Wednesday, 25 January 2012

About Me, Part 24: Still Water

My grandfather had always wanted to see me graduate from university; I think he hung around as long as he could knowing I was about to. But the last month was excruciating for him. A relative who lived around the corner from the hospital had come by daily to check up on him. One day near the end of April, he complained of not feeling well; that evening, he collapsed and was taken to the very same hospital where he died of kidney failure at some point during the night. My family kept this from my grandfather feeling that it would stress him out. I later learned that he had been told after all and that he had actually figured it out; the visits had stopped suddenly and no one was saying a word about it. My grandmother would not let me visit the hospital towards the end of May as his conditioned worsened. On May 27, the day my degree was conferred, my grandfather, aged 78, passed away.

I was at work at the library when I got called to the phone by a co-worker; "it's urgent!" I hurried home. The following few days were a flurry of funeral planning and family members arriving from all over. My mother came in by train a couple of days later. The funeral wound up being on June 1st; my mother's forty-seventh birthday. As my grandfather, and that side of my family were fairly well known in both the black community and in the community at large, many (about 400 people) attended the service and interment. As I sat next to my mother, I couldn't shake the sense that her life was tenuous as well. Things became quite surreal at the wake, at my grandmother's, when a birthday cake was brought out for my mother in the midst of it. My graduation photos were passed around. At some point, the house emptied, and the mood become very sad. I spent the night reading passages from the Tibetan Book of The Great Liberation before falling asleep.

My convocation was two weeks later. My mother and her best friend came as did an uncle and my grandmother. My father and step-mother did not, but instead took me out to dinner later that week. My mother was in town for the rest of the week spending some of the time at her friend's on the west island before heading back home.


The summer of 1994 was a strange one. The weather was gorgeous, very sunny. But the melancholy was intense. I remember paying special attention to precious things like the sun shining through the leaves on trees, morning dew, the stars in the sky at night. The were very few social events to attend that summer, but the few that happened were fun, and I really felt their fleeting nature as if I was realizing how precious life was. Dating was a non-issue, and not for my lack of interest in anyone; my mind was simply elsewhere. I went to see two films that summer. The Lion King was simply a great mythic story to bury myself in, as a distraction from my real life. Spike Lee's Crooklyn seemed to be a more sombre, reflective side of the director; set in the early 70s (this was when 70s retro replaced 60s retro as our collective soundtrack) the film was about a family losing their mother to cancer. The music in the film brought me back to my childhood. The story was too close for comfort.

All around me, my friends were moving and moving on. Some married that year, others became parents. I had gone to school with some people from other parts of Canada, namely British Columbia. I began to wish that I could move out to what seemed to many of us back east as the perfect health/nature oasis. Health of course was underscored given that I was surrounded by illness. Towards the end of June, I began to develop stomach pains that became a regular occurrence. Of course, I feared the worst. After several tests, I was diagnosed with four peptic ulcers and was put on muscle relaxers. These made me quite depressed. I also began lose weight. I had been a vegetarian once a few years earlier, but now I was more into eating organically. I had stopped working in May, but had saved up enough money to buy my own food and other needs. I felt the tenuousness of my own life.

On Canada Day weekend, my mother's side of the family hosted the bi-annual family reunion. Many of those who had been in town for my grandfather's funeral flew back into town for what seemed like a very happy occasion finally. My mother came back and stayed with one of my uncles. But the mood of the year found its way into this, too. During the reception dinner, a family member from Barbados (the only one who could make it that year) broke down during his speech as he spoke about those who had passed on that year down there. The following day at the church service, another family member had what seemed like a heart attack and the ambulance was called. The choir was singing "Highway to Heaven". After some paramedic attention, his condition stabilized. The lunch reception afterwards was quite low key. My mother had had to rush to church and looked frighteningly exhausted when she arrived. When the reunion weekend was over and everyone went on their separate ways. The quiet, sad mood returned full force.


On the third Wednesday of July, I came home from t'ai chi summer session class at Concordia and heard the phone ring. I answered it; it was my mother calling. She had complained of flu symptoms a week or so before. The doctors had discovered the cancer had come back again. This time, they had suggested a very aggressive form of chemotherapy with no guarantees of success ... at all. My mother was no longer up to treatment of any kind. The full impact of her decision did not hit me. I assumed their would be some other option available at some point. She asked if I could come down to visit. In serious denial, I made plans, but kept my previous commitment made with an old high school friend to visit her in Ottawa beforehand. My mother, sounding very understanding agreed with the arrangement.

My week in Ottawa was the calm before the storm. On the one hand, it was spent catching up with a few old friends and their families. The friend who had invited me came out to me; she was a lesbian. I felt nothing but pride and admiration for her. She looked at me as if I had some similar revelation to make. As far as I was concerned at the time, I had none. I had felt some more stirrings within me that year, but as usual buried them. The week in Ottawa passed, my ulcers healed for the most part. I spoke to my mother a couple of times long-distance; she sounded fine. When I took the train back to Montreal to get ready to go to Mississauga, I felt not so much melancholy as dread for what I would now be facing. Once I got back to my grandmother's house in the east end of Montreal, I told her that I was heading for Toronto to spend some time with my mother; then, I did some laundry, packed my bags and bought my open ticket the next day. I left for Ontario on Friday, August 12.

My mother and a friend of hers were waiting for me at Union Station. She seemed unusually subdued. The most shocking part was that she had lost a lot of weight. Her face had lost its roundness and her eyes had begun to have a sunken look. On the way back to her apartment in Meadowvale, she mentioned that she had been thinking of us going on a short trip to Niagara Falls, just to get away for a few days. The next day, I got up. I went about the day figuring that my mother was tired and had decided to sleep in. She was sleeping in, but did not get up for the duration of the day. In the early evening she got up to eat a few bites of supper that I had prepared and then, weakly, went back to bed. I was stunned; I had had no idea that her condition had worsened that much. The next day we went to her church. During the service, she complained that she was not feeling well. We stepped outside into the entry way (three different denominations shared the same building) and sat down. She appeared very faint. At that point, one of the other congregations was finishing up and people were milling about, some wondering what was going on. The pastor came over and spoke to us. At which point, I broke down. The severity of my mother's illness had hit me. 

I spent the next four weeks looking after my mother's immediate needs, paying bills at the bank machine, buying food, doing the housecleaning and laundry. She was having trouble keeping food down and continued to lose weight. I accompanied her (friends gave her lifts to Credit Valley Hospital) to a chemotherapy session. I remember my heart breaking when a small boy came in for his treatment. At one point, my mother told me to go out for a walk, just to get away for awhile. I headed over to Erin Mills Town Centre across the highway for a short while, coming back in time for my mother's lift back home. Soon afterwards, she began to lose sight in one of her eyes; it began to look swollen and unfocussed. Another friend gave us a lift down to Princess Margaret Hospital downtown for a scan. The cancer had spread to her eye. It was also in her knee joints. By the first days of September, She could barely get around. We had spent some time at the nearby pond in Aquitaine Park, but that was the last time she left her apartment.

My last days in Mississauga were increasingly sombre. A friend took us out for brunch on the 2nd of September. On the 4th, a Sunday I was at church hoping to invite a few of my mother's friends over. This was for two reasons: they needed to come together to make some kind of arrangements for her when I went back to Montreal (I still had not been told the prognosis, my mother had shielded me from it), my twenty-fourth birthday was on Tuesday the 6th. The morning of my birthday, my mother kept talking about the weekend I was born, how I arrived early, how that had thrown everyone off, how it was all for the better that my father and grandfather weren't in the delivery room at the same time given their strong personalities. The party was small, but a welcome break from the sombre mood. The last picture of my mother was taken, with her bent over with me cutting the cake for the camera. Although, she no longer smiled, I knew she was happy she had made it to my birthday. The next day was the saddest of my entire life, to this day, as I left for Montreal to start work again. As the midday movie on television (Goodbye Columbus) played in the background, my mother held my face weakly and said that she would always love me. I promised to come back as soon as I could. An old friend of hers from Montreal, who had lived in Mississauga for years, gave me a lift down to Union Station. We cried before getting into the car.

I managed to get to work the next day. I vaguely remember going to a couple of different friends' houses for dinner, but the days blurred together. In Mississauga, my mother had been moved to the palliative care unit at Credit Valley Hospital. I spoke to her a couple of times over the phone. On Thursday, September 15, I was shelving books at the far end of the library when my acting supervisor came to get me. In a strange repeat of earlier that year with my grandfather, he said "Phone call ... it's urgent!" I sprinted to the sorting room and picked up the receiver. One of my mother's friends: "Your moms not doing very well hon'." I told her that I would be down there as soon as I could ... and that I would be bringing my grandmother with me. Reconciliation needed to happen, now. Another strange repeat of the previous spring, running into friends on the way out of the library and campus, and filling them in on what was happening as I rushed out. When I got home, my grandmother (who always chain-locked the front door when I left) heard me trying to get in. She opened the door in a panic; "Is she dead! Is she dead!" "No," I said, "But we need to go right away." I called all of my uncles that afternoon update them. One of them booked train tickets for us.

When we got to the hospital the next day after an early morning train ride, we were briefed by the doctor and my mother's minister on my mother's condition. I went into her room first. About a dozen friends were in there with her. I saw her hooked up to tubes and pumps and looking very gaunt. I immediately choked up, unable to get my full voice out. The shaking I had had when finding out about my grandfather in the hospital, during the fights at home, indeed through much of the year, came back. I got to her bedside and told her it was me. "What are you doing here?" she asked, dazed, but somehow pleasantly surprised. And then, she paused. "I'm dying aren't I?" I couldn't see her through my tears, but managed to nod. Her own sight was almost gone. I told her that my grandmother was waiting outside. She agreed to have her brought in and I motioned to her friends to do that. When my grandmother came in, she rushed over to the bed and the reconciliation, awkward, sad, relieving happened.

One of my uncles raced down from Montreal in his car (he had got the news while in cooking class and left in the middle of it). He was in the room with us for a some period of time, I cannot remember. He went back to Montreal later in the evening when got back to my mother's apartment. He had made us something to eat and we ate as much as we could before heading back to the hospital to keep vigil along my mother's friends. We were there over night as my mother kept asking for ice cubes; her temperature was feverish. Her breathing became shallower and shallower. At around four in the morning, I went out to the hospital courtyard in the dawn mist to do a little t'ai chi. When I got back to the room, the sky was lightening. Once, morning began some people went home to clean up and eat before coming back again. My grandmother and I did the same and headed back to the apartment. While I was in the bath, the phone rang. We were told that we need to get back to the hospital immediately. I jumped out of the bath and got ready. I felt a fatigue in doing so that has been with me to this day, every time I rush or run. The only time I ever saw my grandmother run was when got back to the hospital lobby. We spent the next several hours at the hospital as more and more people gathered, old friends, church friends, and people that she had been on this cancer journey with for over five years. My mother passed away at 3:15 pm on September 17, 1994.

None of us has been the same since, none of us.

To be continued ...

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