Category Archives: Conversations with My Mother

Minutiae #5: Choices

She always said she’d had a good life. That she had seen the world, had laughed and danced, raised a family and had gone on adventures she couldn’t have imagined. In the last few weeks of her life we sat outside at a coffee shop. She had put on her red necklace, her red peblum top, khaki pants,her leather running shoes, lipstick and earrings. We sat quietly on the patio outside on a burningly beautiful warm autumn day.

In the last few months she had become quiet, introspective, something that happens I imagine when you’re faced with life changing circumstances. Your mind travels the distance of memories, constantly feeding on a life well lived, pausing at regret, at all the things one wishes had been done – choices not made.

The cafe where we sat is next to a river called the Port Credit River. She surveyed the river, the small town traffic, and people walking by.  We had sat for a long while in silence until she said “I’ve had a good life” she said. “This place has been a great home to me. I’m glad I came.” Port Credit, is where I grew up and the place she and my father had moved to from Holland over 50 years before.

If you asked her about her husbands and depending on her mood she’d say something along the lines of “They were bastards” to “Your father and I sure had some good times” and most often”He showed me the world”. As an adult I would sometimes look at my mother and wonder at her enormous bad luck at falling for dangerous men – dangerous good looking men. The first, a German soldier who beat her until she finally left taking one child with her…only to find when she went back for the second, her first born son, she couldn’t take him with her. Women had no rights over their children. So she left him and escaped into the arms of my father. She must have fallen for those blue eyes, or his crazy story telling, or how he would grab her hand and fill it full of vitamins telling her this was the secret to a long happy life. She was wowed by his charisma, so much so that she overlooked the smaller things that might have given her clues to his real identity. His true self, his hidden character…the things that good looks, charisma and money often disguise.

I think of the photograph that hung at the end of my mother’s bed in her bedroom. A picture of her first son at the age  of nine which is when she left him. And then another photograph when he married. She never took those pictures down. I imagine she must have looked at them every night before she went to sleep.

I found out about him when I found a photograph of a handsome young man in my mother’s wallet. “Who is this? I asked. “That’s my son”she said. “You look alike.” I said and the conversation ended.

We took a trip together to meet him and his wife many years later. We went to my aunt’s house in Den Haag, Holland where we were to meet him. I was nervous meeting this brother I hardly knew existed. My mother didn’t help.  She seemed edgy and nervous  and kept saying things like she couldn’t speak German anymore. She paced. And when he arrived and he hugged her, I remember thinking how small she looked. This big strapping boy with his arms around his mother. And we all gathered awkwardly in my aunt’s living room. But somehow magically a week later, at the end of the trip our nervousness had been replaced with the sense that we had all shared something together as a family. We had laughed and cried, and danced and told jokes. I spoke broken German, he spoke broken English, my mother’s German magically came back to her.

Once when I asked my mother do you still miss him she looked at me and said, “Life goes on.” and that was it. And I thought to myself here is a woman who has survived. And when I thought about all the other pieces of her life and what came after the leaving behind of a son, and how I know something important that the son doesn’t. And this is the truth.  As painful as his mother leaving must have been, it was better for him to have been left behind than for him to have endured my father. And these are true things. Rosie’s choices.

So today is my mother’s birthday. Many, many years ago a man and a woman had a child and they called her Rozalia. She was their eldest daughter. A hellion they called her. A beautiful  Dutch girl is how I think of her. Her spirit which vexed her parents stayed with her throughout her life. She carried it with her through her ups and her many downs and it gave her the resilience to bear some of life’s most terrible hurts. So happy birthday mom. I miss being able to send you flowers and I still miss you every day.



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Tulips and Glory for the lady in 301 -Feb 23rd

20130224-125415.jpgIt’s the rituals that I miss. I loved phoning the florist near my mom’s house and asking for the spring bouquet of tulips. I loved asking if the Austrian gentleman could deliver them. I loved talking to my mom and hearing her say, “Oh you know what Tess, that flower delivery man LOVES ME. He’s always flirting with me.” (what this means is that my mother was flirting shamelessly with him). I loved the fact that her birthday falls fortuitously close to the Oscars, the single most important event of the year for my mother and consequently for us. The Oscars were better than her own birthday, better than her childrens’ birthdays, better than Christmas. Probably not better than John Lennon’s song Imagine which she loved dearly. The Oscars, you see, were the time where we forgot everything and imagined for a few short hours that we were stars, dressed and ready to be glorious. The ritual is so ingrained that my niece skyped the entire Oscars for me last year when I was sick in bed with pneumonia and without cable . Desperate times call for desperate measures.



Yesterday was my mother’s birthday. I hadn’t forgotten about it. Thoughts of my mom weave their way through my every day life in an every day way. Missing her is the new normal – the sharpness of early grief has evened itself out. So I was taken aback when my niece sent me a text saying, “It’s nana’s birthday today isn’t it? I love you auntie Pie.” Yes, it was her birthday and I had half forgotten. And I don’t like that. So I spent a lot of time thinking about her yesterday. And this is what I thought.

I thought about all the things I loved about her and all my favourite memories. And then inevitably my mind wanders to the part that I find the most difficult. And this is what I struggle with. For most of my life my mother was my mother. I loved her but she could also make me crazy. She could be inexplicably difficult and hard on people. She could make things complicated, she could be intransigent and self-centred. I have known all these things about her. And as her daughter I sometimes reacted without always understanding where she came from.

More and more when I think about my mother now I think of her as a woman which feels different than thinking of her as my mother. As a woman I see her more clearly and I feel I have more context for her life. And that’s when my heart starts to hurt. Because my mom had a difficult life. And when I think of her as my mother, I just think about how well she loved and took care of me and how pure and well intentioned her love was. But when I think of her as a woman and as my friend I feel a deep sadness for some of the struggles she faced in her life and I realize that I understood too late who she was as a woman. And I wish I had had more of that.

Yesterday Dave and I chatted about Rosie. It’s Oscar weekend and t’s her birthday. The tulips that I planted for her are making their way up to say hello. I can’t garden – I don’t share her green thumb but these seem to do well in spite of my ability to kill all living plants. We chatted about who she was. Dave saw my mother’s faults but he loved her and saw her clearly, maybe in some ways as her good friend he saw her more clearly than I always did – but he said this. He said your mother loved you because she saw who you were. She saw that you didn’t have the outside layer other people have that protects them…so she worried about you and how people might take advantage of you. But it’s also the trait that really allowed her to be herself with you, to show you who she really was. She was your greatest friend. And she was. So here is to my mother Rosie. To her tulips. To her life. For showing me how to elevate life to its finest glorious moments. Cheers.


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Conversations with My Mother: A Year Later: An Exposition on Grief (video)

For my mom today. I still love that she thought her daughters could be  – should be movie stars.

A year ago today my mom died on an unimaginably beautiful autumn day. I started Conversations with my Mother as a way to capture her spirit and life and to share the ways in which she could surprise so many with her candour. Coming up to her first anniversary of not being with us I had thought that a fitting tribute to a woman who gave me so many words to laugh and play with would be to build her a beautiful word palace. A palace that would be a tribute not to life’s difficulties but to all its beauty and the ways she contributed to it.

Oddly though I started panicking this last week when the feeling of grief I became familiar with earlier this year seemed to have been replaced by a feeling of ‘non-missingness’maybe even of distance and coldness, like something maybe just wasn’t there any more.  Word palaces are hard to build on emptiness.

Then as late as two days ago I realized that when you (and by this I mean people in general) suffer loss, a new palate of emotion is created against which the rest of life now interacts. And I realized that the feeling of removal and of  emptiness is another function of grief. You cannot sustain hard grief forever.

Within this framework I’ve been able to understand my new-found inability to say goodbye to people – that when I start feeling that sense of loss I can’t stop. That I keep myself extremely busy because I don’t want to embrace the inexplicable difficulty of feeling it anymore – that my thoughts are still a little too crowded with the last weeks of my mom’s life and every single hard thing that comes with watching someone die of cancer – that more often now than not I’m able to  say “Ohmigod mom would think this was hilarious”-   like the feet that keep showing up on the coast of British Columbia, that Sarah Palin isn’t going to run for President – the Stanley Cup riots would have been food for thought and the hockey playoffs the scene of many phone calls punctuated with “Ok gotta go, call you back in the next commercial break.” – that her thoughts on Jack Layton dying would be as much ruminations on the dreadfulness of cancer as it would be an opportunity to slam Stephen Harper. On a Friday night when it’s time to have a glass of wine I still have to stop myself from reaching for the phone  to say “Hi – Happy Friday!” and the lack of this moment punctuated with silence does feel extremely empty – but I can feel myself slowing moving to the tipping point – pushing myself past that empty moment to the celebratory one “Here’s to Rosie.”

These are the things I miss. I miss being able to tell her that I’m finally starting to dress less like a hobo hippy  chick and more like a proper person, that I’m learning to brush my hair when I go out, that I modelled in a fashion show at work and even wore make-up, that I can see her grandchildren growing up in all the ways she had hoped, that we are hanging on as a family even though I still feel like the centre is missing – that I tried to turn my brother into my mother but it doesn’t work. Only my mother is my mother – no matter how much I love my brothers and sisters.  I want to tell her that I hope she keeps showing up in my dreams – please don’t stay away for years. That I want to remember what the last words she said to me were which I think was “Okay I want chocolate.”  That she would have laughed and found this ironic and funny. I want to tell her that I stopped reading books when she died because they made me feel too much but I’m ready again – that I’m reading again.

My word palace is that these conversations somehow continue – that when people leave they don’t leave you per se which is how it has felt – so deeply personal – so inadvertently abandoned- she simply moved on to the next stage in life – she is still fully in my heart. I still love her as much as always. even though I have to move past that hard stage of grief so I can start to embrace my own life. That I’ll always have words for her, always have conversations – that everyday when I hear music I always think of her. I love you mom.


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The Days of Forced Relaxation Are Coming to An End

Last year at the end of March my boss took me into his office and told me that our unit was being closed down due to budget cuts and that I would no longer have a job after three months. Admittedly, I was in shock. I loved my job and the people I worked with and was looking forward to the next big project to work on. I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect situation than the one I was in. Continue reading


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Conversations with my mother: Oh Tessie, isn’t this great!

For my mom, the little Dutch girl.

Often when I was a young girl my mother would look at the incredible dinner we were eating and say, “Ohhhh Tessie, look at this. This isn’t so bad at all. If only they could see us now!” I never knew who the “they” were but just that someone “out there” should witness this incredible feast we were having. You see my mom was a single mother with very limited resources. And while I never lacked for anything my mother’s circumstances made me aware from a young age of the value of things.

Rosie’s joy in these triumphs both large and small gave me a sense of celebration. New shoes, ‘Yippee let’s celebrate”, a great dinner,” Woo hoooo I want the world to see this.” Beautiful sunny day,  “Wow, Tess can you imagine.” Or, “Nobody wants to hire me mom.” What? ”  she’d say in genuine shock. “Who wouldn’t want you? All in good time. There’s a reason for everything. Trust me.” Or she’d look around her small two bedroom apartment and say, “Look at this. It’s so cozy isn’t it. Look at those paintings. You know I just look around and I love it. I love everything in here.” My mom talked about that apartment like it was a palace. And to her it was.

So I’m going to try and apply her innate ability to celebrate life as a glass half full rather than half empty to this last year in my own life.

I would say that having a health scare and losing my job don’t even register as negatives in view of facing the biggest loss of my life which is the loss of my mom. I would also say that the wrenching pain of losing my Rosie yielded a different kind of beauty than I would have ever anticipated. That I have a more intimate knowledge of the word bitter and sweet. That these bitter moments in life also yield life’s greatest sweetnesses. That through this journey with my mother and my family I came to know her in a deeper and better way. That I watched my brother and sisters rise to the occasion even in their weakest moments, that I saw generosity and forgiveness. That I saw my nieces and nephews literally surround my mother with their love and their liveliness, that I saw them take her hand and love her. That I saw them not be afraid even if they were a little. That I saw that my mother had created a family of love and joy. That we all sat in her room with the liveliness and sense of celebration that we got directly from her and which she passed on to us.

That she was the creator of this family  that seems to have passed on the gene of experiencing life in all of it’s bittersweetness as more than half full. That when my husband said last year at Christmas “Let’s make room for the prettiest girl in the room.” that the dance floor parted with all her grandchildren and children surrounding her and dancing with the joy that somehow in spite of everything we have managed as a family to foster and grow and pass on.

So this year I lost my mother. But this year I saw more clearly what her gifts were and I see them everywhere in my family. And for that I am eternally grateful and will try and honour her ability to experience life as always more than half full. Cheers mom.


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Conversations with my mother: How Grief is Like a Super Nova

Apt. 301 371 Lakeshore Road West

Today is December 1st 2010. Today is also the day that a new person will be moving into Apt.301 371 Lakeshore Road West, my mother’s apartment. It feels weird to think that 40 years of living have drawn to a close in that little apartment. It’s where I grew up and it’s where my mother found her peace. It’s like the mecca of our family. The fulcrum, the centre. It’s where I can lie on the green leather couch that fits me perfectly and relaxes me. It’s where I watch Dancing with the Stars with mom, it’s where we have a glass of wine, where we laugh and have serious life talks and nothing talks. It’s where we irritate each other, where we laugh and where we cry. For all of us that apartment represents something different but for me it’s what I have always called home. Home is where my mother is. It’s where we watched over each other as we grew up and it’s where I watched my mother grow older. You never know when you start a journey where or when it’s going to end. Life offers no end point until you’re living it.

Grief I’ve decided works in weird ways. Each stage you pass through is like a super nova. It creeps up on you. You’ll never call it a stage or recognize it as a stage but suddenly it grabs you like a wall of fire, like a shooting star, like a super nova. It holds you tight and you feel loss like you’ve never felt it before in your life. And shock and more shock and sadness, anger, grief, and the endless shock that runs like a single narrative through these luminescent balls of fire. And then all of a sudden you feel normal and you find yourself laughing spontaneously, your guilt is unchecked until it comes back to remind you that you’ve lost your centre, your mother, your home.

Those moments of normality are so incongruent with the emotional trajectory of grief and loss.First you can”t believe that the world is marching on. Doesn’t everyone know you’ve just lost your mother? And then it becomes less of that and more your own embrace of normality that makes you feel a bit like a traitor. Don’t you know you just lost mom?

The hardest journey is from being able to embrace real life flesh and blood that you can hold and hug to having nothing but a few things and a lifetime of memories. The memory of a home, of all my mom’s special things, her clothes, the way she had this just so. It feels cruel to dispense with these things that meant so much to someone and now mean so much to me. Dismantling a home feels like dismantling a life.  Is this really all that’s left of this home? Just these things? I know that my mom is so much more than just things.

Today is the close of one chapter in the life of Apt 301 and the beginning of another one. Life without Rosie has truly begun. Finding my way home now is no longer getting on an airplane and making my way to Rosie at Apt 301. The crazy explosions of emotion that have engulfed me these last few months are subsiding and when I think of my mom I think of a spark, a star,  a super nova and I’ll find my way back through the lifetime of great memories she has given me. I love you mom.


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Conversations with My Mother: Things I’ve learned from Rosie

My mom died in the amazing Dorothy Ley Hospice on Saturday October 9th in the late afternoon. It was a brilliantly beautiful fall day and she had her family by her side. Dorothy Ley lies somewhere just outside Port Credit where my mother lived and Sherway Gardens, Rosie’s favourite mall of all time.  My mom once said of a friend’s house in Kits, “This is nice but where’s the mall?”

I feel as though I have been on a journey with my mother. At first I thought it was the journey of these past few months but now I realize that it has been a journey of a lifetime. Sometimes it’s hard to see our mother’s as people or as anything outside their roles as our mothers.  But now when I try and disentangle myself as my mother’s daughter I feel like I can better understand the quirks she developed as a result of some of the hard knocks she had to take in life.

My mother married twice. Both times she married men who liked to take things from her. Her children, her safety, her children’s safety, her things, whatever she had they wanted and they took without asking or without scruples. Abusive men will change your life and the life of those around you forever if you give them the chance.

When husband number two left my mother high and dry it was the best thing he could ever have done.  My mom never was allowed to work but suddenly at the age of 43 she had to figure out what she could do. And she did. She cleaned houses and eventually she took care of other people’s children.

I don’t think in all the years of knowing my mom she ever complained of the things she had to do or the things she didn’t have. She just did it. And when we had a particularly good meal  she always looked at me with a mischievous smile and say, “If only everyone could see us now!”

Eventually my mom got a job at Eaton’s where she worked at the accessories counter for 10 years. She loved that job. Always a clothes horse, she would get dressed up, make her lunch and off she’d go to have coffee with the girls before work.

There is no doubt that my mother had her quirks. She was brutally honest, sometimes unkindly so and she could have a hard edge. She could make a dollar stretch like nobody I know because she had to.

Sometimes even in the last few months I had this idea that my mother didn’t live her life to its fullest potential. I felt badly that she never had another partner or that she wouldn’t take risks or adventure far beyond her beloved apartment in Port Credit. It upset me that television had become her world (especially Dancing with the Stars and the Olympics!)

If you asked her she would wave her hand and say “What for? Why would I want anyone in my life? They’d make me cook and clean. Forget it. I’m happy. Tessie, I’ve lived more than you would ever know.” I guess the thing is I heard this but I didn’t understand it.

In the last few months my mom would look at her place and say, “Isn’t this cosy? Don’t you love all the pictures and all the things in here. I love this place. I love Port Credit.”  My mom lived in her apartment on Lakeshore Road for 40 years. Once she managed to escape the craziness of life with husband number two she decided to build a life for herself where nobody could take anything away from her. Where she could feel safe. Where she could have peace and be happy.

It was from this safe place that my  mother executed her witticisms and divined her essential Rosiness.

  • I’ve learned from my mother to take from life what you can.
  • To keep laughing in spite of it all.
  • To be silly and laugh even through the worst of it.
  • To love the people around you.
  • To give even if you don’t have much.
  • To not bemoan what you don’t have.
  • To not let lack of money ruin your sense of peace.
  • To create your own safe place.
  • To understand that there is nothing about dying that is undignified.Whatever the cruelties that old age and sickness impose on you, they have nothing to do with dignity.
  • That regardless of anything Rosie’s amazing spirit shone through adversity and kept us laughing and on our toes until the very end.
  • That just being there and holding someone’s hand is the most important thing in the world.
  • That old age never compromises a mischievous fun-loving spirit.
  • That when you look at older women understand that they have lived every age and their entire being is comprised of that. They have been daughters, sisters, lovers, wives, girlfriends, adventurers, nurturers. They’ve loved and they’ve lost.
  • That love can make you do things you never thought you could.
  • I  believe that Rosie’s spirit lives all around me and is a part of me.

I hope that wherever my mother is, it’s as peaceful as 371 Lakeshore Road West, Port Credit.


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Conversations with My Mother: Every Moment Counts

The conversations I have with my mom these days are changing rapidly because her ability to speak is decreasing daily. We all in our own way wait for those moments to arrive when my mom’s personality is able to emerge through her illness and medication. All of us have different ways of being with her. My brother likes to make her laugh and hold her hand, one of my sisters works hard to make sure she is comfortable, my other sister made sure she was fed throughout the day and had lots of magazines to read when she was still home.

I don’t seem to be able to make my mom laugh and I’m not particularly good at care taking although I can do it. My speciality is to sit and hold her hand.  Yesterday was a glorious day here in Ontario. My mom has a huge window in her room that looks out on trees that are changing colour. I sat and held her hand as we watched the wind blowing the leaves here and there, the birds gathering around the bird feeder. Autumn couldn’t have been more spectacular than it was at that moment.

Sometimes I can feel her press my hand a little harder or shake it when she hears music she loves. I press back  to say that I really like that music too.

Just when we were both dozing off a volunteer came in and asked if either my mother or myself would like therapeutic touch. I asked my mom what she thought  and she said, “Are you kidding me. I’m half dead. Too old for that nonsense.” I looked at Lynn and said I think my mom said no. I giggled because that is so typical of my mom. Then she looked at me and said in her almost non-existent voice, “Don’t you have anything else to wear?”  Ahhh forever a mother.

Just as I was ready to leave for the night and I thought she was dead asleep she opened her eyes wide and said in Dutch, “You know what I feel like having?” and I said “What?” “An ice cream cone. Strawberry, chocolate AND vanilla.” Wow” I said, “well you haven’t eaten in a month so you must be hungry.”

So it comes down to this. And maybe this is what Morrie Schwartz was trying to say  when he said that once you understand how to die you understand what it is to really live. Watching my mother die is as close to dying as I have ever been. And I think what he means is this. The apartment that my mom has loved so much for the last 40 years and all the lovely things she has collected to make it her home are now meaningless. The clothes she loved to buy no longer matter. The car she loved so much isn’t even thought of. The only thing I think she cares about are the people she loves and having them around her. She wants love. And love is the only thing that we can give her that matters.

Dorothy Ley Hospice to date has been an amazing experience. They understand that comfort and love is all that matters at this point in life. I don’t understand why the government would cut their funding…..


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End of life care decisions: Dorothy Ley Hospice

It was very difficult for us as a family to realize that we couldn’t care for Rosie at home. The truth was that the idea of caring for my mother at the end stages of her illness  was for most of us a scary prospect both emotionally and physically. And yet for me that wasn’t the absolute deciding factor.  After talking to a wonderful social worker called Cathy Mahuran we realized that there were things that were going to happen to my mother physically as a result of her illness that would make it a challenge for us to keep her as comfortable and as safe as possible.

Responsiveness to pain management and the ability for my mother to be able to undergo paracentesis (fluid drainage) once or twice a week to keep her comfortable were all deciding factors.

Truthfully bringing Rosie to longterm care was probably one of the most difficult things we have ever done. My mom who is extremely mentally alert was all of a sudden confused and terrified. She couldn’t figure out where she was or why, she kept asking us how she got there and how would she know how to get home and worst of all she was terrified of the personal care workers. Even though we met some amazing people at McCall Longterm Care (particularly nurses and social workers) the fact that she was afraid made it hard to leave her there.

We heard that because she was already considered to be out in the community that her chances of getting into a hospice were very small. Even so we kept her name on lists and worked with the social workers and coordinators to make sure they understood how important it was to my mom and us that she be in an absolute quality end of care facility. Short of being accepted at a hospice we would spend as much time with her at the facility as we could.

I’m not sure how it happened but the day before yesterday we got a call that a bed had become available at Dorothy Ley Hospice. As soon as we arrived I think we all had a collective sigh of relief. The surroundings are beautiful and the are staff absolutely amazing. Rosie deserves to die in love and comfort. Thanks to all the people who volunteer their time so generously to hospice care, to the fundraisers and staff who make these jewels a reality.

“Spiritual care lies at the heart of hospice. It says we are here. We will be with you in your living and your dying. We will free you from pain and give you the freedom to find your own meaning in your own life – your way. We will comfort you and those you love – not always with words, often with a touch or a glance. We will bring you hope – not for tomorrow but for this day. We will not leave you. We will watch with you. We will be there.” Dr. Dorothy Ley

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Conversations with my mother: Laughing our asses off in spite of it all

Well, these are not easy times in my family’s life. Rosie has terminal cancer and has been moved to longterm care until we can get her into a hospice. For now we have made her place as cosy as possible with flowers, pictures and us! It is the oddest thing but amidst all of this there is as much laughter as there are tears.

Rosie has never been one to mince words and this is true now more than ever. Yesterday we hung out and giggled and laughed our arses off. It wasn’t easy making the decision to leave her in longterm but we are making the best of it by giving her endless love. . I already have so many incredible memories of this ridiculously hard time.

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