The reality of retirement in all its implications of change and decay didn’t really hit me until September.
To be honest, I hadn’t had time to think about it! It’s been quite a year - the publication of my first novel, (reviews good and not), an ordination, (daughter-in-law, Sarah, after she and our son, Joel and three children under seven returned from his three-year posting in Vienna, moving into a curate’s house in Essex); a wedding, (daughter, Abby to Big Ben) requiring 5 wedding cakes, 250 pieces of flapjack, 150 pieces of chocolate tiffin and 100 pieces of ginger fudge shortcake, (Mary Berry, eat your heart out!); and a new house renovation for us (whenever the builder’s team could fit us into their busy schedule).
And yes, there was a funeral too. Dear Martin was part of our “cell group”. Peter and I, with him and his wife and three other clergy people had met twice a year for 32 years since we left theological college, to share the hopes, joys, fears, failures and frustrations of the job.
We laughed and cried together, supported and challenged each other.
No friends could have been more honest, or committed. There was little we didn’t know about each other and we loved each other all the same.
Friendship like that is a gift that isn’t given very often, and his loss, which affected me more than I could ever imagine, taught me not to take it for granted. Martin had to say goodbye to his beloved amateur dramatics and bicycle far too soon, and I suspect he’s found good alternatives in heaven.
By September my emotions were already in freefall. People kept asking me whether I was looking forward to Peter’s retirement. How do you know when you’ve never done it before? In fact, I’d pushed all thoughts of it aside. And then, on his way out of a school governors’ meeting, he found himself at the school gate, saying to a parent facing a desperate situation,
“Let’s meet to chat about that...”
The words out before he realised there would be no chance to meet up before ‘D-Day’. When pastoral needs cropped up he couldn’t offer help because every remaining space in the diary had gone, and he wouldn’t be there to accompany people on the long haul. Suddenly there was a vast pile of unfinished business to put down, hand over or just leave behind. How do you leave people in the lurch, end a job that doesn’t have an ending? You trust that the One who loves them more than you ever can isn’t retiring too! But the leaving undone in life is still very hard.
But then, there are losses at every stage. I remember Abby at 6, bemoaning the fact that she was now ‘grown-up’ and couldn’t do “baby” things any more - suck her thumb, tout her comfort rag around, and if she was sick, it had to be into an appropriate receptacle.
But the thing about church minister retirement is that so many losses converge at once - home, colleagues, role, identity, status, income, and in our case, possibly country as well.
How we have loved our five years in Gillingham - an area that never really recovered from the closure of the docks in 1984, leaving thousands unemployed. But what it lacks in the scenic, it makes up for in character. Walk from the vicarage down to the High Street and you pass a dozen fast food outlets, (more per capita than any other town in the country), three house clearance shops, four Asian mini-markets, a military memorabilia shop, two African braiders and a tanning studio, a sugar art shop, an electrical spare parts shop, a Venezuelan bridal outfitter and a butcher selling zebra and buffalo meat.
St Mark’s is a close-knit, loving congregation, totally committed to serving this culturally colourful community, with an uncomplicated, warm and all-embracing openness. And I had no idea how I’d cope with saying goodbye to such a wonderful family.
We had in fact decided to stay in Gillingham. (We went to Ikea in Croydon the other day. Forgive me Croydonites, but Croydon makes Gillingham look like a country park. It cheered us up no end). But it’s not the done thing for a vicar and spouse to eke out their last days in their former church. They could become a hotbed of dissent. (At our age being a hotbed of anything has its attractions). But must it?
What other job demands banishment from home and community?
Mind you, we can’t have a big, fond farewell one week and pop up the next. So a low profile for us - for as long as it takes.
And how will I feel about having a new man-about-the-house, when the old one so often went missing - turning up for lunch any time up to 3pm, for dinner at 7.15, (when his evening meeting started at 7.30). I had decided early on in his vicaring days with its unwritten timetable, unsociable hours, impromptu demands and unforeseen crises, to get on with my own life, otherwise I’d spend it waiting for him to appear like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. And if he didn’t appear, it was pointless worrying as he was far more likely to be writing the PCC agenda in the office than lying under a bus on the High Street. And what a waste of a life all that waiting and worrying would be.
So how will I now adjust to being accountable for my movements, to planning my day with him in mind? Unless we’re in France, of course, in which case, he’ll be gone from dawn to dusk, (except when he’s hungry), and the only clue I’ll have to his whereabouts will be the brmmm of the tractor, the roar of the mower or the screech of the electric saw. But what shall I do with him in Gillingham?
And then there’s the mess when he won’t have a church office.
A good while back I designated him a man-drawer - but he filled two, then the whole chest of drawers... and a wardrobe ... and a cupboard .... and then an entire room!
When his stuff spilled out up the stairs and down the corridor into the porch I began to have panic attacks. “Every retired man needs a shed”, confided Ian, the electrician working on our new home. So does every wife, say I. There is one already in the back garden of our new home - 4ft by 6ft. Can a woman keep a man in a space that size?