(from my diary)
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
I was on Salt Spring Island the other day planing arbutus. My friend Richard was putting the planks through the planer and I was catching them and holding them even so they wouldn’t snipe.
If you haven’t lived on the West Coast, you probably don’t know what an arbutus is. . It doesn’t shed its leaves seasonally. Instead, it sheds its bark. The old bark is often deep red or purple and comes away in long strips. The new bark is a pale, yellow green, smooth, sensuous.
All around us are majestic firs with salal filling any open spaces. To my right the ground drops away in a tangle of deadfall, sea spray and cedar. Between the trees I can see Galiano Island, then in the far distance, the mountains of North Vancouver. Below us on the sharp falling ridges, the tangle of salal is so thick I can’t push my way through it. Before cutting down a tree, I have to hack an escape path in case the tree twists as it falls. Hacking through the salal isn’t without its risks. The ground is riddled with wasp nests. Twice now I’ve stepped on a nest. The wasps swarm out, yellow and black and angry. In places where trees have been removed, there are tangles of blackberry canes rising up to six feet or more. Large mounds of canes covered in sharp, curved thorns and delicious fruit. For those who haven’t seen them, picture black raspberries, but much larger than most raspberries. In blackberry season, it’s easy to tell who has been picking, because their arms are covered in long scratches and their hands are stained purple.
This is the world of the Icelanders who kept traveling West, from Kinmount, to Toronto, to Winnipeg, to the Pacific Coast. Some Icelanders came first to Winnipeg, then hearing of the West Coast continued on. There were those who chose the Coast as their first destination, however. Some came in the 1880s – enough that Victoria had a vibrant and viable Icelandic community with Sunday musicals and poetry readings. A recession drove many of those people to Point Roberts and to Boundary Bay in the USA.
This was a world as different from Manitoba as Manitoba was from Iceland.
Ben Sivertz was part of this world. Although his name doesn’t sound Icelandic, his father and mother both came from Iceland. After graduating from high school he was a seaman and ship’s officer in the Merchant Marine. He served in the Royal Canadian Navy and ran a school for navigation. He retired with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. I wouldn’t have known that he was awarded the Order of the British Empire if I hadn’t asked about a picture on the living room wall.
His obituary said that “he joined the Department of External Affairs in 1946 and moved to the Department of Northern Affairs in 1950. He served as Director of Northern Administration from 1957 until 1963 when he was appointed Commissioner. He was Commissioner of the NWT from 1963 to 1967. He came to the post after a career as a foreign service officer in the Department of External Affairs and Chief of the Arctic division in the Department of Northern Affairs.”
The arena in Hay River is named after Ben.
He was also the only person I’ve known who owned an original Van Gogh.
Ben took Mattie Gislasson and me on a walkabout in Fernwood. He pointed out each house in which Icelanders lived and named the families. He even showed us where there used to be an Icelandic store.
On our tour, I saw Ben’s pride in the Icelandic community, in his Icelandic roots, in the Icelanders who came to the edge of Canada to settle. He was ninety-three when we did that walkabout and when he used to walk two kilometers uphill on a Saturday morning from his retirement home to my place. We’d have a visit then at noon I’d drive him back to his retirement home so we could have lunch together.
True to his roots, before he died, he wrote three books, one about his mother, one about his father, and an autobiography.
Sitting in the truck on the way back to Swartz Bay, listening to the throb of the engine, the dark shapes of the islands slipping by, I thought of how different was the experience of the West Coast Icelanders from those who stayed in Gimli or Winnipeg, how they had adapted to this world of forests and mountains while keeping their identity as strong as did those who had stayed in Nýa Ísland.
(This essay first appeared in Lögberg-Heimskringla)