‘It wasn’t the retirement we planned, but there’s no time for doom and gloom’

Nov 12, 2019
Shortly after this photograph of Mount Roland was taken, John's wife died. Source: John Reid

Life often has its none-too-subtle ways of making us to sit up and take notice. Many of the things that happen might appear unwanted, even unfair, but as the saying goes, that’s life. We can ride with the blows aimed at us and bounce back on the other side, or do the other thing, drop our bundle.

I’m not a succumber — and no, that’s not a vegetable! — because I reckon there’s a plan for everything: No matter what’s dealt out to us, it’s predestined. Believe me, though, I’m not about to test out the theory by stepping in front of the next speeding semi! From another perspective, it’s a bit like being a registered organ donor. I have been for half my life … but I’m in no rush to fulfil the obligation.

My wife and I worked long and hard over the years to fund our retirement, something not unique to us, of course. We put off holidays, taking occasional little breaks instead, expecting to put our hard-earned to use travelling pretty much to our hearts’ desire when in our 60s and still fit. We planned for trips to Machu Picchu, Perito Moreno, European rivers and canals, the Trans-Siberian Railway, even a Virgin Galactic flight. Maybe. The sky, and a little beyond, was the limit!

The year we turned 60, we entered semi-retirement. Marie and I both required major surgery over the years but came through with flying colours, no metastases, no residuals, no evident consequences, so began planning the first of our trips. Not yet wanting to completely end our working life, as people-people we accepted a position as relieving motel managers. It was fantastic work, not simply because we could walk away from it whenever we wanted, but because it introduced us to an amazing and diversified number of people, places and businesses. Had it not been for our desire to see far away places, it would have been our dream job.

All went well until the last day of January 2001. During that first month of the new millennium, we were at a well-known group motel in a country town that really only needed one of us through the day, so I drove to a larger centre a half hour away where I volunteered in court support work for victims of family violence. Late in the afternoon, I arrived back at the motel and asked Marie how long since she’d had a cuppa before heading out into the kitchen to make one for her. As I entered, I noticed a cake tin, her favourite with a pretty, ribboned kitten on it, all bent and looking a bit second-hand. I asked what happened, and was told, “Oh, I must have been a bit off-balance. I fell against the prep bench and my elbow landed on the tin.”

Early the following morning, in time to get guest breakfasts under way, Marie’s bladder demanded she get up a few minutes before me. Still half asleep, I heard a bit of a bump in the en suite, but not enough to be of any concern. However, a few moments later I heard a mumbled, “Help me … Please help me …,” and she landed hard on the end of the bed. I’ve ever awakened more quickly. Ever.

Her stroke, along with further complications, brought all travel plans to a sudden halt. From that day, and for the next 12 years, I became her carer, nursing her at home until the last few months when I had to bite the bullet and place her in a nursing home. It was something that needed no thought, the cessation of travel plans; her care was a necessity, so it was done. It was far from the future we wanted, certainly not the future we planned, nor the one we expected, but it was the way our lives panned out. Despite Marie’s death sentence of asthma, emphysema and the onset of vascular dementia, we never allowed doom and gloom to dictate.

Even in her last few days, there was a beautiful interlude that gave great joy. (I told this story through Starts at 60 six years back, so my apologies to those who’ve already heard it.) It was August 2012, and overnight snow had fallen on our local mountain. I popped the dog in our car and went out with my camera to get a shot or three. The photo above was the result. I headed home and ran off a print that I took in to Marie at the nursing home. She loved it. When I saw her again a couple of hours later, she was all excited. The farm in the shot belonged to her favourite RN3 and her husband. Would I do another copy to give to them?

I printed it again, then visited a shop to get a nice frame. That night, Marie gave it to the nurse. The following night she died. The timing was providential!

It’s a sad thing to lose someone so greatly loved, someone with whom you expect to see out your days, but I return to the point I made earlier. You can fold or you can hold. In one way I’m alone, but I’m far from lonely. With no children — chronic endometriosis put paid to that but was, again, something to which we adapted — I’m free to devote my life to helping others.

I tried to travel on my own for a while, but it wasn’t the same. It was time, then, to look for something else. Thus it is I’m able to say there’s no time for doom and gloom in my life as a nursing home volunteer. Most of those with whom I work have had their own problems but share the same attitude, not to let life dictate. As one says, “Take a step back and give it a kick in the balls!”

I guess his is a none-too-subtle way of reminding life we are yet able to maintain some control over it, and, if not, then to laugh in its face!

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