Continuum theory

Primulas are flowering in the garden, joyously outraging the white Christmas rose. The daffodils, scilla and tulips are pushing hearty leafage through the early spring soil.

Where did it start?

Was it the day I picked up a stunned baby robin, fallen from its nest, and brought it to my mother? She helped me feed it and comfort it, stroking its tiny soft head, gently eye-dropping water into its hungry beak. We prepared a box and a soft dusting cloth for it to rest in. It did not recover despite my young ministrations.

Mother had many stories that were brought out on occasion, as lessons, such as the blizzard in 31. She lived in a home with one of the homesteading families. On one stormy day she asked the farmer whose home she lived into take her to school where she taught during the depression. He scoffed. He wouldn’t take any of the animals out in this weather. If she was going to go to school, she would have to do it on her own steam. She walked to the school and found two children who had made it through the storm. “What if I had not turned up” she asked us. Those two children would not have been looked after. She took them to the pastor’s house across the road and they were cared for until the storm abated. Admittedly, it was foolish to walk out alone in a blizzard, she confessed now. One learned from experience. This had been a lesson for the need of advanced planning, communication, responsibility, learning from other’s experience. If the farmer would not take his animals out in such conditions, it was a good sign that she should not go out, especially alone, on foot. One needed to set our parameters establishing when one must come to school and when one should stay home.

The fallen robin was another. It was a story of kindness and caring. I became a rescuer, a care giver, compassionate for those who were mistreated, abandoned or lonely. Mother held dear this story because I had worried her with a childish question “What will the mother robin do without her baby?”

Had it started there? Or was it just being born into a family that expressed love by actions of caring and responsibility?

Then there was the occasion when father was growing strawberries. His success was limited by the number of birds that would come feast on his crop before he could bring them in. To protect them, he constructed a tent of netting across the strawberry bed, only to find, next day, that a towhee had become entangled in the webbing and was suspended upside down, still struggling but barely, to free itself from its panic and from death.

Mother brought out a bright red plastic laundry basket. Father disentangled the bird and then it was placed under the upside down basket to recover on its own, safe from the predatory cats that often traversed our back yard in search of game.

Hours later, the bird was released and flew away. The netting was gone and would never be put up again.

Much later in my life, I found a quail, equally trapped by fishnet in my own garden. When I released the shivering bird, it ran twenty feet forward into the bush that surrounded my house, then stopped. It looked back as if to say thank you, and then continued its escape towards mister quail who had been waiting with a wrenched up heart, thinking that he had lost his mate to a man made trap.

That was the end of my garden protection. If the quails got it or our two chickens, so be it. I couldn’t bear to see the helpless animals caught and terrified.

But I digress. I was talking about generically about starting points, who we are and how we come to be doing things. Or more specifically, if I could only get to the point, how I came to be looking after my aging mother.

So perhaps this story started after I separated from Franc twelve years ago and hadn’t yet decided where to live. My mother was in her mid-eighties and fiercely independent, living alone. After my separation, I’d done a six month assignment for my company in a mid-prairies town and was three provinces away from my where my work base was. I didn’t have a home. Everything I owned was in storage.

I hadn’t been settled a week into that new job on the prairies before I learned that Mother had fallen and broken her left arm. We talked often on the phone which helped her cope with her enforced seclusion and boredom, but I was not able to help her with groceries or laundry or any of the myriad daily tasks that needed two hands.

At the end of my assignment, we skirted around the idea of living in the same house. There were some obvious advantages. She could be independent and stay in her own home longer, perhaps until she died. At least she would be able to avoid residential care or moving to an apartment for many more years.

I didn’t like apartments. I don’t think mother ever lived in one. I wasn’t sure that I liked living alone. I had only done it a few times and I hadn’t really liked being entirely on my own. It was good to share one’s day with another person. There were advantages. I could have the whole basement and room enough to do my artwork – a work bench, storage for my paintings, a garden to work in and flowers to enjoy.

But there were disadvantages too. My mother and I had had a history of not seeing eye to eye. It had been much better since I’d found a respectable job with the government. But I had been a horrible hippie. A flower child. A back-to-the lander, even though I virtually gave up any pretensions to being self sufficient in food production once I had saved the quail.

It was a risk. Would I be able to be myself in this new equation or would I be the eternal child obeying my mother’s vision of what she thought I should be? I felt I might be facing the equivalent of a new marriage. She was very much the matriarch. I was very much her child. Could we be friends? Sisters? Companions?

I could see that she needed to make a major decision – sell the house and go into an apartment, or find some way to make living at home viable. How many times had I come in to visit her over the ten years since dad had died to find her sitting alone, in the dark (to keep electricity bills down) staring at the room around her. Bridge club and seniors centre, aquacise and walking clubs could not banish the loneliness. Eating for one was making her ashen. “I can survive for a week on what’s in the house” she would state fiercely. But the fridge held little but milk and bread. Her meals came from tins. She wasn’t eating properly.

In fact, we did decide to live with each other. Each of us put our expectations out for discussion. She wanted her independence, fiercely. So did I. We discussed our living arrangements in detail. Upstairs was hers. She wanted nothing changed. I was not to slip my favorite milk jug into her cupboard or even think about changing pictures on the wall, or leaving one of my afghans on the couch. It was her house.

What I did downstairs was my business. Aside from the guest room and the laundry room which were common space, I had for myself a bedroom, a work room for my art and plenty of storage space for it. I had a small room to show the work which doubled as a mini living room for guests. You don’t need all the details. Only that the upshot was that we agreed to live in the same house. Was this where this story started?

For a few years this was how we lived. I put up with a few steely looks when I didn’t get home from work on time. “Where have you been! ” she would demand as I came in the door. Her husband, my father, had been an engineer. Time and precision were de rigeur. Dinner was at six. Missing it was not good.

I put up with directions although I was fifty and had cooked for myself perfectly well enough for me for thirty of those years. Soon she began to like my cooking. “Don’t buy green peppers,” she would say. But I continued to bring them home and she started to like eating thin strips of them. I had to be out of town for work and when I returned she said ” I sure missed the fresh vegetables. Will you get some of those green peppers.”

All of that to say that we adjusted. She began to like some of the things I brought to the house – news from the outer world, stories of friends, and then my friends. At first, she was not too happy about this, but soon she began to find out that my friends were not all hippies any more. I didn’t disillusion her. They were hippies gone underground, disguised in corporate clothing. She had taught me that you can’t judge a book by its cover and that clothes make the man. Little did she know that I was sneaking “former” hippies into her friend circle. And she liked them!

We don’t see the years pass when we live with someone. We morph into someone the different and yet still the same. Here was my mother with her same sense of humour, her intense sense of dignity, her love of family.

But slowly she came to depend on me as earlier, I had depended on her.

Her mobility diminished and she needed someone to run her errands, her banking, her shopping. I can still see her bending in the garden to pull weeds out of the lawn and the flower beds, just like my grandmother had done before her, and remember somewhat later that it was no longer wise to do so as she became unsteady on her feet.

We bought various devices to assist her reading – better glasses, magnifying glasses of varying sizes, wrap around sun glasses to protect her from UV and bright light as macular degeneration picked out her vision, rod and cone , until there only remained a bit of peripheral vision. We got large print books; a larger television; then talking books. Finally we read to her until she could hear no more. We got hearing aids for her. There were headphones so she could hear the television; amplifiers for the telephone. We talked directly into her one ear left with a bit of hearing capacity.

When did it start that I was putting her to bed; getting her ready for breakfast in the morning; dressing her; dispensing pills like a nurse; diagnosing the easy problems; being her helpmate and her ears at the doctors? Taking her to all appointments; arranging for the hair dresser; the dentist; the rounds of doctors?

Again I digress. To the point, mother had become dependent. The commitment I had made to look after – I faltered some days – was a fully embedded one now. In trade for a safe haven I had a woman becoming child to look after. I remember her giggling behind me as she held my hand like a child to steady her as we travelled from her bedroom to the kitchen. I remember tucking her into bed and going through a list of things we needed to do before she could sleep – brushing teeth, putting away the hearing aids, cutting fingernails, finding bed socks, setting out clothes for the morning. I remember the days I would come home and she would be waiting, sitting on her walker at the front door, to welcome me home, day after day after day. Her childlike delight as she saw me coming up the lawn slope to the front door.

In her frustrations some days she would be short and sharp and then always, she would temper it with a thank you and a recognition that I was carrying a responsibility for the two of us. And thus, to the end of her days.

The close members of our family and some wonderful friends sat by her side in the last few weeks of her life, holding her hand until the end, night and day.

And now the question filters through my thoughts. My lovely mother. Little princess. Butterfly. Pillar of the community. Pillar of strength. Where was the start to this? Is her death an ending or a beginning? Is birth, life and death just part of a continuum? Did I ever choose to become her prime care giver or did I just evolve there? Where did she go? Or is she still here in spirit, guiding us?

Just Saturday, when we held a memorial tea, I noticed in a jumbled Christmas planter just inside our front door that one innocuous leafy filler had produced a single bloom, white and pure. It is a peace lily. I take it for a sign.


5 Responses to “Continuum theory”

  1. suburbanlife Says:

    Dear Kay – LFB – this beautiful story tells much about the love and respect shared by you and your mother in spite of any differences you may have held as individuals. Thanks for posting this!

  2. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Thanks Suburbanlife!
    You find subplots that I hadn’t worked on in this web log, but I admit it is there.
    I wrote first and thought of the underlying meaning afterwards. I believe that our passage here on earth is a continuum; that there is a beforelife as well as an afterlife. My mother brought me up to be the person I am. She fostered the qualities she felt I needed to navigate here on this earth. Then I’ve added to it with my various experiences that have made me my own person. In the end, her end, on this mortal coil, I have brought back some of those qualities to her comfort. In exchange I have have a marvelous and sacred experience in assisting her as she went on to her next journey. May it be in peace.

  3. Catherine Stewart Says:

    Dear Kristin,
    These are touching stories, tenderly told. You have, indeed, found beauty.
    In a way, you created it through your loving attitude and actions toward your mother.
    Thank you for sharing your experience.

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