The Ten Cent Christmas

When my aunt was a recently married bride (she was eighteen), she and her husband were very poor. They lived in a shanty. Jack was an ordinary airman in the airforce and the pay was not intended to support both him and a wife. However, my aunt was beautiful and he was dashing in his uniform and they, like many young couples, were full of hope. Love, they believed, could overcome all problems.

Their first Christmas all they had between them was ten cents. Mind you ten cents still meant something. You could buy something with ten cents. It was two third of a  haircut, for example. It was two thirds of a ticket to a movie. It was two ice cream cones. Still, it was just ten cents.

They set up a tree and decorated it with what they were able to make.

My aunt went to the butcher shop and she said to the butcher, “Can I get some hamburger for ten cents?”

And the butcher, who had known her all his life for this was a small town, Gimli, Manitoba, where nearly everyone was related by blood or marriage even though new interlopers like my uncle were appearing because an airbase was being built for the war effort in Europe, said, “Sure, Florence.” And he took her dime.

He went to the back, away from the counter and, when he returned, he gave her a package wrapped in brown waxed paper and tied with butcher’s string.

When she got home and opened the package, there was the hamburger and with it, short ribs and steak.

My aunt is in her eighties now and in a nursing home but she has never forgotten that Christmas. She’s told me about it many times over the years and I’m always happy to hear and re-hear it.  

A Tablespoon of Love

I love cooking.
I’m not talking about having one speciality such as barbecued steak that can be whipped up once a summer.

I’m talking about lamb shoulder chops, sweet potato, onions, carrots, a bit of broccoli stem, simmered together for an easy supper for visitors. My mother always said if you want the kids to hang around, feed them. It’s great advice. Noses get anchored to delicious aromas, stomachs anticipate satisfying food. 
I’m talking about the attraction of Trinidad curried chicken steeping overnight in coconut milk, soya sauce, chilli pepper, salt, then fried the next afternoon in turmeric and curry and, when the chicken is falling off the bone, setting it aside in a warm oven while cooking chunky green pepper, apple, onions, celery in the curry gravy, then putting everything together in a welter of tastes and smells. Ladled over steaming rice, served with side dishes of chopped fresh fruit, dried raisins, almonds, cashews, this is a dish that is part of family lore,  that is anticipated months in advance, that tantalizes the neighbourhood through the open windows. The windows are open, even in winter, because with a lot of people cooking, the kitchen heats up and fills with steam. This is a dish that requires a big plate with a nicely turned up edge to hold everything. What’s particularly good about it for feeding visitors is that it can be prepared the previous day. Beer, tea or yogurt drinks wash it down well.
For years I’ve made Trinidad curried chicken for Christmas Eve. Non-traditional food for the Eve and a traditional Christmas dinner at my daughter’s for the Day. My daughter and her husband are both good cooks. Their tables groans with turkey, sweet and white potatoes, gravy, vegetables of many kinds, condiments, stuffing,all followed by homemade pie, cookies, slices. However, there are empty places at the festive table now for my son in law’s parents are gone. My parents are gone. There are friends who used to join us who are no longer here. Yet, when we raise a glass or a fork, it is with happy memories from meals gone by.
We’ve all grown older. That affects both the cooking and the eating. When my daughter now says, “I’ve got three kinds of pie. What would you like?” we used to say, “Yes.” No one says “Yes” anymore to all three. There was a time when we could eat ice cream pumpkin pie, pecan pie and apple pie and never put on a pound.
My mother was a wonderful cook. My father was a good and inventive cook. When you grow up with people who love to cook, it is hard not to delight in the selecting, the preparation, the cooking, the serving of food.
My mother made lemon pie with love. When my father married her at the age of twenty, he said, “I’m going to have lemon pie every day.” He didn’t eat lemon pie every day but we ate it often, crisp, flaky crust, deep lemon, high meringue slightly toasted on top. When we were playing or working outdoors and it came close to coffee time and we could smell the lemon faintly on the air, we licked our lips in anticipation.
Love is as important to cooking as butter. You don’t find it listed in the recipe book because it is understood that good food requires love. Two tablespoons flour, one tablespoon butter, two tablespoons of love.
Love gives you a dozen raisin tarts with a crust that crumbles in your mouth. When you bite into the sweet richness what are you tasting but love?
Good family cooking ruined me, of course. I’m not just talking about my waist line. My doctor says eight pounds have to come off. It’s a struggle. However, good family cooking also ruined me for restaurants and prepared foods. I try restaurants but then sit there fiddling with a meal I wouldn’t serve or eat at home. I buy convenience food from the store freezer but seldom buy it twice. I don’t find it convenient to eat food that offers nothing but convenience.
We often talk about great meals we’ve shared. Less often, we talk about great meals we’ve prepared together. Yet, the choosing of the menu, the shopping, the preparation of the food, the cooking, done together creates a team, brings people together in a happy task, gives everyone a stake in the banquet set before usl.
Food isn’t just for eating. It is also one of the ties that bind family and friends.
During this holiday season, or any holiday season, give your children and grandchildren a gift that will serve them the rest of their lives. Get them to help in the kitchen. Give them a chance to say, “I cooked the broccoli.” Or, “I helped make the rice pudding. “ or the stuffing or salad.
Make helping in the kitchen it fun. Don’t worry about the mess.  Start kids with something simple and quick, something that they’ll want to eat. If you are making pastry, make sure you have some left over and let them roll it up with cinnamon and butter and brown sugar. Cut the roll into pieces and pop them into the oven on a cookie sheet. When the pastry is ready, share some with them with a glass of cold milk and find something to laugh about. Love and laughter go together.
Take them shopping to the grocery store, not for a humungous cart full of groceries, but for some of the amazing variety of Chinese vegetables you can find nowadays. Buy enough for a stir fry, then leave. If you don’t own a wok, go buy one. Get them to help you to discover what you should do with mo qua or daikon. Solve the mystery of bok choy. Make the mysterious familiar. Food is a mystery waiting to be revealed.
It wasn’t until I was married that I was introduced to the taste of kippers, green peppers and mangoes. I introduced my wife to pickerel cheeks with sweet and sour sauce, holopchi, skyr with strawberries.
Not all experiments work out. Keep some shepherd’s pie in the freezer. There’s nothing wrong with homemade shepherd’s pie and catsup. If nothing else, you can always whip up toasted cheese and bacon sandwiches served with fresh fruit.
This is Canada. Our neighbours and often our relatives by marriage come from the four corners of the earth. Ask them to make an ethnic dish. At one time, we had a Ukrainian neighbour. We started some festive meals with kutya (boiled wheat and honey) and ended with Icelandic vinarterta (a seven layer torte a prune filling). 

Love and Alzheimers

When my son was in high school, he came home one afternoon all excited. He said there’s a new girl in class and I’m in, in and he paused, he was going to say love but he was too honest for that, he burst out I’m in lust with her. We all got a laugh out of that.

But what is love? Someone once said to me that the three most dangerous words in the English language are “I love you.”

I’m not sure what love is but I know I’ve observed it, not among the young who are pulsating with hormones, but among the elderly. When I first began to visit Betel because my mother was there, I saw a relative come every day to feed her husband and to wheel his bed outside. He couldn’t speak, he couldn’t move, but she sat with him and sometimes her daughter came and sat with her mother and father.

Every day in the good weather, I saw a man come to get his wife. They would sit outside on a bench, saying nothing but holding hands. Sometimes she would rest her head on his shoulder.

There’s another kind of love that is more diffuse, more general but it is still love. That is the love that brings a group of local singers to entertain at Happy Hour every Friday evening. Sometimes Oli Narfasson sings songs in Icelandic. No one gets paid. They sing the old songs that the residents will recognize. The residents come with walkers and in wheel chairs. The more fortunate ones make it on their own. My mother’s toes tap to the tunes. When the singers ask if there’s a song anyone wants, she always says “School days.” I expect that her school days were the happiest days of her life.

There is kindness in the way that people are brought to this happy hour. There is kindness in the singing. There is kindness in the offering of a soft drink. I think that is a kind of love.

Some residents never have a visitor. That is not necessarily neglect. Families are spread far apart. A friend of mine who is ninety-five says there is no one left whom she knows or who knows her. She’s outlived them all. The lucky ones are the ones who have relatives close by who come to visit regularly. You see them, maybe three people sitting at a table having tea and cake with a mother or father who is a resident. Or you see someone being bundled off into a car for a ride or a Sunday dinner.

These are the families who are not embarrassed or ashamed because someone in their family suffers from dementia. No one asks for dementia. No one says oh goody, I’m getting Alzheimer’s. It’s a disease with no cure. But then there are lots of diseases with no cure. Diabetes. Celiac disease. Primary bilary cirrhosis. There’s a whole host of them. All of them change our behaviour. Just as Alzheimer’s changes our behaviour. The difference with dementia is that the new behaviour is often bizarre. It is often hurtful because the victim of the disease no longer sees the world except through a distorted lens caused by changes in the brain. Eventually, many Alzheimer’s victims forget who even their closest family and friends are.

I’m not a doctor or a psychologist or a psychiatrist. I’m just a son. I don’t know how much of my mother’s fantasies are the result of Alzheimer’s and how much is because she has macular degeneration and can no longer read or play cards or do cross word puzzles or watch TV. I don’t know how much is because she is nearly deaf. Prisons punish prisoners by putting them in solitary confinement. Even healthy people hallucinate after awhile. I don’t know how much is because of medication, although Betel is wonderful because they don’t drug the residents to keep them from being a nuisance.

Once in awhile she knows me. How this miracle happens, I don’t know. She says Hi, Billy, and gives me a hug and I hug her back and greedily, I talk to her because for a time, I’ve got my mother back. It is like having someone whom you love who has died come back to life for an hour or two. I’ve learned not to go and get us tea because when I return, the miracle may be over. And I wish and I wish that somewhere there was someone who could discover how this miracle occurs so she could come back from her internal world to join me for more than a minute or an hour.

There is a terrible guilt that goes with being a caregiver, with having the authority of a Power of Attorney. The decision to seek a medical opinion on a loved one’s mental state is like a betrayal. The decision to take away someone’s access to their life’s savings is a betrayal. The decision to have their driver’s license cancelled is a betrayal. The decision to have them put into a nursing home is a decision filled not with relief but guilt. When you go to visit and they say “I want to go home.” And you say “This is your home now,” you feel dreadful and when they follow you to the door and you punch in the code and they get left behind because they wear a bracelet that closes the door so they can’t leave, you feel guilt. You are on the other side of the glass door. You can go anywhere you want. They are standing there, their hands against the glass watching you, wanting to go home to their kitchen, their bedroom. You feel like a failure. You ask yourself could I do more, could I still take care of them?

It is not all quiet tragedy. At least not in retrospect. Friends of mine were taking care of the wife’s grandmother. The grandmother was short, thin and had very pale white skin. Her wandering had reached a point where they had a lock with a code on the front and back door. One day the door got left ajar and the grandmother, clad only in a bra and panties fled down the stairs and along an exclusive street in Oak Bay. Her grandson-in-law is big–think football linebacker—and partly native so he’s swarthy. Grandma got a good head start and as she ran, she screamed help, help me, I’m being kidnapped. Behind her, her grandson-in-law was running as fast as he could. A block from the house he finally caught her, picked her up and tucked her under one arm. She kicked and waved her arms and screamed for help the whole way back. It was a difficult moment but now, some years later, it is a story that brings wry knowing smiles because many of us have had similar experiences.

What’s love? Chasing a grandmother- in-law down a tony street and not worrying about what it looks like. Making decisions for someone who no longer can make them for themselves. Never taking advantage of a person no longer able to make good decisions. Putting their welfare ahead of your own feelings of guilt. Not forgetting someone once they’re in an institution. Making time for them even when they don’t know you. Remembering the way they were before being afflicted by a terrible disease. Not being ashamed of them. There are many ways to love someone.

My son was right. It wasn’t love he was feeling. Love requires giving and expecting nothing in return.

Families and dementia

The first time he accused me of stealing from him, he was lying on his bed reading The Northern Miner. “You stole my credit union statement,” he said.

I thought he was joking. I had Power of Attorney and could look at his accounts at any time. I had no need or reason to steal his monthly statement. “That’s what happens with some sons,” he said bitterly and turned back to his paper.

I said, “I never stole your credit union statement. How would I steal it?”

“I went to the Credit Union and it wasn’t there.”

“Jack probably picked it up.” His brother Jack often picked up his statements or his mail for him.

“You stole it,” he said. I called his brother. Sure enough, he’d picked up the statement. He told my father he’d picked up the statement. He came over and handed him the state­ment. “It’s a copy,” my father said. “It’s not an original.”

Dementia sneaks up on people. Someone you’ve known all your life and con­sider their behaviour stable, predictable, slowly, gradually, begins to change. There’s no way to see that their brain is getting less oxygen. The dis­ease is invisible. There’s the forgetfulness, of course, but people mistake forgetfulness with dementia. If you forget your car keys, that’s forgetful­ness. If you forget what the car key is for, that’s dementia. But long before you forget what a car key is used for the dis­ease has begun to change your behaviour. And the people around you still think that you are the same person they’ve known all their lives.

I was so furious over my fa­ther’s accusing me of stealing his credit union statements that I called West Jet and changed my flight from a month later to the next day. For the first time in our lives, my father and I parted with anger and raised voices. When I got home I wrote to the family lawyer say­ing that I refused to continue as my parents’ power of attorney and executor. Both positions require absolute trust between the two parties.

A month later my Uncle Jack called and said my father and he wanted me to continue in both positions. It took a lot of persuading but, finally, I agreed. It was an agreement that I came to regret.

Power of Attorney. POA. Everyone needs to designate someone as their POA. Oth­erwise the government steps in and time and again that has turned into a nightmare as face­less civil servants take over as­sets, sell off belongings, decide what the individual may or may not have. And charge for it.

Years before the incident over the credit union statement my parents had announced over lunch that at two o’clock we were going to see the family lawyer and they wanted me to sign documents making me their power of attorney. Sure, I said, blithely, never having heard of Power of Attorney before. It never occurred to me that I should have insisted on showing the documents to my own law­yer and have her explain what was involved and what should be modified in the agreement to protect my interests.

As Power of Attorney I had the right, once my parents became incapable of manag­ing their affairs, of taking over their bank accounts, their in­vestments, their rental property, even their home. I could keep them from having access to their assets. My duty was to act for their benefit as they would act for themselves. Easier said than done since people in the early stages of dementia don’t believe there’s anything wrong with them. Even people in the later stages will protest that they’re quite capable of taking care of their affairs. When my father was in Betel and no lon­ger could remember how to use the telephone, he still insisted that he wanted to trade penny stocks on the Vancouver Ex­change. Who was going to tell him no. After all, they could rightly argue that he was just doing what he’d been doing for close to seventy years.

One of the common ele­ments of dementia is paranoia. That paranoia is usually fo­cused on someone close, some­one with authority. While other behaviour may continue to be, or appear to be, quite normal, the person with paranoia inter­prets everything that the person of authority does in a paranoid way. A friend of mine had a call from her mother saying that her father was behaving strangely. He’d stopped eating anything she cooked. My friend went over the next morning at break­fast time. Her father was sitting with a bowl of porridge in front of him. “Why aren’t you eating your porridge? “she asked. He shuffled and looked away from her. “Is there something wrong with the porridge?” He didn’t reply. “If you don’t want it, I’ll eat it. I haven’t had breakfast.” She took the porridge bowl and dipped in the spoon. “You’re not going to eat that”, he burst out. “Why not?” she replied. “Do you think Mom’s trying to poison you?” She ate a couple of spoonfuls. “Why would she want to poison you?” Sheep­ishly, he took back the bowl. He had believed that his wife of decades was trying to poison him. When my father came to stay with me, as a courtesy, I served him first, then myself. He was, after all, both my fa­ther and my guest. But then I noticed he didn’t drink his cof­fee until I’d taken a drink of mine. He didn’t start eating his bacon and eggs until I started to eat mine and that was when I remembered my friend’s expe­rience with her father.

It is a long, hard road filled with pain as one deals with a parent or spouse who begins to behave in ways that are hurtful and illogical. They are, after all, the same person one has dealt with for most if not an en­tire lifetime.

At first, the changes are often subtle and are misinterpreted.

After my mother went into Betel, my father called me and in a dramatic, passionate phone call worthy of a melodrama asked if he could come to live with me. What could have been a one sentence request, “Is it all right if I come and live with you?” became a half hour of begging, pleading, manipulating. At the end of the call, I said sure, fine, I’ve got everything all organized in case you wanted to come to live here. I flew to Gimli. We flew back to Victoria and on the flight he was his usual charming self, even in his eighties drawing the stewardesses to him with his ready smile, his compliments and anecdotes.

It started off well. People came to visit and he always loved an audience. But then things began to go awry. One day he said he was going to walk to the mall which is about five blocks away. He’s always loved window shopping. He could spend hours wandering in and out of stores. However, today was Thanksgiving and we were to go to my nephew’s for Thanksgiving supper. Sup­per time came and went and there was no sign of my father. I walked to the mall. I searched inside and outside the mall. I came home and called my nephew who lives in Sidney.

“Sean,” I said, “your grand­father is missing. I can’t find him. Can you come and help me search?”

He jumped in his truck and started for Victoria. He was half way here when his wife called him on his cell phone and said, “Grandpa phoned me. He is on the transit bus and he’s getting off at the highway bus stop. I’ve got to go. Come back. I’ll phone Uncle Billy.”

She threw the two kids into the van and raced to the high­way. She stood at the bus stop, spotted my father’s homburg on the bus and started waving wildly. He got off quite non­chalantly. This man who had lived in the country and in the wilderness, who had hardly ever been on a transit bus, had walked to the mall, had asked someone how to take a bus downtown, had asked someone downtown how to take a bus to Sidney, thirty miles away. As the bus approached Sidney, my father asked one of the passen­gers if he had a cell phone. The passenger did and called the number my father gave him.

By the time I arrived, Thanksgiving supper was over. I ate reheated turkey. My father sat on the couch as if nothing unusual had happened. When I said it was time to go, he re­plied that he was going to stay the night at his grandson’s. I pointed out that they had a small house and no spare bed­room. Reluctantly, he came back with me.

Things seemed stable for a few days but then my niece, whom he loved dearly, was to come for a visit. They had a very special relationship be­cause my father and mother had helped to bring up her and her brother after their father was killed in an industrial accident in northern Canada. My father talked repeatedly about the fact that Kim was coming to visit.

The day she was to arrive, he got all dressed up in his pearl grey suit. He started out the door when I said, “Don’t leave now. Kim will be here in fifteen minutes.”

I’m just going for a walk,” he replied. I expected that he would walk up the hill to the end of the street, then walk back. Kim arrived but there was no sign of my father. Sup­per time came. We went to the gate to look up our dead end street. We looked down the main street that ran by the house. While Kim stayed at the house in case he turned up, I went searching. Up and down the streets of the neighbour­hood. Back to the house. Over to the mall. It began to get dark; it started to rain and in despair, I called the Saanich police and asked them to put out an APB on him. I called the hospitals. Then all we could do was wait and hope.

An hour passed, then two. I kept going to the front door to look out. We were having a cup of tea when there was a knock on the door. To my re­lief there he was between two policemen. Except my relief didn’t last. One of the police­men wanted to know my name, my father’s name, our relation­ship, then he said, “Your father says you’ve stolen all his mon­ey and he’s come to Victoria to get it back.” That started a half hour interrogation.

Elder abuse is common in Victoria. There are a lot of elderly to be abused. There are lots of people prepared to abuse them. When the police were satisfied that my father’s money hadn’t been stolen – I offered to show them my POA and his credit union statements – they left but not before in­forming me that they’d found my father downtown at Eaton’s Centre with six hundred dol­lars in his hand. He hadn’t been picked up because of the APB. Eaton’s security had noticed that he was confused, saw the money and whisked him into a safe area. I went to the kitch­en table and started to have tea with my father and niece. There was a knock on the door. The previous police were from the Victoria force. Now there was a Saanich officer and a so­cial worker. I invited them in. My father sat silent as we went through the same routine once again. They, too, left. Once they were gone, I said to my father, “Why did you say I’d stolen your money.” He smiled and said, “I didn’t want to have to pay for a taxi.”

Living with a bachelor like me isn’t very interesting. My routine is pretty predictable and boring. Because of this I tried to take him somewhere every two or three days, not any place special, Home Hard­ware or WalMart, just some­where to give him a chance to get out of the house. The night I took him to Home Hardware, I should have begun to realize that something odd was going on. In the past, he’d have spent hours walking the aisles, look­ing at everything there was for sale. But this night there was no doing the man-thing look­ing at tools. He’d always loved to window shop. However, ev­ery time I went to search for something, he followed me and when I suggested he have a cup of coffee he only moved to follow me from a distance. It wasn’t until Halloween when the penny dropped. The Gov­ernor General’s residence was decorated with pumpkins lined along the driveway. The pump­kins were carved in the like­ness of famous people from all walks of life. There were Hollywood actors and cartoon characters, politicians. People came by the thousands to oooh and aw.

I told him we’d go to see them. I thought he’d be enter­tained. It would give us some­thing to talk about. When we left for the GG’s, it was night time and he didn’t know Vic­toria well even in daylight. At night it was a complete mys­tery. More than once, he said to me, “Where are we going?” He sounded nervous. I explained once again about the pumpkins. When we arrived there was no place to park so I dropped him off at the gate and told him to wait there for me

It took awhile to find an empty parking space and by the time I got back my father was shaking so hard he couldn’t stop. It was then I realized that he was afraid and what he was afraid of was that I was going to leave him and disappear. My heart sunk. All the evenings out I’d planned to keep him entertained had been a night­mare for him. Instead of amus­ing him, they’d terrified him. After his mother died when he was twelve, his father had taken him to the city to visit his aunt. She had no children and she’d offered to take my fa­ther since my grandfather was now left with four children. Except they never told my fa­ther what they’d planned. He thought they’d go for coffee, then return to Gimli. Instead, my father was left behind at his aunt’s. I wondered as I drove home about what was going on in his mind that he could mix me up with his father leaving him behind. He’d left Gimli on both occasions. He’d gone to the city on both occasions. But many decades had passed. Later, though, on a number of occasions, when asked who I was, he replied, “This is my father.” When asked by a psy­chiatric nurse what our rela­tionship was, he said, “He’s my father.”

I thought my heart would break when I realized that ev­erything I had done to make things better for him had made him afraid. That this man who risked his life time and again without a second thought as he fished on Lake Winnipeg, who would, his brother Jack said “rather fight than eat”, could be reduced to shaking fear be­cause he thought he might de­liberately be left behind was devastating.

This, no longer was my fa­ther. Some stranger had taken over his mind. Nothing I did could be or would be interpret­ed in a normal fashion. Every action would be seen through the terrifying lens of paranoia.

After a life time’s relationship with my father, I now was dealing with someone I no longer knew.

Lögberg-Heimskringla

Alzheimer’s and Kindness

Today, when I went to visit the nursing home where both my parents currently live, I discovered my mother in the doorway of her bathroom entangled in her nightgown. She was naked from the waist up and unable to find the appropriate holes for her head and arms.

“Help me,” she said but I don’t think she had any idea she was speaking to her son.

I’m not used to idea of finding my mother half-naked and confused, of having to help her with this simplest of tasks. Normally a nurse would magically appear to take over but today the hall is empty. I managed to straighten out the nightgown, to get her arms and head into the right places.

“Take off my pants,” she said and went and sat on the edge of her bed. I pulled of her shoes and slacks and pulled down her nightgown.

My father had appeared from his room. “This is crazy,” he said and turned and left. There are no double rooms so my parents, although t hey are married sixty-eight years, are living separately. Few couples come here. Nearly all the residents are women, widows who sit in lines close to the exit, wearing bracelets that lock the doors automatically if they try to leave.

My mother tried to pull back her blanket but couldn’t for along with Alzheimer’s she has macular degeneration and, therefore, only peripheral vision. I pulled back the blanket, helped her into bed where she curled up into a fetal position. I covered her and, although it was only three thirty in the afternoon, wished her good night.

This, for the young readers who believe no such fate could come their way, was a woman who was a credit union manager for twenty-two years, who sold insurance, who regularly braved northern winter roads to bring supplies to my father at his commercial fish camp.

My mother loves this nursing home, or loved it, when she was still aware. She wanted to come here and quickly joined in the activities. She looked forward to volunteering for folding face cloths. She enjoyed Friday night happy hours, the church services, the mind games, the physical exercises, the company of other women.

My father, on the other hand, hates it here. He came unwillingly, driven in by his inability to live alone or with anyone else. Before he came here his paranoid dementia brought him to my home half a continent away in Victoria, then after he became convinced that I had stolen his morphine pills, his money, was trying to poison him, had listening devices in all the walls, his paranoia drove him away. Unable to live on his own, he raged against having to move into a care facility. He refuses to participate. He goes into rants over the food. He particularly despises pasta.

He has good days and bad days. On the good days I have my father back, not the charming, amusing man most people, including me, remember but, at least a person who is rational and can talk knowledgeably about his great passion, the penny stock market. Most of the time he is angry. The morphine he has to take to control the pain from a shattered vertebra increases the paranoia but he can’t get by without it. It’s a fine balance. Enough drugs to control the pain but not too much that would mean he sleeps all the time.

There is a resident here who just celebrated his one hundred and fifth birthday. “I don’t want to be like that,” my father says. He is agitated. He is lying on his bed. He swings his legs over the side, picks up his cane, starts to stand up, lies down again. He repeats this motion over and over again, only occasionally standing up and walking as far as the door of his room, then back. “I want to die.”

“I want to die. I want to die.” I hear this refrain over and over again but he also wants to see the doctor every Friday when the doctor comes to visit.

Shortly after I arrived at the beginning of June, my father had a fall. The nursing home called and I immediately went there. There’d been a bed check at five a.m. At six forty-five he’d rung the emergency bell.

“I don’t know what happened,” he said. He’s a mess. His face is cut from his right eye to well down his cheek. His arm is broken. His hand is unrecognizable. It is a swollen lump like half a black cantelope. “I woke up and I was lying on the floor. I kept trying to get up and kept slipping. I thought it was water.” It wasn’t. He was slipping in his own blood.

He can stand more pain than any other person I’ve known. He once was on the road to his fish camp. He heard a car coming very fast on the gravel. He ran to the front of his car but before he could get any further a car came around the curve and rammed into the rear of his car, knocking him onto his back and driving his car over him. It ran up one leg and ended with a front tire on his chest. The driver and passenger thought he was dead. When they saw he wasn’t, they lifted the front end of the car off him. He

was paralyzed and couldn’t move. They put the car down, the driver lifted the front end and the passenger pulled him free. By the time help arrived, my father was sitting in his own vehicle and refused to go to the hospital. He did, however, go to the hospital three days later because of the pain. His leg looked like an overripe banana and had a crack in the bone.

No sissy, this guy.

They bandage his face and put a tensor bandage on his arm. He doesn’t complain. However, in the days to come, he is convinced that his injuries are the result of a beating. “I couldn’t have got hurt like that from falling out of bed,” he says, completely forgetting that he was found at the entrance to the washroom. The most likely cause was a TIA, a small stroke that often presages a larger one.

I come every day. I bring mr. big chocolate bars, jelly beans, licorice all sorts, bags of bulk cookies from SuperA. I’d bring gold and silver if it would help.

I nearly always bring Chico Bandito, my chihauhau because Chico loves to be patted and praised. For many here, a chance to pat a dog is the only opportunity to express physical affection. I’ve learned to say hello to everyone because while my parents have many visitors, some residents have none.

This morning, I picked up my aunt Florence and we drove to Selkirk to Gilbart’s funeral home. My parents want to be cremated. My mother wants her ashes buried in her mother’s grave. My father wants his ashes buried in my mother’s father’s grave. They’ve left clear instructions in their wills.

I’m a bit hesitant about preplanning. I don’t want to feel like I’m rushing my parents toward death. But we plan many things– marriages, pregnancies, christenings, educations–why not this? With the undertaker, I discuss the details of picking up bodies, of cremation,

of services then, with my aunt’s help, pick out two urns. A flowered one for my mother because the pattern reminds me of one of her favorite dresses. Seagulls on a blue background for my father because on his boat on Lake Winnipeg with blue sky above and blue water beneath, he always was happy. I think everything is done when I make out a cheque but I’ve forgotten my parents’ social insurance numbers. I promise to telephone with them as soon as I get home.

Later, when I’m back at the nursing home, I see a nurse bring my father his pills and, sitting

beside him on the bed while he takes them, rub his back and quietly tell him he’s doing just fine. My mother, awake for awhile, has had a good day because she participated in the face cloth folding where she can visit and still feel useful.

This is a place filled with tragedy but tragedy softened by kindness and compassion and, I realize, that those are two of the many things this place has taught me.

To change the world is impossible but to say hello, to lift a chihauhau into someone’s lap,

to accept my mother’s nakedness and help her dress, to hate my father’s paranoia but not my father, to take on the role of decision maker, these I can do to make the world a better place..

First published in Logberg-Heimskringla

Canada’s oldest ethnic newspaper

100-283 Portage Ave., Winnipeg, Manitoba R3B2B5

lh@lh-inc.ca

good days remembered


There’s longing and then there’s longing. I don’t mean Romeo and Juliet type longing. I mean longing longing. The kind that drives you out of the house on a rainy evening fifteen minutes before the grocery store closes. You drive there hoping that the doors will be open, race inside and grab a box of brownie mix from the shelf. That’s longing. I can’t think of a smile I’d walk a million miles for but for Namaste Brownie Mix brownie mix I’d drive six blocks at nine-forty-five on an ugly night.

That’s what it was like one Thursday many years ago. I’m not sure what caused me to think about it. The mention of a girlfriend’s mother who approved of me (not something that happened a lot) and showed her approval by making brownies every time I came over. Or maybe it just was because it was the same kind of day. It had rained all weekend. Not drizzled, like it usually does, but rained. Prairie type rain. The kind that makes you feel wet and chilled right through your GoreTex. It was that kind of day when the doorbell rang and my grandson with his lopsided grin and his jacket undone, said, “Hi, Grandpa. We’ve come to visit.”

His Mom and his baby sister were right behind him. After the kids got their jackets and boots off, they hunted up their Uncle and Aunt who were just getting out of bed. Sean got permission to use his uncle’s computer and Rebecca, after showing us her two toy dogs that mercifully had lost their ability to bark since the batteries had died, demanded we draw her mommies and daddy’s and babies. Her aunt, wise in the way of kids, found an old catalogue and cut out paper dolls. While their Mom and Dad were away playing soccer and golf, Kristin and Sean played FISH. Rebecca spread her cut outs over the kitchen table, creating and uncreating families. Then the grandkid’s parents turned up and we had the Shepherd’s pie I’d baked the night before.

Days like that are still memorable decades later. Not for anything special or unique but because the rain beats on the windows while we’re warm and comfortable. Because we’re together and have nothing that has to be talked about nor anything that can’t be talked about. Because there’s a four year old and a two year old who climb from one lap to the other, drawing our attention to toys and paper and crayons, swapping pencils with us, asking for drawings of sheep and pigs and cats, slipping in and out of the room and our conversation. All that was needed was someone to have come in the door with a violin or an accordion and play a tune or two and we’d have had a caleigh. A penny whistle would have done but none of us is musical and no magical visitor appeared, shaking raindrops from his shoulders and starting a tune.

After everyone had left, the house was a shambles, stuffed tigers and crayons and coloring books and cards spread about in a kind of happy chaos. That’s what me started thinking about my old girlfriend and her mother. She wasn’t a girlfriend, girlfriend, the serious sort. We went out a few times together then became friends, the kind of friends where there aren’t any complications from lust or jealousy. That meant I could keep eating brownies and arguing politics with her father. There’s a lot less rain than snow in Manitoba so it was mostly snowy Sundays that I and some of my friends would crowd through the door, take off our boots and spend the day arguing politics. It was a big family, seven kids if I remember correctly so organization was necessary and chaos was imminent. People came and joined the debate, shared the brownies.

Thanksgivings were crowded like that at my grandparents. They had a small house and big hearts. Lots of people, lots of talking, lots of laughter. My grandmother was a short, slight Irishwoman, with an Irish lilt to her voice and a quick welcome at the door. The earliest memory I have of visiting her was when I arrived at the back steps, probably brought into the city by some neighbor and dropped off. I said, “Here I are, Grandma.” It’s a line I’ve heard repeated many times. Hundreds of times I’ve come to that door, eventually bringing with me a wife and two children but each time I knocked, turned the handle and stepped into the stairwell, a faint, small voice always echoed “Here I are, Grandma.”

There were two major occasions in my grandparent’s lives. One was July 12 when my grandfather, a lifetime away from Ireland, would put on his Orange sash and march down Portage Ave. following the fifes and drums and King Billy on a white horse. It was an exercise in nostalgia for the Battle of the Boyne meant nothing in Canada where working class neighborhoods were a mixeture of Italians, Greeks, Scots, English and Scandinavians and there was every denomination of Protestant and Catholic. We went to hear the pipes, to see King William in his red coat and long wig, and to have my grandfather march by with a wave of his hand. We went for the train ride to the picnic, the egg sandwiches and the lemonade, the stories of Ireland with its green hills and soft rain.

The second holiday that really mattered was Christmas with its turkey and mashed potatoes and dressing and gravy and cranberry sauce. The food was good but it wasn’t that that made it Christmas. It was the getting there. The dressing up and having our hair brushed, the drive into the city, the carrying of gifts to the house, the excitement of arriving, my grandmother’s joyous cries and my grandfather’s quiet, satisfied smile, the smells and the sounds, the tiny living room crowded with a table and chairs, the sense that we were somehow doing this together, bound by blood and marriage and love.

Some people define an inheritance as how much money they receive upon a death. There’s never been much money in our family but there’s been many brownies, much spirited debate, many holiday meals, and many hearty welcomes. Money soon gets spent but the rainy day my grandchildren came to visit , I felt rich: I greeted my grandchildren at the door, I cooked for my family and we crowded around the kitchen table to swap stories and tell lies. We had such a good time that if there’d been even a penny whistle, we’d have had a caleigh.

My Mother’s Cookbooks

There are six of them. One’s missing a cover. They’re all well-worn, tattered edges, split spines. Two of them are actual cook-books made by someone else. Gimli Gourment Recipes published by the Johnson Memorial Hospital Auxiliary is in pretty good shape. It’s still got its cover. The recipes are identified by women in the community who donated them. Pie Pastry by Joey Thordarson. Doughnuts by Mrs. A. Kasupski. There’s Lekuchen and Snickerdoodles. Jello Graham Wafer Cake and something called Broken Glass Dessert. It’s made with lemon, lime and cherry “jellow” (sic). There are a lot of hamburger recipes. But the Icelandic quality of Gimli is evident with Kyofa, an Icelandic Meat Loaf. There’s no date on the cookbook but you know there wasn’t much money around because there are a lot of jello recipes and casseroles. People still made their own pickles. There are recipes for Bread and Butter Pickles and Fourteen Day Pickles.

It is impossible to tell where the second published cookbook came from because its cover is long gone. The pages are well thumbed and a bit stained from the ingredients of many recipes. It, too, owes its contents to various housewives, although these come from farther afield. Raisin, Date, and Nut Pie has been contributed by Mrs. T. S. Arason from Cypress River, Man. Million Dollar Pickle is from Mrs. F. A. Finson of Port Arthur, Ont. There are a lot of pies and tarts. Vinegar tarts. Lemon cheese tarts. Coconut tarts. Puddings are important. Part way through the book there is a loose page of Household Hints. “When silver becomes dull” it says, “rub it with a piece of potato dipped in baking soda.” “When making mayonnaise and the white of the egg to the mixture after the vinegar is added. This will prevent curdling.” These were the precursors to Martha Stewart, TV and the Internet.

Here, there are pages of recipes for pickles, relishes and jams. With these recipes you can make Watermelon Rind Pickle or pickle cherries. With all this chopping, kneading boiling, baking there was still a few minutes for leisure because there is one page for making cocktails and cooling drinks.

This book provided all sorts of support to the new housewife. In a tine of little medical assistance and few medications, it provides pages dedicated to Invalid Cookery. It details the contents of a liquid diet, a soft solid diet, a light diet, a full diet. It explains how to make gruels, how to albumenize milk, to make junket, and beef tea. It reveals its heritage with two pages on how to make flatbrauð, mysuostur and pönnukökur. That’s flatbread, a whey cheese and crepes rolled hot with brown sugar. All Icelandic.

But it is not these books that interest me as much as the other four my mother made for herself. Many of the recipes are in her tidy hand. Others have been clipped and pasted into the pages with her notes beside them. Although her parents both came from Northern Ireland, there are no Irish recipes here. She married at sixteen into an Icelandic Canadian family and community and became so much part of the Icelandic tradition that she even learned to make Rosettes.

The first recipe in the book gives the recipe for rosettes: a cup of flour, a cup of milk, a pinch of salt, 2 eggs and a teaspoon of sugar. It explains how to mix the ingredients but in a separate note to one side it says to “Dip Rosette iron into hot fat to heat. Shake off surplus fat. Dip into batter, making sure no batter goes over the edge of the mold. Dip into fat and fry till Golden Brown. Then remove and place on brown paper.” These Rosettes when made properly have the shape of a rose are light, crunchy and usually topped with a dollop whipped cream and a dab of strawberry jam. The recipe floods me with memories of watching my mother holding what looked like a branding iron, making each rosette individually, while I and my brother waited away from the hot of hot fat, knowing that we’d each get one along with instructions to go outside and play.

The pages are nearly as soft as tissue. Many of the recipes are blurred from having water or milk dropped on them. The recipe for Chinese Chews, becomes more obscure as it goes down the page.

There’s a recipe for homemade Marshmallow, for Julia’s Perogies and Holopchi. The recipes are not organized as in a formal cookbook under categories. They follow one after the other as my mother discovered them.

In the three ring binder there is a recipe for Snowballs. I pity anyone who did not grow up; having Snowballs at Christmas. They were made weeks in advance and packed into small boxes and put away until guests came for Christmas. Sinfully rich, made of mashed potatoes, icing sugar, peppermint flavoring, Baker’s chocolate, corn starch, and coconut, they melted in your mouth.

My mother loved desserts. Her lemon pies were legendary. No guest could leave without having had a raisin tart or two. However, she made other things we clamored for. Many Sundays when she asked us what we wanted for supper, we said rabbit pie. Browned rabbit, baked with vegetables and gravy, sealed with a tender pie crust.

There is a recipe for pinwheel sandwiches. When my mother made these for special occasions, my brother and I would volunteer to help make round sandwiches in return for getting to eat the ends. The bread loaf was sliced lengthwise, spread with softened cheese, then rolled around a pickle so when the roll was sliced, the sandwich had a green centre and a spiral of yellow cheese.

There’s a recipe for stew and dumplings, a dish that filled the house and had us looking around the corner into the kitchen to see how soon it would be ready. It was a family meal, first just for us, then after married, for our families as well. And in her recipe books as we grew older there is evidence of our lives. My ex is enshrined with “Mary Anne’s Pancakes.” My son with “Val’s Waffles.” My brother’s teenage girlfriend is remembered with “Nina’s Icebox Cookies.”

There are recipes for puffed wheat cake and rice crispy cake. My mother made it in large pans. She kept sacks of puffed wheat under the cupboard. No matter how busy she was there was always time for making puffed wheat cake or rice crispy cake. She had a sweet tooth and it shows in her cook books. She passed that sweet tooth on to me. I have a love for cream puffs, calla lilies, vinarterta, and pies of all descriptions, including green tomato pie.

We all learned to cook. My mother was tolerant in the kitchen. It was a domain she was happy to share. My father cooked. His specialty was fresh water fish. I cook. My brother cooked. You can’t be around someone who enjoys cooking so much and not catch some of that enthusiasm.

The last hard covered scribbler stops part way through. There are blank pages but then I stumble on a recipe for pumpkin pie. There is nothing special about it. Not like my daughter’s ice cream Sunday pumpkin pie. It’s just a regular pumpkin pie recipe. But it is written with a black marker in large letters. My mother wrote it out, I realize, after she got macular degeneration. She could no longer read her usual recipes. In these large dark letters is her tragedy. Finding ways to be able to read, to be able to cook, for a little while longer before she had to stop altogether, then go into a nursing home.

It’s all there. A woman’s life. A family’s life. The memories. The people. The years when times were hard and hamburger and jello filled the pages and later, when times were better, there was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding recipes. It’s all there.

(A slightly different version appeared in Logberg-Heimskringla)

comfort food

I had Kraft dinner for supper. Well, actually, it wasn’t Kraft dinner. It was Annie’s Rice Pasta & Cheddar.

I was diagnosed with Celiac disease three years ago. Three years without Kraft dinner. Not that I ever ate it that often but it was a great favorite when I was a kid. As an adult, I probably ate it once every couple of months but once I couldn’t have it, I longed for it. I dreamt about it. In the grocery store, I stood in the pasta section and stared at it.

Then I discovered Annie’s Rice Pasta & Cheddar at the local Co-op store. That was a surprise but an even bigger surprise was that it was reasonably priced. Most companies sock it to celiacs. You want gluten free food, you are going to pay for it. Four cookies for five dollars—or more. When I discovered the Pasta & Cheddar, I bought all three packages. Just having them in the cupboard helped stop my craving. It’s taken me three months to eat all three packages. I’ll have to stock up again.

Comfort foods come from childhood. They usually come from mom. My mother was a great cook and baker. When my mother and father got married, he said he was going to have a lemon pie every day. I know my mother didn’t make lemon pies every day but she made them often. Great lemon pies with flaky crusts, with deep, tart lemon filling, with egg whites whipped into high, twirly mounds and finished off in the over so there was just a light brown on the tips. When you cut down with your fork, you could feel the layers: the crumbling egg white, the jelly like lemon, the crispy crust breaking apart. Putting each piece in your mouth was erotic. The three textures, the three tastes, separate and together. It tasted so good that after that first bite, I used to shut my eyes and sigh.

Stew with dumplings on a cold winter day. Coming home from school, my boots crunching through the snow, I could smell the stew from the edge of the yard. I’ve tried to duplicate my mother’s stew but have never succeeded. She made it in a large blue enamel roasting pan and cooked it for half a day. Chuck roast for flavour, peeled potatoes, carrots, parsnips, onion, garlic, salt, pepper, bay leaf, maybe a pinch of nutmeg and, I suspect, some Demerara sugar under the roast. She would never say. Lots of gravy because after the table was set, she put in the dumplings, dumplings that fluffed up so they were light, cut easily at the touch of a fork, dumplings bathed in gravy, speared with a piece of meat. Imagine a meal like that followed by lemon pie.

My father made the pickerel fillets. Great golden mounds of pickerel fillets from fish he’d caught that morning. In season he fried the roe to go with them. Roe that was crispy and mild. Sometimes, if the pickerel were big enough, he’d take out the cheeks, dip them in batter and deep fry them. The fillets he dipped in a mixture of milk, egg and tomato ketchup, dredged them in flour, then dipped them again and dipped them in fine bread crumbs. No matter how bad my day had been by the end of a meal like this and the world had righted itself.

Comfort food. Food made with love, shared with love, containing memories of childhood, of family meals, of going to sleep with a full stomach and a smile.

Some of us aren’t Vikings


He peed on my shirt. When I fell into bed the night before,  I left my shirt lying on the bedroom floor and in the morning, he came upstairs, lifted his leg, and peed on my good shirt. Just like that. I bought that shirt at British Importers. It was the most expensive shirt I owned. I lay there too stunned to say anything. He put his leg down, turned his head to give me a that’ll-teach-you look and went back downstairs.
“Chico,” I yelled. “When I catch you, I’ll kill you.” Except I wasn’t wearing anything and the idea of running around the house nude trying to catch a very quick and agile Chihuahua didn’t really appeal to me. The curtains weren’t drawn. My neighbors are tolerant but not that tolerant.
I went downstairs and Chico was lying in his felt doghouse with his head over the edge. No apology. He didn’t even have the decency to look abject or get out of the doghouse and roll onto his back in submission.
“You’ve got a new girlfriend,” my daughter said. “And she’s allergic to dogs. He’s had  the run of the house for three years. You’ve locked him in the kitchen.  He escaped and let you know what he thinks of the new arrangement.” I’d thought my daughter would  be sympathetic. I thought it was an inborn trait of daughters. Coddle the old codger kind of thing.
“Do that again and you’ll go back to the pound,” I said as I shoveled corn flakes into my mouth. He hated it when I had corn flakes for breakfast. If he had his way, I’d have bacon and eggs every morning. Every lunch and supper. Unless I was having meat with a bone in it that he could hunker down over.  Cholesterol? He didn’t care if I had a heart attack just so long as he got one strip of bacon and a piece of fried egg. 
He walked with his tail in the air and his ears up. He was a babe magnet. Everywhere I took him beautiful women came up and patted him. I’d tie him up outside the grocery store or the bank and when I’d get back there’d be a magnificent brunette or two (why brunettes and never blondes, I don’t know) patting him, cuddling him close, cooing in his ear. When I’d appear, they’d leave. No patting me, no cuddling me, no cooing in my ear. He was cute but I’m not that bad looking.
The wonderful thing about him was that everywhere I took him people talked to me. Because I live alone, that was a blessing. It meant that I wasn’t reduced to telling my life story to bored grocery checkout clerks. I’d sit  on a bench on the Dallas Road walkway and within moments someone else with a dog would sit down and ask me what breed he was. You see, although he was supposed to be a pure bred  five hundred dollar chihauhau, I think his mother slipped out of the kennel one night and went partying. He wasn’t a trembling, fragile, timid mouse. He was barrel chested, strong and with a set of teeth when bared would stop most people in their tracks.
He joined me on West Coast trails. It took him a few attempts to figure out wooden boardwalks, but he plowed through water filled holes, over huge tree roots, down and up slopes, along beaches and over sea wrack. His limit seemed to be ten kilometers. Then he sat down and wouldn’t budge. It was like he was saying if you’re crazy enough to keep walking, you’re crazy enough to walk and carry me.
Threatening to send him to the pound was serious business. He’d been there before. He knew what it was like to be thrown in the clink, the slammer, the cage. One rainy afternoon . he’d slipped out the back door. I didn’t worry about it because I knew he always came back when he got hungry and thirsty /. He usually hooked up with Angel, my neighbor’s dog and they roamed around the yards on our dead-end lane. When he didn’t turn up, I went searching with a flashlight. I called in help. We all searched. No luck. I went up and down the main throughway, Richmond, looking for squashed chihauhau. Nothing. I got a friend to print up posters to put on telephone poles. It had a picture of him with his teeth baered and a statement saying if whoever found him returned him, I’d take him back if they gave me  five dollars. I figured if he peed on their best shirt, they’d be glad to get rid of him.
The following day I called the various pounds. “Yup”, the warden said,  “Chihauhau cross, red collar, no tags, pay his fine and we’ll release him.”
When I got to the pound, I was led along the walkway between the prison cells. It was a heartbreaking moment. He saw me. I saw him. It was just like in the movies. He scrabbled at the wire. I held out my arms. But I hadn’t paid his fine so I had to go back to the front office and shell out for his being picked up and transported (a well meaning neighbor had been the stoolie who turned him in), for his not having a dog tag and for a new tag. One hundred and thirty dollars. I could have done a lot of things with those one hundred and thirty dollars.
Then one of the guards brought him out and put him on the counter. He climbed up my left arm onto the back of my neck and then onto my head where he perched, his nails digging into my scalp.
“Nice Daniel Boone cap”, the guard said as I turned to leave.
Most people like to think their dog is supernaturally smart, smarter than other people’s dogs. I didn’t think that about Chico. He learned early on that being cute beat being smart any day of the week.
He’d been my friend Valerie Kline’s dog. Valerie and I had been friends for twenty years. She was born in Kampala, Uganda and spent her first years in an internment camp. Her father was Austrian, her mother, Hungarian. At the end of the war, the family went back to Europe, then came to Canada. A long time after we met, she became ill. She got Chico to keep her company. Later, when Valerie was dying of cancer, she was more afraid of what would happen to Chico than she was about dying. That’s when I promised I’d take him. I’d known him from the day she’d bought him. Chico and I had established a close relationship right away. If I fell asleep on Valerie’s chesterfield, he’d sneak up and stick his tongue in my ear. It was a gotcha kind of thing. I’d come in and play with him. I’d throw a ball and he’d look at it. I’d chase him around and around the coffee table until he got tired of being chased and would lie down under the table and let me run around it. He’d bark to encourage me.
When I said I’d take him, I only made one condition. He wasn’t sleeping on my bed. He slept on Valerie’s bed and on the couch with her. There was dog hair everywhere. I wasn’t having dog hair on my bed. No sir. Not under any conditions. A week after Valerie’s funeral, her eldest daughter brought Chico over, along with a large box of toys,,his felt dog house.and enough food for a Great Dane. Night came. I explained to him that this is where he slept from now on. I put him in his dog house with his special blanket. I gave him his stuffed lamb to cuddle. I went to bed.
I was just falling asleep when I heard a noise. It was very quiet. Not a whine. It was a whimper. A heartbreaking whimper. It was so quiet I could just barely hear it. It was filled with tragedy. It said I’m lonely. I’m sad.
I leaned over the bed. It’s hard to see a black and tan dog in a dark room but I saw him. Sitting there, looking up at me. “Go downstairs,” I said. “You’ve got a very nice bed downstairs.”
Whimper. Silence. Whimper.
I knew then, in that moment, in spite of my Viking fantasies when I was a kid running around with a wooden sword in my parents’ yard at Gimli, I could never have been a Viking. Vikings are strong. They endure pain without a whimper.  When they are fatally wounded, they make pithy statements about life. Maybe it’s the sentimental Irish blood. If I’d been a true Viking,  I’d have had an Icelandic sheepdog, not a Chihuahua, he’d have slept in front of the door protecting me from marauders. In spite of having read Havamal many times, when the crunch came I forgot all about being on my guard going through doorways and slaying my enemies. Can you see any Viking going into battle with a Chihuahua at his side? 
“Okay,” I said sternly “but just tonight. “ I reached down,picked him up and  put him at the foot of the bed. He was very good. He lay right down and fell asleep. And so did I, but he must have moved sometime during the night because in the morning, he woke me with his snoring. He was nestled in the crook of my arm.
He’s back with Valerie’s daughter now. She and her husband have moved to the country so they can have three dogs. Although the other dogs are large, he’s established himself as dog number two. He gets to play all day long and to go for country walks instead of sitting on my lap while I’m working on the computer. My shirts are stain free. But he’s everywhere around the house with me. I often think I hear him and see him even though he’s not here anymore. I’m going to visit him shortly. I’ll take him a treat. I hope he remembers me.

Pollution

“I’ve got a headache,” my daughter said, except she was three so it was heag-ache. “I fixed.” She held up an empty aspirin bottle.
 I was busy writing and said, “That’s good.” She was always playing at something, pretending one thing or another.  It wasn’t until after another four paragraphs that the empty pill bottle popped into my head again.
 “Did you give Nan an empty pill bottle to play with,” I shouted down the stairs to my wife.
 “No,” she said. “Why?”
 We pulled on our daughter’s winter clothes, bundled  her onto a sleigh and hauled her to the nearby hospital. There was a doctor and nurse but they needed my wife’s help in holding or daughter down while they pumped her stomach. Up came aspirin, two colors of crayon and a button. She’d been sampling whatever was handy. While our daughter screamed and flailed, I hid outside the operating room completely unable to assist. On the way home, I couldn’t stop shaking.
 “She’ll be fine,” wife said. “They got it all out. They’re just keeping her in overnight for observation.
 I couldn’t sleep that night. Instead, I paced the floor, round and round, too agitated to sit down never mind lie down.
 Over the years we ended up at emergency any number of times. With two kids that’s not surprising, especially when you’ve got a daughter who’s a jock. She slipped and dislocated a collar bone at school, broke an ankle at soccer, fell on her head during gymnastics–I’d sit petrified while my wife took charge, directing events, obtaining information.
 When our daughter got pneumonia we drove her to a hospital in Kansas and they whipped her into a nightgown and began a regime of a needle of antibiotics every four hours, I drove back and forth to the hospital every day frantic with anxiety.
 I was, I told myself, an absolute coward, unable to deal with crises. Ineffectual. Helpless.
Then one day, I was hiking with a friend. We’d stopped before crossing a small stream. Some branches had formed a barrier and, instead of pristine water, pollution was piled up against it.
 “That’s coming from somewhere upstream. Let’s see if we can find it,” he said.
 After two kilometres we came across an old sewage pipe. We’d have missed it because of the brambles but the water above it was clear and we backtracked. My friend knows people in the environmental movement. He told them about the pipe and they reported it. Awhile later he told me the owner hadn’t even known about the pipe. Someone else had put it in.
 I’d just made another trip to emergency and the pipe and the hospital somehow came together. The idea that everything had to come from somewhere. It was a startling idea. “When I was ten,” I said to my friend, “I came home one day for lunch and my mother wasn’t there.”
 “Your mother’s been taken to the hospital,” our next door neighbor said and I nearly collapsed.
 It turned out that she was pregnant in her fallopian tube and had to have an emergency operation. A number of days went by before I rode my bicycle to the hospital. I was in tears at the door and chewing on my fist by the time I got to her room. To my relief she was sitting up in bed looking quite healthy.
 Maybe that’s what brought it back strong enough to wake me up from a sound sleep. I sat staring into the darkness, listening to my father say when I was little, not once, or even twice, but over and over, “People go to  hospital to die.” He must have been twenty-three or four then because I was around four or five. That’s what happened to his mother when he was twelve. They took her to a hospital in Winnipeg and she died. An old event, forgotten and obscured, like that sewage pipe covered in brambles and fern.