May 30, 1927-Oct. 27, 2013
My mother, Mary Glen Keirstead Routliffe Stirling, has died. She died this afternoon at … I'm not sure exactly when, but probably around 5 p.m. Nova Scotia time. She was 86.
She was one of my two best friends. My first memories of her were of thinking how beautiful she was. She always remained beautiful. My last words to her in person were “I love you.” The last words I ever said to her, in a short and fractured telephone conversation, were “I love you.”
She was the second daughter of Margaret Barss Stackhouse Keirstead and Ronald McNeill Keirstead. She was born in the bedroom of a midwife's house in Greenwich, Nova Scotia, just down the road a bit from what would become her home at 102 Main St., Wolfville. She needed glasses from a young age. She was always known as Mary Glen, which morphed over the years into Maryglen, (and it always bothered me when I heard people call her Mary.)
Her mother loved her unreservedly. Her older sister, beautiful and accomplished, also loved her, although, as sisters will, they had their knotty times when they were young. Her father always thought she was second best, even though he loved her. She never stopped loving him, despite that.
All the love with which she grew up became knit into her sinews and bones. She was made of it, and she passed it on to us, but I'm getting ahead of the story.
My grandfather ordered her into nursing because he deemed her not good enough to go to university. She became a damned good nurse, bringing comfort and structure to peoples' lives, saving those lives, and coming home to tell my brother and me about her latest night at work.
She trained at a little nursing school in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, where the girls (they were girls in those days) had a vegetable garden out back to help feed themselves. She wasn't fond of turnips, largely because as winter progressed, turnips were the last things out of the garden, and became a staple on dormitory tables.
She went to Montreal to continue learning. She got a permanent scar in her leg, from when a cook in the hospital kitchen went mad (they called it that in those days) – or came to work drunk, she was never sure – and chased her around one of the kitchen tables with a butcher knife, having decided that she was the cause of his problems. I never learned whether the scar was from him throwing the knife or her barking her shin against the table corner while avoiding him.
She served as a nursing sister in the Royal Canadian Navy. That's where she met my father. They fell in love and got married. A few years later, with his drinking out of control, she got a divorce. It was Quebec in the 1950s and the divorce law was very Roman Catholic; she fought tooth and nail for the decree, and had to put my brother and me into care while she fought for it. She pulled us from our foster home when she realized we couldn't speak English well anymore. She found a friend to care for us.
The day my grandparents told me that we were going home, and that Mummy would be there still ranks as one of the happiest days in my life.
For the next 14 years, she worked to support us, a single woman in her home town, living with her parents. For a while, she worked as a secretary, after she taught herself shorthand and typing. After a while, though, she went back to nursing. She worked nights so that she could sleep while we were in school, and be up and ready to help us with homework when we came home.
She read me fairy tales. She let me read anything I wanted (with the exception of “My Secret Life” and “Fanny Hill.” I read them anyway.) She read Edgar Rice Burroughs and Zane Grey and Ted Sturgeon and others I can't remember. I read them after she did. I was 7 or 8 when that started, and she never thought I was too young.
Even after she stopped reading Burroughs, she knew I still loved his books. She helped me buy all the Tarzan books, and all the Mars books. One memorable Christmas she and my brother bought me all the books I didn't yet have. And even though they were paperbacks, that was a big purchase.
Years later, when she was in her 70s, she read Lord of the Rings and got all the movies, and read all the Harry Potter books and worried that she wouldn't be alive to watch all of them. I got her all the Ring movies, and she used to watch them. I think she got to see all the Harry Potter movies, too – she even went out on her own to see one of them. She was a fan in many ways, and I was foolish not to have realized that until later in her life.
She fell in love with my step-dad while he was still married. It was tough on them both. Not because of his wife, who didn't give a toss for various reasons, but because of everyone else in town. Because of me, because I was a teenager when it happened and I treated her miserably. It's long past, and she understood, but it hurt her and if I could travel back and change how I acted, I would do it in a heartbeat.
She was a good driver, but she cornered like Mario Andretti. She fought her weight all her life, and in the years before the cancer, she was ashamed to go out. She needn't have been, but she was.
She had a lovely speaking voice, resonant and refined, and a beautiful alto singing voice. She sang barbershop harmony for several years; she sang in our church choir for many other years. We used to sing together while we were in the car, while we were doing housework, and at many other times. Music was very important to her, which made it hard when her hearing became bad enough that she couldn't enjoy it anymore.
She was a bit of a control freak – not surprising in a life when so much was beyond her control – and she could be pigheaded. She loved grapenut ice cream. She loved sweets. She did not love spicy foods, although she did love curried lamb. She was a better cook than she thought she was.
She had the soul of a poet, this woman whose father didn't think she was very smart. Some of the letters she sent me over the years were lyrical, with rhythm and meter, both beautifully formal and intensely personal. Whatever skill I have in writing, I believe I got from her, although she never believed it when I told her.
She spent from this April to mid-September in hospital. Her mental acuity, which my brother tells me had been slipping in little ways for at least 18 months before that, eroded quickly under the brutal onslaught of cancer surgery, recurrent tumors, pain, pain medication, loneliness, frustration and fear.
But she held on hard to her mind. I was blessed to have two visits with her, one directly after her initial surgery and the last one this August. Her short-term memory was gone, but she was still there, still present. She knew what was happening, and she hated it, and I hated it on her behalf, because her sister died of Alzheimer's a few years ago and she told me she hoped she wouldn't go that way.
But she hung on. And we had our visit. And then she let go.
I came home on Aug. 23; I saw her that morning and told her I loved her. Two weeks later she was out of the hospital and into a nursing home that was in Wolfville, so my step-dad could visit her. But she was losing her ability to hold conversations. Two weeks ago I held that fractured conversation with her, via my brother's mobile (because there was no use in putting a phone in her room.) Two more weeks, and she was able, occasionally, to whisper “I love you” to my brother. That was all, but they could hold hands.
Yesterday, the nursing home called. It had begun. My brother kept in touch with texts throughout the day, while I sat on the couch and watched anime for about nine straight hours because I couldn't do anything else except check the phone.
Today, I decided it was time to go shopping. The sun shone. Bob and I went to Costco and I checked the mobile; her breaths were short now and her eyes were open, but they were seeing Nana and Granddad and Aunt Peggy, not this world. And that was good, because she'd missed them for so very long.
My brother took my step-dad home, to the apartment they'd shared for just a little while. And, as these things often go, she died while they were driving home.
I love her very much and, I will make the leap of completely irrational faith and say that I will see her again.
But it will be so very long, and I am going to miss her so very much.