Most of us grow up with at least some understanding of the inevitability of death.  Even so, losing a much-loved childhood pet didn’t prepare me in any substantive way for the loss of a parent. I suppose young-me assumed that they’d live, if not forever, at least well into old age. That they’d remain the safe and secure corner stones of my life, no matter what. So when my Mum died and then, just a few years later, Dad followed suit, I felt abandoned and rudderless – and far more so than I’d thought I might. Despite being all grown up – after all, I was 24 by then, I felt like an orphan in a storybook. Somehow, something I hadn’t yet fully come to appreciate had come to an end and there was suddenly no-one to provide the imagined security of unquestioning love and support.

Everyone deals with grief and loss in their own way. Some reject it absolutely, others dive into it, pouring their feelings into reminiscences, sharing photographs and stories with family and friends. Then there are those who keep themselves busy, focusing on details and generally getting on with life. It turns out I was the keep yourself busy type. No surprises there, but that meant it took me longer than necessary to process what I felt and how best to deal with it. I got there in the end, but the loss still bites from time to time, even decades later.

Now, just recently, I’ve witnessed the passing of FiL and MiL within 8 months of each other. These losses have been more drawn out, with ill health, memory loss and so forth gradually taking their toll. Even so, the loss of a parent is no small thing, and the loss of two so close together even more so. FiL was farewelled in September last year and, having known the family for 30+ years, it’s been interesting to observe how each of the siblings has come to terms with the parent-shaped gap in their lives.

Over the years, when she talked about funerals, MiL often expressed a desire to be “sent down the river on flaming Viking longboat.” This, she said, would be a “proper send-off”. So, with that in mind, Himself set about trying to bring into being something that would have both entertained and pleased her.

This involved many hours of planning, of sourcing schematics and scaling them down to a plausible size, purchasing balsa wood and other bits and pieces, and acquiring permissions from local council and the water authorities both, providing them with detailed plans, lists of materials, fire control measures and so on.

MiL had been privately cremated soon after passing away and her ashes kept Himself company through the process of the actual build. Each piece of the model was handcrafted in our garage, in the evenings and over weekends. Gradually it started to take shape as the pieces were painstakingly put together. Part of the process was a number of test burns of scrap pieces of balsa outside our garage to see what combination of flammables would produce the best – and least polluting – result.

When the day of the send-off finally dawned, it was grey and overcast with rain pending. Despite the longboat being completed with a few hours to spare, the prospect of a successful launch appeared unlikely. Even so, after a memorial afternoon tea, a contingent of hardy friends and relatives headed to the river for the final farewell.

It seemed fitting that MiL’s final resting place would be where she learned to swim as a 4-year old. Mason’s Landing, on the Canning River, has changed a great deal in the intervening 83 years, but was still recognizable from paintings of the area done by her mother in those early days. She was lovingly placed on the longboat and the siblings waded out into the river together to see her on her final journey. There was some chaos, a few false starts, some hilarity and – finally – success was achieved.

I think MiL will rest easy at Mason’s Landing and we’ll all remember her Viking send off with a smile and a light heart.

My much loved Indi hybrid bike, aka George, combines 21-speed comfort with good suspension, tyres like a mountain bike and sit-up-straight handlebars. All of that has made for enormous fun as we’ve trundled around Perth together over the years.

George has been my window of independence for many years, even when riding a bike wasn’t possible. Knowing she was there – waiting for me whenever I needed her – made me feel safe. Silly, perhaps, but the idea of getting rid of my bike made me feel lost and less independent.

On that basis, I’ve been shilly-shalling about rehoming her for months. This, despite the fact that riding her had become increasingly difficult and she had become more part of the background garage decor than something in regular – or even intermittent – use.

After my usual New Year internal review, I created a vision board to help me to focus. Following on from this, and as a step towards being more active, I went and acquired an electric-assist bike. It had been under consideration for some time, but I’d stalled out as it seemed like taking the easy way out. Instead, it’s allowed me to actually get back to riding regularly – something that’s always been a happy-making thing.

In short, my new magical electric velocipede – let’s call her Little Bird, is working out just fine. Even if I only use the electric assist when I absolutely have to, having it makes all the difference – making the thought of the hills far less daunting and the fun of the ride all it should be.

Cycling home in the cool of the morning today, I felt relaxed and happy. Not special-reason-happy, not epiphany-standout-moment-happy… just regular smiley-type-out-on-my-bike-happy. And it was suddenly clear that it was well past time for George to stop lurking in a corner of the garage, neglected and gathering dusk. It was time  me to say goodbye and for her to  head off on new adventures to visit new places with a new human.

So this afternoon I advertised George as a free-to-a-friend bike – and she was snapped up in no time at all. As it turns out, sometimes, letting go of something can be surprisingly unstressful. Instead of feeling lost  or sad as I helped to load her into the back of her new human’s car later on, I felt pleased – both that she’ll be able to ‘keep on trucking’ and that the lass who’s taken her home was so delighted to have bike again. 

Maybe one day she’ll hand a bike on to someone else who needs one – who knows. Meantime, LittleBird and I will be out and about at every opportunity!

Whilst getting over the winter lurgi (aka bronchitis), I read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Except, as it turns out, she’s not. The intense loneliness of her day-to-day life, the ways neurodivergent Eleanor tries to fit it and to create a narrow – but very safe – existence for herself, and the ways she eventually tries to break out of it was – what? touching? moving? desperately sad? All that and more.

“… by careful observation from the sidelines, I’d worked out that social success is often built on pretending just a little. Popular people sometimes have to laugh at things they don’t find very funny, do things they don’t particularly want to, with people whose company they don’t particularly enjoy. Not me

Once I’d finished Eleanor, I unpacked my response by doing a bit of doom-scrolling on the topic of loneliness and isolation. Depressing? Yes, but also food for thought. I ended up questioning whether, as a society, we are all lonelier than we were in ‘days gone by’, as so many articles and writers suggest, or is that  just perception? Does it really matter?

Pondering this took me down the pathways of songs for a while – and there are many (many) songs about loneliness out there. Really. SO many. But the closest I got to where my thoughts of Eleanor had taken me was Green Day’s The Boulevard of Broken Dreams – or, as my family refers to it, the walk
straight song.

“…I walk a lonely road / The only one that I have ever known / Don’t know where it goes / but it’s home to me, and I walk alone… My shadow’s the only one that walks beside me / My shallow heart’s the only thing that’s beating…”

Oh Eleanor Oliphant, this could have been written for you. Or, I suppose, for any number of people who feel disconnected. Strange that I should find this so interesting, given that my working (and volunteering) life in community development has been all about connectedness. Most of the people I’ve encountered have been in their 60s or older, most are/were active and engaged mentally and, in general, physically. Whenever I came away from a group session, planning meeting or event, I found myself thinking, “I want to be like them if I get to be that old!

These interactions changed my views on ageing. Given that my starting premise was that 60 was old, this is not surprising. Admittedly, this view was predicated on my own family experiences: a mother who passed away at the age of 60, after a protracted period of poor health, and a father falling prey to cancer when only slightly older. So my expectations from my early twenties was that, in all likelihood, I would follow suit. 60 was old – and then you died, probably after some wretched illness. This wasn’t something I
worried about unduly, it was just reality as I saw it. I am, after all, a pragmatist.

Working with seniors – such extraordinary, ordinary people – over the past three decades I came to realise that there is actually no reason why I wouldn’t or couldn’t be just like them and live a full, healthy and connected life well past my assumed end point. What a revelation that was! More than that, I observed that social interaction is key. Of course, being physically and mentally engaged are very important too, but the social environment – the support networks, friendships, sharing and more that these provide – works to encourage engagement in every other sphere. Community organisations, places where people can meet up with others – whether friends or strangers – to participate in activities, listen to talks, go out group outings, or just have a natter over a cuppa, are enormously valuable community resources in this arena. They are where connectedness is nurtured and thrives, allowing friendships to develop and people to feel included in their community.

Now that I’m part of the recently-retired contingent, I’m having fun trying out various activities to see where my pathway will take. Currently, MahJong lessons have been replaced by regular games with a group – yes, at a community centre – and these are proving to be fast, furious and great fun. MahJong players take no prisoners! It’s interesting that, somehow, between thinking 60 was old (and headed for doom) and now, I have in fact become one of those people I aspired to be. How lovely.

A few years ago I wrote a short piece about how I think resilience works to add positive dimensions to my life. A couple of years later, I then chose it as my mot de l’année (fancy for ‘word of the year’!), blithely enthusing that I felt that it provided me with a framework that encapsulated both mental and physical robustness and, with that, the tools to bounce back from whatever came my way.

Such naïveté only works until the universe provides a reminder that all things are relative. As it turns out, resilience, like so many things, is subjective. Circumstances change, curved balls come one’s way and, sometimes, there simply isn’t enough fuel in the tank (aka strength or fortitude stockpiled) to manage the particular realities of the here-and-now. Who knew?

In our case, just as things were ramping up for the jollifications of the festive season, an uber-grinch leapt out of the woodwork at us. One evening in early December we noticed that our otherwise seemingly perfectly healthy MissMolly had a very swollen belly. She’d inhaled her dinner at her usual speedy rate, so our first panicked thought was, as ever: bloat – that background horror-concern for anyone with a deep-chested dog.

We bundled her into the car and off to the veterinary emergency service, where she was seen very promptly – jumping the queue due to the possibility of bloat. After and examination, an abdominal scan and blood tests, the duty-vet confirmed it was NOT the dreaded bloat. Yay. However, as MM did have a large volume of what was referred as ‘free fluid’ in her abdomen, she was to stay overnight stay for observation and to wait on some remaining test results.

The what and why of the abdominal fluid remained a mystery the next day when we went to pick her up. The duty-vets said they weren’t keen to do anything about the fluid build up as it really required further investigation by a specialist vet. They said we should keep MM calm and quiet (!) and see our own vet for a specialist referral after that weekend. Less yay. More worry.

In due course we secured both a referral and the first available appointment at the only specialist vet service prepared to take on an outpatient case for comprehensive chest and abdominal scans at short notice. After a long and worrying wait at Animalius, a somber-faced vet came through to give us a diagnosis. She told us that MM had a classic case of end stage liver failure, that her liver was not able to function properly and that we had to prepare ourselves for the reality that our girl had weeks left, perhaps a bit longer. There was no point in more tests, she said, as they would only distress Molls; there was nothing to be done other than see our own vet about a palliative care treatment plan.

What? How could we – and Dr Kelly – have missed this? It was incomprehensible.

In the days that followed, Kelly reviewed all Molly’s records – even calling on a colleague to double check, and found no clinical signs of compromised liver function. MM endured our desperate scramble to try to prove it to be not true. We tried everything and anything: diuretics, pain relief, anti-inflammatories, a special diet, reduced activity. She’d seem to rally for a few days, trying to play, snuggling and being close, and our hopes would climb – only to be dashed. As the month progressed, we could see her gradually fading away in front of us – frightened and confused by the pain in her gut as her wretched liver failed her – but trying so hard to play and just be herself.

We said our final goodbyes to MissMolly just before New Year, sitting with her as she faded out of life. To say that we’ve missed our crazy, excitable, noisy, loving, talkative, space-invading girl every single day since then is putting it mildly. She was the most people-oriented and joy-filled hound ever, having absolutely no concept of personal space, curling up next to us everywhere and anywhere. Her endless enthusiasm and energy was infectious – and its absence is hard to bear.

Rudyard Kipling, a favourite of my father’s, wrote any number of poems, many of which were read to us as children. Whilst most have held little appeal or relevance in my life, some – oh, some – really can hit home at times. And losing a beloved friend is definitely one of those times.

I have done mostly what most men do and pushed it out of my mind;
But I can’t forget, if I wanted to, Four-Feet trotting behind.
Day after day, the whole day through , wherever my road inclined —
Four-feet said, “I am coming with you!” and trotted along behind.
Now I must go by some other round, which I shall never find —
Somewhere that does not carry the sound
Of Four-Feet trotting behind.

Goodbye, MissMolly – we love you and will always remember you and your four great big feet – they have left indelible paw prints on our hearts.

I’ve been stuck at home for a few days, keeping an eye on a pup. A couple of days ago she gave a sharp yelp of pain when she came outside with me, but I wasn’t able to isolate the cause. We checked her limbs – feet, lets, joints, back, felt her gut (in case it was bloat), looked for any other possible causes – and she let us do all of that without twitching. Then, later, it happened again – and again – when she climbed onto the couch and when she lay down. A very distressing sound, a very unhappy dog and a very anxious me. So – vet time.

Dr Kelly has known MissM since she was a puppy and she could immediately see that she was off her usual enthusiastic crazy-pup form. She checked her out from top to toe and found her vitals all normal, weight perfect, gut fine, legs all okay — but the muscles in her neck were very stiff and MissM didn’t want to turn her head from side to side. Up and down was okay, but sideways no. And she didn’t shake her head at all either, as she often does after an examination.

Prognosis? Well, it could just be that she’s hurt her neck racing around, but Kelly reckons it could very possibly be wobbler syndrome – a narrowing of the bony canal that the spinal cord passes through, resulting in compression. This was a definite ‘no, wrong way, back out’ sort of moment. Delighted that it hadn’t turned out to be bloat, but wobbler?

For now, MM is on meloxicam (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory) and gabapentin (anticonvulsant & analgesic), with another appointment booked for Monday. If she’s not significantly better, then X-rays are the next step so that Kelly and/or a specialist can identify the precise locations of the spinal cord compression and recommend suitable treatment…

Sad pup

Meantime, she wants to be close – and by that I mean closer than usual (!), is anxious and a bit dopey because of the gabapentin. Except of course when there’s food in the offing, someone comes to the door or she moves her neck in a way that makes her yelp. This part is very stressful all round. If you’ve ever heard a dog cry in pain, you’ll know what I mean. She’s got to be kept quiet and indoors except for nature-stops – which is tricky. So I cancelled various things and have spent the last couple of days sitting/lying with an extra-close, anxiously dopey dobermann and a rather worried springer spaniel circling the edges.

Anyhow, between dog-things, I read Acacia House, by Vivien Stuart. Of all the topics in the world to be reading about at present, this book is about palliative care > what a funny old place the universe is! (For clarity, I’m talking humans now, not pups… just in case that wasn’t apparent!) Acacia House packages various views about end of life decisions, treatment and hospice funding – or the lack thereof. It’s thoughtful, sometimes funny, and very touching.

With my sad dog curled up next to me, I found myself wondering once again about why it is that so many humans avoid conversations about end-of-life issues, arrangements and preferences? I get it that no-one wants to lose a loved one, and I get it that most people would prefer to think about happier things. But surely it’s better to have these conversations before ill health or accidents alter the way final treatment decisions should or could be managed? Particularly for those of us who any sort of advanced chronic condition or life-limiting condition, or may perhaps be at risk of developing a dementia-related illness.

After all, who will speak for us if we’re no longer in a position to state our preferences? Will they understand what it is that we want – rather than what they think we want… or would prefer us to want? When it gets to that stage of the game, the emotions of people with vested interests of one sort or another can tend to cloud issues and complicate them, taking away the final choices people should be entitled to make for themselves.

Many people have told me that they’ve tried to have these sorts of conversations with their loved ones, only to be shut down. They get variations on a theme of “We don’t want to think about it!” or “You’re still able and fit, so there’s no need to go there.” Is this perhaps because talking about our mortality and decisions around that makes these people confront both the notion of loss and the notion of their own personal mortality? If so, surely this is very narrow-focus thinking? After all, talking about something doesn’t make it so – otherwise we’d ALL be lottery winners!

By the time I’d finished the book yesterday afternoon and contemplated how I felt about it, snuggly-sad dog by my side, I’d concluded that having these conversations with loved ones is an absolute must. If you get stonewalled, perhaps wait a while and try again. It may turn out to be a bit like a war of attrition, wearing them down – one conversational gambit at a time, but it’s worth it in the end, I reckon.

An advanced health directive is the next step. This can be amended at a later date if your preferences change. But in the interim, it provides medical professionals and your loved ones with a clear idea of what you would prefer if you’re no longer able to make or communicate decisions. I downloaded a copy of the pro forma this morning and plan to complete it and then lodge a certified copy with my GP – ‘cos you never know what happens next in life.