Retirement and the High Diving Board

By Mattie Coll | July 31st, 2017

When I was a kid, I was fearless. I rode horses bareback, did rifle target practice in summer camp, played football and baseball with neighborhood boys and leaped off the high diving board at the lake, without thinking twice. Of course, many years, multiple sprains and dislocations, and painful belly flops have taught me to be more reflective. “Look before you leap” is not a bad philosophy, but perhaps I think too much before I leap now.

Retirement is an example of this before-and-after reflective process. Each summer of my life, I climbed the many stairs to the high diving board at the lake. It was scary because I could see for miles from the top of the platform. My dad was always at the side of the water on the boardwalk. He wanted me to be in the Olympics and loved it when I leaped off the high diving board. I learned that if I leaned far forward, gravity pulled me over the side into the air and then into the cool lake water. I learned to let go, hold my breath and fall to the surface. As I swam up from the bottom of the lake, I felt a mixture of relief and exhilaration. Nothing bad had happened to me and I had survived to tell the story.

I am sure by now you are asking yourself what this story has to do with retirement. Believe me, retirement is about being terrified and just letting go of control. Making the decision to retire has been the scariest thing I have ever done. Kathy, my human resources contact, told me, “Most people feel relief when they make the decision to retire.” I signed all my paperwork on a stormy afternoon and then waited for that promised sense of relief to hit me. I desperately hoped for that sense of relief as I raced the car home that day, trying to beat the straight-line winds that were predicted to damage the Chesterfield/Richmond area. The anticipated strong winds did hit my Southside home, but my sense of relief never really appeared.

I continued to feel anxious and afraid. I had gone over the final Social Security numbers and the numbers for the Virginia Retirement System. It looked like I would be OK financially, but who would I be without my teaching career?

My fellow baby boomers who are thinking about retirement may be able to identify with my mixed feelings. I think I will be happy not to have to get up at 6 a.m. every day, but I already feel sad at the thought of the loss of student and colleague contact. I will miss my friends at work a lot.

In March 2017, the day I finished my retirement paperwork, I pushed myself off the high diving board, once again. I hit the water surprisingly hard on May 15, which was my last day at work. It was not a belly flop exactly, but it hurt more than I expected. Cleaning out my office was painful because there were so many good memories there. I had made my office a home away from home, decorating it with my own photography and a bookcase full of favorite books we had read for the book discussion group I had co-sponsored for 10 years. I had spent long hours there grading papers, making lesson plans and talking with students one on one. It was a special place for me, full of good memories.

I remembered from my childhood that it was best to take a deep breath just before going under the water at the end of a long dive. This time I took a deep breath as I smashed through the surface of retirement. It was very cold as I sank to the bottom of the lake. Grief, anger and depression swirled around me. I felt like I was alone and sinking into the darkness. Then I remembered the warmth that waited for me at the surface. I looked up and saw the sunlight. I swam toward the light.

After what felt like an eternity, I broke through the surface of the lake and drew in my first breath. I looked around me with a fresh perspective. I saw friends and family waiting for me on the boardwalk. Every one of them had said to me, “Come on in the water. You will be just fine.” I felt proud of myself for good planning, and for taking the leap. As I climbed up the ladder onto the boardwalk and shook off the lake water, I hummed a tune that had been running through my head. “This is gonna be the best day of my li-i-i-i-i-ife.” (American Authors). I walked straight ahead toward the sunny shore and did not look back.

Mattie Coll grew up in Richmond, went out of state to college and returned to live in Richmond 30 years ago. She was a counselor and English instructor at a local community college for over 20 years. She loves nature, writing and the arts.

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