Portraits of Lillian by Henry Regehr 1,800 Words
As a photographer, I remember events and relationships in images of the mind. These stories, these reflections, are the still photos of a long-lasting and loving romance. I now share this album of images with you.
On starlit prairie winter evenings, riding Madge, thirteen- year-old Lillian lets her pony choose its way in the farm field. She lies back on the horse and gazes at the wide- open black sky, its shimmering stars, and unknown galaxies, and she feels at peace.
Her parents, refugees from communist Russia, arrived in Canada in 1929 with four children and after difficult years, including the death of infant Peter, Lillian was born in 1933. They were able to purchase a farm at Alexander, Manitoba, and settle into a successful agricultural venture.
The hard truth is becoming clear: Lillian is developing a neurocognitive disorder. It is as disrupting as an earthquake. A shattering turning point that allows one to learn the meaning of love. “I love you” takes on a new significance. Warm hugs demonstrate this daily. It is becoming a 24/7 way of life.
Adapting to life in the city for her final years of high school, Lillian wins honours marks and excels in her new environment. She becomes known for her fiercely independent ideas and colorful touches of rebellion coated with friendly humor and brilliant laughter.
As Lillian changes from week to week, and sometimes from day to day, we are profoundly sad but often we laugh. I think of Leonard Cohen’s words:
“Its time that we begin to laugh
And cry and cry
And laugh about it all again”.
Lillian finds herself in front of children in grades one, two, and three in a remote village in the Interlake Region of Manitoba. Having completed her summer-school teacher training, she now bravely settles in as a “Permit Teacher”. So begins a lifelong career where, thoughtfully and diligently, she will encourage countless Kindergarten children to test their little wings.
We take, it turns out, our last, slow walk along Toronto’s Waterfront, now with a walker for support. The Autumn sun is warm, we have a lively conversation with a student from Mexico and become friends with Rudi, a gentle Brown Lab.
Lillian sang, with her lovely soprano voice, in both the Elmwood church choir and the “Liebhaber Chor”. She had been surrounded by country and gospel music which was always playing on the family farm home radio. Classical music was her choice as she adapted to urban living and attending live concerts was her special joy.
Lillian received her Ten-Year volunteer pin at Princess Margaret Hospital. She had been giving snacks together with support and encouragement to cancer patients and their families. Now with her grandson escorting her, she went to receive her recognition for faithful service. It turned into a transition from being a caregiver to becoming a patient in need of care herself. She had loved the families at PMH and had left a part of her selfless kindness with them.
We met at a Christmas youth event, where we visited families, distributed baskets of goodwill, and sang carols. She was vivacious, funny, and beautiful. The first date was on a snowy Winnipeg evening and the concert was by an Italian chamber orchestra. It was magical. Though the impatient young man was overcome, Lillian took a long time deciding but eventually she called with an invitation to a Sadie Hawkins night out. So began a lifelong romance.
Today Lillian comes home from Mt. Sinai Hospital where she has been diagnosed with Vascular Dementia. It appears to be a quick-moving illness with the unforgiving signs of Alzheimer’s Disease. When our daughter gently brings her back today, Lillian and I once again sit on our favorite couch overlooking the harbour, the islands, and Lake Ontario. She puts her head on my shoulder and immediately falls asleep. She has come home. We are surrounded by love, by caring people, and an amazingly responsive family. We love them and feel loved by them.
The wedding, on a sunny June day, is a community event. Dear family and loving friends gather to share the celebration and the happy communal meal in the Elmwood Church basement. All is rich in tradition and joy, music, and gifts. A friendship and romance are sealed.
Ugly, persistent Vascular Dementia has won the day. Lillian is admitted, on an urgent basis, to Baycrest. Even twenty-four-hour care at home could not guarantee her nurture or her safety. She suffers from a frightening
“Sundowning Syndrome” that roils her so painfully every
night. The couch where we often sat overlooking the bay had become our “Crying Couch” and the grief and loss of memories and familiar ways are expressed in anger and tears. The normal pattern of planning long trips, concert and theater events morphs into calling to cancel tickets.
Nothing is left intact, so we must accommodate — like so
many hurt families — to a harsh, forbidding new world.
She is a natural mother. Having cradled dolls and baby kittens, infant nephews and nieces, her maternal love is as spontaneous and real as a spring morning. Two children are born at St. Josephs Hospital in Vancouver and they are welcomed with excitement and joy. With her special grace, she nurtures the infants with love, teaches them, and encourages them to emerge as strong, creative, and confident adults. She is immensely proud of them.
Despite the cruelties of Vascular Dementia, Lillian’s heart of gold remains. We occasionally have lunch together at Baycrest and between my feeding her (and she occasionally feeding me!) she reaches out to the lovely women at her small table, holds their hands, and tells them she loves them. The warmth and the “I love you, too” that comes back to her makes everyone smile. Lillian — the real Lillian — is still here, and her love shines through the haze. And we love each other.
1956 to 2020:
Over the years, storms have come unscheduled with flashes of lightning and threatening thunder. Sadness, grief, and hurt wash over in unsettling waves. A tigress when necessary, she stands her ground, fights for the safety of her home and cherished children, and never despairs in the face of darkness. And on every occasion, she wins the day. Her love is tenacious.
Recently our thoughtful daughter made an academic trip to Addis Ababa and returned with a gift, a scarf, for her Mom. It had been made by a group of women, former woodcutters who had been given the opportunity to start a Weaving Collective. Also, recently, Lily, our Parish Nurse at Yorkminster Park, gave Lillian a Teddy Bear. These two gifts are now Lillian’s constant companions. She adores them. At the time of her visit, Lily offers to read the twenty- third Psalm. As she begins, Lillian interrupts. A memory from sixty-five years ago returns to her through the deep, dark fog, a piece she had sung in the Elmwood choir.
She begins: “The Lord is my shepherd”, singing in her now thin
voice. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He
makes me lie down in green pastures….”
1978 to 2007:
Whitepines of Northumberland Tree Farm, our country home for three decades, is where Lillian thrives. Flower gardens carefully planned in the large yard and a productive vegetable garden give her special satisfaction. Brilliant floral colour surrounds the old log house. Planting trees and maintaining the forest and its paths keep her energized. Hiking through the familiar forests she has planted and has watched growing over the decades gives her deep fulfillment. Driving into town in the red pick-up truck is fun. Hosting countless family and friends from far and near makes her famous for her loyalty and for her cooking skills.
Six months have passed since Lillian was admitted to Baycrest. Three years ago, we celebrated our 60th wedding anniversary. By December 11, 2018, Lillian is admitted to Baycrest. The transition is brutal. With the support of our loving family and dear friends, we are making it through these first months. Lillian, in her wheelchair, and I walk in the Baycrest garden, then sit in the shade and cry and cry. There is no laughter now, just tears of sadness and grief. Bill Withers words ring true:
“Lean on me when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend I’ll help you carry on For it won’t be long Till I’m gonna need
Someone to lean on”.
The one engine Cessna lands on a sandy runway, on a hilltop in the Northern Frontier District of Kenya, and we are welcomed by spear-carrying Turkana tribesmen. Lillian is in her element. She loves traveling to unfamiliar places and meeting unfamiliar people. She has visited fifty-tour countries on hiking tours, education trips, and cruises. She has been across Canada many times, camped in most provinces, and has been enriched by them all. The highlight is a family trip to Israel where our loving grandson celebrates his Bar Mitzvah in the tiny synagogue on Masada.
Lillian has been in Baycrest for a long, painful year. Caring people look after her, but each time I visit, she reminds me that she wants to go home. Today we are in the unusually noisy common area and she says, “I can’t take it anymore” so I wheel her away, and in her non-verbal manner, she points me to her room and then to her bed. With help, she gets settled and quietly lets me know how grateful she is that she is finally at home. “How did I get here?” she asks and then insists that she has arrived by horse and buggy. “Thank you” she repeats many times as we kiss and hold each other while she becomes peaceful and content.
1966 to 1969:
Lillian is a foster mother. Over these three years, she cares for special needs children, treating each one as her own.
The baby born with a dislocated hip becomes a favorite child, and Lillian sees her through several hospital stays. After many months in a hip cast, the child finally learns to walk and is ready for adoption by a loving couple. For Lillian, the deep feeling of loss is painful as each child leaves with Lillian’s loving imprint.
This Monday, when I visit, Lillian is asleep in her wheelchair. She awakens at the sound of my voice, smiles warmly, and we greet each other with kisses and a long hug. I wheel her to the cafeteria, and we have our “date snack” of chocolate milk and egg salad sandwich. She searches for words and is unable to find them, lost in her confusion. Our dialogue is simply “I love you” and “I love you, too”.
Covid19 has now closed the gate on our visits and we are left with our loneliness, memories, and love.
Saint Paul’s words come to mind, Love is patient
Love is kind….
It always protects, It always trusts, Always hopes, Always perseveres. Love never fails.