By January of 2009 I was out of money. I had spent what I had left on new hearing aids trying to get my hearing back and on learning once again a new trade. Catharine suggested I apply for the Ontario Disability Support Plan (ODSP) – essentially a disability pension. I applied with her help. For the first time in my life it was beneficial for me to have disabilities. Once I had described all of my disabilities to them and how they impacted on my life it wasn’t hard to qualify. ODSP gave me the breathing space I needed to regroup. My disabilities had gained the better of me and I needed time to get a handle on them. Being on disability allowed me access to the counselling I needed to deal with my depression.
Three months after I started receiving disability benefits a program called Building Bridges (BB) started. Building Bridges was for anyone who wanted to start a business and become self-employed. BB participants could either supplement their ODSP income or get off it altogether. I jumped at the chance. After my longstanding troubles with trying to find paid employment, I now saw self-employment as my most viable option if I was ever going to get back into the workforce. I was determined. This time being in business would be different. There was very little stress in copywriting, virtually no overhead and I could work from where I lived.
The timing of this program couldn’t have been better. Building Bridges was formed through the partnership of two agencies – Ontario March of Dimes (OMOD) and Independent Living Resource Centre (ILRC) – plus the PARO Centre for Women’s Enterprise (PARO), a not-for-profit business helping women start a business to achieve their independence. ODSP oversaw the progress of the BB participants. The beauty of BB was that social service agencies were partnered with the corporate smarts of a business.
I was in the pilot project for the Building Bridges program. In its 15 year history I was one of the first three men to receive business help from PARO. As you can imagine the men were widely outnumbered by the women. I called it “mixing it up with the ladies” and it was an experience. PARO helped me complete what I’d tried unsuccessfully to do by myself which was to compose a business plan and start a copywriting business. On February 16, 2010, I proudly started BGS Communications, (Brian G. Spare Communications). I became a freelance copywriter with PARO as my first customer.
Then I had an idea for Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. I really liked the story but the 1850s English was hard going. “Somebody should re-write this into modern prose,” I thought. I decided I would do it. Over two years I abridged and translated Moby-Dick. When I was finished my work was different enough in from Melville’s novel to give it its own title. On October 12, 2012, I launched my first book The Hunt for Moby Dick.
The Independent Living Resource Centre (ILRC) ensured that the Building Bridges participants, given their disabilities, could apply the business skills they learned at PARO. The workshops and seminars at PARO and ILRC provided me with much needed practice in listening to lectures and participating in group discussions. My confidence level was boosted enormously as I learned to adapt my hearing. I was inspired to join the Board of Directors for the Independent Living Resource Centre Thunder Bay.
Ontario March of Dimes’ part in the Building Bridges program was to test for and to teach me the basic skills that I needed to work such as computer and typing. Their aptitude test showed me to be suited for writing among other things.
There was a constant conflict inside me. I wanted to forge ahead in life but at the same time go away and hide.When I explained my situation to OMOD they found me a counsellor for my depression. His name was Hugh. I was expecting Hugh to have a Dr. Phil look with a regular hair cut, standard sports jacket, dress shirt, dress pants and shoes. The man I met was ten years older than me with thinning, grey, shoulder length hair. He wore a denim vest, button up shirt, jeans and moccasins. I found Hugh to be a very knowledgeable, highly intuitive, warm and peaceful man. He wore a broad smile, had a genuine concern for people and was sincere in everything he said. Hugh and I worked well together.
During two years of monthly sessions Hugh coached me out of my depression. It took me that long to change my mindset and really catch on to what he was telling me. Hugh got me to face the hostility in the dark, craggy, cold, gaping hole in my chest. He said the hole was not hostile. It was my space and I had no reason to get rid of it. I learned from Hugh that the hole – the deep emotional wound I couldn’t heal – was my parents’ influence on my life which left me the morning Mom died. What I lost that morning was what I needed to lose if I was truly going to find myself. From then on that hole became a friendly, clean-edged, light-filled space – my space – a womb full of warmth that I could expand to accommodate and nurture all my thoughts, dreams, feelings and experiences. I was released from a feeling of deficiency and found that I am, in a word, complete. I could believe in myself again.
After many failed interviews I found work for a short time in a geochemical lab. Then I applied to work in a medical lab only to be told that I would have to re-train since I had been out of the field too long. This rejection was my motivation to try new things. I had a decision to make. Do I spend three years of full time school retraining to get my old medical lab job back or do I try my hand at something new – something of my choosing? I opted for the new. The time for change had come. I would close the door on the scientific world and open another to take my life in a different direction. When I came to this decision I was filled with a sense of freedom. I felt some guilt too since I was departing from the life my parents had worked so hard to forge for me. Even though I was more or less forced into it all the feelings I had about this change were very positive. I knew intuitively that making my way through life on my terms was what I had to do.
My parents had been dead for over a year and I had made many decisions of my own accord like renovating the house and settling Mom and Dad’s estates. When it came to changing the direction of my life, despite the positive feelings, I wanted their consent – as if I needed to hear them say, “Brian, it’s all right.”
I went to St. Andrew’s cemetery and told Mom and Dad my plan as I stood in front of their headstone. What I got for a reply was a resounding silence. It was a shock but what was I expecting? I realized then that this grave was only a marker of my past life and not an anchor to it. Until that moment I couldn’t fully separate my parents from my new life. I had decided that since my parents were buried in Thunder Bay here is where I must stay. But the silence of their grave shouted back at me to make that final separation. Never again would I consider what my parents might have wanted. If ever I needed to leave Thunder Bay I would.
The question now was – what should I do? Drawing and designing were things I had always loved to do. So in September of 2002 I enrolled in the three year Architectural Technology program at Confederation College in Thunder Bay. When I started the program I weighed 186 lbs. With the stress of full time study adding to my bad nerves I resorted to comfort foods. At the end of my second year in the Architectural Technology program in April of 2004 I was 207 lbs.
That July my doctor discovered I had high blood pressure. I was shocked. My blood pressure had always been normal.
The doctor said, “Brian, the number one cause of high blood pressure is being overweight and not exercising.”
I sat for hours in front of a computer at the college, drove home to sit in front of the TV and I was very overweight. There was no denying it. I was fat.
The year before I started college I told Catharine about my frustrations in my inability to find work. “Thin people are taken more seriously than fat people,” I said, “I can’t do anything about my facial paralysis or my balance but I can thin myself out.” Even then I wasn’t seriously trying to lose weight. I sought to solve my weight problem with plastic surgery. I’d simply have the fat removed – a quick fix – and I started to look for a plastic surgeon.
After I was told that I had high blood pressure something clicked inside me. I became so frustrated with myself in knowing that I was the author of this. I had let myself get to this point. For years I said I should lose weight. I went on a diet and dropped a few pounds only to put them back on plus a few more. When I spoke to the plastic surgeon at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto who eventually operated on me, she said she could do the surgery but first I had to lose 50 lbs. There was no easy way out and that’s what I needed to hear. Now I was adamant. “I will lose weight,” I said and I set out a plan to do it. I made an oath with myself. “I’ll be 180 lbs by Christmas and after that I’m losing five pounds a month.” It was a challenging but realistic goal – a goal where I had to change my diet and lifestyle enough so the weight would stay off.
From then on I watched every calorie and reduced the amount I ate to the point of feeling a bit hungry most of the time. I needed to get my stomach to want less food. Comfort foods were out and fruits and veggies were in. The only exercise I could do with any proficiency was walking. So everywhere I went involved going for a walk. I went for a long brisk walk (and sometimes two) every day. By New Year’s, 2005, I was 180 lbs (close enough?), 175 by the end of January, 170 by February 28th, and by April’s end I had lost 50 lbs. I saw the surgeon in June of 2005 and we scheduled my surgery for October 30th. A pang of emotion swept over me as we set the date. “It’s really going to happen,” I said to her. The goal I diligently worked so hard at for over a year was going to become reality.
“Yes it really is,” she said.
I chose this surgeon because I sensed she understood why I was doing this. She saw it was part of what had become a personal mission to better myself and to get ahead in life.
For the months up until surgery I stayed on my weight loss regimen. As I got down to 160 lbs I asked myself, “How much weight is enough to lose?” My body told me. When I reached 140 lbs I started to feel thin. I knew I was close to the weight I should be. By the time I had surgery I was 131 lbs. I lost 76 lbs. This surgery was the first of two. It was a tummy tuck and buttock lift to remove the excess skin left over from losing weight and the skin folds I’d had for years from being on decadron.
When I woke up I had a gruesome-looking surgical wound that went right round my middle just above my hips. I looked as if I’d been chopped in half and sewn back together. Fortunately it didn’t hurt that much. I dropped ten pant sizes from 40 to 30 and medium sized shirts to small. Best of all my blood pressure returned to normal. The second part would be done the following October to remove the redundant skin folds on the insides of my upper arms and inner thighs.
The night before I went into St. Michael’s for my second plastic surgery I sat in a chair of my hotel room and thought. “How many surgeries have I had by now?” Counting them up I’d had 20. Tomorrow’s surgery would be number 21. Four years passed from when I started looking for a plastic surgeon to my second surgery.
But it wasn’t enough to find a surgeon. I had to pay for the plastic surgery. I used most of my savings to do this. It was money well spent. I have no second thoughts about that. My body is no longer the source of embarrassment that it had become for years. I have more energy and people take me more seriously. I’m proud of my achievement. All the positive feedback from people was terrific.
“Are you Brian Spare who …?”
“Wow, you lost so much weight I hardly knew you!”
It’s great to hear and it boosted my sense of accomplishment tremendously. I got comments like this for over a year.
The day after I got back I started reintegrating into Thunder Bay life. When I was renovating the Whalen Street house I became interested in Interior Design. That September I signed up for an evening course at Confederation College called “The Theory of Colour,” the first of five courses which I took over the next year and a half to earn a certificate in Interior Decorating. I was the single male out of an average 20 participants in each course. At first I felt like a fish out of water. But I got to like being the only man there and I developed a good rapport with the ladies. To this day Interior Design is a keen interest of mine.
Dad’s parents wanted him to be a commercial artist but Dad had his mind set on becoming an engineer like his Uncle Ted. Dad was always doodling caricatures of people and he was good at it. I’ve kept all of his drawings and one of his paintings hangs over my desk. I wondered if I had inherited any of his artistic skills. I signed up for a painting class as well. We made landscape and still life oil paintings and sketches. I found I did have some talent. I joined a painting group in January and found my niche in painting colourful landscapes.
I applied for work in other private labs in Thunder Bay and just about any job I thought I could do but to no avail. Nobody wanted me. There is no doubt in my mind that my general appearance shocked most potential employers. I got to know the expression on the face of a job interviewer seeing me for the first time. His/her eyes would widen slightly and gasp a bit while straightening up in the chair. They would be at a loss for words until I said hello. We politely went through the interview but I knew I didn’t have the job before we started. When I saw night work at the newspaper I applied for it. “At least nobody has to see me on the midnight shift,” I said to myself. I didn’t get past that interviewer either. The interviewers whom I met assumed my physical disabilities impaired my basic intellectual skills. That was their first impression of me and those perceptions are hard to change.
I vented my frustrations to my long time friend, Olga. She thought how unfair it was to turn someone down because of their appearance. Olga had left teaching to become a successful insurance agent and had joined a Rotary club. Twice she took me to a Rotary meeting to introduce me to her business contacts. Olga knew what I was able to do and her contacts would take her word for it regardless of what they thought when they saw me. But I shied away from Rotary. I was feeling very unsure of myself emotionally. The thought of working with confident, self-assured people was daunting. I didn’t join Rotary and I spent many frustrating years searching to find, on my own, those contacts Olga had tried to provide me with. I spoke to Olga a few years later and admitted, “Getting me out to Rotary to find contact people was exactly what I needed.”
Olga looked at me and said, “Brian, you weren’t ready for it.”
In many ways I was lost. In the split second when I found Mom dead in bed the tapestry of the protected world that my parents made for me unravelled. A big chunk of me jumped out of the middle of my chest, out through her bedroom window and away into the sky. It left a fathoms-deep, dark, cold, craggy-edged hole that I wanted to fill with whatever departed. I didn’t know what had left me but I knew I wanted it back. I felt the weight of that hole with every breath.
The effects of the shock wave that hit me that fateful morning when I found my mother dead stayed with me for a year. I shut down emotionally and yet my heart ached with an emptiness I could not suppress. Tears left me that morning and I have not shed a tear since. For the first two months I hurt twenty-four seven. As the year progressed I wasn’t hurting all the time and I felt guilty for not hurting. We’re strange creatures, aren’t we? The hurt turned into what I came to know as anxiety and depression. It was with me all the time dogging every aspect of my life – like wading through waste deep water impeding my progress to do things. Nearly everything I did was such an arduous task that any feeling of accomplishment was taken away and replaced with relief that it was finally done. For ten years I searched for a way to get rid of the grief my nerves caused me.
“I don’t control my nerves anymore. They control me. If only I could find what left me I’d be better.”
Once the first year had passed my anxiety and depression were at their worst from mid November through January. Maybe it was the seasonal bleak, cold weather, the approach of the Christmas season or both. Once November set in I dreaded the coming of Christmas. When the holidays arrived I wished the days away even though I still liked the cakes, goodies and get-togethers that came with that time of year. I breathed a sigh of relief when February came and an even bigger sigh when March arrived.
My life quickly changed. It now took a different road – one which did not include my parents. As I endeavoured to trek down that path I asked myself, “Who am I now? What am I? Should my life take the direction it was heading when my parents were alive?” Only one thing became clear. Who and what I am had changed and I had to redefine myself. It was somewhere in that redefinition I would find answers.
I concluded that I couldn’t stay in the Whalen St. house surrounded by the trappings of the past while I searched for my new life. I also realized that just changing where I lived wouldn’t be enough to remake myself. The church I attended had to change as well. The decor of Corpus Christi church would constantly remind me of the many Christmases, Easters and special events of my past life that took place there. The people had to change too. I needed to be part of a parish community where the congregation would know me as Brian and not as my parents’ son.
“If I’m going to move this house needs renovating,” I told myself.
Room by room I painted walls and steam cleaned carpets. As I worked my way around the house I sorted through literally one ton of books and gathered the collectables accumulated by my parents over five decades. No way could I cart all this stuff around with me nor did I want to. It was my parents’ life and not mine. I donated the collectables and novels. The old sets of encyclopedias went to the recycle depot. Working on the house was a transition period when I prepared for my new life.
Two weeks before Christmas I finished renovating. I called Catharine. “Why don’t you and the kids come for Christmas dinner? It’s probably the last Christmas in this house.” She thought it was a great idea. That year I did something I had never done. I roasted a turkey. We had a wonderful holiday meal. In so doing Catharine and I started to say good-bye to the house we grew up in.
By March, 2000, my mind was set. I’d sell the house and a FOR SALE sign went up on the front lawn. Three months later on June 15th, one year to the day that I laid Tara to rest, the house was sold. I bought a condo across town and took with me only a scattering of memorabilia and, of course, my Team Canada autographed hockey stick. Catharine came over the morning of moving day and we toured the empty house talking about all the things that happened over the years. We ended up in the living room and decided it was time to go. I followed Catharine out the door and locked it. She drove with me to my condo and helped me move in.
Once I was settled into my new home I began the search to find myself. My first plan was to travel. I wanted to visit Switzerland. I waited five years to do this. In 1995, when Mom and I flew overseas to see relatives during the month I took off from Tara, while in France, I wanted to tour neighbouring Switzerland. It wasn’t in Mom’s plans and I didn’t go. This time I set the agenda and I made it my first order of business to see Switzerland.
The other goal was to establish my own relationship with my relatives. On the previous trips I was an appendage to my parents’ plans. As long as I was simply a part of Mom and Dad’s visits I remained, at least in my aunt’s and uncle’s eyes, my parents’ son Brian the boy. On this trip I was visiting everyone by myself on a schedule that I set. I would be Brian the man and self-determining individual.
My journey started when I arrived in Paris the morning of August 1, 2000. First on my itinerary was a city bus tour. Seeing the Louvre and Eiffel tower again was nostalgic. They reminded me of my previous visit with my mother when I was ten.
“It’s been 31 years since I’ve seen this.”
The buildings hadn’t changed but I had. In 1969, I was a boy led around by his mother. In 2000, I was an independent confident man. The day was mine. I freely spoke with people and walked about the city.
Back at the hotel I got ready to begin the rest of my trip. As I reviewed my plans I was filled with an anticipation of both excitement and anxiety. I was going to see a country of my choosing and establish my own relationship with my relatives. That evening I eagerly waited at the train station to board an overnight train to Zurich to start a three day jaunt through Switzerland. Day one saw me on a bus tour through Zurich, the financial capital. The next morning I rode the train to Luzern. It was a quaint little town with all its shops. I felt so at peace. A cogwheel train took me up the side of Mt. Rigi through “Heidi country.” The third day I travelled to Geneva for the most awesome fireworks display on the waterfront. The sky was a perpetual burst of colour celebrating Geneva’s birthday. It was worth the trip to Geneva just to see that.
The next day I caught the train to Lyon, France to meet my relatives there for the first time by myself. I was openly welcomed by Mom’s sisters, Delia and Nell, and cousins, Claire and Johnny (Delia’s children). It was a very pleasant four day visit. All too soon it was time to go and Aunt Delia and Johnny saw me off on the train back to Paris to catch my flight to Dublin, Ireland. As I left Lyon I knew I was leaving behind aunts and cousins who had bonded with me.
I spent four days in Ireland at Aunt Gertie’s house in Corofin, County Galway on the farm where Mom was born and grew up. As soon as I set foot in Corofin something stirred within me. It’s hard to put into words the yearning in my heart that began when I arrived in Corofin. I had a burning desire to record and preserve these moments. From then on my trip became a mission which I was compelled to complete. I walked around the area taking pictures of everyone and everything. While I walked I tried to imagine Mom’s life growing up on the farm and her thoughts when she last visited here in July, 1995. Was I seeing this place for the last time? Would I have conversations with my relatives here again? When would I be back? I had no idea. So I had to document it all.
I stayed at my Cousin Kay’s house in Dublin for my last day in Ireland. She and husband, Tom, saw me off on the plane to England to visit Aunt Jean, Dad’s sister, in Northampton, and her daughters, Diane and Valerie, for a week. I went to nearby Lower Harlestone, the village where Dad was born and raised, and where I would have liked to have grown up. Roaming through the village I noted all the places in Dad’s stories. Just as in Corofin I had to photograph and commit to memory as much as I could.
For the last three days of my trip I stayed with Mom’s sister, Josie, in London. I wanted to see Uxbridge and Hillingdon Hospital. They were only a short train ride away. I had to see the town and hospital where my parents had worked and met and where my story began. I had no idea where in Uxbridge Mom and Dad had lived. So I looked around the train station knowing they must have gone through it many times. I needed to walk around a few streets of Uxbridge to get a feel for what they might have seen. Then I walked to Hillingdon Hospital. As I approached I took a picture of the old exterior and went in to walk around the ground floor halls. I wanted to get a feel of the place and wondered what the walls could tell me. Eventually I had to admit it was a hospital that looked much like any other and had no special appeal to me. I left Hillingdon Hospital and Uxbridge with the satisfaction of having been to see them. With my mission complete I headed back to Aunt Josie’s. Early the next morning I said a quick good-bye and thank you to Aunt Josie, got into the waiting taxi and caught my flight back to Canada. This trip gave me a sense of closure on my parents’ lives and on the life I had with them. It opened the door to my own relationship with my relatives.
Mom often told me the story of how she met Dad.
“I met your father in the men’s washroom at Hillingdon,” Mom smiled and laughed as she relived the moment.
In the summer of 1953, Mom was assisting a male patient to the washroom one afternoon. She met a handsome young man, Peter Spare, the Assistant Clinical Chemist. As a nurse she was one of the few women permitted into the men’s washroom.
“He was surprised to see me,” Mom said.
A few days later when they crossed paths they smiled as they talked about their bathroom encounter. That started a two year courtship.
Once Mom and Dad got to know each other they found, despite their very different upbringings, they had many things in common. Both had grown up on a farm and hated the farming life. Each had chosen a profession in health care and had achieved their education through their own means, hard work and determination – and they both desired to leave the UK. When it came to getting an education and forging ahead in life Mom like Dad found her helping hand at the end of her own arm.
Dad owned a three-wheeled, two-seater, Bond Minicar convertible powered by a motorcycle engine. It was constantly breaking down so he kept a tool box in the back to change a spark plug or whatever needed fixing. Often it needed a push to start it. But Mom didn’t know how to drive. Dad would have to steer while Mom pushed. When the car started Mom jumped in and off they went. They made a good team.
“I swear I pushed that car everywhere we went,” Mom said.
September 3, 1955, Mom and Dad were married at St. Patrick‘s church in Northampton, England, and they spent their honeymoon at Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford on Avon. When they returned from their honeymoon Mom and Dad made their final preparations to set sail for their new life together in a new land. In early October they sailed to Canada. They docked in Montreal and rode the train to Sudbury, Ontario, with just $18.00 cash between them.
Soon after they arrived in Canada Mom and Dad tried to start a family. I was born four years later and they adopted Catharine three years after that. Mom and Dad were dedicated parents who raised Catharine and me in a loving and stable environment. They were always supportive to each other and were unwavering in their parental duties.
All through my grade school years we had family, neighbours and friends in and out of our home and guests over for dinner. For every occasion throughout the year we had people and parties at our home. My illness changed all that. From my neurosurgery at Sick Kids in Toronto until my recovery the house parties stopped. During those two years only a few friends came by. An elephant lived in our house and many people didn’t know what to say or do. Adults with healthy children were silently thankful they weren’t in Mom and Dad’s shoes.
The traumatic experience of my brain tumour had affected all of us. I was left with disabilities and the plight of adjusting to them. Mom and Dad had to recover from coping with the distress of watching me get sicker during 1973. They seriously wondered if I would live though it. Catharine quietly watched as the world focused on me. Being younger she weathered the storm better than any of us. When the two years of my recovery had passed, and I was getting out again, the house parties gradually started. Once more other people’s voices enriched our lives.
Mom and Dad continuously applauded my efforts to overcome my disabilities. They did anything and everything to forge a successful path in life for me. Mom never accepted what had happened to me. She had a mother’s guilt of thinking she could have done more for me. She saw the perfect little healthy boy that she had prayed so hard for become sick. Mom was thankful for me but felt cheated that she couldn’t bear more children. Also Mom didn’t become the woman of wealth and prominence she had dreamt about. Mom lived her days looking back to her troubled childhood and it influenced every decision she made. She worked hard to get out of her impoverished life and she sensed she was succeeding in her aims only to be thwarted by circumstances. She wondered when the cruelties of this world would let up on her. Mom felt as if life had been very unfair to her.
“Why do some people go through life with hardly any problems,” Mom said to me, “and others get so many?”
The culmination of all her worries sowed the seed of her depression that didn’t surface until the 1980s. The love that brought Mom and Dad together and bonded them through their life’s journey was always there. As Mom’s depression took root a wedge was driven between them.
Part of Mom’s depression stemmed from the fact that she had no siblings in Canada to support her. “If only Rita had lived she would have come with me,” Mom said to me with a mournful sigh. I recall how her spirits were lifted when she received a letter from one of her sisters. Mom yearned to return to Ireland but Dad had no desire to do so. Although she dearly loved her husband Mom very much resented his choice to stay in Canada. Mom and Dad remained together out of their commitment to each other and to Catharine and me.
Even after Mom’s depression started to take hold of her the get-togethers with friends continued. Not until 1985 did the house parities start to taper off. During the three years I was in London, Ontario, things really diminished. When I came back to Thunder Bay the house was much quieter and even general house maintenance had been left. It demonstrated to me how central I was to Mom and Dad’s lives. Without my presence they lost the focus of what had driven them forward together for many years. Mom and Dad lost each other in their efforts to build a life for me.
When we started Tara Scientific Laboratories my parents found a renewed energy in helping me build a future. Running Tara demanded a lot of our time and by and large took the place of our social lives. Not until the final three months when Mom and I were shutting Tara down did I truly notice just how quiet the house had become. Many of the family friends who were in and out of the house over the years had moved out of town, passed away, or just stopped coming – friends who were never replaced. Our home had become a lonely place.
Once Tara was finished and Dad’s affairs had been put in order, Mom began to lose her positive outlook. She sensed the emptiness of our house too and didn’t see how or have the energy to liven it up once again. Mom lost her focus of helping me build a life now that Tara was gone. She had seen me to my 40th year but she could find no more of herself to give. Mom died of a heart attack in her sleep June 10, 1999. I think her spirit drained away over the last three months of her life.
I laid Dad to rest and then Mom. On June 15, 1999, the day after I buried Mom, I filed Tara’s final taxes. Maybe it was meant to be that way. Mom and Dad steered the course of my life for its first 40 years. Tara Scientific Laboratories was the last part of it on which my parents had influence. When I laid Tara to rest I put aside my parents’ capacity to shape my life. Now navigating my way was solely up to me.
Mom was born Kathleen (Kitty) Shaughnessy on January 12, 1928 in Corofin, County Galway, Ireland, a farming community seven miles outside of the town of Tuam. In the 1930s you either walked or you drove a horse and trap to travel into Tuam. Going into town and back was a day long journey. Kitty’s father, Martin, asked his sister, Colleen, who witnessed Kitty being born if she would register Kitty’s birth when she returned home to Tuam. Colleen forgot. When Martin found out he went to Tuam and made the registration himself. To avoid paying the fine for not registering a birth within the time limit Martin put Kitty’s date of birth down as February 10th. In a way Kitty had two birthdays but she always celebrated her birthday on January 12th. Kitty was the seventh of nine children. No matter how many times I say it I have to count on my fingers to name her brother and sisters. Starting with the oldest they are May, Delia, Nell, John, Josie, Nora, Kitty, Rita and Gertie.
Kitty’s mother Julia (Mammy they called her) was widowed for the second time when Kitty was six. Kitty didn’t understand what dead meant. She thought Daddy had gone away for a while and was coming back. Evening after evening she sat in the trap at the front of the house and looked down the road into the sunset to watch for him. She knew the direction he would come from walking up the road. Kitty thought the world of her Daddy and she wanted to be the first one to see him return. I don’t know how long she waited but each evening Kitty would watch the sun set. When darkness came she had to go inside. I suppose that’s why the house Mom lived in had to face west and why she never liked dusk. It was always a forlorn time for her.
Mammy never married again. She chose to raise her children and run the farm herself with the help of her first husband’s father, Grand, who lived with them. A fatherless family with a farm meant they would have to struggle to make ends meet. Mom‘s older sisters remember not having much. “But neither did anyone else,” they added. To Mom they lived in poverty. Living on a farm may have been a saving grace. There was always food. Grand worked a patch of land which grew most of their vegetables. They had hens for eggs and a cow for milk. Even with food within arm’s reach Mom remembered going to school hungry because there was nothing for breakfast.
They also had a skinny pig, a sow, that could run like a race horse and jump fences. Despite all their attempts to fatten her up they could count her ribs. Everyone hated the job of making sure that the pig didn’t get into the adjacent field and root up the neighbour’s crops.
Each year sows were taken to a nearby farm that kept a boar to have them serviced. The Shaughnessy sow didn’t wait. When the time came she jumped the sty and trotted down to see the boar herself. Mammy was sent a message to inform her that her sow had just been to see the boar. Even though she was skinny she produced a good litter every year which provided the family with much needed income. Mom tearfully told me stories of hardship growing up, but she laughed when she talked about their pig.
All children were required to attend national (grade) school in Corofin for basic education. It was funded by the government. One of the teachers, Miss O’Dell, lost two brothers in the Irish war of independence from Britain. She had an intense hatred of the British. She told her students, “Burn everything you get from England but their coal.” She looked at the soles of the children’s shoes to see if they were made in England. If they were, as was often the case, she would hit the student across the shoulder blades with a cane. Every day the children went to school in fear of what would happen to them.
As Mom was finishing national school her teacher, Miss Reilly, implored Mammy to send her to secondary (high) school in Tuam. She only needed help financially for the first year. After that Mom would earn her own way through winning scholarships. Miss Reilly thought her pupil was that smart. Mom wanted to go but Mammy didn’t see the value in anything more than a basic education for girls. Girls grew up to get married, have children and take care of the house. Secondary school was not funded and finding the money to send Mom to school in Tuam would be a hardship for a family struggling to get by. So Mom never went to secondary school.
In the 1930s Ireland was economically depressed having just fought a war of independence from Britain, then the Irish civil war and then the great depression hit. Young people were leaving Ireland to find a better life. Families were forced to go their separate ways. Mom’s oldest sister, May, joined a convent in Drogheda, north of Dublin. Delia and Nell went to France. John and Josie moved to England. Nora left for Athlone in central Ireland. Mom in her turn would leave home as well. Only Gertie stayed on the family farm.
When Mom was 16 she got a job as a chamber maid at a hotel in Tuam. She saved up the money for her fare to England and the tuition to attend the nursing school at Hillingdon Hospital in London. Mom lied about her education when she applied because completion of secondary school was required for entrance into the nursing program. Once she was at Hillingdon not having a secondary school diploma didn’t hold her back. Mom won the awards and scholarships Miss Reilly said she would. When she graduated Mom was a Registered Nurse and Midwife. She continued to work at Hillingdon.
During her training Mom was called back to Ireland. Her sister, Rita, had contracted tuberculosis which was running rampant through Ireland. Rita was close to death when Mom arrived. One evening Mom with her sisters and mother stood around Rita’s bed as she peered out at them. She brought one hand out from under the covers and feebly waved with her fingers. Rita could barely speak but the words, “Bye-bye,” were on her lips as she waved. Rita passed away shortly after that. Rita was buried in the family plot in the Corofin cemetery. Mom returned to England soon afterward. Rita’s death was hardest on Mom. She and Rita had been best friends growing up. Mom recounted to me many times how she and Rita played tea. Mom played the part of a poor woman who had left Ireland and come back from America to show off her wealth. She laughed as she told me that she milked the cow so they could have a proper tea.
Many years later Mom asked her sister, Gertie, if she had a picture of their Daddy. Gertie sent Mom a picture of the man she was sure was their father. Mom took one look at it and said, “That’s not Daddy.” The man in the picture didn’t match the image in her mind. The image of Daddy in her mind’s eye and the memories she had of him are all that Mom would ever have to remember her Daddy by.
“I know he was tall. He was strong and gentle,” Mom said, “and I know I loved him.” Her voice trembled as she wiped tears from her eyes.
Growing up without a father and in poverty haunted every aspect of Mom’s life. Foremost in her thoughts was the fear of being poor again. Right up to the end of her life, in her heart, Mom was a little girl waiting for her Daddy to come home.
Mom looked to be doing quite well during the first six months after Dad’s passing. We worked to close Tara and she sorted out Dad’s affairs. She had a positive outlook and appeared to be adjusting well to her new life. Catharine noticed it too.
Over the next three months Mom’s health declined. She lost her positive attitude. Mom became quiet and withdrawn and she got thinner and frail. Catharine said she was afraid to give Mom a hug in case she broke a bone. It seemed as if Mom had given up on life. I was doing more for her care.
Mom took me to dinner for my 40th birthday. The following week I found Mom dragging herself around the house. She literally didn’t have the energy to eat. I was concerned. Mom wouldn’t see a doctor but towards evening, due only to my insistence, she said she said she would try to see her doctor the next day. This relieved me somewhat. I helped Mom into bed at 11:00 PM. She didn’t want to read as she usually did. Instead she silently curled up resting her head on the pillow and sighed as she closed her eyes.
In the morning I looked in on Mom from her bedroom door before I left the house at 8:00 AM. She was sleeping. When I came home two hours later Mom was still in bed. As a rule Mom was up and about by 9:00 AM. It occurred to me that she said she hadn’t been sleeping well the last few nights.
“Okay,” I thought, “I’ll give Mom a bit longer then I’ll wake her up.” I went downstairs to work on my computer. An hour later I came back upstairs to find Mom still asleep.
“I’ll make Mom a cup of coffee and call her.”
At 11:20 AM, with coffee in hand I walked into her room and put it down on her bedside table. Mom was lying on her side facing away from me as I stood at her bedside with the window behind me. “Mom,” I called. She didn’t move. “Mom,” I called a bit louder. She still didn’t move. Then I reached out to nudge her shoulder. As soon as I touched her I knew. Immediately the logical Mr. Spock in me plainly said, “Mom’s dead,” but my heart wouldn’t accept this. “No, no, no. That can’t be. Keep trying to wake Mom up. She’ll wake up.”
In disbelief I ran around the bed bending down to look closely at Mom. Her eyes were closed. She lay motionless. It was too dark to see properly. I ran around the bed, yanked the drapes open and ran back. Making the room brighter didn’t change anything. Mom laid there in total stillness.
“Mom,” I said loudly as I watched her. No response. “Mom! … Mom!!” I called louder. Still no response. “Mom, don’t do this to me … Mom!!!” I was screaming at her now. Again and again I tried in vain. I felt as if somebody had kicked me in the stomach.
Eventually I knew I had to call someone. Taking a few paces toward the door I stopped and turned back to scream at Mom some more. My heart could not accept that Mom was really gone. I finally made it to the kitchen and stared at the phone on the wall.
“Who do I call?”
Then I remembered that Mom had called Corpus Christi rectory the night Dad died. So I picked up the phone and called the number I knew by heart having dialled it many times since I was a boy. Monica, the church secretary, answered. I told her Mom died during the night and that I had just found her.
“Your Mom!” she exclaimed. “Brian, I’m sorry … Are you alone?”
“Have you called the police?”
“No,” I answered.
“Brian, you have to call the police. I’ll call for you.”
“No,” I said, “I’ll call.”
“Alright then I’ll call someone to go and see you.” I thanked Monica and hung up.
“Kate,” I said to myself. I wanted Catharine to see Mom lying in bed as I had found her before I called the police. When I phoned I got her answering machine. I said, “Call me as soon as you can.” Not knowing how long it would be until she called back I decided to call the police.
“Police,” I wondered, “what’s the number?” I thought some more. Then it occurred to me, “Inside cover of the phone book. That’s it.” So I got the phone book out, placed it on the kitchen table and opened the front cover. In the top right corner was a big, bold 911. “That’s right, 911.” I calmly said to myself and I dialled. Never in my life had I been so stressed out that I couldn’t think.
The woman who answered asked where to direct my call. “… police,” I replied quietly.
She put me through and the lady there asked why I was calling. “My Mom, I think she’s dead.” I knew Mom was dead. I just couldn’t say she was.
“Where is your Mom?” she asked.
“Are you alone?”
There was a pause and then she said, “Okay, we’re on our way.”
Right after I hung up the phone rang. It was Catharine.
“Kate, come right now.” She came as fast as she could but the police, paramedics and firemen arrived first.
I led the police into Mom’s bedroom followed by the paramedics and firemen. They looked around the room and then at Mom. The paramedics started to lay Mom flat on her back. I turned away. I couldn’t watch. As I walked down the hall toward the kitchen followed by a policeman I asked, “She’s dead isn’t she?”
“Yes,” he replied.
Somehow I needed conformation of what I already knew.
As we got to the kitchen the door bell rang. It was Joe our long time family friend. Monica asked him to come and see me. As we sat at the kitchen table talking Catharine came in the door. She had seen the Emergency Response Vehicles parked out front as she approached the house. “What’s going on?” she asked frantically.
“Mom died last night,” I said.
She wanted to see Mom and we walked together to her bedroom. The paramedics had laid Mom flat on the floor across the foot of her bed and covered her with a sheet. Catharine pulled back the sheet. She gasped when she first saw Mom’s face in death. Then she looked at me and I told her how I had found Mom – the story I’d just told Joe and the police.
More neighbours started to come. Joe, who was still in the kitchen when Catharine and I got back, could see that I was far from alone now. He expressed his deepest sympathies and said he should go. I thanked him as we walked to the door. Joe and his wife Peggy happened to be leaving for a trip to Ireland that evening. At the door I asked Joe to say hello to Ireland for Mom. He smiled saying he would.
The other neighbours all expressed their condolences as well but there was really nothing they could do. They gradually left leaving Catharine and me with the police and paramedics to wait for the coroner. The only other visitors were Fr. Randall and Fr. Alan, the parish priests from Corpus Christi, to give Mom the last rights as Catharine and I watched.
It was apparent to the Coroner after seeing Mom that a blood clot had worked its way through her body finally lodging in her heart during the night. He estimated Mom died about 4:00 AM. I know for sure she was alive at 2:00 when I last looked in on her before I fell asleep. The police called the funeral home and they arrived 15 minutes later.
I had to see the undertakers carry Mom out the door and put her in the hearse. Catharine and I stood on the front lawn and watched as the hearse drove down the street and disappear from view. We walked back into the house. Catharine wanted me to go back with her and stay the night. “Thanks Kate,” I said, “I’m alright by myself.” I just wanted to stay put.
The next day Catharine and I went to finalize Mom’s funeral arrangements. Sunday we went to the funeral home to see Mom as she lay in her casket dressed in her fondest off white suit. Just like Dad Mom looked as if she was sleeping. Catharine and I sat quietly with our thoughts and watched Mom. Eventually we looked at each other and knew we had to leave. The following evening I went back to stay with Mom for an hour until they closed. I was trying to reconcile the disbelief in my heart.
Tuesday morning we gathered at the funeral home for the half hour visitation. I sat with Catharine through the service and only she and I rode in the hearse to Mom’s funeral mass. As we entered the full senior choir was singing. Fr. Carey spoke warmly of Mom and said prayers over her at St. Andrew’s cemetery. I carried Mom to her final rest.
As we left Mom’s graveside to go to a reception in the church hall a few darkened clouds drifted by. The breeze picked up slightly and the skies threatened to rain. Catharine was too lost in her thoughts to notice the weather. I looked up at this and thought, “Ah Mom, a stormy end to a stormy life.”
Only when the last tree has died and the last river poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realize we cannot eat money.
Native American Proverb
The Sunday after we buried Dad only Mom and I attended church just as we had done for the last two months. But this time was different. For a month before Dad went to St. Joe’s and while he was in the hospice unit he was unable come to mass but his presence was always with us. Only after Dad had been laid to rest did the fact that he would never be with us again become real in our minds.
As I sat beside Mom in church I thought of how our life roles change as the years go by. Mom and Dad had raised me from childhood, nursed me through the trials of my brain tumour and did all they could to get me established. Over the last few years I had assumed more of the responsibilities of running the house. I did more for my parents’ care such as cleaning, laundry, shopping and yard work. Now I drove Mom to appointments and ran errands just as Dad had done. Given the longevity of the women in Mom’s family I decided that taking care of Mom would be part of my life for some years to come.
On the radio that afternoon I heard a doctor speak about cancer patients nearing the end of life. He compared what he was talking about as like the tears of a dying man. This moved me deeply because in all my 39 years I had never once seen Dad openly cry until he knew he was on his death bed.
By 9:00 AM Monday I was back at work. Tara like an old friend was waiting for me. She had become my second home and the dream for my future. I was comforted to be surrounded by the lab I built and spent so much of my time and energy on. As I looked around I couldn’t help but notice how every part of Tara had been touched by Dad’s hand. I missed him. When the phone rang and a customer came through the door my thoughts turned to work.
Tara would continue much as she had started. I worked in the morning by myself. Mom came back with me after lunch to take care of the office while I did whatever needed doing. I also had the melancholy task of finishing off what Dad had been working on, collect his notes and clear his desk.
Two weeks after Dad’s funeral Mom listened to me apologize on the phone to a long time customer for an erroneous result. It was a mistake. My mind had not been fully on my work. When I put the phone down Mom looked up at me from her desk and said, “Brian, it’s time to close Tara.” I knew she was right. But Tara was my baby. I gave birth to her, nurtured her, worked hard to see her through thick and thin, and until then, I couldn’t bring myself to give up on her. I agreed with Mom. We were both drained. The lease was up at the end of December which gave us the three months we needed to cease operations. The timing seemed right. Once we decided to close Tara shutting her down became our goal albeit with regret.
Tara had an overhead for those last months. We needed to have as much work coming in as possible. For that reason I wasn’t advertising that we were shutting down until two weeks before our closing date of November 27th. Just as I anticipated, after I called and sent out letters to all our regular customers to say we were closing, the work coming into the lab dropped off sharply. Some of our long term customers stayed with us right until the end. A company sent us work once a week by courier, Freddy, who brought boxes of samples to test. On the morning of November 27th Freddy showed up. After I signed for the package I said, “Last one Freddy.”
He looked at me. “No,” he said in dismay. Freddy knew about our situation but he was genuinely disheartened when the final day arrived. It turned out to be the last work we received.
The work that came in the door took care of the lease. Once the testing was finished in early December I started to dismantle the lab. Tara’s debt, a bank loan, I paid off by selling the assets. I became the salesman I didn’t know was in me. What I couldn’t sell I gave away to get it off my hands.
Just as Catharine had helped Dad and I put Tara together she came to help me take Tara apart. We cleared the shelves and took them down. As the equipment was sold, we dismantled the benches.
By December 31, 1998, the last day of Tara Scientific Laboratories, all that was left of Tara were the walls, a desk with the phone sitting on it and the overturned cardboard box we used for a chair.
Mom came back with me after lunch for one final look around. I gave the desk to the business down the hall. We stood in the lab area where we thought of all the things that had taken place in it. We walked into the empty office, looked at the walls and then at each other. There was nothing left to do. I unplugged the phone, tucked it under my arm and followed Mom out the door. I turned and looked in at the office for a few seconds before reaching around the jamb to turn the lights off. I closed the door and we walked away. There was sadness in both of us but more a sense of relief. I could finally do what I had worked so hard for when Tara was operating which was to gear down.
Tara Scientific Laboratories was an experience I will never forget. I built my lab as Tara shaped me. I charted Tara’s course as she led me along a path of personal enrichment through my interactions with all the people I met and worked with. Tara challenged me to grow professionally to become a successful businessman, entrepreneur, manager and employer. Tara was my life.