Moving home – and knowing it’s your last time

By Emma Pearson

June 22, 2024

Main image by Mantas Hesthaven on Unsplash

1 June 2024

I just said goodbye – or at least “au revoir” – to my neighbour. Let’s call her Marie. She is 82, and starting to decline cognitively, and to a lesser degree, physically. Her three daughters, who all live fairly close by, have been very hands-on – truly faultless, and generous with their time – these past couple of years as their mother came to need more and more help. Marie let go of her car perhaps five years ago and so has relied on others to do her food and other shopping. She’s had multiple experiences of becoming utterly confused and disoriented in her own home, requiring one or other daughter to come and reorient her. She also had a fall this week in the village cemetery and couldn’t get herself back up. I can imagine it’s been hard on all of them.

Over the past six months, I have seen, from my office window, a steady trickle of professionals coming by to provide her with home assistance services. Unbeknownst to me, the daughters had their mum on a waiting list for a nearby retirement home, and on Thursday this week, a space became free (aka someone died), and Marie’s name was at or near the top of the list. The daughters said yes. Marie said no. The daughters overruled. Marie moved in yesterday. I wasn’t around and so didn’t witness the momentous event.

Over the past couple of hours, today, Saturday, Marie, two of her daughters, their spouses, and two grandchildren have been helping pack up a trailer so that Marie can have some of her home belongings with her in the retirement home. Marie came back with them, looking utterly lost, dejected and forlorn.

No more mountain walking trips in nearby or far-flung places.
No more illicitly feeding my cat with milk he is not allowed.
No more glancing at her watch when I mow the lawn – checking that I’m not “out of hours”.
No more sitting in her magnificent garden, graced with its elegant larch tree, planted 41 years ago in memory of her husband who died just above Chamonix – out on a casual Sunday walk. What a horror.
No more telling me – as she has done at least weekly for at least the last 10 years – “every night, when I go to bed, I pray not to wake up in the morning”.

Yes – she’s long been depressed. For 41 years – half her lifetime – her doctor daughter tells me. Since their dad died so suddenly. Despite her youth, all three kids had just about left home, so she was violently hurtled into her new life of “widowing empty nests”.

I can so easily imagine what it must have been like, because I have been in a similar space – even though 9 years older than she when it was my turn. A house suddenly empty and quiet, when weeks or months earlier there’d have been multiple humans noisily going about their daily business.

Marie will have been in that home close to 60 years. What is it to leave home, a home you’ve been in for so long? Is it the length of time you’ve been there? Is it the age you are when you need to move? Is it about choice and agency in the move? Is it about awareness of imminent end of life? Is it about generosity towards others around you, freeing up their lives somewhat, from caring roles?

I don’t know.

My own parents are postponing moving somewhere more appropriate for their age and life stage. I believe they have left a move too late now, and so the remaining options are to retrofit parts of the house and/or to bring in additional care as needed. They are in good shape – still – but I know it’s just a case of “another accident” or “a fall” before the fragility of life, the impermanence of health and well-being, prevail. And I suspect that we remaining siblings will be schlepping and organising and perhaps even coercing when that time comes.

Mike, on the other hand, only looked back to say goodbye to the house he’d built, as he left home for the last time to go into hospice care on 20th March 2017, because I invited him to do so. “Mike – do you want to say goodbye to the house? Mike – please say goodbye to the house”.

I urged him to look, to say goodbye, to the house he’d transformed into a large, rambling yet cosy house for us all, but he only did so to please me. Because he could see it was important for me. He turned back to look at me, perplexed and surprised by my need for his “farewell”, saying, “Em – it’s a house. A lovely house. But just a house”.

By golly did I learn a lot from Mike in that moment. And in many more moments to come in his final not even three weeks. His ability to let things go was masterful.

His house.
His wedding ring.
His wife.
His kids.
His sisters.
His extended family.
His friends and friendships.
His colleagues.
His breath.
His life.  

He let it all go with such grace. It’s not that he didn’t care. He did. He just didn’t resist what was happening. He didn’t resist the impermanence of things. What a gift for me to witness that.

The house that Mike built/converted

As for my neighbour Marie, I feel sad that she is in such despair and distress. I feel sad and tender towards this heart-wrenching move she is being asked to make. And I feel sad to lose my neighbour of almost 25 years – the woman who so adored Mike. Mike was a kind of surrogate son for her. He was born the same year as her eldest child, who, back then was a son not a daughter, and from whom she was estranged for a period of time. It seemed that Mike was the kind of son she wished she’d had.

So indeed – Marie has not had an easy second half of her life. Decades of being unhappy. Decades of not wanting to live. Decades of wanting to rejoin her dead husband. Decades. I am truly sorry she’s not enjoyed being here, being in her life. I find that level of despair hard to imagine.

Despite everything that’s happened to me, I don’t experience depression. Sadness, Grief, Pain – yes and yes and yes. But depression? No. Or just fleeting moments or hours. Never days upon days of it.

In my sadness, grief and pain, I have still always felt alive, and wanted to be and stay alive. It seems to me that pain, grief and sadness can be at least as enlivening as joy, gratitude and contentment – even if far harder to be with. Of course.

So Marie – au revoir or farewell – whichever it is.

Thank you for being such a stonkingly sturdy neighbour. Thank you for admiring Mike so much. I know you still miss him too. May the night take you sooner rather than later, and may your eventual reunion with your beloved husband P be blissful.

Go gently. May you be safe and may you live with ease.

About Emma Pearson

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