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By Alan Gratias


The Montréal Review, November 2011


I brought her tea as usual that Wednesday morning. The door was ajar but no one responded to my calls. Mother was a determined night wanderer. Usually I found her in a night gown lost on the neighborhood streets or in the library with the dogs. When she first moved in, Mum continued the ritual she had practiced with my father. In the early hours of the morning, she would come into my room with a jug of water, pour it on me and climb into bed. After several alarming soakings, I had the brilliant idea of reversing the lock on her bedroom suite so that she couldn't get out.

Now she had escaped. Had she had figured out how to jimmy the door latch from the inside? I eventually found Mother curled up on a scruffy dog bed behind the furnace. I'm not so sure she wasn't exacting revenge on me for registering her in the Alzheimer's Day Away Program. She had managed to get herself thrown out of the group twice in the last month, an almost impossible feat given the tolerance of the volunteer leaders.

When I woke her and enquired why she had gone to the basement, she exclaimed " You can't be here without coming here". This wasn't the first time Mother had responded to a simple question with an intriguing answer. Eighty one year old Betty could sparkle with 'gravitas' in the course of her nutty behavior.

Before mother intervened I had ambitions to retire to the Burgundy region of France. My plan was to rehabilitate a stone farm house and spend days in search of the perfect pinot noir. All that changed when Dad took sick. He was hospitalized with pneumonia in Montreal and the family knew that Mum could not be left on her own. She had been afflicted with dementia for a number of years and was starting to do strange things, like forgetting to bathe and groom, hiding money in the cereal box and pinning jewelry to the bottom of the living room curtains. Sometimes she did not get of bed for days.

My siblings nominated me by default to take in mother. I was the bachelor who lived in a restored house in Ottawa. They were in Toronto with busy lives and their own families. Besides, although it was left unsaid, I was having too much fun and needed to be anchored with a bit of responsibility. On the day that Dad was admitted to the Montreal General Hospital, I drove to Westmount to pick up Mum for a short stay with the dogs and me on Manor Avenue. I often made the trip to see my parents as they stumbled into their eighties. But I was not prepared for how much Mum had deteriorated.

Within a few days of moving her into my guest suite, my life was in turmoil. Everything now had to revolve around managing Mother. Betty had led a very social life. No one enjoyed a party more, but now Mum could not carry on a conversation, watch TV or read. Her idea of a wonderful afternoon was to settle in a comfortable chair and stare outside for hours lost in her own world. She threw her food, was abusive to anyone trying to help and was terrified of being left alone. Dear Mum was more than a handful.

Six weeks later Dad was still in the hospital. Mother was going to be a house guest much longer than I thought. I was gradually realizing what an adjustment in life style I would have to engineer, from freewheeling independence to 24/7 responsibility as a primary caregiver to a dependent child who happened to be my mother. I took a leave from my job as a senior trade negotiator for the federal government and started to do my homework.

No one else was offering to take over. Pay back time my siblings were thinking, for the most indulged of the children. As a twin there are many levels of subliminal competition but now that I was in the harness, my brother Deo was not about to replace me.

Deo liked to point out, usually at family dinner parties, that he was the one who was born in the caul, the wrapping in which the fetus lives inside the womb. According to him, this endowed him with good luck and powers of prophecy. I am not sure if Deo actually believed in the caul myth, or if he was using it as a way to ascribe our differences. But he seemed to think that it let him off the hook as far as helping out with 'Gagsie', as he like to call her as in 'Gaga Mum'. You might have thought we could have shared the mission.

"You have always wanted Gagsie to yourself " Deo reminded me on my phone entreaty to have him relieve me for a few weeks. " N ow she's all yours."

Twins are supposed to be clones of each other, when one inhales, the other exhales. As womb mates, we built our D N A together. On the surface Deo and I were two sheaves reaped from the same stalk but the way we viewed the world was as if we had been separated at birth. We had gone down separate paths in so many ways, he desperate for marriage, me a life-long bachelor; he a star accountant and banker, me a public servant and idea entrepreneur; he a collector of women, me a collector of houses. Although mother reveled in her status as 'madonna' of the Gratias twins, at this advanced stage of her infirmity, there was an implicit understanding that Mother was in my hands, and my hands only.

I am not the best person to explain the relationship with my mother. There was an elemental connection. We communicated with each other in ways that were lost to the rest of the family. Mum was a complex character who, despite her extroverted personality, lacked confidence. Her low self-esteem caused her to act foolishly. With malevolent intent she enjoyed bringing her current lover to the family residence to see what drama might unfold. That regretful woman, the core of the family dysfunction, was now my ward to deal with.

The first thing I wanted was a comprehensive medical evaluation. The diagnosis was unequivocal. Second stage Alzheimer's with rapid deterioration to the final phase. The brain scan confirmed an outer ring of scar tissue. I should prepare for the worst, the Doctor warned. He gave me a list of homes that specialized in care for severe dementia, advising me to get her name on the waiting list immediately.

"You won't want to handle this at home", he advised as he handed me the file.

The next week I drove Mum to Montreal to visit Dad in the hospital, but she didn't recognize her husband of fifty years. Dad died six weeks later. He couldn't cope with Betty any longer. It was someone else's turn to look after the diva who only wanted to go dancing. At this point Mum had been with me for three months and I realized that I was better equipped to deal with her than Father. Although my parents were ill suited to each other, and remained enigmas to each other to the end, he was old school. As far as he was concerned it was his responsibility to look after his wife. He didn't want outsiders to get in the way. My father didn't know how to ask for help, much less where to look for outside assistance.

It was at this stage that I decided to make Mother a priority. I had just bought an abandoned Loyalist farm in Prince Edward County. Its complex of early nineteenth century farm buildings sat on eight acres at the water's edge where the vista seemed more like the ocean than the expanse of Lake Ontario. I was entranced by the promise of renewal. The walls and foundations were derelict but that how the light got in. Ruins are necessary because collapse provide the incentive for rebirth. Without an interval of neglect, there can be no renaissance.

I was enthusiastic to begin the rebuilding process but for the time being the Cressy House project would have to be put on hold. Better to work on my family rubble than tumbled bricks and mortar. Let's face it everything and everyone is in some state of disintegration. Mother was just a more extreme example of human deterioration. I became struck on the notion that by focusing on Mum and devoting myself to her care, I could at the same time settle my own restlessness.

I started to build a support system, the craftsman and stonemason clones, to help me implement a total care program. Mum needed to be covered at all times. I called on friends and neighbours, and their kids to sit and cook and stay overnight when I had to be away. The Alzheimers'Society, the Good Samaritans, Community Care, Home Care all came to the rescue. Gradually I developed a network like an extended family and put in place a sophisticated program dedicated to the 'at home' care of one Elizabeth Constance Gratias. My residence at 152 Manor in Ottawa became command headquarters for logistical support for dozens of friends, colleagues and volunteers.

We actually had fun. Mother could be ornery, dishing out hell and swearing like a madwomen, but she also laughed. Her eyes told the truth. She was confused and frightened most of the time, but occasionally lit up and made complete sense. On one occasion the local TV station came over to shoot a segment on mothers moving back home. After a particularly nasty exchange with a care giver, Mum spotted the good looking cameraman at the foot of the stairs. "Darling," she purred, "let's go dancing." With that she sashayed down the stairs like a debutante to the ball.

About this time I added a bird to the domestic menagerie, thinking the Australian rosella, yellow, blue and red, would bring a ray of sunshine into Mother's world of frustration and anger. I had seen how the other animals of the household cheered her, Harry and Henry, brother and sister who were half Labrador, half German short haired pointer, and Riley, a tabby with a cut off tail who thought she was a dog.

I called the rosella 'Coco' after the parrot that Mum had been given by her father when she had turned thirteen. The original Coco had been a talker who greeted guests with a range of insults learned from the Jamaican cook. Our Coco couldn't talk but she compensated by chirping all day long. She learned the opening notes of dozens of popular songs but her favourite was 'For He's a Jolly Good Fellow' which greeted every newcomer.

One Sunday when friends were visiting, Mother decided it was time for Coco's first flight. She opened the cage door and in a swoosh the bird was out. What Mum didn't know was that Coco's wings had been clipped. After a few yards of freedom, Coco dropped to the floor like a stone. The old cat Riley, watching from under the kitchen table, couldn't believe her luck when Coco landed inches away. She pounced on Coco anticipating a meal. It happened so fast but not too fast for Harry. Before any of the adults in the room reacted, Harry charged Riley who dropped the bird. Magically Harry then picked up Coco in her mouth and deposited her at Mother's feet.

A few moments later the drama over, Coco was returned to the security of her cage whistling the opening bars of 'Witchcraft'.

By this time I was spending so much time managing caregivers that I decided to take early retirement and work out of the house. I included Mum in parts of my social life. Girlfriends were never sure if 'the wild one' would be at the dinner table or a dalliance might be cut short because Mother had thrown a plate of veggies. On one occasion a romantically inclined new girlfriend bolted the residence when she found Mother sleeping in the library fireplace with the cat. Gradually Gagsie lost the ability to relate to people and retreated almost exclusively to her own place, a world in her head where she relived her lost life.

Over the years life took on a new rhythm. I still sat with her over cocktails, scotch in mine, juice in hers, and we pretended to have a conversation. Harry slept at the foot of her bed and Henry, woke her up with fat licks in the morning. The cats, Hamlet and Omlet and Riley were up and down all day while Coco filled the house with song. At a certain stage Betty decided not to walk and became both bedridden and incontinent. Despite her almost total withdrawal, I am convinced Mum was aware she was living with her son in an elegant house in the community where she grew up. The deal I made with myself was that as long as she knew me, she stayed.

Now that Mum and I had worked out our modus operandi and I felt comfortable with the arrangement, I felt I could return to my pile in Prince Edward County. The project of restoring the crumbling Loyalist farm on the shores of Lake Ontario could be resuscitated. I was determined to bring Mum down for a visit although she was long past traveling or even talking for that matter.

We stayed for only an hour. It wasn't easy maneuvering her wheelchair down the limestone path to the height of land at the water's edge. We fell silent for a long time, Harry and Roger subdued at her side. Mum was working on a thought. She struggled with the words.

"Look at what you've made," she said. "Can we stay?"


Mum died a few months later, January 28, 2004, in her 89th year. I tried to persuade Deo to come down to the farm for a family ceremony to raise a toast to our parental misfits.

"It's a crazy screwed up family, Bro," he lamented. "You deal with their souls."

I buried her cremated remains with those of my father in two metal containers beside the wisteria at the dry stone wall of the loggia. Stone mass deflects strong winds, holds solar heat, and protects against erosion. That corner of the stone wall is the point where the views of the orchard, the water, the vineyard and the lavender merge in a scintillating outlook.

Mum and Dad are quieter now then they ever were in life.



Alan Gratias is the founder and creative director of Gravitatis Entertainment and former agriculture trade negotiator in Ottawa.  He has published a book, The Completely Civil Servant (Eden Press), a satire on public service.



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