(Lyrics from Beautiful Boy, by John Lennon)
We all have them – those times of indescribable chaos in our lives, when nothing seems to go according to schedule or plan. It doesn’t matter that things have been written on the calendar in ‘super-indelible-never-comes-off-till-you’re-dead-and-maybe-even-longer markers (Purple, Green and Yellow, Robert Munsch). Nor is it important that you’ve booked a vacation, made unbreakable promises, left a turkey out to thaw or rented scaffolding to paint the house. Sometimes life just slaps you in the face and says STOP right where you are, forget your plans and promises and dreams, because this is what you MUST do. Bad things, tough things, indescribably difficult things. With life, stuff happens that changes your plans and steals your joy. It brings heartache an and disappointment, removing your ability to be all you think you should be, thereby wreaking havoc on your whole sense of well being.
First let me say that I am not writing this looking for sympathy or condolences, tissues or tears. I have just decided to pull myself up by my bootstraps and write myself out of the past nine months. Start fresh. Begin again. Fill in the blanks for everyone who has asked “What have you been up to?”
Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start…
Last February, while I was housesitting in the UK, my family found out our father had been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. Prognosis? Inoperable, untreatable, incurable. It was now a waiting game and we didn’t even know what time frame we were working with or what was to be expected. Collectively, the family decided I would go back to Newfoundland and assess the situation. I returned to Spain to tie up a few loose ends and pack my bags to return to Newfoundland in March.
My first glance at Dad told me he was ill. Although he had had health issues for many years now, there had been a big change since I’d seen him a few months before. They next few days were filled with appointments – his oncologist, family doctor and community health – anything that would give us a little insight into what lay ahead for him and us. But in all of this, there was something else happening with Dad. He didn’t seem to grasp what was happening and couldn’t answer questions for himself, always deferring to Mom. “Becky (my mother) will answer that” or “She talks for me”, he repeated over and over. More medical assessments and Mom’s account of what had been happening the past few months – Dad had dementia and his symptoms had been showing for a long time.
My brother and his family came home for a visit. They could see that Mom was mentally and physically exhausted keeping constant vigil and caring for him 24/7. In her caring for him, she was neglecting her own health and something needed to be done. She needed a break to care for herself. Maybe get a full night sleep for the first time in well over a year. To have the luxury of enjoying a cup of tea without constantly being on the alert for someone else’s needs that were often immediate and ever constant. She couldn’t remember the last time she left the house without worrying. And because of his dementia, he could never allow her leave without bombarding her with questions. Where are you going? How long are you going to be? Stay home. Please? Outside respite care for dad would be a few weeks respite care for mom.
As quickly as we could, it was arranged. Four weeks respite at a local care home right across the street from my parent’s cottage in Lewisporte. Just pack a bag and bring him over to get him settled in. Sounds simple? No…far from it.
Dad didn’t understand what was happening or why he had to stay. Imagine leaving a young child in an unfamiliar place with strangers, where they are pleading, crying and asking to go home. It would be heartbreaking. This was heartbreaking -made more so because he was a grown man. Dad pleaded with me, tears welling in his fear-filled eyes. He pushed. Demanded. Begged. In the end, someone distracted him while Mom and I slipped out another door. Damn! I never expected it to be that difficult. I was shaken.
At home, I watched my mother cry standing at the kitchen table. Relief…sadness? It was not my place to ask or guess. We had a cup of tea. With quiet words and gentle hugs , we reassured ourselves the family had made the right decision. I headed back to St. Johns. On the five-hour drive back home, I cried. I sobbed until I was spent and tired. And empty.
Days went by, our minds easing when we found out Dad had settled in quickly, was eating well and seemed okay with his surroundings. Mom was finally able to rest and take time to care for herself. The family began to make plans about long term care for our father.
A couple of weeks later, my brother called late Sunday night. Too late for him to be calling me really. He spoke quietly, making small talk first. Something was up. “Do you have someone with you?” he asked. My heart stopped, and my thoughts ran wild. I assured him I wasn’t alone. Dad must be gone, I thought. But no, it was far more terrible. Our sister Sherry had passed away. Suddenly. Unexpectedly. Our beautiful sister was gone. She was only 50. She loves the colour yellow, her puppy and her two sons, her family, books, friends, her partner Chris, a good laugh, the outdoors, life.
She loved – it was now in the past tense.
I remember the emptiness. The hollowness that filled me. The quietness and calmness that enveloped me.
My brother and I spoke for a few more minutes; he filled me in on the few details he had, making plans about him telling Mom and arrangements for me to go to be with her for a few days. Those days, weeks that followed is another story to tell. A sequel to be addressed another time, because it is still happening as each of us awaken each morning and our days unfold. The grief, the questions, the consequences. How our lives are touched and challenged and changed when we are confronted by impending death. What happens when we are confronted with the real thing. You can read all the books you like and search for every speck of advice available, but not one of us are ever prepared for this. None of us are ever prepared for life.
Bad things that happen in life can bring a family closer together or separate them more , but it will never remain the same. As the weeks passed, myself, my brother and sisters talked more than we had in years. Not just about our parents and what was happening. But about each other and our individual families. Hopes and dreams. Regrets and reality. Our past and our futures. What we could have changed and what we didn’t have any control over. Sometimes the discussions were hard – suffused with tears and anger, harsh words and hurtful blaming as we tried to justify and quantify time and events gone past. Other conversations were softer, kinder, often filled with laughter, childhood memories, changes we made and joys we’d discovered along each of our vastly different life journeys.
In a few short months I learned so much more about these people I’d grown up with and with that came the sad recognition that for many years, I really didn’t know them at all. For years we had been separated by miles and individual lives. Preconceived notions determined what we thought about each other. We all made assumptions based on other people’s opinions even. Family can be that way.
I’ve learned. I’ve learned something very profound – I love my family and I am fiercely proud of them. There is an intense strength of character that runs through us, that keeps us moving steadily on, never giving up. We retain a sense of humour at even the worst of times. We are independent and proud. We are beautiful and kind people. We respect and support each other in the best ways we know how.
Most of all…
We are forgiving.
We are loving.
So, for those if you who’ve been wondering what I’ve been up to these past few months – this is what it amounts to:
I have been busy – with the re-discovery of my family and who we are and the importance of being there for each other. In my humble opinion, it’s been time well spent.
My family and I are taking things one day at a time. Everyone is back to living their new normal. Work, school, commuting, preparing dinner, studying, reading bedtime stories – daily routine is a good thing.
My father is now in full time care at the nursing home, where he has good days and bad days. Sometimes he remembers things or people, other times he’s gathering up the television remote controls belonging to his fellow ‘inmates’ (he thinks he’s serving a jail sentence), but he is eating well and is no longer smoking. The dementia has almost been kind in that he hardly speaks of his cancer because he’s so completely focused on other things. There are times his behaviour provides us with a welcome sense of comic relief.
My mother is taking things day by day, trying to take care of herself and has marked her calendar with a date for a long-awaited knee replacement in April 2018. She is grieving, but she is strong and confident and has an unwavering faith in God’s workings in everything. She knows that tears are okay.
My brother and sisters and their families, Sherry’s boys and their families, even my extended family – I cannot speak for them. We all deal with things differently, but we are all doing the very best that we can. I can only love them and support them as they go along.
And me? I am back in Nerja, Spain. Spanish language classes fill my days and evenings. I make a point to take in every sunrise and sunset. Slowly, I am finding my own new normal – I am writing again and that’s important. I sometimes cry and that is also important. Daily, I fill in my calendar, fully knowing that whatever plans I make can be changed by LIFE.