Both Eyes Open

This short collection of reflections has encouraged me to appreciate the process of writing along with all it’s cathartic and healing sensibilities. Typically, this might be one to leave in between the covers of a personal journal, but there’s something about putting it out there into the world to be seen. Perhaps, the act of publishing is also part of the process. A letting go.

It’s not a short read. You will need about ten minutes to go from top to toe.

What I’m hoping for, as always, is to find a connection, and in that, uncover our collective commonness. For it’s in the sharing of stories that we have a unique and very personal opportunity to see each other, up close. And, I believe that, in sharing stories, even those most difficult of ones to speak out, we can learn how to love and forgive each other better, one narrative at a time.

I have heard it said that the one thing more important than actual forgiveness is to believe that one is forgivable. But it all starts with a story…


Mommy by the river

I don’t know if anyone was more surprised by my Mother’s death than she was.

In the last week of Mommy’s life I recall one of those rare occasions when our eyes locked for a split second; my blue eyes met her green eyes. It was Easter Sunday twenty one years ago and she had a tube poked into to her side, brownish-yellow liquid mixed with air bubbles slowly seeping into the bag below. Propped up in the hospital bed, head leaning to one side, she said, “It’s not coming out as much as the doctor hoped.”  Her eyes told a story I wasn’t ready to hear.

My Mother’s left eye had a perpetual droop and for as long as I could remember it was always half closed. There were a few exceptions, the times when she’d force the muscles around her eye to lift it up, taking her eyebrows along for the ride, creating a sort of deer-in-the-headlights look for the camera. A second after the flash of the bulb and the click of the shutter, her eyelid would be back down again, resuming it’s natural position, cutting her vision by half. I was used to seeing my Mother that way – one eye closed – but I know it annoyed her to not only have her sight reduced, but also to have her image reduced … as in how people saw her.

My Mother was a beauty. This is what she told me more often than was probably necessary. She would have said it like this: “Your Mother used to be a beauty, you know!”  Perhaps she thought I was interested in who she used to be, but really, I think she was more interested in reminding herself of the times gone by when people would turn their heads – both the men and the women. I have had many people, not just my Mother, tell me that she was a very beautiful woman. Snappy!  is a word I’ve heard to describe her. But, by the time my sister and I arrived on the scene, she’d already lived three or four lifetimes and was worse for the wear.

When she was five, she (along with the rest of the Mennonites in South Russia) was expelled and sent on the trip of a lifetime. Trekking by foot and train, showered by snow, bombs and shells, chased by tanks and everything else symbolic of the Second World War, she was orphaned in a small town in Northern Germany where she didn’t belong. She was sent on a ship across the Atlantic, alone, ending up on farm in Grimsby, Ontario. She’d been excommunicated by half of that same family who had adopted her and the church where she had faithfully taught Sunday School. She birthed two babies, gained some baby fat and had both of her cancerous breasts removed before getting divorced. Her happiest moments were somewhere in the middle of all that … when she’d had freedom, an income and a body she could rely on.

On this day in my memory, both of her green eyes were wide open, a very rare sight so I paid extra attention.

Her body had been bloating up, gradually and steady. It’s hard to say exactly when I began to notice. Apple cider vinegar soothed her dry, itchy skin, so I learned to rub my Mother’s body with a cider soaked cloth so she would have some relief from time to time. Her skin was slowly stretching thin over a bag of water-logged flesh. What weight she was losing from the cancer, she was gaining in fluid, starting in her liver and gradually collecting at her extremities.

The fluid in her feet was the final straw.

On Good Friday, two days earlier, she could put her shoes on and went to an evening concert. Her date that night was Gladys Smith, the church pianist, who had arthritis so severe that her fingers were on 45 degree angles. Sideways. And still, bent fingers and all, she played the church piano as if it were her lover. The passion was a little much for our small conservative congregation. Often we were stunned into silence. Maybe we’d clap awkwardly afterward, feeling as though we’d just been witness to an R-rated scene that no one dared admit to watching. Gladys’ piano solos were like that. Passionate and yet unnerving. But beautiful. So beautiful.

Perhaps this is what Gladys and my Mother had in common. They were two ladies who never gave up. Gladys truly should not have been able to play the piano with her hands, ruined as they were, and yet, she continued to coax magic from those keys. She even crocheted. Borrowed time, perhaps. My Mother also lived on borrowed time, spending it recklessly as though it would never run out.

Gladys picked Mommy up and they went to the concert. Mommy wore shoes that night because she could. She also walked that night because she could.

On Saturday, she and I went for a slow stroll around the block. It was the day in between Good Friday and Easter Sunday; the cheese slice in an Easter sandwich. We managed to get around the small block with my arm around her arm, just like we used to do when I was a kid. Her small steps alarmed me. Once we had rounded the block she declared “Your Mother can still walk around the block!”. And then she reminded me, once again about not being a spring chicken any longer. She often referred to herself in the third person, using “Your Mother” in place of “Me” or “I”. She would have said, “Your Mother’s not a spring chicken, you know!”. 

Usually, when I’m confused, I have no words. I get so many thoughts, questions and feelings coming from behind me, up and over, covering my head and my eyes … they get all tangled and mixed and I am rendered speechless. On that day, my Mother was 56 years old and I believed she could do anything she set her mind to. She reminded me she wasn’t a spring chicken, but as far as I knew, if she really wanted to, she could climb a mountain or ride her bicycle across the city or build a rock garden any time she pleased. She could dig a hole in the ground like nobody’s business, move a bush from one side of the yard to the other and get anything unstuck saying “It just needed a little elbow grease. Your Mother still has some get-up-and-go!”  Mommy was stronger than me in every way I could imagine and yet here she was congratulating herself on simply walking around the block.

I was confused. And so, in typical teenage fashion, I dismissed it from my mind.

Probably four months before Easter, in or around autumn, my Mother declared that she was going to a healing service. She asked if I would come. By then, I had been to countless healing services and, frankly, my curiosity had worn off. They were all starting to look the same to me. Every one had a similar method to evoke the the spirit of God to descend and bless people with healing powers. But not everyone got blessed or slain in the spirit. Sometimes you had to repeat words or special phrases, other times just get oil put on your face. Occasionally, The KISS method was applied – as in Keep It Simple, Stupid. In those cases, simple prayer was the chosen method.  I began to strategize and wonder if it was most beneficial to be at the front of the line leading up to the stage, just in case the preacher’s anointing only lasted so long; I was worried that the healing mojo might run out by the time he got to my Mother.

Attending healing services began to seem a bit like playing Russian Roulette. If you went to enough of them and of many various varieties, surely one of those times healing would come your way. That is, if you had enough faith. I seriously doubted my Mother’s faith on this issue. Later, I began to doubt my own – as though, if I had enough faith, I could maybe have helped the cause. I also wondered if my own lack of faith was the bad apple in the bushel spoiling the whole bunch.

One healing service that stands out in my mind was held at Sir Winston Churchill High School in St. Catharines. As usual, Mommy and I went together. After the preaching was preached, it was time to put your faith to the test and line up for the healing. She left me alone in the nosebleed seats and walked down to the stage where we had seen a production of Pirates of Penzance a few years earlier (Incidentally, my first musical and a fantastic performance!). I watched as person after person fell to the ground, usually backward, but sometimes forward, after the healer gave them a small pat on the forehead. This was called the “Anointing of the Spirit”. Some went down easy and others needed a bit of a nudge or a second try. Once slain, they’d lay there. Some laid very still, while others convulsed or wept, but all eventually got up and exited stage right. I assumed, if they could walk, that they’d been healed from whatever their ailment was. This particular night, the healer/preacher was on a role, and now it was Mommy’s turn. Watching her, my heart thumped inside my bowels, nearly quaking my whole body. I grabbed the top of the seat in front of mine to find some balance while I tried to squash the hope rising in me.

She walked up, spoke quietly with the preacher and then he stood back, praying and calling on the Deity in the Lord’s Name, claiming the power of God and Jesus while casting out a few demons for good measure. When he moved his hand to my Mother’s forehead, I felt tingles run up and down my body. I imagined my Mother being filled with the Spirit and all of her insides being cleaned and renewed, the cancer cells vanishing into thin air. I imagined going home, celebrating and laughing at how we all thought she was going to die, but then she didn’t die after all. We’d talk about how we beat the system, consulted the right people and found the secret code all the while making sure we thanked the healer/preacher and God. What had been done could just as easily be reversed.

He continued in a loud and authoritative tone. I prayed, too, but with my eyes open.

Mommy looked small on the wide stage. I saw her one good eye close as his hand came forward.  She was trying her best to be submissive and to play the part of the receiver. His open hand rested on her forehead as he spoke and he applied more pressure. She leaned back under the weight, but she didn’t fall. He pushed harder. Her leg stretched back, bracing herself. The prayer continued. I began to pray that she would fall down like all the other parents had.

With a steady hand on my Mother’s head, the preacher gave a more aggressive push. Again nothing. There was a woman standing close by, ready to catch and lay her down as soon as she was successfully slain in the spirit. But now it was a battle of wills. My Mother was not an actor on a stage. If she was going down, it would be because she had no choice. Truly, if the Spirit could heal, the Spirit could also slay her without the help of a sickly middle-aged woman.

I gave the preacher an ‘ A’ for effort as I watched him increase in assertiveness and push my Mother’s forehead even harder. Tears streamed down my face. Healing or no healing, I just wished she would be slain already. My Mother took another step back and then another while the catcher kept pace in the rear and the preacher pushed onward. They were a conga line on a stage, my Mother leading from the centre with the other two dancers keeping pace and time at her front and back. The three of them, preacher, Mother and catcher, conga-lined all the way from centre stage to stage right, where the stairs were. The preacher prayed without ceasing, his hand firmly planted on my Mothers forehead. They would have toppled over the edge and into the crowd, if someone hadn’t given in.

Once stopped, my mother opened her eye, politely said thank you very much and didn’t have to walk far to get to the stairs as they now were right beside her.

She came back to her seat, her bangs slick with anointing oil. I couldn’t even look at her. In the car she said, “Well, that was interesting!” I was speechless and mortified as she went on to tell me “Your Mother was once the only person in a class to NOT get hypnotized!” Apparently hypnotism and healing services had something in common. She beamed with pride at her memory of being too head-strong to hypnotize. To me, there was nothing prideful about being the only one who didn’t get healed.

At another healing service which I didn’t go to, my Mother came back to announce that her eye had been healed! She went to the front, got prayed over, then her eye opened up without any effort at all. By the time she got home, the eyelid was already starting to wane. By morning it was nearly closed again. I suppose this was a temporary healing? This one confused me more than any of the others as I could see something HAD actually happened, but it wasn’t powerful enough to last. I truly wondered what that meant and what it meant for my Mother. It gave me just enough hope to keep believing she’d eventually be chosen and healed or hypnotized or whatever. And it was this hope that kept me blinded to the truth that was right in front of me on Easter Sunday morning when she couldn’t get her shoes on.

Your Mother couldn’t get her shoes on” she said when I came home from church. “How can I go to church without shoes?” She was speaking in both third person and first person.  I followed along and tried to imagine her at church in bare feet or stockings and she was right, it couldn’t be done. At least not in early April when the ground hadn’t yet fully thawed. Shoes were an absolute must for going out. I hadn’t realized how important shoes were.

She showed me her bare feet which looked as if they belonged on one of those dolls made from panty hose, stuffed with cotton balls and pulled tight with thread at the joints. Hers were shockingly wide feet and very good for swimming. Not like mine, slender and elegant. Mommy was always jealous of my feet and often said so. I was always glad that she’d given those wide-foot genes to my sister and not to me. The two of them together were a pair of ducks.

Later, she called from the hospital to ask me to bring in the usuals; a pair of cotton underwear; her turquoise hair comb; nail file; reader’s digest; and cotton socks – the nice thick pair with the stripes at the top. By then I knew what to bring without her telling me. She’d been in and out of the hospital so many times, it was normal. I grabbed everything from her dresser and drove to the hospital.

Her feet were always cold. From time to time, she’d ask me to massage them for her, which I would do though I’d never had a massage before nor had ever seen one being given. I’d rub her toes and the balls of her heels and the tops of her feet and her ankles. What it was like to be cold and alone in a hospital bed, I hadn’t a clue. I now suspect that partly she had cold feet and partly she just wanted someone to touch her who wasn’t a doctor or nurse or preacher.

There was a time when she discovered hormones were released when you got a hug from someone. The hormone was called endorphins or something like that. “It’s good for healing the body”, she said. “Everyone needs seven meaningful touches a day and I’m not getting enough. How am I supposed to get better if I don’t get hugs? Your Mother needs a hug.” And so we would hug. (What happens if I didn’t really ‘mean’ the hug? Do you still get the endorphins if you are under the impression of “meaningful affection”? I hope she still got hormones she wished for, even though I was a reluctant hugger.)

Looking back, I can see the irony in this picture of a Mother and a daughter living together with the deafening tick-tock-tick of time signaling the impending end of the story. Both wanting so badly to be loved, but not knowing at all where to start or how to do it.

She trained me to have such a fierce independence and many useful and varied skills, that in the end, my self-sufficiency may have also caused her heartbreak.  Her daughter had no need for a Mother any longer and could actually get along alright without her, making what may have seemed a success into a colossal failure.

I often think about that one summer long ago when my Mother was on so many interesting and new drugs that she was undoubtedly high. And very happy. Perhaps that was as close as she got to being healed. Writing poetry and wearing a silk ribbon in her hair, both eyes opened wide to see the world and be seen. I think back to that time, when she was high and happy and full of life and laughter and I think, well, isn’t that what she wanted? Perhaps the solution had always been right in front of us in a pill bottle.

One week after our walk around the block, when my Mother reminded me she wasn’t a spring chicken any longer, I walked away from a hole in the ground at the Vineland cemetery.

My Mother died on the first Wednesday in April during winter’s last snow.

Each year that goes by I get a chance to reflect on these events that have left me with a lifetime of confusion and regret. Each year I’m also learning more about love and forgiveness.


Mommy Behind the Camera


Aspiring story teller. Flower picker. Hopeful artist. Perpetual seamstress. Seasonal knitter. General pot-stirrer.


  • Reply April 10, 2015

    Christine McGrath

    Thank you for sharing Jennifer.

  • Reply April 10, 2015

    Ruth Janzen

    Love and hugs.
    Cousin Ruth

  • Reply May 24, 2015

    the riff-raff at the other end of 19th Street...

    You are a creative genius. Thank you for your insight, inspiration, and generosity.

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