– I sit on the couch in front of my woodstove this morning, warmed and peace-filled by its gentle flames and emanating heat, and reflect that this holiday brings the perfect backdrop theme of re-birth to my life this day. Button is curled next to me, his head resting on the arm like a pillow, feet curled in the precious ways that deeply endear him to me. Otherwise, I am alone, which is what I need for now, to begin to let in the enormity of the change in my life just two days ago when I retired from the Rockbridge Area Free Clinic, closing out the year with the conclusion of my eleven years there.
When I cleared my desk, finished the last pieces of work for my successor, said good-bye to my Executive Director as she was leaving, and then I was alone. I completed a few more small tasks, and the inevitable moment arrived. I began to turn off the lights in the dental area for the last time, softly touched Alexander’s fur—our bright green alligator puppet who possesses a beautiful set of teeth whom we use to teach oral hygiene to area school children—then looked around at it all one final time: the green, blue, yellow, and mauve operatories, and suddenly memories flooded back as tears leaked into my eyes—all the planning lunches with Carol, choosing these wall colors, these chair colors, and the myriad other decisions over the years that gave birth to this dental program.
They are incredible memories in retrospect and I say a silent thanks for all the time and good that has transpired inside these walls that I’ve been so grateful to be part of. I slowly walk to the other end of the clinic where I key my code into the alarm system for the last time, close the keypad cover, push open the already locked door into the cool afternoon, push the door closed, then pull on it to be sure it is locked. It is. I tenderly place my palm on the door as if I were touching the shoulder of dear friend when I say good-bye. Just as my body houses my soul, so does this building silently surround the daily, incredible acts of care by our small staff and cadre of professional volunteers. This is the final closing, for I no longer have a key to this door. I am outside the walls now; I can no longer let myself inside. Tears return to my eyes as this realization affirms that I have truly left this circle of people who donate their medical, dental, eye, mental health, and women’s health care skills to the uninsured, low-income residents in our county.
A wonderful quote by Ellen Goodman has soothed my soul in the past during times of deep transition like this one and I let her words wash over me again: “There’s a trick to the ‘graceful exit.’ It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, or a relationship is over — and let it go. It means leaving what’s over without denying its validity or its past importance to our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving up, rather than out.”
Her perspective is perfect; the next chapter of my life waits and I know it’s going to be as good as these years here have been. I’ve long thought and planned, and my next career waits: more writing and editing and reading and cooking and gardening and knitting and sewing and quilting and…. not the least, more time with my family and John.
Yet I let my heart linger a little longer at the closed door, as the day moves toward late afternoon. What a journey this has been. I smile through tears as I think once again how graced I’ve been to have had a career that reflects the deepest desires and values I possess: to help others have a better life. Although I know this is exactly the right time for me to exit with grace, I have also known for a very long time that it would not be easy. I take a deep breath, exhale, then turn and walk toward my car, both of us alone in the large asphalt parking lot.
I drive to my Raphine home and pack the last few remnants of household goods into my car (Sunday was moving day) and contemplate that last night was the last night I’ll spend here. I’ve loved my decade in this sweet little Cape Cod. Starting tomorrow I’ll live full time in my retirement home, purchased more than a year ago, where I’ve been living on weekends. I won’t be driving 55 miles to work two counties away from the home that my heart has grown to know is my true home now, small and set on two quiet private acres with a stream, lots of trees, some open spaces where John and I created our first garden together last summer, and where I’ve got lots of other plans. I drive home, knowing I will go back to Rockbridge County. The house has not yet sold and my heart will draw me back for visits to the clinic. Our volunteer coordinator, Lynn, has sent me off with a volunteer application, after all.
Yet, now, in the solitude of this Christmas morning two days later, I gather together the gifts and cards I’ve not yet opened from my retirement party this past Monday night. Ever so slowly, as if I am handling sacred objects, I open each gift and card. I let the words and the physical gifts of caring into my heart. My emotions tumble around like a kaleidoscope: I cry, I smile, I feel the sadness of loss, I feel the gratitude of having shared these years with these amazing people. I reflect that the memories these tangibles will evoke each time I see or use one of them will gift me over and over with a panoramic slideshow of my time with the giver – this coffee mug, that tea cosy, the three beautifully hand-crochet-covered wooden clothes hangers, the Christmas cactus, the abundant cooking utensils for my now increased time for my beloved hobby, the embroidered bureau scarf, the wall plaque that tells the gifts of retirement, the mug and tea set—all this and there’s also so much more, when I begin to think of the unforgettable moments with our patients.
I break for a minute to make a cup of tea. While I’m waiting for the water to boil, I glance out my kitchen window into the silent yard and as I turn away, movement catches my eye. I turn back. A small parade of deer—one, two, three…—six in all pass by the bare trees at a leisurely pace ten feet from my window. Then one pauses and looks at the window as if she senses my nearness. We both remain still for several seconds and then I watch the line of deer as they continue on with their journey. I suddenly smile at them, for somewhere deep inside I feel reaffirmed that, at this moment, I am exactly where I need to be.