Life Is Precious

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| This is the 436th story of Our Life Logs |


Behind every proverb, there is experience and reflection. Now, I don’t claim to know it all, but I know what I’ve lived, for life was my teacher.

Here are the lessons I’ve learned.

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1 | Even in heartbreak, one must continue living.

I was born the third of six children during the long depression in Norfolk, England, in 1881. We lived in a village of Norfolk called Topcroft. Work in the area was scarce at the time, so my parents worked whatever jobs they could find to survive. Most times, Dad worked on a nearby farm caring for the estate’s animals. When money was scarce, we lived off the vegetables we grew on our small plot of land or mum would make bread. They made sure we never went hungry. We were a happy hard-working family who made the best of what we had. But try as they might, my parents couldn’t keep us from learning about the fragility of life.

When I was two years old, my new baby brother arrived underdeveloped and sickly, his chance of survival as tiny as he was. For nine months, I watched as my family held their breath, unsure if he would live another day. In the end, he couldn’t hold on.

A few years later, when I was about five, my family felt this sort of uneasiness again. My new baby brother entered the world with a whisper. We did not want to tempt fate. When he passed after just a short year with us, the sadness that clouded our family was deep and unrelenting. Sadly, this was a sign of the time. Families lost their sweet babies to illness and simply had to carry on. How else could one live?

When I was eight, we welcomed a baby girl into the family and I remember one of the first things I felt was worry—I think we all felt this way. But our latest family addition was stronger and healthier and illnesses didn’t overcome her. It was only after a couple of years of her presence without any trouble that I felt safe calling her my sister. She was there to stay.

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2 | If there’s a dream in your head, don’t let your inexperience shame and stop you.

For the next several years, I didn’t dwell on losing members of my family. That was in the past. Instead, I grew close with my older brother George who joined the Navy when I was 13. On his visits in between missions, he told me stories about his life at sea. There were so many places and people he’d gotten to know and experience—really experience.

I knew it was physically hard work, and the living conditions were often cramped, but he made the Navy sound like an exciting adventure. He’d seen whales, dolphins, and even claimed to have seen a mermaid once! The countryside around Topcroft was all I’d ever known, and I was drawn to the promise of traveling beyond our sprawling fields.

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A portrait of me, taken in my teens.

When I was 16 years old, I left home and joined the Navy too, ready to pursue my own nautical adventures. After signing up, I was sent to Victory II, a training base in Devon. That’s when I stepped onto the pier for the first time and felt the fresh breeze against my skin as I gazed out to the water. It seemed to go on forever, as long as forever lasts. I anxiously awaited to see which boat I would serve on.

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3 | If you have the privilege to meet love, then seize love.

In the spring of 1897, I was given two weeks of leave after my training. On the way home to visit my family, I went with a group of fellow trainees to a dance—a choice I’ll never regret! it was there that I met my wife, Louisa Hawkes. We talked for hours and danced all night, and I knew, without a doubt, that I wanted her in my life. But at the end of that night, I let her go and regretted it.

Our paths didn’t cross for another couple years but when they did, it was all the same sparks as the night we first danced. Before I could let the opportunity slip by, I proposed.

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This is the Louisa I first fell in love with.

Once I had Louisa in my life, spending long months away at sea no longer held the same excitement for me. Being away from her was agonizing, so in 1902, I decided to leave the Navy so we could marry and settle down.

Our beginning unfolded in London. I soon found a job as a carman through the railway company where I delivered goods and parcels. Once we had settled down in the Limehouse district, Louisa became pregnant. A year later, our son, George (named after my father and my eldest brother), was born healthy, happy, and perfect.

After George, Louisa and I wanted to try again, to build a more perfect family, to see another life begin.

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4 | Not everything familiar is happy; not everything happy is familiar.

As it happened, Louisa gave birth to a baby girl in 1904. When I gazed upon her little figure for the first time, the sickly tinge of her skin looked familiar. I felt a pang of misery. What my parents once dealt with, I was now experiencing for myself. I found myself holding my breath from the moment she opened her eyes, unsure if she’d make it.

She got weaker and weaker as the days ticked by. It was painful to watch, not knowing how to help. Sadly, my baby girl met the same fate as my brothers after only living eight short months. To watch history repeat itself tore me up, but I knew, like my parents, I had to move on.

It is easy to read those words, I had to move on. To live them was nothing short of agony. But, with Louisa, I lived them, and together we moved forward.

Thankfully, we went on to have three healthy children over the next four years without any complications—still, I was vigilant. With our growing family, my wife and I came up with ways to make extra money. When I discovered that there was an empty shop just around the corner from where we lived, I decided to rent it. It was a risk, of course, but I opened a tobacconist shop on top of my carman duties and ran it on my off days. My wife assisted with the business while she brought up our children. Everything seemed to be going well.

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5 | In all that Death takes, it grants a perspective.

In 1913, we had another healthy baby boy together. His first breaths were strong, and I begged my heart not to worry. Sadly, my heart knew best. He passed away in his mother’s arms only a month later. He was no bigger than a teddy bear. I held my healthy ones a little tighter, grateful for their existence to help me push through the loss. His death gave me a strengthened perspective on the value of life.

As our business took off and began doing well, we moved to a bigger shop. I decided to give up my job at the railway so I could spend more time with my wife and kids who helped in the shop. I loved how it brought us all together. What was a risky decision became a salve for the soul.

In 1915, my wife had another baby, a girl called Winifred. We worried about this baby as well, she was tiny and her skin seemed almost translucent when she was born. Please, please survive. I can’t bear another loss, I thought. Although it seemed rocky at first, my baby girl pulled through, and I was beyond grateful. For the first time in a long while, our family was able to breathe easy.

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6 | There is hope in community, no matter the strife.

Just as my wife announced her eighth pregnancy, World War I began taking greater effect and in 1916, I was called back into the Navy. I knew that this was due to the scale of lives lost over the previous few years, but I was reluctant to go. I feared that like many others, I wouldn’t return. Still, it was my duty to serve my country and help with the war efforts.

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A photo taken of one of the naval shops I was on.

I wasn’t sure when I would be back to meet the new baby or see the rest of my children, so we decided that Louisa and our five children should move back to Devon and live with her parents. They would be safer and better taken care of in the countryside.

During the war, I saw the unnecessary loss of life. All around me men were being carelessly killed for the sake of the greater cause. This made me angry. Very few of us wanted to be in this situation, but we had no choice but to be a part of it.

While the living conditions were cramped, we slept in hammocks, which were strung to the ceiling. These close quarters were bothersome (if you can imagine) but it forced us to get to know one another, even if just a little. I found out that I was part of a small crew of men who were all fathers. We often talked about how we missed our wives and families. The fear of death lingered, of course, but there were small moments in which one could feel understood. If anything, I am grateful for that.

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7 | Giving up is rarely worth the ease.

All the while, we all wanted to get home as soon as we could. Some of the men that I had known lost their lives during the attacks—who was to say that I wouldn’t be next? My family had no idea if I was safe. I wrote when I could but, for all they knew, I could have been killed not long after sending a letter.

I realized that being away in the thick of danger, I was putting them in the same position I’d endured many times in my life: holding their breath as they wait to see if I would survive. I didn’t want to put my family through the pain of losing a loved one again. Our family had had enough. With this determination to return home safely, I did whatever it took to protect myself.

Although I witnessed horrific loss, I did make it home. My body was intact, but my mind was changed. Growing up around death, it all seemed ordinary to me, but being around it in war made me see just how precious life truly is.

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8 | If at the end of loss, grief, or longing there is still life to be lived, it can be lived well.

After the war, I returned to Devon where I was reunited with my wife and children. Seeing their smiling faces made me even more grateful for the life I’d fought so hard to keep. My youngest who my wife had been pregnant with when I left over a year ago, had survived the war, and so I welcomed my daughter Elsie into my heart. Enjoying the area and the promise of being near Louisa’s parents, we made Devon our permanent home.

Back in civilian life, I worked as a fish hawker, buying fish from the fishermen and selling them at the local market for a profit. I found success in this line of work, and when I had saved up enough, I opened a fish shop which I ran until I retired at 68. Those were happy days.

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9 | Appreciate them while you can.

The war changed how I lived daily life. I spent all my time with my family in my retired days, not worrying if they would leave me, but rather, focusing on appreciating their company while I had them. None of us are here very long, so we need to make the most of the time we have left. You never know what tomorrow may bring.

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10 | Life is precious. Truly.

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This is the story of Arthur “Levi” Moates

Arthur “Levi” Moates lived in Devon until he died in 1970 at the age of 88. Levi grew up thinking of life as fleeting after losing two siblings early in life and later two of his own children. When he was called back to the Navy as World War I needed more men, Levi for the first time put his family in the position he’d been placed in many times: waiting to see if he would survive. In discovering this, he fought hard to make it back home and no longer saw life as fleeting or more as precious and important to hang onto while it’s in front of you, even if it’s a short time. After returning from the war, Levi ran a fish shop until he retired. From there, he was able to relax and enjoy the rest of his life with his wife, children, and grandchildren. Levi outlived his wife by 11 years and left six children and ten grandchildren, but they grew up inspired by his interesting life and the lessons he’s learned.

 

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This story first touched our hearts on August 22, 2019.

| Writer: Abi Latham | Editor: Colleen Walker |

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To protect the privacy of the storyteller and those involved in this retelling, some of the names may have been changed. (1)

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