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


Letter from Felixstowe: When Events Collide, Trusting One’s Inner Compass

AA Compass w globe

In recent days, the following events have occurred:

1. Clive’s had surgery on his hand and finger for Dupuytren’s contracture. Because this was the second time for the hand, it also required skin to be taken from his upper forearm and grafted onto his finger. The hand, finger and skin graft are healing slowly but well. For various awful reasons, the wound on the forearm is taking forever, causing pain, and still requiring frequent hospital visits.

2. Clive’s father, in a local nursing home, is near death. Every time the phone rings, we think it is the end. As I write this, his father is hanging on, but it’s likely Clive will be in charge of planning a funeral very soon.

3. One of my dearest friends in the US was diagnosed with an aggressive, inoperable brain tumour. She has lost the use of her left side and is already in a wheelchair, facing specialist appointments and treatment decisions.

4.  My US stepson will soon have surgery to remove both kidneys, followed by several weeks of dialysis and then a kidney transplant from a living donor.

5. Another of my dearest US friends has had a mastectomy and learned the disease spread to multiple lymph nodes. She too faces oncology appointments and treatment decisions.

In the broader context of Clive’s and my life at the moment, we’ve been anticipating our Aussie family’s long-planned visits. Clive’s daughter arrives in the UK in early September. His son, daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren will be with us in late September and early October.

Clive’s son is also facing work challenges Down Under. We’ve wished we were there to provide practical support at a stressful time.

Trusting One’s Inner Compass – What I’ve Learned
AA Compass confused

Distance complicates the challenge but at times events collide for everyone, even if loved ones live within minutes of each other. In the 19 years I’ve lived away from the US, I’ve developed a few ways to find and trust my inner compass.

First, I try to get a ‘total picture’ of everything that’s happening. For me this means slowing down for a few minutes, just long enough to write a physical list – of people, places, dates, prior commitments and everything else that’s worrying me. Then I look it over and asterisk items that seem most urgent or ‘call out’ to me in some way. Nothing formal, just an instinctive ‘this is really important’ or ‘this seems most urgent’ feeling.

Next, I talk it over with Clive. He somehow manages to express his own point of view, which I ask him to do, and simultaneously put on his coaching hat and ask me non-judgmental questions such as, ‘How would you feel if you don’t go?’ or the one that resonates most, ‘What is your heart telling you?’ Having a valued ‘sounding board’ helps me so much (though if a trusted confidant is not available, you can find lists of coaching questions online).

Finally, I think the most important thing is to take a few quiet moments to get centred, close my eyes, focus on breathing and prayerfully reflect upon the questions in my mind. I try to listen for the little voice inside, to hear what my heart is telling me.

Why is it so hard to physically and mentally pause for even one minute? To be mindful instead of reactive is a constant challenge, and I no longer have young children. The location doesn’t have to be glamorous or peaceful. I sat in my desk chair this week, leaned back, closed my eyes and tried to still my mind for more than 10 seconds.

What Is Your Heart Telling You?

It’s rarely easy, rarely black and white. This time, I’ll go to the US and Clive will stay in England, to continue his arm and hand treatments and remain on call with his father’s situation. Not the way we like to travel, but it feels like the right decision. I’ve booked flights for mid next week, to coincide as best I can with events on both sides of the Pond.

Within an hour of making the reservations, I received a call from my mother’s assisted living home in New Jersey. She is deteriorating, and they need to meet with me. I will be there. I took this as a supportive sign from the Universe.

AA Compass w heart

Unless our plans change again, next week’s letter will be from the US.

Thanks for visiting and cheers until next week.

Letter from Felixstowe: War, Peace and Living in Europe

'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ poppy exhibition (photo @HRP_Palaces Tower of London)

‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ poppy exhibition (photo @HRP_Palaces Tower of London)

This week marked the beginning of World War I in Europe.

Felixstowe, like many towns in the UK, hosted a series of remembrance events. The Tower of London unveiled an inspiring exhibit of ceramic poppies. Their number will grow to 888,246, one for each UK military fatality during the war.

We watched televised services on Monday night, first from St. Symphorien near Mons, Belgium, a cemetery I’d never heard of before. It moved me greatly to see this beautiful woodland site, established by the German Army as a final resting place for both British and German soldiers.

Later we watched a national service from Westminster Cathedral. From 10-11pm, we joined the country in turning off all lights and having only a single candle for illumination. We blew it out at 11pm as the country went dark, exactly 100 years after war was declared.

2 Globe

Of ‘my’ four countries — their flags depicted in Clive’s graphic above — two are in Europe.

Two short months ago, the country and the world marked WW II D-Day on the beaches of France. Since then, the shooting down of a passenger jet heightened awareness of another war here in Europe. And here in the UK, Remembrance Day, 11 November, is more than just a 24-hour event. For weeks leading up to it, thousands of citizens wear poppies on their lapel. I love this tradition and Clive and I both wear a poppy throughout the first half of November.

Europe has lost so many lives. The WW I numbers are hard to fathom. Of nearly 10 million military deaths, these among the Allies:

England – 888,246
France – 1,397,800
USA – 116,708 (including my great-uncle Alfred Ellis)
Australia – 62,081
Russan Empire – 2,254,369

and among the Central Powers:
German Empire – 2,037,000
Austria-Hungary – 1,494,200

Our former home, Manly Beach, Australia

Our former home, Manly Beach, Australia

My non-European countries – Australia and the U.S. – are peaceful, prosperous, and oh so young. The U.S. Civil War finished around 100 years before my birth. Before 9/11, the U.S. hadn’t experienced large-scale, externally-caused death and destruction on its own soil.

Recently, as part of my UK residency application, I prepared for the Life in the UK knowledge test. I was comfortable with most of the practice questions except for the history section, which I really had to study – thousands of years of history, war and peace.

(The official Life in the UK book, available on amazon UK, and accompanying book of practice tests contain interesting and useful information, even if you’re not applying for residency or citizenship.)

The UK’s long and often bloody history also impressed me on our first visit to Scotland, when I wrote about Kings and Kin in Stirling, and oft-seen words such as ‘massacre’, ‘slaughter’, ‘battles’ and ‘tragic’ on historic plaques.

Statue of Robert the Bruce, Bannockburn, Scotland

Statue of Robert the Bruce, Bannockburn, Scotland

On a much happier note, a month from now we’ll return to Scotland, this time with Clive’s daughter. History is always present there, but we’re also looking forward to exploring the Highlands, based in Inverness. More about this upcoming adventure in a future letter.

In the meantime, we’re perusing guidebooks, making lists, and dreaming of Highland walks and scenery, bagpipes, and the Loch Ness monster. I’ve also pulled from our shelf the best book about Scotland I read during our previous trip, Scotland, An Intimate Portrait, an affectionate, informative view by Geddes MacGregor.

Have you been to Inverness and the surrounding area? If so, and if you have any recommendations to share, we’d be most appreciative.

Not only is history so much closer here in Europe, so are the blessings of the present, which include being able to travel and see and learn more about these historic and beautiful places.

Near Glencoe, Southern Highlands, Scotland

Near Glencoe, Southern Highlands, Scotland

Thanks for visiting and cheers until next week.

Remembering Gary, 11 Years On

Gary (on left) making sand castles with his sons, Maine, August 1992

Gary (on left) making sand castles with his sons, Maine, August 1992

August 2, 2003 was a Saturday, as it is today. That night, around 10:20pm in Sydney, Australia, my first husband Gary took his final breath. I was with him, along with our son and Gary’s son from his first marriage. Our son was four days away from his 18th birthday.

Gary and our son, 1986

Gary and our son at 7 months, 1986

Gary loved flowers and nature and growing things. No matter where we lived, he worked with care and devotion to make the outside (and inside) of our home beautiful. He created flower beds and rock gardens and soothing water features.

Planting in Connecticut, 1984

Planting in Connecticut, 1984

In Australia, Gary coached and umpired baseball, giving time and energy in his calm, communicative, expert way. He received year after year of thank-you notes and gifts from parents and players who had never experienced a coach who was at once so fair, firm, and fun.

Coaching in Sydney (Gary on right), 1996

Coaching in Sydney (Gary on right), 1996

Gary adored most everything about Australia, including its dazzling sunshine and endless beaches. We all fell in love with the Land Down Under and agreed we’d relocate there permanently. Gary envisioned not only selling our Connecticut house and buying one in Sydney, but also someday owning a ‘weekender’ on the coast of New South Wales.

My dreams took us in a different direction, to a pied-à-terre in Paris. Gary loved Paris but for multiple reasons that made sense to him (and, in fairness, to most of our family and friends), was opposed to the idea. Eventually it did happen — these events are included in the Paris memoir I’m working on — and Gary loved it, too. We spent several memorable trips searching, finding and setting it up.

Painting in Paris, 1999

Painting in Paris, 1999

Since Gary’s death 11 years ago, I have been blessed to meet Clive, the second love of my life. Gary’s older son, my U.S. stepson, has three beautiful boys of his own. In four days’ time, my son will turn 29. I don’t think a day goes by without any of us thinking of Gary in one way or another. August 2nd is one day on the calendar, but a day we all lost so much.

My son is at a business event in California this weekend, but we spoke on the phone and later I scattered rose petals for both of us beside the sea in Felixstowe.

Thank you, Gary, for blessing our lives with your presence. And thank you, Clive, for your sensitivity and support and for scanning these photos for me today.

Family (Gary on right) in Maine, August 1991

Family (Gary on right) in Maine, August 1991

New Weekly Post – Letter from Felixstowe: Tamaydoh-Tomahtoh & UK Residency

Tomahtoh Tamaydoh

In the beginning of this year, I set an internal goal of publishing at least one blog post per month.

My last post was in April. So much for that monthly objective.

We devoted most of May to visiting the U.S. and most of June to clearing Clive’s father’s house in England. Suddenly it’s the end of July.

On the 8th of this month, I passed my Life in the UK knowledge test, a prerequisite to applying for a residence permit. Three days ago, after a trip to the Home Office in Croydon, near London, my application was approved.

I texted my son in the U.S. and several friends in Felixstowe, a few small words inadequate to express my very deep happiness. No more worrying about visa expiration dates or accumulating stacks of necessary paperwork, only the sweet relief of looking ahead with long-term residency granted. My favourite text reply: ‘Congratulations and welcome to our country.’

Champagne was definitely in order when we arrived home. I toasted Clive, my partner in every step of the process. I toasted life in the UK. And I toasted the Queen, whom I adore.

Chip stand & UK flags, Felixstowe Carnival weekend

Chip stand & UK flags, Felixstowe Carnival weekend 2014

Having missed – twice – my aim of a monthly blog post, I am now, somewhat to my own surprise, going to try a …

Weekly ‘Letter from Felixstowe’ (or wherever we may be)

Why on earth would I think this a good idea, and what relation will it have to my ‘usual’ blog posts? I don’t have all the answers and will learn as I go, but for now my thoughts run as follows:

1 — Clive often said, especially during his consulting days, that ‘past performance is the best indicator of future performance.’  I’m also mindful of the quote (sometimes attributed to Einstein) that insanity or stupidity is ‘doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.’

2 — I haven’t posted here as often as I’d like for a number of reasons, but an important one seems to be that many of my posts are longer rather than shorter – longer than I have made time to write, and longer than I believe some people have time or desire to read these days. My hope and plan is to still write more in-depth blog posts, but without setting particular goals for timeframe or frequency.

3 — in addition to being shorter, a letter format is more conversational and informal than a full-blown blog post.

4 — barring emergency, Clive and I will spend the entire month of August here in Felixstowe, so I’ll be able to see how it goes when we’re not consumed with travel or other urgent matters.

My weekly letter, posted here, will cover the same areas as this blog:

Life in Felixstowe: my life with Clive, centred since the beginning of 2011 in this wonderful seaside town in Suffolk, UK, and our various activities and interests. These include walking, reading, socialising and UK travel, culture, and events.

Paris and my writing journey: reflections around my lifelong love affair with Paris, sharing my love and knowledge of the city, and my writing journey as I continue work on a close-to-my-heart personal project, a Paris-based memoir.

Global families and other travels: reflections around the challenges and rewards of having a global blended family located on three continents – and about our enjoyment of other travels and exploring new places.

I can’t promise Clive I’ll never again say ‘budder’ instead of ‘butter’ or that I’ll always say ‘tomahtoh’ but I can say with heartfelt gratitude thanks, UK, for having me.

Thank you, too, for reading and cheers until next week.

Classical Spectacular at Royal Albert Hall 2012

Classical Spectacular at Royal Albert Hall 2012


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 65 other followers