I'm in Gimli, Manitoba. It's a small town on the shores of Lake Winnipeg where I spent part of my childhood. My parents must have fallen in love with it, because when they finally decided to retire, they moved back here.
I'm here because my Dad is sick and is into a round of aggressive radiation treatments. He needs to go into the hospital pretty much every working day, and because my Mom can't be left by herself and bringing her along isn't an option, having an extra sibling around should be a great help to my sisters. I can take Dad in or sit with Mom or run errands or do whatever needs to be done.
With me being 2167 miles away, my sisters have been shouldering more than their share of responsibilities for the care of my parents. And when I say it like that, it doesn't reflect how any of us feel about it, at least in the abstract. In the abstract, it's a privilege to give back just a little of what they blessed us with over the years.
Mom always talked about parenthood as giving your kids "... the best food off your plate." And she didn't just talk the talk - she lived it. So in the abstract, taking care of them is quite literally the least we can do.
Of course, as any loving mother will tell you, life isn't lived in the abstract, and as much as it's a privilege to have the opportunity to take care of them, the reality is it can be a lot of ... er, opportunity. So when my sisters called and asked if I'd like to come for a couple of weeks and share this richness of opportunity, what kind of person would I be to say "No."?
It's bittersweet, I have to say.
I got into Winnipeg Friday night and drove up to Gimli the next morning. On the way up, I passed the golf course where my mom and dad used to be such active members - when I was playing hide and seek once, and had the best hiding place ever, up in the tree in our yard, but my brother saw me and it was a race to home, so I tried some sort of half-assed Tarzan move, swinging down from the branch I was on and plummeting to the ground, landing on my wrist and hearing a sickening *snap* and looking down at my arm and almost passing out just at the sight of it - they sent a golf cart out to the 12th hole to call my parents to the hospital. (Dad: "We've only got seven holes to go, and he's in good hands at the hospit --". Mom: "We're going.")
On the way to their condo I passed by our old house - #59 on 6th Avenue (Gimli has six avenues. Total.) As always, I marvelled at how a tiny bungalow of perhaps 1000 square feet (being generous) could hold a family with six kids. How did we ever all shoehorn into that place? Impossible. Dad built two bedrooms in the basement to go with the two bedrooms upstairs and we had Air Force issue bunkbeds Dad had liberated from some barracks somewhere and it was a day when families had less stuff and more of each other and to be honest, I don't remember it being so bad.
Dad always called himself "the world's worst handyman", but I don't remember them ever calling a carpenter and lots of rooms were built over the years. I never once saw a plumber in our house, even with six kids putting pressure on the facilities. (Well, that's not precisely true - one time my Mom and Dad went out to some event at the Officer's Mess, and apparently Mom caught some sort of flu there because she came home and spent a long time groaning over the toilet while Dad said she was fine and chased us back to bed. And the next morning, Dad called a plumber who took the toilet off and fished around and came out with Mom's false teeth and advised my Dad just to put them in boiling water and wash them ten or twelve times and just never - ever - tell my Mom where he found them.)
But mostly it was Dad doing any repairs that needed doing. So when I got to their condo and used the facilities and the downstairs toilet wouldn't flush, I was surprised to hear my Dad wheeze that he keeps forgetting to call "the guy" to fix it.
I peeked in the tank. The chain on the ball flapper (hee!) was broken (well, torn, actually - one of those craptastic plastic connectors). I zipped down to the hardware store, got a new ball flapper (hee!) and the repair took me about 45 seconds. Using skills I learned from watching my Dad.
I drove Dad into Winnipeg for a single treatment on Monday. He has today off, then treatments every day. So we'll go to my sister's place in Winnipeg for the balance of the week before bringing them back home on the weekend. Mom gets a little anxious when she's away from her stuff, but the hour-long trip in and out of the city is just too much.
When I went over to get him, Mom got a little upset. She doesn't like it when people take Dad away, even when it's me. (I was always the Golden Boy, her little favourite, and still her face lights up when I come into the room. But here again, the cold chill of reality kicks in: the other night, I came in and gave her a big hug and talked about the trip in and went off to deal with the toilet, and after I left Mom asked my sister, "Who was that nice fellow?")
So she was a little agitated about that nice fellow taking her husband away, but I just laughed and told her not to worry. "I'm not gonna keep him, Mom. Hell, would you keep him if you didn't have to?" And she got a little grin on her face and everything was okay and I realized that I calmed her down the way I had learned to diffuse any bad situation - with a little twist of humour. And of course, I'd learned that from my Dad.
As we drove into town in Dad's car (why the hell will they not give that thing up? Sell it and take limos for the rest of your life and you'll still come out ahead!), I was conscious of him watching me drive. When i drive, my eyes dart all over in a repetitive pattern: side mirror, gauges, the road ahead, rear view mirror, gauges, road ahead, side mirror, road ahead ... my eyes always moving, always aware of everything around me. We got to a light that had just turned green and I slowed in time for some asshole running the yellow to clear the intersection - I'd slowed because I never trust other drivers to do the right thing.
"You're a good driver," my Dad said. "Smooth."
Of course he thinks I'm a good driver. I drive just like him. He was a jet pilot - the compulsive checking of gauges, the constant need to know where you are in relation to everything around you - that's all him. I remember him hammering into me that you assume all other drivers on the road - particularly ones you encounter at intersections - are stupid, drunken assholes and give them a clear berth and respect the breathtaking sweep of their assholery, and that gives you a better chance of staying alive. My girls will tell you I hammered the same message into them.
This has turned into a long, rambly, stream-of-consciousness post, not the kind of story I normally tell. I guess the point - assuming I had one - is that I'm spending these days being acutely aware of just how much I owe these people. Giving me the best food off their plate meant preparing me for a million little aspects of life, showing me by example how a life should be lived, both in the abstract and in the cold, hard light of reality. And life doesn't get colder or harder than what Dad's got ahead of him.
It feels like I'm doing the right thing by being here and doing a few small things to help out my sisters - and again, they're the ones who are throwing themselves into this phase of our lives with everything they have, and I'm incredibly grateful they're here to do by proxy what I can't do from a distance.
But doing the right thing - and again, this is something my Mom and Dad taught me - isn't always easy. This is hard.
A good hard. But hard.