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Steve Burgess Stories

Steve Burgess Stories

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Cover stories from Steve Burgess
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07/05/2013

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If you ask us, the Grinch

steve burgess

said it best: “It came without

ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes or

cynthia cushing

bags!” While no one is disputing the innate need
rita sirignano

to shop, the best gift of all might be to put down our wallets and focus on the true joy of Christphotographed by george webber

mas. And Hanukkah. And Kwanza. And Secretary’s Day. As that wrinkled green Grinch comes to realize, “Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas... perhaps... means a little bit more!”

Presents
of mind
27


family TIES

Mom is 80. I used to use passing Christmases to count up the years, but it’s different these days. Now it’s a countdown.

I’m Santa Now
by Steve Burgess

wishing for an adult and uneventful christmas

Christmas is for kids. I’m 48 and it’s still true. Every year I go home to Brandon to spend Christmas with my folks. It will have to change someday, but it won’t be because of me. In fact, it has changed already, unwilling though I was to allow it. I’m Santa now. I never wanted the job. My dad was always the guy. On Christmas Eve he would take his place in the rocking chair beside the Christmas tree and prepare to hand out the presents, one by one, with decent intervals between each gift so that they could be opened and appreciated properly. The entire process takes several hours, during which snacks and a traditional non-alcoholic fruit punch is consumed, although never enough of the punch to prevent there being litres left over after Christmas, leaving Mom to annually declare that she won’t make it anymore amid predictable howls of protest. It’s all tradition. In recent years, though, Dad’s deteriorating eyesight made it too

hard to read the gift tags in the dim light of the Christmas tree. Reluctantly I took his seat. Now I’m the one who doles out the stuff. Years ago the audience for that annual performance shrank to three, me included. As the only one of five kids who never hitched up and procreated, I was the only one with no other family commitments except the original one—to spend the holidays with my parents. Christmas is for kids, and there’s a loophole hidden there—no expiry date. A 48-year-old Halloween trick-or-treater would not go over well, but Christmas is different. You can always go home, as long as it’s still there. It’s still there this year. Knock wood, the seats will be full. Dad is in hospital at this writing. Whatever the trouble is, it’s been eluding proper diagnosis and treatment for too many weeks now. As I head for the airport he’s still in captivity and still the subject of inconclusive tests. I hope and expect he’ll be out by Christmas, because it’s important. Whatever the particular problem is on this occasion, the real problem is a birthday that is 81 years past and steadily receding. Mom is 80. I used to use passing Christmases to count up the years, but it’s different these days. Now it’s a countdown. My folks and I have come to love our quiet Christmases. Very adult,

very uneventful. I know Mom and Dad love their grandchildren, but at this age, in a frigid Prairie winter when hyperactive youngsters have nowhere to go but off the walls, there is a secret relief that the only child in the house lost his extra bounce decades ago. Christmas celebrations in our family have long since moved from Christmas morning to Christmas Eve. Since Dad was once a United Church minister he was busy on Christmas Day, and so as soon as the Santa Claus issue was put to rest the whole family agreed to move the celebration to the night before. Soon, we all agreed we wouldn’t have it any other way. The lights twinkle in the winter dark, the candles glow—very festive indeed. Now it’s down to just the three of us, and we always have a lovely time. I never decorate my apartment back home. Why bother? Christmas lives in Brandon at my parents’ house. And although I have felt privileged to continue sharing the holidays with Mom and Dad over the years while my siblings repaired to their own homes and families, I know that there will be consequences. There’s a Christmas game of musical chairs playing out. When the carols stop I will have nowhere to go. What will Christmas mean to me when my parents are gone? One of my mother’s favourite carols is “In the Bleak Midwinter.” I am already dreading the feeling I will get, someday in the future, when Decembers will come around and I will hear that song with no prospect of fulfilling my beloved holiday routine. One year I got a little taste of that future. I had my flight home all booked but, second-generation Scot that I am, I made the fateful and stupid decision to take a bus to the airport. With maybe 90 minutes’ lead time. It’s hard to feel sympathy for anyone that dumb, but try for my sake. The bus was packed. Every single block the cord would be pulled, the bell would ring, and the bus would trundle over to the curb like some big Pavlovian beast. The clock jogged on. My brain was screaming. A city bus to the airport—what had I been thinking? It was like making a sandwich with flour, yeast, some cream, and a butter churn. Finally I jumped off, desperately trying to hail a cab. But it was too late. By the time I arrived the gates had closed on my Canada 3000 charter flight, and despite my carefully calibrated attempt to pry them open by screaming abuse at an unfortunate attendant, they stayed closed. I would not be home for Christmas Eve that year. Canada 3000 eventually folded for reasons I will not divulge— suffice to say it is a mistake to disappoint me. But I learned my lesson and took no more foolish chances. Cabs to the airport, with plenty of advance time. I wanted to claim every remaining Christmas the three of us would be allotted. This year I’m on my way earlier than usual. With Dad in the hospital my siblings have been taking turns flying home to help out, and now it’s my turn. If need be, we will get him out of that hospital with a crowbar. Some things have changed over the years. The tree is now a very convincing artificial model. There’s a new Santa in town. I tend to forget what gifts I receive, which sure as hell never happened when I was 10. But I’m going home again. Not for the last time, I hope. These days, it’s one Christmas at a time. That’s not a bad way to take them. S

Be Careful What You Wish

Dashed EXPECTATIONS

you can want what you want, but you won’t always get it

by Cynthia Cushing going for a mountain-bike ride in the woods It was my birthday and I was
with friends. I lifted my bicycle onto the car rack and threw the biking stuff—water bottle, helmet, gloves, pump—into the front seat. I couldn’t find my driver’s licence. I went through my wallet and the purse I’d used on the weekend. I put my hands into the pockets of jackets and jeans I’d had on recently and looked in the laundry basket. It was time to go but I didn’t want to get stopped for speeding or something and then get an extra ticket for not having my licence. My husband, Ian, was making coffee in the kitchen while I ran around the house, looking in the same places three or four times. “I can’t find it. I’ve looked everywhere,” I said. Ian said, “Weird.” I left without the licence and met my friends at the trailhead. They all said Happy Birthday. They asked me what I was doing that night, was I being taken out? Was Ian giving me a present? No, I said. Ian’s cooking and my sister’s coming over and one of my daughters is making a cake and everybody is going to be home. I said that I’d had my present earlier in the year when Ian paid for me to go to New York. We started riding and by the time we reached the prettiest part of the trail along the river, I was warmed up and enjoying the exercise. My mind

28

29

Christmas present is going to be nothing like Christmases past. With his aging parents having to move into a seniors complex, a concerned son finds himself looking for new family traditions in Room 116 of the local holiday inn.

Casa Blanca Christmas
written by Steve Burgess illustrations by Byron Eggenschwiler

&

Home for the holidays. That used to mean something a bit
different. It meant home, 54 Clement Dr., Brandon, Manitoba, my parents, myself, and a set of comfortably mundane routines, deeply cherished. Now, once again, I’m home for the holidays. My address: the Casa Blanca Motor Lodge. Please don’t forward my mail. Last summer the family home was sold. A wild gust of parental resolve, not foreseen by their unprepared kids, blew in like a July thunderstorm and suddenly family members were scrambling furiously to clear out the house so Mom and Dad could move into their new digs at Riverheights Terrace seniors apartment complex, where there would be no meals to cook and no basement steps to negotiate. Medical crises before and after the move underlined its necessity. In fact, like Dickens’ most terrifying spirit, the previous Christmas Eve had pointed the way to Christmases Yet to Come. My parents and I make a habitual holiday trio. Four other grown children, evenly split on gender lines, have families and Christmas obligations far away. So Mom and Dad and I long ago established a beloved routine, short on incident, long on relaxing tradition. Chief among these is the church service, followed by the Christmas Eve gift opening. By last year, however, it had become clear that my mother was too frail to do two things consecutively. Two scheduled events always needed an intervening nap. But this was Christmas Eve—surely an exception could be made. We returned from church and moved directly into part two of the routine, nibbling snacks, drinking the family-recipe fruit punch and opening presents till at least midnight. In the pleasant paper-strewn aftermath, my mother shuffled off to the kitchen while Dad and I chatted. Behind Dad’s voice I heard a crash and a lingering rattle. Twenty seconds of criminal indecision followed as my dad talked on obliviously and I wondered if I was worrying too much. The new and ever evolving reality of my parents’ circumstances suggested other-

even #

Editor’s Note: In the Dec. 22, 2006 issue of Swerve, Steve Burgess wrote about his final Christmas in the family home with his aging parents. A reader e-mailed us to ask what happened next and Steve’s response is the story you’re reading now. If you would like a PDF of the original essay, “I’m Santa Now,” please e-mail us at swerve@theherald.canwest.com.

wise, and I headed into the kitchen. Mom was crumpled on the floor, her head against the coffee cart that had rattled and banged like reindeer bells to announce this Christmas Eve landing. Her red-and-black Christmas outfit was covered in eggnog, her eyes blinking at the ceiling. Her limbs shook as I sat her down and sponged off her best black skirt. Ninety pounds at most, she was like a fallen baby bird. I put her to bed before telling Dad, who had remained in the living room blissfully unaware. Months later he would not recall the incident. Dad has health issues of his own. So, unavoidably, this Christmas would break new ground. Among other innovations it would see me finally introduced to an old and previously very casual acquaintance. When I was young it was called the Starlight. Under new management, it is the Casa Blanca. It’s my new seasonal home, and our meeting is long overdue. In 1965, when the Burgesses arrived in Brandon, the Starlight was already a relic, a victim of urban development. Its location on Victoria Avenue had made perfect sense when Victoria doubled as Highway One and the Starlight was the first option for weary Studebaker pilots headed east. The highway moved north, bypassing the expanding town that quickly swallowed up and digested its original boundaries. Now the old motel sits like a beached ship in a primarily residential zone. In the early ’80s, it was rechristened the Casa Blanca. It’s unlikely a bottle of Champagne was wasted. Even as a kid it seemed incongruous. Who would stay there? Trysting townies? Their cars would be easy enough to spot. For many years it was a couple of blocks away from the now-defunct Suburban Restaurant, the city’s finest in an era when baked Alaska was sophistication incarnate (and a name that invoked the suburbs apparently held some sort of cachet). As such it may have been a destination for tipsy celebrants—except that in those days nearly everybody on the road was half-drunk and thought little of it. I don’t know how it survived.

thirty-three

Maybe it was waiting for me. Maybe I used to be the caretaker. I’ve always loved The Shining. As I drive up to the office it is clear that I have one thing in common with Jack Nicholson at the Overlook Hotel—I am going to be the only resident. It’s snowing, too. A short woman in cleaning togs hustles down the long sidewalk and enters the office. “Sorry,” she says, “I just had to fire the cleaning woman. I’m Barb. My husband Ralph and I just took over managing the place. Just got here from Alberta.” As I fill out the form, she elaborates. “The previous manager was scamming the owner,” she says. “Skimming off the top. Plus, he’d take a security deposit from a customer and then throw them out—tell them there was no drinking or something— and pocket the deposit. One old guy used to bring his native gal here every week. He threw them out and kept their money. He’s never come back.” Some places could fall back on the carriage trade. But the Casa Blanca needs its regulars. If the name change was intended to goose business by summoning images of mysterious Moroccan medinas or doomed Hollywood romance, it did not appear to be working—no vehicles were parked along the long row of rooms. It didn’t help that no renovations had been done to accompany the new theme. A security guard in a Gestapo uniform would have been worth trying, at least. Casablanca’s Rick was plagued by Nazis, and The Shining’s Jack Torrance by madness. I am suffering a serious attack of lower back pain. A firm mattress? I ask hopefully. “We’re replacing them gradually,” Barb says. “Last week there was a party and I guess there was a fight. One fellow got hurt pretty bad and the mattress was totally blood-soaked. So we had to replace that one.” I cross my fingers for that room. I get No. 116, down at the end of the deserted row, a small, dowdy, but clean cubicle offering vintage carpet, wood panelling, fridge, microwave, TV, dead batteries in the largest remote I’ve ever seen and a surprisingly good mattress. The calendar reads November. A framed quotation on the wall is taken from John 3:16 and is not, as I expected, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Nor is their any evidence of a Moroccan motif. The Casa Blanca would have had pretty much the same décor had they called it The Red Deer. The bathroom sink is an unpredictable beast, pooling up for long periods and then suddenly draining on a whim. But there are no visible vermin. Happily,

It’s the old frog-in-a-boiling-pot story— increase the

gradually and the frog never notices until he looks down and sees a French chef putting sauce on his legs. So it has been with Mom. Change has been incremental.
heat

it is much too cold outside for any potential new arrivals. That offers one small improvement over my old bedroom in the family basement, which had been Palm Beach for wintering spiders.

On the way to my parents’ new residence I drive past our former digs. The driveway at 54 Clement Dr. is now home to two cars, a pickup truck, and a basketball hoop. Someone is busy making new traditions in the old place. Well, good for them. I have my very own château. I am an Eastern potentate, a journeying king of the Orient. I am Lord of the Casa Blanca. We will be keeping up the old traditions to the best of our ability. Mom’s ability, really. Christmas dinner is out—these days she is being fed through a tube. It connects to a shunt directly into her stomach. We all recoiled at the idea initially—considered out of context it almost seemed too much. Circumstances alter cases, as legal beagles say. Various factors had made swallowing so difficult for Mom that she had dwindled to 80 pounds, 20 to 30 pounds below her normal weight. Now, thanks to the magic tube, she is up to 90. When the time comes you do what’s needed. And you have the Christmas you can manage. Mom has Restless Leg Syndrome too (frankly, poor Mom has it all these days). When she can’t sleep she pilots her walker down the halls on long, excruciatingly slow walks accompanied by Dad or me. Small talk has become stressful. Mom has difficulty with word recall these days, and her voice was damaged by an incompetent surgeon years before—if we were American, medical malpractice suits would have made us rich years ago. So these walks are mostly about companionship and supervision. Back at 54 Clement, Mom and I used to run the Peach Marathon. She would get up in the night and go to the kitchen to do slow laps around the dishwasher. After every lap I would feed her a slice of canned peach. Those were the days. The new normal is always resetting the bar lower. It was my sister Lynn who eventually diagnosed my mother with Parkinson’s by checking symptoms online, just as she had earlier diagnosed Mom with a thyroid condition. (Not for nothing have we nicknamed Mom’s physician Dr. Putz. And here I will just point out that we suffer from an ugly little medical tradition called professional courtesy. If you end up with an incompetent family doctor in a smallish place like Brandon, good luck getting a new one. “She’s Dr. Putz’s patient,”

we were told repeatedly by other doctors we pursued. Can’t poach from another doctor’s stable, you see. Never mind that some of us suspect Dr. Putz began his medical career by finding an old stethoscope in a dumpster, and has been bluffing his way through ever since.) After a lot of pushing we also got brain scans done, revealing some sort of growth in her head. So where Mom is concerned, matching symptoms with problems is as simple as tracing the paternity of a stray cat. It’s the old frog-in-a-boiling-pot story—increase the heat gradually and the frog never notices until he looks down and sees a French chef putting sauce on his legs. So it has been with Mom. Change has been incremental. And yet looking back only a couple of short years the transformation has been startling. Activities, abilities, key character traits have fallen away. Mom is still there, but she’s like a partly cloudy day. At times her sense of humour and keen intelligence break through. Other times anxiety and fatigue reduce her to a shell of the woman who shaped our lives. My parents met at Queens University in the 1940s when he was a football lineman and she a Highland dancer. Dad entered the ministry. Mom’s path was set by an astounding production schedule of five kids in six years—all to be raised on a minister’s salary under watchful smalltown eyes. She did that. Then she flipped the script. After receiving an epically awful birthday gift from Dad—a pressure cooker, for God’s sake—Mom blew her lid. She announced that she was going back to work. Then she returned to school to get her teaching certificate. By the time we kids were in high school, Mom was too, teaching English classes that included two of her own children at various times. We were raised in a family where sexual equality was not a goal or a concept but a daily reality. Where Dad was gregarious to a fault, Mom was reserved, but possessed of a wit as sharp as her intelligence. Emotionally complex, she was always determined that her moods would be her own problem, not her children’s. I often sensed those emotional reactions of hers because I had them myself. In all the best ways, I considered myself a mama’s boy. All of which is just to say that the new reality is painful indeed, for her family and for Mom herself. “My world keeps getting smaller,” she tells me one afternoon. And yet not long ago she told Lynn, “There will never be enough time.” Whatever else she may be, my mother is a very tough bird. Nobody’s quitting yet. Besides, no one has it easy, least of all the new managers of the Casa Blanca. On my very first night I lose my key and in order to access my room I must rouse Barb and Ralph out of bed around midnight. At least it isn’t a knife fight. I stammer apologies to the poor bleary couple—apparently I need time to adjust to new holiday realities like motel keys. It’s a gradual process. There is some reason for gratitude in that. A holiday at the Casa Blanca is still a hometown holiday. A long shuffle down the hall is still a walk with my beloved mother. The family home is gone—the family is not. The old realities are sliding away, but that’s a situation many grieving people wish they could have experienced. Some people’s worlds end in cataclysm, in sudden shocks and unbearable changes of circumstance. My family’s world is adrift—a difficult transition to be sure, but perhaps a kinder one. There are worse things than Christmas Eve at the Casa Blanca, watching It’s a Wonderful Life. Maybe next year they’ll rename this place Gone With the Wind. Works for me. S
thirty-five

thirty-four

Over the past three years, Steve Burgess has shared the tears and the laughter of his parents’ sunset years with Swerve readers. As his mother’s final battle draws to its bittersweet conclusion, he holds on to her remarkable spirit.

Dance Me to the End of Love
written by Steve Burgess illustrations by Byron Eggenschwiler

&

A

last check before heading to the airport—there are several containers of yogurt in the fridge. I am wondering if I should just leave them in hope they’ll still be good when I get back. And that’s what the situation has come down to—trying to calculate whether yogurt or my mother will expire first. After a long decline, the end is coming in a rush. Only a week ago we were still in fight mode, holding a conference call with all five kids and Dad, home-care nurses, the doctor, even Mom herself— wheeled down the hall from her bed in Brandon’s Assiniboine Centre. Conscious and alert? Unlikely, it seemed. But present. The family are seasoned warriors by now. This latest crisis has been preceded by many others. We spent the teleconference lobbying for health-care services, trying to undercut any hint of defeatism, making plans for Mom’s return home just as soon as we establish that she can still get out of bed. Almost 83 years old and suffering from severe Parkinson’s, Mom had been written off before. And yet only months ago she had rallied to sit at a Christmas table and sip spoonfuls of soup, a triumphant communion accomplished through force of will. She managed it again three days later on her 58th wedding anniversary. Even more remarkable, New Year’s Eve had seen her rise from her wheelchair to execute a careful, shuffling waltz with her old lover. “I was dancing,” she whispered. But days after the conference call, another call, this one to my sister Lynn from a conscientious nurse. We are not getting the true picture, the nurse says. Mom is essentially in a coma. We need to make plans. My two brothers are desperately rearranging schedules. By the time my sister Leslie and I arrive in Brandon, Lynn has been there for days, sitting up nights in Mom’s room, alert to any change in her frightening, gasping breath. Mom looks wasted and frail. But it’s that breathing that is the real shock—sharp, convulsive intakes of air accentuated by the

plastic echo chamber covering her mouth. You hear it, see her muscles convulse with the effort, and think, “It can’t go on for long.” Joan Barron Burgess hated her middle name. Who wouldn’t? It was a gift from her mother, Joan Slorance, née Barron, and if my poor infant Mom had been aware and sentient at her 1926 christening, she would have realized that this act of narcissistic branding was truly an ill omen. Grandma Slorance was an iron-willed Scot, a top-notch golfer who had parlayed this talent into social connections that helped lift her parents’ large brood to a better life in the Old Country. She was tough and determined. But that iron will was unleavened by any selfawareness or emotional empathy. Grandma was like a windowless room. Young Joan had to grow up in it. The Slorance family had a bakery in Bassano, Alta., where my mother and her two siblings would work after school. By her early teens, my mother was battling a different kind of weight problem than you might expect given those circumstances. Joan Jr.’s esophagus was no longer functioning properly—her stomach had shrunk to the size of a walnut. Without drastic treatment she had mere months to live. Doctors told my grandmother that her daughter’s condition might have two possible causes: emotional stress or swallowing lye. Grandma seized on the latter explanation. Mom would be left with a lifelong swallowing problem and a loathing of feeling full, the legacy of the hourly force-feeding that gradually expanded her stomach. Emotional scars were left as well. But Joan Burgess was nobody’s victim. A bad example can be a gift if you see it for what it is. Mom decided early on that she had been handed a pretty good formula for future parental success—just remember what her own mother did, and do the opposite.

eighteen

Then came the fight so emblematic of the 1960s. One birthday, Dad bought Mom a pressure

cooker. Pressure was certainly building. Soon

the upheaval came, and afterwards Mom was not just Mom anymore. She had a job. Next came her return to school to complete her degree.

In 1946 Joan Slorance was a beautiful red-haired Highland dancer at Queen’s University in Kingston. Bill Burgess was a former Navy man and a lineman on the Queen’s Golden Gaels, strikingly handsome yet, shall we say, unpolished (old clothes, prone to drinking from his soup bowl). Photos reveal a show-stopping couple, but Joan was not immediately sold on the project. They finally married in 1950 after a stop-and-start courtship. Thereafter things followed the ’50s model—a schedule of five kids in six years, Dad working for the United Church, Mom’s academic career apparently packed away with the Highland outfits. The stress of raising that brood with minimal help from a travelling spouse was more difficult than we happy kids understood. Long afterwards, Dad and I tried to drag Mom along on a return visit to the Regina bungalow where the family had spent five early years. Mom refused to get out of the car. “Just the sight of that house made me feel physically ill,” she admitted later. Mom was a battler, and she had a few to fight. There were assorted domestic issues. Some examples: While she breastfed child No. 2, child No. 1 would pull hard on his baby sister’s legs and yell, “No, Mom! No!”. Child No. 3 liked to get her attention by leaning in and grabbing her face with both hands. And her fifth child became convinced that he had been bitten by a toilet seat and thus wore diapers until he was four. (I just didn’t want to be rushed, is all.) With no money for babysitters, five kids went to the grocery store for every

shopping trip. If we behaved, we got animal crackers. We behaved. Treats were scarce on a minister’s salary. Then came the fight so emblematic of the 1960s. Mom and Dad had met at university but you’d never know it by their subsequent careers. They were like a pair of snipers with only one rifle. And Mom was getting fed up with tending the ammo box. One birthday, Dad bought Mom a pressure cooker. Pressure was certainly building. Soon the upheaval came, and afterward Mom was not just Mom anymore. She had a job. Working at an insurance company was just a preliminary—next came her return to school to complete her Bachelor of Education degree. By the time we were teenagers there was no sign of the 1950s in our home, no question of any head-of-the-family hierarchy. We were a family created, led and fed by two. Eventually two of the five kids would have the peculiar, proud-yet-squeamish experience of sitting in high-school classrooms being taught by their own mother. She was a great teacher. A great mother, too. We could thank Grandma Slorance’s reverse example for that. Unlike her own mother, ours did not deal in emotional manipulation, guilt, or favouritism. She was there when we needed her and silent when any input might be construed as meddling. You had to beg this woman to meddle.

While Mom fought to establish a career and raise unruly teenagers, she continued her personal battle as well. She had sought counselling to heal the ravages of her upbringing, even as she continued to show love and respect to the woman who raised her, for better or worse. Eventually it would be Mom who travelled to Edmonton to look after an increasingly belligerent and demented old woman. After one grocery-shopping trip, Mom returned to a hostile reception. “I know where you’ve been,” Grandma hissed. “You’ve been meeting with them.” Meeting with whom, exactly? “The NDP! They want my money!” Grandma never did approve of Mom’s politics. Grandma lived to be 89. Nurses say that near the end she was happy in the apparent belief she was running for prime minister. (Our own Margaret Thatcher, potentially—we’ll never know.) Mom’s fight to free herself from Grandma’s emotional legacy would go on all her life. She would find many friends, fellow seekers and eventually a beloved counsellor and friend, Sister Sandra Stewart. Mom kept a journal of their conversations, written in her beautiful flowing hand. By the time of the last entry, the writing is shaky and uncertain. But the message is not. “Keep doing the work,” she wrote. It is nearly done. Mom has double pneumonia. Our established mistrust of doctors and their opinions has been dissolved by the inevitable, by the heaving chest muscles that push out each breath. Her eyes flicker and sometimes open. What does it mean? Nothing, say I. Lynn disagrees. “See?” she says. “I said Dad’s name and her eyebrows moved.” False hope, I argue—a little Burgess family replay of the Terry Schiavo case. But then it had only been a week since the day that Dad, leaving for the evening, promised her a goodbye kiss and then delivered three. Mom opened her eyes and whispered, “You said just one.” Wisecracking to the end. And those were in fact the last words anyone had definitely heard from her. Parkinson’s had not destroyed Mom’s personality. But like a broken hard drive, the contents of her mind had become hard to access. As things got worse, Mom couldn’t find words she needed. Speaking had become a painful chore, concentration possible only in brief bursts followed by long sleeps. Mom was still there, somewhere, but that realization came to seem more and more hypothetical as her interface software gradually failed. Attempts to communicate with her gradually came to seem selfish, meeting our own emotional needs at the expense of a tired, struggling woman who using all her remaining resources just to keep functioning. I’m a night owl, so I volunteer for the overnight shift. I sit beside Mom’s bed and hold her hand as we watch TV. It feels oddly comfortable, like old times. I am playing along with Lynn’s theory just in case—I wind up Mom’s old music box and sing to her. I sing “Loch

Lomond,” which was sung at her beloved father’s funeral, and old jazz songs like “Daybreak,” which Mom once told me she bought on a Blue Jay 78, back in the ’30s. One night in the hospital room I accidentally knock over a bedside vase—it bounces off the table, the wall and the floor, clattering like a fire alarm. Mom doesn’t even flinch. I keep singing to her anyway. The woman on the bed is my mother. I know that. But she is an obstacle too, someone who has come between my mother and me. I have to look past her to see the woman who raised me, the woman I joked with so easily, the woman whom I admired above all others. Living in the moment is a necessity when you are dealing with medical crises, and as the family has responded to the series of setbacks that have taken our mother down the staircase to this moment, we have slowly, almost unconsciously, adjusted to what she has become. There have been little deaths along the way—the realization that Mom will never again be able to come out and visit, the realization that she can no longer be counted on as the infallible personal assistant always capable of remembering the daily details we might have
The woman on the bed is my mother.

I know that.

But she is an obstacle too, someone who has come between my mother and me.

I have to look past her to see the woman who raised me, the woman
I joked with so easily, the woman whom I admired above all others.

twenty

twenty-one

forgotten, the slow relinquishment of her position as the most trusted organizer and overseer of our lives. Then harder losses, among them the realization that Mom can no longer summon the attention and energy necessary simply to appreciate her children’s and grandchildren’s activities. As her Parkinson’s gained ground, Mom was left running on emergency backup power. And yet when she could manage a whispered quip in her desiccated voice, we knew she was still there. More telling perhaps was her relationship with people who had known her only near the end—home-care nurses, staff at the seniors’ apartment complex my parents had moved into a couple of years before. They loved her, it was clear. To me it had seemed the cruellest blow that this woman who had taught English to countless students, who had cherished nothing more than gathering with intimate friends for conversation, who valued nothing more than sincere and searching discussion, who took joy from any expression of common humanity and spirit, had seen her ability to communicate wither away. But she was still communicating, somehow. Through her kindness, her unshakable dignity, she was showing herself even now. People knew. I try to take comfort from that. But it’s hard. The new realities are driving out memories of the old, and I am jealously protective of those. Sometimes Mom’s breathing changes. This causes a flurry of activity, particularly from my two sisters. One day I am preparing to head to the grocery store for provisions when Lynn calls, assuring me that if I do not start for the hospital with a lead foot Mom will be gone before I arrive. When I get there Mom is resting comfortably. It’s a scene that plays out a few times. My sisters hover over Mom, alert to every change. They tear up frequently. I don’t. In fact I find myself fighting feelings of annoyance at their hair-trigger reactions. But how can I accuse them of overreacting? Mom is dying. So what if they guess wrong today? They’ll be right soon enough. I suppose—and I really am trying to understand my own reactions now—I suppose I just think there’s no need to get worked up over and over again about the inevitable. My sisters are looking at Mom and seeing a woman who is struggling, possibly in pain. Their tears express their love and empathy. I see a woman who is already gone, whose final breath will be a formality. My mother’s death will not be a tragedy. Her life was in many ways a triumph, and she lived four score and almost three. As a family we are not dealing with the premature loss of a young life. There will be no agonizing decisions about organ donation, unless an 84-year-old woman calls. Friends have suffered real tragedies. My friend Laura lost her mother to a drunk driver. My friend Matthew’s mother got earlyonset Alzheimer’s while still in her 40s—he was left with horrible yet sometimes blackly funny tales from his mother’s rapid descent. Once

to every change. They tear up frequently. I don’t. In fact I find myself fighting feelings of annoyance at their hair-trigger reactions. But how can I accuse them of overreacting? Mom is dying. So what if they guess wrong
today? They’ll be right soon enough.

My sisters hover over Mom, alert

while sitting with family watching Pretty Woman on video, Matthew’s mother had become upset when Richard Gere asked Julia Roberts to go home with him. “I won’t!” she had shouted at the screen. The tape was rewound so Roberts’ response could be heard, and thus Gere asked his question again. “I just told you no, you asshole!” Matthew’s mother shouted. We have been spared such things. A couple of times Mom forgot who I was. The worst part was that, when the fog cleared, Mom remembered that she had forgotten. “My own son,” she whimpered on one such occasion. But such incidents were mercifully few. It’s been coming for a while. Perhaps that’s why I seem calm. But at least my sisters are grieving. They cry. What about me? Once in this magazine I described being trapped in an Indonesian hotel room with a spider as big as an eight-fingered hand. A lifelong arachnophobe, I still have nightmares—it was the most intensely horrible experience I can remember. But it was over in minutes and had no tangible consequences. Practically speaking, it was a non-event. Now my Mom is dying, I am not visibly reacting. Did a giant spider have a greater impact on my psyche than the loss of my mother? Then again it’s a blessing for everyone that in this instance I am not screaming like a Jonas Brothers fan club and running into the hallway in my underwear. I understand that the appropriate responses are different. I know if I saw a hand-sized spider in Mom’s hospital room I would once again go off like a stepped-on cat and run away sans culottes. Mom would understand, too—she always did. I just wonder at myself. I don’t get it. A turning point—the medical team is suggesting that Mom’s antibiotics be stopped, and we agree. The night watch is more anxious now—I am afraid she will go anytime. But as it turns out Mom and I have another uneventful night of television. Once long ago I dragged my poor suffering parents to a theatre to see Robocop, which for some reason I was sure they would enjoy. Now it’s on late-night TV and I’m putting Mom through it again. If Lynn is right I’m being cruel. But I sing to compensate. Mom’s breathing seems the same. I relax. Maybe she’s going to beat double pneumonia. She has beaten dire predictions before. Relieved by my siblings in the morning, I head off for an espresso, to be followed by a shower and shave back at my parents’ apartment.

At the café I encounter a high-school acquaintance I haven’t seen in decades. He is busy filling me in on those lost years when the café owner appears behind him, waving a cordless phone. It’s a call from Leslie. “Mom’s gone,” she says. No one is crying when I walk into the hospital room, but their eyes suggest it’s a temporary lull. Mom is lying with her face turned sideways. Her skin hangs down over her open jaw like a flat tire over a bicycle rim. Actors can’t really play dead—you just can’t make your muscles sag like that. Mom didn’t look too good last night and yet the difference now is a shock. She’s dead. There’s no holding it now, thank goodness. I sit beside the bed and cry. The end was not painful, they tell me—she simply stopped. Her heart, that indomitable little engine, a dogged pump with over 80 years of faithful service, has gone still. For the first time in her children’s lives, we are divided from our mother by something more than mere physical space. For the next couple of hours we are all sitting around the hospital room, with Mom still on the bed behind us. We are telling family stories and laughing. We’re all together. It feels nice. That night we toast her memory over dinner. Dad has a little trouble with the remnants of his salad and starts eating it with his hands. We’re all over him—that sort of nagging is our responsibility now. Methods of grief are personal. Recently a friend of mine talked about her father’s death. “It helps to have somewhere to focus your anger,” she says. And where is hers targeted? “On Dad’s wife,” my friend says firmly. “She didn’t want him to go on living.” And how old was your dad? “95,” she tells me. “But his own dad lived to be 97!” Mom’s service is held at Knox United. The family enters the church as the attendees sing “Lord of the Dance.” Beside the box holding Mom’s ashes there is a trophy, adorned with a Highland dancer. It was Mom’s last Christmas gift. Decades ago her father had spent his last Christmas at our home. Growing up, Grandpa had been Mom’s bulwark against Grandma’s emotional tyranny. Once, when Grandpa actually got the gumption to leave his wife, little Joan had stopped him. “Don’t leave me with her,” she begged. He turned around. On that final Christmas some cousins gave him a big trophy inscribed with “World’s Greatest Grandpa.” We all saw how tickled he was, and how proud. He died that spring. So it was that on Mom’s final Christmas she unwrapped, with help, a trophy. There was a Highland dancer where the bowler would usually be, and “World’s Greatest Mom” on the plaque. “It

The end was not painful, they tell me—she simply stopped. Her heart, that indomitable her children’s lives, we

little engine, a dogged pump

with over 80 years of faithful service, has gone still. For the first time in

are divided from our mother by

something more than mere physical space.

was a close vote,” I assured her. “You were something of a darkhorse candidate—came up the middle.” Mom looked over at her home-care nurse, and laughed. Still there. Months after that drunk driver killed my friend Laura’s mom, she dreamed they were walking together, talking and enjoying each other’s company. “Mom,” Laura asked, “Are you really dead?” “Yes,” her mother replied. “I am.” Mom shows up in my dreams all the time. Nothing dramatic thus far—she’s usually just there, in the background. She is in my waking mind even more frequently. Crying beside Mom’s bed was important. But it wasn’t any sort of full, cathartic release. I get little shell-bursts of memory and emotion throughout the day. Not all are of the expected variety—occasionally there comes a reflexive flash of relief that Mom’s final crisis has passed. Grieving, it seems, will be a long, quiet meditation, a series of reminders and realizations, and the occasional surprise. I expect it to continue indefinitely. I know that, in all likelihood, we would be bound to her memory regardless of how she’d raised us, just as Mom was emotionally bound to her own mother. As it is, we are the lucky beneficiaries of a love unbound by qualification or reservation. And it feels good to know that others knew my mother’s spirit. Reverend David Cathcart is the minister at Knox United, where Mom found so many friends. As we stood beside Mom’s bed, he summed it up simply. “She was revered,” he said. S

Editor’s Note In the Dec. 22, 2006 issue of Swerve, Steve Burgess wrote about his final Christmas in the family home with his aging parents. A reader e-mailed to ask what happened next and Steve picked up the story with “Casa Blanca Christmas,” published in our Dec. 12, 2008 issue. With this piece, he completes the trilogy. If you would like a PDF of all three essays, please e-mail us at swerve@theherald.canwest. com. Please put “Burgess trilogy“in the subject line.

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riverheights t e r r a c e
When my parents left their nest of 37 years, they didn’t move into an old folks’ home. Instead, they took up residence in a holiday retirement community that offers bingo, whist, carpet bowling, singalongs, movie nights, three meals a day and a flock of memorable characters.
written by s t e ve b ur ge s s . illustrations by b y r on e gg e ns chw il e r

ta l e s from

or the handful of Second World War veterans among its residents, Riverheights Terrace must bring back memories. You never know when the guy next to you is going to buy the farm. Don’t get friendly with the new recruits. Best to stay detached. Located on the western outskirts of Brandon, Man., Riverheights Terrace is not exactly what we used to call an old folks’ home. It is called, officially, a “holiday retirement community,” although just when Brandon became a holiday destination is hard to say. There’s no nursing provided. Seniors rent the serviced apartments and suites, all with big TVs and no stoves. Three times a day they gather in the huge dining hall for meals. Better not leave it too late—residents start rolling in 45 minutes early to grab choice seats. After mealtimes the walkers jam up at the single elevator like Manhattan taxis at rush hour. The rest of the time there’s bingo, whist, carpet bowling, singalongs, movie nights and the occasional bus outing. Turnover rates are high—the sales force can never rest easy. When residents periodically disappear from view, it’s as likely they’re in Brandon General as on vacation. Some don’t come back. It seems that almost every second week the big noon meal is preceded by the announcement of a memorial service. It’s not all gloom though—they’re singing “Happy Birthday” to somebody every second day. Stay awhile in Riverheights Terrace and you get to be as sick of that tune as a Chuck E. Cheese waitress does. You might expect a place like this to be full of ghosts. Certainly there’s a palpable sense of absence as nameplates suddenly disappear from doors and habitual dining-table quartets are forced to fill new vacancies. But ghosts? Spirits hovering over the rows of tables, roaming the long carpeted hallways lined with flowery prints, past rows of doorways and parked walkers? Not likely. Ghosts are about passion and unfulfilled desire. Here all feels played out, denatured. Any tormented souls currently paying rent at Riverheights Terrace will do their future haunting elsewhere, in the houses and fields and high schools where their unresolved torments were born. It’s not that Riverheights lacks tension. It’s just that there aren’t enough

hormones to truly make it like high school. But with a sedentary population commuting back and forth to the dining area and activity room, Riverheights is in effect a self-contained small town. The social dynamic is lively and the gossip unavoidable. While it’s hardly a soap opera (unless you’re thinking of General Hospital), there are characters in residence. And, hidden behind Prairie stoicism, there is real pain. The residents in this place generally arrive two by two and leave one at a time. Someone gets left behind. One evening while heading back to my parents’ third-floor apartment I see a shirtless old man lurch into the laundry room where an elderly lady is busy folding her clothes. “Are you as lonely as I am?” he asks her without preamble. “It’s been two years since my wife passed. I’m so terribly lonely. But I knew she had to go, you know, she was in so much pain. She had leukemia you know, blisters all over her body. She couldn’t even roll over. I couldn’t do anything for her... couldn’t do anything for her....” I freeze in the hall, horrified—sympathetic for the man but frankly more sympathetic for the poor, quiet woman folding her laundry. After all, by his own admission he’s been a widower two years. If this is still his conversational opener, without so much as a how-do-you-do, I would guess he usually dines alone. “That’s old Nick,” Dad tells me later. “He drinks quite a bit. Most of the ladies here are scared of him.” Understandably. Yet Nick’s soliloquy is suggestive of more than just social discomfort. Could this be the emotional reality of life here? Could this be the soul of Riverheights Terrace laid bare? I now recall that I have, in fact, seen Nick before, sitting with his door open at midday, shirtless, listening to sentimental old melodies. He appears to be an anomaly, the only obvious drinker in the place. But who knows how many grieving Riverheightsers would make similar confessions but for sobriety and self-control? Particularly among the widowers—men of that generation are said to have a harder time after the death of a spouse. For elderly women it

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can be a secret relief to no longer have an old man to care for. If healthy, older women tend to be far more self-reliant. Men are more likely to be lost, a fate the family has long feared for Dad. In vino veritas—I wonder if, deep in his cups, Nick may speak for more than a few residents. Not that it’s all elderly widows and widowers. There are at least a couple of young mysteries here. Alan is a short, boyish-looking guy who likes to stay up late in the TV room watching Turner Classic Movies. He may be a little older than he looks but he can’t be that old—mid-50s at most. What brings a younger man into this world? The lack of need for a stove, certainly—plenty of bachelors would go for the three-squares-a-day aspect of Riverheights. Still, there is something disconcerting about seeing a man place himself in this milieu decades ahead of schedule. The young stick out. No visitor bounds up the open staircase that leads from the dining room without instantly feeling self-conscious—any visible display of strength or agility seems rude. This is a small world with its own atmosphere, and it can be stifling. There’s something of the hospital here, a place filled with uncomfortable reminders of the human condition, the kind of place that inspires in some people a nearphobic reaction. It kicks in when you pass through the activity room and see a resident reading the daily obituaries to a friend: “Dorothy Atkinson; Rosalie Boux née Simon; know her? Margaret Batchelor nee Gustafson; Maria Estrela; know her? That’s all for today.” Then there are the people who thrive in this environment. I once had a friend who strode onto the stage of his high-school gymnasium during a student-council election debate and declared himself Emperor. His position was subsequently recognized in the school yearbook. The self-appointed monarch of Riverheights Terrace is Queen Julia. If you want information about the residents—their health, their comings and goings—Queen Julia is the one to see. How Queen Julia received her nickname is unclear. But, as she is perpetually enthroned in a deluxe motorized chair unmatched by any in the complex, it was perhaps inevitable. Queen Julia is served first at mealtimes. This is not because the staff recognizes her royal claim—it’s because she arrives as much as an hour early to commandeer the first table. At this point it’s debatable whether anyone would take it from her. There would only be hard feelings, and it’s unlikely anyone else cares as much anyway. Queen Julia is one of those character studies one makes out of necessity rather than affection. It would seem she was once a pampered child, perhaps sheltered. Today it has given her the odd combination of curiosity about her neighbours and a lack of awareness of the world at large. But what curiosity it is. Not a sparrow falls in her kingdom but Queen Julia knows of it. One day I am sitting in the activity room reading the paper. Julia is a couple of tables over, sitting with a tall, gaunt resident I don’t recognize. But he seems to know me—almost, at least. “Is that Joe?” the man asks her. “No,” Julia tells him. “Joe is arriving next week with his wife. That’s Steve. He’s the youngest. It’s his birthday today. He and Bill are going to Albert’s Restaurant up on the North Hill for a birthday dinner.” I had only made up my mind about taking Dad to Albert’s about half an hour before. “We don’t need a newspaper,” one resident tells me. “We have Julia.”

that’s the old-school prairie way. People always know each others’ business in those small towns. My parents must have been familiar with that aspect of Riverheights Terrace. They had certainly been there before. Getting started in the 1950s, Mom and Dad had lived in more than one little town, places where the scrutiny was particularly intense for the local clergyman. Before I was born the family lived in the town of Stoughton, Sask., where Dad was the local minister and Mom the local minister’s wife. His was the easier job. Mom had to deal with Maudey. Maude was our next-door neighbour. She was on the church manse committee, the bane of Mom’s existence. United Church ministers’ families lived in church-supplied housing—an important perk considering Dad’s modest salary, but in practice rather like the experience of poor orphans living on the charity of rich relatives. The manse committee had jurisdiction over the house and all decisions concerning it, even down to Mom’s request to purchase a cover for a ratty old couch (request denied). Maudey took her respon“The residents in this place and leave one a t a time. generally arrive two by two Someone gets left behind.”

sibilities as committee chair seriously. Once when Mom and Dad went on vacation, Maudey took the liberty of letting herself into the house. She then tore up the new linoleum my parents had just laid down and replaced it with a variety more to her liking. A favour to the family, really—she was just helping out. The Lord’s vengeance was inevitable, and it would be served up in 1950s small-town style, all white and fluffy. The social yardsticks of that time and place were domestic, a deceptively competitive display of household competence. The brightest victory flags were flapping lines of wash hung out on the line Monday morning, clean, white, and best of all, first. Monday was wash day, just as surely as Sunday was the sacred Sabbath when no work could be done. Battle was joined Monday morning. The woman whose laundry took the air first was clearly a household heavyweight champ, the Stoughton Floyd Patterson. That tended to be Maudey. It sure wasn’t Mom. Dealing with a growing family and the extra burden of being the local Caesar’s wife, she had Maudey’s wash perpetually slapping her in the face with a weekly reminder of her own shortcomings as a housekeeper. One Sunday night on his way back from the church Dad decided to hop the backyard fence to check in with Maude and her husband about some manserelated issue. As he stood looking through the screen door, there was Maude’s husband separating and soaking the laundry, getting a head start on tomorrow’s assault. And on the Sabbath, no less. “It’s the minister!” Maude shrieked. Too late. Busted. The tale would become a revered chapter of the Burgess oral history. the life of a small-town minister’s wife was particularly cruel for Mom. Intensely private, uncomfortably analytical and lacking in glib selfconfidence, she was unsure of the domestic skills which she knew to be the popular yardstick. When I think of her life in 1950s Saskatchewan I think of myself in high-school gym class, painfully aware that my personal strong points

were as useless as good penmanship in a fist fight. It was for those reasons we kids were all puzzled that Mom would eventually become so eager to sell the house and move into a place like Riverheights. Ten years earlier the prospect of entering a hermetic little world like that would surely have given her serious flashbacks. Her own home, the freedom to create her own environment without small-town meddling, had been the dream of her early married life. And yet the eventual move to Riverheights would be largely her doing. New realities were overwhelming her, transforming beloved old habits and familiar surroundings into a source of fear. Unsure of her own physical stability, the house, with its stairs and size, had become an enemy for Mom. And so the final stage of the family’s 37-year tenure in the house at 54 Clement Drive started with a recurring series of panic attacks and culminated in a two-week frenzy, a frantic centrifugal spinoff of furniture and knick-knackery in the service of an abrupt parental decision. Mom’s symptoms were bewilderingly diverse. We were pretty sure she had Parkinson’s but did that explain everything? For example, the panic attacks. Mom was now prone to hyper-anxiety over incidents as minor as watching my sister reorganize her closet. Her decreasing ability to communicate made the reasons hard to divine. But Mom was now hostage to her emotions. Was her anxiety the natural reaction of a woman who had always survived on tight selfdiscipline and personal control now finding herself stuck in the passenger seat of her own life? Was it the Parkinson’s? Or some other opportunistic plague piling on to a weakened warrior? One thing became clear—symptoms or not: Mom was feeling panicky about the house. She wanted to look at seniors’ facilities. The prospect of a serious fall while going down to the laundry room was a big issue. We discussed a plan to move everything onto one floor, which quieted the moving talk for a time. But the subject kept cycling back around—it seemed to be about more than just the laundry. Some little engine was driving Mom’s anxiety around and around. Whether logic or disease, the little motor would give her no rest. In the summer of 2007, it was announced that the decision had been made. Dad and Mom would be moving to Riverheights Terrace. Moreover, Dad had signed a deal with a realtor agreeing to vacate the house within two weeks. There had been no family consultation. Dad seemed prey to whomever he last spoke to, in this case apparently a realtor. I pray she invested her commission with Milowe Brost. My sister and her husband, who had just arrived for a visit, were like Caribbean vacationers whose hotel is struck by a hurricane. Their plans for a relaxed parental visit gave way to a desperate scramble, a fast-forwarded attempt to prioritize, pack, divide, divest, divvy up, donate and dispose. That Dad’s arbitrary decision had forced this fresh hell upon them was bad enough but now, seemingly oblivious to the panic around him, he acted on the process like a parachute on a drag racer. “You can’t throw that out!” he would exclaim—regularly. “Dad, it’s a jar full of rusty hinges/bag full of plastic bags/box full of used batteries.” “Right! I might need those!” We kids love our Dad. Rarely has any serious ambivalence crept in. Yet never before had I heard any of my siblings seething over a phone line with such distinct, crackling heat. Dad’s childlike qualities—his simplicity, his enthusiasm, his almost disingenuous faith in people—have always been part of his charm. But age had left him with a miserable short-term memory. Combined with a certain suggestibility, lack of focus and an inability to prioritize, he was not the man you wanted in charge of a major reorganization project.

I arrived toward the end of the process, in time to see some of the action. One day Dad was given a bucket and an order to clean out some work drawers and separate the wheat from the chaff. He dutifully managed to throw some odds and ends into the garbage bucket—random widgets, pieces of plastic, old file cards, and so on. Returning several hours later, he looked into the garbage bucket and proceeded to bag up the contents for the move to Riverheights Terrace. The bucket, he figured, must contain the good stuff. Wandering through the empty house was hard, but perhaps not as bad as I’d expected. Naked rooms, pockmarked walls—it was a dead thing now. Getting rid of the contents would have been the hard part, and I had dodged the bulk of that. Still, it was chastening to have to take back Christmas gifts—a perfume decanter from Morocco, a monk’s begging bowl from Bangkok—I had given my parents over the years. They’d served their purpose, demonstrating that I thought of my folks while far away. Now they were detritus, along with countless other gifts and tokens of love. The relentless generator that is Christmas, chugging away at the family home for 37 years, had left emissions everywhere. Santa is never around when it’s time to deal with his carbon footprint. None of the kids expected to embrace the holiday retirement community. Having a new family address was like getting used to a new step-mom after a quickie divorce. But I was to be pleasantly surprised. The new apartment faced west, and as Riverheights is on the very edge of town, Mom and Dad’s balcony looked out toward nothing but acres of farmland and a broad stage for nightly sunsets. Social creature that he is, Dad fit in well. For Mom, social interaction was less of an issue. Her steady but gradual decline continued until her world was increasingly limited to bed and chair. Parkinson’s had locked her into a world even smaller than Riverheights Terrace. it was when mom finally died that Riverheights seemed to flower. I had sold the place short by focusing on bingo and gossip. Our Riverheights neighbours understood grief. They knew the drill and they were kind and supportive. From staff members like the indefatigable Lorna, to neighbours like Dad’s dining-room-table companion Bea, to the residents who turned out for the funeral, to the expressions of sympathy and support that were clearly sincere, I found myself grateful that we were there. True, they boil a piece of broccoli until it loses structural integrity. And some of the framed prints along the hallways are a half-step up from dogs playing poker. But no one’s forcing you to play bingo if you don’t want to. Riverheights Terrace is a pretty good place to be. Still, pain stalks those hallways. There’s no exterminator they can call about that. Dad moved next door to a smaller apartment—same sunsets, but only one bedroom. When I came back for my first visit since Mom’s death, there was a new nameplate on the door. I stopped short in the hallway, staring at it. It wasn’t the work of Riverheights. It had been Dad, the handyman. He was apologetic as he explained: “I thought I’d better change it.” So he had taken the old nameplate—“Bill and Joan Burgess”—and sawed out the middle. Now it was two broken pieces. “Bill Burgess,” it read—but with an abrupt, jagged break in the centre. S

A gift to you from Steve and Swerve
and put “Brandon” in the subject line.

If you would like to receive a PDF of the four stories Steve Burgess has written about his parents for Swerve, please e-mail swerve@theherald.canwest.com

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