Thursday, December 24, 2009

Holiday Blessings

Being of German origins, my family and I like to follow the old tradtions and celebrate Christmas on the eve of the 24th. I stayed up late yesterday wrapping the last of the gifts, polishing the silver and ensuring that everything would be ready by today. It is now nearly four o'clock. The tree is up, the table is set and delicous food smells are wafting out of the kitchen. Time to take a moment to be with myself and reflect. I have, therefore, poured a glass of wine, made a toast with peanut butter and taken that unlikely combination to the living room to just sit still and listen to the things inside my head and heart.
I am grateful for so many things, not the least of which is my family's continued good health, especially that of my 80-something mother. I am grateful for my husband who, although exhausted after a particularly hard year at work,  never complains and always smiles lovingly when I ask something of him. Truly an angel among us, even if he does shrink things when he attempts to do laundry. I am especially grateful, more so with every passing year,  for loyal friends both old and new who enrich my existence beyond measure as we face life's hurdles together.
And this year I am savouring another blessing, which is that feuding families can be reunited, even after three decades.
Sipping my wine I give myself a virtual pat on the shoulder because I was instrumental in the reunion of my own family. It likely never would have happened if I had not swallowed my pride and sent out an invitation which was accepted and thus started the ball rolling back in September.
How many families are not talking to one another at this very moment because of petty differences, because of false pride or because of pure stubborness?
Fundamentally, we all want the same thing. To be respected, to have our voice heard, our feelings validated. We can't change history or create world peace but we can ensure that our families practices a little goodwill.
That is my holiday wish today as I munch the last of my toast. That everyone makes an effort to begin the process of making sure their families are in the best working order possible. It just takes one gesture to open your heart. And if there are left-over bad feelings, I pray they can be put aside just long enough for goodwill to make forgiveness possible.
Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

No, Thanks! 2

The beauty of a blog is that it can create dialogue on issues not normally discussed among people who don't usually connect.
A few days after my latest entry I attended an all-female luncheon and the topic of my blog came up. Aging gracefully is a subject women of a certain age grapple with every time they look in the mirror so I was not at all surprised that we landed with a thud on my last blog entry. I was, however, taken aback by the general reaction to it. Nobody commented on the story about the doctor peddling Botox but everyone present wanted a say on plastic surgery. One woman in our group took me to task (in a very nice way) mentioning that she had had to have plastic surgery a few years ago after having melanoma. Another confessed that she has had varicose veins surgically removed after seeing a photo of herself in a bathing suit. Blue had never been her best colour, she joked. One talked of having had all her teeth veneered, so natural looking, by the way, that nobody would ever had guessed had she not told us. Only one woman in that entire group stated flat-out that she would not alter any part of herself, including bleaching her teeth, partly on principle but aslo out of fear and cost concerns.
It fascinated and humbled me that I was completely outnumbered and that nobody was particularly outraged at the way the medical spa I had written about, operated.
A week later, at yet another all female pre-Christmas luncheon, one friend, making an entrance after arriving late and sporting a still slightly swollen face, announced without the slightest hesitation that she had just had her eyes and chin "done". Everyone was very impressed with the results and  I had to admit that, in spite of her swelling,  she looked fresher and more vibrant than when I had last seen her. More to the point, she felt mentally rejuvinated by looking younger and I cannot deny that this is a huge bonus in our exhausting, fast-paced world.
As I said in my previous entry, who among us doesn't want to look younger or stop time temporarily? And yes, I get that plastic surgery is a wonderful thing after an illness, burns or a disfiguring accident. In the case of the friend who was still recovering, it was clearly important for her mental well-being to look her very best.
I do realize that it is very difficult for some women in certain fields, especially if they work exclusively with younger people, to not feel excluded by their age. Whether we admit it or not, a bias against aging people is alive and well in our society.
But that is precisely my point. How do we rectify that? Is it by giving in or by standing tough? What message are we, the older generation, sending to our sons and daughters if we don't accept our limitations? That we are sorry to be aging? That it's not a big deal to alter the ravages of time artificially? That's it ok not to own who we are at any given time? That the history you have acquired on your face through the act of being alive....does not count when pitted against the norms dictated by the fashion and cosmetics industries?
Don't get me wrong. I am as vain as the next person and I grapple with these issues also. But my personal choice so far has been to compromise rather than give in because I believe that as a mother I must teach my children not to be afraid of aging. I believe it is my duty to set a good example so that they do not grow up to be afraid of what nature will ultimately do to all of us. It's a losing battle. With or without me, the comsmetics industry, which I support every time I buy a moisturizer, will win out. Perhaps by the time my daughter is my age, removing wrinkles with a laser will have become as routine and painless and cost effective as teeth bleaching is today. My future grandkids will look at old photos of me and say....grandma, why do you look so old?? If I'm still around, maybe I will have the courage to say...because I am!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

No Thanks!

"Tell me everything that's wrong with your face," said the doctor handing me a mirror.
"Isn't that what you're supposed to do?" I replied.
I had accepted an invitation to attend an information session at a newly opened medical spa with the hidden agenda of looking into doing a documentary film on why it's so hard in our society to age naturally. Thinking I would see lots of women my age at this event, I was shocked to discover that more than half of my fellow attendees were women in their thirties, seemingly healthy and in the prime of their lives. Fascinated, I watched and listened as a very expensively dressed and taut-faced woman told us stories about people who had ‘transformed’ their lives by getting rid of wrinkles,  extra tummy fat, acne scars, spider veins, etc. With many ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots enlarged on a screen in front of us, we were taken from one extreme to the other by this gorgeous woman who confessed that she had been in the cosmetics industry for a very long time and so had access to ‘inside’ secrets which she would share with us if we signed up for a free skin analysis with her business partner, a doctor who then joined her on the podium.
The first thing that struck me about the doctor was that he did not look like one. Living in a country that has Universal health care, I am not used to doctors being fashion plates. A labcoat or an old sweater with elbow patches instills more confidence in me than skin tight pants, a satin shirt and pointy boots.
The nattily dressed doctor brought a  woman with him to the front and proceeded to tell us that all the wrinkles we could see on her face would disappear in front of our very eyes because she had agreed to a few Botox injections in our presence. My fellow attendees were all agog. The good doctor encouraged us to come around the chair where his hand-picked patient was sitting, very relaxed and smiling. She volunteered that she had never done this before but wanted to try it because she was “not happy to see so many lines “ whenever she saw herself in photos. I could relate somewhat, and even the thirty year-olds who did not yet have lines, were nodding their heads in understanding.
The doctor injected his star patient several times around the eyes and in the forehead after wiping the chosen areas with alcohol. Each time the needle went in he assured us that his patient was only feeling a slight burning but no real discomfort and the truth is that she did not wince or squirm at any time. Each vial, the doctor informed us, was reasonably priced (note he did not actually state the price!) and so this was a very affordable option for anyone “who wanted to improve her looks.”
There were now lots of questions from the audience, ranging from the cost of these injections to how much down time more invasive procedures took. The skin analysis, however, was a pre-requisite to obtain all further information and for that you had to sign up for an actual appointment with the doctor.
And that is how I found myself back in the very posh medical spa the next morning holding the doctor’s mirror up to my face. Unbeknownst to him, I had done a little background search on him before coming and had discovered that he was not a plastic surgeon, was not even a dermatologist. He was a general practitioner and the reviews he had been given by some former patients were not stellar. He had no experience or specific knowledge to give anyone a skin analysis.
"Are you a plastic surgeon?" I asked him.
"No," came the reply. "I am an emergency room doctor so if anything ever went wrong I would know exactly what to do."
"Do you have emergencies often?" I pressed.
Irritated, he gave me a stiff smile. "You have a lot of sun damage," he said, conveniently changing the subject.
"I would suggest...."
Truthfully, who among us does not want to turn the clock back now and then? I confess to having considered Botox, to even having thought about a little lift here and there. But my compromise has always been not to do anthing invasive.
As I loooked into the mirror the doctor continued to list all the work I would need done on my face if I wanted to look instantly younger. I would lose the way my face crinkles when I laugh. I would lose the furrow just above my nose. I would have plumper lips and some fat injected below my eyes. What I saw, when I looked at myself, was my life reflected back, traceable through those little lines. Summers  at the beach with the kids, sleepless nights when they were sick, the ups and downs of parenting, the joy of a deep love, the unexpected heartaches of loss and disappointments, the triumph of battles won.
Who are you once you make your entire history disappear?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Some Leopards Need to Change Their Spots

There are people out there who should not be allowed to open their mouths. Ever.
Like the hairdresser I once overheard say to an elderly woman who had arrived for her appointment pushing a walker: "I'm not running a hospital you know, this is a business."
Or the taxi driver who shouted "You shoulda calledl Medi-Transport!" before speeding off when a gentleman in a wheelchair had flagged him down.
There but for the grace of God, go anyone of us.
Recently, on a shopping expedition with a close friend, a woman who shows exemplary courage in her daily struggle to live a normal life, we encountered an insensitivity so acute it made our jaws drop.
It had been decided that we would give a particular store that we have been boycotting for years, one final chance to redeem itself. The reason for our long boycott was that we've both had bad experiences there. My friend was made to feel unwelcome years ago when she tried to exchange an item while my beef goes back to the time just after my son was born. Sleep deprived and with what felt like a very lumpy body, I had decided I needed a pick-me-up on that long ago January morning. I should have just gone to the corner and bought a coffee but instead, I had been drawn to that dress shop. 
The owner had wasted no time in showing me her newest arrivals. I had tried on a few but, although she had sworn that I looked wonderful in all of them, I had resisted. As a last resort, she had brought me a pink knit mini dress with long sleeves and a cowl neck. With a conspiratorial whisper about soon losing my post baby weight, at which time I would want something this sexy in my closet...she had left me to struggle into the tight, pink number.
I remember having looked into the mirror and thinking that I looked like a sausage without its casing. I had begun to chuckle. But as I had stepped out of the dressing room, ready to share the joke with anyone who might have wanted to laugh with me, I had been met by the store's owner plus her assistant, both of whom had seriously declared with a dramatic intake of breath that I looked like a million bucks. "Stunning," was the word I remember coming out of their lying mouths.
Incredulous, I had taken another look in the mirror, sucking in my gut in the process. Maybe they were right, I had thought. Maybe I'm too tired to see myself in a kindly light. "Are you sure?" I had asked. "Oh, absolutely!" had been the reply.
It is not the boutique owner's fault that my self-confidence was so low that day that I fell for her lies and paid good money for this ridiculous dress. But to this day I blame her for having taken advantage of my hormonally charged, sleep deprived vulnerable mind-set. It was my sister, bless her, who after taking one look at me in the new dress had quietly said: "You must never be seen in that."
These kind of experiences do not turn women into loyal customers. On the contrary. While we're at it, a store that declares it has a 'no refund' policy is also dimly viewed by those of us who do not have perfect size 4 bodies. But I digress.
When my friend declared last week, that she needed an outfit for an upcoming event,  I knew she would want  to avoid crowds and the hassle of going downtown. Scanning potential stores in my head that had parking and easy access, I realized with chagrin that the boutique in question would actually be a good option. My friend reluctantly agreed.
We went early Saturday morning and were greeted by a blonde with very red lips whose icy demeanour almost made us turn around and leave again. She looked down at my friend's cane and back up at her face. "What can I do for you?" she asked with a hint of a sneer. I was tempted to say that we were looking for organic carrots. Instead I informed her that we were looking for an outfit. Duh.
Blondie began to rummage systematically through her racks and pulled out jackets, skirts, pants; each time murmuring "this is lovely/beautiful/perfect." My friend who struggles with a weak left side but has a wicked sense of humour, said that she would like something that wouldn't make her look like a sausage.
The owner of the store arrived while we were making some choices. She was dressed from top to toe in leopard spots. Yes, even the shoes. She walked right up to my friend whom she clearly recognized and loudly said: "Oh my goodness, what happened to you??"
Without missing a beat my friend replied: "Oh, I have MS."
"Well, yeah, we're all a mess but what HAPPENED to you?"
Incredulous, I stepped forward and said: "Excuse me, my friend has multiple sclerosis" hoping this would shut her up. But no, she looked down at my friend's feet and declared: "Oh, I thought you had twisted your ankle or something."
As I said, my friend has a good sense of humour. Like the trooper that she is, she shrugged it off and went to the dressing room to start the process of removing her leg brace so she could try things on. The owner's old trick of standing outside the dressing rooms and exclaiming with rapture every time my friend stepped out to see herself in the large mirror, is obviously still being practiced. "Doesn't she look FABULOUS?" Leopard would say to Blondie whenver my friend pulled back the curtain. "Fabulous," would come the automatic reply.
We just rolled our eyes and smiled. After trying on many outfits I finally steered my friend towards a knit pair of pants that draped very nicely and a matching jacket that, unlike some of the other things she had tried on, actually flattered her body shape and would be relatively easy to get on and off. It is of good quality and will likely last her for many years. Blondie seemed miffed that we weren't taking the entire collection of items she had brought us. When I last looked she was putting things back on the rack with disdain on her face.
Clearly not happy to leave well enough alone, Leopard decided to go for one more round of foot in mouth as we were leaving the store. "My father's friend has MS too," she said. "She's 85 now and is in a wheelchair. But she still gets to the mall once a week with adapted transport." Perhaps she meant well but it was hardly an appropriate good-bye. "Thank you and please come again," would have been so much better.
We wondered, as we sipped our coffee afterwards, how this lady has managed to stay in business all these years. Having a good quality line of clothing obviously helps. But in the current economic climate I'm not sure that's enough. As we boomers start to adjust to our changing needs we will most certainly give our client loyalty to those who make us feel welcome, give us good service and fair value for our money. A little sensitivity that might allow for dignity in the face of adversity, for who among us will be spared, would certainly go a long way towards winning us over.
In the meantime, the boycott is back on.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Birthday Tribute

Today would have been my aunt's 89th birthday. She passed away last spring after years of suffering from dementia. As sad as I was at her passing, I was relieved to know that her tremendous ordeal had come to and end and so I did not grieve, per se, I rejoiced instead in having had her in my life.
As a child I was full of admiration for my pretty and petite aunt.  I, too, wanted to grow up to become what I considered to be a glamorous, happily married, fun mother. Always perfectly coiffed and well dressed, my aunt exuded a joie de vivre other members of my immediate family seemed to lack. She would speak her mind, hold her ground in an argument and shrug her shoulders with good humour when she lost a round. That would change over time as depression, disappointments and regrets began to cloud her horizon. But as a young woman, my aunt was simply fabulous with a laugh that always made me feel good.
She had a very quick step that I would recognize instantly whenever she came down the walkway to our house. Usually in heels (for a little bit of height) and often in a suit or form-fitting slacks, my aunt was every bit as glamorous as the movie stars of her era that she so admired. Even when she was housecleaning or doing laundry, which in those days was an all-day affair of wringing and twisting, hanging and stretching, it was done with style, a turban on her head to keep the hairdo fresh and a huge apron to protect her clothes.
My aunt was quite adept in the kitchen, the one place where I think she felt she had supreme power. She and only she, could create those mouth-watering meals that my uncle, who bellowed for his food the moment he stepped through the door every evening, would eat with gusto while she watched and listened to how good or miserable his day had been. She would spend hours sifting through magazines to find new recipes, adding her own interpretations, making them uniquely hers, and, strangely enough, eating very little herself.
She was also an incredible seamstress, making many of her own clothes and turning old skirts or fabric remnants into little dresses for me.
As a young girl she had apparently wanted to become a window dresser, fashion  always having been a huge interest, but world events and subsequent immigration put a damper on her dreams. In order to help her family she had to settle for sewing for a living instead. She was good enough that she might have made a career out of her talent but women in those days, the early 1950's, married and then stayed home to raise their family. In my aunt's case, she was expected to stay home and raise my cousin as much as she was expected to serve a warm meal  when my uncle got home. She accepted those expectations and somehow, in carrying them out to the best of her ability  year in and year out, she stopped having any expectations of her own.
Around the time I was a teen she and my uncle moved to the country. Never having learned to drive, my aunt spent the next decade in a beautiful but very isolated spot where I think what was left of her self-confidence  eroded away completely. She was reduced to making marmelade and talking to her dogs during long days of waiting for my uncle to return from work and my cousin from school.Television and magazines, books and occasional visits filled the void but never completely. She and I once went to town to see a film sometime in the late 1960's and I remember that she was as giddy as a schoolgirl to be out and about. We went to see "Prudence and The Pill" with Deborah Kerr and David Niven, a film about confusion and mayhem in a British household that appealed greatly to her sense of humour. I can still see her little nose wrinkling whenever she laughed as she enthusiastically recounted the plot of the film to my uncle.
The last time I saw my aunt she still had splendidly coiffed hair and a brooch on her lapel. She seemed shorter and was walking with a cane. Her once-sprightly step was unsure and her eye make-up was smudged. She was pessimistic about everything, from the weather to her health, and she had no real understanding of the world beyond her immediate neighbourhood. We ate a terrible meal in an equally terrible restaurant but I knew I would likely not see her again and so I focused on her rather than on the food. My heart was full of love for this woman who had played such a pivotal role in my life; someone who had opened her home to me on countless occasions and offered me shelter when I needed it.
Now that she is gone, I can see, in hindsight, that my aunt inadvertantly taught me a valuable lesson. Which is that if you don't evolve with the times, if you don't expand your horizons, if you simply stay in your groove without questioning, you will have no inner resources to draw on when bad times come. Her subsequent illness and her descent into dementia were hellish for her and her depression, crippling. She was a victim of her time, my aunt, and her own worst enemy, for she never believed she mattered enough to initiate any kind of change. Taking a step into the unknown was just too scary for her.  I know that letting time slip by out of fear of change, should never have been her only option. For so many from that era, it was.
Luckily for me, we live in easier times. On what would have been her birthday, I declare that every time I reach for a higher goal, I do it for her as much as for myself.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Unexpected Gift

The benchmark of a good vacation is not being in a hurry to come home. I had an excellent holiday yet I couldn't wait to get back so that I could write about it. My mind works that way; something good or exciting happens and all I want to do is sit down in front of my computer to string words together.
The vacation itself was very simple this year. My husband and I rented a beach house through an agency we found on the Internet. We then drove for two days through breathtaking scenery, our car fully loaded, dog included, to get to this remote part of the country.
On the second day of the drive we ran into what was left of Hurricane Danny. Torrential rains for 500 kilometers of unfamiliar roads, often just two lane highways. But we kept a good pace and reached our cottage by the sea just before nightfall. No small feat, that, as it was at the end of an unpaved road, down a rutted driveway, far from the nearest town. The house, however, was clean and cozy and spacious enough to comfortably hold us and our invited guests for the next two weeks. For we had decided, my husband and I, that it was time to reach out to family we don't often see. In his case, he invited his youngest sister and her husband to come join us from France. On my part, I had extended an invitation to a male cousin I had not seen in over 30 years, and to his wife whom I had never met but was curious about.
My sister-in-law and brother-in-law were the first to arrive. Their excitement at being in a part of North America they had never seen before, was gratifying, their simple small-town views, humbling. It took us several days to catch up on extended family news. This we did while walking on some of the finest beaches imaginable or over simple meals lovingly prepared. We laughed a lot as we compared notes about our very different life-styles. Whenever irritations cropped up, as they are wont to do when you throw many people together in close quarters, we simply reminded ourselves that no family is perfect and that we were lucky to have this opportunity of being together. And of course, the local wine was very soothing!
Then my cousin and his wife arrived for the long weekend. I had been outside waiting for them and my excitement at the thought of re-connecting was a rather startling revelation. We had, after all, not spoken to one another in three decades. But last year, when my aunt and uncle, his parents, passed away within weeks of one another, I had written him a note and he had responded. This year I took it up a notch by inviting him and his wife to join us for part of this family holiday.
My cousin and I were inseparable as kids until I was nine and he ten. That's when my family and I emigrated here. Up to then he was the one person who knew all my secretes, who shared all my schemes and plans and got into trouble alongside of me when we got caught, which was quite often. Our contact, after my departure, was limited to two or three short visits, each  marred by on-going family squabbles and the fact that we were no longer traveling on the same road. The dynamics between us had changed through no fault of our own.
I next saw my cousin when he unexpectedly came to my adopted city as a university student. We were both in our early twenties by then. He was a handsome young man with long curly hair, dark eyes and an impish grin while I was an insecure control freak who knew nothing about how to nurture a relationship. Not surprisingly, the connection between us was rather wobbly. We had very different views with different goals, and little tolerance for our mistakes or vulnerabilities. In hindsight, I would have to say that we were youthfully self-centred at the time and only had space in our thinking process for our own survival. I think we even had a fight, or at least a major difference of opinion, but I would be hard-pressed to remember what it was about.
Fast forward to daily life, marriage, child-rearing, school and work; his took him all over the globe, mine kept me closer to home. We would hear snippets about one another through our mothers but we never made the effort to get together. An invisible line had been drawn and neither one of us cared to be the first to cross it.
But when his car turned into the driveway of our rented cottage a few weeks ago, all of that fell away and my heart leapt with unbridled joy. Our embrace instantly healed a thousand wounds as I experienced the magic of unconditional love surging through my entire being. Yes, he has lost most of his gorgeous hair and my waist is thicker, but in our hearts we were once again two kids trying not to get into trouble. Except that now we know without a doubt that we will be forever linked by our roots and our understanding of the intimate language common history has given us. Love really does transcend time and space and old hurts.
What followed were delicious days of more beach walking, more meals shared with the comforting babble of different languages around the table. As an added bonus, my cousins's wife is an absolute sweetie, a unique character who delights with a natural, unaffected manner that I instantly loved. As my sister-in-law so eloquently said when she and her husband were getting ready to head back to France: "This vacation has been such an unexpected gift." Yes, it has, for all of us.
We still have much catching up to do, my cousin and I. We could not possibly have bridged 30 years over only one long weekend. But we made a good start. Now we are trading photos and remembering long-forgotten anecdotes. We are learning about one another's children. We try not to think in terms of could-have/should-have because that would be a waste of our energy. Better to spend it on what is and what can still be.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Last Rite

The Last Rite, a documentary film I produced and worked on for over a year, is finally finished. It will air on OMNI TV, Canada's multi-cultural network, this fall. The project is one I am particularly proud of because it's on a topic I hope will lead viewers to ask themselves the all-important questions on death and dying, a subject most of us would rather postpone for another day.
The concept for the film came about as so many things do, over a discussion on life while drinking a glass of wine with a friend in Toronto. This friend had just done me a huge favour and I wanted to thank her by taking her out for a meal. What I realized almost immediately when we got to the restaurant was that she was depressed or grieving (her father had passed away a few months prior) or both, and it shocked me to see her so different from the vivacious lady I knew her to be.
Over mussles and french fries we continued our philosophical discussion, covering everything from children (mine are grown, hers are barely of school age) to our lifestyles, work and future goals. Towards the end of the meal she opened up about her father's death and how difficult it had been for her to repress her true grief, which by all accounts would have been messy given her passionate, demonstrative Italian nature, as opposed to the more sedate kind of grieving she felt was required of her and which seems to be the North American norm.
This led to a tearful but in-depth discussion about the different cultural traditions there are and how important that last send-off is to the living who are mourning and feeling bereft. Being very familiar with loss both on a personal level as well as through my work with the elderly, I was comfortable discussing the topic of death with my friend and providing her with the neutrality she needed to express her true feelings. Her biggest beef about her father's funeral, she confessed, was that she felt she had been rushed through it at a time when she was numb and unable to come up with an alternative option. Was it like that for everyone and what other venues might she have explored?
It's true that funerals of a by-gone era were more hands-on and therefore more personal. You easily identified mourners by the black clothes they wore, you often would know who the funeral cortege driving down the street was for and would stop on the sidewalk to pay silent respects to that fallen member of your community. You would bring food to surviving spouses, you would offer a few words of comfort, often wiping your own tears in the process without any shame. This, of course, was the era when elderly people were mostly kept at home and the process of dying happened in a back bedroom with family members taking turns sitting by the sick bed, not in the sterile environment of a hospital or institution. We remembered simpler times with a bit of nostalgia as we sipped our glass of merlot.
"Why don't you turn your experience into a film?" I asked her towards the end of the evening, knowing that her healing would start with the process of writing it all down.
It took months to get the proposal written and picked up by a network but it was worth the wait. The ensuing one hour documentary is visually exquisite, thoughtfully written and edited with both modern precision and old-fashioned sensitivity. I owe the entire team a huge debt of gratitude but more than that, I feel honoured to have worked with a group of such talented people who understood from the get-go that this was a personal journey, not just for my friend but, as it turned out, for all of us.
From the amazing Director of Photography to the talented composer who created the haunting refrain of The Last Rite, from the editor who gave up many of her evenings and weekends and the Italian translator who helped us get that second version of the film done in the nick of time, I am grateful for the contributions of everyone.
The topic, death, is one we all need to get comfortable with and seeking an answer to the question, what is the key to experiencing a so-called good death , should not be constantly postponed.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

How Memories Are Made

The little girl holds her grandmother's hand tightly. They cross the street but it is so wide they only make it to the meridian in the middle. Cars rush by, horns honk and people run across zig zagging between moving cars. The grandmother seems confused by all the noise. She looks around as though lost and cannot focus. The little girl begins to feel frightened. She doesn't know the way home. But she begins to recognize some of the landmarks and takes stock, just in case. There is the red church across the street and the tree that stands on the corner is one she has seen before. Looking around some more, she sees the curve in the street where the bus stops. She waits for her grandmother to cross the other half of the road with her and then she starts to pull her towards that bus stop. The grandmother is licking her lips now, gazing intently into the distance as though trying to see something beyond the horizon. The little girl chirps up that once they are on the bus they just have to remember where to get off. The grandmother clutches her purse tightly with her right arm. It is a brown purse with beige stitching and a metal clasp in the middle. The little girl will never forget that purse, not even when she is a grown woman and her poor old grandmother has become a memory. They stand near the curb watching cars zip by them. Eventually the little girl sees the bus in the distance and she tells the grandmother that she should take out her money so they can pay. There are other people waiting in line now and the bus is coming nearer. The grandmother opens her purse and takes out her wallet. She has to let go of the girl's hand to do this. So afraid is the little one of losing sight of her that she grabs a fistful of her elder's skirt in her sweaty little hand. The bus approaches, stripped gears making a horrible noise, belching black smoke behind it. The little girl and her grandmother board last after everyone else in order for the girl to stay close to the driver so that she can ask him to stop if she recognizes their street. Someone rises and offers his seat to the grandmother and smiles at the girl. The door finally closes and the driver makes the bus shudder forward, back into the traffic, back where they had come from, the little girl still clutching her grandmother's skirt.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Never Too Old

Leona is a spry 72-year old who was widowed 18 months ago. When he became ill, she promised Stan, her husband of almost fifty years, that she would not wallow in self-pity after he was gone, that she would, instead, use whatever time she has left to enjoy herself and learn new things. Childless, and with many friends already gone she wasn't sure what that would entail but she gave her word so that he would not worry about her.
"I was so full of panic the first few weeks after the funeral that I could not move off the couch. I didn't even know how much money was in the bank because Stan had always shielded me from what he considered mundane matters which included our finances."
But Leona was determined to make Stan proud. So she slowly went from the couch to the kitchen and then from the kitchen to the patio until she eventually made it all the way to the sidewalk. It took all her courage just to step out of the house.
Her first outing as a widow was to her local library. "I didn't even want a book, I just wanted a safe place where I could sit and watch people." It was there in the entrance that she saw a flyer advertising computer courses for beginners. "It was time to play catch up," she told me with a chuckle, "so I did something very uncharachteristic."
Still reeling from her loss, she enrolled in the course without even asking what it would cost. "It forced me to get out of the house once a week, no matter how lousy I felt, and it ensured that at least on that one day I would have to interact with other people."
Two weeks into the program Leona realized that in spite of the pain of her loss, she was enjoying what she was learning and that she was among other adult people who did not judge her.
"I really loved discovering all the things a computer can do", she mused, "and that opened up a whole new world for me."
Armed with her computer competency certificate some ten weeks later, Leona enrolled in a more advanced course, and a third one after that. She bought herself a computer and although she needed help to set it up, she soon became adept at handling it. She learned how to make her own greeting cards (do you know how expensive store-bought ones are???) and how to pay her bills online. "Stan would have been so impressed by that!" she declared proudly. She was also able to keep track of her expenses, check her bank balance as well as her investments which alleviated her anxiety considerably. "I realized I was never really in charge of my own life before."
Of course, she also learned to send e-mails to those of her friends who have computers. Most of them are in Israel and it has made it easier to stay connected with people she likely will never see again. "At my age, travelling is not that appealing anymore. But I like staying in touch, especially with Stan's sister who is working on the family geneology chart." The project has prompted both women to have a daily exchange of e-mails they look forward to, filled as they are with memories and anecdotes about Stan and 'the good old days'. Learning about new technology has been very therapeutic for both grieving women, bringing them close at a time when they needed each other but could not physically bridge the miles between them. "The best part about all this," said Leona "is that the computer has allowed Stan to remain an active part of my life."

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Moving Paradox

They say that moving is one of the most stressful things one can experience. I have moved 28 times during my life. Not always willingly but nevertheless always with curiosity and what I would call an open mind. As a result, I have come to understand that a house, even one that you love while you’re in it, is nothing more than bricks and mortar plus the history you put into it, the latter which you get to take with you when you leave, in the form of memories.
Once outgrown, a house can become a millstone around your neck. Endless repairs, more space than you need, rooms to clean and keep orderly even if nobody uses them, money spent that could otherwise help you have a better quality of life. In any case, that is my philosophy and luckily for me, also my husband’s. Over the years we have loved the houses we have inhabited (six of them in 25 years of marriage) and we have made sure (or been lucky enough) to always sell high and buy low, rather than falling in love with a property and paying dearly for that emotional attachment. This policy has served us well.
I also admit freely that I love having a fresh decorating canvas every few years because I get bored easily and enjoy changing colour schemes, placement of furniture, etc. As I get older I am also aware of the need to shed as we go so as not to burden my children later on with stuff that likely is only meaningful to me. With every passing year I feel the urge to travel lighter.
So it has been a challenge for me to understand why my 82-year-old mother-in-law insists on staying in a house she outgrew long ago. I get that she is attached to the place where she arrived as a bride in 1946. Over time, she and my late father-in-law made the old house better and more habitable and also turned the land behind it into a beautiful garden, which has given her great pleasure right up until two years ago when serious health issues arose. Her three children were born and brought up in that house. Her mother and husband died there. She knows no other place so intimately and I can appreciate that her collection of memories are a comfort in her twilight years.
But there are also bad memories in the house, sad days and months that took their toll on the entire family. The old place is drafty, full of plumbing and electricals that are no longer to code, cracked walls, tired paint and an old-fashioned kitchen that is so inefficient it saps the strength of even the strongest among us when we visit. Last winter, in order to economize, my mother-in-law dispensed with all but the most basic heating and spent her days reading and snoozing in front of the fireplace. No doubt she will try to do the same this year.
Because her arthritic knees are now stiff and painful which makes going up and down the stairs very difficult and because she has slowed down and lives alone, my husband and I decided to propose installing a ground floor bathroom so that she could live in comfort on the main floor. In order to access the existing pipes, we thought it might be a good idea to gut the afore-mentioned old kitchen and turn that space into a bedroom with an ensuite bathroom while creating a new kitchen in what is currently a storage area full of broken flower pots, old garden furniture and the general memorabilia of a long life.
On paper this plan looked great and so we confidently unveiled it to my mother-in-law on a recent visit. She was horrified. At first she worried about the expense we would incur on her behalf but then, after several sleepless nights she also let slip that she didn’t want dust and turmoil in her home. We know only too well that you can’t make home renovations of this magnitude without those two elements so we reluctantly had to give in and abandon our plan.
What about selling the house and moving into a nice apartment? Absolutely out of the question! The friends and neighbours she relies on would be dearly missed. Ok….how about hiring someone to live in and help with the basics? The only option my mother-in-law wants is the one that allows her to stay where she is and keep to her regular routine without disturbing anyone unduly. She wants to remain independent, which is something we DO understand. “And when I can’t function anymore”, she said the other day when I phoned her, “I will move into a Home.”
In theory that sounds very reasonable. Who among us doesn’t want to live independently until the very last moment and only give in to institutional living when no other option will do? But reality is not always aligned with text-book theories. The inefficient kitchen means nutritious meals are not getting cooked as often. We, her children, who live far away don’t want to think of her subsisting on tea and toast. The need to painfully climb up the stairs to both go to bed and have the use of a full bathroom means more wear and tear on the problematic knees. A slight trip and fall is all it would take to land her on the floor in a house that only she inhabits.
The bathroom itself is an accident waiting to happen. It is a sunken bathroom that requires going down two tiled steps to get into it. There is a tub, a deep one which even with a seat in it, is difficult to climb into. The lighting is poor and there is only one grab bar.
This scenario plays itself out daily in many families. We know we are not alone in wanting to see an elderly parent safe and sound. Not only do we want to help, we want to respect the parameters our elders require to keep their independence and dignity. So we are starting to accept that renovations are not the solution. Neither is bringing in a stranger or placing the dear lady into a modern apartment. The answer to the question is that there is no right or wrong action to take. There is only the possibility of a compromise. So the chair lift has been ordered for the stairs and the emergency lifeline, which connects to the local hospital, is now around her neck.
Moving is just not for everyone.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Last Sunrise

A tribute, to a man I hardly knew but who haunts my thoughts now that he’s gone. A. was a neighbor, an unassuming man of German origins who kept mostly to himself. But he was nice and friendly and on those occasions when we would meet up, either in the communal parking lot we all share, on the street or at our home owner association meeting, he was always polite and pleasant. He had lovely green eyes and always wore his thinning hair stylishly short. I always thought that his slightly gruff demeanour hid a gentle soul. I get up early, often before 6 a.m. in order to walk my dog. That is actually my favourite time of day because nobody is about at that hour and the dog and I then have the park across the street to ourselves. It’s a time for the dog to sniff and do his thing, while I get to gather my thoughts for the day while enjoying nature at its best. The flowers are in full bloom, the trees are full of greenery and the birds are out in full force. We often watch the ducks along the canal and if we stand still long enough we sometimes get lucky and get to see a heron gliding to a graceful stop. And oh, the sunrises I have experienced standing at the edge of the water! Last Friday, as we were returning from our little morning walk, I suddenly saw A. He was on a bike, looking tanned and fit, every inch the poster boy for early retirement that he was. He was heading north while I was turning south and since my dog is not fond of cyclists I kept on going. But we made brief eye contact and we smiled, each surprised, I think, to have bumped into the other so early in the day. On Saturday A. suddenly collapsed in his garden even as the help his wife had already called for arrived. He was pronounced dead before the ambulance reached the hospital. Just like that, no more bike rides, no more sun rises. The entire neighbourhood has gone into shock. We who are of a certain age, not quite ready to retire but thinking about slowing down in a couple of years, with kids who are grown and even married, with parents, if we are lucky enough to still have them, who need more of our support than before, recognize, though are perhaps not ready to acknowledge, a new vulnerability based on the ticking of an invisible clock. We are the boomer generation, still busy, still active, keeping fit through sports, still feeling invincible. We are terribly saddened to have lost someone in our midst even as we are selfishly grateful for the gift of another day. A.'s passing is a little reminder that we are not quite as invincible as we'd like to think.