Omen one:In August, her pink fleece pyjamas with the snow flake embroidered on the pocket and the satin piping around the collar sagged around her shoulders. The scapula and clavicle could be cast in clay from the outside. Only a thin skin covered them. Was she starving herself? Or was something else going on, like the slow spreading cancer the doctor suspected, growing in her abdomen somewhere. Too frail to do exploratory surgery. Too frail to treat with chemo. She was dying.

Oh yes, you will say. We are all dying. Well, she was ninety four and counting to her ninety fifth birthday. How long could we hope to keep her with us? How could we improve her quality of life with her haemoglobin dropping and her weight dropping at the same rate – a few counts per month?

I went into my manager’s office and wrangled about how I might take some time off to be with her to fulfill some of her dreams – seeing Gisele before she died, having a tea party with Ella, Rose and Roberta, three friends who had been good to her. Simple dreams of closing the loop. Saying thank you. Saying goodbye.

He was sympathetic, but I had this to finish and that to do. When those were done, perhaps a week or two off. Tell him when I wanted to go. Give him dates.

“I was really thinking about months off. A half year. I don’t know how long. How can you predict when someone will die?” I ended up with.

I saw my manager’s manager, a woman. Very sympathetic.

“I didn’t want to cry” I said as my face screwed up into an unattractive ball. Crying is always ugly. I swiveled away in the office chair to help regain my composure.

Different story here. “Of course” she said. “This is a life event. You only have one mother. You won’t get to do this again. You have to do it right. Take the time you need. Just let us know when you want to go. We’ll figure out a way to make it work for you. We can get someone to cover for your duties.”

Already the company had been super sympathetic. I’d had a light work load. I’d taken my vacation so that I could take her to appointments, on short notice. This had been going on for over six months.

“Here’s a calendar” said my boss days later. “Mark off the days you want to be away. Give it to me by the end of the week”

I looked for a way to take leave without pay. What would I live on? My retirement savings? My holidays were all gone. Work sixty percent of the time? Maybe, but I was already on eighty percent time through doctor’s orders. I was too tired. I couldn’t do work and look after mom too. Where does one buy energy?

I spent two days agonizing over the calendar. I only had two weeks of annual leave left from a stock I had built up over the years. Eleven weeks had melted into two. With sisters and brothers, we decided to have a ninetieth birthday party for her at the end of September, family only. Keep it simple. Keep it small. And so I picked a few days from the week before and the week after. Before, to prepare; after, to collapse and recover.

We rented a mansion for a morning and ate in the same room that Prince Charles had dined in many years ago when he travelled through our fair city on a North American tour. Lizbet and Heather were assigned getting Mother there – dressing her was a chore. No matter what the occasion, she needed to be elegant and perfectly turned out. Keeping her nerves in order was another of Liz and Heather’s chores. At the end of the day, they would take her back and spend the remainder of the afternoon with her so that she would not feel she had been entertained then disposed of, dropped and put back in her gilded prison.
The bruncheon was fun. Nephew Hugh cooked, having become a chef putting himself through school during student days. He prepared a varied, delicious menu. Otto was chauffeur, bringing Mother and her contemporary friend from University days to our venue. Lizbet wrote the Queen of England and Prime Minister Harper for birthday letters. Mother, born second generation Canadian of good English stock put much store by the Queen and dreamed of getting a letter for her hundredth birthday.

Heather planned décor and menu; she helped with protocol and etiquette. Otto devised a speech that linked Mother’s birthday with events in time; Heather’s husband picked up balloons to decorate momma’ s place at the table; Lizbet read her favorite poem.

Mother glowed. For four hours, she was Queen, herself. The centre of attention. Noticed by the Queen of England and the Prime Minister of Canada! Surrounded by family and very close friends. Wearing her finery and her jewels. But she ate nothing. She drank nothing. Adreniline high, she returned to her residence, had a cup of tea and took an hour or more to prepare for a nap, divested of her finery which could not be left there. She had no dinner and slept a long night through.

She was exhausted and it showed, next day. She had escaped her gilded prison for a day, but here she was back again. No cajoling could make her happy.


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