A reflection on perfection

I am not perfect.

Those who know me will quickly agree, though may be a little surprised at my level of self-awareness.  It is, of course, our flaws rather than our perfections that make us who we are, that set us apart and that make us (and our lives) interesting.

And so it is with patchwork.  The early Amish quilters used to make a deliberate error in each piece, for fear that their perfection would offend their God!  But fortunately, I not nearly perfect enough to have to worry about that.

Over the past few weeks, I have been working, intermittently, on a small baby quilt for a friend.  A simple piece – and if I’d spent all of my time on it, it would indeed be (a bit more) perfect.  As it is, it’s full of my love and joy, and a not inconsiderable number of unsquare squares, uncorresponding corners, unmatched seams, and uneven lines.

Oh well…

Now those who strive for perfection might say ‘what’s the point of imperfect points?’  An imperfectly pieced piece belongs in the bin – or so I’ve been told.

But I say this, lovely baby:  This quilt is a message about life.  A message that you do not need to be perfect to be beautiful, you do not need to be precise to be useful.  Enjoy your imperfections, celebrate them and let them be the warmth that sustains you and those whom you love.

Imperfections

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2017 – a personal reflection on thankfulness

As we lounged on our picnic blankets in the icy wind at Christmas in Park, with thousands of other Aucklanders, young Matthew (still 5) pronounced “this year is nearly finished – I think we should all say what our best thing was this year, I’ll start”.  Ever the conversationalist!

For Matthew “my first year at school” was the very best thing – a year in which he joined the ‘big boys’ and truly embraced formal learning, and all the fun of being part of a rambunctious real boys’ school environment.  Taking away the academic prize for his class (and a stellar school report highlighting a talent for languages) rewarded just one side of this multifaceted young man, with his physical talents shining through on the rugby (and apparently also cricket) field, in the pool and in the advanced trampoline squad at the gym club. matthew-year-1.jpg

Isabel too had a big year of a very different kind with half the year literally consumed by the harsh reality of leg-lengthening surgery, to add what sounds like a scant 4cm to her originally 10cm long left thigh bone (actually a 40% increase in bone length!).  Her sheer courage and determination shone through, along with her extreme obstinacy (wonder where she gets that from?) – and was recognised in the award at her school of the overall school prize for Resilience & Perseverance.  The trophy is almost as tall as she is!

Izzy's award

In truth, at least part of the recognition goes to her mum, dad and brother, who have taken this journey with her every step of the way – we will all celebrate with them on 17th January when the steel brace currently piercing flesh, muscle and bone, is removed and she can get on with all the things she loves doing.  I believe there is a long list – headed up with going to the beach, climbing a tree and jumping on the trampoline (the latter may have to wait a little longer while the bone strengthens!)

A big year for both grandchildren – and yes, I am thankful for having them both in our lives, and truly thankful that they have parents who not only love and nurture them, but teach them the importance of independence and courage, and the value of family.

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To Pip and Howard – you make us so proud.  We too celebrate your ‘best of 2017’ – a promotion for Pip in her roller-coaster job with a tech startup company (which is technically well beyond the ‘start-up’ phase of its life); and Howard’s gig as manager of the New Zealand AFL team to the world cup in Australia (and that his day job enables him to do these sorts of things!).   I am so thankful that you two found each other, celebrated your 10th wedding anniversary this year, and make such an awesome team.

pip & howard

I am thankful for Rob and Jenna – that they too have found each other, visited us for Christmas, and so very clearly make each other happy.  I love that you’re enjoying life, are happy in your work, and give us a reason to visit London regularly!  Of course, I’d love it even more if you were closer to home…  just saying.

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At the other end of the age spectrum, I am so thankful for a year with mum, for being able to see her every day now she’s living in the back part of our house, and for the difference that her little dog Amber has made to her quality of life.  It’s never easy for a mother and daughter to live together – but boy, does it beat any of the alternatives!

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Christmas dinner for 40 people – all seated in our dining room – was a massive highlight of my year, and I’m thankful for not only our wider family, but our very good friends who came, ate, drank and were merry.    Having good friends who know you, understand you and are there for you no matter what is indeed one of life’s great blessings.

It’s been a big year for me and Peter too – Peter told Matthew that his best thing was discovering he still has what it takes to make a difference in business, as he volunteered to take over as CEO of a lingerie company that we’ve invested in, that needed a guiding hand.  Not that any one of us ever doubted his capability – and it is awesome to see the results he’s achieving with his tiny team, as they drive for growth in online sales (and Peter learns a whole new language of e-commerce jargon).   Apparently you can teach an old dog new tricks!

Who would have thought he’d end up running a bra business in his retirement.  Our dinner party conversations have taken on a whole new flavour!  And so I am thankful that he is (mostly) enjoying the new challenges that this job brings – and also for the fact that it hasn’t stopped us from continuing to enjoy lots of travel and other fun times in our retirement.

While I am immensely thankful that we live in New Zealand, I am equally thankful that we get to go adventuring in the wider world as well.  Cycling in Greece in September, with a side visit to London, was so much fun.  A study tour to China in October, to get a sense of their high-tech revolution was eye-opening and inspiring – and a reminder that travel expands the mind (not just the waistline!), even the old minds like ours!

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For me the year has been one of consolidation – stepping away from some of my roles to focus on those where I feel I can truly add value.  A diverse portfolio of young company boards and mentoring roles still keeps my brain working – and gives me good reason to at least try to “keep up” with the changes in the world.  The recognition of my contribution to angel investing in New Zealand, with the award of the Arc Angel NZ trophy in November, was a massive surprise – and renewed my determination to continue doing what I can to support start-up company founders to grow great global businesses from here in New Zealand.  I am thankful for the entrepreneurs that I work with, for their drive and their courage – and thankful that I have a small bit of experience to contribute to their journeys.

In the words of a very good friend (and no doubt some other famous person)… HOW LUCKY AM I?

They say you make your own luck – and that is in part true.  I believe that luck follows gratitude;  and that to feel truly lucky, you have to appreciate the positives in whatever life throws at you.  For many people, in my family, my community and the wider world, 2017 has not been a great year, yet even through the stories of tragedy and great harm, there is always a story of courage and resilience that shines through as well, and a reminder for the rest of us that things could always be so much worse than they are.

So here I stand, feeling thankful, blessed and yes, a little bit lucky, on the cusp of 2018 – my 60th year.  Surrounded by close and distant family (a truly kiwi whanau), great friends, appreciation and love from those around me and opportunities to make a difference in my little part of the world…  indeed, how lucky I am!

(PS.  Thank you to Don, Jenna, Pip and Rob for fabulous photographs used in this post!)

 

 

Mothers and sons – a mystical bond

This week my son, seen here with his older sister, turned 30.

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Somehow, that seems like a personal milestone not just for him, but for me;  a signal that my work is done, and it’s time to move on to the next phase of my life.  The ‘apron strings’ that bind us are now well and truly untied, and he was unequivocal in his advice that a surprise arrival at his 30th birthday party in New York would not be a good idea!

The fact that I even thought of doing that – of arriving unannounced into the midst of his well planned weekend with his friends, full of fabulous events – made me think about just how irrational this mother-son bond actually is.

I was reminded of what the wonderfully insightful Celia Lashlie said in her book about “growing gorgeous boys into good men”.  Something about your son crossing a bridge, and if you, Mum, try to follow him onto the bridge, he just wants to push you off it.  You need to stay off that bridge.

What happens when the bridge in question is physical rather than metaphorical, and he’s actually leaving (or has left)?

This week my best friend packed her own (much younger) son off to the other side of the world – and seemed to me to be at least thinking (if not behaving) irrationally.  I told her that even after 8 years of living on opposite ends of the world, and despite seeing my now 30 son in person at least once a year, and sometimes more often that, I still have days when I just want to drop everything I’m doing, rush to the airport and get on the plane.  How is it that after nearly a decade of living so far away, I can still feel that loss of his presence so achingly clearly?

Is it hormonal, I wondered – a menopausal effect that causes mothers to lose their minds just, coincidentally, at the same time as their precious sons are leaving home?  A non-causal correlation, perhaps?   Or even more alarmingly, perhaps that loss of rationality is an effect of ageing – a dying off of that part of the brain that we relied on in the past to moderate our behaviour?

Fortunately, in my case, I have a completely rational husband at my side, who understands that I’m not actually going crazy, even if I occasionally behave so;  that those moments of longing do pass, even if they make me a basket-case for a day or two on the way through;  and that if all else fails, he can always buy me a ticket to London (though it hasn’t even come to that yet).

So I guess there’s a message in all of this, a message for mothers that says:

Your son has left your home, to make a home of his own.
It’s perfectly normal for you to feel bereft,
and continue feeling bereft
on an occasional basis, forever. 
Occasional irrational thoughts (or even behaviours) do not mean you’re losing your mind.

And a message for sons:

Your mother loves you, misses you, and occasionally (hopefully not too often)
will do or say something inappropriate, irrational or just plain embarrassing. 
You do not need to rush home to deal with it – just say “love you Mum” and move on (please!)
and continuing forging your fabulous way in the world
(because that’s what she actually wants you do to).

And a message for fathers:

Your son’s mother has not lost her marbles.  She’s just being a mother. 
Rational arguments have no place in this situation, nor telling her to ‘get a grip’.
This too will pass.

(And meanwhile, stand by with that ticket to London!)

A good life, and a good death

This is my submission to the Parliamentary Health Select Committee, currently considering a petition to change the law in New Zealand to support ‘physician assisted suicide’, or, as I prefer to term it, giving people choices at the end of their lives.

This is a personal story – please do not read it if you think you may be upset or offended.  It is my view, and only my view, of three undignified deaths in my close family in recent years.  To other family members – I truly recognise that your experiences of these deaths are different from mine, and that you may feel that these are not my stories to tell.  Everyone involved has their own perspective – this is mine, respecting that you almost certainly have a different view, and irrespective of that, mostly importantly, celebrating that we all, each one of us, cared very deeply.

So here is my plea to the legislators – exhorting them to lead, not follow, to a better more compassionate society.

The San people – the ‘tangata whenua’ of Southern Africa – have a way of dealing with dying.  A nomadic people in a harsh and unforgiving land, it is said that the final gift that the elder gives to the tribe is to sit, simply sit by the wayside, as the tribe moves on.  The choosing to die – a decision made while still in control.  I reflect on this, as I recount the story of these three undignified deaths, and make a heartfelt plea for a more compassionate society.

“One day, you will wake up and the pain will be gone – you will only have the good memories of your Dad”.  Wise words from a good friend, thank you Mark.

The pain he spoke of was not, I have realised, Dad’s pain – a pain that had thankfully already passed – but the painful memories not just of having to stand by and watch Dad’s pain and indignity, but most of all the pain of being helpless to deal with my mother’s pain.

Was it not enough that she had to experience the loss of her spouse of 53 years, her life’s companion?  As she stood by, riddled with her own physical disabilities – unable to assist in the increasingly physical task of caring for her beloved – her distress was palpable, her feeling that she was somehow letting him down by allowing sometimes family members, sometimes complete strangers to witness his indignities.

“I guess when you got on the plane (from London), you didn’t realise you were signing up for this”, Dad retaining his sense of humour as his 20-something grandson assisted in dealing with his soiled bottom, trying desperately to cause no further pain while wiping around the open wounds of bedsores and nappy-burn.

Deric, my Dad, had a good life – he told me so at our last lunch.  I’d persuaded him to come out with me one last time, in part to give Mum a moment alone.  We went to his favourite café, ordered his favourite chicken livers – not that he could each much of them.  We talked, finally, about his life.

Five months earlier his doctor had given him the news – liver cancer, probably secondaries, prognosis 5 to 6 months.  This was not Dad’s first brush with cancer.

Nearly a decade earlier, face / mouth cancer had led to major reconstructive surgery, surgery that left him disfigured (though those around him soon stopped noticing).  Then in his late 60s, he had had much to live for.  The first surgeon’s advice, that nothing could be done, was firmly rejected.  He was going to fight this, and he did.  The wonderful team at Auckland Hospital gave him a whole new cheek, and the even bigger gift of living to see his granddaughter married, and great-granddaughter born.  He adored baby Isabel with every fibre of his being, and she, now , still talks about her beloved “Dumpy”, even though he didn’t make it to her second birthday.

But now in his late seventies, he was ready to go – if one is ever ready.  His main concern was for my mother, who had never known what it was to live life alone.

I know my story is not unique, and in fact, there are many families less-equipped than ours to deal with this.  We did not have to worry about the financials of it all;  we had knowledge and education on our side, and a strong network of family and friends to lean on, despite being immigrants to New Zealand.  “South African by birth, Kiwi by choice” my mother has always said.  How much harder must this be for families battling poverty, families unable to have an ‘equal’ conversation with doctors, families who simply don’t understand the system (or even the language)?

Yet, as the oldest child, only daughter, and only child living in Auckland where my parents were, I nevertheless felt the massive weight of it all on my back.  With no time to process my own grief, I grasped for the one thing that I could do that I felt would make a difference for Dad – I knew that he desperately wanted to stay at home to die.  My mother, on the other hand, regularly asked when he would be going to hospital…  in her paradigm, hospital is where people go to die.  The idea of having a dead body in the house was just not something she could get her head around.

I am eternally grateful to Hospice – for everything that they did – but particularly for enabling me to have ‘that’ conversation with Mum.  I signed up for their ‘carer support’ programme – a weekly gathering focused on giving carers the practical tools – I invited Mum along, and she was not keen, but eventually agreed to go.  It helped to feel like we were prepared, but most of all, it helped to talk.

They also taught me to administer morphine through the injecting site that would ultimately be ‘installed’ in Dad’s shoulder as he became unable to swallow anything.  Don’t be cautious, they said – anytime he appears in distress, give him another vial.  I wondered if there was an unspoken message there.

But sadly no, when we were truly near the end – the endless sitting around waiting for death, hoping and praying for death – I took to Dr Google, looking up whether I could, in fact, change the course by administering the full supply in one go.  But no, there was simply not enough.

And so, I guess, that tells you which side of the debate I am on.  If I had had the provisions to administer that final dose, I would indeed have done it – not just for Dad, but for all of us.  Those final 48 hours were interminable – and to my eternal regret, when I could function no longer and went home to sleep, Dad finally took his last breath, with no one at his side.

My question is “why”.

“It takes time” the doctor said.  “His body is shutting down, you need to give it time to do that”.  But why?  It’s not like we were going to start it up again, and had to make sure it was ‘properly’ shut down!  Why couldn’t we just press the “off” button?

Let me be clear.  Dad was definitely dying.  There was no treatment, no cure, just the watching and waiting.  There was pain – not just for Dad (I guess, he’d say at least he had the morphine!), but for all of us, dealing not only with our own personal pain, but with the pain of the living, those who we care deeply about.  Having said his goodbyes, why was my dear Dad not allowed to simply fade into the deep goodnight, with his loved ones at his side?

I have reflected on the choices he might have made in a more compassionate society.  In Oregon, his doctor would have talked to him about “the prescription”.  He would probably have agreed to have the drugs available – whether he would have taken them himself, I do not know.  He certainly would not have taken them immediately following his diagnosis.  He seems truly content to have the time to ‘get his affairs in order’, the time to talk with Mum about the choices she would make when he was gone.

But the reassurance of knowing that he could end it if he wanted to, would, I believe, have made those last lucid weeks considerably less fearful.  It’s about having choices – choices for everyone, the choice to take control.

And yes, five years on, the pain of those days is faded, though I see it occasionally in my mother’s eyes.  It comes back with force when we are again faced with the same issues, the same choices, as we have been twice since then, with the passing of my husband’s two parents.

Each story is uniquely different.  Each would have had its own prognosis in a world where people have a choice of dying with dignity.

My husband’s mother, June, was crystal clear in her wishes.  Through all my nearly 40 years of knowing her, I knew that she was pro-euthanasia.  In a time where it was a mostly taboo, certainly seldom discussed topic, she managed to make it clear to all around her – not just her 3 children – that when she got the dementia (Alzheimers that runs in her family), she would, as she put it, jump off the nearest bridge.  This was not a flippant comment – it was a clear plan.  In the end, in one of her very last lucid moments before her brain died without having the decency to take her body along with it – she told her son that she simply didn’t have the courage to do it, that she could not bear the thought of her husband of 60 years having to find her body.

As it turned out, they were both spared the pain of seeing each other die.  That pain fell to the three children, all desperately devoted to doing the right thing for their two parents.

Sid, their father, surprisingly went first.  In one of those ridiculously trivial incidents that grew and grew, an ingrown toenail became an infected foot, that led to hospital, not once but several times.  Surgery to try to improve the circulation – for without blood supply, amputation was inevitable – ultimately unsuccessful.  A discharge from hospital into our home – all the while, him insisting that he was going back home to his little house in the retirement village.  We knew that was never happening, but humoured him, as we set in place a roster of full time nursing care.

Unlike his wife, Sid had never expressed his wishes about end of life care.  Even as he was wheeled into surgery that last time, when the medical team asked if he had a non-resuscitation order in place, or what his wishes were, he pronounced that he knew his “family will make the right decision at the time”.  This was, of course, not helpful – but it was his wish, that he didn’t want to think or especially to talk about end of life matters, and we respected that.

So we fell into a charade – knowing that he had rejected amputation, knowing that he would ultimately die of blood poisoning, taking the decision (on his behalf) to go without antibiotics that would prolong that process…  and all the while playing along with his demands to prepare for returning him to his home.

His pain was real, very real – and seemingly much harder to control.  His children argued about how to manage it, each, under stress, reverting to their childhood pecking-order.  The oldest taking charge, the youngest feeling ignored, the middle child feeling like, well, the middle child – the daughters trying desperately to care not only for their Dad, but for each other, for their brother…  their respective spouses standing at their sides, trying (and failing) to be supportive without interfering.

It was long, it was horrible.  Even when, finally, everyone agreed that the end was in sight and there was a space in the hospice facility, it remained seemingly impossible to relieve the poor man of his pain.  United in their love of their father, the three siblings pretty much moved in to the hospice room…  again, the days of waiting, the days of questioning why.

As a family of dog-lovers, we have all had the sad but inevitable moment when we make the decision about that trip to the vet – the moment of standing at your faithful companion’s side, stroking his head as the vet takes away his pain forever, the relief of knowing the suffering is over.  Perhaps we should have raised one of our own children to become a vet!

And so finally, we buried Sid.  The level of stress on family relationships at an all-time high, some just wanting it all to be over, a fitting send-off in retrospect, perhaps not fully appreciated at the time.  The final argument – should June be told, should she come to the funeral?  Is it right to withhold the news of her husband’s death from a loyal wife?  By then, her dementia was well advanced, and so the wisdom of her wonderful carers prevailed.  She never knew that Sid was gone – though from time to time, we would find her in a chair by the door, just sitting, waiting for “the man” to come visit.

My husband and I travelled a few weeks later to London, where the three grandchildren who had not been able to attend the funeral, along with an assortment of friends from his past, gathered for a memorial service.  Finally, away from the stress, we truly celebrated Sid’s life.

Meanwhile, it seemed the June’s body would just live on and on.  Always a fit person, the stress-free environment of the wonderful Awanui Rest Home (a dedicated dementia care facility) had seen her health actually improve, despite the withdrawal of supposedly necessary medications.

Unlike Deric and Sid, June had signed not one, but three separate directives about her wishes, including one which was crystal clear that she did not wish to live with dementia, and that all ‘life-saving’ medication and treatments were to be withdrawn if she could no longer care for herself.  Her children took her at her word, and once she was admitted into full time dementia care, somehow prevailed upon the medical people to stop all medication apart from pain relief where necessary.  This included blood pressure medication that she had been taking for decades – thereby, the medical advice said, dramatically increasing her likelihood of having a major life-threatening stroke.  Well, that’s exactly her intent, we said – that medication is reducing her chances of dying, it is technically therefore ‘life-saving’…  difficult decisions.

That was just the foretaste of difficult decisions to come.  The thing about end of life decisions is that everyone has the best intentions.  The family (at least in our case) wanted what was best for June, which we interpreted as honouring her very clear instructions while ensuring that she was not in pain or suffering at any stage.  Her carers at Awanui moved mountains to try to keep her in their care, where we all knew she was, if not happy, at least wonderfully content.  The doctors and nurses also wanted the best for her – healing of her hip (broken three times in short succession), “hospital care” which Awanui was not ‘qualified’ to offer (despite us offering to pay for full time nursing support).

It is in the nature of the Alzheimers condition that change causes distress.  We were fortunate – in a way – that having worked for many years in a hospital setting, June felt quite at home in a large hospital ward, but transferring her to a new and foreign place would, we knew, distress her enormously.  Her children dug in, at a time when they should have been supporting her and each other in their distress, they were instead trading ‘blows’ with the system, about threats of legal action to protect June’s “rights” from poor decisions made by her children.  A compromise was reached – hospital care in a small ‘non-dementia-ready’ facility, who only accepted her because she was bed-ridden and therefore not bringing along all the associated ‘wandering’ behaviours of the classic dementia sufferer.

In a private room, with only the television for company, June clearly decided – somewhere in the recesses of her addled brain – that enough was enough.  She simply stopped eating.  Who knows how much pain she endured from hunger pangs and dehydration, but ultimately, somehow against the odds, she did take back some control of her life in the end, and decided to die.  It is a tribute to her three children that they supported her through this, sitting by her side.  My husband said that he had already mourned her passing – his mother had died several years earlier to him, for without her wonderful brain she was no longer Mum – but nevertheless it was hard.

At June’s funeral, there was one thought I could not get out of my head.  We simply do not have a word in the English language that expresses the thought that surely was on the minds of most of our friends and family – yes, we are sad that your mother has passed, and yet we are just so glad for her and for you that her suffering is finally at an end, so no, we are not “sorry for your loss” at all!  Perhaps, in our generation, we will invent a word for that.

Through Sid and June’s dying, I stood by in admiration at the dogged determination, determination borne from true love, that their three children showed, despite their disagreements.  Their solid commitment to do the right thing for each of their parents, despite the obstacles that the ‘system’ threw into their path was admirable beyond description.  We should all pray that our own children show the same resolve.

For June, the answer is very clear – had she been given the option for ‘assisted suicide’, had it been part of the accepted mores of our society, she would definitely have done it.  Losing control of her life was the thing she feared most, and every time we reflected on her life at Awanui (incredible as the staff and the place are), we had to sadly admit that she would not have wanted to live like that.

Ironically, of the three, she is the one least likely to have been helped by the proposed changes to the legislation.  Dementia – possibly the biggest societal challenge posed by our aging population – is not, not technically anyway, a terminal disease.  There would not have been any conversation about an assisted departure for June, despite her fervent resolve.

And so we gather as a family, and we regularly talk about what’s next.  How will our generation deal with these issues?  How will we spare our children, and our spouses, the pain that we have endured, the pain that continues to shape our relationships with each other?

Is the solution a one way first class ticket to a clinic in Switzerland, as one suggested, accompanied by the daughter we know will support the decision, with the rest of the family not knowing until it is too late?

Is the solution a deliberate drive off a cliff, glass of champagne in hand?

Is it stockpiling medication in the hope that enough will be available when the time comes?  And more importantly, that we will not wait too long, not wait until we have forgotten what the pills are for!

These are real suggestions, made by real people, real New Zealanders (well, Kiwis by choice, anyway), who have attended to the undignified dying of three parents in the past few years.  Real people making their own plans, because they know that the law is not on their side.  Real people, looking at places like Oregon, where the evidence shows that taking a more pragmatic, more compassionate approach to dying does not, in fact, result in a huge swarm of suicides.  Rather, it gives people control, gives them choices and enables them to live out their last days with less fear of the unknown, in the knowledge that they have that control.

That is all we are asking of our legislators.  Compassion.

Compassion to enable dying people to take control, to make their own choices.  Yes, we are all dying, a little each day;  but as the end becomes inexorably closer, we want the ability to choose.  To choose not just how we ‘manage’ our own pain, but more importantly perhaps, to choose the time and way of our passing.  To choose to have our loving family around us, without them having to endure their own journey of pain to get there – for that is the pain that does not pass.

Yes, I am mostly now at a point where I remember only the good memories of my Dad.  But the thing that will never pass is my own pain, the pain of my powerlessness to deal with my mother’s and brother’s pain at their helplessness.  All I want is a future where we can truly celebrate that our parents, our friends, and eventually ourselves, had not only a good life, but a good death.

Thank you for reading my story.  This is a complicated issue, and one which I truly believe is worthy of all our efforts.  It is a mark of a civilised society that we treat our elderly with respect and dignity, and a law change supporting giving people back control at the end of life will, I believe, make us a more civilised, more compassionate society.

Pairing for Parky

I state this with certainty:  There is more wine in our cellar than we can drink before we die.

What started as an interesting hobby, to accumulate a bit of nice wine to drink on special occasions, has turned into an obsession to never, ever have to drink young wine!

And while my other half tends (and continuously stocks) said cellar, I cook.  I cook to eat, I cook to share, but most of all, I cook as to create.  My children would know I’d had a rough day if they arrived home to find me chain-baking, tins lining up along the kitchen counter to take their place in the oven as others came out.  The perfect stress-reliever – particularly with a perfect glass of wine in hand.

When I taste good wine, there is an immediate question in my head:   “but what should I be cooking to eat with this?”  No doubt to the frustration of my fellow wine tasters, waxing eloquent about the nose, the floral tones, the spicy notes;  I instead am talking duck with cardamom, or garlicky rosemary lamb, sticky soy scallops, delicate poached salmon…

So when I was asked to donate an item for a charity auction, to support a colleague recently diagnosed with Parkinsons Disease, I hatched an elaborate plan.  A pairing for Parky, a matched food and wine dinner for 10 people – at home, because charity, of course, begins at home.  It sounded like a good idea at the time – but on the night, with close to a thousand dollars paid for what was simply “dinner at my place”, I have to admit to a small feeling of trepidation.

It’s an entirely different proposition, you see, serving up a dinner to invited guests of your choosing than to people who’ve actually paid (albeit to a good cause) to be sharing your food and wine.  I tried starting with the wine – but my husband was adamant: sort out the menu first, then he would match the wine.  So that’s what we did.


Our guests arrived to Hibiscus bubbles – a light but decorative flute of preserved hibiscus flowers in a local NZ Deutz methode champenoise.  As they sipped, they nibbled on red onion balsamic tarts, and blue cheese gougones, the tart richness offsetting the sweetness of the hibiscus.

Then on to the perfectly set dinner table, complete with bone china, silver and crystal…  usually reserved for very special family occasions; but nothing like a well set table to add a touch of “special” to an event.

A minor complication – one of our guests was vegetarian (thankfully declared well in advance, so easily accommodated).  More daunting, another an ex-chef…  Deep breath, let the service begin!

To start, herby haloumi cigars, on a salad of vegetable tabbouleh.  The crisp crunch of the phyllo pastry, with the interior richness of the cheese a perfect match for the rounded honey waxiness of a 2010 Alberino.  A grape so popular in Spain, yet little know here in NZ, where Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay tend to divide white wine drinkers into two entrenched camps, almost to the exclusion of all other varietals.

The main course was deliberately simple, designed to provide a backdrop for the wine, a beautiful perfectly aged 2002 Penfolds Bin 407, not quite at its peak perhaps, but a taste sensation nevertheless.  A classic cabernet sauvignon from an iconic Australian winemaker.  The roast beef fillet a tad overcooked – too much conversation at the table, my one near disaster of the evening – but no one seemed to mind.  Roast field mushrooms replacing the beef for our lone vegetarian (these too overcooked, go figure!).  I steered clear of the obvious chocolate sauce, preferring to complement the mocha and blackcurrant tones of the wine with fresh crisp green beans and bright tomato salad – and of course, the melt in your mouth beef fillet.

Cheese came next – a French custom that to my mind provides a perfect transition from the serious food just eaten to the frivolous food to come.  A beautiful blue and aged cheddar from Whitestone, a small local producer, with Pinot Noir jelly…  And a choice to stay with the Penfolds (definitely my pick) or move on to the aged Riesling that was to come with dessert.

Foregoing my natural tendency to equate dessert with chocolate, I went for an easy-to-match lime coconut pudding, with a tiny glass of homemade limoncello on the side (for pouring over the pud, of course) while sipping on the gorgeously rich and limey 2003 Mesh Riesling.

Our wines had taken us around the world, from New Zealand, to Spain, through the Barossa & Eden Valleys in Australia.  Our guests were replete, the cook self-satisfied, the cellar a little emptier…

Most of all, we celebrated that a simple dinner party could contribute so much to our colleague’s lifelong project to support Savong School in Cambodia, a mission becoming ever more challenging for him as Parky impacts his life.

And so we paired up for Parky, pairing our food and our wine, our cooking and our hospitality, our effort with our guests’ generosity, to support a Kiwi doing good work half a world away.  And it was good.

An entry into the #MWWC21 challenge

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Namibian wisdom

DSC_0320Lessons from the Quiver Tree
(source unknown)

Sink your roots deep into the ground

Stand tall and proud

Accept your natural beauty

Make a difference just where you are

I saw this quote on the reception desk at our hotel – loved it so much I just had to share!  The quiver tree is not in fact a tree at all, but an aloe, with a fibrous stem that the San people used to make quivers for their arrows.

The birthday bash in the bush

No better excuse than a twin 60th birthday to gather with friends and family in the African bush.

The birthday party itself was planned to be a low-effort affair, with the lodge down the river doing all the hard work – but first there was this small matter of a birthday cake. Lindsay had come prepared with cake tins, chocolate, ground almonds and baking paper, and the famous Annabel Langbein gluten free chocolate cake recipe.
I have to say I was more than a little sceptical of the undertaking – making two cakes simultaneously, with a recipe relying on the beaten egg whites for “rise”, in a completely unknown oven that had proven itself to be more than a little temperamental in the preceding days!

But a grand team effort from the “ladies in the kitchen” – Lindsay, Caroline and me” delivered a fantastic result. Dr Google came to the rescue next day with a recipe for butter icing that didn’t require icing sugar (the forgotten ingredient) and there you have it – a two tier birthday cake fit for the occasion!

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The rest of the party (another 10 to match our already settled 10) started arriving before lunch on the day of the birthday – fortunately lots of vegetarian leftovers in the fridge – and then retired to the lodge where they were staying for an afternoon nap before the real party began.

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So very much enjoyed seeing people from this and other parts of the world that were part of our youth – some not seen for 30 years or more! With the added bonus of also seeing many of the missing cousins…  My goodness, if only I could get them all to NZ, family dinners would be spectacular! Well, more spectacular than they already are, of course.

Philippa, Robert, Jessica and Sarah, you were sadly missed. But very cool to see Catherine, Adrian and James together in one place, and to meet Max and Charli and their respective partners.

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Although there were no speeches planned – just some “thanks for comings” from birthday boys Robert and George – Robert did then, in true kiwi style “open the floor” to everyone else, encouraging those who wanted to say something to speak. More than a few took up the opportunity (yes, cannot tell a lie, including me). Prize for best speech of the night, however, goes to Charli’s fiancé Lee – a newcomer to the group, about to marry into the family, and probably also the guest least likely to fit in (boy, were we wrong about that!). His speech was brief, and to the point – he talked about how he too comes from a big, very close family, but they all live very close together, work together in the family business… And how this extended Jamieson family he is marrying into proves that you can still maintain really close family bonds even as you are scattered on the four winds to the very corners of the earth. A thought worth remembering, and one which sums us up so very well.

Dinner included such old favourites as peri peri chicken livers, pap and works, with tomato onion gravy, and of course lots and lots of braaivleis! Much red wine was drunk, tales of our youth revisited… Thank goodness for Johan our trusty ranger waiting to drive us back to our own house down the river – a short but circuitous bumpy dirt track, populated by wildlife including a herd of kudu eating the aloes in the neighbour’s garden!

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Never intended to be a one trick pony, the birthday celebrations continued the next day at our house, with much wallowing in the pool, and yet more food, glorious food, after an emergency supplies dash into the supermarket in Komatipoort when it became clear we would not be able to stretch our supplies far enough – loaves and fishes came to mind. Thank heavens for Sonta, our lovely housemaid, who unflappably dealt with the continuous stream of dirty dishes and glasses, returning them to the counter only to find them in immediate use again.

And then there was time for one last evening game drive with everyone – two vehicles going their separate ways, but meeting up for sundowners at the hippo pool, and the final farewells to the birthday visitors, before the rest of us retired back to our slothful ways for a few more days.

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As I surveyed the gathering, I couldn’t help but reflect on how un-South-African I feel. Somehow, others -despite having been away for decades – have maintained that easy connection, that common ground, visibly reflected in the way that many gatherings (this one included) break up into the men’s group and the women’s group (even when there is not an obvious reason like men braai’ing the meat and women making the salad.

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As I stood to one side, with some of the next generation, I realised that I didn’t fit in either group, but that that was not really the point. Fit it seems, is more about what’s in your heart than what’s on your birth certificate, and the words of my mother rang in my head “South African by birth, Kiwi by choice”.

My Scandinavian Daughters

The contention that “blood is thicker than water”, originally proposed in an ancient German proverb, may well be true, in a rational, physical sense. But reality is that shared familial experiences can create and expand family ties and bonds well beyond those dictated simply by an accident of genetics.

A few years ago, my daughter Pip changed us all by inviting a succession of young women into our lives, and our family.  Initially ‘sold’ as a childcare solution, the au pair system allows kiwi parents to ’employ’ a young visitor from abroad, providing board and lodging, and a relatively modest fee in exchange for 40 hours a week of not just childcare, but love, discipline, entertainment and mind expanding learning experiences for their children.

The au pairs – generally young women aged 19-22, and a few young men – invest their own savings in what they no doubt hope will be a grand adventure.  The system should provide them with not just a small wages to fund their New Zealand adventure, but a loving, caring safe “home base”, from which they can venture out to explore the best of our wonderful country, while at the same time experiencing the reality of being part of a “real” kiwi family.

Of course, there is really no such thing.  The parenting styles that parents will no doubt exhibit when their own kids reach their late teenage years are quickly revealed when they find themselves “in charge” of young au pair, and often unprepared for the reality of having a young adult not just caring for their kids, but living in their home.

Sadly, over the past few years, our wonderful young women have brought home newfound friends, and tales of others, who are being treated as little more than servants, being subjected to crazy ‘rules’ and, the thing perhaps that upsets me most, not being given the family experience for which they saved so hard and paid so much.

The organisations that facilitate the matching are naturally predisposed to take the parents’ side in any conflict – after all, the parents represent “repeat business” paying a placement fee every 6-12 months for their new au pair, while the au pairs pay once, for a one-off experience, be it good, bad or downright ugly.

We’ve seen girls refused permission to entertain their friends at home, fired because they didn’t wash the windows well enough, forced to walk the children to school and kindy and after school activities in foul weather, despite having a drivers licence and there being a perfectly good and very ordinary car sitting idle in the garage!  We’ve transported girls denied the use of the spare car outside their working hours, seen one left at home with the baby for a week while the rest of the family go on holiday, another denied the option to take her leave in blocks of more than a few days at a time.  All of this, I put down simply to lack of employer experience on the part of the host parents, and a failure of the au pair organisation to fully brief them on their responsibilities as well as their rights.  These are not bad people.

But to paraphrase an old nursery rhyme, when it’s good, it’s very very good, and so it has been with us – at least from our side of the story.  Our first, the lovely Alexandra from Denmark, was embraced as a friend , a younger sister, a surrogate daughter, so much so that years on, she is currently back in our home, as a six-month-boarder for the summer, seeing a bit of the NZ that she missed the first time around.  Alex brought sanity to my daughter’s household, a competent nanny for baby Matthew and consistent guide for Isabel.

Next came Sarah from Sweden – completely different, but somehow just what the children needed at the time.  Quieter and more circumspect, she controlled Matthew’s impulses, providing Isabel with encouragement to venture out into the wider world.

Carly was Pip’s next choice, unusually from the USA, and a bundle of positive energy.  Sadly a medical condition intervened, giving us only a few short weeks to get to know her before she had to cut short her New Zealand adventure.  We continue to follow her quests to use her life to make a difference, with love and admiration… And treasure the brief moments during which we were all part of that.

Nina had a different approach to the experience; her mission was to experience New Zealand to the full, and that she did.  Her calming influence and firm hand with Matthew came at just the right time, and we loved having her here – of all our girls so far, she was the one who left most sure of her place in the world, most convinced that her homeland is where she truly belongs.  My sense (and my hope) is that being with us made her more certain of herself.

And so I get to Tea, the lovely Tea from Sweden (though as we keep reminding her, a part of Sweden that has more often been part of Denmark than of Sweden).  Seeing her and Alex converse in what we have come to call Dwedish surely confirms this to be so.  Tea has truly “been here, done that” packing more into her experience than any other.  She has gathered friends – not just other au pairs, but young kiwis, including nieces and nephews and their groups of friends.

Both Tea and Alex, I think, are testing out the idea that one day they too could be “kiwis by choice”.  They have embraced not just the immediate host family, Pip, Howard and the kids, but become part of our wider rambling and enormous whanau, comfortably navigating the grandparents and great grandparents, the aunties, uncles and cousins, with all the vagaries, quirks and family weirdness.

For more than any, Alex and Tea have become my Scandanadian daughters, the younger sisters that Pip hasn’t had till now.  Recent visits from both their mothers have cemented our relationships even more – every mother wants to know that her daughter has a mothering influence in her life, when she cannot be there in person.

And so we build our family – and so we build a private, personal diaspora of international family; a world wide net of more-than-friends for Matthew and Isabel to visit, and to enjoy one day when they head out into the wider world.

Wouldn’t it be great if Izzy could one day have her own au pair adventure, caring for the children of one of our Scandinavian daughters?  Meanwhile, I take joy, and pride, in the way these young women, all of them, have become part of our family, and allowed us to become part of their present and hopefully future lives.

Mere Kirihimete!

So said a text message just received from someone I haven’t seen in years despite us both living in Auckland.  “Must fix that next year”, I thought…  along with all the other things still on the “getting round to it” list.

It is the nature of an impending “new” year that we look forward with optimism.  There’s something about “new” that signals “improved”, “different”, better…. or maybe I’ve just been around marketing messages too long.  That big yellow flash across the package saying “New, improved” means you simply have to try it again.  And mostly, it’s true.

For me, each year is indeed better than the last one – better for the expanded experiences it brings, the expanded understanding of the people we love, and the expanded sense of appreciation for what has gone before and what is still to come.  So before the 2015 adventure begins, I wanted to share with friends and family the year that’s been.

Yes, this is the new, improved Christmas letter – previously send by snail mail, occasionally by email, sometimes not sent at all – and now just putting it out there.

For me and Peter, 2014 has been a year of celebration.  We closed off 2013 with an amazing whirlwind visit from Rob and his lovely Jenna – an introduction for her to the wonders of New Zealand, and finally the opportunity to get to know Philippa, Howard and the kids a little better.  Long will we remember the family trip to Rotorua, the infamous “horse vs cow” incident that resulted in a 48 hour standoff between Izzy and Uncle Rob;  and Howard’s amazing rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody on a tourist bus in the middle of the night!

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Suffice to say that the new-found sisters bonded, the kids thought Aunty Jenna was just the coolest visitor ever (sorry, Uncle Rob!) and while we know that NZ will never replace Canada in Jenna’s heart, we sent them back to London knowing that there’s more than one place in the world to call “home”.

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Jenna, Rob, Pip, Matthew, Sara, Izzy and Howard in Rotorua

 

I suppose you might say our year went downhill from there, with Peter’s Dad sadly deteriorating in health, passing away in May.  But honestly, the memories of that time of pain are fading fast, and are being replaced with the joy of celebration.  In February, we celebrated his and June’s 60th wedding anniversary, with a gathering of the Auckland whanua at Anne’s place.

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And his funeral was not so much a mourning of his passing as a celebration of his life – he would have been immeasurably proud (and no doubt slightly embarrassed) at the wonderful tributes from family members, at the Rhodesian army flag draped over his coffin, and by the lone poppy respectfully placed on the coffin by NZ’s most recent recipient of the Victoria Cross.  I think he would have been particularly proud of little Izzy, at just 5 years old, standing up in front of the church, reading out her speech in a big loud voice, continuing the family tradition of ‘speechifying’.

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From the church, the funeral moved to our place, where many stories were told and much whisky consumed in his honour.

A month later, Peter and I travelled to London for a memorial service, arranged by Rob.  With three of Sid’s grandchildren in London, it seemed fitting that we gather there in his honour also.  And what a gathering it was – over a dozen people together, each with his or her own unique memories of Sid – all the way back to his university days.  We were so very pleased to have serendipitously picked a date when Pam Zipp was visiting from South Africa – her memories of Sid pre-dated all of us!

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And so life went on.  Some other big ‘number’ celebrations this year have included our 35th wedding anniversary, 40 years since our “first date” and Peter’s big 60, just this week.  But the biggest number of all – or at least I think so – was Izzy turning 5 and starting school!

She took to school – like everything else in her life – with gusto.  Suddenly it was okay to try new things, and she embraced that.  Reading took off at rocket-like speed, French is interesting, science amazing…  but the favourite subject is, unexpectedly, PE (physical education).  So much so that at the mid-year prize giving, she was awarded one of just two PE prizes in the whole school.  Clearly it was not just me who was deeply touched by her determination to finish her 1km “cross country run” despite her little and uneven legs!  “Go Izzy” has never been a more heartfelt cry!

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She has had an amazing year at St Kents for Girls, and was awarded the class progress prize at the end of year prize-giving, recognising her all round achievements this year.   The principal described her as “a girl who brings energy and enthusiasm, as well as a caring attitude, to all that she does” – Go Izzy indeed!

Matthew turned two in March, and is very much holding his own as the younger sibling.  He is agile and adventurous – his daddy would say, risk-taking – and every action is accompanied by a torrent of well-constructed commentary.  In a family of talkers, Matthew has decided to join in the conversation with the same confidence that he brings to all his endeavours – the words just flow, and flow, and flow…  Matthew & Pumpkin Feb 2014

Highlight of his year – I think – was the arrival of Pumpkin “my best friend”.

A dog completes a family – or so I believe – and while Pumpkin’s early days with the Gilberts were a little rocky (Howard never having had a dog before), she has become a valued member of the family – and honestly, almost a reincarnation of our beloved Piglet who left us last year.  Now we just have to get Tin Tin to accept her new cousin!

We are so lucky to have Pip and Howard, Matthew and Isabel living nearby here in Auckland – it is the nature of New Zealand that we send our young people out into the world;  having grandchildren at home is a luxury, and one for which we are thankful.

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We’re also thankful for the wonderful au pairs who have come into our lives – young women who have arrived as strangers, bravely undertaking to join our family for about a year, take on two super-confident children and live with us to experience New Zealand family life.  Alex, Carly, Sara, Nina and Tea – there will always be family waiting for your visits back to New Zealand, and hopefully one day Matthew and Izzy will get to surf your couches in Europe and beyond.

A small highlight of our year has been the regular “waifs & strays” dinners – most weeks when we’re in Auckland, Peter and I enjoy sharing dinner with not only Pip, Howard and the kids, but a motley selection of others, most notably, the cousins who are in Auckland, friends who are home alone and so on.  Many weeks the number swells to 12 or more people – just casually sharing a meal over sometimes hilarious, occasionally rowdy, but never boring conversations.

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No “year in review” would be complete without a bit of a travelogue…  and yes, we certainly did travel.  The tales of our trip to the Dolomites in Italy (with Peter and a small group of “vintage” cyclists), with a detour to Rwanda to see the gorillas on the way home, are documented in the archives of this blog – but suffice to say, it was an incredible journey.  The food, wine and scenery in Northern Italy are beyond description, and the face to face encounter with a troop of gorillas unlike anything else I have ever experienced.  Not a wildlife experience so much as a human encounter.

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No sooner back in Auckland than we were off again, this time on a super-relaxing week in Rarotonga with my mother, Pip & Howard, Matthew, Izzy and Tea.  A week of doing nothing but sea and sand, punctuated with the daily coconut opening ritual, and regular walks up the road to the bakery for coffees and pastries, was just what the doctor ordered.  Mum thoroughly enjoyed the family time – and thought Raro was absolutely idyllic.  A great family holiday.

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And so to the end of year.  One last set of pictures, from the St Mark’s sunday school pageant – with Izzy in the starring role as the Angel Gabrielle.  A speaking part, no less!

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Christmas is upon us.  The tree is up, the food about to be cooked, the presents wrapped.  Santa has confirmed to Izzy and Matthew that they’ve made it onto the “good” list – only just.  This year, we’ll be gathering at Anne & Willy’s place – one of the bigger years, with 36 people!  Fantastic to have Don & Helen over from Melbourne (and looking forward to Michelle and Jesse arriving on Boxing Day).  We will so very much miss Rob & Jenna, Jessica & Richard, Catherine – all in London (well, Jenna in Canada actually), and Lindsay, Robert & James, spending a Jamieson Christmas in WA.

To you, and yours, we wish you blessings at Christmas, and for year ahead.  May we all, in 2015, take joy in everything we see and do, in the people whom we love, and who come into our lives, in being together, and even in being apart.  There is so much to celebrate.  Mere Kirihimete!

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