Portraits of Lillian
Portraits of Lillian April 14, 2022
As photographer, I remember events and relationships in images of the mind. These stories, these reflections, are the still photos describing a long-lasting and loving romance.
I now share this album of images with you, the reader.
On starlit prairie evenings, riding Madge, thirteen-year-old Lillian lets the pony choose its way in the farm field. She lies back on the horse and gazes at the 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. After difficult years, including the death of infant Peter, Lillian was born on November 11, 1933. The family settled into a successful farming venture at Alexander, Manitoba.
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 becomes a 24/7 way of life.
Adapting to life in the city for her final years of high school, Lillian wins honors 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.
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 courageously 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 in the “Liebhaber Chor.” She had been surrounded by country and gospel music which was always playing on the family farm radio. Classical music was now her choice as she adapted to urban living, and attending live concerts was her special joy.
Lillian received her Ten-Year 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 for 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 good will, and sang carols. She was vivacious, funny, and beautiful. Our first date was on a snowy Winnipeg evening and the concert was by an Italian chamber orchestra. It was magical. Though the 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 was diagnosed with Vascular Dementia. It appears to be a fast-moving illness with the unforgiving signs of Alzheimer’s Disease. When our daughter gently brings her back home, Lillian and I once again sit on our favorite couch overlooking the harbor, 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 day in June, is a community event. Dear family and friends gather to share the celebration and the happy communal meal in the Elmwood Church. 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 ensure her nurture or her safety. She suffered from frightening “Sundowning Syndrome” that roiled her so painfully every night. The couch where we so often sat overlooking the bay had become our “crying couch” and the grief, the loss of memories and familiar ways were expressed in tears and in anger. Normal patterns of planning for trips, concert and theatre tickets were changed into calls to cancel tickets. Nothing was left intact, and we accommodated, like so many hurt families, to the new harsh and forbidding world.
October 1958 and 1962
Lillian is a natural mother. Having cradled dolls and baby kittens, infant nephews and nieces, her maternal love is spontaneous and as real as a spring morning. Two children are born at St. Joseph’s 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 Dementia, Lillian’s heart of gold remains. We occasionally have lunch together at Baycrest and between my playfully 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 lightening and threatening thunder. Sadness, grief, and hurt wash over in unsettling waves. A tigress, when necessary, she stands her ground, fights for the safely 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 23rd Psalm. As she begins, Lillian interrupts. A memory from sixty-five years ago returns to her through the deep, dark fog, a piece she has sung in the Elmwood Church 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 to 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 joy. Brilliant floral color surrounds the old log house. Planting trees every Spring and maintaining the forest and its paths keep her energized. Hiking through the forests she has planted and has watched growing over the decades gives her deep fulfillment. Driving into town in the red pickup truck is fun. Hosting countless family and friends from far and near makes her famous for her loyalty and her cooking skills.
Six months have passed since Lillian was admitted to Baycrest on December 11, 2018. Only three years ago, we celebrated our sixtieth wedding anniversary. The transition has been brutal. With the support of loving family and dear friends, we are making it through these painful months. Lillian is now in a wheelchair, and we walk in the Baycrest garden, then sit in the shade of a spreading tree and we cry and cry. There is no longer laughter, just tears of sadness and grief. Bill Withers’ words ring true: “Lean on me when you’re not strong and I will 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 our family is welcomed by spear-carrying Turkana tribesmen. Lillian is in her element. She loves traveling to unfamiliar places and meeting new people. She has visited fifty-four countries on hiking tours, education trips, and cruises. She has been across Canada many times, camped in most provinces, and has been enriched by all the journeys. The highlight is a family trip to Israel where we celebrate the Bar Mitzva of our loving grandson 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 is a particularly noisy day in the communal area and she says, clearly, “I can’t take it anymore.” I wheel her away, and in her non-verbal way she points me to her room and then to her bed. With help she settles in and quietly lets me know how grateful she is that she has at last come home. “How did I get here?” she asks, and then insists that she has arrived by horse and buggy. “Thank you” she says, just above a whisper, and repeats it over and over. We kiss, I lie down beside her, and we embrace. She becomes peaceful and content, then drops off to sleep.
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 displaced hip becomes a favorite child for all of us. Lillian sees her through four hospital stays where her body cast is replaced to suit her growing frame. Finally, Baby Lorie is released from the cast, learns to walk, and eventually is ready for adoption to a loving couple. For Lillian, the deep feeling of loss is painful as each child leaves with Lillian’s, and our family’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 an 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.”
Covid limits our visits over two years, and we are left with our loneliness, memories, and love. Throughout these years, Lillian’s condition takes its natural, disastrous course. Love sustains us.
St. 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.”
April 13 and 14, 2022
Lillian is now bedridden and asleep. She has no response to my touch or my voice. I tell her about the early lives of our children, of their activities and successes. Tears come from her closed eyes and roll down her face. I talk about the beautiful tree farm, of clearing the brush, and planting trees, and her tears stop. I talk about our love for each other and the joy we have shared, and once again the tears begin to flow.
I tell her that her parents are waiting for her and are ready to welcome her, that her sister and brothers are ready to meet her, that it is good to let go and pass on to her glorious home.
It is our last conversation.
The following morning Lillian’s gasping breath stops, and she passes silently away.
The Lord is my shepherd
I want no more
I rest in green pastures
My soul is restored
I dwell in the house of the Lord.
Comments on "Portraits of Lillian"
It was so moving to read this to my daughter Jordan. It made me think of Lillian’s sister, my mom, Margaret, waiting for her and it made me think of how close they were. I was always shy when you and Lillian visited my parents but your stories brought back memories of you both talking about that tree farm. It is lovely to hear of your enduring love and have snippets of history interspersed. Thank you so much for sharing. May God continue to encourage and support you as you grieve.