Wednesday, October 30, 2013

In Conversation With...Eleanor Ripley

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, October 23, 2013, by Sara Mattinson.

A small pink pumpkin sits at the edge of the small kitchen table in Eleanor Ripley’s apartment in Collingwood, Nova Scotia, as she explains the significance of the date we are meeting: it’s the anniversary of her son’s death, and it’s Breast Reconstruction Awareness Day (BRA Day).
As she puts a mug of green tea in front of me, Eleanor says, “I’ve done some meditating on this and the way I’d like to start this interview with a minute of silent reflection, while we sip our tea, to think of all the people who have been touched by cancer, lost loved ones, struggling with being a caregiver, and remembering those who have lost the fight.”
We sit in silence for three minutes; outside, birds sing in the mid-October sunshine.
 “I don’t want my identity to be about breast cancer or about being a survivor of suicide,” Eleanor, who retired from teaching in 2004, finally speaks. “I would like it to be about a human being who’s had some zingers thrown at her.”
That is an understatement. The zingers that happened to her or to those she loves include divorce, suicide, cancer, and dementia. I’ve known Eleanor for a decade but not well enough to know all that. If asked to describe her, the words I would use are: upbeat, vibrant, spunky, energetic, talkative. 
“I’ve had a lot of support and I’ve learned through those horrible times that people do reach out and people do care,” she says. “I’ve been blessed with some very fine friends. And family. And spiritually, I do believe in a higher power. There have been some rocky roads; I’m not going to tell you there weren’t dark times but I’ve had more uplifting times.”
Eleanor picks up a journal lying on the table next to the pink pumpkin. 
“When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, almost a year to the day of losing my son, my friend Judy gave me this journal,” she says. “That was in 1993. There she is,” Eleanor points to a photo of her friend stuck to the inside cover. “I lost her to ovarian cancer.”
She touches a piece of loose paper tucked inside the journal.
“Here is another friend, strong, strong woman, fellow teacher. We’re the same age. She’s gone. It was quick. One of those ‘nothing we can do’. These two women are gone and they didn’t die of breast cancer, and here they were supporting me. It just shows you the unpredictableness of life.”
Eleanor, who is 66 but doesn’t look it, admits she has no answer to why she is here and her friends are not but then she sits up a little straighter.
“I’m still here because of research,” she realizes. “When you get cancer in your breast, it won’t kill you. It’s the metastases that will get you. No one’s ever died of cancer that’s stayed in the breast.”
The reason Eleanor moved from Pugwash to Collingwood is to be closer to her younger sister, who is battling cancer. 
“Boy, there’s another thing,” she says. “It’s one thing for the person who has cancer but it’s another thing for the loved ones who support them through the journey. I learned this with my sister. You hurt in another way. So this whole thing about diagnoses – it’s not just the patient, it’s all the loved ones, too. There isn’t anybody up and down this road who hasn’t been touched by it.”
The pink pumpkin is the reason Eleanor decided to go through with our interview. She saw a pink-painted pumpkin at the Collingwood post office and learned that two young local men who want to be farmers were donating proceeds of their pumpkin sales to the Canadian Breast Cancer Society. 
“When I saw two young men, about the age of Dan when he died, going out and doing this, I thought, ‘We’re going to have a pink pumpkin today.’ People do care, they want to fight.”
It’s a coincidence that the day of our interview is also Breast Reconstruction Awareness (BRA) Day, an idea that is important to Eleanor. Although her cancer was first detected in 1993, she didn’t have a mastectomy, and chemotherapy, until it came back in 1997.
“Losing a breast can devastate you as a woman,” she explains. “Just to look at the scar afterwards... The divorce, losing my son then losing my breast. It was just too much. Breast reconstruction isn’t for everybody.  Of all my surgeries, it was the most painful,” she admits. “A lot of people don’t want to go through more surgery but it was my way of fighting back. I wouldn’t do it at this point in my life but I had it done in 2001.”
Eleanor fought cancer again in 2009. The recurrences, the battle her sister is undergoing, the loss of so many friends keeps her humble. 
“I just feel lucky,” she says. “I don’t want to be ‘Look at me, I’m alive’ and then go tomorrow and find a lump. I have a very healthy respect for cancer, and not much wonder. So I don’t want to appear cocky.”
Although she admits that she’s not big on the whole pink ribbon thing, Eleanor loves being a member of a dragon boat team for breast cancer survivors.  
“It wasn’t until my latest recurrence that I thought, ‘Darn it, I want to do that’. That’s been a real fun thing,” she says. “You get out in that boat and the drums are beating and you’re all paddling. When we’re in the boat, we don’t talk about cancer.”
She shows me a framed card with a quote on the front: ‘Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul/And sings a tune without the words/And never stops at all.’ The card came from a friend who later died of cancer.
“I found the card one day and looked at it,” Eleanor says. “I came so close, in my anger, to crumpling it up but something stopped me. I read it again and realized not everyone survives this disease. I thought, ‘There’s a message here, something deeper’. So Emily Dickinson’s quote now hangs on my wall. That’s where I’m at with this.”
Ultimately, what Eleanor wants to talk about, why she went ahead with this interview, is hope. Celebrating friendship and life is what is most important to Eleanor, not just today but every day. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Tick Magnet

"Hi, are you in bed yet?"
"No, what's up?"
"I found a tick on Stella. It's big. Will you take it off for me?"
"Okay, great. I'll be there in ten."
This is what constitutes a Call-A-Friend emergency in my house. Most women call a friend when they find a lump or their husband in bed with another woman but for this country girl, I call Jane when I find a tick on the old dog.
Jane simply jams her sharp thumb nail under the big, grey blood-bloated tick and snaps. With a quick ripping sound, the tick is off the dog and in her hand. My competent friend.
"Give me a minute, then I want to see it," I say. I need a moment for the heebie-geebies induced by the sound of the tick removal to clear my body before I can examine it.
I have to see it, have to see how big it is, how long the damn thing was on the dog. Not a skin tag!
"This is Stella's third tick since we moved here," I tell Jane. "But she hardly goes into the woods. Not like Abby who is in and out of the woods constantly." Which is why Abby gets tick medicine and not Stella.
"Abby moves too fast for the ticks to grab her!" Jane laughs. Likely she is right. If you're a tick and you drop onto Abby, you'd better be braced for a rocket ride. Much easier to get on the slow old locomotive  doing the milk run that is Stella.
Ha, that reminds me: When Stella was ten weeks old and I would take her for walks down Pugwash Point Road, any person who called out to us, she would sit down. If she couldn't run to them because she was leashed, she sat down as if to wait for them to come to her. I started to introduce her as "Stella Stop A Lot". Now she is ten years old and earning that nickname again.
Jane went with me when I picked up the kitten last fall; he was covered in fleas so we stopped at her house and she washed him.
"Competent people always get wet," I told her then, looking at her shirt.
Competent people also get ticked off. Lucky for me.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Oh, Dear, It's Deer Season

Hunting season got underway in Nova Scotia on Friday so it's time to deck out the dogs in blaze orange. My husband found these fleece "collars" -- did the designer think dogs have necks like giraffes?? Fully unrolled, the tubes would fall past their noses. Well, their ears will be warm.

I don't know why they look like this! The collars don't bother them.

For me, a city girl, hunting season is the downside of country living.
We're pretty lucky where we live. We don't get a lot of hunters coming in the unimproved road, although thanks to the big clearcut job done back in the woods this summer, there is now an actual road to tempt hunters. Luckily, our normal walk through the woods ends just past our own property line, at the beaver brook, so we shouldn't be in any danger.

My annual blaze orange fashion show.
A friend in Ontario once told the story of going horseback riding on her friend's well-posted rural property and stepping out of the woods to find three hunters with their rifles aimed at them. Not only were they hunting on private, posted property, they weren't able to tell that what they heard were two horses coming through the trees. Proves you can't be too careful, and hunters can't be too smart.

My husband has decided he wants a buck this year. First time since I met him seven year ago that he has gone hunting. He started shooting partridge last fall and we enjoyed eating those tiny little birds. But really, he has to stop watching those Alaska backwoods shows because now he talks about "getting our meat for the winter". I don't venison so likely I'll be able to make good on my plan to eat less meat.
This is how irrational government policies are: You can shoot a buck with a special permit but you can only shoot a doe if you win a doe license. Yet there are more does than bucks, and bucks keep the gene pool refreshed. My husband thinks our deer are getting smaller and he reasons it's because the bucks are breeding their own offspring.
Perhaps we should draw to shoot the bucks, and allow people only one or two doe a season.
In the argument of population control, Nature takes care of an imbalance; if there are too many deer, vehicles and disease will reduce the population. It's incredible how many dead raccoons are littering the roads this year.

I have yet to reconcile myself to hunting. I don't like it, can't imagine killing an animal as beautiful as a deer. Yet I know all my meat comes from an animal that was once alive, raised in a food-factory setting, and likely suffered for that far more than any deer does. It's the beauty and freedom of a wild animal that pulls at my heart strings. Keeps me from ever pulling a trigger even just to experience that connection between taking the life and consuming the life.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Change, It Is A-Comin'

How to start an essay about my experience at the 24th annual Alzheimer Society of Nova Scotia provincial conference? With one word, perhaps: Amazing. There is so much to say, foremost that I am kicking myself for not going to a conference like this before. But likely until the last few years, conferences were geared towards health professionals, not towards unpaid/family caregivers.

I attended as a presenter offering a family caregiver perspective; most of the other participants were health care professionals, many working directly with people who have dementia. And yet on Monday morning alone, through three presentations, I learned so much about the brain and about the normal aging process of eyes and ears and muscles (that was then linked to designing spaces for people with dementia) that I was wound up with passion and hope by the time my turn rolled around at 3 pm.

Speaking with ASNS's Donna McLean before my presentation.
My point: Attend a conference. If you are a caregiver now, it will help. You will make valuable contacts. Since you don't know if you are going to end up taking care of someone with dementia, it will help. I am aghast at how little my mother and I knew, how few resources we were given. We were never even handed a "hotline" phone number to call if we had questions or needed to vent. All that exists now and people need to get their hands on them.
My overall sense of the conference, including the "Friends and Family Night" held Monday evening, at which I participated on the panel, is that people are hungry for information, desperate to do better. Wow -- let's pay attention to that. 
I realized that through my speech, I am not really targeting those who are caregivers now but rather the next generation of caregivers. The first thing I tweeted during the keynote address by Dr. Sultan Darvesh was, "Knowledge takes away the fear, gives control." This was my instinctive response to what I was learning. People need to be armed with information and hope long before a diagnosis is ever given.
Dr. Darvesh, a professor of Medicine (Neurology and Geriatric Medicine) at Dalhousie University in Halifax, NS, spoke about the brain and made it easy to understand how the brain works and how the symptoms of dementia emerge. His speech was captivating, not overwhelming.
He also dropped a bombshell during the Q&A: Dementia is not listed as the cause of death unless there is the neuropathology to back it up -- and the only way for that is with an autopsy. But we don't do autopsies automatically anymore, we aren't asked if we want part of the brain donated to research. We have to know about this beforehand, we have to indicate we want the autopsy done and why, and to check off the box for donation.
"Forget about what you see on television," Dr. Darvesh admonished. "Autopsies are done with dignity and professionally."

If you want to find a cure for dementia, you must have an autopsy, you must donate the brain.
Which is why the title of this conference was "Let's Talk About Dementia." The more you know, the less scary all of it is.

Reverend Faye Forbes spoke as someone living with dementia and caused a seismic shift in my thinking: She proves it IS possible to live well with dementia. And she provided me with insight into how my father was feeling before his diagnosis. 
I learned so much just Monday morning alone....and then Cathy Conway of the Alzheimer Society of Ontario gave her presentation on Tuesday morning. She speaks on person-centred care and listening to her, I felt that she was the perfect complement to what I say.
My two-fold message is this: "The person with dementia still exists" and "It's not about you, it's about the person with dementia. Cathy provides tools and ideas for engaging that person no matter what stage that person is in or state that person is in on any given day.
I made a lot of notes during her presentation and I don't think she'd mind if I shared some:
  • Take responsibility for your interaction with a person with dementia. If it's only five minutes, make it count. 
  • All behaviour has meaning. (Why is this behaviour happening? This requires detective work but also empathy. What could be causing this behaviour?)
  • You need to BE the person with dementia, to imagine what it is like to be in their shoes, to be living with dementia. 
  • LISTEN. 
  • Slow down. It's about the person, not the task. (Love this. It's so true: Older people process everything less quickly and it's much worse in people with dementia. We need to slow down, take our time, speak and move gently. It's about the person, not the task.)
  • Dementia requires extra skills and extra patience (compared to "regular" caregiving).
  • Find small joys in your day.
The delightful Cathy Conway from the Alzheimer Society of Ontario.
I know Cathy is not the first to talk about this but her presentation was my first introduction to these ideas in dementia care. Sad, isn't it, that until this conference, the phrase and the concept of "person-centred care" was new to me? Dementia will never be easy but we can make it easier.
The resources are out there; they just aren't reaching people. 

So this is where I am at three days after the conference closed: Fired up, determined, whirling with ideas and energy. I feel as if I've embarked on a new journey with dementia, a different kind of dementia, one that will allow me to take my father's suffering and our unfortunately negative experience with dementia care and transform it into solutions and hope and change.
BIG CHANGE. As I said to one participant to stopped to thank me for my presentation, "My bazooka is loaded and I'm aiming straight at the stigma."
For that's where we are at with the future of dementia: It's time to get rid of the stigma. It's not facetious to say we can make dementia care "easier". We can. It doesn't have to be as hard as it is. There is so much great information out there, so many sensible, inexpensive, easy solutions AND many, many caring, compassionate individuals who are willing to help.
I spent two days with two hundred people with varying motivations for being there but with one in common: To become better caregivers. There is deep distress at how some people with dementia are treated in long-term care. The person still exists...
That's my motivation for starting my journey not on a moped but on a big, loud Harley!

Singer/songwriter Christina Martin graciously allowed me to share her song, "There Is A Light".

My thanks to the wonderful staff at the Alzheimer Society of Nova Scotia, particularly Linda, Michelle, Wenda, and Donna who made my first time such an inspiring occasion. 
And my thanks to my mother for allowing me to share our story.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Why We Worry At 3 AM...About Cats

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, October 16, 2013 by Sara Mattinson.

Three o’clock in the morning is Prime Worry Time.  You wake up – and Bam! the brain starts running on its treadmill of worries.  
I Googled “Why do I wake up at 3 am?” to see if there’s a reason for it. Several sources indicate that the middle of the night wake-up call is from the liver, and it’s about stress. Stress causes the adrenal glands to give off adrenaline, which revs up our system with a burst of energy to deal with whatever stressful situation we are facing. 
Now, the liver regenerates in the middle of the night and to do so, it needs glycogen. The problem is that adrenaline uses up glycogen so if there is a lot of stressful situations in your life, your body may not have enough in the glycogen bank when the liver tries to make a withdrawal at 3 am. Instead, the adrenal glands offer up adrenalin instead – and Bam! the brain fires up the treadmill.
And what is fuelling these worries at three o’clock in the morning? Pretty much the same things that cause us to feel stressed out during the day: money, a job, the kids. 
Or in my case, the cat. 
Why would anyone waste Prime Worry Time on a cat? This worry is about life and death and it’s tapped into a major global concern. While it might seem more productive to worry about money, a job, and the kids, worrying about the cat’s hunting habits is just as serious. 
Particularly if this cat has peed on you. 
Three years ago, we took in a year-old female stray cat when she decided a warm house and an easy food supply were more palatable than another winter in the wild. Since we feed birds from multiple feeders around the house, including one attached to the front deck, we made her an indoor cat, a change that didn’t seem to bother her. 
Everything went well until the following November. The combination of a major renovation to the house and the arrival of a puppy made Fern long for the great outdoors. To get this message through to me, she began to pee on our bed. When I couldn’t figure out why, she peed on me. At three o’clock in the morning. Out the door she went and everything has been stress-free ever since.
Unless you are a bird. 
According to a recent national survey by Environment Canada, it is estimated that more than 95 percent of the 268 million birds killed through human activity are victims of cats, power lines, traffic or houses. 
Here’s how that breaks down: Feral cats are estimated to kill 116 million birds a year while domestic cats kill 80 million. Compare that to the next two items on the list – power lines and houses account for 25 million and 22 million bird deaths respectively – and you get an idea of the massive destruction cats are causing to our bird population. 
And that’s just in Canada. The most recent estimates out of the USA suggest American cats kill between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds a year.
Is it any wonder I wake up at three o’clock in the morning worrying about this? My sweet little tuxedo cat is responsible for the slaughter of at least 40 birds a year. One cat…in a country that is estimated to have eight and a half million domestic cats and upwards of four million feral cats. All because I don’t like being peed on in the middle of the night and there seems little justification for putting a cat down simply because she follows her natural instincts to prey on, and play with, birds and rodents. There has to be a way to enjoy the songbirds without endangering their lives more than power lines and houses already do. 
Luckily, I have discovered a product that may save the birds and my bedding. It’s a colourful ruff-like cloth collar that fits over a breakaway collar – the kind Fern goes out wearing but never comes home with. Apparently, songbirds’ eyes see bright colors as extra bright, making them easily noticed. So Fern can wear the bright collar, the birds can fly to safety and my liver can rejevunate itself with all the glycogen it needs since I won’t be worrying all the time that by feeding the birds, I’m also feeding the cat. 

Fern waiting for supper...

Friday, October 18, 2013

A Suitcase, A Notebook And $3 Million

My cousin David, who lives in Toronto, is always posting intriguing questions on social media that make you laugh out loud or think. A few weeks ago, he posed this question:
"For three million dollars, would you blindfold yourself, touch a spot on the globe and live there for three years?"
And for some reason, my immediate gut reaction was "Yes!"
(More surprisingly, that also was my husband's answer but he might have learned to humour my hypothetical questions.)
Most people, however, who answered David's question said No, unequivocably, while others said they'd go IF they could use part of the $3 million to buy flights back home to visit. Likely, if someone gives you millions of dollars to relocate for a certain number of years, ya gotta complete the time to get the moolah.
I like my job and I like my home in the country but the idea of three years in a new place, with new people to meet, new food to try, new stories to hear -- that seduces me. One of the lessons I learned from my father's experience with dementia is that you NEVER KNOW what could happen. Life is too short to not be able to put your finger on the globe -- and go see what stories you can find.
But the fact is I can't just pick up and go, no matter how many millions are at stake, because I have so much stuff weighing me down. Stuff like property and vehicles, dogs and cats and chickens but small stuff too, like a collection of elephant figurines, a delicate hummingbird nest lined with feathers from our hens, 6 pairs of Alegria shoes (could take them with me...) and a hundred or so books.
In the movie, "Up In The Air", George Clooney's character makes a long speech about how everything you own should fit into a knapsack. That stuck in my mind because I can't imagine be that un-rooted but also because I knew he was right. We get buried under stuff and become paralyzed by what to do with it when we want to leave it.
It's sad, a little bit, that stuff holds me back from adventure even though it's living stuff like pets and chickens. I'm sure an unwavering commitment to stuff holds most people back from experiencing more than just their block, that resort, the cottage, the mall. My neighbours, singer/songerwriters Dale Murray and Christina Martin, are spending ten months in Europe. They lock the door of their house behind them and go. Okay, I've heard they have a housesitter but still... I make sure I look at every single photo they post from their travels in Germany and Switzerland.
During university, I remember my mother and I talking about going to Scotland as soon as I'd graduated but the idea didn't stick. Instead, I went to England with my father ten years later, shortly after he'd been diagnosed with dementia, because he'd been diagnosed; that was my first trip overseas. But it was celebrating my 40th birthday in Scotland that gave me this large, swollen, festering bug bite for travel.
And not just because I had found the perfect traveling companion. There's this pull to experience more.
It's interesting that I never craved adventure till, would never have been brave enough to pick any old spot on the globe when I was 25 or 35. I honestly think this temptation stems from two things: The enjoyment and satisfaction I get from the "In Conversation With..." interviews I do for the newspaper, and the fact I've moved very five or six years throughout my life. So many interesting people out there, so many interesting stories to discover.
Plus, I know that book publishers would eat this kind of memoir up! Dare I insist to my husband that we try -- Oh, wait. No one is actually offering three million dollars, are they?
David? David? You could be my patron. I'd dedicate the book to you, cousin.

Paddling down the River Tay, Scotland, May 2010.

Birthday lunch in a sheep pasture with our guide, Biscuit.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

In Conversation With...Sharon Rector

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, October 2, 2013, by Sara Mattinson.

If there is one international language, it would be tea. Sharon Rector fills four mugs as we sit down in her kitchen with her two houseguests.
Sharon and her husband, Al, moved to Oxford in 2007 to be closer to one of their sons. 
“We ski at Ski Wentworth and my mother-in-law lived in Great Village and my son, Corey, works at Ski Wentworth so it made sense to move here,” says Sharon, “and I found the old house that I loved.”
But Al passed away in 2012. 
“I’m always saying it’s like the John Lennon song, ‘Life’s what happens when you’re making other plans’,” Sharon says with a shrug. “So now I’m alone.”  
Not quite. Sharon and Al had talked about hosting an international student before he became ill so Sharon carried on with their plan. 
“We thought it would be interesting and we have enough room here and there is a need,” Sharon explains. “Someone had approached us and said they were always looking for host families.”
Sixteen-year-old Yu Fukanaga came to Canada through a school program for good students; she had a choice of either west or east then her choice of province. She arrived in Nova Scotia from Osaka, Japan, last January -- in the middle of a Canadian winter -- and was hosted by a family in Springhill.
“My hometown doesn’t have any snow,” she tells me. “I was so excited for first day. All white! My first day of school was snow day. It was so cold, it was painful,” she laughs. “After a week, I was so snowy.” 
By which she means, she’d had enough.
Allergies prompted a move to a new host family and she arrived at Sharon’s Oxford home at the end of August. She started at Oxford Regional Education Centre last month by herself because Sharon’s other houseguest, 16-year-old Marina Oliviera, had not yet arrived. 
“Everything is sometimes hard,” Yu says. “Chemistry is hard for me. First day of school. Marina wasn’t there, she was still in Brazil. Who can I talk to? Very scared. I don’t know who is good to talk to. I talked to a girl and she was very nice. She eats lunch every day now with us. I was very lucky.”
Yu has been in Canada for 10 months but Marina only arrived September 7; she isn’t as chatty in English as her fellow international student.
“It’s really good,” she says about her first month in Nova Scotia. “When I come, in the first days, it was a little scary but now is okay.”
Marina came to Canada through a government program called ‘Win the World’. 
“They pick the best students in each school and send them to another country to learn more English,” she says. “They choose the country.”
When I ask her what she thinks of Oxford, Marina answers, “It’s really calm. Quiet.”
Sharon jumps in.
“Brazillian people are very flamboyant and demonstrative,” she explains. “We’re more quiet.”

Sharon Rector is flanked by Yu Fukunaga and Marina Oliviera. 
Both girls agree on one overall impression of our area: Everything is big. Which is interesting since the population of Osaka, Japan, is 2.5 million and Marina comes from a town of almost 50,000 people. 
“Osaka has many buildings, it’s all tall,” says Yu. “There are lots of trains. It’s not like Canada. [In Osaka] I can walk ten, 15 minutes but we have stations everywhere. We use cars but my family doesn’t have any cars because we don’t need. Here is so big but so small,” she says. 
And giggles.
Teenaged girls, living in a foreign country and being interviewed for a newspaper, overflow with smiles and giggles. Sharon must be enjoying their company. 
“We went to Frenchie’s. Ah!” Sharon says with a big smile. “Well. The eyes! They love Frenchie’s.
Sharon doesn’t find it difficult to cook for them. 
“They’re not fussy,” she says. “Yu likes to have rice. Now, when I went to my orientation, I was told they’re supposed to experience everything Canadian. But when they’re here this long, I don’t see the harm in making rice for her. Marina wants beans and rice.”
The girls already know their favourite Canadian foods: Yu likes banana bread and Marina likes poutine. Both girls like fish cakes.
When we get talking about food, Yu fingers her iPhone to show some photos of Japanese donuts. 
“Your phone is in Japanese!” I exclaim then turn to Marina. “And your laptop is in...?”
“Portugese,” she replies.
What’s interesting is how many words Yu pronounces the way we do, but with a different inflection or accent.
“Some of the words are the same,” Yu says. “We say keetchen, chocorate, curtans, tabul. All similar. Cam-a-ra. We have many English words as Japanese.”
“What’s the word for tea?”
“We say ‘kotcha’…but we can say tea.  When we go to MacDonald’s, we say, ‘Please want ice tea’. We use lots of English words in our life in Japan.”
I give Marina a new word to learn in anticipation of the coming cold weather: “You’re going to need a toque.”
Both Marina and Yu return to their home countries early next year, after exams. What will they talk about when they get back to Taquaritinga and Osaka?
“Everything is big here,” says Yu. 
The same goes for Marina. 
“Home, we don’t have really big yards,” she says. “Here, we have more space. It’s all green here.”

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Conference Call

For the past six weeks, I've been consumed by one project: My hour-long presentation at the Alzheimer Society of Nova Scotia's annual conference.
Now the countdown is on...Monday and Tuesday, October 21 and 22 at the Holiday Inn Harbourview, Dartmouth. That's next week!
Me specifically: Monday afternoon at 3 pm. Wow! Won't believe I'm doing it until I'm there.
For the first time, I'm putting my mouth where my words are. This is my first speech about the caregiving experience I shared with my mother. After writing about it for ten years, and the last four being after my father's death, public speaking & presentations are the next logical step for me to take. I'm grateful to the Alzheimer Society of Nova Scotia for giving me this opportunity to change attitudes towards dementia.

I'm nervous but in a good way. More like excited nerves -- finally getting my message out there. Once I was no longer a caregiver, I was able to look back and reflect on the experience and see so many things that I couldn't at the time. Hence the title of my presentation: "I Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now." So much to say, so many stories to share.
The presentation is broken down into three topics: Love, Music and Acceptance. Acceptance -- meaning "It's not about you, it's about the person you need to take care of" -- is the most challenging part to express. Especially in an hour. But I consider it the most important. Attitudes about dementia, about the people living with dementia, must change. Otherwise, we're heading for a big crisis in care. Personally, as a woman with no children and a husband who is 14 years older, I worry about what kind of care I'm going to receive if there is no one to watch out for me.

You can still register for the two-day event. But please note: The "Friends & Family Night" on the evening of Monday, October 21, is FREE! And I'm part of a panel doing a Q&A about living with dementia that evening.
It begins at 6 pm, and the panel runs from 7 until 9.

This is what I know now: Knowledge is power. Fear and ignorance about dementia only makes it harder to take care of someone you love the way they deserve to be taken care of. Come and be empowered -- you never know when you'll need what you learn.



Wednesday, October 09, 2013

P.S. I Miss You

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, October 2, 2013, by Sara Mattinson.

In my favourite photo of my friend Diana and me, we are standing with our arms around each other with her Golden Retriever sitting between us. We look happy because Diana is healthy two months after a surgeon removed cancer from her oesophagus. 
“I’m away having major surgery because I have cancer and what do you do? Fall in love!” Diana said after she’d returned from the hospital and I’d told her what had transpired while she was away from Pugwash Point that summer of 2006. 

October 2006, Pugwash, NS
Our friendship had begun two years earlier with morning dog walks and evening Scrabble games but what I cherished most were our trips to the movie theatre. We went about once a month, to see a “chick flick”. As we made the hour-long trip to the theatre, we chatted about our dogs and husbands, books and country music videos. I told stories about substitute teaching and Diana talked about her three grown children. We laughed a lot. 
 “I’m not much of a chatterbox,” Diana once said to me, “but you don’t seem to notice.”  
It was my way of creating a cancer-free zone for her.  
Six months after my wedding, Diana’s cancer returned and a few weeks before she was to begin radiation treatments in March 2008, we went to see a movie called P.S. I Love You. When the trailer for Mamma Mia had appeared on the screen, I’d leaned over and whispered, “We’re going to see that when it comes out this summer!”  As I sat back, anticipation changed to horror: I’d just made a future date with a woman battling an aggressive cancer. 
Four months later, Diana couldn’t attend our first anniversary party because she was in the hospital, finding out that the reason she couldn’t breathe was the liquid around her heart, which was actually more cancer.  In a card, I thanked her for being such a big part of my happiness then wrote, “As soon as you are having a good day, we must go to the movies.”  
A week later, Diana phoned.  
“I’m having a good day,” she told me. “Let’s go to the movies tonight.”   
Sitting in a dark movie theatre, eating popcorn and watching Mamma Mia, I concentrated on my intense gratitude for this moment, not on the fact that given Diana’s prognosis – two to twenty months to live – there weren’t many more of these evenings to come. 
In early October, I was working at my computer on a Saturday morning when I thought, “I should call Diana and see if she wants to go to a matinee this afternoon.” As I put my hand on the phone receiver, I thought of the deadlines I faced and how much I could get accomplished by staying home so I didn’t call. 
A few hours later, the phone rang.  
“Diana’s gone,” her husband, Matt, said.
A massive heart attack had taken her, quickly, in her own living room. She’d had exactly two months to live. 
Thoughts pinged around my brain: If only I had called her! She might have died in my car! I thought we had more time! Who will I go to the movies with now?
The next morning, my husband suggested we take the ATV for a drive through the wood lot.  
“You can cry whenever you need to,” he said.
When I shoved my hands into the pockets of my jacket to pull out a pair of gloves, I also pulled out a small piece of paper. It was the ticket stub for P.S. I Love You
After the funeral, I was wracked with guilt. Why didn’t I visit more? Why didn’t I go over for games of Scrabble? Why didn’t I call that morning? My rational side reminded me that a weakened heart made her tired, medication made her groggy. I remembered how laughing made her cough which made her gag. I remembered that Matt and Diana had been at our place for supper just two weeks before she died.  
“You were a good friend,” my husband assured me. “You went to the movies all the time.”
Now that Diana was gone, it wasn’t enough.  
Two weeks after the funeral, I stopped at the bank machine in Pugwash and when I reached out to shove my card into the slot, there was a small white piece of paper wedged under my palm.
It was the ticket stub for Mamma Mia.   
I’d used this card many times since we’d seen that movie in August and I certainly wasn’t wearing this sweater coat then. I had no idea where that stub came from, didn’t even recall keeping it. It simply appeared in my hand on a day when I was missing Diana and wanting to drive to her house for a cup of tea and wishing for the millionth time I’d been a better friend.  
My friend Diana Roach died five years ago this month. I still have those two movie ticket stubs, tucked in a picture frame with that favourite photo, as a reminder that sometimes, just doing one special thing is enough.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

A Country Kind of Day

My first few years in rural Nova Scotia were idyllic. As I settled in to a new house and a new neighbourhood, and spent some time substitute teaching throughout the school year, I had lots of time for reading and writing, gardening, raising chickens, walking and exploring.
After six years, those slow, peaceful, book-filled days seem like distant memories. Most of the writing I do these days are for the columns in the newspaper and most of the exploring I do is on the Internet. Shame, shame!
It's a great lesson in "be careful what you wish for"! because I wanted to write full-time...I just forgot to add, "at home" where I could keep reading and gardening and walking. So between writing 140-character tweets, posting short essays on Facebook, and creating my presentation for the Alzheimer Society of Nova Scotia's conference in two weeks (two weeks! wow), I've been too busy for creative writing.
Sometimes I feel like something is missing from my life, something important, something fundamental. Like my writing hand has been cut off or the creative part of my brain has shut down. It's a spooky feeling. It's a lonely feeling.
But autumn has a way of drawing me out of the office, out of my mind (so to speak). Being on the back of the bike, riding through the woods, hanging out at the Ducks Unlimited duck pond has a way of relaxing the brain and body and reminding me of what I love so much about living in the country. And living with a Nova Scotia country boy.
Breathing space. Creative space.
October in rural Nova Scotia is good for the soul.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

In Conversation With...Jane Jorgensen

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, September 25, 2013, by Sara Mattinson.

When Jane Jorgensen started thinking about life after nursing, she knew one thing: “I wasn’t going to be one of those people who sat and twiddled their thumbs and felt sad.”
Jane, who retired last November at the age of 58, graduated from Acadia University in 1976 intending to be a teacher but the pull to be a nurse was stronger (her mother was a nurse in Amherst) and she trained at the Aberdeen School of Nursing in New Glasgow. Working as a critical care nurse in Amherst, as a manager of staff training and development at the Sunset Community, and finally as a nurse supervisor at East Cumberland Lodge, Jane managed to combine both her passions.
But don’t think she gave up teaching and nursing in retirement; she’s just changed her clientele. 
“About five years before I knew I was going to retire, I started to plan on those things I’d always wanted to do. Driving horses, having bees, and having a boarding kennel.”
Because she and her husband, Gordon, used to run a dairy farm (health problems forced them into easier-to-handle livestock like sheep and llamas), they were able to convert the former dairy barn into dog kennels because it has concrete floors and is insulated; the former milk room is perfect for a grooming salon.
The kennel allowed Jane to indulge in another passion: rescue. 

“We always had dogs that nobody wanted, that were abused or people threw away,” she says. “We love animals and we like being with them. I think I could make a pet out of anything.”
As dogs bark in the kennel behind her and Gordon plays with five newly-arrived puppies in the yard, Jane reveals her motivation for rescue. 
“I cannot understand people who don’t look at animals as living, important beings. There are lots of people in this world who think of animals as a commodity or product or thing and that’s a mindset I cannot understand. I cannot understand why people don’t get that dogs have the same thoughts and feelings we have and if we don’t take care of them, well, that’s wrong,” she says. “Some of those people are going to go to hell and it’s for some things that are a real crime against animals.”
Jane and Gordon have seven pet dogs of their own and a collection of cats, but with a kennel of nine runs, Jane was able to offer her services to the Litters ‘N’ Critters Animal Rescue group. 
“It’s a group of people who now focus on the northern dogs; we partner with the Happy Valley/Goose Bay SPCA [in Labrador]. Not to say that we don’t take dogs from all over because we do. We had a mum and her 11 pups from Sydney last year.”
Why are these northern dogs so urgent?
“There’s no vet care, they can’t get their dogs spayed or vaccinated,” Jane explains. “The Happy Valley/Goose Bay SPCA has a shelter that is half the size of my kennels. And the violence is unbelievable. And I’ve had dogs here that are the only ones who survived out of litters that froze to death.”
When the situation reached a crisis last year at the shelter in Happy Valley/Goose Bay, Jane was one of several volunteers who received Labrador dogs in a massive FedEx Canada delivery by plane. 
“We got three bitches,” says Jane. “One had six pups, one whelped the next day and one whelped on the first of July. The dogs weren’t used to being fed. One didn’t know what kibble was. They were eating 21 cups of kibble a day between the three of them.”
The cost of feeding these dogs was overwhelming.
 “I called Steve at the Co-op and asked if he had any broken bags of kibble he could give me at a discount price. He said he’d look into it. Well, they brought us almost 2,000 pounds of dog food. Co-op Atlantic gave us dog food, cat food and lab animal food.”
The food arrived as dramatically as the dogs: Harrison’s brought it to Jane’s home on Wallace Bay Road on a boom truck.
“They just came and delivered it,” Jane says. “And we’re still feeding the dogs from that. It was amazing. What a wonderful thing that was.”
(The cat food went to Marilyn Williams and the lab animal food went to Hope For Wildlife.) 
Jane estimates that since she first started taking in rescue dogs in 2010, over 100 puppies and dogs have passed through her life. 
“I get the chance to have all these puppies and not have to keep them. And Gordon has the chance for me to satisfy all this fur and I don’t say ‘We’re keeping them.’ I don’t have a hard time placing them but sometimes I have a hard time letting them go.”
Socializing is  big part of Jane’s work in order to find homes for the dogs. The adult dogs that come from Labrador don’t speak English and some have never been inside a home. 
“Many of them have never been handled or  socialized but they’re quick learners. One thing here, because of the kennel, they learn really fast to be housetrained. It’s natural to keep their inside clean. We go out, we come in. They learn that when they do that, they get treats.”
It’s only Jane and Gordon doing all the work and it’s 24/7 but the rewards are huge. 
“I’ve never seen dogs so forgiving and so loving,” Jane says. “The temperament of these dogs is unbelievable. We had a dog here a couple of years ago, he was beautiful. He was big, he was blond, he had blue eyes. He was gorgeous. He had been wrapped in barbed wire and stabbed with a barbecue fork 16 times and thrown away. Somehow he crawled to rescue and they shipped him down here. The only thing I found that made him nervous was the sound of a steel dish hitting the cement; he would cringe. He was the most loving dog; he loved everybody. He was adopted by a family with children and he’s the star of the show.”
Jane leans back in her chair and crosses her arms. 
“We need to take a lesson from them.”