In true “This Is Us” fashion, this week’s episode is a flashback to my mom…her life and her death, and how life comes full circle. If you are new to this blog, you may want to go back to the beginning of my “This Is Us” blog series, Episode 1 – A Roadblock.
Losing a loved one
Who has not experienced the loss of a loved one? When siblings lose a parent, they experience the same event in different ways, internalize it in different ways, remember their childhood in different ways, even who was the favourite.
My mom was a strong and determined woman. She saw things as black or white. She was a stay-at-home mom which was pretty much everyone’s mom back then. My childhood memories are of her cooking, baking, and cleaning. I can close my eyes and vividly see her washing the floors on her hands and knees, and then pushing around this heavy polishing machine to make them shine.
She was a very good home cook, nothing fancy, simple and delicious. Sunday brunch was my favourite meal because she would scramble up some eggs, fry up some bacon, and then heat up all the leftovers from the week. It was like a smorgasbord…so yummy! To this day, I love leftovers. My husband and daughter, not so much. My mom was also a fantastic baker – cookies, dessert squares, loaves, cakes, pies of all kinds, even donuts – maybe that’s where my daughter gets her love of baking!
On Sundays, we always had people over for dinner. Often it was the Minister and his family from our church, Broadway United, just down the street from us. My mom put on a great spread – roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and gravy, perfectly roasted potatoes, sweetly seasoned turnip, always a green veggie like peas or beans, salad with her homemade dressing, and a pumpkin, apple, blueberry, or lemon meringue pie for dessert. There was always an extra pie, a small cherry one, because that was my sister’s favourite. Do you think she was the favourite child? lol
We had a rather large garden in the backyard. I remember it being huge especially when we had to tend to it. Did I mention I am by far the baby of the family? My sisters are 9 and 12 years older than me. So, when I say “we” tended the garden, well, I use that term loosely.
We grew potatoes, corn, peas, beans, carrots, tomatoes and probably other veggies I have forgotten. My sisters and I had to pick the veggies (I think more peas from the pod went in my tummy than in the basket), and then we would help my mom preserve and can. It was an elaborate process and afterwards the preserves would be stored down in the basement cellar. I have to say this was not my favourite thing to help out with. My sister, on the other hand, loved to help my mom…haha…no wonder she always got a cherry pie to herself!
My mom as a young woman
My mom only had a Grade 8 education. As soon as she completed Grade 8, she was pulled out of school to work on the family farm. She told us stories about all the dogs and cats they had on the farm. There was Johnny the dog who ran around like a crazy canine. There was a German Shepherd who was shot by the local butcher when it was caught stealing sausages. They even had a goat but my Grandmother gave it away to a Chinese merchant selling wares from a cart because it would eat the sheets off the clothesline. I guess goats really do eat anything and everything. My mom’s last memory of the poor goat: It was tied up to the back of the cart and trotted off down the road never to be seen again.
Yet with only a Grade 8 education, my mom managed to do the bookkeeping for my dad’s sign painting business. I remember her paper ledger book. She was meticulous. The books had to balance right down to the penny. Even after my dad passed away and my sister took over the business, my mom still did the books almost right up to the end. I think she drove my sister crazy sometimes always looking for that last cent.
My mom was very social, always going for tea at the neighbours. Of course, I got to tag along when I was young. I loved visiting the neighbour’s homes and looking at all the knickknacks in their china cabinets. She was very active in the community: a member of the United Church Women’s group, on the Auxiliary of the McKellar Regional Hospital, and a member of the Sapphire Rebekah Lodge. She was even a Past President of the lodge or the Grand Pooba as I liked to call her, in true Flintstones style!
She loved to sew and made many of my outfits when I was a little girl. On my first day of school, I wore a red granny dress sewn by my mother. She also made me a red velvet dress with white collar and cuffs for a professional portrait. And btw, I was not happy with my poofy hairdo in this photo, just so you know! She even sewed clothes for my Barbie doll.
My mom was strict, the disciplinarian in our family. She would threaten me and my sisters with the wooden spoon if we misbehaved which was not very often. I never saw her use the wooden spoon or even pull it out, but just the mention of it scared us. My middle sister, however, once had her mouth washed out with soap for lying. Funny thing though, as it turned out, she was telling the truth. I think my mom felt badly about that one.
When I was in my late teens, my mom was run over by a car that was being towed illegally and broke free. It hopped the curb and literally knocked her over as she was waiting for the bus. She didn’t even see it coming. They had to lift the car off her crumpled body. She had numerous injuries, a smashed ankle, broken hip, collapsed lung, and a pierced bladder. If she hadn’t had an empty bladder when the accident occurred, she would have been poisoned to death. To this day, that thought sticks in my mind. Ask my daughter, I’m always reminding her to visit the bathroom before she heads out the door. My mom spent many days in the Intensive Care Unit. I would visit her every day during lunch. Later she was moved to Westmount, a rehabilitation centre, where she spent months in traction and physiotherapy.
Her physical decline
My mom also had rheumatoid arthritis in her hands. The pain eventually got so bad, she started doing a form of chemotherapy. How foreboding that down the road, I would have to be injected with a chemo drug to dispel the pregnancy cells from my body after a miscarriage, and then later go through chemotherapy for breast cancer.
We knew the risks for my mom, the side effects, one being it could affect her lungs. And ultimately, that is what happened, that is what she died of. She had pulmonary fibrosis. Her immune system started attacking the healthy tissue in her lungs. She had trouble breathing and had to be on an oxygen tank. It must have been so scary for her not being able to breath.
When my husband and I announced in early 2004 that we were going to adopt a baby from China, my mom was thrilled. I think she was just so relieved I was not going to keep trying to get pregnant and suffer another miscarriage. She came to Ottawa for a visit that summer. She had a fall and ended up in the hospital. From there, she was transferred to a temporary care nursing home. My sisters came. I remember the doctor speaking to us about putting a DNR in place. We all thought, “Well, yes at some point, but why are we talking about this now?”
The Office Manager at work told me about the compassionate care employment insurance benefits I could apply for to take time off work to care for my mother. In order to be eligible, the relative you were caring for had to be gravely ill, at risk of dying within 26 weeks. In my mind, that was not my mom. So much denial.
I accompanied my mom on the plane back to Thunder Bay, our hometown. She would not be going back to her home at the condo. My sister had set up a room for her at a retirement home where they had a nurse on staff to provide care. I returned home while my middle sister and her husband moved up to Thunder Bay to help care for our mom. There were many trips to the hospital, my sisters anxiously waiting in the Emergency Room and me anxiously waiting by the phone in Ottawa. Within a few short months, my mom had to be moved to a full-time nursing home. I called her every day.
Our last visit
My mother passed away on November 16, 2004. When I saw her for the last time, I had no idea, not even an inkling, that I would never see her again. And yet, looking back, it should have been obvious. I remember being shocked at how frail she was, just skin and bone. She was suffering. She was ready to go and be at peace. In retrospect, I think she had held on until I came to see her.
I’m so thankful that I went up to visit her when I did. The four of us – my mom, my two sisters and I – went out for our last lunch together on a Saturday. We went to Boston Pizza and my mom had a caesar salad. Growing up, my mom always took me and my sisters out for lunch on Saturday. It was a weekend ritual.
Initially my mom had not wanted to go because, of course, she didn’t feel well. In the end, she was happy she did because we laughed together and shared memories. She said that was what she missed the most.
I left the next day. I kissed her good-bye and said, “I’ll see you at Christmas” and I truly believed I would. It was two days later that I got the call. My mind could not comprehend what was happening, could not believe it. I was reminded of this during the “This Is Us” scene in the hospital when the doctor is telling Rebecca that Jack has died. She looks at him blankly and takes a bite of her chocolate bar. She doesn’t believe him and thinks he’s out of his mind, has made a mistake. That was me.
I had called my mom a couple of hours earlier. She was not feeling well and was having trouble breathing. She said we would talk later. We were having friends over for dinner that night. The phone rang, someone was crying on the other end. I went upstairs for some privacy. I thought it was my mom. It was my sister. She was sobbing so hard, trying to tell me that mom had died. But, it was like my brain stopped working. I guess I didn’t want to hear it. My mind and my heart couldn’t accept it. Finally, my other sister got on the line and clearly said the words. At that point, I think I cried out in despair. Unlike Jack’s death in “This Is Us”, my mom’s passing should not have been such a shock, yet it was.
Her strength and determination
When my dad had passed away 20 years earlier, our family finances were all tied up because my dad’s business was a sole proprietorship and everything was in his name only. Even though my sister worked for the business for many years and took it over, the bank accounts were frozen. She had to get a loan to keep the business going. It was a difficult time.
My mom did not want the same thing to happen when she passed away and being the strong-willed woman that she was, she made it so. She put everything and I mean everything, house and all, in our names, her 3 daughters. Of course, the lawyers didn’t like it one bit. They thought perhaps we were coercing her, but we had no idea.
She made all her own funeral arrangements more than a decade before it was necessary. It was such a blessing for me and my sisters. We didn’t have to worry about anything or make any difficult decisions in our time of loss. We knew exactly what she wanted because she had already bought and paid for it. Even right before she passed away, she arranged to have the traditional Sapphire Rebekah Lodge ceremony at her service. The lodge sisters, one by one, came up to the front and placed a red rose in her casket.
So many people came to my mom’s funeral – from the Para Transpo drivers she chatted with during rides, to the caregivers at the retirement home she was in for only a few months; from her Sapphire Rebekah sisters to friends from her church; from business people in the community to long-time friends and family. There were so many people there, they had to open a second room for the overflow with a big screen for people to watch the service. It was heartwarming to see all the people whose lives she had touched, who came to pay their respects because they loved her. They shared their stories, their memories with us. It was comforting for me and my sisters.
What I have learned from this is so important. You go to the funeral, the wake, the visitation, the celebration of life not because you want to but because it’s the right thing to do. You go for the family, to help them through a most difficult time, to show them that their loved one was truly loved by many people. It means the world to the family. I know because it did to me and my sisters.
Circle of life
Life does come full circle. My mom left my life in November and my daughter entered my life 8 months later in July. Losing my mother right before becoming a mother had a profound impact on me. It was a long and complicated grieving process. There was guilt and loneliness. How do you get excited about bringing your daughter home when you’re mourning the loss of your mother? Having lost both my parents made me feel alone in the world, like an orphan, like my daughter who was waiting for us on the other side of the world to bring her home. Yes, life comes full circle.
Until next week’s final episode,
Colleen Kanna is a recovering Chartered Accountant and Breast Cancer Champion turned Fashion Designer.
She is the creator of COKANNA Canadian made bamboo clothing for women that’s all about comfort and style.
Colleen supports Rethink Breast Cancer’s metastatic breast cancer support, education, and advocacy work.
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