Saturday, May 3, 2014

Be aware, IT is lurking in the shadows, waiting to impose its will on you

I’ve made the point before---our October Years are a time of change. Just think how crazy it gets sometimes. Is this what you imagined when you looked ahead to your calm, quiet, and hopefully predictable Golden Years? 

Having spent decades looking forward to this time, I hope your October matches the dreams you dreamed. We know, of course, that it’s not that way for everyone. And even if you are among the fortunate ones who have traveled a smooth road so far, there is always a chance of being blindsided by some innocent appearing event we did not see coming. 

I count the wife and myself among the lucky ones. We are as healthy as seventy-seven year olds have a right to expect. Our offspring are doing well and our modest retirement seems secure. By all accounts life was good. Until that is, we faced the shock and stress of an intimidating new speed bump---a menacing threat that poked its ugly head from the shadows.

Like you perhaps, we had spent a lifetime accumulating “stuff”---all kinds of “stuff,” mountains of it. Along the way we saved and stored things we just couldn’t let go of. There were reminders of growing children and well-remembered family events---mementos of special times and places. We had wrapped ourselves in bits and pieces of our own history, filling our closets and corners with evidence of whom we had been and what we had done. Our home groaned under the weight of “stuff.” Sometimes it spilled out into rented storage spaces. 

And then, ready or not, IT happened---the disorienting moment that sneaks up on so many October folks. The big house may have become more than they can, or want to deal with. There may be health considerations that require a change of pace. Or perhaps the realities of October economics dictates a new fiscal profile. For some the possibility of a Sun Belt retirement has become more appealing. Whatever the reason, for many of us there comes a time for DOWNSIZING

Some of us probably look forward to that process. For many the appeal is undeniable---the promise of a new beginning---liberation from that “stuff.” we drag behind us. The reality, however, is something different. It begins by committing yourself to parting with some portion of your carefully assembled treasures. You vow to make do with less. But what part of that whole will you do without? 

Which of those things---all of which once had their own special meanings---are you willing to part with? Which of your memories are disposable? And who will make those decisions?
Rather than bore you with our own mundane experience I offer a couple excerpts from my stories that illustrate two very different downsizing experiences. Perhaps you can imagine yourself in one or both of these situations.
First, in an untitled piece that has yet to become a finished story, an October couple is facing the need to move to a smaller, more affordable home---which will mean getting by with less space.
At that moment Jim and Anita Camden were perched on folding chairs in the middle of their garage. The car had been moved outside to make room for their morning’s work. Around them, on three sides of the open room, long shelves held an eclectic assortment of cardboard boxes, each one a repository of some piece of their personal history. In sum those fragile containers held the remnants of forty-nine years together---the two of them as newly-weds, the satisfying family years, raising Larry and Ann in their comfortable Tanner home, and finally the empty-nest decades that had brought them to their present quandary. 

Sitting there, they were effectively surrounded by remnants of earlier choices---reminders of what they had once thought important enough to transport into their future. It had alway been about choices, Jim told himself, suddenly captured by that insight. The persons they had become and the family they had created were shaped by a lifetime of choices. Now they were about to come face to face with their own past.

The task itself would be straight forward, though by no means easy. They were about to revisit decisions made years before, for reasons they perhaps no longer remembered. At the heart of that process would be a new round of choices---deciding what to keep, what to give away, and what to consign to the trash barrel. It would take a while, but it was time to start---at least until Jim watched his wife’s head sink into her cradled hands.

“How can we do this?” Anita whimpered. “We ought to keep it all. Every bit of it is important.”

It was not the time to be insisting on his logic, sound at it was. Jim knew better than that. Instead, it was time for kid gloves and going slow, allowing her to proceed at her own naturally reserved pace, a time to hope for the best.

In Best Friends and Promises, on the other hand, I deal with a very different type of downsizing. Aaron Peck’s wife has been moved to an Alzheimer’s ward and the big house that had been their home for so long must be sold to pay for her care.
In early March the house on Elm Street, their home for forty-eight years, was sold. For Aaron the troublesome process of selling---meetings with the realtor, leaving the house when it was being shown, the final round of paperwork---triggered a renewed sense of loss. For days he sorted and packed, urging the girls to select the mementos they wanted to keep for themselves. In the end he avoided the weekend garage sale they held to dispose of the remaining treasures. It was more than he was willing to bear, watching the reminders of a lifetime with Leona being sold off as casual collectibles to unknowing strangers.
Finally the dreaded day came. The home where their life together had been lived belonged to strangers. The girls went back to Portland and Aaron sat alone in the cramped living room of his Samson Street apartment, mourning the loss of what had always been their home, and the reasons that made it necessary.
Downsizing---some will avoid that trial by letting the family deal it with after they leave. For the rest of us it will likely include a bitter-sweet visit to earlier times---good memories sprinkled with hard choices and occasional regret.

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