Letter from Felixstowe: Keeping up (trying to) with the Aussies

Clive & his grandchildren, a few hours after their 24-hour journey

Clive & his grandchildren, a few hours after their 24-hour journey

This week has been all about our Aussie visitors — Clive’s son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren – who for their first week of this European trip are staying in a rental accommodation just a few doors away from us.

The gang arrived Monday morning and it’s been non-stop since then, at least for me and Clive. We’re always amazed when we get together with families with young children – it’s such an immediate throwback to those years of child-rearing, parental juggling and exhaustion and infinite needs, demands and joys. We’re not sure we can keep up with their normal pace, but so far we’ve been giving it a try.

Before the family arrived, we said to each other that we had a simple objective: that everyone would enjoy themselves, they’d feel they could really relax and be on holiday, and that we would do everything we could to make the time together as wonderful as possible.

Family at the beach, Felixstowe

Family at the beach, Felixstowe

I’ve written before about my role as a step-grandparent. As much as I appreciate my relationship with Clive’s children and grandchildren, it’s obviously not the same as being their birth parent and grandparent. So my focus is also on Clive, and on doing what I can to support his preferences and ‘go with the flow’ as regards each day’s plans. I know I’m blessed that this is easy to do.

Tomorrow is Clive’s daughter-in-law’s birthday. It’s a lovely treat that we’ll be able to celebrate with her and this family on the day.

Clive & his grandchildren, busy on the beach, Felixstowe

Clive & his grandchildren, busy on the beach, Felixstowe

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from (a considerably quieter) Felixstowe.

Letter from Felixstowe: Scotland, Either Way

Scotland, either way

Scotland, either way

Last week in the Scottish Highlands, we saw ‘YES’ banners everywhere. This week, back in Suffolk on a river cruise, we met a couple from Edinburgh, currently living in England. They said they were incensed they don’t have a vote in this week’s independence referendum and believe they were excluded because Scots living elsewhere in the UK would likely vote ‘NO.’

I think it’s fair to say most of our friends would prefer – overwhelmingly – to have Scotland remain in the UK.

As for me, American by birth and Australian by citizenship, I was raised to applaud and revere the USA’s fight for independence, with the Revolutionary War also named the War of Independence. It was of course a totally different situation and the countries are an ocean apart, but I think many people can appreciate a nation’s impulse and pride and yearning to be, and be seen as, independent.

In Australia, I witnessed the republic referendum in November 1999. During those years, which included the run-up to the Sydney 2000 Olympics, I was impressed over and over again by the country’s energy, capability, intelligence, optimism, beauty, and success on countless levels. Yet for various reasons, the referendum was defeated. A key voice in the ‘No’ campaign belonged to monarchists, and many of our Aussie friends valued the country’s connection to the monarchy and wanted it to continue.

In all the discussion around the Scotland referendum, I haven’t heard much about the monarchy (though we haven’t listened to all the debates).

The entire UK seems to have been electrified by today’s referendum. It’s a momentous time for everyone and either way, change will reverberate throughout the UK in months and years to come.

And either way, we’ll always love Scotland.

Highlands footpath, Scotland

Highlands footpath, Scotland

Letter from Scotland: Five Highlights of the Highlands

Moody evening on Loch Ness, taken from Dores

Moody evening on Loch Ness, taken from Dores

Visiting the Highlands in the run-up to Scotland’s independence referendum, which occurs on 18 September, is quite an experience.

From the moment we arrived and noticed ‘YES’ banners posted on street poles lining Inverness’s main thoroughfare to a visit to Culloden Moor, the site of a historic battle in which Bonnie Prince Charlie and his army were defeated in bloody battle by English government forces, we’ve been struck by how vital and important the issue of Scottish independence is to the Highlands.

Even as this momentous question will be decided in next week’s vote, visiting the battlefield – and then Clava Cairns, a 4,000+ year-old burial site – has made me equally aware of how small we really are in the infinite sweep of history and time.

Small or not, I’m here this week, with Clive and his daughter Kylie, in a beautiful part of a beautiful country. I’ve enjoyed taking the back seat (most of the time) and our days have been active and full.

With still one day to go, my top five Highland highlights are:

1 The scenery. Sunny, cloudy or in-between, it’s fantastic. No doubt the Highlands are also gorgeous in winter, though we’re not sure we’d be brave enough to visit then.

2 Walking. Our walk along the footpath at the top of Aonoch Mor in the Nevis Range is probably my single favourite activity of this trip. (The gondola ride up and down is also terrific.) In Inverness itself, we enjoyed an evening walk along the River Ness riverside pathways and islands.

A Highland walk - Clive on the footpath, Aonoch Mor, Scotland

A Highland walk – Clive on the footpath, Aonoch Mor, Scotland

3 Boat ride down the Caledonian Canal into Loch Ness & a visit to what’s left of Urquhart Castle. I’m usually not a castle person, and despite the rampant ‘Nessie’ industry (similar to local souvenir-selling the world over), the views and setting are worth the trip.

4 Inverness Museum & Art Gallery. I can’t recommend this small, quality museum highly enough. The ground floor contains superb exhibits of Highlands natural history, geology, civilisations and languages. The first floor contains equally impressive exhibits on Highland history from the Jacobites to the 20th century.

5 Dores. This is a tiny town on the eastern shore of Loch Ness, with a historic inn where the waiter introduced us to Irn-Bru and Black Isle Blonde and the beach out back offers views down the length of the loch.

6 Bonus find: Nairn Bookshop. A fantastic independent bookshop in the charming harbour town of Nairn, on the Moray Firth 15 miles east of Inverness.

A Highland walk - view of Loch Linnhe & Fort William on left, from Aonach Mor, Scotland

A Highland walk – view of Loch Linnhe & Fort William on left, from Aonach Mor, Scotland

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

Letter from Felixstowe: Home, Family and Dreams of Travel

Home by the sea, Felixstowe

Home by the sea, Felixstowe

Home is where the heart is, or as Clive sometimes says, home is where you make it. The challenge, of course, is that home can be in multiple places and sometimes our hearts are pulled in multiple directions.

I’ve just returned to Felixstowe after a sobering two weeks in the USA. My stepson and dear friends continue to inspire everyone who knows them with their courage and bravery as they face life-altering medical conditions.

Clive’s father’s funeral took place the day after I arrived home. Clive and his father were never close — Clive says ‘we never had a father-son relationship’ – but my hubby has done a wonderful job taking care of his father’s needs, especially during the past four years. In recent weeks, while coping with the aftermath of hand surgery and a lingering arm wound, Clive handled all funeral arrangements, planned the service and delivered a eulogy that received many compliments from people who knew his father.

We’ve felt very disjointed lately and I’ve been moving around so much my mind can’t seem to stop jumping around and worrying about people I love. I was away for 13 nights in the U.S. — split up as 1 (London airport), 5 (DC), 2(NJ), 2 (CT), 2 (NJ), and 1 (in flight). This kind of schedule was routine in my career days but now I ruefully admit I just can’t keep it up. I love arriving home and settling back into our daily routines and life by the sea in England.

And yet … we only have a few days until it’s once again time to pack our wheelie bags. This weekend, we’ll meet Clive’s daughter in London as she arrives from Australia and we board a train together for Scotland. These are plans made long before other events happened this past summer with loved ones in the US and UK.

I’m hoping the Highlands scenery will be a balm for all of us, including Clive’s daughter who has an intense working life in Australia, and that we’ll be able to rest our eyes and hearts and minds on Scotland’s great natural beauty. I’m looking forward to taking a back seat — figuratively and literally – and happily going along with whatever Clive and his travel-savvy daughter cook up for our daily explorations.

So I think we can be both homebodies and travellers. We can cherish our family time and the particular place on the planet we call home and we can still dream of travel and following our bliss to special places in the world.

And I remind myself that sometimes we need to take the lead but other times it’s okay to let go and take the back seat.

Felixstowe beach huts & North Sea

Felixstowe beach huts & North Sea

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Scotland.

Letter from Connecticut: Today’s the Day

USA sunrise

USA sunrise

My U.S. stepson and his wife are at the hospital. Today this wonderful man and father of three young boys will have both kidneys removed. After six more weeks of dialysis, he’ll receive a live transplant.

I wanted to write more about the bonds of love and friendship, about my beautiful, brave women friends who inspire everyone who knows them with the way they are facing a brain tumour and breast cancer, respectively. I wanted to write something about my mother and her ability to remain positive and loving even as her capabilities decline and her memory nearly disappears.

But today’s the day of the kidney surgery. My thoughts and prayers are with a young father who – so much like his father before him, my late husband Gary — has faced life-threatening medical issues and accompanying pain with calmness and determination and deep love for his family. He has continued to work despite a gruelling dialysis regime and has been steadfast and attentive with his sons. Seeing him talk, listen, share laughter, participate in their daily lives and pull them close for a hug is like seeing his father in action.

I’ve felt Gary’s presence on this journey. The surgery’s actual date had been for weeks a roller-coaster of uncertainty. The day I arrived in the U.S., it was confirmed for the exact day(s) I’d be visiting Connecticut. I like to think Gary had a hand in this, that because he couldn’t be here in person himself, he looked down from Heaven and said, ‘That’s it. Time for this to happen and it will happen when Carolyn is there to help out.’

It is always a joy to be with this family (and Max, the 20-pound cat keeping me company while the boys are at school). They gave me the gift of warmly welcoming Clive into the fold and yesterday we had a wonderful Skype with him. It moves me greatly that the boys and their parents seem to miss my hubby as much as I do.

I know Chris is in expert medical hands but I still find the entire journey very scary. Last night, I accompanied him to his final pre-surgery dialysis and found it reassuring the way the lovely nurses expressed both pleasure and a kind of ‘it’s-a-normal-thing’ attitude about today’s nephrectomy. When we left, they smiled at him and said, ‘See you Tuesday.’

Chris recently recommended the article ‘5 Bizarre Consequences of Being Given Somebody Else’s Organ’ as an eloquently and humorously-written view of what he’s gone through, is going through now and will go through in the future.

After long months of waiting for surgery, today’s the day.

AA boys

My wonderful husband Clive with my late husband Gary’s beautiful grandsons

Letter from Washington DC: Being Here

Lincoln Memorial, a favourite Washington DC location

Lincoln Memorial, a favourite Washington DC location

I’m thankful to be here and to have made it through the usual gauntlet of air travel delights – summer hordes, screaming children, lengthy security and passport lines and of course the strange and uncomfortable Dulles airport shuttle vehicles which Clive calls moon buggies, an absolutely perfect description.

As outlined in last week’s Letter from Felixstowe, critical events seem to be happening all at once. I arrived to news that the previously uncertain date for my Connecticut stepson’s nephrectomy (removal of both kidneys) had just been confirmed for next week. Across the Pond, Clive and his cousin had met with various parties and set his father’s funeral date for the day after I return to the UK.

Here in DC, my friend Laurie is out of the ICU but remains in hospital following brain surgery. I’ll won’t know until later today when will be best to see her. Talking with her partner is heartbreaking in itself as I hear the mix of love and fear and determination and soul-deep exhaustion in her voice.

My friendship with Laurie – and our mutual friend Mary, who lives with her husband in this area — extends back more than 40 years, to when we met as students at University of Michigan. For the past six years, since my son graduated from university and settled in Washington, he has developed his own friendship with Laurie (and with Mary).  It’s been a source of joy and gratitude to me that this has happened.

Being here now, able to see both Laurie and my son (and Mary, when she returns from her short holiday) grants this visit even more meaning. It feels similar to last December, when Clive and I flew to Australia to be with his mother during her final days. That visit was blessed by the ability also to see his son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren. Being able to see Laurie and my son is a mix of sad and happy, a tragic situation mixed with a wonderful one.

In reflecting about everything that’s happening in so many different places, my goal, now that I’m here, is to focus on really being here – to be present and attentive to Laurie, treasure the time with my son and try not to worry too much about all the unknowns or what’s happening with Clive’s arm (it’s still not a pretty sight, especially on Skype, but the surgeon is – finally – happy with how it’s healing) or what will happen next week with my stepson, my dear friend in Connecticut and my mother in New Jersey.

I also want my technology to work and for my U.S. internet device to stop acting up, as it did repeatedly last evening. It’s my lifeline for portable secure communications, including frequent Skypes with Clive so we can share our days until we’re together again.

AA Lincoln view 1

View from Lincoln Memorial, a lovely place for reflection & inspiration

Bless the English for their guidance to ‘keep calm and carry on’ and thank you for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Connecticut, USA.

Death & Funerals in England

eternal sea

The North Sea, Felixstowe

Clive’s father, Jack, died peacefully at 8pm last night – Friday night in England. Jack was 94 and had been in poor health for many months. He nearly died at home multiple times and was blessed to spend his final months in a wonderful care home. There he improved for a time and was given 24/7 support by caring nurses, to whom we will always be grateful.

Clive and I have been preparing for this event and its aftermath in practical and emotional ways, learning much about the UK ‘death bureaucracy’ from various legal, medical and government advisors along with friends and personal contacts.

The biggest difference from my experience in the US and Australia is the time it takes in England between death and funeral – often 2-3 weeks or more. And because Clive’s father died on a Friday night, it seems nothing much official will happen over the weekend. Waiting days to move ahead with funeral plans, death certificate, and other logistics feels very strange indeed. We’ve been told the delay (or what seems like a delay to me) is due to back-ups at the crematoriums. Whatever the reason(s), in in the years we’ve lived in England we’ve learned not to say, ‘Three weeks? Really?’

More challenging for Clive at the moment is his lovely, kind-hearted but extremely Forgetful Cousin, whom I shall refer to as FC. FC is in her mid-70s, has been a devoted niece to Jack for many years (including the ones when Clive lived in Australia) and, sadly, with increasing age also has become increasingly confused and forgetful.

Last night, before the undertaker arrived at the care home, Jack and FC spent time in Jack’s room. They each read a prayer over the body and talked quietly together. (I performed the English task of putting the kettle on and making the coffee, then joined them.) Later when we left the home, Clive and FC agreed they would each telephone certain individuals in the morning.

My dear hubby has spent much time on the phone today, not making funeral arrangements but 1-learning FC had randomly called different people, including the ones on Clive’s list and 2-‘talking FC down’ calmly but firmly from going in person to another funeral home because the one with which Jack had a pre-paid plan (and the one that now has the body) had not returned one of Clive’s calls.

If there is any blessing to the timing of Jack’s death, in addition to the main one of his now being at peace, it’s that I’m here with Clive for the next few days until I depart for the US. When I booked the flights, we knew I might miss Jack’s funeral. I’m thankful to be here during these days immediately following the death. Given the ‘usual’ timeframes, I may also be back for the funeral.

Clive and Jack had a complicated relationship – Clive often says, ‘We never had a father-son relationship’ – but my hubby has been heroic over the years in his dedication and consistency in supporting his father’s needs. On his final visits with Jack, he helped him swallow liquids and fed him ice cream.

Clive’s mother died on 30 December last year, at the age of 92. He’ll now write a second eulogy in the space of 7-1/2months.

AA Suffolk sunset 24 june 2014

Suffolk sunset, Felixstowe

 

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