I thought I’d take the plunge and post my first attempt at a short story. I wrote it nearly 6 years ago and rereading it now I’d certainly write it differently today. I guess that watching your writing develop and change over the years is what it’s all about. I wrote it for a short story competition which had to be about a topic relevant to “older people”. Each entrant was meant to get feedback from an acclaimed author and the winner was to get their story published. After waiting an eternity for any comments I finally had the story returned with a polite note saying the person judging the entries was seriously ill in hopsital and no stories had been read. I was really dispapointed! So, other than Damien, no one else has ever read this, so I’d love to hear your feedback.
THE SOUNDS OF SILENCE
I woke at 9.00 am this morning to the deafening sounds of silence. I look at the shadows of sunlight on my all too familiar walls, staring at the unruffled quilt on the other side of the bed. Funny how after all these years, I still sleep on my side of the bed. There was a time when I would have been up hours ago, making breakfast for everyone, and putting on the first load of washing for the day. If I was lucky, I might have even managed to steal a cup of coffee, and read a few pages of the newspaper before I was called away. Now there’s no husband, for he’s been long gone; no kids for they’re all grown up, and no cat, for he even took the liberty of dying on me recently. So there I was desperately trying to stay in bed as long as possible, in order to avoid the inevitable of having to get up and face the day alone, again. The shadows across my wall were a reflection of the shadows across my heart.
I look back at my life and how it has changed in just a few short years. I guess the changes have been slow, almost insidious, but they are changes nonetheless. And I don’t like change. I don’t think many people do, but I for one, make no apologies for not liking it. I liked my life just fine as it was. Well almost. Telling the husband to go was probably one of the more empowering moments in my life, and a decision that was long overdue. The kids and I revelled in our new found sense of self, and became even closer; we became good friends. It was the three of us against the world. We were happy, and life was good. And then of course the inevitable happened. The kids were no longer kids. It was as if overnight, they had grown into fine young men, forging ahead to carve their own identity in the world. It was their time for independence, and a time for them to leave the safety of the nest I had so lovingly created. So, eventually, and somewhat guiltily, they both moved out to live with their respective girlfriends. I was so proud of them, and couldn’t have been happier as they embraced this next phase of their lives. But since they’ve been gone, no matter what I do, or where I go, a subtle sadness surrounds me, and lingering in the distance, are the echoes of loneliness just loitering in the corridors of my mind.
When I was married, like most couples, I had a busy life, helped run my husband’s business, worked five days a week and raised two sons. Despite the increasing problems in my marriage, it wasn’t in my nature to be unhappy so it was inconceivable for me to imagine, that within a few short years, I would be pacing the living room floor, wondering what on earth I could do with myself that would once again, make me feel worthwhile. Gone were the days when I could spend a complete morning just tidying up after two teenage sons. Sneakers no longer lurked behind the couch waiting to be tripped over, and there were no wet towels begging to be picked up off the bathroom floor. Their bedrooms, long since stripped of heavy metal posters that used to adorn every wall, are now tastefully decorated and silently wait for the unexpected guests that never seem to come. I remember reading awhile ago about the ’empty nest syndrome’, and the need to be needed, and believed that this dreadful fate only afflicted other people. And here I was only years later, trying to make some sense of it all, realising that perhaps, this most dreadful of fates had actually befallen me.
Suffering from the empty nest syndrome is about as socially unacceptable as menopause and hot flushes. Nobody wants to know about it. Yet it goes far deeper than simply missing children who are no longer at home. For many, it can be a catastrophic event encompassing grief, the loss of our familiar roles, the loss of our sense of purpose and even the loss of our identity. Unfortunately, this usually occurs at a time in our life when we are also confronted with our own ageing, and the inevitable loss of our youth. We ’empty nesters’ are supposed to just pretend that our lives haven’t changed, and are meant to luxuriate in our new found freedom. We are supposed to just work it out for ourselves. But sadly, it doesn’t work that way. I know there are many people who have lost their children under tragic circumstances, but to me, losing a child to adulthood doesn’t in any way diminish your sense of loss; it merely makes it a little easier to understand.
There are many people, and I am one of them, who actually function better when confined by the roles that society expects of them. I accepted my roles of wife and mother unquestionably, and strived to fulfil them to the best of my ability. Even though I willingly relinquished the first, and reluctantly let go of the latter, they were the quintessential roles that defined me, and contributed to the sense of who I am. Stripped of these roles, I felt naked and exposed in a world where I no longer belonged. Without these roles, life became an up hill battle where I was floundering to find a new place. It was if I was teetering precariously on the edge of no man’s land, ever mindful of the ramifications if I decided to let myself fall. In my determination to dispel this emptiness, I realised I needed to find a new role for myself, one that made me feel like I belonged. I wasn’t quite sure who or what it was that I wanted to ‘belong to’; I just knew that I was desperate to belong. I decided to begin this new venture by exploring the possibility of becoming involved in some community work.
I approached the task of searching for volunteer work with the enthusiasm of an Olympian training for her next marathon race, for this was to be my salvation. Every night after work I’d trawl the internet looking for any organisation that felt destined to have me come along and brighten up their day with my well meaning eagerness to be involved. Unfortunately it wasn’t long before I realised most organisations required volunteers who were free during the week. As I was a long way off from retiring, and still needed to work during the day, volunteering no longer seemed such a viable option. Never mind, at least I’ll know where to look when I finally do retire. I knew there had to be countless activities out there that I could get involved in and it was just a matter of persevering until I found the right one. However, it was beginning to look like being a single woman in her early fifties disqualified me from participating in the vast majority of these. Activities that interested me either required me to have a partner or to have the physical stamina and fortitude of someone half my age. Women even well into their forties are generally still relatively untouched by the physical limitations of their ageing, allowing them to participate in a wider variety of more strenuous group activities. At the other end of the spectrum there exists countless activities tailor made for the older retired person, happy with the more sedentary past times such as ‘club’ and ‘coffee’ mornings. Sadly, very little seems to be available for the ’empty nesters’ in the fifty plus age bracket. This is the age where we are forced to admit that the body can’t keep up with the mind, no matter how willing. And this is the age where going out to a club after nine o’clock, is simply, too close to bedtime.
As the months rolled into years I became increasingly concerned about the loneliness I was feeling. It no longer loitered in the background; it permeated my entire being. I felt like an empty house patiently waiting for a new family to come and claim me as their home. Around this time I became good friends with a man who I knew from work. He was desperately unhappy after his second “idyllic” marriage abruptly ended in less than a year. I have always been there for people in their time of need, and it only seemed natural for me to be there for him. I was the empathetic listener, the rescuer; I was needed. For months I listened to his tales of unrequited love whilst trying harder and harder to suppress my growing feelings for him. I was convinced that my reward for saving him would be one of love. But he could only save himself. And I was simply a lost soul looking for love in all the wrong places. A while ago I stumbled across a great saying in a book that read “out there, somewhere, there is a lid for every pot so there’s no need to waste time trying to make the wrong one fit”. Suddenly I felt tired of everything; tired of making the wrong lid fit, whether it was volunteering, social groups or even relationships. I was tired of it all.
There were times that I secretly wished that I could skip my fifties altogether and simply “cross over” into the sixty plus retired age bracket. Once there, I’m sure there would be a greater acceptance by society of the roles that are mapped out for us in our twilight years. It would be a time of greater leisure, and of greater opportunities to travel and to reap the rewards from all the years of hard work. Retirement represents a natural slowing of the pace, which society expects and accepts. For most, it’s also a time to experience the joys of grand parenting; nature’s way of giving us a second chance at parenthood. It’s a known fact when people first retire they also grieve the loss of their familiar roles and without a doubt there is a transition period that most retirees go through. Fortunately though, they still have very distinct, defined roles to aspire to and fulfil; they are simply just new and unfamiliar to begin with. I don’t believe there are any such defined roles for individuals in their fifties. Particularly not for newly single women. I call it the lost decade. The decade where we no longer have children at home to care for; the decade where we take stock of our lives, hoping beyond hope that we’ll be able to provide for ourselves in our retirement years. Our fifties is a time of desperately clinging to the last threads of our youth. And it’s probably one of our greatest times of self reflection, as we look in the mirror and try to understand and accept the image of that older person staring back at us. It’s the decade where society calls us seniors, but we’re not.
I was so tired of it all and my search for a new role had eluded me. It was time to let go of this fruitless search and have the courage to just see how life would unfold, naturally. This thought actually terrified me, but being a prolific reader of self-help books, I decided I should start applying the multitude of philosophies that had swamped my psyche over the years, and to place my trust in the greater powers to be. I would put everything out to the universe. In the meantime, I decided to start walking.
Whenever time permitted I would walk. Like Forrest Gump. To begin with, for variety, I used to walk to different places, but the outcome was always the same. I still felt lonely. In the months that followed I found myself walking the same stretch along the beach front, day in and day out, always stopping halfway at the same place for a cup of coffee. It didn’t happen straight away, but very gradually I found I was looking forward to my walks and began to enjoy the new routine I’d created for myself. What had simply begun as a means of escape to fill the empty hours was now becoming a source of pleasure and enjoyment. As I continued to walk, I began to notice a certain familiarity in the faces of the people who were once so alien to me. The faces greeting me each morning on my walk were no longer strangers, for they had become my friends. Not friends in the traditional sense, but ‘ silent’ friends. All out walking, carrying with them the secrets and burdens of their different lives. We were somehow all linked in a subtle, inexplicable way. And it made me feel like I belonged. Each and every one of us has secret demons that we hide from the rest of the world, but I have learnt that it’s not the demons themselves that matter, but how we choose to let them affect us.
Slowly I was beginning to feel my loneliness dissolve, like a thin mist disappearing over the horizon. With the passing of each new day and the familiarity of my walking and my new routine, I began to experience my world from a different perspective. Where once I felt sad and somehow disconnected, I now felt enthused and excited. I had begun to carve a new identity for myself; one I could claim as my own, unique to me. And it felt good. I felt good. The intense emptiness that once engulfed me, had taken second place, relinquishing itself silently into the background. And as I began to feel this renewed sense of self, I no longer nurtured the secret desire to ‘cross over’ into my twilight years before my time. Suddenly I had too much I wanted to do. There were new horizons to explore and new challenges that lay ahead, waiting to be conquered. And if I had to conquer them alone, I knew I could do that too. I’ve yet to find a lid that fits, but I suspect that when I become a grandmother for the first time, quietly waiting for me will be at least one lid that will finally fit. But for now, it doesn’t matter. Besides, I still need just a little more time to get to know that reflection in the mirror.
Throughout my ’empty nest’ journey my family and friends have been an invaluable source of strength and comfort to me. Ultimately though, I believe this was one journey I was meant to travel alone. And during the course of this slow, often painful journey, walking became my salvation. My journey is by no means complete, but I’m well on my way. I still wake each morning to the sounds of silence, but these days, the silence is beautiful. I no longer see the shadows on my wall. Instead, I see the sunlight that peeps through my half drawn curtains. Beautiful shades of sunlight that hold the promise of a new day and the endless possibilities of things to come. I turn my head and look fondly at the latest edition to my household; a small cat that has taken up residence and adopted the other side of the bed as her own. She has become another source of joy for me. I rescued her, and she belongs to me now. And I belong to her.