Our “Next Things”
Throughout our lives, our focus has been on the “next thing.” In high school, the “next thing” was college, and in college, the “next thing” became a job. Our professors hound us with relentless emails about internships — our key to enter the fabled “real world” that once seemed so distant — and urge us to perfect our resumes so that we can enter that mysterious new reality: our “next thing.” Chasing our “next thing” feels like chasing the horizon. We never stop. The chase never ends.
But what happens when we finally reach the horizon? What’s it like when the “next thing” becomes the “last thing?”
Last summer, my parents bought the last house they will ever buy. It is a dazzling house in a stunning new community in Lewes, Del. that entices people — mostly those who are about to retire — with resort living. Community members can take advantage of the immense outdoor pool with a swim-up bar, a walking trail that weaves its way through towering trees and a lustrous lake and a café inside a cozy community clubhouse, all a short distance from the Delaware beaches.
I spent all of spring break at the mini-resort. Three model homes were available to tour at the entrance of the community. I toured all three, and I left each one feeling like I stepped out of an episode of “The Property Brothers.” The houses were elegant, each with their own personality, and each seemingly unattainable. They would be out of my price range until the end of time.
But not for the older (sorry mom and dad) couples touring the houses. Their eyes darted from room to room as they imagined the home they would retire in. Surely this would not be the wall color they would choose for their kitchen. But the nautical anchor in the corner of the master bedroom would be perfect for their future living room.
I watched the couples, whose smiles were even brighter than the beaming blue walls of the model home we toured. I felt envious. Their biggest worry is deciding between a freshwater blue or a gentle aquamarine blue for their kitchen walls, while I squirm in bed most nights, wondering what my future career will be.
They are at a serene point in their lives. I am not. I was jealous.
My parents felt it was important for me to meet some of their neighbors. I followed them over to the other houses and met some of their new friends. They were all so kind. So happy. And why shouldn’t they be? They reached their horizon. A marvelous, tranquil horizon. One that seemed so far from me.
I entered their houses and saw all of the different layouts and features they had chosen, each room thoroughly thought out and never completely finished. Everything was “a work in progress,” as more furniture was coming and different ideas needed testing.
This is the life, I thought, as my parents joked with the neighbors about how beautiful their house was. Good work mom and dad.
I still felt envious.
One of my parent’s new neighbors, a friendly couple who lived directly across the street, took us through their whole house. There were stunning, bright paintings on the walls, all painted by the man’s mother. One was a painting of the family playing on the beach. More were from his mother’s art classes she had taken many years ago while she was in college. They showed all the events that were once the “next things.” Graduating college. Having a family.
We moved to the unfinished basement, where cardboard boxes overflowed with clothes and books. Valuables, like autographed photos of sports heroes and their children’s old belongings, were stacked next to the staircase. My dad noticed a soccer ball covered with signatures. He asked his neighbor who had signed the ball. It could have been a whole professional team (the homeowner worked for a sporting goods company), and could be worth a great deal of money.
The neighbor explained how it was signed by his son’s soccer team from years ago. They signed it for his son while the boy was in the hospital. His son had been in a coma for weeks. They almost lost him.
My envy left me. I thought about how that coma could have been that boy’s “last thing.” I saw the neighbor’s demeanor change as he told the story, and how quickly he forgot about that house and that community.
When I returned to Newark, I resumed working toward my “next thing.” But it felt different. It felt secondary.
No one knows what it’s like to reach the “last thing.” When we reach our horizons, they may not be as glamorous as my parent’s horizon. Maybe we won’t even know we found our “last thing.”
Maybe we should just be thankful for having a “next thing.”