The Year She Noticed the Trees – a Story of Understanding

My 84 year old mother was a casino regular until the pandemic hit. When I say regular I mean seven days a week at the Flamborough Downs penny slot machines. She reminds us often that “It’s like being in prison,” if she doesn’t get out every day. She lives in a very nice house in Waterdown with my sister and her family where she is well looked after and rarely alone.

Once COVID closed the casino doors she decided to replace her usual entertainment with car rides and she’d accompany me or my sister on our errands with the occasional longer adventure  to explore nearby towns and neighbourhoods.

And so began our journey.

My mother and I have had a somewhat difficult relationship and have never been particularly close. But here we were suddenly in close quarters confined in my nice comfy SUV with the heated seats (which she loved because she was always cold) and the dashboard that was too high for her to see over. A pillow for her to perch on solved that problem. I worried about the imagined uncomfortable silences as she isn’t much of a conversationalist but to my surprise it wasn’t uncomfortable at all.

One of the first things she said on our inaugural car ride to Paris (after 3 months of isolation ) was “can you believe the trees! They are so big. I’ve never seen them grow this much in this amount of time. I’m sure this hasn’t happened  before. And they are so green! Except for the dead ones. Why don’t THEY remove the dead ones!”  I named the maples and pines and willows as we drove. She does not see the reason to keep the dead ones. I’m tempted to remind her about mother nature and the value of “dead things” but I’m pretty sure she will clam up and I don’t want her to stop talking. After all, I have NEVER heard her comment on her natural surroundings EVER. She is a city girl from the north end of Hamilton who only notices houses and sidewalks. After her mother died when she was 9 she was left with 7 brothers and a father who treated her more like a worker than a daughter. The life she had did not include the country or trees.

I admit I had hopes that the time we were spending together would allow us to become closer in some way. Spending three or four hours with her in a car was bound to create opportunities to talk about experiences and feelings.  “This was going to be a good experiment” I thought to myself. I wanted to ask her about my father and why he just disappeared when I was 11 or why she let him take my baby brother away or perhaps she would talk about her relationship with my stepfather and how difficult it was for her to leave him after so many years of his crappy behaviour.

A window seemed to begin to open for her. She even rolled down the car window on our drives allowing the wind to ruffle her hair. She began marveling at the clouds, too, wondering how there could be so many of them in different shapes and sizes as she shielded her eyes from the startling sunshine.

Soon she stopped asking why people would want to live in the country and seemed to admire  the rolling, expansive farmer’s fields. She wondered about the corn and asked me, “where the heck does all that corn go.” And she kept on talking about the trees. Together we’d point out the various colours that were appearing on the trees as fall began to peek out at us.

Once we drove to Fergus to visit a cemetery that I knew had an interesting history but she wouldn’t get out of the car because it was “too cold” that day. She has always been cold. She talks often of the Quebec coal heater that was used to heat their house when she was a kid and how the window in the boys room never quite closed so the snow would accumulate on the sill in their room. She has always been described by myself and others as a cold person –  and maybe it’s because she spent her childhood in a cold house with a cold father and no mother.

Our conversations stayed superficial. I’d ask her how her night or morning was and she would tell me how many times she had to get up to visit the bathroom or tell me about an obituary she had read about someone she once knew. Talking of the mundane stuff of the day was nice. I was enjoying it.

I am finally able to understand why my mother struggles to connect with others. No one took the time to connect with her when she was young. Once she lost her mother opportunities for closeness with others became few and far between. I have always wished for more from her but have finally grown up enough to be able to feel empathy for her. After being raised with shame and a profound lack of family love her path took her through 3 marriages, 3 divorces and a lot of time alone.

She is afraid of death now as it looms just around the corner. She is disappointed about her life and often says, “I never thought I’d end up like this.” I’m not sure what she means by that. Does she mean she never thought she’d be this frail or that she didn’t think she’d be without a mate? She can’t explain her feelings about it.

Her life experiences have taught me to embrace all life has to offer and to nurture myself first and foremost.

I didn’t always feel cared for or safe growing up with her as a mother but I know I do want HER to feel safe now.

What matters most to ME is that she is noticing the trees.

Written by: Sue Phillips

Read more blog posts by visiting the Demystifying Hospice homepage.