Here’s The Thing We’re Not Prepared For…

We’re prepared for a lot of things as we roll through middle age.

Thanks to Madison Avenue, we have our wrinkle creams, our hair dyes, our botox injections, our medicines for things that can’t get up and things that won’t go down.  We take longer vacations to Florida or Arizona in the winter and spend more time in the summer at the cottage.  We don’t camp in tents anymore, but we love to have the grandchildren or great-nephews in pup tents in the backyard.  We go to 35th high school reunions and 40th university reunions and remark on how great everyone looks!  We gather for the weddings of our best friends’ children and send christening gifts when we become honourary grandparents, kidding our friends about being “Grandma and Papa” now.

And  yes, we think about our mortality a little, just enough to do some estate planning maybe, certainly write a will, definitely think about how long those retirement dollars will last.  But what we’re really not prepared for is other people dying.

It’s the natural order of things that our parents die before we do – at least, that’s what parents want, to go before their kids.  Of course we know that that’s what’s going to happen.  But when it does, we’re still shell-shocked.  And then, slowly but surely it’s not just our parents, but our godfather and our uncle and our cousins who are dying, and suddenly that close, expansive, joyful world of family and friends-who-might-as-well-be-family is smaller, tighter, sadder because people are dying.

And it’s not just that we’re aging: our children and nieces & nephews are growing up and bringing new partners into the circle and it’s not what it was.  It’s not who we are any more… it’s who we were.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot through the winter.  My cousin Jeff died just over a year ago, my dear father-in-law died late last fall, and just a couple of months later, my cousin, my father’s much-loved cousin, Janet Stewart Prince, died from the complications of Parkinson’s.  Ross would have been the first one to mourn her, after her children, Judith & Stewart, of course.  They were buddies all their lives and I know she felt his loss deeply when he died 11 some years ago.

 

Uncle Walter & Aunt Janet with my father, Ross

Uncle Walter & Aunt Janet with my father, Ross

 

Aunt Janet, as we called her, and Uncle Walter are woven into the fabric of my life.  They dominate memories of my childhood at the cottage in Oliphant, along with Uncle Walter’s brother’s family (Uncle Jack & Aunt Elaine and their boys, including my first ‘fiancee’, Cam), Aunt Janet’s sister, another cousin, Aunt Margery & Uncle Jack and their boys, and the Bennett families (Uncle Cam & Aunt Mary and their children, Uncle Jim & Aunt Patsy and their children), and in later years, we were thrilled to also welcome to every day life at Oliphant my Uncle Bruce (Dad’s ‘baby’ brother) and Aunt Patty.  When I think of beaches and swimming and fishing and sailing and boating and water-skiing and softball and picnics in the dunes behind the cottage, I think of these people and the Dixon boys and Dougal Robertson (another cousin!).  Eating wieners on a stick and burnt marshmallows and I think of them.  Playing games of Red Rover and British Bulldog and I think of them.  Biking down to the general store for ice cream cones and I think of them.

Just as a little aside, I have story Aunt Janet used to tell on herself which I never fail to think of when baking.  She didn’t. Bake, that is, but some occasion called for her to do so, probably a tea, or maybe a funeral.  In any case, she bought a box mix for brownies, thinking that these had to be easy to do.  And they were!  She followed the instructions for pre-heating the oven and prepping the baking pan, and then adding eggs and oil to the brownie mix.  Then she got to the next part.  Which she read twice and said, “Oh well….” and went to roll up her sleeves and wash her hands thoroughly because the instructions said: MIX BY HAND.  It took her a sticky, chocolatey moment or two to realize that perhaps they meant stir, WITH A SPOON, by hand and not a mixer.

They were all of a kind, these adults who filled my childhood.  They worked hard and contributed much.  They raised pretty large and fairly happy families for the most part, they loved good martinis & Oliphant just about equally, and they asked for very little back except to enjoy a good life.  I think most of them got it, most of the time, and if things didn’t always turn out the way they might have hoped when they were children and teenagers, I hope with all my heart that they know that the one thing that did turn out was giving us the very best of childhoods.

There will be a memorial service for Aunt Janet on Saturday, the day before Stewart celebrates his birthday, the day before what would have been my father’s 82nd birthday!  My joyful heart is aching that I cannot be there — sad to miss the people I love, happy to share in heart and mind so many, many wonderful memories.

Dear Judith & Ross, Dear Stewart & Mary… I hope your hearts and those of  your children are also joyful this weekend especially, even as they ache.

in the front, Aunt Janet, Aunt Elaine, my mother Joy (being squeezed by Uncle Jack P); second row Uncle Jack C, Uncle Jim, my father Ross, Aunt Patsy; back row Aunt Margery (partially hidden), Aunt Patty, Uncle Bruce. Uncle Walter is the photographer.

in the front, Aunt Janet, Aunt Elaine, my mother Joy (being squeezed by Uncle Jack P); second row Uncle Jack C, Uncle Jim, my father Ross, Aunt Patsy; back row Aunt Margery (partially hidden), Aunt Patty, Uncle Bruce. Uncle Walter is the photographer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joy In the Light & Life

It wasn’t on our watch, and it wasn’t in the building, but we lost our first resident on Saturday.

We didn’t know her well; since we arrived, she’d been unwell with what her husband described as an infection in her arm that just wouldn’t heal.  As it turns out, what was wrong was leukeamia.  And two weeks after the diagnosis, she died in hospital, surrounded by family and secure in her faith.

It’s not for me to say whether or not I believe that she saw Jesus as she was dying, as she told her family, or that where she was headed was a beautiful place.  What I do know is that statement made her dying easier for her, and has made her death easier to accept for her very religious family.  I am glad for their comfort, their joy in the knowledge they believe they have found.

What I do know from this experience is that death is both ordinary and unique.  It comes to all of us, we can’t escape it however much we might try.  It’s tritely true:  we are born, we live, we die.  What comes between those two points, the way we live is what I believe makes the life worthwhile.   What makes the death we all face unique is how we face it, both for ourselves and for those we leave behind.  And if seeing Jesus and a beautiful heaven and with your last breath sharing that information with your family is how you face death… good for you.

One death lead me to think about others, especially as I read emails shared amongst my siblings about the (nearly) last of dealing with my father’s estate, which came up at the same time as our resident died.  I thought about Ross and about Joy, and about my grandparents, all missing from my life but not from my heart.  I remembered the phone calls relaying the news in each instance, the rising sadness and almost overwhelming loss that each call meant.  I remember the love that swamped our family, the laughter that we shared and the tears we sometimes tried to hide, and given this family, the food and the booze that we consumed!

I have decided something that is either deeply profound or horribly banal – or maybe it’s both.  In any case, what I’ve come to understand is that the joy of life is what I want to remember.  I want to remember, and be remembered for, laughter and silliness, and my clumsiness, and my exquisite shrimp risotto and my lousy coffee and my willingness to share my opinion about every thing with every one.  I want people to know that even when I am completely pissed off at life, even when I am at my lowest as I was the day the theatre let me go, even when I am my most frustrated because I cannot find a job in the cultural sector, I am still filled with joy because I will find a reason to laugh, I will find a reason to be silly, I will share a bottle of wine with friends and make another brilliant risotto, and I will find work that I never expected to do but is surprisingly rewarding.

This is what I will see on my death bed – I hope – the joy that is now and always will be my life.

 

 

The Gaping Maw of A Life In Transition

My days often start with a couple of Aspirin.  I was diagnosed quite a number of years ago with RA, but I have to say that if it really is RA, it’s not progressing the way it usually does, or maybe I am extremely lucky and my version of rheumatoid arthritis is very mild.  Certainly I have always had a very decided tendency to early morning stiffness – more than just my god I slept crookedly stiffness – and I have pretty constant ache-iness in hands and neck but nothing like real pain.  Trust me, if it was real pain, y’all would know.  I am a giant suck for pain.  Stub my toe, go to bed, lie in darkened room with bell to ring for soothing embrocations… and scotch.

Where was I going with this?  Oh, yeah, Aspirin.  I got to thinking about what it means to start one’s day with a med, even a fairly innocuous OTC product like Aspirin.  It means… middle-age.  And that means… getting older.  Which of course, I’m  not!  Never mind not going gently into that good night, I’m not going into the early evening without a lot of kicking and screaming, thank you very much.

Of course I am going into the early evening.  We all are.  It’s just a matter of how we do it.  And I’m planning on doing it by embracing the possibilities that open up.

That starts with a new career path that Jeff & I are about to start – working with an older population.  We’ve done kids, now we’re doing oldsters.  And we’re looking forward to it.  But it’s not just our workplace – it’s also going to be about lifestyle.  We pushed the busy track for a long, long time, and I think now the time is right to re-adjust.  Jeff, actually, has been re-adjusting for awhile, having given up office jobs for the pursuit of music as both vocation and avocation for about five years.  I’m the slower one, slower to recognize that living life at a somewhat easier pace is okay.

Somewhat.  Let’s be real here.  I like a little stress in my life – I think it keeps my brain sharp and my attention focused – but I don’t want to be stressed out constantly.  And I think what we’re planning to do will provide me with a little stress, but not too much.  I’ll be like Goldilocks – everything is just right!

There are other reasons we’re taking this path, not the least  of which is Jeff’s parents.  They’re 90 years old now, and age is making them slow down a lot.  Mom has had some relatively minor heart problems for the past year, but with the right meds, is doing really well.  Dad has a few mobility issues with a bad knee and is showing some short term memory challenges, but again is otherwise well.  Jeff tries to visit them once a month or so (we’re a four hour drive apart), and talks with them regularly, writes letters fairly often, and otherwise is a great youngest son.  But it’s what Mom told me last year that has been an important touch stone for me as I make this transition from one industry to another, from one lifestyle to another – “enjoy your old age before you actually get old!”

My mother-in-law is so smart.

Watching both of them age, and seeing how they’re doing it with the same simple philosophy that they have always used – which is, just get on with it, so typical of the Depression era/WWII generation – added to which is a layer of strength and even, dare I say, courage (because being old isn’t for sissies!) makes me love them and cherish them even more than I do.  My own parents died too young – 62 for my mother, 71 for my dad – and I miss them every day. But there is a tiny little part of me that is grateful that they and we, their six children, missed the long descent.  Even though cancer killed our mother, she wasn’t ill for long, she had meds for the pain, and she died at home which is all anyone could ask for, and on the whole I think better than dying long and slow.

So deciding to work with older people as a part and parcel of our new careers (which will also include marketing, sales, endless paper pushing, and staff management) seems to be a natural growth of where we’ve come from, and to where we are all headed.  The transition is still, um, transitioning for us.  We’ve given notice on our house, we’re staring at packing boxes like we know what to do with them (we do, we just don’t want to quite face them), we’re making lists about “stuff to live with” and “stuff to store” and “stuff that’s really WTH do we own this”.  We hope to be in place and working by May 1st (following several weeks of training) and are… excited.

Life in the cultural sector has been rewarding.  Not so much with the dollars, but with the creativity and the fun and the good work and, most especially, the very great and wonderful people with whom I got to work. But, and here I’m going to choose my words carefully because this blog is trolled, the heartbreak has been difficult.  Not just recently for me, but for Jeff too a few years ago with a management job he had with musical organization, not to mention the indecencies that happened to another theatre company I worked for, behaviour that deeply hurt and damaged all of us who loved the company.

Tough decisions and tough actions will always have to be taken in any industry – I get that.  And the company for which we’re going to work made some huge, gigantic mistakes in staff management when they were going through their own transition two, three years ago. But they’ve learned from some of those mistakes, and we don’t think they’ll be making those same ones again.

I most sincerely hope that’s true because I don’t have problems with mistakes, even huge ones.  I have problems with people not learning from them, and making the same damn mistakes over again. Having made some doozies of my own, I can only trust that I’m smart enough, and maybe open-minded enough, not to repeat those same ones (really, please be smart enough…), leaving the field wide open to new experiences, new mistakes, new challenges and new rewards.