Blue Valentine

Love is what you’ve been through with somebody. ~James Thurber, quoted in Life magazine, 1960

“Please call me when you can,” texts Mum on Valentine’s Day.

The cat scan results are in. Dad has cancer of the bladder and prostrate and a blockage in his lungs.

Without love, what are we worth? Eighty-nine cents! Eighty-nine cents worth of chemicals walking around lonely. ~M*A*S*H, Hawkeye

“He’s ready to turn up his toes,” says Mum, “but I asked the doctor what can be done for his lungs.”

Mum and I agree. Choking is not how we want things to go for Dad.

Time is too slow for those who wait, too swift for those who fear, too long for those who grieve, too short for those who rejoice, but for those who love, time is eternity. ~Henry Van Dyke

“Don’t be too sad, darling,” says Mum, her own voice cracking, “It comes to us all.”

Chin up.

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Wednesday

“Happy birthday to me,” sings Dad, a cardboard makeshift bowl of cake and ice cream in hand as he sits lopsided, battered and bruised in the emergency room.

Dad fell. Though not the first time, it’s the worst so far. I catch a float plane to Victoria.

“How the hell did I lay brick with arms like this?” says Dad. Exposed in a hospital gown, he is more skin than muscle.

The doctor and nurse in charge of his care aren’t around when I get there, and a student nurse is the closest I get to a medical update.

A patch covers the gash on the back of his head. Dry blood is still caked down his neck. Mum and I are told tests have come back negative and he can be discharged.

“But he can’t walk,” I say pointing at his shaking legs.

It’s not safe to take him home. All us caregivers agree. Something is wrong.

Dad disagrees. He wants to go home to the dogs at all costs.

I pace the halls while Mum goes for back up – a community nurse in a building across the parking lot.

“KKKKatie, beautiful Katie” sings Dad as he shuffles and shakes with a walker past the nurses at the counter and down the hall towards me. His aging body shutting down, his eyes bright as ever.

“She’s an emotional girl,” explains Mum to the community nurse.

Tears stream down my face; I smile and laugh for him as best I can while he attempts to transform a humiliating mobility test into a theatrical performance.

“Push,” the community nurse says to me, “Ask to see the doctor.”

So I do. Then, from the sidelines, I watch the nurse inform him of my request.

At first glance, the doctor reads arrogant, selectively charming, and unpracticed in authentic human to human connection beyond status, strength, beauty and youth.

I could be wrong. My anger at his dismissive behaviour blurs my perspective.

“You’re supposed to be my buffer,” I watch him respond to the nurse, clarifying to me the source of her general irritable demeanour.

Neither the doctor nor the nurse come talk to me.

Instead, the community nurse pushes for us. Dad is admitted into further care and now awaits a bed in another ward.

“We have to find out why you’ve been falling,” says the community nurse when Dad asks why he can’t go home.

“I’ve been falling in love with you,” replies Dad.

Later,

“I’m not going home,” he says to himself, twice.

I stay quiet because I don’t know what’s going to happen and I don’t want to make promises I may not be able to keep.

He starts to sing:

“Open wide thine arms of love, Lord I’m coming home.”

He recites a poem:

“It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.”

“Please look after the dogs,” he says to me.

“What’s going to happen to our place? Are you going to keep it? Sell it?” he asks.

I tell him I’m not going to think about that now.

“Make sure Nigel and Emilly are looked after, and Samson the cat,” he says.

I make the promises I can.

“At least I won’t have problems with Ollie anymore,” he laughs.

“Poor Ollie,” he says with pity instead of anger for his bitter neighbour.

“Alan Curtis and Mark Payne will still keep in touch with me,” says Dad.

We list the names of old friends and family he’s counting on visiting him: Mum, Nicol, Virtuous, Jessica, Ellie, Pauline, Doug and Sue, Speedy Gonzales…

Dad is hot and cold, and then hot, and then cold. I shift the blanket back and forth across his legs.

“I’ve had a good run, dear. My sister made it to 103, but I’m not going to make it,” he says.

A few minutes later, his perspective flips.

“Sybil made it to a 103. I guess you’ll have to wait around with me in a nursing home until I’m 103,” he says.

He comforts himself with the past.

“All the schools my men built. The ship boilers we did,” he says.

He tells me stories we both know well. Stories about his men, aka ‘The Leper Colony,’ a group of bricklayers he trained himself. Complicated characters with whom he built a mutual loyalty that has lasted his lifetime.

“Work is the curse of the drinking class,” he says, his humour returning.

“The working class can kiss my ass, I’ve got a supers job at last.”

We laugh.

“I don’t care. it’s up to you what you do with the place,” he says.

“I know you’ll look after the dogs, and Samson,” he says.

Dad shifts on the bed. He can’t get comfortable.

“You’ll come to it too,” he says, “It comes to us all.”

Thursday

“What am I doing here?” asks Dad when I arrive to his new bed in a new ward, “Am I going home now?”

I remind him about the fall and tell him we’re still waiting for the doctor’s verdict.

Dad turns his hand into a gun against his temple and pulls the trigger.

“What are we doing?” Dad asks.

“We’re getting you into the wheelchair so your daughter can push you around the hospital,” says the nurse.

“Taking me to the top of the hill and letting me go?” he jokes.

I push him down the hall in search of a window to admire last night’s fallen snow.

“They shoot dogs and horses, you know,” he says as we pass the cafeteria and head to the chapel.

Dad tells me about the old friends whose funeral we recently attended. Unable to continue caring for his wife living with dementia, he smothered her and shot himself.

Another old friend recently followed through with the new medical assisted dying law that came into effect in 2016. She had had enough with pain so she too faced the end on her terms.

Helpless, my heart aches like she’s wearing the bruises of a twelve round boxing match.

Alone at night and down the hall from his empty bedroom, I feel like life and death are scooping out my insides with a table spoon.

There’s nothing funny about it. Dying is hard.

The Following Friday

“The family plot is in the cemetery at St Stephen’s,” Dad says, still in purgatory at the hospital for the doctor’s verdict as more tests are run, “John’s there.”

He tells me about the church ladies he imagines attending his funeral: Josie and the Icelandic one for starters.

“Did you know Icelandic women are the most beautiful women in the world?” he says. His mother’s parents immigrated from Iceland.

“I had a good time in that place. It didn’t do me any harm,” he says of St. Stephen’s.

“You got to be a bit of a bullshitter to get along in the world,” he says.

“If you’re good to people, you won’t have too many problems,” he says.

Dad tells me a story about George Stromwell, the Norwegian neighbour when he was growing up.

“Our septic tank broke down,” says Dad, “George hadn’t even met us yet and he put on his high waist waders and jumped into the tank and cleaned it out for us.”

“The old man said, ‘it’s bad enough to do it when you’re paid for it, but a man who would do it for free can’t be half bad’” Dad laughs, “They became friends for life.”

Dad tells me how his mother made him and his brother be pall bearers at French Margaret’s funeral. The former Madame of a whore house in Prince Rupert had married a friend of his father’s. When the husband died, my Grandpa stood up as a friend to French Margaret, and when she died and Grandpa was already dead, my grandma stood up for her too.

In my life, I have watched my father’s dedication to visiting dying friends and aquaintances in the hospital and attending their funerals. I have watched him house people in need and give away his riches to lend a hand.

Dad’s favourite stories are of laughing with a friend at his deathbed minutes before he dies, an estranged wife putting aside infidelity and betrayal to nurse the ex-husband to his death in her home, and an unfaithful man taking care of his forgiving and now demented wife as an act of love and repentance.

I want to be a hero in one of my father’s stories. Someone who honours friendships and shows up at your darkest hour. I want to have the courage to bring you chocolate and sit by your side while you face the existential terror and loneliness of looming death.

I want to be this hero for others because I hope one day someone will be that hero for me.

I drag myself out of bed, and head to the hospital to sit with Dad.

“He used to pretend to measure me for a coffin,” he says.

Remembering back to what Laverne Sands, the witty and deceased undertaker, used to say to him, Dad laughs,

“I’ll be the last one to let you down.”

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What I Am Really Thinking

‘I wrote a letter to the Guardian,’ says Mum.

The English paper requests letters from their readers for a ‘What I am Really Thinking’  column.

I ask to read it.

Mum writes:

Since I am now in my eighties, it feels like the right time to discuss options of my future with my daughter. Gosh, how complex and complicated such a conversation becomes.                    

Having no wish to become a liability or nuisance in her life, the options, unless one is rich, are limited. We live in different cities, and because she has spent years coming and going to take care of her father, I have no wish for her to have to repeat the procedure with me as I become less able to cope. However, I know no one in her city, but feel incredibly close to her, and we both wonder what can be the best option for me.

As I enjoy excellent health at this time, it is hard to face the reality of what probably lies ahead with any enthusiasm, but, it must be done. A house with a granny suite would be a great solution, but the cost of housing in her city has gone beyond the reach of all but the wealthy, so, where does that leave the average person?

What little savings I have; do I spend it and have fun with the family or do I hoard it, just in case?

How difficult it is not knowing what the future holds. How I envy the folks who just go to bed one night and fall asleep, what bliss………Dream on old lady, dream on!’

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PANIC PANIC

‘PANIC PANIC’ is the subject line to Mum’s email.

Her 80th birthday party is nigh. The pressure is on.

‘Call me when you can,’ she texts me, ‘I need to calm down.’

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As a child, I would say:

‘You’ve got to do it ploply!’ embodying a mini-me moment of my mother.

To ensure the standards of post-war British etiquette, Mum is throwing her own party, a real ‘knees up’ (British for dance party).

Party Planner Ormiston sends the family (her staff) an instructional dance video of the Lambeth Walk as required study, along with directions on which brand of sherry is sweet (Harvey’s Bristol Cream), dry (Tio Pepi), medium (the other two), and an agenda listing tasks and times for our various roles and responsibilities before, during, and after the great event.

Set in the old Saanich Schoolhouse at the Heritage Acres Museum, white table cloths display candles floating in jars of water surrounded by greenery and guests names printed on gold-trimmed name cards. A bouquet of helium balloons in one corner and the seating chart in the other, the school’s nostalgic character and country chic charm is a creative change from the normal senior building common room and church hall venues that dominate the birthday celebrations of our elders.

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Mum has loved every minute of planning this party, but at first, the stakes feel high.

As guests arrive, they are met with a glass of their preferred sherry while heated hor d’heurves pass on trays, and finger sandwiches with crusts cut off await them at their assigned seats.

The room is complete with octogenarians, mostly women, and us: a handful of Mum’s all-Canadian Gen X/Y and Millennial descendants, and, her elderly ex-husband, whose decreasing mobility holds him hostage to a chair for the afternoon.

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Have I mentioned the music?

Coffee, tea and plates of macaroons and other Dutch Bakery delights take their places at tables as the 50’s rock’n’roll band returns for their second set, this time with back up singers wearing red lipstick, and a binder full of old songs to welcome audience requests.

And then, there is dancing. And I’m not kidding. It is all out dancing. Every able body in the house is twisting, bouncing, and shaking their bootie to Peggy Sue, That’ll Be The Day, and even The Hokey Pokey.

The Lambeth Walk is a successful hilarity and I watch as a married couple on the verge of 90 dance cheek to cheek to the Last Waltz.

But the moment tears stream down my cheeks is the moment Mum, a few sherries into the afternoon, is swept up in a song and sashays the length of the room rising up on tip toes as her arms pass upwards from second to fifth position, a move she must have learnt as a little girl in ballet. Her destination is my father, whose eyes are lit up like wild fire watching the live band play songs of his youth while open hearts dance around him.

‘Let me call you sweetheart, I’m in love with you,’ Mum serenades to him, ‘Let me hear you whisper, that you love me too’. Her arms wide open as she performs.

‘Keep the love light glowing, in your eyes so true’ sings Dad meeting Mum’s gaze and enthusiasm, ‘Let me call you sweetheart, I’m in love with you.’

Yes, that is the moment I cry.

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For the champagne toast, I give a speech.

Though instructed to keep it short, I use the time to reflect on the woman who has most influenced my life, and as a beneficiary of a mountain range of her love, I share some of what I’ve learnt from her teachings:

Be polite

Do a good job

Spend money to explore, not splurge

Never stop making friends

Forgive and try again

And most importantly: Help

I talk about how Mum’s drive to help people has propelled her through a career and lifetime as a nurse, midwife, medical receptionist, foster parent, live-in caregiver to the elderly in homes and castles abroad, volunteer for the local Birth Control Clinic, and later at a Liberian Refugee Camp in Ghana, where she turned 70.

I talk about how Joan helps people in her past and present roles as wife or ex-wife, mother, daughter, cousin, friend to a boarding school mate in England in need of surgery or a stranger recently diagnosed with cancer or mourning the loss of a loved one, who then becomes a new and dear friend.

I say Mum shines like Carl Jung’s archetype of the Mother with her capacity for the immense expression of unconditional love, devotion and caring.

We raise our glasses and toast to her infinite kindness and generosity, and on behalf of our family, both living and dead, I thank her for all she has done and does, especially the parts that go unseen, unacknowledged, or forgotten. I tell her our lives are forever blessed by her love and devotion.

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Happy 80th birthday Joan! And thank you Mum. I love you.

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Cheers!

Dad and I share a bottle of wine. He lifts his glass.

‘Here’s to love, life and laughter. I’ll be true as long as you, but not a moment after.’

I laugh, lift my glass and alter a toast I’ve long since learned from him.

‘Here’s to whiskey, amber, pure and clear, not as sweet as a man’s lips, but a damn sight more sincere.’

Dad smiles accepting the challenge.

‘Here’s to San Francisco, that city by the sea, where a woman’s ass and a whiskey glass made a jackass out of me.’

Knowing I can’t beat his sass, I return to the heart of the matter, another toast I learnt from him.

‘Here’s to good blood and good health. You can’t have good health without good blood, so here’s to a bloody good health.’

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My Rainbow in the Clouds

‘I love the video you posted on Facebook of that black woman,’ says Mum.

Not sure which video she’s referring to, Mum pulls out her iPad, then and there, wanting to watch it again, this time with me.

As the clip plays, I stand behind her watching her reflection in the screen as Maya Angelou speaks. I see Mum’s heart in her eyes as she mouths the words revealing the repetitive viewings that must have already taken place.

Ms. Angelou says,

“There’s an African American song, 19th century, which is so great.

It says, ‘when it looked like the sun wasn’t going to shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds’.

Imagine!

And I’ve had so many rainbows in my clouds.

I had a lot of clouds.

But I have had so many rainbows.

And one of the things I do when I step up on the stage, when I stand up to translate, when I go to teach my classes, when I go to direct a movie, I bring everyone who has ever been kind to me with me. Black, white, asian, spanish speaking, native american, gay, straight, everybody.

I say ‘come with me. I’m going on the stage. Come with me. I need you now.’

Long dead, you see.

So I don’t ever feel like I have no help.

I’ve had rainbows in my clouds.

And the thing to do, it seems to me, is to prepare yourself so that you can be a rainbow in somebody else’s cloud. Somebody who may not look like you, may not call God the same name you call God, if they call God at all. You see? And may not eat the same dishes prepared the way you do, may not dance your dances, or speak your language.

But be a blessing to somebody.

That’s what I think.”

Mum looks back up at me.

‘Isn’t she beautiful?’ she says, crying.

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My Shadow and Me

‘I’m afraid your father isn’t a fit for the program,’ says the coordinator.

Recently I’ve had doubts about whether Dad would be happier in a place with more people his age to interact with, rather than living at home with just his caregivers, pets and regular visitors like Mum and me.

My previous attempt to schedule Dad into a once a week day program for seniors had failed a few years back after a woman had gotten irritated with him on his first day. His feelings hurt, he refused to return.

In hopes the weekly outing would improve his quality of life and/or signal whether  he’d be better off in a professional home for the elderly, I try again.

‘He’s better suited to one on one interactions,’ the woman from the senior’s centre continues.

I get what she’s trying politely to say.

‘He told the same story five times this week,’ she explains.

Dad isn’t skilled at conversations that aren’t dominated by his stories, on repeat. The irritated woman from before wouldn’t be the only one triggered by Dad’s cyclical tales. Still, I can’t help but feel like my baby was rejected from daycare.

‘He has cancer,’ says Mum, returning from a doctor appointment.

He has basal cell carcinoma on his chest. The doctors say surgery would be difficult to recover from so he goes for a single dose of radiation instead. Like his prostate problems, he’ll likely die with it, not of it.

‘I’m calling to see about Sandy using a walker when he comes for his bath,’ says the bathing assistant.

She’s right. Dad is increasingly unsteady on his feet. Though he depends on his walker in the house, he still refuses to use it on outings and instead wobbles his way to and from the car with just his cane.

‘I’ve decided to pack it in,’ says Dad about church. He finds it too hard to get down the aisle for communion.

So after many decades of Sundays spent kissing church ladies on the mouth and needling their husbands in hopes of a reaction, Dad stays home watching TV with the dogs.

‘You need to keep moving,’ I say to him, worrying as he kicks back in a dog friendly cocoon for longer and longer lengths of time.

‘I move all the time!’ he says, irritated.

‘I’m always running to the bathroom,’ he continues. His humour returned.

Dad sings to me:

’You can’t get to heaven on roller skates

cause you’ll roll right by those pearly gates

You can’t get to heaven on the CPR

cause the god damned thing don’t go that far’

Getting old and dying is hard. It isn’t easy to watch happen to your loved ones either. I understand why the nursing home culture has flourished, why children don’t want to watch their parents grow weak and die. Sometimes I envy the ones who move away and support their siblings from afar to make the hard decisions.

After five years of carrying the responsibility of my treasured father, my heart and soul are tired. My productivity on the farm has dropped to a snail’s pace and I come home to the mainland Sunday afternoons bleeding invisibly from my throat to my chest.

‘I need help,’ I tell my husband and mother while in fetal position.

It’s become too heavy to sit alone with Dad while death taps on the windows at night making her way to the closest unlocked door.

‘What do you need me to do?’ they each ask.

I need the island to be more than the place where a gentle man’s soul approaches its end.

‘I don’t need you to do anything,’ I say, ‘I need you to spend time with me while I keep Dad company at the farm.’

My next visit, Mum answers the call and spends her Saturday with me in Dad’s kitchen phoning the washing machine repairman while I battle the piles of paper that have been growing around me during my overwhelm-induced paralysis.

Back on my feet, I sit and talk with Dad.

‘How are you today?’ I ask.

He tells me about the dogs on his lap and the beautiful weather we’re having.

‘We three make good company,’ he laughs, ‘my echo, my shadow and me.’

My doubts and overwhelm assuaged. He is where he belongs. Happy at home.

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