SUNSET

I was in my kitchen, chopping and stirring up a storm when I noticed that the sun was getting low and there were long streams of white clouds streaking over the entire dome of the sky. I put down my knife, turned the flame off under the big pot, threw on a jacket and hat and took off down the road, facing west.

The Catalina Mountains rose jagged and craggy on my left and the horizon all around stretched miles away over lush Sonoran desert. The sun was directly in my eyes as I walked. I pulled my hat brim lower. A neighbor happened by in her car and stopped for a few minutes. She told me about the herb class she would be giving and about her daughter the aerialist. I told her about my trip to New Zealand last month and gave her the phone number of my plumber. After she had driven on I was filled with the warmth of simple human contact. I had been alone all day and the day before, and that five minute chat was all it took to fold me right back into the midst of my herd, here in this little town.

The clouds took their time. A soft breeze mirrored their slow movement across the sky. I found a fence post to lean my hand against so that I could look up and around freely. I watched as the whispers of pale pinks and yellows turned, ever so gradually, to blazing wild brush strokes of intense reds and purples. The sky was aflame!

The words “sunset years” suddenly came to mind. I had to laugh. According to that phrase, I was looking directly at a visual representation of where I am in my life. My awe and wonder turned to critical appraisal of the drama in the sky. I looked behind me, far to the east: there the clouds were a very delicate sweet pink. That looked more like my life right now. I liked it that they were far from the setting point.

My life really is sweetly pink these days and as I stood leaning on that fence post I had to shake my head. How is it that I get to live this life of leisure and pleasure, year after year, without doing a damn thing to earn it? It’s only because I just happened to be able to save up enough money (I hope) to live on until my very own sunset comes along. I did work hard all my life, but there are many many people who work much harder and aren’t able to retire if they want to. I’m full of gratitude that I’m one of the lucky ones.

What’s extraordinary about retirement is freedom. Never before in my life have my days been so completely my own, all days, every day. I answer to nobody! It took a number of years to make peace with such utter freedom. I had to experiment with new possibilities, see if they would fit. I had to break through the personae I had enjoyed throughout my middle age, and in the process I felt hidden parts of myself begin to emerge.

It’s not all wonderful. Some of those parts that have emerged, I don’t like one bit. Clarity is a double-edged sword. But as I see myself more clearly my understanding and acceptance of others increases. This freedom has given me the surprising opportunity to become more fully myself, warts and all.

As I walked back, darkness took over in that fast way it does in the winter. I was a few houses away from my own when I noticed a woman standing outside her house under her front patio light. I was surprised because I had never before seen anybody at that house on my walks. I went over and introduced myself. She was eager to talk.

“Yes, I lost my husband 3 months ago,” she said brightly. “It was quite something. There he was, lying dead on our bed, and I couldn’t get a single funeral home in Tucson to come up here. I was at my wits’ end. So my cousin came over and he said we should do it all ourselves. My two daughters were here, they didn’t like that idea at all, and I wasn’t too keen on it either. But my cousin, he’d read some book, so he went back to his house and got it.

“And then what a time we all had. That book told us exactly what to do. We lit some candles and put on his favorite music. At first it was really weird, but we soon all got into it. My daughters and I, we washed him and wrapped him. God, I’ve known that body for 50 years, it was nothing to me to see him, but it took the daughters a while to get used to it all. I’ll tell you, it turned out to be a really special time for us. And now we all miss him of course, but even my daughters, we all feel like there was a real ending, there’s no unfinished business.

“My cousin made a pine box that we put him in, and then we all went up with his body and buried him ourselves in a plot he bought years ago near Springerville. And the whole thing only cost us $275, instead of the $8000. that the funeral homes wanted.” She laughed. “Now I’m trying to decide what to buy with all that money I saved!”

I got home, turned on lights, took off my jacket and hat, turned on the Ricky Skaggs cd that Katie sent me, and finished chopping and stirring in the kitchen. I was starving, couldn’t wait to eat, but oh my, the rest of me felt so deeply nourished. I was surprised to notice that that sunset interlude had taken just an hour.

MY HOME-ALONE BUTTON

I’ve been asked to write about my home-alone button by Katie and Brendan who are trying to persuade his 89-year-old fiercely independent grandmother to get one. All I can say to her is: why in the world would you not?

Today seems a good time for me to write about it because it was just the other night, a split second before I passed out, that I pushed mine for the very first time. Thank goodness I had had the foresight to clutch it in my hand. I’ve had it for years but I’ve never before had to activate it.

It was years ago that I signed up for it with our fire department, after an accident left me temporarily feeling old and frail. On the very first day of my very first solo camping trip my fake hip popped out and couldn’t be put back in for 12 hours, most of which were spent in an ancient rusty ambulance bumping and swerving over a twisty road in a remote area of southern Utah. For weeks afterwards I hardly dared move, sure that my hip would pop out again at any moment. I recovered from that fear just fine, and by then I found that I didn’t ever want to be parted from my little button.

It’s at night that having it nearby provides me with comfort. It has solved my life-long fear of the dark. If I don’t have it near me I’m on edge, the darkness is full of scary possibilities. If it’s within reach, I’m totally relaxed. Even if the big bad boogyman were to smash his way into my house, I’d just push that button and the noise alone would scare the fangs and the matted greasy fur right off him and he’d be gone, even before any help arrived.

Nobody can tell by looking at me that I carry it around on my person. It’s about one and a half inches across, an inch long, a half-inch thick. It came with a chain so it can be worn as a necklace, but it’s white plastic, so I carry it either in a pocket or, if what I’m wearing has no pockets (how can they do that to us women?) I snuggle it in my bra which is always at the ready as a default pocket.

In all these years I’ve never had a reason to call for help. But the other night I did. I had just returned from New Zealand, twenty-eight hours of travel from Emily’s front door to mine. Even though I washed my hands every chance I got while traveling, I must have missed a spot. On my second night home I was struck, like a bolt of lightening, by what seems to have been a virus. It started about 10pm, and by 2am it reached its peak: it felt like knives were stabbing and slicing my abdomen, over and over, and the retching had reached oscar-winning proportions. Just before I pushed the button the pain was unendurable. I was lying on the lovely adobe-red floor, and I was about to die.

It’s so odd to look back at that moment. I “knew” that I was going to die, immediately, yet I had no thoughts or feelings about it. The only thing that passed through my mind was: I’ve got to push the home-alone button so someone will find my body.

I came to and was still alive. And still alone. I got myself back into bed and then they came. First two men from the Oracle Fire Department, huge men wearing big black uniforms with strips of reflective tape all over. Next came two more huge men, Pinal County sherriffs, also in uniforms with strips of reflective tape. Then finally a fifth man came, same attire, and he brought an ambulance. I was thankful that I just happened to be wearing pjs that night. I lay in bed moaning and rocking (couldn’t help it) and they stood around my bed trying to figure out how to help me. Way in the deep recesses of my mind I was able to appreciate the hilarious aspect of this scene. I refused the offer to go off in the ambulance because I could tell that the worst was over. And by now all I wanted was to go to sleep, I was exhausted.

When I awoke six hours later all those men were gone, and so was any trace of sickness. I was fine!

Maybe I’ll never again have to push that button, but I’m still going to keep it on my person at all times when I’m at home. I’m alone almost all the time at home and I’m glad to know that I can summon any kind of help – medical, boogyman, whatever – without having to wait while I dial the phone or dial-up my computer. It’s an easy way for me to achieve peace of mind. There’s no down-side. And there’s an added up-side: by carrying around this little heart-shaped piece of plastic I increase the peace of mind of all three far-flung daughters. I don’t get half enough opportunities to do that.