Since March, we’ve been dealing with Covid. People were to be contacted from a safe distance, and smiles and frowns were to remain hidden behind masks as we avoided contact with each other. Gradually, this aversion to each other, this wide crawling dread, gave way to the drive of living, and fear became caution, and caution became caring.
Our privileged world has become infected with hatred and reactionism too – diseases we’ve never been able to cure, but which have always been with us. Trump and his racist, xenophobic rhetoric have left a stink in the air, even up here in the supposed great white north.
Now, we wait and watch as strong Pacific ocean winds blow away the acrid smoke from US wildfires, and as the burned-out piers in New West stop smouldering. Today, I’ve seen real blue sky for the first time in weeks, and it gives me hope.
It feels good to be outside, breathing nice-smelling air without a mask, and to know that our air quality is almost back to normal.
Come November, we’ll still be dealing with Corona, but we’ll already be used to the protocols and will have gotten over the worst of the the panic and frustration. We just need to ride this out together and keep calm and carry on.
Come November, I hope we will also see a strong wind of change in the south that helps to bring hopefulness and peace.
I can’t say why it’s come to me now, but I’ve become afraid of completely losing touch with my parents. That would sound semi-sweet were it not for the fact that they’ve now both been dead for decades; Dad passed in 1989 when I was twenty three, and Mum in 1995, when I turned twenty nine. So, with so much time passed, why is there this itch to feel a connection now, at the age of fifty four?
Truth be told, I tried to be a good and loyal son to my parents – likely better to them than they’d been to me. Between their alcoholism, bouts of depression, and little forms of neglect to me, I must have let go of what strained bonds were left after a while.
Let me be less vague about the evaporation of family bonds where my folks were concerned:
My mum left our home when I was eleven, after slipping into a deep depression and spending the better part of a year trying to drink herself to death. Her liver had quit, and she suffered permanent brain damage. She almost succeeded in killing herself. After she had transfusions and recovered physically at Burnaby Hospital, she wouldn’t have been able to care for herself alone at home, so Dad had to arrange for her to live in a succession of private hospitals. She didn’t want to go; she just wanted to come home. I guess home care wasn’t an option for Mum, and us kids never had a say in it. That was the start of the family break-up, and a lot of sadness and confusion came with it.
Over the years, our visits to see Mum became monthly rather than weekly, and by the time she had been in Riverview Hospital for a year or two, Dad took us there even less often. It was just too difficult for him. Eventually, in 1995, Mum died in Riverview after a brief bout of pneumonia.
In December of 1983, four days before Christmas, Dad had a big heart attack, and spent weeks in Burnaby Hospital. During his recovery from the heart attack, he suffered a number of strokes. His speech was slurred and his left-side mostly paralyzed, but he was a tough, determined old bugger and was lucky to be in a very good hospital. He went through the hospital’s Activation Program, recovering through constant physical therapy, learning to walk again and learning to hold things all over again. He understood that it was all about retraining his brain and rewiring the controls. He went from not being able to stand and having a left arm that would spastically swing and clear everything off his bedside table, to finally being able to walk with a cane, unassisted. Everyone was very proud of his progress, and most of all, so was he!
With a mix of fear and triumph, Dad finally came home again in the spring. Within a year, he was drinking again, had another stroke, and while in the hospital shower, fell down and fractured his hip. Because of his dodgy respiratory system from fifty years of smoking, they couldn’t use general anaesthetic, so he was awake with various local anaesthetic measures while they installed a plate and pin in his hip. Although a good many of his health problems stemmed from his unhealthy lifestyle, he endured them in a fiery and funny way. Dad was the toughest man in any room, but he never walked again after that fractured hip. He spent a lot of time in Burnaby Hospital, and in 1989, he died after a very slow and painful struggle with pneumonia. Losing him was very traumatic to me, and also, I admit, a small relief.
Through the age of eleven, I don’t remember my Mum ever interacting with me much at all. She never asked me about my day or my feelings, she never kissed or hugged me, she rarely cooked or baked, and she took no interest in our daily care or welfare. She didn’t act like a grownup who was responsible for two children at all. If you’d asked her, she’d have said that of course she loved her kids, but in her true nature, she was passive, uninvolved, and self-involved, and left all the parenting to our Dad. So, it’s realistic to say that neither my sister nor I ever developed any real bond with our Mother growing up. Mum had experienced serious problems with manic-depression and alcoholism since her teens, and watching her suffer and succumb later in her mid-life, I knew what it looked like when someone completely gave up hope and left their health to be the burden for their husband and kids.
During the last 14 years when Mum lived in Riverview, she truly seemed to have forgotten my name, who I was, and who she’d ever been to me. Whether it was the meds she was on clouding her brain, or memory loss from her alcohol overdose brain damage, or perhaps some kind of alzheimers-like degeneration, her memories and previous personality all seemed to slowly have slipped away. During my visits to her in the mid-eighties and early nineties, she gave the impression of having been mentally or psychologically rebooted at some point. Relatives were saying that she’d undergone Electro-shock Therapy. I refused to believe it in my teens, but looking back now, it was likely true and could explain the changes in behaviour that became so noticeable that I eventually stopped thinking of her as “Mum” and reframed her as Angela, someone I’d try to reintroduce myself to. The old character and any spirit she’d once had was gone.
Dad was always the only parental one, the one who drove the family forward, who made all the decisions, and who gave us material and emotional care, as best he could. He had a terrible temper, could be a very scary drunk and physically abusive, but he also played the role of single parent, doing everything for us years before Mum was ever carted out on the stretcher to the ambulance. Watching him, I learned how to buy groceries, to pay bills, to prepare a few basic meals, and to be responsible for keeping a household running.
So, I guess that describes my strange relationships with my parents.
Memorializing Mum and Dad
Since 1995, I’ve gradually been memorializing my parents on my True Life website, to keep a kind of digital shrine going and keep them alive in my own way. I used it as a way to process my memories and feelings, and to take control of the family story and make it on my own terms.
But, I’ve almost never visited their markers at the cemetary. After Dad died, I said “well, at least he’s not suffering now – at least I know he’s safe”. I told myself that after years of worrying about them and caring for them in my own way, I was burned out, tired of regretting their pasts and the fallout from their bad decisions, at the expense of energies that I should be directing towards my own future. I loved them each, her in an idealized way and him in a real way, but I also resented them and yearned to be free and out from under their shadows.
When Dad died, he had no will, and I did nothing about it, except to apply for CPP benefits to get his cremation done, and *I think* cover the cost of his funeral ceremony. I think his bank account just sat in place for the next six years. Mum also died intestate, but since she became a ward of the province when she’d voluntarily committed herself to Riverview, the provincial Public Trustee handled her affairs and wrapped up her estate, and I got help from a lawyer in 1995 to wrap up Dad’s, contact my half brothers and sisters, and my full sister, Kim, and ask them if they’d waive claims on the proceeds of the estates. I remember taking and making these phone calls at work during the day, and they were absolutely nerve-wracking. I’ve always resented that my parents never did any estate planning or even tried to manage their health better. We live in a different world now, but back then, thank God I had good quality legal clerks and the public trustee’s office to guide me.
Over the past twenty five years, my enthusiasm for writing has stopped and started numerous times. I went for a year with Mum and Dad’s photos turned face-down so I wouldn’t have to see them every day, and later on, I turned them upright again but moved them to a lower shelf. I don’t want to resent them anymore, but they also don’t eclipse everything else in my life.
Life is short. I think that as I get older and I see more of my friends and colleagues lose their parents or start dealing with their degrading health, the passage of time becomes painfully evident and the desire to honour the dead feels more important.
One day, my website will stop running and nobody will ever be able read about Jim, Angela, Kim, or John Love anymore. I could write a book, but paper dissolves eventually too.
I guess that’s why monuments are carved in stone.
Maybe I should make sure their markers are placed next to each other. They’ve been separated for too long.
My email to Mountain View Cemetary:
Both my parents were cremated, and their names put on plaques on what I think was called the “Rose Wall”. It has been 25 years since I’ve been there, but is there any way to confirm that their plaques are still there?
Their names are James E. Love (died Nov 1989) and Angela H. Love (died March 1995).
I can’t see the location of a memorial wall on Google Maps, but I’d guess it’s just outside of your chapel/mausoleum or such.
Also, what are your hours of operation, please?
Thanks for your help,
E. John Love
A few days later, I got a phone call from the Vancouver Crematorium, to say that my Mum and Dad were still there on the Rose Wall, and the roses were starting to bloom.
A number of my friends and colleagues are caring for parents whose strength and faculties are waning. Some folks will be going into care, and some are already there.
It’s an old story: while some grandparents suffer inside their disorienting dementia, their grown kids suffer in the idea that their parents no longer remember their names, and the grandkids suffer in the confusion of it all, wondering if this is what growing old is all about. We come into the world helpless and with no memory of what came before, and we go out in pretty much the same way.
Today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day, and it’s also the twenty-fifth anniversary of my Mother’s passing. She had lost a good deal of her past and her memories from brain damage back in 1977, and then as she spent much of her next eighteen years in Riverview, sedated and cloistered away from the world, she slowly lost more. Hers was a premature retirement from all that might have been left of her life if many things had gone differently. Her institutionalized years were, from my young, heartachey perspective, wasted years in a life that had lost its potential. But even if she’d lost many of the more recent memories of her past, she could still enjoy the present: listening to music, or enjoying the taste of a chocolate bar. Those parts of her were still in there, even when lots of other things had changed by degrees.
Last night, my wife and I were sitting in The Fairview Pub while the Soul City Band played the hell out of some blues and rock classics. Over the past thirty years or so, The Fairview Pub has developed a good rep as a live music venue and a neighbourhood watering hole. It’s also got more grey hair per square foot than anywhere else this side of a legion hall, and last night at The Fairview, that grey hair was absolutely dancing its ass off and having the time of its life.
As the Soul City Band played “Better Days are Coming”, I watched a hunched old gent in a sweater vest dancing with a 60 year-old woman. The old boy loved to dance and was at the Fairview all the time, showing us what kind of fun our future might hold. He arrived alone, and had a different dancing partner every time. I learned that he’s actually one hundred and two years old! There’s a good lesson to be had in watching a very, very old dude jiving and swinging in his glory, dancing his butt off for as long as he can.
From time to time, I realize that I feel lost, as if my grounding has given way, leaving my identity floating and vaguely unclear.
In these moments, I ask myself where my feet are, and I worry that I’ve lost or forgotten myself in some way.
This disassociation from my identity seems to come after I’ve spent time projecting myself into the middle of other people’s problems, struggles, or dilemmas. You put your mind and your compassion into play as part of your identity as a Helper. If you do that often, or too frequently, you may hit a saturation point where your needs have been eclipsed so often that you cannot find them when you want to use them. So, you say “I need a break, but what should I do?” I’m sure parents go through this reconnection dilemma every summer. I’m sure caregivers do too.
The story I tell myself, the narrative I’ve nurtured in the past ten or twenty years, is that I want to be a Helper, and being able to help others gives me satisfaction and feeds my pride and sense of worth. In the past five or ten years, my wife has convinced me that I am empathic, and tend to experience others’ emotions to the deteriment of my own. Basically, I treat others’ problems and feelings as if they are more important than mine.
Every family has some kind of drama, and occasionally, some very serious emergencies. My family is no different, and I will always be there to help in whatever way I can. My upbringing from about 3 years through 23 years kind of conditioned me to be the good, responsible kid, to help clean up messes when parents could not, to make the visits to hospital, and to be responsible around the home when nobody else could. Now, past 50, I find that in little ways, my recent moments of loving family support are really reflections and echoes of past events. I get triggered a bit, but in a good way – with a little voice that says “you’ve been here before, and you know what to say and how to act, and how to help”.
Thinking of those moments as positives, as evidence that my love and caring can be communicated and can make a positive difference, is one way my heart and mind feel rewarded and replenished. Another way I recharge my battery is to spend quiet moments with myself, reflecting, and sometimes just enjoying silence; allowing my mind to rest, and to just enjoy pure moment-to-moment sensation, without the personal, internal monologue. In those times, I recognize myself and appreciate the feeling of my existence. I give myself a hug internally, and reassure myself that I’m good and will always be good. Those are times to let the caring fold back around towards yourself, and charge your own batteries.
There are previous generations of Loves, Clarkes, Owens, and Markses who lived their own dramas, faced their own challenges, and left their footprints for me to find. The strongest example would be my maternal Grandfather, Ernest Huntley Clarke, my namesake and my beloved “Poppy”. He was a good man, and I need to believe that there are still good men in the world. My Dad’s legacy went down the family toilet posthumously, but Poppy’s legacy, for me, never will. That is a tether I can hold on to when I need to.
Finally, there is my internal imagery regarding my parents, which for forty years has wavered between sadness, fatigue, desperation, and worry, and in the last ten years transformed into bitterness and resentment. My father severely damaged both his families, and in the past few years, I’ve seen evidence that time doesn’t really heal all wounds. I feel heavy and tired in my resentment of them.
But their legacy doesn’t have to only be framed by loss and sorrow. I have also had a few beautiful moments remembering them at their best, brightest, and most virtuous. I can celebrate Angela’s inner and outer beauty, her idealism, and creativity. I can celebrate James’ tenderness and care, remembering calloused hands being used gently on me to heal an illness, or his strong voice going quiet to speak in gentles tones to a small child or the neighbour’s puppy.
Their unrealized potential, their unlived idealism, stands out for me like a reverse shadow, like a glowing aura. That is another strong tether to hold on to.
I’ve spent many months helping my brother-in-law to complete his (mostly audio) online memoir. As I reflected on the experience, I was reminded of the directness of the spoken word and the power of sound; the way speech triggers imagery that sticks with you, and how the nuances of pace, tone, and inflection seem to add so much subtle, evocative meaning. Content and context seem so much richer when you listen.
In my brother-in-law’s voice, I can hear his passion for his memories, his regret over his losses, his enjoyment of the good times, and his questions about what his future might hold. These can be difficult to write about even for a seasoned writer, but it can be simpler and more direct to just say the words out loud.
A raw, straightforward storytelling can be powerful on its own, but I feel convinced that for my own uses, I need to make something a little more acoustically elaborate. I want something that uses background sounds to set the time and place. The best podcasts and radio broadcasting that I’ve ever heard have used place-sounds and ambient noise to create a soundscape – an acoustic landscape that sets the stage – an equivalent for being there. As examples, the podcast “Serial” did this quite well, as did another podcast about Richard Simmons. Each of them added just enough background tone and noise that you might visualise the immediate surroundings of the speaker: how sunny it was in a crowded mall parking lot, or how much traffic was on Rodeo Drive that day. it offers context that helps to build engagement and empathy.
I think a couple of tracks added like that would give my own stories so much more immersion for the listener – extra dimension and impact.
So, I’m searching for free (or creative commons) sounds and, ironically, visualising how editing and mixing might proceed using a tool like Audacity.
Update: I did make a little audio piece for my earliest story, “Peanut and Brittle”. I will be doing more of this for other stories too…
It’s held steady a couple hundred pounds of wrinkled, bruised, and broken old man. Like my old man, over thirty years ago.
This cane was James Evan Love’s kingly reward for completing weeks of physiotherapy and for surviving five strokes and a fractured hip. It was the stalwart sceptre he’d earned by graduating from wheelchair to walker to quad-cane to wooden cane. It made him look even older than he was, but it kept him on his feet, where he wanted to be.
It was a symbol of his triumph and recovery, but it was also a symbol of his hard-earned weakness and degradation. He would never walk without it again. He had become diminished and slow. He was finally, at sixty-four, an old man. The tiger was toothless…
Dad died a difficult death in 1989, pretty much coughing himself to death through pneumonia. I was hollowed-out and exhausted by losing him, and relieved for both of us that he was no longer in pain.
I was desperate to keep some of his belongings – the things he used most often or the things of his which I thought said the most about him. I kept Dad’s wheelchair for a while, later loaning it out to a different relative, and then to the grandmother of one of my wife’s best friends. Eventually, the chair came back to me and I wheeled it over to the care home next door. Dad’s beat up wooden cane stayed propped up in the corner of my room for more than thirty years as a silent echo of how we lose people and power.
A few months ago, I suffered a painful back injury, and as it got worse, I found myself unable to get out of bed or even roll over without blinding pain. After admitting myself to ER and getting some painkillers, I returned home and began to slowly get up and shuffle around. It would take me a few minutes of agonizing wriggling on my stomach to get to the foot of my bed, and then another 30 seconds to screw up the courage to push my hands over to my dresser where I’d lean, standing, and catch my breath before trying to walk to the bathroom. I measured the spaces between reachable surfaces and objects that could support my weight. Everything seemed so far away. Walking had become a highwire act with no net.
Walking hurt like hell and was a scary and tender prospect. My lower back could spasm at the slightest strain, and when it did it hurt like a cattle prod. I pondered the idea of buying a cane for myself. I didn’t want to be infirmed and incapable like an old man. I saw myself shuffling around our apartment in my sagging cardigan, talking to my cats, and sweating and swearing at the slightest effort. I stopped shaving, and white whiskers peeked out of my cheeks, reminding me of him, looking bristly-chinned on a Sunday morning.
I started to notice Dad’s cane again, and I accepted it once I began accepting my situation. I went practical and determined in my thinking: I was going to have to be able to walk if I was going to heal properly. Just use the bloody cane, I told myself.
So Dad’s cane became my cane, my centre of stability, and my most reliable tool. I did heal fully with the help of a Physio and some hard work. In fact, I’m probably in better condition now than before my back injury.
When I look at our cane now, I don’t just see a broken old man. I see the hard work that you must do and the help that you must be willing to accept in order to get back on your feet again.
I found that after the first few images of my face, results became more representative of the pages that just contained my name. My name was a keyword connected by word density to other words and images.
This image-word association tracks beautifully with my personal mental imagery: anything my name was adjacent to online seemed to be an article about me, or a blog post written by me. Images from my employment activities – like conferences or workshops – were mixed in with historical photos from my family, and images from my art college days, or from blog posts that I’d written years ago about my inspirational teachers and beloved public figures.
Over twenty years ago, maybe as far back as 1996 or 1997, I had decided to document my family and my life on the web for the world to read. For me, that meant an organized, intentional approach to storytelling or journalling, and to digitzing film into pixels. The effort started in earnest in 1998, and has progressed in various forms on and off ever since.
Even though my overt effort at a personal online memoir has tapered-down to a rather occasional pace, it’s a bit comforting to me to realize that the artifacts I’m continuing to leave online are still there, even if they’re sometimes curated by Google’s search algorithm.
Here’s some unsolicited advice that an old man should have taken back when he was a young man:
Other people cannot and will not solve your problems. Most of ’em barely understand what’s going on within themselves, and few will invest time enough in you or put your needs above their own.
Basically, wherever you are, your mother doesn’t work here. Accept that, and then when someone does come along who truly shares and cares, feel fortunate for them and value them, because the odds of meeting them aren’t really that great.
How can you judge? Use your gut during exchanges with others, and decide over time if the other person is invested in you as much as you are in them. It’s great to be a good listener and all, but you should feel free to tell your own story too and enjoy moments when the two of you genuinely share an interest or feel a connection.
And if it ain’t there (or at least not anymore), maybe the mutual interest or emotional resonance has just run its course. It’s always your call to drop the reins for a while. Some people need you because of you, and some people just need an available sounding board.
Some associations are just temporary, fueled more by circumstance and little moments of shared empathy than by full emotional resonance or significant similarities.
Some people are treasures and some are only temporary shiny objects.
Be grateful and kind in any case. It’s still good fortune, and we still need each other.
For months, I’ve helped my brother-in-law compose his life story into a blog. For him, due to accessbility and mobility issues, audio recording is the best way to capture his stories. It’s easier for him, but also it’s more personal. His words, his voice, are ringing in my ears – nobody else’s. It’s one-to-one.
As I’ve helped him edit his stories, I’ve thought a lot about the effectiveness of speech and sound. I used to enjoy listening to rebroadcasts of old-time radio dramas late at night, and I’ve gotten drawn into podcasts like “Serial”. It’s the atmosphere that’s created by the slightlest of ambient background noises or sound effects. It doesn’t take much to draw me into a moment.
So, I’ve been thinking of building little audio narrative pieces into the stories in my True Life project. It could use a soundtrack, some spaciousness, some emotion and personality. I’ll add what I can…