Within a few years of one another, I sold my company and became and empty nester. Up until that point, like a suitcase that wouldn’t close, my life spilled over with purpose. Then, suddenly, I no longer had to wake up early for flights or stay up late to sniff my teenagers’ breath for alcohol. Marginalization leapt from deep within my pocket of fear and jolted me into a frenzied search for meaning.
I concocted “to do lists” and “bucket lists,” flailing in the space between the completion of one list and the formation of another. Driven to ace retirement, I graded myself on how I spent my time: Volunteering was worthy, a week-day movie frivolous. Writing was OK, publishing better. Reading nonfiction laudable, romance novels wasteful. Those “how long will I live” quizzes estimated that I had another 20 to 30 more years — a lot of time to fill. Until it wasn’t.
Seven months ago, my husband, Charles, and I drove to New York to celebrate New Year’s Eve and our anniversary. I didn’t tell him that I felt an uncomfortable heaviness, a sluggishness in my stomach. I figured, no big deal.
That night we met a friend for dinner at an Italian bistro on the Upper West Side. Playing with the pappardelle on my plate, I announced, “I’m sorry, I don’t want to ruin the night, but I need to go back to the hotel and get in bed. I’ll watch the ball drop from under the duvet.”
The following morning. I was constipated, exhausted and had a fever of 102. We drove home. I called my doctor and described the symptoms. He insisted that I go to the emergency room.
After examinations, CT-scans, blood tests and more, I was given a diagnosis: acute diverticulitis, something I’d heard of but never experienced. I was admitted and put on IV antibiotics. On the morning of the 4th day, Charles arrived early and kissed me. When his elbow swept my stomach, I shrieked. He reported this to the doctor, another scan. My colon had perforated. A few hours later they took me back for surgery.
I woke up with a tube down my throat and panicked. It felt like I couldn’t breathe. In and out of consciousness, I wondered why my son from Florida, my sister from Miami, and my daughter from D.C. were in town and at my bedside.
Charles leaned down once again for a kiss. I felt his tears touch my cheeks as he explained, “We’ve been terrified. You were septic. There was a problem with your lung. They didn’t know if you’d pull through and told me to fly the family here to be with you. You’re in the ICU. I love you.”
This was too much to take in, I fell back asleep.
It was almost a week before my doctors were confident that I’d recover. At some point during that week, I learned that they performed a colostomy. The surgeons diverted a part of my colon into an opening in my stomach. A swollen red hump, about the size of a golf ball, a stoma, protruded a few inches to the left of my navel. A bag was glued around the stoma to capture waste. I refused to look — it felt like an assault on my dignity.
During the two and a half months of my recovery, I came to accept the beige bag that hangs from my stomach; I had no choice — it gives me life. And, it will be reversed.
But the day-after-day of unscheduled and unstructured hours, tapped into my post-retirement crisis. Those "to do” lists, concocted to create purpose, now showed up as cancelled calendar entries. Without a to do list — who am I?
To resurrect my disintegrating identity, I read countless books and sought inspiration from those that seemed content. Slowly, my previous perception of purpose unraveled. For me, the goal was no longer to produce, but to contribute; not to merely fill hours, but to fill lives and create legacies.
I still create my “to do lists,” but without that frenetic angst. If an activity brings joy or does good, that is enough. Time is indifferent as to how it is spent, whether with angst or gratitude, it marches forward. And, it can end in a moment. Like a perforated colon that leaks poison into a body.
Laura Black (firstname.lastname@example.org) is working on her second book, “The Weight of a Woman: A Memoir of Pounds, Power, Pressures and Purpose.”