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Thursday, April 21, 2011


"She's gone" were the words transmitted to my cell phone at 10:14 pm, April 19, what would have been my mother's 91st birthday. Appropriate day for my sister to leave us and head home to Mom and Dad and her husband, who had paved the way a mere sixteen months ago.  It was the twenty-first day of her coma but when I realized the night before that it would have been Mom's birthday, I hoped it would be then. Comforting in an odd way.

I had been grieving for years but especially so the past three weeks.  The final week we were all exhausted but not nearly as much as my dear niece who had been keeping a lonely vigil all that time, far away in Vancouver.  I think we had all become rather numb so I was shocked at my response to the expected news.  I thought I was ready and all tapped out, but when my grief picked me up and threw me violently to the ground, wailing and screaming for what seemed a long time, I was surprised. It was almost an out-of-body experience as my rational self stood aside calmly and watched the display.  I had no more control over it than I would have over a raging bull bearing down on me.

Michael looked on in silence, laying a comforting hand on my convulsing back. He seemed rather confused.  I think he understands what has happened.  He had quite a bond with my sister, only two months apart.  A sister to him too.

That night I crawled into bed very late, my throat raw, my head pounding, shivering uncontrollably. The  keening wind allowed little sleep.  I awoke in the early hours from a brief sleep, aware of a strange silence in the house and realized the wind had knocked out the power.  It was a cold, wet, miserable day, perfect for the occasion.   The house was freezing, the electric furnace unable to warm us.  Damn, I'd have to light a fire in the living-room wood stove if there was to be any hope of a cup of tea and comfort.  My brain was so foggy that it didn't occur to me to call the Hydro company to find out how long we might be in the cold.  It seemed entirely appropriate for me to play pioneer and huddle around the fire alone in the dawn half-light. It was at least something to do while I reflected on my sister's life.

Ann Verney Kakuno: May 10, 1948 - April 19, 2011. Daughter, sister, mother, surrogate mother to a much younger me, wife, dedicated teacher, friend, long-time stamp collector, professional standard seamstress and craftsperson, volunteer worker.

In old movies of our childhoods during our early years in Canada she and I seem inseparable, I a toddler, she a gawky but pretty young girl, just launching into adolescence, stuck with my care. There is an image of us hanging out together on the flat, bald prairie, another of us leaping through a sprinkler on a hot summer day. We shared a bed for a few years during my parents' first impoverished Canadian years, even a bedroom with my brother for a couple of years.  I remember wetting our shared double bed a few times, in a house that was bitterly cold through winter nights and with no running water to bathe away the rank smell I must have spread all over my patient sister.

Ann left home for university when I was only nine but before that had been a dedicated creator of beautifully sewn doll clothes, and she patiently and meticulously cut out all my finicky paper dolls and their clothes.  I was the envy of all my friends. Ann orchestrated my only two birthday parties as a kid, complete with treasure hunts and a fancy hairdo for one.

Years later, I am away at boarding school for four years of high school, hating it but always excitedly checking my mailbox after school for letters from the Outside. There were regular missives from Ann and frequent, thrilling boxes containing all kinds of contraband. We were never allowed to have food in the dorms but my sister recklessly ignored the rules and sent all kinds of fantastic treats that fed many a secret dorm feast.  On one occasion we got caught but I never ratted out my sister.

She bought me my first and almost only make-up along with the coolest sunglasses ever, unfortunately long gone. I had my first and almost only cigarette from my sister, experimenting herself in our parents' kitchen.

I was her only bridesmaid at her wedding in June, 1971 to Fred Kakuno, a fine, handsome young teacher at her school.  A thrill to an almost fifteen-year-old.  In 1980, she stood by me at mine with her feisty little three-year-old daughter dashing around us.  I remember looking back to see Fred waving a stick of red licorice trying to lure his daughter to him, all to no avail.  I didn't care.  I loved my pirouetting little niece and her free spirit.

Ann wept with me at the near-break-up with a bad boyfriend and later at the real end. I held her daughter and cared for her after Ann's first serious operation for a brain tumour, her little girl only a few weeks old.  Ann sent me beautiful Christmas decorations every year, mostly made by her. Without her, I would have a bare tree.

In recent years, there were all those roses on a multitude of gifts: quilts, paintings, books, clothing, pottery, all riotously festooned with roses.  In fact just three months before she died, she came to me in a dream, bearing red roses. The fact that these roses turned mysteriously into pot scrubbers attested to her sense of humour and my dad's, who was with her in the dream, awaiting her in the wings.

I loved my sister.  I am bereft. But she is finally at peace after a long, fiercely determined battle with her body. It let her down oh so many times but through it all, she remained patient but tough, filled with a special grace and dignity.

Fly free Ann.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


I look outside and see a variety of nastiness. a kind of winter-spring limbo where the weather gods cannot make a decision about the season. Or it could be a cosmic joke so common to Canadian weather systems. Today alone we've had it all it seems: sunshine, hail, snow, rain, wind and something mysterious called graupel that I just learned about this weekend. Graupel is a German word and is used to describe "precipitation that forms when supercooled droplets of water condense on a snowflake", softer than and not to be confused with ordinary hail which are "snow pellets encapsulated by ice". This information was passed on to me by an avalanche expert so I'll take his and Wikipedia's word for it.  It's been that kind of weekend. I think I even heard thunder at one point.

Despite the confusion of the weather, I decided to leap into spring cleaning, a decision forced upon me, arguably, by the weather itself after a particularly violent night of thunder storms and heavy rain last weekend that left our basement more than a little damp.  The basement had been calling to me for a couple of years now; the disorganization and accumulation of junk had overwhelmed and nearly paralyzed me all that time. But a few damp boxes and piles of wet dust were enough to mobilize me. Most of the mess was manageable and easily controlled but it was Michael's long-neglected work bench that had me terrified.

Michael has never been a particularly neat person and in over thirty years of marriage I have had to make peace with the chaos that defined that space in the basement. As long as he could find what he needed, who was I to complain, especially since I rarely needed to use any of that equipment myself. In the first twenty years of our marriage, that was his department.

But in the past few years, I have had to take over many minor repairs in the house, and the challenge of finding the appropriate equipment in Tool Purgatory was beyond frustrating.  With Michael's advancing dementia, he no longer knew where anything was nor what an appropriate tool might be, as illustrated when he took a hammer and large screwdriver to our now-defunct turntable.

Yesterday I rolled up my sleeves and spent a happy couple of hours purging (interrupted, of course, by frequent dashes upstairs to check on Michael, hoping that he wouldn't cotton on to my activities - he's still remarkably protective and defensive of that mess). I filled canister after canister, bound for the recycling bin, with loose and random metal objects, ranging from rusty nails of all sizes to free-roaming nuts, bolts, broken tools, and odd bits and pieces that had no significance to me.  I pared the whole mess down to only what I would use and need. To that end, during a morning outing last week, I purchased a full set of screwdrivers and wrenches for myself because Michael's set is not only incomplete but also horribly maimed in some cases from botched "repair" jobs.  I bought two briefcase-sized (and probably overpriced) containers filled with a lovely, well-organized and labeled array of nuts, bolts, and screws so I will no longer have to forage through the clutter on the workbench to find appropriate hardware.  The miracle of all this effort was a satisfying, clear, empty space on the table inviting actual work to take place, the first such space in thirty years.

The focus of the work allowed me to shut out the ambivalent Weather which was just a reminder of the current limbo and confusion that life has thrown at us right now.  My sister, somehow, still clings to life after nearly three weeks in a coma and more than two without sustenance.  An offspring has cancelled a wedding and is uncertain of the future of that relationship, leaving it, at present, in a hellish limbo and with it a heavy sadness. And there's my Michael, who left me years ago for the limbo of Parkinson's dementia and withdrawal.

I saw the work as life-affirming and a hopeful step towards clearer, more decisive, perhaps happier times, even if the weather cannot figure it out.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Wait

My niece informs me it is now seven days since my sister has had any sustenance in the form of saline IV and more than eight since she entered her coma. The wait for the inevitable is an agony, but the pain I can imagine my niece is suffering at her mother's bedside is worse for me.

I flip back in my memory to the deaths of three parents, both of mine and, most recently, Michael's dad.  All three were well into their eighties and all three took the long road home instead of the quick leap of a sudden death that has become a far more attractive route to me now that I've witnessed these three and am now awaiting news of the fourth from afar. Just today, in fact, I have informed my kids that short of taking a pillow to my face, they are to agree to whatever a doctor offers to hasten my departure if I decide to take the slow painful route. I must formalize that request because I would like to minimize their suffering.

My daughter recently read out to me a passage about women and waiting, though I think the phenomenon is not always exclusive to my gender. The gist of it was this:

We are generally the caregivers who minister to the sick and dying in our families, making their lives as comfortable and happy as possible, but waiting for the end.

We wait impatiently for men to ask us to marry them or ask us out (Though in our case, my husband proved to be not much of a self-starter and I had to take matters into my own hands in our courtship. I'd have waited forever otherwise).  We wait excitedly to get pregnant or we wait as single, unattached women in a panic for our periods to come to confirm no pregnancy.  We uncomfortably wait through nine long months for our children to gestate and then we wait through sometimes long excruciating hours of labour.

We are more likely to do the nighttime vigils with sick children who always seem their sickest and, in our addled, sleep-deprived brains, closest to death in the wee hours of the night. It was always my mother, not my father, who waited sleeplessly and anxiously for me or my sister, as carefree and thoughtless young adults, to arrive home far too late and sometimes too inebriated.  To my knowledge, my brother spared my mother that anguish.

But it is this wait for the death of a chronically ill loved one that has a special agony. In Michael's case and in my sister's, their longterm ill health has brought them to the brink so many times that the rest of us should all be inured by now.  Yet every night becomes a kind of vigil because it could happen anytime for Michael whose heart has proven wonky in the past. If he has even a simple cold, his mental state is altered drastically and threateningly, setting off the vigil alarm and triggering the wait response through long dark nights.  I have spent many nights simply listening to the rise and fall of his breathing over the monitor to be sure he's okay, just as I used to when my children were babies.  Every morning I lie awake listening for his breath before I brace myself for a day of waiting to attend to his every need.

Patience is a virtue, I hear.