The Clock of Life
My mother, Anne Sloan, is a stubborn kind of gal… Upside of 70, Mum was struggling with the Carleton Place Library’s public use computer on Monday July 11, learning to use her new Yahoo.com email account, joking with Janet the librarian no doubt, sending me the first email of the day.
“Get away wi’ ye, Janet. Ah can figure this out ma’self… Gimme a minute, tho…”
The walk down to the library was too hot and humid for her at 2:30 on a sticky southern Ontario afternoon, but the air-conditioning is cool now that she’s here. I can hear her infectious laugh, the Scottish lilt of it… I can see the rings she wears flashing as she fights with the keyboard of this new-fangled toy.
There’s no way Mum will be left out of the email stream that my sister Gail and I are developing. Weekly phone calls are no longer enough. Once she learns how to use the library’s computer properly, she’s going to buy one for her house.
Three thousand miles west I’m paddling on Klaklakama Lake in the fine and freshly warm sunshine of remote northern Vancouver Island with my wife Christine, trolling for cutthroat trout. Our buddy Steve has come camping with us in his newly acquired ‘84 VW van. It makes out battered old ’74 VW van look like a relic. The fishing is always sparse in this shallow lake, trenched with one deep cutthroat-holding hole. The sky is as blue as heaven. The three of us are alone with the splash of our paddles and the calls of the loon couple teaching their new baby to dive.
Janet’s phone rings in the Carleton Place library and she turns away from helping my mother for a second. When she turns back there’s no Anne in sight. My mother has collapsed from a heart attack and fallen from her chair. Janet calls for help immediately and Dr.Earle and Dr.Murphy come running from the chiropractor’s office next door.
Given the three hours time difference, I am actually getting a twitch and then a strong tug on my fishing line when this is all happening back east. Just pushing noon, the sun is warm and sprinkles diamonds on the 2lb. cutthroat trout that I slowly reel in. Reaching the side of the canoe in spite of its struggles, the determined fish suddenly goes limp and Christine slips a net beneath it. “Trout appetizers for dinner”, I yell to Steve who’s 40 yards behind us, paddling harder for being alone. When he pulls up to our canoe I trade lures with him, convinced that my Panther Martin did the trick, determined to see him catch a fish on his first visit to one of our favourite camping spots.
With Dr.Earle accompanying her in the ambulance, Mum is rushed to the Carleton Place Hospital. CPR is all that is keeping her in this world.
At the hospital Anne’s friend, Mona, is astonished to see the woman she greeted on the street only an hour earlier being wheeled in to Emergency. In spite of her shock Mona has the presence of mind to gather Mum’s belongings – her keys and jewellery, and back at the library the little buggy she wheeled everywhere with her… It helps that Mona is a physiotherapist and a trusted consultant at the hospital herself. No one hassles her as she pulls away in her white pick-up and takes Mum’s stuff to her apartment on Woodward Street.
The doctors decide to ship my mother to Queensway Carleton hospital in Ottawa. Sirens whine on the ambulance. Nurses in ICU are alerted to an incoming heart attack survivor from Carleton Place. As Mona locks my mother’s things into her 4th floor apartment, she discovers Mum’s emergency phone numbers. Myself and my sister Karen on Vancouver Island. my sister Gail and her husband Paul in Wetaskiwin, Alberta. She starts making calls.
It is Tuesday before Christine and I come home from a perfect camping trip. Both Steve and I catch fish. Wrapped in foil and stuffed with slices of lemon and rolled slowly over the grill on a smoky fire, the trout are a perfect with the refreshing casaba melon acidity of the award-winning Artist Series BC VQA Pinot Gris white wine we are lucky enough to sip while we eat the fish. All of this flies from my head when I walk in the door and take the phone call from my sister Gail: “Mum’s in the hospital. We don’t know much. How soon can you get here?”
By the time I arrive in Ottawa, bleary eyed in my rental car at 6:30am, freshly off the overnight red-eye from Vancouver on Wednesday, both of my sisters are at my mother’s bedside. In spite of everything Dr.Drake can do with the help of his heart specialist colleague Dr Bryan Smith, Anne Sloan continues unresponsive. With the assistance of nurses Deb and Donna and Judy in ICU, and a complication of tubes and machines that is sadly and necessarily less than graceful, Mum is barely hanging on.
My sisters and I are in the basement cafeteria when Bill and Pat Bowman arrive from Carleton Place to visit mother. Great friends of Mum’s and fellow round dancers in the Mississippi Squares group that my dancing-mad mother currently belongs to, they are as shocked as myself and Gail and Karen. We all knew mother had a few heart problems. Not one of us expected this, though….
Bill and Pat have been in touch with Mona. Things start to fall together as we sip coffee in the Queensway Carleton cafeteria. In an instant they are suddenly family, this Scottish couple who danced with mother. They hold our hands and share our shock and grief. They offer to help us in any way they can. And it’s obvious they mean it.
Very much her own woman, fiercely independent and resistant to all our subtle and/or direct suggestions that she consider moving west to be closer to her kids, Mum made it clear to us that she had a life of her own. What Karen and Gail and I begin to learn from Bill and Pat is just how full that life is… How many friends she has… What wonderful people they are… There’s the square and round dancing groups, of course, and most recently the dart playing crowd at the George Street Legion, RCL Branch 192, where mother took up yet another new passion late in life…
There are Janet and her colleagues at the library where Anne Sloan was the laughing grandmother trying – and succeeding -- in getting her only granddaughter, Courtney, to send her Nana emails to her Hotmail and Yahoo accounts…
Stories start to be told. Tears are shed. This exceptionally caring couple’s soft Edinborough accents remind me of Mum’s Glasgow brogue and before we finish coffee and head back upstairs to the Intensive Care Unit, my sisters and I are chuckling with Pat and Bill and punctuating every sentence with Mum’s favoured exclamations: “Och aye!” to almost every proposal and “For sure, for sure!” when she agrees with you.
Around the bed my sisters and I cluster like orphan chicks pecking at the sands of her life for some direction, some sustenance, some way to bring her back. Rudely and invasively hooked up to the life-support systems that are keeping our dancing mother alive, we know how graceful she really is beneath the tangle of tubes and wires. We apologize profusely and try to explain to her that Dr.Drake and Dr.Smith think she still has a chance. She seems a bit undecided and makes no kind of response. Occasionally she spasms slightly, a wee tiny bit of a gagging on the tubes, as if she’s trying to spit them out. It isn’t very pretty and it brings us all to tears when it happens.
We start to try to decide how we’re going to explain to her that she’s moving west to join us when she gets up and about again. It’ll be tricky. She is very clear about maintaining her independence, her dancing, her darts. We know we’ll have to be just as defiant to overrule her.
When we awake the following morning at the Best Western on Bronson St we call ICU. No change. Perhaps even less responsive. We must wait.
Over coffee and toast and eggs in the motel restaurant, we realize we have to leave our mother in Ottawa. One way or another, we bravely decide, we’ll convince her to come west. That means we might as well return to Carleton Place and start packing up her stuff. It makes more sense than weeping around her bed in the hospital when she seems unable to respond in any way. We take turns wiping tears from our cheeks and telling each other to, “Get on with it!” Someone has to talk for Mum, now. We take turns.
An hour in the rental car, a few wrong turns, and we’re at Mona Bowles house in the countryside outside of Perth. A physiotherapist mother worked with as a volunteer after she retired from her bookkeeping work at Leigh Instruments in Kanata, Mona was at the hospital when Mum was brought in and has the keys to mother’s apartment. Before we’ve even exchanged greetings, I understand why mother likes this woman. As Mona puts it: “Anne and I hit it off pretty quickly. We were a lot alike. Independent. Willful.”
Before we reluctantly head off to my mother’s apartment, Mona offers whatever help we can possibly need. Anything. As with Bill and Pat, we know Mona means it unilaterally.
We spend the afternoon in her apartment, weeping, planning, consoling each other. Nothing seems real. Our childhoods lurk around us, an ambush of shadows and photographs and knick-knacks, love everlasting underlying everything. My mother is more present here in her apartment than in the bed in Queensway Carleton ICU. She speaks to each of us in her own way through her precious treasures. Gifts we gave her over the years. Things she has obviously bought for each of us but hasn’t yet sent.
In her bathroom, above the sink and below the mirrored cabinet, mother has put up a small wooden plaque. Written on it is a saying, a kind of poem, that begins, “The clock of life is wound but once and no man knows his hour….” Neither myself nor my sisters can read it without weeping. Very obviously, Mum knows her time is limited. Throughout the next few days, we remind each other repeatedly of that truth that we lose sight of in the business of life’s smaller tragedies and triumphs. Live. Laugh. Love.
When we return to the hospital that evening – or is it the next evening? – Dr Smith tries to prepare us for the possibility that mother may not pull out of this. We should consider the fact that without the life support systems she could be gone in moments. The confusion of days run together like sand through an hourglass. Suddenly she is gone.
Around us in the emotional and physical maelstrom that has a ticking rhythm of its own driven by our need to get things tied up and return west to our homes, we find beauty in our tears somehow, laughter in our sorrow, and a strange kind of grace in our grief and love of the friends and family that gather to help.
Through out own personal turbulence, the community of Carleton Place is steeped in the exuberance of Mississippi Days, a three-day festival of food and fun and Scottish music that my mother would have died to live to see… And somehow everyone locally finds the time to help us when we need it. Mary and Wally Cook, the folks from whom my mother rented the beautiful apartment where we shared the sunsets with her over the next few days of chaos… Well, Mary and Wally seem to conspire with local auctioneer Charlie Hollinger to lift so many of the puzzling details from our tear-stained shoulders.
My friend Frank arrives from Toronto. Christine Heinzle, mother’s other daughter comes up. My cousin Rob and his wife Roz, my mother’s other family, arrive with their family from Toronto where we all sort of grew up in each others’ back rooms and basements. Help pours in from all sides, sometimes even before we know we need it.
As Mum actually passed away on Saturday, July 14 – in the middle of Mississippi Days, when everybody in town was busier than we three strangers “from away” could believe – we had trouble finding key people. But find them we did…if they didn’t somehow find us first thanks to Bill and Pat Bowman opening doors on our behalf.
The folks at the Barker’s Funeral Chapel are marvellously cooperative.
Wayne and Ken helped us through the planning of the unusual Memorial Service out unusual Mum deserved. Mr. Barker even flushed bagpiper Carmen Lalonde out of the woodwork to play at the chapel and later at the Legion.
The Memorial Service itself was beautiful. Because Mum had a curious passion for tigers, we brought one of her larger porcelain pieces in for the table display. The tigers snarled by our mother’s exotic and elegant Chinese porcelain urn, flanked by beautiful “Birds Of Paradise” flower arrangements from Blossoms on Bridge St, when the bagpipes launched the service with “Skye Boat Song”. Sister Karen found and framed a couple of small photos of our dancing Mum, the same “highland fling” pose in photos 60 years apart.
Carefully chosen songs were the backdrop to this beautiful service for a magnificent lady who loved music and dancing. We listened to Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” before mother’s friend and sometimes dancing partner Bill Bowman read from:
Isaiah (25: 6-9)
“ On this mountain the Lord will prepare for all peoples a banquet
of rich food.
On this mountain, he will remove the mourning veil covering all
peoples and the shroud enwrapping all nations. He will destroy death.
The Lord God will wipe away tears from every cheek: He will take away
the peoples shame everywhere on the earth for the Lord has said so.
That day, it will be said: See this is our God in whom we hoped for
salvation. The Lord is the one in whom we hoped. We exalt and rejoice
that he has saved us.”
Lay pastors John and Barb Legrow dropped from the skies to reflect on life and love and the heart of God. Before they finished speaking we were all with Mum, soaring with eagles. John and Barb were a godsend. Angels…
After hearing Nat King Cole sing “Unforgettable”, we were both cheered and saddened by my cousin Robert Andrew’s eulogy that focused on our Mum’s amazing ability to look for the best in everything and always manage to find a laugh, even when her heart was breaking…. Throughout she smiled down us, without a doubt. Evelyn Coffin, a fellow dart-playing buddy of Mum’s, read a beautiful inspirational poem:
TO THOSE I LOVE AND THOSE WHO LOVE ME
When I am gone, release me let me go ....
I Have so many things to see and do.
You must not tie yourself to me with tears,
Be happy we had so many years.
I gave to you my love, you can only guess.
How much you gave to me in happiness,
I thank you for the love you each have shown,
But now it's time I travel alone.
So grieve a while for me, for grieve you must.
Then let your grief be comforted by trust.
It's only for a while that we must part
So bless the memories within your heart.
I won't be far away, for life goes on;
So if you need me, call and I will come.
Though you can't see me or touch me, I'll be near.
And if you listen with your heart, you'll hear,
All of my love around you soft and clear.
And then, when you must come this way alone,
I’ll greet you with a smile and say, "welcome home".”
And the whole chapel was in tears before she finished.
Cousin Robert’s wife Roz, mother’s best friend, then read “The Lord Is My Shepherd” as well as a short poem from a wooden plaque we had found below the mirror in Mum’s apartment bathroom:
THE CLOCK OF LIFE
The clock of life is wound but once and no man has the power
To tell just when the hand will stop at late or early hour.
Now is the only time you own – Live, love and toil with a will!
Place no faith in tomorrow, for the clock may then be still
The last song we played for our mother was Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World”. As it finished, the lilting words of love and wonder disappeared under the skirling bagpipe strains of “Scotland The Brave”. Unforgettable, like our mother herself…
At the George St. Legion, RCL Branch #192, Ron Goebel and Marilyn Harvey helped us put together a reception that the Ladies Auxiliary catered and Cheryl bar-tended. As well as Carmen’s bagpipes a number of Mum’s fellow dancers from The Mississippi Squares came and danced a few round dance numbers for us. Though neither myself nor my sisters were ever visiting Carleton Place when Mum had a dancing evening with her friends, it seemed that we were seeing her dance then through tear-filled eyes.
My sisters and I met people Mum played darts with, dancing friends like mother’s travelling companion Audrey Kealey, fellow travellers and kilt chasers from the Comrie/Carleton Place twinning connection that Mum joined so enthusiastically, old friends from work like her knitting buddy Mary Arscot. And, of course, angels like Mona and Pat and Bill Bowman. What a wonderful world!
With so many dear friends in attendance, we began to really understand why our mother was so reluctant to leave this caring and gracious community. The wake went on for hours afterwards at Mum’s apartment. Family from Toronto and Ingersoll as well as ourselves and friends from Carleton Place all had the opportunity to raise a glass to Anne Sloan, our dancing mother. And now she is dancing with other angels.
A few days later Mona turns us over to my old friend Necla Tschirgi in Ottawa. Things are coming together with amazing speed, as if angels are watching over everything we do. Mum talks to us through almost everything that happens, in very nearly every voice or style imaginable. Waiting for plane connections, we happily took advantage of Necla’s hospitality. A career in diplomatic research keeps my Turkish-born friend more or less on the road all the time but somehow… somehow she’s not only home in Ottawa but her schedule is remarkably free of any engagements.
That first night at Necla’s house on Drummond St, she asks with her customary curiosity to see the urn when I begin to try to describe it. Before we know it she gives the urn a place of honour at the centre of the dining table around which we’re all sitting, sipping wine, telling stories and shedding what seems to be an endless supply of tears.
Later that evening we play Nat King Cole singing “Unforgettable” and Necla sweeps the urn from the table and hugs it to her chest and starts to waltz with Mum. Like the proverbial dervish she drags my sisters to their feet to dance with her and mother. Before I know it, I am dancing with them. We circle in a slow waltzing kind of shuffle. Unforgettable. I’ll never be able to hear it without weeping and remembering and laughing and getting on with my life. So much to do. Love in everything. So little time.
Last night, my first day back at our home in Campbell River , my partner Christine and I had been working in our beautiful and demanding gardens. Sweating with the flowers and vegetables, moving hoses everywhere to try to deal with the unusually dry and sunny weather northern Vancouver Island rarely gets, we must have been quietly praying for a little rain to befuddle the heavenly blue skies.
We had Nat King Cole singing “Unforgettable” as we finished dinner on our deck. A fine hazy cloud cover descended on us from nowhere and a mist of rain as fine as cool and refreshing steam started seeping from the sky. Moments later, while the lyrics of “Unforgettable” reminded us to value everyone we love, the most remarkable rainbow I have ever seen literally filled the sky and shimmered like a fully coloured and dazzling daylight version of the Northern Lights. The rainbow grew more vivid and dazzling as the song played. It was very obviously Mum’s way of saying she had made it. And just as obviously she knew we needed to be told as warmly and brilliantly as only she could do herself. “Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly…”
It lasted for half an hour or more and never faltered in its intensity. We had time to find a medley version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and “What A Wonderful World” hauntingly sung by the late Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. As we hugged each other on the deck, listening to the tunes and marvelling at how beautifully much in everything my mother’s love shines we realized where the rainbow’s end must be situated… far to the north of us out over the waters of the Inside Passage.
We know now where she wants to end these worldly days. I only hope love drives me as hard and profoundly for the rest of my days as it does in these joyful tears I will always cry for my mother and us all.
Tying up the technical difficulties of the timely disposition of our mother’s estate – so that we could get back to our lives in the west – was made simple for us with the unquestioning cooperation of Mum’s landlords Wally and Mary Cook and local ace auctioneer Charlie Hollinger. Before we knew it was possible, my sisters and I were en route for Ottawa and another set of flights back into our own little worlds.
Throughout this terrible and wonderful visit, amidst the laughter and the tears, the love and trusting faith of the entire community of Carleton Place helped we three strangers to come to terms with the grief and loss and sudden surprise of being orphans in mid-life. Thank you all so much.
Before leaving town, we officially adopted Mona Bowles into the Sloan Sisters – a rather curious group of both sexes with incredibly fluid boundaries, very few rules, and a terrible lust for life: only dancers need apply. Even more remarkably, Pat and Bill Bowman adopted my sisters Karen and Gail and myself that same day – so we were only orphans for a few short moments. And Mum is with God.
Now is the only time you own – Live, love and toil with a will!
Place no faith in tomorrow, for the clock may then be still…