Retirement brings with it the opportunity and desire to clarify one’s purpose…again. I thought a lot about my purpose in my 20s. I loved to read and write and I was inspired by Gloria Steinem and Barbara Walters. It was incredibly fulfilling to focus on my education. Some of the most enjoyable days of my life were spent pounding away at typewriters while earning my B.A. in Journalism.
In my 30s and 40s, I was busy, as most people are. I didn’t spend a lot of time pondering anything beyond purchasing a home, advancing in my career and then mothering my daughter.
Natalie is now an adult and I have the luxury of time to ponder my existence once again. But, it’s not merely an intellectual pursuit. A person’s “why” should serve to order her days. Our values should match our activities and so the exercise has value.
At 58 years of age, I’m struck by how little my perception of my purpose has changed. And, I’m encouraged to discover that I seem to be living in alignment with my core values.
I have always been compelled to create, decorate, celebrate, communicate, question, advocate and challenge myself. And, my voice has always been high-pitched and feminine and aligned with that of other women who believe in the cause of equality.
“Accepting death doesn’t mean you won’t be devastated when someone you love dies. It means you will be able to focus on your grief, unburdened by bigger existential questions like, “Why do people die?” and “Why is this happening to me?” Death isn’t happening to you. Death is happening to us all.”
― Caitlin Doughty
Death has come again and taken the life of another in my circle of friends. It was only a couple of weeks ago that I wrote to you about a friend who lost her father quite suddenly. Today I learned of the passing of another man. He was a husband, father and grandfather who took great joy in the companionship of his family. Indeed he spent the morning at the pool with his grandchildren and the afternoon with his wife and daughter before he passed quickly of an apparent heart attack.
The lives and deaths of these two men have raised questions among my friends. The questions are old and yet they seem new again when one is confronted with loss. Why do some live long lives and others die young? Why do some suffer? What is the meaning of life now that I know this will happen? When and how will my loved ones die? And, ultimately, when and how will I die?
I have friends of all ages and the youngest ones are just now facing loss as adults. It is quite a different matter when a young child loses a grandparent or great grandparent. I can still remember the Christmas morning when my then four-year-old daughter looked at her great-grandmother and commented: “You are very old; you will die soon.” The room fell silent until Gigi smiled and took her great-granddaughter into her arms for a hug.
My daughter does not remember making this bold statement nor does she remember her great-grandmother. It was in fact a year and a half later that Gigi passed at the age of 96. We were surprised the day we got the call as we had anticipated that the next death in the family would be that of my 36-year-old brother. I lost my brother two weeks later, a year after his cancer diagnosis. I was newly 40 and devastated.
My brother was never given any hope that he would live longer than a few months; he lived a full year. Friends and family offered to finance a trip for him and his wife as they’d never left the country. My brother chose instead to live the last months of his life simply. He devoted time to housekeeping, sorting and gifting his possessions and putting papers in order. He spent time with family and friends. He shared his deep faith and complete confidence in God and an after-life with anyone who would listen. He created art and he enjoyed the companionship of his wife and dogs in his comfortable home and in the nearby mountains.
I watched my brother die…closely and attempted to make sense of it all. It made no sense and yet it informed me and inspired me. I can never explain why the youngest member of my family was the first to die. I still don’t think it was “fair.” I still believe he should be here with me to exchange a laugh or two about how hard it is to get older. But, he accepted his passage with such courage and calmness that I could not help but do the same.
His death gave me the opportunity to ponder life and all the old important questions. I concluded years ago that the Beatles said it best…”all you need is love.” I have loved and I have been loved and, in the end, that is the only thing I need.
“Nature gives you the face you have at twenty. Life shapes the face you have at thirty. But at fifty you get the face you deserve.”
― Coco Chanel
I wish I could sit down over a glass of champagne and talk to Coco. How old was she when she spoke those words? What did she mean? What did she think of her own face at 20, 30 and 50?
I first encountered her words shortly before I turned 30 and they inspired a trip to the drug store where I purchased Oil of Olay Day Cream with a SPF 15 and I promised myself that each and every day, rain or shine, I’d slather my face in protection, wash before bed and slather again with night cream. I’ve done that, with the rare exception.
I didn’t really think much beyond my daily ritual again until I hit 40. I added facials once a month to the budget. Estheticians agreed that my routine was good, but inadequate, so I added a scrub at night every other day.
A decade later, I really wised up. This “getting older thing” was just going to continue, if I was lucky! I decided it was fine to try a product or minimally invasive procedure that was guaranteed to take 5-7 years off my face. However, after doing the math, I realized I’d still look 50! Then it struck me that no one really cared if I looked 50 or 57, including my husband.
I’m the only one who has to meet myself in the mirror each day.
I found myself reciting those words aloud when it hit me that the truth of them lies not in the literal interpretation but in the figurative one. My life is more than half lived. When I look back on my actions and choices, am I content with what I see reflected back? When I look at myself from this point of view, the mirror is crowded with the faces of others: husband, daughter, Nonnie, brother, friends. Turns out I did prepare to meet myself in the mirror, but the preparation did not come from a bottle purchased at the drugstore.