Light and shade by turn but love always are the words engraved on the Temple at Mount Congreve Garden. As I read them this morning, they seemed to sum up every emotion I was feeling.
Today, May 24th, is my son’s nineteenth birthday; it also marks the last day I saw my late parents together as they sat in their porch at sundown in 2009; and it is the anniversary of the death of Ambrose Congreve who died, aged 104, in 2011.
Yes, life is full of light and shade; joy and sadness; and love is what we need to sustain and nurture us through the rough and the smooth.
Today, I feel especially grateful to Ambrose Congreve for creating a garden which brings such peace and allows for such connection and reflection. My parents adored Mount Congreve and it is a place in which I have shared many, many precious hours with my son.
Here are some of the key images that particularly captivated me in Mount Congreve today as they seemed to highlight themes around the seasonality of life, lives well spent, and, of course, love:
I’m just taking a breather from going through box after box of my late parent’s ‘stuff’ which has been living in our well-named ‘box-room’ for the last few years.
I’m extremely fortunate that my father had a huge interest in photography whilst Mother was big into writing. So, it’s like having a family, as well as a social, history in words and pictures at my finger tips.
I was more than surprised to find a little note that I wrote to Mother when I was about six. It’s written on what looks like the middle pages of a small note book and and has Mama on the outside. Here’s the note itself:
I know I was about six because of the reference to Frecky, or Freckles, who was one of a litter of pups that our lovely Dalmation, Beauty, had when I was that age. The arrival and departure of those puppies was one of the biggest events of my childhood.
Not long after finding this note to Mother, I came upon a photograph that Father took of me on the wooden swing that was just beside the cobbled yard where the pups played. We were living in Castleblayney, Co. Monaghan, in the first Bank House of our family life.
They were happy, happy days and I can’t but smile at how I seemed to see twenty as being an absolute age away. I suppose it was, in many respects. Twenty certainly seems like a good while back now, though!!
I wonder if Mother even contemplated the possibility that I would find the note all these years on. I’m just so glad that she did my bidding and kept it.
Woods and woodland gardens near the sea played a huge part in the long lives of both my parents and I suppose it’s only natural that they feel like a natural habitat to me.
When I was out in my beloved Mount Congreve last Sunday morning, a host of happy memories came flooding back through the sheer abundance of colour, texture, growth, fadings, promises …..
Fleeting images of Mother with that serene look she always had when wandering in woods and among flowers that brought her back to the farm of her youth in Co. Meath. How often she would quote these lines from George Byron:
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods, There is a rapture on the lonely shore, There is society, where none intrudes, By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
Dad’s deep appreciation of colour and how he introduced me to art from a very early age with visits to the National Gallery of Ireland. Over the subsequent years, we always found reason to meet in the National Gallery, even when it made no logistical sense. His happy tears when I gave him a book about Impressionism on his 90th birthday ~ just ten days after Mother had died on May 31st 2009.
And that pink-lilac skirt that I wore so endlessly when I was twelve or thirteen. It made me feel so grown-up with all its tresses. It was the skirt that I sported when we went to visit my brother in boarding school in the Summer term. I had such hopes of making a lasting impression on all his friends as I flounced out of the back of the Vauxhall Viva …..
And Mount Congreve waits ….. I am so looking forward to seeing the clematis flowing majestically from the tallest trees imaginable; and soaking up even more of the carpet of bluebells that grow even more beautiful with each passing Spring …..
If I was pushed to identify ONEpractical thing that should be done when one’s elderly parents show the first signs of becoming in any way unsteady on their feet, it would be to take as many measures as possible to avoid falls.
This is a lesson that I only learned after my mother had tripped over a flex and broken her hip. The implications of breaking a hip in older age are many and such a fracture can mark the beginning of a downward spiral, especially in terms of independent living.
I know it’s impossible to remove all possible dangers but there are many features in a parental home that become absolutely taken-for-granted over the years. Floor mats with raised edges, bedclothes that dangle, storage that involves needing to stand on chairs or use ladders, precious slippers or other footwear that snags on things or doesn’t have good grip, bath tubs/showers without non-slip mats and hand grips …..
There is clearly need for sensitivity around suggesting/making changes and ideally this will be done in partnership with parents. Binning sloppy slippers,when say a parent is out of the house, can lead to all sorts of rows and tensions, even though it may be done with the best of intentions!
I consider ‘losing elderly parents’ to include the time from when parents become frail to the years after they have died and my aim in this series is to identify what I see as key ways to cope with that journey which is so common, yet so unique.
The suggestions that I will be making are not intended to come in any particular order but are all ones which I see as being important from my personal experience of losing my mother (88) in May 2009 and my father (91) in September 2010. Please feel free to comment as you see fit. I really want this to be a place where there is interaction and a sense of community and learning from each other.
Make time to spend time with your parents while they are alive ~ be it through face-to-face conversations, phone calls, letters, emails ….. Where there is a will, there is a way!
There has been quite a surge of search terms relating to ‘losing elderly parents’ over the last few weeks and I’m more than conscious that many grown-up children may well be ‘going home’ for Christmas to visit parents who are close to death.
A question that someone wrote that brought him/her to this blog was: What to say to an elderly parent who is dying?’
I’ve been thinking a good deal about this over the last day or two and from my reading of the literature, as well as from personal experience, it would seem best to take one’s lead from the parent who is dying.
There is quite a large literature about ‘awareness contexts’ in relation to dying ~ a phrase coined by Anselm Strauss and Barney Glaser in 1965. I was fortunate to study under Anselm Strauss in the University of California in San Francisco and I was very struck by the complexities which he identified in relation to interaction with people who are dying. For example, some people may know they are dying and be happy to talk about it while others may know they are dying but want to carry on as if death was not on their agenda. There are lots of different permutations.
Much more recently, I attended a workshop given by Kenneth Doka, who has written extensively about death and dying. He made the point, that resonated very strongly with my own personal experience, that people who are dying can shift from wanting, to not wanting, to talk about their mortality. These changes can occur even within a single conversation.
So overall, I think that we have to respect the wishes of the parent who is dying . It is important to: 1. Seek clarification from the medical team if the elderly person has been told their prognosis; 2. Listen carefully to what the elderly person has to say and be receptive to cues that they wish to talk/or not talk about dying; 3. Be cognisant that everyone is different in how they deal with dying. For example, some people may find it easier to talk to a stranger than to a loved one while others may want to confide only in loved ones; and others may not wish to talk about dying to anyone at any stage.
Arguably, it is easier if there is openness all round but I think that such openness may be more the exception than the norm.
November 15th was always a special day in our house as it was my parent’s wedding anniversary. They got married in 1948 and lived to see their 60th anniversary. They were never into mad celebrations and parties but the anniversary was a very significant day in the family calendar and they exchanged gifts, often went out to lunch, talked about their wedding day and we kids gave them presents from when we were tiny.
So November 15 is a date that is etched in my genes, memory and heart and I feel it is important to prepare for such days, as they inevitably bring a flood of memories which could be sad or which with a bit of pre-planning can be harnessed and celebrated.
I had a little brainstorming session about possibilities while out for a walk in the lovely Anne Valley here in Co. Waterford early this morning and here’s the menu that emerged to celebrate what would be their 65th anniversary.
1. Pay a visit to both the Catholic and Church of Ireland Cathedrals in Waterford City, which were designed by renowned architect John Roberts ( 1712-1796). My parents got married in the Catholic Cathedral but Mother remained very much a member of the Church of Ireland all her life.
3. Plant Spring bulbs in the much-loved blue pot which they bought in the gorgeous Kiltrea Pottery Shop near Enniscorthy in Co. Wexford many years ago. http://www.kiltreapottery.com/
4. Google November 15th, 1948 and find out what was going on around the world that day.
5. Go ahead and sign up for Tango Dance classes after all these years! Father would be all for it as he was a whizz on the dance floor and Mother would laugh and say: Enjoy yourself and forget that you had a mother with two left feet!’
So, how do you celebrate special days in the lives of loved ones who have died?
It is coming rather close to my father’s anniversary. He died at the age of 91 on September 10, 2010 and at this point that year he was sleeping for most of the day and his breathing was very uneven.
There are lots and lots of searches that lead to my blog about the dying process of elderly people. I doubt that any two people are the same but, in the natural scheme of things, it seems that elderly people who are dying begin to sleep a lot more and eat and drink a lot less. It’s like as if nature takes over to help ease the way but it is impossible to put a time on when a person will breathe his/her last.
Every time I think about this, I find myself going back to the the apples on the tree in the garden. However ripe they may seem, one just never knows when they will fall of their own accord. Clearly, a storm may blow up ~ such as a chest infection in an older person ~ and this will cause the fruit to finally fall but it is quite amazing how people can hold on against all expectations.
A comment to the blog today raised a question about the gap between the deaths of elderly parents and if it is easier to cope if the gap is say five years as opposed to a few months.
I would really appreciate your thoughts on this, especially based on your experience. There were 16 months between the deaths of my parents ~ 16 precious months that I got to spend with my father. However, I have no idea what it must be like for grown-up children who only have a few weeks between the deaths or those who, at the other extreme, have say 5 or 10 years.
I would be so grateful if you would share your experience for the benefit of those who find themselves at Social Bridge in search of answers that I just can’t give them.
Just a glance at the search terms that have led people to my blog, such as how to prepare for the death of an elderly parent, hammers home the obvious fact that while I may be basking in a heat wave doesn’t mean that others are not totally caught up in the final days of their beloved parents’ lives.
I met a woman last week who told me that she absolutely dreaded the thought of her mother dying and could not contemplate life without her.
All this was on my mind this morning as I went out very early to Newtown Wood and for a swim at Garrarus Beach here in Co. Waterford and I couldn’t but think of numerous conversations I had with my late mother over the years about how it is the apparently mundane things that are generally the most precious.
While I have serious doubts about the type of law which has recently been enacted in China requiring children to visit their elderly parents more often, it seems to me that the sharing of ‘precious moments’ ~ however this is achieved~ is something which would be of immense benefit to both elderly parents and grown-up children who have a reasonable relationship.
For those who live far away from elderly parents, such sharing could well be in the form of regular phone calls and letters in which memories and day-t0-day happenings are talked about.
While I suggest it is never too late to communicate with a parent, even holding hands in the last hours of life, there is so much to be said for working on building a shared history from early adulthood. This, to me, is like a garden of ‘precious moments’ which is a wonderful foundation when the end approaches and arrives. The thing is, too, the flowers and shrubs in such a garden are perennial and will bloom forever in the heart of the grown-up child.
‘How will I cope when my elderly parents die?’ This question or some variant of it is one of the commonest that brings people to the front door of my blog and I know that it was a question that was never far from my mind when my own parents became frail. I always wonder about the people and situations that are behind these internet searches and very often sense real apprehension, anxiety, fear, worry, desperation and angst from the way the questions are posed.
I have shied away from trying to respond as I am more than aware that each grown-up child has a unique relationship with his/her mother and father and it is impossible to predict with any certainty how individuals will cope, even if one knows the whole background and context.
I have found myself thinking a lot about this whole question over the last few days during which I have been faciliating my son to play in a tennis tournament, in other words driving him there, feeding him healthily, offering words of encouragement and consolation and generally waiting in the wings while he does his thing.
Yes, you’ve guessed! This is precisely what my parents did when I was playing competitive tennis back in the day. Yesterday, while I was visiting the stunning, historic Kells Priory which is near Kilkenny where this week’s tournament is on, the extent to which parents live on through their children hit me like a screaming backhand down the line.
I thought back to all the days when I was immersed in tournaments and hadn’t a clue where Mother and Father were for the hours I was locked in battle on the court. They would re-appear to pick me up and I would be full of talk about the tennis ~ never even asked where they had spent the day and if they told me I certainly didn’t take it in.
This isn’t a matter of ‘ Oh, I’m getting more and more like my parents everyday.’ Rather, it’s realising that my fears that their deaths would leave me in a sad, lonely parentless place were just that – fears – and not in keeping with the reality that has unfolded. That reality can best be defined by a sense of ongoing and energising connectedness and presence that shows up in the most unexpected places and moments.