Seventeen, and Untethered…

Christmas was coming, but Dad’s heart attack came first, on December 21st, in 1983. It was a terrifying wake-up call.

He fell out of bed maybe at 5:30 or 6am, all tangled up in his sheets. We were on Christmas break, just a few days before the 25th. I think most of my shopping was already done, and I’d even gotten the tree up too.

It was that build-up feeling, that low-level anticipation that accumulates around you in the air, in the clouds of people’s laughs dissipating as they talk about it. It builds up under car tires on the street, and in the folds of coat sleeves bringing bags home from the mall. Christmas excitement and probably too, Christmas stress.

So something broke inside my Dad, and he fell out of bed early that day. Instead of being woken by his voice saying “come on, time to get up”, I heard him call my name, loud and shaking. He sounded desperate, laying on the floor wrapped in a sheet, trying to get out, saying call an ambulance. My sister heard and we yelled at each other to call 911. One of us did. It might have been me, but I can’t recall.

Two large paramedics carried Dad down the steps in his t-shirt and briefs, and one said “Oof. Big boy.” He must have been at least 240 pounds and over 6 feet tall. The Love men were all so much bigger than me. In my shock at seeing him helpless, I still remained proud of his size.

Whether agreed or discussed, I don’t know, but my sister stayed at the house, and I went in the ambulance with Dad. His eye were wide, and he was soaked in sweat, and probably frozen in the frigid morning air. It couldn’t have been 2 degrees out – probably less.

In emergency at Burnaby General, I stayed with him for an hour or more, until he looked at me with the scaredest face I’d ever seen on him. It was his true self, which I perhaps I’d never seen before. His face said “I’m scared to hell”, and his voice said “I love you son”. I tried not to cry and to not let my voice shake, but he saw and knew I felt the same as him. We held hands the way brothers do – that underhanded grip that looks like the beginning of an arm wrestle. We clenched hands tight and I told him I loved him too. He said “I’ll be okay son. You go home and take care of your sister”, so that’s what I did, because I always did what Dad wanted. Right then I didn’t know what else to do, and I needed him to tell me.

I phoned Kim at home, and through her crying and my shaky words, we discussed what Dad had told me, and I said i’m coming home.

When I walked out the doors from Emerg, I felt a wave of fainting, and jammed my back up against the building as my legs gave out. I slid down into a crouch as everything went grainy, snowy blue, and some bell rang hard in my ears. I gasped breaths and waited until my head cleared and the ringing stopped. It was too much. I had to get home.

I don’t remember a Christmas that year. I remember drinking with my friends, and a lot of awkward fucking silence. That first night, my sister and I each spent the evening at different friends houses, talking and being consoled. I went to my friend Jamie’s and drank with his family. His mum cried for my sister and me, calling us babies. Her slightly drunk but sincere motherliness has always stuck with me. Kim and I had each found somewhere to be around friends.

I began listening to Pink Floyd, The Wall on my Walkman every night. I’d lay in bed too wound up to sleep, and would live through the scenes from The Wall, with all those sad Father and Mother images and the character of poor Pink, the lost boy, losing his identity and losing his mind. I was afraid of the future, and beginning to hate the world. Other times I just felt lifeless and depressed.

During the day,  I was the dutiful son, making daily or bi-daily visits to the hospital or to the grocery store. I kept shit running at home the best a responsible teen could. During the night, I felt alone, bleak, and lost. I was untethered, and a big part of me was depressed and stressed. I wished for everything to just be over. Life sucked more than it ever had before.

Dad gradually got better over the weeks, then months. Then, he got worse (four strokes) and did eventual, continuous rehab, until he was able to move and kind of control his left arm a little, and speak more clearly. It was a long, slow process of not knowing what the next day would bring. A counselor at the hospital told me I was handling events that adults twice my age could not, and this made me feel proud. But i was depressed and emotionally lost.

I had Dad’s debit card and he told me his pin, so I kept the house stocked with food, and wrote cheques for him to sign to pay the bills. He always trusted me. Still, we were kids, and he never knew that we partied our asses off in the house, or that I sat in his recliner drinking beer and playing The Doors really loud on his stereo. The cat was away, and the mice were 15 and 17. The cops came once and warned us. After that, we settled down a bit. My poor gentle neighbours heard a lot of shit.

Dad had always smoked about a pack a day, and he drank every night. He never really did any exercise, never had friends over, and never did anything but work. I also believe he harboured a lot of guilt for the abuse he gave my mother, and her emotional collapse into depression, and the other forms of abuse he visited on us. By the time of his heart attack in ’83, my Mum had been a patient in Riverview and a ward of the province for a couple of years already. Dad had basically stopped going in with us to visit her by that point, claiming back pain. He would just sit in the car, wait for us, and smoke. I resented him for it, and thought he was an awful coward for not going in with us. I felt like I had to compensate for him. I did not understand what he might have been struggling with emotionally. This stress was probably a major factor in his health collapse. Looking back on him and his pride and ego,I’ll bet Dad felt like his family was a failure – maybe his failure. And in many ways, we were.

When Dad did finally come home again from the hospital, he was walking with a cane, holding his head up, but he was broken and had a hard time noticing things on his left side, like well-meaning neighbours who awkwardly tried to welcome him back.

Within a month or two, he went on a serious drinking binge and caused himself a bad stroke, and went back to hospital. He just couldn’t stop drinking. He rehabbed again, and finally quit smoking and drinking, but also fell down in the shower in hospital and fractured his hip (plus, had another stroke). He never walked again, confined to a wheelchair, and he never came home again after that.

A vision of alternate lives, in alternate homes…

Each of our lives is ours to live, but some of us need support and care to help us live it in a safe and fulfilling way.

After three months of physical and emotional trauma, my brother-in-law is finally transitioned into an excellent long-term care hospital. He’s been through a lot of pain and difficult changes, but I think where he is now may be the best hospital in the city, a place where he can begin to settle into a new weekly routine, and start relying on consistent, professional support and maybe even a healthier lifestyle.

I won’t use his name here, because my goal is not to tell his story, and his story was never mine to tell anyway. The reason I mention him is that trying to be with him through his surgery, through his worries and legitimate fears, through his physical recovery, and through our family (re)bonding, I’ve been granted a poignant reminder of the special needs of those who are wheelchair-bound.

This line of thought leads me back to where most of my journalling usually leads me – to my parents.

The hospital I’m thinking of is focused on the needs of wheelchair-bound people – those with physical disabilities, and to some degree, with mental or emotional issues as well. I can so picture my mother Angela booting around in a motorized chair, getting music therapy  – maybe trying to play an instrument again – and laughing and interacting with a few people. This is probably where she should have been, but her reality was not like this at all.

Angela’s brain damage in the 70s didn’t destroy all of her personality – she was just lost inside a mental fog of lost memories and anti-depressants, I think. She didn’t have much quality of life in Riverview’s long-term care ward, as far as I ever saw. (She was in one ward or another out there, over the course of fourteen years. I visited her so infrequently in the last few years, that I must admit to not knowing what her life was like at all.)

In the early nineties, she fractured her hip (a “compression fracture”, whatever that is) and I’m sure this killed any chance of her walking again. But there were perhaps ten years before that where I supose she could have been physically capable of walking, but she was always situated in a wheelchair, motionless (sometimes with loose cloth straps on her skinny arms), and you just take it for granted. You believe she’s like that for a reason – that she’s not able to walk. But even in the early 80s when she was first admitted to Riverview Psychiatric Hospital, I kind of think there was no approach to holistic health care.

Perhaps the psychiatric hospital medicated her to help alleviate her mood swings, or to generally pacify her and make her more manageable or compliant, but it’s equally likely in my mind that they may have had little mandate or funding to address physical therapy or explore how movement, music and activity might have improved her quality of life. All I ever saw was a woman sitting tremoring or rocking in a wheelchair, never speaking, and seemingly interested in nothing. That’s no damned kind of life.

My Dad also lived in a hospital during his last six years. He settled into a little private hospital called “Carlton Lodge” (now “Carlton Gardens”). After suffering and rehabbing through five strokes and a fractured hip, he had retained all his mental faculties, but they were trapped within a beaten, weakened and partially paralysed body.

Some of the happiest times my Dad had in his last years were when he began going to a recreation centre attached to a local church. He socialized among some peers, and enjoyed the antics of some of the livelier seniors, who would crack jokes that would make him smile. Generally, my Dad didn’t seem to know how to socialize with others, and may have been struggling with the alcohol-fuelled depression and the deadened moods that we all felt at home. He probably needed external stimulation and someone intelligent to discuss things with, but in his care home he was mostly just stuck in the company of people who were 20 years older than him, and often suffering various stages of dementia. So, he bonded a little with the staff, whenever he could.

My bro-in-law has many physical challenges to contend with that keep him in his wheelchair, but his mind is lively and he is keenly  aware of his situation. He also needs lots of stimulation, and to maintain some level of independence – to live life on his own terms. He has it in his new hospital-home, and I have high hopes for his eventual adaptation and improved peace of mind.

So the lesson I’m being reminded from watching my brother-in-law’s experiences are:

  • Being involved with others is key to maintaining some level of hope, joy, and general mental health. (Don’t isolate yourself.)
  • Being physically active, and physically healthy supports your spirit as well as your body. (Don’t stagnate yourself.)
  • Being intellectually and mentally challenged keeps your mind in good shape. (Stay curious.)

I guess the focus must stay on vitality, on enablement, on being able to do things that make you happy, that give you a sense of satisfaction or independence and pride – of getting enough support so that you can have a life of your own. I wish for those who are able to try and make it for themselves.