I recently hit the road, destination Winnipeg, Manitoba, the city I grew up in and which I left at the age of 18 swearing I’d never return. Never did, at least not to live. I left because it’s so goddamned cold. Then, after the interminable cold summer would arrive. Green worms hung menacingly from dying Elm trees and the mosquitoes ruined every attempt at outdoor fun. Despite its inhospitable living conditions (or maybe because of it?) the city has a history of turning out incredible artists and musicians—Neil Young, for example, and Randy Bachman and Burton Cummins (of Guess Who fame). I chalk it up to long winters in rumpus rooms with nothing else to do but noodle on your guitar because you can’t go outside.
This last minute trip was to say good-bye to my mother who developed late onset ALS, and decided that she’d had enough.
I drove back to “the Peg” for the event. This meant two 13-14 hour jaunts solo in a rental Rav4. The first leg was through the Rockies, which was beautiful, even though I was so high on caffeine I could feel my heart beating. The other was through the prairies, where there was no compensatory landscape for my bleary eyes to appreciate. Just snow blowing sideways across the vacant wheat fields, making the lines on the highway invisible. I’d stop from time to time to fill up, freeze my ass off, bitch into the merciless air, and then cram my aching hips back into the rental. Jack-knifed 18 wheelers, looking like broken bones in the snow, with their cabs at right angles to their trailers, littered the highway on one stretch reminding me to resist the temptation to text while driving. I was mostly successful.
You’d imagine, right, that I’d have lots of time to think about things as the endless highway snaked past me? Truth be told, my mind was mostly blank. I felt like I should be able to conjure up profound things to ponder about my mother. Or feel stuff. But I’d felt pretty much every thing I had to feel, and I was all out of thought. Podcaster, Joe Rogan, kept me company with his endless curiosity and guests who all seem, like Joe, to possess the rare courage to be exactly who they are. Maybe this is the opportunity death affords us. It’s a chance to assess whether we’ve been true to ourselves, whether our life has been our own. Or have we frittered it away trying to be what others expected us to be? Death, The Great Reckoning. Did my mother live the life she intended? Nobody can answer that but her, but I do think there is some kind of post-mortem accounting that happens on the other side. Not a religious judgment day thing, but an honest review that informs the next round’s agenda. It’s probably not what happens, but I hope it is.
Those of you who’ve read my book will know that in my later years, I did a lot of “work” related to my mother. This healing work caused no small consternation with some of my siblings (I have five). Even my sweet father suggested that if I kept going down the road of telling the truth about my experience I would lose my family. Some of this disruption still lingers as I write this in my hotel room. Will this get resolved? I hope so. But I’m not certain. Which is kind of sad. The truth is that when I left Winnipeg in my early twenties it established a physical distance between us that I never really overcame. That, and all the family events happened over a weekend so I couldn’t join in because Sundays was a workday for me. So I may be saying goodbye as well to a few of my siblings, along with the city I grew up in, a city where I learned (poorly) about love, sports, drinking beer, smoking doobies, and that there really is a place for uncool, proper foot wear in February.
Today, I went with my older sister to spend an hour with my mother in the ALS home where she’s been enduring life. Every week, the MAID team (Medical Assistance in Dying) have visited her compassionately inquiring if she wants to end it all. I wonder what it was like for my mother being forced into such consideration week after week? I guess in a way we all make these kinds of decisions but it’s not so in-your-face. The alcoholic who knows the booze will kill him, but keeps drinking anyway. It’s suicide, but you never have to “own” it. Few of us live with absolute certainty that we want to be here anyway. The ambivalence seems to be structured in to the human condition. The tipping point came for my mother when she could no longer eat food without choking. Who knows when our respective tipping points have been reached? I suspect it happens without us really knowing it. One day, we just kind of stop giving a shit. And life becomes one damned thing after another, going through the motions kind of thing. Maybe if we were all asked on a weekly basis if now was the time, that there’s an opening at 3 pm Wednesday, we’d snap out of it and consciously decide to be here. On one of those aforementioned podcasts, a SEALs-trained military guy upon returning from a tour in Afghanistan, held a gun to his head in his buddies driveway and pulled the trigger. Somebody had emptied the chamber. From that moment on, he decided to be here.
Tonight, my daughter flies in from LA to say goodbye to her grandma. Though separated by long distances, they loved each other a lot. From the age of 2-16, I would fly back to Winnipeg from Toronto to spend three or four days with her after her mom and I divorced. We’d stay at my mom and dad’s home in Winnipeg. My mom and daughter, for as long as I can remember, could make each other laugh. Can’t have been easy for my mother and father to see the sadness of a dad and his daughter as they said their devastating goodbyes month after month. Thanks for that mom.
She went downhill pretty fast after my father died, which kind of surprised me. Because I didn’t see a lot of love flow between them. But they had their own kind of dance going I suppose and when we lose a dance partner, even if the steps were awkward, there was a pattern to it all and now the pattern is gone. Also, maybe going solo on the dance floor is accompanied by the sadness of regretting that you never mastered the tango together. The day before the “provision” (that’s the Orwellian word they give for the moment they administer the killing agent) my mom told me that the first person she wanted to see on the other side was my father. What do I know? The tango’s complexity is learning to relax into the simplicity of trusting yourself. I can see it taking lifetimes.
As I held my mother’s hand, I was grateful that we had worked through our “stuff”. We both knew in our bones that whatever we were here to do in this life was now completed. Being “nice” to each other wouldn’t have got us there. Being real did. Before we said our last goodbyes, she took my face in her hands as I held hers in mine, with tears rolling down our cheeks. We were done with each other, in a good way.
I remember a Clint Eastwood film called Unforgiven. Clint’s character is a gunslinger who has killed many men in his life. A young aspiring slinger, all excited about guns and taking out bad guys, gets his wish and kills one of them. Afterward, he comes to the seasoned killer, takes off his holster and tells him with ashen face that he’s quitting the gunslinging profession. The protagonist tells him: “It’s a hell of a thing killin’ a man. You take away everything he ever had and ever would have”.
I wonder what it’s really like for these physicians who administer the medicine. I feel for them. I get that it’s a compassionate act. But it’s still a “hell of a thing”. I’ll hold this doctor in my prayers along with my mother as she lets go of “everything she ever had”.