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