Archive for January, 2009

untitled-sadness4Today I visited a friend who’s near death. Her husband and young adult children were in the hospital room when we arrived. For days, they have seldom left her side. They are close enough to hear her whisper her needs. They hold her hand, and she lifts theirs closer to kiss. There is overwhelming sadness. Losing a mother is never easy.

It is late summer, 1998, and an old futon stands sentry at the foot of my mother’s bed. For hours, I’ve lain there awake, afraid to close my eyes, afraid that when she needs me I won’t hear. I needn’t worry. Her first movement knocks a glass of water off the nightstand, and I bolt upright, a sharp pain of alarm in my chest.

Our mother is dying at home, and tonight it is my turn to keep vigil.
I jump to my feet and rush to her aid. My mother lies on her side, a small pillow between her knees to ease the pain of bone against bone. An intravenous line administers merciful morphine into one arm. With her free hand, she reaches for something on the nightstand behind her.

“Are you okay, Mom? What is it you need?” I ask. I grab the hand towel that waits nearby and begin to mop up the water that’s spilled.
“I’m so much trouble for you girls,” she murmurs, as her hand continues to grope blindly for something just out of reach. “The music stopped,” she says, and finally I understand what she wants.

A small compact disc player sits behind the monitor at her bedside. A cord runs from it to a small, flat speaker beneath her pillow. The music helps her sleep. I press “play” and it begins: a concerto of nature sounds and orchestra, melancholy and soothing: Stream of Dreams. A year earlier, when she was still healthy and vibrant, when it seemed she’d live forever, I’d bought each of us a copy.

I glance down at the woman lying before me now. Her skin has thinned to translucence, pulled tight over cheeks grown hollow. I push back the graying curls that have fallen too close to her eyes, eyes now glazed by pain and sometimes confusion. Within seconds, sleep allows her a gentle escape. I switch off the light, and return to the futon in search of rest.At home the next morning, I wander towards the stand where my own music collection is stored. I select the disc, insert it into the player, hesitate for a second then touch “play.” The sound of the music my mother listens to as she prepares to die fills the rooms of my house.

A nearby armchair waits to hold me. I fold myself tight within its embrace, and allow the tears to fall.




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79686_full-smallerI started this blog with the best of intentions. I enjoyed feeling accountable to my readers. So, what’s happened in the past six weeks?


If I continue on with the idea of life as a journey, the cheesiest of metaphors come to mind: I shifted into overdrive, blew a tire, drove off the shoulder, slammed into a tree. I’m rolling my eyes as I type. But the truth is, in their own way, all of those metaphors apply, some in spades.

My life lately has been anything but calm and predictable. So much has gone wrong around me, in fact, that I find myself almost embarassed to list it all for fear people will think I’m fabricating it, or even worse, that I’m not quite “all there.” And if there’s one thing I pride myself on, hang onto by my teeth, it’s being “all there.”

Early in December, I wrote about falling in the tub and breaking my arm. Controlled person that I am,  I stayed calm.  I stepped out, dried myself off, took a photo of my mishapen wrist, dried my hair a little, plopped a bag of frozen peas on the bulging break, found a book to read while waiting in emergency, called my neighbour and asked if he could give me a lift to the hospital, and poured a coffee into a travel mug for the twenty minute drive there.

I wasn’t prepared to break my wrist, but I wanted to be damned prepared for my time in the emergency department!

When I arrived at 1:30, there were seven or eight people ahead of me, all waiting to talk to the triage nurse and be assessed. It took ninety minutes for me to make it to the front of that line, and another seven hours to be examined and treated, and during that time, I had front-row seats to a bizarre soliquoy being delivered by the patient in front of me. It was obvious that she, unlike me, was not all there. Still, I was a captive audience, and I couldn’t help but feel compassion for her.

She was in her fifties, and likely very pretty at one time. Now, her graying hair was long and unruly, her face pale and surly. She had broken her ankle weeks before and wore a hard plastic walking cast over her pant leg. Today, the problem was not the ankle. It was her other leg. She sat in a hospital wheelchair and imaptiently rolled it back and forth in agitation, occasionally running into the legs of the young woman in front of her.

“I was getting off the bus to visit my psychiatrist and the stupid bus driver pulled away before I was on the sidewalk and knocked me down. I’ve hurt my knee badly. Oh, God, it’s so sore,” she cried.

“I lost my job working in Dr. Martini’s office and now I’m on welfare and I can’t afford a taxi and I don’t even have enough food. How do they expect a person to live?”

Then again, in case someone had missed it before “I was on the bus and the stupid bus driver, etc.”

She went on and on about the things that had befallen her over the past five years, told the crowded waiting room that she’d had custody of her daughter’s child but he was taken away, told us how unfair her previous employer had been.

Eventually, she forgot that her leg was supposed to hurt. She got up from the wheelchair, walked to the security guards, loudly complained of thirst and started swearing about the long wait, about being alone. Someone brought her a can of pop and she started to cry again, big, sniffling sobs interjected by words of gratitude.

That’s when it hit me. Five years before,  she may have seemed like anyone else: likely still attractive, with a job that required intelligence and responsibility. Something caused her to lose it. That either began her downward spiral, or was one of the major steps on the way down.

It can happen to any of us. Tragedies and stresses can bring to the brink. Something within either tells us to hold on, or to loosen our grasp and allow a freefall. I have been hanging on.  When I list the negative stresses of the past five years, I wonder how I’ve held on and escaped her fate. Is it just that my fingers are frozen in  their grip?  Will a time ever come when all I’ll be able to talk about is the litany of things that went wrong?

I refuse to allow that to happen. I’ll concentrate on all that is good around me, because there is so much to be thankful for. I’ll try not to dwell on the stresses around me. I will voice them now, a purging perhaps, but I will not think of them again today, nor tomorrow: the elderly father struggling to master the use of a prosthesis, and being hit with pneumonia three weeks into his rehab; the husband who’s been too often been the victim of buyouts and restructuring over the past five years; concerns over our retirement; the bravery of a dear friend who’s been fighting cancer for what seems like forever; our sadness for her husband, our oldest and best friend; the sudden death of a beloved pet; the helplessness of watching a son’s heartbreak over a broken engagement and another’s uncertainty over a lifelong  career; and my own health issues, now more of a concern by this neverending circle of worry.

Yes, when I find myself obsessing over the things I can’t control, I’ll remember that poor woman in emergency, and I’ll think of my many  blessings. There is a fine line between us, but unlike her, I am not facing life alone. And that, I believe, is what will make the difference.

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The shrill ring of the phone slices through my quiet
and the somber voice on the line roots me to the ground.
“Annie is gone.”
His words echo through the wire.

Later, dread in each step,
we approach Glen’s tiny senior’s home,
Identical to those left and right,
the pain is still contained there,
not yet bleeding
through the peach-coloured brick
nor obliterating the “welcome”
in the sign that hangs.

A hesitant knock
beckons the shadow
of our old English friend.
Arms wide, he accepts our long embrace
then ushers us inside,
where classical music plays faintly
and lights stay dimmed.
Before we can ask
he begins to speak of her;
her sudden, cruel decline;
the agony of his helplessness.
He struggles to breathe evenly,
as he tells us, in disbelief,
that her first thought was of him.

”But what will become of you, Glen?” Annie had asked.
Her question lingers,
hangs in the air
like a mourner’s veil.

His eyes raw, his voice breaking,
he repeats her words, is
puzzled, in disbelief of
her bravery, the selflessness
of facing her own death
but fearing for him.

There is no reality here.

We are still life,
mere points of colour
like the figures on Annie’s tapestries
that surround us now;
each scene to remind her of her homeland,
months of painstaking needlepoint stitches.

She is gone but she is everywhere.
Glistening cabinets
display crystal birds
and delicate china ladies.
Just dusted?
The ever-present candy dish,
Newly filled?
Proud homemaker,
perfect hostess still.

On the bathroom shelf,
favorite perfumes wait,
perfectly aligned.
Her open cosmetics bag rests
upon the hand towel.
Just used?
Atop the polished bedroom dresser,
precious rings lay
upon a tray;
beside them, silver-framed photographs
are arranged with care.
Our family from a simpler time,
our scrubbed young sons in suits;
no family for Annie to call her own.
Glen rises,
says he feels such thirst
and walks into the kitchen.
“Do you like yogurt?” he asks.
Cups of yogurt, her last attempt at food,
are stacked upon the shelf.
”Please take some home,” he says.
But instead I stare
at the open door
where fuzzy fridge magnets still reside,
and I remember hours of amusement
for our boys so very long ago.


We are but marionettes
suspended in an eternity;
reading from a foreign script;
searching for understanding;
clutching threads of normalcy.
”I would try to make her a shake,”
he continues.
”Yogurt and ice cream
and maybe some fruit.
Mix it all in the blender.
She liked that.”

His hand shakes as he reaches
for a fresh tissue to wipe new tears.
And I am like stone,
sitting across from him
in a straight-backed chair.
Just reach out, I think,
do something to help
slow the shudder in his voice.
Instead, I turn my eyes away
and see, for the first time,
a framed picture of a young Annie,
flirting, hand on jaunty hip.
Tears rise at the flashed reminder of her spirit
and I watch as my husband
tentatively touches
his old friend’s shoulder.
He asks “Have you eaten?
Are you hungry?”


”I think I’d like a pizza.
There’s a Pizza Hut nearby
where Annie and I often go.”
Then he shows us the new leather jacket
Annie insisted he buy for himself
for Christmas…
mere weeks ago.
“It is lovely,” we say.

And I think how strange
to discuss the merits
of cowhide over lambskin
when life has been so altered;
to debate thick crust over thin,
to need to eat,
to dine amidst smiling faces,
and have no stranger recoil
from the shock and grief
that is worn like a cloak.
The drive back is dreamlike,
our talk of mutual friends,
innocent memories amidst
flashes of Glen’s disjointed thoughts:
”Must close some old bank accounts.
Have to write to Germany
about Annie’s pension. What about her jewelry?”
A few moments of quiet, then “They’ll make me move
to a smaller unit soon.”

And before
we can say any
of countless words
we want to say,
know we should say,
we are back
where death is too familiar,
returning Glen to his home of memories.
At his doorstep,
our solitary friend,
collar turned up against the cold,
a leftover pizza box
clutched in one hand,
waves a faint good-bye.
It has grown late.
Our long drive home is thick
with silent reflections
of life so long ago:
Glen, disillusioned and newly single at mid-life,
and Annie, so needing to love;
her mischievous eyes, the throaty laugh,
her bravado in facing illness and age,
her delight in the simplest
of life’s pleasures,
and her greatest joy:
her years spent as Glen’s wife.
And Annie’s question haunts me
as we journey home that night.
Just what will become of him?

Dedicated to the memory of Annie Stout 1928-2002











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