’s house” (as they called it) for dinner. We’d pack a picnic and share supper with him in his tiny call room, which was especially thrilling to the boys because it was furnished with a hospital bed that could go up and back and down and up and . . . kept them occupied endlessly!
It was during those days that Cheryl kept the number for protective services above her phone. I thought she might be kidding, but she said she wasn’t. She promised herself she would call that number before she ever took her frustration out on her son, and it kept her from getting physically violent even when she felt like it.
Our oldest sons were so much alike! As first-time mothers, we were convinced they were both geniuses . . . not only in their insatiable curiosity about life and thirst for adventure, but also in their ability to oppose their mothers in every conceivable (and inconceivable) way. Sometimes Cheryl would call me, impersonating the voice of her son.
“Mrs. Armstwong, are you going crazy?”
“YES! Are you?”
“YES! Do you want to go to the mall?”
During the icy winter months, we often escaped with our children to the Briarwood Mall, with its endless maze of wide halls, escalators, stairways, fountains, and gleaming storefronts filled with tantalizing scents and sights to lure in shoppers. We didn’t shop, though! We wouldn’t have trusted our children inside the stores, but we did let them run (in theory “quietly and avoiding people”) through the hallways. It was the best way we knew to let them burn off some of their boundless energy during times when public parks were uninhabitably slippery and cold for toddling toes and noses.
Sigh. Happy times. Hard times! We are still friends today, and I’ll skip trying to share the huge middle chapters of our stories, but I’ve had two revelations: 1. I was right about retirement: Tom is gone, and Sue is alone. Being old and grey . . . and alone . . . isn’t to be prized too highly, so make every day count and stay present-minded. 2. Sue was right about retirement: Alan and I are loving retirement, because it gives us a chance to pursue our avocations! Medicine was his calling, and mothering was mine, but I’ve been delighted to discover how much we are energized by pursuing new “careers” and new chapters in our lives.
What an adventure life is! Every life! Yours too! We are writing our stories as we live our lives. For you who are young and just starting out, I hope you make every day special and a tale worth telling, even if it’s a story of coping with pain. For those of us who have survived to retirement, we can invest our lives in whatever we want—or better yet—in whatever God wants! What a privilege and responsibility! As C.S. Lewis reminds us, “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” Oh, for a billion happy endings to the stories of our lives!
“You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men.”
(2 Corinthians 3:2)
(* Notes: My father retired in 1980. Since that time, the laws in Michigan have changed, and university professors no longer have to retire at age 65. Also, I will always change the names and a few facts [like locations] to protect the privacy of those I write about, although we did go to Briarwood Mall, and Alan was completing his residency through the University of Michigan. ALSO: a reader says the real author of the quote I attributed to Lewis is James Sherman from his 1982 book, Rejection: “You can’t go back and make a new start, but you can start right now and make a brand new ending.” Apparently it is commonly attributed to Lewis but has not been found in his writings.)