Do you hear that sad low-down jazz? It was starting to intrude as the background music of my life. “I feel like a motherless child” circled through my head. I know that this sentiment of being unloved and lost is grossly inaccurate and melodramatic and full of self-pity, but I couldn’t stop it.
Our wonderful, independent kids are on their own, and we no longer need all the space we have in this rambling, lovely house. If he doesn’t slow down a bit, I fear for my husband, who has worked with so much compassion, intensity, and passion for many decades. Now in our early sixties, the most responsible thing to do is to downsize. Another spiritual, emotional lesson about “letting go” on the way to becoming an ever-wiser older woman, right? I believe it intellectually, but not down deep, not yet…
Just as I never pictured how strongly empty-nest syndrome would hit me when the kids left home, I am stunned by how much sorrow and angst I have about leaving our home. Our house has been a kind of charmed respite from the world, an inanimate but nurturing parent symbol for my husband and me. This feels like so much more than a house. If a house at all, it feels like a giant treehouse nestled lovingly into a wise ancient oak, the kind of tree with bumps on it that look like a face is smiling kindly.
Not only do we have to face change (I always remember the bumper-sticker that proclaims, “Change is good. You go first!”), we are facing the loss of a dream. As a physician and a geriatric social worker, hyper-vigilant about the possible needs of aging bodies, we remodelled this house many years ago to have doorways and snail showers without a lip, both wide enough for a wheelchair if need be. Yes, some of it is that we are both pretty unblinking about the possible challenges of aging, and part of it is that we can both be somewhat (okay, very!) morose, but we actually thought this would be our last house before we moved into an independent living community of seniors. As the saying goes: “Man plans, God laughs.” Except I don’t really think God is laughing about this. I think that God feels our pain but has faith in us that we can handle this unexpected detour.
We have a realtor who you’d want to dislike because she is so skinny and cute, but she is irresistibly hard-working, dedicated, witty and seems to find the neurotic tendencies of my husband and myself not only tolerable but almost enduring. Jennifer came over yesterday to advise me on what to eliminate from our house so that it will look more engaging to potential buyers. When she came to the part about digging up the tire swing and jungle gym that we had deeply cemented into the back yard for the children’s safety, I felt like my entrails were being pulled out like sausage links. I’m not exactly sure which digestive parts are entrails, but I know mine were being yanked hard. Although she was as gentle as possible, I started to imagine a hard-boarded, brightly colored book for downsizers based on the classic toddler bedtime book Goodnight Moon:
Goodnight silk plants that buyers do not like
Goodnight cozy wallpaper that will turn to neutral paint
Goodnight to the rocker where I nursed long ago
Goodnight to personal photos that buyers do not like
Goodnight to the swing set leaving the yard
Goodnight to laughter of children near and far
If other downsizers feel as regressed as I do, wouldn’t the book be a big hit?
And besides the gnawing separation anxiety about leaving, come the uncertainty issues of when and how. My wise daughter said to me gently, “Mom, everyone, beginning from childhood, needs the idea of permanency. You are suffering from a lack of permanency.” This is very true. I can tell I am extra anxious because I have been smoking my pen a lot…as in pretending my pen is a cigarette, inhaling deeply, and tapping the pretend ashes into a pretend ashtray. I was never a smoker, but I used to be mesmerized by my mom’s smoking habits, and this ritual creeps back into my life at stressful times. The family is so used to it that they don’t comment, they just smile at me empathetically.
I don’t want to go to work, I don’t want to read, I don’t even want to watch unseen episodes of Game of Thrones. I especially don’t feel like doing all the purging and streamlining I absolutely need to do to get this house ready for buyers because each time I determinedly pack up a bag, I have a desperate and immediate need to run to the toilet. I long for the weeks-ago’ ride-alongs with the realtor when we were on the prowl for a new house. I felt then that we were on a larger-than-life odyssey to find The New Home, a journey more epic than Odysseus’s years- long voyage to home! Did Odysseus have to worry about financial limitations? Roof pitch lines? Gas hook-ups? Faithful old Penelope would have liked any ugly, drafty castle that Odysseus picked.
When I found my First Dream House, I was sure my husband would like it. I felt like I wanted to blindfold him and then take off the blindfold while I sang a trumpeting “Da Dah!” Instead, he calmly and rationally came up with at least 75 things he found objectionable. I was so mad I had to ride home with the realtor instead of with him because I was afraid I would behave like a true bitch. Jennifer knowingly waved him away from her car and smiled at him, saying casually, “Oh, we just have a little girl talk to catch up on!”
I do say First Dream House because on our way to the beloved home we live in now, we had several Dream Houses, and it was to our benefit that each of those didn’t work out until this one. My yoga teacher Katrina reassures me that the universe will provide a good house when the time is right. But pessimism rules temporarily. I had become addicted to on-line house-searching. I had greedily read over the details of the property, trying to see through cleverly-worded disguises. I had poured over photos, playing them over and over and trying to arrange my furniture in that space. And then my “matchmaker” –our realtor—would pick me up… and the house and I would meet each other! It was like dating again –the secret, soaring hope, the disappointing reality that the match was not a good one. The lip-biting anxiety that The Right One might never appear. Being the drama queen that I am, the addictively exciting search for a house is preferable to the hum-drum, sad, boring, stomach-twisting need to eliminate clutter and personal items that I should be doing right this minute.
Fortunately, the universe has indeed provided me with The Right One in terms of my husband, and I am trying to focus on that. I am trying to live by Max Ehrmann’s inspiring prayer “Desiderata”, or “a list of things to be desired”, among which is this: “ to gracefully surrender the things of one’s youth” that one no longer needs. I am trying to heed the advice I have often given to others to be the uniformly ticking grandfather clock that keeps ticking serenely even in a thunderstorm. I am trying to remember that “I am enough” and to be “grateful for blessings already on their way.” I am remembering with a smile my old bumper-sticker: “OH NO! Not Another Learning Experience!” And I am trying to keep in mind that I am choosing what I believe to be best for our coupleship: a smaller house with less upkeep, and more time to savor each other.
And something amazing happened today as I was intently separating categories of books into Beloved and Less Beloved: I started to hum a song, and then realized what the song lyrics were (an old trick of a wise psychoanalysis professor; it works for me almost always to tell me what my subconscious is thinking). The song was the lyrical, somewhat bittersweet, but ultimately uplifting Fred Astaire and Ginger Roberts’ standard: “Let’s Face the Music and Dance!” So, maybe I can do this thing with a bit more grace than I thought! Wish me luck in developing acceptance about our house-selling, courage in our house-hunting, and the wisdom to grow despite my resistance!