How a Christmas Clock Taught This Retiree to Move Forward

This former lieutenant colonel felt lost after retirement. Could she learn to accept her new life?

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Posted in , Nov 25, 2020

An artist's rendering of a Christmas cuckoo clock.

It was December 2012, a week before Christmas. I was sitting alone at my kitchen table in Missouri, watching the hands of my Christmas clock tick toward the hour. I was waiting to hear it play “Silent Night,” which it did every night at 11 o’clock. The tune always lifted my spirits. But the second hand passed the hour mark without a peep. My heart sank. The music mechanism must have broken. You couldn’t have picked a better metaphor for my life—I kept on ticking, but the joy was missing.

The past few years had been difficult. I’d served in the Army for 26 years, including as a military foreign area officer in Western Europe. I’d lived there with my husband and our daughters. My husband was enlisted but had retired from the military after we got married. Now I was retired too. And divorced. My three girls were grown and living on their own. My life felt small compared to the adventure it had once been.

Retirement had been a big adjustment. As a lieutenant colonel, I was used to overcoming challenges, but reintegrating into civilian life proved unexpectedly difficult. I had spent decades climbing the Army hierarchy. I’d rubbed shoulders with world leaders and headed political-military operations. My husband and I had moved to Michigan at the end of my career. In our new neighborhood, I didn’t feel respected by the men or relatable to the women. I didn’t know how to fit in outside the military world that I’d been a part of for most of my adult life.

Meanwhile, my mother’s health declined and she was diagnosed with dementia. Mom and I had always been close, through my many moves and deployments. It was heartbreaking to watch the disease chip away at her independence. Yet I remained strong—for her. I’d found a place for Mom at an assisted living facility near me, but it was tough to be the only one of my siblings close enough to visit.

When I was offered a contract job teaching Junior ROTC in Missouri, where Mom was from, it seemed like a great opportunity. We could move Mom closer to family and friends. Plus, I’d get to come out of retirement and rejoin the military community.

“It will be great,” I said to my husband. “Mom can finally be near my brothers too.”

My husband resisted. “I can’t leave Michigan now,” he said. “I have a job here.”

I planned to be in Missouri for only two years. I was determined to make things work, as we’d done with complicated moves many times before.

I moved first, hoping my husband would winter with me in Missouri. But things started to fall apart. My husband found new friends and new interests. We fought a lot on the phone. “You always treated me like a second fiddle because I was enlisted and you were an officer,” he said one night. Where was that coming from?

When my husband’s Army career ended, he’d stuck around through mine. I’d thought he supported me wholeheartedly. It was unsettling to realize he might have resented the career I loved so much. He never did join me in Missouri that winter, and when my contract was up in 2011, I filed for divorce. A month before the divorce was final, Mom died.

Now I sat alone with my silent Christmas clock. Though my daughters were spending Christmas with their father, I’d still tried to be festive. I’d decorated the house and brought out all of the European keepsakes we’d collected overseas. But I missed being a family, and I missed my mom.

I heard the clock’s minute hand shift, and something shifted within me too. I gave in. Instead of trying to strong-arm my way through the pain, I let the sadness wash over me. I felt relief as I exhaled. Things are hard right now, I admitted to myself. But in time and with faith, I’ll get through even this.

Once I stopped trying to deny my grief over the loss of my old life, it opened me up to new possibilities. I started to rebuild my life. I began teaching piano, volunteered with the food pantry at church and worked with a single moms’ group. I took up yoga and country dance, where I met a great group of friends. I traveled, crossing destinations off my bucket list. Slowly but surely, joy found its way back into my life.

One summer day, I was sitting in the living room when I heard a familiar sound, very quiet at first. Was I hearing things? I walked into the kitchen, and the music grew louder, until I was standing in front of the Christmas clock. I’d gotten so busy, I’d almost forgotten it was still there. Until now. Amazed, I realized that even when it was silent, the clock had held a tune all along. It was just waiting until I was ready to sing.

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