Firsts, Lasts, What-ifs

These past few months have been wistful, sometimes sad, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes a bit nerve-wracking with all the changes happening at our house. My partner Mick is retiring after 40 years at the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine, first as a post-doc, then assistant professor, then associate professor, tenure achieved, then full professor. There were grants and publications and lectures, there were grad students and lab assistants and conferences all over the world. There were the celebrations of discoveries to benefit both animals and people. 

And now Mick’s moving into a different way of being. It’s odd for me to think of him as not doing professor-ish things every day, although he’s been awarded the title of emeritus professor which will remain his forever.  Recently, as I watched him scribble a few words to say at what would be his last faculty meeting, it really hit me that so much of our lives are now behind us instead of in front of us. 

The day Mick was scribbling those words was also the day I dumped over ten years’ worth of old One Minnesota Writer posts into the trash, by which I mean digital trash and who knows where that goes exactly. But I, too, was in the process of letting go of things, saying goodbye to the old site I ran for over a decade, plucking out only 12 posts to save and offer here at One Minnesota Crone. I guess they’re some sort of proof of what I’ve been doing with my writing life besides editing other people’s poems, something I retired from during this pandemic. I firmly believe that there’s more writing to come, that I don’t have to hold onto everything I’ve ever written. Editing work, although rewarding in so many ways, takes a lot out of me and often stops me from making my own work. Sometimes a clearing of space is just the thing, including the mental space that gets stuffed with too many projects to which I’ve said yes.

Can we clear too much space? Not sure. But sometimes I do clear off my own decks with a huge sweep, perhaps creating a bit of discomfort for those who wanted me to be somewhere with them. I’m not sure where I got that undeniable urge that pops up every few years to reset everything. It happens when I start counting how many projects are going on at once and realize that I am not meant to multitask. I’d rather do one really good thing than a bunch of half-assed things.

Time does feel like it’s closing in, like we can’t waste a single day doing anything that doesn’t matter. That said, sometimes what matters is silence, quiet expansion of our own awareness, a clear look at what is here in front of us. To wit: a pandemic, angry and divided Americans, our children and their children, a climate begging us to do better by it. What a time to be retiring – which can be a great statement of anticipation if we spin it just right.

We do have things lined up: helping care for our baby granddaughter, time with people about whom we care, Mick’s saxophone playing, my painting and writing, travel when it’s safe to do so, hiking, exercise. It’s the letting go of other daily routines that feels daunting. It’s the necessity of paying enough attention that we don’t slide into days that all look the same. One of the saddest things I ever heard was an old friend who said, “We’re retired. Weekends don’t matter. All the days are the same.” Mick and I never want to be of that mindset. Ever. The possibility of awe will not disappear unless we let it. We’re not going to let it.

So, this season of lasts needs to be flipped around to a season of firsts. First weeks of a new phase. First Monday we go hiking instead of drinking coffee before Mick’s first Zoom of the day. First day we take granddaughter Maeve out in a stroller in our neighborhood. First weekday drive to an Airbnb up north just because we can. First night spent next to Lake Superior since the pandemic began. First volunteer gig we agree on.

I nearly forgot to schedule my annual mammogram amidst all the other stuff going on. After a reminder from my doctor, I scheduled an appointment at the end of the first week in February. I opted for the 3D kind based on past recommendations. All seemed to be going well, although one breast needed a second squeeze in the machine. Since it was done on a Friday, I didn’t expect to see any results in My Chart – the online medical results service – until Monday.

I got a phone call instead. That’s never a good thing. I had to schedule an ultrasound because something showed up on the mammogram. Writing about this still puts a pit in my stomach, makes my throat close a little. Other women old enough for mammograms, who’ve been called back for more, know what I mean.

I’ve been called back before. This is a common enough occurrence. But the fear this strikes in any of us who’ve experienced it is also common. The what-if thought spigot turns on full-blast and even if I succeed in turning it off, there’s still a nagging drip-drip-drip, a dribble of anger that the possibility of illness shows up right now, when life is shifting in so many other ways. And a quiet voice in my head that says, well, why not now? And why not me?  My partner’s looming retirement celebration is not a magic veil that will protect me from bad things. 

The two days between the phone call and the ultrasound felt shadowed. I didn’t tell my kids. There was nothing to tell yet, except that I was worried and Mick was worried. I breathed through morning meditation with Mick, settled into my body, asked it if there’s really something manifesting inside me that will change everything so quickly. There was only silence.

I tried to remain calm.

Life is full of what-ifs. What if I don’t wake up early enough? What if I don’t stay patient enough? What if I don’t love others enough? What if I don’t realize what I can do better before I’m no longer here to fix it?

Those are all great questions. All I – all we – can do is practice.

The morning of my ultrasound, Mick and I decided I would post his donation page at the JDRF One Walk we are participating in on April 30 and call it a retirement gift to him. He isn’t on Facebook. I opened my laptop and made the post, crossed my fingers. Since the pandemic has caused us to postpone any retirement celebrations except for having our kids over, this felt like a nice gesture.

And then it was time for me to go.

The Breast Health Center at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, is a revelation in how to deliver medical care to women. Soft lighting. Kind people. Gowns that are warm, like bathrobes, that snap in the front instead of the thin tie-around-you gowns at a typical mammogram appointment. The room where ultrasounds are done is also softly lit, with calm music playing in the background. The gel for the ultrasound procedure is warmed, like a little spa treatment on my breast.

When I’m told that the image from the mammogram is nothing more than a simple benign cyst, I cry. The ultrasound tech understands completely.

When I text Mick, he immediately responds with a message beginning in capital letters: OMG. Thank you.

The day I began this essay, Mick saw a great horned owl in the tree behind our house. He was silhouetted against the barest glimmer of dawn, everything below him in shadow. Mick almost always gets up earlier than I do, his inability to sleep past 6 a.m. most days legendary. He thought about waking me, then didn’t as the owl flew away within 15 seconds of Mick seeing him.

I told him to go ahead and wake me when he sees owls. Wake me when he sees something that fills him with awe, even if I don’t get there in time. I will do the same for him. We can’t know unless we try. We’re moving forward together, awake, ready for the next thing. And the thing after that. 

We don’t have time to miss any of it. 

One Minnesota Crone

Older women don't disappear. They branch out.

Published by Kathleen Cassen Mickelson

Kathleen Cassen Mickelson is a Minnesota-based writer who has published work in journals in the US, UK, and Canada.

13 thoughts on “Firsts, Lasts, What-ifs

  1. Letting go is never easy, and it’s taken me this long to get comfortable with it. I’ve got stuff from high school at my house. Why? I never even liked high school… Congrats on Mick’s retirement. I know you will go forward and create new rituals and routines that fit your lifestyle, not what society says you need to do.

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  2. What a delight to read something so well-written that I can relate to. Regarding the scare, as someone said above, been there, done that, and I’m happy for you. The Great horned owl – yes! Wake one another up! Retirement – a resounding congratulations and high five. We both retired earlier than we thought we would and are glad we did. Weekends are no different in a good way, meaning we don’t have to squeeze all the fun into two days of the week. Weekends are different though because they’re the days we avoid hiking or shopping. Thankfully.
    It sounds like you’re in a very good place emotionally. Having lived with two academics, I think getting away from the politics, grading papers, the pressure to publish, etc. has to be a good thing. Especially if it means more time to play the saxophone!
    I love the byline about branching out and the use of crone.
    Thanks for the follow, it’s great to meet you.

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  3. How brave of you to share your results and your feelings about the experience. Been there done that and I know that bottomless pit feeling until you get the final results. At whatever age it is nagging, painfully scary. So happy the outcome was nothing of concern. Wish Mick a wonderful celebration in the start of a new phase of exploration. Knowing you, I am guessing, it will be full of new shared adventures.

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    1. Thanks, Paula! Sharing doesn’t feel brave, per se; it just felt like the thing to do. So many women don’t talk about this, or they do so in whispers. I believe we all benefit from a bigger conversation about the things that make this time of life challenging as well as joyous. And retirement! How many of us don’t admit our own age because of fear of being discounted? All of that was in my head as I wrote this piece.

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  4. Kathleen, as always your introspection and writing leave me with much to ponder. I feel such peace upon reading your thoughts. Now marks a time of change for you and Mick and I appreciate how you are embracing it in such a positive way. I’m also thankful you are alright healthwise. Onward, my friend, with joy-focused living.

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