I was looking through Mom’s massive collection of photo albums – gleaning them for prime photographs to make the photo board display you see here today – when I stumbled on a photo of myself. 5 years old, wearing the green ballet dress she made for me to dance as a flower in the end-of-year showcase. She painstakingly followed a pattern, and methodically sewed it all together – only to discover she’d sewed it backwards, with the green satin petals underneath the layers of pouffy tulle. She picked the whole thing apart – can you imagine that? Layers and layers of nylon net and green satin petals? … then sewed it all back together again, this time in the right order. I think she stayed up all night doing it. When I got up the day of the performance, there she was sitting at the sewing machine, sewing the final layer on. What a mom, eh!
That determination is one of the things I most admired in her. That, and her zest for life, something I didn’t really fully appreciate until I was an adult.
Zoom ahead from age 5 to age 48, some 40-odd years later, and Mom’s determination is still going strong. I was living in Budapest, Hungary, teaching English as a Foreign Language, and writing arts and culture stories for The Budapest Times. I wanted Mom to experience the incredible city I was living in and she desperately needed a holiday; so she packed Dad, who was suffering from dementia, off to Beckley Farm Lodge and came to visit me. Before she came, she told me her legs ached so much that she was having difficulty with stairs. (And I was reminded of the ache in her legs she’d told me she’d had as a child and, when in the air raid shelters, her Granddad had soothed the ache by rubbing her legs with liniment.)
I’d just moved into to a 4th-floor apartment in Budapest; thank god there was an elevator, but there were still stairs that needed climbing. All public transport required using stairs: the trams had stairs to get on and off, only a couple subway stations had elevators, though some had escalators, there were elevators in only a couple of subway stations, many had only stairs. There was no elevator going up to the castle, though there was a gondola – but Mom and I had shared a gondola experience years before in the Rockies, when she’d vowed to never again go in one of those things! It was clear, if we were going to see Budapest and use public transit, Mom would have to use some stairs. But I had gotten Mom’s determination bug and was determined that she should see the real Budapest, so I dragged her up and down staircases; and by the time she left to fly back to Canada, she was indeed flying up and down the stairs, and suddenly stairs were no longer a problem. …and wow, I had witnessed, first hand as adult her incredible, indomitable zest for life.
Take a trip in a time machine, forward another 10 years. I’m back in Canada, living in the same condo building as Mom, in a rented apartment across the hall from her. I’ve been there for her for three-and-a-half years, and witnessed her determination and zest for life on a daily basis. Through a series of debilitating ailments, I’ve seen my mother get up every day and get dressed, and go out – somewhere, anywhere – to Cook Street Village: Macs Milk for a scratch card, to Oxford Foods for some bit of groceries, to the library for her books and talking books, which she had to listen to thru earphones when she went to sleep at night, or to James Bay: to the bank, Thrifty Foods, New Horizons, the liquor store – every single day, somewhere for something, for any reason at all, just to do something. She’d complain of being tired, yet she’d still get up and go. I’d tell her to stay in bed and rest, and she wouldn’t have anything of it. She’d say “If I stop I’ll die.” I watched in awe, and vowed I’d learn from her. I wanted it; I wanted what she had: that drive to live, just for the sake of having life.
Mom went into hospital on September 16th. She was having difficulty breathing. They sent her home 2 days later with an oxygen maker, 2 oxygen tanks and a very complicated inhaler that I helped her take every morning at 9:00am. She had to suck in the air with enough force to make the capsule inside the case spin around and dispense the powdered drug into her lungs. She had difficulty getting the capsule to spin. In the beginning, I’d have to coax her through the process 3 – 4 times. She only used the BreezeHaler for about a month, but by the time she died, her determination had made her an expert, and the capsule spun around on the first try. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
That drive got her to cast her vote, even though she died the day before the last Federal Election. Very much a product of her generation, she prized her right to vote. Though she hadn’t told us, I’m sure she knew she hadn’t much time, she was so determined to vote! She had to go to the advance poll on the first day, and wanted to be there when it opened. She wanted to walk there, and walk home again, but I convinced her to let me drive her there, and then stay and vote with her ; then she could walk home afterwards if she had the energy. Off we went with the 2 portable oxygen tanks, we had to wait 45 minutes to vote, and afterwards, determined that she would live as fully as she could until the very end, Mom walked home. I think it took her an hour or more, a short walk that in her prime would have taken her maybe 7 minutes max.
That was one of her last walks. For a woman who used to walk every single day, not going out for a walk was sheer agony. She did get out a few more times before she passed, to James Bay one day, the library another, and Macs Milk for a scratch card yet another. I was amazed.
Mom is my life’s greatest inspiration – yes she gave me life when she gave birth to me, but she also gave me a new sense of life when I came back to Canada and lived across the hall from her and saw that determination and vigour on a daily basis.
One other thing she gave me – so incredibly important to my life – was the will to try something new even though for many years I’d thought it impossible.
As you have just heard from Lou Ann, in her late forties, Mom got into acting, and got her professional actors union card in her 70’s. She was living proof that it’s never too late to do what you’ve always wanted.
I started writing poetry at 10 years of age and my whole life I’d wanted to play a musical instrument and put my poems to song. It wasn’t until age 50, while living in Hungary, that I overcame my great fear of singing when I had the opportunity to work with a Hungarian jazz trio with my poetry. I carried on like that for several years, in Barcelona where I lived the musical night life, singing 7 nights a week; and in England where I started to study jazz, and sang with an experimental group. What I really really wanted to do to play a musical instrument and write songs, but I thought learning to play an instrument late in life with my stubby fingers would be impossible. When I came back here to Victoria to be with Mom and observed her incredible zest for life, I caught the “I can do anything June-Bug” and took up the ukulele and started writing songs. I play a musical instrument today because of Mom. She didn’t like the ukulele much, but that doesn’t really matter, she still gave me the will to learn it. Thanks Mom for everything. You were the best Mom a little kid could ask for, and the most amazing Mom a grown woman could ever experience.