From Chicken Soup for the Father & Daughter Soul

Retirement Plan

Don’t think of retiring from the world until the world will be sorry that you retire.

Samuel Johnson

My contentment as a full-time homemaker was shattered in 1974 when my husband left me with three children to raise alone.

Three weeks later, the Lord snatched me from the brink of death from a ruptured aorta. I faced long recuperation, then years of struggle to find my niche in the job market. By 1978, I held a corporate position with benefits, which would enable me to support my children and then enjoy retirement by age sixty-five.

Then my daughter became pregnant and incapable of caring for a baby. However reluctant I was to take full responsibility for a toddler, I saw no alternative but to gain custody of April,* my frail grandchild.

The magnitude of my responsibilities overwhelmed me. At forty-five, I was weary, and with yet another mouth to feed at the same time I had to plan my retirement, I had to hang onto my job. I could not afford nursery school for my precocious granddaughter, so I bartered the use of our large game room to a small Montessori school in exchange for her schooling and daycare. My beloved daughter’s child calling me “Mother” broke my heart, yet once I embraced the role, the tension relaxed.

But our household calm would be short-lived.

During a family trip to my hometown 200 miles away, I planned to visit Daddy at the family stock-farm. Though aging and partially paralyzed from a years-ago tussle with a brain surgeon’s scalpel, the tough old cowboy-farmer still enjoyed keeping a few head of cattle and horses.

When I called ahead, Dad’s weak “H’lo” filled me with dread. “I’m in bad shape,” he admitted. We arrived to find the old rock farmhouse filthy and heavy with the stench of diarrhea. Dad hadn’t eaten in days, maybe weeks, from the looks of him. When I offered him water, he refused, exclaiming, “It gives me the runs!” I could see I was dealing with the late stages of severe malnutrition.

With Dad’s aversion to anyone telling him what to do— particularly doctors—I knew I had a tough battle on my hands . . . a battle I had to win.

Careful not to spook my irascible sire, already skittish as a colt on first ropes, I cajoled and wheedled until he took a few sips. He soundly rejected my offers to take him home with me or to a hospital. “Jest leave me be out here on this hill so I can die in peace!” I’d had a good teacher in handling headstrong broncs, and I resolutely offered option after option. He studied me like a calf eyeing a new gate, then called a truce. “I reckon I’ll jest go home with you.”

It was a long 200 miles (with windows wide open) turning in at every Dairy Queen between the farm and home. I’d badger him until he drank a few sips, feebly managing a straw with his good left hand. He fumbled a hamburger until he wore most of it, adamantly refusing help. “If’n I cain’t feed muself, I jest won’t eat!” Once home, I could pulverize his food, add juice and liquid supplements, and he’d drink his sustenance through a straw.

I called my doctor friend. “I’ve got a broken down ol’ cowboy here who refuses doctors but needs feedin’ and waterin’.”

He said, “If you don’t put a stop to the diarrhea, it sounds like he’s got maybe two days to live. I’ll send out a prescription. Call if he decides to let me check him over.”

Though divorced many years before, Mama and Daddy were still devoted to each other, so she rushed to his aid, and mine, promptly herding him into the bathtub. Over her shrill “Hold still!” came his gruff protest, “I ain’t been plowin’. Muh ears ain’t dirty!” She finally got him cleaned up and into bed—where he stayed for twenty-one days with Mama patiently attending his every need.

Normally, at five-feet-seven, Daddy weighed one hundred sixty pounds of hardy muscle. When he regained enough strength to stand, he weighed in at only ninety-three pounds.

Mama returned to her home, leaving the crotchety ol’ cowpoke to me. April became a fixture at her great-grandpa’s knee, and they both thrived, often entertaining each other.

My hard-won career long since abandoned, I took in sewing to support us all, leaving my need for a retirement plan to the Lord. One by one, the older children graduated and moved out.

While Daddy’s physical strength gradually deteriorated over the coming years, his mind remained sharp as a razor. I found myself captive to his incessant storytelling, which I had scorned as a youngster, and was soon writing a weekly newspaper column recounting my childhood with a funny, braggadocio show-off daddy, and a nononsense mama who served as his straight man. National magazines published articles of my joys and heartbreak as a mother.

Eleven years after I had taken them in, April, Daddy and I moved back to the farm, where Daddy, by then bedridden, could gaze dreamily out the window over his beloved homestead. April, a beautiful, healthy, popular honors student and cheerleader, enjoyed riding horseback . . . a sport that brought plate-size belt-buckle awards to her, and contentment to the old horseman.

Not long after returning to the farm, Daddy died peacefully in his sleep, his pine casket majestically borne to the Last Roundup in a mule-drawn buckboard.

April moved away, married and had a child of her own.

Now pushing three-score years and ten, I drive a pair of dun mules hitched to a covered wagon, keep a few chickens and cut my own firewood. Social Security checks make for a modest retirement, supplemented by some bartering and publishing articles in which I encourage folks, young and old, along life’s rugged trails. And I sell a few books of cartoon-filled true tales of how my daddy once rode his broncs into the house to prove they were “. . . as polished as ye Mama’s hardwood floors.”

A single mom taking on the responsibility for four generations under one roof was surely orchestrated by a God with infinite wisdom. Only through the filter of such unbidden adversity can I look back on my own rugged trail with the satisfaction that I am exactly who God called me to be: mother, daughter, writer, caregiver.

I cared for His own, and He cared for me . . . a great retirement plan.

Bettye Martin-McRae

*Names have been changed.

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