I’m not sure I ever had any real notion of what I would be doing when I got older, past my working years, when days would lose the structure that defined them for decades. A part of me has always held back on planning for the distant future because even when I was young, unexpected events altered the trajectory of my life. My household was crowded with volatile people. As the third child with many years between me and my older siblings, I got to observe lots of teenaged drama coupled with its ramifications for my parents, who were quite like kids themselves. I developed a positive sunny exterior which shielded a guarded, watchful interior. I learned to protect myself from the emotional swings that were so unnerving. None of that for me, thanks. Most of my adult imagining of the future centered around aging with Michael, my partner since I was twenty, figuring we’d sort out our plans as we went along. That one seemingly solid bet I’d made, that he’d probably outlive me, based on the longevity in his family and our genetic histories, blew up when I’d barely transitioned from my formal career, into becoming the caregiver for my eldest grandson when I was almost sixty-one. I wasn’t a youngster, but still well below what was considered retirement age in my country. The unexpected lethal cancers, one of which tagged Michael at sixty-two, have a way of upending expectations. A year and a half later, what was a bad diagnosis became a dreadful one. My grandson headed to day care at age three and Michael’s declining health situation precluded me from caring for the next grandkid. I transitioned from helping grow a baby to a toddler, into a full-time advocate for Michael, who spent the next three and a half years going in and out of remission. I was also caring for my elderly mother. She died first in July, 2015 while Michael survived until May, 2017, a few days after my 66th birthday. My full retirement age. So the “golden years” had arrived with the one constant I thought I’d have gone. I’m now four and a half years out from that unimaginable time. I’ve invented a semblance of a life for myself, absent what was once the center of my world. I try to balance being constantly occupied with time off to be slow and reflective. The off days usually revolve around immersing myself in being outside, appreciating nature. Unfortunately being unscheduled doesn’t stop my brain from clicking along at its usual rapid pace. Today, I ate breakfast, I swam, I shopped for groceries, prepared a dinner and spent some time with my oldest grandson. In between all that, I drove around town, soaking in the brilliant autumn colors and reflecting on the past. When you live in the same community for 53 years, almost any place evokes one memory or another. I remember all the iterations of myself and ponder the parts of my behavior still so current and those so gone.
As I drove around town today, snapping photos of the gorgeous colors, I passed by many of the places I used to call home. Some of them look essentially the same as they did decades ago. Others have been demolished, with my memories buried under slick modern structures. While parts of my town are unrecognizable, I can still recall what I did in certain spots. I remember a date I had in September of 1969 with a guy I’d met in class. It was my first date since breaking up with my high school boyfriend. We went to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and we walked home after the movie. I had a strong visceral dislike develop quickly for this person and was verbally brutal to him on our stroll back to the dorm. To my astonishment, he called me the next day to tell me he thought I was refreshing and that he’d like to see me again. I thought he was a masochist and never spent another minute with him. On another attempt to branch out, I went to a film with a person I knew casually, at a theater in a campus building. As we sat watching the movie, I had another powerful negative visceral response to his presence. I told him I had to use the restroom and instead, ran out of the building and hid myself in a crowded, noisy street dance because I just knew he’d come looking for me. And he did, but I was cagey. He never found me. What wretched behavior. I was distant and untrusting. I don’t think that was totally unwarranted but I feel rotten that I turned my feelings into weapons. The truth is, despite seeming socially normal, I think I’ve been antisocial most of my life. I’m also an unforgiving grudge holder with a long memory. I’m mad almost every day as well as vengeful. You wouldn’t think that gazing at beautiful trees would elicit these harsh thoughts but when I’m deep in self-reflection, what comes out is what comes out.
I remember that when I got involved with Michael, a sweet vulnerable person, our mutual friends warned me away from him, not to protect me but to ensure he survived my not very secret harsh side. However, we were a good match. I made him tougher and he made me softer. Of course, our relationship was more complicated than that, but generally I think we succeeded because we helped each other develop. Both of us had felt like we didn’t really fit anywhere but magically, we fit with each other. In retrospect, I’m not sure either of us wound up fundamentally different than how we were at our beginning. We suited each other but my harsher nature was always apparent as was his gentler one. He always said I appeared so approachable but that I had a steely center while he seemed remote but was just noodles inside. While he was alive, I accommodated his tenderness which frequently required me to tolerate people I didn’t really like and who often disappointed him. I thought that was a waste of time but he bent more easily and hated conflict. As these years without him have passed, I’ve reverted to the self I was before I toned down for him. I guess the best way to describe me now is someone with virtually no patience for small talk. If there’s little substance I’m not interested. I’d rather just be with myself. I don’t want to squander any time during what I know is the short end of my life. I don’t want to hang out with people whose politics I can’t abide or who indulge themselves in behavior I find annoying. So my list of friends has been trimmed back significantly. In the end I think we all wind up being truly close to just a small handful of people. I’ll admit that I’ve expressed love to people when it wasn’t really there. I just didn’t know that at the time. I’m much more careful about what I say these days.
When I started writing this, I thought I’d be sharing more tantalizing confessions. I have more than a few interesting stories. I’m ashamed that I had a guy who really loved me between my first love Al and Michael, a wonderful person I thought of as “filler.” When he was hospitalized for a procedure during a time in which I was apart from Al, we agreed that when he was released he’d come to stay with me so I could take care of him. But the night before he got out, I reconciled with Al. When the poor filler used his crutches to walk up my front stairs, I had to confess that he’d been replaced and send him home to heal by himself. That was a terrible thing I did, young and foolish or not. Then there were all the romantic escapades in which all caution was thrown to the proverbial wind as I indulged myself in the madness of young love. As my historian nature still is my primary operating system, I’ll admit that I have a list of those daring moments when nothing mattered but that primal urgency to risk anything, regardless of consequences, to drown in passionate adventures. But the fact is, despite my moments when I’m starved for the intimacy I shared with Michael, and the knowledge that a significant and beloved part of what was my daily life has ended, what is the more basic and essential true confession of me is that I have stripped myself down to simpler, faster version of myself. I’m more like the younger model of me, with fewer social filters and less tolerance for people who wind up on my wrong side, for whatever reason. I don’t miss my more obliging self. This me cuts to the chase and gets things done fast, which suits me at this point in time. Maybe when I’m looking at the beautiful autumn leaves, aware that soon they’ll dry up and blow away, I’m reminded that somewhere down the line, they will be me or rather I will be them. No time to waste on life’s social frills as if life goes on forever. It doesn’t. Enjoy the moments without wasting any just to fill your calendar with events.