Friday, December 4, 2009

Survivor SHIP: Christmas & The Nose Hair

It was just before Christmas… My mother who had been battling cancer for years was just admit to hospital, again. Oh YAY! What a fabulous new holiday tradition this was turning out to be.

In mom’s illness and absences my father had become completely unaware of himself. He had been holding fast to keep the family together, look after my mother, all the while running a fledgling but very busy contracting business born out of the recession in 93. I don’t think he stopped to look at himself in the mirror - figuratively and literally speaking. He is very generous at the cost of his own needs.

In this case my sister and I had become alarmed at the rate and magnitude of the nose hair growing out of dad’s nose. Honestly, how can he not feel that? My sister and I were both too chicken to bring his grooming to his attention and so while we were alone with mom in her hospital room we decided to ask her to have a talk with dad about his nose hair. If something was not done soon – he would surely trip over them whilst walking up the stairs! We could not afford to have both parents in the hospital.

Mom laughed at our request. We thought she promised us not to say that she was the messenger speaking on behalf of two grown daughters. How ignorant on our part. Neither my sister nor I knew the code of the married couple – who live to share such secrets.

Mom was scheduled to have a few rounds of her annual Christmas chemo and was also about to pop her radiation therapy cherry. What had begun as breast cancer had metastasized into bone cancer and my poor mother was bravely preparing to have her spine radiated. From her hospital bed she showed us the casts the radiologist had made to cover the areas not undergoing the radiation.

Mom showed us all the pen mark ups the radiologists had drawn all over her back and legs. Someone had brought her a package of cartoony thought-bubble stickers with funny and sarcastic captions printed on them. The kind of stickers used on photos. Mom made a game of sticking them on her skin. Hiding them along the highway of green sharpie pen mark-ups to give the nursing staff a chuckle as they readied her for her therapies. Typical of my mother to think of how someone else might feel in her situation. What a card. Her mood was optimistic and so were we. We saw her off to this treatment and headed back to our respective daily activities. Neither Sue nor I thought about the nose hair conversation again as suddenly it seemed there were greater things to worry about.

After completing my last university midterm I headed out to do some Christmas shopping but, my heart was not in it. I was getting over heated in my down coat while wandering around the mall aimlessly looking for wonderful gifts to buy people when the only thing that mattered was my mother's health.

I was growing increasingly impatient with the herds of people pushing and shoving me out of the way. I wondered if I was as invisible as I felt in that moment. I wondered if any of the hurried passersby took a moment to really look at me if they could see the swirl of sadness I was carrying around. If they looked all the way into my being would they see the rock lodged in my chest and the vice grip holding me where my head meets my neck? I wondered what went on in their homes and if they too walked around carrying so much inside. If they did, how is it that they muster the strength to push on?

My thoughts trailed off to stories I have read about people who can lift cars off people at accident scenes and other super human acts of strength. Those people are honoured, as heroes and I know that somehow we are built to bring on the super powers in the face of disaster and despair. While there are no hero biscuits for the family afflicted on the daily with cancer there is survivor ship.

Absently, I wandered over to the Elephant and Castle bar and restaurant and sat down to order a cold beer. I don’t think I had been in this bar since it was a favorite drinking whole for the under-aged back in high school. Ironically, I am carded when I place my order. All around me the bar is filled with jovial office party patrons getting sloshed on the company dollar in the spirit of Christmas.


At noon the following day, still lounging around the house in my PJ’s, a reward after cramming for exams. My sister and I casually chat while she feeds her son, Aaron, lunch.

Our neighbours are always very good to us whenever mom heads off to the hospital – they come over bearing gifts of casseroles and salads and buns. Anything they can do to help us out. Today Sue and I watch as baby Aaron chews forever on a piece of beef from a stroganoff.

Did you make that?

No, one of the neighbours dropped it off for our dinner. I thought since it was still warm I would feed it to Aaron.

Aaron still chewing the same bite, sighs, puts his elbow on the table, his tiny hand under his chin to prop up his head and continues to chew. Sue and I start laughing at him.

He must be hungry! I would have spit that out by now. What’s the stroganoff made of -shoe leather?

The front door opens and Dad comes through the door. He takes of his knock-off beaver fur hat the kind with the ear-flaps that tie over the top. I visualize a film reveal of his nose hair tied neatly in a bow at the top of his head. He pulls off his galoshes, hangs his coat and comes into the kitchen.

Well helloo there.

He says to us then goes straight for the grand baby to give him a squeeze.

Sue & Michelle
Hiya Pop we say. You home for lunch?

I guess – what are we having?

Stroganoff or sandwiches. Take your pick.

I’ll just have a sandwich.

Silence. We all stare at Aaron. He is still chewing.

Um, Sue, maybe you should fish that meat out of his mouth and just feed him the gravy and the noodles?

Your mother has asked not to have any company up to see her in the hospital. It would be helpful to me if you could share this information.


No one, as in friends and neighbours or no one, as in her sister and brother or what?

No. No one. She’ll tell you when she wants to see you. She just wants to be alone right now.

But why? What happened?

The radiation severed her spinal column. She is paralyzed from the waste down. She can’t walk. She can’t feel if she has to go to the bathroom. She does not want to be embarrassed in front of anyone if she has an accident. NO VISITORS PERIOD.

A giant red boxing glove on a mechanical arm flies out of nowhere and punches me square in the stomach. Sue leaves the room. Aaron continues chewing.

A few short days before Christmas, and a good week after the no visitor ban was lifted, I popped into see my mother. She was sitting propped up in her bed. She had been given a shower that morning. My sister who was in hairdressing school had come in to cut mom’s hair. Mom was looking more herself than I had seen her look in a long while.

I saddled up beside her gave her a kiss and then pulled out my toiletry case. We had a weekly ritual of manicures and pedicures. My mother, ever the lady, enjoyed to have her nails looking good, especially in the hospital. She always said; no matter how beautiful or expensive your outfit if your nails are chipped and unkempt you will look trashy. Nothing dressed up backless hospital blues and catheters like a coat of Chanel Ruby Red on a lady’s fingers and toes. Classy!


Pointing up to the wall at the foot of her bed. I look up. How could I have missed the wall filled with crazy looking construction paper rein deer.

Louise was in. She brought all this paper, glue and tape. You have to trace your hands for the antlers and then make a deer to hang on the wall. Everyone in the last two days has made one when they came into visit!

Leave it to Louise, my mother’s longtime best, ever, girlfriend to come up with an idea like this.

Before we do nails you have to make a deer.

I gotta hand it to Louise it was a clever way to occupy a visit, create a jolly mural and ease the discomfort of seeing my mother in such bad shape. My mother obviously derived so much pleasure from seeing all the deer.

I make a deer, hang it on the wall, study the other hands to see who had made each one. It was uncanny how each deer actually resembles the person who made it. Then we go about discussing Christmas plans while we get down to the business of painting nails.

I won’t be home for Christmas this year and I haven’t even done my shopping for you girls. Your Aunt Dianne has offered to do some so why don’t you tell me what you would like?

Nothing mom. I just want you to feel better and come home.

I barely get this out. I am concentrating on painting her nails but I can’t see through the blurr of tears in my eyes. Be brave, be brave, be brave, I say over and over in my head. The orderly comes in with the dinner tray. Hospital food never looked so good.

Christmas day my dad was up early working away in the kitchen. There had been no sign of Santa this year. Not a big deal seeing as we were all adults and Aaron at 15 months was still too small to notice. Dad was on a mission to get the bird into the oven and the rest of the meal going so we could bring Christmas dinner and Christmas cheer to mom’s hospital room.

Dad, Sue and I quietly went about getting everything ready. We made the effort to get all dressed up. Sue dug out Mom’s red weekender wear jacket, she even pinned the Rudolf pin to it’s lapel just like mom always does. She dressed Aaron in a cute fleece tartan outfit with a matching tam. I grabbed a few old photo albums depicting Christmases past and the Christmas stockings. Dad packaged up dinner with plates and silver wear and napkins- the whole nine yards- and off we went to the hospital to have our Christmas with mom.

Totally normal right. We all silently pretended it was. We entered mom’s room with an air of what I can only look back on now as fake forced holiday cheer. Mom was so very happy to see us. She slipped her jacket on over only one arm because the IV was in the way. We laughed, opened presents, leafed through the photo albums while dad and mom told us stories about how late they had stayed up wrapping gifts and how early I had woke them up every year.

I look up at the wall of rein deer. They were there in my peripheral vision the whole time but having seen them a handful of times I had not payed much attention to them.

Did you seen the rein deer your father made?

Sue and I scrutinize the wall further.


On the wall is a construction paper reindeer sporting eye glasses, just like my father’s. But, that was not the alarming or most significant thing about this deer. This deer had NOSE HAIR! The construction paper had been cut into thin strips then dragged over the sharp side of the scissors to make neat curls. The curls were protruding from Daddy rein deer’s nose!

Michelle & Sue
MOM! You said you wouldn’t tell!

I did no such thing. Your Father and I tell each other everything.

She’s heavily medicated – stuff just comes out of her mouth. You should hear what else she has told me!

Mom to Dad
You’re bad!

She swats his arm.

Dad still laughing while reaching in his pocket to retrieve a Kleenex. He was laughing so hard his eyes were tearing up. He pats his eyes with the tisue before he speaks.

The funniest thing, girls, is that I trimmed my nose hair two weeks ago and neither of you noticed.

He was right.


Baby BEE and Me said...

I love you Shipley's!

Smelly Kelly said...

I love this story.

jen512 said...

Hi Mother Ship! I've been reading your blog for a while now but this is my first comment. I stumbled onto your blog when I was looking for belly pictures to compare mine to (I am almost 6 months pregnant). I just wanted to let you know that you are an amazing writer and stories like these about your mom always bring a little tear to my eye. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences, good and bad. Truly and inspiration.

Jimmy said...

You have a nice blog. Nose hair clipper is in fact a personality grooming tool utilized to
trim down excess hairs in the ears and nostrils. You can get cheap nose hair clippers here

Chris - nose hair clipper