When Mum Died

 

This has always been a hard week for me every year for the past 40 years….. my sisters too.  My Mum died unexpectedly on September 24, 1975 from a sudden stroke caused by a brain aneurysm.  She was 45 years old.  It was the end of the world as we knew it:  in one single instant, I went from the happiest I’d ever been in my life to the deepest, extreme sadness that I never knew existed.

In mid-August 1975, I had just given birth to my first baby when I was 22 years old.  I was absolutely ecstatic, over-the-moon, with a joy that I’d never experienced before.  My Mum was very pleased to have a new grandson to go along with her one year old granddaughter.   I was living in a city an hour away but managed to come home to see my family every weekend.  One Sunday afternoon in early September, we were busy taking photos with our Polaroid instant camera outside with the grandbabies on the lawn swing when my Mum decided it was too cold for my newborn and we should go inside.  So we went indoors because Gramma knows best.  She said that there would be lots of chances to get more pictures anyway.  Sadly, there wasn’t and I never got one single picture of my Mum holding my baby.

Mum

Mum 1972

 

I’ll never forget where I was and what I was doing when I got that phone call from my sister – I was walking through the dining area of our apartment in the married students’ residence at the University.  She told me first not to worry but that Mum had been in the hospital for the past few days.  Mum had asked her not to tell me because I had a new baby to look after and didn’t need to worry.  She had been experiencing headaches for the past year and her Doctor didn’t know why.  She’d had a complete physical the week before and everything seemed okay except for a urinary tract infection.  I remember that because I drove her downtown to pick up her prescription the week before.  The night she went to the hospital, my sister Faye found her lying on the floor in the hall while she was talking to my other sister Betty on the phone – she talked incoherently.  She was first admitted with possible ‘psychological’ problems – which WE knew was wrong.   Three days after that, doctors diagnosed a brain aneurysm.  That’s when I got the call.

Doctors put her on medication and assured us that it would heal itself even though it was inoperable.  I came to stay and help my sisters with my Mum while she was in the hospital.  We planned how we would all take turns looking after her when she got home.  I had a nursing newborn who wasn’t allowed into the hospital with me while I visited my Mum so I had to leave him with my wonderful in-laws at times for a few hours.   I remember vividly when we washed my Mum’s hair for her and she kept saying how thankful she was to have us.  We honestly believed the Doctors and expected her to return home soon.  The next week, I went back home for some rest and to get more clothes as I anticipated taking care of my Mum at her home in the next couple of days.  Instead, I got a frantic call from my sister to come right away because something happened and Mum was in the ICU.  I finally arrived in the middle of the night.  My beautiful, sweet Mum was laying there with a respirator breathing for her.  I just stared.  Watching her chest go up and down.  Her eyes were opened slightly with little slits.  Her forehead looked bruised and swollen.  Hot tears slowly streamed down my cheeks – I was paralyzed with grief.  I stroked her arm, now hooked up to an I.V.  Someone said that her brain aneurysm had burst inside her head.

We were told to come back at ten o’clock the next morning – after they’d had a chance to do a brain scan.  We sat there solemnly, wringing our hands:  Dad, my sisters and I and probably spouses.  I was looking at the floor when the two Doctors told us that my Mum was brain-dead.  Dead.  I felt like I couldn’t breath and I was going to pass out.  My chest hurt, my heart hurt – it really hurt, like it was being ripped into a million pieces.  The respirator was still breathing for her and keeping her heart pumping – she looked alive.  What were they talking about?  As I sat there frozen, shocked, and numb, they started asking us about organ donation – they wanted to know if we would consent to donating my Mum’s kidneys.  To this day, I cannot believe that we agreed so quickly.  But we knew that Mum would want to give this last gift.

Years later, with all the experience and knowledge I now have, I still feel guilty that I didn’t question the Doctors or ask to see these results or tell them “no” they have to keep her going on the respirator for however long it takes for her brain to heal or………

It wasn’t over.  We had to make “the call” down home to my Grandparents which we did right there from the hospital.  Several relatives had wanted to come up the week before but we assured them that it would be best to wait until she got home from the hospital when they could help out.  Instead of good news, we had to tell them she was gone.  I heard my Grandmother was de-feathering freshly killed chickens when she got the news – she could never, ever do that again as long as she lived.   They made plans to come up for the funeral.

I had never been to a funeral or seen a dead person before.  It was surreal going to the funeral home just up the street from our house – I’d passed it almost every day when I went to high school.  Walking through the ‘coffin room’, deciding on a casket, planning the visitation and funeral was numbing.  I cried all the time.  I cried myself to sleep.  I cried while nursing my month old baby.  I cried every day for a year.   So many people loved my Mum.  There were so many flowers and meals brought to the house.  I especially remember my Godmother with her hand on my shoulder, steadying me – she walked me back to the house during afternoon visitation because I was convinced I saw my Mum breathing.  But in fact her skin was cold and hard – not warm and soft like I remembered.  Even the make-up couldn’t entirely disguise the bruises on her forehead.  I even got scolded from one aunt for bringing my nursing newborn to the funeral home’s family room during one of the afternoon visitations.

The funeral itself was held at the church my Mum went to and it was packed.  At the graveside, my Godfather held me steady.  Back at the house, I was horrified when relatives started going through her closet and taking ‘souvenirs’.  Down in the basement, I was upset again to find the men drinking.  My Godmother told me that people have different ways of coping and expressing their grief.  I couldn’t understand then but I do now that I’m older.

I think of my Mum every day.  I think of all the times I needed her and she wasn’t there to talk to.  I grieve that she didn’t see my other children and share in their growing up.  I really wish they had a chance to know what a kind, sweet person she was but then I remind myself that she lives in each one of them.

Writing this blog post has been cathartic for me.  I’m grateful to finally write down, for the first time, about my Mum’s last days which have shaped the rest of my life.

Last picture of Mum with Brodie, August 1975

Last picture of Mum with Brodie, August 1975

 

 

 

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Down Home

 

Down home ~ the mere thought of those words brings a warm and fuzzy feeling to my heart. Down home is where my ancestors have lived, some for 2,500 years in the area (native Micmac on my Grandmother’s side) while others arrived in Canada from a few hundred years ago. It’s where I have some of the most cherished memories of my life, spending many summers as a child on my Grandparents farm and bringing my own children for visits.

1967 Down Home

1967 Down Home painting

 

I recently travelled down home, a.k.a. New Carlisle, Quebec on the Gaspe coast, with my two sisters Betty and Faye. It was a trip of a lifetime – actually the first time the 3 of us have gone down together at the same time, ever: no parents, no children, no ‘significant others’, just the three of us.
We took two days to drive down to the Gaspesie stopping overnight in Riviere du Loup where we rented a lovely 2 bedroom cottage overlooking the St. Lawrence River.

Riviere du Loup sunset

Riviere du Loup sunset

The next day we drove the old highway 132 which we took back in the day before there was a super highway – it was absolutely beautiful and worth not rushing to get ‘home’. Along the way, we stopped at the old ‘wishing well’ which still houses the spring that we always visited as kids on the old road through the Matepedia Valley.  We had reserved a room down home at the Maison Blanche that had a little kitchenette in it to help us prepare simple meals and snacks. After settling in, we ventured down to The Green, a park on Chaleur Bay. The boardwalk was impressive, the park was in great shape, and the cantine was still open. Every time we went out of our hotel room, we drove down to The Green to see if anyone was there – and there usually was someone we knew………… and were related to!

Cousin Maureen and Murray

Cousin Maureen and Murray

Our relatives were SO generous and thoughtful by inviting us for lunches and dinners! Of course, we had to visit Maureen and Murray Sinclair first. My cousin Maureen and her sisters Carolyn and Verna were especially close to us girls – when we were growing up, they came to visit us by train many times or we went down home and hung out with them every single day. Maureen and Murray even stayed with us for a time when they came up to Hamilton to live for a while. Maureen’s great home cooking was the perfect lunch after travelling for a few days. She even took care of the painting from my Grandparents’ farm that I did in 1967 for them – after the farm was sold, Maureen looked after the painting and to returned it to me this year.
My cousin Dale and her husband Dave also had us over for a scrumptious lunch one day after taking us on a tour of the renovated homestead (a.k.a. Mom’s). After my Grandmother and uncles died, they purchased the family farm and renovated the old house – it’s truly beautiful. I especially love that they reused the original banister post that I used to lovingly hug when I was a child – it’s my favourite part of the whole house. I’m pleased that the homestead has become a working farm again with a huge garden, pigs, and chickens.

Up home at "Moms"

Up home at “Moms”

My Auntie Mary had us over for supper twice – once for a ‘boiled dinner’ and another time for her famous scallops and fish. Oh my goodness, it was delicious. Then she took us back the four miles to the old homestead site where my Grandmother was raised and told us stories of the incredibly hard life they lived back in the early 1900’s on their amazing farm. Even a family friend, Dolly, had us over for a delicious cod fish dinner.
A trip down home wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Perce Rock. We three sisters went down to Perce for lunch, an hour and a half drive each way through majestic scenery along the coast.

Perce Rock

Perce Rock

We discovered that the town of New Carlisle still pretty well shuts down after supper. But we also realized that the Tim Horton’s in the next town of Paspebiac is the place to go if you want to see anyone! We were sitting there on Saturday evening when a gentleman and his wife came up to us and asked “are you Dave’s girls?”. Incredibly, he had seen our picture of lunch at Maureen’s on her Facebook page. This man, John, had known my father when he was very young – in fact, my Dad lived with his family before he joined the army in 1939! John told us all kinds of stories about my Dad and his family – we never knew anything about my Dad’s youth.

Window Dad broke 1930s

Window Dad broke 1930s

My Dad once told John that he used to rock him in his cradle. It was a real pleasure to meet John and Anne. They even took us to John’s parents’ old homestead and showed us around – describing antics my Dad used to do like doing a flip and touching the kitchen ceiling with his feet or showing us the dormer storm window that my Dad broke and fixed one year, still in it’s original condition fixed with putty.  John showed us the now vacant lot where the house my Dad was born in used to stand.  We found out that my Dad didn’t always live by the railroad tracks as we had thought; they first lived on Craig Street (go figure) right behind John’s farm. I felt comforted knowing that my Dad spent some of his childhood in a loving family home helping on the farm in return for room and board in a home where he was really wanted. It was fascinating! And a real highlight of our trip.

Beach

Beach

We left already planning our next trip down home in two years for our Auntie Alberta’s 90th birthday celebration.

 

 

 

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