My cabinets are empty. So are my 18 file drawers. A Craigslist buyer purchased the furniture. Someone I don't even know will sit at this same desk that has supported my success as a human resource management consultant for so many years. Letting go can be so hard.
I never visualized retirement, nor did I try to. I always assumed I'd keep working as long as I loved what I did, which felt like it would be forever. I still love my work and I still get emotional fulfillment from it. I am loyal to my past, and proud of the number of people I've impacted.
But after my Uncle Richard died unexpectedly in May 2014, leaving me as his executrix, and a month later my mother-in-law suffered a debilitating stroke from which she has not recovered, and two months later my mother fell and broke a hip that already had three screws holding it in place, something shifted inside me.
Disassembling my uncle's life overwhelmed me in a way nothing ever had before. I was faced with cabinets filled with sheet music, some yellowed with age, hundreds of CDs – all catalogued – walls of books, and closets stuffed with clothes. And his collection of over 1,100 owls – owl towels, owl sheets, owl paintings, owl mugs, owl vases and hundreds of owl tzatchkes in all shapes and sizes. His home was like a museum with a library annex. And I was entrusted with its disposal — a lifetime of collections and memories with no place to go. Going through it all, I was left with one question:
After we're gone are we nothing more than our possessions?
Maybe it's because my uncle's death certificate read "Age: 75," making me all too aware of my own mortality. A reminder that my father's death certificate read: "Age: 76." Too young. Too soon. Life is finite. Health is ephemeral.
Or perhaps it's because last year I entered a personal narrative story in an international writing competition and won a second place award, fueling my excitement about focusing on personal memoir writing.
Or maybe it's because only three weeks earlier I had turned 65 – historically the official "retirement age" – prompting a look in the rearview mirror. I've been working for 45 years, some of which I was attending school at the same time, and at other points working two jobs. But always loving it.
Actuarial tables list my average life expectancy as 90 years. That means 25 years lay ahead of me . . . on average. It's frightening to think about the future without my career.
Over the years I have excelled at my profession. I am confident in my role. I have helped individuals and organizations to be successful. Love of my work, the accolades for my work and money have been my first lines of defense against retirement.
Endings are hard, with every one beginning a period of change and confusion. The future is a blur. I confess. I'm uncomfortable with uncertainty — with not knowing – and yet I have often jumped into the unknown. I've jumped from an airplane (with a parachute), jumped from boats with scuba gear, jumped into complete darkness on my first night dive, jumped from the cliffs of Yosemite with only a low-stretch rope and a harness. I left a steady-paying C-suite job in commercial banking to jump into business as an entrepreneur. I have always landed on my feet. Yet retirement still feels like an unprecedented leap into the abyss of the uncharted.
I am, as I have always been, the entrepreneur of my life. Retirement is about re-shaping my identity. There is a difference between what I DO and who I AM. I am not my resume.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, "… Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves . . . live the questions now."
For the past 34 years, my life has been structured around the needs of my clients and my commitments to them. Now I am, as Rilke wrote, living questions: How will my life continue to make a difference? What will replace the gratification and sense of self-worth I get from my professional work? What does a meaningful retirement look like? If I am what I do, who will I be when I no longer do it?
I have confidence that shifting the lens of the camera from an external view to an internal one will bring things into focus – to shift the view finder from seeing my identity primarily as an external consultant to individuals and organizations to my other multiple identities: mother, wife, grandmother, sister, daughter, and friend. And soon to be: a retiree.
Creating a re-imagined life is a leap of faith – faith in personal resilience and faith that the newly forged life will be meaningful and significant. Retirement is about re-shaping my thinking – from aging to living, from growing old to growing whole, to living the questions until I "live into the answer."