AFTER THE STORM: A Road Trip to Redemption
Even though it took me decades to figure it out, I now know for certain I had a good mom. While she always questioned her abilities from the birth of her first child to her final breath, she did her best to impart wisdom to her children in order to integrate us into polite society. She made many sacrifices for us that only the arc of time would reveal to me.
There were also unintentional things she taught me; not through her words, but her actions.
In the summer of 2019, I went on a massive road trip in Utah, and when it came time to check out of each hotel, I would catch myself tidying up the room to make it easier for the cleaning staff to prepare it for the next guest. I’d make sure the garbage can was in a convenient spot; I’d pile all the towels in a single spot, and I’d just make sure the room was relatively easy to clean.
I want the staff to come in and go, “Oh, this will be quick!” In some small way, I want to make their day.
My mom used to do this. My siblings and I used to mock her. We’d say things like, “They’re going to clean it anyway! Who cares if it’s neat for them? Who cares what they think of us? They’ll never see us again!” And then we’d laugh. Mom would still do it anyway. It was important to her.
It wasn’t until years later that I would piece together the reasons why. My mother, twice in her life, was part of the cleaning staff at a hotel — they were called “chambermaids” back in those days. It was hard work and she hurt her back once while turning over a mattress. She did this because our family had run into financial straights a few times in our lives and she did her part to help make ends meet. She had five mouths to feed! Six if you count my father.
My mother lacked the confidence to do any other kind of work; she hated working with money because it involved counting and she was afraid to make mistakes; she hated selling because she would be too honest. She just felt that all she was good for was manual labour because she never felt smart enough to do anything else. Those are her words, not mine.
Let me be clear here: I am not impugning manual labour; it is honest work and probably the only work where, at the end of the day, you can rest your head easy on the pillow because you genuinely served others, and you did so in almost an anonymous way. If you think about it, it is the most sincere way to serve another.
My mother was the product of high school bullying. Most of us eventually let that stuff bounce off of us, but some of us absorb it and let it affect the rest of our lives. Her father one day told her that her days at school were done and she had a job at the local chicken farm because her family needed the money and being in school wasn’t paying the bills. My mother would gladly quit school to get away from the awful people who made fun of her almost every day.
It would be a decision that would haunt her for the rest of her life as it destroyed her confidence and made her feel inferior. She felt she wasn’t educated. She felt she wasn’t good enough.
I am an academically educated person because of my mother. But I am also educated in the realities of life because of my mother. She was much, much smarter than she ever gave herself credit. This person who felt she wasn’t educated enough was a great teacher to me in so many ways.
One of the most important things my mother ever taught me was to respect people in the service industry.
One time on my trip, as I checked out of a hotel, I saw a gathering of the cleaning staff as they folded towels in the laundry room. As I poked my head in the door, their light conversation came to a halt and they looked at me. I think they were expecting me to make a demand for them of some sort.
I said, “I just want you to know that I deeply appreciate and respect what you do. My mother did your job. I know it’s hard work and I just wanted to say that I appreciate everything you do to make my stay here great.”
I put my hand to my heart and said, “Thank you!”
The room filled with smiles and the ladies said, “Wow…well…well, thank you!” They didn’t know what else to say. They didn’t have to. I was the one who owed them the thanks for the clean sheets and towels.
There is no academic institution on earth that could have taught me that. The only one who was qualified was the one who thought she wasn’t educated enough; the one who always thought she wasn’t good enough — my mother.
As always, thank you, Mom!
There are times when you don’t need to be in direct contact with a friend to see that someone in their family is reaching the end of their life. There is an air of “grief prep” when these things happen.
I watched online as a friend of mine kept posting pictures of her mother on social media with regularity. I found this odd as she was one to post pictures of her trips and the odd social gathering; rarely would she post anything to do with her family. She wasn’t a frequent poster to begin with, but to see her mother becoming a regular theme for a period of time started to make me question whether she was in a “pre-grief” mode as a loved one declines.
Weeks later, I would get my answer as I would see several postings from friends, offering condolences on the loss of her mother. I joined in these condolences and noted that this was the fourth year in a row where one of my circles (including myself) would lose a parent. I was the second one of my group to go through this and I was getting well versed in what to expect when you lose someone close to you.
I simply offered to lend an ear should she need it. I told her I had “been there, done that, and now give tours”. I figured she’d be surrounded by family and that I’d never hear from her. However, should she feel the need, my offer of an ear would be valid and not some empty platitude.
A few short weeks would pass when I would see an email from her. It was one simple sentence:
“When does it stop hurting so much???”
Such a valid question! I knew that I couldn’t spin the pain one feels with the loss of a parent into something that would “kiss and make it all better”. That would be a disservice to my friend who asked an honest question. It is a question that all of us ask in the middle of grief.
So, having “been there, done that” complete with t-shirt and tour guide pass, I composed my response:
Do you want an honest answer? Never. Yes, it fades but it will come back and visit again and again. Years will pass and you will still find the odd moment where tears come for seemingly no reason.
The first year is the hardest. All the firsts happen — first missed birthday; first Christmas; first anniversary. Once you make it to that, it gets easier. And the pain is more a loving remembrance, which you will discover is a good thing.
You will miss her every day for the rest of your life. You will think of her every day. You will talk of her often. Let it happen. Don’t let people tell you to get over it. Never let anyone take that away from you. She was your mom, after all. Remember her.
I didn’t want to dress this up for you. I would be doing you a disservice. But the pain eventually gives way to an eternal love. I promise you.
If you ever need to talk, I will listen.
My friend appreciated the honesty and, also, the fact that I didn’t try to “fix” her. I simply gave it to her as it is; a wound that never fully heals.
I would cross paths with my friend a few days later as I walked around a park at lunch. She was walking her dog and you could see it was an escape for her; a chance to decompress. I walked up to her and said hi. She was happy to see me. I gave her a hug and said it was nice to see her again. What we had exchanged via email was left unsaid as we simply nodded in a moment of mutual understanding. I didn’t need to say sorry as I could see she already knew and preferred me not to mention recent events in a public place.
After a few moments of weather talk, I departed from her to allow her to continue on the path, both figuratively and literally. If she needed me, I knew we would cross again. I had hoped for her that, someday, it would stop hurting so much.
Two years ago, my mother would walk into the Allan Blair Cancer Clinic in Regina, Saskatchewan to undergo her first chemo treatment. She had a preliminary cancer diagnosis two weeks previous that was considered “serious”, but deemed “manageable”.
When she first entered the patient’s area, she started to tear up because this was a replay of 2009 when my father would be a regular visitor here. It brought back some painful memories of the last year with him and how things had ended. It seemed like it was now her turn to enter into the same fate.
Because of all this swirling in her head, she was unable to focus. She went to hold her cup of water, tipped it over, and spilled it all over the floor. She apologized repeatedly to the nursing staff, held her hands to her face, and sobbed. I put my hand on mom’s shoulder and told her it’s not a big deal, that it’s just a cup of water, and a towel would easily remedy the situation.
But it wasn’t about the cup of water; it was about being powerless and helpless.
In the midst of all this, we were bombarded with copious amounts of information. We might as well have heard the “beep beep beep” of a backup alarm as it felt like a truck descending upon us and dumping the information at our feet. So much information! Too much at once.
In contrast to all the overwhelming information, there were many smaller bright spots. This was a day that felt like it had a dark cloud hanging over it; the impending long, hard struggle that was before us. However, among the ominous, there were smiling volunteers who came by with coffee and treats, all of whom had encouraging things to say. It turns out, almost all of them were cancer survivors who were giving back to the clinic that saved or prolonged their lives. Some of them were still looking down the barrel of their mortality, and yet they still gave back by helping others who were just starting down their journey.
I could see the hope in mom’s eyes as they came by to offer encouragement. I could see that she could envision herself in their position one day, giving back because she survived. Maybe she could beat this!
With each smile, we were given gifts like a hand-made pillowcase and “get well” cards. One such gift item was a hand-carved hummingbird. It was created by a local cancer survivor who felt it was his duty to give back in the only way he could. It is just something he does in his spare time. It is an anonymous gift in some ways.
The card that came with it reads, “Legends say that hummingbirds float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy, and celebration. The hummingbird’s delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning and that laughter is life’s sweetest creation.”
As it turned out, the majority of what we would receive that day would prove to be an exercise in futility as, just seven days later, mom would receive the news that her cancer was no longer deemed “manageable” but “terminal”.
We would return to the clinic a few more times over the next three months where we’d still see the smiling faces offering the same encouragement regardless of the dire fate. They were the beams of light as we walked down a dark corridor towards our destiny.
While we were increasingly helpless and powerless, each visit to the Allan Blair Cancer Clinic was like the hummingbird — floating free of time, carrying hope, love, and celebration. Despite everything, we would learn that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, and laughter is life’s sweetest creation.
You never know when a “snippet of life” moment is going to fall upon you; sometimes it impacts you like a comet plunging into a planet. One would happen in 2013 on New Year’s Eve at a Moose Jaw Warrior Hockey Game.
There was always an elderly couple that sat beside us this season. They were such a cute couple; Ron and Eleanor. They were a friendly couple who befriended us the very first game and, mom and I always looked forward to going to games to see them again. Their antics were adorable; Ron would always cheer for the opposing team, no matter who it was, just to “spite” Eleanor. This would create a friendly rivalry every game and, with the Warriors being a sub .500 team this year, Ron would inevitably become “victorious” every game despite the irony of him wearing Moose Jaw Warrior paraphernalia. If the visiting team would score, Ron would clap and cheer while Eleanor would playfully hit and tell him to shut up. Even though the Warriors were having a terrible season and it was frustrating to watch, this couple gave us reason to smile and enjoy coming to games.
These were the signs of a beautiful, long-lasting love that had reached a mature stage; where each other’s “aroundness” was all that was needed to have a good time. It was a thing of beauty to witness.
This night, Ron would come by himself and announced to us that his wife had passed just 48 hours previous. He had said, one day, she was fine and, the next, she had pains in her abdomen. And, 10 days later, she was gone.
“I am so sorry, Ron,” I said as I reached over and touched his arm. He gave a simple acknowledgment and a nod. You could see that the events of the past two weeks for him were still incredulous and had not quite registered as fact.
We had gotten around to the usual questions of how did she die and her age. He said it had been cancer that didn’t show its face until it was too late. She was 77. Ron then announces that he is also 77 but, six months younger.
“She liked her men younger and good looking!” he declared with a proud smile. And, we laughed.
Ron continued: “Not like you,” he says, pointing at me, someone three decades his junior, “You’re looking pretty old. Not young and spry like me!”
I couldn’t hear him over the public address announcer and I asked him to repeat himself.
He motions to my mom and says, “See? His hearing’s gone.” And, we laughed again.
Amidst all this laughter, my mom and I are fighting back tears as we try not to notice the empty seat beside us. There was going to be no friendly rivalry tonight; no counter-cheering for “spite”; no playful hits and warnings to be quiet.
The Moose Jaw Warriors — a Canadian Junior Hockey team — have had such a disappointing season and, when you look around the stadium, you see all these upset, frustrated fans at times. I would hear angry words and threats of never coming back here because all they do is lose. Some people feel like they are wasting their time.
By contrast, for a life lesson, I need only look to my right and to witness Ron and Eleanor, giggling and laughing the whole time because one was playfully pitted against the other. They were showing me what really matters.
Ron did take a moment later in the game to reflect with us about his life with Eleanor. ”We went to so many places over 55 years,” He said, “And, it wasn’t perfect! There were times we wanted to kill each other. But, who doesn’t have that?” He laughed and looked into the distance with a bright smile. He was recalling all the happy times.
That was the thing; he never made it seem more than it was. And, he never made it seem less than it was. He simply made it what it was.
“We had four kids, grandkids and now, a great grandkid,” he said, smiling and nodding at his true accomplishments, “I have no regrets.”
My mom and I sat there quietly while, on the ice, the game was playing. He saw both my mom and I tear up and he sat back, pointed a scolding finger at us, and says, “DON’T YOU EVEN START! DON’T EVEN!”
This was a man who suffered a devastating loss not two days ago. But, like the fighting spirit that needs to live in all of us, he chose life. He would not stand to see us shed a tear or be sad. His tears had been shed in private before coming here and, this was not the time or the place to express sorrow. There was a game going on, afterall!
I would catch myself looking over at Ron over the course of the game. There was many a time he wasn’t watching the game and, instead, he chose to watch the tips of his fingers touch each other as if it were a daydream. He was set apart from the moment; he was living between worlds.
That’s what you do when a loved one passes; you are here, and then you are not.
Ron had his knees replaced years ago — by the way, he says never do that! — and for every game, Eleanor would dote on him to make sure he could get into and out of his seat. He said many times that “Eleanor is my legs”. Seeing him sit there, alone, with an empty seat between us made me think of who his legs are now; figuratively and literally.
The loss, for me, an acquaintance at best, was starting to settle in. Eleanor was gone and it was palpable. I knew my experience was but a spoonful of an ocean of loss he was feeling. No matter the brave face one wears after a loss, the hole that it leaves in one’s life will always surface, if even for a moment.
Remember how Ron always cheered for the visiting teams just to “spite” Eleanor? This night, I gave him a menacing finger point when Prince Albert scored and, I said, “Are you cheering for them?” He laughed, smiled and said I’d find out. When Moose Jaw scored and, eventually won the game, I saw him clap and cheer. My mom and I looked over at him.
He put a hush finger to his lips and said, “That was for Eleanor”.