Anxiety and bravery… come to know the whole woman.

I’ve been reading my mother’s journals.

It’s heavy going.  There’s a lot of baggage: like why did she write so much about my sister and not about me, like reading about her grief at my father’s loss and then facing her own mortality. 

It’s been a hard four days… a bit like a car crash.  I know I shouldn’t be looking but I somehow just can’t stop myself.

At the same time it’s liberating.  Reading her own words has let me come to know the whole woman, flaws and all, not just the picture she chose to show me as my mother.

In many ways her private self was altogether opposite of the one she showed the world… but at the same time perhaps the difference aren’t as striking as I thought.  In the many sympathy cards I have received in the past three months, her friends have praised my mother as a brave and compassionate woman.  Yet, all her life she struggled with anxiety problems.  Much of this I knew, but the extent of those fears surprised me.

I have, unfortunately, come to learn that anxiety problems are genetic and with this intense grief seems to have come my own struggles with anxiety.  What has been heartening is learning just how brave my mother really was.  Anxiety problems aren’t something you can just make go away, but my mother faced her fears again and again and again.

Despite intense worry about her daughter’s health and safety, she encouraged her to follow her own path and move to rural Africa.  She drove even though it made her nervous.  She entertained constantly even though the preparation shattered her nerves.  She died with dignity and courage despite fearing death itself.

I had my first anxiety attack a few weeks ago and it scared me.

It is a genetic legacy I wish my mother hadn’t passed along… however, facing it now with the knowledge of the extent of her bravery (even if she was never able to see it as courage) makes it a little easier.

I come from a line of strong woman and that bravery won’t end with my mother.

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Easter state of mind…

It’s raining outside.  It’s dark and it’s cold.  It just doesn’t feel like Easter. 

The Bunny arrives in three days (Big Dude is on a countdown) and I’ve got nothing.

Oh… the bunny will visit with all the requisite treats (if I don’t eat them first) and the freezer is packed with baking for the family gathering, but this whole sense of hope and new beginnings that is Easter is supposed to symbolize is eluding me.

I’ve got the reflection (and slight depression) of Lent down pat… I’ve even been sticking to my Lenten promise of active living, but I am somehow stuck in a Lenten state of mind that the approach of Easter is doing nothing to lift.

I have always loved Easter.  It’s a time for new spring clothes and outdoor toys and new beginnings.  I guess I am on my own new beginning, of a sort, but not one I wanted.

This will be the first family holiday gathering without mom.  It will be my first time at the family cottage without her and, thanks to a full house, I’ll be sleeping in her bedroom.  It is the room that was my parents’ sanctuary since the cottage was built more than 30 years ago and it will be the task of my sister and I to clear out the traces of my mother and find a way to make it ours.

Spring is about beginning over after a dark winter… I guess that’s what I’m doing, whether I like it or not.

The Easter bunny better bring some damn good chocolate.

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Grateful for the family I have left….

I read a really great line on the Internet somewhere today…

“that’s the trouble with being capable in a crisis – you tend to get handed a lot of crises.”

This has to have been written for my sister.

I have never met anyone as capable as my sister.  She is warm and kind and funny and generous and the first person anyone should call in a crisis.

She’s a teacher, a counsellor, an international traveller and the brave stay-at-home mother of, count ’em, four children… and she still periodically offers to take my three to give me a break!

I have complained here more than once about the number of crises I have had to face over the past decade, but I’ve got nothing on this woman. 

She too has faced the terminal illness and death of both her parents but she had two kids with disabilities in that time period and a few other personal events that I don’t feel are mine to share here.
She has weathered these traumatic events with poise and grace, with courage and perseverance that I can only envy… and after four kids she’s even still thin!
I’ve had a rough week.  The loss of mom’s house, while going to a cause I wholeheartedly support, has been difficult.  It is the symbolism more than anything that I mourn.  No longer do I have a somewhere to which I can ‘run home’.
I had my coffee this morning looking at the beautiful bouquet of flowers my sister sent on the day the house transferred.  I couldn’t get out of my own way enough to call and she how she was taking it, but she had the foresight to send me flowers.
Within all this loss, there are things for which to be grateful.   I have friends who barely speak to their siblings but I have a sister who is my best friend. 
I may not have much family left, but I have her and that’s enough.

Thanks sis.

Posted in gratitude, grief, sisters | 2 Comments

The great diaper explosion… followed by the great Mommy explosion.

I used to hear about those gross kids moments where a child takes his dirty diaper and ‘paints’ all over his crib or the kids who takes off his diaper to ‘go’ in the corner of the carpet and think… thank goodness that isn’t me.

Today I was that mom. 

Imagine, if you will, a very full overnight pull up.  Then, add the image of all that disgusting pee soaked gel inside said diaper.  Now imaging that exploding all over the room.

That was my image today getting out of the shower.  It was everywhere.  The floor, the carpet, the clothes, the wall, the closet, the curtains… and Little Dude. 

It seems Big Dude thought it would be fun to throw said pull-up against the wall until it exploded.  Little Dude added to the catastrophe by whirling it around like a lasso.

It was not my finest parenting moment.

The Husband was at work.  The Girl was in bed (though how she slept through what followed can only be attributed to a teenage coma). 

Needless to say, we were late for church.

I often use this blog to help myself find the larger lesson in my day.

Any ideas what the larger lesson here might be?

Never leave your children alone? God forbid… every mommy needs a moment alone.  No more diapers?  I wish.  Suck it up sweetheart?  Maybe.  Keep calm and carry on?  Not likely.

I just know I never, NEVER, want to see the inside of a diaper again (insert shudder here).

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A final gift… and fitting legacy for a generous and compassionate woman.

Little Dude still asks to go to Nana’s house.  At three, he has no concept of death and what it means.  He just knows Nana’s house was fun and full of love, and he wants to go to there.

Only now, there is no Nana’s house.  Today it changed hands and will hopefully make some other family happy.  Perhaps they’ll make their own memories eating family meals at the dining room table and playing with the multitude of spices that will hopefully fill my mother’s spice racks.

My mother had hoped the house would provide comfort to other families going through the horror of what her family faced, not once, but twice in the last five years.  She offered it to the Hospice Society to be used as a residence for those in their final days and weeks.

Unfortunately, county zoning by-laws mean that won’t be possible but my mother still did an incredibly generous thing… she gave her house to the Hospice Society anyway.  It is a gift that she hoped would still offer comfort to others navigating a terrible time.  The Colchester East Hants Hospice Society offered her so much after my father died and then again when she was facing her own terminal diagnosis.  The support, the grief counselling and even just a friendly ear were all welcome distractions from the terrible future she knew she faced.

It seems strange to say after the death of both my parents, but we were lucky.  Both my parents faced their terminal diagnoses in Truro, Nova Scotia.  It has one of the finest and most comprehensive palliative care programs in the province.  We met amazing doctors and nurses who focused not only on the patients but on the family as well.   They offered home visits, a phone number where a nurse could be reached at any time of day and help finding a care giver to stay with mom when my sister and I could not.  The doctor even dropped in one Sunday with his daughter in tow because my mother needed him.  We are blessed to have known these people, particularly Ann, Lisa and Dr. Henderson.  I don’t know how we would have made it through this time without their support.

I would be remiss, however, in discussing the palliative care services in Truro if I didn’t discuss what my parents did not get… and what so many other still need.  There are incredible people on the palliative care team there but they cannot do it all.  My mother needed more than just medical care.  She was in deep emotional distress.  Who wouldn’t be?  She was told she was going to die… and that the end would not be pretty.  The palliative care team did the best they could to support her, and us, but they are medical professionals and they were there to make her comfortable.  There is no social worker on the palliative care team to deal with the emotional realities of facing death.  The Hospice Society stepped in in many ways but there is no substitute for having someone working directly with the team.

I’ve recently been told that the palliative care team in Truro is also being reduced to one doctor from two.  These seems like a tragic misdirection of funds.  Leaving people to die in their homes, as the majority of people would prefer, is much cheaper than putting them in hospital.  Yet having only one doctor on the palliative team means he will have to spend much of his time on the Palliative ward, that will tragically be busier since he will not have time for as many home visits.

It will also exacerbate an already big problem.  People are dying on waiting lists.  I know we hear that about many areas of our health care system, but isn’t it such a sad irony that they are dying on the waiting list for supports to help them die.  My sister and I have seven children between us and we do not live within an easy commute to Truro.  If we had not had the support of this generous team, my mother would have ended up in hospital or she would have done what she absolutely dreaded and died in one of our homes.  Either way, the level of stress in either situation would have broken us.  My mother’s last few weeks were terrible but I took comfort in knowing she was surrounded by friends and looking out on the yard she and my dad planned meticulously.  It is hard to see us as lucky after having gone through this experience, but we were.

What is also hard to believe is that, had my parents not lived in Truro, they would have never received this level of service.  Palliative care teams vary from county to county and from province to province.  Some places have a doctor but no nurse, many have no drug coverage so, unless the patients is in hospital, he or she must pay for all medications when dying at home.  With the level of morphine and the multitude of other drugs mom was on at the end, it could very well have bankrupted her, and perhaps us.

The subject of dying is taboo in our society.  Many who have been through palliative care with a loved one are so steeped in grief they can’t speak out in support of palliative care.  It is tempting to retreat into my shell and find a way to live my life without my parents but I just can’t do so.  Palliative care needs it advocates.  People deserve to die with dignity, not lonely in a sterile hospital bed.  Financially it makes sense for the government to commit to quality palliative care.  The more supports people receive at home, the fewer expensive hospital stays.  Less than a quarter of Canadians have access to Palliative Care.  Surveys and studies show most people wish to die at home but 70% of deaths occur in hospital.  These are sad numbers and even sadder realities.

My mother’s house is no longer hers today.  I will miss the comfort of being able to go home: of knowing the fridge holds a few of my favorite snacks, of having my pick of a multitude of books and, most of all, of knowing no matter what, there was love and acceptance inside those walls.

I can only hope my loss will be a gain to people in need.  The Hospice Society will use the money to do good in the lives of other people facing the same awful journey both my parents had to navigate.  People always told me my mother was generous and brave… I think this is a fitting final action for a woman who may have never believed what everyone else knew to be true.

Thank you mom. 

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Hungry Hippo Hell

There are certain toys that need to disappear into the night… never to be seen again.

Currently I am  having an internal battle about Hungry Hippos.  The kids are having a ball… I, however, feel like my head is about to explode.

It’s not just the noise; there are lots of ‘fun’ reasons to play Hungry Hippos.

  • The volume of the toy seems to increase the volume of those playing it.  Yelling to be heard above the constant din of chomping hippos is not good for Mommy’s sanity.
  • The flying marbles… apparently those plastic hippos must be terrifying because the stupid little marbles seems to regularly leap out of the game and onto the floor and under tables, the stove and after the startled cat.
  • The competition… I just spend five minutes explaining the concept of fair.  Apparently it is fair if the other child has only three marbles compared to fifteen, but if the tables are turned it is a tragedy.

I have been fantasising of other uses for my little Hungry Hippos…

  • Torture device:  Who needs waterboarding? Stick a prisoner in a room with four three years olds and a Hungry Hippo game, but make sure that one of the marbles are lost so there will never be an equal distribution of marbles.  You’ll get your information in no time.
  • Flying Saucer:  I’ve often thought the multicolored Hippos would look great flying across my lawn (as long as it is AWAY from my house).
  • Target:  The Girl has taken up Range shooting, it’s a highly visible object, perhaps they can use it (and abuse it).

Damn Hippos.

What toy would you like to see disappear in the dark of night?

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It’s April… are you working to eradicate cancer?

I’m an Atlantic Community Champion… are you?

As most of your readers will know I am rather militant in my belief about preventing and curing cancer.  This plague on our society has taken too much of a toll on my family and so many others.

That is why, today, I am asking you for two things.

Firstly, it is daffodil month.  April is when the Canadian Cancer society has chosen to encourage you to ‘fight back.’  I may not appreciate the choice of language (cancer is not a battle and my parents are not losers) but that is a discussion for another day.  I do appreciate the message they are trying to get out… that cancer hurts everyone and, if we unite, no one will have to face it alone.  I ask you to think about cancer this month: think about what you may be doing in your life that could contribute to your risk of cancer, think about what you can do to support those already facing cancer and, please, find a way to give back.  Canadian Cancer Society is selling live daffodil and, for the first time, it now has beautiful daffodil pins available for a small donation, similar to the way the Canadian legion sells poppies.  Those living in Kingston/Greenwood can find theirs at the Scotia Bank in the Greenwood Mall, others can find their pin through http://www.fightback.ca/.
Second, consider taking part in the Atlantic Path, the largest cancer research study ever undertaken in Atlantic Canada.  Thirty thousand Atlantic Canadians, and their toenails, are needed to provide valuable, long-term, information about their lives and their health.  I have volunteered to become a community champion, which means I track down five friends who will take part in the study with me. I distribute the studies and then later collect the information and send it to the researchers.  People all across Atlantic Canada are seeking out fellow participants in workplaces, on sports teams and in Mommy groups.  Please consider becoming a Community Champion too.  More information can be found at http://atlanticpath.ca/.
Okay… have I sat on my moral high horse long enough?  I’m not trying to preach but I am trying to prevent even one person from going through the horror show my sister and I have experienced these last five years.  Cancer is cruel and unfair… and beatable.  Let’s do it together.
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Love letters….

I’m mad at my mother.

She’s not even in the ground yet (we’re waiting for the ground to thaw) and I’m angry.

She knew she was dying.  She had multiple visits from palliative care, she made the financial arrangements and even identified some specific things she wanted her grandchildren to have… but she didn’t say goodbye.

She was in such denial about when the end might come that many of the things she wanted to do got put off until tomorrow… but then tomorrow never came.

She had planned to write letters to her grandchildren… I had hoped that meant a letter for me as well.

I watched a sad movie over the weekend.  P.S. I Love You is the story of a widow who’s husband sends her letters from the grave.  It’s a sentimental chick flick but it is one that has left me with a sadness I can’t shake.

I want a letter from my mother.  I got my hopes us today when my sister called from our family cottage to say she’d found a letter to us in mom’s dresser.  We both held out hope for some kind of closure, instead we got a list.

My mother was addicted to lists.  She had grocery lists, and to-do lists, her diary even reads like a list.  Apparently so did her last letter.  She left us with a list of instructions telling us how to share the cottage equitably.  She didn’t even say goodbye.

I understand that hearing the words ‘you are going to die’ is a terrible thing.  I understand why she steadfastly refused to hear about time lines and predictions.  It is a terrible experience and one that I hope I never have to face but I can’t seem to get beyond my selfish thoughts that made me want to put her family first just one more time.

I will never doubt that my mother loved me unconditionally, but it would be nice to have the words.  Before my father died he gave me a beautiful diamond cross as birthday gift.  The card that accompanied the gift said all those things that I needed to hear.  I go back to read that card when I need to feel a bit of that unconditional love and support.

Is it selfish of me to want that from the mother that’s no longer here to tell me it will all be okay?

Perhaps that’s the biggest lesson for me in mother’s death.  Whether you are terminally ill or not, don’t put it off until tomorrow.  Tell those you love how you feel.  Do it in lasting ways… cause tomorrow may never come.

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The cancer pity party… we’re lots of fun to be around.

I feel like I’m in a dark alley and cancer is just waiting around the next corner.

I can’t just grieve for my mother… there is this awful specter of the genetic history seemingly mutating my cells as I write.

My children won’t know their grandparents and the knowledge that I won’t get to know mine seems inescapable.

Great thoughts for a mid-week pity party!

I feel ashamed for feeling this way… I’m not sure why.  I’ve tried to put it into words but nothing seems to make sense.  I just know that it is how I feel.  My sister agrees.  We both feel like we are subconsciously, or perhaps even consciously, waiting to learn who is next.  One of us?  Our spouses?  God forbid, our kids?

That’s why my doctor’s appointment this morning left me so conflicted, and yes, thoroughly involved in this self-pity.  I asked my doctor for a referral for a colonoscopy.  While I’m sure it is a fabulous time having a camera stuck up my large intestine, it is one of the few tests that can be done to detect and at the early stages cyre the cancer that killed my mother.  The problem is that I don’t fit the criteria.  In four years I will meet the risk factors to qualify for the screening.  Today I don’t.

The cancer that was diagnosed in my mother at age 65 likely started growing in her 50s.  Right now, the chances of me having anything cancerous or pre-cancerous in my intestines are minimal.  The risks of undergoing such an invasive tests are far higher (rectal bleeding and colostomy bags are enough to make anyone think twice).  That said, the doctor is willing to do the test.  He says if the possibility is keeping me up at night, that if I need the peace of mind and an understand the risk, he’ll do it.

Great… more nebulous choices.

The thing is… even if I decide to take the risk and go for the test, it probably won’t tell me much.  Most colorectal cancers begin after age 50.  The test will likely come out clean right now but that doesn’t mean it always will.  I’ll still need the test every 5 to 10 years no matter what they find right now.

I can’t have what I really want.  I want an answer.  Will I get cancer?  Can I prevent it?  I want peace of mind, something cancer has robbed from me.

Hence the pity party.

Posted in cancer, mom | 2 Comments

Adventures in Grade School Art

I had a great morning.  It was a day that really brought home how important the little things can be when you pay attention. 

I spent an hour volunteering in Big Dude’s class.  I got to play with the laminater and re-create the song book the kids use regularly.  I got to create a spring themed bulletin board that showcased the kids’ art.  What I lack in artistic talent I more than made up for in sheer volume (it looked a bit like spring threw up on the wall, but it was fun).

Mostly what I got was an insight into Big Dude’s day.  Having now started school, he spends so much time away from me that I don’t know what happens for much of his day anymore.  Spending an hour in the classroom means I now understand what he means when he tells me his friend ‘moved down to red’ (a disciplinary tool) or what being a detective means (a reading/letter recognition exercise).

It is also gratifying to know that Big Dude still wants me part of his day.  He jumped up and down repeatedly this morning when I told him I was coming to class, and when I actually arrived his face lit up in a way that made my heart ache.

When I was stapling up one of the many ladybugs that adorned my art display I got to talking to one of the other teachers (the same one, by the way, who was trepidatious about teaching Big Dude for fear of showing up in this blog as The Teacher – there’s no way around it C!).  She told me how great she and the other teachers thought parent volunteers where and how happy the kids where to see parents in the school. 

This is probably going to sound a bit Pollyanna-ish and maybe it is easy to say for those of us who don’t work out of the house full time, but I truly think all parents should try to make the time to get into their kids class, even just once.  It broadens my understanding of Big Dude’s day, it forges a connection between myself and his teacher, it gives me an idea of how he relates to the other kids in his class and it shows Big Dude that I am a part of his education.

I know, it IS easier for me.  I work from home and only part-time at that.  I am lucky enough that I get to do this twice a month.  I am grateful for that freedom and know that not everyone has it.  That said, the sign-in sheet at the school this morning showed at least one working dad was in the school at the same time as me.

I’m not trying to preach here… I just really enjoyed my time this morning and can see the great value in my being there.  I don’t want to spend all my time cutting paper and photocopying lessons, but a few hours a month is a great way to stay involved and show my support to both Bid Dude and his teacher.

To top it off I got a note home from the teacher this afternoon telling me how thrilled the kids where to see their art so prominently displayed in the front hall of the school.

A pretty great way to spend an hour, I think.

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