My mother passed away on Sunday, April 9, 2017, after years of struggling with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
I’ve included the paragraph below as something of an introduction to my mother. My father and brothers chose not to include this paragraph in the obituary we wrote for publication in the newspapers. They felt a shorter, simpler notice was what my mother would have preferred.
Eleanor Marjorie Rooks (Blanchard) 1934–2017
(published paragraphs of obituary omitted here)
Eleanor was a brilliant high school student, one of 50 young women chosen from across Canada to participate in the Weston Tour of England in 1951, where she met the Queen Mother. Eleanor graduated from McGill University with a B.Sc. in 1955, and married Frank shortly thereafter. She chose to devote her considerable energy and talents to her family. She volunteered her time generously at her church and the library at her children’s junior high school. Always sociable, Eleanor kept her many friendships alive with dinner parties, bridge evenings, and daily coffee klatches with her neighbours. She also managed to run home businesses (including bridge lessons) and play tennis with Frank. Once her children “left the nest,” Eleanor gained employment at neighbourhood schools as a librarian and then as an office secretary. She and Frank played duplicate bridge regularly, and won awards for their excellence in bridge competitions.
Oh, the mystery and wonder of heredity! To my mother and my father I owe the gift of life.
My parents in 1955, around the time they were married.
My mother gave me her tremendous energy and joie de vivre. I inherited some of her intelligence, her sense of humour, and her musical ability. I have only a small part of her nurturing qualities and her domestic skills.
My temperament is quite different from my mother’s—I’m not sociable and outgoing, as she was. My mother and I never had the intimate friendship that some mothers and daughters share. This was mostly due to my reticence.
Yet I have my mother’s feminine emotionality and warmth. Through her example, I was later able to become a good mother.
My mother loved all her children wholly and unconditionally. Like most women of her generation, she put her family first and abandoned the career paths that her brilliant scholastic performance would have opened up for her—if she had remained unmarried. In the 1950s and 1960s it was rare for women to have both a high-level career and a family.
1964: There was a time when I was a “big” sister!
It’s not my intention to write a detailed biography of my mother here.
Instead, I’m grappling with my thoughts and emotions of the past month, especially the last days of my mother’s life. Our family knew the end was coming. She was given a maximum of a year to live three years ago. But my mother confounded the odds and made almost miraculous recoveries several times over the past three years. She received excellent care from the palliative care team who visited her regularly at my parents’ apartment. And my father’s devoted caregiving never faltered, even though his tasks expanded at the same time as his arthritic knees made his own mobility increasingly difficult and painful.
Journal of a week: April 3–April 9
Monday April 3
I felt great in the morning after a good sleep. It was cloudy and cold when I rode to Sasamat Lake in the morning, but by 11:00 the sun was out and it was turning into a beautiful day.
After my ride I realized I should phone Mom and Dad. I had been reluctant to call during the past two weeks. When I visited them early in March my mother was much weaker than she had been before. I knew when I said goodbye to her on March 9th that I might not see her again.
I could have planned another visit during a five-day gap in my work schedule, from April 3 to April 7. But I didn’t. I felt incapable of facing my mother’s suffering again.
But now, feeling strong after my bike ride, I could call.
Mom answered. When I asked how she was, she broke down, and said, “The doctor says I have to be moved to a hospital.”
Then Dad took over the conversation. He said Mom had seemed pretty good at his birthday gathering the day before. It had been a warm sunny day and my brothers had gone with Dad for his first bike ride of the season. I blabbed on about my own bike ride and the lousy Vancouver weather. But really, I was stunned by the meaning of the doctor’s decision. Yet I had known my life was about to change—that had been my intuition for the past few weeks—and it wasn’t just a change of season.
After all the topics that didn’t mean anything anymore, I blurted out something like, “Mom—if you want me to come—I will.” But she didn’t answer, and I ended the call soon after that.
Deep inside, I knew that I would go to Toronto to be with my mother—even though up until I heard her voice on the phone, I had resisted that idea. I started looking at flight availability and prices. When I talked to Keith, he offered to let me use his Air Miles points if flights were available.
My mind was still swirling, though, and a confusion of emotions was washing over me. I couldn’t make a decision immediately. My bike ride hadn’t been hard—I decided I would go to the gym and do some upper body weights. I might not be able to work out much for the rest of the week.
Walking to the rec centre, I was astonished by how much it had warmed up since my bike ride. Finally, it felt like spring!
When I got back from the gym my mind was calm and resolved. I found flights, phoned my brother to confirm he could drive me to the airport early Saturday morning for my return flight, and booked my flights.
The bad news about my mother contrasted so sharply with the beauty of the day. I couldn’t help but feel the joy of spring, and my own physical and mental strength. At the end of the day, I wrote:
But it is a solemn thing, my mother’s last days, and I’m thinking a lot about her, who she was, what a good mother she was, what love means, the cruelty of time and how it reduces a person. I am feeling the glimmer of grief through my joy in life that can’t be squelched.
Tuesday April 4
My father picked me up at Terminal 1 in Toronto about 9 p.m. and we drove immediately to Baycrest hospital, where my mother had been taken by ambulance about noon that day. Dad had already visited her during the afternoon.
I realized my father needed me as well as my mother. On that first visit to Baycrest together, we arrived at about 9:30 p.m. The pay parking machines were confusing. We stood outside in the freezing cold trying to figure out how to pay. Inside the vast hospital, the halls were empty and we couldn’t find an information desk. My father couldn’t remember how to get to the palliative care wing; nor could we find a map of the hospital. We wandered around for a while, but every step was hurting my father’s knees—he had already walked too much that day. Finally we were saved by a nurse who led us to the correct elevators and gave us clear instructions for getting to the palliative care area on the sixth floor.
As soon as my mother greeted me, I knew I had done the right thing to be with her. We got all emotional. I had worried about what to say and how to act, but when it came right down to it, my instincts took over—that night, and during my visits in subsequent days. There is a kind of adrenaline that surfaces in a crisis like this, a crisis of grief, and it enables “peak performance” though in a different way than happens from the adrenaline surge before a race.
I could see and hear the change in my mother even from my last visit less than a month earlier. All she could do now was fight to breathe. She had to remain in an almost-upright position at all times, even during the night, to be able to breathe at all. Talking was difficult and she was frequently racked by painful coughs as her body tried to expel the fluid choking her wasted lungs. She was being given morphine, not only for pain relief but to suppress the coughing somewhat so she could sleep. The morphine dosage was tricky; my mother was still intellectually sharp, and she didn’t like the “dopey” feeling the morphine gave her, but she needed to take it.
From my journal:
It strikes me now, with a clarity I haven’t had before, that when Mom dies the person who has loved me longest and most unconditionally will be gone.
I became much closer to my mother after I became a mother myself; it wasn’t until then that I understood what unconditional love meant. It’s a pure kind of love, not complicated by lust or any other way of having one’s own needs fulfilled. Even though mothers feel intense negative feelings about being trapped by motherhood, too, that love is always there. It is partly instinct, and partly a love that grows with the miracle of the child’s development and emerging personality.
1961: Mom with me and baby Alan.
Wednesday, April 5
I had noticed on Tuesday night that my mother had taken almost nothing with her to the hospital. She had asked us to bring her reading glasses. I had suggested to Dad that he leave his cell phone with her the night before; she had no phone in her room. She had no TV, either, and no books. I decided to take her the book she was halfway through reading, as well as her current crossword puzzle book.
Mom had complained that the dinner they brought her on Tuesday was “horrible,” so we packed fresh strawberries cut up into small pieces, her favourite yogourt, and homemade vichysoisse that my brother Alan had put into their freezer the weekend before.
Dad and I visited Mom around noon. I helped her eat a few pieces of strawberries, but she clearly wasn’t much interested in food; she ignored the lunch the hospital provided. She didn’t want to read or do crosswords either.
After this visit I realized the full extent of my mother’s exhaustion. She no longer needed entertainment.
My brother Mike arrived at my parents’ apartment in the afternoon. He and Dad visited Mom again while I went for a ride on the bike Mike had brought for me.
Later, while we ate dinner together in the apartment, the three of us wrestled with some of the questions Dad and I had already talked about. We were worried about food; Mom didn’t have the energy to cut up food or chew much food. Apparently she had shown some interest in the chicken leg the hospital gave her for dinner, but if Mike hadn’t cut it up into small pieces for her she wouldn’t have eaten it.
Dad’s voice was broken when he said, “I feel so terrible thinking of her there all alone.” Should they have made a different choice; could they have kept Mom at home? They would have had to get 24-hour care for her; how much would that cost? She would have needed a proper hospital bed, too. And how hard it would be for Dad to have to witness her suffering, day and night!
After dinner Mike and I went back to the hospital to see Mom. We told her how bad we all felt that she had to be alone in the hospital, and asked if she thought it would be better if she was at home with a nurse helping out. Mom said something that Mike and I hadn’t thought of. She said, “I thought it was better for Dad if he got used to me not being at the apartment, while he could still visit me.”
Thursday, April 6
My father and I visited my mother around lunchtime. She was less responsive than the day before, showing little interest in food and no interest in the books we had left for her. My father brought her up to date on the latest soccer results and they talked about the teams’ prospects. We stayed for a while, and were able to talk to Mom’s doctor and social worker, but they could say nothing to reassure us.
My brother Alan and his wife Sarah, both busy with stressful jobs, planned to drive in from Waterloo to visit Mom on Thursday night. They had seen her on Dad’s birthday the previous Sunday, but I wanted a chance to see them before I went back to Vancouver. Mike was also going to bring his son Dan, just finished his second-year classes at McMaster University, to visit his Grandma that night.
My father and I were sad as we ate dinner in the dining room of the Donway (the senior’s home attached to the independent living apartments where my parents lived). Many people asked how my mother was doing. My father introduced me, and everyone said what a wonderful person my mother was and how they missed her.
My father replied politely to everyone’s inquiries and good wishes for my mother. Yet it’s so hard to respond when there is no good news!
I felt so bad for my father; maybe that’s why I broke down unexpectedly in the middle of dinner. The tears were good. They allowed me to open up to my father and show him how much I cared. I told him how thankful I was that he and Mom had decided to have three children, and had been such good parents to all of us. Now, because of their dedication, we felt the strength of being a united, loving family. My brothers and I have always been good friends. Now I knew they would help my father in practical ways, as well as ease his loneliness somewhat after my mother was gone.
Our family in about 1970.
My father was too tired to consider going back to the hospital, and his car is too big for me to drive, so I took four TTC buses to get to Baycrest on my own. It was a truly horrendous night; close to zero, and pouring rain. I wore five layers of clothing, and carried an umbrella and a dry pair of shoes and socks to change into if necessary. It was dark when I finally reached the warmth of Baycrest at 8:30.
I walked into my mother’s room to see her surrounded by Alan, Sarah, Mike, and Dan. I said hi to my mother and hugged her, then gave big hugs to Alan and Sarah, then Dan and Mike. Quickly pulling off layers of clothing and piling them on the window sill, I kept chatting with everyone as I pulled a chair up to my mother’s bed and put my hand on her fragile shoulder, apologizing for how cold it was. Then I announced that I had a funny story to tell about my dinner with Dad. No, I wouldn’t say anything about the deep sadness of that dinner, when I sat in my mother’s place at their usual table in the dining room.
I did have a funny story to tell though, one I knew my mother would enjoy. They had served a Chinese dinner that night, and everyone in the family knew how much my father loved fried rice. He had carefully ordered no vegetables (another instruction typical of him) and extra fried rice. When the server brought our plates to the table, we didn’t notice anything wrong until she had already sped away. But then my father looked at his plate. There were four chicken balls, an egg roll—good—plus a huge helping of beans and carrots and no fried rice!
My plate was normal—and I wouldn’t trade, because I liked fried rice too. You can imagine how I spun out this story. In the end I took my father’s heap of vegetables, and he got a new plate that contained lots of rice and so many chicken balls and egg rolls that he had to give some of them to me. We were both completely stuffed. My mother also smiled when I mentioned the lemon tarts I had enjoyed for dessert—my appetite and sweet tooth are pretty legendary in the family.
My mother didn’t have to talk much during that visit, because there were five of us there, all catching up on our news. I knew Mom was happy just to see us there, to feel the love we have for each other and for her. She was included just by listening as I gently touched her.
I admired Alan’s business shirt—it had unusual colours and looked great on him. He admitted it was a gift from Sarah, and said he liked it so much he had bought another one. Alan and Sarah have been married for less than four years—my brother found the love of his life at age 50! As Alan put his arm around Sarah, I exclaimed, “What a good-looking couple you are—we have to get a photo!”
My mother added, “They look good because they are so happy together.” Mike snapped a photo.
Mike and Dan left, and Alan, Sarah, and I stayed with Mom a little longer. After we all hugged her and said goodnight, I suggested that we chat for a few minutes at a comfortable place in the lobby before they made the long drive back to Waterloo in the rain (and snow, as it turned out!).
Sarah was shocked by how much Mom’s condition had worsened since Sunday. “Was she better when you visited in the morning?” she asked.
“No, she was worse this morning. Tonight I could see she was very happy to be surrounded by all of us, and I think she was making an effort to put on a brave face.”
“I was worried we stayed too long, that we were tiring her out,” said Sarah.
“It didn’t matter. Even breathing tires her out. She enjoyed listening to us—that’s the only thing that can help her now,” I replied.
Sarah made me feel good by saying, “That was a great story you told! When you came in the room and started telling that story it changed the whole atmosphere in the room!”
That was one of the times I felt the power and love of being part of my family.
Friday, April 7
When Dad and I visited Mom at noon on Friday, there was an obvious and ominous change in her condition—she could only whisper.
I sat down very close to her, and touched her, as always. I could hear her whispered words well, but it was difficult for Dad. Mom kept her eyes closed most of the time; because of this, Dad thought she wasn’t aware of what we were saying, and was probably in a drugged, semi-conscious state. However, I could tell she was aware of everything, because she responded appropriately to what I was saying with whispers or nods of her head.
Dad was very worried, but unfortunately, though we stayed for about 90 minutes, the doctor didn’t come at the usual time and we couldn’t ask any questions about Mom’s voice loss. Dad was getting hungry. He said some loving words to my mother, and she responded in kind, as best she could; he kissed her goodbye. I told Mom I would be back to see her that evening, and hugged her too.
Friday had turned into a beautiful sunny day, but it was still so cold I didn’t want to go for a bike ride during my free afternoon hours. Instead, I went to The Shops at Don Mills across the street from my parents’ apartment. I was in a strange emotional state: I was filled with foreboding. My flight home was early the next morning. I knew that tonight’s visit with my mother would be the last time I would see her. My mind was filled with sadness, but also busy reminiscing and mulling over what I wanted to say to my mother.
Sometimes in an emotional state like that some odd contrasts in behaviour come out. I went into one of my favourite stores, a place that has fashionable clothes in very small sizes. There, I was easy prey for a seasoned saleswoman. I was gay and enthusiastic with her. Between her choices and mine, I ended up in a changeroom with about 15 articles of clothing.
To make a long story short, in about 20 minutes I was leaving the store with over $200 worth of clothes. However, since I had come close to spending about $700, I considered myself lucky.
Dad’s form of escapism was his decision to play his usual Friday night duplicate bridge game at his club. After a Swiss Chalet dinner with him, I was once again taking my multiple-bus trip to the hospital. This time I was travelling earlier and it was a beautiful evening, though cold. When I arrived in Mom’s room, her window shades were still up, and I exclaimed over the colours of sunset that still lingered in the sky.
We were both crying when I chose to leave. Mom held my hand tightly for a while, longer than I expected. We kissed goodbye. I hate prolonged goodbyes. I walked out, walked numbly through the hospital corridors, sensing the fatefulness of this night. I would not take the Bathurst bus to Wilson; no, I would walk that stretch, letting the bitterly cold night air assault my sadness.
When I walked into the apartment (my father was still out at his bridge game), I looked at the couch, at my mother’s spot where she was always to be found unless she was in bed. I had a strange reaction: anger. She wasn’t there! She would never be there again!
I wrote in my journal:
Tonight I spent about 90 minutes with Mom. We both knew it was my goodbye. We had some reminiscing, some quiet times, and I told her all the most important things. We know we love each other.
I combed her soft hair a couple of times today. I guess I’ve never done that before. I never knew how soft her hair was, soft and fine like mine. I guess a lot of the time she had “hairdos” with lots of hairspray to hold everything in place; and a long time ago she used to get perms.
She gave me some beautiful smiles… beautiful although her mouth and lips are always dry. There is no adornment now. She cared right up until the end: lipstick, powder, hairdo, jewellery to match her outfits. Now that is all gone. All she can do is struggle to breathe.
Saturday, April 8
My father took me to Toronto Pearson airport early in the morning. Keith met me at the baggage area in Vancouver.
Shortly after we got home, I received a text from my brother Mike. He wrote that Mom had been unconscious all that day. Afterwards, Alan told me that when he and Sarah saw Mom later that afternoon, she opened her eyes briefly, tried to speak to them, and then fell back into that deepening sleep.
Sunday, April 9
Mike called to tell me Mom had passed away early in the morning. I told him it was better she didn’t have to be in pain any longer. All of us had been able to say our goodbyes to her with loving words on Thursday or Friday.
1992. Mom with her first grandchild–my son Abebe.