Monday, December 22, 2014

I Want To Fly

“Sometimes you just have to smile.”

A look of contentment brightens my Mother’s face as she says this.  Outside the grey winter sky wraps around the town and offers up no particular encouragement for this unexpected remark.  Little about her life, virtually trapped in this small room on the second floor of the hospital in Goderich for more than 2 weeks and counting has been uplifting or hopeful. 

The inspiration that fueled this comment is unknown, its source mysterious and untraceable.  Perhaps to be found down one of the long dim corridors of her mind. One that has seen much of its brightness and clarity vanish.   But whatever its source the feeling of contentment is welcome here. An experience that has been all but absent from her life for such a long time.  It is a small victory considering all that she has endured of late. To be lifted up by even a fleeting moment of happiness is no small thing. 

She then follows this first utterance with one of the expressions that she has used so often in her life. 

“I think I can I think I can.  Do you remember the little train engine trying to climb the hill?”  It is a line taken from a classic children’s story.  One that she has recited to me so many times, particularly when I was a small boy and thought something I needed to do was just impossible.  

I reply by making the toot toot sound of a train whistle and answer back with the concluding line of the story, “I thought I could I thought I could.”  That is what the little engine exclaims when it at lasts reaches the summit after pulling the heavy train up the long steep hill.  All things considered she really has climbed a long hard hill over the past few weeks.  One, that none of her children, or even medical staff thought possible.  

Over the past 2 weeks some small sweet portions of her life have been gifted back to her.  Like a capricious tide some measure of strength has drifted back to her limbs.  Each morning now, if you place it in her hand, she can bite down on small bits of buttered toast.  Though she cannot open her eyes much or even really see.  Just days ago an IV dripped into her arm and she barely had strength enough to suck water up a straw. 

But more importantly her mind now seems able to gather up at least some small grasp of her current reality.  One that does not compare with the independence that she had just a few months earlier.  But definitely this version of her life is much superior to those anxious days just a few weeks off, when her life seemed on the verge of drifting out past the far flung frontiers of this world.  

Finding expressions of hope and glimmers of the positive are not too much to ask.  It is all too temptingly easy to fall back into a grim and hopeless assessment of her current condition.  She said one morning not too long ago, “I went to bed to sleep and woke up an invalid.”

For her 4 children, who gather about her now so often, we try and do little helpful things to make her life a little easier.  We also are often reciting our own encouraging words.  Ones that center around the theme that she will soon go home.  

Just Married
Words, that under close inspection, sound so hollow when confronted by the so obvious helplessness of her current condition.  That she still takes breaths in this world is miraculous.  That she is able to smile and jokes from time to time a greater treasure still. 

We in her immediate family have all lost track of the many times she has been sent to hospital rooms just like this so obviously teetering on the brink of life.  2 years ago she spent Christmas here in the hospital with a broken pelvis.  Yet with each new medical emergency she has been called back once more to shoulder her life’s plow a few hard steps more.

None of us can really comprehend this frail uncertain life she now inhabits. It is a world so shockingly diminished it bares little familiarity with what she had not that long ago. It is not unexpected and in a fashion she has accepted this reality in her own way.  Regardless, as a consequence of all this, it has compelled we her children to be drawn that much more closely to her.  We also are obliged to confront our own understanding of what it will mean when she will no longer be an intimate part or our lives.

A few days ago I rummaged through boxes of my Mother’s old photos.  So many faces now unrecognizable both to my siblings and to me.  The old men with long grey beards are now unknown to any of us.

By deduction they are most likely to be that of my Great Grand Fathers.  Reduced now to iconic 19th century caricatures.  Just some kind of amusing fictions to us their direct descendents.  Any personal connection to me exists only in some small fragments of my DNA that they passed along.  All of this a reminder that no mater how clear and deep we leave our mark in this world, inevitably it will one day fade and vanish.

But of course the unfamiliar black and white faces all had names.  They were once all too real to my mother.  They also must have filled some cherished place in the loving hearts of my Mother’s early family.  A large one which has now been reduced to one last living sister.  My Aunt Maude’s definitive declaration about my Mother’s current state is that she has to wait for her before she goes. 

The pictures of my Mother’s parents (my Grand Parents) now so long absent from my life moved me most.  The hard lives they lived on a dirt poor farm in New Brunswick unmistakably on display in their weathered expressions.  There is one of my them posed on porch of the home they rented in the village of Glassville.  A place that was a sanctuary from an even harder life on their small farm tucked back up on a lonely dirt road miles away.  

It was on a farm where my mother grew up without electricity, phone, or running water.  A life that no one is obliged to endure any more, at least not here in this country.  My mother says her childhood was hard. 

But there are no yardsticks that can adequately measure the differences between her early life then and the fast paced well wired world today.  In the past few days she does not gravitate to the hardness of it all but rather to the love that filled up all the ragged holes of her early days. 

Recently she delights a small gathering of her children by telling stories of her father. How he would come back from the village by horse and wagon bearing a secret trove of hidden candy for his 7 children.  Once inside the house he would jump up and down.  Magically a shower of mints would tumble out of the sleeves of his long coat as he spun around the room.  My Mom chuckles as she remembers how he would also amuse her with nonsensical stories about squirrels who robbed his Maple syrup buckets.  Accomplish this by dipping their tails into them and then scamper away off into the woods.

Click To Play: Her Father Picking Strawberries

She recalls how once he played with his small children under the kitchen table so rambunctiously that the tumbling group drew the ire of my grandmother who commanded them to stop.  His reply, “ Aurilla, better they make noise and play than have to go out and have to see the doctor.”

My Father with his dog Laddie

He also on many long dark nights recited poems to his children their faces illumined by oil lamps.  Some of those poems my mother also memorized and in turn told to us kids.  On nights when sleep would not come or worries darkened our brow. 

The other day she recited on of her favorites for a reason known only to herself.

Click to Play: I Am Monarch Of All I Survey

I am monarch of all I survey;
My right there is none to dispute;
From the centre all round to the sea
I am Lord of the fowl and the brute
O Solitude! Where are the charms
That sages have seen in they face?
Better dwell in the midst of alarms,
Than reign in this horrible place…. W Cowper

There is a peculiar irony I experience when I look now at pictures of my Grand Father.  Particularly after my Mother has told me so many happy and loving stories about him.  To my siblings and myself he was a diminished and forlorn figure who existed only on the fringes of our world.  I cannot remember him ever reciting poems, offering hugs to us, or producing magic candies. 

I have asked my older siblings if their memories are any different than my own about their recollections of our Grand Father and they are not.  By the time our youthful boisterous energy screamed and jumped into his life he was already lost to the grim reckoning of old age.  Apparently it was a condition that the medicine of the time could not cure or alleviate.

I the 4th wheel have yet to join the Marshall Kids ride

Click To Play: Living in Glace Bay

His head seemed to constantly ache.  All I can recall him ever saying was just how miserable he felt. Of course when we visited there was scant room for him to escape the noise and confusion created by 4 young grand children.  He would also often mutter, for his own unknown reasons, “Isn’t it queer.”  My Grand Mother’s only solution to his misery was, “Go lie down Fred.”

As I was rummaging through a box of old photos I quite by accident came across a picture of my mother and her sister Margaret that I had taken.  It is a powerful image that I vividly remember but long had thought lost.  They are heading out the door of our home and in an obvious hurry.  They were trying to catch a train that would take them back to New Brunswick.  We had just received word that my Grand Father had a stroke and had been taken to a hospital in Fredericton.

I have not seen the photograph in nearly 40 years.  Yet this powerful image has burned itself sharp and pristine into my mind.  Seeing it again invoked a flash of recognition, one both familiar and unexpected.  There is a painful raw clarity about the picture and the memory of taking it.

My mother’s face is a struggling mix of emotion.  It is a peculiar combination, of both sadness for her dying father, and also the all too evident effort of trying to smile for a son with his camera before she leaves him.

On Sunday she talks to me about the final moments of her father.  She tells me this as I am holding her own hand.  She says that I am doing what she did so many years ago.  Without emotion she describes how she reached his bedside just before he died.  In one instant there was life and in the next he was gone.  To demonstrate she lets her own warm hand go limp within my own to mimic his lifelessness.

First Baby

 Click To Play: Living in Saint John

Some years later when her Mother passed we lived much further away in Toronto.  She flew back to her old home as quickly as she could.

What grief she went through during all of this I did not witness nor do I recall.  But when we drove back to her village that same summer to visit, I had a chance to witness most vividly her sorrow at the loss of her own mother.

Glassville New Brunswick

As we drove close enough to the village so that we could catch the first brief glimpse of my Grand Mother’s now vacant house from a distant hill.  In an instant she erupted into a storm of wailing grief such that I had never seen before. I am certain that the power of her cry still reverberates in one of the deep secluded recesses of my heart. 

On a recent Sunday I had an opportunity to spend some quality time with my Mother and my two sisters in her hospital room.  She was by then demonstrating abilities that surprised us.

She signed some Christmas cards with personal messages.  The trail of her written words scrawled across the page hazarding on the precipice of legibility but they were coherent and clear in every other way. 

I took the opportunity to record some of my Mother’s stories and also her reciting some of her favorite poems. One she recited that all her children have heard many times was:

Click to Play: Backward Turn Backward

 “Backward, turn backward, O Time, in your flight,
Make me a child again just for to-night!
Mother, come back from the echoless shore,
Take me again to your heart as of yore;
Kiss from my forehead the furrows of care
Smooth the few silver threads out of my hair;
Over my slumber your loving watch keep;
Rock me to sleep, mother, -rock me to sleep!...Elizabeth Akers Allen

Whenever my Mother says this poem a grey cloud of nostalgia sweeps down across her face.  You can see for the most part that she understands that she is fortunate to have lived a full 96 years and is now likely to make it to 97.  Perhaps the inevitable price of having been able to experience and enjoy so much is the unavoidable truth that parts of us do diminish and turn dull.

40th Wedding Anniversary

But if my Mother could really turn back the clock, or any of us had this power, how far into the past would we venture.  Would there really be more happiness there a second time around. An experience to be gained that we did not already see satisfied and fulfilled on this incredible journey which is our life.

Christmas 1955

In the full telling of the story of the little engine, it took up the challenge of pulling up the heavy load of cars only after the other larger powerful engines refused to even try.  Nothing was certain about taking a job that it was not prepared to do, but still it took up the task and tried its very best. It succeeded.

The days continue to advance and my Mother seems to be getting just a little brighter stronger and clearer each day. Yesterday she walked down the hallway of the hospital with my sister.  

Click to Play:.....We All Chose Our Own Way

Also, in a way that was equal parts complaint and equal parts expressing the obvious.   She announced that she was tired of spending her whole day in a nightgown and bathrobe.  “I may feel awful but do I have to look awful too!” My sister Carol-Anne promised to solve this dilemma the next time she came.

Then one morning, with the approach of Christmas now not far off my brother Herb asked her what treat she would like to have.

“I want to fly.”

Mary Janet Whalens Chisholm Elliot

I want to fly,
I want to fly.
I never want to cry.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Dear Utal,
A moving piece that brought back many long forgotten memories and reminded me with great clarity that we all have our entrance and our exit.
Thanks, Cousin!
R. David Boles
(Margaret's brat, now 61)