Please, No Frozen Graveyard For Me
By Rose Willow
Photos: Anthony Hutchins
As another autumn approached and the otters splashed in the little cove in front of our house, and the sky turned crimson at dusk, Tony refilled our glasses with homemade blackberry wine, and brought up the subject of aging. He began by mentioning those who had left Lasqueti Island in their advancing years, and suggested we should give it some thought. As it happened, I had been giving it some thought, because after 30-some years, my body had taken a dislike to the wheel-barrow. My arms and legs went into spasms at the thought of changing propane tanks, and lugging stuff on and off the ferry. The temperamental moods of the wood-burning cook-stove, with its insatiable appetite for kindling and firewood, gnawed on my nerves — was there enough wood in the woodshed to get through the winter? Was it dry enough? Did the ashes need to be emptied? The chimney swept?
Talking about leaving, though, was a different matter, and I sensed that several more glasses of wine were going to be consumed before this night was over.
“We’re only in our mid-sixties,” he said, “but we might want to make the move while we’re still healthy and not relying on medical services. It could be another adventure; try somewhere else, it doesn’t need to be BC. We could always come back, maybe not to Lasqueti, but to Vancouver Island.”
“Saskatchewan?” I ventured.
I thought it was just the wine when Tony seemed keen to my suggestion. Originally from England, he had never experienced life in such a harsh climate. But he was intrigued with the idea, and brought it up over the next few days, even though I reminded him that winter on the Prairies was a serious matter — snow tires, block heaters, ice scrapers, shovels, snow blowers, and even roof-rakes to remove snow off the roofs of houses. A place where you could freeze to death if your car left the road, and no one noticed you stuck in a ditch.
I began to wish I hadn’t mentioned it, and tried to ignore my growing urge to reconnect with my Saskatchewan roots. I had visited over the years, usually in June or July. Springtime would arrive and I would want to hit the road, get to the other side of Hope. Get to the “Land of the Living Skies,” hear the Meadowlark’s song, stare into the inky-blue sloughs, and see new crops in the fields. I avoided going there in winter, of course, but also thought about the northern lights, outdoor skating rinks, and crisp walks in the moonlight. Sometimes I imagined having a little house, in a small town near where my grandparents and great-grandparents had settled in the early 1900’s, or perhaps where my parents, brothers, and I had lived before moving into the bustling city of Saskatoon.
But mostly, I felt a strong desire to re-connect with my mother during her last years. I wanted to get to know her again, to get beyond the chasm that had opened in our family’s life. When I was 20, and living in Alberta with my first husband and infant son, my father left my mother to marry my then mother-in-law. My own marriage limped along for two or three more years, but my mother always blamed me for bringing “those people” into our lives.
Eventually, my husband became abusive. When I approached my father about it, he asked, “What did you do to make him do that to you?” I packed up my young son and moved to the West Coast, where I met Tony and started a new life on Lasqueti. I loved the lifestyle, but still felt the urge to leave and reconnect with my roots.
The website for Nipawin, Saskatchewan describes it as “beautiful by nature.” The town lies just inside the boreal forest, 280K north east of Saskatoon, surrounded by lakes and rivers. Two of my great aunts had homesteaded in the area, and so I had relatives nearby.
We had looked at houses in Saskatoon, but after our life on Lasqueti, the city with a population of approximately 250,000 seemed too busy for us. We drove up to Nipawin, population 5,000, and there it was, for sale: A well-built older home, single-story, with a steep gabled roof and arched entryway. It was painted a soft green with white trim, and sat on a corner lot surrounded by a caragana and lilac hedge. It had hardwood floors and a few of the original windows. And it was within walking distance to the post office, public library, two medical offices, multiple stores, and a small hospital.
Best of all, my mom, who had lived in an apartment in Saskatoon since the death of her second husband, Norbert, in 1996, loved the house. Once we moved in, she staked out one of the bedrooms as hers, stayed with us for extended periods of time, and took her place at the head of the table. Mom and Tony spent hours in the garden. She had been an avid gardener in her younger years, and had lots of information to share. I watched their friendship grow.
“Looks like Butchart Gardens, but that rhubarb won’t make it,” she said the first time she entered the garden. “You better move it over there,” she added pointing with her cane. Tony did, and it later thrived.
“Get rid of those chives, they’ll take over the whole garden, and so will that lily of the valley. The hostas need to be kept in the shade, and Auntie Hilda always said not to plant the garlic too deep.”
Tony, an expert gardener, took it in his stride, and directed her to other parts of the yard.
I often travelled the three hours to Saskatoon and stayed with her. Between bingo, card games, and jig-saw puzzles, we got to reminisce and fill in the gaps of our lives from years ago.
Besides the garden, Tony worked on improving the house — he built a cold storage area, finished the rest of the basement, installed shelving, and painted the bathroom. As on Lasqueti, he played and coached soccer. We both frequented the gym. I sat on the Library board, and began working towards a Certificate in Creative Writing at St. Peter’s College, near Humboldt, a two-hour drive from Nipawin. But, the transition from rural to town life was a shock to my system. I felt unnerved when people passed the house on the sidewalk, and at times, was startled by vehicle traffic along the street. The streetlights kept me awake at night. But I did like adjusting the thermostat instead of chopping wood and splitting kindling.
And yes, winter was a serious matter. For all Tony’s bravado, I did most of the snow-shovelling the first winter. I didn’t really mind the snow and the cold — but I minded that it lasted for so long. Once the lakes and rivers froze over, I missed seeing open water. I longed for the sight of the sea, the tide going in and out, the smell of the salt, the clouds resting on the mountains.
Mom said I just had to get used to it, like everybody else — easy for her to say, since the 90-plus winters of her life had never been spent anywhere else. Tony asked if she would like to go to Mexico for a couple of weeks, or Cuba. “What for?” she replied. “It’ll still be winter when we get back. I’m nice and warm right here.” And she would tuck her crocheted afghan tighter around her knees.
Tony and I settled into a routine of going back and forth to Saskatoon to stay with Mom, or to bring her back to Nipawin. In the city, with plenty of family and friends around, including my youngest brother, Roger, who took care of her affairs, she was never entirely on her own. Family gatherings abounded, at her place and theirs, with big-screen televisions blaring in every living room. Football and hockey prevailed. Beer flowed, wine glasses clinked, and platters of food made the rounds. We hadn’t owned a television on Lasqueti and didn’t want one now, but that left me out of the loop when this or that program was discussed. I didn’t really feel connected, and would often slink into the background with a book or magazine, just as I had done as a child.
My mind became restive, and a desire for knowledge nibbled the edges of my brain once again. I already had a History degree from the University of Waterloo, completed entirely by correspondence without ever leaving Lasqueti, and now I wanted a creative writing degree. Nipawin wasn’t the greatest place to be situated in terms of going to university, but then Lasqueti hadn’t been either. I looked for online creative writing courses and found some back on the west coast, at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo. I realized that I could take online courses in the Fall and then spend January to April on campus, a prospect I relished, having never fully lived the student life my first time out. I applied and was accepted in 2013.
“I don’t see any sense in you going to university at your age,” Mom said. “And, no, I don’t want to go with you to spend part of the winter on the coast where it rains all the time.
“Come on,” she added, setting up the crib board, “I’ll beat you in another game.”
The back-door scrunched against fresh snow as I shoved it open. A gust of wind tore the handle from my hand. I stepped outside to grab it, lost my balance, and fell down the icy steps.
I had injured my back, and trips to Saskatoon became routine, along with X-rays, MRI, and injection therapy. Surgery was scheduled. Cancelled. Re-scheduled. Cancelled. The pain, like the winter, wore on and on and there were days I didn’t leave my bed. I suffered from a reaction to the prescribed drugs and had to be hospitalized. Discharged after a week, I waited in a morphine fog, as winter turned to spring and then into summer. I thought about death, my own death.
“I don’t want to die here,” I said to Tony one night as he helped me into bed.
“You’re not dying, at least not right now,” he replied.
“I know, but I could. I could die before Mom does, and I don’t want to die here, here in
It was Sunday, July 13, 2014, just after lunch, when I settled on top of my bed with a big blue exercise ball under my lower legs to facilitate the Z position. This gave maximum relief to my back, and I wanted to be comfortable when I phoned my mother for our weekly chat.
“What’s wrong,” I asked when she answered the phone.
“Where I pee.”
“Just spotting, more when I wipe.”
“Does anyone know about this?”
“Roger is coming to take me to the hospital. He’ll be here in half an hour.”
“You better get ready, Mom. I’ll phone Roger later.”
It was cancer, ovarian cancer. The prognosis wasn’t good, and Mom chose not to have any surgery or chemo.
I spent the last days of Mom’s life at her bedside in palliative care. Visitors streamed in and out. The window ledge, shelf, and side table overflowed with cards and flowers. Tony and my brothers took turns staying with her at night. Mom reminded me of The Little Engine That Could, from the children’s book she used to read to us, as she huffed and puffed herself through each day. She lost consciousness, but her right eye stayed partially open for a while, as if she was still keeping an eye on us as children — making sure we were safe, and not misbehaving.
Her breathing changed to short fast breaths for about two days, but remained strong. I tried to match her rhythm, but couldn’t keep it up for long. I marveled at how tough she was; how she refused to let go.
Time passed both fast and slow. Fast because I didn’t want her to go, slow because I didn’t want her to suffer. There were times when I wanted to pick her up out of the bed and take her home with me. There were times I wanted to end her suffering by turning the oxygen either up or off. I wished the nurse would give her enough morphine to let her peacefully go to sleep. I thought of slipping Mom some of mine, and holding a pillow over her face. Instead, I talked to her.
“I love you Mom,” I said over and over again. “You looked out for us, and helped us all you could. I’ll miss you Mom. I don’t want you to go. I love you Mom.”
I sat beside her, held her hand, kissed her cheek, stroked her forehead, and smoothed her gorgeous thick head of hair. I reached under the covers, and massaged her feet, already icy cold. I rested my head down beside her on the bed and wept.
Mom died just before 6:00 a.m. September 1, 2014. Tony was with her when she drew her last breath. He picked a purple flower, her favourite colour, from one of her bouquets and placed it in her hand that rested on her chest. When my brothers and I got there, shortly after, it looked like Mom had picked the flower herself before peacefully going to sleep.
My mother’s remains are buried in St. Michael’s Catholic Cemetery, a country graveyard in a small town, about an hour’s drive from Saskatoon, where we once had lived as children. She is in the same grave as her beloved second husband, Norbert, who had made the arrangements before his own death in 1996.
My back surgery happened September 5th, the day after Mom’s interment. I withdrew from courses at VIU, and concentrated upon recovery. The first snow arrived before Halloween; it would remain until the first weeks of April.
“How about getting out of the house for a bit,” said Tony, one afternoon in mid- November.
“It’s cold out there, and windy. The sidewalks look icy. I could fall.”
“I’ll hold on to you, come on, I’ve already warmed up the car. I’ll take you to Tim Hortons, it’s not far,” he replied holding up my coat.
I strained to be pleasant to anyone who greeted me, and grumbled my way through a hot chocolate and an oatmeal cookie. The wind blew stronger and the sunshine slipped behind a cloud as we got back into the car. The windows were fogged up, but I still noticed the snow drifts over and around the graves and tombstones when we drove past Nipawin’s cemetery.
That night I shivered in my bed thinking about my mother beneath the frozen ground. Dressed in her favourite going-away outfit, shoes and stockings, best underwear and bra, hair brushed, make-up perfect, fingernails polished, hands folded on her chest entwined with her rosary. I wished I had wrapped her in my quilt. Her glasses, dentures, wedding ring, and wristwatch were down there too. It bothered me; her wristwatch being down there. How long would it keep perfect time? Would I hear it, if I pressed my ear to the ground?
The ticking of my bedside clock greeted me in the morning. Frost had crept part way up my bedroom window. I turned my face to the wall and sobbed.
“I can’t stay here,” I blurted out at breakfast. “There’s nothing here for me.”
“You have a nice home, family who care about you. Give it some time.”
“I don’t have time, I’m already old; I need to get out of here. I don’t belong. I’m glad I was here for the last years of Mom’s life. It gave me some purpose, and I tried with my family. But now there is nothing.”
“Do we have to talk about this right now?” he replied. “I’ve got breakfast ready. Let’s eat it before it gets cold.”
“I need more than this house and a plot in a frozen graveyard on the outskirts of a small town,” I continued.
“Your back needs to heal. We both need more time between your mother’s death, and any big decisions. Let’s talk it through over the winter and decide in the spring,” he said. “Have you checked out any online courses for 2015 yet?”
Tony promised to get my ashes back to the coast, and spare me the frozen graveyard, should I die in the meantime, and I settled into breakfast. Soon after, I got in touch with friends on Lasqueti, and they agreed to dispose of my remains should I show up in an urn.
We put the house up for sale in April; it sold almost as soon as it was listed. By the end of June, 2015, we were back on the coast. I resumed working towards my degree with a combination of online and on-campus courses at VIU. I was relaxed, learning for the sheer joy of it, and home.
Well, almost. I can see parts of Lasqueti from where I live now, in Parksville, a small city on the east coast of Vancouver Island. A short walk to the beach gives me an end-to-end view. I’m able go over for short stays and day trips. I see fellow Lasquetians in-and-around Parksville, and we meet up for lunch, coffee, or a night out. I have found my place, for now. When I die my remains will ride the ferry across the Salish Sea, to Lasqueti, and there they will be released from their urn, never to leave again.