Life and Death

My son is back at school.  I am left to quietly reflect and blog on our summer visit to Saskatchewan.  It was a trip of invigorating scenery and of unexpected death.

For those of you who hail from other parts of the globe, Saskatchewan is one of the prairie provinces of Canada.  The license plates read “Land of Living Skies” which nicely sums up the expansive backdrop of clouds, piercing blue sky and rolling storms of weather that mesmerize its residents on any given day.  The land is flat and checkered by fields of canola, flax, barley and wheat in the south and enveloped by a swath of boreal forest and stunning lakes in the north.  Rivers and feeder streams etch out valleys and ravines that are hidden in the broad swells of land and provide locals with depressingly stunted ski hills and oases for deer, bear, beaver, weasel, raccoon and migratory birds.

This summer I traveled to Saskatchewan with the kids and visited six grandparents- three remarriages after divorce.  My Dad never remarried.  My children are blessed with a generous ratio of grandparents to grandchildren.  We also stopped at my friend’s parent’s farm, one hour west of the city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.  She had brought her three kids and we were welcomed to enjoy several days and nights of the epic solitude their farm enjoyed.  The ditches were ablaze with native prairie sunflowers and walks along hardened farmer access roads were delightful excursions along shoulder high grasses and flowers.  The grandfather gamely offered a mini motorcycle for my eight year old to ride and also introduced him to the joys of the riding lawnmower.   The younger kids ran amok, usually naked, without the usual concerns about street traffic or passing strangers.   After three wonderful days at the farm, we proceeded to Saskatoon.  Despite their kind entreaties for us to stay longer, I respected the old adage:  guests are like fish, they stink after three days.

The visit to Saskatoon was going to be of perplexing short duration for the kids: one hour.  My mother-in-law was on a day pass from the hospital after undergoing a stroke (the clot was removed quickly with no ill after effects) and then an angioplasty three days later (which was also successful).  These surgeries followed the discovery of several concerning lumps in her lungs which had yet to be biopsied.  She was adamant  the kids should not see her in the hospital and so we agreed to meet at the house for a brief visit on our way to visit other grandparents.  She managed to will herself into a comfortable lawn chair in the backyard so the kids could expend energy in her much loved garden.  She had, through the years, created a magical world of fairy folk paraphernalia that lay hidden in surprise for curious children among the ferns, bushes and tree trunks.  She also had a basket of toys in the garden shed that were to aid and abet in their imaginations.  After an hour, the smile on my mother-in-law’s face began to diminish with the onset of more pain and fatigue.  As agreed beforehand, I took my cue and gathered the children to depart.  The kids were jarred by the suddenness.  “Aren’t we staying here?” was their response.  I had to explain Grams was going back to the hospital and we would return soon (when my husband would make a return visit after his initial panicked flight to Saskatoon after her stroke).  She needed to time get better.

We drove to Prince Albert and were enjoying a few relaxing days with my husband’s father and stepmother when I got a text from my mother-in-law: please come as soon as you can.  She sent the same text to my husband.  He was back in Calgary trying to dive back into work that he had abandoned during the previous visit to his mother’s hospital bedside.  I called my husband and he made plans to arrive at the end of the week.  We knew what she wanted to tell us; they finally had the biopsy results.  When they first discovered the lumps, she had told us that if it was cancer she didn’t want treatment.  Years of bad health and a bad heart would likely not withstand the physical onslaught of chemo.  She wanted to spend her last few months enjoying life outside a hospital.

My husband and I agreed for me and the kids to arrive a day after his arrival.  I would still take the kids north to  Prince Albert National Park to go camping.  This park is the secret gem of Saskatchewan.  Nestled in the boreal forests, the town site of Waskesiu  and the adjoining campgrounds are a serene habitat hugging the shoreline of Waskesiu Lake.  There are a handful of eateries, a local store where Parks Canada and the community pin up their summer event calendars and an old theater that plays PG and G movies on the weekends and PG-13 movies during the weekdays.  Wednesday night is community bingo at the town hall where the biggest payout is $20 and the kids can play if they know their alphabet.  Before kids,  my husband and I had gone to Wednesday bingo on a whim and between the two of us had won a record four times and walked away with our next day’s breakfast money.  The following day,  we caught strangers pointing at us and murmuring about our lucky streak.  Fame comes easy in a teeny tiny resort town.  Prince Albert National Park is also known for its aggravating mosquito population.  No one quite knows why but from year to year the mosquito, horsefly and black fly population is unpredictable.  I heard whispered rumors of a year when the locals could barely see across the street because of the horrendous swarms of mosquitoes. This year, I bought a can of 15% Deet mosquito repellent in preparation of our camping trip and we never used it.  Well, not exactly.  I pulled it out when I saw a mosquito, my prior experiences having conditioned me to spray on a thick layer at the first onset of buzzing but then I realized it was one mosquito.  I swatted it, killed it, and continued on with my day.  We also had fantastic weather:  mid 20s, with a beautiful sunset over the lake every night.  It was like heaven had descended down to earth.   My Mom, stepdad and niece drove up for the day from their home west of Prince Albert to help celebrate my birthday by eating pizza and enjoying the beach.  It was a nice distraction from the absence of my husband and the looming visit to confirm the news from my mother-in-law.

After our camping trip concluded, we drove back to Saskatoon.  The kids were excited to see Dad and Grams and Gramps.  We stayed in a hotel to be sure not to exhaust my mother-in-law and her husband.  We also made sure there was a pool; every morning we took the kids swimming after the hotel’s free breakfast so we could spend their energy.  The reality of our three days at Gram’s home was this:  the kids spent quiet afternoons in the basement watching movies while the adults tried to make my mother-in-law more comfortable and to help around the house.   My husband and I volunteered to cook.  My step father-in-law knows how to open a can and microwave a hot dog.  We made a hug pot of chicken soup and froze most of it.  I also spent every spare moment weeding the garden that had been neglected for the past three weeks.   There were two reasons for this: 1)  I knew the garden was very important to my mother-in-law and I wanted to give her peace of mind regarding its state and 2) I had always had mixed success conversing with my mother-in-law and so I felt the urgency to stay outdoors and avoid conversation under extremely sad circumstances.  We had a mutual respect for one another but I found her vitriolic rants about any number of mundane offenses to her sensibilities to be uninspiring for an intimate friendship.  It is difficult to give your affection to someone who wants your emotional investment but won’t give you the safety and liberty to do so.   For every great conversation we managed to have, I was equally frozen into silence by her negative reaction to the most innocuous of statements.  It was a no win situation.

The oncologist had give her a window of 6 months to a year to live.  After our three day visit (remember we were fish), I concluded she had two months at best.  In three days she descended further into pain and discomfort.  They had also found more lumps during the CT Scan.  The cancer was spreading and fast.

We drove home and my husband was called back to Saskatoon two more times over the span of four weeks.  Once to help his step father manage the overwhelming burden by looking after their four cats – one of which was pissing all over the house in an act of feline distress, managing the endless requests to massage her back or fetch more pills or remaining at the house for a couple of hours while my step father-in-law ran for groceries or took a couple hours of reprieve from the moans of his dying wife.  The second time was the last.  They gave her two days to live.  My husband flew out at 11pm on a Saturday and she spent her last breath at 9:15pm on the Sunday.  All the good-byes had been said over the last two months of panicked visits and brief moments of lucidity.  My husband said he had never known misery until he saw his mother dying.  From the day of the stroke until her death, 52 short days passed.  Fifty two days to unburden her heart of truths and misgivings and cry and make do with the choices that had been made during a life of seventy years.  As was her request, I and the children did not visit her while she descended into the vortex of pain and hallucinations.  We lived out life in Calgary going to play dates, the zoo and handling the mundane tasks of buying groceries and vacuuming the house.  I didn’t know how to comfort my husband at this time.  The death of a parent was something I hadn’t experienced.  I only knew that words were useless.  So, I cooked.  I made chili, chicken soup, spring rolls, cookies and every time my husband came home exhausted and emotionally drained from his visits to his mother’s bedside, there was good food waiting for him and happy children.  And he said that that was all he needed.

I am left with a strange void of knowing someone is dead but not having the sensory proof they are dead.  My mother-in-law stipulated no funeral and no memorial.  My husband is to receive an urn with a 1/3 of her ashes.  The other thirds will be given to her other son and her husband.  I will have no dead body to witness or even the communal tears of friends and family to appreciate her passing. All I have are the jarring trails of electronic correspondence.  I have a text from my mother-in-law  wishing me happy birthday on July 27th.  She died August 28th. She was good at remembering birthdays and anniversaries.   She also had a knack for giving memorable gifts and imparting them with a backstory of fantasy or intrigue.  My son has a multitude of such magical items:  smoothed glass eggs that hatch after 100 years to birth faeries, a hairy and grumpy faced porcelain troll that only moves at night – and which my son carefully checked every morning for two months for changes in location, a book to aid in casting spells.   My mother-in-law took white and black paint to the healed knots of pruned limbs on her birch tree to accentuate the relief which had an uncanny resemblance to an eye.  My daughter is now on constant look out for “eyeball trees” after being pleasantly startled by Gram’s watchful tree. It is at the dimming and final extinction of a person’s inner spark when we realize their presence allowed us to better experience our own lives.  Special occasions will pass without being heralded, the sparkle of her coveted traditions and ceremonies made acutely absent by her death.  Good bye Breeze.  We love you.  I love you.  And thank you.