Archive for the ‘geriatrics’ Category

Hanging out at the gym

November 12, 2009

Yesterday was a busy day and by the time I got writing down a few details, I was pretty traumatized. It took a mere 2000 words to craft the previous post. In doing so, I sloughed over the incident at the gym which I am now going to share with you. I have to go back a little in time, though.

Last year this time, I was doing a very hearty three-times-a-week workout at the gym. I rarely missed; and when I didn’t go to the gym on the days between, if the day was dry, I would go walking out into nature. I had built up a good endurance and created muscle where none had gone before. The little I had developed in my aging career of non-participation were beefed up. I slimmed down, Hallelulia. I was more fit than I ever had been.

Early in May, I went to Santa Fe and Taos with my sister. The two weeks preceding, I was too busy to get to the gym, but the weather was fine and I got out walking.  In Taos where we stayed, there was a gym in the hotel but when I tried the equipment, there was not much that suited my abilities. We had been walking all day in our tourist activities and a treadmill was out of the question. The kind of cycling machine they had was not good for my damaged knees;  and the other equipment which I don’t remember at this point, did not engage me either. Another two weeks went by and I had not been to the gym.

When I got back, it was sunny and warm. We had a wonderful summer of sunshine. I upped the walking content of my exercise program and let the gym go. Why would I want to be in a gym on such lovely days?

Fast forward till last week. Our weather has been horribly rainy. Walking on the dikes has been out of the question. For the first time since April, I went to the gym for a half hour on Tuesday.  I was not inspired. I was out of shape and knew it.

This  and last week have been very busy with meetings, preparing for a sale of art from my house, and preparing for an interview with a gallery, so I didn’t make the time to go again until yesterday.

My muscles complained over the first three minutes of the reclining bike but learned to shut up after they realized that I wasn’t going to quit. I cycled those fifteen minutes (down ten from last May, at 25) thinking about Gershwin and his impossibly difficult passages where the right hand (in piano pieces) play thirteen notes in the same time as the left hand is supposed to be playing seven. Or he might have nine against fifteen. both passages are supposed to be played evenly and together, but nothing matches up. I’m positive that Gershwin was able to rub his tummy, pat his head and play drum with his feet all at the same time.

I got to thinking that he might have spent a lot of time in a gym. He came from Brooklyn.   Boxing and European martial arts were de rigeur if a young man were to defend himself and there must have been lots of gyms, too, for them to work out in. But would he have risked his million dollar hands?

Did they have treadmills? Or are treadmills an invention of our affluent and electrical ages.

Did he spend time training to box? Would he have picked up his impossible  rhythms from someone skipping rope or from someone rapidly aiming his fists at a punching bag? Would he have concurrently been listening to them both at the same time and saying, “Wow, Ain’t that sweet, … ”

I was listening to two joggers, one going fast and one going slower, both running with their own distinct rhythms, neither rhythm matching up ever with the other’s. These thoughts kept me from leaping off my own stationary vehicle in sheer boredom.

When my time was up, I did my circuit of exercise. The gym was not very busy. My neighbour, Mr. Stepford had remarked earlier this week that a public gym was the last place he would go. Just think of the H1N1 spreading possibilities it would provide.

In fact, the gym was very aware of the potential for virus proliferation. Patrons were asked to wipe down the machines before and after using them. There was lots of disinfectant available and clean paper towels.  I resolved my dilemma about cleaning the machines – I who never do housework if I can help it.   I soaked two paper towels with the disinfectant spray and then used these to grasp the handles of each machine, the layer of towel acting so that I never touched the machines at all and therefore never had to clean them.

At the end of my work out, I spoke to the nice young lady gym attendant.  There was an in-house advertisement for the Christmas tree challenge.

“Just what is that?” I asked.

“It’s a promotional effort to get everyone to challenge themselves a little bit,” she explained.

I’m curious, so I ask “How does it work?”

She opened up a black binder containing sheets with green triangle trees on them covered with red doughnut shaped “ornaments” . There was a star at the top in yellow and little ribbon ornaments on every row of red doughnuts.

‘Here’s the star at the top. You need to pass this challenge before you can sign up. You need to do ten push-ups before you can get one of these cards. In other words, you need to be able to pick up your own body weight. ”

I let that sink in a minute before answering, “Well, I guess I wouldn’t be able to join in then,” and I started to go.

“No! No!” she said.” This is not meant to be exclusive. It’s meant to be inclusive. We can modify this if we need to. Perhaps you could do this from a standing position and do the push-ups against the wall.”

She demonstrated against the mirrored wall behind the desk making her body shape form an M then a V with her reflection for five very easy looking repetitions. I still looked doubtful though. She couldn’t have weighed more than 130 pounds. I was a different story.

She asked me to wait until the supervisor came by and she could check if I could participate doing some other modification of this exercise. In the meantime, she showed me the rest of the challenge.

Every  red doughnut shape represented a regular work out. After two work-outs, there was a red ribbon with either a one or a two marked on it. The participant would draw a slip of paper from a box, much like a fortune cookie, and would have to accomplish the exercise designated thereon. There were easy exercises (number one) and more difficult ones (number two).  The attendant drew a slip of paper out of the box.

Balancing ball upper torso twist” it said.

“Is that something I could do?” I asked in disbelief. “I don’t even know what it is.”  It sounded torturous.

“Oh yes,  we would show you. In any case, you would have to prove you could do it before you could go on to the next thing. Do you want to try?”

“The torso twist?” My voice was getting high pitched and defensive.

“No, I mean The Christmas Challenge,” she replied.

“I don’t think I could do that first thing. I don’t think so.”

“Look, ” she replies, “I’ll help you. After all, you’ve already got today’s work out to mark off and the first challenge is not so hard. You would already have two things ticked off on the tree.”

“But I’ve never used that machine before. I don’t even know if I can get onto it with my game knees.”

“Come, ” beckoned the Siren. I felt at once challenged and willing to meet it and at the same time foolish and ready to run.

There are pedals about two feet off the ground covered in black rubber with tread, much like that used for car tires.  I was to place my feet on these.  I did so and the pedals came down hydraulically almost to floor level.

Next I was to take hold of the handles that were eight feet above.  I had to lessen the weight on the pedals by holding the sturdy white horizontal bars at midway on the apparatus.  The attendant helped and somehow (because I cant remember this part very clearly, being more totally engaged in doing rather than in observing) I grasped the handles and hung on. Now I no longer could reach the pedals unless I could pull myself up, my whole body weight worth, with my muscular (not!) arms.

Try as much as I could, I could not move an inch in this endeavor. I pulled my knees up to my chest and the pedals rose accordingly.  In fact, I never pulled up my body with my arms at all. I hung there like a piece of game – an elk carcass, an entire bison, a bear maybe)  curing in a freezer. My arms were outstretched and my shoulder sockets were screaming at me. “This is a mistake! this is a mistake! Get us down off of here!”

The attendant was encouraging as I pulled my knees to my chest. My arms had not pulled a thing except a tendon or two.

“See! You are doing it! That’s one. That’s two. That’s three. You can do five! Six! Seven! You’re almost there. Nine! Ten! Wonderful! You have met the first hurdle of the Christmas Challenge!

“Help!” I whispered in panic. “Help me down!”
I was still holding all my weight by my wrists, unable to reach the pedals because I had lifted my knees to my chest, not at all the motion that was required.

I suppose the attendant was used to athletic guys jumping off the machine and getting themselves away from it without the least assistance. It took her at least two excruciating more seconds to realize that she had to help.  My next movements were awkward and fumbling. I managed to get a hold of that white steel bar and then slide in an ungainly manner until my feet to the floor.

“Congratulations!” she crowed. “That was wonderful. See how it is when you just do a little bit more?”

She signed me up. She ticked off the star and the first red doughnut. Her supervisor happened by.  The attendant recounted how courageous and wonderful I was and reported that they now had one more person in the contest. (There are prizes for anyone who finishes, I understand).

I left feeling quite knocked out. Dazed.

It was only later that I took time to reflect on how foolish I had been. I knew my limits and had allowed myself to get into a situation of risk where there was no possibility of achieving my goal, despite the attendant’s blandishments.

Only a year ago, I was delicately building up strained muscles on both of my shoulders by adding a pound at a time to my exercise routine.  On those machines where I pulled down weights,  I could at maximum pull sixty pounds. By multiplying that weight to muscle demand, I could easily have undone all the work I had striven to achieve so far.  And if I had fallen, in descending from the rack?

If I had lost hold and fallen in amongst all those hard surfaces of white enameled steel  and pulled a knee or hip tendon in doing so? It’s only a month since I’ve overcome the summer troubles.

I’ll be back to the gym. This hasn’t stopped my resolve to work out there. But I am going to be wiser in what I ask this aging body to perform. Those Vs and Ms at the mirror look safer. And, when it comes to the upper body torso twist. I’ll have to make an evaluation before I leap in there to do it.

I may still be hanging out at the gym, but before you will find me hanging like a meat carcass, I’ll be out of there.



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.”

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!

Kay goes to the Gym 3

February 3, 2008

Pedal, pedal. Pedal, pedal. Pedal, pedal.

Pedal, pedal. Pedal, pedal. Pedal, pedal.

Pedal, pedal. Pedal, pedal. Pedal, pedal.

No need to count. The electronic counter was reporting on time spent, counting down from 25, second by second and slowly, ever so slowly counting ascending calories spent.

Kay regulated her rhythm on the reclining bicycle to the metronomic rhythm of a jogger running on the treadmill directly in front of her. There were three joggers running at much the same pace. Kay started to hum Bach’s fugue in G major which she was relearning at home. The timing was perfect, baroque in its regularity. Slap, slap, slap, slap… it continued on. Thirty minutes, these folks were doing. Slap, slap, slap, slap went the feet. Pedal, pedal, went Kay, round and round, left foot, right foot, and she started to think while the notes ran through her head. She was determined to do fifty calories or fifteen minutes, whichever came first.

If only her mother could see her now!

Every time that exercise was mentioned, Kay’s mother would quote an adage that she had appropriated from one of the vamp actresses of the twenties.

“When ever I get the urge to exercise, I go lie down on my bed until the feeling passes,” she would say with a mischievous smile. Mother had been a good athlete, a winner of foot races and high jumping events. Its deleterious effect upon her children was that they had little respect for sports and exercise.

Swimming was encouraged, but that was chiefly to ensure that the children would be prepared not to drown. There had been ballet lessons for a year or two. That had been considered much more appropriate for a cultured girl, but Kay had rebelled. Though she had dreamed of becoming a ballerina, had envied balletic agility and grace, she had felt like an awkward ugly duckling. There had been that disastrous parent’s night performance where Kay had lost her choreographic sense and done a boner.

While the ten other children danced to the left and then to the right, then twirled, Kay danced to the left and then to the right and then mistakenly sat down on the stage. The whole audience twittered then laughed out loud while shy Kay rapidly stumbled up, clumsily trying to fit back into the group of girls as the chortles continued. She was confused, horrified, ashamed and ran from the stage. That was the end of ballet classes.

Aside from mandatory high school Physical Education, Kay had never been in a gym except to watch games that other people were playing.

Forty years had passed by without a thought of exercise troubling her mind any more than it had seemed to trouble her mother’s. Year by year, she gained a pound or two or three or four. That pencil thin child of fifteen, at last freed of her baby fat, was obsessively concerned about her weight. She had turned into thirty year old, lovely and rounded; a forty year old slightly heavy, but attractively so; and a rotund fifty year old; and now she was sixty, broad in the beam, lightly jowled, heavy of arm, thick of thigh and she was peddling. She no longer recognized that girl in the mirror. “Where had she gone?” she wondered.

Pedal, pedal. Pedal, pedal.

The counter turned over a tick every left and right thrust she made. Slap, slap went the jogger just ahead.

“Neither of us is going anywhere”, mused Kay with a wry smile, but she conceded that it felt good.

As one jogger slowed then quit his treadmill and then another, leaving only a single jogger beating out the same tick-tock pace, Kay reflected that here was another similarity with Bach’s Fugue, with one voice after another disentangling as the fugue comes to its denouement.

There had been that first day on the machine where she poked the green Quick Start button and nothing happened. She placed her feet on the pedals and pressed the Quick Start button again. Again nothing happened.

“Excuse me, ” said the young woman, scarcely twenty and looking very trim if somewhat non-descript, “You have to pedal first and then you hit the Start button. The machines are difficult. You have to press it quite firmly.”

Kay started to push the resistant pedals and a light came on like an electronic advertisement. “Press Quick start to begin” it announced. She pressed it and red letters indicating 25 minutes starting to count down to zero came on.

“Oh Lord, it’s quandmeme simple!” she groaned to herself. “Thanks!” she said out loud to the young woman. Pedal, pedal, and the cycle worked like a charm.

That day, Kay had achieved a stellar four minutes of reclining bicycle without stopping. It was enough for the first day. Now she had been coming for four weeks and she had set herself a challenge. The last two weeks, she had achieved ten minutes of uninterrupted cycling. Today, she would do fifteen.

The worst part was the boredom. Pedal, pedal, pedal. It was not inspiring.

Pedal, pedal, pedal. Today she had brought a book, Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey and now she was multitasking – singing her Bach Fugue in G in her head, keeping pace, peddling to the jogger’s metronome and reading about this man’s time alone as a park ranger in the desert near Moab, Utah.

Kay read:

But for the time being, around my place at least, the air is untroubled and I became aware for the first time today of the immense silence in which I am lost. Not a silence so much as a great stillness – for there are a few sounds: the creak of some bird in a juniper tree, an eddy of wind which passes and fades like a sigh, the ticking of the watch on my wrist – slight noises which break the sensation of absolute silence but at the same time exaggerate my sense of the surrounding overwhelming peace. A suspension of time, a continuous present….

Pedal, pedal, pedal. Kay rode on, time disappearing as she read. It had not seemed so long with a good book to accompany her. She had immersed herself in the words, in the world of the desert, in Abbey’s escapade with a rattlesnake, and his friendship with a gopher snake who drove off the rattlers. Abbey is curious, visually perceptive, literarily descriptive and captivating.

Kay glanced at the numbers. She was at 50 calories and fourteen minutes and sixteen seconds. She’d made it!

She slowed her pace and completed her fifteen minutes, took her book back to the cubicle where she kept her outdoor shoes and her jacket and continued on to her circuit of other machines.

It was a good thing, Kay reflected as she went home an hour later, that she had lost her childlike inhibitions. She no longer cared if she was only one of three women in the gym. She was too old to be noticed. They young muscle men were interested in their own physiques; they weren’t interested in an old grandmotherly woman.

She no longer cared if they thought she was out of shape. She knew she was. How could she get back into shape if she didn’t do something about it? Kay totted up the family longevity and subtracted her current age. If she still had a good twenty plus years to go, she had better be in shape. Three recent falls had been the turning point. This hobbling with a cane business would only get worse if she didn’t fight it. And here was proof. She could do it.

In three weeks, she had gone from five minutes aerobic to fifteen. She smiled. It was better than lying on a bed and waiting for the feeling to pass.

Kay goes to the gym – day 2

January 18, 2008

It was the second day. Kay was once again in the municipal leisure centre in the gym.

There were thirteen women and two men being exhorted to pedal faster and faster on their stationary bikes.

“You get more sweat out of me than when I take a three hour Saturday bike ride,” challenged one of the the men.

“That’s good,” shot back the woman who was beating them into a pedalling fury.

All the treadmills were occupied as were the elliptical trainers.

Kay looked at the various machines and chose one for arm exercises, set the weights to 5 pounds and started a set of twenty repetitions, pulling the overhead bar down to her chest. She was waiting for a machine that required the exerciser to pull two bars from one’s sides towards center front. Just as the machine came free, two muscular young men approached the machine and one sat upon it to demonstrate. The other fellow watched and listened to the how-to explanation.

“Mind if I watch?” said Kay. The last thing she wanted was for one of these bicep-tual men to get angry with her staring at him. Their arms looked altogether too muscular.

“Not at all,” he replied. “I’m a personal trainer. I’m glad to have people watch and learn.”

The other young man took his place and did his exercises. The trainer looked at Kay without a hint of surprise at a grandmotherly stout woman storming the precincts of the mostly male exercise generation.

To the young man, the trainer explained the machine’s operation and the muscles that were being worked, then he turned again to Kay.

“I can help you out with this, if you want. I like to show people how to use the machines. I only started exercising a short time ago and now I’m addicted. It the endorphins. When you exercise, the body produces them and you get happy. If you keep it up, you’ll feel wonderful. I guarantee it. You’ll feel addicted to it too.” He had such youthful assurance.

“And you couldn’t live without it now, I suppose?” I said, somewhat amused.

“No, I couldn’t. I come every day.” He answered seriously.

He was of East Indian background. He was tall and had good, solidly developed, muscles. His trainee was Caucasian and the same height, but he was definitely lacking the muscular structure of his companion. Kay reflected that Canadian society and its multicultural policies had done some good. It was pleasant to see these two lads interacting without any hint of racial tension.

“Well, really, I’m not a personal trainer yet, but everybody says I should be. I like people and I love to do these exercises,” the young man said, correcting himself.

Kay smiled. It was curious how his dishonesty had been rapidly corrected by an ethical elbowing of his conscience. She recognized, too, that he wanted to look after her. Perhaps he had a grandmother of his own and would have been proud of her had she wanted to join him in an activity that he loved. Moreover, it was delightful to find a young man who seemed to have no idea of age barriers. He must have wonderful parents to have brought him up so.

“My name’s Ravinder,” he offered.

“I’m Kay,” said Kay. It was the second time someone had welcomed her into this foreign land of exercise in two days. She would be back.

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.

Falling Giants or After the windstorms

June 21, 2007

Of all the windstorms we suffered this past winter, I always think of the last one as the most ferocious.

Mother’s friend, Doctor Gee, asked Otto and me to dinner at Easter time, some months after Mother passed away. He’s such a lovely man. At ninety five, he is still living in his own home with the assistance of a part time care helper who makes his meals, does his housework, takes him for walks and to his doctor and dental appointments. Mother and Doctor Gee were university contemporaries and these two nonegenarians were the last of a coterie of grads from the University of Winnipeg class of 1931. It was a treasured relationship for the friendship itself. Even more, though, one of the lonelinest things about aging is that one has no more contemporaries, and in this friendship, they understood each other, what their era had been about, its mores, manners and ethics as well as the historical events and pressures that had molded them. They loved each other profoundly in a platonic relationship of mutual admiration. They understood each other in a deep and quiet way. Doctor Gee was saddened terribly by Mother’s passing.

He and his wife had lived in the capital city of Ottawa for many years. He was a director in some government department and his wife was a lawyer with the Department of Justice. When they retired, they came out to Vancouver and the friendship between these three continued to prosper.

Doctor Gee’s wife passed on a few years ago. When she left this earthly coil after a long illness where he cared for her all the while at home, he read out the most beautiful, loving eulogy about her that you could imagine. Here was a marriage that was made in heaven. Two gentle loving people, both encouraging the other to excel in the pursuits of designing the common good for mankind and being successful in carrying forward their ideals. To the end, they adored each other, and he is still carrying a flame for her, though she has gone on ahead.

Doctor Gee is a true believer in correct  form. He knows his manners inside and out, but would never embarrass someone if they do not know the rules. I’ve caught him with an ever so slight lifting of an eyebrow, an almost imperceptible wince, from time to time, but he says nothing; would not point out an error to a young one or a guest whilst dining, for instance.

Nephew Hugh has fallen in love with this diplomatic gentleman. Hugh is in awe that Doctor Gee has the latest in electronic gizmos, buys the best of computers in a yearly update to have “the latest” and never has to ask how anything operates. His mind is sharp and clear. When Doctor Gee leaves our company after a family dinner, he pulls out his Blackberry, rings up the taxi company he deals with regularly, asks for his hat and coat and goes his merry way.

Hugh has a dread that he will go to dinner with Doctor Gee (and Doctor Gee’s pleasure is to invite people out to dinner at the fanciest of places) and make some gaff in etiquette. Where our efforts at training Hugh in the simple version of the Queen’s rules of dinner eating failed miserably at home, here, on a night out with Doctor Gee, he is attentive to the point of desperation, trying to ensure that he copies Doctor Gee’s manners and that he understands his logic in placing people around the table. Hugh has aspirations of rubbing shoulders with the diplomatic corps in his future. He’s going to Ottawa this fall to continue his studies in Political Science. He’s more interested in analysis of political situations than in being a diplomat, but he wants to shine brilliantly in his field, wants to be the star of all analysts, and it would not do to show himself the least bit uncouthly in dealing with his colleagues. Where there is a purpose for learning, it magnifies the attention the learner lends it.
Doctor Gee and his wife never had children, and being from the Depression Generation, they were avid savers. At the end of his life, Dr. Gee has an accumulation of wealth that he has no difficulty now in spending on what he loves to do. After all, with no children, what is he saving it for? It’s time to spend.

Until last year in his ninety third year, he had no problem in jumping on a plane and going off to some socialist convention, as a card carrying member, to express his opinions and be counted in the vote for this policy or that. While he was at it, he would go up to see friends in the middle of Ontario, then go back to Winnipeg to visit his nephew, then come home. He is failing slowly and he now takes his care aide with him. She’s been the same one for many years, was his wife’s care giver, and continues on with Doctor Gee. She’s become like one of the family and now comes to the many of the dinners Doctor Gee organizes.

So, I started to say, Otto and I were invited to meet Doctor Gee and his company at the Stanley Park Ferguson Point Tea Room. It’s changed it’s name in the past few years, so I don’t know if I’ve got the name right. It’s the one that looks out over the ocean in the area of Second and Third Beach, very near the poet, Pauline Johnson’s memorial.

Otto thought he could access the restaurant by  Third Beach so we drove through the narrow streets of the West End to that entrance, then found ourselves in a one way situation where we could no longer get near the restaurant and had to turn around in a parking lot and come back along the Lost Lagoon access road to find another way. There was nothing for it. We had to go half way around the park via the cut off at the Georgia Street entrance.

In our meanderings around the West End entrance, the forest seemed almost normal, just a little thinned out, an occasional tree downed , roots uplifted like a giant tutu-ed dancer bent over with her bottom in the air. Now we were driving parallel to the causeway and then right across to just east of Lumberman’s Arch. There were piles of great logs by the roadside and debris of branches and fir fronds beside it that had been cleared off the road, but still needed to be carted away. Where there had been a thick dark forest of three hundred year old trees, there was open air and a dazzling yellow light coming through the brave few survivors of the storm. Again, these tutus of root and soil bared their undersides, but so many of them, there was an impression of warriors fallen and their giant round shields with Celtic root knotwork decoration dully tarnishing on their last battlefield, beside them. It reminded me of Verdun where every centimeter of soil had been bombarded at least once. Only jagged tree stumps had remained there. In this park there were a few more survivors than that, and the ground was green with ever persistent swordferns.

We drove on where the road goes up and around, then under the Lions Gate bridge, still in the park, approaching Prospect Point where there is another restaurant, a casual dining one, and a tourist trap gift store. From these two vantage points, one is able to see across to the North Shore and out across Burrard Inlet. It is a magnificent view. Just below this Point is Siwash Rock, by legend the Squamish hero who was changed into a rock to glorify his purity and unselfishness. Hundreds of thousands of visitors come to see this rock every year.

Before the storm, people could park their cars at this stopping point, and be greeted by a screen of tall firs that would lace some of the most beautiful sunsets. A short walk to the view point takes one to some of those rent-a-telescopes and the view  which had, by man’s hand, become unobstructed for a full glorious view of the North Shore mountains, the communities of North and West Vancouver, the mouth of the Capilano River, and the renowned First Narrows Bridge. Familiarly called the Lions Gate Bridge, it is an engineering feat of its time, a long spanned suspension bridge built in the same year as the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937 (they look the same too!) , contrasting its cheery orange paintwork against a predominantly blue landscape. It’s a fascinating view, especially as this is the gateway to the to the Port of Vancouver and there is an endless traffic of giant cruise ships, tankers, cargo ships, sailboats and pleasure crafts.

On our way to dinner (yes, we finally got there – we were just forced to take a detour, you see), this was my first view of the storm’s devastation. Prospect Point must have born the brunt of the howling winds from two directions. There was nothing left. Nothing!

You could now see right out to the west. There was no lovely tree lace to decorate the sunset. Prospect Point had become bald! There was more debris, more giant logs lining both sides of the highway. The City had worked three months to clean and open up the roadways, and still it looked as if the Wind Gods had left their matchsticks and pick up sticks out in the rain after a lusty day of play. We were in awe of the forces that had wrought this work.

We arrived at Ferguson Point soon thereafter, settled into a parking space, awe still in our conversation, awe still marked on our faces. This was indeed devastation.

There was Doctor Gee and his dinner companion, waiting at the most advantageous table in the restaurant, looking straight out on the sunset in preparation at the mouth of Burrard Inlet as it joins the Georgia Straight. In the late day sun, the mass of tulips in the gardens at the foot of the window swayed to a gentle breeze. Spring was here in force. A party of ten teenage girls celebrating a friend’s birthday were dressed in their prom-like best dresses, unquenchable,  goofing about as they waited for a photographer to capture the moment, backdropped on this magnificent scenery.

We entered and greeted our host and his invitee, commenced pleasantries of how we were doing and comments on our health.

Outside I could see the teengirls jostling for position, each with their own digital camera, wanting to take home a souvenir of their exciting dinner party, each waiting for their turn to line up the other girls in a group photo. I was eyeing this energy bursting party outside as Doctor Gee gently brought my wandering eye back to the table with:
“Will you have some wine with dinner? It’s red, I believe? Or would you care for an aperatif this evening?”

Windstorm number eight

June 21, 2007

Down the eerie hallway, emergency lighting kicked in. It was dinner time and most of the inmates of this kooky residence were on the main floor waiting for the aides to help them up the elevator. With the power out, the elevators weren’t running. Over a hundred residents and most of the employees now had to stay on the main floor.

People seem to forget that elderly people have had experiences in their lives. People seem to assume that once a person is relegated to these hellish antechambers to heaven, that they are incapable of thinking or reasoning. In fact, the generation of people being processed through the entrance trials for dying are full of experience that has been parked at the door, waiting for the final run. Staff and visitors are generally ignorant of their personalities, of their rich lives behind them, of their accomplishments, their tribulations they have conquered, the prizes they have won and the works they have excelled at.

Most of these residents were from pioneering families who lived with grit and determination to carve out communities where none had existed before. Most had lived through the Great Depression and at least one World War; many have lived through two. One told me her own tales of the blitz in London and how her father, one of the volunteer Home Guard, had been blown to smithereens one night in a bombing on Downing street and the fact of it was announced at her door by a police man the next day. Another had told of her experiences in the Dutch East Indies army during the Second World War. That was hairy! Mrs. C had been a reporter for the Vancouver Sun and the Province her whole life, and Mrs. M had been a politician both in the provincial government and in the federal. Molly had been in the flooded parts of the province in 1948 when the Fraser had spilled over the dykes stranding thousands. Peter the architect had travelled world wide with his professional duties. There were several doctors and university professors. You wouldn’t know it to look at them, all crippled and wrinkled as they were, doddering on unstable legs, shuffling along in their walkers and being pushed in their wheelchairs, unable to hear, to see and impaired in their speaking. Everyone had a story to tell, but few had someone to tell it to, so they became anonymous bodies to be cared for, like sacks of potatoes.

And so, sacks of potatoes and cognizant alike, were lined up along the full length of the long hall to the dining room and adjoining television/lounge area wrapped as best as possible in blankets from the store room. They looked like they were on a ship cruise sunning themselves, waiting for the activity director to propose the next diversion, only it was dark inside. Most of them recognized the power outage for what it was, stoically ready to wait in the darkness until the power could be restored. Some pioneering spirits were trying to comfort some less coherent inmates; others, telling stories to cheer their compatriots in adventure, some trying to get the attention of the nurses and aides who could barely cope with the magnitude of needs that were all massed together making concurrent demands on their skills. This was one time when economies of scale were not working. Having everyone together requesting attention at the same time was not conducive to a calming outcome!

However, this night was one where the staff shone. No one went home, even though it was long after their usual quitting time. The manager phoned to other staff, off duty, and asked those who could to come back. It was going to be quite a task keeping these hundred elderly patients calm in the dining room and hallways of the main floor. I can tell you now that the event lasted eight and a half hours. There were pills to give, people to take to the bathroom, people who needed to lie down.  I challenge you to imagine how hard it would be for you, yourself, to sit in the same place for eight hours –  to sit upright, unable to lie down, nor relax, nor amuse yourself, nor get up and stretch your legs, or do something constructive about your own situation. It was something like a trip to Australia without the leg break in Hawaii.

We’d be going crazy, I’d say. I was amazed, too, at the calm that the residents themselves brought to the occasion.

In the murky dark, a few emergency lights shone. The main entrance, in fire alarm mode, had switched to fail safe – the outer automatic door was permanently open letting in a howling wind to the first lobby, blocked by a poorly insulated second set of manual doors. It was decidedly cool and the heat was no longer circulating in the building since the air handling units were shut down.

Two employees guarded the door. There were a number of escape artists amongst the residents. How could one even think of abandoning the other patients on a night like this to go looking for a foolhardy escapist who would brave the storm without any thought to their comfort or safety. It must not happen!

By the time Otto and I had arrived, not knowing the power failures had affected the residence, the staff had calmed the few wailers and assisted half of the residents to sofas in the television corner. Those with walkers or wheel chairs were lined up against the walls waiting for the elevator to come back on. A few more hardy souls were trying to play cards by candlelight at one of the dinner tables, hindered cruelly in their failing eyesight by the pitched gloom.

From our opposing perspectives, our emergency mode kicked in. Otto could see that people needed entertaining. He is wonderful at this. He loves gathering, parties, telling stories. He has an amazing ability to remember people’s names and a little fact about them. It is his one quality that makes him shine at his business net-working. He moved from one resident to another, greeting them by name, asking them how they were bearing up, telling them a little tale of the world outside, and moving on to the next one. They were happy for the diversion and it cheered the company immensely.

Mother, we both agreed, could wait. She had Heather in attendance and Otto’s ex-wife keeping her company. In any case, Mother was too absorbed in her process of dying to be cognizant of the world past her own bed. She was completely internalized now.

I, too, was greeting the residents, but mostly the ones I had gotten to know in a deeper way. I ran emergency commissions for those who were fretting to a point of sub-panic.

Maria, for instance, was upset about her pills. If not taken on time, she would go into convulsions. She had been sitting in the same place for over two hours already and could not capture a nurse’s attention to tell of her plight. I found the fourth floor nurse and explained Maria’s concern. Someone would have to run up the emergency fire escape stairs to the fourth floor and obtain the pills. It was arranged, and I went on to the next one. Another resident was unusually cold and I found someone on staff to give me an extra blanket for her. Dr. John who lived across the hall from Mother had Parkinsons disease. It had advanced to the stage where he could only sit up so long. I hailed a passing employee and requested some place where he might lie down. The need to lie down turned out to be a problem for others as well and something was arranged, though now I can’t remember what, to accommodate them.

At the front desk, the reception was lit with a few candles and one good flashlight. Though the candles worried us for the risk of fire, there was not much option. The emergency lights were faltering. One by one, they were extinguishing, depending on the remaining power in the battery packs. They were meant to keep the place lit for an evacuation, not for maintaining light during an extended power outage. Now we were really in the dark.

Otto and I revised our plans. This was, after all, an adventure! We could be an extra two useful bodies! But first of all, we needed to see Heather and Mom. We were given one flashlight to navigate up the emergency escape stairs. It was all that could be spared. The magnetic safety lock on the stairwell was released. We opened the fire door and began to climb. Now, I’ve some pretty arthritic knees that complain loudly about stairs, but it had to be done. Pulling myself along by the metal tube railing, step by step, we climbed the four floors.

“Are you coming?” impatient Otto called. He was faster, and his wavering light was hardly helpful to me. I was feeling the next stair with my toe before setting upon it. It would be horrible to fall now in this stairwell, on concrete, and add to the confusion and turmoil below. Gratefully, I saw that Otto was opening the fourth floor stairwell door, waiting for me. I stood, breathing deeply on the top stair, catching my breath. I was out of shape. I’d need to do this daily to not tremble with the effort. Positively thinking, it was great exercise!

We passed by the nursing station where Gina, the only employee on the fourth floor, was standing by seemingly unable to do anything but wait until circumstances changed.

“Are you managing?” we asked, as we fished for details on what help was available. Who, for instance, was going to bring Mother’s hourly morphine? What if additional services were needed. How was she going to phone the ambulance, if necessary? All the phone lines were out. All the intercom was disabled by the power failure. Who would help her if two people were needed for a nursing task?

Gina looked puzzled and concerned. “There’s only me,” she answered. “What else can I do? I’m the only one here.”

“Well, how many people are there on the floor?” we asked.
“Well, your mom, to begin with, but she has company. And Mrs. Cooper. And Doris across the hall. She never leaves her room. And Mr. Howe. And Ethel who won’t stay in her room and is down with your family.Is that five?”

I thought, How horrible! Those residents were lying in the pitch dark, unable to call for help if they needed it; with no one to up date them on progress. There was not even any ambient light from the city street lights. Everything was out and black.

In Mother’s room, a one dollar Canadian tire flashlight was illuminating Heather’s face, Otto’s ex and little Ethel, like a modernized candle lit tableau of George de la Tour. They had been unable to leave Mom and so were eager to hear our description of the situation below. We promised to come back for a slightly later night shift but in the interim, we were going back home for all the flashlights we could spare and all our home’s overstock of candles and batteries. No one had counted on a full night power outage. No one could have foreseen that it would occur on a Sunday night when not a single store would be open selling flashlights or batteries. Scout’s honour, they were not prepared.

“How did you get here, Ethel?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s not any fun in my room.” she answered with a pixie smile, hoping she could stay. “There’s company here.”

“Yes, but how did you get back up here from dinner?” I insisted. “Or didn’t you have your dinner?” She was so slight she hardly ate her dinner. It would not have bothered her to miss it.

“Oh yes, she confirmed. I was downstairs when the lights went off, but I walked up the stairs when I was finished, and here I am.”

I was amazed and horrified at the same time. The staff had release the lock on the fire stairwell to let her walk up. She was a sweet little bundle of determination, but she was unstable on her legs and frail. How could they have let her come up four flights on her own? It was unconscionable! And yet her grit and perseverence had brought her here unscathed. Truly, to have succeeded at this task, she was either an angel or under an angel’s wing.

As we were talking, I heard a weak sounding, “Hello? Hello?” from somewhere in the hall way. While the others were chatting and planning, I took one light and went out to see whence came the tiny voice. On the floor across the hall, I could see Doris’ head extending outside her doorway, calling weakly.

“Oh my poor dear!” I cried. Otto came running as he heard me speak.

“What has happened to you!?”

Doris recounted her need for the bathroom, how she had gotten up, since no one came (that dreadful fear of wetting one’s bed drives people to do unsafe things!) and tried to feel her way to the bathroom. Something, she could not say what, had gone wrong and here she was.

Now what? I thought rapidly. This was not my responsibility and anyway, I couldn’t lift her. My first aid training said never to lift a fallen patient until they had been checked for bruises, cuts and bone breaks.

I said to Otto, ” We can’t touch her. We’ll have to get help. It’s too risky. I can’t lift her and neither can you. We don’t know what her medical condition is.”

“Just don’t touch her, we don’t know if anything is broken,” I added more forcefully. In his generosity and helpfulness, he could do more harm than good. “I’ll go get help,” I offered. “You stay with her.”

I reported the fall to Gina who shrugged her shoulders a little in a gesture that repeated her earlier despair of What can I do?

She’s always falling” she drawled somewhat defensively. I’m all alone up here,” she answered in a frustrating non sequitor. “I can’t leave my station.” It wasn’t a refusal to do anything, but it seemed obstructive. My years of authority kicked in. This nurse was going to take responsibility or my name wasn’t Kay!

“Gina, I will stay at your station. I can’t do the stairs again. My knees are injured. You go and get some aides to help you. You can’t leave Doris like that. Besides just looking after a helpless woman, the liability is too great. There’s nothing going on here right now. You go!”

The tone of my voice must have stirred her. She did not answer. Her eyes searched mine in the dim light to see how serious I was and what trouble I could make afterwards. She broke the stare, lowered her eyes, said nothing more and went.

Five minutes later, two aides came and Gina was back at her post.

“Oh, she always falls”, confirmed one of the girls. Without ceremony, without checking Doris’ condition, one locked a wheelchair to prevent it from slipping and each took one side of Doris under her shoulder and heaved the hundredweight sack of potatoes into the wheelchair. With one more adjustment for comfort, Doris was settled into the chair.

Before we left on our treasure hunt for batteries and candles, I spent a few minutes getting to know this lovely sack of potatoes, now restored to her bed. She hadn’t known why the lights were out, but she was glad to be back in her own bed and dry. On her side of the residence, there was a faint glow from a distant part of the city still operating on electricity. She assured me she would be fine and she had suffered no great hurts and so I left her.

Otto and I returned an hour later. We gave our safety gear to the reception desk. They, in turn, offered us pizza that they had ordered in for the staff who had stayed much after their normal times. Otto and I had been thinking en route, that there were many things about a prolonged emergency that this facility did not seem to think about. We had suggestions and were not shy in giving them, as diplomatically as possible.

We chatted casually, but inserted questions that we thought bore merit as we went.

“Have you called 911 to have them on alert, so that they know about your situation?At least the Fire Department should know in case of a fire. All your regular safety alarms are down!”

“What would you do if a fire broke out? How would you evacuate them.What would you do about the people upstairs?”

” Don’t you have a supply of flashlights and batteries for an emergency?”

“I heard that you’d given candles to some residents who are still in their rooms. Don’t you think there’s too great a risk in that? What if the candle got knocked over? Would an elderly person be able to react fast enough to extinguish any flame that might result? Can’t you give them some of these flashlights instead?”

“Don’t you have an emergency generator that could be used to back up the emergency lighting? or to provide elevator operation? You know. You figure out what are the most important functions you need to get going and you put them on one circuit that automatically switches over to the generator when there’s a problem?”

“Have you alerted your on- call doctor? What if someone has a heart attack tonight. Or a panic attack? Or falls and breaks a bone”

There were many more things, like the emergency stairwells now entirely in the dark, no highlighting on the nosing of each riser; the handrailing hard to grasp and not continuous down the stairwell so that the landings were difficult for mobility impaired to negotiate.

I’d been in the property management business too long for these things to go unnoticed. How had this residence gotten past these safety requirements? Surely they had to comply. Or was the the thirty year old building “grandfathered”, not requiring upgrades until a major renovation was undertaken.

Noreen, still wearing her  visored cap even though a ray of sunshine was impossible, interrupted us. Noreen, you may remember, greets me daily with “Do I know you from somewhere?” with her quizzical eyebrows lifting and her perfectly mannered way, looking as if she had just jauntily left the tennis court at the Club. She was worrying about getting to the bathroom. On the main floor, there were only two – a man’s and a woman’s. They were in the centre of this vast room, just facing the rows of residents whose only occupation now was to watch what the other stranded residents were doing and to comment.

“I’ll help you,” I said. “Here, take my flashlight. Leave it on. There are no lights right now. This will give you enough light.”

“What will I do with this? ” she asked as she took the flashlight reluctantly from my hand and eyed it as if it were a foreign object with alien germs on it.

“It’s a flash light. You will need it in there,” I explained patiently. “There’s no electricity.”

“When will it come back on.”

“Not soon enough for you to wait. Go on,” I commanded, “take the flashlight and go in there.” And so she did.

Within seconds, she was back out again. “There’s no light in there.” She was both puzzled and a bit imperious, as if someone had failed her.

I explained again that the power was off and we would have to wait for the power company to restore power. I directed her back into the washroom and instructed her again on the flashlight.

She came back out minutes later saying with a puzzled look, “Someone must have left this behind in in the bathroom. Do you know who it could belong to?” as she held out her right hand dangling the flashlight aloft.

“It’s mine. I lent it to you,” I said with a touch of amusement. She just couldn’t remember.

“Oh!” she said and she handed it to me.

“She doesn’t need to go in there,” grumbled a lucid resident who had no patience for Noreen. Noreen looked as if she were a very healthy sixty, someone who had exercised effectively all her life. An aerobics instructor, one might guess, from her looks. Looking so young, she had no right to be confused or repetitive. But Noreen had Alzheimer’s and could not remember anything from minute to minute.

“She’s already been in there about seven times” continued the grumbler, loudly.
“It doesn’t really matter,” I soothed. “If she thinks she needs to, then that’s all that matters. She can’t remember what she does. She can’t remember anything. That’s why she’s here.” I said.

The grumbler was not getting any sympathy from my corner and she went back to her neighbour to continue on her discontent.

How did all this end, you might ask?
We went back up to mother’s room. It was about two thirty in the morning when the lights suddenly came back on. We all lifted our heads and looked about us. Tired as we were, we had adreniline from the night’s activity. I heard the elevators humming. They were operating again. I knew they would be full and I braved the stairwell again, going down to help bring back the sleepy, stranded residents.

When I got there to offer my services, there were only two residents in wheelchairs still to be sent aloft. In an inhabitual of spurt of efficiency, the staff had returned nearly a hundred residents to their rooms to resume their normal night within fifteen minutes.

I went back up to a dozy vigil in Mother’s room. We shooed little Ethel back to her room to get some sleep; and Otto took Heather home for a well deserved rest.

The first night of the storm

June 18, 2007

Did I tell you about the night of the storm?

We had eight major wind storms on the West Coast this winter starting in late October. One of them devastated Stanley Park, that truly wonderful piece of nature that some forward looking pioneer set aside in what became the centre of Vancouver.

On the first of these stormy nights, power was shut off to a great part of the Lower Mainland including our house. Nephew Hugh was working from home when all of a sudden, his connection to the Internet was cut.Both telephone and electricity were out!

Some slackards might have said, “Well, I can’t work anymore” but Hugh has a fine work ethic and so he began to phone around to his network of friends looking for an unaffected part of the city where he could go and continue on with his work. He’s a web programmer.

One of his university friends lives just six blocks away on the other side of the street. It was outside of our power grid and so he put his laptop in his backpack, put on a good wind and rain breaker and trod down to the other house to finish off his work day. It was just noon time.

Otto was also working from home. He phone in to his head office and went there, but not before ransacking the cupboard where the candles are kept for Christmas and for emergencies. He set them, at least one for every room in the upstairs and several along the mantle piece where there is a large mirror to help double up the light once the candles were lit.

I was at work and oblivious to all this bouleversement of everyone’s day until, at three o’clock, there was an announcement that those who lived out in the suburbs could go home early given the severity of the weather. That clued me in to the fact that the rain drumming on my plate glass office wall was no ordinary rain. I had much to do, but I gathered up and finished off the task I was doing, closed up my desk and put on my coat, scarf and boots.

When I got out the front door, I could see that my umbrella was going to do me no good. An umbrella in this weather was just going to whip me up into the heavens or pull me along the direction it wanted, not mine. I left it furled and stood huddled as far in as I could at the bus stop to prevent the whipping wind from driving rain onto me. When the bus arrived I dashed for the door and found I would need to stand the whole way home. Everyone had been dismissed early. The buses were full.

Halfway home, the power lines for the buses were out. We were unceremoniously ejected from the trolley bus, a wet and sodden mass of humanity, waiting for a gas powered bus to replace it. About a half dozen of us impatient people fumbled for our cell phones and called taxis. They too were overloaded and there were no promises when a taxi might come. By the time two more buses were parked behind ours, we were rescued by a replacement bus which was crowded to the ceiling with our damp woolen-covered bodies and it lumbered up the hill, far too heavy for its normal operation, slithering ponderously through the dark like an earthworm in its tunnel. All the street lights were out along this line and the way was only lit by the cars driving, snaking along this major artery. It was very eerie.

Finally, after an hour’s venture, I descended from the bus at my stop just a block away from home. There were lights on the other side of the street at the shopping centre, an area whose power grid was not yet down, which dimly lit our side of the street. I came home to a lifeless looking house with a weak wavering candlelight in the window. I fumbled my key into the lock by feel and entered, so thankfully home.

The mantle mirror was bravely doubling the light of motley candles upon it, but the room was still in gloom. Hugh had arrived just lately and greeted me, very relieved to see that I had made it home. He has a good heart, has our Hugh. He worries about me and though I pooh pooh it on the surface, I really love it that he has an honest concern for me.

We recounted our days and our travels home, then turned to what we might do for dinner. A flashlight in the fridge announced a number of things we could eat cold, but it was such a night that eating cold was not very attractive. The lights across the street encouraged us. Perhaps there was a restaurant that could provide us with some hearty fare and warm our spirits. We agreed to drive to a district with power to get ourselves a modest dinner. Later we could find a coffee shop to provide us with the biggest coffee one can take out so that we might have a hot coffee when we finally got home. Surely by morning the power would be restored.

Of course, I was worrying about Mother, Hugh’s Gran. Hugh had not seen her except when we were moving her to her nursing home several months ago. He had taken the brunt of her craziness when we came to the point of her needing long term hospitalized care. He had been staying home with her, trying to work from home, being driven crazy himself trying to meet her ever increasing needs while working – and it didn’t work. When it came to a crisis, Hugh was anguished, torn between his loving, nurturing nature and his rejecting reaction to her impossible demands. After all was resolved, the upshot was that he hadn’t wanted to see her.

Now, I could tell that Mother was deteriorating. She would not be around much longer. For Hugh’s peace of mind, he needed to see her and reconcile or he would always live with the anguish of his conflicting emotions about his grandmother who had been so wonderfully loving and supportive of him as well as the bane of his day to day at one particular moment of his life.

He agreed readily to come with me to see her, to bring her a flashlight in case she needed it, and for us to stay, if need be, if she were frightened by the dark.

After our cheery dinner at a not so distant Greek place which was thriving on the company generated by the storm, we went to Grandma’s residence. It was lit up like a Christmas tree, insouciant of the storm blowing around it. This section of the city had not been affected whatsoever by the power outages.

We found Mother dozing lightly on her hospital bed, slightly raised on the head end, pillows propping up her head and also at her feet, to improve her circulation, surprised and happy to see us.

“Hugh!” she exclaimed, her face lit with a spontaneous smile. She held out her two hand to clasp his face between them and he bent down to give her a kiss.

“Grandma!” he said, his fears about his reception by her forgotten, the love streaming from his Grandma dispelling them instantaneously. They stayed like that, he hovering just slightly above her face, she holding his in her two hands like a prayer fulfilled, for long few seconds while they drunk each other in.

“We were worried about you Grandma,” he said finally.”We came to see if you were alright.”

“Why wouldn’t I be alright?” she said puzzled.

“There’s a wicked storm out tonight. The electricity is out in most parts of the city. There’s no power at home. We’re working on candle power and flashlights.We would stay with you all night if you didn’t have any electricity. We wouldn’t want you to be afraid.”

“Oh?” she said. “I haven’t heard anything.” There was a quizzical upturn in her voice. “What kind of a storm.”

So we told her what our day was like and how Hugh had needed to find somewhere else to work and how I had come home in the storm.

“Oh dear!” she exclaimed, but it seemed to affect her as if we were telling a fairy tale.

We didn’t stay long after that. She had heard nothing, one of the few benefits of deafness, and was not worried. Everything seemed normal to her. She was tired and we suggested that we best should be guarding the home front where the alarm would no longer be working if the power were off.

“Oh, yes. You go now, ” she said, dismissing us in her fully confident matriarchal manner. “You get home safely and I’ll see you tomorrow. Everything’s fine here.”

So we left after just a short visit. Hugh was light hearted. It had made a pivotal difference in how he remembered his Gran. He was solicitous and concerned again for her. Truly he loved her deeply and this had gone a long way to reconcile his disaffection. Gran, on the other hand, was so forgetful of recent things that she had not noticed he had been away for such a long time from her. Any disagreements they might have had in their day-to-day when Hugh had stayed home for her had been lost to view. She just knew him and loved him as she always had, all the years of his life.

Hugh and I went home, lit many candles and sat in the living room together, our coffees lukewarm but comforting. We shared a crossword puzzle together, me reading the clues and filling in the blanks, Hugh supplying answers until my eyes gave out. Then we traded roles. It was soon time for bed so we went our separate ways in the profound darkness of the house. Profound silence, I should also say, with the computers off, the refrigerator too, and other various things that hum in the night as they operate.

For a woman with short memory problems, this was a night to remember. Almost daily, Mother would remind me that she had been thrilled that we would spend the entire night with her to make sure she would not be afraid. She told the tale at the dinner table. When visitors came, it was her latest news. It bore repeating and repeating.

“I lost all my worries when I knew they would stay all night with me,” she said, and she beamed proudly.

“Do you remember the night of the storm?”

Handwriting by MacLean

June 6, 2007

She was a young child to start school, just five, but she was smarter than a whip. Granny walked with her the first day to introduce her to her teacher. Mabel, her sister, older by ten years, was commissioned to bring her home for lunch. But as the days went on, Mama did not want to go to school. She was not strong. She lingered and wavered. She wheedled to no avail. She must go to school.

At ninety five, she could remember the name of every teacher she had and had visions in her mind of each of them, could tell stories about them. Funny thing was, she loved school and knew from her earliest years that she wanted to be a teacher.

She remembered how her mother had struggled each week to provide her with money so that she could participate in the savings program at school. Each child had a bank book and each week they deposited twenty-five cents. A dollar a month. She often repeated this story because it had left an indelible print on her ethics. She saved.

To her amazement, at the end of her schooling, she had over one hundred dollars in her bank account! It was a lot of money when bread was five cents and an ice cream cone, ten. It was an established habit and thereafter when she was working, she always put money away, every pay cheque.

She remembered the stern Miss Caldwell, too. Miss Caldwell was the first principal she had in Winnipeg schools when she was teaching. She relentlessly tested her teachers and their fitness for teaching. She could drop in at any time and demand that the teacher find a word in the dictionary by opening the page within two or three pages of where it should be found. It was a very important skill for teachers of the Nineteen Thirties.

Miss Caldwell also demanded a very strict adherence to form. Writing and printing on the blackboard should be precise and clear, always aligned in very straight ruled lines. Mother had studied the MacLean Method of Handwriting and exceeded Miss Caldwell’s expectations on this point without difficulty.

Mother and her two sisters had so firmly internalized the MacLean Method that you could barely tell the difference between their handwriting. Eighty years later, in her early nineties, her handwriting had hardly wavered.

Countless children had written ‘The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog, ” over and over until they could flawlessly, uniformly, copy Mr. MacLean’s rounded script. This phrase contained every letter in the alphabet. In Grade Three, I remember verifying all twenty six letters were there. I sat at my desk, inkwell in the upper corner, filled regularly by a student monitor, dipping my steel nibbed pen into the pot, blurting ink blobs across the page, concentrating as I formed the same phrase Mother had learned to write years before. My little tongue licked my upper lip, back and forth, back and forth in concentration as I struggled to match Mr. MacLean’s beautiful script. It was still the method of writing when I started learning to write at school but I did not succeed.

Father, on the other hand, had been influenced by a more cursive, lean and economical European handwriting and then, after his Engineer training and the strict lettering required for draughtsmen’s drawings, he had acquired a more personal style that I found fascinating.

Father’s sister, our Aunt Delia, had hand writing that was quavery and the lines began to descend perilously into the page while still in her mid eighties, which most likely should be attributed to her eye troubles. But mother, who had had cataracts removed and who was progressively more blind, finally legally blind, could still form her letters beautifully, by some kinetic magic.

Now this may seem like a change of subject, but you will see how it connects up.

Mother had difficulty in walking. Her osteoporosis had worn down her right hip and it had been replaced in 1997. Now, don’t you just wonder why one hip deteriorates and not the other?

After a long time in rehabilitation, she was home and walking every day, taking walks by herself, if need be, a mile or so away. She joined the walking club, early morning before the stores opened, to go circles around the stores. It was an activity designed to keep seniors walking in safe circumstances, at the shelter from wind, rain, cold or other extremes of weather, with an added benefit to the merchants that the seniors often stayed to socialize, to have a cup of tea and a snack and afterwards, and to buy in the stores.

This worked for some five or six years, but then, other joints began to complain. Mother’s body was wearing out. We teased her about being Bionic Woman because of her replaced hip and her new, permanent lenses (inserted after the cataract operation) and her electronic hearing aid. Now her spine and and her knees were beginning to fail. On good days, she could get her exercise, but more and more, there were bad days. Bad days for her hip. Bad days for her knees. Bad days for her aching back. Aching days for her beautiful, gracious hands. Osteo was joined by arthritis and it would only get worse.

I separated from Franc in 1994. Much as I loved him and wanted our relationship to work, Franc had his own life problems to sort out and we just couldn’t keep living together. He had to do his next step on his own. It was painful, bitter and difficult as all separations are. I went away to Winnipeg on a six months assignment through my work. It gave a good solid closing to a relationship that had become very angry and negative. It gave me a very positive beginning at something new. I had some learning to do, myself.
I booked into the Fort Garry Hotel residence, an ideal place for business travellers. It granted more freedom than a regular hotel room because one could make meals in the kitchenette. It had less intrusive housekeeping. One could settle in for a while and yet still access the hotel offerings of restaurant, tuck shop, mail service, over night dry cleaning, et cetera, et cetera, and it was central.

After three days, I called Mom to see how she was. She was living alone in her house, aged eighty five, and managing but with enough struggle in her fierce need for independence that I was always attentive to her potential needs. Now I worried about her being on her own, and me, her only daughter within reasonable distance to respond to anything she might have difficulty with, gone half way across Canada. It would not be simple to get home in a hurry.

There was hesitation in her voice when I asked her how she was, but she said a little two definitively, “I’m fine. I’m fine.”

I rattled on about my trip, the plane ride, finding the hotel. I told her about Arthur, a colleague formerly from the Vancouver office asking me to dinner at his home with his wife and six kids on the day after I arrived. Cathy had phoned and was ready to greet me at work on the Monday. She would invite me for dinner soon. She too had worked in the the Vancouver Office.

At the end of the conversation, Mother said, “I wasn’t going to tell you. But it’s alright anyhow. Everything is fine. I’m coping alright. I broke my arm.”

“Broke your arm!” I said, horrified. ” Broke your arm! And you are fine?” I said, shocked and concerned. “What happened?””

“I was just crossing the street just here, near the church and I tripped over the curb. I barely got away from the house. I fell and I broke my arm just at my wrist. Fortunately, a doctor was leaving his office from that medical building a half a block away. He saw me, took me to emergency. Made sure I was OK before he left me.”

“I’ve got a cast on my left hand. It’s difficult but I’m managing. Don’t worry. Violet came over and brought me dinner. The Smiths took me out for dinner last night. It’s spoiling my bridge plans, but otherwise I’m doing very well.”

There was nothing I could do but sympathize. There was no way I could go look after her from Winnipeg. I’d just gotten here. I was starting a new job. I couldn’t just ask to leave as soon as I had arrived. I phoned my sisters later but they also lived at a great distance, had jobs and couldn’t get away. We set up a schedule to phone her, taking turns so that she would at least have lots of phone company.

There was Otto, but I could never get hold of him by telephone. He hadn’t been schooled in care giving like we females had been. He would not let her starve; maybe would get her groceries for her. But who would help her dressing; help her dial a telephone; pour a kettle for her safely; cook a meal?

I’m much better at long stories than short, so I’d better get back to the point.

At the end of the fifth month of my very successful assignment, my fully recovered mother came to visit with me in Winnipeg. We spent the last four weeks together in her home town. With only a few minor clashes, we got along very well. She was, after all, in my home and so she was very flexible. The last weekend was the Queen’s birthday, otherwise known as the Victoria Day statutory holiday. I rented a car and we drove from Winnipeg to the small prairie towns of Plumas and Gladstone where her father had homesteaded. We drove up to Ashern where my father’s family had homesteaded. We stopped in Gimli where mother had once been for a summer vacation. We drove past Selkirk. We saw a sign for the town where she had had her first teaching job, but it was late and I was exhausted from our seven hundred kilometer jaunt around the province in the space of two days. We didn’t go there.

As we drove into Winnipeg, she started to navigate for me. Now you must understand that mother hated driving and she had no sense of direction. “Where are we going?” I asked rather petulantly. “Never mind,” she said in a voice that brooked no dissension .

“You’ll see when you get there.”

Exhausted as I was and thoroughly anxious to get home before I collapsed from fatigue, I dared not disobey. Finally, as we went up and down some less than familiar streets in the North End of Winnipeg, she said suddenly, “Stop! Stop here!” and I did.

Triumphantly she pointed to the two storey house on the corner.

“I was born in that house,” she said. “That room upstairs on the left was mine and Bessie’s, Mabel was at the back, the two boys shared a room. Father had to live downstairs in the living room because he was so sick, severely crippled with arthritis; and mother was in a day bed beside him in case he needed her in the night. ” Mother had not seen the house in fifty years or more.

“All five of us were born in this house. Upstairs. Granny never stayed in the hospital until she broke her hip at one hundred and three.”

She told me more about the family. She named all the neighbours along the street and told me what the fathers did for work – mostly engineers and mechanics for the railroad industry. Then she had me drive around the neighbourhood, pointing out the schools she had attended and those she had taught at. She drove me past where she and her siblings had attended the Salter Street Mission after school and on Sundays.

Although I was exhausted, I was thrilled. She had been with me almost a month. In all of our conversations about Winnipeg in its early days, she had steadfastly refused to go with me to see her family home. It was in the poor part of town and she had made such progress in her life that she was now living in an upper middle class district. What might I think of her poor beginnings? She did not want to leave me with a mental picture of it. It was best left unseen.

Now I had seen it, I had no such feelings as she imagined I might. I was delighted to have put context to her beginnings. Despite her worries, the district looked quite normal. The only thing that I remarked was that much of the land that had originally belonged to the homestead had been expropriated for a broad avenue leading up to a bridge and a highway out of town.

I marvelled that her father who had come to Canada with only his wits and his brawn at the age of seventeenhad built this beautiful two story home which, Mother recounted, had the best of everything – gas lights to begin with and then electricity, one of the first on the block, and a new fangled telephone which Grandmother fearfully refused to answer. He had bought land and built three homes in Winnipeg before he became crippled by his disease in his early thirties.

After an hour or more of slow driving around her early district, we went back to my apartment. Within a week, we had packed all our belongs, taken a plane back to Vancouver, with my belongings shipped and following.
We had a long talk about what I proposed to do and where I expected to land when I went back to Burnaby. The upshot was that she offered for me to live with her and we could keep each other company. The house was too big for her alone. If I did not come, she would have to consider selling the house and going into an apartment. But she wanted no strings attached. She wanted to remain independent, go her own way. She expected me to do the same. It would take some thinking. We both had to be sure.

I’d had more than my share of mother driving my life, telling me what to do and how to do it. She was the supreme matriarch. Did I want to live with that? But we had been very cooperative and good house mates over the previous month.

I won’t tell you all the thought processes I went through to get there. The weighing of this against that advantage and disadvantage took some serious thinking. In the end, I decided that we’d give it a try, and we did.
Seven years into the bargain, Mother was slowly getting more and more dependent. Her mobility problems earned her a handicap pass. Her eyesight was failing rapidly. I was helping her with all her banking. Soon it was difficult for her to go out to banks as bills came in. She engaged the family lawyer to give me power of attorney on her banking and all her affairs. We talked about the will and what she wanted to do with it.

I really didn’t worry about managing her accounts and paying her bills until Cousin Mary suggested I take a course for Primary Care-givers. “You need to be careful,” she cautioned. “There are legal implications. If Aunt El used to give gifts to charity, for example, you can’t just continue to give out those gifts, with your signature, even if she asks you and you have power of attorney. Same with gifts for the family. You have to be able to account for everything.”

I never did take the course. It was dreadfully hard to find time. But I became ultra cautious. Mother tithed. She gave very generously one-tenth of her income to charities of one kind or another, in October, just before the Christmas rush on the mail services, so that she could get her tax slips back on time. Now she wanted me to write the cheques for her in large denominations.

We sat at the large dining room table one evening to alphabetize all the charity envelopes that had come through the mail, that she had saved for this occasion. There were sometimes three of any one charity and sometimes, like for the cancer related charities who had special divisions like Breast Cancer, Prostate Cancer, Lung Cancer, BC Division, Research division, National division, etc. there were lots more. Once the envelopes were in order, she chose which charities she preferred. We had a pile of those who would receive large donations and those who would get token support. For me it was tedious but she relished the time we spent at it. It was something to do in a world that increasingly had nothing she could do and it gave her a sense of accomplishment.

Once I would have written the cheques for her, but now I wouldn’t sign them unless mine was just a countersigning signature. This posed a problem. She could no longer see well. Because she could barely see, she tried to write large so that she could check it out afterwards in the corners of her peripheral vision.

At first, she asked me to place her hand where she should start. With her lovely MacLean’s script, she could write her name by memory. But as soon as I put her hand on the paper, she would adjust her hand to be comfortable to write and lose the starting point. We would begin again. And again.

Later I began to place a large black dot with felt pen at the starting place. It became a part of her changing signature.

“How much have I written. Am I up to my last name? she would ask. “What letter do I start with now? Do I have enough room? Am I still on the cheque? Is this right?”

For charities, for birthdays, and Christmas, her lovely MacLean’s Method signature was changing, falling crookedly downwards, beginning to tremble like Aunt Delia’s, but on a good day, it was still her lovely signature. On her weaker days, it could be an inch tall, fat and quaveringly round with a letter or two missing off the end of the the cheque.

It was a marvel how she could cover up her blindness; it was a marvel she could still write at all. There was some kinetic memory that she could draw on, writing by feel.

As I was clearing up some of her affairs from the residence, found this little notebook. “Please put my feet flat for me” written in passable Macleans and “J and F here”, a reminder that visitors had come so that in the evening, she could remember who had come to visit . What a marvelous lady! .