The Garden My Mother Grew

Do you remember the hymn “In The Garden”?  It was written by C.A. Miles.  The chorus for those of you who can remember the melody…  “And he walks with me, and he talks with me.  And he tells me I am His own; And the joy we share as we tarry there.  None other has ever known…”

We sang that hymn at both of the memorial services (Scarborough – May 19 and Fenelon Falls – June 15) that we held as a farewell to my Mom.  It had been one of her favourites.  She died 11:00am, Monday, May 7, 2007.

I think that I will skip over saying more about the memorials (for the moment) to tell you about her 74th birthday–nearly 10 years earlier.

Celebrating our loved ones in life–rather than in death–seems just such a practical thing to do.  I wanted that for Mom to thank her for the life she had given me.

Everyone invited, was asked to imagine all of the things they would say if Mom were already gone; so that they could tell her how much they cared while she was able to listen and enjoy.  She was thrilled.  We raised $400 by having people post money on a drawing of a tree.  Who says that money doesn’t grow on trees?!  The party was a potluck dinner held at a church (Scarborough, Ontario), she had so loved being a part of the congregation.  The facilities (including a huge commercial kitchen and a piano for sing-song) were provided by the Scarborough Church of God for free.  The food seemed to go on forever.  What’s more I think that Mom spent the rest of the year sending thank you cards and renewing friendships.

She liked to travel on cruise ships

Her classmates

I am 50+ years old.  For as long as I can remember, I can see the look of sweet rapture on Mom’s face whenever she heard someone playing “In The Garden”.  It might have been because her sister Mary Ross (deceased for some years

now) played it on the piano at many of our family gatherings during moments of sing-song.

Mom’s garden was not really about growing flowers.  I doubt that she ever pulled a single weed in any yard where she lived–after leaving home in her teens.  At least she never did in her adult life.  Growing upon a farm in Listowel (originally Lebanon), Ontario, might have influenced that point.  By the time she died, Mom could not even water her indoor plants.

What my mother grew was people.

Throughout my childhood, Mom fostered children from the Children’s Aid Society.  There were a lot of children that came through our house in my life.  The last one left only when she completed college at 22.

Her garden in Hamilton with Bambi

Please do not misunderstand me.  Mom was not a saint.  I left home at 15, because we were always fighting.  Our home-life was not the image of calm I might have craved.  In as much as I was difficult to raise, she was good at creating drama everywhere.  It seemed to me that she was particularly expert at creating drama in my life.

But she was also a truly courageous woman.  I had so much to learn by watching her.

Mom came from a generation during that period women–housewives–did not easily leave their husbands without fear of losing their children.  My mother left my father under the very real threat of brutal retaliation.  I was 13 by then and she had endured a bad marriage 23 years to wait for her kids to be of a reasonable age to leave.  My father was an alcoholic (and it took so little for him to get drunk); a gambler who lost poorly and often; a bully to those few individuals that he could intimidate; and a womanizer of the worst sort.

I did mention that I left home at 15?  I had my first child (my only son at 17.  No, I did not move back home.  Although I worked full-time, I could never have afforded the costs of childcare and necessities without her help.  Mom bought my first washer/dryer so that I could do her grandson’s laundry.  She also bought my first car so that she could have me drive her very first grandchild to visit her in Hamilton, Ontario.

Her garden in Hamilton

Hamilton is where we moved to escape the clutches of my father in Toronto.  Her first job was as housekeeper to a small boy whose only parent was a man who found it necessary to go far to find work.  Eventually, Mom worked at the Big Sisters’ Association as a house-mother.  In Hamilton, different from everywhere else, Big Sisters’ took girls at risk to live in a large home.  Mom studied psychology and thrived in her job as well as in her studies.  By the way, that was in the early 70’s.  Many of those people maintained contact with her until her death.

Do you recall I mentioned Mom was fostering children throughout my childhood?  She always wanted a large family.  Many miscarriages and the stress of being married to the wrong man hindered her dreams of having many babies.  Her dreams of being surrounded by children never really went away.

The years of working with Big Sisters’ allowed her to buy a tri-plex.  In that house (with the huge backyard and the flowers she never weeded), my mother started a daycare centre, which lasted until her retirement.

I had to include those details so that I could talk about her garden.

In January 2007, Dorothy L. Henry entered Lindsay’s Ross Memorial Hospital.  The greatest shock came when they told us that she had a tumour in her left lung, multiples tumours in her spine, and another on one rib.

This news to a woman who had never smoked; who drank nothing stronger than herbal teas; and who probably spent more money on vitamins and nutritional supplements (almost) than food.  What money was left over went to acupuncture therapy to

help minimize the time spent disabled by Menieres (vertigo).  This news to a woman w

ho was still going to exercise class at every opportunity in spite of severe disabling attacks of nausea and dizziness.  The one clue that

might make sense was that Mom worked in the munition plant during World War II.

Reunion at the munitions factory in 2002

If you consider that I left hom at 15, you can probably figure out for yourselves that my relationship with Mom had moments where nothing worked well between us.  I loved her

dearly.  She was the sweetest woman anyone could meet.  But she had a knack of saying things that were hurtful and then being unwilling to discuss them for fear her blood

pressure would rise or her Menieres would kick in.

However, in that garden that Dorothy Henry nurtured and presided over, I lived within.  My mother was not guilty of raising f

ools.  When a parent reaches 80+ years, I understand that if a child cannot make a relationship work right with a parent, the best approach would be to go with the flow!

This story was not meant to dwell on the details of her disease.  Besides, the disease ws rather kind to her at worst case.  She

never would have coped if it had been found earlier.  Surgery would have torn her apart and been worse than the disease itself.  She really did not do traditional allopathic medicine if she could avoid it.

What got her through those final months of meds was me goading her.  The lecture I gave went something to the effect…  “If God had intended something else for you, God would have arranged it so…”  That the level of medication she require was so phenomenally low was a blessing and she could just be gracious enough to say, “Thank you, God!”

Mom (sitting) with Foster daughter Viv; sister Rella; nephew Victor

At moments like that Mom would stop grumbling and tell the nurses that I was not so much her daughter but really an older sister in disguise to keep her honest.  Ross Memorial Hospital became her home and her salvation.

First order, we bought her gorgeous nightgowns and house-coats.  I trimmed her hair to a shorter length so it didn’t look messy if she could not keep it combed.  My own household was centered around the disability income of my 2nd husband, Kevin, who suffers from Crohns, Ankolyzing Spondilitis (arthritis of the spine), Sleep Apnea, nightmares… Probably the effects of long-term narcotic medication of attempts to contain his pain, Kevin suffers occasional memory loss.  Sometimes, even the “big drugs” he takes to keep him mobile have left him crippled up in intense debilitating pain. Driving would fatigue him, and so I was typically my husband’s constant companion.  Except from January to May 2007.

Mom lived on Canada Pension and Old Age Security benefits in an apartment building where the rent is geared to income.  The gowns were bought at second-hand stores like the Sally Ann.  However, those gowns and the fresh haircut made Dorothy Henry feel like a movie star.  Do you know, she never left her room without applying her lipstick?

In the building where Mom lived, she participated in the social committee by calling people to remind and encourage them to come to the planned events.  She kept lists of the numbers of everyone in the building.  This is an important point to do with her garden.  Dorothy Henry loved to talk to people on the telephone.

Over 80 years of meeting and greeting people in the street, children she took care of… Her walls we plastered with greeting cards.  It seemed to make more sense to get people to send birthd

ay cards than to get well cards to a woman dying of cancer.  Mom celebrated her 82nd birthday in one of the large palliative care dining rooms.

Her exercise buddies came a day early (to help prolong the event and hopefully avoid tiring her at one sitting).  They brought the most awesome cake.  The icing and shape were designed to look like a basket of flowers.  They  brought her a card composed of pictures of her classmates.  On that day (as with so many others) you could not tell from seeing her pictures that Dorothy Henry was a woman in hospital in the midst of a deathwatch.

And of course, Mother’s Day was coming up.  Anything to look forward to.  More cards arrived.  Best of all were the pictures.

We are a people

who love stories and history.  We asked for pictures of friends and family members.  Then we concentrated on getting the same people to send pictures of the span of generations so we could match people with other family photos.  We had so many pictures plastered over the wall of her room that doctors, volunteers, and even strangers stopped by her room to listen to us talk about the faces and the history of the people shown taped up on those walls!

Mom’s garden is rich in history not necessarily of her own making.  Mom was the second youngest of 8 siblings.  People love to share.  February is considered Black history month.  Durin

g this time, Mom learned that one of her (also deceased) sisters was posted as one of the top 10 famous Canadians (for 2007); because Rev. M. A. Aylestock was the first woman of  colour to be ordained in Canada.  Mom was tickled by the news.

Mom with me

Mom with God-daughter Jane Braithwaite

Out of 4 girls, my mother’s only living sister is about 2 years older.  Rella Braithwaite is an accomplished author and historian in her own right.  She was also Mom’s closest friend.  With walking cane in hand, Aunt Rella made 2 trips to the hospital to confirm that Dorothy Henry was being given the best care possible.  Aunt Rella also attended both memorial services.  The service in Fenelon Falls (Shiloh Christian Centre) was for the friends she lived among last.  Trips to the hospital and that final memorial service were about 2 hours one-way for this amazing woman.

Upon her passing, Mom had only 1 brother living (90+) out of 4.  Howard Aylestock could neither hear nor see without great difficulty; he made the trip from Montreal to say goodbye.  That took great courage for a man who no longer traveled anywhere.  My Uncle Howard passed on earlier this sprint 2010.

The garden flourished on a daily basis.  Flowers showed up regularly.  Mom’s acupuncturist refused to charge her.  Yet he came to treat her every Thursday like clockwork in his lunch hour.  Dr. Ed (as she called him) would also come from across town at any other time, if we called and left a message to say that perhaps Mom’s feet were swelling or her blood pressure went uncomfortably high.

One woman drove from Fenelon Falls to Lindsay (1/2) but could not afford the parking ($4).  She parked down the road at a shopping mall and then walked the rest of the way just so that she could spend time visiting.

The people who could not get there physically called.  However, true to form, Mom did not necessarily wait for them to call.  If she had the energy to talk, and no one to distract her present in the room, she called.  If she could not manage to dial the long distance (on my home phone calling card), she had us (or nurses) dial.  Just as we posted notes to encourage the nurses to rotate Mom’s dressing gowns; we also rotated the phone numbers to prevent her from talking to the same people and missing some of the others.

In the garden Mom grew, there were not only sensations of love and affection in words and faces of people who cared, there was also much music.  The hospital supplied a boom box and an amazing collection of the CD’s to continuously play.  Mom could not really see properly to work the buttons.  My husband Kevin loved T.V. and grew up without the benefit of an affectionate mother.  He would borrow a lager screen T.V. (Mom’s eyesight began to fail) for them to watch while perhaps I took a nap.  They only watched movies that would make her giggle.

My brother Robert (older by about 4 years), took several days each week to entertain Mom.  It was quite a commitment to take a bus or find someone to drop him off at the hospital.  Her face would absolutely glow whenever he arrived.

For my part, I guess I considered it my obligation to fill in the fertilizer where necessary.  I provided advocacy for moments in her care where we might not be on the same page as the hospital staff (they were most excellent-but there were still some scary moments).  I was told that I became known as the resident expert on the care and status of Dorothy Henry.

I am very strong on the rights and dignity of elders and those who might have difficulty making their wishes known.  But my desire to have people cater to the needs of Dorothy Henry had very little to do with the nurses who cuddled my mother and cooed in her ears when Mom Became agitated and could no longer speak in her final days.  When they comforted her to turn and bathe her, they showed the kind of love that no one can demand.  She had done so much to earn that.

During those final months, Dorothy Henry went from being bed-ridden to sitting in a chair.  She actually recovered the use of her legs and began to walk with support from a walker.  That bit of recovery was probably due to the heavy radiation she received 5 consecutive days at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto.  It was meant to buy her some time by temporarily shrinking the tumours and worked much better than anyone could have anticipated.

By the way, even those daily trips to radiate were memorable.  Former neighbours of my childhood, cousins, and anyone else we could alert rallied by meeting her at the hospital.  Princess Margaret Hospital staff and ambulance attendants actually accommodated family visits in between moving her back and forth.  It made the trip manageable, because Dorothy Henry was not good at travel for more than 1/2 hour.

She tried so hard.  The fatigue was overwhelming.  Mom worked so hard at doing what “healthy” people do that she actually managed to walk more and more with the use of only a cane.  Only in her final week of life did my mother lose the ability to participate.  Although she made the effort because I goaded her with that bit of doing what “healthy” people do rather than falling into the trap of doing what typically would be expected of “sick” people, can you even imagine that kind of accomplishment?

It also probably helped that I kept telling her that her parents would have been so proud of what she had done with her life.  The accomplishment was still the result of the effort she herself put forth.  But I maintain that her disease was rather kind to her at worst case.

Mom considered those months to be a great joy.  In her mind, Dorothy Henry enjoyed a private room with 3 meals a day cooked by someone other than herself to specifically meet her needs.  She also got to sample some of the meals I had prepared for myself (I brought an electric skillet–my brother and  God-sister left food in one of the fridges available for use to the patients and their families).  All of those things she claimed to not eat..she ate them fine if she saw them on my plate!

For the most part, she no longer had to worry about everyday issues and paying bills.  Someone was there to cater to every whim pretty much 24 hours a day. Both her son and daughter (me) and her grandchildren and her God-daughter spent huge amounts off time (covering a wide range of activities) her.

Family members came and had sing-song.  At one of those moments. a patient joined us while we gathered around the most incredible upright piano and reminisced how his wife used to play when she was still alive.

Mom attended church service almost every Friday with friends she made in hospital and volunteer staff; played Bingo for the first time in her life and won; made a silk dyed scarf for the first time in her life at a crafts class she attended…  Mom slept with a “Pinky” a gray stuffed elephant with pink ears.  From the time she received “Pinky”, Mom never went to sleep without “PInky” perched on the pillow in plain sight.

I almost forgot to mention that about 3 weeks before she died, she went with  group from the hospital for dinner at the Moose Lodge in Lindsay. Can you even contemplate the magnitude of her spirit to attempt that outing.

Mom got to see more of her friend than ever before and the attention never dwindled..  Other than the fact that she was sick, Mom was thrilled.  That was clear to everyone who saw her.

I said that I filled in the gaps and tended the garden for necessary care.  It would never have flourished at all if Mom had not worked at it all the years of her life.  Maybe the relationship that we had achieved was far better than I realized, because I really loved her so much.  Maybe those things that never seemed to work were merely misunderstandings from one person to another.  It does not matter any more.  What worked was that in the end she said that she trusted my judgment and expressed her content.  In the end we agreed on everything.

With her passing, I experience the hugeness of her garden and all of its sweet nuances.  You know those profound conversation people have when it is apparent that time is running out?  I reflect and savour the sound of her voice.  Whatever she was like before, Mom talked from a place more mellow than I had ever known.

Dorothy Henry finally stopped stressing over small details.  I am filled with contentment that we could share so much.  I am also grateful for every opportunity that was afforded me to sit with her and cause her to giggle or laugh out loud.  We did so much of that in the moment when things might get too much for her.  In the years that have passed since 2007, I often hear my mother laughing.  But when I look around, I realize the voice is mine.

“…And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known…”

2 Responses to The Garden My Mother Grew

  1. John David says:

    This is very inspiring. I’m sorry to hear about your mother’s loss, but it is incredible to gain an insight into such an extraordinary life that touched many people. Keep up the great writing.

  2. Diane Csenar says:

    What a beautiful story! I am deeply touched. Thank you for sharing

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