Hey, we’re October people (more or less.) We know from experience how complicated life can be. Even the most mundane existence is an constant stream of highs and lows. The exact mix of ingredients is a very individual thing, but from day one the life we live is an ever-changing blend of choices made (or not made) and actions taken (or not taken).
As a storyteller I do my best to describe and illustrate the chain of actions and interactions, thoughts and choices that make up my story. My goal is simple enough. I want the reader to care about what happens to the characters I have set in motion. Fortunately, in the telling I have the luxury of focusing on particular elements of the story---truths or opinions I consider worth exploring in depth.
We know how hard our October years can be. Chances are November will bring additional trials. Each of my Tanner Chronicles stories deals with some form of that unsettling reality. In the course of ten books I have touched on a wide array of October challenges. Yet in every case my emphasis is not the dark side of late-life, but instead the affirming role that relationships play in helping us through those hard times.
I have made the point before. What I call “relational” stories are something very different than the “romance” novels you see on the super market shelves. Like you, I know a thing or two about romance. I’ve been there---and I’m glad for that. It was a special time of life, when hormones and inclination combined to make youthful romance perfectly appropriate.
But that was April. This is October, or perhaps November. A different sort of relationship is just as appropriate. For the last fifteen years Roma and I have visited our congregation’s shut-ins on a regular basis. We have called on dozens of special friends who were facing late-life alone. For some of them that was by choice---and the choice was certainly theirs to make. For others it just turned out that way. In either case there was no denying the sense that something important was missing.
Which brings me to a particular October truth I have explored more than once. If growing old can be a trial, then growing old together must be the most blessed of blessings. Facing October and beyond in the company of a caring and supportive life partner is the best way I know to deal with those intimidating circumstances. Of course, in the process each of them will struggle from time to time. That is an October given. But they will be struggling together.
There are probably a million ways to tell a story that emphasizes the virtue of “struggling together.” . Allow me to offer one of my own---from Long Way Home.
Elly Warren is a year removed from a life-changing relational disaster. She has experienced the pain of great loss up close and personal---leaving her determined to never let it happen again. Keeping the possibility of a new relationship at arms length has become a way of life. But now her best friend, Claudia Harris, is on the phone, asking her to consider that choice in a different light.
“It’s mostly a matter of being lonely,” Elly continued. “Day after day, it’s all the same. There’s nothing to look forward to. I go shopping every couple days. I do lunch at the club with the girls. But it doesn’t help. I honestly don’t know what do. It’s all so complicated.”
Claudia could tell her friend was struggling. Would she listen to another point of view? “You know, I’m not sure it’s all that complicated,” she suggested as she shifted the phone to her other ear. “In fact, I’m guessing it’s really quite simple.”
“What do you mean?”
“It seems to me you have a choice to make. That’s what I mean. Just one choice, nothing more. That doesn’t sound so complicated does it?”
Elly was not sure how to respond. “What are you talking about? What choice is that?”
“Do you want to be alone---or not? That’s the question you have to answer---the choice you have to make” Was this going to work, Claudia asked herself. Would Elly even listen? “You’re seventy years old, aren’t you? And what little family you have is in California. Which means you’re basically on your own. Right?”
“I suppose so.”
“I’m sure there are fellows at the club who would be willing to help out. But you won’t let that happen, will you? I know that you think you have all the answers. But what if you’ve been asking the wrong questions?”
“For heaven sakes, Claudia. What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about reality---about the real world. Take a moment to imagine yourself ten years from now. Think about what you might be facing if you were eighty and all alone. How do you suppose you’d cope with whatever that future looks like? The thing is, you can decide right now whether you want that to be your
future, You can decide if you want to be by yourself or with someone who can be there to help if you need it---someone who makes things better?”
Claudia’s soft laugh might have sounded out of place, at least until she added, “We don’t like to think about that, do we?”
“You’re right,” Elly replied. Why was her friend going on about things no one wanted to think about---now or later?
“But that brings us right back to the one question you need to answer. Do you want to spend your future, whatever it turns out to be, by yourself or with a partner---someone who can help you---someone you can help?”
“Claudia. Don’t forget I had ‘someone’ before.” Elly countered, falling back on her well-tested defenses. “He turned out to be the problem, not the answer. Why would I want to go there again?”
“You’re getting sidetracked, Elly.” Claudia was pacing now, from one end of the patio to the other. “Just concentrate on that one question. Do you want a future by yourself? Or would you rather share it with someone?”
“But, I told ....”
“Elly. Listen to me.” Claudia’s emphatic interruption startled even herself. “Forget about ‘before.’ That’s ancient history. Just answer that one question---by yourself or with someone?”
“I just can’t believe it’s that simple, just one question.”
“It is simple. I’m not saying it’s easy, because it’s not. But it is simple. Just ask yourself that one question. If you decide you want to go on alone, like you are now, then there’s no need to worry about anything else. Because you’ve already decided. You’ve answered the question.”
“It is much safer this way, you know. There’s less chance of getting hurt again.” Elly’s words carried a harsh, remembering edge that lasted until, “The thing is, it’s so lonely. I know there ought to be more.”
“Perhaps that’s your answer then. Maybe you’ve already made that choice.”
“But, how can I know for sure?”
“Elly.” Claudia was past caring if the neighbors heard her. “We’re not talking about a sewing machine or a new car. It doesn’t come with a guarantee. There is no extended warranty. It’s about taking a chance. If that sounds too scary, if it’s not worth the risk, then don’t do it.”
“But I can’t go on like this. It’s too lonely.”
“Then you have to step out and take a chance. You have to trust again, even if ‘trusting’ has hurt you before. You have to try.“
There you have it, my friend, another peek into the daunting world of October Bold, an interpretation of what I consider to be a late-life truth. It is about thriving in our 60s and 70s (and beyond), wringing all we can from late-life. It may involve taking a chance now and then, even when it’s scary. It may include trusting, even when you’re not sure you can do that again. And of course, there will be no guarantees---no matter what path we choose.
In the end “thriving” is a matter of being willing to try. That is true on a relational level---whether you decide your way is to go on alone, or you hope to rely on a new relationship. It’s also true for just about any other October challenge you can think of---like telling stories and writing blogs, or some other late-life project that works for you.