The Third Third

Breakfast for Dinner

The Retired One has moved to England to study for a year.  That is, as he informs me, “to read theology.”  At Oxford.  Because it’s something he has always wanted to do. File this under “Be careful what you ask for.” You see, I actually asked that, post-retirement, he re-engage with the world in new ways, find things to do that might give purpose to his life, seek out something he could really sink his teeth into and live fully into for some part or all of the next few decades.  For a full year he demurred, insisting he was really very happy just being away from the stress of work and able to read newspapers and books at his leisure, to garden, and to work at his tennis and golf games. He was certain, he told me, something would evolve, and he wanted to give it time, and me to give him time.  So I did.  A lawyer’s lawyer, he had been a relentlessly good provider 24/7 for almost 38 years; if anyone did, he certainly deserved a break. Still, I felt his need to have me approve -- or perhaps just witness --this strange state of do-nothingness impinging on my days and on what I had envisioned his retirement might mean to our lives and our relationship.  Of course, at our age, this is what happens:  you plan and then life changes your plan with “events” like weddings, grandchildren, illness, a brother-in-law’s death, a parent’s health crisis, even just a bulging disc or a pinched nerve. And retirement. For 18 months we had experienced “the whole catastrophe,” both joy and tragedy, good and bad, up and down, in our enhanced state of togetherness.    The Retired One’s response? He applied to Oxford for a one-year post-graduate degree program in theology a respected theologian he had read and once met suggested.  Do I think he’s running away?  It has crossed my mind, but he insists not; he says a year at Oxford is a priceless opportunity, a great adventure, something he really wants to do, and something, therefore, we should do while we can (while we have the resources, the health and our minds).   *We?*  This, I am learning, is where retirement can get really dicey, or where retirement can undermine, if not upend, a marriage, even a strong, loving 40-year marriage.  *Who is this man who came home after 38 years at the office?  Does he think me merely the appropriate appendage, still the dutiful trailing spouse? Has he not been paying any attention?  Does he really believe I’d be happy to uproot and leave my family and friends behind?  Just because he wants to?  Really?* Well, yes, really.  He *does *think I should be happy to join him, as exited about the Opportunity and Adventure as he is and as other people say they would be.  He doesn’t say it, but the question looms in the air, “What’s wrong with you?”  And I wonder, I really do, what’s wrong with me and, when I dare, what’s wrong with us.  Isn’t it just strange to discover that the person you know and love most in the world, with whom you parented four great children, is so different -- from you and from what you thought?  That your needs are different?  That your wants are even more different?  It is -- to employ the British art of understatement -- a bit unsettling. But maybe in a good way.  Not that it felt at all good to put him on the plane and send him off alone -- both of us in tears --  or to return to an empty house.  But what it felt more like than anything else was like sending a kid off to college after 18 years of full-time parenting, and grieving the end of one stage of life while peering around the corner , or into the future, to see what the next stage might be.  I know from sending kids off to college that it can be quite liberating -- and not just for the kids. Suddenly I had time for friends and for outside interests -- bridge, golf, reading groups, lecture series -- and for my writing. When The Retired One came home, I regressed, though, and put  my stuff back on the back burner, losing sight, once again of who I really am outside specific roles and what I really want.  It seems a little late in the game to decide what I want to be when I grow up, but that’s exactly what I’m trying to do with this Sabbatical The Retired One’s year of study has given me.   I will visit him, of course.  We will travel together.  I expect we will both grow by being apart while navigating uncharted territory. We may even grow more respectful of each other’s wants and needs -- and closer together.  In the meantime, I came home from the airport that first night, dried my eyes, and fixed breakfast for dinner, a guilty pleasure I really enjoy that he has never liked.
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