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Monday, December 12, 2011

The Persistence of Memory

My mother spoke often of disturbing dreams. Over many decades she was plagued with a recurring one involving a house, never the same house but always without doors.  In each house, my mother was toiling away at her usual domestic chores, and each one had a different, often confusing layout. She would awaken troubled and anxious but never did she try to interpret these dreams, nor did she see them as significant, though over the years she spoke frequently of them to me.

Mom was a very bright woman who had dreamed of higher education and a profession. But she lived in prewar England that was still deeply mired in sexism; women did not flock to university. We now know that the war changed that somewhat for women as it did for my mother. Though she was unable to pursue a university education, she did secure a significant job in the civil service where she worked throughout the war. Women ably stepped into the jobs vacated by the absent men.

After the war, Mom and Dad married immediately and Mom, as a married woman, was forced to vacate her job presumably for a returned soldier. Besides, the thinking went, women must be happy to return to house and home.

Unfortunately, postwar housekeeping was one of drugdery. Added to that were the privations of rationing, making feeding one's family an enormous challenge. It was partly because of these difficulties and the fact that Dad could not see himself advancing as a teacher in a system that tended to favour who you knew over what you knew, that they left Britain for prosperity in Canada, or so they thought. What ensued were years of struggling in small, backwoods Canadian towns; they were always wondering if they would ever get ahead. They moved many times for many reasons throughout my childhood, settling in one small town after another, some of them extremely deprived. A string of small, cramped, poorly heated homes became my mother's reality. Yet never did I hear her complain about these circumstances. To me it seems obvious, though, that she tried to work out these frustrations and her sense of imprisonment in her graphic house dreams. As much as she tried to ignore these memories and emotions, they insistently reared up in her subconscious.

I have some understanding of my mother's desperate isolation. Yet throughout Michael's escalating symptoms and increased disability, I have strangely felt very much in control over my health, my home and my environment, if not his disease.  I have been lucky not to have to worry in the same way Mom and Dad must have over financial security.  I'm sure Dad felt equally trapped in what amounted to near-poverty as a school principal, so poorly paid was he for our first nine years in this country.  Relative affluence did visit them finally when they moved to coastal British Columbia, and yet the irony is that this small mountain village was the most isolated of any they had lived in before. Boat, seaplane or helicopter were the only ways in and out. Then in winter many, many feet of heavy snow would fall, effectively burying houses and cars.  I remember an eight foot wall of snow that faced us as we left our front door.  So, though my parents had escaped the trap of near-poverty, my mother's sense of physical vulnerability and isolation must have been supreme in this coastal town. Having entered middle age with accompanying health problems, she knew that facing a medical emergency in this small town was a serious problem. With no hospital or doctor in the village to treat serious illness, an anxious, sometimes fatal journey was required by helicopter over the mountains, into the next town.

A few nights ago I had my own house dream.  It was this house, my castle, my sanctuary. I was upstairs on the landing, just outside my bedroom when suddenly the interior walls began to melt.  No Salvador Dali clocks, just liquefying walls. It was a very brief dream. I awoke extremely anxious and in a cold sweat.

I pondered my subconscious murmurings and was somewhat puzzled at first.  Then something happened a few days later that seemed to clarify the dream's meaning to me, revealing my own buried fears.

I have enjoyed very good health which I attribute to good genes, good luck and healthy living. I don't smoke or drink. I exercise a lot, in fact haven't been more fit in my life; I am probably more under- than overweight.  I eat well and usually have lots of energy, despite the brain-numbing boredom of my job. I am generally a positive and happy person with lots of good friends.  I feel that I handle stress fairly well.

On Friday night I suffered an attack. I immediately knew it was an extreme gastric event, something I haven't experienced in many years, really since an ulcer I suffered as a young woman.  But I pride myself on my cast iron stomach now - I rarely have digestive difficulties - so when this violent and painful attack hit, I was concerned.  At 55, I am entering that age when women become more susceptible to heart attacks, and though I knew this was not one, I still felt I should pay attention. Women's heart attacks manifest differently, often more vaguely from men's which tend to display the classic signs of crushing chest pain. This was upper abdomen, extending up my chest, into my shoulders and down both arms.  I was in agony for about half an hour. I swallowed a glass of water with baking soda dissolved in it, a remembered remedy of my mother.  I took my blood pressure and pulse - no significant elevation. I knew what this was.  But suddenly I was aware that my complacence might be dangerous given my enormous responsibility to my husband. If something terrible should happen to me, he would be helpless, trapped inside this house. In fact I even asked him halfway through this attack if he knew what to do if I needed help.  He stared back at me blankly, picking up the television remote control.  It was then that I picked up the phone and called a friend, not yet to get help but just to warn somebody that I might need it soon. As her calming voice came over the phone line, my pain subsided and the now-mounting anxiety lifted; perhaps too the baking soda had taken effect. She offered to call back in half an hour, just to check in. She did and by then I was fine.

Though I was outwardly calm and fairly unconcerned throughout the attack, it was afterwards that I understood how vulnerable Michael is, so completely dependent on me.  Visions of a nighttime heart attack or stroke that might kill or seriously disable me haunted me for a couple of days, not for myself but for a husband who in the morning is nearly paralyzed until medication can give him some relief and mobility. Using a telephone is out of the question for him. I am not sure if there is anything more we can or need to do to protect ourselves; I have many who check in routinely and I will continue to be vigilant about my own health.

But I think my dream signalled that my own interior landscape is changing and I may not be able to take my good health for granted. Our bodies usually have a memory and a knowledge that the conscious mind does not; it gives us signals if only we listen carefully.

1 comment:

  1. This was exceptional, Claire. I am so glad that things turned out okay for you. Just continue to take good care of yourself. Michael needs you. And the rest of us Parkies really benefit from the truth and the beauty behind your writings!