Archive for the ‘Honesty’ Category


February 22, 2012

Whistler phoned at four o’clock.

I looked at the call display and almost didn’t answer. I no longer picked up any out-of-province number, the latest political leadership race having inundated the social media – e-mail, twitter, Facebook, Linked-in and telephone, to name only the ones I am connected to. This one was a 250-200 number and, though there was something familiar about the last four digits the description which said, “unknown BC resident”, I was wary of another recorded laudatory tape from the nine candidates for party leader.

“Hello?” I said, with misgiving, waiting for the silence and the click over to recorded message.

“Hello000, Auntie? It’s your perpatetic nephew, Whistler.”

“Whistler!” I replied with joy. “Where are you?”

“I’m with Jessie, here in Delta.”

“Oohh! Is Jessie home?”

“Yup. And I’m here helping her.
“How is she?” I asked, greedy for news. “Let me speak with her when we’re done.”

“We’re going to do something different, Auntie, if you can find time for us. We’re both going to come out to visit you. We’ve got today or tomorrow. Lunch. Dinner. Just an hour or  two for coffee. Whatever you can do. You can catch up with Jessie then.”

At that moment,  Wednesday was looking impossible. I was trying to get into Vancouver for a number of different reasons.

“Come out for dinner tonight. I’ll get a reservation. How about six?”

“How about between six and six-thirty?”

“Alright. See you then.”

I rung off. Carol who was helping organize my study said, “Who was that?”

“My nephew, Whistler.He’s in town from up-country. Visiting Jessie who’s just back from Ireland. Europe, really. She’s been traveling around.They are friends.”

In the back of my mind, I was thinking, why doesn’t he marry her?, as I turned from our task at hand to make a reservation at a lovely Italian restaurant, fireplace, table linens and all.

It was moments later as I was lifting a box from the top shelf of the wall unit that my head began to spin.

“Sorry, Carol.” I wavered, “I just can’t do this. It’s foolish for me to be up on this ladder. I’m getting dizzy. Can you?”

As Carol handed me down the storage boxes we were marking for future retrieval, my head began to spin even more.

“I have to lie down for a minute,” I said, and Carol continued on with a different task , scanning the ancient photos into the computer. I wrapped up in the sofa blanket and covered my eyes with a face cloth to block out the light. A slight nausea defined itself. The headache I had denied at the doctor’s office at noon had found it’s way behind my left eyebrow.

“What is it?” Carol asked. “What’s wrong?” I’d been perfectly fine when she arrived. The onset of the vertigo had been sudden.

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s the antibiotic. I don’t take much medicine. My body sometimes reacts strongly to new medicines. It says to take after a meal. Maybe it didn’t recognize my afternoon snack as a meal and it didn’t buffer enough. Just give me a little time. I’ll be alright.”

But as I sat under the blanket gathering myself back into a state of wellness, my mind kept thinking what to do. It wasn’t too late to cancel but, by God, I so delighted in their company that I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. But the gnawing head and slight nausea had taken away  my appetite. It was no night for a glass of wine, table linens and an upscale dinner for me. Much better a small restaurant, or maybe even take-out. That decision could be made when they arrived.

Carol left at five thirty. I was up again and feeling tolerable.I went to change and was upstairs when the doorbell rang, wouldn’t you know.

“Hey, Auntie!” cried Whistler. “Hey, Kay,” added Jessie, their smiles from ear to ear. What I loved about these two was that they could be serious, but they always carried joy with them. Every sad recounting  was filled with jokes or rueful laughter, and the good times were filled with stories and happiness.

“Don’t bother taking your shoes off. We’re going to dinner. How’s Chinese? My car or yours. I know where I’m going.”

We took my car and parked just beside Tim Horton’s.  I’ve just discovered The Happy Kitchen this past two weeks. Their food is glorious Chinese cooking, with fresh vegetables cooked to perfection – just a little crunch to them. Nothing soggy.

“Well, how about the house?” I ask, eager for news.

Jessie is the co-executor for her mom’s estate, a thing we had in common. Her sister, the other “co”  was decidedly unhelpful, uncooperative. I didn’t dare express my feelings until I knew where she was going. It wasn’t my decision, but I hoped she would make the right one.

Jessie is one of those ebullient beings who talks constantly, always has a circuitous tale to tell. She had other things in mind besides answering my question directly. It all depended on a thousand detail which had to be brought to bear, before I could deserve the answer.

“When I got home, I knew everything would not be the same. But I had no idea,” she started. “Melanie drops everything wherever she last used it. Nothing had been put away for six months. Carlos is coming to visit for his holidays. He’s a bit of a neat freak. Even though I’ve warned him, I can’t let him see this.  He’d turn his back and run away! And you know I ask Melanie to clean up after herself, but she never does.”
“I know I’m part of the problem. I am trying my best not to do for her the things she is responsible for. Now instead of picking up and sorting out her things, I just dump them in her room and close the door. I’m concentrating on the common rooms. I was so proud of myself. I got one of those blue-green stains in the bathtub downstairs completely removed – you know, where the tap drips. I was so happy about that. It’s the guest bathroom and is hardly ever used, so it rarely got cleaned. It must have been twenty years since that blue stain has been there. When I showed it to her, Mel said, “Wow, it’s looking really clean. That’s great Jessie.  I guess I should go clean my room up!” She never even thought about helping me with the common areas. And you know, I’ve been away for six months. It’s all her mess in the common areas.”

As Jessie served herself more crispy noodles and green beans with cashews, I caught my chance to say a word. Whistler, by the way, says nothing. Chuckles when appropriate. Smiles, if amused. Shrugs his shoulders or nods his head from time to time. You can tell he is listening, but he’s not talking.

“So what does this mean, about the house? I don’t think Melanie is going to change, do you?”

It was twenty minutes later that she confessed that she didn’t think she could live with her sister. They would have to sell this inherited house, the family home she had grown up in. But where would she come back to if she didn’t have a house? How would she get into the housing market if she didn’t  already have one that would keep pace with the vagaries of Real Estate?

“Do you know where you are going to be working? Or staying?”

Jessie’s new boyfriend was Spanish. Working in Ireland – an IT engineer. Headhunted from Spain. He had everything laid out for him before he arrived – a visa of long duration, an apartment furnished in IKEA modern. But Jessie had outstayed her student work exchange visa, gone traveling, activated a tourist visa and then it too had run out. She had to depart before the last day or it would be impossible for her to get back in. She could stay with him, but she would have to leave again. She couldn’t speak Spanish, but she would have to learn. They hadn’t explored the possibility of Canada yet.”

“So what’s his last name? Where does he come from? What do his parents do? ” Kay asked, laughing. “I’m sounding like my mother. But who is he? ”

“Hah! You are just like my mother. Asking questions.”

“Someone has to do it. And I learned from my mother really well. I hated it. But now I know how to say, “Don’t they have a last name?” really well. Whistler joined in the laughter. My questions were serious, but our collective friendship was so open that we could make fun of the stifling traditions we came from and still dig down into the important things.  We didn’t hold back. She wasn’t offended, rather, she said, “Now that Mom’s gone, it’s really comforting to be able to hear you say what she would have asked me. It really helps me think things through.”

It reminded me of the first time Whistler had come to  live with his grandmother, my mom, while he was going to university. We were raking leaves in the back yard together and I explained some family dynamic to him in all it’s gory detail, along with my analysis of what the outcome would be. I heard back from my sister, his mom, shortly after. “He said to me, a bit incredulously,  “Y’know Mom, she talked to me like I was an adult! Just like I was another person, not just a young kid who couldn’t understand. Why doesn’t everyone do that?”

I had hated being “protected” from the evils of ours and everyone else’s dysfunctional families. I had seen things with my eyes, only to be lied to. It was the only way to describe it. Lied to. Covered up. Euphimized. Obscufated.  To the point where I questioned my sanity. Only to find out much later that I wasn’t wrong. Only, the neighbours, the work place, the world, should not know that these things had occurred or our family, or their families, would be shamed, shunned, talked about, scorned.

I had felt that honesty and clear vision was better. If you knew about a problem and shared it, how much experience could be brought to your assistance from others who had already been there, coped or not coped, learned valuable lessons. Besides, many of the problems were not that drastic. But if you kept them as subterraneous motifs in a family, problems worsened, created a certain madness that crept into daily decisions, actions. I never shied the truth with Whistler.

We were back at my home now, getting an after-dinner coffee.

Jessie continued:

“We  visited his parents at Christmas. They’re really nice. He makes things out of iron in a shop that has been there forever. All of his life and the generation before him.Decorative things. Useful things. He’s an artist, really. I guess that’s what he is. An artist. Beautiful things. You’d love it. And they are so nice. You wouldn’t believe. But it was so stressful. Carlos didn’t understand why it would be stressful, but it was, like, I was meeting his parents and that would have been stressful in itself, but I couldn’t speak to them. Everything was said in Spanish. They said they were too old to learn English.”

As she continued on in her stream of narrative, I had a second narrative coursing in the back of my mind.

Jessie could have been my child. I had been shocked, just after her mother’s death from a massive heart attack, that her mother was only sixty four. It was my age. How would I have brought up a child? I had none of my own. I had brought up my brother’s boys for a short period of time – five of the teenage years. I had succeeded with one and less-so with the other. I had spoken the truth from my viewpoint with them as well. No secrets. I remember saying to each one of them as they stepped out into an independent activity, a first-time adult activity, that they could always tell me anything. I’d been there. I had faced tough decisions myself. Failed at things and gotten back up on my feet and carried on. They couldn’t shock me. I had been a hippie. I’d done drugs and thankfully escaped the consequences. And don’t go there. The drugs are a million times worse now. I hadn’t touched them for more than thirty years. Not even the so-called soft ones. Had loved and lost in anguish. Had moved forward after  a lot of soul searching. I had loved deeply and lost. I’d lived through the pain and survived to the other side of it. I had had sex before marriage, believe it or not,  and they couldn’t shock me there either. If they had a problem, we could discuss it. I wasn’t going to go ballistic on them. Of course, I found out that the world has changed. They could shock me and they did. But it didn’t stop the plain speaking or the ability to discuss it with them.

And now here was a blessing for me, indeed. I had a friend of that same kind of openness that I desired; and she was thirty years younger, and still able to talk to me just like a friend. But she was the daughter I would have liked to have had. Fearless in greeting the world. Adventurous in her travels. Savvy after several years working outside Canada, vacationing in between in exotic places half way around the world. It’s not to say she hadn’t had sad moments or moments of reflection, but she carried joy with her.

“I couldn’t go back to Ireland. You can only have three months a year as a visitor. I’d had thoughts of going to China, but the Lonely Planet says a woman definitely shouldn’t go alone. She could be kidnapped. It wasn’t safe. So I went to Prague. I loved it. I stayed in a hostel and had a great time. I met wonderful people. I shouldn’t have been lonely, but I realized I had been moving around too much. It was time to come home.”  Jessie peppered this with recountings of people she had met. She lapsed into an Irish accent as she described a Trinity College student who insisted on walking her home after a night at the pub there in Prague.

“He had rings in his nose and studding his ears. He had punk boots and belt.’ She stopped a moment and fixed me in the eye. “Do you know how crazily difficult it is to get into Trinity?” I did.

“I looked at him,” she continued, laughing, “and said to him that he was the most unlikely looking young man for such chivalry.He replied to me that he couldn’t help it.His Mam had instilled manners into him and there was nothing for it. I accepted his offer, of course. He danced around me as we were walking to make sure he was always walking on the outer side of the side walk. Heavens! Men in Canada don’t even know they are supposed to do that; that it’s a time-honoured rule!”

“And so are you going to marry him?” I said, bringing her back to Carlos.

“He’s so nice,” she continued her peripatetic conversation, not willing to divulge the answer too quickly. “He’s so good for me. But we will have to wait and see. He still has to come here and see who I am on my own territory. I don’t know where I am going to work. We can’t live at long distance. Something has to be worked out. I could live in Northern Ireland because I have the right to a British long term visa as a daughter of an  Englishman. I could work there and travel down to Dublin on weekends, or he travel up to me.?

I could see everything was in flux. No point in adding my two cents. She was doing just fine at finding her way, making her decisions. Not foolishly jumping into an untenable situation. I was proud of her. I was thrilled really, to have her as my friend.

On parting, she promised to come out and visit me after Whistler had gone home. Whistler, in a rare moment of speech, said, “And what? Leave me out of all the details?”
“Oh Whistler, you get to know them from me when we talk by phone. You don’t miss anything. But I don’t see Jessie that often.”

“I know. I don’t say much . But I listen. There’s always something new that I find out in the retelling. I don’t want to miss anything. I’m like my father that way.” And it was true. He was.

Jessie looked at me sinking into the comfy chair in the living room as I faded. I had managed to keep up with their youthful energy for three hours but now I was hardly holding up and the big armchair was no longer making it possible.

“I think we should leave and give you some rest. To bed with you,” advises Jessie. I nodded. I hated to let them go, but I was no longer operative.

It took another half hour. More stories. Me with some apricot puree from the summer for them. The impossibly simple recipe. Her desire for children, and Carlos, but at her age, the biological clock ticking.

They went. I watched from the window in the front door and waved until the car turned out of the driveway. I could picture my mother doing the same. Glad to be able to sink into my very comfortable bed until the ills righted themselves; wistful at their departure; happy as can be at their visit and the news.

I’ve heard them  talk about why they wouldn’t marry, these two; so I’m very glad that they are such good friends. Lord bless them both, I hope they stay friends even if Jessie ends up living in Europe somewhere. She’s making good decisions. Her heart’s in the right place. And I hope they will always be a part of my life.



Wing nuts

July 2, 2009

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I had trouble focusing the camera on the wing nut. Most likely I had the camera set on the  wrong focusing mode or the wrong light setting. But I rather liked the first fuzzy pictures, above. There are delicate colours in it. No matter that it is not sharp.  You can still tell it is a wing nut.

The remainder of the pictures were fun for me as compositional exercises.

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.

Truth and consequences

November 18, 2007

Women bristle at each other differently than men do. With men, there is a palpable threat of underlying physicality just waiting for a dare.

With women, there is more of a defensive mode; a stony closing in; a self-protection against heart-hurt that lurks, waiting for a truth that cannot be borne. Or so it is in my experience, in my family. We were an intellectual family, promoting rationality, abhorring violence.

Mother stood beside the head of her bed. Kay was standing at the base of it. Their eyes were locked, unmoving, while behind the eyes there was a rapid and minute inspection of each other going on and a long, interminable silence that lasted at least two minutes.

“I’d heard…” ventured Mother.

“Heard what?” defied Kay.

“…heard that you had had an abortion.” It came out painfully. All defensive walls were already up. There was only an arrow-slit window left into her watchful soul. With her mother’s sensitivity, her lie detector was on, full volume.

“You heard wrong,” said Kay. Her voice was equally guarded; her face did not change. She stood a little taller. Only the eyes, still locked with her mother’s, equally searched for the slightest change in her mother’s facial expression that would give a clue of whether the answer had been accepted as given. They could not stay like this forever frozen in time until eternity, waiting for the other’s eyes to drop.

Kay dipped slightly to pick up the afghan that served to decorate the bed. It was the final item that needed to be straightened before the bed was done up for the day. Her eyes did not flinch; but the motion was enough. Mother moved towards the afghan and picked up another corner of the knitted blanket. The move had been made on both sides . A signal that the statement had been made and would be accepted for now, was left for minutious inspection like a sacrifice made at the Oracle in Delphi, later

The motion had broken the tension. In silence, they pulled the blanket straight, smoothed bumps and wrinkles, aligned the top edge parallel to the base of the bedstead and tucked in the bottom. Women’s work.

Kay could not fathom her mother’s credence. Would she accept it or wouldn’t she? Mother would never let her know. All the the things that had been unsaid in this short, but seemingly endless exchange coursed through Kay’s mind like a torrent.

“Shall we have a cup of tea?” said Mother. Mother’s guard had not dropped.

“Let’s,” said Kay. Neither had Kay’s.

But a cup of tea was motion. The kettle, the teapot, tea bag, a plate for a bite to eat. spoons, sugar and a small jug of cream. Like the measuring of blood pressure, the tight band squeezing, pinching the upper arm, the air seeping away and slowly releasing the pressure – so had our tension released then dissipated gradually, leaving only a diminishing memory of the sharp, temporary pain that had been allowed to reach the surface of the skin.

Not much was said over tea. Kay was eager to make it short and leave. Mother seemed to readily accept that.

It had been years, maybe ten, since Kay had found herself pregnant. How could it be so? With all the new contraceptives at one’s disposal, how could this have happened? With everything falling apart, with the marriage in shreds, with her job in question, how could this be added to the craziness? It was just too much.

Kay thought of Rosemary, that slender, freckled, auburn-haired friend who had brought her “Our Bodies, Ourselves” to read, that recently published women’s medical handbook. It was incredible, really, that the taboos of women’s health, the functioning of one’s own body, could be exposed in print for women to read and understand. Kay had had no explanations about her womanly functions from her mother. She devoured the pages greedily, nodding from time to time as light-bulbs lit up her understanding, mysteries uncloaked.

Kay remembered Sharon, the nightclub dancer. No, she had been a stripper and not shy to say so. Sharon had moved into the small town with her beautiful, youthful body, like a fury of destruction, guiltlessly sleeping with every man she met, ravaging marriage after marriage. It was ironic that Sharon had been the final straw in Kay’s relationship and at the same time the only one who had offered an escape to Kay’s dilemma. She knew a doctor who would perform an abortion, if need be.

Sharon and Kay left for North Vancouver, Kay driving, to Doctor X whose name Kay had, by now, these ten years later, completely forgotten. How convenient for Kay, she thought, that she had been born in this generation where abortions had so recently become legal. She would have been pilloried. Her friend Nan, in university, only four years earlier had had an illegal abortion at one of those back door places and it had changed her forever.

Nan had clammed up and never spoken an unnecessary word since. Not to her mother. Not to me. Not to any friend. She wouldn’t eat. She had wasted away, locked in her room by her own choice, to the utter distraction of her mother who, it seemed, never knew what had wrought such a swift and terrible change on Nan.

Her thoughts in turmoil, Kay considered her options. Having a baby did not seem to be one of them. She was falling apart as was her marriage, if you could call it that. She’d barely seen him lately unless he was bringing home his ragtag collection of hangers-on all eager for free dope or booze that had become his modus operandi. Either she was completely alone for huge amounts of time at home or overwhelmed by a houseful of partying people she did not want in it. How could she raise a baby in these conditions? How could she have a baby and work to support it at the same time? She was losing her mind and her job at the same time. How was she to cope? Her whole world was catastrophically caving in.

And what kind of baby would she have, anyway? Kay hadn’t exactly refused to smoke or ingest some of the drugs that had freely walked in and out of her hippie household with her husband and entourage. Would it be deformed? Brain damaged? How had she gotten into this situation, she berated herself. More to the point, how could she get out of it?

The doctor was a woman, kindly and sympathetic. The pregnancy test was positive. She explored Kay’s reasons for wanting an abortion and Kay spilled out her miserable collection of dilemmas in reply. An appointment for the abortion was set not so many weeks away. Timing was critical.

In an odd turn of thought, Kay left the office elated. She could conceive! She was a woman!

That night, without advance warning, Kay went to find her friend Lina in Richmond to stay the night. Kay could no longer go home to Mother. How could she? Mother was so uprighteous and religious. Mother must never know of this or she would never speak to Kay again. Nor would Father. Kay was doing the unthinkable. It had to remain an ugly secret locked up forever. Only now, too late, did she understand her university friend, Nan.

Lina welcomed her in without question. They talked an hour with no limits before Lina said, “I’m working tomorrow. I’ve got to go to bed. Anything in the fridge you want is yours. Stay a day, stay a week; the choice is yours. Here’s a key so you can go in and out. Just drop it in the mail slot if you decide to leave. I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon.”

During that week, Kay barely slept, ideas elbowing and jostling like in a swarming train station, in her brain. Kay desperately wished and prayed for a miscarriage. Kay tried to induce a natural one with extreme yoga and other exercises. Kay pounded her abdomen trying to chase the unwelcome incubus from her womb.

Kay considered throwing herself down stairs but never could quite commit to the other permanent ills and hurts that she might invoke by doing so. She considered various means of self-destruction – slit wrists, poison, drowning – and rejected them all. They were all too messy, too painful or too ugly to leave behind for other people to clean up. And besides, it wasn’t her that she wanted gone, it was her problems – and this little growing thing that would be, by half, the product of this ugly relationship gone wrong and the man whom she now loathed.

And so it was, weeks later, that Kay sat in the doctor’s office, taking another pregnancy test, just before the intended operation.

“Why do I have to do this again?” Kay asked the doctor a bit querulously.

“Because I have to verify if you really are pregnant. ”

Kay sat waiting in turmoil. All the women’s magazines seemed frivolous, stupid really. Her eyes cursorily scanned the other patients. Were they there for the same reason? She continued to inspect the others, too numb to inspect herself inwardly.

“This test says that you are not pregnant.” the doctor informed her, “but we are going to go through a little procedure, a D and C. You say you haven’t had any bleeding but if you have miscarried, I’d like to make sure that we have removed any tissue that might have remained. It will be more certain that way.”

Kay nodded.

She left with a certain amount of glee. How it had happened, she did not know. Whether the first test had been inaccurate Had she been pregnant at all? or had she naturally aborted, miscarried, There had been no evidence of it, she did not know. She did not have to have an abortion. That was how her mind read it.

But here, ten years after, all these events came flooding back into Kay’s mind as she stared at her Mother who was inspecting her for a sign. What, really, was the difference between a D&C and an abortion? Had she really been pregnant? Even Kay could not say, and so she had been able to hold her Mother’s gaze, albeit guardedly. All of this was sitting on the razor’s edge of truth waiting to be cut, one way or another.

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! .

Long time friends – never old!

June 2, 2007

When Mother died, I had lots of changes coming. I’m working them through one by one, not necessarily sequentially, sometimes overlapping the threads of one task with the tasks of another project.

I came to live with Mother 12 years ago now, and I’ve already told you about that, and about how the house had to sell because there were four of us inheriting (one should be so lucky) and how we couldn’t buy back into our own district, so expensive the Real Estate market has become.

I hedged against this day where I would have to find a new place, those many years ago, by contacting my friend from my first teaching days. She had been the secretary in the first school I taught in but she had moved on to Real Estate. For these many years, the love she has for meeting people and in helping them find the right home or apartment has kept her interest high.

Lina found me an apartment, those twelve years ago, in a quiet part of Richmond. It overlooks the back of another apartment complex property that is treed and airy. The apartment is large and full of light and dappling shadow. It’s like being in a small part of heaven. It’s a little bit like living in a very comfortable tree house.

The other thing I may not have mentioned so far because in this fluid story, I was kind of keeping it for an ending and now I will have to find a different ending – I bought a house! This house is out in a suburb about an hour’s drive east of Burnaby and it is right next door to Mrs. Stepford. She’s my artist friend ( and she let me know when it came up for sale. I fell in love with it on the spot and the rest is a story waiting to happen.

Now I’m mortgaged up to the hilt until I can sell the apartment I’ve been renting for the last 12 years while I looked after Mother. So, who do I call? Not ghostbusters…. but my wonderful friend, former secretary, now seasoned Real Estate agent and we looked at the place and what needs to be done with it, and how much I can expect to get from it, and how fast it can sell, and all that stuff.

Afterwards we shared a few laughs about how we met. There was Lina sitting behind the counter in the high school office, calm looking but going berserk with first day madness. This young thing sashayed up to the counter and stood drumming her fingers on the counter waiting for someone to pay her attention. She was wearing a loud scarlet wool dress with a royal purple band eight inches deep on the hemline which announced her hippie leanings and her position as the new Art teacher. It buttoned right up to her neck and the collar was purple too. The red sleeves came right down to the purple cuff at her wrists. The dress, Kay can tell you, prompted many of her students to ask her if she was pregnant, but it was simply a full A-line dress. It’s a pity there are no pictures of it. Kay thought it was magnificent.

Lina looked at this long haired teenager, raised one very English eyebrow and said simply “Yes?” thinking all the while, who is this brassy specimen?

“Where are my receipt books?” demanded the specimen. (Kay does not remember being quite so rude, but that’s Lina’s side of the story). Kay had been obliged to collect money from her home room class and from every art class. Without the receipt books, she could hardly fulfill her duty. For a first day, that was practically the only function the home room teacher had!

“We don’t have receipt books,” came back the answer in a frosty English accent.

Under her breath, but audibly so, Kay the specimen, marched back out of the office muttering disgustedly, “Bloody secretaries and custodians! They run this place! ” Kay had also had a run in with the custodian about some cleaning issue. A fine first day this was turning out to be!

Further than that, we can’t remember. Just that we were equally dismayed at meeting each other. Somehow over the two years that we worked together we forged a connection so strong that these “x” number of years later we are the best of friends. We may not see each other every day, may spend years as it has been this last time, and yet when we see each other it’s as if nothing has changed. We can tell each other anything, commiserate over our failures, hug each other over successes, gossip for a good hour or two, and then maybe not see each other for a long, long while.

We got to trading stories. I countered with the first time she invited me to her apartment situated in the top level of a house . She was on her second marriage, this time to a very quiet Japanese-Canadian engineer. I chuckled in reminding her that David came home while we were having tea and he hadn’t done something that she had asked him to do. Wish I could remember because the severity of the fault seemed small to me. Whatever it was, they had some angry words with sharp but not raised voices, since David was so quiet. He turned on his heel, walked back out of the apartment and down the back steps. She grabbed a glass from the kitchen counter, followed him out and threw the glass after him. It shattered in a thousand pieces.

Lina laughed with me over that one, saying, “I turned around and looked at your innocent face. Your mouth was agape. Your eyes were just popping!. You’d never seen anything like it. You must have wondered what kind of woman you had made friends with!”

We were cracking up with laughter. “I tried it out on Franc once. But I never did again. I had to clean up all the mess. It just wasn’t worth it. All those glass chips! And I can’t stand cleaning!”

Then there was the time, we reminisced, that I came down from Sechelt where I had lived with my first husband who I was leaving over issues of drugs and alcohol abuse. I had nowhere to stay and phoned Lina, now a solid friend, who had been coaching me on how to get out of my messy situation.

“I’m at the gas station at the corner. I don’t have any where to stay. Could you put me up overnight. I can sleep on the floor.” It was ten o’clock at night. I was only twenty four. I’d only been married two years and my whole life was a mess. I had my car and my clothes in it. I’d had to flee my very own home and sort that out later when I could figure out what to do. Lina would surely know. She’d been through a divorce before.

Lina said yes, of course. She asked her ten year old son if he would mind giving up his bed for me, and I slept in that child’s bed overnight. Next day she went off to work. It must have been summer because I wasn’t working. She gave me the run of the house. Pointed out good things to eat in the fridge, but said I could eat anything I wanted, showed me the kettle and the coffee maker, gave me a key.

I think I stayed all day in that house, in that haven. I may have even stayed for a few weeks. I was so rattled and burnt out that I was like a vegetable. And Lina looked after me, just as she has looked after countless lost souls – cats, dogs and lost hippies.

We can laugh at it now. It’s been a life. We’ve both had to deal with family members with drug or alcohol issues or both. We’ve both had to be independent and creative about earning our livings. We’ve both got a love of literature but we discuss it very little. We love to sit talking over a kitchen counter sitting on stools, or curled up on comfy chairs in the living room, or on a walk along the river dyke watching the snow geese, ducks, dogs and humans out for their fresh air; or, as we did today, as Lina lists my apartment for sale, over a classy hotel restaurant table in upscale Richmond….

Thank you Lina,

You are a wonderful friend.


May 9, 2007

mom-112-small.jpgI’m enjoying having Nephew Hugh with me in this fifth or sixth vigil. Who can keep count. I don’t know when it started. I don’t know when it will end but it won’t be long.

His employer said he could take time off if he needed to but he has a work ethic most employers dream of finding in their staff. He says he will work during the day and do night shift when the time gets close. I said to him today that this is the day, if ever, if he wants. I’m doing all the night shifts. I like being up in the quiet of the night. He likes night quiet, too.

All through his University years he studied late into the night – no interruptions. Sometimes he would come home at six in the afternoon and sleep like a log then get up at eleven and do his research and writing. He is quite competitive in his field and he was seeking to get the best marks. Poor fellow (and I didn’t realize how crazy it was for him at home until he cracked under the strain), he agreed to study at home as much as possible to stay with his Gran so that we didn’t have to get in someone she didn’t know and would feel awkward about.
Hugh, I’ve said before, is six foot something – one or two inches above. Ron, his brother is the tall one at six foot four. So Hugh is tall and sturdy. If something happened to his Gran, he could pick her up from the floor, if she fell for example. He could help her in and out of her walker or wheelchair; he could transfer her from her bed or from a stationary chair – routine maintenance stuff.

One day, over a year ago, after a grueling day at home with his Gran freaking out at him because he was using a kitchen knife to prepare lunch and then didn’t hide it afterwards, he cracked. When I came home, he was in a state of high anxiety and aggressive need for me to understand what it was like for him, studying at home.

“She gets mad at me, glares, doesn’t say anything. apparently because I walk back and forth in the house. Pacing, she calls it. She can’t expect me to stay cooped up in my room all day. I have to move around.”

“She doesn’t understand that I have to lay my papers out on the dining room table to be able to see the whole of what I’ve written. I’m writing on my laptop there. Then I have to go back into my bedroom to research things on the other computer. I lose my place if I’m flipping back and forth on just one computer.”

“And she doesn’t understand that I’m not going to knife her with my kitchen knife.”

“Where does she get these ideas? I’ve done every kind of kitchen preparation in my job at the restaurant. I need proper tools to cut things in preparation for dinner. All the other knives in this house are no good. They’re not sharp enough. I keep a knife guard on it, for Pete’s sake. I can’t stand being under suspicion with her all the time. ”

“And she calls me to make lunch, and to make tea, and to take her to the toilet, and to her bed. Every time, she says she doesn’t want to disturb me, but she does. And she gets mad if I fix her tea and then don’t stay to talk to her. Says I’m treating her badly after all she’s done for me. What has she done for me!? I know she’s allowing me to live here. Well, she can take it and shove it. I can’t stand it any more. I’ve had it! I can’t live with it! I won’t do it! You can just get someone else! I can’t study! I can’t breathe. Everything is going wrong! I’m going to fail my exams! I have to see Doctor Wong! My anxiety pills aren’t working any more! I can’t sleep! I have a paper to hand in tomorrow and it’s not ready and my brain won’t work. It just stops and goes blank. ”
Hugh was red in the face, looking apoplectic. His complaint had turned into a diatribe. His agitation was distressing. He wouldn’t listen. I said that I knew, and he yelled at me that I couldn’t know. But I’d been through it and knew exactly. I’d failed my Ethics Counselor competition exam because my brain had done the same shut down with the simplest of questions. I had cared for her for years and I had known she was becoming paranoid and unreasonable, curmudgeonly. It came in fits and starts. It was crazy making.

Now, things were out of hand. Really out of hand. If Hugh left all of a sudden, I was really up the creek. Between a rock and a hard place. What would I do about looking after Mother if Hugh was not home the greater part of a day. I’d have to get help in. I’d been avoiding that because she didn’t want a stranger in the house. She’d even accused the housekeeper we’d had for four years of stealing her keys, wanting to break in at night, steal all her valuables. To bring a care aide into the home would be impossible. Like Cousin Mary and my Aunt, Mother would fire every helper that came because they weren’t this or they weren’t that. What was I going to do?

I can’t remember how the spat with Hugh ended. I think I said.

“Fine!” My teeth bit into my lower lip and I hissed it out, daring him to continue on with the fierceness of my expression.

“Fine!” He spat back, face getting level with mine (I’m only five foot six), hissing it with just as much fervour. “Don’t count on me tomorrow. I’m outta here.”

There was no purpose in continuing the conversation, if you could call it that. I turned my back and went back to the kitchen where my innocent but worried mother was sitting, anxiously looking at me, questions in her eyes but no words.

“It’s all right,” I said to her calmly, evenly, rationally. It wasn’t all right, but I couldn’t tell her that. I finished making the dinner that Hugh had started and we sat and ate it, although it tasted like wood and chewed up just as easily. I got her to bed in the usual two hour session of helping her undress and getting her pyjamas on, fix her hearing aids, comb her hair, set curlers, cut her finger nails, examine her imagined sores, tend to the real ones, feel the bone spurs on her shoulder and on her ankle and remind her that we could do nothing about them, crush and feed her her pills with apple sauce, tuck her in and close the door.

Hugh had lain down on his mattress. I don’t know how I knew it, but I did – he wasn’t asleep. I knew he had a paper to hand in. I knew he should be studying, had school work to do.

“Do you want to talk about it?” I opened up the subject. He glared at me and turned his head back into his pillow. I wandered back to the kitchen, my head working overtime. What was I going to do? He was truly distressed. He was under doctor’s care for anxiety. He’d just generated a whole ton of anxiety and he had no out. I had to keep Hugh on my side. I had a duty to ensure his health as well as my mother’s . And what about mine. Where was I, trapped in all this?
Fifteen minutes later, I heard him playing a computer game, shooting every ‘what’s-it’ figure. Rat-ta-tat. Rat-ta-tat! Pow! Pow! Pow! He was getting his aggression out on computer enemies, reducing his adrenaline to a tolerable level. After an hour or so, he came to me, said, “Sorry Auntie. I didn’t mean to yell at you. You know that. But I mean it. I can’t do it anymore.”
There’s one marvelous thing about Hugh. He’s even tempered and logical. He seldom goes off the handle except when he has forgotten his medicine. When he does, he’s so damned smart, you can’t argue with him. He competitively has to win the argument. Even if you counter his arguments with what you believe is right and bring tempering conditions or circumstances to the situation, he can refute it with the best logic of a courtroom lawyer. He should be one!

But when he has had time to think about what you have said and lets it sink in a little, sometimes he comes around. Then he is more than willing to admit his changing opinion and come half way – or all the way- to your point of view if you were, by some chance, a little bit right after all.

When Otto came home, I told him to arrange something to cover looking after Mother for the next day. I told him how Hugh had lost it. I wasn’t blaming Hugh. I just hadn’t realized that the situation had become untenable for him. For everyone. Hugh needed to be let off duty. We needed a back up and I couldn’t be it. No, not a back up. We needed a whole new scenario and I didn’t know what it looked like.

To Otto’s credit, he picked up the ball and ran with it. I can’t remember now whether it was him or his girlfriend Caroline who stayed with mom the next day.. I asked Hugh to meet me downtown for lunch.
“What are we meeting for?” he said defiantly, aggressively. “I’m not going to keep on doing this. That’s final. Don’t even think it!”

“I know. I know, ” I said. ” We just have to talk some more. I need you Hugh. I need to have you well and functioning. We can’t talk about anything here. We need to get out of context.” He was my sounding board. He kept me even.

I had to straighten things out with Hugh. I had to keep him happy, healthy and on my side. He had to complete his University.It was unthinkable that he lose a year of University at this stage because of what was going on at home. I had to get him back and operating, fully functional.
“Please“, I pleaded, “Please meet me for lunch. We can meet at Earl’s at the Paramount. It’s really close to my work.” He liked Earl’s. Wasn’t my favourite, but it was him I was trying to get back to even. My needs could wait.

In the morning, I met with the Employee Assistance Counselor. She’s a treat. She let me tell the whole, rambling story and then advised me. My mind has blanked out a lot of what came next, only, when I talked to Hugh at lunch time, he reluctantly agreed to give me three more days to find someone or something. I agreed to go with him to Doctor Wong to see about his medication and his anxiety. We ended up getting the housekeeper to come in daily for a while, over Mother’s protestations that it cost too much. And why did we need it if Hugh was at home?

I think that was when Doctor Wong looked at me in the eye and said that I needed a referral to the Coastal Health Unit. The Public Health Nurse came to the house and assessed Mother’s condition and mine. We talked about other possibilities of care. Mother had to go into a home.

I took a week off of work, exhausted, and cared for Mother while Hugh went his way – to the University, just to get away; to Victoria for a few days, to see his girlfriend; to a friend’s house. Thank the Lord that I had a decent employer who was coddling me to keep me at work, so short handed they were, and yet help me cope with my family situation.

In the weeks that followed, I got Mom into the Victoria Order of Nurses respite centre, but it was only temporary. She could only stay thirty days in a year. The days were ticking off one by one, getting gobbled up quickly. Then her cancer that we were just finding out about, that we weren’t telling her about, manifested and she went into the hospital. That was about the time I went on a three week holiday that I had planned six months in advance, so hard it was to get a seat at Christmas time to New Zealand. I couldn’t cancel it. Besides, I needed to get away.

From the hospital, she came home for Christmas for a few days – a year ago, mind you, not this very last Christmas visit. After Christmas, my siblings managed to get her back into the Victoria Order of Nursing respite centre. It being the New Year, the clock started ticking on her thirty days for 2007. She never came back to live in the house. We arranged to get her into a private residential care home and she went straight from the VON to the new place without even driving past her own dear home.

Once she was in residential care, Hugh did not visit. Maybe once or twice in the year, but he didn’t want to go. His anger at his Gran for what had happened sat deeply within him, stewing, ready to ignite with a chance comment, anytime.

One night in November when there was a storm and the electricity failed in our sector of town, I suggested to Hugh that we have dinner in a sector that did have electricity. We drove across town and found a restaurant filled to the gills with other power-outage refugees with the same idea. When we finished dinner about nine, I persuaded him to come with me to see his Gran. “You’ll regret it if you don’t see her before she dies,” I cautioned.

“We just came to make sure you had electricity, Mom,” I said. It was windy out but she hadn’t heard a thing, being deaf. Everything in the residence was business as usual and she was surprised to see us so late in the evening.

“I wouldn’t want you to feel alone and worried about a storm. We would stay with you so you wouldn’t be frightened.”

“Oh, Hugh! ” she cried. “I’ve missed you. It’s so nice to see you. I love you.” She wreathed in a warm and happy smile.

“I love you too, Gran, ” he responded in kind, and came down close to her as she lay in her hospital bed, hugged her then stroked her face so gently. They looked so tender together and happy.

Now his Gran was really dying. There were few chances left to see his Gran. When he agreed to do a night shift with me, he envisaged that she would be asleep most of the night and she would be too frail to be the person he had mentally “walked out on” a year or so previous.

Hugh stayed with me for three nights running and on the fourth, I was exhausted and had to sleep. He stayed the fourth night with his cousin who, like him, had a passionate interest in politics and international affairs.

Our three nights of vigil, he brought his pillow covered with a tartan flannel pillow slip, and tucked it beside his head in the wing back chair parked right beside Gran’s head. Our shifts were irregular, given that we were trying to stay slightly awake, sitting up, and trying to snooze at the same time. When we were both awake, we talked, did a crossword puzzle, read news items to each other. I crocheted away at blanket I was making. All the while, he had his hand in hers, gently.

I can see him in my mind’s eye now, his black fleece hoodie flowing behind him, the hood pulled down over his eyes to keep the light out so that he could snooze, holding his Gran’s hand. Later, he knelt on the wingback chair, leaning over one arm of the chair, his tartan covered pillow somehow compensating for the difference in level, putting his head almost touching his Gran’s head, whispering comforting things to her. He loved his Gran with a deep and full love, the kind of love every Grandmother would love to receive from their grandsons.

This is what I wrote, one of those nights:
The night was almost uneventful. Mother had tremors for about ten minutes before her morphine was renewed. Some tremors were strong, some weak. Hugh and I talked her out of her agitation with gently crooned words of “sleep in peace” “go to sleep’ “rest quietly”. It was like a mantra.

Hugh had recently shaved his head because he’s going bald anyway. He came up to her and hugged her, leaning over the bed, whispering, “Shh, Shh, Shh” in her better ear of the two. Then I would spoon the Gatorade into her, mouthful by mouthful and she would calm somewhat. When she had successfully swallowed enough to keep her mouth moist, she would snore ever so sweetly and we knew she had found a moment of peace.

The fountain outside at the front circular drive of the residence rushes like the first spring run off, a trickle building into a young rivulet racing towards the sea. Sometimes it sounds like a heavy rainfall. It doesn’t so much soothe as flattens the edges on thinking, dulls the brain. Acts like white noise.

“Where are they” she mumbles indistinctly.
The water is incessant. I wish they would turn it off so we could be in peace.

Hugh, full of his youthful, resilient and intelligent love, had made peace with his Grandmother.

Dear Mother, we love you.

April 16, 2007

Dear Mother,

Were you alive, I’m sure you would be horrified that I was telling tales on you.

In your life time, I would never have dared correcting your version of what happened. You would have found that disrespectful of me.

You would surely have found that last tale of the boy on the bicycle leaning somehow in his favour.

“Why am I always wrong?” I can hear you whip out at me. “Why won’t you believe what I say. I was there, after all.”

I found that you were always fearful. For all your gumption and success, you always had a timid, unsure side to your nature. You admired my assurance with the world. I assure you, I worked very hard at it and sweated horrifically under a calm appearance. I waited out situations that could have turned either way, and found that sometimes, more often than not, when I stood my ground, I won out.

I know that you did that also. You told us stories about how you did so; encouraged us to stand up for ourselves (unless we were standing up to you, which was not allowed).

What you did not see was how, as you aged, your vulnerability turned to paranoia. What you did not see was how, day after day, the television pumped out the lurid stories of the city – the people who had been house burgled, the pot houses that flourished in amongst the residential districts, the house invasions, the murders, the freed criminals, the Downtown East Side serial killers, gang wars and drive by shooting, swarmings, muggings, – and that was just the daily news.
Add to that the CSI crime unit tales of horror, the Law and Order trials exposing the rot in society, the gentler but no less horrific English detective tales like Rosemary and Thyme and Miss Marples.

One needed to be suspicious. Of people who came to the door. Of tradespeople. Even of one’s own family.

You did not see our puzzlement as what we considered ordinary events for you turned into potential crimes of theft, assault, battery or even murder.

I began to read about Alzheimer’s disease. Cousin Mary gave me pamphlets she had obtained at a course she took as she embarked upon the task of looking after my aunt, two years younger than Mother. I learned the difference between confusion as a disorder and memory loss occasioned by the brain disintegration of Alzheimer’s disease. The doctor assured me you did not have it. Your brain was bright and clear. Cognition was one of your strong points in this deterioration game called aging.

I learned that confusion came from dehydration more than it did from the act of aging. It could be reversed. If it weren’t for elderly people trying to ensure they could control their incontinence by not drinking anything, there would be a lot more clarity in their thinking.

I had a hard time convincing you because you didn’t want to see your own decline. So I gave up trying. It wasn’t important. I understood that many of your fears were from a natural aging process. I could simply agree with you that the dangers were there; try to allay them by telling you how we were prepared for them; remind you of the security we had built around us; reassure you that with five people living in the house, you had little need to fear house invasions, for instance.

You promised in your last days that you would continue to look after me. I sometimes wonder if you have become omniscient in your new state of existence. Do you know that I’m writing this post for all the world to see, if they care to do so? Do you know I am exposing the underbelly of our family life; the soft and private areas of our relationships; that I have vowed to honesty as I see it? Do you see now that I deceived you by omissions in your latter days to provide you with peace of mind? Tried not to lie, but did? Compassion, for me, has a higher value than honesty.

Je suis comme je suis. Je suis comme ca. (I am what I am. That’s what I’m like.) to quote Jacques Prevert, a modern French poet.

Have I clarified with myself why I am doing it? I don’t know.

I think perhaps, eventually, that it might inspire others to love their mothers even as they get difficult in their final years; to protect them with all the love and understand they can muster; and to let them know that for all I gave you to do that, I gained myself, in regaining your trust, in knowing you deeper and deeper for the fine human being that you are, and I wanted to share that with those who might listen, that they too, could find beauty and enjoy it.

Love you Mama.

I know you are still out there somewhere.

Vigil 2

April 9, 2007

The morphine is talking.

She is unsettled.

“Mantra, Mantra. Oh.” she mumbles on an even tone.

“Everything but me and Bob. Oh Oh”

“What is this? Oh, Oh”

“No more. No more. Oh, Oh”

“Oh God, please take me. Oh, Oh.”

“Oh God, where are you? Oh, Oh. Oh. ”

“Mr. Murray. Oh, Oh, Oh,”

“Those stairs…. Oh, Oh”

And then a gentle snoring. She is sleeping.

“The babes. The babes”

Her monologue takes up again.

“What did she say?”

“I have to go down stairs. I have to go downstairs. Oh, Oh, Oh”

It is a curious, unconnected series of comments. Where is she, I wonder? What does she see? She is no longer able to tell us what she sees, hears, feels.

Dawn comes, Friday the 26th.

It is the same dawn as yesterday. Clear. A few doves in the tree. A crow, a block away in a weeping birch. Only today, there is frost. A white rime covering the green of the park lawn. White rime on the tennis club roof top.

We gave her liquid, then she asked for more.

During the night, we’ve been able to give her a whole cup of liquid, spoonful by spoonful. When her mouth becomes dry, she babbles. With a thimble of liquid, she quietens and she sleeps.

All of a sudden her sleeping eyes that have been shut against us these twelve hours, open wide. I explain that she can’t get out of bed. Very clearly she responds in a querulous voice, “Why?”and her legally blind eyes fix on mine as she asks. She gazes at me blindly, a long, long look, but she sees nothing. It’s unnerving.

Is this night number four? I’m losing track. Night has become day. Not that I wasn’t already a night owl. What would she say about me staying up so late, now that it is a vigil for her?

Heather stayed here in the evening so that I could go out to dinner with friends who flew in from Edmonton for my retirement celebration. My work colleagues had fixed the reception date for today, but obviously I could not celebrate while my mother was very actively dying. It was deferred for a month. My friend and her husband had bought fixed air line tickets, so they came anyway and instead, we went out to dinner. I hadn’t been at work for a week, but I now was officially retired, even though I had done no paperwork to accomplish this status. I’d have to see to that after Mother passed away. I couldn’t deal with it now.

We went to a Cajun Creole place up on Granville Street – a wonderful bistro. Bob ordered alligator as an entrée and let each of us taste it. It was chewy and so covered in a thick strong tasting sauce that one could not taste what the meat really was like. My friend and I were slightly more mundane in our choices, nevertheless the cuisine was excellent. Afterwards, we walked down Granville, all three arm in arm, to Sixth Avenue looking in the fashion district’s display windows and in the art galleries. Happy.

We stopped in a shoe store and looked but did not buy. Finally, we walked back up the other side. All along, we talked avidly, sharing our latest news. Then they walked me back to Mom’s residence, now her hospital, and I rejoined Heather in the wakeful watching of Mom’s care.

Otto and Heather’s husband came at nine thirty to stay an hour, but I tactfully (I hope) suggested Otto be a taximan instead and pick up Heather at ten and bring Nephew Hugh to spend the night watching with me.

I couldn’t bear hearing Otto tell Mother she would be alright. She will NOT be alright. I know he cares deeply but his care giving isn’t the same brand as mine. I try to understand, but I’m not always successful at it and I’d rather be alone than be irritated.

Otto was glad of the respite from watch duty. He was at the busiest of his work season. He was overtaxed. An all-nighter would not have been productive for him. He took my brother in law home then came back with Hugh at ten and took Heather away.

I’m enjoying having time with Hugh. We share a crossword puzzle; we chatter about the day’s doings. We have a quirky sense of humour and often play with words and ideas in a way I don’t do with anyone else.
To the rhythm of Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by woods on a snowy evening”, mother’s favorite, he chants,

He gives his balding head a shake,

My young nephew, seems to think it’s queer

To see us doing crosswords here,

This darkest evening of the year

Okay, it doesn’t scan right, and it mixes up verse references horribly, and we are a month past the darkest evening, but it was fun while it lasted. Anyway, for us it is the darkest evening of the year.

The night was otherwise uneventful. Mother had tremors for about a minute before her morphine was renewed each hour. Some tremors were strong, some weak. Hugh talked her out of her agitation with gentle words of “Sleep in peace” and “Go to sleep. Rest quietly.” It sounded like a mantra, and it worked.

Hugh with his newly shaved head came up to her and hugged her, leaning over the bed, stage-whispering “Shh, Shh” in her better ear. Then I would spoon some more Gatorade into her mouthful by mouthful from the other side of the bed and she would calm somewhat. When she snored softly like the purr of a sleeping cat, she was somewhat at peace.

He fretted that she would not recognize him because of his shaved head, but she did not see anyway. She responded to his voice, and knew it was him.

When it was his turn to watch and mine to snooze, he pulled the blue wing back chair up beside her, leaning over its arm to touch her shoulder with his head. His favorite pillow that he brought from home, wrapped in a Macdonald plaid flannel pillow case, was tucked under his head to compensate for the difference in level between the chair and the hospital bed.

When it was his turn to sleep and mine to watch, he leaned back in the wing chair his Pyromania Bob black hoodie pulled so far forward as to cover his eyes and cut out all the ambient lighting . It amazes me that he can come out in knee length khaki shorts when it’s only two degrees out, Celcius, and not need another cover to help him keep warm as he snatches a few minutes of shut eye.

The fountain outside at the front circular entrance roadway rushes like the first spring run off, a trickle building into a young rivulet, racing towards the sea, breaking up the mass of icicles that formed during the cold spell. Sometimes it sounds like a heavy rainfall. It doesn’t soothe; it flattens the edges on thinking, dulls the brain.

“Where are they” mother mumbles indistinctly. The water sound is incessant. I wish they would turn it off so I could be in peace.

Little Ethel

April 3, 2007

Little Ethel has an angelic face. It beams with happiness always. Even when she is sad, it has this beatific glow about it. Her head bobbles just slightly in a tremor come of old age. All of four foot eight, slight and fragile like a little happy bird, she waits for someone to talk with. She will never be too lonely because she works at greeting every newcomer to the residence. And yet she is lonely.
“It’s hard making friends in here,” she tells me. They don’t stay around for long and then you are sad and lonely again.”

That statement made me think of something my grandmother said about six years before she died at the age of one hundred and nine. “I have no friends left,” she complained, adding philosophically , “but it’s my fault.” She had outlasted them all. It was something that was a difficulty for the elderly. There were very few of their contemporaries left to talk to who would understand the context they had come from.
In the residence, there were a greater number than if one stayed at home, but that was a statistic that was suspect in value because that number could be divided by ten when counting those who could not communicate due to deafness, disappearing cognitive functions and isolation.

Little Ethel took an immediate shine to Mother. Held back by her native British reticence, she would skirt our table and never intrude. It was Lizbet who first noticed her, gleeful that she had found a little old lady that reminded her precisely of our own Granny. It was her nature, not her appearance, that reinforced this impression, although in height and weight they could have been equals.

It was Lizbet who befriended her first, during her summer holidays, but Lizbet lived in the Kootnays and was teaching. She had to go back so she asked me to look in on this delightful lady and just keep her a bit of company. Lizbet started to send her cards with a bit of news.

Slowly I drew her into our family circle. I brought her down to have tea with mom in the afternoon. When I saw her alone after dinner time, I would bring her bowl of ice cream and her tea over to our table and she would join in our tales and our laughter. We had adopted her into our family!

We gained a new adopted grandmother and Little Ethel gained a family.

As I got to know her, this gentle tiny lady revealed a mischievous side and a strong will that could not be dismissed by the staff of this residence, as they so often seemed to do.

She told me a story of her first days in the residence.

She had become very ill and fell during a dizzy spell from the steps of a bus to the sidewalk. She didn’t remember too much what had happened to her after that except she found herself in a hospital with only the help that a government can give. Her daughter was mentally challenged – not retarded but officially slow enough to have been in special schools for her education and undertaken, Provincially, intoa group home for her adult living. The daughter was incapable of managing her mother’s affairs. The Health Authority had arranged, then, for Little Ethel’s affairs outside the hospital.

In the process, Little Ethel’s house had been sold and only the things she could remember to ask for were brought forward to her at her new residence. As she brought nothing with her, the Residence furnished her room with desk, bed, visitor’s chair and table.

As she improved in health and was able to deal with her surroundings, she noticed that she had a mouse in her room. Now this little lady had no fear of mice, but she knew this was not their place and that she should advise the Residential management that someone should take care to remove the poor mouse. An infestation of mice in an elderly residence could create havoc with those who had not had the experience of pet mice in their youth. Besides, health authorities now knew that tey sometimes carried fatal diseases with them such as the Hanta virus. Better to let someone know, she thought.

And so, she told the care aide who promptly dismissed her mouse visitation as fabrication. Not to be ignored, Little Ethel mentioned the new resident in her room to the nurse on the fourth floor. The nurse accompanied her down to her room but the mouse, being a timid creature, did not come out to greet the nurse, so the nurse, too, dismissed the “story”.

Little Ethel is not of a nature to get angry about this sort of thing. Nevertheless, she is proud and she did not like being branded as hallucinatory or fabricator of untruths for sensational value. She had already taken to watching for her rodent room mate. Where did it live? Where did it go to hide when the nurses and the care aides came to visit?

There it was, nesting in the old armchair that had been down in storage before it became a part of Little Ethel’s residential decor. Ethel was patient. She enticed the mouse with offerings until the mouse would let her feed it, then stroke it, then capture it! Gently she held her prize in her hand, stroked the wee co-habitant of her digs and then nestled it under her left arm.

With a triumphant and mischievous smile on her face, head bobbling in glee, she walked carefully down to the elevator, pushed the down button with her left hand, waited until the cab came to take her down to the reception.

She waited patiently. The receptionist was gossiping in a foreign tongue, obviously on a personal call as she inspected her nail polish and brushed non-existent crumbs from her lap, animatedly talking on and on, giving little attention to the resident waiting before her. Finally she looked up at her, resignedly, as if she really did not want to deal with this interruption, still holding the telephone receiver high in her hand as if to say “be quick, I have someone waiting on the line”:.

“Yes, Mrs. Wilson? What can we do for you?”

“I’ve been telling you about the mouse in my room….” she began.

“Yes, Mrs. Wilson. We’ve already looked into that. There is no mouse in your room.””

“I know that now,” Little Ethel replied, as she slowly removed her hand from under the warm wing of her left arm, “because it’s here now.” And she held the mouse in front of the receptionist’s face just long enough to ensure the receptionist had seen it very clearly then let the mouse loose into the lobby of the residence, and she turned on her heels to go back up to her room.