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.
1974 began with me clunk-stepping my way around the house. It was slow going but at least I could get about. Using the walls and furniture for support was no longer an option. I had to keep my knees locked when standing or walking. If they buckled even slightly down I went. I had to climb furniture to get up again. If I fell in a hallway with no furniture around I was stuck. Mom suggested putting a horn on the walker so I could honk for help. Dad fixed a bicycle horn to the walker. At the same time he attached a blue plastic bicycle basket to the top crossbar. This simple basket afforded me a lot of independence. I could do things like get something from the cupboard, drop it in the basket and take it to the kitchen table. It may not seem like much to an able-bodied person but after months of having to depend on other people to do everything for me except breathe I welcomed the freedom.
Dad pushed me around in a wheelchair when we went outside. All street curbs were square. If we were going down a sidewalk and we wanted to cross the street, we had to wheel down the sidewalk of the adjoining street to find a driveway to take us to street level, cross the street, go up an adjacent driveway to the sidewalk, go back up the street and continue down the sidewalk that we were on originally.
Dad and I wanted to see a hockey game at Fort William Gardens in January. Dad phoned the Gardens to find out how to get access for someone in a wheelchair. He was told that he had to wheel me in the back way where they herded the circus elephants, go under the stands and stay at ice level. When I heard this I said, “No.” Why couldn’t I go in the front doors like everyone else? Why shouldn’t I?
In February the doctors started another attempt to wean me off decadron. They lowered the dose as before but this time they replaced the decadron with prednisone. This regimen worked for me and by midsummer I was off all medication.
Prednisone: A synthetic corticosteroid medication used to reduce swelling and inflammation.
As the dose of the medications decreased my legs got stronger, my eye sight started to clear, my co-ordination, speech and swallowing improved, and I was expanding my chest again. My clunk-stepping was faster and I leaned less on the walker. I started to lift my walker and take two or three steps. I felt a wonderful sense of achievement because I knew in my head and heart I would walk again.
At long last it was time to put the walker aside and take a step without support. I was nervous. I remember standing beside the fridge in the kitchen. I held the walker beside me with my right hand and firmly grasped the counter with my left. Then I let go of the counter and walker. With my arms spread wide I stepped forward into Mom’s waiting arms. With daily practice that one step became two then three then four. I can’t adequately describe in words my sense of joy, freedom and accomplishment in taking that one first step.
I have always loved the rich character and ornate architecture of 19th and early 20th century buildings. But I am dismayed at how they were designed with only able-bodied people in mind. These buildings have been retrofitted to be wheelchair accessible. However they can never be as accessible for persons with mobility problems as modern buildings that are designed to accommodate people in wheelchairs. Even though I can walk, because of my mobility problems due to my poor balance, retrofitted buildings are harder for me to use. I should have started Grade 9 at Hillcrest High School in September of 1973. Because of my health I couldn’t go.
I should have started Grade 9 at Hillcrest High School in September of 1973. Because of my health I couldn’t go. My parents arranged with the local Board of Education for me to receive my high school education through the home schooling program set by the Ministry of Education in Toronto. I guess you could say my high school was 909 Yonge St. in Toronto. When asked I say, “Hillcrest,” to avoid explanation.
Academically I received a thorough high school education. What I missed out on was the social part of going to high school. When I attended LU I listened to my classmates talk about the parties and outings they had with their high school friends. I missed all of that.
The Ministry mailed the texts and materials to me. At home I wrote out the assignments onto a note pad of lined paper with a section at the top of each page for name, date, course and assignment number. I tore the pages off the pad, put them in the envelope provided and return them to the Ministry for marking.
At the time I started the high school correspondence courses my writing was reasonably legible although my hand was slow. Given my blurred eyesight my writing stayed on the lines of the page for the most part. But because of my poor vision I couldn’t read the books or instructions. Mom began reading the books to me. For three years we sat across from each other at the dining room table. She read course instructions, assignment questions, text books, short stories, novels and plays as I made notes. I best remember the dystopian world of Fahrenheit 451 where a government tries to suppress the knowledge of its people through burning books. It was scary. Never had I imagined such a society could exist. I was inspired as I listened to The Miracle Worker, a play about the fortitude of a young woman, Anne Sullivan, who taught Helen Keller, a deaf/blind girl, to read and write. Helen Keller became a personal hero as I learned about her resolve to conquer her disabilities just as I was trying to overcome mine. The correspondence courses didn’t start in September and finish in June. They went all year round which allowed me to work at my own pace.
On the other hand math was Dad’s domain. He read the math texts and course assignments to me. However it’s hard to read out an equation so the listener can understand. So Dad and I sat beside each other. I made notes as he read. When I needed to I held my magnifying glass over the equation or formula to read it for myself.
After the first year of study my eye sight began to clear, my hand was faster, my writing was more legible and it stayed on the lines more. Even the teacher who had been marking my assignments at the Ministry of Education in Toronto noticed the improvement.
Christmas of 1974 was a happier time than the last. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind I would live. I was getting steadily stronger, speaking more clearly, no longer incontinent and able to do more things for myself. The year 1975 would be a time I could look to the future once more. Brian wins!