Retirement: Week One
It is not that I had not given a lot of thought to my husband’s Retirement from the practice of law after 37 years. He has been talking about it for about two years. It’s not even that I had not laid down a few rules and worked toward some new understanding about how reluctant I might be to “fix lunch every day,” a metaphor, if you will, for giving up any of my empty-nest freedoms, peace and quiet, and space. Despite these fears I voiced, however, I really had no idea what it would be like, how it would feel to have my husband home on, say, a Monday morning, or a Thursday afternoon. How much attention would he need? How far off-course would he pull the painstakingly patched together schedule of my life? Did I have the discipline to write when he was home going through papers on his desk and intermittently bringing some of them to mine? How long would it be before we were snapping at each other like a couple of old fools? – which, by the way, was the model I was determined not to follow.
Week One allayed my fears. We didn’t sound or feel like our parents at all; in fact, we felt more like newlyweds (sans the raucous sex, alas) learning to navigate our house and our life together in the house all over again. It was fun, actually, and exciting. We tried a few new things – like a grown-up cocktail hour in front of the PBS New Hour. He couldn’t sit still that long; I couldn’t drink that much; and I learned only a dollop of the news, spooned out while I was cooking dinner, made digesting its horror much easier. As committed to flexibility as to trying new things, we decided the cocktail hour didn’t work, but he helped with dinner prep and clean-up and I thought it was nice rather than an intrusion on my turf. We paid attention to each other, and that was very nice. We smiled more often; we were having fun. The weather, meanwhile, was horrible, so we might have come down with a severe case of cabin fever. But we didn’t. All was well. And I was falling in love with the man I married all over again.
Then came Week Two. Monday was Monday: my study group, the main grocery shop, a drop-off and pick-up at the dry cleaners, and home to pay the housekeeper. The housekeeper and the Retired Former Partner (RFP) as he is now known in the firm, had been doing a graceful minuet around each other in my absence. “Retirement” was a word that didn’t translate in Maria’s vocabulary. She keep telling me she had fixed the bed and the room was ready for Señor to take a rest. Somehow she equated “tired” with “retired” and couldn’t grasp simply not working any longer. When, later in the afternoon he actually left for the office, she was visibly relieved. But again, I tried to explain, Yes, he was working, but he wasn’t making money any more. That, of course, was entirely incomprehensible. The RFP and I laughed about it over dinner. I stopped laughing, though, when he returned to work Tuesday, and then Wednesday, and then Thursday – and came home with the same litany of complaints about law firm politics, the state of the profession, the needs of the client, the sliminess of the other side, and the stress of it all, which I thought we had left behind with Retirement. How many times had I heard the same story over and over and over again and said, “So, quit!”? So, as painstakingly as I had worked with Maria, I explained to the RFP what Retirement really meant. He didn’t have to do this anymore. He was acting irrationally, as if addicted to the misery. He had given himself permission to stop beating his head against that wall. Why did he let himself get sucked back in? Immediately defensive, he uploaded the time-worn all-bases-covered excuse that there was absolutely no one who could do the work in his place. No one – in a leading, major, national law firm with more than 700 lawyers – no one could do what he was doing in this particular deal for this particular client at this time, and he was, after all, a responsible professional. With more understanding than he gave me credit for, but without an ounce of sympathy, I asserted that if he were run over by a bus on his way to work the next day, his client would find another responsible professional; I was sure of it. The honeymoon was over.
This transition is not, it turns out, about the mechanics. It’s not about how many times he asks me where some basic household item is, or who called, or where I am going, or when I will be back, or what I am doing. It is not about leaving the computer in mid-sentence to go play golf with him because he needs a playmate. It is about re-connecting the most important parts of ourselves and rebuilding our relationship. What Law – that jealous mistress, the bitch – demanded of him for 37 years was, I began to understand that first week, going to be mine again. The energy, the time, the creativity, the joy, the emotional commitment, the presence, the care, even the concern – I could win it back. That was the promise of the first week; that was the source of my happiness and, I think, to some extent, his. But if Week One served to raise my expectations, Week Two dashed them, and I fell hard.
Happily, two weeks does not a Retirement define. This is a process. Habits are hard to break. But clearly we have more to renegotiate than the space in our house; it’s the space in our lives that’s at stake. I’m hopeful, of course. I love the RFP and he loves me. But it’s going to be harder than I thought, and much more important than how the wife of a RFP schedules a Girls Night Out.
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by Ann Sentilles
January 16th, 2010