Sunday, April 5, 2009

Spring Cleaning


My mom is one of twelve children. French Canadian Catholic. All of her brothers and sisters are quite close in age, and all remained fairly geographically close. I grew up with a giant tangle of cousins and other relations at each major holiday, which was always a huge celebration filled with food and music.

My grandfather was an alcoholic. I never met him. He died long before I was even imagined, which is another story I hope to be able to share with you one day. As a result, many of his personal demons were passed along to the next generation. Fortunately, most of the family began to deal with this as I grew a little older. My point is that once the Adult Children and Twelve Step started, the parties changed, and so too did the family. For the better, mostly.

My mom and dad are amazing people, with fairly simple needs. My father is brilliant, one of the smartest people I know, but he and my mother have a dormant sense of adventure. My brother and I sometimes joke that we were hatched or found on the doorstep because in many ways we are so unlike them. One of the beauties of a huge family, is that sometimes you can see a lot of yourself in other relations. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

About six and a half years ago, just after I got married, one of my aunts was diagnosed with cancer. The family obviously rallied around her, and this was difficult. She and I were not terribly close, but it was scary to watch all the same. She was tough as nails about her chemo, and her three adult children were really supportive. We thought she would make it, but then they discovered that the cancer had spread.

Almost one year after this aunt's diagnosis, my other aunt was also diagnosed with cancer. Hers was immediately pronounced terminal, and all that they could do was give her more time through chemo. (It's funny, as I'm typing this I feel like I'm describing something I saw in a movie, that never actually happened). As my aunt Nicole was dying, my aunt Jackie watched it all unfold, and saw more or less what was in store for her.

Jackie was diagnosed on her birthday. She lived just over a year, and died a week or so after her next one. That was in November. Now you must forgive me, because during that period of my life, the chronology gets very fuzzy, and this sounds extraordinary even to my ears, but if I remember correctly, in January, after Jackie's death, my mother's eldest sister was found dead of an aneurysm. If it didn't happen that following January, it happened the year after. Either way, I'm sure you can imagine the incredibly bleak times we all endured. To top all of this off, my Grandmaman, our great matriarch, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and had to be moved into a home. Everything fell apart, skeletons were tossed out of closets, horrible secrets came bubbling to the surface, and I thought my poor mother would die of a broken heart.

Incidentally, this is also when my marriage fell apart, and shortly after this I started into the toxic relationship I finally ended in March of 2008. Of all of the things that happened during this horrific time, I think Jackie's death is what affected me the most deeply.

Jackie was the person in my family who made me make sense. In my opinion, we even looked alike. It's wild actually.

My mother and Jackie were very close, so she was always a big part of our life. She was my brother's godmother, and they also had a very close relationship. She was beautiful, in a very soft, feminine way. Curvaceous, auburn-haired, she used to tan chestnut brown in the summers in her garden, wearing beautiful sundresses with ample cleavage, swaying to Latin music. I think she had a fantasy world in which her blood was definitely not French Canadian. Her partner of over fourteen years was a swarthy Italian, whom she had a son with; my cousin Benjamin who is really just incredible.

Jackie's partner was very wealthy when they first became involved, so she lived an extraordinary life with him. They had numerous homes, and spent a lot of time traveling. They were very generous, and always hosted huge parties for our family and their friends. Jackie LOVED to cook. This is where I got my love of cooking from. Every occasion was an excuse to pour all her love and attention to detail into everything she touched; the food, the table. Life was filled with her artistry, down to the absolute minutiae.

My earliest memories of her were of her reading to me. As well as a love for cooking, she gave me a love for books and language. She used to bring me the most exquisite pop-up books, (I still absolutely adore these). When she would read she was so animated, and hilarious, the stories came alive and I became hooked. One of the best books she ever introduced us to was one she bought for her own son called "I'll Love You Forever". It's not a pop-up, but a beautiful story about aging. There is a song throughout the book, and she made up a melody to go with it that she used to sing to us at bedtime, and we began this little ritual in our own home with our own mom:

"I'll love you forever. I'll like you for always. As long as I'm living, my baby you'll be."

She was always singing, and playing the guitar or the piano. There are so many photos of her young and fresh faced, wearing a tube top with her long, beautiful hair over one shoulder, throwing her head back in laughter.

When I was very young (perhaps ten) Benjamin came to live with us for awhile. We were told that his mother was very sick. She had a disease called Alcoholism. My mother explained that it was something that our family suffered from, and some people couldn't control the amount of alcohol that they drank, and it made them sick, and made them loose control over how they behaved. She said it was very dangerous, and that Benjamin's father had arranged for her to go to a very special, very excellent hospital in America where she would get the help she needed to deal with her disease. Ben was about four. He lived between our home and his, with his very busy father, who did his best, I suppose, at being there for him. I remember on that first night Ben, my brother, and I all slept together in my bed because he was so scared and upset.

Jackie pulled through, and her life changed remarkably. They ended up buying a beautiful home on Lake Eerie, a place called Morgan's Point, and this home became the hub for most family events. She had a garden full of vegetables and herbs, a hammock always ready with a duvet and pillows, something wonderful on or in the stove (which often included breathtaking hand made, hand braided Challa bread) her stained glass studio, her sewing room, her painting room, and always music. I felt so alive there. Hands down, the best family Christmas we ever had was at this house. My cousins made a drum circle on that occasion and the whole family went nuts making music. The house was literally shaking with the noise, and there was a raging bonfire outside, overlooking the lake. Magic. I was seventeen.

(This is getting very difficult...)

Jackie ended up leaving Ben's father. I don't doubt that he loved her, but he had some issues, and those became too much for her to bear. He also lost nearly all of his wealth in a bad investment, and though she tried to be supportive, he kind of crumpled under the heartbreak of all that. Sadly, what this meant is that the house on Morgan's point was eventually sold.

Jackie was able to buy her own small house in Welland. It was a modest townhouse, but it was hers, and she made it beautiful, with another fabulous garden. She was unbelievably good with plants, and so creative. She started making these beautiful, folky birdhouses. We all have one, and though it matches NONE of my decor, it is one of my most prized possessions. My friends are usually horrified by it.

She worked for a long while as the cook in a nursing home. She LOVED elderly people, and they absolutely adored her. The management weren't so fond of her though, because she was also a shit-disturber, and very vocal when she saw that things weren't being handled well. (Also something I learned from her.) She ended up leaving, which broke her heart.

Fortunately, she was hired by a local nursery. A family-run business, where she fit right in. She created a job for herself designing gift planters of assorted plants. She was over the moon about this job, and she really felt like she had found her niche. The family loved her, and she shared a very special bond with the middle son who has Down's syndrome.

She also had this burning desire to live in an old church, so it became a fun family quest to try to make this happen. We always indulged Jackie's crazy ideas, because she had a real knack for setting the ball in motion so that she was able to realize the things she dreamed up (something else I think I've got going for me).

Jackie loved monkeys.

Jackie dated briefly, but after Ben's dad left (when Ben was about 11) Jackie never had another serious romantic relationship.

This was Jackie's life when she learned, on her birthday, that she was going to die probably within that year.

When I got the news, my husband and I had recently moved back to Canada after trying to settle in the States. Because of September 11th, my Visa was taking forever, and something deep inside me just wanted to be home. We were living in Burlington. My mom called me to tell me the news, and I don't remember anything after that, but Gordy tells me that I crumpled, and then started making sounds he'd never heard from a person before.

Ben was just 20 when this happened, and was in no position to take care of his mom.

Jackie put her beautiful little house up for sale, and then began giving away everything she owned. I can't really find the words to describe how surreal it was to watch someone sift through a lifetime of their treasured possessions and hand everything off. I know purging is supposed to be therapeutic, but I can't believe that applies if you're doing it because you are dying.

Jackie also began to research palliative care facilities. Her plan was to use the money from the sale of her house, and her possessions to pay for care when she became too weak to care for herself. She was FIERCELY independent. And STUBBORN.

My brother was still living with my folks, and my husband and I were over for dinner when my mom told us she had something she wanted to talk to us about. She and my father were going to offer to let Jackie move in with them, and they wanted to make sure that was ok with us. It was really important to my mom that I understood that Jackie would probably die in our childhood bedroom, and she really wanted me to be ok with this. I said yes immediately, as I couldn't bear the thought of Jackie dying among strangers.

Jackie resisted the offer at first (of course) but eventually she did move in. My mom's employer was incredible, and arranged for her to take an extended leave of absence to care for Jackie as long as she needed to. I find it so incredibly hard to describe how selfless and amazing my mother is without getting really emotional, so I suppose it's good that I'm typing this to you.

I won't paint a long, drawn out picture of what this arrangement was like. My parents' house became filled with extra furnishings, and suddenly they had a woman smoking pot every night in their backyard (Jackie had no appetite without it because of the chemo). Her tumours were in her liver and her colon, so eventually it became almost impossible for her to eat at all. Imagine a woman who loved food picking quietly at the meal I had cooked, unable to really even smell food without getting nauseous. She wasted away slowly before our very eyes.

Somewhere in here is where my marriage ended and I moved back to Toronto. I started a part time job at a talent agency, but my heart sure wasn't in it. I also started the burlesque troupe just prior to my separation. I was fueled by the need to swallow life whole, and I made some fairly rash decisions during that time. Ben was also living in Toronto during that time, and I put him in our shows, and made sure he was surrounded by beautiful, talented women who adored him.

As the end grew closer, there were some remarkable moments. Jackie found a fairly amazing Christian centre for worship, and formed a bond with the female minister there, who she asked to officiate at her memorial. She then set about planning the entire thing from start to finish, with the help of my cousin Jeffrey, who is both charming and eloquent and who would be the m.c. It was absolutely top secret, and we were all told that we could only do the things she had requested of us, except for Ben who was allowed to do (or not do) whatever he wanted.

Also, Ben told me that he wanted to bring her a monkey. A live monkey. Our cousin Linda has always loved and worked with animals, and she had some strange friends who lived in the sticks who had an exotic animal rescue organization. They happened to have a baby chimpanzee, which she brought to Jackie. Ben surprised her with this, and it was absolutely priceless.

Soon Jackie couldn't leave her bed anymore. She also needed a morphine drip because the pain was getting intolerable. This was in November, just before her birthday. My father began sleeping in the rec room because my mother had to get up multiple times through the night to dose Jackie. My brother was sleeping anywhere he could so he wouldn't have to go home.

Jackie made it clear, on one of her rare lucid moments that she did NOT want to celebrate her birthday that year. We gathered at my parent's house on her birthday anyway, and shared a quiet meal. After supper, we all went up to tuck her in. Our little gathering consisted of my mom, two of my aunts, and my cousin Jeffrey. Jackie woke up and smiled at all of us. (at this point she was completely skeletal. The way she looked will be forever burned into my brain) She began to sing the "I'll love you forever" song, but she was so week, she couldn't make very much sound. We helped her, and tried very hard not to cry. Afterward, we said goodnight, and as we were about to leave, she whispered "Hey...aren't you going to sing me Happy Birthday?" Of course we gave her one more song, then we all clung to each other in the living room downstairs.

About a week later, I woke up and felt very strange. It was a feeling similar to butterflies in my stomach, but different...I called work and told them I wasn't coming in because I had to go home to Hamilton, then I caught the next Go Train. When I walked in the house my mom said "I'm so glad you came home today." The air in the house felt like it was humming. My father and brother were both at work, and so it was just my mom, one of my aunts and I in the quiet of the house. The only sound that could be heard was from a baby monitor in the centre of the room. My mother was told by the home care nurses that this was a good idea to monitor Jackie's breathing. It was terrifying because the sounds were not human, and every now and then they would just stop, and we would all hold our breath and wait to hear if they would start again.

Dinner that evening was quiet, and sombre, but strangely warm. Both of my parents kept telling me how glad there were that I was home, and I felt the same.

I slept in my mom's room that night. When we were kids sleeping in my parents' bed was such a comforting treat. This was a strange role-reversal where I felt like I was comforting my mother. My aunt slept on the cot in Jackie's room, so she could give her any required morphine injections. It was difficult to fall asleep. I felt as though there was nothing else in the world except for what was happening under that roof.

At about two am I woke up because it felt like the window I was beside was thrown open and a cold wind was blowing through the room. I realized I was dreaming and I fell asleep again. At two thirty my aunt came to wake us because Jackie had died.

Ben was in town that night too, at his father's. He tells me that he had just gotten home from a bar, and was outside smoking before going in to bed, when he heard, very softly, his mother call his name.

That night, that entire day, made me believe in the idea of god again. I felt incredible power at work, something so much greater than me, vibrant all around my family and I. I'm not sure what that means, as I still don't identify with organized religion, but it restored my faith in SOMETHING.

Jackie's memorial was one of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed. There were SO many people there who really loved her. And the chapel was FILLED with the most glorious plants and flowers. She had my cousin create a gorgeous slide show to Louis Armstrong's Wonderful World (yeah, a bit cliche, but I STILL can't hear that song now without needing to take deep breaths) My cousin Jeffrey was a fabulous m.c. and Jackie asked me to read a poem that was read at my Nana's funeral(my father's mother who Jackie was very close to). It is by an American poet called Henry Van Dyke:

I am standing upon the seashore.
A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean.
She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky mingle with each other.
Then someone at my side says "There, she is gone."
"Gone where?"
"Gone from my sight. That is all."
She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as when she left my side and she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.
Her diminished size is in me, not in her.
And just at that moment when someone says "There, she is gone"
there are other eyes watching her coming,
and other voices ready to take up the glad shout -
"Here she comes!"

Ben decided to share "She's Only Happy In the Sun" by Ben Harper. He wanted to play and sing it live, but was fairly certain he wouldn't get through it.

Watching Jackie die changed me forever. Every single day of my life I am grateful. Sometimes I am tired, sometimes I wallow a little in my own melancholy, but no matter what is happening, I am so, so glad to still be in the world, trying to savour every rich experience. Whenever I feel joy, or see beauty in the world I think of Jackie, who taught me so much about the riches that are everywhere, and I try to see things for her. I try to taste for her, hear for her, laugh for her, and love for her, simply because I can.

4 comments:

s said...

Catherine, this is truly beautiful. It made me laugh and cry, reflect and appreciate. Thank you for sharing it.

Acting Without a Net said...

When moments, people, experience change your life - and are expressed for others with such love - then the memories remain alive well past the time one spends breathing them in. Thank you for this, Catherine.

Lenni said...

Amazing.

Tanya Luz said...

Thank you so much for sharing this story of your family. I admire you for writing it. There are so many parallels in our lives... I cared for my father as he lay dying in his home in Hamilton, from a similar cancer. There is not a day that goes by that I don't think of it, and your story helped me today. Thank you, beautiful girl. xo