A Grand Affair
Two weeks ago, we had the wake for my mother, who died in September after a quick battle with cancer. She wasn’t religious, definitely not sentimental, and wanted no truck with memorial services or funerals. She had also cut herself off from her family and friends towards the end, determined to die on her own terms without help or pity.
So, it was that a large group of extended family, friends, cousins and old wartime buddies in various stages of old-crockery and decrepitude gathered on a wet Saturday afternoon in Niagara-on-the-Lake. We had the parish hall, there were boxes and boxes of Niagara wine and cheap beer. Catered food was laid on, most of it foreign to the octogenarian Ontarians in the room, spring rolls and spicy noodles.
There were tables set with scattered paintings my mother had done after she discovered painting (in a very accomplished fashion) late in life. There was a wall of photos from the 1920s to the 2010s, showing young girls, old cars and handsome airmen. A projector displayed a running album of old photos of mum, many of them of her smiling, which she rarely did in photos. Her medals and her service photo in uniform were pinned to an easel at the entrance.
I arrived late, having had to haul my boat that morning (an inescapable task). The room was full of people I hadn’t seen in 30, 40 years. Second cousins I used to wrestle, now with young third cousins to introduce to me. Parents of contemporaries who were as badly crocked-up as my own parents, but game nevertheless. And my own brothers and sisters, several of whom I don’t get to see more than once every two or three years.
Each of us children said a few words about our mother. My sister explained mother’s approach to child-rearing: “I was about 6. I made an awful fuss outside the grocery store, falling down on the pavement and howling. Mother said ‘fine’, and drove home without me. Another time, I was getting ready to drive out west to see my boyfriend. I was taking a girlfriend. Mum looked at me packing and said wistfully ‘I wish I could come’. I said ‘why don’t you?’, and she did, on half an hour’s notice. I don’t think she called dad until Sault Ste. Marie”.
When it came my turn, I said that as far as I could tell, mum was on a long walk with her dogs. ALL her dogs, from years and years back. Penny, the Border Terrier, Bella the Bassett Hound, Boozer the Irish Setter, lost in the woods, as usual, Millie, the mutt, ever hopeful, all of them. I asked the people in the room to help me remember all the dogs and the names came thick and fast, rolling back the years.
Then we sang The Ash Grove, mother’s favourite song, not very well, but very heartily. After that we ate and drank and told stories until the old people hobbled away, the young kids had to go to bed and the hall had to be cleaned up.
My brothers and sisters and I stayed up late at the motel, drinking and smoking and telling stories, remembering. We all agreed it was just the sort of party mum would have enjoyed, and that a grand time was had by all. The next day, after a boozy lunch for 25 at a local pub, we went to the small cemetery where my mother’s parents are buried, and where her name had been added to their gravestone.
Seeing her name carved in stone stopped me in my tracks. It was no longer academic, ephemeral, debatable or questionable. My mother was dead and would never come back. I would never share the foibles of passersby with her, never tell her about the hawk in my garden or the early blooming of the crocii. I hadn’t cried yet, not since I learned my mother was dying, but I had to gather my faculties before we all planted a lilac at the stone. My mother loved lilacs, because, when she found them on her walks in the woods, she knew there had been an old homestead there.
My father was frailer than when I had last seen him in June, more translucent. The summer of death had taken everything he had left. He was using a cane, favouring a leg he had gashed in a fall. These falls were what worried us the most; they usually came after two martinis, and he often didn’t remember them in the morning. We knew we had to get him under supervision, somewhere closer to us.
We squired him around the entire weekend, doing everything for him. He became accustomed to the help. He visited several assisted living facilities in the Niagara area with youngest sister, and chose one, very splendid, with a splendid name and white tablecloth meal service three times a day. He paid a deposit and started thinking of what he could fit from his long life, his extensive music collection and all his books into 600 square feet of space.
He got on the plane, to go back to his empty house in the Maritimes. He had left the dog with youngest sister, and had only Kathie Rose, his daily helper for company. What would happen to his decision to move into assisted living? My wife said “Wait. It’s not over yet”. Turns out, it wasn’t.