Death and New Beginnings

I haven’t got angry or lost it with anyone for a long long time.  Still, I lost it with a poor Enterprise car hire employee. I think his name was Pierce. (Sorry Pierce).

We had just been told that my Taid didn’t have long to live and we had decided to hire a car to drive up to the hospital to see him one last time.  Taid had been ill for a long time, yet I found myself surprisingly upset and agitated.  We had spoken to Enterprise numerous times that day and had made it clear that we needed the car by a certain time.

We turned up only to discover that the car wasn’t there.

I was shocked by my reaction. I started crying. I got angry with Pierce. I went on about how it was unacceptable…. It wasn’t my finest moment…!

We needed to get to the hospital before the doors were closed, and by now it wasn’t looking like we would make it.

Andrew complained, (he was much calmer than I was). We would have been penalised by Enterprise had we turned up late to collect the car which didn’t seem right.

Pierce dealt with the situation well. He offered us a discount, or some sort of arrangement with fuel. The car turned up 45 minutes late. It wasn’t prepared, but we took it straight away.

The Futility of Anger

I felt bad (and subsequently contacted Enterprise to apologise and praise Pierce). I generally don’t get angry or upset much any more. (Maybe it’s because of the mediation?) Yet, I was frustrated by how little control I had over my emotions just then.

Anger doesn’t help anything. I know that. It might get you a discount, but it rarely helps resolve the situation.

It was unfair of me to react in such an emotional way. We hadn’t explained our circumstances to the guy on the desk. I also don’t know what struggles Pierce might be dealing with personally. I could see that he felt dreadful about the situation and was just as helpless as we were.

I’m a big believer in the ripple effect of treating people well.  People who are treated kindly are far more likely to treat others in a similar way.  Having a go at Pierce probably upset or annoyed him. Pierce in turn would be more likely to treat his friends and colleagues badly, or at least be worse company to hang around.  Life is short. That kind of thing is not good for the universe.

Feeling better as we were on our way, I reflected on how little power I had in the situation, and how I had to let it go.  Whether I saw my Taid one last time or not, it was largely outside of my control.  Andrew could only drive so fast, and my Taid would only be alive for a while longer. I had to accept that I might not see Taid again.  Which would have been okay.

I’ve been lucky over the last few years. I’ve got to spend a lot more time with Taid and Nain than I would usually have done. Taid had also been ill for a long time and I had seen him a couple of weeks earlier. It wasn’t as though his turn for the worse had been a shock.

In the grand scheme of things, my Taid probably wouldn’t have wanted any of this grief to have been going on for his sake either!

Saying Goodbye

Thankfully, we got to the hospital shortly before the doors were closed and the staff let us stay on.   I got to spend a few hours with Taid. It’s one of the best things I’ve done.

Taid hadn’t eaten or drunk anything for a few days.  He was tiny. Wasting away, yet he was still strong. His blood pressure was healthy and I could feel his heart beating through his hands. He could hardly open his eyes or talk, but could hold our hands and arms tightly.  I held his hands until he let them go.

It’s strange. There have been so many times when I have said goodbye to my grandparents over the years, wondering whether it was the final time I would see them.  (A symptom of living several hours away and knowing the risks of adventure travel.)  I had prepared myself so many times before to say goodbye for the last time. This time, I knew it was the end, and I didn’t want to leave.

My Taid passed away a day or so later.  I’m sad, but grateful that he lived to such a long age. He was 99 and suffering heavily towards the end.

He’d had his share of hardships when he was younger.  He never knew his father who died before he was born. (I don’t think he ever got over that.  I’ve also come to understand how that impacted his own relationship with his son, and my Dad in turn with his own children).  Taid’s brother died when he was a child, and Taid also fought in the second world war.  But, he also got to enjoy life for almost a century! Including 30+ years of a relatively healthy retirement with his wife. That is amazing!

What’s the Secret of Long Life?

I’m sure genes played a role. He was relatively healthy, although had a few ailments towards the end. (He would sometimes turn a dark yellow. A sign that something was wrong with his liver. He had numerous pains, which never got investigated properly as he knew that he might not survive any surgery. He was afraid he might not be let out of hospital if he ended up there. He was right to be afraid).

He was always pretty positive, extremely grateful for the wonderful and long life he had lived, and very much still in love with my Nain, 12 years his junior.  I loved him for all this.

He drove until he was 96. He could have driven for another 3 years pretty easily, (self certification…) but decided to give it up, (much to our relief! He had a minor accident and acknowledged that his reaction times weren’t as fast as they used to have been!)

He smoked 50 cigarettes a day until he gave up in one go at 50 years of age.  He had a lot of self discipline. He also gave up beer around the same time. He didn’t think it agreed with him.

He drank a bit of whisky now and then, and some medium sickly sweet white wine which I never really enjoyed.

His diet was pretty healthy, cornflakes and raisins with maybe some toast in the morning. An apple with ryvita or sandwich for lunch, and meat or fish with vegetables in the evening.

Everything was in moderation.

He was sociable and fiercely proud and independent, (he refused to go in a wheelchair even near the end much to everyone’s frustration).

Taid and Nain lived in their home, on their own, largely unaided, until Taid was taken into hospital after a fall last year. The photo above is of them both outside their house just before we left for Africa in July 2013. I think he’s 97 in the photo.

Both him and my Nain enjoyed entertaining visitors, cooking, playing cards, and would often visit others. He was an avid golfer, cricketer, snooker player, card player, and always active, even in his old age. He loved having stuff to do and was a huge fan of doing things properly, be it cleaning, mowing the lawn, or gardening. They used to have a dog which Taid loved taking for walks.

He loved making things and helping other people. He mowed lawns, gardened, decorated people’s houses, made furniture, bird tables and cakes as gifts for people.

He was  sociable, loved flirting and joking with people, (even at 99 with the nurses!). He was strongly opinionated and quick to anger. He didn’t suffer fools gladly!

He was madly in love and always affectionate with my Nain, fiercely protective over her. Yet he could be demanding on her behind closed doors.

One of the most poignant things I’ve seen was my Nain leaving Taid in hospital one day.  They were saying goodbye to each other, and Taid suddenly turned into an emotional teenager, telling Nain that he didn’t believe that she cared about him, and that she wanted to spend time with other men. I have no idea where that came from. Nain visited Taid every day and rarely saw anyone but family and a few close friends at the time.

It was sad to see a man of 99 feel the insecurity of worrying about his wife going off with another man after 67 years of marriage. I guess it doesn’t matter how old we are, or how long you’ve been with your partner, we are all capable of feeling the same emotions, especially when we’re vulnerable and not feeling our best.

Most of the time my Nain and Taid were together, they would wax lyrically about how they got engaged, their honeymoon and life after marriage.

Taid would repeat himself a lot. Taid’s mind got a little confused towards the end, but he didn’t have dementia.  He enjoyed talking about the same thing over and over. It drove people up the wall, but I didn’t mind. I enjoyed listening to him telling us the stories that he loved recalling.

It’s interesting to see what events you remember the most during a life of almost a hundred years.

He often talked about working long hours in his Mum’s chip shop as a boy; landing on the beaches in Normandy in World War II; losing his best friend who was killed while fighting along side him; getting married; buying his first house; and the odd difficult situation at work, (he worked in insurance), which he seemed to have spent on the golf course.

It’s hard to know whether these stories stayed afresh in his mind because of the frequency with which they were told, or because of the trauma or strength of emotion that were attached to them.

There’s always more time that you could have spent with people. I’ve been away travelling for most of the last couple of years, but giving up work for a while also provided time to spend with my grandparents. I’m so grateful for that. It would never have happened if I had been working in a traditional permanent full time role.

A Meaningful Life

It’s funny, death makes everything matter, and nothing matter at same time.

My Taid was lucky. He had almost 100 years on this planet!  Most people are not so lucky. No one knows how much time they have left.

For his birthday this year, Noah Kagan asked people to suggest life lessons. Which got me thinking about my last hours with Taid.

At the end of your life, nothing matters apart from love and the impact you have had on the people around you.  That’s how it seemed when I was with Taid anyway. I felt so much love for him and could feel his love for myself and Andrew.

At the end of your life, it doesn’t matter how much money you have, or what your job title was, or whether you have any assets. You are gone.

So much of our lives are spent increasing our wealth, chasing prestige, promotion, property, retirement.  What’s strange is that, in the end, none of that matters. Nothing matters but the relationships you have, and the impact you’ve had on other people.

You might worry about your net worth and impressing the right people. Your friends and family just want your time. While I was in the hospital with Taid, I fondly recalled the happy memories I had of him. Trips to the beach; walks along the promenade; teaching us how to play the fruit machines and bingo (he always won) in the pier arcades; playing dominoes and cards with him and Nain at home; and mundane things like how he used to take me to the dentist.

Arianna Huffington in Thrive writes about how even Steve jobs’ eulogy was about personal moments, it wasn’t about the iPhone.  As Arianna says, at your funeral, no one will be celebrating the numerous late nights you spent at work or how you always had lunch at your desk. For many of us, few of our work colleagues will even be at our funerals despite them being the people we have spent the most time with over the years.

I’m getting frustrated with friends who are constantly working long hours, resigned to dreams of retirement in 30-40 years. Since when did life get so serious? We are so lucky in today’s society. We have so much for which to be grateful, yet no one seems to be enjoying it.

What you do today is your life. Life is not what you will have in 10-20 years time. It’s now. You have to find a way to enjoy the journey and carve out a path that works and means something for you.

Derek Sivers in an interview with Tim Ferriss recently talked about psychic pain. The internal frustration and regret that comes from doing things you don’t want to be doing. Derek calls that a wake up call. A call that tells you you’re following the wrong path. A call that you should stop doing what hurts.

I’ve been struggling with shifting from focusing on the short term (contract work, saving, travel, repeat) to thinking longer term. It’s been harder than I thought it would be.

Andrew and I could easily focus on another 12-24 months of working before heading off to China, New Zealand and Central America for a few months.

I love travelling and will never tire of it. However, I also know how endless travel is not necessarily satisfying, and how contract work has become, albeit still interesting, not as motivating as it once was. I’ve had no trouble going to work over the last few years as I knew what I was working towards. Now I’m not so sure.

I’ve pursued and achieved so many of my travel related goals. Sure, I have heaps more and I will definitely continue to pursue them somehow, but I don’t want aimless trips around the world to be what my life is all about.

I don’t want to turn into a bitter unhappy person, resigned to an unfulfilling and regimented permanent job. Meaningless and empty.

I don’t want to spend a huge chunk of my life dragging my body into an office just for money, in a constant state of internal turmoil. Stressed, trying to fit everything into a fixed number of hours.

I want to do great work and feel strongly about having the freedom to integrate work and life, (there are no reasons that it shouldn’t work) in order to do it.

I want to spend my life consciously. I’m not the kind of person who does as little work as possible in exchange for a pay check before scooting home to watch Downton Abbey. Neither am I the kind of person who wants to define herself solely as a wife or a mother.  Sometimes, I wish I was wired that way, (trust me, my life would be a lot easier!) but I’m not.

I want the freedom to use my time wisely. I want to make a contribution, have an impact, and help build something bigger than I am.

I don’t know the meaning of life.  Naval Ravikant mentioned this recently when he ruminated on how little significance we have as human beings, occupying a minuscule sliver of time in the history of the universe.

Which is why I need to find my own meaning in what I do, an over-arching purpose to work towards each day. I need to carefully choose what I dedicate the next part of my life towards. I’m searching for something to which to make a commitment.

I hope I find it soon.


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