“What are you up to today?”
This is the question that my husband and I often ask each other over our morning coffee. For most of our 28-year marriage, I knew what my physician husband would be up to — he’d been doing the same things since the day we met. He would be running miles through hospital corridors, performing colonoscopies and liver biopsies. He’d be delivering good news as well as life-changing-in-an-instant bad news. He’d be awakened from a sound sleep and summoned to the emergency room to deal with a “bleeder.” He was dealing in life and death, every day and night.
But for the past year, since his retirement, his agenda has taken an almost unrecognizable turn. Now, when I ask that morning question, his answer will startle me. “I’m going to meditate. Do my stretching routine. Maybe go for a bike ride up in the park. Take a nap. Go to the aquarium shop. Read a little.” Who is this guy? I barely recognize him. But I like him.
Before he retired, I worried about what would happen after forty years of high-intensity medical practice at a relentless pace. My own father’s motto was, “You retire, you die.” He’d seen it happen to many of his friends, and he was having none of it. He worked as a traveling salesman, a manufacturer’s rep supplying souvenirs and trinkets to gift shops up and down the Eastern seaboard. Even after an abdominal aneurism rendered him paraplegic at the age of seventy-six, he continued to service his customers via telephone. He was writing orders from his hospital bed at 81, the day before he died during surgery.
But my husband longed for retirement. He’d been on the front lines, as he called it, for over forty years, and he was exhausted. For years he’d fall asleep minutes after dinner, depleted from all the adrenaline he’d been pumping all day. His work was grueling – physically, intellectually and emotionally – and he counted down the weeks until he could put that burden down and pass it on to the younger associates in his practice.Before he retired, I worried about what would happen after forty years of high-intensity medical practice at a relentless pace. My own father’s motto was, “You retire, you die.”
My own career was revving up at the same time that his was tapering down. As he stopped taking night and weekend calls, I absorbed more work. I took on hours as a per diem physical therapist. I was thrilled to be teaching writing in two graduate programs. I was steeped in my own writing and performance projects. I had worked part-time for decades while raising children and caring for my widowed mother, and now that our daughters were adults, I didn’t want to say no to anything. I was ready for YES.
There are so many cultural stereotypes about retirement, and I was a little nervous about whether any of them were going to apply to my vigorous husband. Would he start shuffling around in a bathrobe, spending his days in a rocking chair? Dealing with depression or an identity crisis? I couldn’t imagine him taking up golf or signing up for bus excursions to casinos, but this was uncharted territory.
As it turned out, retirement brought out a side of him that I’d never seen because he’d been too busy saving lives. All of a sudden, he was relaxed and, well, available. During the previous decades, I’d most often been the one to run the errands, to pick up things and go to the post office. But now he greeted me with, “Is there anything I can do for you today?” Double take. Well, yes, as a matter of fact. Now he was the one getting the special light bulbs, buying dog food and standing in line at the post office.
Over holiday break, our daughter asked me to accompany her to REI to find hiking boots. I was up against a deadline for posting my students’ grades, but my husband was at the ready. “I’ll go!” They had a great time at the outdoor store, then afterward when they went for burritos. “I like this Retired Daddy,” she said. “He’s fun!”
Of course, it took a little while to find the best balance. In the earliest days, he was eager for the togetherness that we had rarely been able to share on a weekday. “Grocery store? I’ll keep you company!” It was nice having him along, pushing the cart, until he balked at the price of the pink Himalayan sea salt he liked. Now he had the time to notice the price tag. Oops.
He’s an enthusiastic sharer, too. When I was working in my home office, he’d pop in, sometimes on an hourly basis, saying, “You just have to listen to/read/watch this!” A cool vintage YouTube video, a fascinating article or a loved one’s sweet photo on Facebook. Ground rules needed to be established. Now, he knows that the closed door equals “do not disturb” until I emerge for coffee, a bathroom break or a hug.
His retirement has been nothing I could have imagined, especially ten years ago when he was in the thick of things. I’ve been amazed, and a little jealous, at how quickly and how unapologetically he’s plunged into days filled with books and meditation, bike rides and naps. Clearly he feels that he’s earned it. When I have a day like that, it feels more indulgent — because I’m most likely on vacation, often far away from home, or because I’m taking a sick day. I wonder if this is a gender thing or it’s just him, the way he’s plunged into his retirement with the same focus and lack of ambivalence as he did in his career.
Overall, though, it’s been a good thing. He says he’s the happiest he has ever been in his life. He’s picked up some teaching and less stressful medical work at a nearby hospital one day a week. We’ve had time to connect in ways that previously had to be relegated to weekends, like taking long walks in the redwoods or going on spontaneous lunch dates. “Does Nana need a ride?” He’s willing and available to pick up my mother from her church luncheons or hair salon, and for that I’m grateful. In many ways, our marriage has turned upside down – now he’s the one at home more often and I’m bustling around. I’m not ready to retire yet, but that’s okay with both of us.
This isn’t my father’s (non-)retirement, literally working from his deathbed. Nor is it the stuff of stereotypes. He hasn’t started wearing Hawaiian shirts or black socks with his sandals. It’s like having a new boyfriend, this Retired Spouse, and I like him.