Meeting People

Today is a real West Coast day in Victoria. Drizzle collects on my glasses in beads that aren’t heavy enough to run down the glass. They pebble the surface just enough to slightly distort everything in the soft gray light. Collecting seaweed, you need warm socks in your gum boots and a good, thick wool sweater under your jacket. A drizzle is not something to go out in without a cap. I prefer a seaman’s cap, one of those blue kind with the hard brim in front that you can buy in places like the basement of Capital Iron. They’re stacked somewhere between the bins of brass bolts and the deep sea diving suit.

It’s the perfect kind of day for collecting seaweed for the garden. The soil on Vancouver Island, in spite of all the lush growth, is thin and very poor quality. Gardeners here would kill for the kind of soil any Manitoban has just for turning over some sod. I keep a compost box into which I dump grass, chopped up small branches, oak leaves, blood meal, every vegetable and fruit scrap from the kitchen, horse manure and seaweed. The seaweed speeds up the decomposition.

I always go looking for seaweed after a storm. I stuff plastic bags behind the seat of the truck and the throw some of those big white plastic buckets into the box. I found them behind the Ogden Point café. If I can get someone to go with me, I take a pitchfork. If not, I don’t. Filling garbage bags is a two person job. One person to hold the bag open while the other put the seaweed into the bag.

The storms tear seaweed loose from its moorings and deposit it at the tideline in green windrows. Some people leave the bull kelp but I take it. Some pieces are twenty feet long. Bull kelp has a cluster of roots the size of my hand with which it holds to the bottom. Then there’s a long pliable stem that forms a hollow bulb at the top that is a natural float, holding it upright. From this grows a crown of flat leaves that spread out on the surface of the water. The stems are hollow and when I snap them into smaller pieces to put into my bucket, I point it away from myself. The first few times I broke apart bull kelp it squirted water into my face.

All seaweed is good for the garden but I walk the beach looking for seaweed that doesn’t have a lot of sticks and gravel in it. Behind and in front of me the seagulls and the crows are searching the seaweed as well. There are small crabs and starfish tangled in it. Sometimes there’ll be clams and mussels. With a jerk of their head, the crows tear away the seaweed, snatch up their prey and with a few thrusts of their beak, pull out the flesh. In the winter there’s so much food washed ashore that there’s no fighting among the birds.

There’s something satisfying in getting out of the truck enclosed in warm clothes and waterproof boots, and gathering up bag after bag of seaweed while all those other people lined up in the parking spots along the sidewalk sit timidly in their cars and watch. They’ve driven down to look at the ocean and the passing ships, to view the islands and the American mountains beyond, although in a drizzle, the most you can see of the USA is a misty blue outline like you see in Chinese paintings. Come on out and get your hands dirty, I want to say. Get involved. When you get home you can have a shower and wash it off. It won’t hurt you.

One woman with a heart-shaped face stopped to say, “Are you sure you’re allowed to take seaweed off the beach? Don’t you need a permit?” I said no, it was just fine to help yourself. She said she was a retired librarian from Saskatchewan. She had spent a lifetime keeping books organized. I expect that her library was spotless. She surprised me by offering to hold the garbage bag open. “I was brought up on a farm,” she said. She just had plants on the patio of her condo and she bought her compost already made from Home Hardware. She hadn’t realized it would be so hard to meet new people and she was thinking about going back to Saskatchewan in spite of the winters.

Storms tear the seaweed loose and pile it onto the beach in windrows. I prefer rainy days because the rain helps to wash off the salt. After a big storm, there’s usually more than just me collecting seaweed. Today there was a family about a block away. They were very organized. They had six or seven garbage cans, a collection of bags, and they were working two to a team. They looked like the kind of family that got things done. I could imagine them painting their house or cleaning their yard. Each one assigned to a definite task. I wondered if they were a military family. Nowadays, it’s so unusual to see a family working together that it calls for speculation.

The ocean was calm, as it always is in a drizzle. Not quite flat, there being a slight rolling motion to the surface even though there was no wind. There were kayakers out. They had their weather gear on and were keeping close to shore. A tug went by towing a barge full of gravel. Then there were three sail boats, one of which had toffee colored sails. I thought I saw a couple of seals but they turned out to be deadheads, those dangerous waterlogged logs that float nearly upright and can stop a boat cold or shatter a keel.

One of the things about collecting seaweed is that people talk to me while I work. I get a chance to tell them about the virtues of compost. The fact that it provides natural nutrients for plants, improves the quality of the soil, holds moisture and, in the compost box, hastens the composting process. The conversation usually veers off in various directions with stories about where they are from (most people in Victoria are from somewhere else), their or their parents or grandparents gardening experiences, or their career or bereavement. Victoria is Canada’s premier retirement city so there are a lot of widows and widowers. Loss is often softened by walking on the beach, by having someone listen to what has happened.

If I just stand around, staring at the water and the view, no one stops to talk. When I’m filling garbage bags or five gallon pails, a lot of people stop to chat. Some, like the librarian, offer to help. I think the difference is that my collecting seaweed gives people an opening line. “Good for the garden?” or “What’re you going to use that for?” When I’m staring into space there aren’t many possible opening lines. “Nice drizzle,” doesn’t seem like a possibility so they go on their lonely way. Maybe that’s the thing about city living that’s needed. More seaweed to collect so people can risk starting a conversation.

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.


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.