The sun rose that morning the same as every day before but at the end of the day it set on a totally different world than I had ever known.

Bird at sunrise

It was a lovely Thursday April morning, very springlike and mild. The sun struck the young ash tree just starting to leaf out, casting a long shadow across the grass at the front of our house.

Our small, brown-brick home looked across the street at the expansive grassy school yard and field that housed my three childhood educational homes: Glen Echo, Glen Brae, and Glendale schools – there sure wasn’t a lot of naming creativity at the school board in Hamilton’s 1950’s era.

I was 15 years old and in the last of the three schools, Glendale, nearing the end of my Grade 11 year. I was biting at the bit for three months to pass quickly when I would turn 16 and could get my beginner’s licence for driving a car. I couldn’t wait.

The morning routine went along as normal. My father had retired 8 months earlier at his 65th birthday, and my 5-years younger Mom was getting herself ready to go off to her clerical job at an “Office Overload” temp hiring office.

Dad had experienced a heart attack while shovelling heavy snow ten years earlier. As a result, the entire family had become laser-focused on the state of his health and even a decade later still worried about a reoccurrence. Mom was always making sure that none of us siblings said or did anything that might upset him.

I personally worried more about my Mom’s health. She was a smoker, she was moderately overweight, and when she climbed up the dozen or so stairs from the basement laundry room, she was often wheezing and completely out of breath.

My night dreams were regularly filled with dark visions of her lying peacefully in a casket.

Like my mother, I was a worrier. I would lie in my bed, tearing up before I nodded off, brooding about her and how losing her would affect me.

dying dream

The morning pattern that day was disturbed when I came into the kitchen to get some breakfast and Mom was bent over the kitchen sink, vomiting.

Mom was never sick. This was pretty surprising.

Are you OK?“, I asked.

She deflected my concerns in her calm motherly way.

I’m fine. I’ll feel better in a few.

A few minutes later she was being driven off to work by my father and I was heading across the road to my classes where I fully expected to get a red reward peg from Mr. Mason in French class for answering some minor question correctly. “Tres bien Larry“, he would say, but with a quirky look on his face. Mr. Mason was an eccentric.

The work/schoolday finished and we all returned to our place at home. Mom took a few minutes to make some filterless cigarettes.

She used a little rolling machine that made about 6 cigarettes at a time in one long cylinder. She would lick her finger over and over and smooth her saliva across the glue edge before the final turn of the knobs on the sides that would pop out the completed smoke tubes. After turning the machine over and setting the tobacco roll into the little mitre tray on the backside, she would then cut the long tube into individual cigarettes using a razor blade.

They were just like machine-made except they had no filter on the end. When she smoked one, little bits of tobacco would leak out the end into her mouth and she would have to fish them off the tip of her tongue using her thumb and forefinger like tweezers.

A classic home-grown cigarette-making machine…

Homemade cigarettes saved the family money, and the household budget was usually tight.

My family culture was to begin working from the moment you could walk. This meant taking on paper routes or magazine delivery jobs, or orchard fruit-picking from the start of elementary school onwards. I was the 5th and last in a 5-person lineup of siblings who delivered the Hamilton Spectator newspaper.

At 15, I was not just sick and tired of delivering newspapers but also feeling much too mature for such juvenile work, so I quit the “family” firm.

The idleness of being jobless at 15 was too much for my parents to understand or accept, so on her way out the door to go for dinner that evening with my Dad’s sister Nina and brother-in-law Dwight, Mom popped her head inside my bedroom door where I was laid out on my bed.

“Larry, you might want to drop by McDonalds and fill in an application form.”

Those were her last words to me. 

Not very exciting.

It sounded like a polite request, but I knew it was much closer to a General’s command.

I was scared silly at the thought of seeking out a “real” job. It was like going to the dentist. There were managers at the local McDonalds who extracted teeth without freezing when asked about job openings and I knew it. So when I said, “Yeah, I will soon Mom”, I really meant “Yeah, when Hell freezes over”.

McDonalds Stoney Creek

Hell DID Freeze Over! This McDonalds became my teenage work home for 4 years after my Mom died…

A few hours passed. I continued to laze around unproductively throughout the evening until I heard a sharp knocking and a muffled yelling voice coming from the front door.

What the hell?

Startled, I hurriedly opened the front door where my Aunt Nina stood, “Your mother has fainted in the driveway.”

I followed her to the side of the house, adrenalin already surging, heart pounding.

Coming around the corner in the twilight, just behind our Ford Meteor car, I spotted my mother laid out on her back on the asphalt surface of the driveway, eyes closed, skin ashen-toned, her dress askew from the sudden tumble.

I wanted so badly to believe that she had just fainted as Aunt Nina said, but my inner soul told me this was far more serious than a simple faint. This was death, or close to it, laying on the ground, and it was my Mom.

My Dad and aunt and uncle were too shocked to know what to do.

I didn’t know what to do either when I bent over her and could hear only a very slight, quiet gasping intake of breath. None of us knew the slightest about medical resuscitation, CPR or artifical respiration.

We were all in a state of denial, but I knew we needed outside help. I ran into the house and dialled 0 for an Operator (911? No such thing in 1973). The Operator patched me through to ambulance dispatch and even though I could scarcely breathe through my fear, I blurted out that my Mom had fainted or  – I finally admitted it out loud – had a heart attack.

The lady calmly asked for my address and said an ambulance would arrive shortly.

I returned outside and in the confusion and panic we picked my mother up by the shoulders and legs and carried her into the house and laid her on the living room couch. The same couch we had sat together on a couple of years earlier on a hot July night to watch Neil Armstrong step onto the moon for the first time.

Helplessly – hopefully –  we waited the 3 or 4 minutes before an ambulance backed into the driveway. The 2 male attendants came in and did a quick assessment and then strapped an oxygen mask to my mother’s face as they lifted her onto the wheeled stretcher.

The shallow, raspy breathing sounds I’d heard her making earlier had disappeared now.

Lifting her into the ambulance, they climbed aboard along with my father and headed off with sirens in full wailing song.

My aunt, uncle, and I jumped into our family car and drove in pursuit of the siren’s din towards the Hamilton General Hospital Emergency room. The siren’s sound faded and disappeared in the distance. We couldn’t race through red lights the way an ambulance in full flight could.

Hamilton General Hospital

It was dark, the air was still when we pulled into the hospital parking lot.  Hurriedly, we rushed past the now-familiar ambulance parked by the entrance to the ER and through the whoosh of the sliding glass doors. The small waiting room just inside and to our right was empty of anyone except for my Dad.

He stood when he saw us and walked the few feet to where we stopped.

His face was red with a desperate look of anguish.

He simply said, “She’s gone.”

She’s Gone …

.

We like to think that each day is different and special, like little individual snowflakes wafting gently from the winter sky… unique.

In truth, most days just blend into the rest and we can’t remember what happened last Wednesday, much less October 19, 2002.

But the occasional day stands alone in our mind as memorable, and we remember the sun, the trees, the sweet, pungent smell of lilac in the air at the corner of our street.

Days like Tuesday, September 11, 2001 or Friday, November 22, 1963 or Thursday, September 28, 1972 (bonus points if you can name the events of these 3 dates!).

For me, Thursday, April 12, 1973 was a day like no other. The day my mother died.

It replays in my mind from time to time and the vision, the memory, becomes slightly more translucent as each year passes. But the emotions and heart-pounding I felt that day remain strong and intense.

I don’t want to lose them, as painful as they can be because they remind me of the special place my mother held in my life, my heart.

Her voice, her laughter, and her warmth live inside me.

Memories

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