My parents’ last home has finally sold and today it becomes home to someone else.
I’m filled with mixed emotions: it was never a family gathering place, nor was it a place where my parents felt altogether themselves. Any given evening saw them sitting side by side on their apartment-sized couch, hand in hand, reminiscing about each home they had shared in their lifetime together. True, it was a memory journey but it was also a way these two people, who were both losing their memory, could make sense of their own chronological history.
First, the basement apartment in the charming neighbourhood of New Edinburgh. Then the stifling third floor apartment in a heritage house in the Glebe. But as my Mom was pregnant with my sister at the time, the clock was ticking and she found herself walking the surrounding area looking for a place to settle. With a mortgage totaling twenty five thousand dollars, they purchased what became our family home – a gracious brick house on a generous corner lot. So in 1958, Pat started her career as a mother and Jack as a civil servant and part-time father.
They lived in this friendly four bedroom house for many years and then, when all three daughters had left to go to university, they sold it for what seemed like a fortune. The next home was what I considered an elegant single floor condo in the west-end, with a view of the river; it boasted no outdoor maintenance and the convenience of an elevator. Ironically, the move several years later was to a newly built three-storey townhouse that backed onto a forest and made getting a gardener and snow plow contractor necessary. The curving staircase to the bedrooms on the second floor, as well as the steep stairs down to the basement, made staying there unsafe. But it was the last home of any generous size and the first one where it became clear that Mom was beginning to suffer from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. So they were finally convinced to move out, into the apartment building whose architectural style Dad called ‘Brutalist’ (with considerable emphasis) that sat on the footprint of Mom’s childhood home. ’10 Driveway’ was positioned on the canal, providing a stunning view and ample living space. My concern was that they’d topple off the balcony. But in truth, the real concern was burning the place down or having absolutely no in-house support should they have a fall or worse.
Enter their last home together: an owned space in a retirement residence. But gleaming hardwood floors, their first walk-in shower and a view over the neighbourhood where they brought up their family – none of this was enough to counteract the reality that their space was shrinking. And now canes, walkers, a community dining room, nurses bringing medication and the sudden difficulty getting in and out of their chairs became routine.
It is the last home where they sat together. The last place they enjoyed a meal together. The last place they greeted each other in the morning when they came out of their respective bedrooms. And it was also the first place I saw my father weep. It was the first place that I saw my mother removed in a stretcher as she was taken to the hospital. And it was the last place that I would ever see them together where they weren’t in a wheelchair or a hospital bed.
I can still picture them bickering: Mom was often confused and frustrated by her memory loss, made more so by Dad’s hearing loss. I would joke that Dad would say to Mom, “What?!” and she would respond, “I can’t remember.” Indeed, if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry.
Getting ready for 2019, I looked back and saw that I started this blog waaaay back in January 2011 – almost exactly 8 years ago. It was four years after my retail store closed (hence the name) and I was looking for things to keep me busy, other than my re-established gardening business, and allow me an outlet for my writing and photography. That sometimes feels like a lifetime ago.
I have seen many blogs come and go since then. Like life, peoples’ interests wax and wane. Peoples’ lives change. Different passions and distractions appear and often thwart the best of intentions.
I’ve not been on here very often in the last couple of years as I have found my concerns shifting. I’m still passionate about plants and gardening and love my gardens — that is, my own as well as those that I call “mine” but technically aren’t as they belong to my wonderful clients. Many of them have grown and changed over the years and it is such a pleasure working in them. And many of the people I have had the honour of working for have become great friends.
But I also have found myself thinking more about life – that is, what it is to live our life, what it means to have had a “good life.” And how to juggle living with waiting; waiting with living.
Ironic that I crave moments now and not things, this coming from an ex-retailer! Indeed, I have been shedding many of my possessions as I begin to realize that although they might be nice to look at, nice that they provide padding to the corners of the house, they are collecting dust and not doing anything other than weighing me down.
I now crave lightness.
My father is 100 years old and my mother is approaching 90. I will be 60 in 2019. As my parents struggle through the meanness that is old age, their mature children are left behind to negotiate their comfort and care.
They both struggle with memory. So moments disappear with the tick of the clock. They refuse to become memories. Perhaps that is why I am craving moments — while I know they will still warm me with memories.
Do you follow Jann Arden on Facebook? If you’ve ever experienced a family member who is suffering from debilitating dementia, then look her up. She writes, of course, in words like she does in song. She at once describes the sadness, loss, guilt, ugliness and reluctant acceptance that is the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. She is the daughter of a mother who let her in and they were good friends before this disease began to take her away. Truthfully and sadly, that has not been my experience.
If you’ve read my other entry here about my feelings toward my mother, you’ll know it has never been a close relationship. Now that I find myself being the “go-to” person for both my mother and father’s care, the clash of feelings is only getting louder and more pronounced. The expectation of attention, the weight of duty, the guilt that the tender feelings are not present. It’s all there. Laid bare when I think to place my hand on her shoulder to quell her shaking when she is scared and confused. When I realize that telling her about her condition is actually terrifying her, so I withhold and edit. The mental processing and the operating on dispassionate, automatic pilot. It is exhausting and it strips you bare. You need moments of relief to find yourself again. And to somehow forgive yourself.
When I say I have to leave to walk the dog, it is true, but it is also self-preservation. I need an outlet that gives me joy in this time of weightfulness.
I don’t know what the next few years will bring, but I fear it will be more of the same and I am terrified that the dreams I am chasing will go ‘poof’.
I continue to research “how long does someone with Alzheimer’s live?” and look at statistics. I tell myself I am a horrible person. Then I whisper to myself that I am not.
“Longevity is in your genes,” the ER nurse says to me today. I cringe. Please no. This is not life. This is not living. This is waiting. Everybody’s waiting. And the clock is ticking.
Well, as you already know, my two biggest loves are gardening and dogs (well, there are three, but the third doesn’t apply here lol). I don’t think I’m alone in that. The companionship of a dog and a garden can be equally comforting and rewarding. Over time we learn what makes our plants tick much the same way as we learn about our dogs — we spend time together, we watch, we make deals, we try different methods to get a desired outcome — they are both always a work in progress!
But today I want to talk about how to keep our new dogs safe. It was prompted by the story of Yoghi, a young male Spinone Italiano — aka an Italian hunting dog — who went missing on October 20th in Ottawa, after having just arrived in Canada. Despite two weeks of sightings and 24 hour searching, Yoghi was too fearful and would not be caught. Just barely in advance of winter, he was found today and is now back home in the loving arms of his family.
Truth is, many dogs today are being adopted on foreign shores and then brought back to Canada to start their new lives. The trip can be scary and disorienting, and it is not unusual for a “new Canadian” dog to bolt at some stage during the journey. If it does get into the arms of it’s new owners without incident, it may still be what is known as a “flight risk” — that is, a dog who is easily spooked and must be handled with care and a tremendous amount of safeguards to ensure its security.
But it’s not just foreign dogs who can go AWOL – in truth, any dog who is changing hands can, as can any dog who is spooked by something sudden. Even a dog who has been with you for years can suddenly disappear. So that is why I’ve decided to write about strategies you can use to ensure your dog’s safety.
Our newest dog Scout was a two year old first-time mom when she was abandoned at the vets by her previous owners. She was so scared and confused when she landed at the Humane Society that she needed medication to calm her fears.
Scout is a mixed breed with 1/4 border collie DNA and is the most cuddly and food-motivated dog I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. However, these character traits weren’t fully obvious at first. I understand that it takes anywhere from 3 to 6 months for a “new” dog to show its true colours. And more than this, it takes an uncertain amount of time for a “new” dog to bond with its new family.
A few months after we adopted her, Scout pushed open our front screen door, ran past my husband, mouth gaping, on the front porch and down the street.
We ran! We called! She stopped, looked at us and kept running in the opposite direction. Thankfully she ran “right” instead of “left” at the bottom of our front steps, a decision which meant we intercepted her in a neighbour’s backyard rather than as a crumbled, lifeless heap in the middle of a very busy four lane thoroughfare.
Truth is, making sure a “new” dog is safe is a multi-pronged endeavour but can mean the difference between life and death. After Scout’s brief adventure, we made sure we put several safety protocols into play so that she would never be at risk again. I share several of them with you here, as well as others that might be useful to you.
1.SECURE THE FRONT DOOR WITH GATES:
After Scout’s getaway, we realized our front door was not secure. So I searched online and in local pet stores for a gate that would be appropriate. Our front door didn’t seem to be “standard”, so many options were simply too big or too small. I didn’t want the type of gate that simply pressed against the door jamb; in my experience, these gates could be pushed out of place. Nor did I want a gate that was too short, as Scout would surely jump over it. I also wanted a gate that could be opened and closed fairly easily for humans, but be more difficult for a dog to do the same — even a border collie! I opted for one that was secured into a bracket that had to be screwed into the jamb. There was a mechanism on top of the gate that allowed it to be opened inwards, meaning it didn’t interfere with the screen door on the other side. This is a version of the gate that we chose.
Then I realized we also needed a barrier for the front porch, as we often sit out there in good weather. The top of our stairs didn’t seem to allow for a built-in wooden gate, so we found something that was sturdy, tall and relatively attractive online: this one is it.
Here are the two gates pictured together…Fort Knox!
Of course I won’t tell you that the opening mechanism on the inside gate kept getting harder and harder to release so I kicked it (really hard) one day and voila, it’s so much easier to operate now <wink>
2.CAR STRATEGIES TO PREVENT BOLTING:
I quickly realized that I could not take Scout in and out of our car through the back hatch. When I lifted it, the opening it created was too large for me to block with my body in case she decided to leap out.
This was before I had had a chance to teach her manners, so I had to think of another solution. I decided to take her in and out from the back seat, even though it meant putting the car barrier between the front and back seats, rendering my vehicle a paddy wagon for whenever my poor parents had to ride with me….
The barrier was necessary because she really wanted to ride in the front seat, ideally with her feet on the dash and her nose pressed closed to the windshield. This riding-in-the-car thing was new to her and she was fascinated by it!
There are plenty of seat covers that work in the back of all cars to keep the seats clean. This is by far a better solution with a dog who may jump out of the car without warning.
The other precaution is either using dog seat belts or tethering the dog inside the car with a leash. Both of these strategies work best with the dog situated in the back seat.
3.WALKING PROTOCOL: LEASHES, COLLARS, HARNESSES:
It is important, even with the most reliable and predictable dog, to ensure that you have control over him/her while you’re out and about walking. Using a collar or harness that they can’t break away from is paramount.
A regular collar with a clip-on leash is totally unreliable: firstly, if the dog pulls or lunges or bolts, either the collar will potentially injure the dog’s larynx OR it will slip right off allowing him/her to get free.
Sophia Yin gives a good analysis of all collar/harness types from the point of view of medical safety in this blog post here. She favours the use of front clip harnesses and head halters. Surprisingly, savvy or insistent dogs can actually rid themselves of a harness, as can be seen in this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tKNAw3r2F2g) so never leave a dog unattended while secured using a harness.
Choke chains, prong collars and regular collars are not safe choices unless your dog is very well trained already (some trainers believe the first two choices are not good ones under any circumstance). Martingale collars, which operate under the same principle, that is, tightening as the dog pulls, are a superior choice because of their wider profile and regulated tightening capability.
Whatever you choose, make sure it a) is safe for the dog’s neck and body, and b) doesn’t allow them to escape easily.
Some dog owners fasten their dog’s leash to their waist, so that they don’t have to rely on their hands to keep the leash secure and that their whole body acts as a means to stop their dog from getting loose from a bolt or lunge at full speed. Ruffwear has a great selection of dual purpose hand-held and waist-attached leashes here.
This video shows Scout waiting for her Dad to come out of the washroom at Upper Canada Village wearing her Ruffwear harness, embroidered collar with phone number and leash attached at the chest. You’d think I was torturing her!
Whatever you do, do NOT rely on flexi-leashes to secure your dog. If he/she bolts, even if this leash is attached to a well-made, super secure, front-clip harness (some of the best are also found through Ruffwear here), by the time your dog runs to the end of the flexi-leash’s tether, it will fly out of your hand so fast (perhaps even injuring you in the process) that your dog will be free, dragging the flexi-leash behind him!
Over time with a new dog, being a very judicious trainer will ensure that he/she will have a more predictable behaviour in unpredictable situations.
One of the first things you should teach is “wait” — wait before leaving the house, so that you can lead the way, rather than being pulled out the door and down the stairs. And wait before exiting the car until you have given the say-so. This command alone may save your dog’s life. The other command, in my opinion, equally important to “wait” is a recall. A solid recall is something that you’ll need to practice every day of your dog’s life.
Loose-leash walking is also something that all dogs need to learn. It makes walking together a pleasure instead of a chore and in the end, will save your shoulder sockets and back!
5.WHAT TO DO IF YOUR DOG DOES GET AWAY FROM YOU:
a) Don’t panic!
b) Don’t chase!
c) Use your recall word…if that doesn’t work, try yelling “Puppy, puppy, puppy!”;
d) Run in the opposite direction;
e) Drop to the ground and make high pitched, happy noises;
f) Use treats to get the dog to come closer;
g) Secure the dog with a leash slowly and carefully – no sudden lunges or movements.
There is an excellent blog post on how to navigate what can be a very stress first few moments of a loose dog; you can find it here.
If your dog does not respond to these actions and keeps running or disappears from sight, then immediately take action. Petfinder has a great resource in this article to help you take the appropriate steps when your dog is lost: find it here. The more people you can reach about your lost dog, the better. It often takes a village to return a dog to it’s owner.
First, my mother is not dead. But she has never been a source of comfort. And now, in these later years, while I find myself flung into the role of care-giver, I am remembering our history together and coming to terms with why I have conflicting feelings of duty, resentment and anger.
When I recall happy memories from my childhood involving my mother, I remember her sitting by my hospital bed reading aloud Paul Gallico’s novel, Jennie, as I recovered from a a very serious back operation when I was 12 or 13.
Jennie is the story of Peter, the young son of busy upper class parents in London, England, who have no time for him. Peter longs for a cat to ease his loneliness, but his pragmatic nanny does not suffer animals gladly…(I instantly recall my own childhood babysitter, who was unaffectionately called ‘DoDo Bird’ — I believe her name was the French ‘Dault’, pronounced ‘Dough’ — who cold-heartedly tossed the neighbour’s cat Fluffy, who I loved, over the fence one day, much to my horror).
Early in the book, Peter sees a kitten across the road and in his zeal to get closer, he crosses traffic and gets struck by a vehicle. In his state of unconscious, Peter awakens as a cat and is befriended by Jennie, a stray, who had been abandoned by her own family. The story follows his journey as he learns how to be a cat in a world completely foreign to him and it concludes with him awakening back into his human world. It is a story of love, loss, isolation, friendship, fear and courage. But it always struck me that his life would have been more fulfilled and happy had he stayed a cat.
My mother might have found several threads in this story that paralleled her own life. Her older brother, as a child, had been hit by a car and died as a result of his injuries – this was back in the 1930s and I can’t help but think that if he had lived today, the accident wouldn’t have taken his life.
Also, my surgery, in my parents’ eyes, may have been considered life-threatening. It involved the placement of a metal rod against my spine so that the curve caused by scoliosis would be straightened. It was a serious procedure that was still in its infancy in the early 1970s. From my parents perspective, there was a lot of fear and uncertainty around it, including whether I might be rendered permanently paralyzed or worse, die on the operating table. Luckily I wasn’t and didn’t. But to this day I remember the most embarrassing moment of the entire process, which was when my father asked,
“Doctor, will my daughter still be able to have children?”
Whereas my concerns centered around whether or not I’d be able to ride a horse or jump out of a plane. In my mind, those two things were imminently more likely than procreating.
(The only discussion my mother ever had with me about sex was sliding an educational book across the counter to me. I always felt that this was how she related to me: at arm’s length. It was mortifying and taught me that talking about sex was taboo. I’m sure my experience was not unique.)
I don’t know if my mother realized the extent to which this novel mirrored my own shy and isolated life: like the protagonist Peter, I also felt invisible to my parents and wished more than anything to have a companion, a pet. For Peter, it was a pet cat; for me, a dog.
I cannot overstate the extent to which I yearned for a dog. But time and again, I was told that it was not possible due to my parents’ and my younger sister’s allergies. Sadly, I had to make do with gerbils, an iguana and goldfish.
My young life involved one blow after another. Years before this surgery, what exact years I cannot say, I was regularly sent off with a close friend of my mother’s, an Anglican priest, who took me to the park and molested me. Too timid to tell, too young to resist, and too naive to believe that this behaviour was not endorsed by my mother, I suffered this indignity for what seemed like eternity.
Two years after this picture was taken, our family temporarily packed up and moved to Quebec City where my younger sister was born. This was a turning point in my life and marked the moment when I became most invisible. My sister was a sickly child and her care demanded every ounce of attention and energy my mother could muster. It was not surprising that she was grateful for any “babysitting” that was offered.
When my sister got older and I was poised to move away from home (she would have been 11 to my 19), my mother bought her a dog. A DOG. My sister didn’t want a dog, nor did my mother. It just seemed like a good idea apparently.
As you can imagine, this dog, a dachshund beagle mix we called Kipling, landed in a family that didn’t know how to care for it. So, after at least one episode when it escaped the house and chased wailing children down the street, nipping at their ankles, my mother gave it away. I came home from university to this heart-crushing news. Although Kipling was never my heart-dog, I never forgave my mother for this.
Years later, while in my 20s and as my wedding approached, I asked my mother if I could wear her wedding gown. The dress was fitted and beaded and as I handled its smooth fabric and shiny embellishments in her closet, I imagined myself in it — glamourous and feminine and glowing — everything that a woman would like to feel on her wedding day. To my horror, she replied,
“You’ll have to dye it.”
It should not have come as a surprise to me that my actual wedding dress was a simple, hand-made affair, in off-white velvet, but also that my father’s words of advice on my wedding day were, “Ailsa, marriage is hell.”
My 88 year old mother now has Alzheimer’s disease and her memory of any of these experiences is long gone. She now lives in a world of her own youth; she re-reads her letters home to her own mother while she was adventuring overseas. She remembers these as the “best years”; gone are any memories of her wedding, her early marriage, my youth and her later years. It is a mercy that these best memories are what remain.
When I was young, my grandmother took me to church for Sunday service. It was known (and still is today) as a “high church”, which meant incense was generously dispensed. I hated this ceremonial “aid to prayer” as it always made me feel light-headed. At worst, a full-fledged fainting episode would begin with my peripheral vision getting fuzzy, a loud buzzing would drown out any sound and whatever I could see was starting to become confined to an ever-closing-in, darkened tunnel. The only way to stop the progression was to put my head between my knees — I always felt so awkward, but I’m sure onlookers just saw a demonstration of piety.
This is what I imagine it feels like to lose your memories to Alzheimer’s — it leaves you with an ever-narrowing vision of your own history. Until finally, all you have left is your earliest remembrances, and then nothing at all.
I am well aware that my mother and I never had a nurturing relationship. I know many friends who have either lost their beloved mother prematurely to illness, accident or Alzheimer’s disease and who grieve the loss of their loving parent. As they struggle to understand why, blame themselves for any perceived transgressions for which they failed to make peace or to provide care in this most difficult time, I feel their anguish.
My own experience is different. I am the care-giver, the driver, the secretary, the accountant, the housekeeper, the daughter/mother and I see her as the petulant child. I get annoyed, I feel shame; I chastise her for bad behaviour, I feel shame; I get frustrated, I feel shame. I feel little connection, I feel shame. I google how long people live with Alzheimer’s disease, I feel shame. I say all the wrong things in response to her illness and I feel shame.
This feeling of being conflicted is, I’m sure, normal. The so-called bond between mother and daughter is often a fabrication, like a well-meaning fairy tale. In my life, my strongest bonds have been with my dogs and these relationships have been my most fulfilling: unchained, giving, freeing, natural and joyful. I’m lucky to have found what gives me joy. And lucky to understand that the comfort it provides me is legitimate and unapologetic.
There is still plenty of colour that belies the end of the gardening year.
This glorious plant is likely Chrysanthemum ‘Red Chimo’, also known as Arctanthemum articum ‘Red Chimo’ or Chrysanthemum articum ‘Red Chimo’. Poor chrysanthemum. The powers that be can’t seem to decide what to call you. First chrysanthemum, then Dendranthemum, and for this species, now Arctanthemum. Never mind. This cultivated variety of Arctic chrysanthemum is dead hardy at zone 3 and is the pink/purple/mauve version of the species that appears as pure white.
I favour the singles since the doubles just remind me of the seasonal annual “mums” that we can find at every garden centre in September.
In contrast, these hardy mums are loose and natural and shrub-like and a perennial that we should all embrace as part of our late season gardens.
Chill. Don’t cut everything down.
Even this Geranium ‘Rozanne’ wants to shine in the luminous light of September.
And the wild New England aster is giving its all ….
There is magic in these seasonal shifts…it is everywhere and doesn’t need our hand.
I don’t think there is anything more beautiful than a fall leaf tapestry…
…even if it’s poison ivy!
I miss our walks in the autumn woods but Skye isn’t able to walk this far anymore. Another kind of season….shifts and changes.
The snappers wind their way, prehistoric bodies smeared green with algae and lumbering from water to grass, grass to water.
There are surprises in the woods…..I recall someone who went mushroom hunting and ate those he found on a log, differentiated by those *next* to a log. Was it these that were poison or the others? Thinking you are right is not the same as being right. He could have said this as he recovered from his hospital bed.
…and more surprises in open spaces. The straw-coloured grasses sway in the shifting heat that at one moment is thick with moisture and then the next, light with hints of autumn.
The grasses and lily pads are choking the pond, making the ducks work extra hard to power through, bobbing for food and then relaxing on the logs that have been placed there for that very purpose.
The milkweed is ready. I cannot resist the urge to pull the silken stuffing from their pods and set each seed free by waving them over my head. Like nature’s bubble machine.
Christmas is near upon us and I tend to revisit memories of my childhood this time of year. This is especially true now because memories are hard to come by in our family right now. Unless they’re distant memories — and by distant I mean before I was born. Let me explain.
(Above) My parents, with Skye photo-bombing, about 10 years ago.
My folks are now both in their ‘twilight’ years and with age has come memory loss.
The way dementia (or Alzheimer’s disease) works is it robs you of your most recent memories — what you had for lunch, how that new-fangled toaster works, that you have something on the stove … What remains are the memories of your youth. As the disease progresses, you may understand that the person who says, “Hi Mom” is your daughter, but you may not recognize them if you pass them in a public place. You may be quite sure that no one has told you that you had a doctor’s appointment and then become irate if you are reminded that you had in fact been told.
There is much to learn about how best to have a conversation with someone who has lost much of their memory.
You proceed tentatively, for you’re not quite sure where the edges are crisp or already blurred.
“Do you remember the teepee we built in the backyard and how we would spend hours pretending to be ‘Indians’, living off the land?”
“Do you remember when you used to take us to look at the autumn colours in Gatineau Park?”
“Do you remember when I was a toddler?”
“Do you remember your wedding day?”
The answers might all be ‘no’ and the absence of these memories tragic, but thankfully, that is not all that matters …