Fading away

My mother was married when she was 18 years old. Then she had a child, a daughter. During the next six years, she had two more children, a daughter and a son.  I didn’t show up until 11 years after my brother’s birth. During this time, my mother had to deal with being a teenaged bride, building a family, the stress of moving away from her family in Northern Ontario to live on a farm near Guelph, and living with her in-laws. After that, she and my father started an insurance agency in 1946. She was one of the first licensed insurance women in Ontario, a big achievement in those days.

My mother was always a cultured, beautiful woman, but she was tough too. She was the one in the family to worry about finances, manage the home, and later the office. My father built businesses. And he was creative. He was a dreamer and she managed the dream.

My mother is Finnish. She moved to Canada with her family when she was young. Her father was a Communist. He fought on the wrong side, and they lost. Like many Finns, they moved to Northern Ontario to start a new life. Her father left the family soon after they arrived and her mother took control so they could eat. My grandmother borrowed money, opened a rooming house for miners (then another) and, over time, bought a farm to grow food and raise animals. My mother had strong female role models in her life and a fear of being poor; she wanted stability. This is a common feeling when you grow up in a chaotic environment.

Finns don’t complain. They just struggle through, tough it out, and have a fateful view of the world. Yet they are very emotional underneath.

When my mother walked in a room, people noticed. She was slim, blonde, and always dressed well—even if she made the clothes herself. She made my clothes: pants, shirts, the whole works. She had amazing style, a strong EQ, and a bit of magic thrown in. She could go to a new restaurant and know the waiter’s name or details about a person’s background before they had a chance to mention it. There was an element of witchiness to her (which ran in her family); both the way she looked and her way with people reminded me of Samantha in Bewitched.

When I was growing up (and since I was the youngest), I got to see my parents in Toronto, in an urban environment. We travelled often. I got food poisoning as a baby on our drive to Florida. After I survived, which was touch and go, they began developing travel insurance products. They used to dance a lot too. I remember being five and sitting at a table watching as they took over the dance floor. They could mix in any circle with any type of person. Neither one had gone to university, but they learned a lot from life.

When I sold my family’s interest in the insurance company in 1998, I remember my mother coming into a board meeting (my father had died years before). The CEO got up and did a typical alpha male presentation: all fluff, no substance. My mother—sweet, beautiful, and now a great grandmother—looked at her notes and started asking questions. Each one was to the mark and had an emasculating effect on the CEO—now red and embarrassed, he had to admit that he was not prepared.

When you write, it is difficult not to minimize the depth of the person to create the story. My mother, as any human being, was much more to me and to others than I can describe in a few short paragraphs.

She has lived many lives, as we all do. She has lived the 20 years since my father’s death. Funny, she always told me she would not live past 65 (her mother died at 65). She has far surpassed that number—she’s in her 90s now. She loved, she survived, she created, she had spirit, she gave life, she was magical, she enriched the lives of others. And she is my mother.

My mother was everything a mother should be: strong, intelligent, a star, and a good business woman.

She had an accident years ago. While walking her dog near the lake, she slipped on the ice and shattered her leg. From that point on, her life was different. It was hard for her to recover; there were multiple surgeries. The pain was deeply carved into her features; her eyes did not shine for so long. When she had the final surgery, the relief was evident and she regained a portion of her energy and spark—but it was short lived.

I was her caregiver in many ways, with a lot of help from my siblings. I took her to get her hair, nails, and threading done, took her grocery and clothes shopping on weekends, and I was there when she was in pain or scared. She started writing down phone calls in detail; she read newspapers in depth. To most, this would be normal or inconsequential, but I was noticing a pattern. She was smart. She was creating tools to help her navigate her changing world. She had the ability to joke and offer quick responses; yet her conversations now seemed to be on a loop, cocktail conversations.

At times when she could not be alone, she lived with me, with my brother, my sister, and then in an assisted living facility.

Her life changed, her conscious thought faded and was replaced with a smile, a twinkle in her eyes, a repeated thought. Then the fear and paranoia of being left alone and not knowing where she was or why she was there. Over time, she stopped talking.  It’s tough when you get old and live past your due date (in her case, 65).

I do not visit enough, and neither do my family. We all feel guilt. It’s part of the process, and it’s a common human condition. It’s hard to have additional responsibilities when you have your own family, financial pressures, and your own life to live. Taking care of others is a difficult part of life.

Two weekends ago, I went to a funeral. It was near the health care facility, so I stopped in to see my mother. I had to push through the wall of guilt to go. It was so difficult; you make every excuse you can in your mind to not face your own emotions. I know it’s artificial; I know it’s not real; and I know that even though she will not know me or recognise me or even acknowledge that I am there, that I need to go.

When I got there, I examined her. Richard, our medical director, jokes that I want to be a doctor—it’s what I do. There were issues that I told the nursing staff about and asked them to deal with. Then I looked around. There were bodies, human beings in wheelchairs staring into space, one was lolling over the armrest of her chair sleeping in front of a big screen television in a communal space. It is a great health care facility, but sterile. And you are surrounded by people who are slowly fading away.

A thought burst through the fog in my mind: this is not how we should end our lives. I know this can be a common feeling, but for me, it was inspirational at the time, but too big of an idea. Why had I left her there? Why did I not organize my life so that I could handle this? Why in our fast-paced urban world do we leave people behind? I hated these thoughts; they are insurmountable. I’m a guy but there is no quick solution, #$%^. If there was a simple easy way, then a lot of people would need the answer.

I had to start with baby steps, get her outside so that my mother could feel the breeze, see plants, insects, animals, smell the air and see life, not death. My thought was that death is inevitable, but life is here and now and she needs to experience it again.

I signed her out and started with a move to an atrium, but it was stuffy, hot, and the plants were not moving; they looked like they were enclosed in a wax museum. So I pushed her into the elevator and we went outside, where all the smoking medical staff and patients were far too close to the door. It had rained so we quickly pushed past them out into the open and headed to a small gazebo in the middle of the garden. The rain stopped, and now my mind was open (I think it’s easy to keep our minds closed, asleep so we don’t have to deal with things). I thought she should feel rain and smell the aroma of the wet grass and flowers. Birds flew by tweeting; the wind blew between the tall ornamental grasses, creating a rustling sound that calms the soul; a butterfly flew past us so close you could reach out and feel its wings flap.

I picked some flowers and held them to her nose so she could sense them in three dimensions. I pushed her closer to the plants so they brushed up against her arms. Then a strange thing happened. She woke from her sleep, from the fog.

My mother started speaking in Finnish. I had no clue what she was saying, but it was amazing. As I held her hand, I asked her what she was saying and she repeated the words to me over and over again. It sounded like nyt voin nähdä.I asked her again and again, trying not be pushy but wanting to understand. She turned her head and repeated nyt voin nähdä, and then in English: Now I can see.

There is no happy ending, just a story and a thought: As we move so fast towards the future, do we leave our past too far behind? When the world is so fractured and families divided, does it change who we are, or is this the way it should be? Why do bright lights fade? There are no easy answers. The difficulties caregivers and the person needing care face is a very human struggle.

9 Comments on "Fading away"

  1. Steph says:

    Your best piece of writing yet, Robin.

  2. Natasha says:

    There are so many beautiful things to take from this Robin, thanks for taking the time to share a piece of your story and your Moms. She sounds like an exceptional woman.

  3. Powerfully written and resonant with a whole generation that is faced with both the possibility and hope for long life, and the sad reality of parents who are nearing the end of theirs.

  4. Janet says:

    Robin, you have captured your mom’s beauty and spirit so well and the struggles we all have as our parents live longer when either the body or mind have not kept pace with the other. I suspect our children will be equally challenged. It’s important to find time to smell the flowers and share your thoughts. One day at a time.

  5. nadia says:

    Beautiful… There may not be a happy ending, there may just be questions left unanswered. What matters in the end is the experience you create within your circumstances. I am moved by your mother and your honesty. You are inspiring, Robin. Thank you.

  6. Kathleen Gowanlock says:

    Lovely story. All the best to you and your mom.

  7. Inshan Hosein says:

    Robin, I stopped reading this story somewhere in the middle because I started crying…. I will have to return to it after I visit my own mother.

  8. Brenda Ingle says:

    Robin I enjoyed reading this story. I learned a lot and it also brought back a lot of memories. Aunt Muriel is a beautiful lady. She is one of the only two aunts we have left on our side of the family. It does take a lot of strength to visit but hay we have to remember we will be there some day.
    Take care

  9. george piatkowski says:

    Hello Robin, Is it possible to have Gayle email me.
    When I returned from Beverly Hills she was Mayor.

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