The tarnished years

Back in the late ’50’s, some savvy, “Mad Men” type advertising execs came up with a catchy phrase to sell real estate in the Arizona desert to the older set. They coined the phrase, “the golden years” with its connotation of a neighborhood with a work-free, stress free lifestyle of golf, and Gin Rickeys by the community swimming pool. It sold like hotcakes, this concept, spawning a term that has since connoted the time in our lives when we can release our shoulder from the gritty and abrasive surface of the grindstone – and just live!

How unfortunate this term is so anathema from the realities of life’s final chapter. My own parents, products of the Depression and WWII, received a meagre handful of blissful retirement years before my mom was struck down with ovarian cancer. Dad lived a much longer life, but under the care of my sister, and his end came ignominiously like millions of others, in a stark and antiseptic-smelling nursing  home. ‘Nary a golf course to be found.

In 1950 the average life expectancy was 65. Today it’s around 78 years. Modern Medicine has truly achieved marvels. But in my set, thoughts of retirement bring on serious symptoms of anxiety and uncertainty. We’d like to retire in our 60’s, but what about health insurance, will I have a decent quality of life, where should I live?  So many anticipated years left to cover with the harsh realities of finite incomes and limited independence.

When I lost my husband, my  golden years dream blew up. He and I loved being near the ocean and so planned to do so at some point. I have not been able to walk on sand since. Do I move in a few years, do I continue to live near my friends, or closer to family?  Will this job I have now at 57 carry me through retirement or will I be laid off (again) and find myself competing against the rising tide of a much younger workforce?

I truly don’t want to live to 78, or 88 for that matter. I pine for the 1950’s and its much more reasonable life expectancy.  According to a 1998 Census study, 45 percent of women over the age of 65 are widows. You guessed it – for men that statistic is less than 15 percent.

Maybe the term “Golden Years” should just be “Golden Girls Years” since we women are most likely to end up clustered together, pining for our 50’s when we worked, had husbands and could not envision our lives any other way.

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The first worst year

After almost a full year of horrible firsts, I now face the most daunting of all.

Over these past 11 months time has held absolutely no meaning, and evinced no hold on me.  I made it through holidays, birthdays, and an uncelebrated wedding anniversary. I fractured my ankle, dealt with the ravages of the flu without the “there, there” support of my beloved, and took countless solitary plane trips, landing with no greeting heralding my return. I even took my first trip back to the vet’s office where James died so unceremoniously on March 14th.

It dawned on me with almost an electric shock a few weeks ago, that it has been almost a year since he died. Where did a year go? How is that possible? It still feels so fresh, so recent. It can’t be! I say to myself. Time truly has had no meaning. It’s been one painful, foggy slog to get through the next “first” in a seemingly endless laundry list of painful milestones.

It’s like a constant rollercoaster ride with no time’s up. You don’t disembark, so no opportunity to gain firm footing. Back up the slow and steady incline – clack clack clack, all the way to the top with no view of what’s below. Then whoosh! Your stomach is left far behind as you hang on for dear life, while outwardly trying so hard not to look like you’re scared.

My favorite scene in the movie Parenthood with Steve Martin, comes near the end and is uttered by the unnoticed grandmother who often gets left behind by her large, self-absorbed family.

“You know, when I was nineteen, grampa took me on a rollercoaster ride…it was just so interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited and so thrilled altogether! Some didn’t like it. They went on the merry-go-round. That just goes around. Nothing. I like the rollercoaster.”

James liked the steady and expected pace of the merry-go-round. I knew it wasn’t representative of real life. Shit happens. Up, down. Up, down.

We don’t have to like it, we just endure it.