It’s hard to believe that I’ve been retired for more than ten years. The first six years didn’t feel like retirement because I almost immediately constructed a schedule that, intentionally, represented an act of denial. At least three days each week, I was in classrooms, most of which belonged to graduates of UTEP, the teacher education program I helped found. In addition, I fulfilled a long-standing promise to a friend by volunteering one day a week with a program mentoring high school students who were at risk of not graduating from high school and later from college.
As a writer, my wife has always worked at home, except for the one or two days each week when she was teaching her graduate school writing courses. One of the unfortunate tropes of an earlier day plays off the situation in which the man of the house retires, leading him to encroach in unwelcome ways on the turf of his stay-at-home wife. From what I’ve described so far, it’s clear that this was not an issue for us in those first six years. Rosellen adds: “We eat lunch together, we willingly yield our shared computer to whoever needs it at the moment. We do our all-too-frequent runs to Trader Joe’s together as if they were amusements.”
Then Covid was upon us. Suddenly the sitcom dad was no longer heading for the 7:35 commuter train into the city for an 8:30 start at the office. The problem of the suddenly overcrowded household of the newly retired was now universal. Newspapers were filled with stories of relationships that were either solidified or shattered by the enforced togetherness and isolation. People who, like us, lived in spacious apartments or houses, free of responsibilities for children, fared better because there were just fewer opportunities to get in each other’s hair. The proliferation of streaming services freed couples of being each other’s sole source of entertainment.
The world has reopened its doors now that the worst of the pandemic is over but many people have remained voluntarily homebound. Rosellen has resumed her rich teaching role and I have abandoned my school visits “out of an abundance of caution.” We are living the typical life of couples of a certain age for which the pandemic turned out to be a dress rehearsal of sorts. It confirmed and reinforced the overlaps in our preferred rhythms and shared interests. We still have a barely manageable load of theater subscriptions which require hasty dinners and anxiety-filled drives to beat the looming curtain times. We still travel north an inordinate distance for the social life that centers around the members of our Jewish support group. And we still get out to walk on most days the weather allows, even though our range seems to narrow every time we venture out.
The days are filled with routines too lacking in drama to bore you with, but I can provide some small examples. The cat and I start the day together while Rosellen wakes a bit more slowly and prepares for her therapeutic morning shower to loosen the muscles of her back. I open the can of cat food for Nutmeg and place half of its contents in her metal bowl. While she’s eating, I fire up the computer to see what the night has brought us in the way of news. When she’s had her fill, she rubs herself against my leg to signal that it’s time for us to head to the kitchen where she knows her morning treat awaits her.
At the other end of the day, we have finished our evening’s TV viewing that began when we were in danger of falling asleep over our reading. We plug our phones in to recharge them overnight, head to the kitchen for our nighttime pill taking and then move toward the bedroom, extinguishing the lights that have brightened the apartment since darkness fell, always in the same order, until the only remaining lights are in the bedroom where they will remain on until the words we are reading in bed begin to repeat themselves and yield no meaning.
These rituals and all the ones in between that are the building blocks of our day feel as if they’re illuminated by a soft yellow glow that conveys a sense of gratitude that we have been allowed to repeat them one more time. And always there is playing in the background an awareness of how quickly and how soon it will all be gone, that the books that surround us will be boxed, the rugs we walk on will be rolled and ready for exit, the kitchenware with which we’ve entertained so many guests will be wrapped in protective paper. It’s this looking ahead to the next and final stage that I’ve come to call anticipatory nostalgia. As Basho, the great haiku poet says: Even in Kyoto/hearing the cuckoos cry/I long for Kyoto.
We’re lucky to still have each other in this late stage of our lives, a privilege that has not been granted to so many people we know and love. Despite the fact that we occasionally are annoyed with each other for the pettiest of reasons, for the most part that same glow surrounds our relationship, different in the quality and intensity of our early years, but one that continues to provide the warmth that makes us grateful to continue to be spinning in each other’s orbit.
There’s a lot of history between us. For a recent blog I was working on, Rosellen suggested that I find a passage in the book I was writing about that captured the qualities I was describing.; I followed her advice. Unaware that I had completed the piece, she showed me the section she thought would be most effective. Of course, it was the same one I had chosen out of the book’s 200+ pages. That’s not coincidence. It’s the result of dancing a lot of dances together. I hope our legs will carry us through many more.