Beyond Blame: Kate’s Story

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Late in the evening of September 3rd, 2014, my niece Harriet received a phone call no one expects or wants ever to receive: a sergeant from the Ontario Provincial Police was delivering the news that her mother, my sister Kathryn, had been found deceased in her home in Casselman, Ontario. It was shocking and hard to take in: Kathryn (or Kate) was 54 years old and in good health despite a lifelong history of food allergies – she had always managed them.

We would soon find out that Kate had placed a 911 call from her home  two days earlier, that she had struggled to make herself understood by the dispatcher, and that no emergency responders had come to the house. We would also learn – after launching an official complaint to the OPP – that from the moment Kate placed her 911 call, at 4:43 pm on Labour Day, a series of mind-boggling errors and miscommunications were made all the way down the emergency response chain.

An official investigation was launched by the OPP (only on the police service side, not on the dispatch side), and our family lobbied for an inquest, which we finally received (in conjunction with another case) on appeal to the Chief Coroner in February 2017. (The inquest will take place in spring or summer of 2018.) From their internal investigation, the OPP charged two constables under the Police Services Act. My sisters and my niece and I attended the hearings, which were drawn out over nearly a year. One constable was found guilty of two counts of neglect of duty. This decision has been the subject of several media articles, which have presented the case as though all the responsibility for Kate’s death rests upon the shoulders of this one OPP constable. This is so far from the truth that we want to set the record straight.

I’m telling Kate’s story in serialized installments on this website. (You can find them below.) It’s the story of the search for justice for Kate and for changes to the 911 system, and much more. My intention is to present her story in its larger context and in a compassionate, forgiving light that I hope might also help others who feel they have been wronged and are seeking justice and inner peace. I’m calling it:

Beyond Blame: Kate’s Story
Installment #1: A brain tumour

My story of my sister Kathryn begins with a brain tumour. And it wasn’t hers.

In June of 2014, our mother began to notice that she was dropping things more often, that she was having trouble with her new computer keyboard, and that she was occasionally forgetting to turn off a light at night and, once, scarily, a burner on the stove. She was also not as steady on her feet. All this was very unlike our 85-year-old mother, who had an excellent memory, still walked at a good clip around the neighbourhood, and attended the fitness classes offered in her condo. (I first saw her sporting cool leggings in her early 80s.) Of course, she didn’t mention this to any of us. Nor did she tell us, until after the fact, about the day she felt numbness in her left arm and hand. She thought she might be having a TIA—a transient ischemic attack—or “mini stroke.” (After 30 years of volunteering at Toronto’s Aphasia Centre she was well versed in the symptoms of stroke.) Living on her own since our father’s death seven years before, and being a practical person who wouldn’t want to put anyone else out, she drove herself to her doctor to get checked out. The doctor arranged for her to have tests at the local hospital later that day. Mom then drove herself home. Thankfully she made it safely both ways, though I believe another dent was added to the car from one of the inconveniently placed concrete columns in her parking garage.

While my oldest sister Nancy accompanied Mom to the hospital for the tests, the rest of us awaited the results at home: Lynne in Toronto, Kathryn in Casselman, and I in the Madawaska Valley. In the grand scheme of things, a mini-stroke didn’t seem such a bad prospect. With this diagnosis already in all of our heads, including Mom’s, none of us was prepared for what really was going on in Mom’s head…. A tumour was growing in the right side of her brain.

Installment #2: “It’s my life”

Mom was admitted to hospital so she would be fast-tracked for an MRI that would give us more information on the tumour growing in her brain. Even before the results came, she was adamantly against treatment. She’d had radiation for breast cancer the year before and didn’t want to go through it again.

“I’ve had a good life,” she said.

“I think I probably have two months,” she added.

She made this statement so matter-of-factly I wondered if somewhere inside she “knew.” And hoped fervently she didn’t. It was too much to take in that our vibrant mother might be about to die: she had just had her passport renewed and had no end of travel plans, including a trip to the Yukon the next month that was going to have to be cancelled.

It didn’t look good: the MRI revealed an aggressively growing tumour already 3.7 centimetres in size. The oncologist estimated that without treatment Mom would have three months. She sent her to see a neurosurgeon.

The neurosurgeon was blunt: there was no cure. But he could give her radiation, which would extend her life by a couple of years. And he was offering it, he added, only because she was strong and healthy, and more like a 75-year old than a “moribund 85-year-old.”

Mom was still saying “no radiation,” but when she saw the look on her daughters’ faces, she asked us, “What do you want?”

To agree with the no-treatment option seemed tantamount to saying we wanted her to die. And moribund she definitely was not. So, at our gentle urging, she relented.

The only way to plan the course of radiation, said the neurosurgeon, was to do a biopsy to find out what kind of tumour it was. Mom, Lynne and Nancy trekked back down to the hospital for the pre-op appointment. And were horrified to learn what the biopsy would entail: a four- or five-centimetre incision in her skull (which would create a big flap of skin), screws in her skull to close up the wound, a possible brain bleed, and several days of recovery in the neuro-trauma unit. All this and the tumour wouldn’t even be removed; it was in too dangerous a place.

Mom flat-out refused.

“No biopsy, no radiation,” said the blunt surgeon. “It’s a package deal.”

“Fine,” replied our equally blunt mother. “I’ll enjoy the rest of the time I have.”

As sad—and shocked—as we were, we were now in complete support of her decision. As she told us many times: “It’s my life and my decision.”

Installment #3: A steroid-manic mama

After she made the decision not to have treatment, Mom was given steroids to release the pressure on the brain, medication to help her sleep, and a referral to palliative care in her home, with support from Ontario’s Community Care Access Centre. She and my father had always said “no nursing homes,” and we were all determined for her to live at home for as long as possible.

There was no way she could stay on her own. There was her increasing weakness, her risk of falls, and her failing short-term memory. Then there was that left hand of hers that had a mind of its own. She didn’t have much feeling in it, and it would flail about, knock things over, even pick things up without her realizing. She would find herself carrying around a clothes hanger or a bottle of vitamins, or holding the hand in weird positions.

Nevertheless, the morning after she was discharged from the hospital, she came into the guest room where I was just waking up and announced, “I’m fine. Go home. Good-bye.” (“Can I at least have breakfast?” I asked.)

It took her falling out of bed—that night on her own after I’d gone home (on a full stomach)—before she accepted, and we truly realized, that she needed 24/7 care.

We hired my friend Sandy, who had caregiving experience, to come to live with her Mondays to Fridays, and my sisters and I set up a roster of weekend stays. To fill in the time before Sandy could start, Lynne and Kathryn each spent the better part of a week with Mom.

We had no idea how long we could care for her this way: in the back of all our minds were the doctor’s predictions of seizures, paralysis, increased weakness, incontinence. We dreaded the day these things would begin to happen.

Mom remained indomitably cheerful (at least in our presence). She basked in the company of her four daughters and her six grandchildren and all the relatives and friends who phoned or came to visit—grateful beyond measure that the tumour had not affected her speech. And she became uncharacteristically effusive, even hugging me one day as I was leaving, and she had never been a physically demonstrative person.

In fact, she became more everything: more blunt, more bossy, more grateful, more restless. We were afraid these changes were the effects of the tumour, but Dr. Leung, the palliative care doctor who came to her home every two weeks, attributed it to “steroid-induced mania.” We thought we could live with steroid mania, since it kept Mom so upbeat.

The downside (for her caregivers) was that she woke up every morning at four a.m. raring to go.

Installment #4: Giggling is the best medicine

The four a.m. wake-up times were a caregiving challenge, to say the least. We set up a baby monitor in Mom’s room, and at any sound, the caregiver would get up instantly to make sure Mom—already in her ensuite bathroom (she wasn’t going to wait to be assisted)—wasn’t losing her balance or getting tangled up in her clothes.

She wanted to carry on as normally as possible, and her schedule, even with her decreasing strength and energy levels, was enough to exhaust any guest or caregiver. There were the exercise classes held in the condo (she sat in a chair now) and the condo’s needlework group (she no longer had the fine motor skills to knit but enjoyed the chat). There was her favourite activity, shopping, and walks in the park (she would agree only to use a cane, not a walker, and clutched her companion’s arm with her other hand). There were also walks to the mall across the street to replenish her supply of Pinot Grigio (she became very excited about her evening glass of wine that summer). There were hair appointments and condo-offered pedicures (a new luxury in her life), and even more visitors and phone calls than usual. All this on top of home visits from occupational therapists and personal support workers and Dr. Leung and his assistant.

Despite our exhaustion, and our anxiety about her condition and worry about what was to come, those times we each came to be with Mom were enjoyable. Even fun. And often funny.

“We are a laughing  family,” Mom would tell any visitor, looking with effusive steroid-manic gratitude at whichever daughter was staying with her that weekend.

Giggling is in the female Missen genes. We’ve always been able to laugh at ourselves and at anything that strikes us as absurd. And thankfully Mom’s tumour didn’t affect her sense of humour, even in the most unlikely circumstances. Like the evening she and Lynne were watching TV, and she began to slide lower and lower on the couch, lacking the strength to stay upright. As Lynne tried to help her back up, Mom slid right to the floor. The near impossibility of getting an older, frail person up from the floor could well have been—and maybe should have been—cause for alarm, even panic. Mom and Lynne (who by then was nearly on the floor too) simply gave in to helpless giggles.

Laughing got us through that summer.

Installment #5: Mother-daughter head butting

There were some weeks when Sandy the Monday-to-Friday caregiver had other obligations, and we rearranged the schedule, with Kathryn and me often filling in (since we were both self-employed)

I was initially worried about how it would go between Mom and Kathryn: they were known to butt heads (silently but potently) over their different lifestyles and preferences.

The biggest source of their suppressed conflict was food. Kathryn had been born with severe and extensive food and environmental allergies, with reactions ranging from eczema to asthma. She (and I, though to a lesser degree) had allergies to everything from wheat and eggs to cow dairy products and peanuts—pretty much the staples of the 1960s North American diet. It was the days before the prevalence of non-wheat, non-cow-dairy alternatives, and our mother had quite a time trying to find or prepare things we could tolerate.

While my allergies lessened over the years, Kathryn’s became more severe. Several times she wound up in Emergency after having an asthma attack from unknowingly ingesting peanuts. By the time she was in her 40s and 50s, she was managing her allergies through a strict diet and herbal remedies. Any time she came to Toronto she brought her “entire kitchen” (as Mom somewhat complainingly put it) in big coolers—glass containers of curries or stir-fries she had already prepared, hummus and goat cheese and rice crackers, and mounds of vegetables like collard greens and bok choy. None of it food eaten by our mother, who had a very conventional diet that, since our father’s death, included lots of frozen prepared meals. A salad for Mom was romaine lettuce tossed with caesar dressing, not anything containing dandelion greens or arugula. And she was not going to be persuaded to eat kale, no matter how good it might be for her.

It was also true that after so many years struggling to feed the two of us during our childhood, Mom had no desire to cater to Kathryn’s adult dietary needs. “Bring your food,” she would tell Kathryn before a family gathering. This perceived unyieldingness was a secret source of hurt for her daughter, who also felt sensitive that she, and the food she ate, were always being singled out.

Kathryn had her own unyielding side. She didn’t like the air conditioning on in Mom’s condo or car. She didn’t want to watch TV (an evening ritual for Mom, who always took her dinner into the TV room). She also turned up her nose at Mom’s beloved discount stores. Before Kathryn’s first scheduled visit that summer, Mom sent Nancy to Walmart on a chocolate-bar restocking mission, and had Lynne drive her around town, buying supplies as though she were preparing for Armageddon. Why were they doing this? asked Lynne. Because, explained our mother, Kathryn wouldn’t go into places like No Frills or Walmart.

Ohhhh, this did not bode well for Kathryn’s stints as caregiver.

Installment #6: Sisterly head butting

Mom wasn’t the only one who butted heads with Kathryn.

We were only 21 months apart, and as the two middle (and allergic) sisters we’d been good pals as children. And were again in our early 20s when I moved in to the three-storey rowhouse she shared with two friends in Toronto’s Kensington Market area. We became famous for our “Missenterpretive dancing,” acting out the lyrics to songs like “Be My Baby” and “Da Do Ron” in the living room.

It was after she got married that our relationship became uneasy: she seemed to feel some resentment toward me (during years when she was, I found out much later, deeply unhappy in herself). In later decades she became nothing but open and welcoming to me, but by then I found it hard to deal with her unyielding side and her need to be “right.” Especially on our annual sisters’ weekends (which we extended to include Mom after Dad died). Kathryn always seemed to be the odd man out: unable, or unwilling, to go along with whatever the rest of us wanted to do—innocuous things like watching a rom com or belting out Elton John songs in the car. (She must have wondered how she’d ended up in such an incompatible family, with such terrible taste in movies and music!)

Of course the two of us were always thrown together… When I hosted a family gathering, it would invariably work out that Kathryn arrived earlier or stayed on a day or two longer than the others. When I visited Ottawa (where she lived before she moved to Casselman) it was natural to stay over at her place.

Not that it was all bad. She loved canoeing too, and we would paddle from my dock over to the marsh, where she could indulge her passion for photographing plants. We also both loved Champagne, especially Bollinger, and we had a penchant for witty repartee that would get us giggling. Those were the best times, when we were giggly “Bolly Dollies” together.

It was a tightrope walk though: I never knew when she was going to push my buttons and she never knew when I was going to say something insensitive that hurt her feelings.

If there was a silver lining in all those times she was the last to leave my place, it was the opportunity to make up for our clashes. It only happened a few times, a few precious times when our good-bye became a long embrace, and I would hear myself say, “You know under everything I love you.” She would say she knew and she loved me too. And at the articulation of such rarely (in our family) spoken sentiments, tears would spill, leaving a damp patch in the shoulder of each other’s sweater.

I also knew, even as I bucked at it, that there was a reason we were thrown together so much: what you resist is often the thing that has the most to teach you. Kathryn, I knew, just might be holding up a mirror to my own inflexibility and intolerance. Darn it all, anyway!

Installment #7: A caring caregiver

At the end of Kathryn’s first week with Mom, I came down on the Friday to do the weekend care and to overlap with Sandy, who was to start the following week. Kathryn was going to stay over one more night. Secretly I hoped she wouldn’t linger too long on Saturday. I also worried about what atmosphere I would be walking into in the condo.

To my relief there was no obvious, or even less obvious, tension. On the contrary. The next morning I walked in to Mom’s bedroom to find her seated in a chair and Kathryn on her knees, holding out a pant leg for Mom’s foot. I was surprised: it was early days yet, and although Mom had trouble with things like buttons she could still dress herself, and I thought she should do so as long as she could. (Though, I asked myself later, to what end? Why not simply make things easier for her, as my sister was doing?) I watched as Kathryn tugged socks onto Mom’s feet. My biggest surprise was how patient and gentle she was being.

Undoing it all, for me, was the proprietorial tone she adopted when relaying the results of the occupational therapist’s and doctors’ visits (though it didn’t seem to bother Mom).

After Kathryn left to drive back to Casselman, Mom confessed that she had been worried about Kathryn’s stay too, but that she had been nothing but kind and attentive the whole week. “She was great,” she said, with steroid-induced effusiveness. “We had a lovely week. She’s a nice person!”

Even as it both horrified and amused me that Mom was only now learning this about a daughter she’d known for 54 years, it also made me realize just how much the surface irritations and differences had defined their relationship. Now their intense one-on-one time seemed to be giving them the chance to really get to know—and enjoy—each other.

One of those hidden blessings of a “bad” situation.

Installment #8: Twins

Toward the end of August, I came for another near-week-long stay with Mom. One morning I overheard her tell someone on the phone that we were going to look through old photo albums. She hadn’t mentioned this to me, but it made perfect sense that she would want to relive old times. I hauled out several ancient albums, with their black-and-white photos affixed to stiff black pages.

We sat on the couch in the TV room (Mom staying upright today) and flipped through the pages and the years, from her birth in Pittsburgh in 1928 and on through her growing-up years in Hamilton as an only child. There were a good number of photos I’d never seen before, and I realized the album was one that had belonged to my grandmother, not one of our well-thumbed family albums.

I flipped a page to see Mom smiling at the camera in a party dress at age eight or nine. She had chin-length white-blonde hair, with one lock pulled up into a small pigtail at the side. I was sure I had a seen this photo before—and not taken in the 1930s but in the 1960s. I turned to Mom. “Oh my God. You look exactly like Kathryn!”

In another photo Mom, aged 10, posed with a bicycle, which reminded me of a photo of Kathryn standing in an identical position beside her new bicycle. Even the bikes—“coasters” with angled double cross-bars designed for girls and fenders on the wheels—didn’t look that different.

As adults, there had always been a resemblance between Mom and Kathryn, no surprise for a mother and daughter. Kathryn, though, had been plump for years, while Mom was tiny—the only “big” part of her a round tummy she seemed to have inherited from her mother. However, another side effect of the steroid was weight gain, and arriving for one of my visits, I was taken aback by her “moon” face, which gave her an even more startling resemblance to Kathryn. Now, on the couch weeks later, with photos from decades before in my lap, it struck me that the physical similarity between them had come full circle.

And maybe the similarities weren’t just physical.

Installment #9: “Don’t pray for me”

Soon after she got her diagnosis, Mom (in a not so sanguine moment) asked, “Why me? Why this?” Then, in a tone layered with irony and exaggeration: “Why did God do this to me?”

I knew she was imitating those who think that when a terrible event or illness befalls them, it’s a punishment from God. Mom didn’t believe in such a vindictive God. Nor in a God who intervenes in people’s lives at all. She had, in fact, come to the point where she didn’t believe in God at all.

It was a surprise, to say the least. She had been a church-goer her whole life: she grew up in the United Church and then married, and became, an Anglican, and she and Dad took the four of us to church every Sunday. In the 1960s she started a theology group within the East York/Leaside University Women’s Club. For 50 years, she and the dozen other participants took turns presenting a monthly paper on an aspect of God or religion. In short, our mother steeped herself in church and religious study, and I naturally assumed that made her “religious.”

It wasn’t until after Dad died (and she returned to the United Church) that she became much more outspoken about her beliefs—and her growing disbeliefs. There is, she would say, no theistic God—no external entity who created and rules the universe,  and who intervenes in the lives of his human creations. And the Biblical stories of Jesus, she told us emphatically, are just that—stories—and not meant to be taken literally. For Mom, Jesus was an enlightened man, not the “son” of God.

Listening to her talk about how misguided she found Christianity, I realized my own ideas had evolved in a similar way: I no longer believe in a theistic God either. To my understanding, the Divine force that animates the universe, and every creature and object within it, is Love. Drawing from various spiritual traditions, I see the Earth as the feminine aspect of the Divine, look to the natural world for nurturing, and appreciate the wisdom and gifts of all the Earth’s creatures. Mom didn’t follow Earth-based spirituality, though I knew Kathryn (who, like Mom, still went to church) did.

Despite my acceptance of Mom’s disbelief in a theistic God, it was still a shock when, her diagnosis confirmed, she admonished my sisters and me not to pray for her. “If there’s no God,” she said, with indisputable logic, “there’s no one to pray to.”

I prayed anyway. Even if it was to the God—the Divine essence—in Mom. I didn’t pray for her to be healed: that was none of my business. Maybe her time had come (as much as I didn’t want it to). I prayed that the rest of her days, however many there were to be, would be as pain-free and joy-filled as possible. That her decline would not be prolonged. And that her soul would pass easily into the next world she was no longer sure existed.

Installment #10: Another surprising churchgoer

Given Mom’s rejection of the essential tenets of Christianity, I found it surprising she still went to church (even the relatively liberal United Church). It was an oddity she shared with Kathryn, the only other remaining churchgoer in our family.

Of the four of us, Kathryn had been the rebellious one, bucking against our parents’ strict rules and conservative attitudes. Curiously, her rebellions didn’t extend to weekly church attendance. On the contrary, as a teenager she became the most devout of us all. If there was any rebellion, it was against the bare-bones style of worship in our “low” Anglican church. During university, she sang in the choir of a “high” (Anglo-Catholic) church, loving the ceremony and ritual, the bells and incense, and the liturgy set to music.

After her marriage (to an Anglican priest) ended in the 1990s, she joined an Anglo-Catholic church in Ottawa and sang in its very accomplished choir. Around the same time, she began to embrace other spiritual traditions and practices, including rituals honouring the Goddess. Like me, she was attentive to the wisdom and nurturing of the Earth. And she gathered with friends to celebrate the solstices. She also followed the step-by-step journey to personal transformation and wholeness laid out by the Pathwork community in Ottawa.

Aspects of her journey outside the Church might well have been considered “heretical,” and her embracing of the feminine aspect of the Divine, as manifested in the Goddess and the Earth, was definitely antithetical to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, that God exists in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit (with nary a female family member among them).

So it did seem odd that, like Mom, Kathryn continued to go to church. For years the rest of us assumed it was solely for the music: singing was her passion.

Not that her involvement was confined to the choir: she took care of the church gardens, produced the monthly newsletter, photographed parish events, and looked out for older members of the congregation.

I might have explained it as enjoyment of community—which was Mom’s reason for her own church attendance­—except that, as we were surprised to find out, Kathryn took communion. (It would have been easy for her to discreetly abstain: the choir sang hidden away in the loft behind the congregation.) Participating in such a central ritual seemed to indicate an acceptance of essential Christian doctrine, and I wasn’t sure how she reconciled that with her other (to my mind more expansive) spiritual beliefs.

Unlike Mom and Kathryn, who seemed to revel in theological debates, Kathryn and I didn’t talk much about our respective spiritual journeys, though we were definitely aware of similarities in our approaches, including the conviction that we are here to grow and heal. And I felt those similarities extended to our view of the afterlife. My sense was that my sister and I had a shared, if unspoken, understanding that after our earthly body dies the soul, our essence, make its way to the Light—to the Divine source of our being—and continues its journey to learn and grow and love in the spiritual realm.

Installment #11: A new Trinity

It was a hot afternoon, and Mom and I were plodding along Lawrence Avenue to the bank. We were concentrating on Mom keeping her balance. And having a conversation about the Trinity. (Naturally!) It would have been Mom who brought it up, to poo-poo the idea of a multi-personed (or even single-personed), male-centric theistic God.

We came to a red light, and Mom announced that she had a new Trinity. Standing at the corner, as if she were a diminutive itinerant preacher, she proclaimed: “God is Love. Jesus was filled with Love. And you can be too.”

I loved this Trinity! And was surprised I’d never heard it quoted before. It sounded like the wisdom of an evolved spiritual teacher. As the light turned green, I turned to Mom. “Who said that?”

She was indignant. “I did.”

If I was worrying about how Mom’s doubts might affect her transition to the spiritual plane after she died (and I’m not sure I was), that would have been the moment I stopped. Whatever she believed or didn’t believe didn’t matter. She “got” it: why we’re here.

And not only did she “get” it, she’d been living it for as long as I’d known her: giving of herself as a volunteer in the community and always being willing to help out a neighbour, or anyone, in need.

And now she was living the equally important other-side-of-the-giving-coin: receiving.

“I’m learning how to ask for help,” she wrote in an email to her cousin in mid-July. (Though “demand” might have been the more accurate word….)

But if she was blunt and bossy, her gratitude more than made up for it. At the end of each day, and especially the day you were leaving at the end of your stay, she thanked you, with her now characteristic steroid-induced effusiveness and heart-wrenching sincerity, for all you had done for her.

So, no, I wasn’t worried about Mom dying. And, anyway, I was too busy helping her live. She was, even more than usual, making the most out of every moment. And wearing out her happy-to-be-worn-out caregivers.

Installment #12: A Mother’s nurturing

I sat on the dock, checking things off my list of gear for Algonquin. It was Labour Day Monday, and I seemed to have been packing ever since Friday, when I’d got back from my week in Toronto. Mom still wasn’t sleeping much, in spite of the sleeping pill she took every night (and so neither was I). And her gross and fine motor skills were becoming more impaired. She definitely needed help now with dressing and cutting up her food. And she could no longer get out of a sitting position by herself unless it was from a chair with arms so she could, as she put it, “launch” herself. Tylenol was easing her headaches.

Despite her increased debilitation, she still had her caregivers on a mind-boggling schedule that began anywhere between four and six o’clock in the morning. The only concession she made to the tumour growing in her brain was to rest a little longer between outings and visitors.

Needless to say, I had arrived home depleted. It wasn’t just from the physical and emotional energy I (happily) expended in helping her. I live in the bushlands of central Ontario, where a walk in the woods with my energetic Akita/Australian shepherd Maddy or an evening paddle on the river out my door rejuvenates me daily. It’s been decades since I’ve lived in a city, and even though Toronto is quite green amid the concrete, I still feel out of my natural—and nurturing—environment when I’m there. The closest I could come to experiencing it at Mom’s was in the park across the street from her condo. We took walks together (Mom at last consenting to use the walker), and I also went on my own while she was at her exercise class or needlework group, where I knew she would be well looked after for an hour.

That week, instead of striding along at my usual pace, I found myself pausing on the path to watch a raven in a tree (it seemed too big for a crow, but a raven in Toronto?) or to peer up at the sky at a hawk circling in the thermals. I would catch myself gazing at a solitary pine tree growing in the field beside the path. It wasn’t like me to stand around on a walk. Without consciously intending to, I was drinking in all the revitalizing reminders of home.

Now I was home, but even basking in the sun on the dock wasn’t enough. To truly replenish my emotional, physical and mental energy, I needed to be in a canoe in the Algonquin Park interior, where I could receive nurturing from my Earth Mother so I could go back to help my earthly mother.

Installment #13: Rejuvenating on Jubilee

The day after Labour Day, I loaded gear and dog into the car, put the canoe on top, and made the three-hour drive to the other side of the park.

Algonquin Provincial Park is my home away from home: I’ve been doing canoe trips in the interior since the late 1980s, many on my own. Having just seen for myself how (relatively) well Mom was doing, and been reassured by Dr. Leung’s assessments, it felt safe to go out of communication range for a few days.

I stopped at the park office to get my permit, and bumped over the ruts in the 25-kilometre dirt road that leads to the put-in. The plan was to paddle and portage several lakes in to one of my favourites, Jubilee, rather than doing an actual trip. Maddy and I would do day trips from one campsite instead.

We made good time, arriving on Jubilee by mid-afternoon. In another hour I had camp set up. After an early supper, I took a book down to the shore. As soon as I leaned back in the legless camping seat, my 53-pound dog padded over and plunked herself right in my lap. This was not usual behaviour. Maddy usually demonstrates such affection only if another dog is vying for my attention. I told myself she probably needed extra reassurance after all our separations this summer, and wrapped my arms around her furry body for a snuggle.

The next morning, when I sat down again on the rock with my bowl of granola, she did the same thing. It was odd but not unwelcome behaviour.

We spent the day in the canoe exploring several lakes nearby, all linked by reasonably short (if muddy) portages, and arrived back on Jubilee nicely tuckered out from our seven-hour expedition. My idea of rejuvenation isn’t necessarily to rest.

Installment #14: Circling beavers

My bladder woke me at 4:30 a.m. but I was reluctant to leave my cozy sleeping bag. As always now when I was awake in the night I wondered if Mom was up too, with Sandy stumbling groggily after her. It was Thursday: there would be fitness class, though not quite this early. I drifted back to sleep.

When I finally braved the morning chill, several hours later, Maddy followed me everywhere—around the campsite, into the woods for kindling, and even up the short trail to the biffy. (She normally draws the line at accompanying me to the boxed toilet.)

After breakfast, I settled on the sloped smooth rock near the shore with my journal and a novel: today I was going to rest.

As soon as I sat down, Maddy parked her bum in my lap once again. Throughout the day, as I journaled or took a break to read, I would suddenly feel her firm little body press into me and turn to see her sitting or lying right behind or beside me. Whatever her reason for this new behaviour—new after nearly six years together—I basked in the furry physical contact.

I was already caught up on my chronicles about Mom. Instead I wrote about the previous day’s expedition and the few creatures we’d sighted so far: two loon families on two different lakes and, last night, a beaver whose presence Maddy alerted me to with her barking.

I was describing the way the beaver swam back and forth in front of the campsite, spiralling a little closer in to shore each time, when the sudden whine of a plane stopped me mid-sentence.

I nearly wrote, “Shit, there’s the plane.”

Instead I scrambled to my feet, heart pounding. Knowing even before it appeared just above the trees on the east side of the lake that it was going to be the park’s golden-yellow Turbo Beaver, and that it was going to land on the lake. I knew this even though four o’clock is not the normal time for the park plane to fly in to a lake unless to pick up rangers doing campsite maintenance (and I knew there weren’t any on Jubilee).

I watched the plane circle the little lake. And knew, with terrible, heart-pounding certainty, that it was here for me.

Installment #15: A mission of mercy

The Beaver landed in a whoosh of waves and engine roar just beyond where the other beaver had glided back and forth in front of my site the previous evening.

From the shore, I watched the pilot climb down onto one of the pontoons and lower something into the water. He wasn’t paying any attention to me, and my heart rate slowed. Ok, maybe the plane wasn’t here for me. Maybe the pilot was taking water samples or something.

Then two uniformed figures appeared on the other pontoon. They unlashed a canoe I hadn’t even noticed and launched it into the water. One swung a rucksack into the boat, and they got in. My heart returned to normal. Ok, they had a pack. They must be coming in to do campsite maintenance after all. Or permit checks.

I was now completely convinced their arrival had nothing to do with me, and  even when the rangers headed straight for my site, I remained calm. Grabbing the bow to steady the boat as they pushed onto the marshy shore, I was even smiling. “Are you here to check my camping permit?”

The bowsman climbed out of the boat. He was young, somewhere in his 20s. “No, we’re here to deliver a message. Are you Brenda?”

My heart began to pound again. “Is it my Mom?”

“No, it’s your sister Kathryn,” he said. “She died.”

Kathryn?” I could not take it in.

“It’s not supposed to be Kathryn,” I added stupidly. “It’s supposed to be my Mom.” And I heard strange hiccupy sobs come out of me.

They didn’t have much information, just that it had been sudden. “We’re here to help you,” the bowsman said. “Whatever you need. We can fly you out.”

He led me over to the flat rock and sat down beside me to give me time to calm the tearless choking sobs. Maddy, I noticed, had positioned herself between his legs, and I remember thinking she was supposed to be comforting me.

After a few minutes, he brought out the contents of the rucksack: a satellite phone. Then he handed me a small piece of paper on which someone had written in tiny neat handwriting a list of familiar names and phone numbers.

Installment #16: A bubble of grief

The ranger pointed to Sandy’s name, which was written beside my mother’s number. I thought he must be assuming she was one of my sisters, whose numbers were below, but I followed his suggestion anyway. In addition to needing to know what had happened to Kathryn, I needed to know if Mom was alright. (How could she be alright?)

From Sandy I learned that they didn’t know for sure yet how Kathryn had died, but that the police had found her in her home. That Nancy and Lynne had come over that morning with their husbands to give Mom the news and sat with her for an hour. And all Mom could say was “Oh!” in a small voice, over and over. Then my sisters had flown to Ottawa to be with our niece, Kathryn’s daughter Harriet. They were so torn, said Sandy, between wanting to go to Harriet and wanting to stay with Mom.

After they left, Sandy continued Lynne’s efforts to figure out how to get word to me, and me out of the park, as quickly as possible.

I told her I would be there as soon as I could, and we ended the call. I was starting to shake, from the shock and the sudden coolness of the late-afternoon air.

The rangers packed up my kitchen while I did the tent and personal gear. We paddled my boat out to the float plane, and they strapped it onto the pontoon and left theirs anchored in the middle of the lake for passersby to wonder at until they could come back for it. The pilot, with condolences to me, lifted Maddy inside, and the rangers kept her reassured for the four minutes it took us to fly the distance it had taken me nearly four hours to paddle.

Approaching the dock at the far end of Rain Lake, we flew over the heads of tiny canoeists, who waved their paddles up at us. We taxied to the dock, and several people at the campground rushed over to see the plane.

The two rangers carried the packs to my car and put the canoe on the roof for me. Tying it down, I was aware of the animated chat between the campers and the pilot, and felt in a strange, almost soundless bubble: set apart from the excitement the park plane always creates by the shock of unbearable news (of which the campers and canoeists had no inkling) that had brought it out today.

The rangers seemed willing to drive me all the way home if necessary, but I felt okay to drive and knew the three or four hours on the road would give me time to absorb my sister’s death. I thanked them from my heart for their compassion and assistance, told them it could not have been easy to deliver such news, and drove slowly down the long dirt road.

Installment #17: Beyond the veil of illusion

I drove in second gear, worrying about what had happened to Kathryn, praying she hadn’t suffered and was making her way to the Light. And trying not to crush the dragonflies…

Thousands of them. The big ones, with their baby-finger-length wing spans. On the road, in the air, all around the car. I nosed through the throng, and more rose off the road, zooming and zigzagging and hovering: a strangely exuberant escort for a tear-blinded woman in a single-vehicle cortege. Whose progress, as slow as it was, put their own lives in danger.

And it wasn’t just a small pocket. They ranged over miles and miles of the dirt road. I had never experienced anything like it.

I made the slow journey in a cauldron of emotion: shock, disbelief, grief, worry, joy (in spite of everything) at the dragonflies. And guilt.

Guilt that I had not been nicer to my sister. Guilt that I had been so hard on her. Guilt that the last time I had seen her—when we had overlapped at Mom’s the previous month—I couldn’t wait for her to leave…

The memory of those few loving moments­ when we had shared an embrace on parting, and actually spoken our love, eased the guilt.

But the real solace came from the dragonflies.

In some Indigenous spiritual traditions, Dragonfly is a symbol of transformation and light. With its incredible, nearly 360-degree vision, Dragonfly can help you see beyond the illusions of your life. So now, in a slow-moving bubble of grief and guilt, surrounded by more dragonflies than I had ever seen (at one time, or ever) in my life, I asked for the veil of illusion to be lifted.

I asked, and in that moment everything fell away—all the clashes and hurts and upsets between Kathryn and me. The veil was lifted, and all that was left was Love, pouring between us. I saw my sister’s beautiful, joyful spirit, as I had never seen it. And, even more astonishing: she was smiling, serene. Happy.

That astonishing, beautiful, joyful spirit that was my sister accompanied me down the long dirt road amid—and possibly within—the helicopter-hovering escort of healing dragonflies. And stayed with me, even after the last few lifted into the air away from the car and vanished.