Friday, November 30, 2012

Booboo in hospital

still here

At the hospital bedside again - it's nearly 6 p.m. on Friday, and Mum is still here, waiting for the operation. It's the first cold snap in Ottawa, with ice and a bit of snow, so perhaps the O.R. is full of people who've slipped on the ice. Maybe. Otherwise, it's infuriating and cruel, leaving this woman lying here waiting for her operation, which was originally scheduled for yesterday and then for 8 a.m. this morning. Though they did warn us - you never know when.

She can't eat or drink. We did just swab her lips, and the nurse asked her her name, which she knew, and then where she was right now. "Potterspury," she answered, possibly thinking she'd been asked where she was born. In any case, she's compos mentis if blurry with painkiller and often incoherent. But often not. When I walked in, she beamed at me and looked around and said, "Is that Dad?" She's waiting for my brother, who's my father to her. Dad was in earlier, I said. He's at home now.

We are all in limbo, waiting, waiting. I feel it like a physical pain, the impatience, the powerlessness. She's in a machine, which will do with her what it will.

The good news is that Eli and his mother are home. His little throat still barks - when I called, I could hear his harsh rasp in the background. But he's better, and she has steroids to give to him there. Anna has had a shower and a meal, and she and her roommate are having a Harry Potter marathon tonight, vegging out in the best possible way.

Here I sit. The internet at Mum's is down, for some infuriating reason - why NOW, am I not isolated enough? But I can check my email and write to you here, when Mum's asleep. It was extremely cold again today; luckily I can borrow her winter coat, only 4 sizes too big, to keep me warm.

Today I was raging again, about being dragged out of my daily life to wait around like this - I have work responsibilities things to do at home I have my life! And then I realized - this IS my life. This is my life, right here, beside my mother on her final journey. Though if she has anything to do with it, it's not @#$ final yet.

Over the intercom: CODE ONE TRAUMA EMERGENCY. That's probably Mum's slot in O.R. We'll be here for weeks.

An hour later: Here we still are. And I have to say - that this time together, this Friday evening, has made everything worthwhile. Unlike Miss Whinyboots above, I am profoundly grateful for being here. Mum knows I'm here watching over her - keeping vigil, making sure the nurses do too. We've talked. When her tiny East Indian nurse came to check something, Mum whispered, with a big smile, "What an adorable little thing."

I teased her about the night nurse, a very sweet man called Peter, and how she has always been a flirt. A big grin. "I couldn't help it," she said.

Maybe limbo isn't such a bad place to be.

9 p.m. Back at Mum's. She has just been called to the OR. Peter says he thinks she'll make it through, she's in such good shape tonight. And all I can say to that is to quote my beloved Wayson:

Thursday, November 29, 2012

waiting game

Well - where to begin? Briefly, I flew early to Ottawa and walked into my mother's hospital room this morning expecting to say goodbye, and found her with good colour, chatting to my brother - not making sense, mind you, but chatting. I almost reeled backwards in shock. I'd been told this was it. My brother and her caregiver thought this was it. But as always, she had us fooled.

She was supposed to be operated on today, to put a pin in her fractured hip and maybe repair her broken elbow at the same time, surgery she might not come through, which is the main reason I came today. However, the hospital has decided to postpone the surgery until tomorrow. They don't know when.

You can understand, perhaps, how I felt. I cancelled a big gathering at my house tonight. More importantly, my daughter is coping alone with a very sick baby who is staying at least one more night in hospital and won't let her put him down. She had to spend last night trying to sleep in a chair with him on her chest. And by a fluke of bad timing, there's no one to help her right now. Her roommate is working overnight, the baby's father is working out of town, my son is volunteering on the other side of town, and I am in Ottawa sitting in my mother's hospital room.

Talk about torn.

I thought of all the times we have rushed to Mum's side in hospital - countless times, for her many surgeries, each time sure we wouldn't see her again. My brother laughed as he remembered the time he flew back from Holland, where he had a job, to be there at the hospital. Patsy remembers me sobbing in Vancouver because Mum was having open heart surgery and I might not get there in time.

My mother is a force of nature and it ain't over yet.

I know my daughter and her son will be fine; still, I would give anything to be with her now. But now, I am going back to the hospital to sit with Mum, knowing she's going in tomorrow for surgery she may not survive. But then again, knowing her, she very well may. In any case, today I decided that my tears are over. She has had a fantastic run at life - considering her health problems, she could have died many years ago. And here she is, snapping at the nurses, those blue eyes still checking out the world.

At one point - it was garbled, but more or less clear - she said something like, "He wants me to die but I'm going to fight him. Fight him." And she will.

9 p.m. I've just come back from the hospital and all I want to do is drink wine and be warm. And weep. No, the crying is not over, not by a long shot, nice try, girl. I think my mother is terrified of dying, hanging on, fighting literally for dear life, in a body that's defeating her. I tried smoothing her hair, her brow, telling her how loved she is, what a wonderful life she has had, and now, "Let it go, Mum," I said. "You can let it go." But that is not my mother. A lioness, mortally wounded, struggling to get up.

Sorry, folks, I'm beyond it now. This day - will there ever be another like it? I hope not. My grandson in a steam tent in hospital, and when I talked to his mother, I could hear his rasping lungs, my gut aching to hold him, to help her. And here, holding my mother's hand, her face twisting in pain, then she speaks but it's incomprehensible, knowing that tomorrow is a nightmare either way - if she survives the operation, she will be in pain and incoherent for days; if she doesn't - well, we'll face that tomorrow.

Now I'm here in her silent condo. There is wine. I am profoundly sad and spent. But this is life, in all its glory, all of this, the beginning and the end.

PS It's minus 13 with snow in Ottawa - bitter. I just turned on the CBC and had the only laugh of the day - a journalist asking earnestly, "Is this the only kind of salamander you can use in your work?" Thank god for the CBC.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

being there

You can prepare all you want, but when the reality of this hits, it hits hard. I was surprised to burst into tears and sobbing, but it helped. I am flying to Ottawa first thing tomorrow morning. Things are dire - Mum has a collapsed lung along with everything else. They want to operate on her hip, not so that she can walk again, because she won't, but so that she's not in constant pain from the fracture every time they have to move her.

It's now about making her as comfortable as possible in palliative care. I am profoundly grateful that my brother is there with her, handling all this. It was very hard to call my aunt and tell her what's going on - I could hear what a shock it is for her too. My mother has been in her life for 89 years.

Mum has come through before, more times than is imaginable - three heart surgeries, a mastectomy and much, much more - so don't count her out, as my brother says. But this time, it looks like too many strikes are against her, and in some ways, it would be a blessing if we can help her through. Help her through to no pain, no more fear about where she is and where she will go. We've been calling nursing homes, and she would hate them all, it's sure. Maybe she won't have to try them out.

But then again, maybe she will. In any case, I will be by her side tomorrow, which is all that matters now.


Here follows a clinical definition of "sandwich generation:" At this moment, I am waiting to hear from Ottawa; my brother called at 8 a.m. to say that my mother tried to get out of bed during the night, had a fall and broke her elbow and her hip. She is now back in Emerg. He was on his way and will let me know what the situation is.

At the same time, my daughter texted that she is taking her son to the nearby hospital, because she thinks he has croup. I am waiting to hear from her.

I have offered to go to Ottawa if needed, and across town, if needed. At the same time, my life goes on. This morning, when my brother called, I was preparing the final draft of a 4000 word manuscript to go to a literary competition, deadline today - a story I've been working on for months, finally nearing completion. I was sitting with the Thesaurus in my lap, trying to find a better word than 'discussed.' Conferred? Explained? Confided? In the end, too much was going on, I put something in and sent the thing off. Don't remember which word I chose. Spoke of, I think.

Tomorrow is scheduled a big Christmas and birthday party here, my longterm students coming to a potluck to celebrate the 85th birthday of one student and the successes of the others. Should I cancel? I've let them know to watch their email.

My son is volunteering today, he and some friends delivering Christmas presents in a van, not free till tonight. I will go prepare a small suitcase. And then I'll text Anna. And then I'll sit and wait.

2.45. So how did I handle the stress? It's Wednesday, what do you think? I went to Carol's class at the Y. Talk about stress-busting - nothing like running up and down the central stairs at the Y 3 times. My, that felt good.

Spoke to Anna; the baby has been admitted to hospital with croup. Spoke briefly with my mother; the Emerg doctors have to figure out how to handle that fragile body that has been through so much.

And now, eating a lot of chocolate and waiting some more.

Monday, November 26, 2012

lessons from my father

Just looked at the calendar, got teary and called my brother - usually, I would have called Mum, but dates are meaningless to her now. It's November 26th, 2012; this day would have been my father's 90th birthday. Instead, he died at the very young age of 65 - 25 long years ago.

And yet - though I mourn him to the depths of my soul - his death was also my liberation. I ran into an old friend recently, and when she heard about the on-going saga with my mother in Ottawa, she told me about her many journeys to Rochester to see her mother. "When she finally died," she said, " I thought, 'I'm free!'" And like it or not, it's true. My father's death freed me to move on into a life I don't think I could have found if, with his massive presence, he had been there.

That's hard to say; even so, I say it. I love you, my father, I miss you, and I think of you tonight.

The Rob Ford saga is burning up the airwaves - of course, he's appealing the judge's decision. "I'm a fighter," he says. "The left wing wants me out of here." What a huge mess. If only he would just GO AWAY!

A treat for you, if you have the time to check CBC's Writers and Company podcasts - yesterday, Eleanor interviewed the hilarious, whiskey-voiced New York humorist Fran Leibowitz. She spoke at length about her inability to write, which she calls not writer's block but writer's blockade. "If you get the urge to write," she says, "just sit down and read a book and then it'll pass."

I pass this on to you, my students, and look with trepidation at the giant stack of books awaiting me.

happiness is ...

so long, Mayor Ford, and don't slam the door on your way out

Wow good news travels fast. I was listening to CBC radio this morning, so heard the minute the decision came down that Rob Ford had been found in conflict of interest and turfed out of office. Not long after, Anna texted, Bruce called from Vancouver, Patsy emailed from Gabriola Island, I ran into a neighbour on Parliament Street and we high-fived - and I've just read about it, only hours after it was announced, in my friend Chris's blog from Capetown, South Africa!

I'm rephrasing the Dylan song: "But something is happening here, and you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Ford..."

Now, I would be happy to see the end of that pig-headed blowhard, but he ain't gone yet. He has two more weeks in office and he may appeal and tie things up for a long time. And if not, he can run again, this time as a victim, and God knows, lots of people voted for him before - WHO WERE THOSE PEOPLE? - and might do so again.

But today, there's justice for a man who turfed riders from their TTC busses so the high school football team he coaches during office hours would have a safe warm ride. @#$# you too, big fella.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

missing Macca in Vancouver

The most beautiful sight in the world - my daughter asleep on the kitchen sofa with her baby asleep on her chest. The cornbread is in the oven, the beer is in the fridge, the nacho ingredients are on the counter, the tall boy is stretched out watching an uplifting show about a Mexican drug cartel. All this gathering and preparation for a stupid football game I couldn't give a damn about - but I do cherish the ritual.

I rode my bike to the Y this morning and sensed the testosterone in the air - lots of macho stuff happening all over town this afternoon. Soon, the gladiators will enter the ring, huge, padded, vastly overpaid men attempting to wrestle a disc of pigskin up and down a field. Senseless. Fun. When the game starts, I'll be doing something else.

But I am sad today, and no, it's not the dusting of snow this morning, the chill in the air. My beloved Macca is in Vancouver tonight, and there's a rumour he'll be accompanied by Bruce Springsteen. When I heard about the concert, I was tempted, despite the absurd inconvenience and cost, to fly to Vancouver, visit my dearest friends, and go to this concert. After all, am I a mad Macca fan, the kind who does that sort of thing, or not? Not. My good sense prevailed. And today, I REGRET IT! I could be watching Macca and Bruce!

No, instead I'm here, watching sleeping deliciousness with the good smell of cornbread in the air. Lucky lucky me. Paul, a rain check, please. Come back to TDot soon and bring the Brucester with you.

Five hours later: the youngsters have departed, and worn out Glamma has started the cleanup. What a lot of energy and equipment a baby needs - my house was chaos in minutes, and he can't even walk yet. Wonderful chaos. I watched half time - poor Gordon Lightfoot at - what, 75? - a bit shaky, though we love him; Carly is adorable and the Biebs too, though wearing something truly bizarre. My small visitor ate an avocado and some refried beans as we had our nachos; he had several bottles, a jump in his Jolly Jumper, lots of bounces from every adult in the vicinity and slept, briefly, twice. They all left before the game ended, because the roads will be wild tonight.

Toronto is winning, I gather, though I don't know, because as soon as they'd gone, I turned it off. Ah, silence. The cat and I are together again, side by side, enjoying listening to nothing. Everything they said about being a grandparent is true: you get to love them to bits and then you get to give them back.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Grey Cup chili

Sunny but cold; I guess the free ride is over and it's the tough stuff ahead. Instead of sleeping 23 hours a day, the cat will sleep 23 3/4, and I will want to join her.

Fun last night - a friend from the Y, a guy I've been in the Runfit class with for years though hardly know, told us all he was in a Battle of the Bands at the El Mocambo and invited us all to attend. He doesn't look like a rocker, that's for sure, but it sounded like fun, so a bunch of us met there. I love that place; I first went there in 1972 and it has hardly changed, still the ratty palm trees, slow bar service, not enough chairs, minimal attempts at decor. Luckily Regan's band was scheduled to come on first, but just before that, they introduced the judges for the evening, and it's then I discovered that this battle was for bands made up entirely of Ontario civil servants. One of the judges was a Deputy Minister. Regan is with the Department of Mines and Forests. He's also a mean guitarist, front man for his two best high school buddies, the Daves, playing behind him. I knew that there was lots of muscle in Regan's playing, because for years, I've watched him lift weights and run.

I stayed till the start of the next band, which featured a very wide, short man of Asian extraction singing "Jumpin Jack Flash." It was a gas gas gas, but also time to go.

The night before, a great documentary on TV: Wordplay, about the people who are crazy about the NYT crossword puzzle, including, be still my beating heart, the brilliant Jon Stewart. It showed the level of dedication of some of them, who time themselves - doing it in minutes - and eventually enter the huge weekend competition held in New York every year. The winner the year the documentary was made was the youngest ever - 20 years old. Mind-boggling. Apparently, those who are best at these puzzles are not English or History professors or wordsmiths, but mathematicians and musicians - people who are used to making sense of abstract symbols. I myself would rather read a book.

In the interesting student department: one who, commenting on my love for PMc, just told me she used to be an airline stewardess, and
yep you guessed, I once had the Beatles on a flight.   And just for the record, unlike some other celebs I had on flights, they were lovely guys not just to the crew but to all the passengers.  

Aaagh! That's me screaming. 

And another student, with me for several terms, who I thought was about 75 and told wonderful stories, especially about her uncle who was a Hollywood producer. Last class, I asked her what year she was born. "1925," she said. She's 87! Still travelling the world and full of energy. When I asked if I could mention her in the blog, she said she didn't want a potential date to know how old she is.
Can you do it without mentioning my name? Who knows what gorgeous and brilliant single man will be reading it. As my daughter says, “Age is for wine and cheese.”

There's a large pot of chili bubbling on the stove. Well, it's the Grey Cup tomorrow, and we are nothing if not traditional around here. Daughter and her giant son (they were just at the doctor - he's in the 95th percentile for height and weight) and MY giant son are coming over to watch the game. At least, she'll watch, because she loves football; the baby and I will smooch and play, and tall son will eat everything in sight. How I love it when we pretend to be normal. The smell of chili tells me we are.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Google schmoogle

An absolutely gorgeous day, like spring, and another to come tomorrow. I know it's a symptom of something dire, but sailing along on my bike in tights and a spring coat, I tried not to think about the polar bears. Bill my homeless friend came by with his ladder, to put up my new Christmas lights in the mild sunshine. If only that were all that's required to celebrate in style.

My doctor just called; I was retested recently for a slightly elevated calcium level in my blood, and it's still there. A very slightly elevated level. So I'm to stop taking my vitamins and retest in a month, and then come in to see her. Of course, the minute she hung up, I jumped on the internet to find out what elevated calcium means. What follows below is the reason we should NOT check Google for medical information. I'm going to ignore it all; it's incomprehensible anyway. I refuse to feel the wings of warning beating over my heat. Just tiny flutters, to remind me to eat my broccoli and walk vigorously every day.


Primary hyperparathyroidism and malignancy account for about 90% of cases of hypercalcaemia.[5][6]
Abnormal parathyroid gland function

Micrograph of ovarian small cell carcinoma of the hypercalcemic type. H&E stain.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Filling the void

Yesterday I was in my second-hand store Doubletake - where last week I found one of the nicest coats I've ever had, red mohair/alpaca, and yesterday an adorable Spiderman lunch-bucket, no, I don't have a problem with shopping, no - when, horrors, the Christmas music started. It's not even American Thanksgiving yet, and there it is, saccharine dripping from the speakers. Even John Lennon's Christmas song sucks, and Paul's too. Not that I shop a lot at this time of year, but when I do, I'll have a major stash of earplugs at the ready, to drown out the capitalist assault.

Speaking of capitalism, saw an ad in a women's mag at the Y. "My boyfriend dumped me via text," it says, and underneath, the command "FILL THE VOID" and a picture of a red handbag for only $1250. I've never seen it stated quite that baldly before: Fill the void with stuff. As I fill mine on an almost daily basis, only cheaply - my coat was $18 and the Spiderman lunch-bucket was $2. And will go to some lucky child. If I can bear to give it away. No, I don't have a problem.

Problems in Ottawa are clearing up, to my extreme relief. My mother has been accepted into the Duke of Devonshire retirement residence, which despite its cheesy name is apparently one of the best of its kind. Everyone we talked to says, and we ourselves felt, that the staff are compassionate and the atmosphere warm; the woman in the hospital bed next to Mum's has lived there for 4 years and loves it.  Knowing that soon Mum will be settled in exactly the right place for this next stage of her life, however long it lasts, is a vast weight lifted.

This week: an event at U of T for the Random House publishing contest winners, including my student Rob who came second. Free food and wine and a celebration of writing - fun times. My grandson is six months old on Wednesday. On the same day, my son is going to the funeral of his friends' parents, the friend who discovered his father hanging from the rafters in the basement and cut him down, only to find his mother dead too. The stuff of nightmares.

Feel the breath entering the lungs. Lucky, living.

Monday, November 19, 2012


Home to another gorgeous day, thank you Lord. While I was away, the crabby cat, who was being fed by my tenant Carol, jumped onto the kitchen counter, knocked down a half full can of food and devoured it. It's great that she's getting her own breakfast.

I just reread a letter I brought back from Ottawa, my grandmother writing to my mother in September 1967, a missive that also begins with news of cats. Only after extensive reportage on her feline friends - "Sooty is in as often as possible from next door and has a snack every time..." - does she move onto family. On page 2, she writes that close family friend Connie Gibson was thrilled by Beth's - my - final exam marks in "Lit. and Eng." ...

... because when Connie saw Beth at 5 or 6 years old, her extensive vocabulary and ability to write imaginative prose caused Connie to exclaim, "That child will be an authoress, a gifted writer" and she thinks B. is now well on the way to fulfilling her forecast! Journalism is a good opening, tho' there are hoards about, but Beth, after university, would surely be a top-notcher. Drusilla Beyfus is one woman journalist I admire and I understand she is a contributory editor of the Times mag besides being on T.V. panels and doing freelance work. It seems full of interest, a life like that. I hope it wouldn't be too much like hard work for Beth. 

There, in 1967 - in 1955, actually - my path laid out for me, the next Drusilla Beyfus. What a gift to read what a friend saw in me when I was five years old. I have criticized my mother for being a hoarder - and if you saw the amount of paper stuffed into her apartment, you'd understand. But that quality is a gift too, especially to us authoresses.

You notice I'm skipping over that gentle slam about hard work... and wondering whether I've lived up to that promise. I suspect that Connie Gibson expected a bit more.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

5th floor, the Civic Hospital

Like night and day, tonight, in contrast with my last visit here. That Sunday night was a nightmare, and I almost didn't leave. This Sunday night, the situation is much more settled and calm. A fantastic young doctor has taken charge, put her on an IV to hydrate her, is taking her off unnecessary medication, and best of all, he's telling me the truth. She hasn't given up, he said, and we will fight for her, to a point. But she hasn't much in reserve; anything could carry her away, even a small heart attack, an infection. But she can be comfortable and safe and even come back and be more herself.

So that's as straightforward as I've heard. We hope she will get into this new residence, which this doctor said was his favourite of all he's visited. I'd put my own grandmother in there, he said.

Oh what a powerful yet vulnerable machine is the human body. Keep it strong, my friends. You want to stay out of here. Really, you do. Though if you do end up here, there are angels. Mike the orderly, my old friend from last time, is here, working 12 hour shifts through the weekend, keeping us laughing. Mr. Handsome, he calls himself, as he changes diapers, cajoles frantic seniors, cleans up mess. He's a prince.

So that's my weekend. Soon Mum's caregiver will come in to take over, so Mum doesn't panic when I leave, as last time. Soon I'm off to the airport and back to my own life. It'll be bewildering. I'm in the rhythm now, visit hospital, go back to the condo, walk in the sun - the weather all weekend has been sublime - see Auntie Do, go back to hospital again. It almost feels like a routine of home. Help. Get me out of here.

Last night, Do and I went through the box of old letters. Treasure - so many letters, Mum has kept everything. Do's to her, her parents to her - a letter from her father in 1951, hoping her marriage is for the best - my father's to her during the war, after, during the terrible crisis in 1956 when she went off with another man. The other man's - a huge bag of his adoring letters, and another smaller bag from her second adoring lover, in the late sixties. What will people do to chronicle the past, now that there are no letters?

When the new doctor first came in, Mum was asleep, but of course, because he's a nice young man, she woke up and was suddenly quite perky. "And who is this?" he said, indicating me.
"That's my daughter," she said, clearly. "Beth Kaplan."
What a gift. And then, as soon as he left, she conked right out again.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

by her bedside

I've discovered the hospital's wifi, so am sitting by Mum's bedside writing to you. Her IV machine is whirring, there are voices in the hall, the light is fading through the window. It was a perfect fall day, with a crisp, hard light. I came here in the morning, went back to her condo in the afternoon, had a long walk, and now am back. My main anxiety, beyond her health, is to get to the liquor store on the way home, before it closes. We're out of red wine. We must never be out of wine.

Do is coming for supper again, and this time I have a treat - she asked about a box of letters Mum had somewhere, from their parents, and I said I'd never seen or heard of it. Well, I found it, with lots of other letters - from Mum's lover and her husband and from Do herself. It'll be fun to poke through that tonight.

"The Help" is heartfelt but deeply flawed - there are several basic premises at its heart which are impossible to believe. Too bad. But I'm enjoying it anyway - not great literature, but a great read. "There are some good-looking dames in this place," Mum just said, after nurse Erin came and went. "It's all very amusing," she said when she woke up a few minutes later. And then back to sleep. When her eyes opened a few minutes ago, I told her she was sleeping quite a lot. "Yes. It's delicious," she said, and her eyes closed again.

I'm so glad it's delicious. She has always been a champion sleeper. Unlike her daughter, son and grandson.

Yesterday my brother and I went to see our lawyer, a marvellously calm and even man, just to touch base about where Mum is now and what should happen next. I was told recently that the people who cause you difficulty are there to teach you a lesson. So I can testify that in Ottawa I'm in a Ph.D course.

"Shall we have a cup of tea or a beer?" says Mum.

Friday, November 16, 2012


Supper tonight at my mother's condo with my Aunt Do, who, as I say every time I mention her, is 92. She started to tell family stories, and quickly I went to get a notebook and took pages of notes. Tales of my great-grandmother Charlotte Alice, who started to teach at her village school at the age of 14, moved to Northampton to teach elementary school when she was 18, and had to leave at 20, in 1895, when she got pregnant by the rakish Sam Bates. They married and 7 month later she was in labour for five days before my beautiful grandmother Marion Edith Alice Bates was born. Charlotte's labour was so excruciating that, hanging onto the frame of the brass bedstead behind her back, she bent the brass. Needless to say, Marion was an only child.

Do was there when my parents met, in Oxford in 1944. In fact, my mother had come to visit her older sister that weekend. Do just described the scene to me in detail, how the very tall English girl and the Yank soldier met at a Chopin concert and immediately began to talk about the music. They had music in common for the rest of their lives. Do was also there when my father died, in Edmonton in 1988. She bookends my life; in fact, I owe my existence to her. So it's my joy to make her dinner and listen to her stories. She remembers so much.

Yesterday, on the other hand, I was convinced my mother was near death, so terrible did she look. But today - not so much. There's life in them there eyes. My brother and I went to see a retirement residence where she may go next, and the woman there pointed out that if the hospital felt she was at the end, they'd be telling us to find palliative care. But at their suggestion, we're looking at nursing homes.

In the middle of all this, I got a text from my son. A friend of his, a chef in a restaurant where he used to work, has just endured the most horrific event - he discovered his parents in a murder-suicide. I gather that his father killed his mother and then tried to hang himself. That's all I know. So as I sat by my mother's bedside yesterday, I was texting and calling my son, who was doing his best to comfort his friend. Though it looked like she was asleep, I told my mother about it. And today, with eyes still closed, she asked about the people I'd mentioned yesterday.

I also told her, as she lay sleeping, about my teaching award. Her eyes did not open. "Fantastic," came the faint sound. Today, she was looking about for a bit, so I told her she looked postively perky. "Crois pas," she said. Don't think so. If she's speaking French, she's getting better.

The sun shone madly this morning, though it was cold. I got outside when I could, to push my face into the heat and light, and then back inside, to sit by the bed, hold her hand, feed her meals, and read "The Help" when she slept. She is in a quiet room, by the window. The nurses are angels, the orderly are saints, the whole system, flawed as it may be, is taking very good and sometimes tender care of her. As I say every single time I enter a hospital, Thank you with all my heart, Tommy Douglas.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Move like Jagger, chuckle like Newt

I have a new hero - Mick Jagger. Of course he will not replace Macca in my heart, and he's not really new, I've always enjoyed his chutzpah, but still ... I just read the weekend NYT, which had an article on the extraordinary longevity of this band and the new film about them, Crossfire Hurricane. It mentioned the 2011 Grammys where they performed, so I Googled. It's phenomenal. The Jagger you see is 68 years old, a knight with 7 known children. He has the smallest hips and legs in Christendom. I want that kind of energy ALWAYS. BABY!

Mick Jagger - Grammy Awards 2011 Performance - Vìdeo Dailymotion

Gearing up for my next trip to Ottawa tomorrow. My brother warns me that Mum is incoherent, glassy-eyed, always asleep, not there. Maybe my trip will revive her, he says, but I should be warned. They tried to put a tube down her nose and failed because she kept pulling it out. I don't blame her, poor woman. What can we do, how can we rescue her? I spent the morning on the phone to Ottawa, looking for nursing homes where she can go after hospital, and learning the lingo - my mother is a "two person assist," we are looking for "hospital to home" care etc. Hanging onto the women on the other end who sound kind and patient. Mike and I will go see some of these places on Friday. Profoundly sad.

However. There is joy - not just from my children and grandson, but from my students, the end of the Ry term Monday, the second last class at U of T Tuesday, marvellous rich work, and at Ry, a group that instantly, the next day, organized their next meeting. What a blessing to love my work as much as I do, to love watching writers bloom.

And then to come home and pour a glass of wine and watch Jon Stewart, and yesterday, Rick Mercer as well, and then Colbert, because he was interviewing Newt Gingrich. I expected to be laughing in derision, but the man, under his helmet of ivory coloured plastic hair, has a surprisingly good sense of humour. They were talking about the number of billionaires devoted to Newt versus the much larger number for Mitt (where do these Republicans get their names?) - and Colbert said, "Sounds like a new reality TV show - 'The Battle of the Billionaires.'"
"We just had it," said Newt. "It was called the election."

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

an apple for the teacher

Good news on a cold morning. Each year, the departments of U of T's School of Continuing Studies select a teacher for the Excellence in Teaching award. My boss Lee Gowan just called to tell me that this year, I'm the winner of the Excellence in Teaching award for the department of Creative Writing.

The award means the world to me. I love teaching, and from the response of my students, it seems that I'm good at animating a classroom and sharing what I know. It's a gift I was given and would use no matter what. But it certainly is thrilling to be acknowledged this way. There's a gathering with the usual terrific U of T food and wine, a ceremony with speeches, and the winners are given a plaque to hang on the wall. Imagine. My very own plaque. It'll hang beside the "Certificate of Proficiency in Stage Fighting" that I earned at theatre school in 1972.

What a year this has been. If only there were another word for "roller coaster," which is a cliché.

I immediately called Wayson and my children, to share the news. Earlier this year, I would have called my mother. But not now. There's no phone by her hospital bed, she's still very weak, and she isn't sure where she is. I can't wait to be with her again, to see what comfort I can bring. In her land, my news is meaningless.

It's a fine, strange, confusing, marvellous world.

And now time to go. I have a class to teach.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Why Detroit schools require shirts to be tucked in

I can't get this little film to copy - but copy the address below, paste it in your browser, and your jaw will drop with horror. 


Today's heroes: Jane and Hilary

Just got this quote from Cousin Ted in NYC:

It all makes sense now - gay marriage and marijuana being legalized on the same day. Leviticus 20:13: "If a man lays with another man, he should be stoned." We've been interpreting it wrong all these years! 

So, in some states in the benighted U.S., marijuana use is decriminalized; here in humane, wise Canada, penalties even for minor use have just increased. A howl of rage in today's "Star" from Christopher Hume: cities worldwide are adding bike lanes like crazy, but here in Toronto, the Jarvis bike lanes will start to be dismantled today, because they add a minute or two to Rosedale's commute home.

Not much to be proud of in Canada today. And after yesterday's heavenly sun, it's dark and rainy to boot.

But there are Canadians to be proud of, and one of them is my friend and former student Jane Field, a phenomenally brave and open woman, and her British partner Hilary, likewise. Jane's story of disability and recovery is too long to go into here, but briefly, after years as a quadriplegic (she came to my class in a power wheelchair and wrote using a voice-activated computer), she was re-diagnosed, laboriously regained mobility over a few years, and plunged back into her busy life. Suddenly, this year, she was afflicted again, back in hospital, completely paralyzed except for minor movement in one arm.

I just got a long email newsletter from her in the convalescent hospital - she can now use an iPad. With her occupational therapist, she is learning to walk again in a kind of Jolly Jumper, is managing to cook meals and play pingpong from her chair(!), and despite the effort involved in transporting and caring for her, she and Hilary have managed several weekends at their cottage. She writes:
I've gone out on day passes most weekends. We've seen a few movies, attended a fabulous benefit concert celebrating the music of Phil Ochs, met friends for lunch, and gone home for a few quiet evenings. I attended the 40th anniversary celebration of Wendo Women's Self Defence and performed a song I wrote after being inspired by the program a number of years ago. I've also managed to attend my choir practices on Wednesday evenings, though I usually have to leave early in order to get back to Lyndhurst in time to be put to bed. But it's great to have a regular activity outside of hospital.
Her strong and loving partner Hilary has made most of this possible. "I really am the luckiest woman on earth," concludes Jane.

A reminder: life is short. Live with gusto.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Today's joy

Today I looked in the bag of clothes I'd kept from my own babies' childhoods. Here is Eli in bell-bottomed overalls worn in 1981 by his mother and in 1984 by his uncle Sam, and a hat knitted by his great-grandma for her grandson.
 And in his mother's chic French sweater
And in the "Exersaucer," the CEO seated at his executive desk with an array of fascinating devices to keep him busy.

Last Remembrance Day, it was freezing, and those poor elderly veterans were shivering in the cold. Today was gorgeous - 18 degrees, record-breaking high. I went for a walk on the Don Valley Trail and was too hot. When the guns began to sound at 11, I stopped still for a minute, giving thanks to those who died, and thanks for those who did not - my father who was in a MASH unit of the American army, my Uncle Edgar who was a radio operator on a B52 in the Pacific, my mother who helped to crack German submarine codes at Bletchley Park. The Great Generation. Today, for once, those who stood saluting by the Cenotaph stood under a gentle sun.

Went across town to get my fix of the squishiest, most delicious baby on the planet. When I got home, there was a message from Mum's caregiver - a nurse got her in the shower today and washed her hair. This is extraordinary when you know that my mother hasn't had a shower in about 15 years. She is not a fan of showers. But today she had one, and then some ham sandwich and strawberries for dinner.

Go Mum! Nice knitting, by the way. I still have the little blue coat you made to go with the hat, but it's too small for Eli already. As is the hat. But as you can see, he didn't mind, at least for a minute or two, until he pulled it off and tried to eat it.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

remembering the fourth floor

My friend Chuck came over yesterday to give me a seminar about my iPhone 5. What an extraordinary piece of equipment - mind-blowing. My father the scientist died in 1988, just as personal computers were beginning to be widely used, though I don't think he ever had one. I imagine showing him this minuscule device which is both camera and movie camera, phone, internet, tape recorder, music provider, calculator, television and so much more. He wouldn't believe it. And he wouldn't believe that it's an American product. In his time, small amazing technical devices were produced in Japan.

But then, he also would have a hard time believing that an African-American was just re-elected for a second term as President of the United States, defeating a phalanx of Republican billionaires. And believing just how far to the right his country has fallen. My dad spent his life fighting for social justice and education. The thought that many millions in America don't even believe in evolution would break his heart.

Yesterday's excursion: A friend of mine recommended a face cream made by Kiehl's, a no-nonsense company with an outlet in Holt Renfrew, so I biked over there yesterday. I used to enjoy just wandering around that luxurious store, enveloped in the smell of money. This time, the whole place with its sparkly bustle made me ill. I bought what I had to buy and got out as quickly as possible. HR is the kind of place the Romneys and their 1% friends feel right at home, and I'm a 99% girl, albeit with very nice face cream. And a pretty fine garden. Yes, it's true, I'm a 99% person with a 1% garden.

My mother is hanging in there in hospital; I'm going back to Ottawa next week. I meant to tell you what happened while I was visiting her there. The elevator up to her room on the fifth floor stopped at the fourth, which I saw was the obstetrical floor. Suddenly I realized that it was here, right here on the fourth floor of Ottawa's Civic Hospital, that my son was born in 1984. I got off and walked the halls, listening to the wails of newborns, remembering that night. He came so fast that they feared for him, there was a sudden panic and they whisked us out of the birthing room into an operating room, whisked him away after birth to suction his lungs. It was a blur of terror and speed; I don't think I've dealt with it even now. Our stay there was brief - we arrived in the early evening, he was born at 11.30 p.m., and we went home at 7.30 the next morning. And now that boy is 28 and healthy and very tall, and my mother is one floor above, struggling to stay alive.

When people say the customary, "How are you?" all I can reply is, "A bit battered." A kind of grief lives in my belly now. A layer is missing. It hurts.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

giving us things

Just watched Obama's acceptance speech on my computer - fiery, idealistic, that beautiful talk of responsibility and sharing - and shuddered at the thought of what Romney's would have been, an oily parade of platitudes. What an extraordinary event occurred last night, the defeat of the billionaires. How extraordinary that the Republicans were so totally out of it, high up on Bullshit Mountain, as Jon Stewart says, with no idea what was happening on the ground. Romney's complete and utter shock. Karl Rove - how I wished we had Fox News, for once, so I could watch his meltdown. Just watched Bill O'Reilly explain that Obama won because the white establishment is now the minority, and the people who voted for Obama "want things," and "voted for the man who'll give them things."

His usual wise and trenchant analysis.

Thank God it's over.

What a moment, when Michelle and those two gorgeous daughters walked onto the stage, and Joe Biden and his wife, much hugging, and the screaming joy of the crowd. And now, the hard part begins. Let's hope that because the man is freed from having to think about re-election, he can become the leader we hoped he was. Americans came through - support for gay marriage too, and for fabulous Elizabeth Warren and the first gay senator. My faith is restored. Let the Tea Party slink back into the hole from which it crawled.

Hurricane Sandy ... Surely watching Obama roll up his sleeves and offer help, being praised so warmly by Christie and Bloomberg, reminded Americans of Bush hovering in his helicopter over New Orleans as people starved on their roofs.

Thank God it's over. The sun just came out for the first time in what feels like weeks. My mother is in a quiet semi-private room and recovering miraculously. There's a blue jay at my birdfeeder and the coffee is good. Thanks to the universe.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

fingers crossed for the planet

It's 8.15 p.m. and I'm sitting in media-free silence. I don't want to know what's going on out there. But soon, I will go down the street to Jean-Marc and Richard's - Richard is an American politics junkie, and I want to clutch his hand as we go through this agonizing night. This feels like the election of a lifetime, much more than the G.W. Bush one or even the first Obama one. That one was an idealistic choice versus a crazy man and an idiot woman. This one is about mendacity and greed versus ... well, not exactly good, we can't say the Dems and Obama are always on a white horse, but - way less vile, perhaps? Damning with faint praise. That's sad.

To cheer me up, first, my mother's caregiver just called. "She's the energizer bunny," she marvelled. Mum has been moved to a quiet room and today asked for a TV so she could watch the election! On Sunday she was on her way out, and on Tuesday she's rooting for Obama. Good genes.

And another cheery thing - one of my current U of T students just sent me a note.

I am getting so much out of this class. I did 2 others before this, and really, I am shocked at how vital this class is. I feel I am learning so much, on a deep level. The class is about our lives, yet you keep us firmly in the realm of writing. There is a real generosity in the  depth of your listening, your appreciation and the detailed feedback you give.
Thank you, Lynne. That was good to read, on this tense night.

And now - holding my breath - to sit in front of Richard's TV and pray.

10.50 p.m. My shoulders loosening. It's looking good. In fact, it's looking more or less like a done deal, with California and the rest of the west to come. Amazing. Whether he can govern in such a divided nation, who knows. But the entire world, with a few exceptions, is breathing more easily right now, and so am I.

11.18. CNN calls it for Obama. Shots of people all over the planet celebrating. Here, it's just me and the crabby cat, but we're both dancing inside.

A simple poem: Election day./ Let us pray.

Two momentous events today: my mother may move her bowels, and the Americans will elect a President. In their order of importance.

Mum is, yes, of course she is, better. The sedative calmed her not only for the night but for all of yesterday. Things are stirring in her nether regions. As everyone says about this journey, "It's a roller coaster." So - here we go. Onward.

As for the other event - I can hardly bear to think about it. The kind of papers I read seem to think that Obama will squeak through. And thank you, Bruce Springsteen, for your timely help. But my dark fear is this: you do not challenge all of your country's billionaires and get away with it. If Obama wins against the forces of limitless money (and racism and hatred), it will be a miracle, and it will certainly restore my faith in humanity. But I'm not holding out much hope. The Republicans have created a cheery straw man who says everything they want to hear. We have no idea who the man really is, except a smooth chameleon and fake. As my friend Dora said yesterday at the Y, "Romney drove to Canada with his dog strapped to the roof of his car. That's when he lost me."

It will be devastating to wake up in a Republican world. We'll all be strapped to the roof of his car.

No, another part of me says. It's just not possible that Romney will win, not with almost every country in the world, every human being with a modicum of intelligence, behind Obama. It's just not possible!

And then I think of Rob Ford - OUR ELECTED MAYOR - and plummet again. After I teach this afternoon, I'm going to come home, get into bed and pull the covers over my head till Wednesday. And if you believe that, I've got some land in Florida to sell you.

On a happier note, a former student wrote yesterday to say that my last post, about being in Ottawa, made her "cry and laugh at the crazy symmetry" with her own life. It brought up an argument she and her sister had had about the care of their elderly parents.
She also said some words that, as you say, stabbed and although she did text me an apology, suggesting we shouldn't fight over our parents as we all have the same goal, I can't shelve it so readily.

Your blog helped me. Thanks.

I'm glad when a bit of my truth helps. It may surprise you to know, bloggees, that I don't tell you EVERYTHING, and I'd debated about putting that in. But it felt important to include that scene, because the truth is that at times of greatest stress, when families need to be at their kindest and most forgiving, we tend to be the opposite. Damage is done, sometimes irrevocably. So the moment when my brother, provoked by his own exhaustion and stress, said something that hurt me deeply, and I was able - partly thanks to the work I'm doing in Judy's meditation sessions - to breathe, register, put it aside and move on - that's big. A new level of maturity. At 62. Never too late.

That doesn't mean I'll forget, though. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

The help.

Last night I did one of the hardest things I've ever had to do - I walked out of my mother's hospital room and headed for the airport. Porter Air gave me an invaluable gift, though - when I called to enquire, they told me the flight, the last one on Sunday night, was 45 minutes late. That gave me 45 more crucial minutes at Mum's bedside, to make sure she got a sedative and settled. If the flight had not been late, I would have spent the night at the hospital. But that extra time meant that when she fell asleep, I could leave her with her 92-year old sister Do, jump in a cab and just make it to the plane.

When I was trying to decide what to do, I spoke to the orderly Mike, a kind young man with wise eyes and a great sense of humour. Mum was flailing desperately, trembling, hanging onto the bedrails or my hands and her sister's - terrified, frantic. It was devastating to see. I requested a sedative for her several times and finally they agreed to bring one - no idea when. Before learning of the flight delay, I thought, I have to leave soon or stay here all night.

I spoke to Mike, who'd been tending Mum and all the others. "I don't know if she'll pull through," I said. "I don't know whether to stay or go," thinking - how can I balance my mother's life against the courses I teach Monday and Tuesday? Of course I should stay. But my mother is a force of nature who has come through so many crises. I have to go to work.
"The human body is an amazing machine," said Mike. "I've seen doctors tell people their parent would die tonight, and a month later, they're still going strong."
"The most important thing," he said, "is if you go, and something does happen, do not blame yourself and do not have regrets. You were here. You did your best."

My guru, Mike the orderly. I went back to Mum's bedside and relaxed, deciding to let fate decide what I should do. The sedatives arrived just in time.

As you gather, my mother is in very bad shape; she may get through this crisis or she may not. She had a fall, and in Emerg they discovered through x-rays that nothing was broken or fractured, but that her body - to put it bluntly - was as constipated as a body can be. No one knew; my brother thought she was bloated with water. She has always eaten well; we didn't know that nothing was coming out the other end. Constipation, it turns out, is one of the major causes of dementia in the elderly. And right now, my mother is seriously, increasingly demented.

Of course, there are other causes - shock, her other huge health issues. But the struggle, all weekend, was to clear her body of waste, utterly without success. It was surreal at one point - I won't go into details, but it seemed like half the ward was gathered around her in the potty chair, chanting encouragement. "This is a poo party, Sylvia," said Mike. "I'm from Newfoundland. We sure know how to have a good party." But no luck.

Her sister Do told me that their mother was the same. My grandmother decided in her late eighties that the time had come to die; she stopped eating and she stopped moving her bowels. My mother has only done one of those. As Do spooned supper into her sister's mouth, we realized that she last did this when Mum was a few months old, 88 year ago.

At first, Mum's rambling was funny. She thought Emerg was some sort of busy social event. "This is quite a popular affair," she said, as nurses charged hither and yon. "We shall have some cream tomorrow."
"Under normal circumstances," she said, looking gravely at me, "would you be mixing readily with ... this sort of crowd?"
"Absolutely not, Mum," I said, and we both laughed.

On Saturday, upstairs in the geriatric ward, she was still funny, until she wasn't. She saw things everywhere. "Look at the kitties," she said, looking at the floor. "What are their names?"
"Boots and Spot," I said.
"Oh," she said sarcastically. "Original." Names came out - Che Guevara, Garbo. "There's a funny little man standing at the counter," she said." She saw things in the air - banjos, moo cows. There was a ceiling air duct that she thought was a painting, and later, a portrait of me. But then she started to get frightened and think she was falling. "I'm tilting towards the wall!" she gasped, hanging on with extraordinary strength.

In the middle of all this chaos, she, too, gave me an enormous gift. As Mum lay beside us, the tall and beautiful Dr. Rybchinsky asked me a lot of questions about her, and I told her that Mum had never been this disoriented or frail. After the doctor left, Mum said, "I do think that Beth was exaggerating slightly when she said I'm confused."
"Really, Mum?" I said. "You think Beth was being unfair?"
"Yes, a little," she said.
"And why would Beth do that?" I said. Pause.
"Because she's a completely honest person," she replied. My heart thumped.
"Beth is?" I said.
"Absolutely. Honest and clear." Thank you, maman. Especially because earlier that day, my brother and I had disagreed about how to handle various matters, and he'd accused me of being selfish and self-centered. I did not take the bait, we continued our discussion as if I had not heard, and later he apologized. I reminded myself that he's under enormous pressure and is carrying most of the load of my mother's care. But still, words like that go in deep and stab. So, words like 'clear' and 'honest' were good to hear.

Later Mum looked at me as I held her trembling hands, and said, "I hope we can get through this, Beth." And later still, "You are doing enough." She repeated it.

Before putting on my coat, I held her in my arms. "I love you, Mum," I said.
"I love you too," she said, the clearest thing she had said for hours.

It's unbearable, how hard it is. And yet I knew that I had to get out, get back to my own life and work, if only briefly.

What's also unbearable is the geriatric ward itself, and especially her room, with two lunatic ladies about the same age - Rita, a Dutch woman who is so agitated and paranoid that the hospital pays for someone to sit with her 24 hours a day. "Vere are my cloz?" she shouts. "Don't leaf me here!" And Maud, who is so aggressive that no nursing home wants her. She bangs her hands on her wheelchair tray and shouts. They mostly park her in the hall when she'd not sedated, but when she's in the room, it's like Fellini at his most grotesque. Rita shouts, "I do not vant to be like dis ven dey come!" and Maud shouts back at her, "SHUT UP BABY MOUTH!"

No wonder my poor mother is distraught. Luckily she has curtains around her bed and a big window, with a view of the sky and the green fields of the Experimental Farm opposite.

What saved my own sanity was the thought that painful as this is, it's the natural course of life. Somewhere in this hospital, I said to myself, children are in pain and dying, something that is incomprehensibly, horrendously wrong. These very old women have lived very long lives, and it's their time, soon, to die. That's not wrong, it's not tragic, it's the way things are.

The other thing that got me through is the novel "The Help," that Mum had brought to the hospital. "The Help" is a wonderful read. Whenever Mum fell asleep, I could hold her hand with my left and turn the pages with the right, lose myself completely in the South of the early Sixties.

How blessed, how glorious it was to walk into my own house and climb into my bed last night. When I got home at 11, my son was here to give me a giant hug. I'd texted him, Is there any food? as I hadn't had supper, and though there was almost nothing in the fridge, he'd cobbled together a hot and sour noodle soup. So many mercies.

Now, home, work, many phone calls back and forth. Ready to jump into a plane.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

"Timon of Athens," bravo

Just got back from London, England, where I saw the National Theatre's brilliant production of "Timon of Athens." Only kidding! I was at the Cineplex on Richmond Street, seeing it live on screen. Even more brilliant - the National Theatre just down the street. The production makes the best use of modern costumes of any Shakespeare I've ever seen - it's a story of betrayal and greed, unfettered greed, thus a story of our times. The revolutionaries in the play are Occupy kids in hoodies, their faces covered by bandanas; the oozing politicians and sycophants are in Wall Street suits. The lead role was the great Simon Russell Beale, such a funny, round little man to be a great tragic hero. And yet he is - called by one British paper "the greatest stage actor of his generation" - though Mark Rylance gives him a run for his money. Anyway, a wonderful evening of theatre.

And home by 10.

And off again first thing tomorrow morning. Mum fell in the bathroom today and is in some pain; they're keeping her in the ER for observation overnight. So when I get in to Ottawa tomorrow, I won't know where she is.

In the middle of much chaos this afternoon, including a couple of hours with the cutest, smartest, most interesting baby on the planet and his mother, I visited the friend who is editing my work. I brought what I'd manage to write over the last weeks, read and discussed. And guess what? Time to start again.

I know, those of you who've been following this endless opus must be shrieking in disbelief. How many times can a writer start a project all over again? Well, you're about to find out. Because here goes.

Well, not right now. It's late and I need to pack. But soon. I know, you're exhausted just thinking about it. Me - I just need to get through the weekend in Ottawa.

Oh, and the calcium in my blood is elevated and I need another blood test. The good thing about all this family focus is ... I no longer give a flying $@% about the U. S. election.

Only kidding.