My Father Was a Complex Man

My father, Hector Jourdain, was a complex man. He grew up in challenging circumstances, the full extent of which I will never know. He was the youngest of six children of entrepreneurial and demanding parents. He grew up in Cap Chat on the Gaspe coast in the 1930s and 40s. He worked hard but never quite felt like he measured up to the expectations laid out for him. It shaped him, like we are all shaped by our upbringing.

For people who knew my dad, they know he was not always the easiest person to get along with. He was very particular, which is likely why he was known as Hector the Corrector as I wrote in my last post about him.

He lacked some social sensitivity, particularly for today’s age. He didn’t always listen well. Perhaps because he couldn’t hear well. Perhaps because his mind was going a mile a minute all the time. He was known to express his frustration to friends he hadn’t seen in awhile, “You drive right past my house but you don’t stop in to see me.”

Dad and my brother Robert in Perce, Quebec

And, he had a quirky sense of humour and an impish grin. He could as easily light up a room as darken it. He drew people to him in unexpected ways. New neighbours, others he met along the way, who became good friends, some of whom saw the charming side of him and some of whom learned how to put up with the ornery side and show up for him anyway. And many people could see the multi-dimensionality of who he was.

Looking like a celebrity at Jacob and Nellie’s wedding in 2017

He had trouble understanding the fluctuating nature of friendship or what we might now refer to as the “reason, season, lifetime” that explains why someone is in your life. He wanted all his friends to be lifetime. He wanted the camaraderie of the Bluefin days to exist in perpetuity. That people’s lives changed and families expanded from children to grandchildren and different interests, even as his own did, challenged him and his memories. My brother Robert reminded me the other day that when and where my dad grew up, people lived in the same houses for lifetimes and families lived within walking distance of each other much of the time.

Our memories are fuelled by the stories we tell of our past and our experiences. My father loved my mother. A love that was enduring up until the day he died. There was never anyone else for my father, not even the entertainment of the idea of someone else, even though he outlived mom by 8 years – 12 if you count when she went to live at Harbourview Haven.

I didn’t always see or understand that love because not all the days of their marriage were calm – to put it mildly. So, in his latter years when he described my mother as his best friend, saying they never went to bed angry any night during their marriage, I only raised my eyebrows but never commented. It is not quite how I remember things. But, he was entitled to the stories that were true for him. Especially because it was his love for my mother that guided his care for her as she was overtaken by dementia. He went above and beyond for years. Even after she went into long-term care, he visited almost every day and, with my brother and me, was there with her when she passed in 2012.

Dad defied medical odds. He tiptoed up to the edge of death on many occasions, looked over and said, “No, not yet.” Doctors would look for the medical reasons why my dad recovered – from being in a wheelchair because he had no strength in his legs to walking again, from being diagnosed with chronic lung disease to having his home oxygen removed because his lungs improved to other inexplicable recoveries. There were no medical reasons. There was a strong will to live.

One such time of defying medical odds was during his second open-heart surgery in 2006. His first open-heart surgery was in the 1970s. This time, he was on the wait list for the surgery – waiting for the call. Instead, I got the call in the middle of the night that he was in the hospital. He had driven himself to emergency with my mother who later drove the car home – which was all she could talk about since getting out of the parking lot was perplexing to her. Dad was being sent to Halifax via ambulance. I had to drive to Lunenburg to pick up my mother. Driving down the 103 at dawn, as I got near to Mahone Bay, there is a stretch of road where you can see a long distance ahead. There came the ambulance as the sun was rising, lights flashing. Driving past that ambulance, knowing my father was in it and I was going in the opposite direction, was one of the most surreal moments of my life.

Dad was exhausted because his heart was in bad shape, because he had been taking care of my mother and who knows why else. He was afraid they would send him home too soon. He fixed that. He didn’t wake up from the surgery for 10 days. When he did wake up he was, naturally, disoriented. It took him a long time to understand how many days he had been out. He chastised me for keeping him on life support when I knew his wishes. I told him, there was never any question about his recovery.

Years later, he shared a story with me. He said, during that time when he was not fully conscious, he went “up above”. He was in a corridor with a lot of doors. He was knocking on the doors and trying to open them but was not successful. Finally, one of the doors opened. It was Arch-Angel Michael and he said to dad, “It is not your time, you need to go back.” My dad believed he had not yet atoned for his sins. He told me he knew what it was he needed to do. Apparently he has either completed that mission or come to terms with it.

Dad had confided that story in someone who told him that it could not be true because “once you go there you do not come back.” It took him years to share the story with me. “Do you think I’m crazy?” he asked me. I told him, “You’ve read my memoir – several times. Of course I don’t think you are crazy.”

I made my peace with my father a long time ago, as part of my own journey. I was his patient advocate and his chauffeur. I will miss our jaunts to Busy Bee, Princess Auto and other spots where he would pick up tools and other supplies. I won’t miss the numerous doctors’ appointments so much. I will miss our lunches – just the two of us usually but sometimes with a guest or two – my children or my friends. His favourite joke to the wait staff was, “She’s not my girlfriend. She’s my daughter.” I will miss our trips to Quebec of which we were fortunate to have a few in the last few years. We had plans to go again this summer. Life is quiet without him in it.

Surrounded by nieces and nephews in Rimouski at his sister-in-law’s funeral

On the board walk at St. Luce – summer 2019

We often say it takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a village to care for our elders. And my dad, grumpy as he could be, as difficult as he could be, had a village of love and support beyond which he fully knew or always appreciated. My brother and I are grateful for the enduring friends and the more recent friends without whom life – and care for my dad – would have been a lot harder.

Belonging in Family as an Adoptee

I was in my mid-forties when I found out I was adopted. Except for when I was a teenager and wished I was adopted (who doesn’t?), I had no clue. I used to think it was a big secret that almost nobody knew but have discovered it was an unintentional conspiracy – so many people knew but nobody talked about it as if it was an unimportant detail. And, maybe it was. Until it became important. Important enough for my birth sisters to seek me out. Then the adventure of coming to terms with the fact there was a birth family different from my family – the family I grew up in – began.

A new friend and colleague of mine, who also has an adoption story, recently began reading my book Embracing the Stranger in Me: A Journey to openheartedness. She sent me a note when she finished reading Chapter 8, the story of my birth mother, her disappearance as she ran away and her inability to acknowledge my sister (or me) as her daughter even when they met up again thirty years later. My friend, who has known forever that she was adopted and has also reconnected with her birth family, wrote to me to share her response, about how angry she was at my birth mother for this lack of acknowledgement. We unexpectedly opened a conversation about belonging, particularly about belonging in families.

Where do you belong when you are born to one set of parents and grow up with another? And how do you know where you belong? Does it even matter? Even if you don’t know you are adopted or that there are family secrets, the patterns of disruption play themselves out in your life in one way or another. That is what this question of belonging got me thinking about.

slide1What does it even mean to belong or have a sense of belonging? We know it is fundamentally important to a healthy society and healthy individuals – the people feel like they have a sense of belonging, a sense of having been accepted in a community, as part of a group that might also be family. It is a human need, important in seeing value in life and in coping with intense human experiences.

 

Belonging are the people you fit with, who you do not need to explain yourself to, who do not carry huge and unrealistic expectations of you or who you are or what you can or cannot fix by virtue of being you.

An opposite of belonging, for me, is abandonment. It shows up in my language and the language of many people who have an adoption story. “Given up, given away.” I carry threads of abandonment I didn’t know I had – my birth mother fled, my birth father and grandparents gave me up, even my sister left me behind. Granted, she was only three years old and could not operate with conscious intentionality. Later, my mother “abandoned” me too, in a way, through her journey with dementia.

The fact that decisions may have been a good and even wise does not matter to the cellular memory and sense of worth that is fuelled by memories not in conscious awareness. When I was working with an amazing coach during the period of this discovery – which I did not consciously go searching for but which found me – the journey and the coach, she listened to my language and then offered that part of our work together was for me to learn to adopt myself. It resonated.

My personal journey, once awakened to it, has always had a depth of self growth, self awareness and spiritual awakening. This part was natural to me (I was going to write easy but it was not easy and still has moments that are not easy or fun).

What was and still is more interesting in the journey related to my adoption and my birth family is that I still feel a bit dissociated from this part of my story. Intellectually I know it to be true. I have enjoyed meeting every person I am connected to and I have not met them all nor will I likely meet them all nor do I have a desire to meet them all and nor is it necessary – to me or them.

Knowing I am adopted expands my story of who I know myself to be but it doesn’t change the fundamental core of who I am. I am not more because I know more. I am not less because I didn’t know it before.

I have a relationship with my birth parents even though they have both passed on. I never did meet my birth mother as her death was the impetus for my sisters to find me. I did meet my birth father and his wife. I believe my birth parents had a soul contract to bring me into this world and then let me go and that they had this contract with my parents. I do not know the significance of this “departure” at birth but I do know that I feel I have multiple lineages – from by birth family and from my family I grew up in. While answers to some questions do not flow so easily anymore – where were you born? What is your ancestry? – I do feel connected to all the lineages.

I find my birth parents from time to time in the spirit world, just as I find my mother and other guides. Sometimes they appear unexpectedly in my meditation or in whatever query I am in at the time and sometimes I call upon them for help and understanding on whatever I am working through in the moment. It feels right.

And despite soul journey understanding, “One part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth, leaving me not really belonging to either.”

When the Human Story is Tragic – What Then?

The human tragedy story can be so overwhelming that it obliterates the soul journey story that is also present and far more powerful. Discovering it through my mother’s journey with dementia makes my own spirit more joyful.

screen-shot-2016-09-24-at-8-23-34-amOn Sunday, September 18, 2016 I had the distinct honour of attending the Gift of the Hit book launch and, invited by Peter Davison, reading an excerpt from my Chapter in the book. The video is 5 minutes. There is the version that Peter Davison recorded and edited here and the one my son took, which is less steady, here. My voice stays remarkably strong as I relay the minute we left my mother behind in long term care, her confusion, what it was like to walk the corridors to get to her room, the tragedy of rapid deterioration and the soul story that began to fully show up when I reached her consciousness in a meditative state.

Gift of the Hit

About three years ago, I sat down for a coffee with Peter Davison to get caught up and share a few stories about journeys – soul journeys – and he invited me to become a  contributing author to Gift of the Hit: Collected Stories Volume 1. Peter’s own story about being diagnosed with Parkinson’s in his 40’s and the openings that cracked through his veneer of a dedicated, world traveling bachelor and speaker to allow him to love and be loved is inspirational. As he shared his story with others, naturally others shared their stories with him and the inspiration for Gift of the Hit was born.

my-gift-of-the-hit-quote

The story I share is “Soul Journey Beyond Human Tragedy” – another articulation of my mother’s journey with dementia, her death and how that called me to ask myself did I truly believe what I said about my own beliefs – about consciousness traveling, about soul work and soul journey. The answer became a resounding yes, but it took a few years of traveling with my mother in her journey to fully understand what that meant.

“The human tragedy story is so apparent it can obliterate the soul journey perspective. It is often hard to see beyond the sights, sounds and smells assaulting your senses, such as those that would stun me as I walked the halls of the “home” (the long-term care facility that was home to my mother in her last years). It was all so blinding, making it almost impossible to see anything beyond the physical. It was nearly impossible to see the fullness and vibrancy that exists just beyond the veil.

“Now, I am aware of the bubble of light that surrounds the home. The beautiful souls who therein might be making contributions to the world that most of us cannot see or understand and that makes my own spirit more joyful. I now hold my mother’s journey with an added degree of lightness and delight, which i have no doubt she feels. I know she is a great teacher for me – a teacher of journey, a teacher of love and a teacher of dying and death.” p. 62, Gift of the Hit, Vol 1. Special thanks to Joscelyn Duffy , who is also a contributor, for editing.

gift-of-the-hit-book-photoThe stories contributed to Volume 1 speak about courage, perseverance, resiliency, hope and more. Check out the list of authors, some of whom are personal friends, and story titles.

Dementia and Alzheimers: A Fate Worse Than Death?

 

Despite the prevalence of dementia and Alzheimer’s in the population and the increasing odds we will, at a minimum, come into contact, if not already in relationship, with someone who has this condition, many people are at a loss as to how to deal with, communicate or connect with someone who is losing their memories and, in the eyes of many, their very identity. It pains us to be in the same space when that person does not remember us. And this is exactly the problem – if you make it about your pain and not about the person who is still there, who still needs and yearns for friends, connection and companionship even if they no longer no how to express it, who still yearn for acceptance and love even if they do not have the words.

Why is it so difficult? How often do you hear, or even use, the phrase “I came face to face with my own mortality”? When someone close passes? When a certain age is reached? When you’ve had a close encounter with death – real or perceived? That’s hard enough, but what if you perceive dementia to be a fate worse than death? You see yourself in that person’s shoes and don’t like what you see or can imagine, don’t want to live that way, don’t think it is a life. And you become dumbfounded and wordless because you are no longer interacting with the person in front of you, you have closed in on yourself and are dealing with your own life journey and life fears.

My mother’s journey with dementia and in long-term care illuminated and tested some of my own fears and spiritual beliefs. Did I really believe the things I said I did? Did I really believe consciousness is not fixed but that it expands and travels? Did I really believe we are souls living a human existence? Did I really believe there is a fine line, just a veil really, between the physical and the non-physical? Or did I believe, as I often did, that the hallways I walked to visit my mother were the corridors of death and the dying? In Embracing the Stranger in Me: A Journey to Openheartedness I have included stories of the impact of my mother’s journey on me, as well as in many blog posts over the years.

My mother, in a time of her life when she could no longer string coherent sentences together – in fact, could no longer even find her words – showed me the way into depth of understanding. It is because of her that I began to think of two ways of experiencing stories – through the human tragedy lens or the soul journey lens. The human tragedy lens is one through which the physical journey here on earth does not make sense – because of things like dementia or other illnesses or any other range of possible things that pain us or cause us grief. The soul journey lens is the one through which peace can be found. It is expansive and offers a myriad of possibilities. It is the one that says I cannot measure my mother’s (or anyone else’s for that matter) experience by the lens of my own story.

What to do or say to the person who is living with dementia? It is simple really.

  1. Set aside your expectation. Do not expect them to be the spouse, parent, sibling, friend that you remember and maybe even romanticize. They are not that person now. But they are sill a person. Meet them in their humanity – the humanity you see when you look in their eyes (yes, look into their eyes!)and  see into the soul.
  2. Don’t let your own discomfort get in the way – or, in other words, get out of your own way..
  3. Set aside your own fear and your story of their situation.
  4. Greet them warmly – the way you used to – like the friend or loved one that they are. Because that is the essence of who they still are. They will be relieved.
  5. Don’t let it matter that they don’t remember who you are and don’t ask them if they do. In fact, don’t ask them any question they won’t be able to answer.
  6. Answer the same question 100 times in 10 minutes as if it was the first time it was asked, without exasperation, frustration or sadness.
  7. Tell them what’s up in your life without feeling guilty that you still have one when you perceive that either they don’t or you understand how much narrower their life is now than it used to be.
  8. Remember humour. We all like a good laugh. And it is okay to laugh with them.
  9. Stay tuned to where they are – it can change from day to day and it can change rapidly in the progression of the disease. Meet them where they are.
  10. Bring love. Lots and lots of love.

I am deeply touched by this video by Mary Beth Beamer of husband Alan and their appeal for friends to keep visiting. I appreciate the #Stillhere campaign by the Alzheimer’s Society. One of the things I deeply appreciated about the staff at Harbourview Haven where my mother stayed was that up to the very end they treated her with tenderness and care and like the whole person she still was even if her cognitive ability was pretty much gone because she was #StillHere.

Who do you know that has dementia or Alzheimer’s? When was the last time you visited with them? Go now. Or soon and remember the advice in this little gem too.

Alzheimers-Dementia-Communication Advice

The Passing of an Era

It was the end of January 2008. I was driving down the highway on my way from Halifax to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia on a beautiful sunny winter’s day. I wasn’t just on a road trip for the day, I was on a journey to another era – a past I knew very little about, to visit a man I knew very little about. I was on my way to meet Fred Hanson. A few brief weeks before this I had found out he existed, that he was my birth father, that I had a birth family of which I had had no conscious awareness. Yet he – and the whole family – knew about me for all of my life.

On Wednesday, October 21, 2015, Fred died with his wife Doris, her son Corey and my sister Debbie van Soest present, bringing to a close another chapter of my own life, the passing of an era.

Kathy (2 years old) and Deb (5 years old) visiting in 1964 at Nanny and Grampy Hanson's house in Digby

Kathy (2 years old) and Deb (5 years old) visiting in 1964 at Nanny and Grampy Hanson’s house in Digby

I did not know Fred well. Most of his life had been lived by the time I met him. There are three things that stand out. When he, at the age of twenty-three, and his little family – me as an infant and my sister as a three year old – were abandoned by my birth mother, he did what he could to make sure we were looked after. This meant uprooting us from Halifax to Digby NS where he had grown up and where his parents still lived. Because my grandmother was already ill with brain cancer and my grandfather was already well on his way to alcoholism, they searched for help. Help arrived in the form of my parents, Mary and Hector Jourdain, married a few years, living in Digby at the time and still childless. An agreement was reached for my parents to adopt me and for me to know my birth family. Which I did until my grandmother died when I was still very young. Fred knew where I was and for all the years my adoption was a secret (from me and my brother at any rate), he kept his word and he did not seek me out.

Fred and Kathy

Me and Fred – March 2008

The second thing that stands out is how nervous he was to meet and how welcoming when I walked in the door. He’d been pacing from the front window to the kitchen window to the door in anticipation of my arrival. The door was opened before I even had a chance to get out of the car. He hugged me and we found our way through the awkwardness of first meeting. He gave me pictures from when I was baby.

The third thing that stands out was his agreeing to let me interview him for my memoir: Embracing the Stranger in Me: A Journey to Openheartedness. As I asked him questions and took him back through memories he had not thought of for decades, he forgot for a moment that I was interviewing him. He reflected on the moment my birth mother left and his incomprehension, still all these years later, that she could leave two babies behind.

Doris and Fred 2006

Doris and Fred Hanson, 2006

Fred had a sociable side that enabled him to fit in many places – like the Red Knight in Yarmouth where he and Doris often when for a beer and to hang out with friends. And he had a sarcastic wit that made him a great sparring partner. I didn’t know his second wife who raised my sister Debbie and brought my half sister Robyn into the world. I did however have a chance to meet Doris and experience the warmth and hospitality of their beautiful home. They were together for 28 years.

I am blessed to have known him, filling in some blanks of life story for both him and me. There are many stories that will not be known and many that will not be written now. I do know his brother Bill, his parents and others greeted him as he passed over. My mother and my birth mother had a pact together with Fred and my dad that has gifted me with multiple lineages that are important and relevant to my own life journey and in many ways I am only at the beginning of that exploration. And for now, it is grieving and celebrating the passing of an era.

Human Tragedy Story Often Obscures Soul Journey Perspective

For a long time, I have believed we are soul journeyers having a human experience. The beauty and challenge of life is that our assumptions and beliefs get tested along the way.  In 2012, for me, one way has been through my mother’s journey.

adimirkush_Butterly

Painting by Adimir Kush

When the symptoms of my mother’s dementia were becoming more obvious in the years before she went into long term care, I knew it as a soul journey and experienced it as a human tragedy story.  This became more pronounced when she went into long term care.  Instead of being the only person in a household living out a bizarre new set of behaviours,  losing her capacity to communicate and do simple things like change the channel on the TV, she became one of many old and dying people no longer able to care for themselves, most living in their own little diminishing physical worlds.

The human tragedy story is amplified in these circumstances and places.  It is hard to see past the story of tragedy when it stares you in the face as you walk down hallways that evoke very visceral reactions in what you see, smell, hear or otherwise encounter – even in a place as loving and caring as the place my mother experienced as home in the last four years of her life.

CorridorHow many people came up to me, my brother or my father after mom’s funeral to share amazing stories about her that captured the essence of who she was and then proceeded to talk about how they just couldn’t visit her at Harbourview Haven.  How hard it was if she didn’t seem to recognize them.  How hard it is to be in that building when, as a culture, we have become disconnected from the death chapter of the life cycle.  We no longer experience it as part of the natural flow of life but as something to be feared.  Walking in a place where death is imminent generates fear and discomfort for many of us.  It did for me when I first began visiting my mother but, through my mother, the shape of my experience shifted.

For the few who were able to manage a visit or two, they expressed how amazing it was when there was a flicker of recognition in something she said.  I learned how many people besides me she called “little one” (really mom?!) and that was a point of reference for them.

There are others who saw enough through the human tragedy story to visit often.  My mother had a few of those regular visitors although we often didn’t even know it since she couldn’t remember who visited or when they did.  Deeply grateful for those dear friends.

The length of mom’s journey with dementia and her stay in long term care, invited me more deeply into this paradox of understanding  the human tragedy dressing of soul journey.   The phrase “oh, that poor soul” makes me chuckle now.  We use that phrase to describe the human tragedy perspective.  It is the physical experience that appears poor, not the soul journey perspective if you believe, like I do, that we make some choices before we manifest into physical form about what it is we want to experience for our soul journey this time around.

As my mother become more disembodied, I embodied the soul journey perspective from a deeper, more encompassing place of understanding.  Towards the end, her human tragedy story didn’t register for me anymore, only the soul journey perspective.  This gave me a high degree of peace during her long transition process, allowing me to live my life fully even while being present to my mother’s journey and our family care around it.

For the gifted people who work at Harbour View Haven, it seems to me they also see past the human tragedy perspective, treating each individual with full dignity and respect.  Treating them as if they are, what we consider, fully functioning, fully present human beings.  It was a gift to observe this most keenly in my mother’s final hours. It made me wonder what would happen if  we all treated others all the time with this kind of dignity and respect – whether we thought they deserved it, whether we thought they were fully human or not.

Living simultaneously with my mother’s journey, my journey and the rest of life, I’ve been thinking about how to express this all so it does not fuel the human tragedy story. I now speak about “the many streams of life”.  We are all in many streams of life all at the same time. Stuff happens.  Stuff comes up.  There is a life giving invitation to be well in all of it, although a more typical response is to be stressed by all the things that come our way that we have to take care.

I’m leaning into this invitation to flow with the many streams of life as though that is what they are, rather than challenges.  Greater spaciousness beautifully shows up.

And then there are the lessons of embodiment that have been present for me in a big way already in and since 2012.  As I embody my experiences and my learning I understand more deeply my life’s events, my relationships and my soul’s calling.

I’m not saying the human tragedy story isn’t real.  But the soul journey perspective is also just as real although harder for many to see, obscured by the human tragedy story.  The soul journey perspective allows me to live into joy and delight and allows me to fall in loveover and over again in a way living into the human tragedy story does not.

For my mother, I continue to experience a dance of joy, delight and lightness as her spirit soarspixies_in_the_sky-1868 free from the human tragedy unfolding of her physical body.  She continues to be my teacher and my friend and very, very real in my human experience.

(Originally published at Shape Shift Strategies Inc. on March 1, 2012)