Monday, 21 January 2019


My Mom and Montreal

My mother died on the first of January, a couple of weeks after her ninety-first birthday. She’d been praying for her fateful day for some time. As much as my mother fervently desired the big sleep, her last months were an excruciating exercise for her, her caregivers and her family. It took longer than she’d expected to get her way.

And so as Ann and I packed our bags in order to be present at a liturgy in Montreal multiple strains of melancholy reverberated through the Crooked 9. As I chose clothing and inventoried my shaving kit thousands of coherent thoughts bounced around inside my skull: caroms, ricochets and rebounds. I was grieving my mother but I’d been grieving for quite some time. I pitied her because I imagined I felt her pain on some level although that’s impossible. I mused about the ethical and moral dilemmas posed by modern medicine and its practitioners’ oath to “do no harm,” and the seemingly contradictory palliative care process, comforting is not a function of needless prolonging.

I have had the misfortunate honour of eulogizing my brother and my father. Mom was next. This is a task no one wants to get good at performing. There’s just my sister and me left from the original five now. While we were working out Mom’s funeral over the phone, I said, “I’ll be damned if I have to do you too. You and I are like Lee Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood squinting at one another under the sun in a spaghetti western now.”

There were practical considerations at play too. Ann and I made arrangements for our house to be checked on, snow shoveling if required. But this time there was no scramble to address the welfare of our tabby pussycats, both of whom are now prowling the territory of their tenth lives. Or napping. When we eventually returned there would be no “Tails up!” greeting at the front door; we still miss our overly curious welcome. Then again our airline reeking bags dumped by tired arms in the front hall would not be pissed on either.

I was rolling a Rolling Stones t-shirt for nightwear when Ann mused aloud, “Do you think this will be our last trip to Montreal?”

A lifelong connection had been cut, sawn slowly not deftly snipped. God, we’ve been so often these past few years to visit with my mother that I’m confident I could pilot the Airbus jet even though my driver’s license is designated a learner’s permit. I at least know the route, and the seats must be more comfortable up in the cockpit. And well, we could always meet up with my sister and her family elsewhere in the country or even beyond Canada’s borders. My future forty-fifth and fiftieth high school reunions hold an allure, circumstances permitting; I’ve still friends in my hometown. “Never say ‘never’ again, Mister Bond,” I thought.

I replied to Ann with a phrase I find myself uttering more frequently as I age and keep relearning old lessons while learning new ones, “I don’t know.”

We are Canadians. Many of us were born in the cold. Many of us have died or will die in the cold. Alas, whatever the temperature may be, death is a lonely, private process. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. The trouble with winter interments is that the already cold, cold ground is frozen solid even as the deceased’s ashes are still warm. While folding thick, practical socks in Edmonton for the graveside ceremony in Montreal I could not help but summon Graham Greene’s ‘The Third Man’ with its chilling scene of Harry Lime’s wintertime jackhammer burial in Allied-occupied Vienna.

The Cote-des-Neiges Cemetery on Mount Royal is the Catholic one, on the west side of the old mountain’s middle peak. At this time of year they bury cremated remains on Thursdays only, provided the family plot is not situated on too steep of a slope. A hole had been bored at the site, two feet in diameter and two feet deep, a perfect cylinder big enough for an urn in a green velvet sack. I remembered my glass marbles and their storage, a purple Crown Royal bag. The pyramid of soil beside the hole was black, wet and heavy granulated curds of dirt. There were crumbled crusts of sod and snow around its base, icing.

The family took turns burying my mother, one spade at a time. I fought the inclination to do it all myself and save the gravediggers at least one task on a cold, clear day. Once we were done and our last respects had been paid, I took a moment to look around. Perhaps longer than a moment because somebody tapped my upper arm and asked me if I was all right.

Behind me there were crumbling crypts, grey and green, buttressed temporarily with painted plywood and angled struts. Before me were the armoury, the green dome of Saint Joseph’s Oratory, and a tornado column of white smoke from the physical plant of the hospital where I was born. Mom was in Saint Mary’s when she first got sick and she enjoyed the view of the oratory from her room, two hundred and eighty-three steps and rosary bead prayers for the committed and converted. There was traffic on Cote-des-Neiges, honking and slip-sliding on the icy hill; there was workaday life on just another Thursday in Montreal.

Somebody tapped my upper arm and asked me if I was all right. I looked around. I knew I would never be in this cemetery again, here by the headstone. And, maybe, I may never be in Montreal again. I said I was okay, perfectly fine. Ann took my hand. We were getting cold. It was time to go. 

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