I understood his feelings of grief, vulnerability and dread. I reached the turnstile nine years ago today when Aunt Molly, my last parental generation relative, died suddenly, a partially completed New York Times crossword puzzle on her lap. After your last family elder has died, you really do experience a major transition as you become the family elder (or one of the elders) and have a new sense of mortality.
And after awhile, it's hard to imagine life being different.
During a dinner with several neighbors not long ago, someone mentioned a mutual friend who was in L.A. to visit her 50-year-old daughter who is experiencing a personal crisis. My next door neighbor Louise said "I know how her daughter feels. She feels bad and wants her mother. That's how I still am. If I feel bad or if I am feeling especially good, I reach for the phone and call my Mom!" I was intially startled. Then I remembered that Louise, who is 70, has a mother who is 95 and doing well for her age. Imagine!
There is a part of me that can't imagine having a mother. My parents both died when I was 35. It has been more than three decades since I heard my mother's voice. And, before I turned 60, I had lost every member of my family's parental generation -- all of my aunts and uncles. While still in my fifties, I was experiencing turnstile time.
What does turnstile time mean to me?
It means being more in touch with my own mortality. I can imagine dying now. It has happened to a lot of people I love. Our parents are a barrier of sorts between us and the inevitability of death. When death happens to them, it takes on a whole new reality for us.
I think about what I want to leave behind to improve the lives of others, family members or dear friends -- like money or special items or simply the feeling that they were dearly loved and valued.
I think about what I don't want to leave behind -- piles of junk and excess belongings for others to dig through, distribute or dispose. Bob and I spent an entire year shoveling out my parents' 1000 square foot home and then my brother spent another year making the house liveable.
And on most horrid day of our marriage, Bob and I did a major overhauling of Aunt Molly's house after her death.
Our real estate agent had held a disastrous open house the weekend before. Potential buyers, one after the other, made negative comments about Aunt Molly's wall of bracket and board bookcases lining the small living room and the Monterey coast wallscape in her den. The agent called us with a directive to remove the bookcases, patch and paint the walls and also paint over the wallscape in the den. Sighing deeply but with firm resolve, Bob and I drove the 100 miles to Molly's house the next Saturday, expecting a very full day of work.
In the middle of our efforts, the agent called again, telling us in a panic that a potential buyer was coming over the next day, and that he had a special concern. Another complaint people had voiced during the open house was that the carpeting smelled faintly of cat pee. This potential buyer was concerned that even the foundation of the house might smell of cat urine. So the agent had a further directive: tear up and remove all the carpeting from the house and then swab the concrete slab with bleach. And then buy and install new carpeting. Bob and I looked at each other aghast -- suddenly realizing that, in order to do all this, we would have to -- just the two of us -- remove every stick of furniture from the house. We did it. But it wasn't pretty. We screamed at each other. We cried. We sweated. We cursed. We embraced and apologized. But we did it. The house -- clean, bright, newly painted and carpeted -- sold for an excellent price several weeks later.
Since then, Bob and I keep vowing to each other that we don't want to put any of our survivors through such a major clean-up. We cut down on many of our possessions when we moved from California to Arizona nearly three years ago. And I am still in the process of sorting through things I personally treasure to determine what might be junk to someone else and what might best become a digital file.
We have completed power of attorney, medical directive and legal directives regarding our pets in the event of our disability or demise.
We know it's not a question of if but when.
We've made a resolution to write directive letters for immediate survivors and friends with instructions as Aunt Molly so thoughtfully and wisely did. It isn't a matter of being morbid, but being prepared. I have a friend whose spouse won't even consider thinking about a will or trust (at 62!). He doesn't want to think about dying.
But it makes sense to entertain that notion long enough to execute a will or trust, power of attorney and health directives. Then -- in a very real sense, you're free to go on with living your life to the fullest.
Awareness of our mortality and the fragile nature of life that comes as we step up to the turnstile is also evident in other ways: thinking about how we will manage -- or not -- when we are older and need assistance with the tasks of daily living. Does long-term care insurance make sense? A move to a continuing care community? If, at some point, neither of us can drive, will continuing to live here in rural Arizona be feasible?
These aren't constant pre-occupations but thoughts and questions that occur to us now that our elders are gone, now that we are living our retirement dream, now that 70 isn't that far away, now that we have friends in their eighties and nineties who are experiencing some challenges and limitations. While we can't possibly know what the future holds for us, we need to consider all the possibilities. Although every one of my elders on both sides of my family succumbed to sudden cardiac death -- with very little disability or illness preceding death -- I can't necessarily count on having the same good luck, preferably some years hence.
Then there are moments when we consider our proximity to life's turnstile with more positive thoughts and questions: what do we still want to experience and accomplish in our lives? Which people, what places do we long to see?
Now is the time to make happy plans to do the traveling we long to do, to pursue the interests and projects that mean the most to us, to tell those who matter just how much we love them.
There is no better time than right now.