I taught university level courses in sociology and criminal justice for over 30 years but now I'm retired and at 72 was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, bone marrow cancer. This site is now a chronicle of my journey with myeloma.
The conventional thing to do at this time of year is to reminisce about events of the past year and pick out highlights and possibly low lights, in this case, of 2021. Well, I would do that except that my brain is quite mushy right now. I’m not sure why. It may be the chemo meds. They have a variety of side effects that vary from week to week. This week my meds may have decided to afflict me with a sludgy brain to go along with my barely functioning legs.
Then there’s the fact that 2021 was, to be charitable, less than a stellar year. Chemotherapy and monoclonal antibody infusions every four weeks for a morning at the hospital can put a damper on life. Part of the problem with the chemotherapy pills I take every day is that I experience a surprising range of side effects. While all this goes on, I have a lot of difficulty writing. I can’t seem to hold onto an idea or a train of thought for any length of time. I’ve tried to put together a couple of blog posts over the past three weeks, but they’ve turned out resembling alphabet soup rather than carefully crafted narratives. Right now, I seem to be experiencing a slight window of lucidity, but that may just be self-delusion on my part. I have no idea how long this window will be open. You be the judge.
Today is January 1st, 2022. The first day of the year is supposed to be infused with positive thoughts, merriment, and optimism. I guess saying that 2022 will not be the year that I die qualifies as optimism, or maybe reckless self-delusion. I turn 75 years old in a few days. I know I’ve written it before on this blog, but I say it again: How in the hell did that happen? It seems to me that I was forty years old yesterday. Now seventy-five? WTF. Following Barbara Ehrenreich (who is my age) I have noted in the past that I’m old enough to die. That’s true, but still, I have confidence that people will not have to publish an obituary about me in 2022.
My memory has gone for a crap. I don’t have dementia, that’s for sure. But still, I guess that’s to be expected of a person my age. I retired from twenty-nine years of teaching at North Island College in 2012, but I had been teaching in the Lower Mainland since 1976. Since my retirement, I have somehow mislaid recollection of so many things. I do have this blog to jog my memory. I started it in late 2012 and have produced over 300 posts since then. That’s a lot of bits and bytes engraved somewhere in a computer hard drive or on the cloud, whatever and wherever that is. I think that the number of words I’ve clicked out probably amounts to at least a five-hundred-page book. I know that since my cancer diagnosis in the fall of 2019 I’ve put together the equivalent of a three-hundred-page book chronicling my experience with myeloma, its side effects, and chemotherapy with its side effects. Now, I’m not sure what I’ll do with this blog. Unfortunately, I have very little energy to do much of anything physical. The oncologists in my life are very reluctant to tell patients what to expect of a life with cancer, especially one like myeloma. Gawande is clear on that:
“Studies find that although doctors usually tell patients when a cancer is not curable, most are reluctant to give a specific prognosis, even when pressed. More than 40 percent of oncologists admit to offering treatments that they believe are unlikely to work. In an era in which the relationship between patient and doctor is increasingly miscast in retail terms — “the customer is always right”—doctors are especially hesitant to trample on a patient’s expectations. You worry far more about being overly pessimistic than you do about being overly optimistic. And talking about dying is enormously fraught.” (from “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande)
I have found that with old age and a crumbling infrastructure, and as I note above, a lot of physical activity is out of the question. Coming to terms with that reality is very difficult, I can tell you. Carolyn and I have done some camping over the years since our retirement. Sometimes we were accompanied by family. Most often we were out there by ourselves. We spent most of our time camping in Strathcona Park. I hope to be able to go camping again, but I don’t have a lot of strength and energy. That’s something I have to work on so that I can DO STUFF this coming spring and summer.
Now, I don’t have to think about physical activity. We have a blizzard outside and snow 50 centimeters thick. So, I read. I have five books on the go right now. I’ll discuss them soon in a post!
I must admit that I’m a bit depressed these days. A substantial contribution to my depression is the amount of caution I need to exercise every day in the face of the coronavirus COV-2 and the cancer that I still harbour in my bones. Even though I’m triple vaccinated, I still need to be very cautious lest I contract the virus in my compromised state. Picking up an infection, any kind of infection could be deadly for me. Carolyn is also immunocompromised because of arthritis meds she is on, so we are somewhat reclusive these days. Carolyn still does virtually all the shopping, but I do get out with her now and again. In my younger days, I was a moderately social guy. Not anymore. Among many other things, I miss having a beer at the CBC with friends.
As far as myeloma is concerned, there seems to be just minute traces of it in my blood. Of course, I’m still on chemotherapy. Who knows what would happen if I suddenly went off chemo. I may need some dental work requiring an antibiotic. My local GP/Oncologist figures that I shouldn’t be on chemo and an antibiotic at the same time. He suggested that I think about going off chemo for a while, at least during the time I need for the dental work. He also suggested I talk to ‘my’ oncologist in Victoria about it. I had an appointment with an oncologist in Victoria this coming Monday, but he cancelled, according to his assistant, because he was called away unexpectedly. Great. I haven’t had a meeting with an oncologist in Victoria for months, and now who knows for how much longer. I haven’t had an appointment with the same oncologist in Victoria twice in a row. They are specialists, of course, so I don’t expect to have the same kind of relationship with them as with my GP, but still, I don’t know how continuity of care happens in this situation. I feel a little abandoned.
What I find as distressing as anything as a person with cancer is the absence of predictability. Well, I guess I can always predict that I won’t be able to predict how things will go. I can usually predict that I’ll be going to the hospital every fourth Thursday of the month for an infusion of Daratumumab, but even that is a toss-up. It all depends on my bloodwork. If it’s good, then I go. If not, then I don’t go, and things change quickly. What I mean by the absence of predictability is more the idea that when I get up in the morning, I have no idea whether I’ll have any energy, will be lucid, or how much pain I’ll be in, and in which part of my body. Right now, the peripheral neuropathy in my left hand is bad, especially if I sleep on it in a particular way. As I write this, I’m feeling very tired and ‘dizzy’, even disoriented. I feel like I have a hangover. I don’t like it. I’ll go down for a nap soon. I’ll see if that helps. There’s no predicting.
I know three people who have chosen MAID (Medical Assistance in Death). The reports from relatives (or from themselves) suggest that they went gently into the night under conditions of their own making. I know others who have either not had the time to set up MAID, or who, for whatever reason, chose to let things run their course and for whom the pain of dying was muted with the help of morphine or other pain killer. After reading Barbara Ehrenreich, Brian Greene, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Atul Gawande, and Jason Fung, all authors I’ve discussed in this blog at times, it strikes me that slipping gracefully into death is not a fate most of us will share. I don’t know what the billions of people in the poorer parts of the world suffer as they approach death. I know that in some places where wars are still all too common, death by a bullet or a machete are a fate that await many people. Death by poverty is all too common. It’s true that death awaits us all, but the conditions of dying are not democratic. Considering all living things on this planet, dying is generally shunned. Yesterday, while shaving, I inadvertently disturbed a spider who was minding its own business in and around the vanity lights. It took off, scurrying like mad, wanting to live another day, I surmised. It did not want to die.
As biological organisms we tend to cling to life for all it’s worth. Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule. Even for people who commit suicide, I suspect (with no hard evidence whatsoever) that it’s not life they are escaping, but unrelenting pain, physical and/or mental. I’m sure that they would gladly continue living if the pain would only go away. I think that’s true of people who choose MAID as well as those who commit suicide in any number of non-sanctioned ways. Of course, the people who I know chose MAID were older. As Barbara Ehrenreich wrote (somewhere, probably in Natural Causes) when she got to be seventy-five years old: “I’m old enough to die now.” I’ll be seventy-five next year, and I guess I’m old enough to die too, but I think I’ll endeavour to stay alive in 2022.
I just finished reading Deaf Sentence, a novel by David Lodge. Carolyn tells me it isn’t Lodge’s best work, but I quite enjoyed it. I really should review it sometime on Amazon. In any case, finishing a novel for me is quite something. I don’t usually read books until I go to bed, and that’s usually around 9 PM. At that point I may read a few pages, but usually I fall asleep after a few minutes with book still in hand or Kindle on but with light out. I was about half way through the book a couple of days ago after reading it for a couple of months. For some reason, I went to bed as usual but unlike most nights, there’s no way I could fall asleep. I had no hint of sleepiness. So, I started reading the book at around 9:15 and, except for pee breaks, I didn’t put the book down until 5 AM. Now that’s a marathon reading session for me. Completely unpredictable and not particularly welcome, but after I realized that there was no way I was going to sleep I relaxed and enjoyed the book. Finished it too!. Damn the clock!
In the book, when the main protagonist’s father dies at age 89, he takes it as an opportunity to muse about death in general. He quotes Wittgenstein, probably the most famous of all 20th Century philosophers who died in 1951, and who wrote: ” Death is not an event of life. You cannot experience it, you can only behold it happening to others with various degrees of pity and fear, knowing that one day it will happen to you.” Having myeloma I can assure you that death is never far from my mind.
Still, life goes on. I certainly don’t think about death all the time. Every once in a while I’ll remember that I have incurable cancer and I say to myself: “Yeah, I’m on my way out. But then I think I might not face death for another ten years. There have been many other myeloma patients who have lived over ten years. It’s not at all uncommon. I really don’t dwell on it. Dealing with pain on a daily basis takes up much more brain power than contemplating death. Thankfully, I have some dedicated palliative care docs who talk with me every week so as to constantly tweak my meds. It seems to be working better than it has been. I can usually sleep these days without taking ‘breakthrough’ hydromorphone. The gabapentin seems to be doing its job but I wouldn’t swear to that in court.
Most days I spend in my recliner although I do get up now and again for a bout of exercise. We have a semi-recumbent bike in my studio. I use that occasionally although it’s not my favourite way of getting exercise. I really enjoy walking on the River Walkway but I don’t get there that often. It may be that I’ll have to drive myself down there two or three times a week. Carolyn usually walks the dogs in the morning on the trails in Cumberland. I really can’t join her because of the distances she walks, the pain in my legs, and the uneven walking surfaces. I’m not complaining, just thinking out loud trying to figure out a way of getting a little more exercise without too much danger to myself or others. I drove the truck the other day without too much trouble so I think I can do it more regularly. Carolyn is doing an important job walking the mutts, so she needs to be free to do that. It’s true that I don’t need as much looking after than I did a few weeks ago. I still have moments of excruciating pain, but Carolyn can’t do anything about that. She is already very attentive and an excellent caregiver. I am so fortunate.
A few days ago, feeling chipper, I went out into the yard to do a few chores, like chop firewood. Yes, we still burn wood. In fact, we just got a new wood stove that is rated at 1.8 gr/hr. It’s a Pacific Energy wood stove made in Duncan, same brand as we had before, but with many upgrades from our old stove. You won’t see smoke coming out of our chimney 98% of the time, only for a few minutes when we first get it going in the morning. We burn only dry wood, down at least 14 months. We check the humidity of our firewood with a humidity gauge. I expect we’re among the most responsible wood stove users in the Valley. I’m sure people will still object to us burning firewood. So be it.
My recliner is close to the stove. I like it. Keeps me warm inside and out.
Tilly is getting so big. Seven months old, well over 70 pounds now. Not only that but she’s losing her puppy ways and is becoming a really sweet dog. Carolyn has posted recent pictures of her on Facebook. She’s big buddies with Cooper, the neighbour’s dog. He’s ‘intact’ and was getting very interested in Tilly’s butt so we thought it wise to have her spayed. She got through that very well. Now, she and Cooper fly around the yard wrestling and playing tug-o-war with a toy or a stick. They’ve destroyed so much of the garden with their antics but Carolyn just shrugs knowing that things will recover and will thrive come spring. We can only hope the dogs get more relaxed as time goes on and are less apt to run around the property like gilly-galoos. We expect they will get mellower and mellower as they age. That’s generally the way it works with dogs. Tilly always gets treats from me first thing in the morning. She might even get some later in the day if she’s a good dog, and she is most often a good dog. She gives us lots of kisses.
I’m finally able to write a few paragraphs. My neck has been such a problem lately that I haven’t been able to write much or draw and paint much either. It’s because my neck gets spasms easily if I look down at the computer screen for too long. Ten minutes at a time is about all I can handle. However, I remembered that acetaminophen works quite well for neck pain. I took a couple last night for my arthritis and degenerative disks in my neck and that seemed to help. I took a couple at around 8 AM this morning and now, although I still have neck pain, it’s manageable. We’ll see how long it works. I want to go outside and play.
Funny how I used to take acetaminophen regularly for some kinds of pain and it worked marginally well. Then I forgot about it when I got into stronger meds after my cancer diagnosis. Hydromorphone is my go to pain reliever now, but I’m also taking a low dose of gabapentin on the advice of my palliative care docs.
Palliative care docs are specialists in pain management. They often get linked with end-of-life care, but their mandate is much broader than that and is tied to pain management generally. We talk every week, usually on Wednesdays always working to fine tune my meds to balance pain with my need to be able to do some activity. Of course, as my pain doc told me this week they could easily make me pain free. I’d be pretty much catatonic though so we’ll probably save that for when I’m closer to dying. No, the objective with my pain docs is to balance pain management with quality of life.
I must say that lately it’s been a bit of an odd dance. We tried nortriptyline but it made me excessively sleepy without doing much to lessen my pain levels. We tried a really low dose of gabapentin. That hasn’t seemed to have worked very well so we’re now increasing my dose of gabapentin to a bit of a higher dose to see if that makes a difference. That’s always on top of my basic hydromorphone slow release tablets that I take morning and evening.
I suggested to my pain doc yesterday that I should just go off of all pain meds to just see what happens. She said that I probably shouldn’t do that because the pain would be unbearable without some intervention. I have to agree, but it’s frustrating. It’s hard to know which med is doing what when I take a cocktail of meds. It would be simple to back off to just one med, but that wouldn’t work either because as I noted before, neurological pain is different from muscle pain with is different from bone pain, arthritis and disk disease. I need different meds for the various kinds of pain I have so a cocktail is required. Simple would be nice, but it’s not practical.
So, I sit here now banging away on my computer keyboard. My neck pain is manageable but really annoying. I’m hoping the increased dose of gabapentin will deal with the neurological pain I have in my legs, but we’ll see. It takes a while to kick in. I’ve had two MRIs this week. The first one was on Monday and imaged my lower back. The one yesterday was for my upper back and neck. I’m not sure how they may help with diagnosis or with determining what drugs will work for me, but at least they will give us a good baseline for subsequent tests.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the time I have left. I have incurable cancer so it’s like I’m on death row waiting to see if my next appeal (chemo course) works or not. I’m technically in remission right now. We’ll know in January how that’s going. I’m scheduled for blood tests on January 5th, the day after my 74th birthday. That will mark seven months that I’ve been off of chemotherapy. I hope those little bastard myeloma proteins take a long vacation and I can stay off of chemo for a while longer.
Inevitably though, chemo won’t work anymore and that will be that. Bring on the morphine and call in hospice and MAID people at that point. When I get to the point that I can’t DO anything anymore, I will probably welcome my exit from this mortal coil. The thing I regret is putting my family through a long, prolonged, slow exit. Maybe it would be better to pull the plug sooner than later. But I’m not ready to make that decision. So, we carry on, balancing meds, counting on chemo to beat back the myeloma proteins when they get out of hand, and hoping for the best.
I haven’t written at all about politics lately. I’m tempted to, but my neck pain may decide how much I can write, draw and paint. Politics is fun, but it’s not at the top of my list of priorities at the moment. Cancer has a way of focussing my attention narrowly on my life and possibility. I’m still interested in BC politics, Trump, etcetera, but they just aren’t centre of mind like they used to be for me when I was teaching. The pandemic is close to mind too, of course. I’d love to see my family as much as I can. Covid makes that impossible. Cancer and Covid are dominating my life right now. Not the best of scenarios, but I do have Carolyn to commiserate with and to share my Covid isolation.
I’m not sure how we can talk about happiness in the circumstances we are in. I’m not happy about any of this shit but that doesn’t help much either. It’s just that how in hell can anybody be happy right now?
This is a re-blogged post: I first published this post in January of 2018. It has become one of the most popular posts of the hundreds I’ve posted since I started in 2012-13, viewed almost 500 times in 2020 alone. Somehow I find it’s relevant to my last post. Just after my mother died on January 13th, 2018 I posted a comment and a few days later I posted this one. Originally it was just called It turns out we die from the feet up. If you read this post in 2018 you might want to skip reading it now. I think it’s worth reading again.
[Disclaimer: Don’t read this post if you are sensitive around the topic of death and dying up close.]
It turns out we die from the feet up. Well, that’s not strictly true in every circumstance, some people die from a bullet to the head, but it has an element of truth to it. As I noted in a previous post, my amazing mom died last week, on the 13th, very near midnight. She would have been 94 on April 4th. I wrote before that she died a good death, but that’s not what this blog post is about.
For three days or so before mom died, we held a vigil by her side. I have many siblings but two of my sisters were especially attentive towards our mom and visited her virtually every day at her care facility in Coquitlam. They were especially present during this vigil, but most of my other siblings showed up at one time or another as did some of their children and even grandchildren. We spent many hours in mom’s room and out in the hallway. Some of my sisters (and a brother-in-law or two) spent nights by my mother’s side too.
My mother was 93 when she died. Her story is really astounding and is one of sacrifice, caring, selflessness and dedication. She married my father on January 28th, 1946. He had 5 daughters from his first marriage. His wife died in childbirth as she was giving birth to her first son. Because my father had to work to support the family I assume he put out the call for help and my mother, 21 at the time, answered that call. She moved into dad’s house to look after the 5 children and to do all the housework too. Long story short, my mom soon after married my father and they proceeded to have 10 more children, I being the oldest. I’m 71. I was born in 1947, a year after my parents were married. My eldest sister from dad’s first marriage is about to turn 83.
Well, it turns out that although we are a loving and caring family we are also prone to irreverence. We love to laugh and tease each other but we also care about and respect each other, despite our differences. As my mother lay dying, we got to wondering just how the staff knew that she was in fact near death. We asked questions and the nurses and care aides responded in very matter of fact ways. How can we tell when someone is near death? I had heard that when the kidneys shut down that’s a sure sign that the end is near but in this case, mom had not had food or liquids for 2 or 3 days. It would be difficult to tell if and when her kidneys shut down. All this time, mom’s pulse appeared to be quite strong and although her breathing was irregular, it seemed to be consistent.
One of the nurses then told us that it’s possible to roughly assess how long it will be before someone takes their final breath by looking at their legs. When the toes and feet get cold and a line of blotchy skin appears, that means that it won’t be long. Now, nurses and care aides have a lot of experience with having people die on their watch. It would be foolish to ignore what they have to say.
After that, we proceeded to periodically lift the blankets off of mom’s feet to see how her toes and feet were doing. We didn’t notice any special coldness at first. Even on the day of the 13th, it didn’t look as if her feet had changed much in colour or temperature. We often checked on mom’s feet to see if they were getting colder or if the line of blotchy skin was going up her leg. The nurse said that when the line gets to the knee, that’s it. Death slowly creeps up our legs. Of course, there was no question of mom coming out of this crisis alive, so it was just a waiting game now.
I left the care facility around 4:30 PM on the 13th so I could have dinner with my daughter and her family in Vancouver. We half expected mom to still be alive in the morning when we returned to the care facility. I was getting exhausted too and needed a good night’s sleep. As it turned out, that day was the last one I would see my mother alive. In the early morning minutes of the 14th I got calls from one of my sisters and a brother-in-law telling me that mom had passed away, but my phone was on vibrate and I missed their calls. At breakfast, I learned that my mother had passed away a few hours earlier. Within two hours of her death, the people from the funeral home came around and took her body away. Shortly after that, some of my family members cleaned out her room of all of her personal belongings leaving no trace of her ever having been there.
I called my sister and we talked about what happened as mom got closer and closer to taking her last breath. It so happens that the nurse was correct. Mom’s legs had indeed gotten cold and blotchy as her heart became too weak to pump blood to her extremities. By the time she died, her legs were cold up to her knees and her legs were blotchy.
So, along with the grief and sadness that we all felt as we watched our mother/grandmother/great grandmother/mother-in-law die, we learned about how the process evolves.
Right up to her last moments our wonderful caring mother had something to teach us.
This is not one of my regular myeloma posts. I told part of the story I’ve written below in a February 2015 post. Ever since then I’ve wanted to expand on it so as to tease out some truths about the events surrounding the death of my father’s first wife and his subsequent marriage to my mother. History and biography are mostly fabrication, the invention of the past on the basis of one-sided, biased information, conjecture and, of course, ideology around actual facts like the time and date of certain deaths and other events. That doesn’t mean they’re not interesting and related somehow to the truth. Anyway, without prejudice, I offer the following:
Part 1: My father
Life is complicated. Relationships are complicated. People are complicated. Take my father, for instance. He was intelligent, generous, level headed and kind hearted, but at times he had fits of anger that were shocking because they seemed so out of character for him. He teased us children mercilessly, sometimes to distress. He could be, and was, physically violent on rare occasions. We never spoke of such things so I have no way of knowing what were the deep-seated impulses that led to his rare bouts of uncontrollable anger. He was never violent towards my mother that I know of, but he beat my older sisters one time that I recall very vividly.
From what I remember, my sisters were whining and complaining about doing the dishes or some such thing, probably yelling and screaming, fighting amongst themselves when my father, for some reason had had enough of it. He let fly with a pot that was handy, hitting them with it repeatedly until they all cowered on the floor, weeping and in shock. I might have been six or seven years old at the time and I remember cowering myself in the hallway, by the bathroom door wondering what could possibly be going on. To this day as I think about it, I can still feel the dread and fear that overwhelmed me at the time. I don’t recall anyone discussing it much after the fact, but it was traumatic and definitely left an impression. That I do recall.
He hit me too on the odd occasion for various reasons. I was no angel as a child and I may not always have conducted myself with the propriety and reasonableness that should, of course, inform the actions of all well-behaved five-year-old boys. I remember one time when at about six years of age, maybe seven, I smacked a kid (accidentally, of course) over the head with a garden hoe drawing a substantial amount of blood. No serious damage done, but you know how head wounds can bleed. I got ‘the strap’ for that one. When my father got home from work that day and my mother had conferred with him telling him all the sordid details of my great misdeed, his duty (I presume he saw it as that) would be to clinically administer several blows to my open hand with a rubber and leather strap he had gotten from his workplace and which he kept on a kitchen shelf for just such occasions. He did not draw blood, but in his mind I needed to be punished. I had to learn that there were consequences for what I had done. The logical course of action was for him to hit me, a perfectly acceptable and even expected thing to do at the time although I wasn’t enthralled with the idea.
My father was driven by a sense of duty to his church, his family, and French-Canadian tradition. He did not question his duty to have as many children as God expected of him and he took great joy in each of us. He was ill educated in the formal sense. He never learned to read nor write although he could do rudimentary arithmetic. He might have made it only to grade four in school but it was not because he was incapable of schoolwork; it was because he was needed to work on the farm in Alberta where he grew up and he needed to take care of one of his brothers. I don’t recall he ever mentioning it, but my older sisters told the story of why he had to look after one of his many brothers a little differently than was told to us much later at a family gathering in 1989 by one of our many uncles, I can’t recall which one. As my father had told the story to my sisters, he hurt his back so badly as a child that he could barely walk making it impossible for him to trek the three miles back and forth to school in Fort Kent every week day. Eventually we were to learn a different version of the events surrounding my father’s story. As my uncle told the story my father and his brothers were roughhousing one day in the farmyard and my father jumped on one of his brother’s back so hard that it virtually crippled him. My father’s punishment for that offence would be that henceforth he was to carry his brother around with him on his back wherever he went. He packed my uncle around for years. My uncle eventually fully recovered from his back injury and was able to walk on his own. Whatever the truth, my father did not attend school much as a child. He was no less intelligent because of it but his inability to read hampered his career during his working life. Ultimately, although we never discussed it, I forgave him his desire to save face by concocting a version of events that allowed him a more morally acceptable role in the accident that led to his functional illiteracy. Sometimes lies it seems are easier to live with than the potential opprobrium that might ensue with people knowing the truth.
My father seldom drank alcohol and never smoked but he did gamble every once in a while. He was what most people would have called “a good man” in the day. He worked hard and rose to junior management positions in lumber mills around the Lower Mainland in spite of his illiteracy. He was active in parish life and in the Knight’s of Columbus. He also fathered fifteen children.
Part 2 Childbirth and death
I don’t know if what I am about to write is entirely true or not, but it may very well be given the time. It was 1945, June 22nd. The war would be over soon. Normally this day would be a time for celebration, but this day would not be one of those. This day my father’s wife, Yvonne, would die in childbirth. She was an otherwise healthy twenty nine year old woman who had already given him five daughters. This day, something would go horribly wrong in the delivery room and Yvonne would bleed to death. Her newborn son would also die in the delivery room. I heard it said that Yvonne died because my father couldn’t afford a blood transfusion that would have saved her life but I was later to find out that this was a fabrication. One of my older sisters told me in a telephone conversation after my father had died that friends and family, even nurses at St. Mary’s hospital, donated blood but to no avail. I don’t know that to be true, but I expect it’s closer to the truth than the first account I heard of about no money for blood.
Just imagining what my father had to go through with his wife dying in childbirth and five young daughters to look after at home I expect that he was wrought with sorrow, anger, panic and despair no matter how his wife had died. First he had to break the news to his daughters that their mother would not be coming home. Then he had to find a way to look after his daughters while still going to work. He may have believed that the whole thing was God’s will. I really don’t know. I’m certain my father thought about that wretched day in 1945 every subsequent day of his life.
Part 3. An old photograph
I have an old photograph. I don’t know who took it and I’m not sure exactly when it was taken, but it must have been sometime in 1943 because in the picture my father is holding in his arms my half sister, Denise, who was born on January 10th, 1943. She is the only one of my siblings who is no longer alive. She died in 2004. In the photograph she appears to be a year old or so, which would mean the photo would have been taken sometime in mid 1943. In any case, looking at the photo, it doesn’t look like Yvonne was pregnant at the time with Roger (the name they intended to call their new baby if it had been a boy), but she may have been.
There is no obvious way to tell where the photo was taken, but the ground is dry and there’s no snow. I’m guessing it was taken somewhere in or close to New Westminster, British Columbia. Actually everyone in the photo is dressed for a nice, warm spring day, and they’re all standing in front of my father’s 1929 Ford Model T.
In the photo, my father’s first wife, Yvonne, is farthest on the left. She is standing just behind my half sister, Lucille, who at that time was two years old. She has her hands resting on Lucille’s shoulders. Next to her on her right is my father and he, as I said, is holding Denise. Standing next to him is my mother, Lucienne Leguerrier at the time. Next to her is Rémi Leguerrier who married my father’s older sister, Isabelle, and farthest on the right is my aunt, Cécile, mother’s older sister. Uncle Rémi, standing between them, has his arms around the shoulders of my mother and my aunt. He’s smiling too. The children are not smiling, neither is Yvonne although she may have been suffering from morning sickness and that might explain why.
Who could know that when this picture was taken my father’s first wife would be dead within the year and my mother, Lucienne Leguerrier would soon be his new wife. So, here we have my father flanked by his two wives. Never would he have guessed at that moment, smiling for the camera, holding his youngest daughter, that Yvonne would soon be gone and that he would be scrambling to find a way to look after his five daughters while still going to work. The picture tells nothing of the sorrow to come.
My father and Yvonne moved to British Columbia in 1936. As it turns out they made friends with the nuns who ran St. Mary’s hospital in New Westminster where all their children would be born. Apparently my mother had worked there for a time as did my father and it was the nun/nurses at the hospital who suggested, after Yvonne died, that my father ask my mother-to-be to come help look after the children while he went to work in a local sawmill. That wasn’t a stretch because the Albert family knew the Leguerrier clan when everyone was still living in the vicinity of Bonnyville, Alberta a few years before. So, my father knew my mother’s family before a number of them migrated to British Columbia during the Depression looking for work. My father was resourceful and capable of doing various kinds of lumber mill related work so he was able to find employment. My mother was equally resourceful and unafraid of hard work.
When Yvonne died, my father asked my mother-to-be if she would help and she agreed that she would. Months later, actually it wasn’t too many months later, my father had my grandfather and grandmother come to New Westminster to look after the children because my mother, who had been a surrogate mother to my father’s five daughters, had returned to Alberta unexpectedly it seemed. It turns out that she had returned to Alberta anticipating that my father would join her shortly so they could be married in Alberta at Fort Kent and both return to New Westminster as husband and wife.
Now my older sisters, really my half sisters, had a new mom. My mother was only twelve years older than my oldest half sister, Hélène. That caused minor friction to start with because when Yvonne died my father had told Hélène that she would now have to be mommy to the four younger ones. Now, she was being displaced as mother of the family but that animosity soon dissipated because my mother had lived with them for a few months already giving time for attachments to grow between them.
I cannot imagine that my father was not steeped in pain and sorrow during that whole time, but he had no other choice but to carry on. Sorrow must give way to children and their needs.
After their wedding in Alberta on January 29th, 1946, my parents wasted no time in getting on with the business of making babies. They were to have ten in all, but I was the first. I was born on January 4th, 1947, not even a year after my parents married. If my father’s first wife, Yvonne, had survived, I would not exist. Life’s like that. What I did get was my brother’s name. My half brother, had he survived, would have been known as Roger. That’s the name on the tombstone in the cemetery in New Westminster that marks the grave of he and his mother, Yvonne. So, I carry the name of my dead brother. It seems strange to say, but had he lived, my father’s life would probably not have been that different than how it actually turned out.
[I started writing this at 4:30 this morning. I don’t usually get up before 7:30, but my chemo meds keep me awake sometimes. I’m on a dexamethasone high. In other words I’m stoned. Let’s see how well this comes out. Well, I’m no longer stoned. It’s now 6 PM, and looking it over, I. think it’s fine, but I’ll let you be the final judge of that. It’s only a coincidence that this is the 42nd blog post in this series.]
Over the past few months, since I was diagnosed with cancer I have been on a search for the meaning of my life. I haven’t always recognized that in myself or acknowledged to myself that that’s what I was actually doing, but that is in fact what I have been doing pointedly and with urgency. There is probably nothing more capable of focussing the mind than facing a firing squad or a hearing a physician’s determination that one has an incurable cancer. The problem with the firing squad scenario is that there is no time for any reflection on the meaning of life before the bullets put an end to all reflection. At least with a cancer diagnosis, there is time for reflection. I have limited time left as a human expression in the biosphere, so I intend to use that time fully as a mortal in reflection on the meaning in my life, but more importantly as a generator of art, what Plato called poiesis.
In my life I was able to go to university and a get important post-graduate degrees in Sociology. Those years of study and reflection were exciting, stressful and tinged with contradiction at every turn and I got through them in spite of the system and not because of it, as I was fond of telling my students repeatedly over the years. I was able to learn many ‘things’ but the most important result of all of those years was my license to teach, to engage in an important aspect of my art.
Licenses are important. They are society’s way of legitimizing and concretizing in a title the fact that in the past one has acquired sufficient knowledge and capacity in a field of study or work to pass it on to others, operate equipment or on people, fix our plumbing and in a myriad of other situations. Over the years, my teaching was my art, although it was also my way of making a living and that contradiction was a constant source of irritation for me, and for people around me too, especially my long-suffering loved ones, Carolyn and the kids. During that time, though, I also engaged in the ‘plastic’ arts, in drawing, painting, and eventually in sculpture and printmaking. For most of my life I considered those latter pursuits the artistic part of my life. However, more recently, with my new sharpened mind engendered by my cancer diagnosis, I have been able to look back on my life and conclude that I was always an artist. I may have been born that way, but I think it was more an inadvertent result of my upbringing and the circumstances surrounding my birth and early years. I know now that my parents were also artists in their own ways. I know for a fact, because I worked with him at times, that my father struggled his whole working life with the contradictions he had to face every day having to earn a living doing things that were averse if not actually an insult to his inherent creativity. My father was a master craftsman, inventor, blacksmith and planerman. He was functionally illiterate too. My mother had a grade eight education and could read and write quite well. She had ten children, all still alive and kicking. Can we question her creativity? Definitely not her biological creativity, but she was creative in other ways too. She could sew up a storm and knit, cook like a pro and bake. Mygawd, could she bake! Later in life, after all the kids could look after themselves she took over my father’s workshop and started building all kinds of things out of wood. I still have a table by my bed that she built. It means a lot to me. Then, my father decided to sell the house and move into an apartment. That was the end of woodworking for my mother. She pretty much lost interest after that and it wasn’t long after she got Alzheimer’s dementia and that was that.
I feel I really need to explore in writing what my parents must have gone through during the time I was born and for some time after, and how that shaped who I became and am becoming still. I feel this exploration, my writing here, is part of my legacy, part of what I leave behind for you to learn from or simple contemplate as you would a painting on the wall in your living room, if you are fortunate enough to have a living room that is. My aim is that it engenders creativity in you, its beholders.✿
In any case, I was born on January 4th, 1947, which means I was conceived sometime in April of 1946. My parents were married on January 28th 1946. My father’s first wife, Yvonne Gaucher, died on June 22nd, 1945, seven months before my mother and father married. She died in childbirth after having five daughters. The baby, if it had survived, was to be called Roger, and I would not be. As the fates have it, he died and I was born 19 months later and they named me Roger. Can you imagine the stress my father was under? And my mother? My father had five daughters to look after. He made a call to my mother’s family in Alberta and my mother agreed to come help, look after the children and do all the domestic work. My mother and father had known each other in Alberta before he moved here with his family in 1937. Apparently my mother and dad’s first wife knew each other quite well. A short time later they were married. I can’t imagine what he was going through and we never talked about it.
Of course I was treated like a little prince. Not only was I the first boy in the family, but I had survived childbirth and so had my mother. I don’t really know what to make of my early days, not really. My mother soon had more children so my special status was soon eroded, but not much because my mother then proceeded to have four daughters in a row right after me leaving me the only boy with nine sisters. She had three more sons, interspersed with a couple more daughters.
So I have fourteen siblings in all, one of the older ones dying a few years ago of cancer. The rest of us are all still alive and kicking although a couple of my brothers-in-law have died last year. Many of my siblings are what I would call creative or artistic in work and in play. Five are afflicted with MS or another autoimmune disease. An altogether crazy bunch, but I love them all. What influence they’ve had in my life I can’t really say although they have been supportive when I needed it. And I really needed it when I was in my late teens and early twenties, depressed and suicidal. I could always count on my family. There was always a place for me at the table and a shoulder to cry on. Now I can say that I’m neither depressed, nor suicidal and I haven’t been for some time. Some people might argue that I have a right to be depressed, but I know now what depression is and it’s a waste of time. I don’t need it.
Alright, so what do I make of my life? Well, I’ve made it clear in a number of recent blog posts that I’m not chasing immortality. I’m a happy mortal kind of guy, but that doesn’t mean I’m looking forward to dying. My myeloma is being managed successfully and I may live for another ten years, who knows. When it’s my turn to die, that will be just fine. We all come to the end of the line. Songs have been written about it.
Still, it took a cancer diagnosis and what I thought was imminent death from an incurable cancer to ask the question: What meaning did my life have? What meaning does it have? In the face of death, is there any meaning? These are questions Tolstoy was preoccupied with. As Ernest Becker reports in Escape From Evil: “When Tolstoy came to face death, what he really experienced was anxiety about the meaning of his life. As he lamented in his Confessions: ‘What will come of my whole life…Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?””
My answers to these questions came to me slowly at first over the last few weeks, then more pointedly only in the last few hours. I got answers by reading writers I knew would not fail in helping me answer these questions. The first was Ernest Becker and his book Escape from Evil (1974). Becker always knows the right words to say. He reminded me of the cultural significance of the fear of death and its significance for my personal encounter with death. Norbert Elias I read carefully. His book What is Sociology (1970) reacquainted me with my own discipline in a new, fresh way, a way of locating myself in time and space in a cultural project of criticism which clearly preceded me and will continue without me. But what of my career as a teacher? Recently I picked up a book that had been sitting in my library for thirty years untouched. It’s a book by James P. Carse called Finite and Infinite Games (see the note below). This is the book that triggered my recent reflections on my life as an artist. One section of his book deals specifically with art and culture and the relationships that we have with art as artists. I could have re-read Otto Rank’s Art and Artist but Carse does that for me. Rank’s book is always close to hand but it’s falling apart do to the handling it’s received over the years. Carse argues that the greatest struggle for any society is not with external enemies, but within itself. In society, we strive for titles, recognition for past achievements. But poietai (artists, inventors, storytellers, makers, etcetera according to Plato) are makers of possibilities. He writes (and this is a long quote):
The creativity of culture has no outcome, no conclusion. It does not result in art works, artifacts, products. Creativity is a continuity that engenders itself in others. [quoting Rank] ‘Artists do not create objects, but create by way of objects.’
Art is not art, therefore, except as it leads to an engendering creativity in its beholders. Whoever takes possession of the objects of art has not taken possession of the art.
Since art is never a possession, and always a possibility, nothing possessed can have the status of art. If art cannot become property, property is never art-as property. Property draws attention to titles, points backward toward a finished time. Art is dramatic, opening always forward, beginning something that cannot be finished.
Because it is not conclusive, but engendering, culture has no established catalogue of accepted activities. We are not artists by reason of having mastered certain skills or exercising specified techniques. Art has no scripted roles for its performers. It is precisely because it has none that it is art. Artistry can be found anywhere; indeed, it can only be found anywhere. One must be surprised by it. It cannot be looked for. We do not watch artists to see what they do, but to watch what persons do and discover the artistry in it.
Artists cannot be trained. One does not become an artist by acquiring certain skills or techniques, though one can use any number of skills and techniques in artistic activity. The creative is found in anyone who is prepared for surprise. Such a person cannot go to school to be an artist, but can only go to school as an artist.
Therefore, poets do not “fit” into society, not because a place is denied them but because they do not take their “places” seriously. They openly see its role as theatrical, its styles as poses, its clothing costumes, its rules conventional, its crises arranged, its conflicts performed, and its metaphysics ideological.
So, if my life has been about engendering engendering creativity in the beholder, I think I’ve done that, at least to my satisfaction. Obviously, the best judgments of my impact on people must come from them. Ask my former students and people who contemplate my art embodied in the works I have created and you’ll get varying answers. All I can say is my objectives in my classes and in my paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures have always been to engender a surprise and a new commitment to creativity. Therein lies some of the meaning in my life. I’ve been fortunate to have more. My children, grown women now, are the pride of my life and both creative in boundless ways. I could take credit for that, but Carolyn is largely responsible, I’m afraid, as I was absent a lot as they were growing up. Carolyn, in her own right, is a talented artist. She uses her garden as her main palette, but her skills as a cook are unsurpassed. I can’t take credit for anything they’ve accomplished as individuals, but as a family I think we rock!
✿This concept comes from a book by James P. Carse entitled Finite and Infinite Games, (The Free Press, 1986). Carse is a great inspiration to me, a true artist. I will review his book and its significance for me in a separate blog post soon.
My oncologist called this past Wednesday to discuss changing my chemo cocktail. The one I had been on for less than a week caused a very bad rash around my whole midsection along with a mild fever. So, I stopped taking that set of meds and am now waiting for word from the pharmacy here at the hospital telling me that my new meds have arrived. I’ve got appointments lined up for the first week of December, but I may be called to come in earlier. It’s all par for the course. Hurry up and wait.
Thing is, this new set of meds has caused some pretty significant side effects for a couple of people I know with myeloma. We’ll have to keep a close watch on symptoms, especially those related to peripheral neuropathy. Can’t say I’m looking forward to the new meds but then again, I’m not too sure what the alternatives would be. I’ve sometimes thought about what would happen if I turned down any and all chemo. I know that there are drugs that are more palliative than chemo and I seriously wonder how many more years of good quality life I could get out of benign neglect rather than with aggressive intervention. These are just things I think about late at night when I’m falling asleep along with visualizing my death bed.
I’ve been reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Natural Causes. She’s a couple of years older than me and had a malignant tumour removed from a breast some time ago. She’s fit, she’s healthy but she also writes that: “I gradually came to realize that I was old enough to die.” She means that she’s had a good life, a fulfilling life, which is much more than is afforded many of us. She notes that the military considers eighteen year olds old enough to die and that there is no ‘best before date’ stamped on our asses. Some political leaders lead well into their eighties and nineties. That said, there is a time, when we reach seventy or so years of age when our obituary is likely to read “died of natural causes” than anything else. At a certain age, she argues, there is no need for an explanation for dying. It’s okay to die. Of course we should expect to die. Dying is as natural as being born although we generally consider it a travesty and a high order insult to life. I visualize myself dying, but I’m not convinced that the visualization can ever be very accurate. The closest I can come to visualizing the end of my life is when I’ve had a general anesthetic. Under a general anesthetic, the first drug they administer puts one under, makes one unconscious. If that’s the way I’m going to go, I can live with that. I watched as they put our last dog Wilco down a year ago August. First the sedative, then the lethal dose of whatever it is that kills. That kind of end would be fine with me. If I have to do it, and I don’t see any way out, this is what works for me.
Pain is an entirely other matter. I’ve had too much of that in my life and I don’t want to die under a heavy blanket of pain. Some pain would be alright, but nothing overwhelming. No pain would be the best, but that’s asking a lot of this aging, crumbling body to deliver. So, I’m willing to compromise and accept some pain when my dying time comes. I watched my mother as she lay dying in her nursing home bed almost two years ago now. She had Alzheimer’s and was unable to communicate at all verbally. She did communicate her pain, however. She was under high doses of morphine but we could tell when the morphine would wear off because she would get more and more agitated. I have no idea what she was experiencing, but I have the strong sense that it wasn’t at all pleasant. I was not there in her room when she actually took her last breath but as my sister recalls it, it was all fairly anti-climactic. Chances are very good that I won’t follow my mother’s example in death. For one thing, with myeloma I’m not likely to live long enough, and for another thing, I’ll probably still be sentient and able to make some decisions myself about my own death, unlike what happened to my mother. My mother was a very fine mother, cheeky as all get out sometimes and able to maintain a sense of humour before some pretty daunting odds at times. Dementia robbed her of end of life quality of life. That’s a shame. One of my sisters died a few years ago. She was four years older then me and had lung cancer. She was sentient for most of the time or her dying, but I wasn’t there when she finally gave up her last breath. I was a ferry ride away and unable to make it. She died a half hour before I got to the hospice centre where she ‘lived’. I know one thing for sure. She was pumped full of morphine for some time before she died and that effectively shut down her ability to decide anything.
Lately I’ve been experimenting a little with my pain meds. I’m on a large dose of hydromorphone (not related to morphine- a lot stronger, actually) taking two 1mg pills every four hours. I tried to back off some and take a lower dose every four hours for a day. I felt I could probably manage that because my pain was pretty much under control. Mistake! My pain is under control because I’m taking shitloads of hydromorphone. When I tried to back off, pain started to come back in my neck, ribs, right pelvic area, legs and shoulders. I knew that if I didn’t resume my twelve mg pill load a day that I would soon be completely incapacitated and bedridden. The decision was a no-brainer, but I was hoping for a better outcome.
One of the issues, of course, is that I haven’t really started treatments yet for multiple myeloma. I’ve been diagnosed and all that, but I haven’t had any chemotherapy to mitigate the effects of the disease, so it may be that in a few weeks or months and I go into remission that I’ll be able to back off my pain meds successfully. Wow, that would be cool. For now, I’ll continue ingesting lots of hydromorphone and maybe indulge in a beer or two, maybe even a tiny bit of scotch. It’s okay, all my specialists say a couple of beer are ok. I didn’t ask them about the scotch.
One (or more) of my readers here have suggested that I don’t swear anywhere near enough in my narrative. Well, fuck that! I’ll swear if I want to, swear if I want to, swear if I want to. You’d swear too, if it happened to you! (Figure out the song this is based on). Fuck!
Alright, I have a confession to make. I’m not always the most reasonable person around. The photo above is of our fifty-year-old, sixteen foot “Huron” canoe outfitted with outriggers, a mast and sail, along with a deep-cycle battery and an electric motor, and paddles of course. First off, it’s a canoe, not a sailboat, but it did sail very well in moderate to somewhat higher winds. It’s tied here to a stump on Buttle Lake near Ralph River Provincial Campground where we recently spent a few days. The lake was relatively calm. We probably paddled and used the motor to get to this spot not far away from the campground.
On another day, however, we went out in relative calm and while we were out there, the wind blew up. It often does in the afternoons on Buttle Lake. We sailed very quickly to a spot down the lake called Auger Point, a three-kilometre run. Getting back from there was anything but pleasant. We should have known better. Happily, we had the motor that I cranked to full power but even with that we had to paddle at ramming speed to get back to the river mouth where we kept the boat tied up, maybe a kilometre to our camp site. That was one tiring run home. It would have been different had we been able to sail closer to the wind, but with the sail we had and the lack of a leeboard, we were in for a rough upwind fight. Carolyn and I are experienced canoeists and at no time did I feel like we were in trouble, but paddling as hard as we could was feasible even ten years ago, not so much now that I’m 72 and Carolyn is handicapped by arthritis in her hands. Still, we are strong paddlers and we made it without swearing and berating ourselves too much. Now, having done this once and also having promised ourselves to never do it again, what do we do? We go out there again on another day and get caught in the snottiest wind and wave conditions I think I’ve ever seen on the lake. What can I say? Again, we went out on a day that promised to be benign so we headed up the lake looking for a nice place to swim. We paddled down to a bay maybe four kilometers from the campground but there was someone on the beach playing music and fishing from shore. So, we headed down and across the lake to a bay still some distance from the campground where we knew we could skinny dip. As we enjoyed the beautiful lake water and the most enjoyable swim, the lake decided to turn against us, and the wind started blowing strongly from the north. We set out with the motor at half throttle, but we soon had to up that to full throttle and full on paddle to boot. Well, we’ve had some situations in the past where we paddled as hard as we could against a wind without making much headway at all. But we were young then and had much more energy and stamina than we do now. Coming around the point close to the campground we were hit with two-foot chop. That was fine as long as we were able to paddle directly into the wind, but that was not possible as we rounded the point moving east towards the campground. We were abreast to the wind, paddling as hard as we could with the assistance of the motor, and we were being beaten hard by the waves to the point where we started taking on water from the port side. Sensing that we probably couldn’t make it back to the river’s mouth where we would have preferred to leave the boat, we turned the boat downwind and took her into shore on a muddy, unpleasant part of the lakeshore, but still within easy walking distance to our campsite. That’s where she stayed overnight.
The next morning, we took her around to the river’s mouth. We were exhausted, especially me, and I hurt everywhere. Silly us. After that episode, we got reasonable and didn’t do it again. Actually, we got our best swim of our stay on Buttle Lake a couple of days later with no trouble.
The family joined us last Thursday and that was great, but I felt a pain in my right side and shoulder that was getting worse and worse. There’s no doubt in my mind that fighting the extreme winds on Buttle not once but twice contributed significantly to my injury. I was definitely injured. The pain got so bad (pushing 9.5 out of 10) that I was very relieved to know that I had some T3s in my toiletry bag. I took two and felt hardly any relief. Later, I took two more along with some CBD and THC (I have a prescription for them). I managed to sleep fitfully although some people might suggest I was not sleeping as much as in an altered state of mind. The next day the pain had not attenuated at all, and we had to leave the campsite and head home. I couldn’t help pack up at all and my son-in-law was conscripted to drive the truck home towing our old eighteen-foot Holidaire trailer. I could barely sit still on the way home, having to shift my weight often to try to lessen the pain. The drive home was uneventful, but I still hurt, easily pushing 6 out of 10.
After being home for a bit and still at the end of my rope trying to deal with pain that prevented me from even taking a deep breath, I took two ibuprophen, went to bed for an hour or so and got up feeling fine. A miraculous recovery! I would have taken ibuprophen a lot earlier, but I was counselled in 2002 after my left kidney was removed because of cancer that I should avoid anti-inflammatory meds. I didn’t take any until this past weekend and just took two more a few minutes ago. The meds are still keeping the pain at bay, but I’m loathe to keep taking anti-inflammatory meds like ibuprophen because they are hard on the kidneys. So, tomorrow I call my doctor and make an appointment to see if there are any alternatives to ibuprophen I can take that might help mitigate acute pain. I’m used to chronic pain, but the acute pain brought on by the foolishness in our canoe was untouched by acetaminophen, even with codeine, and even supplemented with CBD and THC. My problem seemed to me clearly one of muscular inflammation. It’s clear that I need a solution to deal with acute pain because I can’t promise to always be reasonable in the future. My family was extremely supportive, and I love it for that, but I feel that I need to pull my own weight too. I will not always have my family there to support me if I get into unreasonable trouble again. I need good meds too!
I haven’t written much here in the last while because of my other commitments. I chair a Museum board of directors and we’re very busy right now with governance reviews and all kinds of other activities. I’m also involved in an affordable housing nonprofit and other community organizations. It’s funny, but, on the one hand, when I don’t write for a while I feel restless and more anxious than usual. On the other hand, when I do write or draw or paint or sculpt, I often feel guilty for being so self absorbed. It’s not rational to feel this way, but that’s the way it is and I’m not about to get psychiatric help for it. At my age, I’ve learned to accept some of my more irrational feelings knowing that my frontal cortex is not completely in charge of my feelings and behaviour.
Besides, there are great alternatives to psychoanalysis or psychiatry, family time being one of them. I know that family time for many people means tension, pain and sorrow. That’s not true at all for me. My family is the glue that holds me together. We don’t always agree on everything as a family but on the important things we do agree. We absolutely all agree in the healing power of family connection. As a sociologist, especially one influenced by Norbert Elias, Thorstein Veblen, and Emile Durkheim among others, I understand the power of human connections. The absence of closeness, touching (physical and psychical), and interdependency can lead to early death in children and lifelong stress and anxiety in adults. We need other people, it’s as simple as that. Elias goes so far as to say that we as individuals don’t exist. We exist only on the social level. Everything beyond our most basic physical, tropismatic activities like peeing and pooping are social and even those activities are shrouded in social valuation. We don’t exist in society only in the present either. Our social connections go back a long way and often in ways obscure to us in our current mindscapes.
All that said, for two weekends in a row now, I’ve spent time with family. We don’t live close to our daughters and their families so if we want to get together we have to travel or they have to travel. It takes a substantial effort and it costs money. This past weekend my daughters came over from Vancouver with their families to where we live on Vancouver Island. We have three grandchildren under the age of ten and they make great house guests. One of our daughters and her husband also brought along one of his brothers and his wife. They all came to help us old wounded elders get a new porch built on the house and do a lot of gardening and related work. Without them our acre of gardens would soon revert to a natural state and we would be compelled to seriously consider downsizing. I’m just not yet ready for that.
The weekend before, Carolyn and I travelled to Vancouver to stay with one of my daughters and her family so that we might all attend a Mother’s Day Brunch event that one of my older sisters puts on every year for the family and friends. The whole family was not in attendance (I still have thirteen brothers and sisters as well as countless nieces, nephews, cousins and assorted other relatives) but it was well attended. My sister puts on a spread fit for kings and queens. Lots and lots of great food on offer. So much love goes into that event. My grandchildren had never experienced it before so this was a first for them.
I could go into more detail about each event, but the point is that on both weekends the spirit that reigned was one of helpfulness, caring and sharing. I’m not the most effusive guy out there, but I know that even if we’re not always on the same political wavelength, we know the value of family solidarity and togetherness. I’m also not given to maudlin outbursts. This is as close as it comes. However, I need to acknowledge my deep-seated need for human connection and love. That need, my family fulfills to my heart’s brim all the time, every day but especially on weekends when they come to help build a new porch! I pity people without family support no matter how one defines family.
Unfortunately, when our natural families do not or cannot provide us with the love and support we naturally crave as humans, we sometimes turn to other types of family in the form of gangs, politically or religiously extreme groups or we turn on ourselves and die inside like children in orphanages who literally died from emotional deprivation, neglect, or suffered hospitalism (See Rene Spitz’s study of Hospitalism). That’s the downside to our craving for connection.