Saturday, January 5, 2013

Turnstile Time

Shortly after a friend of mine lost his father -- his last parent and last parental generation family member -- recently, he looked at me, suddenly tearful, and said "I'm stepping up to the turnstile. It's my turn now."

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.


  1. This is great advice underscored by your own family's story. When my mom died, my sister and I moved up to the head of the family. We still had two aunts living, but when they died, we were aware of being the oldest generation in our extended family.

    I have given much thought to the advice you have given. I helped my mom clean out my godmother's house after she died. I was struck by how many things she kept that didn't mean anything to anyone else. It seemed wrong to get rid of so much that meant something to her, but there was no one who cared about it.

    In recent years, I've started getting rid of things that I know won't mean anything to my children. I've kept family photos, for example, but I've thrown out lots of photos that have meaning only to me. I've taken care of all the paperwork sorts of things. I hope to leave my kids with as little as possible to take care of.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog. I'm now following yours and look forward to reading more.

  2. Practical matters!
    Yes, indeed!
    Most people can't wrap themselves around the concept of death, at any age. We made our wills for the first time after our boy's funeral. Before that, we thought we had all the time in the world.

  3. Oh man you hit the nail on the head. I do miss my parents and do feel we have taken over and our turn is next.
    Terrible feeling. Also power of attorney sometimes is not enough You need a living will apparently.
    Someone you trust not to kill you lol

  4. All we have is this moment, and we must embrace it. Your great piece really made me start contemplating those sobering things we don't ever like to consider when times are good. Thank you for always highlighting, in such an engaging and thoughtful way, those things which we must actively embrace!

  5. As always, advice which is wise, pertinent and timely, Kathy.

    Having no aunts or uncles on my side of the family, my sisters and I have been up by that turnstile since my mother died 30 years ago. Thankfully my darling mother-in-law is still with us and in addition my DH still has a few aunts and uncles to keep his place by the turnstile.

    The first thing we did when we married at the age of 21 was to make our wills and we've kept them updated ever since for the children's sake. wW're busy doing the powers of attorney at the moment, as we watch my MiL's memory deteriorate rapidly and realise how easily this could happen to one or both of us one day.

    Some people call it morbid. We call it plain commonsense and kindness to those who will have to take responsibility in the future.

  6. Your post hit home today with the things that need to be done. Mine is partially done, but I know there is more to do. You really don't want to think about some of it, but as you said, you need to do it. My kids told me that they wanted to get things done as to what we wanted. They didn't want to be the ones that had to make that decision. Thank you for your visits. Hugs and Prayers from Your Missouri Friend.

  7. I can't begin to imagine how you got all that work done in just one day, Kathy! No wonder there was some screaming involved!

    Another very good and thoughtful post. I am fortunate to have both my parents, in their 80's now, but I know it will be a jolt when I reach "the turnstile" (which is a wonderful analogy, by the way).

  8. How very wise you are, Kathy.
    We too have had thoughts like yours; my husband is many years older than me and for us the possibility of death isn’t really in the distant future any more. we have made what arrangements we can but there is still the clearing out to be accomplished.

    There’s a spring-clean in the offing.

  9. I did the turnstile thing four years ago. We have planned for our aging, but of course you never know. We are wintering in Tucson in a park model - and find we're quite content in 700 square feet, with only the contents of the car we drove down in to add to the rental. My mother downsized three times before she finally passed away. We went through the storage unit after her passing and took almost all of it to Goodwill. It was important to her, but not to us.

    We have decided that, as we downsize, we will keep the things that are important to us. We've told our kids to do what they want with what's left behind, without guilt.

  10. You really struck a chord with me with this post. I am still reeling from my aunt's death which occurred yesterday. She is the last of my father's siblings. Only my mother, age 96, remains from that generation. You have so accurately described how I have felt about the passing of one generation and realizing that now it is only those of us from our generation that really knew the old guard. I know my children can't really understand why I am feeling the way I am. Death seems much closer at hand and more real.

    We still have so much more to discard. We've done much, but I have much, much more to go. I really don't want my children to have to go through so many of the papers I've not gotten rid of even after our recent move.

    It was difficult to dispose of my daughter's things. Many are still in containers in my crawl space. The kids went through them once. They will have to again because I have not been able to get rid of them.

    We do have our affairs in order. My husband and I did that a few years ago before we went to Europe. It is good to know that is done. I am clear when I speak to my children what I want done. I hope to not leave things in a mess for them.

  11. What kind and intelligent advice.

    I had not even considered what you're talking about today. My mother (fine at 71) is ninth of 14 children, 11 of whom are still alive. I can imagine that at some point soon there will many, many funerals to go to...

    I'm going to call my mother today.

    Thank you.


  12. Once again, Kathy, the words you share are spot-on and resonate. Rick and I call ourselves the "at bat" generation. (Well, I'm at bat; Rick is still on deck with considerably younger parents than mine who died when I was 25 and 42.) Shortly before Christmas we decided to modify our wills to include one another and that brought up the whole concept of considering downsizing at some time or another. Not yet. I'm only 61. But he threatens the dumpster would arrive and I'd rather all the art things, china, silver, holiday things and the other parts of my life go where I want them, not into a giant yard sale. I'm also looking at fixing up bumps in the house so that someday someone else won't have to do it. Sometimes it is overwhelming. But sometimes, outrageously liberating, too. Very nice.