The gift

The night passed in moments of consciousness, some of which slid quietly into sleep and at other times, wavered briefly between.

After our afternoon meal at the dining table, a satisfied tiredness followed, for both of us, unusual since our rhythms, appetites and day/night cycles so seldom coincide.  We propped up multiple pillows against the headboard, reclined into the softness of down, and put on a DVD.  With the bedroom windows open above our heads, we could hear the activity of a neighborhood on one of the first sunny, warm Saturday afternoons of spring, day-one of a long holiday weekend, sounds of lawnmowers, power tools, birdsong, next-door neighbors tossing a new squeeze toy to their playful dog in their fenced backyard.

With this as our backdrop, Jeni and I began hours of sometime alternating, sometimes synchronous sleep and waking.  Sometimes the waking was momentary, the threshold between this world and that of sleep, where we were neither asleep nor fully awake but momentarily in the realm that exists between them both, at times going back toward sleep almost instantly, at other times coming into a hazy consciousness for a few minutes, or for an hour, before falling back into the pillows.  Dreams mixed with moments of lucidity.  At one point, I was aware of the evening, still upon us; later, all was in darkness and I awoke long enough to notice Jeni’s absence from my side, heard familiar sounds coming from the kitchen.  Later, I dreamt a dream filled with the sound of strained meowing, returned to consciousness long enough to realize that it was Tuffi playing with her toy mouse.  I roused myself, arose to my feet, gathered her up in my arms and brought her into the bedroom with me, so she could curl up in front of an open window, quieting her strange, anguished sounds.  Returning to bed myself, I reflexively pumped some air into my down pillow and made a fresh indentation in it with my head, quickly crossing that threshold again.

For the better part of twelve hours the cycle overlapped and repeated.  This sort of erratic nocturnal activity is more normal for Jeni, most unusual for me. The day before, I had worked hard, physical outdoor work, weeding and cleaning in the garden at the home of friends, a project for which I had volunteered, a project which I had already invested some hours and which I realized had the potential, given its state of need and my vision of what it might become, to consume far more time than I should allot, far more than these friends probably intended, certainly more than would be reasonable given the objective.  So I had reached a certain point with the work, conferenced with the owners and agreed to a truce between the garden and me.

I suppose I knew that the tiredness from that work was still upon me.  After the afternoon meal and settling into pillows, I was sure of it.  After the long, improvised evening and night of rest and awaking to the first light of a new morning, and the pull toward my first cup of coffee, I was surprised; even now, I still can’t remember another time when I had indulged myself in rest so completely.

It had taken all three weeks since the end of my job to arrive at the moment.  Over two cups of coffee, one with Jeni’s biscotti and the other with Jeni’s shortbread, and with Mia, Tuffi’s littermate, curled up in my lap, grudgingly sharing space with my laptop, and Jeni still in her current cycle of sleep, I savored a contentment of a kind that I’d never known.

There have been vacations.  There have been weeks at home together.  There have been, years earlier, times when work amounted to something other than long cycles of five-day weeks followed by two-day breaks, containing as best they could the time Jeni and I shared together at our whim and leisure.  In our early years together, she had jobs with unusual hours; I had as many as three part-time jobs.  But for the last couple decades, the week/weekend cycle has been a constant, a rhythm only infrequently broken, and then only momentarily.

As we have continued our sweet march forward in this life, as we have slowly but inexorably traveled the distance toward the age when retirement begins to creep into our awareness and our conversations, we have each shared our imagination of what that time might be like.

The night, and the day preceding it, was as close to that reality as we had ever experienced.

I left the job with equanimity, which I attribute to the time between my first awareness of it and the eventual ending.  As I’ve said to many, we saw this coming a mile away.  In the end, on the last day of the last month, I handed my badge to my boss as we awaited the elevator to take us both to the lobby of the building for the last time.  We loaded his luggage into my car, drove through a pleasant spring afternoon to the airport, unloaded the luggage, shook hands and exchanged affirmations of our friendship formed over that last six months.  He went to catch his flight home to Boston; I drove the freeway back to the Little House on Mary Avenue, to begin a new chapter.  It seemed every bit as natural as I had imagined.

With the state of the economy and the financial cushion provided by the company as compensation, the thought of a summer of free time was on my mind.  No use strenuously looking for work; the job ads fell off after Wall Street unraveled the previous autumn, followed by a reversal of nearly all business and, with it, the withdrawing of available positions.

The first weeks of free time had been filled with a sort of orderly agenda of my own making, a to-do list of the normal obligations related to the ending of regular employment, as well as other matters related to joblessness.  I began making entries on my laptop calendar, just as I had done in the heyday of my work, the extension of a piece of work ethic, to keep me focused on dates, times, obligations.  Even through the second week, there were many entries; register with the State employment security department, should it be needed later in the year; take the outplacement courses offered by my employer, designed, I determined, to help unfortunates unlike myself, people caught flat-footed by the sudden loss of their positions; attention to a few medical and financial matters for my mother, coming unexpectedly but contemporaneously with the start of my unemployment. In the third week came the call from the friend taking me up on my months-old offer to help with their garden.

This was more or less my life for the first three weeks, three active, organized, attentive, responsible, orderly, busy weeks.

And yet, there was something else.

Within this nascent world beyond work, this cacophony and swirl of activity, of obligations discharged, of schedules met, of appointments kept, there was, as there always is, a center to my universe.  There was, as there has been for thirty years, the place where I find my center, where I find my meaning, where I find my reason.

There was Jeni.

Anyone who cared to look at this minor drama of life being played out in this brief moment marked by the outwardly obvious ending of a job, would have thought nothing of it, would be correct if it were said that all these elements were being repeated hundreds of times over by hundreds of thousands of people in this most recent period of economic reversal.  And they would be right.

But there was a reality within the reality, that of moments shared between me and my most trusted friend, my sage, my muse, my matching heartbeat, my partner in life, the one through whom I find my meaning, the center of my universe.

Even those moments had been most unremarkable, if viewed outwardly.  In the order and regimentation of my first days out of harness, I had intersected with Jeni many times, for fleeting moments, at different times of day, each of us undertaking activities of our own, passing through the separate parts of our shared existence.  On only one afternoon, did our worlds coalesce and arrive at a truly shared moment, an afternoon spent paddling our kayaks together on what otherwise would have been a workday, an experience shared many times before in these boats, one which never fails to bring each of us a peace and contentment that far surpasses the outward appearance of the activity, one which brings us to a place where our appreciation of life, appreciation of our togetherness, rises up and consumes us, where the appreciation of each other and our love and our gratitude for it becomes the existence, becomes the moment, in which we become consumed.

But there were smaller moments.  Standing in the kitchen in jeans, t-shirts and bare feet with cups of coffee, with the freedom to let our minds and conversation wander wherever they wished, unbound by time.  Moments of calm.  Unexpected small moments shared in unexpected places; in our garden, putting away clean clothes, making the bed, storing away groceries.

In these, and in the larger, more obvious moments, like the afternoon kayak outing, I became aware of a truth new to me, one which should not have been unexpected but nonetheless was.

All those years ago, I had wished to know what it would be like to spend just one day with Jeni.  On that day of work and rest and night and day and wakefulness and sleep, I began to know for the first time what it would be like to have the gift of all my days with Jeni, days not limited to the workweek/weekend cycle, but moments in the middle of the weekday, and moments in the middle of the night.  Days on end, in which we intersect with each other at odd times, in which we might find appreciation of the reality of our life and our love, in which unbound time allowed us to serendipitously savor the unimaginable gift of what has become a lifetime together, of learning over the years who this other person is, whom we cannot do without, to learn the depths of each others soul, personality and character, to discover along the way how amazingly different we are and how the differences, mysteriously and incredibly, have served only to weld together our spirits in ways we previously thought unattainable.

Our two lives together are as unlikely now as when we began, only explainable in the same way we could at the beginning: magic.  There is little doubt that the events of all these years have given each of us ample reason to have selected alternatives, reasons we each might have made other decisions, moments of demarcation where other choices could have been made, and reasonably so.

But the spark never dies, the desire burns on, the longing endures, the commitment which has held us together in the trying times persists with an energy all its own, an energy that we as individuals did not put there, an energy that comes only from us in combination, a place, an understanding, a purpose, a belonging so strong as to be only explained as inevitable.  I could no more live life without Jeni than cease my breath, nor she without me.

And, having tasted a sample of a life in which we have the enormous gift of having all our time as our own, of the ability to have all our days together, the somewhat intangible concept of retirement arrived, suddenly in bold relief.  The first three weeks following the end of the job were rich, abundant in ways I could not have expected.  But more than any of them, the small sample was more compelling, more fragrant, sweeter, richer, lovelier, than I had imagined.  For us, retirement will not be cruises, golf, travel, cottages by the shore or any of the other emblematic clichés associated of attainment of a certain age, of a life beyond the world of work.  It will instead be the culmination and fulfillment of the spirit of two people, an improbable life together, lived in a love of a kind unimaginable to us all those years ago, the ceaseless appreciation of each other, the depth and breadth discovered only through the living of it.  It will be, quite literally, our reward.  It will be the most relished of our many dreams, the most complete version of our life of love and of appreciation, a dream beyond imagining, a universe with us at its center, our orbits intertwined, with nothing but each other and whatever we choose to delight and amuse us.

A chance to know not just a day together, as when we began, but the profound gift of knowing the meaning and the reality of having all our days together.

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