January 3, 2004


Winter is particularly hard on the elderly, and this year's flu will probably take a greater toll on this vulnerable population.


But for me and my friends, the past year has already had a surfeit of death. The loss of our parents has shocked us into realizing that we are now the next generation of elders, stepping inexorably toward our own old age and death. Indeed, attending funerals has become such a part of everyday life that we keep our black apparel hanging at the ready.


Even so, the death of our elderly relations and friends has its own peculiar consolations. If anything, the bonds that tie us adult children in grief and support provide something akin to joy as we remember lives lived.


"Oh, I'm going to cry," my patient burst out, her tears welling. "We just buried my mom."


Then, quickly, as if to stop any outpouring of condolences, she carried on, non-stop: "It's okay, she was 95. She'd had a great day, debating every news item that came her way. Frail? Very, but good in her mind till the end. And thankfully, I'd just called a few days before and preplanned her funeral. We wanted to do right by her.


"We planned it all, and I spoke about her life and its two parts, the one I knew, which was The Taskmaster, and the one I heard about from others, the Irish party girl. We gave a small reading for the minister, who is a relative. But, understand, it was our celebration to honour her before we pushed the button and sent the plain pine casket into the flames."


A pine casket had been a part of another burial scene, this time at a Jewish cemetery on Christmas Eve. All of us were asked to lift a shovel of earth and heave it, with thudding resonance, onto the casket of our friend Bill's mother. This, we were told, was an inherent part of the process that marks in the Jewish faith the passing of a life.


That same night, the mother of another of our friends died. Stan's mom had hung on to life by a thread to get to her favourite day of the year. She was a party girl too, and lived for those festivities. Not that she hadn't known hard times, passing through Ellis Island at the age of 12 on the way to a new life in downtown Toronto; demeaned by sitting in a kindergarten class to learn English even as she blossomed into womanhood.


She took a job early, at 16, selling leather gloves at the Eaton's store on College Street. Eventually, she became a bank clerk, and Stan tells the story of how, intent on doing her sums accurately, she shooed away a bank robber, saying she was too busy to deal with him.


Bill's mom had been a war bride, and in his celebration of her, he spoke of the romance and adventure that had defined her life. Working as a secretary at an air force base in Britain during the Blitz, she had dated only officers -- until a gangly, non-com tail gunner from Canada swept her up and spun her around the floor and into his heart.


Marrying him against the wishes of her commanding officer, who had attempted to halt the romance by transferring her to another base, she created a haven for them in a little cottage by the airfield.


Each time he went on a bombing run, she waited anxiously for his Lancaster to return, thinking about the unborn child she was carrying. When she immigrated to Canada ahead of her not yet demobilized husband, it was to a farm with no electricity or running water.


There were years of struggle for this couple, but the best story of her undauntable spirit was told during her son's eulogy. The young Bill and his dad had gone ocean fishing off Vancouver Island and were homeward bound on a rough sea, way after dark.


Bill remembers being frightened at the prospect of ever finding the way back, when they spotted a tiny light in the distance. Rowing closer, they were finally able to make out a huge bonfire on the shore. Standing beside it, waiting for her men to return, was his mother. No surprise that this mom wouldn't hesitate to keep Bill out of school if the guppies were hatching or because it was a fine day for a picnic.


My own mother died this past August in her 90th year.


She had rebuilt the family farmhouse with her husband so they could care for his father as he was dying, and that wonderful house became our summer home for many years as we harvested crops during the 1950s.


Our home in the city saw us through our school years, but when mom retired from Sears, our dad built a new retirement home in the country on the hill site of that old farmhouse that had long since burned down.


After 25 years in this home, she knew that life would bring more changes. My father had died, and she spent one year in grief, one year in anger and one year lonely. And then she knew she needed to get on with living. At 72, she fell in love again and remarried. Manny Marmoreo (my father-in-law at the time) had been sent to the farm so she could introduce him to some eligible ladies. She took one look and set her sights on him.


At 80, when most retirees are considering moving into "the home," Mary and Manny were buying a new home. And at 85, she was laying out plans for her granny pad with her daughter.


She was a hard worker all her life. In my memory, I see her bent over her task at the table, or on hands and knees, or up to her elbows in water, wallpaper paste or tire changes. My mom did everything, held back from nothing, mastered all. She never held a grudge, never shirked a duty, felt obligations deeply.


All these three mothers belonged to a generation of women who were tough, resourceful and more accepting of their circumstances than we could ever be today. But I look on their lives with a touch of envy. Their richest legacy, to us and to every one of us whose parents have come to the age of dying, will be the memories of them we carry in our hearts.

Dr. Jean



Doctor. Writer. Athlete.

Advocate. Adventurer.