LONDON, ONTARIO – As a bookend to a piece we ran last December commemorating the death of my father - we publish this essay to mark the hundred and first birthday of my mother - and, coincidentally enough, the eleventh anniversary of her funeral - this Wednesday.
LEAVING ST. JOSEPH'S HOSPITAL just after my father died in the early evening of December 13th, 2003, I couldn’t wait to pour memories, images and thoughts of our Dad down onto the page as a way of helping me come to terms with the grief of losing him. If Jack couldn’t be with us anymore, at least I could erect some sort of narrative monument to his memory and that would be something. With our mother’s death at 2:20 on Easter Saturday morning, 2009, the grieving process was not so sudden or straightforward.
It has only been facets and distillations of Verna Goodden that have lived on through the past decade and a half as Alzheimer’s disease progressively wreaked havoc with her mind and body. Though technically still with us, we’d been losing her in stages since at least the mid-90s and all of her children and grandchildren have had a long time to prepare for life without her.
Even up to this last year her essence would occasionally come bursting through the fog in an apparently offhand comment so cogently formulated it took your breath away. And I’ll always be grateful that even when her life was reduced to that illimitable minimum beneath which life could scarcely be said to exist, the very bedrock of her nature was an easygoing serenity. Even when any sort of verbal construction was beyond her and it wasn’t terribly clear what the joke was supposed to be (perhaps it was life itself?) Mom continued to express herself in gentle burbles of laughter.
All that was a great consolation to us but the hard fact remained. For the better part of two decades our experience of our mother had been maddeningly obscured, like trying to make out a beloved face behind a window that won’t stop steaming over no matter how many times you polish it with your sleeve. And I’m sorry to say that over the last five years I pulled back a lot rather than endure such painful frustration. Those days when I did work up the courage to go up to the nursing home to be with her, I did so not for me. It left me all tangled up in sadness. And I couldn’t really say I did it for her. She’d forgotten I’d been there, whoever I was, the moment I left her field of vision. I did it mostly for Jack because I knew that was what he’d want me to do.
Though I scarcely felt I deserved the privilege, I was with Mom for the last hour of her life, stroking her brow and holding her hand as she breathed her final breaths. Among the last things Mom forgot how to do was to swallow and the dramatic weight loss that resulted from this altered her appearance even more, lending a lean and unfamiliar aspect to that person I have loved longest on this earth. Gazing upon the emaciated shell my mother left behind it was hard to imagine that this was once the vital and fertile vessel through which my three brothers and I had all been ushered into this world.
Over the course of Easter weekend I gradually came to understand that a gift had come with her death – a gift of release for both of us. In a way that wasn’t possible for me just the week before, I could now see past these last dispiriting years of disintegration. I could reclaim her from the scourge of Alzheimer’s and in striving once again to see the whole person she was, I could pay some of the honour that was due to her memory.
Verna Geraldine McQuiggan was born in the neighbourhood of London West on April 14, 1920, the only child of Nora Miller and Russell McQuiggan who worked for most of his life as a stock person and clerk for the electrical supply firm of Benson & Wilcox. She attended Empress Public School where she was a good enough student academically and a dynamite star of track and field. Her athletic prowess became so distinguished that she ticked off some of her more insecure classmates who taunted her after a big track meet about all of the ribbons and trophies she’d won.
During an evening of square dancing at the Grotto Temple in April of 1928, Verna’s mom fell ill with peretonitis. Nora died a few days later, right smack-dab on her daughter’s eighth birthday, and was buried out of their home. Mom didn’t retain a lot of memories of her mother though she always swore that Nora made the best banana bread on the planet. And I suspect Verna’s lifelong love of music and dancing (yes, I once famously caught Mom on a Saturday afternoon spinning Duke Ellington records and dancing with her ironing board) came down from Nora as well. It was very poignant for all of us, late in her life, when we’d comment about some sweater or blouse she was wearing and she’d tell us, “Yes, my mother just gave me this.”
On his not terribly generous salary, Russell occasionally hired housekeepers to help out with domestic chores but mostly he carried on the job of parenting alone. Yes, Russell could be a little too fond of his beer but Mom adored her dad as a loving and conscientious father. He took Verna most places he went, met her for lunch when she was attending school or working, and encouraged her to bring friends over on the weekends when he’d read them the funnies, play cards and board games with them or tune in their favourite radio programs. Mom also remembered taking friends over to Benson & Wilcox where they waited for Russell to get off work by tearing around in the basement amidst the stacks of electrical supplies.
Verna married the expatriate Welsh butcher and meat salesman David John Goodden on September 21st, 1941 at Wesley-Knox United Church in South London - the very same church that we buried her from on what would have been her eighty-ninth birthday. She’d been motherless from the age of eight. And then as a mother herself, after the infant death of her first child and only daughter, Barbara Jane, in 1944, the stork kept bringing her nothing but boys in numbingly quick succession. Dave showed up in April of 1946, Ted followed in September of 1947, and then (we heard she greeted the news of his conception with tears of exhaustion at her doctor’s office) Bob in December of 1948. I at least had the good manners to give her a three and a half-year break before turning up in May of 1952. And the great dividend that accrued from that little trick of timing was that once the older brothers were all in public school, I had her undivided attention all to myself and luxuriated in it.
You might think she was in danger of being overwhelmed with all the maleness in her life but I believe it was mother’s genius for female friendship that kept any sort of imbalance at bay. She made friends easily and she kept them, literally, forever. Mom first met Bernice Hanson when she was four years old and they remained best friends until ‘Niecey’ as we knew her died about 70 years later. The core of her Cats Club that met every other Wednesday night for close on sixty years was comprised of a half dozen friends she’d first made at Empress Public School. Whenever the ‘Hens’ as he called them met at our house, Jack would take his four boys out to shoot pool or see inappropriate movies like Psycho and Bonnie and Clyde. He must have taken us to other, more harmless films as well but the ones that caused psychic trauma are seared most indelibly in the memory.
My parents ran a remarkably open and welcoming house where all four sons had troops of friends constantly moving through, and sometimes taking up full time residence for days and weeks and even months at a stretch. There were no rooms with plastic covers on the furniture that were deemed off limits to growing barbarians. I had appallingly ham-fisted rock bands that practiced in the basement. Ted was creating Henry Moore-inspired sculptures in the attic. When Dave was supposed to be attending university he’d stay up all night in the living room smoking his pipe, growing his first beard and reading Jean Paul Sartre while playing Leonard Cohen’s first album over and over on the stereo.
Most parents wouldn’t put up with this guff but Jack and Verna always allowed us the space to take our enthusiasms for a run and see what developed. Jack at least could get away from it all for eight hours a day by going out to work. But Mom was usually on the front line of the creative chaos we got up to, feeding us and tending to our concerns and, quite magically, never seeming to get oppressed by it.
There's the notorious story of the father of one of these lost boys that we took in for the better part of the summer while his parents tried to thrash out some thorny problem in their marriage. At the conclusion of it all, the father of the boy rang our doorbell, Jack answered and was profusely thanked for giving the boy a home. “Somebody was here all summer?” asked Jack, utterly bewildered and not knowing what to say to this man. “I think I'd better get Vern. She'll know about this”
In his talk at the funeral Ted noted that there wasn't a fibre of pretension or snobbery in our mother's character and recounted how instrumental she was, in her uniquely understated way, in leading him to his calling as an artist. He was actually studying for a career in psychology at the time and was back in London from McGill University for a few weeks, working away at the handmade chess set that he gave to Dave and Elizabeth for their wedding present.
“You're good at that and it seems to make you happy,” Mom said. “Maybe you should try to make your living doing something like that.”
There is a reckoning – a sort of coming to – that every child has when they in turn have children of their own. They suddenly look back on the orchestrators of their own early lives with gob-smacked admiration, wondering, “Did I put you through this? And you never even let on.”
Grandparents of course make the best babysitters in the world. While it’s great to drop the whole crew into their laps and vamoose, I also enjoyed watching both of my parents interact with my kids. There’s a photograph I love of Jack sitting on the wood box in front of our fireplace working some ingenious repair on one of Hugh’s small toys as Hugh looks on expectantly. Circa 1987 or 1955, that was the eternal Jack. And I always enjoyed watching Verna interact with our girls, so much of it familiar from my own youth but all of it handled with a slightly more delicate tone.
But the night Mom really came through for me, I’d never felt more shaken and unworthy as a parent. We’d been up in Parkhill visiting a friend when Emily, just over three years old, took a backwards tumble off a slide, landing head first on an asphalt pad. We could’ve stopped it if we’d been in the right place but for that split second we just weren’t. Emily remained conscious, though eerily quiet, as we raced her to a small clinic in town where she received a couple of stitches in the crown of her head and then we were sent on to St. Joseph’s Hospital in London where they ran tests for a couple more hours. Miraculously, everything seemed to be all right. We came home and put her to bed and my job was to go through to her room once an hour through the night and shine a little penlight in her eyes and make sure that everything was still functional.
After a couple rounds of that at about 11 p.m. I phoned through to Mom and poured out my anxious heart to her. She made all the right noises that a good listener should – a sigh, a ‘tsk tsk’, a sort of wincing sound when I described Em’s fall. I told her how awful I felt, how ashamed, because she never let stuff like that happen to us.
And then she started with one of her perfectly tuned laughs – not one of ridicule but of consolation. “Well, I guess you don’t remember,” she said, “because it always seemed to happen to Bobby. There was that time Terry Ellis hit him in the head with an adz. There was the time his hair caught on fire. And there was the time we drove halfway to Port Stanley before we realized we’d left him in his stroller on the front porch. Don’t be too hard on yourself. You can only do the best you can and leave the rest to God.”
This brings us – and not a moment too soon – to the matter of God and eternity. Mother considered herself a Christian during all of her sentient life, and for all I know, perhaps during her not so sentient years as well. (There was that matter of receiving articles of clothing from people who no longer maintained earthly form. It’s a little loopy to our eyes but there’s something decidedly divine going on there.) When the family attended Calvary United Church, it was always at Verna’s behest. And when my own search for God became important to me after the birth of my children, it was something I could talk about with her.
When I was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1984 she was delighted to attend the mammoth Easter Vigil celebration at St. Peter’s Cathedral where I was confirmed. Dad was there too (at her command) but didn’t appear half so radiant. By the time it was all over, I think he just wanted to get outside for a smoke. Just before they closed the lid on her coffin for the last time, I dug my rosary out of my pocket and laid it in the crook of her right arm, my final gift to the parent who had always kept the faith before my eyes and who somehow underlined that connection between us by dying on the twenty-fifth anniversary of my reception into the Church.
And that brings us to that other aspect of Verna’s spirituality – a superstitious regard for astrology and psychics and numerology. (Having your mother die on your eighth birthday can make you mindful of such things.) She didn’t believe it like her faith, but she kept it on her radar. And I must admit – dying on Easter Saturday, being buried on her birthday and the anniversary of her own mother’s death – last week was just buzzing with those kinds of uncanny connections and coincidences. The strangest and richest sensation of them all for me came at the end of her funeral as we laid her into her grave beside her parents, our father and the sister we boys never knew. With Bob working at that cemetery as a groundskeeper, the brothers were given the privilege of lowering the coffin ourselves and shoveling in the earth afterwards. And while participating in that harsh yet consoling ceremonial action, I started to understand that all those maddening and obscuring filters of recent years were finally being lifted away. Unexpectedly, my mother who’d gone missing from my life in so many ways was being restored to me in all of her glory.
– April, 2009
If you would like to contribute to the ongoing operations of Hermaneutics, there are now a few options available.
THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
ALL LIFE IS A GIFT :
THE IMPORTANCE OF TRADITION :