I’d been attempting to prepare myself for the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death, made even more difficult because it is (was?) her and my father’s wedding anniversary, when my mother-in-law, June, dies. My husband had only the previous night over the phone arranged to see her before a business meeting in Victoria, across the strait from us in North Vancouver. It’s the same feeling as the morning of 9/11. Then, friends phoned with the news, and I couldn’t believe it because I’d just finished reading the newspaper—absent of any such news, so how?! Time fissures.
I’m not sure what to do. Scott doesn’t want me to accompany him, says the three brothers as co-executors will do what has to be done. I go to the university, teach as usual, mark papers, and limit the telling, so that I’ll limit the sympathy, which can be undoing. From Victoria, Scott’s email missives are minimalistic; the phone calls not much denser, with his family members in the background, another nuclear family, like my own, shrinking. I feel very left out.
I think decades back when June’s mother was murdered and how we all gathered and I heard Pachelbel for the first time. Comforting and—dare I say it—even nice. When Scott’s dad died not long after, again we gathered, circling the wagons around newly widowed June, scared for her and her vulnerability. To have lost both her mother and her husband in a few scant months seemed unbelievably unfair. When we couldn’t contact her by phone one night, the ominousness of that long ringing, we feared suicide, rushed over, and she greeted us with a defenseless cold-creamed face, hair done up and capped. The phone had somehow become unplugged.
The decline came, but slowly. Shingles with neuralgia. Necessity of a cane and then a walker, and then she’d fall even with the walker. The first of many broken bones, so many that we lost count. Was it the right wrist before the left arm? And how many broken ribs that had to simply heal on their own? The prospect of blindness in one eye. The move five years ago to independent living, Carlton House, which she loved.
She was a game old bird. Some of her acquaintances had been kicked out when they became a bit too forgetful or immobile. Even when she was hurting from yet another fall, she’d slog it down to the formal institutional dining room where she’d eat like a bird (denturist hadn’t done the job properly), so that she wouldn’t be seen as an invalid, not not valid, no, she was still capable of being independent and was surely not a candidate for assisted living, no centres of which are in Oak Bay. On Labour Day, when we last saw her, she was unable to walk (stagger?) more than a quarter block on Scott’s arm before she claimed, not defeat, but tiredness. She was always having a wee rest. Oh, you two go for a walk, and I’ll just enjoy the sun, watch you, and wait for you.
The fire drills that had the elderly (though she would never put herself in that category) residents make it outside to the street without use of the elevator (she was on the 4th floor, the top), so she was effectively prohibited from using her walker and had to make do with her cane, grasping the stair rail with a hawk-like talon as she made her slow, queenly descent. The terror that she must have felt at being found out, to be in the rifle’s sight, one of the sheep rather than the sure-footed goats. Picked off as easy prey.
So she didn’t want to move, a move we too had been dreading. Behind the scenes, we researched other dwellings, places she’d not like half as well, places for the infirm elderly of whom she was, assuredly, not one. So she stayed in Oak Bay right until the end, collapsing in the dining room over dinner. She left Oak Bay on her own terms. I think of her stubbornness and am both happy and sad—haddy? Not sappy—there should be a word.
No one else embraced positive thinking and gratitude as much as she did. The genuine compliments I’d get on my cleverness, my speed in doing some small task for her. She would marvel at my ability. “Thank you” was the most frequently used phrase in her lexicon—it was sometimes wearying being on the receiving end of so much gratitude—how to live up to it?
I’m dismayed that the brothers dismantle almost immediately the contents of her small suite. Scott comes home with a plethora of unused all-occasion greeting cards. (She’d pretty much stopped writing in the last year, ever since my mother died. That death hit her hard.) There are at least a dozen beautiful and pricey thank you cards.
I’m disappointed by the paucity of the offerings. I was never one for perfume or jewelry (her faves), but what about her clothes, her scarves? I’ve gotten great solace, even pleasure, from wearing my mother’s clothes. Colleague Yolande says she sometimes sniffs her dead mother’s scarves, imagining that she can still smell her. Scott says all the clothes were packed up and sent to some women in need group, where I’m sure they’ll have good use, but. I look at her leavings in my hands and cry. Scott’s been practical—here’s a magnifying glass (my advancing cataracts, visions of his long-dead vision-challenged father who read the newspaper with this very implement, shades of mortality), some Tide Cold Water, several pairs of scissors, and pencils, because I frequently snitch his.
I, who complained often and vociferously about my allergy to June’s beloved Oscar de la Renta, though I gave it to her as gifts, want her smell. I keep an old Clinique cosmetics bag (likely one of my gifts to her, me a scent-enabler) that she’s used as a sewing kit, only because the contents smell like her. My sister, Wanda, rooting through her massive amounts of costume jewellery, notes its June fragrance.
Scott tells a bit about the clear-out, how they’d worked in harmony, how secreted in every nook and cranny of her dollhouse-sized suite were SEVENTEEN plastic rain hats. Seventeen! Amidst much laughter, they’d pitched the lot.
She was never without one. We’d have Christmas family outings to the Butchart Gardens with its fabulous festive light displays, and in an attempt to keep herself warm, June would wear a plastic rain hat. Despite my admonitions about woollies and my own wearing of a hoody and/or toque, nothing must muss her hair, a royal coif. Out of the voluminous purse, which she could never be parted from, because she always wanted to be in a position to treat, came the cunningly fan-folded, so useless in the cold, rain hat.
Yesterday, a friend and I went to a local church flea market. I came home with children’s books and a Romanian porcelain tea/coffee set, despite having told myself that I would not buy any more teacups! (How June loved her tea cups and china cabinet, which I was given when she downsized.) And a vintage doll with a cunning wardrobe. I need another doll like I need another tea cup (as in another hole in the head). But the doll, or her clothes, fascinates. Satin evening dresses so thick they can stand on their own. Giant crinolines to thrust them out even further. The clothing is labelled “Cissy by Madame Alexander,” not too far from Chrissy, my joke name, so I felt positively obliged to purchase her. For a worthy cause after all.
I think how much June would love to study the clothes with me, how much she loved, back in the day, taking me clothes shopping, how she could never have enough blue shoes, how each different shade made one pair more perfect than the last. I think how the blush pink satin doll dress is the same dense and beautiful texture of her wedding dress, which she gave to me long ago, along with her floor-length black velvet evening coat with fur collar. It’s one of the most insistent and awful things about death. Having things to tell the dead person that she alone would be most interested in.
At home, I root through the outfits and exult over pairs of seamed nylons, a purse, earrings (!), party shoes for her arched feet, a negligee and peignoir set (part of a military wedding trousseau, I discover). Each piece is more astonishing than the last. The box is almost empty when I pull out—no, it can’t be—a miniature plastic rain hat, accordion style. Number eighteen. I laugh until I cry and then cry until I laugh. Feeling haddy. Juney’s last joke. This one I’ll keep.
Author of After Ted & Sylvia: poems and Teacher’s Pets, a novel in verse, Crystal Hurdle teaches English and Creative Writing at Capilano University in North Vancouver, where she lives.