Every breath you take
At this time of the year Vancouver is verdant, warm and blooming. And well it should be: spring has already been on the go for two months, or sometimes even four.
Ten years ago, I was out visiting my mum, who was in the Delta hospital at Ladner, B.C., south of the city. She had been there for seven weeks, with the last four in palliative care, as the breast cancer she’d had for 17 years metastasized its way into her liver, having already invaded her bones.
Mum didn’t much like being in bed. She was always a doer. I only once remember her being sick when I was a child, felled by pneumonia for a solid week. Despite four kids in the house, and Dad desperately trying to cook for us, the place was way too quiet. There were with no shrieks of riotous laughter, exclamations of “Eureka!” at the discovery of a lost object, or shouts of “corn in Egypt!”, the religious metaphor she used to express sudden good fortune.
As the cancer swelled her belly and sapped her strength, my sisters and I still had to amuse Mum, which fortunately wasn’t very hard. We could read to her, tell her stories, and hold her hand when she nodded off into a nap.
We took advantage of her clarity of mind, even as her body failed, and we would put her on the phone to far-flung friends, sometimes with people she hadn’t spoken to in years. She always struck up a normal conversation, never maudlin, connecting quickly with whoever was on the line, asking them all about their lives and news.
Once I heard her tell an old Ottawa girlfriend, “I’m not sure what we do here all day, but it’s amazing how busy we are when there’s nothing to do!” With her time so finite, she was living for the moment, grateful for each new day, and with no expectations about how it would end.
However, in quieter moments, she would sometimes get a puzzled look on her face, and she’d ask us searchingly, “Am I doing this right?” By this, she meant, dying. Despite having lots of experience with death (she lost her father at the age of 10, an apparent suicide, but without a body – he just disappeared), she was unprepared as anyone for her own.
What could we say? We assured her that yes, she was doing it perfectly, even as we wondered about our own competence in our new roles. “The blind leading the blind” was a favourite phrase of Mum’s, and so was “the last stand of the amateur.” By this she meant simply, you often have to do things in life you feel wholly unprepared for.
The Delta hospital was acute care, with Mum’s single palliative room, and no easy way to get outside, no courtyard or any comfort like that for patients. So, one evening at dusk my sister Gyata and I pushed her to the end of the hallway where she could see the north shore mountains far in the distance as the sky turned orange behind them.
She sat by the window, closed her eyes, and felt the little puffs of fresh air coming through, enjoying the warmth of the sun on her face and smelling the blooms outside. She breathed deeply and exclaimed, “Ah, that’s really nice,” as if she were a little girl experiencing it for the very first time. She couldn’t know it was the last time she’d breath fresh air, and it didn’t matter. She absorbed the experience totally.
She died a few days later, ten years ago today, on May 12, 2006, also my wife’s birthday. She was 82. I can’t say I think of her every single day now, but when memories do come, like the ones above, they are strong and true. Her essential character remains very much alive for me.