Epiphenomenal Retirement

Epiphenomenalism has always been one of those meta-truths that underpin much of our everyday lives –it is the often-unexpected secondary effect of something. A by-product if you will.

It is the magnetic field that surrounds a power line; it is the mental process that accompanies a particular sequence of neuronal firing; it is sometimes the unintended consequences of an action or process. Put more simply, it is the taste of fruit.

I like that example -it puts things in perspective. But I think we have to take a step back to appreciate just how much perspective is involved sometimes. How much we have to stretch our minds to see things in a way that is not through a glass darkly. This may seem abstruse, but it is of consequence for most of us. Think of how much more of the sky we can see when we emerge from a tunnel, or leave Plato’s cave and its shadows of shadows that we had mistaken for reality.

So what has any of this this to do with Retirement? Well, I’ve begun to wonder if the whole concept is actually an epiphenomenon. At first glance it’s quite a stretch perhaps, but you cannot retire from something if you haven’t done it first. What you retire from is work, by and large.

Let me explain my point through metaphor. Let us say the work is gardening. Choosing and then planting the seeds comes first, then the lengthy and tedious job of tending and caring for it. And finally, when autumn arrives, the long awaited freedom to partake of the benefits you have sewn: the enjoyment. The taste.

I’m just trying to figure what Retirement is all about. It’s not an End-of-Days story, nor is it merely a happily-ever-after episode. And I realize that the world doesn’t really have to make sense, but come on! We are, all of us, metaphors; we are the stories we tell ourselves. Whether or not they are accurate is not the point; they are who we think we are; they are the disguises we have chosen. And Retirement is perhaps our first chance to look at ourselves and how the years have made us dress.

Retirement is not freedom in the sense of liberty to do whatever we wish, so much as freedom to see ourselves as others have. To see what we have become –assess the unintended consequences of our actions. And how we proceed from there is up to us –or, maybe, how an unexamined story might let us proceed. Or not.

I always remember a strange story a friend of mine once told me after she had retired from a life of nursing. Apocryphal? Possibly, but it was her story -her attempt to make sense of her journey; her attempt to find meaning; and yes, her hope that she had made a difference -and who am I to judge? It was what she believed about her life: her myth -and I suppose it is now mine…

“From my youth,” she said, “I had always been told by others to live for each day, because the next one may not appear. Of course, that’s harder than it sounds; stuff always happens; work gets in the way. It’s the ant that the grasshopper goes to when the winter winds begin to blow, remember. So I’d work extra shifts and overtime, just to prepare for my own winter. I was younger then, unmarried, unhopeful.

“I worked in the Emergency Department of a large downtown hospital, so shifts were busy and stressful. I saw a lot of trauma and abuse at nights; overdoses were not uncommon.

“One night, a baby was left in our baby-box –you know, that’s the place a mother can anonymously leave her infant if she feels she cannot take care of it. The baby was not breathing when we found it. We tried all the drug-reversal medications, but none of them seemed to work. They tried CPR to resuscitate the poor little tyke, but after the pediatrician and the arrest team had worked on him unsuccessfully for what seemed like hours, they eventually gave up. No breathing, no cardiac activity. Nothing.

“I was the nurse for that area, so I was directed to bundle him up before they took him down to the morgue as Baby Y. I could hardly see for the tears, but as I wrapped the cotton sheet over his tiny arms, I thought I felt a twitch. After all the team had done, I wondered if I’d just imagined it, but I grabbed my stethoscope and put it on his chest anyway. And I heard a sound –faint, but something…

“I screamed for a doctor to come in, and when I explained what I’d heard, she told me it was probably gas in the intestines from the resuscitation efforts. But I couldn’t accept that and insisted she have a listen.

“Well, yes, there was a heartbeat, the team hurriedly reassembled, and the baby was eventually transferred to the neonatal intensive care unit. Babies are amazing creatures –they can survive what would kill or disable the rest of us.

“I followed Baby Y for quite a while –I’d go up and see him in the nursery whenever I could, until one day, after I’d been away for a couple of weeks, he was gone. Adopted.

“And then, well, life intervened and I eventually married and had a little girl. I forgot about baby Y. We all have our paths to walk, but sometimes the most unlikely routes converge by accident. It was at my daughter’s wedding –or more accurately at the party after when we we all a little east of Eden, that I got into one of those confess-your life stories with my new son-in-law, Brian.

“’Yeah,’ he said, slurring his words a little, ‘I died after I was born. Did I tell you that?’ I think I spilled my drink, but I asked him about it. ‘Yeah, my birth-mother left me at the hospital, but she must have been doing drugs, because they couldn’t revive me, apparently.’

“At that point, his adopted mother who was sitting with us, smiled. ‘They tried to start his heart, but the doctors gave up after a while. Then, a nurse noticed him moving and got the team back. The rest is history,’ she said, and leaned over to kiss her lucky son on the cheek.”

My friend sighed and grasped my hand, obviously comforted by the story. “I’ve got a grandson now,” she said, a satisfied smile capturing her face. “This is what Retirement is for, isn’t it? A chance to think about what you’ve done with your life? A chance to enjoy the side effects?”


I think so. Retirement can be epiphenomenal…



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