Sunday, May 11, 2003

The sun is shining as I pull into the parking lot, and I'd rather be doing other things. Tradition dictates that I make this annual trek, so I put on my best happy face and prepare for what seems like a pointless duty.

My grandfather married his second wife nearly ten years after the passing of my grandmother. I met Anne Walker (soon to be Anne Key) at the age of eleven, a time of awkward shyness for me. She, the new wife of my grandfather, was a schoolteacher living in rural Alberta - a forthright woman who had lived a demanding life. Age hadn't taken much from the striking beauty that Anne possessed. With grown children of her own, she had found a kindred spirit in the gentle man that was my granddad. Somehow, this short, balding, suspender-wearing man had managed to make his way through the seemingly impenetrable albeit polite shell that surrounded this impressive woman. Although not openly affectionate, an experienced eye could still see the love that flowed back and forth between these two.

Distance, age and rural-urban culture differences separated me from my new grandmother. Anne had been born and raised on a farm. She was now renting out the farmable portion of her 1/4 section of land to neighbors who were more than happy to include it in their planting and harvesting. Anne kept care of the house fulltime after retiring from her teaching position. My grandfather had sold his city house and moved in with her as soon as they were married and quickly adopted his new title of gentleman farmer and husband. Anne had run the place ever since her first husband (and then, eventually, her children) left the farm. I would accompany my parents when we went to visit, but there was always an uneasiness about being there. Years of dealing with four children by herself had taught her to be firm and an imposing figure when necessary. I never felt that I was able to get past the strict schoolteacher side that was always faced towards me.

Now, here I stand at the entrance to the nursing home. Anne, my step-grandmother, has become an aged woman. Multiple Sclerosis and eighty-some years meant that she needed constant attention - attention her children (with their own families and responsibilities) are unable to provide. Eight years ago she had left her family farm to come to this extended care facility in Calgary. Here, she is close to her youngest daughter who still visits regularly. Anne's memories are now elusive shadows. Names don't come easily to her - even those of her children and step-children. Grand- and even great-grandchildren are but pleasant faces that come and go in the immediacy of her present existence. You can tell that there is difficulty in comprehending and understanding who all these people are and what they are doing in the room with her.

I make my way down echoing, tiled hallways, past alcoves occasionally filled with bath-robed residents and sundy-best visitors having private conversations in loud voices. Two nursing stations' worth of directions later, I enter Anne's semi-private room and see her in the bed. A polite smile comes to her face as I enter and take her hand. She looks at me but I can tell she does not recognize my face. "Hello Anne," I say, "I'm Lester's grandson, Sean. How are you?" No recognition at all. She talks to me with gentle tones. I respond to her while I look at the guestbook her daughter has put in place to track the visitors. Most of her family are many hours of driving away. Looking through the pages show that sometimes weeks go by without a visitor. Living only minutes away, I try not to let guilt get the best of me.

I speak to her of trivialities that occuring in my life. I'll use names that she can't remember, speaking of places that she hasn't been. Certain words remind her of slippery memories and she speaks semi-coherently, putting into words what her inner eyes have seen. The names of people and places she asks me about are as confusing and unknown to me as mine are to her. I try to be supportive and answer with general replies but I doubt that I am reaching her. There is still a wall between us. More like stairs than a wall - stairs that can't be climbed up or down.

I get ready to go when, almost inperceptably, something about her look and voice changes.

"Can you take me home now?" she asks. Then, it hits me. Through the haze that is her present perception, she realizes that these people whom she cannot remember of the names and faces of, the people that now take care of her, are not her family. She no longer is able to pinpoint her location. She cannot place where this room she is in exists, but she somehow knows that the place where she spent most of her life is far away. Comfort of familiarity is what she is seeking. Through all the confusion and long days and nights, she has been patiently waiting for the fog to clear, the long dimly-lit dream to end and she expects to wake or be returned to her past life.

A deep, deep sadness comes over me. I go to her and gently wrap my arms around her thin, well-worn frame.

As I embrace her I softly say, "This is your home, Anne. We love you very much and you are dear to us. Happy Mother's Day. I need to go now, but I'll see you later." She accepts my answer and weakly hugs me back. At this moment I wish I was closer to her, a bigger part of her life so that my presence might be of more comfort to her.

I leave her sitting upright in her bed, supported by pillows in the dreaded industrial glow of the florescents. She looks away as I turn to go and I try to shake the heaviness in my heart and convince myself that my actions have made a difference.

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