A LONG WAY FROM MANY PLACES
The Beginning and the End: Montreal and Ottawa
There are two types of holidays. You either travel to visit family or travel to get the hell away from them. Either option may be the time of your life or sheer, abject misery. Some trips inflict a bit of both while others may serve up something in between.
‘Bonjour, hi!’ We have arrived in the happy kingdom of cheap beer and cigarettes. And empty storefronts. The province of Quebec is nearly broke and Montreal is falling down. My mother’s not in great shape either.
It is mid-August. The inmates of my mother’s seniors’ residence wonder why we’re not wearing sweaters or jackets because it’s cold outside and winter’s coming. Taxi drivers agree. Maybe these views have something to do with the fact that the hockey Canadiens own the front page of the Gazette’s sports section whatever the time of year. The other sporting news echoes summers long past. There is a pipedream that Major League Baseball will resurrect itself in Montreal if somebody comes up with a billion dollars, half of that to buy and relocate an existing team and the other half to construct a downtown ballpark.
Mom used to love dressing up and stepping out to watch the Habs at the Forum on Saturday nights with her second husband. A few years ago I took her to see the Canadiens in their new rink and, man, the widow dolled up and put on the Ritz. A gin and soda with a twist of lemon and then the other half. Lipstick on her hot dog bun. In her time she travelled the globe. Her world is now confined to a few blocks not far from Montreal’s western City Limit boundary. She is pissed off.
On a previous visit when we weren’t certain that she would rally from her lymphoma diagnosis, my sister Anne, my partner Ann and I bought her a red metal cane anyway, tres haute mode. It has since become a pointer, a poker and a prodder. We were walking down the quiet, carpeted corridor to Mom’s suite when she suddenly flung it ahead. I said, ‘Mom, what are you doing?’ She stooped to pick it up: ‘Proving something to myself.’ She did it again the next day. ‘Mom, why did you do that?’ She stooped to pick it up. ‘Because I can.’
The shopping street is too far for Mom to walk to. The embarrassing $5 cab ride earns the driver the same again in the form of a tip. Mom misses her car but she would be a hazard on the road. And if she drove from A to B, she’d be too tired to do anything at B, let alone get back to A. Ann and I take her to the bank and arrange for a new credit card with no perks and no annual fee. Mom’s worried about learning a new PIN number. It takes some time to make it clear to her that her PIN can be anything she wants it to be. In the pharmacy we buy some new AA batteries for her television remote; I’ll insert them later. In the grocery store she purchases one banana, one lemon, two oranges, a litre of milk, a litre of club soda and 375 grams of sliced bacon. Back outside we find a sidewalk bench. Mom doesn’t want to go back to the residence. Her eyes are aglow at being on the lam. Jailbreak! She asks me for a cigarette. We people watch. Her comments, ‘Oh, Mary Riley!’ aren’t too, too loud and the tip of her cane mercifully stays on the pavement. After a while I hail a cab for us to get her back in time for her lunch. I feel guilty.
Funny how parents evolve from gods and heroes to fools, to friends, to sources of concern. Although I’ve never actually lived there, Ottawa is my second hometown. My father has made his home here since 1972 or ’73 – I can’t remember exactly. Dad turned 90 on July 31. He has a pacemaker. He has Parkinson’s. He has a wife who is 13 or 15 years younger (depending upon which time of day she mentions it again). She wants to dump him in a veteran’s hospital. Like Mom, Dad and his wife are waifs weighing less than 100 pounds each, mere sheets of paper. The irony is that my stepmother’s health is even worse than my father’s and her skin is even more translucent. And Anne, Ann and I suspect Dad’s wife is starting to lose it, just as her elder sister already has.
Dad and his only living friend in the capital reckon they are the sole survivors of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 409 ‘Night Hawks’ Squadron. Alas, a pub lunch this trip with his fellow Mosquito navigator and comrade-in-arms is out of the question as Dad has had another fall. Wiped out his wife too. He never uses his walker. The left side of my father’s face is black, blue, yellow and purple. A pink welt the size of a ping-pong ball juts from his temple like the stump of a sheared horn. His wife informed me in no uncertain long distance telephone terms that any activity of ours which would involve leaving the apartment is verboten. I know Dad would’ve enjoyed an embarrassing $5 cab ride to the Clock Tower Pub for a sandwich and half a pint of lager. The waitresses flitter and fawn over this aged gentleman. I’ve seen it.
Dad and his wife live in a high-rise just off Rideau Street in the vicinity of the Turkish and Romanian embassies. To me, this is exotic turf, the stuff of an Eric Ambler thriller. We stay in a hotel on Rideau but much nearer to the core. The City or the National Capital Commission or both have made an effort to clean up the strip, a civic initiative reminiscent of Granville Street’s makeover prior to the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.
Rideau is an eclectic stretch of road. Linger on a corner and you get asked for sex, money and cigarettes. Or all three. You can get pierced or tattooed. Or both. There are three payday loan joints, two grocery stores, two major drug stores, two booze outlets, two wretched motels and too many convenience stores. There is one head shop with no Rolling Stones t-shirts in stock; neither the used book seller nor the independent record shop has any gems worth taking back to Edmonton. There’s an art deco cinema left over from the days when a new film would screen for six or eight weeks. The crumbling Horn of Africa offers VEGETARIAN PLATERS and MEAT PLATERS too. Shawarma King competes against Shawarma Palace. Angelina’s Pizza and Pasta has pulled up stakes and migrated to a tonier part of town. Nate’s Delicatessen, the best smoked meat this side of the Ottawa River, has closed forever. But hey, the concrete tile sidewalks are new. Wider too.
In the 30-degree heat of this milieu Ann and I gird for ‘the talk’ in Don Cherry’s sports bar. On the afternoon of our last day in town we walk that Rideau walk one last time. We visit with Dad and his wife in their living room. When the conversation turns to real estate and the homes they’ve owned and renovated over the past 35 years I see our opening. Maybe it’s time the two of them looked into assisted living? The process could take months. Ann, speaking from harsh experience, says it’s best not to wait for a crisis. To date they have been sadly fortunate enough to alternate medical events. What happens, I ask, if God forbid they both become ill at once? Does anyone have power of attorney? Dad’s wife replies vaguely that they know people. Ann asks about their wills and other pertinent legal documents. Is everything together and accessible to her children or his? Sort of. Dad’s wife states that everything, especially she herself would be fine if only my father wasn’t so inconveniently old. Dad does not react to this; he takes it like the man he’s always been. Perhaps he’s turned his hearing aid down.
As we say our goodbyes and exchange brittle hugs, Dad’s wife thanks us again for bringing over last night’s Chinese take-out dinner. They had enjoyed the remainder earlier at lunch. Ann and I tell my stepmother that yesterday evening and today were a real treat and a genuine pleasure. She doesn’t remember that Ann and I went out and bought Indian food for all of us last night. Curry. One of Dad’s favourites. I smile down at my shrunken stepmother; she skipped Catholic school one day in 1957 to go and see Elvis. When I first met her in the 70s, she drank Carling Black Label beer and gunned around Ottawa in red Detroit muscle. She was one tough woman in her day.