Our auntie Jean passed away in the middle of April this year, and I was honoured to be with her in that moment of her final soft breath. For 17 years I was her closest relative on Vancouver Island, and in the most recent 6 years as she needed more care, I held power of attorney for her. Along with managing practical details on her behalf through those years, I also maintained the momentum of her correspondence with well over a hundred of her treasured friends, some of whom had been colleagues during her career as a dietician in Winnipeg and Toronto. Each Christmas she continued to receive many cards and letters from across Canada and beyond, and I would send out a photo card with a note and several images of her from the year, with friends celebrating her birthday, of Jean enjoying the garden at her care home in Victoria.
Since her 85th birthday in February, Jean had been declining, culminating an increasingly sad chapter of her formerly energetic life. Visits from friends had declined since dementia had impaired her ability to recognize them, some of whom she had known from childhood, and it was more than they could bear. About half a dozen of us continued to share regular visits with her, rewarded by the twinkle in her beautiful blue eyes. The care home staff loved Jean, and valued our visits, knowing how much it meant to her, and aware that some residents rarely had visitors, if at all.
Ever organized throughout her life, our aunt’s pre-arrangements were in place, so that when my brother flew in for a few days, we were able to honour her wishes in a beautiful memorial service, where he played his flute, and many of Jean’s friends shared memories, lighting candles. Afterwards he and I scattered her ashes at the beach with a few of her long time friends in witness.
When my brother returned to the east and I returned to Nanaimo, I looked around at my life. While I had been fully committed to being nearby for as long as my aunt lived, now my routine had been changed by her passing. My responsibility as her power of attorney was complete, and I had provided Jean’s already organized files to her lawyer to carry on as executor. I no longer needed to look ahead to the next trip to Victoria, or to paying the next bill on her behalf. I did launch into notifying and speaking with her friends, an activity that continues.
Five weeks after Jean’s passing, I drove onto the first ferry off of Vancouver Island, with my Island life “on hold”, my simplified possessions in storage, a small financial buffer with items for sale or exchange on board, and my car packed for an indefinite time on the road with an unknown return date. To some, it appeared to be a sudden shift, although for me it had been two years of considering other options for life, but only in my imagination.
As of this writing today, I’ve been on the road for three weeks. By the time you are reading this, it will be at least another three weeks from now. Where will I be when you are reading my reflections of today? Today I am in Winnipeg, the heartland of Canada, and the heartland of my aunt’s and mother’s family. I’ve had four intensive days of visits with many (far from all!) of their friends, some of whom I’d met as a child, some who know of me through the cards I created for them on behalf of Jean. It has been a gradual journey bringing me here. I initially aimed for Edmonton where my father’s brother’s family lives, to visit with them. On the way there I filled a week with visits in the BC interior, finding high school friends who had settled there, catching up and looking around together at our lives. When I had been in Edmonton for a few days and reached the end of my traditional amount of time for a visit, I had an emotional day because by then I had hoped to have more insight into what I was on the road to discover as to new options. All I knew was that Saskatchewan was closer than usual, and I had a friend who welcomed me to visit there (whose mother still lives at our aunt’s care home), and so I continued east. After a few days there with her and then with another friend who I met through her in the Qu-Appelle Valley (the oasis of Saskatchewan), I realized that Winnipeg was closer than usual, and decided to continue east.
The first night in Manitoba, I drove to the cottage area of Lake Winnipeg before going in to the city the next day, and stayed with a friend around the corner from my grandparents’ cottage. I was sleepless when I realized that the last time I was there was in 1978 on my way out west by train for the first time at age 21. How much has happened since then! Our aunt was living on her own at the cottage at that time, before she retired to Victoria, and I stopped off for a week to visit her. I went to the Winnipeg folk festival, which was in early years then. This week, 33 years later, here I am again in Winnipeg with the opportunity to connect with many who know our aunt and her sister (our mother, who is still alive in Ontario, with Alzheimer’s). I’m making notes because that is more comfortable for them than recording. Some cultures believe that a person continues to live as long as there are people alive who hold the memory of that person in their hearts. I am honoured to find those hearts and hear the precious stories they share.
Now Ontario is closer than usual and so I am going to continue on, heading to Lake of the Woods in the morning, to stay a day with a friend of my aunt’s there. Next week I’ll drive along Lake Superior into southern Ontario to visit with my mother, father, family and friends. My aunt’s legacy of travel and connection is alive in me, and I realize more every day how much of a mentor she has been in my own evolution. I’m taking it one mile and visit at a time. Feels like what wants to happen right now. My job is driving, thinking, visiting and making notes, keeping in touch in more ways than was possible on my westward trek in 1978. Open to opportunities and new ideas. Paying rent to my car. So far, so good. When I return to the Island (in July?) to the postal route, storage locker, and my network of friendships, my intention is to have a clearer idea of what is being written on the pages in this new chapter. Part of me is curious, part of me is concerned, all of me is grateful as I continue to connect the dots to reveal the bigger picture of my life.
When I was sketching out my plans in early May, my dear friend spontaneously and accurately quipped: “From a power of attorney to the power of a journey”. The journey continues and on we grow.
Lynn Thompson hosts ‘Living on Purpose’ which aired on CHLY radio 2004 – 2009. Visit LivingOnPurposeLynn.com for podcasts.