Writer and poet Bles Chavez-Bernstein reflects on aging gracefully, pursuing your passion, retirement as an expat, and death and legacy.
A distant memory. A momentary daze. An image appears, slowly taking shape…a small house perfectly shaded by a row of palm trees, the air is warm and humid moistening your face, blooming colors line your narrow street, an old neighborhood welcomes you. On the street corner, the smell of freshly baked pan de sal teases your palate. You join in the incessant laugh of your playmates as full moon descends on the playground. Like a movie, the reel keeps rolling with images so vivid they grab your heart, its beats racing, pounding on your chest. The place you desire is out of reach. You reminisce. With eyes involuntarily closing, you savor the warm sensations all over, like a tight hug from a long lost friend.
Nostalgia sets in.
The vision quickly fades. You decide to sit in your favorite chair. You let out a loud sigh…the thought of the past heightens your longing. Time may not be on your side. You blinked and the years went swiftly by.
You placate yourself with the intention to reassure. Four decades is a lifetime spent away from your homeland. You convince yourself that you have a great home where you are. You love the culture that was once foreign to you. You have many friends. Yet something is still missing. Reality keeps knocking…the practical reality.
Many of my friends in America, Europe, and the Middle East have recently retired from their lifetime careers, and so have my high school friends back in the Philippines. We are in our sixties now and are often referred to as seniors. It took me a few years to let the word “senior” sink in into my psyche, another year to let it settle emotionally. This realization has allowed me to make a courageous decision to give up my nursing career. It meant giving up thousands of dollars pouring into my bank account every other week. I was determined to take that leap even if it meant losing my income and saying goodbye to a career that spanned over four decades. It was time for me to focus on what I considered the most meaningful move in my personal and professional life. So I did.
Since certainty is never a part of life, it is possible that I won’t have enough time to enjoy all the things I love to do. Oh, the arts! I’ve always wanted to become a full time artist, but life demanded that I stayed in the field of nursing longer than I intended.
Juggling two careers for eighteen years, I endured sleep deprivation so I could go to school during the day and work at night. Living a double life was an understatement. As if my struggle was not enough, life took on its natural course so fast that I had to set aside my personal pursuits to attend to the needs of my loved ones –my daughters’ weddings, my son’s college studies, my mother’s sudden illness, and her passing. My mother’s illness and passing gave me a new window into my own future. My view through this window becomes clearer as I get older. Will I live another twenty-five years…maybe thirty if I’m lucky? I’d blurt these thoughts aloud that my daughters could hear them.
“Mom, don’t talk about that…we don’t want to hear it.”
“But I need to talk openly about my future and my dying.” I’d tell them. “That is one inevitable truth everyone must face.”
I want to welcome aging and dying with an open heart. I intend to fade away with dignity and grace. I’ll wear a smile when life’s mysteries no longer exist.
Planning for old age is never one of my favorite subjects. I’d rather chase my lifelong dreams, rather than making plans with so-called experts. Following my passions is what makes me feel most alive. Isn’t that a great way to live in the present? However, having experienced a decade of single parenthood and raising three young children on my own, forces me to engage with financial advisers who seem to have all the answers. I find their calculated speculations encouraging. Timing plays a big role. Saving for the future must start as soon as income is generated. Many of us make the common mistake of thinking “I’m still young. I’ll do it later.” I’m guilty of making that mistake and it took me a decade to undo it. Sometimes, the well-known cliché, “The only time we have is now,” can be taken out of its context and places us off- balance. I find discipline as the key to the process of saving for the future. I place equal value to my near and far futures. To sacrifice one for the other can end in regrets. Saving for my old age does not mean I deprive myself of the priceless moments. “There may not be a tomorrow,” I remind myself. I travel to see new places, make friends, share stories and poetry with others, and sing before an audience whenever I can. In a strange turn of events, the lockdown brought about by the pandemic paved the way for me to complete writing the book I’d always wanted to write. While battling the signs of a looming depression, I wrote In The Typhoon’s Eye, my childhood memoir. I turn to writing as often as I can, treating it as my friendly companion when alone. I escape into the magical world of books to destress and heal myself. If inspiration is low, I cultivate it. I learn how to value time as my most precious commodity.
My family and friends are scattered all over the world and distance create another hurdle. Virtual meetings bridge the effects of distance but not all. Computer and cyber skills are vital especially in these times of disconnect. Without them, connecting with loved ones is almost impossible for my senior friends in their 80’s. Loneliness intensifies the yearning to return to their homeland, especially when their adult children live far to pursue careers in other countries. The gift of companionship comes easier to some but not to others. Some brave living a life of loneliness for the sake of physical comfort. For most seniors, choices narrow down to what can support them with their healthcare needs. Others choose to retire back in the Philippines believing that their happiness lies in being surrounded by their family of origin, the old culture they grew up with, in the old setting of where ‘home’ was. For those who are fortunate enough to afford maintaining two homes, one home in the Philippines and a second one abroad, their life can be more rewarding as they live in the best of both worlds.
The list of hardships experienced by the aging immigrant can be endless. If I dissect further and go deeper into the day-to-day battle, aches and pains occupy the top of the list. I am no exception to this reality. I visit doctors when I need to and choose to be proactive when it comes to my health. I prefer to be a step ahead instead of behind. Since none of us chose our genetic makeup, we inherit predispositions to certain illnesses. The good news is that pain can be managed to a point where it does not need to interfere with the quality of life. Although it took a few months to reduce the aches caused by degenerative changes in my spine, the combination of daily yoga stretches and Zumba exercises proved successful. I choose not to take pain medications. The simple things that we do on a daily basis can have a huge impact on our health as we age. Nutrition, exercise, recreation, socialization, and hobbies play significant roles in promoting health. Nourishing our body with healthy diet is just as vital as nourishing our mind with healthy information. “We are what we eat.” The daily rituals we do to feel good and maintain our well-being eventually turn into habits. Our habits become us.
Life is never easy. It may seem even harder for people who love adventure, like you and me. I am a wanderer seeking the very best in life. I don’t stop looking for answers. I know that life can be unfair but I rise above that painful truth. Life does not offer me anything without a price. Nothing is free. The moment I chose to live on life’s terms, I broke the shackles that have bound me for too long. I no longer tread inside the dark tunnel of pessimistic thinking. With renewed faith, like a child, I pursue everything that makes me happy. Material things are not the answer. I used to feel like I didn’t have enough clothes, jewelry, and other material possessions. Now I look around and I see that I got everything I need–a roof over my head, food on the table, the love and respect of my husband, children, friends, family, and the chance to live my waking dream. I’m living that dream as I speak. The inner voice says, Bles, it has been long overdue.
With aging comes the gift of wisdom, the end result of life experiences and self-awareness. With wisdom, it doesn’t mean I no longer make mistakes. Learning lessons does not stop. Taking risks is inevitable if I aim at having accomplishments. New mistakes are bound to happen as I navigate new territories, new fields of study, new skills, new relationships, and new places to navigate. Complacency is not in my vocabulary. I intend to enhance my knowledge, hone my skills, and polish my voice as an artist. With all live performances on hold due to the disruption caused by the pandemic, I create my own invisible platform. I sing my arias within the four walls of my home, at the same performance level I would give on a live stage, with imagined thundering applause from an audience in standing ovation. I dance to keep my body limber, my spirits lighter. Music and writing confirm what my life purpose is. Purpose adds meaning to my existence. I write poetry to connect with those who find beauty and solace in the written word. I tell true stories, healing and painful, beautiful and ugly, to widen perspectives and create better personal paradigms. I may not notice when my life’s sunset sneaks in to steal my sunlight for I’ll be too busy being happy. I live to inspire and be inspired. One story at a time.
Chasing my love for the arts took me to my temporary homes, each of them creating memories that have become part of me. The house where I grew up still stands on the same street that looks shorter now. Our old neighbors are gone. Nothing looks like the home I knew. Only the old kapok tree on the corner of the grassy yard bears resemblance of my childhood, in my age of innocence and wonderment.
Last summer, while visiting my children in South Florida, I overheard an impassioned conversation between my six-year old grandson and her five-year old cousin, my granddaughter.
“I want lola and lolo to buy a house in my neighborhood.”
“No, I want them to live in my neighborhood!”
The little cousins happened to live in the same neighborhood. From that moment on, I knew where my next home was going to be. It would be right in the midst of those who will bear my legacy.
You can buy Bles Chavez-Bernstein’s book In The Typhoon’s Eye and Without Rhyme collection of poems from Amazon.
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Bles Chavez-Bernstein is a Filipino-American soprano, poet, and author of Without Rhyme, a poet’s story, and In The Typhoon’s Eye, a story of childhood and leaving home. Bles has performed solo concerts in various countries including the U.S., Thailand, Philippines, Germany, and South Korea. In the last eighteen years, proceeds from her performances have supported advocacies for women and children worldwide. Bles has also devoted many years in the art and vocation of nursing, working as a registered nurse in the U.S. both as bedside clinician and director of nursing, in two clinical specialties: mental health and addictions nursing. Currently she is working on her second collection of poetry, Sensuous Healing. For more information on Chavez-Bernstein’s works, visit: www.blessingingpoet.com