by Betty
March 2010

            We never thought of retiring. We never talked about retiring. Sometimes life blind-sides you and you cope as best you can. So it was for us.

It was midnight when the phone rang. His father’s wife was calling from Apache Junction where they spent the winter. She was leaving for a visit in Texas, and he was not going. Would we come get him and have him with us for two weeks?

We took the next afternoon off, drove to get him. It was a nightmare from then on. He was a man we didn’t know. Once so quiet, so gentle, so gracious, here was a man, arrogant, loud, combative, cruel. Finally a neurologist told us there was no help – no respite centers, no care homes, no nursing centers were willing to take in such behavior. The doctor hinted it might be Alzheimer’s. He wandered, he spent the night trying to open doors so he could take his empty suitcase and go home. He abused the dog. That was it! My husband retired five years early and watched over him. No one got any sleep. It was a hard lesson learned well.

Soon after, it was my mother. Living alone in Minnesota at 92, she was frail and fiercely independent. Minnesota in the winter can be harsh, cold, icy, deep snow, dreary days. We went home twice a year. We’d find the refrigerator full of spoiled food. We’d clean it out and arrange for a deli to deliver meals daily. She wouldn’t let them in. We returned once to find the house locked and no answer. But we could see her asleep in her chair. My husband cut a screen, broke the porch window, and found the house full of gas. We put in an electric stove. We arranged a church volunteer we’d known for years to come visit. She refused to answer the door.

We tried to have her come home to Tucson with us. We had the room; we had flower gardens and a vegetable garden. She enjoyed gardening. She always had dogs and now we had two. The answer was always, “NO.”

One day my sister called to say she found Mother sitting in her chair, suitcase on her lap, waiting for the airport to pick her up. I told her to put her on the first first-class, non-stop plane, tell the flight attendant to walk her off the plane, and I’d meet her. All was well until she decided the night she arrived that she’d go home in the morning. We agreed it was a good idea, and may the Lord forgive me, I lost her ticket. We for grateful for the lesson my husband’s father’s stay had taught us. I retired five years early. The nightmare was not so traumatic. We’d learned the path.

Next our third nightmare… Retired from a job I loved, but not retired, my neighbors needed us. She was totally bedbound and he was changing. We bought the groceries, took him to church, took him to the police court to pay his driving accidents, picked him up lost across town to be met with, “What are you doing here?” She’d call in the middle of the night, “He’s not here. The front door is open. I can feel the cold air.” We go walking up and down and find him, suitcase in hand, going to visit his mother in Illinois. One day, having returned him lost from across town, he offered me $100. “No way.” Helping each other is what friends are for.” “What can I do for you?” I stood silent, scared. Did I dare, I asked myself. A long silence – “Your car keys.” A long silence – and he tossed them to me. A year later, the nightmare was over. We were retired.

Now my husband, who cared for his father, my Mother, our neighbors – now it was his turn to be cared for. Physical therapy five times a week, multiple surgeries, daily nurse to check his vital signs and medications, and physical help to help him dress and bathe, a volunteer daily visitor so I could nap for two hours. He could manipulate a wheel chair, and the walls of our home prove it. We listened to classical music. We studied old photographs. We sat and remembered the past. It was good and we were lucky.

Too soon I was truly retired and alone, too weary to volunteer as a sensible person would, too physically fragile to be dependable, I felt and feel useless.

I didn’t plan to retire. And I do not like it. I do not enjoy it. I keep reminding myself daily of St. Francis – “Accept what you cannot change.” I try.

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