It is possible to live and die with dignity, but it isn’t always certain. My mother denied to all that she was either ill or in pain. She died at home. My father raged angrily against his brain tumour.
I chose to document this story of caring for my ailing parents, as I could find little in the literature to help me on my journey. To keep ourselves organized, and to keep track of my parents’ appointments, our trips to Toronto, their cancer treatments, and their prognoses, we wrote every appointment on our calendar. Eventually, I created a journal.
Journalling is a highly recommended means by which a writer can come to terms with the events of her life. An autobiography is an excellent way to capture a life well lived. Some new studies have reported the benefits of writing a memoir to come to terms with your own story. There is healing power in such a process.
Dr. Gary Reker’s (2002) work on spirituality and his autobiography, as well as the work done by Pennebaker (2004), convince me that the writing process is a healing one. In Writing to Heal, Pennebaker cites research that demonstrates reduced visits to medical professionals for those who disclose their emotional trauma and try to make sense of it. Writing about one’s emotions is associated with general enhancement of immune function and reduced physiological indicators of stress. His research finds that one’s mood and behaviours change after writing, and that expressive writing can help those dealing with stressed interpersonal relationships. His work gives the reader many ideas about basic writing technique, constructing and editing your story, changing perspective, and experimenting with context. Certainly, when teaching writing to my intermediate students, we found much healing in working through the writing process in fiction, both poetry and prose. Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones gives terrific strategies for opening up your mind and helping the words flow off the pen.
I was inspired to write this memoir in order to share my stories with others. These are lessons that I wanted to share. While my parents were fighting for their lives and trying to deal with the vagaries of age, I looked for human and physical resources through the Internet, sought out various counsellors, and contacted the Canadian Cancer Society. I scoured bookstores and found few resources. This book outlines the human and physical resources, the personnel, and the publications I found during my journey; and the frustrations of the bureaucratic process of dealing with health care professionals, long-term care facilities, and even extended family members.
These difficulties were compounded by my own diagnosis of clinical depression. I found during my research that as a woman going through menopause, with symptoms of stress, I was at great risk for depression. I am now receiving hormone therapy, after a saliva test showed that my estrogen levels were low and that my progesterone was minimal. This imbalance, due to surgical menopause in 1995, resulted in menopausal symptoms that included depression.
I worked hard to advocate for my parents, while working full time and caring for my adult children. After facing depression, a year on antidepressants and a focus on healthy eating and daily exercise have me feeling better. Depression is a difficult disorder, as it is unspoken, unnamed, and often undiagnosed. Many things can trigger it, including adolescence, hormonal changes, moving through life passages, a new job, or perceived job stress. I went into a mild depression and sought counselling after my divorce; having been in a marriage of sixteen years, it was a shock. I used the Employee Assistance Program to find someone to talk to about the issues I had been facing. The research says that depression can return with new stressors, such as work pressures, perimenopause, worrying over young or adult children, ailing parents, or bereavement. I have done extensive research on it to understand it better. It was quite a learning experience.
I had a fairly normal family life. Adopted as an infant into a loving working-class family, I had the usual teenage angst. A large amount of my leisure time was spent singing in choirs, attending church, and participating in a close, extended family network with cousins galore. I was always a good student and had no trouble in school. My parents really wanted me to get a good education. They encouraged me to go to university. I pursued a degree in Early Education from Ryerson, married in second year, and graduated pregnant. I earned my B.Ed., and then an M.Ed. Reading, writing, and research have taken up a better part of my life. I have always liked to ask questions.
Here we are: a loving, ’60s family at Robin’s first birthday. He was adopted at two weeks of age. I was adopted when I was six months old in 1957.
My younger brother, Robin, was adopted when he was two weeks old. Robin now lives in British Columbia. He works in Northern Ontario as a miner for two weeks at a time, spending the alternate two weeks on Vancouver Island where he lives with his son. Robin is a big man. Not tall, but a sturdy man of Scots descent. His dark, curly hair usually needs a trim. He is a “go to it” type of person. He works hard as a miner. We never talked much, not until our parents’ ill health, but we love one another.
I was very proud of my mother. She was a very strong and determined woman. Her father died when she was fifteen years old and she dropped out of school to work and supplement the family income. Old photos reveal a beautiful young woman, especially the old, old black and white photos dating from 1940--obviously taken when she and Dad were courting. She worked and played hard all of her life. At the age of fifty, she learned to use a computer in her office. For twenty-seven years she managed a Rotary Club of 500 members with aplomb and panache. She was one of my best friends, despite living in separate cities. She listened to me and gave me unconditional support. We spoke every few days.
I did not talk to Dad very much. In his later years, he couldn’t hear me on the phone. A strong, silent type, with many tools and a well-appointed workbench, he always had a project on the go and seemed to be able to fix anything. He loved his plants, his goldfish pond, his pets, and his lovely waterfront home. In my youth, he and Mom attended every track and field meet, every concert, and every other important event in my life. I always felt loved unconditionally and totally supported all my life. My parents were always there for me. I suffered little, other than having a huge lack of self-confidence.
We were a busy family that lived in the bustling inner city. I grew up taking the subway everywhere. Summers were spent in marvellous Muskoka. I adored the lake, the water, and the wind. We built a cottage, which still stands nestled in the trees by the lake. Dad loved his cottage. In the summer he would leave early on a Monday morning to nip into the busy city, and we would meet him at the highway when he returned on Friday nights for the weekend. In 1991, Mom finally retired after Dad had lost a series of jobs in the construction bust of the eighties. They were both sixty-six years old.