My husband and I waited for 2020 to arrive with a lot of plans and expectations in mind. It was the year he would finally retire from 38 years of ministry in the United Church of Canada, a lifetime of dedication to other people. I counted the days until I would have him all to myself. People wondered how he would cope with the empty days, or how I would manage having him home all the time.
I countered with the response, “It will be a relief not to share him with a whole congregation. We can finally have weekends again. We’ve made plans to travel and spend more time with our precious grandchildren.” One good friend, ever the realist, warned me to be careful what I wished for. I was determined to prove her wrong. 2020 also marked a special milestone for the two of us. We celebrated forty years of marriage in September. Our dream to highlight this event was to travel to Greece and explore its beautiful islands, to trek through ancient ruins and walk along the soft sand of its myriad beaches. I had a giant bubble of desires and intentions and then, just like that, it went POOF!
Covid-19 took some time to sink in. In the first three months following its official start, we kept busy. My husband was still working, but when churches closed, he converted our bedroom into a sanctuary and delivered his sermons online. It took some time to master the technical side of doing this. We barely saw each other, even though we share a small apartment. He created a Zoom coffee hour for anyone interested, phoned people with no access to a computer to check in with them, and spent hours preparing for this new way to offer the Sunday service. While he was doing all of that, I rose to the challenge of sewing masks for the community. Fortunately, my penchant for buying and hoarding fabric came in handy. I used meters of it to whip up over 150 masks, as well as scrub hats for nurses and paramedics. It felt good doing something I enjoyed and it contributed to a good cause. We didn’t see our children or grandchildren but we kept in touch, probably more than we normally would. We organized virtual play dates with the grandkids, read stories together online, and even spent one afternoon playing Bingo with our grandson. “We can do this,” I thought often, in those early days. “We’ll get through this one day at a time.” We were in crisis mode and responded with the energy and purpose one tends to marshal to respond to the emergency at hand. But the novelty soon wore off. Days turned into weeks, then months, many of them. The proverbial light in the tunnel dimmed as time dragged on.
My husband retired at the end of June 2020. The congregation had planned a huge send-off for us. They had invited family and friends across the country to attend, but that celebration was postponed until the end of August. By then, things will have settled; we would be back to our regular lives, we hoped. The end of August came and went, and nothing changed. The crisis was still with us. Numbers of the sick and dying increased day by day. The congregation then decided to cancel the party altogether. They organized a drive-by farewell in the church’s parking lot. My husband and I stood together and bid adieu to people we had grown to love, as they drove past in their cars, stopping to chat for a few minutes. There were no warm embraces or hand-shakes. Behind the safety of masks, we said our goodbyes. My tears flowed freely over the cotton material I breathed into. It was a surreal way to end a long relationship with our church family.
I felt odd, as if one of my limbs had been amputated. This was hardly the closure I had envisioned or the way to begin my husband’s retirement, but we were in a pandemic and that had to be good enough. We were alone, together, asking ourselves, “What do we do now?” During the warm summer, good friends invited us to visit and spend some time in their backyard where we could sit safely spaced apart. My husband continued his twice weekly gatherings with his Tim Horton buddies. They bought coffee inside and set up chairs in the parking lot outside. As the weather cooled, that stopped too. With all of our hopes to spend more time with our kids and grandkids and traveling dashed, we took inventory of our present situation. We were disappointed, of course, but counted our blessings. We are healthy so far, financially stable, and not in fear of losing our livelihoods or our home. It was still a big adjustment for both of us. In the early days after retirement, we bumped into each other a lot and got on each others’ nerves. To be honest, he got on my nerves. I had married him for better or worse, but not for the entire day! It took a little time to adapt, but given that some of my friends were alone and lonely, I was thankful to have his company.
We have learned to give each other space and the permission to indulge in as much social media as we want. We both need to keep in touch with the outside world as we spend more time indoors with each other. We have set up a routine that suits us both. I am an early riser and he is a night owl. I enjoy my mornings alone while he sleeps in. Then we “meet” for coffee in our living room, and talk about whatever comes to mind. I make a conscious decision every day to be as gracious as possible. I think he does, too. Most of all, we find humour in our ironic situation. People still ask, “How’s retirement?”
We laugh, replying, “Well, it would be great if we could go somewhere.” Other than weekly forays for groceries and medications, we stay inside. We tried walking together but since I walk quickly and he prefers a slower pace, it isn’t really a walk together. I prefer to go with a good friend!
Sometimes, we’ll just look at each other and laugh at how our well-laid plans went awry. We console each other and say, “There is always next year.” In spite of the pandemic, or because of it, we have rediscovered that we are each other’s best friend. With a whole church family between us, we didn’t have much alone time. He had one day off every week and many times, even that was canceled. He was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Holiday dinners were occasionally interrupted by a pastoral emergency. That is all behind us now. I am convinced that if our relationship can survive this retirement in a pandemic, it will blossom afterwards.
There was a kernel of truth in my friend’s warning to be careful what I wished for. I did get him more to myself than I expected. But it worked the other way around too. He ended up with more of me! That, however, is a subject we never discuss!
Silvia Fiorita Smith’s first book of poetry, Figs Beneath The Snow: Unearthing the Poetry Within, was launched in May 2021. She is the mother of three and proud grandmother of four. She lives in Montreal with her husband.