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Illustration by Adam De Souza

I haven’t started counting the days yet to my retirement. I’ll get around to it soon, I expect. I have been counting an unusually high number of sheep every night though. I’ve decided not to watch the calendar.

This July it is really happening. I’m leaving. Twenty-eight years, same job.

I’m doing all the usual things: I’m looking up health providers, I’m talking to colleagues who’ve retired, I’m doing virtual financial workshops. I read a book about it which told me to cast away the negative connotations of the R-word (withdrawal, retreat) and rebrand it “re-tirement,” so I could think of it as a comfortable metaphor for getting new tires on an old car. I even bought my future retirement home last spring in a different city. It seems pretty official. In my mind, I’m ticking off all of the boxes before I take the plunge… the big step… the final bow… the grand – ah, you get the picture.

Why we decided to upsize our retirement instead

You’d think I’d be dancing on air every morning, coasting around the house with a playful eagerness to get on that horse and mosey on down the road to my place of employment where I would flash a mile-wide smile to every colleague I meet over the course of my care-free, the-end-is-in-sight daily toil. When we think of our retirement selves, that’s what we envision. Right? Happy, undaunted, effervescent. Who wouldn’t look forward to that sweet moment when one wakes up and realizes they have the freedom to spend each day just as they please.

Surely some of that sunny optimism must begin a few months before it’s official and I should be bouncing through each of these final days with a certain joie de vivre my co-workers can’t quite place but definitely notice. And those little things that happen at work, those minor inconveniences, those eye-rolling, head-shaking tiny aggravations that pop up over the course of any normal day… I’ll just step right over them with a wry smile and a “not today, photocopy machine,” as I saunter past, all rosy and unaffected. With the end so nigh, I’ll probably start questioning why I ever let those things get to me.

But…. there’s been no dancing. No mile-wide smiles. No bouncing. I do not saunter and I’m definitely not effervescent. And when the photocopy machine jams on me, I’m just as tense and exasperated as ever.

This teaching career was a calling, a serious duty I implored myself to perform to my highest standards. There is pride in the work, an unwavering belief in the value of it. But lately, when I walk through the big wooden doors of my high school every morning, it’s just another Groundhog Day. Whatever thoughts of retirement anticipation I might have had dissipate almost instantly. The day just says to me: Here we go again. I keep waiting for that moment, that click – as Tennessee Williams called it in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – where the mind makes that final, delirious leap into some euphoric state of acceptance.

I’m not sure I’m actually ready… ready to accept that this long, wonderful, hectic, frustrating, rewarding, soul-searching, relentlessly demanding career is about to be over. Much to my surprise, I find that it’s a fierce concept to grapple with.

Colleagues tell me that retirement is a nirvanic reward for my perseverance and dedication to my profession. That it’s a wondrous gift for all of those years I put in. They make it sound like winning the lottery. They toss words at me – Freedom! Travel! Reading! Family Time! Gardening! – to show me the bounteous and splendid options that await.

And yet… and yet… the job has become such a part of my identity and my life. It’s my safe and trusted guide to navigate and know my place in this world. It’s who I am. It has given me so much. How can I just walk away from it one day? How to say this is no longer who I am? It all seems like a dream: did I really just spend 28 years doing this? What will I do on the day after I retire? Will I flounder about, wondering how to spend the rest of my life?

These questions swirl through my psyche daily and… nightly. But when I stop to think about how this job has been so radically altered – almost unrecognizably so – due to the pandemic, I shake my head in disbelief and surrender. Even after 28 years, there are moments when I’m not entirely sure if I’m doing my job properly. I think I am. It probably looks like I am but I know that every day I feel empty, drained dry, frustrated and wondering how to recapture the joy, the idealistic elation I’ve felt most days in this job.

For 28 years, at least in my mind, I unfailingly showed up to work with a clear sense of the importance, the value, the necessity of it all. Alas, this wretched global pandemic has robbed so many of us of that kind of purpose. My imminent retirement, I occasionally think, could surely be some mild antidote to these dark days, these grim, relentless days.

But… no. As of yet, I can take no solace in the thought of retirement. (Well, maybe some… occasionally.)

I have no idea what retirement will be like. I try to envision those final moments and what they might mean… when the clock crawls and ticks toward that final minute. It will be 3 p.m. on a Friday. And when the final bell rings on my final day, will it bring the same joy it always has on the last day of June for these 28 years? Or will it be one of those “ask not for whom the bell tolls” kind of moments?

When I walk out of the doors, having taught the very last class I will ever teach… what will that walk to my car be like?

Hard to know. Until then… more sheep, I expect.

Brent Rouleau lives in Ottawa.

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