With or Without Me - Karen J Lee
Maybe the urgency I felt to organize my affairs was really an attempt to micro-manage my children from the grave. A therapist once took me to task over this, suggesting that by trying to fix things for them I was really saying I didn’t think they were able to manage on their own. They were adults now and quite capable, but when I died, I wanted a smooth process and no sibling squabbles. That’s me, thinking all it would take was tidy paperwork.
My three children had long ago migrated far from home. What with baby mamas and divorce and university and moving for jobs, my kids, their partners, the six grandsons, four step-grandchildren, four dogs, and two cats now dotted six cities in two provinces. They were spread out like jam on toast while I lived in Vancouver, in the bare spot on the edge of the bread.
My firstborn lived in Calgary with her husband and three sons. When she was born, she looked like my favourite childhood doll, the one that opened her eyes when you picked her up and closed her eyes when you laid her down and actually walked if you held her hand and tilted her side-to-side. I think I wanted to tread water and wait for this tiny human to catch me so that when we were about the same age, we could be friends and escape to Tuscany and settle into an artists’ villa and I’d pound clay and she’d paint. Except she’d want to climb a mountain or cycle the hills or ride a zipline. Her athleticism puzzled me.
My middle child called his big sister “the special one” and soon opted out of competing with her or trying to please his dad. He took the road less travelled for a giddy few years until fatherhood arrived like a package dropped by a drone. All that time worrying and praying and trying to understand what he was looking for and all it took was an unexpected delivery. He was happily settled in Vernon now with a partner and her two sons. His own son lived nearby with his mother.
My youngest child ended up in Whistler with a partner and her two daughters. One of his sons lived in the Lower Mainland and the other attended university. For most of his 30s and early 40s, this son suffered from anxiety and panic disorders, self medicating with whiskey until he drowned his marriage and his job. There followed more years of medical appointments, emergency visits, and cocktails of prescription drugs, until one of the many doctors he consulted found the one pill that worked. For that doctor, I wanted sainthood; for my son, I wanted 20 acres near 100 Mile with a double-wide and a workshop and a good truck to carry his tools and enough cash to live under the radar and be at peace. If my end hastened that dream, I’d rest well.
I couldn’t imagine their future without me in it.
Growing up, my own family was as tight as the seal on a jar of peaches: my strait-laced maternal grandparents who went to church every Sunday; my other grandpa who liked to have a few on St. Patrick’s Day and then play the accordion; the aunt and uncle who lived beside us in a tall house with tenants; my other aunt who had been wild in her youth, the uncle who talked too loudly; and four cousins, two boys and two girls. Back then I was familiar with the adult talk – the various flaws and virtues of each family member – but I also knew who I was, where I came from, and what was expected of me.
My children didn’t have the advantage of aunts and uncles and grandparents nearby. My husband and I moved far away right after our wedding; we traded extended family for independence. And then we divorced.
Who will be their family when I’m gone?
I blamed the pandemic for these maudlin thoughts. Covid 19 forced me to come to terms with my mortality before I was ready. What if I died not because I ate too much processed food or failed to walk 7,000 steps every day, but because I touched my face after buying milk at the Independent? News reports during the pandemic told of healthy people arriving at Emergency with a sore throat and cough and finding themselves in ICU two days later, prone and on a ventilator. It seemed very random, who lived and who died.
What if I died sooner rather than later?
I found myself wishing I still went to church. I grew up with prayer and the bible and church on Sunday, but gave it up once I married. I did maintain a line of communication on behalf of my children. I prayed when the hospital called to say my youngest son had been in a car accident. I prayed the whole time my daughter toured Europe alone. I prayed when my eldest son flew to Qatar to work at an oil refinery in the desert.
I spoke to the deity whenever I was called back to see my doctor about the result of a test. Most seniors were familiar with the annual test results prayer. It’s the one we offered up as we approached the lab, requisition in hand.
I wasn’t ill and I wasn’t frail, but – Covid aside -- stuff happened when you left your sixties behind. It’s the #1 topic that trended among seniors. One day you’re snowshoeing on Cypress Mountain or cycling the dykes in Steveston and the next you’re forgetting the name of your neighbour or tripping on a curb because your new bifocals make you dizzy and you end up in hospital with a broken hip and a social worker decides you shouldn’t live alone. Next, it’s assisted living and a walker with wheels and you never get to Ireland.
Early on, I set a goal: Be alive when the first vaccine arrives. I placed a small table to the left of my red leather La-Z-Boy chair to hold technology: TV remotes, phones, tablet. The table on the right was for food and drink. I arranged for groceries to be delivered and let the dust settle. Some days I didn’t get dressed; some days happy hour started right after lunch; some days I watched Netflix for hours. I was in a bubble of one and had given myself permission to do anything – or nothing -- as long as I stayed alive. Several weeks in I realized I might be trapped in this bubble longer than I first imagined and my far-flung kids would not be driving over with lawn chairs and a cooler of beer to visit on the boulevard. I was jealous when my sister back East told me her granddaughter arrived at her back door with a loaf of bread fresh out of the oven. And then I felt ashamed. And then I made myself be happy for my sister and her husband, because that’s what sisters do.
But what if I died without ever again seeing my grandchildren?
The day I watched a television clip of masked tourists penned up like cattle at an airport in Rome, desperate to get home, it struck me that my travelling days were likely gone, too. I wasn’t going to Ireland. I wasn’t going to spend two weeks in Tuscany. I wasn’t cruising a fjord in Norway. I was in a Sci-Fi flic: my limbs weren’t moving, but my thoughts pinballed wildly as they circled the drain.
What if I died before I put my affairs in order?
I had sat with my father at the end and he told me he wished he’d spent more time with my sister and me instead of working so much. Another elderly acquaintance confessed he wished he’d gotten on a plane and made the trip to see his grandchildren more often. Such an easy thing to do, but he hadn’t done it and, in the end, couldn’t think why not. You didn’t have to be an expert in dying to know that people didn’t always pass with their loose ends gathered up and tied into a bow. I often told people I didn’t want to die with regrets, which sounded splendid when I was wearing my good earrings and had a glass of wine in my hand. I already regretted marrying straight out of university. I regretted living my adult life so far from my extended family. I was sad my marriage went off the rails late in life, but knew I was happier on my own and I couldn’t regret that. Conversational regrets were like bubbles floating close to the ceiling. Unacknowledged regrets hid in the corner, waiting to be discovered in the last days of your life.
What if I died with unacknowledged regrets?
I started a handwritten list of likes and dislikes, pros and cons, achievements and regrets: words circled and words scratched out, upside down words and words tucked into the margins. My notebook sat on the little table beside my red chair and I looked at the list several times a week. It started happy. Things I liked. Travel. Grandchildren. Change. Adventure. Nothing put a smile on my face like an adventure. I wrote good health in tiny letters near the bottom of the page. I regretted my lack of discipline when it came to eating, drinking and exercising. On a roll, I wrote condo with a question mark. I liked my condo and I liked living in the West End where I could walk the seawall and the shops were close. I loved the shape and size of Vancouver, but there were no people anchoring me there. Geography didn’t matter much during the pandemic when everyone was zooming and texting and calling, but even before the pandemic, I had regretted missing the markers in my grandchildren’s lives: birthday parties, track meets, report cards, broken bones -- all the triumphs and disappointments that spell childhood. I had considered selling the condo when the heady sense of independence peaked after my divorce, but, in the end, I stayed and renovated, because it seemed too soon after my marital breakup for another major change. Selling the condo hadn’t crossed my mind in fifteen years. But by writing condo with a question mark on my list, I put selling it in play.
I scribbled a dollar sign near condo question mark, circled it three times, and leaned back in my lounger with my knuckle pushed against my lower lip. The #2 topic that trended among seniors was money. How much was enough? Will the stock market crash? Why does brunch suddenly cost $26? Seniors didn’t talk about money – or the lack of it -- as much as they talked about their health, but unease over finances was always at the back of our minds. Like elevator music, it never quit.
Maudlin was not my norm. I was a doer. My therapist’s advice, years ago, when I was busy trying to help my children after their father and I divorced, was to focus on fixing me instead and as I sat in my La-Z-Boy in pyjama pants and a t-shirt, with a lemon poppyseed muffin on the table to my right and the TV remote in my hand, I realized that maybe there was something I could do to help me.
I’ll just look, I thought, and traded the remote for my tablet.
The gestation period for mama dogs is about three months. Add another two months to wean the wee things and it adds up to a significant lead time. But as I poked around the web, it became apparent I wasn’t the only one wanting to do something. Puppy prices were going up and the wait lists were growing longer so I e-transferred a deposit for a dog whose mother and father had not yet met but who was guaranteed to look like a teddy bear, never shed, and weigh no more than 15 pounds. I reasoned that if the pandemic disappeared and every boomer in the country flocked to the closest airport, I could forfeit the deposit and book that trip to Tuscany.
To fill the time between ordering my puppy and meeting my puppy, I shopped. I bought books on toilet training and feeding and health care. I purchased a tiny harness, a tiny bed, and a tiny white lamb chop toy with a squeaker. I chose a corner of my condo to convert to a puppy den, complete with waterproof flooring, metal crate and pee pads. I finished the den off with a stylish gate from Wayfair and practiced opening and closing it while, in my mind, my wee teddy bear puppy bounced in and out on my command. All my kids had pets. Soon I would have one too.
In June of the second year of the pandemic, climate change booted Covid out of top spot in the news. Decades of opting for single use plastics, driving SUVs to the corner store, and flying to exotic locations every winter had given rise to the infamous North American heat dome of 2021. Before temperatures cooled, the BC Coroners Service would report 619 heat-related deaths; vulnerable elders who lived alone were melting in their chairs.
It was 30 degrees Celsius inside my condo the morning my daughter phoned from Calgary and said, “Why not come here?”
I don’t remember my exact thought process after the call ended, but visions of paddling in the water by day and sleeping in air-conditioned bliss each night apparently outweighed the nightmare of a virus-laden airplane with a 10-month-old puppy as carry-on. Or maybe it was the lure of normalcy; I loved spontaneous trips. More likely it was because little Maggie’s arrival had pulled me out of dying and into living. I didn’t care that she was anxious in new situations; I didn’t care that she wasn’t totally toilet trained, or that she ignored most of my commands. I didn’t even care that all I got was a busy signal when I tried to register her to travel in the airplane’s cabin. I booked a ticket online, packed a bag, threw Maggie’s favourite blanket into her carrier, and we were gone in less than 24 hours. If I died from Covid as a result of flying to Calgary, at least I wouldn’t die alone, drenched in sweat.
By September, the heat dome had moved East, and afternoons were growing cool. Covid numbers were down in Vancouver and restaurants had re-opened with reduced capacity. A friend and I were on the patio of Maxine’s, sitting maskless under heaters, drinking wine and eating a kale salad and fries. She was eating the salad; I was sharing my fries.
“Were your kids alright with this?” she said, when I told her my plan for the coming year.
The question took me by surprise. “I don’t need their permission to put a deposit down on a vacation rental.”
She lifted her shoulders and spread her hands wide. “I don’t know what my kids would say if I suddenly moved into their neighbourhoods.”
It was the list in my notebook that gave birth to the idea, but it was the visit to Calgary that converted that idea into a plan. I was sitting in my daughter’s air-conditioned family room looking across the man-made lake that bordered her back lawn. Maggie was curled tight against me, discombobulated from her first flight and the general chaos of our new environment. My son-in-law was in his office next to the kitchen talking to someone half-way around the world. My daughter had emerged from her own office upstairs and was in the kitchen chopping vegetables for dinner, while her youngest son searched for a snack. Her middle child worked in Saskatchewan but would be home soon for the weekend. The eldest and his partner were out on the deck, listening to tunes and contemplating a swim. It was shocking to be surrounded by people after 16 months of isolation. My voice was hoarse from talking. My cheeks were sore from smiling. My throat was raw from laughing. I was so happy I could cry.
My friend’s question put me on the defensive because I hadn’t asked my kids if they minded. I only knew I didn’t want to live alone on the edge of the bread any more.
“Are you planning to move?” she said.
I shrugged. “Eventually, somewhere. For now, I’m just going to spend more time in their lives.”
Four weeks more, to be precise. Four weeks in each of their cities. Not living with them, living close to them. My daughter seemed excited when the rental in Calgary proved vacant for the four weeks leading up to Christmas. I almost always spent Christmas with her family. And my son sounded pleased when I told him I had a place to stay in Whistler for four weeks in March. When I explained the plan to my son in Vernon, he said, “Come and stay in our Airbnb,” which I had to ponder a bit because that was almost like living with him but not really because I’d pay my own way and have my own entrance and wash my own dishes. We settled on four weeks right before summer officially kicked off.
I travelled to each of the three cities bearing a glossy black folder from my lawyer and used the four-week visit to pick the right time to review my plans with each child. Financial advisors suggested this kind of conversation take place when everyone was still healthy and most clients nodded and agreed and remained as secretive about their financial situation as their own parents had been a generation ago. It was this evasiveness that gave rise to news stories about children shocked to learn that mom had left everything to her postie or that the value of the family home had been devoured by a reverse mortgage.
I walked my kids through my Last Will and Testament and talked about my assets and my ability to support myself to the end. All three (eerily echoing my therapist’s advice from long ago) urged me to look after myself and not worry about them. All three signed papers that outlined my wishes for end-of-life care and for them taking over my finances, if needed. We laughed about the steps they would take if my decision-making ability tanked. It’s good to be able to laugh about something when it looks like a tiny dot in the future. Somewhere in the middle of all this, I realized it was these conversations, not the paperwork, that would sustain the three of them after my death. Let them remember teasing me when they described how they would pry me out of my red leather La-Z-Boy for the trip to a care home. Let them remember us laughing about it together. Let them remember that the siblings they joked with, nagged, and loved were their family, with or without me.
“What about Maggie?” one of my grandsons asked when I explained what I was doing. He grinned at the look on my face, lifted his phone, googled the lifespan of her breed, mentally did the math, smiled wider, and held his phone out for me to see.
When I get back home, I thought, I’ll have to add a note to the paperwork leaving Maggie to one of them along with the red leather chair. Maggie loved that chair.
Karen J Lee is an alumna of The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University (mentor Brian Payton), and The Humber School of Writing (mentor Elisabeth Harvor) during which time she completed a 60,000-word memoir. Two excerpts have been published: one in a national newspaper and one in a Prism International, a literary magazine. Another stand-alone essay was printed in an anthology -- This Place a Stranger: Canadian Women Travelling alone. Karen Lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.