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Beautiful downtown Ottawa

Dizzyingly surreal – from Paris, via one day in my basement, to here – my mother’s apartment without my mother in it. I spend my days driving a rented Ford Fiesta from this place, along the hideous stripmall wasteland that is Carling Avenue to the Ottawa Heart Institute. Up to the 5th floor, to the very small room where my mother now lives, and will live until her heart operation May 1.

And what I say, every time I enter, is, “Thank you, Tommy Douglas.” The place is far from fancy, the food is pretty dreadful, but she is surrounded with loving care, devoted experts making sure she gets better. Which, I’m happy to say, she is slowly doing.

She had a fall at 3 a.m., pressed the buzzer on the emergency wristband she always wears, and the super opened her door for the ambulance guys who took her to Emerg. Nothing was broken, but she disintegrated, to the point where she could not walk and could barely eat and couldn’t remember anything. She went into paranoid ramblings and made no sense; my brother thought she was on her way out.

Today, we managed THREE times to get her out of bed and walking – well, tottering – down the hall, clutching her walker with a small white nurse on one side and on the other, a man called Janvier, because he was born in January in Burundi. Janvier is built, as my mother says delicately, “like a brick shithouse.” He is the gentlest imaginable caregiver. I think of Wayson’s book “Not Yet,” about his near death experiences, and how he describes hospital workers as angels. Janvier, with his eight foot wide shoulders and his infinite patience, is an angel.

But yes, Toto – we are not in Paris any more.

I didn’t have a chance to tell you about my last night there – old friends Michele and Daniel came to the flat for l’aperitif and then set out to find a restaurant Daniel had liked when he was a student in the quartier, about 45 years before.  And sure enough, not only was it there, nearby, but it was a place I had passed several times and vowed to visit. There I was in a beautiful French restaurant with two French friends and one of my oldest Canadian friends who is now French herself. Periodically I made a mistake in my French and they all laughed – nicely – so I was always aware that these people were really French and I was not. But that night, I felt pretty damn close.

Two nights later, my beloved neighbours Jean-Marc and Richard fed me while catching me up on Canadian political gossip and the doings of the royals. And today, I had lunch with my brother and his 4-year old son Jake, talking about the Hulk and how he got his superpowers. “He used to be human,” said Jake, “and then he got really strong.” Jake’s mother is Quebecoise; he speaks French to his mother, English to his father and goes to school in French. Unlike most of us, he will be effortlessly bi-cultural.

I am grateful beyond words that Mum is recovering; that I am able to sit with her. Today, before going to the hospital, I was clearing junk in the flat and found a box of letters – first, my father’s to her and hers to “Kap,” as she calls him, an American soldier in Paris. The one I read was written in 1945, right after the war. “I’ve just seen a banana for the first time in 4 years,” she writes from London. Then a giant pile of letters from her lover, 11 years later. And another pile – my letters to her and Dad. There are scores, a very large stack, because I was a fervent letter writer. My whole adult life, in a plastic bag.

My mother, the hoarder.

Thank you, Tommy Douglas.

P.S. For those of you unfortunate enough not to be Canadian, Tommy Douglas was the Socialist preacher and politician who, against vicious opposition from the medical profession and conservatives, pushed through Canada’s free health care system. Which is why my mother will be spending a month in hospital and receiving a life-saving operation, at a cost – to her – of nearly nothing. So my thanks not only to Tommy, without whose persistence and determination our socialized medicine would never have happened, but also to the taxpayers of Canada.

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3 Responses to “Beautiful downtown Ottawa”

  1. Patricia Ludwick says:

    i once stood in a line at a theatre reception (for the opening of the play "Paper Wheat" at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa) to shake hands with Tommy Douglas, a man who had rescued for me the entire political system. I wasn't even a member of the cast of the play, only in the theatre because I was rehearsing some other play, and someone I knew was in the cast, but when I had reached the small and smiling man and shaken his hand, I had to stop, turn back and ask to do that again, because it was so important to me to acknowledge the event, and the first time was like a rehearsal, a staged event. And he laughed, and shook my hand again. And I will always be grateful for that opportunity to say thank you, thank you, you have restored my faith in humanity, in the ability to act without ego, for the greater good. Thank God, if that's the word, for Tommy Douglas and all those who worked with and for him, for the straightforward value of offering a hand, the hand that belongs to all that is good in human beings.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Geez, you'd think that Canada was the only country on earth that has, what you call a "free" health care system. The model was, no doubt, adopted from Britain's cherished NHS (National Health Service), created in 1948. France, too, offers universal health care which was assessed by the World Health Organization in 2000 as the "best overall health care" in the world. Japan, Sweden, and the Netherlands also provide health care systems to their citizens comparable to that of France's.

    And nothing, I'm afraid, is free. All of these systems are publicy funded; this means that costs are paid through funding from income taxes.

  3. beth says:

    Patsy, thank you for sharing that wonderful memory. I would have loved to shake his hand too, so I`m glad you did it twice, for us all. And hello, anonymous – of course I`m aware of other marvellous health care systems, particularly in France as I hear all about it from my friends there – and I`m grateful, as the piece above ends, for the contribution of tax-payers. I was thinking of my friends and family to the south, who were not lucky enough to have had a Tommy Douglas, and who are so incredibly far from that kind of idealistic, generous, far-sighted, sensible and wise political figure now.

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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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This blog evolves. It once was about travels. Now it’s a reason to be at the keyboard that I value.

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Theresa Kishkan is a writer living on the Sechelt Peninsula on the west coast of Canada.

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Wherever you’ve come from, wherever you’re going, consider this space a place for reflection and pause.

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