Archive for the ‘care givers’ Category

Karma

July 19, 2009

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I set the house alarm and left, locking the door behind me, then realized that I didn’t have my camera.

I’ve walked the dikes so many times now, I should have them in my mind by memory, but I don’t. I don’t seen to have visual memory, funny enough, and I keep trying to record what I see either in photography or paint so that I don’t forget.  It was getting warmer out by the minute and I made a conscious decision to leave it at home. I would walk faster, and anyway, I’ve already photographed everything thirty times. You’d think I’d already had the ultimate image, but no…. it’s always the penultimate.

And so there I was, on Sunday morning, walking in Paradise.

There were very few cars in the lot which was a good thing, because in this unusual heat wave, parking under one of the grand willows at the entrance to the dike walks,  there is a large pool of shade and there was one parking spot left, right up by the big concrete dividers that delineate the edge of the lot.

I extracted my walking poles from the trunk, locked the car and set out. There wasn’t a human in sight.

Without the camera, I was able more acutely to hear myself and the birds.

I’ll always remember asking Mom if she could hear the birds that were chirping loudly, a flock having chosen her back yard for an early evening town-hall meeting.  “Birds?” she asked, puzzled. “Hear them?” She strained to listen. “Are there birds”  She shook her head. She couldn’t hear a single peep.

I vowed to listen to them while I could and here, early morning there was a leading edge symphonic composition of unrelated tonal  sounds going on with each orchestral section doing it’s own thing.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard so many different birds competing in a battle of the bands before. There was a persistent, overriding one going “Chi, we,we,we,we” . There was a beautiful melodic one, about sixteen notes long, whose tune I could not imitate nor remember. There was a ticking one going, “chi, chi, chi, chi” and a starling imitating a chickadee with a throatier version of the “dee, dee, dee” sound.

When a person pays attention with all one’s senses, it’s amazing what there is to hear and see. And smell also. There was a decided scent of mown hay permeating the air with an attenated sweet manure smell behind it. It had been spread more than a month ago and the awfulness of it had sunk into the ground, nourishing it, leaving the hot earth with this pleasant farm smell.

Without the camera I beetled ahead at a rapid pace, which is what I should be doing most days but never do if there’s something to photograph. But I havn’t been serious about walking as I should, so I was happy to halt, catch my breath and watch two birds grasp the same tall branch of a pink-flowered shrub. They were the size of bush-tits but all brown and they were swinging around the twig like a pair of acrobats.

When I resumed my walk, I reflected that not having a camera forced me into having conversations with myself.  I thought it might be a great exercise to go home and paint what I saw today.

I dismissed the problem of colour. I had that down pat – the brilliant summer sky, a mix of cerulean and French ultramarine; The far mountains,  a wash of French Ultramarine and closer ones simply a deeper version of the hue; the trees, a mix of viridian and burnt sienna; the sunnier greens mixed with a lemon yellow and a sap green.

It was the composition that I couldn’t carry with me – the way the shapes nestled together, the way the shadows defined the shape, the rhythm and flow of it. I tried to memorize one or two.

There was the way the dike path split the marsh grasses like a bolt of lightening diminishing to its pointy end far off in the distance, only to be stopped in the mid ground by two small poplars and the heron tree. Overpowering everything were the pure blue  mountains, receding in distinctly shaped layers of progressively lighter hue.

There was the way the dike sweeps down into the farm lands where the blueberry fields are ripe and ready. At the edge of these, the windbreak is made up of mid sized shrubs entangled with blackberry and wild rose. It’s an image full of curves and warm, golden grasses.

As I approached the Neames Road bridge, I tried to memorize the shape of it – its four creosoted posts on either end, the white railing with three tiers, the water flowing underneath,  everything reflecting in the water with the addition of a good swig of sky and a dollop of a single cloud floating in the water. Sounds like a blueberry float with whip cream on top!

On the way back, the sun was coming straight for me, as were a number of late starters their dogs or their children in tow. A few runners sped by, coming and going. I concentrated on trying to find word equivalents for the  bird songs and repeated them as one of my memory exercises. I wasn’t sure whether I would be racing for the brushes or the keyboard when first I got home.

Chi, we, we, we, we, I was repeating to myself as I was interrupted by a “kitty-wake” sound but I was sure it wasn’t a kittiwake because there were no gulls around. I stopped to listen and joined a conversation unfolding before me.

A middle-aged woman in a broad raffia hat sporting two braids down to her shoulders had stopped two petite Iranian ladies more or less appertaining to a leash-free teacup-sized dog with a tiny bow on it’s head.

“There’s a coyote hanging about. Several people have seen him this morning,” counselled the braided woman.

“Oh, we’ll be okay,” said one of the Iranians, smiling as they continued to saunter along. They clearly had not understood, neither the message nor the import of it.

“It’s your dog. The coyote will eat your dog. It’s like a wolf,” insisted the woman with the braids.

The Iranian women stopped, trying to make reason of the message.

“You had better carry your dog,” insisted Mrs. Braid.

Their eyes popped and one of them let their mouth hang open in horrified understanding.  They both nodded. The little muffet was called and one of them scooped up the handful and tucked it close to her breast.

“Oh, look,” cried Mrs. Braid. “There are two birds chasing an eagle.”

It broke the conversation and everyone looked. Two small birds, likely the size of robins or starlings were bearing down on the eagle high above the poplars. One flew in so close it could have dropped six inches and ridden on the eagle’s back without having to do any wing flapping himself.

The bald-headed eagle was angrily chastising his pursuers with that ki,ki wake sound . I had at least matched one of the choruses  from the bird symphony, now.

Mrs. Braid and I talked then about having seen coyotes and bears and other wildlife. We traded stories for quite a long moment before she announced that she had just retired from working as an art teacher.

“How coincidental!” I said, very happy with our conversation that just flowed. I explained my connections to art. Then I explained what I was doing to integrate myself into the art community as a newcomer, inviting groups of artists to salon-like gatherings so that I could get to know them and they, me.

“Would you like to come to one sometime?” I asked.

“Oh, I would love to,” she answered and started to cry. Not the sobbing kind, but the sniffly, trying-desperately-not-to kind, with an index finger reflexively wiping away moisture from the side of her eyes.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she apologized, dipping her head so that with the shadow of the had, I could not see them. “It’s so recent. I’ve just put my husband in a residential care facility this week. Alzheimers. ”  She struggled to force the tears back into her eyes.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” I replied, with a look of concern for her.

“I’m only fifty-five. He’s only sixty-four. For the last four years, I haven’t been able to get out. It’s the first time I’ve had any time to myself. I’m not used to having time. Not that I’ve just left him there, though. I go every day between six and ten at night. That’s when I can be most useful, getting him to bed. Sometimes he recognizes me. Mostly he doesn’t. And I’ve never had time to go anywhere, not even grocery shopping, because he had to be watched. He didn’t understand anything anymore. While we were out walking, he would see a house and construct a story around it. He would think it was ours and we had renters. He would want to climb a fence to get into the place to see if they were treating it properly.”

“Like a two year old,” I sympathized.

“Yes, exactly,” she replied. “I couldn’t leave him for a moment, and I couldn’t take him anywhere. But finally, I stopped being humiliated and embarassed by the situations he got me into.”

Her situation came out in a torrent. The relief that she felt in finally having the burden of his care lifted from her shoulders alone and shared with the health system was huge, but at the same time, she felt guilty. A new round of tears escaped from her eyes. She was really in quite a fragile emotional state.

I thought to myself, I guess this was the reason I came out to the dike so early this morning. It was a bit like this chance meeting had been engineered by the invisible and all powerful Higher Power of the universe.

I tried to distract and reassure her. I told her about caring for my mother in a similarly senile state, though her husband seemed to be  far more difficult than my mother had been.  I told her about the drawings I was doing about feelings. How I had originally pounded marks onto the paper, in anger, and beat away the frustration in long, attacking strokes.  I told her about standing in front of my paints and closing my eyes to see what my feelings were and then finding colours that matched and images that expressed those states.

She had pulled her emotions together and stuffed them back in their box.  She said, “It’s the first time I’ve been back on the dikes. My husband and I used to walk here. I’ve been frustrated and lonely and feeling guilty to be enjoying all this beauty, this paradise. I had no idea I might talk to you or anyone. It’s so strange. I think I must have been sent to meet you here today. It is as if it  was meant to be.”

The similarity of our our situations and our thoughts amazed me. I said so.

Again, I invited her to join up with us at one of our artist groups.

“You know, you will not feel out of place. We’ve all had our griefs. Elizabeth’s mother has died of Alzheimers just recently and she cared for her daily for several years. My mom was getting senile and slipping deeper and deeper in to geriatric states of confusion, so I understand perfectly. Mrs. Stepford is going blind, and Thelma is desperately trying to get her granddaughter out of the Ministry’s foster home care system. Her daughter is too sick to look after the child. You’ll feel right at home. And you don’t have to wait until I throw another potluck. Just come for tea.”

It was time to be getting on. We exchanged names and promised to be in touch.  We said goodbye and I walked hastily back home, this time regretting my camera very much.

A young family with two children under the age of six  riding bicycles and parents afoot, pushing a baby in a stroller. The mother’s shadow was imprinted on the gravel walkway in perfect silhouette.  Just in front of her, the four year old was peddling furiously on her red an blue bicycle with training wheels.  Her shadow too was at a perfect ninety-degree angle, flattened upon the light gravel path. The moving shadow’s legs pumped up and down perfectly, the spokes were more noticeable here than on the bike, turning round and round like some fair ground ride.

It wasn’t long after that I got into my nice cool car, hiding as it was, under the willow tree, and made for home. I went straight for the computer before I could forget Mrs. Braid’s last name. I took the information and put it in my address book immediately, then phoned up to leave a message.

Someone on the other end picked up. I hadn’t thought she could get home so fast.

“Mrs. Braid?”

“Speaking,” the voice replied, quite formal.

“Mrs. Braid, it’s Kay here. I just met you on the dike a short while ago. I didn’t think you could get home so fast.”
“What did you say your name was? Kay? Kerrer? Is that right? I just looked up your number and was about to call you. Is this the right address. I just had the phone in my hand to call you….   I think we were destined to meet.”

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O, Christmas Tree

December 13, 2008

Oh, Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree,

Thou tree most fair and lovely…

How many times have I sung this song in low alto, tears welling up, as a child beside my father in church, around our home Christmas tree or the piano, caroling in the streets, in church basements, at Guides, in the elevators and at every mall in the universe from November First onwards. Countless times, really.

In the weeks preceding Christmas, one musical ensemble after another came to Mother’s senior  residence with carols and favorite Christmas tunes, singing them, leading the aging, nearly deaf and nearly blind, in their favourite tunes, and always there was “O Christmas tree“. Sometimes they came with ukuleles, sometimes with guitars, or violins, or double bass or piano. The back up changed, the tunes remained the same.

I called Mother to hurry, to put on her housecoat, to rise from her bed and come to the common area by the elevator so that she could see and hear the carollers singing a capella, better. Ray, the doctor-patient across the hall wheeled himself into the hall. Nursing aides came to assist the residents closer to the singers. Those who could struggled out into the hallway. Ray hung back, refusing the help of an aide. I asked him if I could be of assistance.

“No, no!” he signalled shakily. With a hand crippled by Parkinson’s Disease, he made jerky shift of his forefinger towards his eyes that were brimming. He was not alone.

He didn’t want to be seen with tears in his eyes – he rathered to stay back and yet he was compelled. Slowly, at his own pace, he  moved forward, to see, to hear, to sing.

Mother paddled forward with her feet, the walker advancing slowly. She too did not want to be too close; but she was eager. Hymns! She chanted them softly to herself as she went to sleep each night. Familiar, comforting, emotionally catching deep in her memory, they took her back so far to the Stella Mission of her childhood in Winnipeg in the nineteen twenties.

With great respect for these residents fragile hearts and souls, I offered no more help to those around, and I concentrated and  succumbed myself to the Christmas music. I dabbed my eyes with a small white handkerchief to keep runnels of salt water from descending my cheeks.

I have a love-hate relationship with Carols. I love the feeling of family and normality that they conjured. I hate the helpless feeling of grief they engender in me that catches  in my jawbone with an ache and the triggering of guilt that they bring that I hadn’t turned out the perfectly innocent and fine Christian soul that my parents had expected me to be. Why oh why did they always get me thinking of failure? My failure.

But this night, I had another grief clenching in my jaw. My cantankerous, sweet, impish, proud, kind, gentle, intelligent, strict, generous and wonderful mother, sat there, dressed in her velvet green dressing gown, ruby-red Indian princess moccasins on her feet trimmed in white rabbits fur,  straining forward in her walker-chair, eagerly like a child, to hear what she could of these songs and sing along within the confines between her ears. She was fading away.  She might or might not make it to Christmas.  That grief  was powerfully conspiring to undo me, when I needed to be strong, to appear unemotional. It wasn’t just for Mother, but for every gentle aged  soul in that hallway who, likewise, knew not whether they would ever hear these ancient songs again and felt that fact so deeply.

That was two years ago. Mother  came home for Christmas, a frail suffering body, frightened of the pain, aching to be home, to stay home, in the house she had worked so hard to obtain in her lifetime. But she couldn’t stay. And after a fall, she rapidly declined. In January, she was gone.

Tonight, I was putting up the family Christmas tree for the first time since then. Last Christmas I escaped to distant family. I couldn’t face the changes that had come about in the year that followed. I barely can now. But I have my own home now. It’s my first Christmas in it and I’m decorating. I’m celebrating Christmas with a Boxing Day Open House and I want a decorated tree.

I unpacked the box filled with bottle brush branches that I’ve inherited. The instructions are gone. With sheer logic, I figured that the longest four branches went on the bottom and progressively in series of four shorter and shorter branches, they fitted into the broomstick pole that came with it.  I seriously think it’s on its last legs. Essential splinters of wood have come away from some of these insertion holes and some branches barely hold on. It’s a Charlie Brown tree; there are hardly enough branches to make it look decent.

When I started to put lights on, there were ten different strings only two of which worked, but so difficult to apply to the branches that I ended up taking them off.  Then I discovered a strange net-like web of lights of more recent manufacture. It was almost like a giant fish-net blanket with twinkle light s at each juncture of the net. I plastered this onto the tree to try it on for size.
Lit up, it didn’t look too bad, but when the lights were off, the mass of wires were so evident it looked horrible. I’m running out of time. I can’t spend six days decorating this thing. I discovered that I don’t like doing it. It’s fussy and frustrating.

I left the network twinkle lights on, hoping that the baubles and tinsel might sufficiently camouflage them.  After hours of struggling with the tree, I gave up. It will be what it will be.

In the process, I’ve let some things go – ornaments that have lost their colour, strings of lights that refuse to do their illumination job; three amateur wreaths made of osier and pine cones wrapped with red tartan ribbon.  It’s renewal time. Out with the old. I’ll figure out what’s needed next year. Maybe a potted tree. This is a small house with little space for a medium sized tree, much less a big one. Maybe a tree that has its lights incorporated right into the branches. Forget the lines of lights and all the replacement bulbs.

I’m moving on. I’m letting go. I’m letting be.

O, Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, wie treu sind deine Blätter!

Whistler comes to stay

September 20, 2008

Whistler came to stay in May for a few days. He’d finished his ski season at Sunshine Peaks and when the hotel closed for the season, he was on his way back to his parent’s home to say hello, all the while looking for a summer job to tide him over to the next ski season.

Whistler is thirty-five and though he has a University degree in geology, he’s never practiced in the profession. Job hunting was tough when he graduated and he either had to go back to university for a Masters to get anything decent in the way of a job or settle for something more mundane. With his love of skiing, he found a  job in the hotel industry and had worked his way up to desk manager. It was a good enough living if one didn’t have lots of bourgeoisie dreams of house and family, but it worried my sister Heather that he wasn’t going anywhere.

And now it was September. Whistler had not found a job. He was visiting at his parent’s home with his brother who also had come, from Japan with wife and child in tow. Even so, though he had sent out resume after resume, he was tired and dispirited. His energy levels seemed depleted and his response to any reply he got from potential employers was lacksidaisical.

“Yes,” he told me, ” I could have worked in a Vancouver hotel, but the rents were too high, so it wasn’t worth it; and I was offered a job at Blackcomb, but I went for three days and couldn’t find accommodation so I had to turn it down.”

When we held the Fortieth Wedding Anniversary party for Heather and her steadfast husband, Whistler came down from Sechelt with them and he never left here afterwards. His lethargy had become worrisome and there were other signs that needed checking out. At first the doctor said it was an infection, and then when the antibiotic treatment made not a whit of difference, further tests were required.

“Just don’t get the big C. OK?” my sister Lizbet urgently whispered to him in his ear one day. She’d just been through a spring session of having pre-cancerous patches removed from her face and there were still a few red spots where the skin, not yet fully healed,  had been abraded from her cheeks.

Whistler’s tests needed to be done over a period of weeks. Since he was technically homeless while he waited to find his dream ski job, he had to make a decision – miss the party and stay in Sechelt while the test were done, or come to the party and stay with me in Maple Ridge, find a new doctor who would take him on for the length of time it took to get a medical appraisal of his situation.

There were tests to be done at labs and specialists to see. Sechelt would have meant trips into Vancouver and back. That would not only be tiring and time wasting, but costly also, and Whistler was now out of work, had been for three months and his Visa Card was mounting up to max.

Now, if you are aware of the crisis in medicine these days, you will know that trying to get a doctor to look after you is a dicey thing. When I first came to live here a year ago, I could find no one but rotating walk-in clinic doctors to care for me, so for the small things that befell me, I went to these doctors. Then I had a bout of something more serious and in three visits I got three different diagnoses from the same clinic! I went scurrying back to my Burnaby doctor even though I had miles to drive to get there. I trusted her. She knew my history for the past 12 years. She was lovely and not a) officious b) disdainful nor c) obviously uninterested as the three walk-in clinic physicians had been.

When I went to get a family doctor who would keep me as a patient (I wanted none of this rotating door business) in April, I was advised that there was one doctor in town who would see me and I could have an interview with her to see if she would take me on. “You understand, she might or might not like you. She doesn’t just take anyone. We’re just receptionists. We can’t just tell her that she’s got a new patient now,” said her nurse. “There’s an appointment open to see her in July – July 28th. Will that be fine? Shall I pencil you in?”

July!

July was three months away. Just to get an appointment!

Pencil me in? I had visions of erasers dancing through the appointment books at night, searching for vulnerable patients, first time supplicants, wiping out their dates with destiny, driving the poor, the sick and elderly out of the book so that the doctor who had spent years training for his or her profession could pick the cream of the crop, the body builders pure in shape, the bikini girls with flawless skin, the fashion plates in perfect size 10, the men who looked like the models in Sears catalogue, mothers with well behaved children and grandfathers with a Maurice Chevalier je-ne-sais-quoi kind of dapper elegance.

On his own, still mobile but not very energetic, Whistler started to do the rounds of the walk-in clinics trying to find a doctor. To his credit, and perhaps to the credit of the doctors, he found one quite quickly – one who would see him through the whole suite of tests and trials that he might need to take if one test led to another. He went for his tests. He’s been to the doctor. The diagnosis is still up in the air.

With the ponderousness of our mammoth health care system, answers do not come quickly. All we know is that the tests have been done, but Whistler is now waiting for a specialist appointment and waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

Coming home

April 19, 2008

Heather sent a package down with her husband when he came to Vancouver for a doctor specialists appointment. He was going to stay with Kay until the medical appointments were over.

“Mailman!” he cried out as he came in the door, a mischievous look on his face. He extended a large Kraft envelope to Kay. She, perplexed, tilted her head and lifted a brow questioningly.

“It’s Saturday. There’s no mail today. What is this?” she asked.

“Remember Mom’s dresser that you gave us? When we were lifting it up the stairs to put it in the spare bedroom, we had to take the drawers out. It was too heavy. When we did that, this mail dropped out from the above on the top drawer. I don’t know how it happened but it was stuck up there.”

“Hmmph!” Kay laughed and shook her head, as the import of it all fell into place.

Nonnie-Mom had become paranoid. She had wanted to hide the mail in case the boys saw it and got nosy. She had become fearful that they might know how much money she had; she became fearful that they might do her in because she had seen on television a case, right close to the Vancouver area where two teens had engineered a murder of their parents so that they could get the insurance money and the inheritance. How she could have suspected this of her two lovely grandsons who were living in our house and did so much for her comfort, I don’t know. It was just an aging thing that couldn’t be helped nor assuaged.

The other thing she had become paranoid about, for the same reason, was Hugh and his kitchen knives. He had worked in a major up-scale restaurant to earn his University money. One of his tasks in the restaurant was food prep – cutting up all the vegetables for the day in an efficient manner. To do this, he needed a sharp knife and since he was now cooking many of the family meals at dinner and preparing fresh lunches for Nonnie-Mom while everyone else was away working, he had bought himself an professional cook’s knife for his home cuisine.

The yellow-handled knife was large and very pointy at the end. He sharpened it daily with an old whetstone that his grandfather had used for the turkey-carving knife. He kept in a knife guard when it wasn’t out from his work. He treated it like a knight in armour would have cared for his parade sword. Nonnie was daily hiding this knife from view and dinner prep always entailed looking for the knife.

And so Nonnie-Mom raced to the door as fast as her walker would go to scoop the mail, sort it out, leave the boys’ mail there at the door and go, hers and my mail in her walker basket, to her room to hide it. She had several hiding places. One was under her pillow; another, in a shoe box in her cupboard; a third in this dresser drawer, underneath her scarves.

When she suspected that the boys might know about one of her hiding places, she would shift the mail to a new hiding place – a rotational exercise, since there weren’t really enough places to hide it in. In truth, she was very good about giving the mail to Kay on a daily basis. She would sit in her walker at the door at four o’clock waiting for Kay to get home. Closer to five, she would open the main door, lock the screen door and park there, looking out the glass and mesh to wait for Kay.

Kay had mixed feelings. The welcome was wonderful and this devoted show of missing Kay told her how much her mother had come to depend on her, in a loving kind of way. She desperately wanted all of Kay’s company. Shut in as she was, cabin fever was a major enemy. On the other hand, for Kay, all her time was vacuumed up and disposed of like so much dust, looking after things that the old woman could not do for herself.

As Kay negotiated the six stairs up into the front door, Nonnie lifted herself from the walker seat, undid the latch on the door and swung it open a little for Kay to enter.

Nonnie’s eyes lit up, her face beamed a magnificent smile while she clapped her hands in joy. Her devoted daughter, her patient care giver had come home! It was another of her paranoias, that her precious Kay might not come home. Then who would look after her? Perhaps it was a realistic fear, not paranoia. What would she do?

“Nonnie, you have to move back,” Kay commanded. “I can’t get in if you don’t move back.” Kay, laden with her briefcase, some last minute groceries and her sack full of her daily requirements could not get in the narrow crack that had been allowed by her mother, once again blocking the door swing.

Nonnie kicked her feet along the carpet propelling herself back a foot and opened the door another bit. Kay squeezed in.

“Mom, when you park there, I can’t get in,” she chided, as she gave her mother a quick peck of a greeting and let her worldly baggage drop to the floor. Her mother’s gnarled hand caught her face between them. They were soft, silky and mottled pink but the bones and the veins stood out beneath the skin. It was a brief and lovely blessing.

“When will dinner be?” Nonnie asked. Kay, who often worked late, had been unable to meet the six o’clock deadline that her mother had religiously met throughout her active life. Kay sighed inwardly. She had hardly breached the castle walls and she was now supposed to magically produce a meal for five within a half hour.

“Come this way,” commanded her mother conspiratorially. When Kay asked her what it was about, her mother simply shook her head and lifted her index finger to her mouth in a sign for silence.

It was the mail. They had to go find the hidden mail before anything else was done.

And here was the mail, stuck in the framework of the dresser drawer, delivered six months late.

Kay took the items one by one, read their addresses, calculated if any harm had been done and shifted them to her free hand.

There was a Christmas card to Judith. Kay had not affixed a stamp and it had been returned. There was a Christmas card from Freedom 55, the life insurance company; an advertisement from the Municipal art gallery with a request for donation; there was a PAL membership renewal; a brochure for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives;a thank you Christmas greeting from the young musician whom Kay had supported with a scholarship; and an Opus Framing boxing sale advertising that had had ended six months earlier.

None of it was critical. There were no unpaid bills. There were no appointments missed. Nothing was harmed.

She looked straight into her new “Mailman’s” eyes and laughed a short chuckle. Behind her eyes, he could see the wordless endurance;the reluctant humour and the silent pain of loss. It had not diminished. She would forever see her mother waiting at the screen door for Kay to come home but Nonnie-mom would never be sitting there, blocking the door again.

Silence

January 7, 2008

Kay pulled the duvet closer to her chin, turned restlessly onto her side and kept her eyes shut. It was warm, comfortable and dark but it was no good. She turned on her left side, her right leg drawn up towards her chin. She adjusted the pillow to support her head, pulled the duvet back up under the chin and thought of Mother. She could see the photo of her on the mantle above the gas chimney with that Mona Lisa expression that you could not decipher. Perhaps it was a smile, but just as easily it was a tight, forbearing grimace of someone not willing to accept what just might be about to occur; or a very polite boredom.

Now what did that mean?, thought Kay. It was no time of night to let one’s mind go wandering. It was too hot under the duvet and she tossed it off, felt about for her glasses on the headboard. She hooked the side wings on her ears and peered at the large red letters of the digital alarm clock that she had bought for her mother. It had a built in night light that glowed just enough to define the objects in the room – the single bed, the simple dresser topped with a Japanese vase, the little screen behind it, the lamp which would be too bright to turn on in this otherwise pitch black. The clock flickered and the numbers changed to 5:00.

Kay rose and went to the bathroom guided by the night lights and returned. Maybe that would settle her. It was far too early to be getting up. She put her night sweater around her shoulders, carefully repositioned herself on her side, drew up the duvet and readjusted the pillow. She closed her eyes firmly against the night light which now seemed too bright. Try and get another hour or two of sleep, she counselled herself. God knows, you need it.

As she pulled the edge of the duvet cover under her chin, Franc came to visit her thoughts. He must be in Cambodia by now. His flight would have taken him twenty four hours, and then there was his travel out of the city by bus up to the beach resort. What would he do there? How lonely was he? Would the newness of the travelling occupy him for a while? Make him happy?

He had looked altogether too thin at the airport; the conversation was altogether too brittle.

He had leapt out of the car, extracted his brand new backpack on wheels, and returned to give Kay a peck on the cheek.

“I’m getting out for a hug,” she said and didn’t allow him to complete his gesture. She came around and held him, her hand on his waist, and she looked up searchingly into his rigid eyes. There was silence for a dreadful moment, then, “Well, have a good trip. Take good care of yourself.” It sounded hollow.

He was stiff and brittle, hardly daring to feel. Perhaps he didn’t know what he was going off towards either. “Iis there anything else to be said?” he asked. He was waiting for a word that did not come.

Kay was still caught in that dreadful silence with Franc that had overcome her since July. She didn’t dare speak. What could she say? Nothing had been resolved; nor would it be, perhaps. Something had broken badly and perhaps it couldn’t be fixed. Worst of all, she couldn’t say what she felt to him. It was too dangerous.

“No. I don’t think so, ” she said. She could not tell him she still loved him, despite everything. It was fraught with emotional danger for them both.

“Well, then,” he replied, bent so slightly forward to touch Kay’s lips with a dry, perfunctory kiss. He shook out the handle on his pack and wheeled it into the terminal.

What was it, Kay thought, that made her care so much? Why had she cared about so much about Mother, lonely and huddled in her big house with four other people, family, passing like tankers in a commercial shipping lane, tooting a horn, waving, never communicating. Kay remembered her sunk into the large floral arm chair. looking smaller and smaller, waiting. Waiting for Kay to come home. Waiting for someone to make her a cup of tea. Worried about the light bill going up. Not willing to put on the lights for a few cents of electricity while she waited. Not just for the tea, but for someone to ask her what her day was like. Someone to ask about the outside world where one worked, played, shopped; anything but this sitting and waiting.

What was it that made her care so much? For the baby robin that had fallen from it’s nest, which she had found at the bottom of the garden when she was six or so.

Why was she worrying about Franc? Franc, who in his fury in July, had left her without a word for five months until his cat died, and then he called, frantically grieving, not just for his cat but for the loss of their relationship. Franc, who was now heading off into a world that she did not know. Would he be safe? Who would he call if he ran into difficulty? Those countries could be volatile, harsh, unforgiving. Tourists were not always welcome.

Kay restlessly turned onto her back and readjusted the pillows . She was wide awake now. She listened Where there had been dead silence, now there was the swishing of a car approaching from a distance, clarifying into a rumble then moving back off into the other distance. A crescendo and diminuendo of car noise on asphalt. It seemed precise and specific then it disappeared into nothingness. Silence.

Kay listened intently. It was a few moments before another car went by. It was funny, she reflected, that at midnight when she went to bed, this house could have been out in the wilderness. There was not a sound to be heard. It was that delicious, safe dark silence that you could sink into and sleep well with. Another car went by. Kay, still listening and alert, could hear a truck approach, pass and go away. Different vehicles had different sounds. It was mostly cars, but there were vans, motorcycles, light trucks and heavier ones. There was a different sound when two cars went by one after the other. People were heading off to work. There were fewer and fewer silences between them, like the exposition and development of a fugue, the same tunes built up and combined together, each with it’s distinct melody, reaching a pitch of cacophony.

Kay turned on her right side, felt for her glasses, put them on. It was only 5:33.

This is pointless, she thought. I’m not sleeping. I’m not fixing anything by all this. Might as well get up, get a coffee and spend the time writing.

And she did.

The rag tag choir or The road to Hell

November 27, 2007

Do you remember, way back, that three elderly ladies full of vim and spirit came to visit my mother as she lay dying, to bring her comfort and friendship. The nurse had said that the last thing to go was a person’s hearing, and as we she was almost in a coma, we had nothing we could discuss with her. There was no conversation to be had.

And so it came about that my two sisters, Heather and Lizbet, and the three ladies decided to sing hymns that my mother was so fond of. We all knew them. They had been the stock of Sunday School and childhood. We were a little hazy, these many years after, on some of the words, but we found two hymnals in Mother’s room and that supported our valiant efforts to surround Mother with spiritual songs.

This Sunday, just yesterday, was the last Sunday of the Church calendar. I had not known that before. Advent at the beginning of December is also the beginning of the Church calendar, the beginning of Christ’s life. The week before that is, de facto, the end of the Church calendar and the souls from the congregation who have departed this earth are honoured in a special ceremony.
All my siblings were invited to come this service where one of the family members comes and lights a candle at the altar.

Heather and Lizbet live too far away to come for this service and Lizbet needed to be at work the next day, so they didn’t come. Otto had been committed to being Santa Claus at a festival and so, being double booked, so as to speak, on his calendar, he relegated the task to me. So it was that I represented the family at the church service,

I gathered a pocketful of handkerchiefs. I don’t do well at church services at the best of times and the last time I was at church with Heather in Sechelt, the benediction was “Go thou in peace”, the round that we sang at Mother’s bedside. I couldn’t stop the tears welling up and spilling over. If I was the only representative of the family, I didn’t want to do that again in front of a whole congregation.

I arrived early which was a miracle. I had left all my clothing ready the night before, set the alarm, and got up with an hour to get myself out of the house and on the road. It takes an hour at the best of times to come from my new home to our church in Burnaby. With only an hour to get there, I was still dawdling around the house. I looked at the time and bolted. But being Sunday, the traffic was sparse and there were no delays. My normal one hour and twenty drive took me only forty minutes today, for which I was very thankful. I would have been mortified to have been late.

When I got there, Louise, one of Mom’s favourite people, a friend from her University days and a member of the church, was just extracting herself from her car. She too was early. It was her turn to prepare the after-service coffee in the meeting rooms in the basement of the church.

She welcomed me with a hug and the broadest smile.
“I’m so glad you are here!” she exclaimed. “I was prepared to light the candle if no one came. We weren’t sure you were coming.” I rapidly searched in the back of my mind. Had I never acknowledged the invitation? Had acknowledged it and been wishy-washy about my acceptance? Had I said yes and been uncertain about the other three siblings?

“I’m here.” I stated firmly. “Sorry if I wasn’t clear about it. Did you find some things amongst the clothing I brought you?” I asked. When bringing out things for the Thrift Shop, I had retained two large green plastic bags of Mom’s favourite clothes for her friend Rose and for Louise.

” Yes! I can tell you, but don’t let on to anyone else. They won’t know. I’m wearing her suit today. You’ll see. You are the only one who will recognize it.”
I looked at her. She was wearing a red plaid suit; looking very smart in it, too. I didn’t recognize it. I could remember a plaid jacket but there was no skirt to it. Was my mind playing tricks on me?

Soon I was sitting in the front pew, waiting for the service to begin. I leafed through the bulletin with its order of service and its announcements. I read the list of souls being honoured.

“Oh, no! I gasped. There was Ethel’s name. She had passed away in September. September 18th, to be exact. That did it.

I tried to explain to the elderly person sitting beside me, but either she didn’t hear or she simply did not get the import of my words. Ethel. Rough, loud, and boisterous Ethel. Ethel full of fun and jokes. A party girl. Ethel, stricken with kidney failure, going for dialysis three times a week. Ethel, frustrated by her wheelchair. Ethel angry with her fate. Ethel who could belt out a hymn as if her audience was God and she had to reach him in the uppermost back row of Theatre under the Stars. Ethel was gone.

And where was I when she was dying? Where was I with my promises to visit? Where was I with my phone calls to keep in touch? I simply hadn’t, with all my other things going on, with my moving and arranging, with emptying out Mom’s house, and with all my visitors.

Tears welled up and I fished for my handkerchiefs. At least I’d thought to bring some.

I remembered Mom at Father’s memorial service. I was awash in tears of grief that I couldn’t stop. Every time I managed to control them, someone would speak to me and say something comforting and I would redissolve into tears. Why couldn’t they talk about the weather?

“Get a grip on yourself!” Mother said sharply. “It’s not appropriate to bring your tears in here.” It didn’t make a difference. I just went further away from her view and continued to cry.

And now, I was determined to face the congregation without tears. So I “bucked up” and dabbed the tears away. Poor Ethel.

I lit Mother’s candle and sat back in my pew. The service rattled on about rejoicing and renewal. We sang a few hymns, contributed our collections, rose and sat back down again accordingly. The Benediction was one I did not know and I was thankful for it.

Afterwards, at the tea down in the meeting room, several friends of either Dad or Mom came and spoke to me. The flowers from the alter had been wrapped in a bouquet and presented to me and another woman who had come to light a candle. The men did not get bouquets.
Just before I left, I sought out Louise. There she was, dressed in what had been my mother’s black and white herring bone jacket and black skirt. She winked at me.

” Nobody knows,”‘ she said in something less than a whisper. “It fits perfectly. We were just the same size. Everything that you sent along – I’ve kept everything. We were friends from Engineer’s Wives as well as the church, you know. Having these things makes me feel close to her still. I think of her so often.”

“I thought you were in a red plaid suit?” I said, perplexed.

“Oh that was my coat” she replied. We talked a while then we hugged. I gave her rouged and powdered cheek a small kiss and I said my good-bye. While I was in town, I was going to go see Mom’s friends from the Residence, the faithful three, the rag-tag choir. I picked up a healthy lunch on the way – a good strong coffee and a thick slice of banana bread.

At the reception of the Residence, it was Emma on duty. She’s a sympathetic gal. I’ve always liked dealing with her. So I commiserated with her about Ethel.

“She went fast,” she told me. “She was at the hospital for dialysis and she went into a coma. She never came out of it.”

“Well, is little Ethel around?”

“Down there, playing Sunday Bingo.” She pointed to where I should be able to see her.

From forty feet away, I could see her precious, impish face concentrating on her Bingo card along with about thirty other residents. I’d just wait, I thought, until the Bingo was over and not take her away from one of her favorite pastimes.

“How about Dorothy, then? Is she in this afternoon or has she gone out with her daughter?”

“Too late. She’s gone.” she replied with a sad grimace. “She passed away two days ago. When she started to go downhill two weeks ago, she went really fast. Didn’t wait around, that one,” she said in commiseration.

Sookie, one of the care aids, brought me a cup of coffee and a peanut butter cookie while I waited for Little Ethel. It gave me time to think. Rambunctious Big Ethel and Dorothy. Both gone. It was a shock. Two out of three who had been there with Mom at the end, gone. Euphemistically, passed on. I hated that phrase. It seemed to gloss over a whole life as if it had never existed. I was truly sad. And I could hardly believe about Dorothy. She was the most vigorous of all three, the clearest of mind, out and about with her daughter and forever reconnecting with the yacht club and the tennis club for lunches and dinners. You could tell she had been authoritative in her life; she seemed as if she had commanded those around her with a surety of vision. She knew how thing should be and upheld them with pride and tenacity. She had a heart of gold. It was she who had given me hugs and pep talks to keep my spirits up when Mom was having her most difficult struggles.

And so it was with thankfulness that Bingo ended and I went to have afternoon tea with Little Ethel.

“Oh, it’s you!” she said joyously. “It’s so wonderful to see you. So wonderful to have a visitor.” She had not changed. She was sweet and happy like an aged fairy-imp. Her face lit up from inside; her head, wreathed in her soft white curls like a halo, nodded gently as she spoke.

I saw Ruth, not so far away and brought her to the table as well.

“Shall I go away so that you can visit?” asked Ethel, always so thoughtful of others.

“No, stay,” I said. I’ll just repeat all my news and give you a test afterwards.”

Ruth came to join us. She too was glowing with her joyfulness. They lifted my spirits; we said a few kind words about those who had gone; and then we enjoyed our little pear tarts and tea.

Old hurts and frustrations

November 8, 2007

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Heather and her Dauntless Husband helped me tirelessly to vacate all the chattels from Mother’s house. I can’t complain, since without them, it would have taken me months instead of two weeks. Their support and sustenance was crucial to my sanity. And then they left.

In our haste, we didn’t sort things out. Boxes that I had emptied from my original move were reused for packing up Mother’s things, especially, for this missive, her files and papers from her study. It was thus that the ancient four-drawer standing file cabinet was emptied into boxes marked “kitchen” “studio” “General household” and “bedroom”. None matched their original contents.

We spent all day at the house, packing, arranging, loading DH’s truck and my car. Each evening, we would come back to my house, unload the vehicles, have a touch of dinner and go exhausted to bed. Then next day would begin again with an hour’s drive, eight hours of packing and arranging, the return drive in the dark or in rush hour, an hour or more of unpacking, then thankfully, a meal, and to bed.

Boxes were brought into the house and pile in higher piles, in more rooms until it was almost impossible to walk around the house without moving a box or a small piece of furniture, or scrambling over a pile of something. Not even the kitchen was exempt from this accumulation of goods.

On one hand I was happy to have them here so that I didn’t have to go to some storage place to try and find what I needed; so that I could work through them at my own pace. On the other hand, this chaotic visual wasteland that I now lived in was depressing to the extreme. Often I would stand, paralyzed by the chaos, mesmerized by brown cardboard boxes. Daunted. Immobilized.

In those two weeks, I let drop every other responsibility that I had. All the incoming mail piled up, was moved from location to location as another series of boxes arrived looking for a place to stay in my tinier and tinier house. The walls were pressing in. Things were getting lost.

I took refuge in a game of Freecell. It helped sometimes to free my mind and let it spin in neutral. A game is somewhat misleading. One game leads to another and I don’t stop until I lose a game; and then I play until I end with a winning hand, so as to speak. So this may mean ten or more individual games. A computer pop up announced “1 new mail in your local mail folder” and I stopped my mindless playing to see who had written.

“It is essential to obtain a vacant permit for a house once people have moved out. Please make sure the house is fully insured.” It was from Otto.

Otto and I were hardly speaking. Our communications had always been fraught with tension, but the Estate had crystallized our rapport into one of two sparring knights. I fashion myself as the White Knight standing up for Right and Reason. Unfortunately, he fashions himself for the same but is at opposite poles in my idea of Right and Reason. I don’t understand how he thinks. I can affirm however, that when things don’t go his way, I feel the brunt of his vindictiveness. I have a nasty letter to prove it wherein he calls me liar, cheat, cheapskate and thief, not quite so concisely. It may be some time before we can speak to each other more than ten words without becoming uncivil.

And so, rather than a happy distraction, his e-mail reminder was an untimely prod to do my duty, that very duty that I had been Freecellianly avoiding.

Ten days worth of in-coming boxes have been reduced to nine days worth of boxes in the interim. With my survival policy of “one foot in front of the other, one step at a time” I began opening each box, looking for the box with files that contained the house insurance policy file.

I began to panic. I couldn’t remember the name of the company. If it was the one I expected, then how did I contact them. I really needed the agent’s name and telephone number. I needed to find the file in the cardboard carton haystack. I needed to insure the vacant house.

That was last night.
There are now piles in my office that are separated out – books boxes in one pile; Family archives, old letters and photos in another pile; office and current files in a third. The Estate box of files and the “Have to do” box of files sit right beside my computer desk.

In the living room are the unopened files; the review and shred boxes of files; miscellaneous household goods; ancient clothing for the Historical Costume Society. On the long sofa, there is a box of goods for Otto, one for Heather and one for Lizbet.

By the stairwell downstairs are the boxes that will be flea marketed, or household goods that are to be kept but are seldom used – for the storage room. Paintings still are stacked throughout, waiting to go downstairs. Items for the Thrift go in a box by the back portch. Chairs are stacked in the dining room. I now have three dining tables and two sets of chairs for them. There is no room for Mother’s kitchen table – a really fine one. It’s resting outside under an overhang of the house waiting for DH to transport it to Lisbet.

There must be a better way of doing this. Did you never write to the insurers for Mother? Couldn’t you find a file on your computer that would give you the contact info?

I looked, but in the way of so many computer file searches, the was nothing to be found.

After another four hours this morning of opening boxes, determining its contents, resealing it or putting away said contents, lifting the boxes it to their new designated holding station I found the insurance file in a box at the bottom of the file. I had opened, categorized, labeled and moved more than 45 boxes.

And so I phoned, and so I arranged for the insurance to be amended to cover the vacant house.

“Just write us a letter. Tell us you are canceling the policy. Give the date that it became vacant. Tell us your new address. Have it signed by all the those named insured.”

My heart sunk. It couldn’t be changed until Otto agreed to sign it. I would have to talk to Otto. “How on earth did he get to be a named insured?” I grumbled to myself. Bile rose in my throat. “I should have dealt with it then.” I mentally whipped myself for my laxity, years earlier. Or I would not have been in this situation now.

Otto, who had come to live with Mother and I much against her will, had suffered financial reverses. He was homeless. While Mother and I were away, I on a much needed vacation overseas and Mother staying with Heather for that interim, Otto who was supposed to be caring for the place occasionally, moved in lock stock and barrel, carving out a place for himself, displacing Mother’s and my affairs. When I returned, it was already done. He was firmly ensconsed, all his possession stored in the house and garage, immovable.

With the fait accompli, Mother agreed to give him refuge. He took it for nine years at her expense.

When next the insurance came due, he asked for his computer to be added to the list as an additional premium. It cost twenty five dollars and he paid it. Weeks after the policy was completed and the company sent documents, I read them over, surprised to find that Otto was now a named insured! I phoned the agent to see how that had happened.

“Oh, he’s the son, isn’t he? He phoned up to say that he was phoning on her behalf that he was to be added and so we did. That’s right, isn’t it?”

There had been so much tension. What difference did it make anyway, I thought. For the sake of family harmony, I let it go; did not make a fuss; let it ride.

“Yes, I guess that’s alright” I answered with a silent sigh and a shake of the head.

But it wasn’t. And now…

And now, I could not cancel the policy without his permission!

Amnesty

November 7, 2007

“Read it to me from the beginning again” she commanded.

I sighed inwardly. The repetition was getting to me.

I write to you concerning the news that has reached us about 300 people that have allegedly been tortured by police in Namibia. I appeal to you for help. Many people were arrested and detained. They were accused of being involved with a political group (Capri Liberation Army). ”

She considered the words carefully, found a phrase to mull over and refine. After all, it was the Minister of Justice that she was writing to.

Legally blind, she could not type her own letters, though she practiced touch typing daily. It had become a way to spend time; a way to challenge herself. She only had to get one key off and everything got to be gobbledy-gook. ;ole tjos! (like this).

Sentence by sentence, she constructed the letter in her mind, always gracious, alway extremely polite. I marvelled at her ability to do so. I strained to keep my composure. It was so boring for me!

“How did I say that last line? Read it just one more time,” she directed me. It wasn’t just one more time. It was the fourth time and I knew I would be reading it out fifth, sixth, seventh time. I was impatient to be doing something else. I could not hasten the process by writing something I thought she would say. It was never refined like hers was.

“No, No!” she would object. Then she would say what she thought would be appropriate; I would type it just as fast and re read it to her. “Wait! Go back please. Read that to me again.” And I would start over. She had so little meaningful tasks that she could do that this was supremely important to her. I could not let her down.

I appeal to you to ensure that legal aid is provided for those in detention. Please find resources to provide this legal aid. We know they are guaranteed to a fair trial. Please use your power to find financial help for them.” she concluded, “I courteously make these requests and thank you for your attention to this letter.”

She never signed her full name. She said, “In some of these countries, they don’t take women’s opinions into account. If I want my letter to be heard, I can’t point out that I’m a woman writing.”

Now I have a file folder with her copies of letters, hundreds of letters that she wrote, pleading for humanity and kindness, for fairness and for legal rights. Each letter was courteous in the extreme. “They won’t listen if you aren’t polite; if you don’t treat them as if they are fair and just.”

She wrote to minor princes, to Heads of state, to Presidents and Premiers, to Ministers of Justice. Working alone at home, writing, like a dripping tap wears away the surface below it, so did her letters, accompanied by other members of Amnesty International, ceaselessly pleading for victims of dictatorial regimes.

I read through these letters worthy of a diplomat and marvel at her will to help people, her desire to bring comfort to the weary and the tortured; and justice to the mistakenly imprisoned.

She wrote these letters by herself until she was ninety and then with my assistance, still in her elegant, measured language, until she was ninety two. For her last Christmas, Alex Neve sent her a card, and she was thrilled that somewhere, through this, she had been able to make a difference.

Potatoes in the Geraniums

October 19, 2007

She came in the back door holding a small geranium plant pinched between two fingers. I could tell by the look on her face that I was in trouble again. If not me, it was someone else.

“Who took the geraniums out of the pot?” she said sharply. It was the latest of mysterious violations of the garden that had occurred, probably in the middle of the night. Mother was quite suspicious more often now. She felt there were prowlers about. Unusual noises and unusual events made her nervous and vulnerable. She became critical of my “management” of the house and the environs, and yet she was utterly dependent on me now.

The previous week, we had lost the whole crop of pears from the tree in the back yard. The day before she had tested them and she suggested that in two more days they would be perfect to bring in.
“I don’t know, Mom” I replied as evenly as I could about her wilting geranium. “I’ll go take a look-see. It doesn’t take much to put it back in.”

I relieved her of the offending plant that was trailing bits of dust and root upon the kitchen floor and took it down the back steps to a large planter that I had used for summer annuals. Indeed! It had been dug up and sloppily. There was dirt surrounding it scattered on the cement sidewalk.

I took a small trowel and began to prepare a hole to put the geranium back in. To my consternation, I found potatoes had been planted instead. This truly was silly! Ridiculous! Who would plant potatoes in a flower pot?

I pulled out one of these red brown potatoes only to be confronted with another amazing thing. What had been planted, inviolate, no tears, no scars, no nicking of the skin, were the pears off the tree!

I pulled out the pears and stuck the geranium back in, tamping it firmly so that the roots would survive their adventure out of their element.

“Good news and bad news!” I declared to Mother as I reentered the house. I told her what I had discovered.

“It must have been the squirrel that stole all the pears so you can stop worrying about the two legged variety of animals coming in to steal the pears. But they are all gone, planted somewhere for the squirrel’s pleasure when they ripen.”

Not many days later, I watched a rat climb the pear tree for one of the three remaining pears. It was hanging on the end of a fragile branch and the rat was fearful of falling. It gingerly descended the branch and extended one short front paw out to bat the pear from the stem that held it to the tree. It took a long time, advancing, losing balance and regaining it, tamping that unsteady, wavering branch, his fat, well-nourished body trembling only slightly higher up on the same branch.

As I was out in the yard tending to garden maintenance a few hours later, I noticed that he rat had succeeded in getting the pear to the ground. There it lay, a plump ripe pear with little teeth marks indenting its surface.

I never told Mother about the rat so that it could not trouble her already active sense of vulnerability and doom.

Messing with feminine bits

October 1, 2007

Every crossroad is an orifice that pulsates white or red lights into the dark conveyor belt of a highway. Under the dark sky, there is nothing clearly visible but headlights coming head on, or tail lights, following. Vehicles seem not to be powered of themselves, but drawn on by an inevitable force. I joined this slow procession at Laity Street at five thirty in the morning, crawling with all the other singly occupied cars at a pace not registering on the kph scale. It seemed as if a tap had been opened and could not be shut down until the last resident was floating city-wards on this sea of commuters. I was awed by the number of residents in our community that took to the roads at five a.m. and crawled in this fashion to work in the city.

East of the highway, the direction I was coming from, the beads of red lights bobbled mesemerizingly. At such close distance to the one in front, one had to pay attention. A blurt of acceleration could result in a rear-ender bringing traffic to a halt. Not enough acceleration could annoy the road-rager behind you, and provoke an angry reaction, to be avoided at all costs so early in the morning. It was better to gently let the car drift of it’s own, inexorably forward, crawling, adding to city’s blood supply, joining the arteries that connected Vancouver with it’s worker bees.

The road was clogged for many miles like this to the highway at the Port Mann Bridge and again until Brunette Avenue and then magically, the press of vehicles was gone. There seemed to be no reason for it. Where had the cars gone? There hadn’t seemed to be a large turn off of vehicles along the way. I was acutely aware of how dark it still was, a deep midnight blue at six in the morning. Only the car and city lights pierced the darkness. Where had September gone to, so quickly, that now the sun would not rise until seven?

I had offers to drive me to the hospital and to pick me up. My sister would have come in from Sechelt, but it was too far to ask her to come, and she hadn’t been home for the last month with vacationing, so it was a bit much to ask her. Mr. and Mrs. Stepford offered, but of course, Mrs can’t drive because of her failing eyesight and Mr. works. He’d jut been away for ten days on a business trip and needed to be in his office, not running around the peripheral communities of the mega-city looking after me.

My dilemma was solved when the anesthetist insisted I stay overnight. And so it was, o I drove myself in and parked in the hospital parkade for the twenty four hours plus that I would be there. It’s illegal to drive within 24 hours of having anesthetics administered. I was happy with the arrangment. I need to be independent as much as possible so that when I really need something, my offerers won’t have exhausted their willingness.

And so there I was, daylight just lifting as I entered the parking lot at the hospital at seven twenty. O only as I was leaving, the next day, did I realize how absolutely lucky I was in finding the first parking stall open and waiting for me. Tuesday, I watched cars circle relentlessly waiting for someone to leave so that they could take over the stall.

In the admissions hall, I was provided with two hospital bracelets – a white one with the date and time of surgery, my name and a other undecipherable hospitable data. The other was orange and listed drug and food sensitivities and allergies.

Next, I was instructed to wait in the pre-operation lounge. There, I tackled a Sudoku puzzle to keep my mind off the upcoming fiddling the gynocologist was going to do, and when that was done, I leafed through one magazine after another, looking for something to read.

An hour later, a nurse asked me to come and to change into their crumpled, blue cotton hospital gowns, one put on open at the back and the second, open at the front. I was given long green socks that came up to my knee. These had a peculiar seam at the toe end that sliced over on a strong slant. I was led to a chair where this same nurse massaged my hand until she could find an artery to insert a needle which would connect up to the intravenous equipment.

“Stop jerking your hand!” she commanded. “If you don’t, I won’t be able to get an artery and we’ll have to call the operation off. Besides, you will have scars all over the top of your hand. ”

I forced myself still. She taped the needle to my left hand and put Scotch tape over my mother’s thin, plain, white gold wedding ring. I had been instructed to bring neither jewellry, nor money, nor credit cards. I had not been able to get this ring of Mother’s off, not even lubricated with soap. Someone would have to cut it off to take it.

I asked the nurse about the curious socks.

“It’s so that all sizes of feet can fit into the one design,” she explained. I said nothing but thought that if they had been sewn straight across, they would have done exactly the same thing without leaving this curious green elf-like extension at the end of my feet.

There was still a paper hat much like a shower cap and paper feet covers to go on. I didn’t want to think about anyone taking a picture of me in this curious garb.

Across from me, two patients were installed in similar booths to mine. When privacy was needed, a curtain could be drawn around. These patients each had a spouse seeing them, cajoling and comforting them up to the last minute of their surgery wait. I silently cursed my pig-headed stubbornness that had led me to come head to head with both Franc and Otto in the last few months. Franc was supposed to bring me in, stay with me and drive me home. But that was off. I hadn’t seen him since July – almost three months ago now. And I’d quarrelled with Otto about the will and it’s fairness. He’d resorted to calling me nasty names. Darned if I was going to get Otto to do anything for me. So there went my back-up plan. I consoled myself that neither of them were hand holders.

A dark curly-haired nurse came in and introduced herself. She looked sweet. She connected me up to a plastic pack on the IV stand and brought me a couple of pills to swallow to keep my stomach from revolting at the anesthesia.

“You look really familiar,” she said. “I’ve wracked my brain to remember where I know you from. Then I saw your name on the chart. We used to rent the apartment from you. I’m Kathy O’Brian,” she said.

I cursed my feckless brain that kept items of remembrance like a sieve kept water. I hadn’t recognized her.

“So you got on here permanently?” I said.

“And how is Ken. Is he still piloting? You’ve changed your hair. That’s why I didn’t recognize you.”
“Ken’s fine . And yes , he’s still a pilot.”
Small world, I thought, and a good thing I’d had such a lovely relationship with those tenants, as she went on to the other patients waiting for their turn. You never know when someone you’ve met will turn back up in your life.

An elderly, bearded man came in dressed in a white lab coat. He bade me to get up onto a gurney that he wheeled away to the operating room, all the while holding the IV bag high above his head. He had unhooked it from the stand and then held it high in a pose dignified for the Statue of Liberty.

There in the operating room was the anesthetist dressed in that same set of wrinkly ,green scrubs, that pink and yellow floral hood with ear-flaps down around her chin, the two unironed strings falling beneath her chin waiting to be tied in a laughable bow. Beside her was my gynecologist, a motherly-looking East Indian woman with bright red lips. Both looked curiously short, not more than five foot two, and I wondered at the marvelous success each of these women had met in their lives, each having a highly skilled and respected profession, and neither having my generation’s stereotypical appearances of a doctor.

“Wriggle down to this spot here,” the doctor directed and I did so. The anesthetist explained what she was going to do and then the doctor. I don’t remember any single thing that came after that, not even being administered an anesthetic, until someone said, “She’s stirring.”

“Take her to the maternity ward on the third floor,” said a voice.

Maternity ward! It was too late for me for the maternity ward. I was wheeled down the hallway to the elevator and transported to the third floor. The same elderly man pushed me into a ward room that was big enough for four beds but there was only one bed in it by the window.

A nurse came and encouraged me to get off the gurney and walk. My arthritic feet did not want to stay silent as they creaked back into service. They pinched; I winced; and so I limped a little.

“Watch her! She’s pretty unsteady.”

I was feeling quite clearheaded. I’m not befuddled, I thought to myself. It’s just these feet haven’t been active in a few hours and they are complaining.

I slept then for a couple of hours. I’d left the house at five thirty. I’d driven all the way in over a period of two hours and been so sleepy on arrival that I’d had to shake myself awake in the last mile or two of the journey. I’d been to bed late the night before, fussing about what to take and what to leave at home. I was ready for some catch-up sleep.

I awoke some time later and felt some compassion for my mother who had become obsessive about time and date. I looked at my watch and found it was gone – left at home, I knew. In the hours that followed, I must have looked twenty times, never finding the watch – automatic reaction – and me remembering too late that I had not brought it.

An aide came in with snacks and drinks. She left me some juice.

“What time is it?” I asked.

“It’s about two thirty.”
I was getting peckish. I hadn’t eaten since eleven the night before.

“We come at four thirty with dinner,” she said in reply to my query about food. I slept a while longer and soon dinner arrived. A nurse came in to check on me and inquire about my aches and pains. There were none and she was satisfied. I’d brought my own pyjamas and changed into them. The hospital garb was depressing. I began to feel more normal with more normal clothes on.

At four thirty, dinner was left on a narrow tray table that rolled across the bed so that one could eat sitting up. I activated the bed controls but no matter how high I pushed it, I could not find a suitable position to use whereby the food could actually travel from the tray to my mouth without becoming breast-shelf decoration. I gave up and sat upright on the edge of the bed, feet hanging over, and ate.

There were three very thin, machine sliced pieces of pork roast, more peas than I’ve ever seen on a dinner plate before, and a small round ice cream scoop of mashed potatoes. All was covered in a puddle of instant gravy. It was warm and food. I hadn’t had a bite nor a drink in sixteen or seventeen hours. I ate it all.

The meal came with two short plastic cups of milk sealed with a foil top which I hoarded for later. Despite my orange band proclaiming my allergy to caffeine, there was a fruit flavoured tea bag sitting beside the blue thermal mug, and a few portions of packaged sugar. I drank the tepid water.

When the aide came back, I pointed at my orange band and then at the tea bag.The tea was not decaffeinated. A fruit flavoured tea did not mean that it was herbal.

“It has to say decaffeinated on the package,”I protested.

“I don’t know,” she said. ” You marked it on your menu. But I don’t put anything on the tray. I just bring it.”

“I’m just asking that you say something to the kitchen people so that they understand,” I replied. “I know it’s not your fault, but they need to understand and not make the mistake again. ”

In the three offerings I got from the kitchen, each time this fruit tea arrived. The message did not get through. So, when the nurse came, I went through the same conversation.

“The government has decreed that we use contracted services for cleaning and for food services. The same employees that previously worked directly for the hospital are working for them, but the contractors are only interested in doing the least work for the most profit. Things like this go by every day. You should see how the cleaning has deteriorated,” she complained.

She took me to the little kitchenette down the hall and across on the other corridor. She explained that the corridor made a rectangle that one could walk all around. In the core of it were more offices and service rooms. I had to cross to the far side for this kitchenette.

She opened the fridge and showed me a shelf for nurses’ and staff lunches, not to be touched, and above that, sandwiches that people had not opened and not eaten from their trays. There was tuna, chicken or ham. There were more of those short, foil-covered milk containers, yogurt and orange juice. In the freezer there were three long loaves of white marshmallow bread.

There was a toaster and a microwave oven. If I was feeling hungry later on, I could take a sandwich or make toast. In a drawer, there were hundreds of plastic picnic knives, forks and spoons. There were individual portions of peanut butter, jams and honey. A box filled with individually packaged teas and two portions of instant decaffeinated Sanka was tucked in the front of the drawer. She encouraged me to have my coffee. But I had just eaten. I would savor the coffee later

I went back to my room and sat in a visitor’s chair on the other side of the room from my bed where the light was good for reading. I was wide awake and alert. Far away down the hall I could hear a raucous sound like a Stellar Jay complaining. Soon it dissolved into a baby’s cry.

I pulled out my novel, a romantic tale of two noble children who love each other and are promised in marriage. Then the the father of the girl falls into disfavour with King Henry III and the boy is made to marry another. She becomes ill, wastes away and dies. The peril of autocratic politics and the descriptions of medieval life were interesting and the story was told quite well. I finished the book then reached for my crossword book just as the snack angel wheeled her cart back into the room.

It was about seven o’clock now. Outside it was black. It felt as if it were midnight. This late in September, the evening light had fled. She offered me yogurt, orange juice, milk, cheese sticks and digestive cookies. I took cookies for later and ate yogurt and cheese.

I finished one half-done crossword puzzle and I had enough.

I returned to the kitchenette looking for a hot drink. Styrofoam cups were the only kind available to heat hot water in the microwave. Fearing a melt down and a splash of scalding liquid, I had to find something else. I wouldn’t be able to cope with a mess. So I retrieved my yogurt container and hoped it would be somewhat less likely to melt. I made my coffee and downed two Sankas in rapid succession, thankful for its hot sweet taste. I was conscious that in the morning, there would be none left to drink for breakfast. There was a sturdy supply of fruit teas remaining in the little box. I’ll get out of here as early as possible and go down to Starbucks in the lobby, I promised myself.

I made two pieces of toast and loaded them with Becel, peanut butter and raspberry jam. I was still thirsty. It must have been the anesthetic and the fact that I’d had nothing to drink for sixteen hours . Creative hospital cooking was required. I took two containers of milk, heated them and sweetened them with raspberry jam.

On my way back, I passed a dark skinned, short man cradling an infant so small it seemed that he was rocking a blanket with out a baby.

“She’s colicky” he said in a whisper, looking up as I stopped to look at father and his new infant.

“She’s quiet now” I replied just as quietly, as I continued past him, back down the corridor.

Back in my cavernous room, I reflected that it was good to take a day or two to do nothing, to sleep, to meditate, to read, to observe, to think. I began another crossword and quickly bored with it, I returned to the bed to sleep.

I awoke in the middle of the night, remembered that the nurse had mentioned I could always see the time by the television if I just turned it on. It was four thirty and I was wide awake. I had no interest in the puzzle and my book was finished. I put on my slippers and went to the window, all the while listening to the strange raspy sounds of discontented infants on the other side of the walls.

The night was a canvas of midnight blue with four sodium vapour street lights pouring orange halos around and about themselves. There were other neon and fluorescent lights that seemed like pin pricks in the fabric of the dark night. Across the way was a street level parking lot with lots of underground lighting. It was late and there was little activity. Occasionally a car would drive by with it’s amber tail lights glowing. Up high, there were two cranes with blinking white and red lights meant to warn planes that a structure was there.

Soon there was nothing more to see. I went back to bed, got the covers arranged around my feet and up to my shoulders and tried to sleep.

About seven in the morning, the food server came round and announced breakfast had arrived. I sat up briefly then promptly lay back on the bed, falling into a troubled sleep. I dreamt that I was in a parkade, driving out of it by driving down a staircase. At the landing, I was having trouble getting the car turned around and realized I should have driven down the ramp. With much manoeuvring, I turned the car around and drove back up and then towards the ramp. A tall hooded figure in a grey cassock held his hand up for me to stop and I did, parking the car, and returning with him to the third floor.

The apartment was motel-like with a balcony just outside the door. I could see down into the lovely garden and across the harbour, just like at the Empress hotel. I heard steps outside on the staircase but could not see who was coming up.

Two women who were with me announced, “Mrs. Stepford is coming. That was her car you could see just now.” But I could not see it. I exchanged banalities with these women about weather and clothing and children. All three of us went back inside the apartment just as two elegant, grey-hooded figures appeared at the door and entered.

In a deft motion, the two women and one monk figure departed, leaving me with a tall, gracious man, clothed in this fine hounds-tooth checked fabric that from a distance had appeared grey. The cowl slipped back slightly to reveal a younger Richard Chamberlain.

He reached his fingers to a stray strand of hair and let them fall slowly, gently down my face. He took me by my shoulders and leaned forward slowly, kindly and brushed his lips against mine. The sensation was warm, sweet and promising.

“Mrs. Kay, your breakfast is getting cold. You’d better get up and eat your breakfast. Call me when you’ve finished and I’ll take your blood pressure and your temperature.” blared the nurse’s voice. I struggled away from the warmth of the embrace and looked into the impassive face of the morning nurse. I shook my head a little for clarity. The dream was gone and the details of it hurried away after it.

Eggs would have been nice. Even powdered eggs are edible. I lifted the blue plastic cover of the food plate. There on the dinner size plate were two unbuttered, soggy slices of bread cut diagonally. I quickly put back the cover on the plate.

There was a blue thermal bowl of cereal. I lifted off the fitted plastic lid and found a lukewarm white gelatinous mass. It looked too much like paper paste and I returned the lid to the bowl. There was a small thin plastic cup of juice. I sipped it to identify it and couldn’t . It was probably made from concentrate and hadn’t been stirred. The water substance therein was unidentifiable. There were two containers of milk and a blue thermal mug of warm water. A fruit-flavoured tea sat beside it.

I drank the warm water. It was time to go.

I pushed the red button that was lashed to the side rails of the hospital bed.

“Yes?” came a booming voice from the intercom system.

“Yes.” I replied, and hesitated. What was I to say?

“The nurse said she want to see me when I’d finished breakfast. I’ve finished breakfast,” I said. I hadn’t eaten a thing. Starbucks in the main entrance to the hospital was calling me.

“She will come when she can” boomed the voice.

I was mostly dressed from the night before; I’d gone to sleep half dressed in my street clothes. I felt safer that way. I completed my dressing including my socks and shoes, packed my few belongings and waited.
I stood by the window looking out on the scene I had looked upon during a waking spell in the night. There was no parkade across the way. Under a flat grey sky, it was a hotel with a covered arcade at the ground level to keep rain off window-shopping customers. Behind the hotel, there were three new buildings under construction covered in the brilliant blue plastic that protects the plate glass windows and doors. High above them, swinging gracefully through the air were two cranes lifting construction goods from the stockpile of materials to other locations on the site. Between the new buildings and the hotel must have been a park with a grove of cedars and firs.

I looked then at the flat roof just outside my window, a narrow roof not ten feet wide terminating in a parapet wall. The lack of maintenance was terrible but beautiful. I regretted not having my camera to photograph the thick moss clumps, bright, newly green and vigorous with the latest autumn rains. It was clinging to the layer of grey pebble ballast that was designed to keep the roof down in windy conditions. Tucked between the clumps of moss were lichens in a soft pale copper oxide colour, the earth colour artists call Terre Verte. Where the moss was thriving, tiny thin tendrils of a coppery coloured flower bunched on the top of the moss. Set in amongst the rocky ballast, a rose filter perched atop the drain to keep out leaves and other debris. It had a lovely geometric pattern of piercings. Oh, where was that camera?!!!

From a Property Manager’s point of view, it was a disgrace; the moss was destructive, reaching it’s “roots, into the tar and ruining it’s waterproofing. From an artist’s point of view though, it was a marvel of shapes, colours, patterns and textures.

The nurse returned and took my blood pressure and my temperature. I was fine to go. Only, she needed my doctor’s permission to discharge me. The doctor had just left ten minutes previous.

“What on earth was she doing here last night?” I asked. “She was here at seven in the morning. You don’t have to have her come back do you?”

“Oh, she was on call last night,” she replied. “I just need her permission to let you go.”

The nurse paged her and fifteen minutes later, I was free.

I navigated back to the elevator, descended to the ground floor, asked for and found the closest exit to the parkade and found the car. I left my goods and chattels in the trunk, locked it all up and went back to the coffee shop for the tallest decaf they had, and a fruit bar.

The rest, my friends, is another story.