Retirement in the Desert

There were days she’d go in to work and have nothing to do. Literally no projects. No assignments. Not even a measly, mindless task. To keep herself from going mad, Mom began bringing in her personal iPad. She learned to sit at a strategic angle. The iPad was completely obscured, and she learned to put an onerous spreadsheet up on her computer monitor as a ruse. Over the next several months, she took her Candy Crush skills to a new level.

"Why not just work from home?" I asked again, while visiting last summer.

"It’s not how it works there. I don’t get paid unless my butt’s in the chair," she replied for the fifteenth time.

"That’s ridiculous!" I said.

"That’s the Government," she replied.

And the weeks rolled into months which bundled into years. Her inner voice clamored for a change. Something. Being a woman of a certain age, she never really considered switching jobs or, god forbid, going into the private sector. Interviewing for this job at age 63 was tough enough, she couldn’t imagine going back on the circuit at 72. Besides, she was accruing vacation leave, maxing out her modest retirement account, and most importantly, building longevity with the Government.

Because greater longevity meant a higher monthly pension. Her pension income in retirement would increase significantly after 10 years with more possible jumps at 15 and then again at 20 years. But those seemed impossible mountains of boredom and inactivity to climb. Her 10 year mark was approaching, and she was already counting down the days until retirement.

Though somewhat cliche, her plan was sound: Cash out on her modest suburban home in Ohlone Pines, which thanks to the millennials was now THE place to raise a family. With a fattened bank account, she’d head south to a warmer, drier climate. No more paying Rick’s Garage to put on snow tires every November or wrestling with fleeces and parkas to simply get the mail. I would, of course, joke that the Denver winters were nothing compared to my Chicago. To which she’d reply, with a smile, "That’s why I don’t live in Chicago."

Why the south? She was convinced the constant, steady desert sun – not the humidity of Florida – would do wonders for her arthritic knee and all-around joint stiffness. Neither my sister Jamie or I were in the medical world, and what mom said made sense. So, sure, head south. Why not? Millions of retirees do it every year.

But the plan was fuzzy at first. Where to go … Arizona? New Mexico? California? With Dad long gone – car accident when we were in college – Jamie and I spent hours on the phone throughout the summer, at first together and then with Mom, dissecting the range of options. We often used Skype or FaceTime with Jamie down in Buenos Aires, mom in her trendy Denver suburb, and me in the land of Lincoln and Obama. Our calls inevitably dropped midway through a chat, even after toggling the video feed to OFF, so there were countless wasted minutes redialing and reconnecting. But by mid-July we eventually came to a consensus.

Tucson, in southern Arizona.

Which is why I found myself sitting behind the oversized faux leather steering wheel of a 26’ diesel moving truck over Labor Day weekend. Mom’s home sold in four days and with multiple offers. She really liked the young couple with offer #1: they had a toddler and another one on the way, but their credit wasn’t stellar, and they were only putting 10% down. The childless couple with the second offer refused to counter any higher, so she let them go. The winners turned out to be younger retirees – say late 50s – who had grandkids in the neighborhood, two streets over. And they made an all-cash offer. As always, cash is king.

Mom had hired movers to load the truck, which allowed me to take a 6 am flight from Midway. While I napped across Wisconsin and the Dakotas, three tattooed Ukranians loaded her remaining possessions into the truck. We’d discover the next day in Tucson that one of them smoked on a break, and his cigarette ash burned a small hole through the upholstery in her antique sitting chair. But blissfully unaware of the future, Mom poured the movers glasses of lemonade as my plane kissed the runway ever so gently. Forty-five minutes later my taxi pulled up to 2169 Sherington for my last visit. I paid off the driver just as Boris – yes, his name really was Boris – closed the moving truck’s door.

I’d been thinking a lot about Mom’s next chapter and wondering what it forecast for me. Was this the model of career and then retirement I was destined for as well? Decades of uninspiring work, with a complete lack of alignment between income and passion? At one point earlier in the summer Jamie and I got into it over Skype.

"That aspiration is ridiculous! Work is called ‘work’ for a reason. I mean why do Americans believe they were supposed to enjoy it?"she asked.

"First off James, you're American. Second off, you're being paid quite well by USAID for doing work you genuinely love."

This was met with a hiss then crackle of static. The call was cut once again, but this time Jamie had most certainly hung up.

I had barely tasted that rare passion–income nirvana before being sucked back into a well paying but soulless job. In between fits of sleep this morning – those who can nap in coach deserve a medal – I wondered: what is Mom passionate about? There’d been some early support and participation in the League of Women Voters. Which morphed into vocal, vitriolic tirades for progressive causes and therefore against most Republicans. But those explosions most certainly yielded no income. Only resigned exhaustion and disbelief in our current MAGA era.

On to retirement then. Which could be more Candy Crush, political tirades, and occasional bike rides through the saguaro forest behind her house. But I really had no idea how she’d fill her days. I don’t think she did either. She was already preparing to travel – cruises down European rivers and another in the Mediterranean but beyond that, no plan.

Which perhaps is what retirement in the desert is all about. I shifted the truck into drive, blew two toots of horn in salute, and eased forward down her tree lined street. Mom pulled in behind me, her Prius purring, and from what I could tell in the mirror, she didn't look back.