One day last winter we woke up to snow. “Ahh,” M said. “It’s so good not to have to go in.” And then he turned over and went back to sleep.
This was the man who used to live out the following scenario: snow blowing, winds whipping, storm in progress he put on his boots, his twice-a-year ski hat, and got ready for work. His only concession to the storm was wearing the heavy ski jacket over his business suit, and making sure he had the scraper with the snowbrush on the other end. And I would follow him from room to room, saying things like, “Don’t forget to call me when you get there,” and “Why don’t you wait and see what the weather report says?” and “Can’t you just make your calls from here?” And he would always have an answer. “Someone is coming in to see me.” Or, “Can’t miss the meeting.” Or, “I’ve got a report due.” But whatever the answer, the bottom line was that he was too important to the operation of the company to take a day off.
I remember the days when my children were very young. I might wake up knowing I had a sore throat, but staying in bed was not possible, because the children had to be launched into the day, taken to school, PTA meeting had to be attended, groceries shopped for, dinner cooked. I lost count of how often, in those days, I and other young mothers said to one another “I can’t get sick. They need me,” and somehow willed ourselves past our aches and pains, and through the bad weather of our lives, fueled by their needs and our self-satisfaction.
After my children were grown, when I taught at Queens College, I would not have dreamed of missing a class because of bad weather or illness. I had a lecture to deliver, I had papers to return, I had grades to give. People were counting on me.
In short, we were too important to not show up. Cancelling was, as they say, not an option.
We can go back to bed and no one will be inconvenienced. Maybe no one will even know.
That’s one of the big changes as we grow older — we are no longer central, to family, to jobs, to responsibilities. Well, this is no surprise, is it? It is the way of the world. I might even say it is “right.” If we have done our jobs, our children get jobs, establish their own families, and become the center of their own lives. Even though we may remain linked, we are on the sidelines. If we’re lucky, we will get a call when the grandchild scores a perfect ten in math or gymnastics, but we are no longer the one required to sign at the bottom to let the teacher know we have seen it.
If we are retired, there is no longer the Department or Division or Section or Classroom or Sales Floor, that big or little pond we swam in, where we were expected to float by every day and if we didn’t, someone wanted to know why. This is good, too. It is a relief. It makes time to slow down and it leaves time to make and keep all those doctors’ appointments. (Of course, we are not central to doctors, since they don’t know until they enter the examining room that it is us, so they wouldn’t know if we decided not to come. They would just open the examining room door and see the substitute patient whom the nurse had called to say there was a cancellation.)
And of course, as good and right as it all is, it is also a little sad to lose centrality in life. Luckily, most of us are left with one or two small orbits which still spin around us. A few friends. A mate. Losing centrality with them is the worst, of course: if friends move away, or die, if your mate dies. There is nothing consoling to say about it.
Except this: losing centrality in every aspect of your life may lead you to think about the ultimate centrality – yourself.
When was the last time you said, or thought, “What do I want?” “Where do I want to be today?” “What’s best for me?” We grow up being taught that it is selfish to think “me” first. Yet, in the end, if we are lucky, we have that self to go back to. I wonder where such thoughts will lead. What if I decided to practice thinking about myself first? Would I still do the same things I do now? Would people say, “She’s getting crotchety in her old age?” Or would I have a whole new circle of people around me, drawn by my confidence and my centrality to my own life?