Me, retired? The word ‘retirement’ seems repugnant— dismissive and a relic of old social norms. It conjures up images of shuffling around in slippers, padding quietly through the days, waiting for the end. I'm not quiet. Nor do I shuffle. That’s not who I am. And, I am certainly not waiting for the end!
In Spain, retirement translates to jubilation — a triumph over one passage in life with the suggestion of more rewards to come. This milestone may be regarded with joy and satisfaction, or for some, depression and despair, depending upon the circumstances. And with aging comes inevitable changes and compromises, but I believe that many of these changes can be mitigated. In Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal, he states four essential needs of people, which may be lost in senior years: privacy, freedom/control, connections, and a sense of purpose. How would I meet those needs as well as maintain my sense of identity? Is the idea of living as a “jubilee” a pipe-dream?
A year before I left my career, I began to consider retirement, but a nagging thought plagued me of what my life would be afterwards. Losing my professional identity seemed threatening. Being a nurse practitioner in a pediatric ICU carried with it enormous pressure to get it right for every patient, every time. The moments when I didn’t get it totally right haunted me, but my pride in being a clinician, educator, and leader defined me, and it fulfilled my sense of purpose in life.
I always thought in retirement that I would do volunteer medical work; yet I was kept up at night as I perseverated on my visions of the freedom to do as I wish yet fearing the boredom that might result from a life without work. Then, I had an epiphany: I didn’t care if I had a plan. I was ready to move forward. It was a moment of liberation, and from that day onward, I rode a wave of excitement laced with nervousness about retiring.
As my last day approached in September, I became surer of myself, yet I recognized that walking out of the hospital would be a bittersweet departure. And so it was. After turning in my hospital identification badge and pager, I strolled one last time through the PICU, taking in the children, the staff, and the beeping monitors; then I went out the door and into the elevator with a heavy spirit and a twinge of remorse. As the doors shut, I felt I had just amputated a part of myself, and tears filled my eyes. The day was softened by a week’s worth of celebrations, culminating in a fabulous party filled with powerful emotion. The toasts were generous. When my time came to talk, however, I choked up for a moment as 42 years of my life paraded through my mind. Few people have ever seen me speechless as I was that night. When Katy, the CEO, announced that an anonymous donor had set up an education scholarship fund in my name, my shoulders sagged, and tears flowed freely. I was blown away. The idea of an unknown benefactor somewhere in my life has remained a delicious mystery.
A great support system and a little luck have eased my way in life, but like most people, I have endured some major adversities, such as losing my parents early. My experiences have slowly cultivated resilience in me; hopefully, this will become a reward and comfort for this next passage in life, which surely will include some tough challenges. Expecting life to be fair because I’m a worthy person, though, is like expecting a bull not to charge me because I am a vegetarian! The trick to surviving, I believe, is maintaining mental elasticity to adapt to changes. More Sudoku or what?!
I knew the boundaries of my practitioner role, with its established hierarchy, common goals, and an expectation to accommodate the ever-changing needs of my patients. But living in a life without walls requires cultivating a self-imposed structure, reporting only to myself and centering my goals on me alone. My rewards must come from more nebulous internal sources, rather than from an external system.
As a new jubilee, I filled my first three months with travel, both in the U.S. and in Europe. I awoke each day feeling that I was just on a long vacation as I enjoyed the giddy sense of freedom that echoed a three-month odyssey to Europe that I took decades earlier. On both trips, I indulged myself with my penchant for people-watching at cafés. Occasionally, a person sat down at my table (a custom in Europe) and started a conversation; I would fabricate an assumed identity — such as being an ex-nun— just to amuse myself! And when I wanted to deflect an unwanted person, I would respond to the question: “So, what do you do?” with a mysterious, “I can’t tell you.” I flirted with being unmasked, but it never happened.
The holidays then flew by, and as I had expected, I woke up after New Year’s, realizing the permanence of my retirement. What now? I was enjoying nine hours of sleep per night, trying to make up for the 42 years of getting much less, but now I awoke to an empty day in front of me. I was facing quotidian uncertainty and a loss of my professional identity, yet I wasn’t really bothered by these circumstances. Long ago, a wise friend once said to me: “The measure of ego strength is the ability to live with ambiguity.” Life is ambiguous most of the time, it seems to me.
Over time, I began writing personal stories, a far cry from writing medical articles, as I started learning about narrative arc, characters, voice, and so forth. I joined a writing group and was intimidated by their collective writing prowess but relieved by their generosity in their feedback. Along with writing, I had two book groups to read for, newly-discovered Osher classes, a gym membership, an invitation to join a board of directors, and time to spend with friends. All of my basic needs—privacy, freedom, connections and a sense of purpose— were being met. As for identity, I gradually realized that retirement doesn’t erase professional identity; I will always feel proud to call myself a nurse practitioner. I haven’t been expelled from school, nor was my license taken away. My years of education and work experience stay with me.
Several years into my retirement, my first grandchild arrived, a joy I could never have imagined. Holding her for the first time, stroking her whisper-soft cheek while she gurgled and wriggled, was a breathtaking moment as we gazed into each other’s eyes. She is perfect, I thought, and a whole new life is beginning for both of us.
So, five years ago, I wasn’t retiring from life, nor was my identity erased; I merely changed course. Likely, I have several decades more to live, and I want to wake up every day thinking it’s an “anything can happen” day! Jubilation is an apt description for my life now—not that I didn’t have joy or satisfaction during my earlier years— but the luxury of time, periodic solitude, and a relief from professional pressure, leave me very content and rested. As well, I no longer have a color-coded calendar to fill in and tyrannize me; I am quite happy with my little purse-calendar with one-half inch spaces for each day, limiting how many things I can schedule. No, I haven’t retired from life; I have re-imagined it. I feel a new passion for a different life and have embraced the idea of jubilation.
Holly Webster was a Midwestern girl who found a new life in the wild west 40-something years ago, challenging herself in the mountains and desert. She devoted her professional life to the care of critically ill children as a nurse practitioner. During this time, she published medical articles and textbook chapters, along with writing casual non-fiction essays late at night. After her retirement in 2013, Holly has focused on writing about her varied, life experiences, thinking of them as mousetraps she has conquered, as in the adage: “Though the early bird may get the worm, the second mouse gets the cheese in the trap.” She is fortunate to have a husband and two children who have helped her find her writing voice, enabling her to persevere when the words wouldn’t come.
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