Friday, 28 October 2016

The year of being sixty two: the lessons of becoming an orphan



Here is the October extract from the year of being sixty two, rather late in the month!  





Eventually we all become orphans, unless we die young and leave others to cope with the mess.  It’s odd then that it should be such a surprise.  My mother’s death though was a surprise.  One day she was apparently well, if tired, coping with my father’s motor neurone disease cheerily, orchestrating a move for them into an assisted living flat with customary energy and skill.  The next day we were driving desperately behind the air ambulance that was taking her to Exeter, my father talking determinedly about how they would manage her convalescence, me with a cold pit of fear in my stomach.  A major heart attack.  She was dead in her nightie on the bed in the recovery room when we got there, her hair askew, marks on her chest and arms from where they had tried to revive her.  She looked very small and very alone and totally gone.  I heard a wail of grief and rage go up from my father’s wheelchair.

My father’s death could not have been more different.  Over three years or so Motor Neurone Disease rubbed him out, beginning with the joke about not being able to tie his shoelaces and ending in silence, immobility, helplessness, nappies.  Prometheus in chains had a luckier time of it, at least he could shake his shackles.  By the end, his face all bone, his tongue stilled, his body useless, I was desperate for it to stop.  So was he I think although he could not say.   After months and years of determined good cheer in those last days he closed his mouth against the spoon.  Enough.  Time to stop.

Gone, both of them.  Shuddering shock for one, relief and release for the other.
Is it different for everyone or the same, to finally be an orphan?  I don’t know.  I have friends who have lost their parents but we do not talk about it.  We express sympathy of course and you might allow a good friend to talk about their sadness or their relief, once maybe, twice, three times would be pushing it.  But we rush back into the world of the living, caught up again in the swirl, caught out occasionally by the impulse to ring someone who is no longer there or by the shock of seeing their handwriting.  Those who struggle to accept it provoke both sympathy and irritation.  I have a friend whose mother died soon after mine did, nearly three years ago.  She still grieves.  She bursts into tears at odd moments.  I see her hurt and I am sorry for it but I am running out of patience.  Shit happens.  Death happens.

To lose your parents is to float free, an untethered balloon.  That might be good if your relationship had been a difficult one.  You would at last be free to be yourself.  My parents were supportive, loving, non-judgemental.  They loved having a good time with good food and good conversation, children and dogs and another bottle of wine.  Being with them was generally fun.  Losing them is both dreadful and puzzling.  How am I to live well now they are gone?  Partly I seek to do as they did in living each day intensely and happily for myself.  Partly I seek to do what they did for me.  Carefully, consciously, I try to recreate for my children and grandchildren what my parents created  for me: that sense of haven.  Each family event is another weighted rope thrown out over the side of the basket, trying to tether myself again.

This is necessary because the wind blows cold when your parents are gone.  There is no one ahead of you in the line, no comforting bulk taking the edge off the wind and the snow.  “Walk behind me.  Put your feet in my footprints” Dad said as we trudged across the common in a snowstorm.  “I can’t.  I can’t.” I was maybe seven.  “It’s too far.  Your feet are too big.”  “No, look.  I’m taking baby steps.  See, can you do it now?”  We are the ones in front now.  The next round of deaths will be ours, my generation.  So how to know that, how to look that in the eye and not go mad?

Glancingly might be all we can manage.  If we look directly into the basilisk eye we may be completely incapacitated by our own mortality.  But to look glancingly, to accept that the time that is left is much less than the time which has gone, can be the opposite of incapacitating.  It can be, and for me increasingly is, energising, focussing.  What do I want to do? Are there places I want to see that need the physical capacity I have right now?  Are there things I want to do which I had better get on with?  It helps with the hugely difficult question of what time is for to know that is it limited. 

And there can be a relief too in letting go of things.  In my twenties and thirties I envied people who could ski.  I used to watch the glorious, graceful, swishing speed and think that it must be wonderful to be able to do it.  I had friends who loved ski-ing so much that they would forgo a summer holiday to do it.  And now I am sixty two and it is pretty clear that learning to ski was never important enough to me for me to make it happen. If it didn’t matter earlier it is unlikely to happen now.  Articulate that thought and many people jump in: “You could still learn.”  “If you want to ski  get out there and do it.”  They miss the point.  I haven’t done it.  I don’t intend to do it.  When there is so clearly not enough time for lots of things you can let some of them go without guilt or much regret.  Looks like I will not be ski-ing, or playing a musical instrument to a high standard or learning to scuba dive.  That’s fine.  Acceptance of that doesn’t sadden me, rather it is a relief a let it go.

But I need to think about the things that I don’t want to let go and try to protect them.  I want to travel, adventurously as well as comfortably.  I want to continue to walk distances and hills.  So what I really need for as long as I can in this next twenty, twenty five years of my life, is health and strength and energy.  So I am trying to use that sense of the briefness of life to look after myself and others so that we can make the day sing.  Do I succeed? One day at a time.


65 comments:

  1. We were probably born in the same year. I understand the loss of both parents and being our age, I always feel it's like lemmings dropping off the cliff. When your parents are alive there is a psychological buffer, but when they're gone that is gone. I still work full time but hope to at least cut back.
    Christy
    Lilbitbrit

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    1. I know just what you mean about the buffer! Strange to know that they went through this too, as has every generation I imagine. Hope you can get to cut back on work. I am a big believer in having a good time!

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  2. Beautifully written. I still have my pop who is 93. My hubby has been an orphan for over 20 years now. I appreciate your outlook. Blessings...

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    1. How lucky you are to have your father at ninety three. If someone is happy and healthy there can be much pleasure both for them and for you in their old age. We had Ian's father until he was ninety five and it was only in the last three months or so that things were hard for him. Health is critical. The pressure on adult children when parents age and fail can be huge I know.

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  3. As always, you have articulated so much of what I am thinking and feeling. We are turning into the people we perceived our parents as now, both in terms of our appearance and we way we are seen by others. Being in the front line is scary but also motivating. As you say, it does focus the mind sharply.

    I was thinking about this the other day, enjoying some beautiful Autumn scenery, wondering if I would appreciate the pleasures of life so much if life was unlimited? I do wish, though, that time would slow down! Every month, every year seems to pass more quickly but trying to live well every day is the best defence.

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    1. I do know what you mean about wishing time would slow down! It seems to speed up instead. I remember my father in law at ninety five talking about how the months felt like days! I have read something somewhere about how time slows when you do things that are different from the common routine. You know the sense you have when you have had a long weekend away that it seems as if you have been away longer than two or three days? So some change along with the contented daily round is my recipe!

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  4. How true - and beautifully written. Yes, indeed we are orphans now and yet I still don't feel entirely 'grown up'. I see my sons looking to to us for the kind of knowledge and skills that once i looked to my parents for. I wonder if like me they felt they were making it up as they went along.

    I'm quite liking these years of late middle age (let's call it that - I don't like OLD) Accepting more, yet being inclined to rage more at the issues that do matter to me; having more confidence certainly and not being afraid to let go of some of the things I felt in the past I really ought to do. When the days and years don't stretch ahead as once they did I want to fill the remainder with family and joy. Can only hope.

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    1. I am liking this stage too Felicity. I am not sure what label to put on it. It feels like more than middle age but less than old age if you know what I mean. There is as you say a confidence and knowledge of what matters to me which I love. I love your phrase about filling "the remainder with family and joy". Perfect. Yes. Exactly.

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  5. Beautifully written, you have articulated what people often feel and think but cannot say, take care

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    1. Thank you Rona. I never know if what I think and feel is what others think and feel. It is interesting and comforting to find that it might be.

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  6. I was an orphan at 25. My parents died five years apart, almost to the day, both on Maundy Thursday and buried the day before Easter. One of them I wasn't close to, and his death hasn't had much effect on me. But my mother I still miss, and I still cry. Each new stage of my life she hasn't gotten to share makes me sad. She would have been a wonderful, attentive, fun grandmother to my kids, but they only know her through my stories. And now her greatgrands are in the world. What I have lived with for all these years is the unpredictability of life. I have more fear that my friends with parents, or whose parents died when they were older, but they are pretty much the fears of illness and danger. I'm not a worrier of little things like so many I know. Over the years of the blog, I've written about my mother occasionally, and once I used the footsteps as you did here. http://lettersfromahillfarm.blogspot.com/2008/02/they-say-its-your-birthday.html

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    1. I cannot imagine losing my mother earlier. It was dreadful but yet somehow natural to lose her at fifty nine. Still I think about her very often and register again and again those things which have happened since she died that she would have loved to be a part of. I will read your steps!

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  7. Liz this is one of the best pieces I have ever read on this not-enough-addressed topic xxx

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    1. oh thank you Hannah! I really appreciate that!

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  8. I was looking at my Christopher Robin poetry book, and I see my mother's writing - Christmas 1963.

    The buffer is even less when it is siblings who no longer stand by your side.

    Hoping to be able to see to read, and to walk (if not hike exactly) for as many years as possilbe.

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    1. the loss of a sibling must be dreadful. there is some part of you that knows that the loss of a parent will come, however unprepared you are when it comes. somehow it seems that your siblings will always be with you.

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  9. Very honest and objective. We need to be able to work through what is of value in our life and relationships. Thank you for sharing this.

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    1. thank you Paul. I think it is good to have the chance to really think about this. it is so easy for life to whiz by unexamined.

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  10. Very honest and objective. We need to be able to work through what is of value in our life and relationships. Thank you for sharing this.

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  11. What you've written would be moving at any time, but this year when I've lost both my stepfather and my mother within 6 weeks of each other it is especially so for me. I haven't really begun to assimilate it yet, it's too soon and I've been away from my family for months, but I found what you said comforting. Thank you.

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    1. I'm so glad you found it comforting. what a tremendous amount you have had to cope with. I would wish for my thinking about this too be comforting because, although the losses are terrible and hard to bear, they are also natural and inevitable and must be borne and somehow accommodated. and somehow life ultimately is sweet.

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  12. Elizabeth, you've written about so many important things the human mind ponders, especially as one grows older, in such an eloquent manner that, despite the intimidating subject matter, drew me in.

    Thanks for sharing.
    Wishing you a wonderful weekend,
    Poppy

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    1. I'm glad you both read and commented poppy. it's not an easy thing to write about so it is wonderfully encouraging that people want to read!

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  13. Elizabeth - that is beautifully written. I am still trying to work out my feelings on the death of my husband three weeks ago. I know there was relief that his suffering was finally over, also for myself as I found it very hard to deal with. I have been pleased to find that I can now look back on the good times whereas previously all I could see was the day to day making sure he was cared for.

    I am ten years older than you but still find it hard to believe that I am now the matriarch of the family.

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    1. I am so sorry to hear of the death of your husband Susan. I do know just what you mean about beginning to be able to remember the good times again after a hard death. take care of yourself.

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  14. I've only just discovered your blog, and what a find it is! In a few short months I'll be turning 60, and this has set me to thinking through many of the things you've talked about in this post. I lost my dad five years ago, and my mom is in rather poor health. I'm very aware that someday soon there will be no one ahead of me in the line. I plan to go back to the beginning of your blog, and am looking forward to reading through all of your posts.

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    1. It's great to have you reading kristie. I love to hear other people's experiences and thoughts!

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  15. Thank you so much for this beautifully written blog, it resonates totally with me as an orphan (59). I can see that you have managed to put so much into prospective, things that were thought might be important really aren't (I use to want to learn to ski, no longer) like you my loved ones are the most important reason to be here. Thank you again for your openness and honesty. Woo xx

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    1. it's very interesting to see that some of my personal experience comes strongly with other people and some of it doesn't. I do think that the shifting perspective which comes with ageing and loss is valuable and an unexpected plus of getting older!

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    2. I'm trying to says chimes but my predictive text won't play! Sorry.

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  16. Beautifully written Elizabeth and it's given me much to ponder on my current situation. Lots of hard decisions to be made over the next few weeks.

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    1. sorry to hear you have hard decisions to make. I'll be thinking of you.

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  17. Beautifully written, as always. I find I don't know what to say in trying, though, except me too on the skiing, and the feeling that I need to get a little more focused about the things I do still want to do. This despite still having both parents, though we are not close any more. I suppose in a very real way I feel I have already lost them, and an very focused on anchoring myself to the friends and family I do still have in my life. I look forward to reading about your adventurous travelling!!

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    1. your reply and Anne's below make me realise how difficult it is for me to imagine how life would have been if I had been estranged from our just not close to my parents. even though we had not lived in physical proximity for all my adult life they were a vital and happy part of my life. you remind me of how lucky I am.

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  18. So much has shifted for me in the last few years, with my mother dying a few months before my 60th birthday, my father-in-law a couple of months after, a shocking rift emerging between us and my husband's family in the wake of that loss. With his mother's death a year ago, there appears little chance of much reconciliation, although we made several efforts and have re-established friendly relations with one of his siblings. My family, luckily, were guided by my father through a very long journey with the cancer that took him too early, at 73, to grow closer and closer, and walking our mom together to her final door only reinforced that closeness. So I have very mixed feelings about parental death (probably also complicated by the fact that my brother died suddenly of heart failure at 19, when I was 23, so that awareness of mortality perhaps got ramped up early). I've struggled regularly, when feeling low, with the question of whether any of what I've done has meaning, given that I would have thought raising my kids fairly well was probably my biggest joy/accomplishment -- knowing that my mother and father-in-law certainly felt the same way, knowing that they could never have imagined this estrangement -- honestly, I find this tougher to reconcile that being the front line now that they're gone. It's more that, knowing the front line is gone and I'm now it, I've found out that the front line might have been leading us all in the wrong direction and I've been following for so long that it's too late to change direction.
    But on other days, when I'm much more sanguine, I shake my head, and realise that I have simply to let it go, as you suggest. To hold on to what's good and to the memories of what was good. Also, and I think that this extends from what you're saying here, to recognise through this experience how little we can control the future (I know, duh!) and thus just do the best we can at the moment and leave lots of room for pleasing myself and my husband.
    When I came back to comment properly on this post, I'd hope for more coherence than this, but know at least that you've stirred up some thinking. And oh my, your commitment to this narrative about your 63rd year is really paying off. Your writing is wonderful throughout this series, and I'm looking forward to more. (And yes, I'd love to have some of the conversation chez vous, and will just have to put Wales high up on the list, and get there before you move on.. . .)

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    1. Yikes! Until I hit "Publish" I didn't see how much I'd written. Sorry. . .

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    2. I'm totally delighted with the length of your comment so please don't apologise! the family rift you describe and the estrangements other people touch on are very hard. no family entirely escapes this I think, even the most fortunate. and death and funerals bring long submerged resentments and sadnesses to the surface, especially among siblings. loving your own people and looking after the yourself is perhaps all you can do

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  19. I want to comment, as I feel it speaks if I don't. But just what message it should be I'm not sure. I was estranged from my parents for many years and have no children, so much of what you say is a different world for me.

    I know you've had a rough old ride the last few years and I know too you have been spared the too common and too little discussed distresses of the kind materfamilias refers to. I feel glad that you can both look back satisfied with the love and comfort you offered at such cost, for so long. And so I imagine you find your own comfort in that. And I do hope you enjoy your freedoms for many good years.

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    1. I am glad you commented Anne and I am aware also that when I write about my own experience it has to be mine, which is not everybody's. I sometimes feel something like guilt when I am reminded of how fortunate I am in my family, but still we are touched by loss and illness and death. And despite having some very dear friends who have no children I feel I have no insight into what that is like, even though I respect their choice and can see it is right for them, because my own children and grandchildren are such a fundamental part of how I deal with my own mortality. Love the conversation.

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  20. I'm also 62 and lost my mother many years ago but when my father died in 1999, I was bereft. No back up, no support, suddenly I was afloat on the sea of life without a navigator. It does get easier though xx

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    1. It is very strange isn't it Annie? It is years since I asked my parents for advice and yet I always felt their silent steady support and I do miss it still.

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  21. Incredibly moved by this. When my second parent died the old Irish phrase (translated) came to mind "Now the roof is off your life". In every sense.
    You ace this. My last dog has died. I say last and mean it. Another epoch awaits me.
    XO
    WWW

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    1. i love that phrase "the roof is off your life". that is exactly how it feels, colder, less sheltered. lovely

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  22. Eloquently put. I lost my brother very young, he was 21 and I was 17. Dad and Step Dad 5 and 7 years ago. Mum went last January and it was a relief for her and us. I am concentrating on being a good Mum to my 2 girls and hope that when the time comes, they will do for me what I did for Mum. I do feel rudderless though, despite the relief of not having to do daily visits.

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    1. I know just what you mean by saying you feel rudderless. I felt just the same. and yes to the relief too. it was time for it to stop for my father so there was relief as well as loss.

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  23. Another treat - another good bit of reading assured when I clicked on this post. Both my parents are still living - my mother living through the long goodbye that is Alzheimer's and my father desperate to spend every waking minute with her while I dance around them....supporting one, feeding another and feeling totally inadequate to most of what is going on around me. It's not just my story - I see it everywhere. What I've come to is the attitude of Big Joy Big Sorrow.....it's all just life, where shit and sunshine happen, one after the other or in great long stretches.
    I agree with what you've said about the freedom of letting go. There's nothing quite like it and one has to come to the realisation of what does and doesn't matter to really understand that freedom. Like you, I hope to maintain my own flexibility and strength for another 20 or 25 years so that I can continue to do the things I love to do - walking and traveling, swimming etc. Part of that is within my own power to control, while a terrifying part is not - so random.

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    1. I do so agree that this is all life. my family had a long period in the sunshine but darkness is just add much a part of life. now we are emerging into the sunshine again. it's all life. I wish you all the best in your care for your parents. it is hard but you do make such a difference.

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  24. Like others, I am overcome by the beauty of your writing. I identify with much of what has been said and look forward to the next instalment. Thank you.
    Mary

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    1. thank you Mary. I do appreciate that and thank you too for taking the trouble to comment. it's great to know that people are reading.

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  25. I hope this finds you and yours doing well. May we display your header on our new site directory? As it is now, the site title (linked back to its home page) is listed, and we think displaying the header will attract more attention. In any event, we hope you will come by and see what is going on at SiteHoundSniffs.com.

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    1. Thank you so very much for giving permission. You can see your linked header under All, Daily Life, Photography and the United Kingdom. If you could say something (preferably good) about SiteHoundSniffs.com here and there, I would greatly appreciate it.

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  26. Excellent post, as usual, brought back memories. I know exactly that 'next in the firing line' feeling you get when your second parent dies, though in my case it happened many years ago. That was particularly isolating: all my friends had living relatives and, as my brother said, 'you're not supposed to be orphans in your 30s'. Thank you!

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    1. you remind me how lucky I was to have my parents for so long and fit most of the time very happy and healthy until just the last two or three years. lots of memories from a lifetime with them.

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  27. That is the most beautiful post. Nothing else to say. x

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  28. As always you find the most apt words. My parents are still living but have dementia, it is a different kind of loss but its effect is not dissimilar.

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    1. a different kind of loss as you say but no less dreadful. and the prolonged nature of the dying is, like my father's, particularly hard. but i did have the satisfaction of knowing that my father knew how deeply he was loved.

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  29. my mother passed when I was 46 and my father four years later when I was 50. Both were ill for a long time. One was more excruciating than the other but both were a release. I remember a cousin of mine, a pastor, calling and telling me that no matter how old you are when you lose your last parent you feel like an orphan and it is true. No matter what was going on in my life, whenever I was out I always called my mother to let her know I was home safely. When she passed I continued that behavior with my father. When he was gone I was lost. I had no one to call. I still feel like an orphan all these years past.

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    1. oh yes, that sense of having no one to call! I still think of how much my mother would have liked a piece of news but at least I have now stopped physically going to the phone before I remember.

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  30. Another of your complex, thought-provoking posts, Elizabeth, with too much in it to do it justice with a comment - how good it would be to sit with you over a cup of tea and talk about these experiences!

    For me, a key phrase for living is "one day at a time" - and each day presents differently to me; like you, I find it a relief to let go of some things that I will never do, or be, but instead to look at what matters and might really be part of this last quarter of my life.

    I do not always think of my mother in my everyday life, but she was a very strong presence in my own son's life. I find that I talk about her, and feel her absence most, when with him and his baby son; I remember the play, the songs, the stories (oh, she was a gifted story teller!), the general loving interest she always showed in his baby years. How she would have loved her great-grandson! The words "Your Grandma used to...." frequently begin a conversation between my son and I, and bring us together in a rooted sense of belonging to a family that despite being sparsely populated, spans generations in remembrance.

    I may be ahead in the line now, but ahead of me is my mother in memory, and some of her footprints are still there for us all to step into.

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    1. I love the idea of the sense of family spamming the generations in remembrance. I think we do that to in my family but it is not something I had put words in before. it's both a lovely phrase and a lovely thing to do.

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  31. I have read this post several times - as I often do with many of your posts. You writing is moving and very eloquent. Something I aspire to but will never achieve - can I let that go? I will certainly never learn to swim now. My parents are gone now and it is a difficult transition no matter what your age. You have touched a chord with your readers.

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    1. thank you. these posts take a while to write so I love the idea that they may be read more than once. that's wonderful!

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