A message from an ‘oldie’

It’s strange not having any parents. I don’t mean in a tragic way that a young orphan might have no parents but I mean as a mature adult who has been lucky enough to see both of their parents reach old age before they died. I’m really struggling to pin down the feeling in my own mind so it might be a bit ambitious to try to describe it but I’ll have a go.

Many years ago when I was a lot braver than I am now I used to do a bit of rock climbing. If you were a novice climber and short of cash you generally climbed on a single 11mm rope but more experienced climbers employed two slightly thinner ropes of 9mm. Each rope would support you in the case of a fall but it was more flexible to have two in terms of placing anchor points in the rock. If in some unlikely circumstance one of the ropes became ineffective you could still rely on the second rope to support you. Having two parents alive is similar in a way and when my Dad died over fifteen years ago, although it was sad and I missed him, I didn’t feel anything like I did when Mum died many years later.

I was present when she died and it was a moving experience. In many ways it was a relief for her and for us so there was no sensation that it shouldn’t have happened. No blame or regret, just a feeling of inevitability. For a while I was wrapped up in the funeral arrangements and sorting out her estate and it was quite some time before I became aware of the feeling of climbing without ropes.

It was an odd feeling because it wasn’t as if Mum had been able to offer me any support in the last few years of her life; quite the reverse. As she succumbed to dementia and frailty she required more and more help from me (and the rest of the family) but as long as she was alive I was still a child. I was still the ‘next generation’ until the moment she passed away and then, as she breathed her last breath I became the ‘older generation’.

Those supporting ropes that are always there for us were gone for good. I became more acutely aware of all the other lines that form the network that we rely on to get us through life. I still had a wife, two children, a sister, cousins and other relatives and friends of course but to go back to the climbing analogy I now realised that all of these metaphorical ropes were different. They were of different strengths or thickness and perhaps the reason I felt so different was because the guys that bind us to our parents are often the strongest of them all.

I don’t feel like I am in danger of falling without Mum and Dad, it’s more like when a couple of spokes break in a wheel and it isn’t quite as strong as it was but it will still function with a bit of tweaking. Maybe, in time, the other strands that bind me to friends and family will grow stronger to take up the strain and this sensation that I have now will fade away. I’m not actually sure I want it to though. I’m not sad, not at all. No I am comforted by the fact that I am really aware of those missing support lines and it makes me appreciative of what they gave me for so long.

Supporting guys, Swansea Bay

Supporting guys, Swansea Bay

I am less enthusiastic about the sensation that there is nothing now between me and old age. I can’t hide behind the old age of my parents anymore, comforted by the fact that it isn’t my turn yet. No matter how many years and adventures I have left in my life, I have to face the fact that there is no looking up any more, only down to those that come after me. The next generation.

For many years our family used to gather at a hotel in St. Anne’s for a weekend get together. It was a lovely time and often there would be four generations sharing the experience. We used to refer, affectionately, to my Mum and Dad’s generation as ‘the oldies’ at those gatherings. We haven’t managed a reunion like that for a while now but every now and again, at a family funeral or wedding there is talk of reinstating the annual institution. I’m not altogether sure that I want to be an ‘oldie’ but I don’t suppose it’s a matter of choice any more.

Seven days, seven blogs. What have I started?

If you have been reading the blog again this week then you can skip this post. It’s a bit of a repeat of the first one of the year but I’ve had a change of heart and my confidence is returning, mostly thanks to some of you readers, so here is another attempt at explaining where I am.

I was really disappointed with myself for letting the blog fall by the wayside in 2015 so I thought I would start this year off with a bit of a challenge and try and get back into the swing of it. I decided not to do the #dryjanuary challenge that I did last year but it’s always nice to start things off with a bit of a test so I have promised myself I will try and write every day and actually publish what I write. The hardest part about the challenge by far is thinking up topics to write about and then being brave enough to hit the publish button. For this reason I have kept a bit of a low profile for the first week and only people that have either kept their subscription to the blog or stumbled on it by accident will have been aware of the first seven posts. I am very relieved and incredibly grateful to have received some lovely encouraging comments over the last few days though, so I’m afraid you’re stuck with me now. I’ll try and keep a daily post going throughout January and see if it becomes a habit.

As it happens it’s been quite an eventful week to start the year and I haven’t actually found it too difficult to find things to write about. From the prospect of possibly going blind in one eye to a death in the family and a visit from my sister I have ended up with a kind of pick ‘n mix counter of subject material which has been great. I haven’t even touched on learning to fly a drone yet. Well, when I say fly, it’s more a case of launching the thing into the air and then seeing which piece of furniture or potted plant it will destroy next. (The spider plant is looking very neat at the moment.) It’s great having interesting or amusing subjects to cover but what I would really like to crack is making the writing speak for itself rather than relying on the story. That’s the challenge that really fires me up. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than reading something and realising that it is actually the writing that I am enjoying as much as or even more than the subject matter.

I am conscious of the fact that this blog started life as an account of a cycle adventure and I know lots of people who followed that story have got bored and gone away now but I make no apologies for that. I’m sure I will touch on cycling again once we get back on the bikes but for now this blog is my play thing. It’s a chance to play with words and phrases and to try and be creative. To try to turn jumbled thoughts into understandable ideas, to paint pictures that convey feelings and emotions or just to tell a story in a way that might amuse the reader. I would like to be able to promise that everything I write will be funny, incisive, entertaining and meaningful but it’s very unlikely to be a promise I could keep. What I can promise is that I will enjoy the writing and if a few people enjoy the reading then I’ll be happy.

Here’s a nice picture just to say thanks for sticking with me this far.

You can't beat a rainbow over the sea

You can’t beat a rainbow over the sea

You can’t beat a good wake

I like a good wake if I’m honest. Not least because unless I am driving it’s a rare excuse for a couple of drinks in the middle of the day which often happens to be in the middle of the week. Its got that slightly naughty feel about it and the alcohol helps with all those awkward moments when we find ourselves talking to somebody whose name you can’t remember, let alone whether or not we are actually related to them. All that changed today because our health conscious government has decided that we are all drinking too much and they have issued us with new lower limit guidelines. A couple of pints or a large glass of wine to oil the social wheels at such a gathering now has serious implications for how much of our allotted entitlement we have left for the remaining week.

We have been told, like so many irresponsible children, that we must cut down on our drinking in order to reduce the risk of life threatening conditions such as liver disease or cancer. Now, so long as we do as we are told, we can look forward to living on to a ripe old dementia riddled age instead.

As it happened I was driving to and from today’s funeral so my quota is safe for now. Aside from the alcohol issue I stand by my opinion that you can’t beat a good wake. For a start everybody is in a good mood. I know that might sound a bit odd having just buried a loved one but the whole point of the funeral tea to me is to finally let go and release all that pent up grief and emotion that the death has created. There is a kind of collective sigh of relief as you enter the pub or restaurant and I am always slightly taken aback by the sound of laughter so soon after the tears but it’s always there. The rest of the afternoon is usually divided between remembering funny anecdotes involving the deceased and catching up with seldom seen members of the family. At some point somebody will always say, “lovely to see you but isn’t it a shame that it always has to be at one of these occasions” and that is generally followed by promises to get together more often which rarely come to anything. Nothing changes.

I find at a wake that there is a sense of letting go of the one that has passed on accompanied by a gentle reminder to cherish those that remain. It’s a nice warm feeling that reminds us of our own mortality but also of how important it is to make the most of whatever time we have left. I said to somebody today that we should live every day as if it was our last one and she corrected me immediately by saying, “no, we should live every minute as if it was out last one”. I’ll drink to that. Or maybe I won’t. Or maybe I shouldn’t. But hang on, this might be my last minute. Pass me that bottle opener.

 

Post trip blues

When we were travelling several people gave us advice on dealing with the post trip blues. Apparently it’s quite common to get depressed when all the constant change and stimulation comes to an abrupt end. Several bloggers have written eloquently about this problem, Emily Chappell in particular really lays it bare in this post. So I was on my guard when we settled back down, braced for signs of any downward spiral of emotions. I was just beginning to juggle with the contrasting emptiness of life after travel and the realisation of the enormity of what we had achieved when my Mum died. Suddenly our whole post trip experience stopped in its tracks to be replaced by the turmoil of grief, loss, guilt and dealing with funeral arrangements.

The biggest obstacle to going on our ride in the first place was always leaving my Mum. Although she was very well looked after in a lovely care home, Gill and I were still her closest relatives geographically and her main regular visitors. I really struggled with the idea of not seeing her for up to six months even though other relatives promised to step in. Then there was her dementia. Her extreme short term memory loss meant that she might not even realise that we weren’t visiting. On the other hand, it also meant that I couldn’t share our plans with her and seek her approval. Something that saddened me a great deal as I feel sure she would have approved. It was a huge relief to visit her on our return and find that nothing had really changed and she was her usual smiling self. Sadly, that didn’t last and her health deteriorated rapidly just a few days after we got back. We had been home just 23 days when she died.

 

Always a smile

Always a smile

I always thought of our adventure as something huge and life changing. Maybe that is still the case but for now, at least, it doesn’t feel that way. Set against the loss of somebody that has been a key part of my life for the last 57 years, a bike ride, even a very long bike ride, just doesn’t seem terribly important. We met some great people during the five months we were away and almost certainly gained new friends for life. If it were possible to measure those gains in some way they would be substantial. Compare them though, against the combined weight of the loss felt by all the family and friends of my Mum and they don’t look quite so impressive. We gain friendship and love slowly. They are  acquired over years, even over a life time but they can be taken away in an instant.

Maybe, over time, the signifcance of my Mum’s death will fade and perhaps that of our trip will grow. As time adds depth to the friendships we made and the memories we created, perhaps the scale of what we did will come back to me. Or perhaps it won’t. At the moment I can’t help but feel a little bit cheated. Robbed of the sensation of achievement. But perhaps there is some compensation in what I have learned. Perhaps what really shapes us isn’t what we do or where we go. It’s who we love and how we love them and, of course, how we are loved. And as is so often the case, you only know it when you lose it. I would like to think that the friends we made over the last six months will, over time, help to fill the enormous hole that has been left in our lives. I hope I am right, because otherwise, it really was just a very long bike ride.

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