Tuesday, December 6, 2011

After Retirement . . . What Next?

Perched on a stool center stage stage, I face a theater packed with high school students and their teachers. My granddaughter Madison, a tenth grader, has just introduced me. A photo of my daughter, taken when she was seventeen, is projected onto the screen behind me. She, too, is perched, but on a garden wall in front of Cinderella’s castle at Disney World.
My granddaughter and my daughter have never met.
“That’s one of the tragedies,” I tell my audience, “because I think they would have liked each other very much.”
The students are silent.
“I wrote this book,” I tell them, holding it up for them to see, “about how she died, because I want people to understand what can happen to kids and to families when alcohol and driving are combined.
“How many of you have lost someone you loved, who died?” I ask.
Almost every hand in the room goes up. 
I am shocked. “Oh, my!” I exclaim involuntarily, thinking, In this age of advanced medicine, how can kids so young have experienced so much death? I know that alcohol-related automobile fatalities are the #1 cause of teen deaths in this country. 
“How many of you are, or ever have been, or know someone who is twenty years old?”
Hands go up.
“How about twenty-two? Seventeen? How many of you hope to live to celebrate your twenty-first birthday?”

All hands are up now.
I thank them and we all settle down for the story I have come to tell, about my daughter’s night out with friends that ended in death for three young people. I tell them about its impact on me, my family, and her friends. I read them a page from my book and then explain how I learned many years later that the pain I imagined as hers was really mine.  I tell them that teen death not only ends a life, but precipitates veritable tsunamis of pain that extend outward, impacting the lives of everyone who loved them. Behind me, my wheeled walker – which they watched me use to enter the theater – attests to the damage done to my health by the trauma of her violent death.
“What would you do,” I ask them, “if you found yourself someplace your parents had told you not to go, and you realized that the person who was going to drive you home had been drinking?”
One girl’s hand goes up. “I wouldn’t go where I wasn’t supposed to go,” she says.
“That’s the smartest thing to do,” I respond. “How about the rest of you? Would you go where you had been told not to go?”
They are suddenly restless in their seats.
“How many of you could call your parents for a ride home?”
Silent until now, they erupt in chorus. “Not me!” “I could never call my parents!” “Me, neither!” 
“Really?” I pursue. “Even if it meant you might die on the way home? Why not?”
“They’d punish me!” one says, and others add, “I’d never be able to go anywhere again.” “My father would probably hit me.” 
I argue, “But everybody needs someone they can call for help when they’re at risk, or in trouble. Everybody, even me. When my daughter died, there were no cell phones, but now everyone has one, and you don’t have to ride in a car being driven by someone who’s drunk. Being a passenger in that situation is more dangerous than being the driver.”
They are scared, I see it in their faces. The closing bell rings. Everyone stays put as we take some extra time to calm down and talk about positive steps they can take.
After the students leave, the teachers gather around me. We are shaken to realize how many kids, faced with the danger of being in a car driven by someone drunk, would not call home.
“Will you please come back and talk to the parents?” a teacher asks me? Others second her request.
Would I?  Of course I will come back! I am itching, burning, to talk to the parents, and to more high-school kids, and their parents, too. I want to teach them how to talk to one another, to create safety in the lives of kids too young to understand danger, who fear the wrath of their parents more than their own deaths. Maybe if they hear it from me, and understand my qualifications for telling them, they’ll open the lines of communication their kids need, for their safety, possibly their survival.
By qualifications I don’t mean the fact that I’m a former teacher, now a therapist closing in on retirement, or even that I have raised children of my own. My prime qualification to speak to this crucial subject is that lovely teen-age girl in the photograph projected onto the wall behind me, looking like a princess in front of her castle, a princess who never reached her twenty-first birthday.
Suddenly, I have a new purpose in life.

1.  If you are working now, when do you plan to retire? How will you know it's time? What do you hope to do when you no longer have work obligations?

2. Do you think there is anything we can do to lower the number of alcohol-related fatalities among teens?

3. What are some of the areas in which retired people are needed and can make a difference?

I will appreciate your comments!