Sunday 27 November 2022

Finding Purpose Again by Judith Skilleter, a whisky mac on cold miserable days

Mary has recently had to take early retirement. No, that’s just not true. Recently she had, brutally, unexpectedly and unprofessionally, been made redundant from a job she loved. A job she had loved for twenty-five years.  It had been decided that the amazing job no longer fitted in with the future of the organisation, it was no longer fit for purpose, and, therefore, in the view of her employers neither was she.

Mary had been distraught, and experienced all the pain of a huge and significant loss following this decision. It had been a job she adored, it gave her purpose and value. It made her think. She had never been reluctant to get up on cold and horrible mornings, and working late had never bothered her.  The strains and stresses of running a team did not phase her. Work had been a joy. Now it had gone and she hated the fact.

Her feelings were not helped when she rang up ex-colleagues and was told that the person who replaced her, with a new job title and job description so that the possibility of constructive dismissal could not be considered, was total rubbish and not a team player and that the work was not of the same high standard as when she, Mary, had been in charge.

Her husband Ted also no longer worked but his time was filled with golf. He played off scratch, which Mary believed meant that he was a decent golfer. He played 3 or 4 times a week, usually after a lazy breakfast where he also read his daily paper from cover to cover and did the puzzles. He called it keeping his brain active and didn’t get down from the breakfast table until all the Sudokus and crosswords had been completed. Ted was particularly good at cryptic crosswords and he used to time himself. He was vexed if he had not completed all the puzzles by 10.30am in time to tee off at 11.30am. Ted’s days were filled to his great satisfaction. Mary could no longer say the same.

Mary had tried to do cryptic crosswords in order to fill her some of her excessive and unwanted spare time, and she even read a couple of books about how to do them, something about kneecaps and Pat and Ella but, no matter how hard she tried, her brain just could not understand how the answers were reached.  Puzzles therefore did not last long as a time filler

Before her redundancy Ted had taken all responsibility for their evening meal and he was not willing to give up this role now she was home so much. When he returned home after golf he went through recipe books and found interesting and tasty meals that were always a cosy part of their evenings together. Both Mary and Ted had always enjoyed these times but, now, when Mary had time on her hands she wished that perhaps Ted could let her help now and again. But no, supper was Ted’s responsibility. “Keep out of my kitchen” was printed in large bright letters on his apron – and he followed this rule absolutely.

It would have been so much easier had she and Ted had had children. But, children had not come along. Those were the days before IVF and the clever tests that they do nowadays.  She imagined that had there been children, and now young grandchildren, her time would have been filled with looking after them, helping out generally and taking them for treats and outings. Mary and Ted have nieces and nephews but they are all fit and active parents who are themselves helping out with the next generation grandchildren. They have no need for Ted and Mary. And, anyway, they all live too far away for Ted and Mary to be any use. 

A few weeks after the redundancy and when the aimless days were really starting to get her down, Mary had a chat with a friend who had grabbed retirement with both hands and wouldn’t let go. She loved it.  Mary had asked her how she spent her days. The reply was “Well, I just potter and before I know it it’s tea time.” Mary thought about this answer and asked “Well, what about when you have finished pottering, say about 9.30 am.” Mary had worked out that her own daily tasks and chores were easily done by 9.30am, after which she was at a loss as to what to do next. Her friend just shrugged and shook her head. It had not been a helpful conversation.

So Mary decided she had to try new things, to find things to do that once again gave her purpose and value and that she enjoyed. She did not just want time fillers – she wanted to feel that her days were filled usefully, just like when she had been working.

She tried baking and loved it, especially baking bread.  A bread-maker was bought and Mary and Ted enjoyed fresh home-made bread every day with thickly spread butter and, Mary’s favourite, lemon curd. But then Mary found that her clothes were fitting less well and Ted asked if his best golfing trousers had been accidentally put through a hot white wash. Of course it was all these excess calories that had led to spreading waistlines and the baking had to stop.  The bread maker went to a charity shop.

Mary was a reader, an impatient reader. By that I mean that she was too impatient to wait for her favourite author’s books to come out in paperback. Most weeks would see another Amazon delivery leaving her a pristine hardback just waiting to be enjoyed. Ted suggested she join a book club where she could share her own book knowledge and meet other keen readers. She did so. The book club idea lasted for two sessions. First of all Mary did not like being told what to read, reading was too personal a joy to be spoiled by other people’s choices. But mainly she didn’t enjoy her book club experience because the critical discussion of the chosen book only lasted about 10 minutes. Mary also found that most of the members had not bothered to read the book and the meeting became very quickly became a scone and cake competition and a sharing of tales and photos of children and grandchildren. Neither of these topics were Mary’s choice of conversation. And so the book club was dumped.

She tried art and bought a pad of special paper and a case of special pencils to help her settle in and hopefully progress.  It was OK, Mary enjoyed her time with these very talented people who were always very kind and encouraging. But Mary never got rid of the feeling that there was a breakdown in communication between her brain, which was very clear about what it wanted on the paper, and her hand with the pencil. What appeared on the paper was always a mess, an awful mess. Art lasted four sessions and the special pad and special pencils were now used for shopping lists.

Learning Spanish was a more successful venture. She and Ted were shortly going to Malaga where Ted would play golf and she would potter and have fun until he was back from hitting little balls into little holes. Yes, golf had been a hobby suggestion but Mary could not see the point of it and she did not want to embarrass Ted with her lack of ability. She enjoyed her Spanish lessons and always did her homework so that when they were in Malaga she would have more to say than Please, Thank you, Good Morning, and two beers please. But the course only had two weeks left and there would be no more for six months.

Another attempt to fill her days well was a walking group. She bought the requisite walking boots, backpack and waterproofs and set off with a lively group of couples and singles. At first it was great fun, she enjoyed the exercise and the chatter but walking came to an end when one of the other walkers, a recently widowed gentleman, started paying her more attention than she felt comfortable with. He always insisted on walking next to her, consequently preventing her from chatting to the other walkers and when they stopped for drinks he always bought her a cup of tea and a cake and he wouldn’t take any money.  Mary’s attempts to make him stop all failed and she could see that the other walkers were aware of his actions and her embarrassment. Their attempts to draw her away from these unwanted attentions were very kind but unfortunately unsuccessful. The whole mess made her feel very uncomfortable and so she said goodbye to another initiative,

When she told Ted what had happened she burst into tears. These tears were not just the result of another failed activity but her unhappiness that she might be thought of as “available” in whatever venture she tried. Ted had been her first boyfriend, there had never been anyone else, and she found the idea of someone muscling in on her wonderful relationship both hurtful and insulting. Ted was reassuring and comforting and as understanding as he could be given that he wanted to talk about the hole in one he had managed that afternoon.

After more frustrating failed attempts at useful and enjoyable activity, Mary eventually found purpose and value in a totally unexpected area. Her local hospice was advertising for volunteer help and she thought she had the qualities they needed - she was friendly and she was happy to work hard.

But despite thinking she had the necessary qualities Mary was reluctant to apply as she thought that hospices were miserable places where people went to die, went in through the front doors and exited through the back doors. She thought they were places where there was no hope and therefore no job satisfaction. She could not have been more wrong.

At the induction process, where she met some delightful, warm and friendly people, she learned about the vital work the hospice did. She learned about the comfort and care the hospice staff gave to not only their patients but also the families and loved ones of their patients. She learned about the importance and quality of life for as long as possible and how patients were encouraged to “live” until they died. And she learned that death, which would inevitably come to all of the patients, need not be frightening or painful or undignified.

To her great delight Mary was accepted as a volunteer and initially she was asked to work in a hospice shop which took in and then re-sold donations. from people who did not need or want them anymore. Some of the things, especially the clothes and books, were as if they were brand new.  Mary’s role was to get these marvellous gifts ready for sale and then be behind the counter re-selling them and, of course, these sales contributed towards the vital funding of the hospice.  All these small sales added up to huge amounts of money.

After not too long, Mary once again felt she had a role in life. She had a purpose and this purpose was helping others, helping others to live a happy and pain free life for as long as possible. It dawned on Mary that this was so much more fulfilling than her previous work. Mary adored her new role. She was happy and contented once again. But she wanted more.

She heard so many hospice stories from those who came into her shop and she felt that she was helping these delightful people when she listened to their experiences.  A huge untapped reservoir of care for others, a reservoir that had so far been reserved entirely for Ted, was suddenly released. Mary decided she would like to be at the heart of things at the hospice, she wanted to be on reception at the hospice to be closer to the staff, the patients and their loved ones. She wanted to give more of herself as well as her brain. She discussed this with her boss at the shop and he was very complementary and said he thought she would be very good in this new role – but he would be very sad to lose her. Wow – this gave her so much delight, it had been a while since she was praised for what she did.

Mary also discussed this move with Ted. “Of course, if I am successful and have to do afternoon and early evening shifts you will have to keep my supper warm”. Ted was slightly miffed at this as he really enjoyed their evenings together but then he realised he would be free for lovely long summer evenings on the golf course so perhaps the prospect wasn’t so grim after all.

Mary applied for a receptionist post she then learned to love her work on reception even more than in the shop, even though a lot of sadness came past her desk. Anything she could do to ease and support that sadness was  her aim for every shift. Her life was once again good – full of purpose and worth and she was contributing to helping others in what be the most difficult times of their lives. In fact in a most unexpected way life was once again very very good.


About the author 

Judith Skilleter is new to writing fiction after a long career in social work and teaching. Her first children's novel The April Rebellion, has recently been published. Judith is a Geordie, who settled in East Yorkshire forty-five years ago and is married with three grandchildren.


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