This is the true story of a mother who rose to the challenges of surviving the Second World War with family intact, lived an intensely passionate and deeply troubled personal life afterward, endured the perils of cultural displacement, and suffered the loss of her identity as she drifted toward an agonizingly slow death from an affliction that stole her mind. It is also the story of her bemused family members, all trying to demystify the woman they thought they knew, together producing a fascinating kaleidoscopic picture of a mystery they cannot unravel. Finally, it is the author's own story-the aging son reflecting on the enigmas of identity, family myths, dying, and death. These stories are set in Glasgow and Toronto.
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Nobody Knew She Was There
The True Story of a Mother Who Lost Her Way
By Andrew Glascoe
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2014 Andrew Glascoe
All rights reserved.
Riverdale—such an alluring name for what must once have been a lush valley, nestling a crystal-clear Don River as it meandered through Toronto on its way to Lake Ontario. Locating a hospital here for the treatment of tuberculosis seems so intuitively right: the oxygen from the profusion of trees and the tranquility of the original building's setting must have been life-giving to the hospital's first patients.
Now the Riverdale Hospital is a mockery of that memory. The crescent-shaped eight-storey affair, constructed in the 1960s, held some promise, at least on the outside, until some faceless bureaucrats decided to erect it behind the Don Jail. What could have been passing through the minds of those people, who must have known that the site had been a dumping ground for landfill, the scene of public hangings, and the location of the most notorious prison conditions in Canada? These gloomy associations hang over the Riverdale Hospital like a cloud of misery.
As I make my way down the hallway of this refuge for the elderly, the demented, and the dying, toward my mother's room, I feel I'm travelling through a tunnel where the strangest and most painful things happen. Sometimes I'm the detached observer, with my face pressed up against a windowpane in disbelief. At other times, I want to slow down to take it all in. A lot of the time, I can't get through fast enough. Most of the time, my heart goes out to those around me who are oblivious to the journey through their darkest days. Occasionally, I feel I can't take any more and have the urge to push an emergency button to bring it all to an absolute stop. Yet here I am, once again, deep inside the tunnel, looking for the light at the other end.
The hallway keeps curving like a swirling vortex. I peer into each room, a voyeur with a fascination for other people's suffering. In every room, another life is taking its course, winding down, eventually to be engulfed by unrelenting silence. I sometimes find myself a witness to vain efforts to speak, to utter a sound, to bellow, to scream, to bawl the eyes out—attempts to stave off the inevitable, to carve out some jewel against the background of noiselessness. Their result is a mad cacophony, as Wordsworth said, the sad, strange music of humanity.
I arrive at her room and cross the threshold to a marginally lighter discomfort. She resides in a large room with four beds. The outer wall is a curving window that brightens the room even on cloudy days. An old East Indian, Mr. Mohammed, sits by the bedside of his incapacitated wife. She stares blankly out the window. The patient next to her is asleep, while another bed across the room is empty. My mother lies in her bed by the window on the same side.
Today she is awake—barely. Her eyes are half open, and her grey hair is pulled up into a ponytail on the crown of her head. Her mouth, hanging open like a child's, reveals a few yellow teeth. Her legs are bent up to her waist; her arms are folded into her chest; and her hands are twisted into tight, clenched curls.
She grimaces when I press her knee, and her eyes register effrontery at having been touched by a proper stranger.
"Ma," I whisper in her good ear, "it's me. Your son—Andy."
I see no flinch of recognition. Even her acknowledgement of my presence lasts only as long as I stay within her line of vision.
An electronically regulated pump standing by her bedside measures out a milky grey substance in a suspended plastic bag and squeezes it through clear plastic tubes into her bloodstream. The stupid regularity of the IV machine, which I have named the Kangaroo after the manufacturer, measures the liquid's dosage in the exact amounts required to keep my mother here.
This is her only sustenance. She cannot feed herself, and she has not experienced the pleasure of tasting, eating, and swallowing for some three years.
She is unaware of this, as she is unaware of just about everything around her. This is an understatement. Hers is the face of oblivion—a face from which all semblance of mental activity has been removed. I don't know who she is anymore.
A tiny Zen monk, the chatterbox mystic who lives in the cave of my mind, suddenly appears to annoy me with his unflagging calmness and benevolence. Adorned in grey robes, he's as bald as a bowling ball, has only one eye, and walks with a limp. Uninvited, he frequently sticks his nose into my private life, trying to offer meaning where there is none.
"That's her original face," he says.
"Is that some kind of Zen joke?" I ask.
"You've heard the story of the original face, haven't you?"
"I think I'm about to hear it again."
"The Zen master gave a question to a monk searching for enlightenment: 'What's your original face?'"
"Meaning what?" I ask angrily.
"Obviously, he wasn't talking about his ordinary face but about his face before he was born."
"This is her face before she dies."
"Is that supposed to enlighten me?"
My imaginary Zen monk never answers this question. He conveniently disappears when I ask it.
A tired but smiling nurse wheels the medication trolley into the room. Mr. Mohammed calls out to her.
"Is that for me?"
"Sure," she says playfully. "Do you think you need it?"
"You bet," he replies with a smile.CHAPTER 2
By the time I realized that I hardly knew who my mother was, that I needed to unravel her deeply entangled story, there were few relatives I could turn to for help. My mother had lost most of her faculties, my father was dead, all my grandparents on both sides of the family were long gone, my aunt in Saskatchewan was ailing, one of my uncles had passed away, the other—still in Scotland—might as well be on another planet for all the interest we showed in each other, and my somewhat estranged brother was working in Houston. There were four grandchildren, only two of whom had any real contact with her. Other extended-family members, cousins of various ranks, had almost no connection to her and were dispersed, mostly to parts unknown. Besides, I had little or no relationship with most of them, and they would hardly welcome any attempt on my part to ask them for something like this. None of them had ever shown any great love for my mother anyway, and I had no reason to think this had changed, since neither she nor I had heard from them in all the years we had been in Canada.
As the son of Maggie and her husband, Bob Glascoe, who had died more than ten years earlier, I was afflicted with the compulsion to take stock, to settle the accounts before they were called in. It was as if this had become the great task of my life—to unravel the mysteries of my nuclear family, about which I knew so little.
My mother had been slowly and agonizingly crippled by Alzheimer's. It was as if she had stalled the car and was now unable to shift gears to drive home. She couldn't remember her name, and she had been rendered helpless and dependent on others for the essentials of her life. It was the appalling muteness of her condition that galled me. While the pain she endured in her last days was excruciatingly apparent in her facial expressions, she was singularly incapable of voicing that pain. She had lost almost all ability to communicate. I couldn't ask her what help she needed, let alone any of the questions I had long wanted to put to her. She had lost not only the capacity to articulate her own experience but also the power to recognize that a question was being asked of her in the first place.
I tried to remember what she had been like. Groping in the darkness of recollected territory, I felt like a child abandoned by the roadside. My mother was a long way off in the distance; I was no longer sure I could make out any of her features. I wasn't even sure she was there anymore. Sometimes I thought I heard her calling my name. Here I was, in my fifties, still a barefoot child tramping in the direction of my mother's voice.
And which direction was the voice coming from? What could I remember of the past? How much had I forgotten? What had I never known in the first place? Was it a remembrance of things past or an anticipation of what was to come, since my mother had still to unfold for me? Nothing seemed clear, except that I was caught in a whirlpool that was gradually engulfing me—us, my entire family. I had to find my mother before it was too late, before I drowned in the waters of my own procrastination.
I decided to follow the blood connection in her grandchildren first, with my brother's son and my own daughter. They would carry memories of my mother into the future, and perhaps they knew something I didn't. I started with my nephew, young Bobbie, who had been named after my older brother, Robert, who in turn was named after my father, Bob Glascoe.
Bobbie was born a day later than my daughter—Anastasia, or Ana—which deprived his mother of the credit for producing the first grandchild in the family. This was of no consequence to Bobbie; he loved his cousin to death and never tired of showing it, even though she didn't always reciprocate. Not long after Bobbie was born, my brother and his wife, Elaine, decided they were leaving Canada to return to her former homeland, England. My brother told me they were doing this "so we could have some trees around us." Leaving Canada, home of some of the great forests of the world, to find trees in England? Either Robert was doing a bad job of being circumspect or he was so naive that it amounted to remarkable ignorance. I preferred to believe the former. He was, in fact, running away from his parents—for the second time in his life—but ended up returning to Canada a couple years later to settle at some distance from them in Ottawa. The result was that his son, Bobbie, was about five years old before he got to know his grandparents on this side of the Atlantic.
He talked of meeting them first in Glasgow on one of their visits "back home" and then again as he crossed the ocean of his childhood memory in Toronto. As he spoke, the family whirlpool began to spin.
"When we were back in Canada, I stayed with them in Toronto for a few days," he recalled. "I remember Circe, the cat, keeping me awake at night. After that, I used to visit in the summer, at the Lido, on Lakeshore Road. I'd come for a month. Mom and Dad seemed to need to get rid of me for a while once a year."
My mother and father, Maggie and Bob, had a knack for selective living of the worst kind—choosing to live in the most miserable apartment buildings around. The Lido was one of those 1950s jobs, a drab little three-storey dirty-red brick box in a perpetual state of disrepair. The hallways smelled because they weren't ventilated properly, and the dim lighting only added to the already-dreary atmosphere. The apartments were small, dark, and moldy. If anything in the building worked, it worked badly. The landlords should have been charged with a crime for renting out a dump like that. My parents never seemed to mind, though, and accepted it. They were both working in low-paying jobs and couldn't afford high rents, and they seemed to seek out places like that as a kind of self-inflicted punishment for some undefined infraction.
"The most vivid memories I have of Nana and Granpa," Bobbie said, "were when Ana was there. I remember you poring over books!" He laughed. "That made me think I never wanted to go to university."
"I was doing graduate work then," I explained. "I wasn't living there, but I came over a few times and took you and Ana to the local pool. I remember throwing the two of you around in the shallow end. You used to love that. I'd lift you up and just toss you back in with a huge splash. You were a little harder to lift than Ana, as I recall."
I had always been slim, but at that time, I was strong enough from doing martial arts to enjoy horsing around with this youngster—the same youngster who had grown to dwarf me in my middle age and make me feel like a scarecrow with clothes dangling from my frame. He had always been a tall, big-boned boy; now, in his early thirties, he was six foot four and showing evidence of an expanding waistline. Endowed with the flat Glascoe feet, he moved slowly like a giant, friendly animal with the gentle soul of a lamb, a quick wit, and a sharp intelligence.
"You took us over to Maria's mom's place one time for spaghetti," he recalled with a gleeful, childlike smile.
"Maria and I were divorced by then," I said. "But I still saw her and her family in those days. Her dad, Leonardo, made the best spaghetti around. It was a Sunday afternoon ritual for years."
"There was some sort of Italian festival going on in the park by their house."
"Yes," I said, "they lived in Mimico. It was a mostly Italian neighborhood then."
"They had races, games, and food. I was big for my age. I won three or four of the races."
"We had some pizza there after the races," I reminded him. "That's when I got my first taste of food poisoning. I was violently ill. I was living with my girlfriend, Adèle, by then, and I tried to get home on the bus. But I had to call my parents from the subway to come and get me. I just couldn't make it. And at their house, I was bringing up every hour. I even started to hallucinate! Mom was afraid I was going to die. Aunt Betty and Cousin Eileen, who were visiting from Saskatchewan, were trying to reassure Mom, who was hyper-anxious. Eileen—she was about sixteen at the time—peeked at me occasionally from the living room. I was in the bedroom, but she was afraid to come near me in case she caught something."
"Ana and I kept track of how many times you threw up," Bobbie said with a giggle. "Twenty-eight times!"
"I seem to remember hearing you two frolicking around, completely oblivious to my predicament."
"We drove Nana nuts. There was a convenience store across the street that used to sell a lot of junk. But it was cheap, so we used to buy stuff there for fun. We bought some fake puke once and laid it across the side of the bathtub. I called Nana and said, 'I've just been sick!' She freaked out and tried to wipe it up. When she discovered it was fake, boy, was she mad."
"Mom told me," I said, "that each of you alone was fine but that the two of you together turned into 'wee devils. I'm no' goannie invite them here again at the same time,' she'd say!"
"She used to make that Ayrshire bacon, flat pork sausage, and toasted Scotch 'breed,' as she called it. You could never get that stuff anywhere else. It was a real treat."
"The typical greasy Scotch breakfast," I moaned.
Bobbie talked happily of the many summer visits to my parents' place, of coming to my house once, and of a trip to Betty's farm. Despite the fracture between his parents and mine, he had repeatedly ventured across the abyss to keep in touch with both his grandparents, his cousin, and me.
"Generally, Granpa wasn't around that much," he recalled. "He was working the night shift. When he was at home, there wasn't much conversation. I didn't really warm up to him until I was older. Nana always seemed a bit batty, running around in a frenzy most of the time. Circe was the first cat I'd ever seen that would hiss and growl anytime you came near her. She used to hide under the bed or the chairs, but one time, Nana dragged her out—she was the only one who could touch that cat—and while she was holding Circe in her arms, the cat peed all across the floor. I'll never forget that. It was a truly psychotic cat."
"Your nana was totally dependent on the cat," I said in the way of a feeble explanation. "Circe was a house cat who literally never went outside in the open air. The only model for that cat's behavior was your nana. Circe's anxiety was a mirror image of hers. The two of them spent so much time together—at night, when your granpa was on night shift, and during the day, when he was mostly asleep. By this time, my mom and dad had no friends. They lived in a state of restrained frenzy."
"For years, even up until I was in my late teens," Bobbie said, "I would come and stay with them for a month. There wasn't much for me to do, but I was glad for the opportunity to be here in Toronto."
"Ana wasn't around?"
"No, she had her own friends by then."
Bobbie made a good show of hiding his feelings on this, but obviously, it had been a real disappointment to him. He seemed to be half in love with his cousin, but for some reason, Ana seemed rather cooler toward him. I never understood why.
Excerpted from Nobody Knew She Was There by Andrew Glascoe. Copyright © 2014 Andrew Glascoe. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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Table of Contents
ContentsChapter 1 Riverdale, 1,
Chapter 2 Whirlpool, 4,
Chapter 3 My Zen Monk, 17,
Chapter 4 Veils, 20,
Chapter 5 Mother's Day, 41,
Chapter 6 Not from Fine China, 43,
Chapter 7 The Madman, 55,
Chapter 8 Dinner at the Lido, 57,
Chapter 9 The Hoist, 66,
Chapter 10 Spiderweb, 71,
Chapter 11 Crowd of Pilgrims, 85,
Chapter 12 A House of Mirrors, 93,
Chapter 13 Red, Yellow, Blue, Green, 107,
Chapter 14 The Shield, 112,
Chapter 15 Slow-Motion Horror Film, 128,
Chapter 16 Spinning, 133,
Chapter 17 The Thread Finally Broken, 145,
Chapter 18 The Speedway, 150,
Chapter 19 Silence like a Shadow, 160,
Chapter 20 Beginnings and Endings, 163,
Chapter 21 Nobody Knew She Was There, 168,
Chapter 22 Spiral of Blood, 172,
Chapter 23 Dear Mother, 177,
Chapter 24 The Whole of Her Happiness, 182,