Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - June 1, 2018

A need to be needed

One day several years ago when husband Art was visiting his mother, she startled him with an out-of-the blue pronouncement - “Maybe it would be better if I was dead!”

Now anyone who knew Donna saw her as a woman completely engaged in life. Her only concession to being in her ninth decade had been to quit driving - a decision she made out of prudence and not because anyone observed a decline in her abilities. Her 70-plus-year love affair with her beloved Packers still burned bright. She watched the news closely. Art’s brother Tommy saw her most days. Frequently, they listened to music together or watched movies he brought with him. They spoke on the phone so much that Art regularly had to replace the worn-out rechargeable battery. Her only obvious infirmity was becoming a bit deaf. But since both of her boys have strong voices, this was not much of a problem.

So why would she say such a thing? After the pronouncement, Art wondered if she were experiencing some physical problem she hadn’t mentioned. But when asked, in her typically quick manner she replied, “I feel fine.”

“Are you no longer enjoying life?” he asked. She confirmed that she enjoyed every day.

Pressing her further as to why she thought it might be better if she was dead, she replied, “I’m no good to anyone!”

They both laughed when he responded, “Yes you are ... you are our entertainment.”

Still, that conversation was revealing. While most of us are busy each day focusing on caring for our children or earning a living or making a home or deciding where we want to spend our next vacation, we tend not to be really in touch with what might be called our sense of purpose.

For a number of years, I have been somewhat facetiously asking Art if I can retire. I say somewhat, because the numerous department head changes and seeming war on the university in the form of repeated budget cuts have taken a toll. So has the fact that while I always have loved journalism, I realize it is an industry in transition.

But until recently, Art has always steered me away from quitting. His concern was not about the drop in our household income, but that much of my day is filled with planning events and interacting with young students and work-related friends - all things I enjoy. I countered by saying I loved working on my flowers in the summer and I would have more time to see Mom. He was just as quick to point out that a bad disc in my back meant my gardening days were probably behind me and with Mom in her late 80s, my days of visiting her were also numbered.

But about a year ago, he told me he thought it was a good idea. We have several multi-year research/writing projects in progress. So last year, I arranged to go on phased retirement so I’d have more time to do research and writing in order to complete them.

Still, every now and then, I have glimpsed what Donna had experienced. Mom died two years ago. Daughter Mariya has a steady job, owns her own home and will be married in September. Daughter Katie married last summer and will be moving in June with husband Matt to Albuquerque. So on several occasions recently, these have combined to create this vague sense of discontent. I have said to Art, “I’m not sure what my role is any more!”

His reaction to my earlier questions about retiring shows he has been thinking about this aspect of life for some time. He shared a story from when he was teaching. Gary, one of his students, was the “old man” of the class at the ripe age of 30. Gary’s wife had just given birth to a girl and he said to Art, “As I was looking at my wife holding her, I thought, ‘Now I have to protect her from dirty old men.’ Then I realized, there are no other types!”

While Gary’s comment was amusing, it also showed a difference in the way men and women frequently see their parental roles. While new mothers are all into their cuddly little newborns and their female friends are similarly smitten, fathers are keenly aware that they have just acquired a new and important responsibility. In the years that follow, a mom’s role is largely one of giving steady doses of love and support. But dads, even when their children are small, are more inclined to see their role as preparing their children to one day be independent. We focus on now and they focus on the future.

This difference would sometimes surface after one of Katie’s musical performances. I’d tell her how great she had done, and then she would turn to Art and say, “How did I really do?”

It also came up when we learned I was pregnant with Katie. I was thrilled. But Art, while coming from a family who generally live long lives, immediately calculated he would be 66 when she finished high school. He wondered if it was right to risk her not having a father should something happen to him.

Katie graduated seven years ago and so he has already gone through the feeling that one of his primary roles has been completed. But I am still wrestling with these feelings. While I have plenty of things to fill my days, I am also aware that so many of those things others had depended upon me to do, they readily do for themselves now. My to-do list is as long as ever, but my must-do list has shortened considerably.

Art says it is important to reflect on the bigger picture. Most families start as a couple and eventually return to being just two people. I’m certain I will adjust, but as with Donna, this need to be needed has left me a bit disquieted.

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