Why I’m not looking forward to the August long weekend
Twenty years ago on Sunday August 2, 1998
It was the August long weekend and it was quiet in our Ottawa neighbourhood. Many people had gone away to cottages, camping, or visiting family. My family’s cottage had been sold a decade before so that my parents could afford to buy a house out west. Their house in New Brunswick was worth even less than the cottage so they needed both. My husband didn’t like camping or going away. So we were home.
All the houses had air conditioning. I had, at an earlier point in the summer, set up our orange and blue tent in the backyard. Inflated a queen size mattress, and slept out there with the kids who were four and eight. Before we went in, my husband had sprayed mosquito repellant all over the outside which probably wasn’t the healthiest. He went back inside to sleep in the real queen size bed with air conditioning. He had discovered as a child sent off to summer camp that he didn’t really like the great outdoors. Throughout the night the air conditioners took turns whirring noisily and shutting off just to have another one start up and replace it as the noise maker. We gave up trying to camp in the back yard and returned to sleep indoors after a couple of nights.
As the summer progressed he became grumpier. He cooked hamburgers, but I asked if mine could be cooked more because it was pink inside. That made him angry enough to sit on the counch putting on his shoes and saying he was going to a motel. I got him calmed down and he stayed. A couple of weeks later he apologized because he’d heard on the CBC about hamburger disease and how it was a real thing.
On another day it was pouring rain, and he left a message on the answering machine telling me to make sure I took umbrellas. I didn’t like the criticism and his assumption that I didn’t know how to look after myself and the kids with raincoats and umbrellas.
One day I went with a friend and her kids to a theme park. I had a cell phone but something was wrong with the volume. My husband had gotten it for me in case the car broke down or other emergency. We were late coming back to town. He had tried to call me but never got through. He was angry at having to be at work late although he’d spent the time making a list of “X-Files” episodes.
At one point I had to summon all my courage and tell him on the phone that he needed to treat me with respect. I’ve always been a quiet timid person and that was a very difficult thing for me to do. To defend myself.
I had made friends with a family at the end of our block. We invited them over for a barbeque. Even the wife noticed that when we sat down on the couch there was a seat between us. It was a strenuously tense summer that couldn’t have gone on for much longer. My nerves were shot. My husband took a lot of naps. Sometimes a pained expression would cross his face but he’d say it was nothing. He couldn’t walk around the block. The doctor said he had high blood pressure but he denied that there was anything wrong with him. “Doctors always find something wrong with you.” was his excuse for not going back in. The high blood pressure he attributed to just the stress of being in a doctor’s office.
He was from Quebec and had starting smoking at an early age. He refused to tell me how young he’d been or how many packs he smoked a day. He had a smoker’s cough and bruises on his arms took forever to heal. He had tried over the last year to quit smoking twice. The last time had been for three months but the only place at work to take a break was in one of the two smoking rooms. He had started again.
Other than smoking, his other bad habit was a relaxing glass of Johnny Walker while watching tv. I always went to bed before him. I grew to hate the sound of ice cubes clinking into a glass.
On that holiday Sunday morning we rose and had breakfast. He had stopped drinking coffee because it bothered his stomach. The doctor had told him that his gall bladder was full of polyps but again he refused to go back in. He had been given antibiotics that he took because he had an ulcer. So on this his last morning he was drinking tea and eating toast. He complained that his upper right arm was hurting.
The night before we had watched a movie that he had rented. It was “Zero Effect” starring Bill Pullman. He knew that I like that actor because we shared the same last name. After breakfast he said he’d take back the movie, get us some wine and steaks for the barbeque. We’d had a sundeck added on in the spring. We just had a charcoal barbeque but dinner was going to be nice. He left and I set to filling the kiddy pool in the backyard with water. Then I worked on detangling a ceramic penguin mobile at the dining room table.
The phone rang. It was a woman from the hospital saying that my husband had been in a car accident. After I got off the phone I wondered how I would get there. We had only been using one car all year to drive the kids to school and him to work. I always let him drive because he was overly critical if I drove. Picking him up from work, I’d drive there and then get into the passenger side. I saw another couple one time doing the exact same thing. I pointed it out to him and he thought it was perfectly normal.
Hardly anyone was on our small street. There was a small park in the middle. I walked to the far side to a grandma’s house. She said she’d drive me and then come home with my kids and look after them. I went home to get the kids and the phone rang. This time the woman asked if he was a diabetic. I said no and then we went to the hospital.
I entered alone walking past seated people in the emergency waiting room. At the counter I said that my husband had been taken in there. I was led to a tiny white sterile room without windows and abandoned to my racing thoughts for half an hour. Then a nurse came in and said she couldn’t find a doctor. Then she blurted out, without any bedside manner, that my husband hadn’t made it. Then she left me in solitary confinement again with me feeling the most alone I’d ever been in my life. I felt like keening, wailing my sorrow but our culture doesn’t believe in that. No, you have to keep your emotions tamped down.
We’d been together since I was twenty years old. That was nine married and twenty-one years total. I hadn’t been on my own since I was a teenager. Now I was an only parent with two young children to raise on my own.
Present Day Wednesday July 25, 2018
The last two decades have passed as they do. Not easily. Not without severe depression. I’ve survived them merely because I must. Just like every other person left behind by death. It still hurts and makes my eyes water to think about it. I’ve raised my kids successfully and I looked after my mother at home for as long as I could before having to move her into a nursing home. Life is sort of stable. It could be better but it could also be worse.
Be aware of meaningful dates coming up for your family, especially the elders.
My grandmother died on the same day that her husband died just thirteen years later. When these kinds of anniversary dates come up, the grief strikes hard. The bereft people you know might need emotional support and contact with people to get through these days. Even if they haven’t mentioned it for awhile, it doesn’t mean that they’ve forgotten about it. There comes a point when the person realizes that talking about something upsets others so they keep their thoughts to themselves.
Christmas is an especially difficult time for newly widowed seniors. An old neighbour back in Ottawa told me that after his wife died. He went for counselling that enabled him to make it through the first Christmas even though he was lonely and missed his wife.
If anything I think that much older people in their eighties and nineties are better prepared for death happening in their circles. They’ve had practice. Quite a few of my friends and family never made it past their forties or fifties. So just try to be kind and be there for your loved ones or for people who don’t have anyone close to lean on. Everyone needs support.