“Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your life; define yourself.”
— Harvey Fierstein,
American actor and playwright
Take the Shoreline Heritage Walking Trail in Bay Roberts and you will see a sign bearing a black and white photo of how French’s Cove looked in the 1920s.
It seemed a prosperous settlement, with rows of large, two-storey clapboard houses with peaked roofs and plenty of windows to let in the light and the spectacular view of the unbounded sky.
Most houses had neatly tended gardens and snug, chinked-rock root cellars, with fishing stores ringing the shoreline.
The homes look solidly rooted, built boldly facing the Atlantic Ocean — the bounty of which could surely never be exhausted.
And yet times change and technology alters the ways and means of life. In French’s Cove, the advent of the outboard motor after the Second World War meant fisherfolk were no longer obliged to live directly adjacent to the fishing grounds.
The motor brought mobility, but also heralded the end of an era for French’s Cove. All that’s there now is the immaculately kept trail, a small cemetery, fragments of stone foundations and some restored root cellars, which hint at the rhythm and vigour of a place that has truly vanished from the face of the Earth.
It’s a startling comparison — the well-established French’s Cove in the faded picture from the ’20s and the undulating landscape that looks untouched now, less than a century later.
But life is like that. What feels solid and steady under our feet one day can lurch quickly into crisis, particularly as we get older.
Ill health, changing fortunes, freak accident, sudden death — our circumstances can be altered unbidden, and often we are unprepared for a sudden transition.
This past summer, my parents found themselves in a situation where downsizing just made sense and had to be accomplished fairly quickly.
That meant sorting through the accumulation of more than 60 years of married life — the contents of a townhouse and cabin — and deciding what could go and what had to stay. It was a daunting process. How many winter hats does a person need? Cutlery? Casserole dishes? Garden shears and fishing rods. Tape measures and sewing thread. Cast-iron pans and china cups. Boxes and bags of Christmas decorations collected over decades. Knickknacks and knitted doilies.
Being involved in that process taught me two important lessons. First, that some of us don’t need half of what we have. I suddenly feel no great desire to accumulate things, not that I ever did much; in fact, I have a strong urge to shed things, to simplify.
And second, that the time to plan for then is now. Right now, before the task becomes insurmountable and things come down to the wire.
Of course, it’s not just the downsizing of hearth and home we have to plan for — that is, if we’re fortunate enough to live long enough to face that predicament.
We have to plan for death, too, and for what may come in the months or weeks before our death.
Decisions are required at every phase of life. Many of us have no difficulty talking about wills and acknowledging the need to have them, but when it comes to advanced health-care decisions, it’s something we avoid.
We’re quick to have opinions about who should inherit a family heirloom, but are reluctant to talk about what we want in terms of prolonged or discontinued care.
But these are conversations we all should have, because there are unexpected scenarios that can arise.
If you should find yourself in the hospital with a terminal illness, would you still want to receive a flu shot, for example?
If you developed severe dementia and then were diagnosed with cancer, would you still want chemo or radiation treatments?
If there was no hope of your recovery, but you wanted your life prolonged for as long as possible, even if that involved being tube fed, is there someone in your life aware of your wishes and who is in a position to articulate them for you? Have you committed those wishes to paper?
Deciding these things while we are in a position to do so means loved ones and caregivers aren’t left to guess at what we would want.
The latest issue of Voice for Choice, the newsletter of Dying with Dignity Canada, outlines the dilemma of a woman in British Columbia. She wanted all nourishment stopped once her condition reached an advanced state, but because of a difference in interpretation of provincial legislation, the health-care facility where she lives is ignoring her wishes and refuses to move her to a facility where her choices would be respected.
As it turns out, in that province a completed Representation Agreement would have ensured her directions were followed.
Now, her family is contesting the matter at B.C. Supreme Court.
That’s a battle no family wants to have to wage and is an example of why it’s so important to be informed of your options.
• • •
In French’s Cove, the well-trod path takes you through overgrown fields where once people lived and were loved, faced heartache and joy, triumphs and travails.
When the outboard motor brought change, many people embraced it and floated their homes to more sheltered shores and greater opportunities.
They recognized the wisdom of the advice offered by John Heywood, in his 1546 book of English proverbs: “Take time whan time cometh, lest time steale away.”
Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram’s associate managing editor. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.