Alison Garwood Jones

The long goodbye …

February 2, 2010

Catherine Garwood-Jones

I got a lot of moving feedback the first time I wrote about my mother, Catherine, here in  The Long Goodbye, published four years ago on this blog. After she died in December 2012, I expanded on the story of our relationship and turned it into a magazine piece for Glow Magazine. You can read that version here. I dedicate my work to my brothers, Peter and Richard.

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My mother knew her entire adult life what was coming. But confirmation arrived the day she shuffled into the kitchen, swung open a few cupboard doors, then turned to me and asked, “Where are the singing noodles?” From that day forward, I stopped leaning on mum and started extending a protective hand. Before long, pots began appearing in the oven, car keys in the fridge, and sticky notes with basic English words started multiplying across every surface of the house — all quirks of the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Nothing erases human nature like Alzheimer’s. The imprint of the disease is the same in everyone who gets it. They all disappear down the same path, exhibiting more or less the same set of behaviors. Most go from nervous fusspots crying “No, no, no” (the last word in their drained vocabulary) to silent bodies with gawping mouths and fixed stares. Mum’s mum gave her a preview of what was in store before she died of the disease thirty-five years ago. That’s why I prefer to think about what made my mother unique before age flicked a switch inside her body and unleashed this great leveler.

For someone born before the Crash of ’29 my mother had a remarkably liberal view of a woman’s place in the world. By the time I came along she was already in her early 40s and so excited to have a girl, after two boys, that she later told me she regularly whispered in my infant ears, “Ah, someone who’ll understand.” Right from the start, she knew we’d be confidantes and that we’d have each other’s backs until the end.

One thing that set my mother apart was that, once I was out of the house, she never ever tapped on her watch and asked, Where are my grandchildren? To me or my brothers. Her own struggles to conceive sensitized her to this loaded topic. But it was more than that. She had this rare ability to honour the life of the individual. That meant that other people’s unconventional choices never sent her into a tailspin. Not like some women in the neighbourhood.

In her day, of course, women attached themselves to men like the stateless to life boats, their fortunes rising and sinking with their rescuers. All too often, you married the man you wanted to be: aspiring novelists teamed up with practicing writers (becoming their first readers, typists, editors, and, sometimes, their ghost writers) while nurses said “I do” to doctors, and vowed to always pass the scalpel but never perform with it. Mum, on the other hand, believed in developing a person’s potential, not thwarting it. So when I grew up and decided that filling a blank page constituted a large chunk of my identity, she was right there with me. She didn’t go out of her way tutor me about love, and I think that was deliberate. At that point I had no interest in living an integrated life. What were guys to books? When we did talk men, she just smiled, looked me in the eye and said, “You”ll have to figure that one out on your own.” Confounding, but true.

All the while she kept feeding and watering my individuality, so that every time I came home to visit my parents at Christmas or Spring Break, there was a new book at the end of my bed touching on one of my many interests: painting, history, culture, biography. Those books have moved with me to every house I’ve lived in since university. There’s the doorstopper, Paintings in the Musée d’Orsay, the elegant Complete Guide to Chinese Brush Painting Techniques and Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea, an ode to the many forces that shape a woman’s life.

Mum expressed a lot of things before Alzheimer’s pulled her under. Because she knew she was about to lose everything the declarations just poured out. “I want you to be happy,” she said, still not serving up a prescription for how I should get there. “I love that guy,” she’d smile, pointing to my dad while he was pushing a grocery cart down the produce aisle or, more likely, watching the Golf Channel. She must have said “I love you” to him more times in her last year (of speech) than in the final two decades of their sixty plus year marriage. Most times, he was too busy staring at the TV, wincing at a missed putt, to hear.  But he knew, and we knew because she was telling the whole room, the entire store … no, the entire world. I’m glad I witnessed this as an adult. The romantic in me is forever believing in love’s power to cut through chaos, disappointment and change as it did with my parents. He had her back, and she his.

A few months before we handed mum over to the care of a team of nurses (she was beyond consulting on this), she called me and left a message on my answering machine. Something in me said, This is the last time she’s going to know how to pick up the phone and dial my number. That hunch proved true. I played her message over and over that week, then popped a blank tape in my ghetto blaster and pushed “record” so I’d have her voice with me forever.

It’s been seven years since she left that message and I haven’t listened to the tape since. I can’t. In that moment in time, she put aside her doubt and fear for herself and with a shaky, lilting voice let me know, “I miss you, Alison, and I just wanted to let you know I think about you every day and hope that everything’s going well in Toronto. I love you. Bye.” From the commotion, I could tell she missed placing the receiver in the carriage on the first try. That vulnerability makes my knees buckle every time I think about it.

24 Responses to “The long goodbye …”

  1. Lorie says:

    Alison…this is beautiful…what a tribute to your mother…my uncle (my mothers only brother) had alzheimers) when we went to see him in his later stages, he called me the most beautiful woman he had ever seen….he knew my mom only by her nickname…we took him to the Ford museum in Detroit and when my mom was on the merry go round and he sat there and cried everytime she came round…it was heartbreaking but it is such a hard disease to digest….

    God bless you and the memory you have of your mother…cherish it forever…

    your friend

    Lorie

  2. This is a wonderfully moving story, Alison. And your honesty, style and voice make it that much more evocative.

    While it's sad to watch someone close to us fade away – it's especially hard to witness a parent, whose strength and guidance we count on to always be with us – your thoughtful piece does more than share a memory; it inspires.

  3. Alec Scott says:

    Oh Alison! How lovely — what a woman she sounds.I liked her comfortableness with unconventional choices. And, oh, her telling your father she loved him, and oh, the final message to you. What a lovely woman she sounds to have been.

    It's been too long since I've seen you. Back at the end of March — would love to catch up.

    Alec Scott

  4. David Hayes says:

    Just caught up to this, Alison. Very moving & beautifully written. So many toxic relationships with parents & siblings; it's a tonic for the soul to read about so lovely a one. d

  5. What a lovely piece of writing, and a lovely tribute.

  6. Anna-Christina says:

    Hi Alison, I'm not sure if you remember me, but we used to have lunch together way-back when you were working at Transcon…you have written a beautiful tribute to your mum. Thank you for sharing this inspiring post; I hope you are doing well.

    • AlisonGJ says:

      I course I remember you, Anna-Christina! Are you still with TV guide? I'm so glad you got in touch.

      Wishing you all good things,

      Alison

      p.s. I'm curious how you found my blog.

  7. The Long Goodbye… brought tears to my eyes. It's such a beautiful recollection and so sad. Your mother must have been a very special person. Thanks for writing it.

  8. M. Adamson says:

    AGJ,

    How perfect; a piece as beautiful as you are. As I finished reading this, through watery eyes, I thought, what an optimistic way to look at one of lifes tough situations. How very touching, frank and real this piece is. A true testament to the bond that mothers and daughters share.

    Thank you for your beautiful writing and your positive outlook. Thank you for reminding us all to hold on to all the good memories, in sickness and in health.

    Cheers to a true shining star; on and off the page.

    With love,

    ~M

  9. Just discovered your blog, thanks to Martin Waxman. I just love this tribute to your mom.

  10. I seem to be a little late getting around to reading the comments on your blog. I'm delighted to read that others think you are a talented writer, something I've known for a number of years, but then I'm biased, I'm your father.!!
    Thank you for being such a wonderful daughter.
    Love
    Dad

  11. Mitch Bauer says:

    Hello Alison,

    My condolences for the passing of your father. I remember him as a kindhearted man, following your Mom and Richard to tennis tournaments. I lost track of your family, but have fond memories of spending summer afternoons at your house on the mountain, enjoying the company of your family.
    Best Wishes.
    Mitch Bauer

    • AlisonGJ says:

      Mitch, you're a sweetheart. Thank you. My mother loved how you stood up every time she entered the room. And my dad thought you were an excellent tennis player. I hope you're well. ~ Alison

  12. Howard Mark says:

    Alison

    I have a daughter named Allison, she was not pleased that we spelled her name with two l's, and she still lives in Hamilton. We have never met, but I spent six years working with your father. During that time your mothe would visit the office on Hughson Street South, in the century stone building where Husband and Wallace had their practice. Trevor was a good man and a good friend although we went our separate ways I will always remember the enjoyment I had doing my thing in his office.

    I am living and working here in China, and every day is a new adventure. Sometimes a tad lonely since there are few English speaking people in Haikou, which is the main city on the Island of Hainan in the South China Sea., and even after six years in China my mandarin fluency is sub-beginner's level. Something about differentiating the tones…

    words are so inept sometimes when you must deal with your mothers condition, life is so unfair,but one becomes stronger when faced with adversity.

    I sent your father some images of a panoramic view of Mount Everest and he replied with a thank you and added that life seems so insignificant when viewed with the immensity of Everest.

    be well in spirit as well as body

    Howard Mark
    designomni.haikou@gmail.com

  13. harriet taylor says:

    I find it difficult to comment. My husband has Alzheimers and Parkinsons, has been in a nursing home for over 2 1/2 years. A good, decent, kind man, and we have four children who ar eall successful in their own way, nine grand children and one great grandson!
    Our current subject of interest is that the partner of our youngest daughter has just had a double lung transplant at the Toronto General Hospital, and Sarah is working very hard to increase awareness for Organ Donation,, Be a Donor.

    I would ask the readers to think about being a donor, check out Sarah Taylor-Keith Childerhose, lung trasplant site, and learn more.

    The subject of Alzhiemers, the silent disease, is horific, I have had wonderful help and support from the Alzhiemer society, and the great visiting done by Ian Hassell, first as a volunteer with the AS, now with his own business, Best Years.

    Send it on!

    H. Taylor

    • AlisonGJ says:

      Harriet, thank you for your very touching note. Comments from readers like you are why I write (and blog). Thank you to Ian too for passing my blog information on. He's a fine guy, isn't he? My best to you and your family. ~ Alison

  14. Peter Garwood-Jones says:

    Little Sis, I keep reading this about mother and cant help but shed many tears. I miss her and dad. They raised the three of us to be strong and understand how life really works. I can only say that everyone out there should take a second look at their relationships with their parents and siblings because the one day you want to say something to them, that is dear to oneself, they are gone.
    Love BB