The good thing about being home is the free camping spot, complete with a bathroom, laundry and electrical connections. The bad thing is I’m forced to look at this house that I’ve grown to hate. It continues to get showings but these people are just looking and not buying.
I’m happy to return to regular morning meet-ups with the ladies on Cherry Point beach, especially with spring in the air.
“Ah, it’s nice today,” Anne says one morning. “Any bites on your house?”
I shake my head. “No sale yet. Just a some offers that have collapsed.”
“So you’ve had offers at least,” Anne nods, then she scowls. “I can’t believe that engineer or whatever he was thought your house was going to slide down the bank into the sea. How ridiculous! Why don’t you move back in?”
“Because it might sell tomorrow,” I say.
“You remain an optimist,” The other Ann says with a laugh. “How are you managing to make mortgage payments?”
“I manage,” I say. No need to mention I’m using credit.
“Why don’t you get a job?” Ann says.
“I’m busy with courses right now,” I say. “There’s a mediation course coming up on the mainland that’s five days long, then after a couple weeks, there’s another five-day course. Others are three days. I’m committed to this mediator schooling.”
Harbour seals peer at us from offshore. A flock of Canada geese skids onto the bay, and Anne decides to count them. She likes to count things. I’m not sure why. This time she stumbles as the flock shifts. She her count over, and this time Ann assists. They count in silence, nodding their heads. I don’t know at first why this behaviour annoys me. It’s so pointless. Who care how many geese there are? But then I remember, as a child, counting into the thousands as I awaited Mom and Dad to return from a night out. I’d be in the only room that had a view of the driveway, away from the babysitter and my brothers. I’d stare at the part of the driveway I could see and wait for headlights to illuminate the tree boughs. And I’d count, slowly and methodically, into four digits or more. I realize it’s a habit I still carry with me as I pump gas, wait for a phone call or fill a glass with water. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I count. Why do I feel I need to fill time with mindless counting?
It reminds me of the road games Al and I would play on the Alaska trip, when we didn’t want to talk to each other. We’d count trucks with campers, trucks with fifth-wheels, cars with boats. Then we’d argue about the final tallies, because we didn’t know how to talk about our real issues.
I walk down the beach. Gemma romps ahead while Bear follows my tracks. I’ve been resisting putting tenants in the house because in order to find good tenants, I’d have to pull the house off the market. Rent would cover mortgage and insurance costs, but not my tuition fees and living expenses. If I don’t rent the house, I can still sell it and selling is my goal. And obviously, there’s no telling when it will finally sell. I don’t know what to do.
The conflict resolution lessons are interesting. I get insight into my habits of cutting off people in conversation or talking over them. I don’t do it on purpose and until now, I didn’t realize I even do it. It’s something my whole family does — talk over other people with what we believe is the truth. It’s actually just a point of view, and multiple viewpoints can be correct. I’m afraid to talk about my feelings, so I focus on logic. My insecurity has me sometimes acting like a stubborn jerk. Time to be open to other possibilities and let what’s going to happen just happen. I return to the ladies as they’re rounding up their dogs to head home.
“I think I’m going to rent my place out for a bit,” I say.
“That’s a good idea,” Ann says. “Then you’ll get the mortgage covered.”
“But I have to park my RV somewhere,” I say.
Anne says, “Come to my backyard. I’ve got lots of space. I’d love to have you.”
The arrangement works well. Anne and I enjoy each other’s company, and the dogs all get along. Within a few months, Anne decides to put her own house on the market. She’s moving into a seniors’ development nearby. I need to find another place to land for while.
The Gulf Islands interest me. I’ve travelled to various islands for work and always found the communities are tight-knit and welcoming. I crave being included in a group, whether it be a family or a neighbourhood. I write to Vicki, a former colleague from the newspaper. She and her husband Ian live on Pender Island, off Victoria.
“You can rent our place while Ian and I go on holidays,” Vicki suggests. “We’d like to spend six months travelling in the States, like you did.”
It seems like a perfect situation. The RV fits nicely beside their cabin, a remodelled two-car garage. The dwelling seems like a mansion compared to the RV. As fall surrenders to winter, the dogs enjoy the forest trails and wood stove . A favourite trail takes us up atop a rocky bluff to a fantastic view of ocean and islands.
I’m still lonely. Many of the homeowners only come to the island on long weekends and in summer. The full-time folks are hard to reach in late fall and winter. I join a book club but real friendship is hard to find. I’m restless, bored and want to drink.
Dark thoughts haunt me. I can drop the dogs off at a shelter, say they’re strays, and go deep into the woods and inject all my insulin. But I can’t get past the thought of abandoning my dogs and don’t think I could carry it out. They’d bark at me to come back. They want to go wherever I go. I refocus on meeting new people and join a dating site. I call myself Unresolved Issues and, after a couple weeks, get a message from Don in Nanaimo. I decide to combine a visit with Mom with a coffee date with Don.
Mom is surprised when I run through her door. “Only have a few minutes. The ferry from Pender Island was running late and I’m meeting a guy for coffee in the north end of Nanaimo.”
“Oh? What does he do?” she asks.
“I don’t know.”
“Does he have children?”
“I don’t know.”
“How long has he been on his own?”
“I don’t know that either.”
I’ll call her later with answers and she seems excited. I chat with Don for over an hour. He has two teenage sons, one who lives with him, the other’s with his ex-wife. The separation happened three years ago. They’ll be divorced shortly, and his ex will get remarried.
The following week, Don visits me on Pender Island. We hike out to the south-facing shore where the wind whips the sea into whitecaps. We head to a pub for lunch. Don chops kindling to get me through a week. As I drop him at the ferry, I stand on a concrete barricade and kiss him.
Six weeks later, it’s Christmas. I take Don to meet Mom. John’s there, sitting in a chair, phone in hand. Neither get up to greet us. I don’t expect it from Mom. But John barely flicks an eye our way. He focuses on his phone.
“John is taking me out to a restaurant for a turkey dinner,” Mom says. “It will be nice.”
There’s no invitation for us to join them. We have plans to join his ex-wife’s family for Christmas dinner. Don calls them the outlaws. It’s a relief to see such maturity in an extended family of three generations. John and Kevin usually spend the holiday with her. I’ve gone once or twice but found the brothers’ low talk in the kitchen off-putting. We’re rarely in the same room. I find it more enjoyable to accept invitations from friends, where the atmosphere is loud, chatty and full of laughter.
I meet Don’s ex-wife’s fiancé, Richard. We chat about mediation and health. He mentions lingering back problems. “The pain comes and goes — there may be an emotional element,” he says.
“It seems everyone in my family has health issues,” I say. “I’m the only one with diabetes. I don’t know where it came from or why I have it.”
Richard asks if I’ve heard of Gabor Maté. “He’s a Vancouver psychiatrist, retired now, I think. Used to write for the Globe and Mail newspaper. You should read his book, When The Body Says No. It’s about how childhood trauma makes you sick.”
Before I read the book, I’m certain I never had childhood trauma. My life was normal, right? How many kids grow up on a beach? But then I realize my memories are of me being alone. Me on the beach with Jiggs. Mom taking me to town while my brothers are in school. Me alone in my room. Then I remember in ACE study that emotional trauma, such as being ostracized by my siblings, can have as much impact on a child as physical or sexual abuse. Maté says that trauma isn’t about an event, but how you feel following an event. The impact of trauma is held in the body, not the mind. Maté writes that three factors lead to stress — uncertainty, a lack of information and loss of control. These factors are enmeshed in my and my parents’ emotional backgrounds.
“All three are present in people with chronic illness,” he writes. “Many people have the illusion that they are in control, only to find later that forces unknown to them were driving their decisions and behaviours for many, many years. For some people, it is disease that finally shatters that illusion of control.”
He says it’s the parents’ job to foster emotional competence in children as a way of preventing illness. I remember my need to be held and desire to cry. Mom hated that. The only place I could cry was my room, alone. Mom doesn’t cry, and she endures repressed feelings, migraines and a strong belief that conflict is bad. Dad numbed his emotions with alcohol.
Maté has me reframing my past in a whole new way. I meditate and learn to let my mind be still. I realize it’s constantly thinking. I review recent conversations and rehearse future ones. I always suspect there’s a catastrophe around the corner. I tell myself I can’t do anything right, and fail to feel pride when I accomplish the impossible. I wonder what John is doing and imagine what it would be like to have a healthy relationship. I can’t feel my feelings, and that’s got me deeply concerned.
Meditation is about letting that all go, breaking free of thought patterns that make us sick. In the beginning, all I seem to do is have thoughts pop up and release them. It’s hard to imagine the time being helpful. I expect something magical to occur but all I feel is frustrated. My thoughts overpower me.
I sit in the Pender Island cabin one February morning when my phone rings. I open my eyes and snap back to reality. The call is from a surgeon at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital.
“Is this Sandra? Did you know your mom has been in hospital for a couple days? She’s had no family in and I wondered if you knew she’s here. I called your brother John, but then see you’re also listed as a contact.”
“What’s wrong with her?”I ask, ignoring for now John’s failure to inform me.
“She has pain in her belly — we suspect appendicitis. We’re looking at doing surgery but it’s unlikely due to her age of ninety-two. Anesthesia gets complicated in the elderly.The plan right now is to treat her with antibiotics.”
“Will that work?” I ask.
“It may,” she says. “You might want to come.”
The morning ferry is leaving Pender now. I won’t make it. The next sailing isn’t until two o’clock. I drop off the dogs at an island kennel and line up for the afternoon ferry. I arrive at the Nanaimo hospital near dinnertime. Mom is in a four-bed ward. Sitting beside her is Kay, one of Mom’s old neighbours.
“How did you know Mom was here?” I ask Kay, but I already know the answer.
“John called me.That was a couple days ago, wasn’t it, Ev?” Kay is so bright and cheerful. I want to slug her.
Mom shakes her head, distracted by pain in her gut.
“You’ve been here two whole days?” I ask, incredulous.
Mom looks at me, wide-eyed: “They say I have appendicitis, at my age! John must have called you,” she says.
“No, one of the doctors called me this morning.” I would have come sooner had I known, I want to say. But Kay is there and I don’t want to air the family dirty’s laundry in front of her.
Kay tries to chat to me, but I’m not interested. I’m angry at John, again, for failing to let me know Mom was ill. Neither he or Kevin bothered to come to the Island. I’m stuck with Kay, a woman I dislike for her inauthentic sweetness.
A doctor arrives and asks me to join him in the hall. He said the course of antibiotics are causing her intestines to bleed. “At her age, treatments like this get complicated.” He hesitates and adds: “Her intestines are a mess.”
I nod. “It’s time for palliative care?”
He looks relieved I read between the lines. “Yes. There’s excellent staff downstairs in the palliative units. They’ll manage her pain.”
I nod. This isn’t another false alarm. Mom is preparing to die. I look back into the room. Kay is leaning toward spouting some cheerful talk. I can’t go back there right now, and decide to head to the cafeteria. I stare at the cooler that holds drinks. Regular soda is out because of the sugar. I don’t like the taste of diet cola. I opt for club soda and take a seat. I pause while unscrewing the cap to let the bubbles settle, then unscrew it some more. Focus on controlling the bubbles. Control the tears. Breathe. Count my breaths.
On the elevator ride back to Mom’s floor, I encounter Kevin.
“Hey,” I say.
We stand side by side, looking above the doors at the numbers. The elevator stops, and before the doors open I say, “They’re taking her to palliative care.”
Kevin and I take turns holding her hand. She seems unaware of her surroundings. Occasionally she talks. I call Mom’s sister Jean and a few cousins. I ask Kevin if John is coming.
“He’s busy at work. I think he’ll come next week.”
I look at Mom, unsure how long she’ll last. A headache creeps from the back of my head. Kay comes back that evening. I ask if she is in touch with John.
“Yes, he calls me for updates,” she says brightly. “He calls the nurses as well.” I want Kay to leave. But she’s settles in, like she’s a stand-in for my older brother. John finally arrives Monday. I’m so angry. Mom turns her head and sees John. She perks up. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
Why is she so happy to see him? I haven’t before seen this bond before. Mom’s relationship with John is different than the one she has with me. John settles in a chair by the window and pulls out his phone.
I ask, “Any action on Mom’s house?”
“Still for sale. I’ve emptied it out except for the dining table and chairs.”
“I’d like to spend some time there.”
“Sure, go ahead. You have a key, don’t you?”
“I tossed it when Mom moved out.” I remember pulling it off my keychain. What was the point of keeping it if Mom wasn’t there anymore?
“There’s nothing stopping you from walking around the property.” John says.
I feel my breath become shallow. I slowly say, “If the house is empty and for sale, I don’t know how why I can’t move in.”
John glares at me. “You can spend time there, but you can’t live there.”
That afternoon, as John and Kevin sit with Mom, I drive out to the house. It look the same as it always has, a mock-tudor design with moss on the roof. I walk down to the point. The sandstone rocks haven’t changed. Nor have the ocean noises, the ripples, gurgles and hisses. Farther out in the harbour, a cormorant rests on a floating log, drying its wings. In the distance, against the islands, a tugboat pulls a log boom.
The February breeze is cool. I pull the coat zipper to my chin and head back up to the house. I walk the perimeter, trying doors and windows. All are locked tight. I end up at the back door, a solid, impenetrable slab of wood. I bang the latch with my fist. It does not yield. My gaze turns to the window beside the door. I cup my hand to look inside and see the stairway leading up to my old bedroom and the bannister that once collected coats.
I get a hatchet from the RV and swing the back of the wedge against the window. Shards clatter onto the hardwood. I reach inside and unlock the door. It’s surprisingly easy, breaking and entering a dwelling, especially when you’re as angry as I am. I wander through the kitchen to the dining room. The dining table remains. I take my spot. I want to live here for awhile. There’s no reason why I can’t, other than John trying to wield power over me. I make calls and, the next morning, three guys arrive a big truck. Like most new arrivals, they gawk at the view.
“Wow,” one says. “You grew up here? You’re so lucky.”
They move my sectional, the oversized chair and television to the living room. I set up essentials, like the coffee maker. My bed is now in Mom and Dad’s main floor bedroom. The place looks better with a bit of furniture, like it’s a home.
I call for a glass company to repair the broken window. That night I cook spaghetti and meatballs, a favourite family meal. The carbs of the pasta cause my glucose to spike, but I don’t care. I want comfort food. Through a haze of alcohol I inject insulin and fall into my own bed. It feels so good to be out of the RV. I awake refreshed and drive back to Pender Island to retrieve the dogs.
I return to the hospital the following day. Mom is alone, sleeping. After an hour or so, John and Kevin arrive. John dumps his coat on a chair and stands at the foot of the bed, glaring at me. “You have to move out of Mom’s house.”
Of course he knows I’ve moved in — Kay would have told him. I say, “It’s Mom’s house, not yours. I need a place to live. I can fix a few things, do some painting, maybe help it to sell…”
“Come on, it’s going to be bulldozed after it sells,” he says.
“So why do you care if I live there?”
“I want it empty,” he says. “And you’re wrong about it not being mine. I’ve been co-owner for five years, as well as executor of her will.”
This stuns me. It’s the first I’ve heard that John’s name is on the title. I want to storm out of Mom’s room but stubbornly wait twenty minutes. With John’s name on the title, he could charge me with trespassing, and I believe John would have no issues in sending the police to throw me out. He’d probably even enjoy it.
I spend the evening in front of the TV, but I don’t know what I’m watching. My glucose is high. I jab the insulin pen in my belly. An hour later, I’m sweating and in a fog. I’ve injected too much, and the glucose meter shows my blood glucose is tanking to a dangerous level. I devour glucose tablets and the awful feeling slowly abates. I have to be more careful. As I arrive at the hospital the next day, John says, “They gave her some pain meds and she fell asleep. Now she’s talking to Dad about dying. They’re actually having a discussion.” He seems amused.
John continues, “She’s been telling me what she wants for a memorial service — the hymns, Bible verses she wants read. We had a good talk before she fell asleep.”
I find John’s continual jabs about his special relationship with Mom irritating. For years, we’ve each had our own time with Mom. We’ve never had to share her, and now as her death looms on the horizon, we are forced into the same room for extended periods of time. I’m overwhelmed with anger, grief and helplessness but I keep them inside, as Mom taught me to do. John seems similarly matter of fact as he sits by the window reading a novel. I wonder what he does with his anger and sadness.
I slip into the chair beside Mom as she sleeps. She seems so small. Her hand, now gnarled by arthritis, is still so familiar from when I was young. That hand held mine as we crossed the street. It touched my forehead when I was sick and helped me bathe. I want to think Mom knows I’m here. I scoot the chair closer so I can talk softly in her ear. “Mom, I know you’re getting ready to leave us, and I’m saying goodbye. It’s okay for you to go. Don’t be scared. You’ll be fine. We’re all good here, and we love you. Don’t worry. I love you.”
Tears sting my eyes. I don’t look at John as I leave. I don’t tell him that I won’t come back to the hospital. I don’t plan to witness Mom’s death. Death is hard enough and the grief that accompanies it is overwhelming, and makes me too vulnerable to my brothers’ apparent coldness. I need a friend, some kind of support, but feel completely alone.
Mom dies the following evening. Don and I go to a movie, and when I turn my phone on afterward, I find a series of texts. I’m confused at first because I don’t recognize Kevin’s phone number nor realize the meaning of the series of numbers he’s providing. Then I figure it out. He’s unable to tell me about Mom’s decline other than text me her respiration and heart rate. The last text asks I call him. I can’t.
As I leave Don, he asks, “Are you sure you’re all right to drive?”
I nod. “I’ll be okay.”
My oral exam in mediation is scheduled for two days from now. I can’t put it off — I’ve been waiting months to get accredited, and I need a job. I lay awake for hours and wonder why I can’t cry for Mom. Nor can I cry for me. I read Kevin’s texts again, hoping to spark something emotional inside. But all I’m reading is Mom’s breathing and heart rate — this is Kevin’s way to stuffing down his own grief. All three of us have spent our entire lives in conflict. And I’d have sympathy for my brothers if I didn’t hate them so much.
I regret for a moment not going to the hospital to witness her death. But it was the other two in the room that made it impossible. There would be too much anger, rivalry and discord to allow grief to surface. I can’t really cry for her now. If Mom cried for her own mother’s passing, she did it out of sight. But it was just as likely that the woman who described herself as “not a cryer” kept a firm grip on her emotions. I’m doing that now.
My only comfort is now Mom is in the spirit world, and I have her to myself again.