Two years ago this morning, Canada Day, July 1st, my mum said, ‘fuck this shite!’ and left this earthly plane for places unknown. The day before, I had been told that she might only have a week left. I got up early that morning, let the dogs out and was getting ready to dress and go to see her when I saw that there was a message on my voicemail. I knew before I even listened.
When I got to her residence about half an hour later, I was numb. And when I opened the door to her room, I felt the stillness and loneliness of her body as she lay there in the early morning heat. As I held on to the doorway, I could hear the nurse’s aides running to the room and quietly shut the door behind me to give me privacy.
She looked so small in that bed. And younger. All the worry and/or pain that lined her face while her blood still coursed through her veins was gone. Her skin was, there’s no other way to describe it, beautiful. She was still warm, having died only about an hour before. But her beautiful blue eyes, eyes that so many said were the bluest they’d ever seen, had turned a milky blue. That’s what happens. Nobody had thought to close them, or to close her mouth. I wasn’t upset by it, it was real, it’s what happens, it’s natural.
I had brought my father’s rosaries with me and wrapped them around her hands, which were placed on her abdomen. And I held her lifeless hand, so small in mine. I didn’t have time to call a priest to give her her last rites – I regret not being able to do that for her. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember the Our Father and Hail Mary, so the educator, a Jewish girl, printed them out for me so that I could recite them properly. Over and over again. For hours. It’s amazing how your own personal beliefs can be set aside for the benefit of a loved one’s – it’s not about you, it’s about her, or him.
I sat with her body for six hours. The cemetery she had pre-arranged her funeral with were apologetic, but, truth be told, I was glad of the extra time I had with her. As rigor mortis set it, her hand tightened around mind, and it was comforting. It was as if she were acknowledging me… even though I knew it was just a physical reaction. Her skin became firm, her abdomen hard. I joked with her – you finally have those firm abs you always wanted. I also told my dad, who had died 23 years before, that he’d better stop chasing skirts in heaven because she was on her way and she would NOT be happy! Those were meaningful hours. Important hours.
It was a humbling experience. To see someone who raised you, who wiped the sick from your face when you had the flu, who dried your tears when your dog was put down… to see that person lifeless before you was surreal. At the same time, I thought it was fitting that she ‘chose’ this day to die. See, she never wanted to move to Canada. She was a Scottish gal, Ayrshire born and bred. And she was in love with a boy named Jackie Martin. But her parents forced her to immigrate to Canada with them. And realizing this, decades later, helped me to understand the pain she suffered, as well as the pain she suffered upon us.
She died from complications from Alzheimer’s. So many people describe Alzheimer’s as a horrible disease… I’m here to say that, for me, it was a gift. My mother was a difficult woman. She had demons. She tried to drink them away. It was painful – literally and figuratively. But Alzheimer’s brought her back to how she was before life ruined her. She was sweet and cheeky and swore like a sailor! When she’d get upset, I’d tell her I would get her a sailor’s outfit to wear, and when she’d ask why, I’d say because she was swearing like one – and she’d laugh. She laughed with me. I loved her. Despite the harsh, cruel memories, I loved her. And I’m grateful for the last two years I had with her.
There are so many things I remember about her, some bad, some good, some funny. I’ll share with y’all the good and the funny and spare both you and myself the bad.
My mum’s family immigrated to Canada in the early ‘50s from Scotland. She didn’t want to move here – because of aforementioned young man. But my grandparents were heartless assholes and forced her to come here anyway.
In the late ‘50s, they welcomed a visit from her father’s brother, Uncle John. He was tired from travelling so she told him to rest up, have a bite to eat, and that she would run him a bath. He wasn’t in the bathroom for more than a minute when he came out into the kitchen and told her father with a look of the utmost seriousness, “Hey, Barney, there’s something wrong with your water!” Turned out my mum put in some bubble bath soap and this was a completely new concept to him.
This very same Uncle came back to Canada to collect her father’s ashes in the 70s and bring them back ‘hame’. My Auntie Winnie and her husband were waiting for him at the airport – I think it was Gatwick. When the airplane pulled in, they saw someone start to sway down the steps of the staircase that was hooked up to the plane. And then they saw something fall out of his arms, bounce down the stairs, and then start to roll on the tarmac. He started to chase this rolling thing and two police officers were off in hot pursuit. When they got a hold of him, they asked him, “What is that?” And he replied, in a sobbing drunken stupor, “That’s ma brother!” To this day, nobody knows where my papa is buried. Sad, but simultaneously funny.
Anyone who knew my mum knew that she was quite uptight and ‘proper’. So the fact that she exposed herself to the neighbourhood sometime in the 70s is just funny to think about. My father was stationed in Colombia and the house we lived in was below street level so that you had to walk up stairs to get anywhere. One day, my primly attired mother was walking up those stairs when she felt something in her blouse. When she peeked inside, she saw a cockroach crawling on her – there were always creepy crawlies around there and, apparently, she put her blouse on so fast that she didn’t notice it. Well, half way up the stairs she starts screaming, running up and tearing her blouse and bra off, buttons flying everywhere… and when she got to the top, there were several locals laughing at the topless gringa…
My mum absolutely adored birds. She told me about how when she was a little girl, she sat on the curb of her street crying after reading a story about cock robin… “who killed cock robin? I, said the sparrow…” Great children’s literature. Anyway, later on in life, what she started doing was cutting up little bits of yarn and tying them up with a little bow, also made of yarn. When I asked her what she was doing, she said she was making the bundles for the little birds to make their nests. And the funny thing was, I would occasionally see these bundles far away from where she lived. They must’ve been too heavy to carry the whole way. So she made them lighter.
My dad got my mum a little canary when I was about 14. This bird had all the accoutrements of the Rich and Feathered. His cage had an en suite bath that you’d hook outside the door so he could splash around. He had all kinds of things. She even had a vinyl record of birds singing to Mexican music to get him to learn to sing. I don’t know WHERE she got it, but I wish I had it now because I would play that at the office. But then one day, she let Sunshine out to fly around the room… and didn’t remove the new puppy. And Teddy barked and pawed at this little thing fluttering around on the floor. He didn’t hit it, but he freaked it out. So much so that my dad got a call at work that afternoon – “is it normal for a bird to be at the bottom of the cage on its side?” My dad, hearing the distress in my mum’s voice, lied to her. “Marie, he’z just zleeping. Put ze cover over his cage and let him rest.” He didn’t want her to be alone, upset about her dead bird. As we drove home (I’d go to his work after school and we’d drive home together since it was kinda far with the bus), he said, “Nanzie.. don’t laugh… but your mother’s bird iz dead.” “WHY would I think that’s funny?” I asked. Apparently, my sister thought it was kinda funny. When we got home, my mother brought my dad to the cage, and then he told her the sad truth. Fortunately, this happened during warm weather, because he bought a yellow rose bush for my mum, and there was a mini-burial for Sunshine in the back yard, with the rose bush as his marker.
And now I’ll end with what I think is the funniest: picture it, June 1988, and I’m getting ready for prom. I got a run in my stockings (because we wore them back then for some reason). So my mum dashes off to the local pharmacy to fetch some new ones. She came back completely flushed and upset. We finally found out what happened. She was at the cash and started picking out some handwipe packages out of a glass jar and said to the woman behind her, “these’ll come in handy for my daughter tonight, it’s her prom.” And the woman behind her looked at her, horrified, and said, “and you CONDONE that sort of behaviour?!?!?” Confused, my mum said, “yes, I like my daughters to be clean.” Then the cashier pointed out they were condoms. I would have PAID to see that. She probably wanted to run home and take a long hot shower after handling those little packages. Of course, they would have come in handy for my date, though – as he apparently had sex with a girl I knew that night and then ruined the rest of my night by crying under a fire escape in an alley like baby. *Experiencing disappointments in boys since 1988*
There were so many stories. I hope I remember them all. If your mum or dad are telling you stories, listen to them. When they’re gone, you’ll wish you had paid more attention. The good, the bad, the ugly – all of these stories make us who we are today. Flawed, vulnerable, insightful… embrace who you are and where and who you came from. We are all imperfect souls trying to find our way in the world… if we can’t forgive those who have hurt us most in our life, we must try to at least forgive ourselves for not being able to let go. At the very least, forgive yourself.
The day of her cremation, I attended. And I requested that certain things be included in her coffin. I put a stone I had collected from a Scottish stone circle (something from her home), some of her favourite coffee, a cream and custard-filled mille feuille dessert (her favourite), a gold cross her mother had given me for my first communion, some stuffing from my first teddy bear that she and my father gave me for my first Christmas, a rampant lion flag. And as if fate had led me to save this decades before, I laid her to rest in a beautiful blue outfit she wore in the late ’60s, as well as some nice underwear I bought for this occasion. I wrote a few notes to her and added them as well. To the cemetery’s credit, the funeral director complied with all of my requests.
And after a few minutes leaning on her coffin, tears flowing on the pine, I said my last good-byes before her coffin was led to the crematory oven. And I stood there, watching her leave me, into the fire. The sound of heat is palpable. It roars. When the door closed, I could see the sudden brightness as the fire caught the pine and set ablaze. And try as I might, I couldn’t NOT imagine my mum, the woman who wiped the sick off of my chin, the woman who made me lunch, the woman who gave birth to me, disintegrate into ash.
It’s taken me two years to write this. I was never ready. I’m still not ready to talk about my father, who died almost 25 years ago. If you have a good relationship with your parents, tell them you love them. But if you don’t, don’t feel badly. I was lucky that Alzheimer’s redeemed the pain I grew up with. I was able to erase the decades of pain and replace them with more sympathetic memories. But if you don’t have this unfortunate luxury, let it go and live your life as you want it to be, as it should be. I was lucky to have closure, but it’s not necessary. We’re okay the way we are, warts and all. We just have to forgive ourselves. Whether it be for not being able to let go of the past, or for hating or being angry.
Wherever she is now, I hope she is at peace….