There is an ancient Chinese story about an old farmer with one son. They are very poor, so poor that the son has to pull the plow to cultivate their field. Seeing this, a wealthier person gives them a horse. The village is jubilant, “What a good piece of luck,” they say. “We”ll see,” says … Continue reading
Here is the prologue to my new novel set in 2120, as climate change is undermining civilization. I Trust You to Kill Me: Al-Hallaj Mansour, a Sufi master, uttered these words on the banks of the Tigris when he was martyred in Bagdad on March 26, 922. The charge against him was that by saying … Continue reading
My ex-husband Blake and his young second wife came to visit me after I had the carcinoid surgery. That was the week before my brother rescued me. I still couldn’t eat and I was too weak to get out of bed. They had come from our high school reunion. Blake and I were high school sweethearts. Presumably, she had registered as me, since I couldn’t. They brought me my key chain souvenir and showed me pictures of the old gang, the drama club. They were very much changed. Blake had the same lean physique – see above -. He was still diving at the yacht club to check the moorings in cold early May. She was just a year older than my daughter. Very kind of them. (What am I not saying? Well, at least, I was a very thin, if pallid 65.)
Some years later both of them were diagnosed with cancer. Both of my malignancies were no longer detectable. Then, suddenly, she was so ill that we were making last visits, and then she was gone. Blake’s stage 4 diagnosis didn’t worsen even then, although he nearly walked the legs off his shiba inu pup up and down Toronto’s river valleys. My sister folded him back into her family as she had me. “Should have stuck with the old girl,” she quipped.
Blake asked me to be his executor. Here’s a hot tip: no matter how much you want to make sure your own children don’t get cut out of the will, never agree to be an executor. I did. I know.
In the spring, Blake found himself too busy to answer our invitations. Too busy was blonde and young and hung around the yacht club. They were teaching disadvantaged teens to sail. Blake and I had lunch together or sometimes dinner that I cooked, so I could keep up. I had to drive him to make a will, dividing the estate into three parts, two for our adult children and one for his step-daughter.
In 2018, I had spent several months in southern California helping me daughter, who started out with stage 4 kidney cancer. The diagnosis changed weekly with every new test. Tuesday it was cancer. Thursday it was angiomyolipomas. Or was the kidney tumour something else? This involved two surgeons, one in Santa Clarita and one in Bakersfield, wandering surgical dates and, as it turned out, a brilliant pain specialist. (Never get an angiomyolipoma in your sciatic nerve. But if you have to get a tumour, at least, it’s not malignant.) I got home after three months in early January on the last night time flight, walked into my apartment, took off my shoes, went into the kitchen and broke my little toe. (Something else: never break a toe, even a small one, in winter.)
My son, who had not wanted to worry me before, phoned to say his father was in a bad way.
For the first week, I just called Blake. Anyway, he said, I couldn’t visit him because the house was a mess and Christy didn’t want visitors. I was well on the way through a whose-house-is-it sermon before I could stop myself. Finally, I limped to the car after getting him to agree to meet me at the door when I called to say I was there. I couldn’t see into any of the main floor rooms, nor the second-floor bedrooms as we two invalids climbed to the top, his lovely bedroom with a sunny balcony. Only it was no longer lovely. There was no sun. The windows were heavily curtained. The place smelled of very old dog, territorial cats, very ill master and the remains of several meals. He had a small frig and a microwave. “Christy brings up food when I call her,” he said. the en suite hadn’t been cleaned in maybe 5 years. The self-cleaning kitty litter was in there. (Never believe that marketing line.) When I started scooping out the smelly bits, he yelled angrily, “Don’t do that. You don’t know how. Christy will get mad.” I went to the door and stared at him. Had I taught high school for 30 years and was I now afraid of Christy? Or him, come to that? That was just the beginning of the fun.
The entire house was a hoarder’s delight and beyond dirty. The second floor office was jam-packed with Amazon packages still, packed packages. “Wait till you see the garage,” my son, Daniel whispered. We crept down past the dragon in the living room. (That’s where she slept, having decamped from a perfectly good second-floor bedroom. Too near Blake, I assumed. She had declared, “Old men disgust me.) Daniel opened the door to the garage.They had dealt with recycling by standing in the door way and flinging it. There was a foot of airspace near the ceiling.
When we started cleaning, Christy yelled we were only doing it to sell the house out from under her. I assured her, we were trying to avoid being charged with elder abuse. Blake thought it was funny when passers-by intervened when Christy cussed him out in the grocery store. I asked where the clean sheets were and she thudded back up the narrow stairs and flung a lump of rolled up cotton onto the bed. Later, I saw that was how she stored them in the linen cupboard.
It was obvious that Blake was at the stage where he needed home care, but that department wouldn’t even talk to Daniel or me, only to Blake, who couldn’t remember from one minute to the next that we were trying to get him a home hospital bed and a visiting nurse to monitor his pain and pain meds.
Just when I was getting a handle on dealing with dragon-Christy, she suddenly changed and began phoning me in hysterics because she couldn’t handle a new development. For some reason, she always did this while I was grocery shopping. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise to tell her I couldn’t talk. I would huddle with my face against the cereal boxes shouting ‘quietly’ to get her to stop talking. My default advice was always, if you can’t handle it, call the para-medics. She did. Often. They would carry him in a chair down the winding stairs and take him to an emergency room. Hours later, she would Uber him home. Or he would be admitted over-night. Or she would Uber him to the hospital. Having done that once and been admitted for the foreseeable future, he demanded to check out against orders. She called Daniel who showed up in a car and found himself the getaway driver.
It was the pain and Blake’s howling response that got to her. No phone call necessary.
The getaway stay had been in Toronto Western. His home hospital was Mt. Sinai. But sometimes he got stretchered across University Avenue – winter or not – for more scans – or even to Toronto General.
I was gobsmacked by how his mind worked. He muttered that he was leaving an awful mess. Well I could see that -two defunct vacuum cleaners sat in his closet blocking the sliding doors. But no, not what he meant. Later I learned he hadn’t filed a tax return since 2015. Later I learned that he owed about $40,000 in tax. Later I learned that Miss Younger Blonde – who WAS NOT a gold-digger, thank you, had enjoyed $380,000 he had borrowed on the house.
My daughter decided to come from California and her two sons, one in Dallas and one in L.A. decided to come as well. It was intended to signal to Blake that he didn’t need to hang on in misery. Blake was home that week and able to go out for lunch. My grandsons sat with him and recorded the sad story of his evacuation from the Blitz to Canada. A whole boatload of children had been torpedoed earlier. I had fallen for that hook when I was 16 and I was quite sure I was not the last woman to do so. They looked at all his photos. When the three of them left, I was devastated.
Then he finally got a place in the hospice in Grace Hospital. Christy came in waving the power of attorney for health. What were they going to do to treat him? “No, no,” I said. They had to take her away to a private area to explain what a hospice is.
Daniel, the step-daughter, Christy and I took turns sitting with him. The three of us tried hard not to overlap with Christy. She shouted at the nurses and the porters and even the lunch ladies. There was another dying man behind the curtain, not to mention the kind patient carers who watched people die every day. Blake slept more and more until he was unconscious all the time. One day, I fled to corridor to cry and Daniel came out and put his arms around me. Up until his father got worse, Daniel had not spoken to me for years. Something I had said really annoyed his wife. Now I saw the boy I had known, for in his father’s angriest days, he had quietly tended to him.
I dealt with this phase more easily. I read Rumi poetry to Blake and recited the 23rd Psalm. Blake had pretended to be an atheist and I had told him he was in for a big surprise.
The last day was that same anguish. He had been moved to a single room. The four of us sat around his bed, reminiscing, even laughing and crying of course. The chaplain came. The on-duty doctor came. I had my marching orders from the head nurse. There was no mortuary there, so I had to notify the undertakers pronto. Blake took those last suspenseful breaths just before dinner. We sat silently crying..
When I stood up, I found I had forgotten how to walk. The step-daughter scooted around me to get the nurse. Once in the hall, I couldn’t remember how to use my phone. I leaned my weight against a wall and I heard myself report that Blake Durant had passed on at Grace Hospital. I had already signed the contract.
It couldn’t be true, I thought. It couldn’t be true that my Blake was dead, my other half even after all these years. The five-year-old on the ship in the middle of the Atlantic, watching the destroyer on the port side. The 18-year-old who rode a green Raleigh Racer and captured my heart.
When I got back to the room, the others were gone and not-Blake lay with a gaping jaw. And it wasn’t Blake and I couldn’t stay to keep him safe.
Two days later, St James Mortuary phoned to ask if I wanted Blake to be cremated in his hospital gown or some other clothes. I wish I could say I asked myself what Blake would say, but I didn’t. I died of shame and tearfully replied the gown would be fine.
That evening still in his blue gown, he made a flying visit through my sister’s living room. After that I kept seeing him back in his jeans and sweater, rushing to a physics lecture with an iPad. It seems as if he is going on to economics next semester. Bernie Sanders is going to need help with that living wage idea.
I will pass over the day I took possession of the house. Sufficient to say the police were involved. Christy went back to her own apartment, which Blake had paid for all those years and $27,000 in hand.
It took me a year and a half of aggravation to settle his estate. I paid myself an honorarium and my increased taxes took half of it.