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The Bridge Across Forever

The bridge across forever

You're right, that isn't a picture of a bridge: it doesn't lead anywhere. It's a pier and it stops at a dead end.

The End, perhaps. Death?

Well, I guess that's why I'm here, sitting in a studio, writing. Because The End is nigh. And, it's also, in another sense already here.

Cryptic to be sure. So, let me explain…

You may or may not be aware that I upped and left my life in sunny Australia earlier this year. I had lived there for 25 years. Half my life. I left because my dad was moved into a nursing home just before Christmas and I felt an inexplicable urge to be with my family of origin.

In two short weeks I sold everything I owned (which wasn't much), and alighted at Heathrow airport at the end of January.

It's been a long process since then. And I'm only just beginning to sense the change.

My dad has Alzheimer's and can no longer walk (two separate things). He also has little to no comprehension of either. I constantly find him trying to escape from his bed in the nursing home. My mum, my sister and I each have our own approach to managing that.

For me, it's somewhat comforting.

I like that he still has enough get up and go to want to go. "How the hell do I get out of here?" he'll croak, approximately every 20 minutes.

His skinny legs inch their way towards the end of the bed while I pretend to help him bust out of the hospital-style cot without him catching on to my lies.

I am just like my dad in many ways.

We both hum incessantly. We're both good storytellers, albeit in different ways (he was a joke teller, I'm a writer). We're both volatile and can get angry at the flick of an emotional switch. And, we're both soft and poetic at times.

To see my dad in a vulnerable state is both jarring and healing. He can no longer pretend to be the tough guy. His walls have well and truly fallen and he's surprisingly aware of that.

A few weeks ago I visited him at the nursing home and found him being tended to by two male nurses. One was putting an ice pack on his forehead. The other was standing by just in case.

I entered the room with a degree of suspicion. "He fell out of his chair," one of the nurses said.

A long explanation ensued that felt a little too over-explained.

You know, in the way a child might demonstrate their goodness by telling you they haven't done anything, even though they have chocolate all over their hands and mouth, and there's broken glass on the floor.

As the nurses motioned for me to move closer, my dad started to cry.

Before becoming a resident of a nursing home, crying wasn't something I've seen my dad do often. (Bar once when I was in hospital after a car accident and he was allocated to tell me my friend hadn't survived the crash).

Crying isn't part of the tough-guy vernacular. But since he's been moved into a care home he's cried with me a few times.

Apparently at that time, he hadn't cried in front of other members of my family. This news touched something in me that healed a deep wound. He does know me. We are the same and I'm a safe haven for his previously hidden tears.

As I stood holding my dad's hand that day he opened up even more. "I didn't know how long it would be till someone came," he said with tears running down his cheeks.

He was scared.

Moments like this are simultaneously heartbreaking and precious in one gulp.

I placed a hand on his shoulder and wept with him. "It's tough," I said. "I would have been scared too. It must have been frightening to be alone. I'm sorry I wasn't here for you."

As he tenderly wiped the tears from his face he looked at me with his steel-blue eyes and said, "Who would have thought, all those years I was the tough guy. Now you're having to look after me like a little baby."

Oh. How. We. Wept.

I know nothing about Alzheimer's other than what I can make out from being with my dad. My version of the experience so far is that it's an ever changing mix-tape of memories and emotions.

Time is fluid. He can move from the present moment to 1953 in the same sentence.

What strikes me most is that despite not remembering that he can't walk, he retains a level of awareness that is razor sharp.

He knows good from bad. He knows what he likes and what he dislikes.

He still has the audacity of the man I've always known. Take for example the time I visited him wearing a bobble hat (it was -6 degrees). As I walked into the room he gave me that look and said, "Is that your hat?"

You can make up whatever you like about that. I'll live with my version.

My dad's criticism was always a sharp knife for me. I still get triggered if I think I'm being harshly and unfairly judged. Especially by men.

But the beauty of this experience is that I am no longer triggered by my dad's comments. On the one hand they're a lot less frequent, but more importantly, they no longer sting like they used to.

As he and I (and the rest of my family of origin) walk deeper into the dark forest of Life, I am constantly touched by the connection I have with my Dad.

Ironically, it is his vulnerability that makes me feel closer to him. The tough guy image was much more difficult to stomach (for me). Patriarchal care-taking isn't something I've ever felt good about. If my dad is a tough guy then it's fair to say I'm a tough woman.

But that dynamic didn't work very well.

I have clashed with overbearing men all my life. I feel defiant in their presence. I get really fucking angry when they tell me who I should be and how I should act.

I curse and swear at them, both with my voice and my eyes.

I once called a male editor that I worked with a c*nt. Because he was.

Tough guys tend to believe that women are delicate and need protecting, or, conversely that we are there solely for their entertainment, be that sexual or merely aesthetic. You know, like a vase.

I have forever held a raging fire in my belly towards inequality.

I'm not saying my dad was a raging patriarchal narcissist, but like many men of his generation (and other generations), his walls were the very thing that stood between our ability to truly connect.

Vulnerability is our truest state. Not toughness.

We are all fragile. We will all die. We are all weak to our fears, even if we hold up our fists and can punch above our weight.

I have my own battles with being vulnerable. Mostly with men. I still struggle to let down my walls when the notion of romance is on the cards.

It's a problem for me just as much as it is for the men I'm calling out.

But I guess the beauty of all of this, and the reason I'm telling this story, is that one day we might find ourselves in a compromising position. Maybe that will be a care home. At the mercy of other people's good nature and kindness.

Or maybe we'll be in the wrong place at the wrong time and be swept to sea by a natural disaster. Perhaps our health will leave us and our invincible veneer will crumble from the pressure of our own heartbreak.

There are so many ways we can change.

Some of them, like death and ageing are inevitable. Others, like being willing to seek our own blind spots are a choice.

Both are a gift.

Life doesn't come with a lifetime guarantee of happiness. It comes with a foreclosure of death.

The end can come at any time.

Whether you believe it's written in the stars or prefer to believe in bad luck, doesn't change the fact that death is part of our heritage.

The way I see it, death is the bridge to our true home. Not just in the sense of moving towards our purest essence – our 'fragrance' as the yogic philosophies call it – but also in the way that death brings us closer to our heart.

As we walk the final yards towards the end of Life, we have a chance to soften. Our vulnerability is touchable. No longer able to be hidden.

And that vulnerability is the very thing that connects us to ourself and others.

Allowing others to see us cry is brave.

Sharing our fears is a stroke of courage.

Creating an environment where others feel wholeheartedly able to sit with us is the safest place we'll ever be.

Being tough is an act. It's an emotional version of the Berlin Wall. Us and Them.

What I've learned is that the 'toughest' people I've met are also the softest. Underneath those brick walls and boxing gloves are tender hearts built from façades that kept them 'safe'.

Except, they don't keep us safe. They keep us separate.

And separateness is painful. I'd say it's the most painful aspect of being human.

I'm doing my best to let down my walls. Writing these blogs helps me. I may not be brave enough to tell you my fears in person but if I can share my inner world with these words then maybe I'll have the courage to let you in one day.

Who knows.

In the meantime, I'm learning a lot about love from being with my Dad in his final stages; the winter of his life so-to-speak.

I don't know how long he'll be here. But I'm grateful to have finally found the part of him that I've been looking for since I left for Australia 25 years ago. I've rediscovered his caramel centre. That soft and tender part of him that knows how to be afraid.

It was worth relinquishing my life in Oz just to witness my dad cry. His tears are like raindrops of love kissing my heartbroken cheeks.

For so long I have yearned to love my dad fully. But I needed him to let me in.

Lucky for me, I am finally able to be with the man I always loved. The soft, tender poet who is both a warrior and a worrier. My dad, like all of us was never just tough. And neither was he ever not tender.

Love is a magical mix of Both And. And we are all a blend of 'good' and 'bad'.

Nobody is exempt from fear and none of us will ever experience true love if we continue to only show our bold, cool and 'I've got this' sides.

But arriving at that place takes time. Especially for those of us who believe being tough is going to keep us from feeling hurt.

What we need is a bridge. A way of moving from harder to softer. From separate to connected. We don't exist in a single fragment of time.

Like my dad's Alzheimer's, Life is fluid. It allows us to morph and change.

Death, as it happens can be the very bridge that supports that change. It doesn't need to be radical. When death comes slowly we can just take one step at a time. We can even walk backwards if it feels too hairy.

One thing I know is that taking those steps is brave and wild.

Moving towards a more tender heart is scary and will break us. But the only parts that break are the walls. Walls we can live without.

In this instance, Life, or more accurately, ensuing death, is breaking down the barrier to me loving my dad. My dad's vulnerability is the very thing that's letting me in.

And being let in, even when it's consequential as opposed to chosen, is still a great honour.

Choose love x



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