Just Keep Breathing

“I won the lottery,” says Dad on our way to his bi-annual high school luncheon.

I had nearly died 5 times already that morning, driving to the Tsawwassen Ferry parking lot to catch the 9am ferry. A nervous driver when not on the island, my sweaty hands clenched the steering wheel as my knuckles throbbed, navigating the pitch black torrential rain, lightning, puddles on the highway, and the traffic accident in the Massey tunnel. The shiny pavement masking the painted lanes, the near miss turn offs, and the voices in my head telling me to screw it all and cause an accident. It was a rough start.

“A free ticket,” says Dad, smirking.

We take the slow scenic route to Victoria, West Saanich Rd on a beautiful autumn day, a few clouds but no rain.

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“She’s finally buried the hatchet,” says Dad about Mum, as though he hadn’t spent my childhood slagging her off to me.

“I’ve decided you have to keep learning in this life,” I say, bragging about my latest personal development plans.

“I’m just trying to keep breathing,” replies Dad.

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We park at the hotel, and are the first to arrive in the lobby.

“I challenge you,” says Dad waving his cane at an unknown Vic High classmate struggling with her crooked back and specialty cane to get in the door of the hotel.

She doesn’t know him to find him funny.

“Good bunch of people,” he says after lunch.

“Most people are,” he continues, “Wouldn’t be able to live in this world if they weren’t.”

We talk about the attack on Parliament Hill the day before.

“Extremists aren’t Muslim,” says Dad, “Just like those who burned people at the stake weren’t Christians.”

We take the Pat Bay Highway to pick up Mum and drop me back off at the ferry.

“Look at those blue skies,” he says, patting my arm sympathetically, “Have fun back in Vancouver.”

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Mum climbs into the car.

“You look beautiful Mum,” I say.

“Bullshit artist,” says Dad, “She was married to a top bullshit artist. She won’t fall for that.”

Mum rolls her eyes back and forth, and then back and forth again.

I ask Dad if he needs to use a washroom. He doesn’t.

“He must have a big bladder from all his drinking,” says Mum.

“See? It was a good investment,” replies Dad.

I get out of the car at the ferry drop off.

“When are you back?” asks Dad.

“Two weeks,” I reply.

“I’ll count the days,” he says.

“Yes he will,” says Mum.

“Am I driving or are you?” Dad asks Mum as she makes her way to the driver’s seat.

“Talk to me,” he says, and I laugh and join him in unison.

“How can we have a meaningful relationship if you don’t talk to me?”

Keep breathing Papa.

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Fly like a bird

“I’m not a cripple!”

Dad got mad when Mum took him to the doctor, at my request, to see about getting a walker.

“Since it’s here,” he said to her later on, using it to get around the house.

By the time I arrived back on the farm, he was swinging the thing around like a dance partner.

Yesterday’s update from Mum:

“I took Dad to the market for an outing this morning and he met up with buddies,” she writes, “He asked if he should take his walker and I said, ‘lets give it a try’. Well, he flew like a bird around the whole place, so you could say it was a huge success!!!!”

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Lifeline

“Hi Dad. It’s Katie.”

“Katie who?”

“Your daughter.”

“Oh, Rita’s friend,” Dad says, “When are you coming over next?”

“In two weeks. For Thanksgiving,” I reply.

“I’m sure I’ll be dead by then,” he says.

“You better not be. I’m buying you a new lift chair this week. Mum’s going to come over and measure you,” I say.

“Make sure you explain it’s not for a box,” he replies.

We laugh.

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“I need you to push the emergency button on your wrist. We’re supposed to test it every month,” I say.

“Why? What’ll happen?” he asks.

“I don’t know. Let’s find out,” I reply.

Dad pushes the button and the phone line goes dead.

I call back but it’s busy so I keep trying until it goes through.

“What happened?” I ask.

“Everything,” he says, “Even a floating hand with toilet paper appeared. I don’t know what it was going to do.”

We laugh.

“You can hear it from Sooke too,” he says, “And it even had me talk to Rita for a few minutes.”

We laugh.

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If I Had My Way

“I missed you,” I say to my parents, kissing them hello.

My sister was visiting from Japan for the month of August, so I took the opportunity to take a break from my responsibilities as caregiver and focus on my family with Lynn.

September has returned now though, and Mum and Dad are waiting in the parking lot as I walk off the ferry.

We celebrate over hot turkey and onion rings, or coffee and pie, or ice cream and milk at RnR Diner in Saanichton, the diner I worked at while living full-time with Dad, where they know me as Tuesday.

“Look!” says Kelly, “Tuesday’s here on Friday.”

We sit down in a booth.

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Dad has a cold, the chest kind that sounds wet when he coughs.

“I don’t like that cough” I say.

“Well, I’ll take it with me,” says Dad.

Dad tells stories but he seems weaker than I remember.

“My Dad used to say ‘you can’t take it with you unless it’s on you when you go’,” he says patting his stomach.

“You coming to the reunion with me in October?” he asks.

Yes, I am.

Mum tells me it’s a popular topic and then adds,

“You won’t make it to the reunion if you don’t look after that cough”.

“Oh well,” says Dad smiling, “at least I won’t have to take snarky comments from my ex-wife anymore.”

He pauses.

“Unless I go down,” he says, pointing at hell.

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Dad has trouble getting out of the booth and while I’m paying the bill, he nearly falls on his way to the door.

“Must have been something in the milk,” he says, saving face.

I notice his cane no longer looks strong enough for the job.

“I’m going to get you a walker,” I say.

“I’m not a cripple,” says Dad.

I help him from the car to the house, like I used to with my Granny when I was a tween. He whispers in my ear that he wants to go slowly so that Mum doesn’t make him take down the washing from the line, an excuse to give him time to catch his breath and get back his strength.

Mum flutters about in her Mother Theresa kind of way before heading home to Brentwood Bay.

Dad in his room, Nicol cooking his dinner, and me in the living room opening the mail,

THUD.

I run to Dad’s room. He’s on his back on the ground with shock and fear in his eyes.

“Nicol!”

Together, we lift him up and shuffle him to his chair. He’s lopsided and looks uncomfortable but lacks the strength to adjust himself. He coughs and swears as it triggers pain in his side from where he fell.

“Should I take you to the hospital?” I ask.

“Call your mother,” he says, “she’ll know what to do.”

Instructions from Mum: painkillers, cough medicine and lots of fluids.

“I told you the Warden would know what to do,” says Dad.

The drugs kick in.

“Katie? I have to go to the bathroom,” he says.

I come back with Nicol to lift him from his chair.

“I don’t think I’m going to make it,” he says.

“That’s okay,” I say as we shuffle to the loo.

He does, and then we lower him down into bed.

“Lay back and I’ll pull off your pants,” I say.

“Isn’t that usually the man’s job?” asks Dad.

I laugh and shake my head.

“Well, I’m leaving you and your sister a good lolly here,” he says.

“I’ll take you over any lolly” I say.

“My time has come Katie.”

“I know.”

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I tell him how I admire how he faces old age and how I have loved the time we’ve spent together these past few years. Tears stream down my face. He doesn’t reply.

I lift the needle to the record and Vera Lynn, the sweetheart of the forces, sings to us.

I crawl into bed beside him, our arms side by side, touching as he tells me stories in the dark.

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“My Dad’s oldest brother was dying and the minister asked him if he wanted to confess his sins,” says Dad, “so he said ‘Father, there’s no time for that. Just put me down for everything except murder.”

We sing along to Vera,

There’ll be bluebirds over, the white cliffs of Dover 

Tomorrow, just you wait and see. 

I remember when it was Dad feeding me cough syrup from a spoon, lying on this very same mattress in this very same room.

As a child, I was too scared to sleep anywhere else in this big, spider infested house. Even as a teenager and young adult, I would crawl into bed beside Dad when I was sick, depressed or heartbroken.

Lying with him now with his heavy congested breathing, hearing stories, singing along or listening quietly, I use all my senses to record the feeling of this shared moment with this man that I love.

Side two finished, Dad’s breath’s heavy enough for sleep, I roll over to leave.

“Are you abandoning me?” Dad says, “or flipping the record?”

I laugh, flip the record again and crawl back into bed.

If I had my way we’d never grow old and sunshine I’d bring every day. 

You would reign all alone like a king on a throne, if I had my way

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The Last Stand

“Has it been three years since Lorraine?” asks one man to another at table 9.

“Three years in November,” he replies, “Three long years.”

Dad and I are at his 65th high school reunion at the UVic University Club.

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“This is my sister’s husband,” says Bernice introducing me to her date, “She died in 2001.”

Bernice’s brother-in-law is the one she calls when she gets snowed in. He brought her a pail of strawberries he had picked when he arrived at her door to drive her to the reunion tonight.

We eat salad, halibut or roast beef, and strawberry shortcake.

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“Sixty-five years ago, I was drunk,” says one man at our table, “I didn’t get home until seven in the morning.”

They laugh about the bonfire that night and other stories about lost friends and good old days.

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“We share three things in common,” says the classmate giving a speech after dinner, “our birth, our time at Vic High, and ultimately our death.”

The flowers by the door are dedicated to the classmate most recently passed away. He had RSVP’d to the reunion but had died since.

“There probably won’t be a 70th,” says a woman at the podium, “but there will be another luncheon in October.”

She lists the names of the women that organized this event as well as the more casual the bi-annual luncheons throughout the year. The room claps in gratitude. Without these women, old friends would have lost touch.

“Other years don’t get together like we do,” says Bernice. “And our class only started after our 40th reunion.”

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“Does anyone else want to say something before we all go home?” asks the woman laughing with the room. It’s eight o’clock.

With what my father calls ‘gumption’, which I must have inherited from him, I make a request at the podium.

“Would you please sing your class victory song?”

The surviving members of Victoria High’s Class of 1949 rise from their chairs, standing with their bad hips, canes and shaky glasses, and together before me they sing and hum, as well as they can remember, their victory song.

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“So, how was the reunion last night?” asks Mum as she and Dad drive me back to the ferry the following day.

“Good,” Dad says, “I think Katie’s going to dye her hair grey so she can join the group.”

We laugh.

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“They’re all good, positive people, aren’t they?” says Dad.

“Yes, they sure are,” I reply.

 

 

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Scottish Reform

“We r having a Scottish dance on Friday night. Please will u & Dad come!?”

reads a text from Mum.

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Friday night at the Brentwood Bay Senior Centre, it’s a big night out, especially for Dad. He’s been dressed up for it all day.

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Mum’s waiting at the door when we arrive. We throw down our money and head to the dance hall, sitting Dad down by the windows in the only chair with arm rests, aka get up again assisting devices. He sits wide-eyed with his hands on his cane between his legs, and his pants pulled high enough to reveal his socks and little old man legs.

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“It’s a change from the TV at least,” says Mum.

I nod and remind myself to cut his eyebrows.

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It’s time to dance.

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“Just to warn you, I may collapse,” says one man, “Bad hip.”

In lines of men facing women, or due to the gender disparity, women in men’s scarves facing women, our teacher prepares us for the upcoming dance. Hold hands, move forward, move back, skip here and there, in a circle with your right hand here, skip sideways through this pair, make a figure eight through that pair, grab hands with everyone and shuffle sideways in a circle this way and back the other way, but remember it’s only this way on the very last time. Got it?

Let the music play!

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“Scottish dancing is easy,” said Dad before we left the house, “Skip that one and this one, and that one and this one,” as he pretends to skip cow pads in a Scottish field.

Not quite my experience, I disgrace my Scottish heritage as I skip and turn with panicked eyes seeking aid from the partners around me, but their eyes offer no assistance as they are as terrified as my own. Our group is so full of first timers that the teacher comes running to keep the dance afloat, grabbing the arms of little old people as she drags them running in circles trying to catch up with musical time.

By the third dance, I am calling on my 77 year old mother to replace me in line, while I head psychologically exhausted to sit beside Dad. Together we watch in amazement as men and women all the way into their eighties with humped backs, stiff necks and swollen ankles dance as though their very lives depend on it.

“It’s good exercise and good for the old noggen too,” says one beautiful old woman, “that’s why I do it.”

Use or lose it.

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An evening of dance and laughter with my divorced parents, it was a night to remember. These are precious days.

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“Dance me to the end of love,”

sings Leonard.

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Disaster has struck!

“Disaster has struck!” says Mum in all her British-accented glory when I answer the phone.

Dad wants to call the police because he thinks Nicol is stealing the silverware.

He’s not.

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But, change is in the air and with change comes uncertainty and uncertainty inspires anxiety, which experience has taught me can lead to conspiracy theories. Mental illness or dementia only adds to the creativity of those possibilities.

I take the week off work, catch the ferry to the island and spend it watching Murdock Mysteries beside Dad, hoping my presence will reassure him. Throughout the days, he turns to me and asks,

“What’s happening with the grandchildren?”

“Seth, Delean and Taeja are going treeplanting,” I say, “And Kai has moved into John’s place in town with Seth.”

“Oh, that’s right,” he says petting Nigel on his lap and turning back to the TV.

The chicks have flown the coop.

taeja &Gpa

Back on the mainland, I get word that Dad called the man who pocketed a cheque for $20,000 while I was at work and is subsequently banned from the farm, to come over to fix a leak in the kitchen sink. A friend doing a favour, he charged Dad more than a certified plumber would have. Apparently, the 20 grand didn’t cover it.

“But Dad, don’t you see that inviting Ken over when I’ve told him he’s no longer welcome here puts us in conflict? He’s my Roy Err, Dad, my Judas.”

Dad goes silent before he explodes and hangs up on me. The silence is the moment he understands my point of view. The explosion is his apology, and the hang up is a promise not to call Ken for maintenance help again. At least, that’s how I interpret it.

Feeling guilty for upsetting Dad, I warn Nicol to keep an eye on him.

“Your dad is fine. I know how sensitive you are about those things. Your dad knows that you are always doing what you feel is best for him – even when he disagrees with it. He has told me this often. He loves you deeply and appreciates what you do for him. I believe your dad is very happy with his life at the moment, and it’s primarily because of what you have done for him.”

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“What else is exciting?” Dad asks me every few minutes the next time I’m in town. He’s full of jokes to make me laugh because jokes make everything better.

“I bought a new dishwasher,” I tell him, running out of exciting things to say. The other one is old and broken, so he agrees with my decision. But then, he turns to me with terror in his eyes.

“I better be careful about what I say about what to do with things when they get old!” His hands cover his mouth.

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“Have you thought about putting him in a nursing home?” asks another friend.

It’s not that I’m against nursing homes that I keep Dad at home. In fact, without a biological child to burden with my own old age, I hope to be able to afford such a place for myself, somewhere that doesn’t remind me of the smell of urine or the memory of wheeling Granny into a closet of a room and lighting her a cigarette with a plastic bib hanging around her neck. I’m hoping for comfy couches and singalongs of all my favourite songs, a clean, private room with a window, a cat and a view, and where the caregivers are kind to my fear, gentle to my embarrassment and ever ready and quick to laugh in spite of my pain.

Dad is different though. He’s happy and confident in the home he built when he was young and strong, where he walks down the hill to get his paper and falls asleep to his favourite records each night with three dogs and a cat snoring on the bed. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think he’d live long if we were to move him now.

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“The first one comes anytime, but after that, it takes nine months,” says Dad, making jokes about illegitimate babies.

After every ending comes a new beginning.

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“That’s it! She’s staying here with us,” says Dad on the first weekend Lynn and my honeymoon baby, a Mexican rescue, came to spend at the farm. Already up on his bed with the other dogs and cat, Dad can think of nothing better than adding another dog to his pack.

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“The Goat Lady’s here,” says Dad, nicknaming our new tenant who moved in with two dogs and cats and five goats on the farm.

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John died a year ago, and now two of Kristin’s children live in his house, the beginning of a new era. The farm has shifted too and is now home to a whole world of new: new tenants, new love, a newborn baby, and six new baby-goat kids (yes, eleven goats in all).

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Change often feels like disaster, and death an ending without reward, but when disaster hits, I must try to remember that every ending brings a new beginning.

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And due to my morbid nature, I can’t help but think about the ending of my own life’s song. May my life leave behind it a fertile soil for a new story for someone else to tell.

Remembering John

 

 

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