Is this goodbye again?
It is a question going through my mind as I prepare myself for my trip back home this time around. It is hard not to cry. My birth mom has stomach cancer and her partner Jim has had a stroke.
I've been calling the hospital every week for a month to get updates on how they are doing. Doctor Ehmadi told me my mom's condition is serious. She has cancer. My mom is in palliative care. As his words hit my ears in stereo-sound through my $30 apple earphones, I take a sharp intake of air. I would have to head back home where my mom was poor and couldn't afford the luxuries like a cellphone or laptop or the monies to make a long distance flight. What was I going to do without internet while I'm visiting, I thought. But my mom doesn't give a damn about these things because she was content when she got her residential school monies, she bought a fucking house in Ashern, Manitoba, a used truck, and played bingo.
She also sent me and my sister Marguerite monies to assist us because that is just the way she is: kindhearted and generous, wanting to make up for years lost. The 30 years that the Sixties Scoop took away from me and the 43 years that it stole from Marguerite. For those who don't know, the "Sixties Scoop" was an assimilationist policy where the Canadian government intervened in Indigenous child welfare and placed native children away from their homes, cultures and communities. Some kids were placed in other provinces or even other countries.
When I was three years old -- and Marguerite was barely four -- we were stolen from our birth mom, Anna. Years later our adoptive parents told us in a very stern, scholarly way: "The news we received from Children's Aid, is that your mother was native, poor, and unfit."
Anna had been in an abusive relationship with our birth father. At the time we were taken from her, he was in prison for theft. She had been left alone to care for two toddlers. My sister and I were whisked away and placed in the care of a woman I vaguely recall as our "Aunt Helen." But I don't even know if she was our aunt or if we were even related. Not long after that a Caucasian doctor and his wife from the province of Ontario came to see us, though I was too young to remember this meeting. We had a one-weekend visit with them, and then they took us as a package deal. We went to live in Windsor, Ontario, away from family, tradition and community, immersed in another world we didn't know or understand.
The path I've taken to be reunited with my mom has been difficult. Fraught with many emotional rollercoaster rides, and eventual acceptance for who she is and why she is the way she is -- a woman of courage, strength and resilience -- now a woman who is also afraid of facing her illness.
Not long after I learned about my mom's illness, her doctor told me, "We need you here to make some decisions."
That statement made me panic. I'm in a different province, I'm under the care of a public trustee who takes care of my money, and I'm on government assistance, and now I'm being asked to come out to Ashern, Manitoba to make decisions for a mom I have only known for thirteen years.
Shit! What can I possibly decide for my mom? What can I do?
I called a couple of friends, and asked their opinion. Both of them told me: "This will be difficult, but your mom needs your help now."
I needed to go out to Ashern, Manitoba to visit my mom. I got off my ass and called my trustee, but I couldn't get ahold of her on the phone, so I emailed her:
"My mom is quite sick, and they want me out there. Can I have the monies to visit? Please advise."
A day later, she writes back:
"Christine, I'm sorry to hear about your mom. Of course you can go out there, please give me a round up of the costs associated with this trip and I'll release the monies to you."
Sitting at my kitchen table, I call the hospital out in Ashern. I push auto-dial on the saved number in my phone list. Listening to the silent space between the dial tone as it rings.
RING ... RING ... RING ...
A garbled, but quiet voice, answers on the other end. "Lakeshore Hospital, how can I help you?"
"Yes, I'm calling to see how my mom is doing -- Anna Smith, oh, and to let you know I'll be coming to see her on January 20th," I say rather quickly. I don't like going through the nurses to find out how she is but I've quickly learned that my mom will never tell me how she is really doing. I guess it's because she worries I'll get upset, like I did before she went in the hospital and I had to practically beg her to go in and see her doctor.
The nurse gives me a quick update: "Your mom is okay today. She's had some pain but we gave her some medication for it. Other than that, she's just resting."
"Oh ok, that's good." I say.
I'm expecting the nurse to hang up but she asks me, "Would you like to speak with your mom? We can put her on the phone if you'd like?"
I say "sure" and a few minutes later I hear my mom's voice come over the phone.
"HELLO" my mom says loudly. Her breathing is a bit erratic and she clears her throat, AHEM!
"Hi mom!" I say really loudly. My mom's hearing isn't the greatest and she often has to ask me to repeat myself, but this time she doesn't. We talk for a couple of minutes. I ask her how her pain is and a couple of other mundane questions like "whatcha doing?" and "did you eat your meals today?"
After she answers each question, there's a brief silence and then I hear her start to hum. "Mmmm mmmmm mmmmmm" and then I say, "Well, I'm coming out to see you soon" to which she replies "When are ya coming out here?"
"January 20th," I reply back.
She says "ok," and starts to hum again. "Mmmm ... mmmmm ... mmmmmm ..."
I smile at this and then tell her, "I had better go, I just wanted to see how you were doing."
"I'm ok," she says.
"Ok then, I'll talk to you later," I say.
"Ok" she says back.
"I love you," I say quickly.
"I love you too," she replies. A couple of seconds later, she hangs up the phone and I hear the dial tone for a second before I hang up too.
The trip is within a week and there's so much for me to do beforehand. I talk to a friend about looking after my cat. One friend agrees to stay at my place while I'm away so I don't worry anymore about who's watching my cat. With that taken care of, I go about cleaning my apartment and doing laundry; I go online purchase my ticket for the flight home. The next week flies by in a hurry. I do everything that I need to do and then it's time for me to leave.
I pack my suitcase the night before my trip. I move back and forth between the two rooms of my apartment, and try to figure out what I can bring without over-packing for my week-long trip, I pick up books that I can read while away. I pick up my latest beading project, and wonder, "Will I have time to do this?" I look at my colouring books and pencils, and stick them in the front of my suitcase. I pack my writing books. I know I'm bringing my laptop, there's no questioning myself over that one. I don't go anywhere without that piece of technology!
As I move between my suitcase and the wardrobe where I keep my clothes, my cat (Teddy) comes up to me and looks up at me and meows. I squat down beside him and pet him. I know he knows I'm leaving. I putter around for a couple of hours, picking things up here and there, looking at them and putting them away in their rightful spots. Because a friend is staying at my place while I'm away, I want my place to be as tidy as possible.
Finally, I stop everything I'm doing and look at the clock. It says 10 p.m. I guess I better get to bed, I think to myself. I walk towards my window, pull the curtains a little closer together and then turn to my nightclothes that are already laid out on my chair. I strip from my usual attire of jeans, t-shirt and hoodie and pull on my worn out jogging pants and thermal long sleeved under shirt. From his perch on my bed, Teddy sleepily looks at me. I walk over to my nightstand and quickly gulp my medications down with a glass of water. I march to my bed and pull my duvet down. Before I lay down and cover myself up, I take my glasses off and lay them on the window sill by my bed. I close my eyes.
Sleep doesn't come easily. I'm anxious and can feel my muscles tensing up. My heart is slightly racing and I find I have to do some quick breathing exercises. I slowly count 1 ... 2 ... 3 ... 4 ... and inhale and then exhale. I do this for about five to ten minutes. My meds start to take effect, and finally darkness overcomes me and I'm in dreamland.
I don't sleep very long. As I shift my body under the heavy duvet that is covering me, I peer at my watch. It's only 3am. I lay there and hope to God I fall asleep again. There's a weight on my legs and I look down and see Teddy, my cat sprawled over my legs. As I try to shift my legs, he awakens and almost glares at me as if to say "How dare you wake me up!"
I'm lying in my bed with my blankets around me, dreading having to get up at the god-awful hour of 5 a.m. Even though I have set my alarm for 5 a.m., I've been tossing and turning all night, but I do doze off finally at about 4:30, only to be awakened a half hour later by the annoying BEEP BEEP sound coming from the vicinity of my phone.
It startles me for a few seconds and I hurriedly locate my phone by my bed and hit the button on my alarm to silence it. Shaking the cobwebs out of my head, I throw my blankets off me, and throw my legs over the side of my bed and sit up. As my feet hit the floor, I cringe at the coldness that hit my toes and is seeping through the floorboards. It's 5 a.m. and I have to be at the subway for 6 a.m. and then out at the airport by 7 a.m., or so I thought.
I rush to the bathroom and lean over my bathtub to turn the hot and cold water taps on to take my shower. After struggling for a few minutes with my shower curtain coming off its hooks, I manage to get it back in order. I take my glasses off, and place them on my sink and hop in for a fast shower. I lean my head backwards, and feel the warm water wash through my hair and over my body. I blindly reach for the soap and start soaping myself up. Oh how I love the smell of Zest soap! I could bask in its smell all day, but I only have a few minutes to shower and get myself ready. As I hurriedly wash the soap off me, I think of the commercial jingle for Zest soap and sing in an off key tone
"You're not fully clean until you're zestfully clean." I giggle as I turn the leaky water faucets off. The cold air hits me again and I shiver as I hurriedly wrap my towel around me and make my way back to my bedroom.
I laid out my clothes out the night before, so I didn't have to dig around my closet to figure out what clothes to wear. I had picked my favorite jeans, black of course, and a black t-shirt and hoodie. After getting my clothes on, I glance at the clock and it says 5:35 am. I have to rush through the rest of my morning routine. I make my bed, pet my cat and then quickly put my bulky Sorel boots on. I hate the boots, but I didn't know what weather I would be heading into going to Winnipeg -- otherwise known as Winterpeg.
The beginning of my trip was a bit of a comedy of errors. First I struggled to get my bags together and myself down to St. Clair West subway station. I had to stop every few seconds to adjust my purse and backpack while still wheeling my suitcase down the sidewalk and onto the rickety escalator that groaned as though it was going to give out any second. Then I had to flash my metro pass and make my way through the turnstile and down another escalator only to realize that the most important escalator down to the subway was out of order and I had to manhandle my luggage down two sets of stairs. After that I had to take the subway all the way to Kipling and take the airport rocket 192 bus to the airport. I managed to catch the Rocket 192 just in the nick of time. The ride was uneventful until we reached arrivals where if it wasn't for another lady on the bus I would have gotten off at terminal one. Everyone else was getting off the bus, and I was so tired that I wasn't really paying attention and thought I had to get off also. As I struggled with my bags, I asked a fellow passenger if we were at Terminal 3. The lady who was in a crisp navy blue uniform was probably either an airline stewardess or worked somewhere in the airport because she said, "Dear where are you headed? If you're going to terminal three, stay on this bus for a few more minutes because this is terminal one." I looked at her with relief and said "Oh ok, thank you."
A couple minutes later, the bus arrives at Terminal 3 and I whisk myself and my bags off and run across into the terminal. I fight my way through the crowd and go to the self-boarding kiosk. It won't work for me. I try to put my information in again, but it won't take. An airport stewardess tells me, "You're past cut off time, you need to get in line and go to the desk."
"Ah shit!" I'm thinking to myself. I can feel panic building up inside, my heart rate increasing and my breathing quickening. I'm looking around and at the line up at the desk. I must have made some type of face because the stewardess than says, "Don't worry, I'll get you to the desk and through security."
"Oh, thank you!" I say, feeling a little relieved.
"Follow me," she says. As the stewardess makes her way through the crowd, I quicken my pace. I just about burst out laughing when all of a sudden I see her jump over the ledge at the desk. I love her agility! I would have fallen flat on my face if I had tried that move, I think to myself. Smiling, I stand in front her while she enters my info and quickly looks over my passport. She hands me my boarding pass and says "Come with me." She takes off at a fast clip and I follow her until we reach security. She gets me through the line and then says "You'll make your plane but you'll have to hurry as soon as you get through."
I tell her thank you once more and she leaves. A couple of minutes later I get through the airport checkpoint and though I struggle to get my belongings back together at first -- I run to my gate. With a minute to spare, I reach it and see I'm the last one to board. Phew!
I board the plane and find my seat. I have a window seat and have to ask the two ladies in their seats beside me to move so that I can get to my seat. The lady beside me is clearly very annoyed grumbling because she has to move, and is clearly pissed when I sit down and I accidentally sit on part of her seatbelt. "You're on my seatbelt," she says all snarky.
"I'm sorry," I say, as I shift myself in my seat. I want to smack the dirty look she gives me off her face, but I'm too tired. I also know that dealing with her is a battle I don't want to pick. I just turn my head away and look out the window. As I'm sitting in my seat, I watch the people on the tarmac with their bright neon safety vests on, waving their arms and batons and watch the other planes taxiing in. I feel a jolt as the plane I'm on starts to move and taxi down the tarmac, I brace myself for takeoff. I can feel my muscles tense up and my hands are clenched so tightly I can feel my nails dig into my palms. I've been on planes before but my nerves never settle down until we're actually in the air flying amongst the clouds.
Shortly after we take flight, I doze off briefly, only to awaken in what feels like a few minutes later to the feeling of my ears popping. The sharp pain of them popping makes me cringe. I hate the feeling of my ears popping, but I quickly swallow and feel them go back to normal. I'm awake for a little while just looking out the window to pass the time. I try to stifle a huge yawn so that I don't bother the lady beside me. But then I think, who cares? I feel my eyes growing heavy again and soon I doze off again.
I must have slept for the rest of the flight because all I remember is waking up and seeing and hearing the flight attendants going down the aisles and telling everyone to turn their electronics off and prepare for landing.
After everyone puts their stuff away, I once again brace myself for landing. I'm anxious to get off the plane because I'm feeling claustrophobic from sitting so close to the passengers around me.
The plane hits turbulence and my grasp on my seat tightens as I feel the plane get jostled about for a few seconds. As the plane straightens out, I think about how turbulent my life is at the moment, all the mixed up feelings I am feeling and how I wish I wasn't going to visit my mom in the hospital, but at her home instead. I'm still not sure what to expect when I see her, but the trepidation threatens the fake calm I wear upon my face. We're only in the air for a few more minutes before I hear the pilot say, "Welcome to Winnipeg ladies and gentleman, it is now 9:30 a.m."
I look at my watch and quickly change the time to Winnipeg time -- they are an hour behind Ontario. Without trying to jostle my neighbour on the plane, I also take my phone out and take it off airplane mode. A bunch of beeping noises emanate from my phone as missed texts come through and emails. I fumble with my phone for a few seconds as I try to turn the volume down, but then I just take my phone and shove it into my pocket, so that my neighbour doesn't glare at me or say something.
I stifle a yawn and grab my backpack from the floor. After a few seconds of standing in front of my seat, the ladies in my row move forward, and I gladly escape the confines of the small space I'm stuck in between the planes wall and seat in aisle 14 F.
"Have a nice stay in Winnipeg," the peppy flight attendant says as I exit the plane. I just smile and keep walking. I want to get the fuck off the plane! I walk down the tunnel from the plane into the airport, and follow the crowd to the baggage claims area.
I have a long layover in the airport. I find out shortly after I get into Winnipeg via text that my friend is unable to pick me up for a visit, so I hunker down by the Tim Hortons by the exit and pull out my phone. After about a hour I bundle up in my coat and make my way out the door to head over to the greyhound station. Thank god it's not far because the cold is bone-chilling, the cold is seeping through my coat, the cold is seeping through my boots.
It's a bit slippery out because it's snowing and raining at the same time. I laugh at myself because I know I am walking like a little old lady, walking really slowly and shuffling my feet to make sure I don't land smack on my ass on the sidewalk. The parking garage is kind of dark with only a few streams of light coming through its sparse windows. The cars entering are few and far between, and it makes the place that much more foreboding.
I speed up, anxious to get out of the dark garage and into a warm building. As I'm walking, I can't help but go deep into thought. Thinking of my mom and wondering if things are really as bad as I've been told. Tears threaten to spill but I hold them back. I can't lose it, I think. After all, I don't want to lose control in a public space. After a few minutes of struggling over the icy patches on the sidewalk, and managing not to fall on my ass, I reach the greyhound station doors and pull the doors open.
I sit and wait for the bus, making myself at home in a corner of the station and listen to my music and texting back and forth with various peoples. I did not arrive in Ashern until 2:30 a.m. on the Greyhound bus. It was an uneventful two-hour ride with many little stops in between, though I almost missed the ride altogether when I lined up for the wrong bus and was told to wait by the security guard at the doors of the Greyhound station. After that little mix up, the driver got me on the bus and watched where I sat down so he could easily locate me. I was nervous on the bus though, because I was scared that if I fell asleep I would miss Ashern, because you see I had been up since 3am the morning before. I was glad that I had my iphone because it meant that I would have better reception than the last time I had gone out to Ashern with a non-descript cheap phone -- an Alcatel Touch that gave out as soon as the bus reached Stonewall, Manitoba. My friend Katia and I were texting back and forth, and though it was pitch dark on the bus, that little bit of connection helped my nervousness and kept me calm. I checked Facebook probably a million times and my emails too. God forbid that I miss a post or an email! And when I didn't have reception, I just sat back and hoped for the time to go by quickly.
The bus driver, though gruff with me at first when I got on in Winnipeg because I was the very last person to board his bus, was now being kind as he took my suitcase out from below the bus and said, "You have a good weekend, ma'am." As I grabbed the handle of my suitcase from the driver, I said, "Thank you sir," and turned to start my trek to the little motel I was staying in. A wave of sadness hit me as this visit was different from all my other ones before.
No one was there to pick me up like so many other visits before. Both my mom and her partner were in the hospital. Instead of going to my mom's house, I was heading to the little motel off the highway to stay. I never felt so lonely as I did in the moments I did getting off the bus and heading over to the motel.
The next morning as I walked across the highway from the motel, the biting cold was seeping through my jacket. As I shrugged and tried to draw my jacket in closer, I felt my stomach lurch just a little bit, and my eyes burned from the unshed tears I had been holding back since awakening.
The walk to the hospital was a short one. As I reached the door, I took as deep a breath as I could and walked in. I headed to the nurse's desk and quietly told them, "I'm here to see Anna Smith, I'm her daughter."
I was nervous about seeing my mom and as the head nurse brought me down the hallway to see her, nothing could prepare me for what I would witness next. My mom lying in her bed and my stepdad in his wheelchair. I sat quietly in the hard plastic chair that was by my mom's bed in the hospital. I was trying so hard to stay strong in front of my mom, but it was so hard to not break down. Here she was, a shell of her former self, skin and bones compared to the last time I had seen her. I knew that even though it may not be in this visit, but in a later visit, if I got one in, it would be goodbye.