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The Last Time…

A last reminder

“Call Dad @ 3PM on Monday”

“Call Dad @ 7am on Wednesday”

Those notes to myself are still stuck to the wall above my bed, tucked into the top of one of my favourite pictures of one of my favourite “people”.

“Call Dad @ 3PM on Monday” Monday, September 2, 2013. The next day, he was going to be prepping for his surgery on Wednesday and didn’t think he’d want to talk to anyone. So we had a long chat — about nothing, about everything — this one last time.

“Call Dad @ 7am on Wednesday” Wednesday, September 4, 2013. A quick call after I got home from work on the day of his surgery, to wish him well, to tell him I loved him before he headed off with my brother to the hospital.

Two-and-a-half weeks in the hospital, during which I fought other callers, visitors, pain, and drugs for time to talk with him. Our conversations were short and sad and so very heartbreaking. Then a week at home, where I still fought other callers, visitors, pain, and drugs for time to talk with him. (I went home at the end of September, to look after him while we waited for home health care to kick in, but he passed away only a couple of short weeks later, at 9AM on October 16, 2013. )

Today would have been his 77th birthday. And not a day goes by that I don’t wish I had more time to talk to him, about nothing, about everything.

You don’t ever think that the last time is the Last Time. For anything.

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A very good place to start

“So…you mentioned ‘epic’ in your last post. Care to elaborate?”

Oh, yeah.

I should probably explain that.

And why I know this time is different.

(I know…how many times have I said that. I have journals and diaries going back decades that attest to my high failure rate at making any lasting changes in any aspect of my life. So why is it different now?)

After my last Maci-related posts here, I drifted in apathy and sadness and nothingness. Slept a lot. Ate more. Wallowed endlessly. Got further out of control in pretty much every aspect of my life.

Cut to November 9.

That was the day that I decided I needed a new start — an extreme new start.

[I grew up in a household full of wonderful clutter. The difference between that home and mine is that my mother was neat and tidy by nature (where I’m messy and lazy) and so our houses were always charming and homey in their clutter. And my mother was a serial collector — giving away the contents of one collection when another was started — rather than a hoarder.

When my mother died, my attitude towards “stuff” began to change. You can’t take it with you, and if I were to die, there was nothing I owned that anyone would struggle to (or want to) keep — at best, things to be sold off to get rid of them; at worst, they would just be tossed out. If it wasn’t making me happy to have it around me, then why keep it? My attachment to my “stuff” was weakening, but the situation I was in was overwhelming.]

Trying to fix things while staying put where I was wasn’t working for me. It was long past time for a change.

“Portable” became my new mantra.

I put in my notice on my apartment and found a room to rent in someone else’s house. Rented a small storage unit and a mail box.

I threw away most of my belongings, and I do mean “most”, including almost all of the books that I’d been desperately holding onto for decades, every piece of furniture I owned, my television, and most of my computer equipment. (I know — it seems a waste to have thrown out so many functional and usable items, but ultimately that excuse has been keeping me from decluttering properly for years and if I held onto things now long enough to sell or give them away, I’d never be free. It had to be a quick and clean break and that meant throwing things away while I could.)

I couldn’t manage to do it all myself — not because I was holding onto things, but because I wasn’t in the best shape or health and trying to do this huge a job on my own while working 12-hour shifts was hard. So I hired the 1-800-Got-Junk guys. Unfortunately, one completely-packed-to-the-rafters truckload and many personal trips to the dumpsters later and my apartment still looked like a squat. That’s when I realized that I’d never finish it if I stayed, so I cut and ran before the new year. One of these days I’ll get a bill from the landlord for the final clean up. And that’s a small price for the sense of relief that doing a runner brought.

So now I live in a rented room in a house with dogs and a small yard. My phone and my Internet are mobile and contract-free. My electronics are all portable. The only furniture I own is a new twin mattress set. Everything else that is here with me is in a half dozen plastic storage containers. My small storage unit is severely underutilized and contains pretty much only those items that I wanted to keep but didn’t need with me: my mother’s paintings, my technical writing and other reference books, photos, my guitar, some tarot/oracle card decks, and some papers I didn’t have time to sort through. If I were to lose it all tomorrow, I’d be disappointed but not heartbroken, and that’s very liberating.

I live closer to where I work so I’ve virtually eliminated my taxi addiction and I’m walking more. I’m working on cleaning up my finances and my health. I’m coming out of my hermitage and beginning to actually interact with the Real World in ways I’ve avoided for over a decade. I’ve returned to the spiritual quest I paused years ago. And I’m working out what phase II is going to look like.

I am still very much a work-in-progress. I don’t know where this is going, but I’m no longer afraid and no longer hiding. And that’s a very good place to start an epic journey.

The cremains of the day

Forgive me if I’m wallowing a little today.

I finally decided to open the box containing Maci’s “ashes” to extract a small amount of them to place into a simple urn pendant that I’ve had for several weeks. It was far more emotional than I thought it would be.

At the time that I had to make the decision to euthanize Maci, there was no room in my head for anything except the most basic of decisions. First, the Big Decision. (No, no more suffering; let him go.) Do you want some time to say goodbye? (No, I want you to wake him up so I can take him home and never let him go again, but that’s not really one of my choices, is it.) Do you want his ashes returned? (Of course. Duh.) Yes, please. Would you like a wooden box or a ceramic urn? (Oh, god, a ceramic urn is going to lead to me Dust Bustering Maci up off the carpet at some point in the near future.) Wooden. Most definitely wooden. Nameplate? What? Yeah, whatever. Do you want to take the carrier home? (Oh, god, no. No, I don’t. I have to leave, before I give into the urge to run back in, scoop him up, and spirit him away.)

It was all over so quickly and in such a haze. In hindsight, I’d wished I’d asked for a clipping of hair, or a paw print. Something recognizable of him. But it was too late when I thought of that. Hell, there are a lot of things I wish I’d done that day that I can’t go back and do over.

I was touched, when I picked up his remains a few weeks later, to discover that the crematorium thought of what a grieving pet owner would want without even being asked. The box itself was placed in a lovely black velvet bag embroidered with the words “Until We Meet Again at the Rainbow Bridge”, and then placed in a white “Thinking of you” gift bag with blue tissue paper.

"Gift" bags from crematorium

The velvet bag also contained a little card with Maci’s name on the front. Inside the card was a paw print and a little bag of clipped hair fastened to the card with a heart-shaped pin.

It all made a potentially difficult moment so much easier than it could have been.

Several days after I picked up the package, I opened up the bottom of the box for the first time. I’d never seen cremains before. All I knew is what I’d seen on TV shows and in movies, where you see some hapless person knock over the urn containing Aunt Martha’s ashes and they scatter all over the floor. They always look like cigarette ashes — grey and fine — and so that’s what I was expecting. I didn’t expect (though I probably should have if I had really thought about the process) them to look like large-grained sand, like the sand you put at the bottom of an aquarium. Only a few non-white speckles, no ash at all. Just the ground up remains of the bones and other hard elements of the body. Everything else, it would seem, pretty much vaporizes.

I don’t look at them too closely, though, in case there is still something there that is recognizable. I’m not sure I could handle that right now.

Such a small amount of remains to mark the huge hole in my life left by his absence. Should be…more.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

(W.H. Auden, “Funeral Blues”, 1938)

 

Maci's pendant urn

Tear-stained thoughts from a broken heart

Maci, my feline companion of 15 years, died on Saturday morning, just two days after my 46th birthday. He’s left an enormous hole in my heart, bigger than you would think such a little guy could leave. It was a sudden decision I had to make without prior preparation. He’d been losing weight and was little more than skin and bones, but I still never thought cancer. Maybe I was too wrapped up in grieving for my mother, and that’s something I can’t make up for.

On Wednesday, he had a brief moment where he couldn’t stand up — his back legs just wouldn’t support him — and I finally made an appointment with the vet. The back end problem went away, but he still wasn’t eating much. And he was just, well, “off”. I had reiki healing done on him on my birthday — to support him until our appointment on Saturday — and he spent pretty much the entire session in my arms or on my shoulder. It seemed odd at the time, but I think he knew by then what was going to happen to him. Me, I was firmly in denial. He was supposed to be around for at least a few more years, damn it.

On Saturday morning, as I was getting ready to go, he actually came out of the bedroom where he was sleeping, climbed up on a box of cat litter, and started nosing at his cat carrier, which was sitting on top of my laundry cart. He got into the carrier with little fuss. That should have been enough to warn me something was going on, but I brushed it off. At the clinic, he was less vocal and upset than he usually is and I had the thought that I should take him out of the carrier and hold him…but I didn’t want to stress him. I will always regret that I didn’t heed that impulse, because, looking back, I would have braved any amount of biting or scratching to have one last cuddle with him.

I’ve been reading Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s book “On Grief and Grieving” lately, trying to come to grips with the ongoing grief from my mother’s death in August. I was reading the book in the examination room while we were waiting for the vet to finish up with an emergency patient. I talked to Maci — he was mostly lying quietly, though he hissed when I moved anywhere near the carrier door. (I’d brought a blanket with me for him, but that really upset him for some reason, so I tucked it into my purse, out of sight.) I told him we were going to make him feel better….and I suppose we did, though it wasn’t at all the way I’d expected us to. In hindsight, I should be thankful for that long wait in the examination room as it was the last time I got to spend with my sweet boy while he was conscious.

The vet finally came and took him into the back for his examination. After several minutes, she came and brought me into the back with her. That’s when I knew things were going badly. Maci has to be — had to be — masked in order to minimize the trauma of vet visits and he was still masked and lying on the table. The vet had me feel the mass in his intestine — it was so long, but hadn’t been there in January at our previous visit. She recommended letting him go. It was like a punch in the stomach. It wasn’t a decision I’d expected to have to make that day and it broke me to make it. I stayed there until it was over — I’ll be getting his ashes in a wooden box with a name plaque on it later — and then left. I cried at the clinic and then managed to hold it back in until I got home and into my apartment. Then I started hyperventilating and I’ve been doing that pretty much ever since. It is unbelievably empty here without him.

A heavy thread of guilt underlies my grief for Maci that doesn’t exist under the continuing grief for my mother. Guilt because I was responsible for his care and quality of life: I should have noticed how serious things were sooner, I should have had my own shit together enough to have been able to afford regular vet care, I should have been a better companion. My mother controlled her own life and environment, but I alone am responsible for what Maci ate and what his environment was like.

He’d been sick for some time, but I had lots of reasons for not taking him to the vet when it all first started: unemployment and lack of money, not believing in the seriousness of the situation, putting it all down to getting older, not wanting to stress him out more with a vet visit, my own personal emotional issues…lots of excuses, but it all comes down to a failure of my responsibilities and, for that, I don’t think there is or can be forgiveness, certainly not from me.

Right now, I’m precariously balanced on a precipice. Do I use this powerful grief as a catalyst for change and growth, to honour the memories of this most beloved creature and my mother who preceded him? Do I just fall fully into the darkness? Or do I just continue to teeter forever in this sorrowful, apathetic limbo?

I know what my answer *should* be, but it’s too soon to say how it will actually play out.

A trip down memory lane

Funerals usually mean a lot of reminiscing as people share their fond memories of the deceased. My brother shared his eulogy with me last night — it was very heartfelt, though it’s funny that many of his reminiscences are not ones I would recognize. (We’re essentially different generations, my brother and I, despite only being 6 years apart in age.) It made me appreciate some other eulogies I’ve heard that I was less than charitable about — my memories are not your memories, but both are equally valid. (It’s a bit late to be learning that lesson, mind you, but better learned late than never learned at all.)

On the phone tonight, my father read me the cards people had left for the family at the funeral today. Most of them contained some shared memory or another. One of those cards had me scouring the Web for images of the Moo-Cow Creamer to spark my Dad’s memories. (It didn’t help — he still doesn’t remember this beloved bovine at all.)

What? You don’t remember the Moo-Cow Creamer? The Moo-Cow Creamer (I just love the flow of that name and the warm fuzzies it brings up) was a kitschy little cream dispenser (manufactured by Whirley Industries of Warren, PA) that you could buy in diners (either alone or as  “gift sets” with a sugar dispenser and/or combo salt and pepper shaker) during the 60s and 70s.

Moo-Cow Creamer with matching salt and pepper shaker and sugar dispenser Moo-Cow Creamer label

It was a cunning marketing plan by both Whirley and the diners who stocked the novelties. Unsuspecting families would stop at a roadside diner during a long car trip, their kids would see the coy little cow with the sign on her that urged “Moo-Cow Creamer For Sale – ask your waitress!“, and that would be it.

Click to visit collector-guy's Flickr photostream of his Moo-Cow Creamer collectionWe picked up our set when we travelled from BC to Nova Scotia in the summer of 1974. The salt and pepper shaker contraption and the sugar dispenser didn’t survive well — both tended to clump up in humidity and were a pain in the butt to clean; the plastic used to make them and mechanical parts weren’t nearly as sturdy as the plastic of the Moo-Cow Creamer itself and broke easily in the hands of energetic children. The Moo-Cow Creamer itself could survive the Apocalypse. Our set was the colours shown in the image posted above left, but apparently the colours and front label varied greatly depending on where you bought it.

The aunt who reminisced about the creamer in her sympathy card remembers my mother loving the creamer, though my aunt thought it was ugly. Ugly is in the eye of the beholder. I love this little Moo-Cow. It reminds me of times when we as a family were still living together in one place, times when I was still secure and carefree and bursting with life.

And it reminds me of my mother, because my mother loved the quaint and the kitschy.

I’m beginning to hate you

Yes, Facebook. I’m talking to you.

I don’t need to see my mother’s face as avatar all over my news feed.

And I don’t need to see all of the “RIP Grandma” status posts and messages of condolence slipping through that same news feed.

I’ve deliberately not posted a message myself on my own wall in order to avoid all of that from my own friends, but it’s leaking through all the same because many of my friends are people who knew and loved my mother.

Maybe I’d feel differently if I didn’t permanently have this connection now between Facebook and my mother dying. Maybe I’d be feeling more generous and understanding. I’m not there yet.

I got an e-mail from a friend of my parents’ (a very sweet lady) that included the sentiment “I know how you are feeling but we all have to be there for your Dad now”. And it’s making me cranky, I think because it presumes both that she knows exactly how my grief is manifesting itself  and that my grief is insignificant compared to my father’s. I don’t like that her well-intentioned message is evoking this reaction in me — she’s grieving herself (and she lost her own mother when she was much younger so she has been in a similar situation) — or that the activity on Facebook is doing the same thing. It’s not my place to dictate how anyone else grieves. But the feelings are there all the same. It’s something I’m going to have work through and come to grips with — I’m not as enlightened as I would wish to be.

It does all make me want to turn off my computer for awhile, though.

And maybe that’s a good thing.

How surreal

My mother died over an hour ago.

I found out about via my niece’s Facebook post.

My mother would have appreciated the humour in that. I’m sure I’ll find it more funny another day. But not so much right now. Right now I’m fighting off the scary scaries and wondering why no one has called me yet to tell me. (The logical part of me understands that there are more pressing matters for whoever was still on deathwatch with my father to attend to — taking care of their own grief, saying their own goodbyes, making arrangements — or maybe they were waiting for daylight, but my mother’s baby girl doesn’t understand why she’s grieving alone right now.)

[Edited to add an hour later: Dad couldn’t sleep so he called me. We had a good conversation — and a laugh about the Facebook announcement.]

A long goodbye

It’s been a month since I flew home from Halifax, after visiting my mother for perhaps the last time. We weren’t sure how long she would last after that — no one did — but she’s clearly not quite been ready to go.

Tonight (Thursday, July 29 — it’s long after midnight and into the 30th as I’m writing this post), for the first time since I was down there, she actually told me she thought the end was near. She sounds terrible, and she’s in more pain, pain that they’re having trouble controlling, than she’s ever been in. She hasn’t been eating, though she decided she wanted spaghetti and ice cream today. I told her it was OK, that she could go anytime she wants to. And when my father got back on the phone again, I broke down. I haven’t done that since the last time.

I had been thinking that I’d like to volunteer to do some hospice work here in Ottawa — I can’t physically be with my mother, but maybe I could help someone else and their family. But I learned tonight that I’m not ready to take on the role of the supporter for someone else while I’m still in need of support myself.

Press “Play”

pause

My life slowed down in October when my mother found out about her ovarian cancer.

It faltered, stuttered in February when my mother had her stroke.

And it paused completely in May when it became clear that my mother wasn’t going to have a miraculous recovery, or even a long partial recuperation.

My life has narrowed in focus to the daily (sometimes multi-daily) phone call. Everything that happens before and after the call seems to be just killing time until the next call. It’s not something I did consciously. It crept up on me so quietly that I just didn’t see it coming. It’s part desperate, unspoken need to have one last day talking to my mother — even if she’s more often than not somewhere else; part fervent wish to provide what meager emotional support I can to my father when everyone else has moved on with their busy lives; and part just waiting for whatever is going to happen to just happen already. (We won’t even talk about the paralyzing guilt that last item brings with it.)

I can’t live this way. Something has to change.

Lessons from a long week

I flew down home on very short notice on Saturday, June 26, to spend a few days with my mother, who was not expected to live long enough for my planned visit in mid-July.

While waiting for my plane to Halifax, I started to read Elisabeth Kübler-Ross‘ “On Death and Dying”. I say “started” because I didn’t finish reading it, nor do I think I ever will. The book and the concepts in it were revolutionary in 1969 when the book was first published. But the way we approach death and dying is different now, a testament perhaps to the far-reaching effects of her work and others after her. The book itself isn’t disturbing, but neither was it helpful to me, which is why I stopped reading it. Instead, I started researching the end-of-life process, looking for cold, hard medical facts to help me prepare myself for what I might find when I landed in Halifax.

What I found was sad and surreal but occasionally also quite funny, as only my mother can be.

A week ago, my mother was moved from her ward bed, where she was waiting to move into a long-term care facility, to a private palliative care room where family members can stay with the patient. On Monday, we all agreed to the cessation of all medication except that required to keep her comfortable. So no more cholesterol drugs, no more insulin, but lots of Dilaudid and Gravol and other goodies to ease her way. (As an aside, the new Infirmary in the QE II complex is a good place to be if you have to be somewhere like that — the nurses looking after my mother are marvelous, the palliative care room is as homey as a hospital room can be, and families are given the time and care they need. I’ve heard bad stories about end-of-life care but not there.)

I stayed overnight at the hospital for the last few days of my visit so that I could spend more time with her. The drugs and the aftereffects of the stroke (and perhaps the nearness of the end) make her hallucinate so nights can be long and sleepless, but I treasure those hours with her. They may well be the last ones we’ll share. She’d essentially stopped eating and drinking on Sunday and by Wednesday morning it looked like it might all be ending soon, but she rallied on Wednesday afternoon, enough that we actually took cheesy photos.

So the long wait begins again…or is that “continues”? Death is inevitable and near. No matter how well she rallies, the late stage ovarian cancer is going to get her, if the uncontrolled diabetes or renal failure doesn’t get her first. It’s only a matter of time. Weeks or perhaps even days. Things can go downhill so very fast. I couldn’t stay for the duration, but I call several times a day — I don’t want to ever feel like I missed a chance to tell her — or my father — how much I love them.  You really can’t say it too often. If you think you say it enough, just say it one more time anyway. The only regret you’ll have later on is that you didn’t say it more.