Sunday, 17 July 2016

Does my dad's spirit live on after death?

A few days ago I had a strangely mystical experience while snacking on my back deck. It was a lovely summer evening and I was going out in an hour to meet friends for drinks, but I thought I should eat a bit before I went out so I pulled a box of crackers from the cupboard and found some cream cheese in the fridge. That seemed like a boring combination on its own so I delved further into the fridge and found an open jar of jam. It was quince marmalade that my dad made. It was the last jar I had. I'd opened it several months ago, and I'd been using it up slowly ever since. It seemed like it would go well with the cream cheese, so I took my snack ingredients out to the back deck and started assembling cheese and crackers and jam.

I should say at this point that months I've been feeling distant from my Dad's memory. My friend B who was close to my dad says sometimes when he's feeling sad or confused he wonders what my Dad would say, and then he feels a warm glow like my Dad's really there, and then he knows what to do. I know B's trying to comfort me when he says that - as if to say my Dad's not really gone - but it actually makes me feel sadder because I never feel my Dad's presence the way B does. I just feel like he's gone.
I thought about that while I sat eating on the deck, and I also thought about a Fringe Festival show I went to a few weeks ago. It was a one-woman show by the wife of a guy in my writing group - it was called "What! You're a Medium?" and in it my friend's wife told us the story of how she'd come to feel connected to the spirit world (it started when she was eight) and how she'd grown up to become a professional medium giving people messages from beyond the grave. She asked people in the audience if they had photos of dead loved ones they wanted to hear from and several people held up their hands. She did about a dozen "readings" saying things like - "This is your mom? She worries that you work too hard," and "This is your wife? She's happy you've found a new girlfriend. She likes her." Everyone who had a reading done looked very moved.
As I sat on the back deck eating my dad's jam I was aware of feeling disconnected from my dad, and it occurred to me that where B and the medium were choosing to connect I was actively choosing not to even try to. When I feel sad and confused I never wonder what my dad would advise. And at the Fringe show I could have given the medium a photo of my dad but I'd decided not to. I'd felt sure that even if she conveyed a "message" from him I wouldn't have believed it and that would have made me feel even more alone.
After I'd thought about that for a while and gone through about a twenty crackers with cheese and spoonfuls of jam on them, I wondered what it would be like if I made a different choice. How would it feel if I actually tried to reach out?
I breathed in, breathed out. I thought of the last time my dad sat on my deck, how he'd closed his eyes and almost fallen asleep. I imagined his spirit out in the universe, watching me now as I ate the last of his jam.
Then, as I was scraping the very last bits from the bottom of the jar I heard a clap of thunder. I looked up to see that where blue sky had been just moments earlier there was now a small thundercloud. Gentle rain began to patter. Then a rainbow appeared. The rain never got hard. The cloud passed quickly. And ten minutes later it was over.

In life my dad was always quiet man, never one to roar and shout. But that thunderclap did remind me of him at the hospital in a moment just before he died. He was unconscious by then and after several hours of strange, increasingly intense breathing he let out a long moan. It went on forever, as if his lungs were emptying out every molecule of oxygen. It was probably some automatic thing his body did, some convulsion as his organs failed, but what it felt like was the moment he stopped fighting death. It felt like the moan was his spirit yelling "Okay, here I come!" He died a few minutes later.
I don't really believe that me scraping out the bottom of a jam jar caused that freakish isolated thunderstorm. Or that the thunder was my dad yelling, "I'm still here. Don't forget me!" Or that the rainbow was his way of reminding me that life is beautiful. Or that the gentle rain was his blessing. 
But for the last few days since it happened, I have felt closer to my dad in spirit than I have in months.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Because the museum was too far to walk - Vacation diaries day 13

As the taxicab careened into the traffic of Belgrade and away from the pier where our ship was docked, I wondered - was I making a mistake?
It’s hard to believe I’ve been back for two weeks now. The internet connection for the last few days of our cruise down the Danube was lousy, so I wasn't able to put up any more posts, but I've been thinking a lot about those days travelling through the Balkans - and that afternoon in Belgrade in particular.
On the tour bus that morning the guide had shown us many beautiful sights, but I’d also taken note of:
- tram cars that looked like they'd been new in 1967
- a tent-city in a riverside park that looked like it was populated by refugees
- the hollowed-out remains of the what used to be the Yugoslav Ministry of Defense (it was bombed by NATO during the war over Kosovo in 1999).
Yugoslav Defense Bldg - photo Tomislav Jagust
As the bus idled at a red light on our way back to the ship, I noticed a small brass plaque beside a dreary office door that read: "Republic of Serbia - Anti-Corruption Agency." What kind of a country needs an agency like that, I wondered, then I realized I had to adjust my frame of mind.
On our way down the Danube, we'd started out in wealthy Germany and Austria, then traveled through the somewhat poorer former Soviet bloc - Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Now we'd arrived in a country that was recovering from a recent war, and couldn't afford to tear down let alone rebuild, a major downtown office building. We'd entered the "developing world" and now I had to get used to the idea that my own wealth far exceeded that of the people around me.
After lunch on the ship my mom said she wanted to go see the Nikola Tesla museum. Our guide had told us that the original inventor of Alternating Current was a Serb, and that many of his inventions were displayed there.
I wanted to make my mom happy, but the museum was too far for her to walk in the 35 degree heat, so half an hour later, as my mom made her way up the gang plank into the sweltering heat, I was thanking the desk clerk profusely. The ship didn't normally exchange currency, but she'd managed to scrounge up a 1000 Dinar bill and sold it to me for 8.50 Euros. And she'd also found a waiter on board who could speak Serbian - and through him she'd ordered us a taxi.
Serbian "Anti Corruption Agency"
The waiter was a handsome young Romanian man with jet black hair and pale skin. He walked with us along the pier to where the cab was waiting. He told the driver where we wanted to go and I watched the driver nod. Then I asked the waiter to find out how much the ride was likely to cost. He said 450 dinar.
I stood on the sidewalk, doing the math. I had enough to pay for the ride, but not enough for admission and another cab to get us home. I just had to hope I could change some more Euros there.
I climbed in and the driver took off into traffic, careening across tram lanes, speeding through intersections, and weaving madly through a three-laned traffic circle.
Some trams looked very old.  Photo:
When I think back to that moment in the cab, I remember giddy panic rising as I realized I might be getting us in over our heads - the museum might not be able to change our Euros, the cab driver might try to cheat us, or we might end up dead in a traffic accident. The feeling reminds me of a moment I had with my dad in the hospital a few days before he died.
He was restless, edging his way over to the side of his bed, gripping the hand-rail, pulling himself up. I asked if he wanted to go to the bathroom. He was having a hard time speaking by then, but he managed to get out the word "no." Then he eased his legs over the side of the bed. I asked if he wanted to walk. He could barely stand on his own by then, but the day before we'd "gone for a walk," which meant making our way around his bed, him gripping the side rail, me holding on to him. He nodded.
We'd only made it a few steps before his legs began to give way. I braced myself but he was too heavy. I called out to my mother, who was sitting in the corner, but she didn't understand when I asked her to bring over the chair. My heart began to pound. I cursed my own pride, thinking I knew how to help a feeble man walk. This was the kind of thing that nurses and orderlies got trained for. I should have rung the bell, asked for help. I shouldn't have tried to help him by myself.
In the end Dad didn’t fall. Mom wheeled over the commode chair just in time and I managed to ease him into it. Later, after my heart had slowed down, my dad muttered something. I leaned in to hear. It took effort for him to get each word out. “I… guess… I’m… not… perfect,” he said, and it dawned on me that he thought our near fall had been his fault. I chuckled. It was an old family joke, his pretending to be perfect – or almost perfect at any rate. I stroked his hand. “Of course you’re not perfect. After 89 years you’re just figuring that out?”
I didn’t have many opportunities to make that kind of mistake with my dad. He was only feeble enough to require my help for the last six weeks of his life. With my mom, I’ll be helping her for years to come, or I hope so anyway. So I imagine similar situations will come up again - her wanting something, me wanting to please her and not recognizing when I'm about to put us both at risk. I imagine I'll need to get better at asking for help, and also at saying no to her when something's not safe.
Thankfully, that afternoon in Belgrade the cab got us to the Tesla museum unscathed. And though they wouldn't take my Euros at the ticket booth, several other people from the cruise were already there. One of them happily gave me a second 1,000 Dinar bill. It was enough to pay for admission and a taxi back to the pier. I breathed a sigh of relief as we boarded the ship again.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Dances with Aki: Vacation diaries Day 12

September 2: There is a very nice gentleman on board this Danube cruise who loves to dance. The musicians who play each night in the Panorama Lounge aren't very good, but that doesn't stop Aki. 

I told him my mom used to like to waltz with my dad and then the next time a tune came up with a waltzable beat he asked her. 

As they glided around the dance floor one of the women watching exclaimed to the friend next to her "look at the smile on her face!". 

Then she looked at me and saw I was filming it all. "Look at the smile on your face too," she said to me. 

Which was when I realized I was grinning. It was lovely to see my mom up on the dance floor, though of course it also made me think of my dad. I've never seen my mom dance with any one else.

Later Aki asked me to dance to a salsa tune and then a pop tune came up after that and a whole bunch of people got up to dance freestyle. My mom watched from her seat and when I sat down she said "I've never seen you dance before." She said I'd looked good, and that my dad would have been proud - which brought tears to my eyes.

It was odd to think my mom had never seen me dance. It's something I enjoy a lot, and yet not something she knew about me.  She's never been to a club with me, or gone to any of my friend's weddings.  

Spending these two weeks together means I am revealing parts of myself that I'd kept hidden without thinking.

I'm not sure how I feel about that. It seems both nice (she's finally getting to know me) and scary (what else will I accidentally reveal about myself?).

My mom gets confused: Vacation diaries Day 7

Today we went for a walk in Durnstein.

August 28: My mom gets confused each time I go to take her photo. When she travelled with my dad she was always the one who had the camera, so there aren't many photos of her on those trips.

Now every time I point the camera and tell her to smile she and gets this look on her face like "why would you want to take a picture of little old me?" Then she smiles obediently, humouring me in my mysterious wish to capture her image.

In this habit of photo taking I'm clearly reinforcing my "not-husband" status in our relationship.

I find looking at these photos afterwards oddly reassuring. Seeing her grins captured in pixels helps convince me she's having a good time.

The perils of Prague: Vacation diaries Day 3

August 24: This accidental selfie tells a lot of the story: I'm looking worried, my mom is looking at the ground, the scenery of Prague is laid out behind us.

There are also lots of pictures where we’re smiling and those are also true to how it's going - so far we've enjoyed many delicious meals, an art nouveau exhibit, a concert of the Royal Czech String Orchestra, the Prague Castle and the Charles Bridge. 

But that accidental selfie is the one that speaks most to how I’ve been feeling for the past three days.

Five years ago for her 85th birthday I took her to Chicago for a long weekend, and I’m painfully aware of how much frailer she is now. She runs out of breath very easily and doesn’t have very good balance, so when we go anywhere we have to walk together very slowly, with her leaning on my arm most of the time.

I know the reality is that she’s doing incredibly well. There aren’t many 90 year olds who could walk around Prague Castle all morning, and still be game to walk over a kilometre downhill to the 15th century Charles Bridge. But I also know she doesn’t recognize her limits. After the castle I suggested several times that we could go back to the hotel, but she kept insisting she was fine to walk some more, and then when we got to the Bridge and she finally admitted would like a taxi we were in the middle of a pedestrian zone, and there was nothing to do but keep going to the other side.

Also worrying is the way she keeps seeing things. In the plane on the way over she said

“Look at the farms down there,” as she looked out the window.

“What do you mean? I can’t see anything that looks like farms.” I replied. We were at 40,000 feet and all I could see beyond the expanse of the wing was thin clouds with the faint indication of green land far below. We were flying over Labrador at the time.

“There are four buildings,” she insisted, “and long straight lines that could only be farm fields.”

“We’re way too high up to see anything like that,” I said.

She kept looking out, and a few minutes later said “Oh, it’s the wing.”

I looked out again, and there were four large rivets on the wing that did look a bit like farm buildings might, but only if we were flying 500 feet up. We’d already discussed the fact that mostly all we could see out the window was the wing, but I guess she’d forgotten that.

There’ve been other perception problems – like tonight when she said a piece of lighting equipment at the concert was a sculpture of a bird, and the time she got lost in the hotel room while trying to make it back to her bed after turning out the light.

Tomorrow we take a bus to the ship where we’ll stay for the next ten days as we sail down the Danube. I can’t wait. It will be a relief to have her tucked away in a stateroom, looking out at the scenery as it passes by. I hope I’ll be able to finally relax then.

"I am not taking your husband's place"

The dining room table today.

Diary of a vacation with my mom: Day 1, August 22 

“I am not taking your husband’s place.” I remember saying those words to my mom last year, and lately they've been ringing in my ears.

It was a few days after my dad died. My brother had gone back to Toronto after the funeral, and I was staying on for a few more days. My mom and I were about to sit down for dinner.

The dining table at my parents’ house is eternally cluttered. On a typical day you might find three days’ worth of newspapers, a tin full of cookies, a silver tea pot, dozens of letters from charities asking for money, an arrangement of flowers long past their best before date, the program for a concert, a jar of homemade red currant jelly, and the paper napkins saved from yesterday’s meal because they aren’t all that dirty yet – and all of that that would just be covering one corner.

From this miasma I had cleared two places for my mom and I to eat, and set out cutlery and glasses. I was pouring the wine when Mom brought in the frozen spinach pizza she’d heated for us.

She looked at the places I’d set out.

“Well you don’t have to sit at the end anymore,” she said, her tone suggesting the spot I’d chosen was obviously undesirable. She pointed to the place across from her. “You can sit over there now.”

I looked where she was pointing and said, “I am not taking your husband’s place.”

The words hung in the air, both of us realizing the deeper meaning my words unintentionally carried.
Then my mom put the pizza down and we didn’t say anything more about it.

I’ve thought about that moment many times. Because the reality is, over the past year I have taken her husband’s place, in more ways than one. When I’m in Ottawa I drive her around as he did, I sit beside her at church, and I pour the wine when we sit down for dinner.

Each time I feel like there’s an awkward a process of adaptation underway as we figure out together how to feel like mother and daughter together, instead of not-husband and not-wife. 

Today our journey into his territory will go one step further. Because today I become my mother’s travel companion.

The tour starts with three days in Prague and then we cruise down the Danube through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. We fly out today, and for the next two weeks we’ll be together constantly, sharing a room.

As I sit in my old bedroom, contemplating the map of where we're heading, and listening to my mother puttering downstairs with her last minute packing, I worry that I’ll be so preoccupied about her health and happiness that I won’t remember to have a good time on this trip.

While we’re on fantastic trip, will I be able to remember I’m not just doing this to take her husband’s place? Can we just be two women, travelling together, seeing the world and enjoying each other’s company? I’m about to find out.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Time has passed once again without my consent

It was a year ago today that my father died. Tonight I was trying to remember if he died at 2PM or 4PM (not sure why that seemed important, but it did). I went to my computer and looked in my "Dad" directory, wondering if I'd saved a note that day that would give me a clue. I found this bit of writing I did at his bedside:
"There's a new crackling sound behind his breath. And is it my imagination or is his chest heaving even more than it was a moment ago? Each time he takes a breath it's like he's run a long distance and is trying to catch his breath. It's hard work - dying. That's what people keep saying.
I welcome the change, in a morbid way. This sitting around with nothing to do except listen to him