RIP Mary Tyler Moore

In the last month I’ve written two blog posts that seem to have come together this week.   The first was a post about the death of celebrities and how it might impact on you; the second was about choosing one point of time in your own life that you could imagine living in forever.  In the latter post I talked about how I’d felt like Mary Tyler Moore when I went to live in Manchester in the 1970s.  What I didn’t realise as I published that post was that she had just died.

Listening to a tribute to her on the radio I realised that maybe my memory had been a bit flawed – maybe I had not realised that I wanted to be more like her than I realised. I had forgotten a lot about her show but her character was in fact a single professional woman living alone. Writers have said that it is impossible to overstate her influence on television dramas and sitcoms as she was the first lead female character to be recovering from a broken engagement as well as being a career woman.  As one writer says “without Mary Richards [her screen name] there is no Rachel Green… no Carrie Bradshaw… no Hannah Horvath.”  Here was someone who was “going to make it after all” as the theme song called at the start of each show.

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Maybe Mary Tyler Moore was more influential than I had realised – not only was I swinging around the streets of Manchester metaphorically throwing my hat in the air, but perhaps I was also following her example by leaving behind my first love, my family and my comfort zone to go off to train as an accountant.  So thanks, Mary – good job! I might not be where I am today without your example.

Virtually Living for Ever

I just watched an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series called San Junipero.  Like most of this series it’s a “what if…” scenario where technology is used or misused in a dystopian society. This one presents a society in which the elderly wealthy who are dying can use virtual reality to visit any era from their own memories. They can stay for just a few hours if they are still alive in the real world but they have the option of “passing over” into permanent residence after their technical death.  Each time they visit they can pick a different era and it got me thinking about what era would I visit?

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At the age of 18 I left my home in the countryside and went to live in the big city.  I arrived in Manchester in 1974 and it was so exciting and different.  There used to be a series on the TV at the time called the Mary Tyler Moore Show where the eponymous heroine swings around in the middle of the street looking at the high buildings all around her and throws her hat in the air.  And I felt like doing this every time I got off the bus in the city centre.  I felt like I was starring in my own movie and it was all so exciting. Manchester was taking off as a hip place to be and I went to house parties, live bands, nightclubs, gay bars, illegal drinking dens and on political demonstrations.  I even squeezed in a few lectures when I could. There has never been a more thrilling time of my life and I knew it would change me for ever.

Now, thinking about the San Junipero scenario I began to wonder whether I would go back even if I could. In real life I never really felt tempted to go back to live there because I felt that after I left  it could never be the same again: the people, my life experience, my age all combined to make a totally unique experience. But would I want to go back even if it could be the same? What if my more jaundiced eye saw it as tatty and a bit naff or even boring? Do I want to spoil my memories?  More importantly would I want to live there forever in an 80s afterlife?

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In the episode there is a conflict between the two leads: Yorkie is close to death and is looking forward to living in San Junipero for ever but her new love, Kelly says that she is only visiting and that when she dies she wants to leave her memories behind. She is not sure what death means but she prefers that to the endless sameness of San Junipero no matter how fun it is to visit. The back story of each is that Kelly lived a full life with a happy marriage of 45 years whilst Yorkie had been paralysed at the age of 21 and been quadriplegic all her life.  And perhaps this explains the split between them.  The writer clearly felt that Yorkie would not have had a full and happy life and so this is her opportunity to have the life she never had in the real world – she wanted her life to continue even if in her heart she knows it’s all an illusion.  Kelly on the other hand had done all that she wanted and was happy to accept the end.

I wonder how many of us would choose to live forever at one point in our own history, either in the real or virtual world? No matter how attractive a place is, to be stuck in it forever would surely grind you down. Life is about progressing and growing and new experiences rather than staying stuck in one place and time. Would the heaven of the best of our memories become a living hell if we were doomed to spend unlimited time in it?

What would be the era you would want to return to and would you want to stay there forever?

The Death of Celebrities

I haven’t written anything before about the apparent spate of celebrity deaths because I wanted to give it a bit of thought.  In 2016 it seemed that someone “important” died nearly every day.  However I agree with a lot of what has been written about the illusory nature of this.  It is clear that in today’s climate of 24/7 television, social media and the internet that we are aware of so many more people in the public eye.  And any form of fame seems to last a much longer time rather than being the classic “15 minutes of fame” that it often is.  The ability to appear on reality shows,chat shows, quiz shows, twitter and take part in charity events gives that fame a longevity it may not once have had.  So when we hear that someone we “know” has died it can have a bigger impact that it once had.

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One example of this is Zsa Zsa Gabor who died at (probably) 99 years old.  (No one was really sure of her age).  I have known of this woman all my life but in all honesty I cannot really say why?  She was certainly beautiful but so were lots of starlets then and they mostly fell by the wayside. She had a couple of cameos in films and was known to have married lots of times but I haven’t a clue as to how she became famous or why this continued for over 70 years! And this was before we had the self-promotional opportunities provided by the internet.

But this sense of knowing someone can lead to a sense of loss when they die.  My first experience of this was the death of Princess Diana.  I wasn’t really a “fan” of hers but why would I be?  I didn’t even know her.  But when she died I genuinely didn’t understand why my mother was crying.  And the overwhelming grief of the nation mystified me – how were all these people feeling such a strong sense of bereavement?

Maybe the feeling is stronger as we get older and the death of a famous “peer” is a reminder that dying ourselves might be close.  At the age of 17 I was studying at the local college and saw the cool kids carrying albums under their arms of this strange guy with zigzags painted on his face.  Although I never really got into Bowie being more of a soul girl, he has been a musical presence all of my life so it did sadden me when it was announced that he’d died.  But I think this was down to a poignancy that it was the end of an era rather than a feeling that the world would be a lesser place without him.

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The death of people we know personally and through the media are marking the passage of time and reminding us of our own mortality.  To acknowledge it as such is part of our acceptance of the inevitability of death.

 

Five New Year Resolutions for Carers

As a death doula I frequently see carers looking exhausted and I am surprised that they often have to be really pushed to take time out for themselves. It is a good sign that they have arranged for a doula or a charity worker/volunteer to come in to give some respite but I wonder how many other carers just don’t do this. So here are my suggestions for some New Year (or any time) Resolutions for those caring for people at the end of their lives:

Firstly, you should arrange to have a break, no matter how small. It could be an extra long soak in the bath or a day’s walking in the countryside. When you look after yourself you will be better able to take care of others.  And that small break may help to recharge your batteries so that you are better able to cope with the trials and tribulations of this often difficult time.

Secondly, learn how to delegate.  That one bears repeating: DELEGATE! It is so easy to slip into a habit of doing everything and knowing “just how it should be done” that we often ignore or refuse offers of help. If someone asks what they can do to help it’s ok to ask them to take the dog for its shots or to say you wouldn’t mind a hot meal as you’ve slipped into existing on sandwiches. Most people will understand that helping you is helping the dying person.

Thirdly, vent your feelings when you need to.  Find that one person who you feel will understand and LEAN on them.  You may find that someone who has had the same experience will understand a lot of your emotions and frustrations and so you will feel more confident that they won’t judge you when you need to have a bit of a rant.  Carers can find themselves excessively angry at “incompetent” professionals or other family members “not pulling their weight” but this is often displaced anger at their own situation and even anger at the person they are caring for.  Remember that dying doesn’t make your critical, overbearing father into a saint: he may still be pushing your buttons but you may no longer feel able to be angry at him. If there is no one you know, find a support group or online message board.

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The fourth thing is to accept you are not perfect. And more importantly, stop trying to be! Many of us feel the need to be all things to all people, wanting to be that even-tempered parent, the hard-working employee, the dutiful child and the community-minded neighbour. But taking on the main responsibility for caring for a dying person means that other things may have to move over for a while. If you explain to people they will often understand that this year you can’t organise the Christmas Fayre at church or that you can’t take on any overtime at work. The standards we set for ourselves (and which are reinforced by society) are often ridiculously high and in order to take care of someone we may need to let some things slide for a while.  Just tell yourself you will make up the shortfall once your loved one is gone but for now s/he needs your focus and commitment.

Now the fifth one is a biggy – and it overrules all of the above.  It is that you must always remind yourself that you have the right to change your mind. Yes, other people will be relying on what you said and people may be disappointed but it is not something you would do lightly. Sometimes we take on something only to find it’s not what we expected or that we just can’t do it. When we make a decision or a plan it usually takes into account what we know now.  It considers our previous experiences, our self-knowledge as well as practical and financial implications.  But some or all of these may change and it might mean that we need to revisit the plan. Many of us may never have been in the presence of a dead body, let alone one who is in the process of dying.

For example, when my widowed mother was given her terminal diagnosis she was given approximately three months to live.  I agreed with my siblings that I would move in with her, leaving my home and going over 100 miles away from my friends and support networks. Six months later my mother was still appearing to be doing well and I had to have a hard conversation with my brother and sister that I couldn’t leave my home and my life indefinitely. It was so difficult for me to say this as I was trying to be the perfect daughter and, in many ways, the perfect sister by taking the load off everyone else. But I was getting lonely without my friends, I was worried that the manager where I did supply work to make ends meet would forget about me and I missed my home. In effect, I had changed my mind about caring for my mother until the end even though this seems a harsh way of saying it. I’m glad to say that I agreed to carry on for a couple of months and was able to care for my mom right up to the end but I think just voicing my desire to stop reminded me that I had a choice about what I was doing and I felt empowered by that.

Caring for the dying is a big ask and these five resolutions could just help you to maintain your own health and happiness.  They may also enable you to find some enjoyment and satisfaction during the privilege of being present when someone is at the end of their life.

Going Like Elsie

I was about 18 years old when I saw the film Cabaret (1972) for the first time and it blew me away.  Not only did it show me that sexuality could be fluid as I watched the rich playboy Max flirt and sleep with both Brian and Sally but it had a very strong message about death. In her show stopping solo Sally invites us all to “Come to the Cabaret” of life.  Excuse me if I include a fairly lengthy quote from the song:

“I used to have this girlfriend known as Elsie

With whom I shared four sordid rooms in Chelsea

She wasn’t what you call a blushing flower

As a matter of fact she rented by the hour

The day she died the neighbours came to snicker

Well that’s what comes from too much pills and liquor

But when I saw her laid out like a queen

She was the happiest corpse I’d ever seen”

 

O my days – the notion of living life to the full and taking the consequences echoed loud and clear to me.  I was living at home and contemplating the decision to leave home and go off to university.  No one I knew had ever gone to uni and most still lived either at home or within about 5 miles of their family.  But I knew at heart I was a party girl who wanted the chance to go a little crazy.  I heard loud and clear that “life is a cabaret oh chum” and I wanted to be part of that cabaret.  And if it cost me some days, weeks or even years when I got to my old age.  Well maybe it would be worth it to be a happy corpse and to know that…

“When I go I’m going like Elsie.”