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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Eggs

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Texts from Dad’s 30 year old caregiver, John, a mechanic and entrepreneur:

‘Sandy went and found a pot and boiled the already boiled eggs.’

‘Any way, eggs blew up again. He is insistent he makes his own eggs and he says he will stand and wait till they are cooked.’

‘He is very committed to making his breakfast.’

‘What would you like me to do?’

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All these years later, for once I can say I know what to do.

My response over the phone:

‘Boil a dozen eggs. Hide the pots. Every morning before he gets up, leave a bowl with two eggs on the stove with a sign below it that reads ‘Boiled eggs’. Don’t talk about it.’

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The problem of the eggs has been on the radar for a while, but it came to a head when the nurse arrived to Dad’s house with smoke billowing out the kitchen from eggs boiled to dehydration and exploded on the stove. The pot didn’t make it.

Dad was in his living room chair, all jokes to greet her. He had no idea anything was going wrong. Afterwards, the nurse called Mum. She was worried. She had to tell someone.

And so it is forever now decreed, Dad is no longer allowed to boil eggs for breakfast.

After boiling eggs every morning for a handful of decades, this too must change.

 

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A Rolling Stone

“Is this the little girl I used to know?” Dad asks when I call to tell him Mum is flying home from England in a few days.

“Warning me,” he says, “You’re a good little girl.”

A few days later, we spend another weekend sitting side by side in old people chairs in front of the TV.

“Remember, in order to grow old, you have to have a sense of humour,” Dad says, “There’s lots to laugh about.”

He pauses, not laughing.

“Mostly yourself.”

We admire the animals on his lap.

“Where’s the warden now?” he asks.

“She comes back in two sleeps,” I say.

“Long ones, I hope,” he replies and we laugh.

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“Here comes ol’ shuffalong Sandy,” he says getting up with stiff steps to his walker.

“If you can,” he says, “laugh about it when you can barely make it to the bathroom.”

I treat him to a bowl of vanilla ice cream when he gets back.

“I’ll try to go to church next weekend,” Dad says later.

He didn’t make it this week. Lately, it takes two people to help him down the aisle for communion which has him contemplating packing it in.

“I think it’s important you keep moving,” I say.

“Otherwise, they throw dirt in your face,” he replies.

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An email arrives from Mum. It reads:

“At the moment, I am researching going to Oz by freighter. The only problem is I have to be under 80. I could go and see Taeja so I am hoping they do make occasional exceptions to the age limit. Perhaps next year. What do you think? The reason for the age limit is that there is no doctor on board, and the trip is about 35 days. However, if I were that sick that I couldn’t survive without a doctor, then I would die anyway, so what is the problem I ask myself.”

Dad laughs and shakes his head.

A rolling stone gathers no moss.

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