Illustration by Adam Q

Long life: Clinging on and letting go

Sitting here with the sun on my back, watching two butterflies dancing round some flowers, if the call comes now—well I just won't go
May 12, 2022

Possibly the biggest challenge of old age is learning to let go. Yesterday, after months of dithering, I put my French home on the market. A series of events have led up to me letting go of something I love. 

In February I broke my wrist very badly. Having glumly queued in Marseille airport with the “other countries” rather than my erstwhile fellow Europeans, I then negotiated the car journey to my home in Provence with my now-splinted broken wrist.

I felt a bit wobbly on the stone steps in the garden. Despite the mellow spring sunshine, the house felt cold on my old bones. Searching for kindling in the garden and heaving the logs into the woodburning stove was not the joy it used to be. My spinal compression fracture didn’t enjoy all the bending, and my knees needed a cushion for the kneeling. Blowing the flames made me cough. 

When old Dennis greeted me warmly, my rusty brain struggled to summon up my French—underused in lockdown. My usual surge of delight at being in my French house was deadened by exhaustion. No matter how often I visit the gym or do my daily 5,000 steps, my body has been in use for nearly 90 years and it’s wearing out. It cannot carry or chop logs, and a broken elderly bone takes a long while to heal. Thanks to Brexit, access to wonderful French healthcare will soon be unavailable to me. I will need to be nearer my daughter so she can carry me off to A&E when I incur injury through reckless behaviour, as with my wrist. 

I have faced the inevitable conclusion that I must let go of my 30 years of French living, full of lavender, sunflowers and glasses of rosé in the heat with beloved friends. I am part of this French community and letting go will be agony. 

When old folk fight against going into a home it is not regret at leaving their own bricks and mortar, but that daily chat with the newsagent, the giggle with the neighbour’s child, the cup of tea in the café chatting to the locals, the visit to the library. Little rituals that make life worth living rather than sitting with a lot of old people watching the telly all day, with the occasional coach trip, or being cajoled into singing “Roll out the Barrel” by a condescending entertainer. 

Letting go of things is difficult all through life—whether it be your job at retirement, your children taking wing, a hopeless but exciting relationship or activities that your ageing body gradually rebels against. 

For women, when do you let go of the hair dye, the thick foundation, the mascara and scarlet lipstick that no longer become an ageing face? I have started that particular journey and it is a great relief to stop trying to be anything but what you are. To throw away any creams that promise eternal youth, not just because they don’t work, but because it is no longer your mission.

One way of tackling the inevitable letting go is to plan and relish what will take its place. At present I cannot think of anything that will replace the profound joy of the gentle pace, the dear friends and neighbours, of my French life. But I will. I must. Watch this space.

Looming on the horizon is the ultimate letting go: death. How will I face that? Maybe a time will come when I will be only too happy to let go of pain and exhaustion, but sitting here with the sun on my back, watching two butterflies dancing round some flowers, if the call comes now—well, I just won’t go. So there.

I don’t know what comes next after death, so I can’t plan the future. Will there be butterflies? Will there be sun? I am not going till I know. It is all too vague. Quite simply, whoever is in charge should understand I’m not letting go yet. I’m going to cling on for dear life.