Mothers and Daughters

In grade school I had a long walk to school. At least it seemed long. I crossed Lawrence Avenue which was quite a busy street and didn’t get crossing lights until I was much older. But I was able to come home for lunch which was a treat for me. My mother was creative and I would often have interesting shapes or combinations of food, plus gourmet treats (look in the freezer – it’s Peach Melba!)

I walked to and from school with my best friend Mary Curcio. We would play Bewitched, or Lost in Space and I would carry a story line over many days.

In October when I was in grade two, my Mom mentioned at lunch that she was heading up towards my school, did Mary and I want to get a ride back with her? I said “Sure” and went to get Mary. My Mom said she had to leave right away, so if we didn’t get back in five minutes she would have to go without us. I know that she said this, but I didn’t really hear it.

Mary was not a quick kind of girl. She was very thoughtful and never ever hurried. When I tried to impress upon her to hurry up so we could get a ride, it didn’t seem to make any difference. I kept looking out to the door and 10 minutes later saw what I feared – my mother driving up the street without me.

I ran outside and up the sidewalk, screaming and waving my arms. I didn’t understand the total panic that I was feeling – but if was very real. When my Mom stopped the car, I almost laughed at myself for my overreaction, but she was actually just stopped at the stop sign at the top of the street. She started going again. I was about 4 houses back and downhill. She didn’t see me.

The desperation I felt as I ran screaming after her bumper was almost overwhelming. And I don’t know why. I had just had lunch with her, and would see her after school in a few hours. I had time to get to school on my own, as I did every other day. Yet…I was sobbing and couldn’t stop.

I had the same feeling for the first time in a very long time just last week. After not seeing my daughter for nearly four months, I had flown to the Yukon Territory to meet her in Whitehorse. After a long journey, we finally arrived to check into one of the top hotels. Can you picture a top hotel in Whitehorse Yukon? I bet you can.

10:30 pm in Downtown Whitehorse, Yukon

10:30 pm in Downtown Whitehorse, Yukon

I reminded the front desk clerk that my daughter would be arriving separately and she was to get her key as soon as the room was ready. She said; “Oh your daughter was here ten minutes ago…you just missed her.”

My body folded exactly as I imagine it would had I been kicked in the stomach. It was the same feeling of desperate loss. I burst into tears. The poor clerk was very concerned – “I’m sure she’ll be back! I told her the room would be ready in a couple of hours.”

I looked at Blaine and he kept very cool. However, he did understand and left immediately to look for her in the car while I watched from the window of my fourth floor room to try and see her on the street.

I don’t think I had ever gone so long without seeing one of my kids before. It was exacerbated by the fact that she was so far out in the wilds – two and a half hours north west of Whitehorse, past Lake Lebarge where they cremated Sam McGee!  She had no texting, no email, no phone, and limited access to Facebook only after 11:00 at night. She had a fantastic research position at the Arctic Institute of North America. It seemed she was doing great and have a wonderful summer but I really wanted to get a hold of her and see for myself.

We knew where to look – Starbucks or the book store. Blaine found her in Starbucks. When I saw our rental car coming back down the road, and I could just make out her arm showing through on the passenger side. I bolted out of the room, down four flights of stairs and out on to the street. Where I hugged her. And sobbed. And kept sobbing. I’m crying now just remembering. I am sure that I embarrassed her something fierce. But she didn’t let go.

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The Bunkie (a very short story)

On my grandparents island in Haliburton, a perfect path led through the woods to the bunkie.   The light was mottled through a canopy of leaves above, and the ground was soft and quiet – a blanket of pine needles and soft earth over the exposed rocks.

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We would sneak down and play in the bunkie when the hot afternoon sun would drive us off the rocks by the water.  My little brothers would get tired and head back to the cottage but I would stay until I was called up for dinner.

I begged to be able to stay there by myself.  Of course, they never let me.  They did agree that it would be the perfect spot for the boys when they were older.  I knew even then that they would ruin it – with their stolen beers and crushed cigarettes.  With their friends who were loud and messy.

The summer I turned 11, my parents went out to the Yacht Club’s big party.  I was mortified that they insisted on getting a babysitter.  Helen was only a few years older than me, and about 4 inches shorter.  She let me stay up and watch t.v. with her after the boys were asleep. Then, Helen was shaking me roughly and hissing into my ear,  “Your parents are home!”

I bolted up the stairs and was in my bed before they came into the cottage.  I made my jaw go slack and slowed my breathing to mimic sleep.  I heard the muffled conversation from downstairs as Helen left – walking home alone down the cottage road with just a flashlight.

A cloud of Shalimar wafted into my room just before my mother did.  She leaned over me,  watching me in the moonlight and shaking her head.  My mother was always beautiful – delicate and perfect.  She never looked lovelier than that night.

“My God how do we keep kidding ourselves?” she said, in a loud stage whisper,  “It’s not a stage she’s going through!”  My father came in to the room and tried to shush her.  “C’mon lovely, let’s call it a night”.

“Look at her.  Just look at her!  You know people can’t even believe that she’s my daughter!  This massive klutz.  This loser.  Pathetic.”  My mother then spun on her heel and careened into my father’s always waiting arms.

That fall I left for boarding school.  I never lived at home again. As I got older, I visited the cottage less and less. There were summer jobs, and studies abroad.  Eventually I married and moved down South.  I haven’t been back in many years. Even now though, these many years later when I smell that certain forest smell I am right back there – skipping along down the path to the bunkie.

Last year, my brother sent me a photo of his lovely little daughter.  She is standing on the porch of the bunkie with my mother twirling her in her little princess dress.  My mother looks very happy.

 

 

 

 

Treat me like a dog. Please.

The Right to Die is a hot topic in Canada right now – brought forward by Member of Parliament Steven Fletcher, who is a quadriplegic as a result of an accident.  He is proposing that under certain circumstances, and with statutory requirements in place,  doctor may be allowed to help people end their lives if that is their desire.
Here’s what I think:
In Toronto in 2006, a man in a car attacked a police officer who was mounted on his horse and injured both of them. Now this was no mere horse – Brigadier was star. This is how the press covered what happened:

“A Toronto police horse killed in the line of duty last month was given a hero’s send-off at a memorial on Monday that drew 1,000 people, according to police estimates.”

 

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Now you will notice that is says the horse was “killed in the line of duty”.  But this is not true.  He was horrifically injured in line of duty, and as we treat our animals far better than our family members, he was mercifully shot.

It’s all well and good to say that there are drugs available that can manage the pain and suffering for those with life threatening or terminal diseases.  It just isn’t true.  Sometimes the pain can’t be managed and it’s horrible for the patient, his family and his caregivers.

People should have the choice to end their life when they choose.  Nobody can make that choice for them – and the ‘slippery slope’ that people talk about can surely be managed through review boards, or procedures that protect everyone involved.

Have you ever watched someone drown in their own fluids in their own bed?  I have. And felt so clearly that if my cat or dog was in such pain and fear I would not allow it to continue.  Yet still people want them to carry on.   I fear we are on the wrong side of history here – that our grandchildren will look on this practice in horror.

 

 

 

 

Saying Goodbye to Yesterday

This is a picture of photographs that I am throwing out. Now quiet down, I know – believe me – what true treasures photos are. And I would like to add that this is actually only HALF of the photos that I have tossed in the last week. So much so that I can’t lift them. So much so that the garbage men refused to take them. Them suckers are heavy!

bye bye past

bye bye past

The problem is, back in the day (i.e. the 80’s) it only cost $1.00 to get a duplicate set of prints when you brought your film in. If you waited to see which ones you liked and copied them after the fact it was much more expensive. So every roll that I took in at that time, I got one or two! extra sets of prints. As did my parents. And most of the pictures were crap. But how would you know??

It’s not like today where you can view the photo immediately, edit it on the phone or more professionally on your computer, send it off by email or post it on Facebook or Instagram at that exact moment. You do not have the admittedly thrilling moment of waiting for that envelope to see the pictures usually days after the event.

Plus, I inevitably ordered the big set of every school photo.  Why I felt I needed 16 pictures of each child, each year, is not clear to me anymore.

Of the perhaps 2400 photos that I removed from my home, at least 25% of them were of my first born son Elton. In fact, if I gathered them all up carefully, I could create a flip book that shows him from the first day in the hospital right through to starting school. To say that I was enamoured of him is far too slight. His every movement, facial expression or action was perceived as miraculous and I felt it needed to be saved for future generations to share. I was wrong.

I have painstakingly gone through every single photo, and divided them thusly:

Keepers for me – perhaps to go into albums. Sometime in the future.

Keepers for the kids – one Tupperware bin for each marked “Your Childhood in a Box.”

Your Childhood in a Box!

Your Childhood in a Box!

Things to send to others – I love to get old photos and letters from the past! Do they?

GARBAGE – this is the vast majority.

I am also the keeper of my husband’s memories as well. I have boxes and boxes of letters, diaries, clippings etc. My husband doesn’t keep stuff. He usually throws his birthday cards into the garbage before the cake is served. He has lovely photos from his travels – but sadly, they are all pictures of buildings. It could be Pakistan, Pittsburgh or Prague. Who can tell?  My mother always said: “put some PEOPLE in your photos or just buy a picture of Niagara Falls.”

Most of the diaries and letters went into the garbage as well. Just what was I saving them for? I think that having lost my childhood photos in a family dispute (19 albums held for ransom – which I didn’t pay) I have gotten better at letting go. I don’t need the photos from my past. I remember.

What does life look like in my future?

Do you remember the “Freedom 55” commercials for London Life a few years back? The guy was suddenly able to meet himself in the future. I have been thinking about this spot lately as I am turning 55 this June. Time to make some choices.

(Interesting side note about that commercial: I worked on the London Life account and Freedom 55 didn’t actually exist. It was just a concept title to get people interested. There was no there, there whatsoever.)

Now I am building a new home, that will be the last home I ever live in. Thus, it is imperative that I create a place where I can live happily at 55, 65, 75 and beyond. How do I want to spend my last few years? Will I be healthy and able? Our new home is being built for very active people, with hiking trails, tennis courts and a big gym. Yet we are making it a bungalow because we are going to be too old to go up stairs!

This is a First World problem, no doubt. But it involves making major decisions based on imagining how your life will play out, ten or twenty years from now – choosing, or at least imagining how every aspect of your life will look, well before your are actually living it. And some of these choices are huge. You know the expression “well it’s not cast in stone.” In this case, it actually is. It’s a matter of making choices based on your best guest for the you in the future. (This is exacerbated by the fact that I have no spacial ability whatsoever. The architectural drawings were useless to me. Even when we got underway – does this look like a house to you?) IMG_0510 Looking at every aspect of your life, staring from the great broad strokes – where do you want to live? How will you be spending your time? What will matter to you? A good hospital nearby? Friends? Where will your children and potential grandchildren live? This is coupled with the most minute details of your day to day – no moment by moment existence. How will everything in your future you’s life look and function? Where do I want to sit and watch t.v.? Is there enough to light to read with my fading eyesight?

I damn near made a big mistake when picking out the new bathtub. I choose a super deep, high sided tub and pronounced it perfect. My husband, however, pointed out that I will be hoisting my ancient body into that tub when I am a 70 year old. Do I really want to launch myself over four foot hurdles just to get into a wet and slippery danger zone? I was nearly responsible for future me’s broken hip! I had to pick a tub that an old lady could get into. It has a lower spot on the sides so I can step in easily. I almost got the one you sit in and then close the door to fill it up but I am ever the optimist. But I keep forgetting. I keep getting stuck between the people we are today and the people we will be in 10 or 20 years – older, retired, living a life certain to be different in many ways from how we are living now. I am having a hard time imagining it.

A good friend told me the trick to living together happily when your husband retires is very simple. “Don’t make him that first sandwich.” Even if you have to go out and just drive around, make sure you are not home at lunch, otherwise your days will look like that forever.

One thing for sure. I want lots of places to lie down. I think I’ll go have a nap right now.

Reflections on my Mom a year later.

I dreamt about my mother last week. It was a year ago that she died, and I guess that experiencing this first anniversary has put her clearly in my mind. Her death seems like it just happened in some ways – and in other ways I feel she has missed so much. Strange that after a year, I still look for the blinking light on the phone beside my bed every single time I wake up.

It was there so often. All through the day, particularly at ‘sundowning’ time – around 6:00 p.m. at night – when the bad behaviour among several patients would escalate. Far worse though, were the episodes at night. I would wake up several times in the night to check the machine and if there was a message it was never good news.

My mother was calling for me. To be more exact, my mother was screaming for me and someone in her care facility was calling me to have me come in and try to calm her. I always could, luckily. The hysterical screaming, paranoid delusions and seething rage would completely overcome her and last until I got there. I would be holding her and telling her “It’s okay, I’m here Mom. You’re safe. I’ve got you.” But the saddest part wasn’t when she was in the middle of these horrible occurrences.

No, the saddest part was when the episode ended. She would suddenly get quiet, and start looking around at her surroundings, and at me. Then she would slump her shoulders and shake her head sadly. She always put her hands on my face and said the exact same thing: “Oh my God Kid – I am so sorry.” It was excruciating. Much harder than her attacks on the staff and other patients. In the aftermath, she was embarrassed and afraid – two things she had spent her whole life overcoming.

She was desperately unhappy and told everyone that would listen that she couldn’t stand to live this way. She could not believe the things she had done – scratched a woman in a wheelchair, thrown dishes at a non-verbal elderly man when he didn’t respond to her, or knocked the computer and everything else off the Manager’s desk. When she physically attacked a young volunteer with Down’s Syndrome, they had to call the police. She would have been devastated if she had believed she had done it. She couldn’t believe it. It was too painful for someone who had lived a life of extraordinary kindness and grace.

I was lucky though, I know. The place where she lived the last part of her life was only 15 minutes away from my home.  It was also top of the line. It cost more than a suite at the Plaza Hotel but that was because it allowed us to still pretend. All of us.

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We would pretend that she choose to live there, behind the beautiful doors that were kept locked all the time. We would pretend that she choose to wear the horrible shoes with the velcro closures and the endless array of stretchy polyester clothing that could withstand the constant washing that her sloppiness and incontinence demanded.

We would also pretend to care much more than we did. The staff would feign a sweet attentiveness that I imagined did not exist when I was not in attendance. I would play the dutiful daughter that was never frustrated, or embarrassed, or almost paralyzed by the grief for the loss of the mother that once had been so wonderful.

We would pretend that the end wasn’t a blessing for everyone.

And yet in my dream last week, it wasn’t the mother of the last few years that I was with. Not the shrieking harridan who was hallucinating, nor the terrified, despondent, woman who didn’t want to see her closest friends. The mother in my dreams was the fabulous, funny, unique mother from 10 or 15 years ago. What a pleasure to spend some time with her. I woke up laughing.

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The 10 Things I Hate About Christmas

#1 – The people that are gone. Nothing makes you notice the missing more than the Holiday Season. Sure, other things like weddings are tough, but the wedding is a one time thing (pretty much) and Christmas is a tradition that must radically change to avoid having the glaring empty chair where someone loved once sat.

#2 – There is more need than time or money. People are incredibly generous – I just wish they would spread it around more throughout the year. I have delivered more than 200 presents this year – all of them to people I have never met. And I still feel like it’s nowhere near enough.

#3 – It happens in the winter. What a dumb idea. Let’s see, let’s make an event that needs an excruciating amount of errands and shopping, and combine it with a bucket load of travel, both on our highways and in our skies, and let’s have it when the weather is most likely to be unpleasant or dangerous. What fun!

#4 – People buy me presents. Now I know for most people that is probably a good thing. But I have always found receiving Christmas gifts some sad combination of competitive, threatening and embarrassing. Now my best friends know better than to buy me anything. And if they do, they are not surprised that they are re-gifted or donated, often quite quickly. Gifts that do come, come with a condition; a gift of five festive soaps with the request “please keep at least one.”

#5 – The Food. With the lovely array of baked goods and chocolates exploding at every event  that I am not able to resist, I am at risk of developing scurvy. Combine this with the fact that my usual physical activities are curtailed due to the holidays and I am in grave danger of becoming trapped in my own clothes.

#6 – The Music. The carols started playing before U.S. Thanksgiving this year. Most of them are insipid or cloying. But a few, just a few, break through and move me in spite of myself. Like this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g608gU3W-54

#7 – The Lights. Driving through our area, I do love to see the houses all lit up with their Christmas finery. Each house has it’s own take on how Christmas lights should look, and each unique endeavour combines with the next to form a glowing tableau. We have a single, Christmas tree lit up outside our barn and every time I come down the driveway my heart swells at the sight of it.

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#8 – I hear from people that I haven’t heard from in a long time. No longer sending any cards, the number that I receive dwindles each year but I still revel in each handwritten envelope that appears in my mailbox. Also, through the phone, email or Facebook, people reach out to reconnect, for no other reason than to share good wishes.

#9 – Candlelight A.A. Meetings – combined with a pot luck. Always moving and lovely.

# 10 – Oh hell, I feel all soppy now. I’m going to go make a Peppermint Hot Chocolate, have a sugar cookie and read all the cards I got this year. I’ll put on James Taylor’s Christmas CD and light a fire. What a wonderful time of year!

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Delores

I woke up the same way as most mornings, with my mother coming into the room I shared with my sister and opening the drapes. As the sunlight streamed in, I sat up and rubbed my eyes as my sister buried her head under her pillow for a few more minutes rest.

 

Today though, my mother paused, looking out the window towards the top of our street.  “Come see girls.” she said. “Delores is making her First Communion.”

 

Delores was an Italian girl a year younger than I, though she towered over me and all the other little girls on our street.  She was blessed with physical features that, while in and of themselves weren’t horrible, conspired to give her face a awkward, disjointed appearance.  Operations to correct her crossed eyes had been only partly successful.

 

Her strange looks, coupled with her tremendous size, made her an object of ridicule throughout her childhood.  She was teased mercilessly by most kids, and scorned by the rest.  I, however, had always been forced to play with her.  My mother was far too astute to let the local sport of Delores baiting go on in her presence.  I was the only one who had to invite her to my birthday parties, and even go to play with her at her home.  It did me no harm – in fact, we got along fine, especially when away from the cruelty of others she was able to relax.

 

I joined my mother at the window and saw Delores standing on her front lawn.  Her mother was yelling and gesturing with her hands, trying to get her to smile for her father’s camera.  Delores looked uncomfortable in a massive, dramatic dress with yards and yards of lace and silk.  Her mother was a tiny, birdlike woman who had probably been quite lovely in her youth.  Her distaste for her clumsy, homely daughter was never quite hidden from view.

 

Today, she was trying to transform her into something else by her wardrobe.  It was a completely inappropriate dress – full length, with a long train and veil, covered with lace and beading.  I didn’t know it then but, at age 8, Delores was about to make her First Communion wearing her mother’s wedding gown.  All I knew was that it was the most gorgeous dress I had ever seen.

 

“Ohhh…” I cried, “She looks like a princess!”

 

My mother stared at me a moment and then said;  “You know, she does look like a princess.  Why don’t you go and tell her so?”

 

I looked up the street and saw that they were starting to load things in the car for the drive to the church.  “But they are leaving right now!” I said, “and I have to get dressed.”

 

“No you don’t.’  Said my mother.  “It’s warm outside, you can just run up in your pajamas.”

 

Outside? In my pajamas?  Now this was something exquisitely delicious. I ran as fast as I could across the lawns between our houses, the ground soft under my feet.  The morning dew made my thin pajamas slap against my shins.

 

“Delores!”  I shouted as I got closer, “wait! Wait!”  Panting when I reached them I could finally get the words out.  “Delores – you look like a princess!”

 

Her face brightened up and a peal of laughter rang out.  I am shamed to recall just how rare a sound that was.  Shyly, she showed me all the details of her dress and even twirled around the yard.  Her father took pictures of the two of us together.

 

Her mother clutched at my sleeve “You had better get back home” she hissed at me, “You’re going to catch it if your mother sees you out here in your pajamas!”

 

“No, it’s okay.” I told her.  “My mother sent me.”  She looked up the street and we could see my mother and my sister, now roused from her bed, waving gaily at the front door.

 

“She’s really quite something, your mother.”  Delores’ mother said, “You know that don’t you?”

 

“Sure” I replied.  But I didn’t know it then.  Not really.

 

Years later, in high school, when I learned how important it was to belong, to feel part of, I remembered Delores.  I knew then how nice it was for her to have me in those pictures with her on that special day.  How lovely it was for her to hear me say those kind words to her.  My mother’s inherent kindness knew that it would make a difference to her.

 

But it wasn’t until I was a mother myself that I realized that my mother had done it for Delores’ mother as well.  We live and breathe every care, every pain, every sadness that our children go through.  They say the definition of growing up is giving up all hope of a better childhood.  What do you call it when you realize you were luckier than you ever knew?

 

Song for the Dying

It’s not as sad as you think. When I tell people that I spend my free time sitting with those who are dying, they are often convinced that it must be a tragic, grief riddled event. It’s not. But they don’t want to hear about it.

It must be our culture. We choose to ignore death as much as possible and, if we deal with it at all, it’s in a reverent or sad manner. We fear death like nothing else. But here’s a scoop: Nobody gets out alive. As Springsteen sings : “Everything dies baby, that’s a fact“. Death is just another element of life.

Often the person who has truly faced their own mortality finds a heady new sense of freedom. All the little things, annoyances, resentments, all seem to fade away. They want to spend their last remaining time on earth unencumbered by negativity and petty concerns. Things that once seemed so important are now completely insignificant. There is letting go in their acceptance.

Of course, not everyone gets this far on the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. Some get stuck in anger, some in bargaining. “Why me?” they ask. “Why not you?” the world answers.

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The time spent in the company of the actively dying is intense and extremely rewarding. Remember – as a visiting volunteer for a Hospice these are not my people. Not my loved ones. I am there only as a tool to assist the patient in any way that I can, or as a respite for their caregivers to let them have a few hours away from the constant stress of ongoing care.

For someone who is so often in charge, it is a very good exercise for me to place all my own beliefs, and concerns aside.  My opinion matters not at all.  I follow their lead entirely.

My role changes with every client. Some want only to talk about their illness; the diagnosis, the progression, the prognosis. New methods of treatment, operations with different outcomes, a thousand “what if”s fill their days.

And they know that they are dying. When you have a hospice volunteer show up, it’s pretty clear where we are heading. However I have had more than a few occasions when a family member has said “don’t let her know how bad she is – there is no point in upsetting her”. And then the patient will say “Don’t let them know this but I’m not going to make it.” The dying almost always know.

Some never even mention their impending demise. They want to talk of happier times from long ago – the birth of a child, often grown and far away. They share memories of the war, of falling in love. It’s a privilege to hear. And because I am not part of their family, they are free to say anything to me, with no fear of repercussions. I have been told amazing things that I can never share.

Some don’t want to talk at all – they just want to listen. They want me to read to them, from a favourite book, or the daily paper. They ask me to tell them stories to make them laugh – to forget, if even for a moment, how temporary it all is.

Sometime they ask me to sing. I close my eyes and sing.

The Legacy of Invisibility

This week’s 100 word challenge is LEGACY. This is my entry:

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I watch him. I watch him struggle as he faces each new challenge. Having no experience himself, he needs to carefully construct his own idea of how to be a loving father.

Patient with you as a toddler, even more so when you reached your teens, you will never understand how afraid he was to be the parent he never had. But I can see. Sometimes, when he worries that he is too strong, or too weak, I can see the boy he used to be. Seven years old, waiting on the sidewalk for the father who never came back.