Archive for the ‘residential care’ Category

Karma

July 19, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like a two year old,” I sympathized.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mrs. Braid?”

“Speaking,” the voice replied, quite formal.

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

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O, Christmas Tree

December 13, 2008

Oh, Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree,

Thou tree most fair and lovely…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rag tag choir or The road to Hell

November 27, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, is little Ethel around?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amnesty

November 7, 2007

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

I sighed inwardly. The repetition was getting to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ice Box

November 5, 2007

It was a desultory Sunday afternoon conversation. Mr. and Mrs. Stepford were sipping tea and Mrs. was rapturing over a piece of lemon flavoured pound cake.

Mr. was leafing through a box of old newspapers and magazines that had been brought from Mother’s house as I was clearing it out. I hadn’t time to sort it out at all, so the boxes and piles of stuff from her house were now encumbering my living room, my dining room, my studio, my office, my basement, the outdoor tool shed. Boxes, boxes everywhere, and not a drop to drink, I thought, remembering Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner and massacring the lines of the poem to suit my purposes. I could have done with a short sharp nip of something. I was getting worn down by the aesthetic depression I was getting into, looking at all the boxes.

“These are all about the Niagara Falls Rainbow Bridge,” said Mister Stepford. “Nineteen Forty-two” he muttered, as an afterthought.

He carefully handled each newspaper and magazine that he brought out, laying them upside down in the box top so that he could easily put them back in order when he had looked at them all. He was searching for my father’s name amongst the myriad credits that were cited in reference to the bridge.

“He was just starting as a Civil Engineer. I’m sure he must have worked on it. But they woudn’t have credited a rooky Engineer. It was the middle of the war. I remember Mom telling me that all the women were encouraged, that is, coerced, into assisting with the apple and peach harvests because all the men were off to war or doing something essential at “home”. She went picking, she told me, but she hated it.”

Mr. Stepford fell silent as he turned the pages, careful not to tear the fragile paper, careful to keep the folds that were already there aligned so that no damage would occur from his handling them.

Then he found a 1941 calendar. “Whose year of birth was this one?” he asked.

“Heather’s”

Next he found the May 1945 NATIONAL home monthly.

“Look!” he remarked,” There are several companies that are still going strong today. “Cow Brand baking soda; Old Dutch Cleanser; Kotex; Arrid deoderant; Swift’s Premium Bacon;Jello; Gold Seal Salmon; Yardley’s soaps; Coca Cola; Magic Baking Powder!”

“Ice boxes!” he exclaimed, as he read on. “The new Ice refrigerators are here!” he quoted.

“I remember the day they brought a refrigerator into our house on Thirty-sixth Street.” said I. “We had an ice box before that. It was before we moved to Burnaby, so that must have been about 1950. I was little, but I remember. No more messy blocks of ice; No more emptying out the drip pan in the bottom. Times sure have changed.”

“Mother had the first refrigerator on the block. And the first dishwasher, too. We called it James, like it was a servant, but that was it’s brand name as well. Someone else had the first television. That was 1953 because we kids all went down to the Hillman’s house on the next block to watch Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation. That was really something!”

“And do you remember the horse and cart that delivered Dairyland’s milk from door to door? There was so little gas available and at such a price, that the retailers went back to delivery by horse rather than by automobile.”

The memories come in bits and pieces. A comment made, an object to touch – they all have ghosts behind them. Ghosts of the living – that person I used to be whether small, at five or tall when I was eleven, or twenty – still stirring, remembering threads and patches in the fabric of my life and bringing them forward.

What do I do with…

June 22, 2007

What do I do with my father’s Engineering publications, many of which he wrote articles for? No one in the family understands them. No one followed in his path of esoteric learning.

What shall I do with his 1982 card from the Canada Lands Surveyors Professional Affairs Comittee that certifies that he is a duly commisioned Canada Land Surveyor and as such is entitled by law to enter upon any lands for the purposes of any authorized survey under the Canada Lands Surveys Act dated 1982, one year before his death? It is accompanied by a receipt and fastened to a roster of names and addresses, held together by a simple paper clip.Is this worth saving for a family archive? Do I keep the roster with it? and the receipt?

What do I do with the collection of play bills that Mother collected everytime she went to the theatre, which was often? I called the theatre and they are happy to have them, so that one is solved.
What do I do with the cards that she saved, from her children and her sisters, saying “Happy Birthday, Mom” or “Happy Mother’s day” and not much more? And the letters saying, “Everything is fine here. Mom is well” from her sister and little else?

What do I do with the pile of cotton rags she kept, clean and folded, in case we made Christmas Puddings again.They are the remnants of cotton sheets that had seen their day. (I know the recipe now; together we made a batchof Christmas puddings in her ninety third year). Will I ever make one again?

What shall I do with this Royal Bank of Canada calendar from 1968 with its paper apology stapled in a note saying “30 days hath September” in large font, and an explanation of the printer’s error, giving September an extra day – the thirty first.

What shall I do with this poster with Henry David Thoreau’s quotation: “Why should we be in such deperate haste to succeed, and such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away “.

Father would quote this to me often when my trials of teenage years with Mother left me feeling perplexed, depressed and inadequate. He quietly supported me in my vision of myself then and always. This poster hung in the basement far from Mother’s daily view, but Dad and I knew it was there. It was there when I left for Europe. It was there when I came back. It was still hanging as long as Dad was alive and then the quiet symbol of rebellious opposition got put away, but not thrown out. It’s faded now. The colours of the calligraphy have faded. The bright yellow initials that stood out when the poster was young, have obscured into the yellowed background of the acid containing paper it was written on making it hard to decipher,  and the edges are torn and fragile.

What do I do with this box of sheet music that is no longer popular, similarly dying the death of an overdose of acidic content syndrome.

What do I do with the certificates, soberly framed in black, festooned with annual stickers of continuing qualification, of Father’s profession as a Professional Engineer and as a Land Surveyor. And what about his diplomas vaunting his three degrees, Bachelor, Masters and Doctorates, from the Universities of Manitoba, British Columbia and Ohio, in the United States? Sic transit gloria mundi!
Do we carry these honours from one generation to the next, accumulating the proof of our competence forward into the neverending future? Will we need a warehouse for family memorabilia? Or do I consecrate them to the ubiquitous shredder? Or hold a bonfire? Or send them to another relative to make the decision like a Trojan gift to enter their thoughts and consume them with what-to-do’s?

What do I do with all these photographs, these treasures of technology when they were made, of Canada in the far north, where Father was one of the few brave souls who surveyed while there was no development whatsoever up there. He went off with French Canadian couriers de bois, whom we don’t even think exist in today’s society,  who were the best guides for his travels through uncharted territory. They knew how to survive off the land, knew the  signposts of river currents and weather, knew where to find a rabbit or a deer for dinner, and berries for a pie, if some of their precious supplies of flour still remained dry from their thrilling rides through whitewater.

When Father passed the reigns of his office in the Canada Land Surveyors, they presented him with a Ceinture Fleché, one of those magnificent woven multicoloured belts that the courier used from their earliest adventures.

What do I do with Mother’s hairpins and bobby pins, her velcro-like curlers.  What about her ancient collection of office paraphernalia, mini staplers that you could carry in your purse (but can no longer get staples for), paper clips now oxidized with time, hole punchs, split rings, straight pen nibs and yellowing clear adhesive tape.

What about the lapel pins and coffee spoons branded with cities’ insignia enamelled on them, that she collected from her travels? And the tourist pamphlets from Moscow, from China, and Copenhagen, Oslo and Jugoslavia; or printed histories from Greig’s house and Mozart’s, and Beethoven’s; leaflets from the Salzburg salt mines and programs from Oberammergau; from Ayer’s Rock and from the Auckland Art gallery; and postcards from the Blue Mosque somewhere in Turkey and from the Parthenon in Greece.. Mother travelled.

It would be easy to chuck these, but would I need them some future time to capture the length and breath of her wanderings, in her late sixties and her seventies. She wanted to go everywhere, see everything in the world, as long as there was tour bus to take her there. And what do I do with all these group photos of fellow tourists, and “oh yes” there’s Mother in the middle row, three from the left, her 1970’s horn rimmed glasses always a clue to her location in the group.

Without the house, once it’s sold; without these collected detritus of their lives, will my parents still exist in memory?

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?”

Hugh

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.