Archive for March, 2007


March 31, 2007

Dust covers everything. It lies thick and grey, scattering to the touch, leaping onto my hands and my clothing as I work.

I’ve been to the liquor store every day asking for packing boxes. Books are so heavy that these smaller size boxes are ideal. There’s a pleasant lady who will ask you how many you want and if you are not too greedy, she will say, “Take what you want. They are in a pile there.” But if you say you want ten, she will tell you they will only give out two at a time.It’s a heavy volume store for restaurants and wine stores so that they need their boxes for the commercial customers.

There is another woman, you notice I don’t say lady, who says quite abruptly that they can’t afford to give out any of their boxes.

Yesterday I asked a man employee who asked me where my car was. If I could bring it to the loading dock, he could give me several. Bingo! I had scored some boxes.

He took me past the swing door that said Employees Only in bright red letters and in amongst the disarray of full wine cases. He pointed way up against the south wall, about eight feet up where the shelf started, since he later had to reach his full arm length up to get the boxes, and showed me maybe two hundred empty boxes.

“Would a dolly full suit you?” he asked. I was simply delighted and said so. Thanked him with both words and a truly happy smile. He pulled out the dolly and packed thirteen boxes down. Now this was quite a feat and I found it fascinating to watch. He had practiced so that no boxes fell during his manoeuver.

First his fingers scoped the two outer sides of the bottom box of a pile of six, then he shifted the pile gently forward in a motion always parallel to the floor and not disturbing the balance of all of those above; then somehow he guided the vertical balancing act down gently to floor level. Nothing dropped out of the box column. I was amazed. I asked him if he had to learn juggling before he could get a job there and he laughed while shaking his head for a “no”.
On the dolly, he place four rows of three, then added one on top. I had a baker’s dozen!

While he was helping me to my car, the woman who had refused me boxes came to the loading dock for a smoke. She occupied the narrow set of metal stairs with her broad beam and reluctantly moved away when her gentleman colleague helped me get the dolly down to ground level.

I knew I was pushing my luck. Once they were loaded in my trunk and back seat, I went back to say to the man that I had more room in the car if he felt so inclined to let me have them. She barred the way on the metal stairs.

” You’re lucky to have any at all,” she admonished in a flat and disgusted voice. “We don’t give out boxes at this store.” I didn’t know if she was his manager. He had overheard and he came back within proximity and said, “Try the store at Cedar Creek Village. They always have lots of boxes and they are glad to pass them along for people who need packing boxes.”

I thanked him and said I would try that, then went on my way.

When I was back home, I had thirteen boxes to fill. I chose to work in Father’s study. Mom had kept this room as a shrine, practically, for sixteen years until we took her two grandsons, my nephews, in to live with us. Hugh had this room. That was acceptable to Mother because Hugh was academic. He studied his life away until the early hours of the morning and got his Bachelor degree with honours just a year ago November. Something of his grandfather had rubbed off on him. He did really well.

Hugh moved out just at the beginning of this month. I’m happy for him although I’m feeling the emptiness of nest, especially in the evenings when we used to spent time together over dinner, television and gossip of the days activities.

As happens, his brother Ron is coming back home at the end of this month. Moving day is tomorrow and I’m trying to clear out the books and chattels from the Shrine so that Ron can have that room to sleep in with space to put his belongings.

And so my encounter with dust. The books have not been moved in years. Hugh lived with them and they didn’t bother. On the high top of the bookshelf, there are mementos of Father’s academic and professional career. There is a world glove engraved with the date and occasion that it was given him, There is a wooden owl covered with gesso and painted to simulate bird feathers sitting on a rough hewn piece of wood, covered in moss that is a perfect dust absorber.There is a gizmo that only a surveyor would recognize. It has a tiny dowel stuck in a triangular block or wood, a suspended ping pong ball that is red on the bottom half and white on the top half and a tiny red pin-like post. There is a wooden losenge shaped shield on which a brass plaque once was glued. That plaque sits upon it now unattached, the glue having dried and gone on retirement, it was so old.

There is a stack of father’s framed school and professional diplomas, put there by Hugh who replaced them with his diplomas as he began to accumulate them. There is a large white open vase, an oblongish bowl, with that green sponge like stuff in it helping an atrociously exuberant bouquet of silk flowers, mostly lilies. As I brought down each of these items, I dusted them with a damp cloth so that the dust would come away, sticking to the rag and I could rinse it away at the bathroom sink and start removing dust again from the next object or the next book or the next shelf.

As I removed Father’s ancient and esoteric Surveying and Engineering books to Mother’s study where I had cleaned out a shelf for them, I pondered what I would do with them. I hated to throw them out. They weren’t antiques yet, so there was probably no desirability from that point of view, and yet surely the advances in technology in the last thirty years since he retired would have made these texts more than obsolete. How long does one hold onto the past by it’s memorabilia? Did I have to look through these and see if any were written by him? If I threw them out, did that mean his passing on earth was then obliviated? Where would his contributions to science and engineering be remembered? Would any of my siblings want to keep these? We’d all gone into different professions. Not one of us would even have a clue as to their meaning, their content. Was there a library or a museum that would want them?

“Dust unto dust” I thought wryly as I continued on my task, slowly emptying the shelves.

I would be glad when Franc arrived to relieve me of my thoughts and my labours.


March 28, 2007

I held the little white angel head in my hands, turning it over and over. Mary had dozens of these.

“Where did you get these from?” I asked.

“I made an impression in clay on a tomb of a little girl in one of the graveyards,” she answered.

It was a beautiful little image. Mary had then cast this image many times over and used it in multiplication over her latest piece of art work, a sculptural thing in clay.

I soon discovered that Mary had many talents. She drew wonderfully, esoteric images that were meditative and thoughtful. They had an eternal sense to them. Ars longa, vita brevis.

She assisted in the design of marvelous chap books. I’d never seen chap books before but now I am very aware of them. They are painstakingly made, in hand set type, binding hand sewn and most often made with hand made papers. They are lovely – subtle in colour and texture,  just the size that you can take them in your hand and sensually feel slightly rough against your fingers.

Her husband, Jim, did the type setting and printing.

At the end of that school year, they travelled around Europe a bit before returning home to Wisconsin. I’ve treasured the association we’ve had for many years, and yet, I lost touch with them after they moved, several years back. Posted letters at Christmas were returned. I didn’t think I ever would be able to catch up with them.

What took it into my head to do a search on Iguana Press yesterday, I do not know. I found they have a very recent web site for Iguana. And I’ve had a good long talk with Jim by e-mail. Halleluljah. Check it out!

Hope you like it:

A new day

March 26, 2007

Tree lace

Little birds are giving their wake up calls, chattering between the trees. Dawn is coming.

During the night, the sky has cleared. This is the city. Only one brave star shows still in the sky, holding steady. A lone airplane going east blinks its red port light, seeming to fly through the tangled winter lace of the trees.

The branches are silhouetted against a clear peacock blue sky that is rising by the minute to a pale yellow pre-dawn colour. Across the tennis courts, the sodium lights are diminishing with daylight. The trees stand in eternal cones against the horizon, edged by a tatting of leafless branches. Two doves fly in and sit quietyly waiting in the elm tree.

A new day is beginning.

Eight thirty. The hall had been spotless during the night. Not a soul stirred. It was hotter in the hall than in the room. The nurse said that all the rooms were hot and that they had turned off the heat in all rooms. There was no possibility to get help to fix the system before the morrow. Our thermostat registered thirty degrees Celsius. It was suffocating.

Now the nursing shift has changed. Cecilia has come back in , giving mother a morphine shot in the thigh. Rosita the care helper comes to change mom’s night diaper and to bathe away her fever with alcohol mixed with water.

Now the hallway is filled with carts. A cart for clothing to be changed. A cart for the care helper’s needs, ointments, sturdy paper towel, water jug and clear plastic throw-away drinking beakers. One cart has two stacks of clean towels above, and discarded towels in a jumble on the lower level. A garbage bag hangs off this cart for collection of waste basket contents.

The tall breakfast cart has old breakfast trays on four of its eight shelves, gathering the detritus of the night.

Care aids are going in and out of the rooms, waking residents, assisting them with dressing, washing, toileting or preparing their meal.

A new day is beginning.

Would they transform me?

March 26, 2007

As she was losing her her mind, she lost her compass. She became paranoid about all the food and nursing care services she was receiving.

She asked very seriously, “Are they trying to transform me?”

“What do you mean, ‘transform’?” I asked.

“Would they transform me into an animal?” she said in all seriousness.

I assured her that they would not, but I knew that she was not convinced.

Later, at supper one day, when she would not eat her ice cream, and I, who had not had any supper, went to eat it in its soupy state, she stopped me saying:

“Don’t eat it, Kay! They will transform you, just as they have transformed me. Look at me!.”

Then conspiratorially, “You don’t think you could catch it from me, do you?”

Poor love. My poor angel love. To have such worries! How frightened she may have been, not knowing what was happening to her, nor knowing what would happen at death. In our family, ‘it just wasn’t done’, to talk about fears and doubts. One kept a stiff upper lip. One maintained one’s dignity. Who could one tell such soul troubling things to?

Only now do I think that she may have been wondering about reincarnation and whether or not she might come back in some other life form.

We waited

March 26, 2007

It’s one in the morning. The nurse has just come in at my calling for her. Mom was restless, moaning, her breathing even but jagged.

“She will go any time now” says the nurse.

“How can you tell?”

“Her breathing. Her face.”

The nurse smiled at me – a peaceful, comforting smile.

“I just know,” she added. “It won’t be long. Do you want to call the family?”

“No. They’ve been with her all day. Let them get their sleep. They will need their strength tomorrow.” And she left me alone with Mom breathing evenly, raspily, hypnotically.

I will hold on to her hand into the big sleep.

But she did not die. She continued her struggle alone as we waited with her.

Lizbet and Heather came back to stay with me a while. There was nothing much to do for Mother except wait with her, attentive for her needs if she expressed them. We settled in to wait. Heather took up her crossword puzzle book and from time to time would ask something like “What’s a six letter word for ‘go to’ that starts with an A. ”

How about “attend” one of us would respond quietly.

Lizbet was reading a book. I was working on a Sudoku puzzle.

We spent some time wondering at our own apparent nonchalance in face of this death, but we had been waiting too long, day after day. We couldn’t just sit there. We needed something to do while we waited. And what were the rules? What was appropriate?

Heather offered to stay with her while Lizbet and I went walking out for a break, for some fresh air, so we took her up on it. Lizbet and I went up to the shopping district two blocks away, looked at fashions and at shoes, then took a quick spin in an art gallery. There were lots of stores to look in, all attractively window-dressed to tempt us, but we did not go in. On the way back, we stopped at Skanda, the bead store and dreamed about necklaces in some of the new chunky styles – pyrites or Fool’s Gold, coral, turquoise, the uncut green diamonds, the Austrian crystal. It was a marvelous store, but we left shortly after with no purchases at all.

Upon our return, we were getting hungry but each of us wanted to stay with Mom, so we couldn’t go out and we didn’t want what was available from the kitchen down below. After some discussion, we decided to try ordering in a pizza to share. When I got down to the front desk to get a telephone number, there were pizzas already at the reception desk.

“For the staff,” said the receptionist as I teased her about our pizzas already having arrived. Our pizzas came within a half hour and were so welcome. As we munched away at the savory food, pizza boxes strewn on top of the scarce counter top (the tops of her dressers) it looked like a teenage take-out marathon. If Mother were conscious, what would she think of our behaviour, having a picnic of sorts in her room while she struggled at death’s door?

First of all, she could not think that pizza would ever be on the Queen’s menu. Then, we were eating with our fingers! And without plates!

Gladys knew of our pizza party and came to see us bearing two handfuls of wrapped hard candies. “For your dessert” she proclaimed, and then checked with each of us to see how we were.

I went down the corridor to the nursing station where I could make tea for all. I sat in one of the two side-by-side wing chairs and dozed, my head against one wing as the kettle heated. Along came Ruth, a beautiful, ninety one year old treasure and she held my hand for my comfort, all the while calling blessings upon me every time I stirred.

And Mother did not die. And we gave what comfort we could. And we waited.


March 26, 2007

Father had a conference to go to. He would be inaugurated as President of his professional group and would be sitting at the head table. Everything that this man, son of an Friesian immigrant family, had striven for in his academic career was epitomized by this honour.

You could not have held back Mother from accompanying him if you had eight white horses trying to restrain her. She too was from an immigrant family, although she would never admit it. She was British! Canada was part of Britain, a Dominion of Britain, so her family didn’t count as immigrants.

She was so proud of Father, she shone! She would sit beside him at the head table when he received the gavel from the out-going president. To honour his achievement, she had to look perfect, be perfect. A new dress for the gala evening was an absolute necessity.

Mother often admonished us with the information that her father had come to this country to allow his children to have an education. Our maternal grandfather’s wish was realized when his three daughters became educators! The spectacular rise in her family’s social position with acquisition of degrees and academic honours was good reason for Mother to hold the same desire for her own children, the next generation.

As it came so often in the form of an admonishment, my reaction in my hippie days was to rigidly and stubbornly to uphold the value of those with other skills and trades that were learned by apprenticeship and empiric experience. In fact, to uphold the values and skills of my grandparents who worked the land and worked with their hands as well as their heads. I’ve softened a little since, but I still admire those who do with their hands – the electricians, plumbers, carpenters, cabinet makers, et al. I often quoted to her George Bernard Shaw’s “Those who can, do: those who can’t, teach.” And for saying that, I will get in trouble with the whole of my family, all who have been teachers. But my purpose in writing today is to think about her dresses.

She went shopping.

Now this is a common occurrence for some women. Mother had it down to her own special art, and I was delighted when I was old enough to not accompany her on her searches for clothing. Her method was to look in as many stores as were available to her and mentally note where possibilities lay for the kind of dress she might possibly wear. She went with an open mind but a closed pocket book.

After a mighty month of exploring one dress shop to another, she would return to those who had candidate dresses for her evening. Carefully she would consider what she had to match the dress – evening bag, gloves, hat, handkerchief, bracelet, earrings, pendant or choker necklace, shoes, coat. Short listed dresses were tried and put aside, then she would go home and ponder, as if each of these dresses were applying for a job, which, I guess, they were.

Once her dress was home, often without the opportunity to return it, she would stew furiously about whether she had made the right choice. Her uncertainty made her irritable. It was best to keep out of the way.

Now, I am notoriously un-put-together in my clothing. It was the bane of my mother’s life that I couldn’t match up things properly and even wore black with navy blue (horrors!) when I didn’t pay attention or neglectfully forgot to put a towel over my shoulders as I brushed my hair, leaving stray blond strands on a dark garment.

The week before departure, her room was an explosion of colourful clothing, as if every item she owned had jumped from the closet and the dresser drawers to the bed and the boudoir chairs as she stacked outfits that would travel well in a packed suitcase. There was a pile of daytime wear, casual, business dressy and nightwear. Every category had a back-up just in case some seam split or a spill of food made an ensemble no longer wearable. These went into the suitcase each night in anticipation that they could stay there, but invariably one pile or another would come out for reconsideration. Most often, she coordinated the colours of all piles so that a blouse from the business casual, might, in case of accident, be replaced by a business dressy. Her endeavours were an art. It would all fit into one suitcase plus a carry on. And, miracle, it did!

Evening gala garments had special consideration. The new dress lay upon her bedspread bedecked with all the accessories it might need, including a few alternative choices. Previously loved long gowns spread beside it with former ensembles. Her anxiety towards the great event needed to be assuaged with great amounts of consideration for the right choice.

Now I find this process incredibly frustrating, to the point where I will be leaving for a week of business travel and say, one hour before I leave for the airport, “Sorry, I can’t keep talking now, I have to go find a suitcase and pack.” Mind you, maybe I look like I’ve done that too. Mother was always, always, polished

One of her dresses is an elegant frothy pink, a flowered print on a gauzy see-through fabric lined to floor length. The Austrian crystal necklace she wore with this dress are now mine to keep.

Another dress is a dark and full length navy dress. It has red orange and gold paisley designs on it, spangled with sequins and beads. It shimmered as she walked and it glowed as she did, and when she stood proudly by Father.

She must have like paisley because there is one with a white background, more suitable for summer. It has red swirls with a sky blue in them. I know, it sounds funny, but fashion is not my forté and despite my lack of vocabulary to describe this one, it is long sleeved, elegant and light.

Of the long ones, there is only a chiffon light cerise one, almost fluorescent in its purity of colour , with studded “diamonds” on the collar. It is waisted with a self-belt, so when she stood, slim and svelt, she looked like a princess or a model out of Vogue.

She was movie star beautiful. So much so that one time when traveling in the States with her very distinguished looking husband, a motel that they stayed at would not let them pay the room rate. The owner’s wife thought she was Lauren Bacall travelling incognito and would not accept a penny. No convincing otherwise was entertained. Try as they might, they could not pay for their night’s lodging.

Then there is the pink polyester dress that she made herself. It’s knee length and we have a photo of her in this one with a same fabric pill box hat with white mesh netting over it. I don’t know where the hat is now. It’s a dead ringer, hairstyle and all, for Jacqueline Kennedy. It leaves me dreaming. I’ll be sorry to see these go.

A woman from the Historical Costume society is coming Monday to look at her beautiful, carefully stored dresses in her closet.

Jealousy 2

March 23, 2007

I had dinner at the Residence on Wednesday night, like I promised, with Ethel. I waited in the lobby for her until it was obvious that she was not coming.

At her door on the fourth floor, I knocked lightly, and having no answer, cracked the door enough to see if she was there. (There is little privacy in these places – aides and nurses coming in and out, the housekeeping and the maintenance people doing as I just did, knocking and coming in.)

She was sleeping on the bed and I woke her.

“Oh, you’re here!” she exclaimed.

“It’s five o’clock.” I answered. ” It’s Wednesday. We’re supposed to have dinner together. I thought I’d better come and get you.”

“Oh, I’d forgotten,” she said a little sleepily, a little sheepishly.”
“Well, get your face on and comb your hair. Let’s go!” I said.

Fifteen minutes later and a clothes change in between, I wheeled her into the solarium where visitors have dinner and we were eating our salads, waiting for the mains to come.

“What was that black look you gave me the other day by the elevator?” I asked her with a giant smile on my face.

“Oh, that!” she answered. “Pure jealousy! Pure jealousy.

You came to see someone else and not me. ” She pouted, but with a mischievous grin emerging out of it, and then she laughed.

“Geez,” I said. “With that look, I thought you were going to kill both Little Ethel and myself with a single glare. ” I said in a light hearted way.

“We can’t have that , now, can we?” I continued. “I’ve got lots of friends in here and I love you all equally. I’m going to come visiting them sometimes and then I’ll be visiting them and not you. So I don’t want to see any more fits of jealousy.” I wondered internally how she would take this preachy attitude of mine.

‘Oh, I know. I know,” she sighed, and then she laughed again in a hearty laugh as if to say, “You’ve caught me out. Now I have to behave” and I shook my head with a smile.
Like a big band of children” I thought, as our conversation turned to other things.


March 23, 2007


I’ve taken photographs of Mom’s frail hands curling in on themselves as if she had a handkerchief grasped in them, now just like the claws of a tiny dead bird . There is a photo of her hand in mine, awkwardly taken with with my left hand because she wouldn’t let go of my right. Besides, it was precisely the hand-holding that I wanted to capture.

I have photos of her with her comforter duvet tucked under chin; her skeletal head looking more and more like our granny, her mother. A photo with modern wireless earphones on, listening to Cousin Marion’s disc of hymns – soothing music; sometimes heavenly music, perfect to drift away with.

I have a photo of her with a white terry towel across her head, cool with a mix of alcohol and water to bring her fever down. With this makeshift headdress, she looks like Mother Teresa.

Lizbet leaned down and rested her forehead on Mother’s brow. The pathos of her sorrow is only matched by the pathos of Mother’s quietly suffering face. Lizbet was annoyed at me when I took the picture, but when she saw it, it blew her away and she was glad I had captured the moment. The picture captured precisely how she felt, she said. She reconciled to my constant picture taking, saying that she, too, was glad to the memories that it brought to her.

I have pictures of how the landscape echoed our days with fog tamping the trees and our spirits in funereal sadness. The bittersweet beauty of the trees in this heavy morning mist beginning to glow with the orange tinges of dawn are awesome and yet very peaceful.

One morning as I waited for dawn to rise and the world to stir, early, like six on a winter’s morning, the night’s hoarfrost revealed itself slowly as a dusting of white, like baker’s sugar, on the park lawn below. When the sun rose that day and burned off the morning mist, the tops of the elm and the other neighbourhood trees glowed a subtle and glorious orange and I photographed that as well, just before the food trolley began to sweep down the corridor and the aides and the nurses began their morning routines.

The next day when I went home from a night’s watch, it must have been around nine. The sun was not up very much, still struggling to warm the earth with it’s oblique rays. When I parked the car in our carport, the sun was staring me in the face, at my five foot six level, not yet risen enough to beat warmth into the earth. It came through the neighbour’s Douglas fir in rays that could have been Biblical illustrations, so much they looked like the “… and there was light … ” description from Genesis.

As I write this, Jane Coop’s soothing piano Themes & Variations – works of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Mendelssohn and Fauré – filter through my images, matching my mood.

I need to digest this death. I need to remember and honour this death. It’s too busy now to concentrate on it. Too much time spent spoon feeding or giving water – both activities, exercises in patience. Listening. For the moans that become words, final messages. Love. for more info on Jane Coop’s music. It’s wonderful.

Cheer leaders

March 20, 2007

She was not breathing well. Her lungs were collapsing with her weakness. She couldn’t get a decent breath. She was so dehydrated that her bones were covered only with a fine parchment of fragile dried skin. A collection of pick-up sticks.

Nerves were pinching where the normal passage for them had collapsed and narrowed, causing pain each time she was moved. Her colon was collapsing, lack of fibre and food. Body systems were shutting down, feeding on on the organs since she could no longer supply herself with food and could barely swallow to drink. Every move was painful. Dehydration confused her thoughts. Only the primordial needs mattered. “Water”

“Water” she would plead, sometimes clearly, sometimes slurred. We constantly fed her water. Early on, she sipped through a straw but eventually it irritated her dry sensitive lips and she could not position it inside her tender mouth. Then as she grew weaker, she could not draw upon it and no water came. So we used a teaspoon, letting the side of the bowl touch her lip softly, tipping the liquid in and waiting for her to swallow it.

“Swallow!” we all would exhort. “Swallow!”

It was an effort for her to do so and she would store up the precious life-giving liquid in her mouth only to choke on it or spit it out when she could not get it down.

If one was looking down from above, it must have appeared quite funny. The five of us, her rag tag choir, were like a cheering team, exhorting her to excel. This woman who, it seemed, had never failed at anything, was on her last race being cheered on to do her best.

“Here’s a sip,” I would say, spooning in a teaspoon full of Gatorade. It restores electrolytes lost during dehydration. I hoped desperately that the tiny amounts we were giving her would make a difference; bring her some comfort; help her to think more clearly. “Swallow!” Swallow!”

“Here’s another little sip.” “Swallow!” “Swallow!”

The whole team was working together to get that liquid into her. I winced at the the thought that her travail was as difficult as childbirth. We cheer leaders had simply changed the words of our chorus from the “Push! Push!” scenario.

At noon, morphine finally was delivered. It was prescribed for every hour thereafter, and it settled her for about forty five minutes.  There would be nothing but palliative care given to her from now on.

The friends went, one to dialysis, the other to a luncheon at the Tennis Club. A lunch tray came for Mother with two sandwiches she would never be able to eat. We siblings shared them between the four of us. (Otto had arrived, then left almost as soon.) The other items – power drink, milk with extra whey, orange juice, water – were unappetizing and were left untouched. They added to the growing pile of drink and food accumulating on top of her dresser that Mother could neither eat or drink.

About three, Dorothy came back and then left again for the resident’s Happy Hour, the cocktail time between afternoon activity and early dinner. Not fifteen minutes later, she came back triumphantly holding three large juice glasses in her hands, loaded down with fruit punch. In this hot house room, it was wonderful.

I was in awe and wonderment before these three residents who, like Mother, had their own mortality close at hand. Here they were supporting us, supporting each other, and bringing love, kindness, concern and laughter to my mother.
I reflected that it might just have been easier and more real for them to face and to share this difficult journey of their dear companion head on. Better that, than to have her disappear silently, inobtrusively; her condition speculated about in whispers; her body, carried away surreptitiously by some ambulance, never to be seen again as if somehow she had not existed. That was how Peter had gone.

I can’t hear you

March 19, 2007

I had lunch with Judy on Wednesday. It’s the first time in ages that I’ve had time to have a leisurely lunch with someone. I’m beginning to feel a bit of freedom in my days, none too soon. Judy is an architect who, like I did, earned her living in the same business as I, doing project work on office and other commercial buildings. I learned a lot from Judy as we worked together and appreciated her wry sense of humour.

I’m happy with her companionship, especially now, because she is a compassionate being and understands what I’ve been through lately. She retired early from our workplace a few years ago to care for her two aging parents and saw them through very difficult times to the end. I didn’t understand then and am sorry I didn’t give her more support at the time.

She became housebound, practically, because she could rarely leave her parents alone. Her father fell a number of times and she was dealing with hospitals, care givers, ambulances, et cetera, et cetera, all on her own. When I phoned, I could hear her despair, sometimes, but there was not much more that I could do than phone, given that I was working and looking after my own mother. It was all consuming and that left precious little time to do much of anything. I used to think about phoning at about eleven o’clock at night when I finally had mom to bed, and I was starting to see what still needed to be done before I too could take a horizontal position and rest from my labours.

Judy has had time to think where she is going since the death of both of her parents. She’s still a young woman and she has the opportunity to reinvent herself as she wishes. Her compassion for the elderly and her vision as to what could be, in geriatric care, has led her to combine her architectural knowledge and her design ability with an understanding of the needs of aging people and people with disabilities.

As we leaned forward to talk over our plates of simple fare – mine a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich with salad, and hers, a chicken salad – I mentioned that Mom had three other table companions, one who was an architect, but, like her, had not spent his career designing houses or buildings. He was engaged in the building trade, alright, but in the service of a development company and he had made plenty of money doing so.

When I met him, I called him Peter Gruff, since he was so curmudgeonly. It was hard to talk to him because he could give you simply scathing looks when he chose to do so, and he often just waved people away when he couldn’t understand them. I had no idea that he was an architect for several months. I had to winkle his story out of him. I broke the ice with a drawing.

I was sitting at the table of four with one of the residents away for a hospital visit, a check-up. As I did not want dinner, I sat with a cup of coffee and sketched Mother across the table from me, and then a cartoon of someone else. Mr. Gruff beckoned with his aged, crippled hand for me to show it to him. His face wreathed in the first smile I had ever seen him make. It was simply beatific! His rheumy eyes were alight with happiness. He nodded his head in approval and with the knuckle of his right hand, indicated to his chest that he too did drawings. His voice over this gesture was hard to understand. It was muffled and difficult. It was obvious that he had speech problems as well as paraplegia, and hearing loss. Of course, I was a little pleased that he liked my drawing, and pleased that I had finally cracked a smile from Mr. Gruff. Eventually, if I paid great care and attention to what he was trying to say, I could grasp the stories he told me about his past. I’d made a connection!

Over the months that followed, I found out that he had served in the Second World War and had met his wife, a nurse, around the time of the liberations of Holland. He had married her during the war and as a “gift” from his commanding unit, had been given the use of a jeep to go from Holland to Paris on leave with his new bride for a period of two weeks. The smiles that came with this news were wonderful. He was happy to recount part of his life. He was delighted to have someone listen and understand that he was someone and that he had had a wonderful life.

He invited me to see his drawings and his paintings in his room. His monk’s cell was a clutter of papers and books. His walls were covered with his favorite paintings, not only his, but ones he had acquired in his various journeys to Hawaii and Cuba. He may have gone other places, but these were his obvious loves. He went many times and had a few photos of his companions, including his very lovely looking wife.

I rather lusted after a few of the paintings. I am very difficult when it comes to art work. I have very specific tastes and high standards that I apply to acquiring art. These watercolours were loose and sure handed; the colours were rich and varied; the subjects were groups of people having fun, and that is not so easy to compose. We considered each other peers in the matter of our art talent, although from time to time he would critique my work as if he were the professor and I the student.

I wanted one of his works, but I was very conscious that I should not ask for things from these recent friends of mine. Seniors are vulnerable and can easily be talked into giving away things that really should stay on their family. I felt it would be unethical to ask.

Peter was having a hard time trying to paint watercolours because his hands would not hold the brush and the activity of dipping the brush, mixing the colour and applying it to paper was far more than his partial paralysis would allow. I thought he might like to have some watercolour crayons. These are like wax crayons with a simple paper covering on them. They can be used in the same manner as wax crayons but then one can take a brush with water on it and spread the colour around.

I went down to Opus Frame and Art Supplies and carefully picked out a palette of colours that would suit the kind of thing I had seen of his work and realized he would need a range of landscape colours. These came in a set. He also needed some flesh colour crayons for skin tones in sunshine and skin tones in shade; these I bought as extras for his kit. I bought a block of watercolour paper as well.

When I gave them to him at the table at the next opportunity you would think he had seen heaven, so bright was his face, smiling ear to ear. He looked at them lovingly and twisted them carefully in his hands, felt the surface of the water colour paper and then could not wipe the grin off his happy face.

Our conversation then took a turn to other things, and I mentioned to Judy that one of the worst things for people being put into residences, as their last “home”, was that, at such an age, they had to make friends again, having lost many of the abilities that could facilitate that process.

For instance, my mother was a bit shy anyway. She didn’t have a lot of social self confidence although she had so much to offer and people who knew her loved her. In addition to the shyness, she was handicapped by her short term memory – she simply could not remember the next day who she had been talking to. Again, she could hardly see, so it was doubly hard to remember; and then, she could not hear, so she could hardly catch names and reuse them to aid her memory.

Everyone in the home more or less lost their identity as they entered residential care. No one knew who the new residents were; no one knew their friends; no one could situate them in a social context; no one knew their accomplishments and no one knew their likes and dislikes. These people grew up in an era when it was impolite to brag about oneself. Even talking about one’s self was considered poor form. Imagine having to shout you personal details to someone partially deaf. The newcomer simply wouldn’t think if it! No wonder getting to know others was an uphill challenge!

My conversation with Judy shifted into a conversation of how deafness handicapped a person’s acceptance.

Judy recounted how her mother, not understanding what Judy had said, would bawl her out for something Judy had said; by the time the conversation had been understood, her mother would think that she had brought Judy around to her view point. It was discouraging, frustrating and sometimes downright funny.

It puzzled me that my architect friend Peter could hear table conversations and participate sometimes despite his deafness. Then it occurred to me that he had the same problem as we had noticed with Mother.

Both I and my brother visited her every day. We tried to attend to some of the things that we realized were not being looked after by the residential care givers. We cut her nails, I tweaked out long hairs that sometimes grew in her eyebrows. I put ointment on minor rashes and rubbed body lotion onto her drying skin. Otto was good at changing her hearing aid batteries. Occasionally though, I would find Mom being almost stupid in her responses to me until I twigged to the fact that her hearing aid batteries had quit in between our visits, and she needed new ones put in.

The first challenge was the packaging. She couldn’t pop the new batteries out of their bubble wrap by herself, nor take off the little protective tab it came with. Then, when she tried, she most often dropped the battery and then could not find it again. Finally, with her arthritic fingers she could no longer hold the tiny batteries nor find the little door in the hearing aid that popped open to receive them. The batteries were fabricated so that they would not go in if they were not right side up. This too required good eye sight and good fine motor control . Hearing aid management was a senior citizen’s nightmare.

So I would find myself repeating the same word two or three times in a conversation that went like this:

“Today’s newspaper” I might say.

“Whiskers?” she would reply.

“Today’s newspaper” I would repeat, trying to enunciate better, saying it slower, speaking a bit louder.

“To buy some caper? she would reply looking more puzzled

Patience flagging, I would fish out a newspaper if there was one around and point at it.
“Newpaper. Newspaper” I would repeat.

“Newspaper?” she would reply and I would nod.

“Today’s” I would continue. She would think about it “Today’s?” she’d say, and continue on, “Well, what about it?”

But by then I’d realize and say, tapping my ear and beckoning her to give her hearing aid to me, “I won’t talk to you until you show me your hearing aids. I bet your battery is out.”

She’d pout. She didn’t like taking them in and out. Sure enough, either no battery or dead battery. I’d replace and then we’d talk as if she never had a hearing problem.

So I asked Peter if anyone replaced the batteries for him and he shook his head, looking quite resigned.

It seemed such a pity, to me. Here were so many people with a common problem and it took so little to help them overcome the difficulty – just change a battery – at most a thirty second task. It should have been a number one priority so that the care givers could understand their patients and vice versa. How much frustration was created for both care givers and patient. And it could so easily be fixed!

It was time for Judy and I to go. We picked up our coats and paid the bill. As we were leaving, I swung back to an earlier part of the conversation.

“The only thing I regret,” I told her ” was that Peter died three days after I gave the water colour materials to him. I don’t think he ever got to use them.”

“Well, think of it this way,” she replied. “I bet he died happy.”