My mum died today, which now makes me an orphan. I’m not young, like when my father died when I was 23, but even pushing 58 I still want parents. None of us will last forever, but somehow the concept and reality are different. As long as you are still breathing the same air and living under the same stars you are connected. Death is final. The end. No more – of anything. All my memories and experiences of her will be in the past, and like those of my dad, will fade.
It’s with mixed emotions that I reflect upon her death. She was someone who lived large and would have liked to have gone out of this world on her own terms. No such luck. She was a big proponent of Medical Assistance In Dying (MAID), but sadly didn’t qualify because she had Alzheimer’s. It’s tough to grapple with a disease that strips you of your memory – first, short-term, then long-term – but also the things that you have held dear: the things you liked to do, the food you enjoyed, the ideas that made you who you are, the people who were integral to your life – they all slipped away, bit by bit.
My mum had an unhappy childhood, struggled with being good enough, questioned the rightness of her actions. She compensated for those deficits by trying to see the positives in others, by acting as a social convener bringing people together and holding on to optimism. My dad was a thinker, my mum was a doer.
My parents met during the war in Cornwall, when she was a radar operator and he was an Air Force mechanic. She came to Canada as a war bride with a 10-month old baby, my sister, Pam – in tow. They had three more kids in Canada: Brenda, Martin and me being last. She was mostly a stay-at-home mother till I was small.
As the Executive Secretary of the Canadian Peace Congress in the 1960s she traveled all over Eastern Europe: Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, Russia, East Germany, Hungary & Bulgaria. I have photos of me in a baby carriage with my mum carrying a ‘Ban The Bomb’ placard.
My parents split up when she was in her mid-40’s when she went back to school to become a social worker. I was only six, and when my brother left home it was just the two of us.
My mum exposed me to all kinds of experiences: traveling and hitchhiking in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize in the late ‘70s, spending time on Mennonite farms in southern Ontario, hiking, camping, joining naturalists’ groups, rescuing stray animals, keeping salamanders and turtles, books and music and meeting people from other places with other points of view.
I spent the first 32 years of my life in Toronto. Even though it was a big city there were many opportunities to experience nature within that urban environment and in ‘cottage country’. We didn’t have our own cottage, but were fortunate enough to have the use of a friend’s cottage and spent many hours canoeing, hiking and swimming. We cross-country skied in winter.
Throughout the 1970s-1990s she traveled all over the world: 13 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean (she learned Spanish in her 60s), Indonesia, India, the Philippines – always with a copy of the Lonely Planet and a backpack. She got around by bus, train, truck, rickshaw, moped, elephant, camel and horse. Her last big trip was to Costa Rica when she was 80 – still with a backpack. She wrote long, detailed travelogues that she sent back to us along the way.
We had vacationed (together and separately) in B.C. over the years and then moved out to Victoria at the same time in 1993.
My partner Jan & I moved to Gabriola Island in 2000. My mum came to visit us often and moved in with us in 2010. We live on 4.5 acres in a 1940s homesteader log house and have a large cottage on our property which we renovated for her. She was at an age – almost 88 – when most people would not be thinking of moving to a rural community to start over.
Two years prior, she was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment and went into an assisted living facility. She hated being with a bunch of ‘old people’ as she was still active (biking and swimming regularly). The day she moved in with us was, she said, like being paroled.
Over the next six years we spent many hours together. She loved my chickens and kept me company while I cleaned the coop. She washed out the feeders and waterers, held birds while I examined them, assisted cleaning poopy bums or tooth brushing scaly leg mites from their legs. We would go to the beach and haul buckets of seaweed for the girls, who loved scratching through, eating the tiny crab shells, sand fleas and soft kelp.
She acted as ‘head greeter’ on three Tour D’Coops – a self-guided tour of chicken coops on the island – while I was busy showing people around. I overheard one participant refer to her as the Chicken Master’s Mother. She loved social activity and was in her element yakking it up with total strangers.
I pick up unsellable produce from two food recovery programs. I’d bring back boxes of food each week and she’d help prep it all for the birds: removing stickers, elastic bands and twist ties, taking things out of clam shells container and bags. Then we’d sit and feed the girls.
In the summer, every night after dinner, we’d sit out with the chickens for half an hour or so, just watching them and listening to the wild birds. Then I’d walk her up to the cottage and help her get ready for the evening. And every night without fail she told me how much she loved her cottage and how much she appreciated what we were able to do for her.
She also loved our animals: three dogs over the course of the time we’ve lived here, two cats and of course, the birds.
I travel a bit with my job and each year work for a few days on the west coast of Vancouver Island. I was able to take my mum close to a dozen times. She walked the dog on the beach while I was at work and then we’d explore trails and restaurants and play cards in the evening. Even after she’d broken her leg – not once, but twice – I insisted we carry on the tradition and we managed the beach with her walker.
She had to give up her cat when she went into care so we got her one through the Cats Alive program called ‘Senior Cats For Seniors’. Mooshie stuck to her like glue from day one: even for her daily outdoor lounge, 365 days a year, with blankets and a hot water bottle, if necessary. She was very English in her love of the outdoors and fresh air.
As her physical and cognitive health declined it was apparent that we were no longer able to care for her at home. Two and a half years ago she went into a long-term care facility.
Dementia is about small losses, one step at a time. Her absence, physically and metaphorically, has left a big hole in my life. It meant missing her company while she was still alive – when it was no longer possible to have a meaningful conversation because she really wasn’t able to comprehend – or remember – all the things we had done together.
My mum was my role model and my hero. She deplored whining and tried to meet every challenge head on. She took the diagnosis of dementia like a trouper: she’d cope the best she could, without complaining, no ‘why me?’. The loss of her intellect must have been excruciating, especially early on when she’d lament ‘my brain is going’. She was an avid reader and always had a least one or two books on the go. She had to give up reading when she lost the ability to follow the plot – literally.
One of the guiding principles in life, for both my parents, which was instilled in me as a child was George Bernard Shaw’s definition of a gentleman as “one who puts more into the world than he takes out”. She spent her life dedicated to political and social activism and volunteered in many ways.
Even when she was pushing 90 she weeded our garden, helped with chicken chores and volunteered at the local soup kitchen. In the care home she’d chat up other residents, making everyone feel included. I’d be chastised if I didn’t make conversation with her tablemates. She always told the staff how much she appreciated their care of her.
When I was younger and she’d point out some unwanted behaviour of mine, and feeling ornery, I’d respond that I had inherited it from her. What I didn’t say, often enough, was that some of the best parts of me came from her as well: my curiosity, my love of words and language, my appreciation for nature, my sense of social justice and my desire to foster a sense of community in the larger world. And some of those things have come together in this blog. She would have loved Bitchin’ Chickens.