Waiting For The Tomorrow That Never Came

I love the power of a story. This is a sad one, but it left a lasting impression.

I’ve described my friend Dot on the blog before – she was my 80s-something spitfire “landlord/surrogate grandmother” when I was in university. Dot had the most active social calendar of any senior I’ve met. There was Bridge Club. And Birthday Club (12 ladies and they celebrated one woman each month – I mean, can you get better than that in your 80s? And let me tell you, those women knew how to celebrate a birthday). She was on every board at her church, volunteered for charitable committees, and had more friends than you could shake a stick at.

One of those friends – let’s call her Gail – came over for supper every Thursday night. (Dot and I ate supper together in her tiny kitchen every evening; food was included in my rent and those meals spent together are some of my happiest memories from university. Bonus – Dot happened to be a fabulous cook. But on Thursdays, I knew my place was in the kitchen. Alone.) Dot and Gail laughed over gin and tonics (always, always gin and tonic) and ate a fancy meal together in the dining room before gallivanting off to Film Club together.

Gail was a force of energy. She was big and boisterous, with a larger-than-life personality. She loved to laugh and had a rich British accent that magnified her charm. But over the course of many Thursday-night visits, I pieced together more and more of her heartbreaking story.

She was retired, though from what career I can’t recall. She had been married to a university professor who had made a name for himself as a top researcher in his field. Their lives were hectic as they raised two boys and managed work responsibilities. Their vision for the future had a singular focus – retire and travel the world together.

If I remember the story correctly, Gail’s husband – let’s call him Jim – kept putting off retirement by tiny increments until they had delayed their plans for several years. But that was okay as the best was yet to come.

Finally, the day of retirement dawned; they packed their bags and headed for Hawaii.

Mid-flight, en route to this first destination of retirement wanderlust, Jim had a stroke. He survived for over a decade but was confined to a wheelchair, requiring constant care and, eventually, a nursing home.

They had waited for a tomorrow that never came.

Gail was cheerful and friendly; she drank her gin and tonic and she and Dot made quite the cane-toting pair when heading off to Film Club. But I bet she would have given anything to have been off traveling the world with her life partner.

Two points jump to mind, though this story could leave each of us with different lessons to unpack:

  1. Time is finite. If there is something we really want to do, why wait? We scrimp and save and plan for a day we’re not guaranteed to have come our way.
  2. Hard stuff happens; we adapt. I’m sure Gail shed many tears over the situation. I suspect she regretted Jim’s decision to delay retirement. She visited Jim every day, helped care for him, and provided me with regular updates on his health. But she also carved out time for friends and fun (she was also a member of the aforementioned Birthday Club) and didn’t let her life – which looked so vastly different from what she had planned – pass her by.

I don’t necessarily have a key takeaway from this story, but I think of it often, even though I was only a teenager when I met Gail and, obviously, felt like I had all the time in the world.

Which I don’t.


Header photo by Sacha Verheij on Unsplash

20 thoughts on “Waiting For The Tomorrow That Never Came”

  1. Heartbreaking! This is something I think of often, too. As part of my work, I review intimate details of many, many transplant patients’ lives. And one thing that always “gets me” is when I read a progress note where a patient mentions their “upcoming retirement/ anniversary/ trip/ exciting future event” (usually these are people in their 60s-70s)….and then I see down the road that this person suffered a serious medical event or complication shortly after…sometimes they die. Sometimes their life is just seriously altered, like the husband in your story. It always breaks my heart. It’s kind of strange and eerie to be seeing it from my side- they obviously had no idea what the future was going to hold when they make those initial statements. I’m now seeing the “big picture”- before and after. It is always an eye opening thing for me and I think of this topic often. I’m so glad my own parents have done a lot of traveling and enjoying each other, and they’ve both been retired for quite a while now (and retired fairly early). I also am grateful we have done a lot of really cool stuff already, even though we are still working/ not retired. This is why we DON’T wait to travel…you just never know. I often think, if god forbid, something happened to either of us…. I feel pretty satisfied with the life we’ve already lived. Not that I don’t want a lot more!! I definitely do. And I hope and pray we have many, many adventures ahead. But I feel we’ve fit in a lot of experiences already, at 38/41 respectively. I’m grateful for that.

    1. What a great comment, Kae, and I relate on so many points. I’d love to live a very long life filled with adventure, but I’m determined not to wait to fit in lots of adventures now.

  2. I think about this idea of a finite amount of time because my father died pretty young and the closer I come to the age that he died, the more I get mad that I’m still in a job I hate, spending the majority of my waking hours being stressed. But then I think of the good things in my life and try to focus on the fact that I couldn’t have those good things without my job. AND, more related to your story, I try hard to maintain good cheer about every day and every interaction because time is limited and even if parts of my life are difficult, I am still alive and each day alive is a victory. (I’m not saying that I’m always successful at maintaining good cheer, but I try….)

    1. I’m so sorry, NGS. I feel so blessed my own parents are still living, but my grandmothers were both widowed with young children, so I realize that life can be so much shorter than we envision.

      I’m also sorry the job continues to be such a burden. I hope next opportunities come up soon and you are infinitely more content; until then, I can tell from your writing that you are very intentional about fitting in time on things you love (reading, exercise, those precious furry creatures); keep up the good work 🙂

  3. Ugh that is a really sad story. It sounds like Dot’s friend made the most of it, but caring for someone who had a stroke is so very very hard. My grandpa had a terrible stroke in his 70s and then lived for I think 10-15 years. Sadly I don’t have any memories of him before he had his stroke. He was completely changed and never got his language back fully and his personality was changed, too. He was still a great grandpa but I wish I had gotten to know him pre-stroke.

    My parents finally just fully retired in the last year. They are 74!! They owned a business and transitioned it to my BIL. It took so long and it was hard for them to fully retire. I was so nervous that they would not be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor. So us kids are all relieved that they are enjoying a quiet stage of life. They worked so hard all their lives and did not do much travel. I have gone on more vacations than they have!! So I am glad they are enjoying their time now. Phil’s dad died at a youngish age – around 70 from alzheimer’s. His parents got a chance to do some travel but not as much as the envisioned I’m sure.

    1. It is a sad story; I hope I balanced the sad with the realization that sad things do happen and sometimes thinking about potential eventualities can be the impetus for change – even small ones – in our own lives. That said, it’s all about balance. We shouldn’t live our lives in fear of what-if’s and contingencies. It’s more the idea of being content with what we’ve done, making sure our activities align with our values (as much as possible) and realizing that sometimes we should embrace opportunities if they come along earlier than we expect…because we’re never guaranteed any set length of time on earth.

      I am so happy my parents fit in quite a bit of travel right after my Mom retired – they left within weeks of her retirement for a 3-month humanitarian trip to Liberia! Physically they’re now at stages where travel any more outside Canada is unlikely, so I’m endlessly thrilled they did things while they were able (another second long stint volunteering in Liberia, trips to Europe and the US).

  4. Ugh, what a sad story! I think that happens to a lot of people (although not necessarily in such a dramatic way.) They work hard their whole lives, and then when they finally retire it’s too late- for whatever reason- for them to enjoy themselves. My husband and I (inadvertently) did things backwards. We both had fun jobs with a lot of travel involved when we were younger, so had a lot of interesting experiences. By the time we met, got married and then had our first kid I was 36 and he was 42- second kid, I was 42 and he was 48. So now at the age most people are thinking about retirement, he (and I) will still be working, putting our second kid through college. But that’s okay- to your second point, we’ve adapted and are enjoying the life we have. I’m not sure I would necessarily recommend this schedule to people, but it is what it is!

  5. Ugh, how sad.

    Back at the start of my law career, I worked in the probate department for a while and found it really bittersweet how often a person passed away within months of losing their spouse. It happened so often.

    Life is so short, and precious, and mundane and exciting and monotonous and spectacular. <3

    1. “Life is so short, and precious, and mundane and exciting and monotonous and spectacular.”
      Yes to all of this.

    1. Indeed. It can start to feel overwhelming sometimes to live with a view of our finitude…but also liberating. If not today, when?
      Of course, life has certain requirements too. Work has to be completed; bills paid, children tended etcetera. But living with an underlying appreciation for the brevity of life can also expand our understanding of time and how we want to fill it. I think…

  6. How incredibly sad. However, it sounds like Gail was not living a life of regret after all that had happened and not happened. It is very easy to fall into feeling like that and missing lots of other great opportunities along the way. I think we could apply that to many areas of our life couldn’t we?

    When I look back at some of the decisions I made when I was younger I do wonder what I was thinking but I don’t regret them. I have worked all over my country, travelled to some amazing places, worked with some wonderful people from all over the world and now I am doing the best job I have ever had, home educating my children.

    1. Yes, some broadly (and less sad) applicable truths in this story.
      Gail was such a happy woman, but the moments were bittersweet. And we can’t avoid all the bittersweet, but sometimes they can teach us broadly applicable lessons.
      It does feel like this post was maybe a touch too, sad, though! Oops. It has just stayed with me all these years (for obvious reasons).

  7. What a story, with so much to think about as a result. It is hard to find that perfect balance between saving for the future while enjoying the present. Of course, that will differ with everyone. How fortunate you were to have had Dot and all her friends and activities in your life!

    1. I didn’t realize how special Dot was to me, in many senses, until I consider her/our relationship in retrospect (she passed away a little over 11 years ago). I guess now I recognize how many of her qualities I’d love to emulate in my own life as a senior!

  8. This is an incredibly heart-breaking story and something I think about often…. not just in the context of delaying things until retirement.
    I just visited with my best friend from high school who had a cancer diagnosis at 32, just when her life was about to start. She’s been hanging on for over a decade but I often think about how much she’s “missed out” on and how much she won’t be able to experience. It reminds me every single day that life is precious and that we’ve to live every day as if it is the last. We never know how long we might have on this planet.
    That’s also why I decided to travel home over Easter, just because. I didn’t want to wait any longer seeing the people that I love.

    1. I’m so sorry to hear about your friend. It is sad to think about the brevity of life, but also liberating and purposeful.
      I’m so glad you got home to see your family!! Why wait to see people we love, right?!

  9. What a poignant and heartbreaking story. I admire Gail for persevering, but oh, how hard it must have been to imagine what might have been…
    Just another reminder for me that tomorrow is not guaranteed – and it’s time to get out of my apartment and out into the world, again. Time’s a wasting, as my dad says. 🙂 Caution yes, fear no. (I feel like I should end my comment with Carpe Diem, but that’s a bit overblown… ;>)

    1. Ha! Carpe diem, indeed.
      It’s like your very own mic drop.
      And my Dad sometimes says “Time’s a wasting.” Hilarious.

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