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Appreciate the Now - Lessons in Life
Sun 1st November, 2015 lmc-solutions-facebook lmx-solutions-tweet lmc-solutions-linked-in lmc-solutions-google-plus lmc-solutions-tell-a-friend
Canine Friend

In recent months I've learned some valuable life lessons. The most poignant of which is to never take anything for granted, prosaic though that may sound, it was a lesson I needed to learn. It was closely followed by the importance of presence – actually being there, not virtually, or in thought but in a very real physical and emotional sense. These were lessons I now realise the senior members of our society know well and perhaps they are lessons we all come to learn as part of our passage through life. For me though they all came at once and so have made rather a significant impact on the way I view things from now on.

In the past I advocated living in the present moment but only recently have I come to understand what that truly means. We pay lip service to clichés that “every cloud has a silver lining” or “live for today because tomorrow may never come” or as Eric Idle so glibly put it “always look on the bright side of life”. We bandy about such platitudes without really appreciating the significance of what we are saying.

My path to my present state of enlightenment came about subtly, with little indication that anything was amiss, or that a major change in the course of my life was imminent. Seemingly unrelated events set the scene, decisions made for entirely different reasons laid a foundation and the consequences of those decisions blazed the path forward. Now this is the stuff of all change and as one in whose life these things have been constant, none of this should have come as a surprise. But it did.

My first lesson, that established the precedence for all others, was that the impact of the decisions we make, be they years past, may not be fully experienced until years later when even our very belief system may have undergone change. Coming to such a realization tested, in a very real sense, my personal values and forced me to reevaluate the code of practice by which I live.

My whole life I’ve worked with people and animals to influence behaviour change to some degree, and by and large I’ve been successful at it. No problem I faced was insurmountable and I came to believe that I was a competent teacher and trainer; I realise now I was extremely competent at playing it safe.

Throughout 2015, I’ve been presented with a series of real challenges that highlighted the futility of what I was working so hard to achieve and brought me face to face with the things that really matter. These situations were so far out of my control that I was powerless to influence any change at all. Instead I was forced to look solely at my own actions and modify where I could my response to the events that were to unfold around me.

It was impossible for me to plan ahead, I had to take each moment as it arose, make a decision and follow through without any real regard for the long term impact of that decision. I lived by a routine that established itself and became the benchmark against which I could measure my progress through the day. My whole focus became moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day. I recorded every step, every change, every success.

So what was it that was so earth shattering?

Nothing new at all. Indeed something countless individuals around the world experience every single day. It was an illness – not my own, but that of someone dear to me. And not just any illness; this was a life-limiting one for which nothing could be done. It initiated in the form of a stroke, though in truth it was a tumour bleed in the cerebellum, the symptoms of which were the same as a stroke. The prognosis, however, was significantly different. This event on June 7 of this year was the hair on the trigger.

The decision that set in motion my changing events was one I made some 20 years earlier when I first started volunteering at rest homes for the elderly when we lived in Sydney, Australia. That decision was reaffirmed more recently when taking one of my dogs into the Winara Rest Home and Hospital in Waikanae as part of the Canine Friends service. As decisions go, it had been an easy one to make. Despite the best efforts of the caregivers, residents in these homes were left alone for large parts of the day. That should never be the case in one’s final years. Indeed it should be the very opposite: constantly attended to and surrounded by loved ones – family and friends. My decision was that I would never leave any family member in one of these homes while I was capable of caring for that person myself.

So when my mum was admitted to Dunedin Hospital with her stoke-like symptoms, it triggered the consequences of that decision made two decades before. From June until August I made two lengthy trips to Dunedin to be with mum and consult with her physicians, I packed up half the contents of my home, and I looked for, found and purchased a new property in Southland so we could all live in mum’s home province close to all she knew well. Then in mid-August, we packed the truck with three dogs, seven chooks and everything we were likely to need until our shipment turned up, took the ferry to the South Island and drove its length to a new home and a very different life. Nothing was as important as caring for my mum for as long as she had left. I wanted to make sure she never felt alone again.

Reflecting on this got me thinking of the numerous opportunities I let slip in the past because I had something more pressing to do: How I was too busy to play a game with my son, to have coffee with a friend, to volunteer at a worthy cause, or to listen to my husband. I thought of the times I made things out to be more important than they were, of the times I had held fiercely to my own point of view, or to an object that really wasn’t worth the attention I was giving it and how I had let this “stuff” come between me and the relationships that truly did matter. We have so few moments on this planet to spend time with those we love, not one moment of that time should be lost in the frivolous pursuit of ideologies, or material possessions that in the end become meaningless unless we have someone to share them with.

Caring for another person all day every day gives one ample time for reflection. The routine of the care-giving soon becomes automatic, the focus is on the work and getting it done as quickly and efficiently as possible, but with each day that passes questions arise as to the value of the work being done, or indeed on the value of anything.  An internal dialogue ensues and one finds oneself making micro-decisions at every moment of the day. No visitors today – do I do the washing or do I sit with mum? I sit with mum. My cousin turns up and offers to give me some time to myself – do I take that time or do I catch up on the work needing doing? I get the work done and hope there will be some time for me at the end. A caregiver is assigned to relieve me for an hour each morning – do I catch up on work or do I go out and get some fresh air? I go out, today the work can wait.

Every day I found myself assessing the situation and making a series of decisions as to how I wanted that day to turn out. I know we do this all the time anyway, but for me these were vibrant conscious decisions about my own state of mind. How I was going to deal with the day. Limited time to myself during the day and interrupted sleep every night with the uncertainty of whether my mum would awake from her sleep, kept me in a constant state of alert. I was hyper-conscious of every little thing. I had to decide how I was going to react from one moment to the next. My behaviour would affect not just my own health but that of my mum and those living with me.

I’d love to say I made good decisions every single time, but the truth was I didn’t. Sometimes my decisions were clear and obvious, others were clouded and obscure. The support I needed was not always the support I got. Dealing with the emotional stress experienced by other family members and some of mum’s friends, meant I had to hold in check my own emotional stress at times when I really just wanted to scream for them to go. I wasn't always successful in maintaining that control, in those moments the release was more important than other people’s feelings.

The lessons kept coming. I learned to simplify the criteria for every situation. I began to distil the essence of what I wanted for mum and in so doing I trod on more than a few toes. I’ve never been a particularly tactful person, now I had become even less so. But I was calmer and more patient and had accepted that while nothing I did would change the end game, I could ensure that the moments between now and then were the best they could possibly be for my mum. There were others that felt as I did and therein lay a foundation of solidarity that made it easier for me to stick to my guns and continue as I had begun. It was a course I thought able to maintain for as long as it was needed. Sadly it was not needed long enough.

Mum passed on September 20 and when she did I got a taste of the emptiness that follows. It was a privilege to sit with mum for those millions of moments. It was my pleasure to lie awake each night and listen for the rhythm of her breath. I am so grateful for the opportunity to be there for her when she needed me to be there. It was the greatest gift I could give her. In her last moments, I held her hand, I shared the same air she was breathing, smelled the same scents, heard the same birdsong. That final moment with her is etched on my mind forever – the sigh that was her last, the tension ebbing from her grasp, the silence of the moment that slowed time. It was a lesson in appreciating the moment, that moment, and extracting from it all that could be got. I wanted to remember that moment and I could only do that if I was truly presence. I was and I so appreciate the lessons I learned in the caring of her that brought me to that point.

And now the real challenge lies before me. What do I do now that can be anywhere near as important as that experience was…I’m sure I’ll find something.

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