A grief journal part 3: Lasting Impact

This is the last in this series of three written a year ago for work.

In my previous post I mentioned a man who recently died of COVID. I knew him almost 17 years ago when I was a brand new staff. I only worked at his home for one summer but I have thought of him often since then. In fact just this past Christmas I was tickling my young niece and was reminded of him. 

In the evenings, once the chores were done and the home was quiet, he would sit on the couch and make eye contact. It was an invitation to come and sit beside him. And when I did he would reach over, take my hand, and place it by his neck. It was a request to tickle him. As soon as I’d start to wiggle my fingers he’d clamp his chin down, pinning my hand there so I couldn’t move away and he would laugh, evidently delighted by the situation. 

Eventually he’d release my hand, his laughter would subside, he’d catch his breath. And then he’d do it all again. 

It seems a small memory of an insignificant routine but it was one of the ways he taught me new methods of communication. 

I was new to the field of developmental services and he was one of the first people I supported who did not use words to communicate, but clearly had much to say. 

He taught me how to listen when there are no words. I learned to read eye contact and body language. He showed me to recognize hand over hand movements as expressive language. He was patient as I learned to differentiate his “yes” head movements from his “no.” 

As he taught me his language I learned more about him; what form of his name he preferred me to call him by, what foods he hated, and what activities he enjoyed. 

I credit him with teaching me how to listen to communication without words. Communicating in non-traditional ways is a skill I’ve needed to keep practising since. 

So when I heard he had passed away I remembered all of this. I felt sorrow for his housemates and staff who will feel a great loss in the home. But I also felt grateful. I am grateful for the short time I spent working in his home and for the impact he has had on me. 

Like I said in my previous post, each “departure leaves a hole in the community that is felt much farther than one might expect.”

Riding a bike with MG

I grew up in the country, riding bikes everywhere because everywhere was too far to walk to. I would ride to the creek and catch bugs or pull algae off the top of the standing water in the ditches. I would ride with my siblings down the big hill and feel the wind rush against our faces. We would meet up with friends and all ride together. I remember riding to a nearby cemetery with a friend for a picnic.

In the summer my parents would load all 6 of our bikes onto the trailer and bring them to camp. We would ride bikes to church every morning. (My dad installed a book carrier on the back for my Bible.) We rode around camp looking to see which trailer our friends’ bikes were piled outside so we’d know where the party was at. When we got a bit older we were allowed to ride off the camp property and into town to get McDonalds.

When I moved to the city I was nervous to ride alongside cars but I practised. My husband and I rode to church. We brought the bikes into our little apartment to store on the balcony. Somewhere along the way my bike broke and my husband’s was stolen and we didn’t bother replacing either but always planned to.

Then I got sick and I figured I would never ride again. If I’m too weak to walk without assistance, surely I couldn’t ride a bike.

But I’ve been feeling stronger the past year (thanks to the pandemic for letting me cut most of the physically difficult things out of my life) and decided I wanted to give it a try.

I’ve always wanted a retro-looking bike and when I read reviews, multiple grandmas raved about how comfortable they are. I knew that was what I needed.

Thankfully we were able to get three bikes, one for each member of our family, amidst the bike shortages and before the most recent lockdowns.

I was nervous that this would be a failed experiment but it turns out that my myasthenia gravis gets along quite well with bike riding.

The thing that’s hardest for me when walking long distances is holding my back upright. My postural muscles give out long before my legs do, which is why I hold on to a walker. Bike handlebars keep me upright the same way my walker does.

The most difficult type of motion for me is one that is repetitive. Walking in a shopping mall where every step is the same is much harder than walking outside where the texture of the ground is constantly changing. Biking has a lot of variation built in, (like hills and turns) and I can adjust my feet on the pedals to target different muscle groups.

It may be a small thing but because I thought I would never be able to ride a bike again, this feels miraculous to me.

We’ve been exploring the bike trails and neighborhoods near our house. This bike has a carrier on the back as well but now I carry a picnic instead of my Bible.

Myasthenia Metaphors – flamingo knees

If you ever see me wearing black knees braces and walking with a waddle it’s probably because I have flamingo knees.

Most of the time my knees are fine, but every once in a while all the muscles turn to jelly and my knee caps feel like they’re unsupported. They slowly drift further and further back as my knees begin to hyperextend.

The first time it happened was two months after I noticed my disease was generalizing – not only affecting my eyes. I didn’t use any mobility aids yet. My husband and I had taken a day off work to go Christmas shopping at the big mall downtown. We had split up for an hour and as I walked the pain became sharper and sharper, just in one knee.

I entered the drug store on the main level and went straight to the “old people aisle.” The one that housed braces, canes, extendable shower brushes, and all the things they advertise using grey-haired models.

I sat on the floor and tried on several braces until I found one that worked. I stood up and immediately felt better. I paid for the empty box and wore the brace right out of the store as I went to meet my husband.

For me, flamingo knees are triggered by walking on flat, uniform surfaces for an extended period of time. I can walk outside for an hour with just my cane and be fine. The unevenness of the ground provides enough variation in my gait that no one muscle is exhausted.

But places like the mall, IKEA, Home Depot, and Costco are a problem. Every step feels the same, uses the same stepping pattern, and stresses the exact same muscles. They start to wear out pretty quickly.

So now I know that even on a good day I will need my walker. (On a bad day I might use a motorized cart.) Which is fine with me because it’s got a basket and a seat which means I’m way more comfortable that everyone else standing in the checkout line line with their arms full.

Jasmine is walking in a snowy field wearing a black coat, black sunglassses,  and a red hat.  She is carrying a red cane and smiling at the camera.
Walking in the snow is not as tiring as you might think because every step feels different. Variety is good for me.

Life outside

I saw a guy in the park by our house today practising martial arts style high kicks on the basketball court and it made me smile.

I love it when people live their lives outside in unusual ways. It’s like that feeling when you’re walking at night and you can see into people’s lit up houses and you get a glimpse of a whole internal world, maybe like yours but maybe not at all.

Our old house backed onto a big park and it felt like our own backyard. Evidently it felt that way to other people as well. I remember hearing strange music and going out on the balcony to see a guy practising on a wooden flute, like some sort of elf or fairy.

Another time there was a ninja moving through different stances with a long thin sword.

At the beach one day a bagpiper stood on a rock, playing loudly into the wind.

I love it all.

Exploring a small island a couple hours away from home this summer was a great way to live life outside.

The Gift of Blood

We dragged a patchwork blanket onto the front lawn and had a “read under a tree” date. Ever since she was little my daughter has loved to read under trees, and since being inside is getting a little old after two months of quarantine, this was a perfect afternoon activity.

Patchwork blankets lie on the grass.  A book, some pop cans, and a small bag with  medical tubes coming  from  a syringe also lies on the blanket.

We read a chapter of Peter Pan out loud (so good! If you have never read it you are seriously missing out) and then settled in to our own individual books for a bit of quiet. She opened a favourite comic book and I returned to Fearfully and Wonderfully: the Marvel of Bearing God’s Image. Every chapter gives me so much to think about, it’s taking a while.

This day the chapter was about blood.

Blood is something I am well acquainted with as a diabetic. Until a few months ago (when I got new technology) I would prick my fingers up to 10 times a day to test the glucose in my blood. The sight and taste of my own blood is familiar and reassuring. It’s part of me and interacting with it is no different than washing my face or brushing my hair.

Diabetics everywhere rejoiced when a recent emoji update included a syringe and a bright red blood drop. Finally one of the biggest parts of our daily routine was represented in this new language on our phones.

A close up of a book in the foreground , a person’s body and hand in the background.  Medical infusion tubes lay across the book.

When my sugar is high my blood feels thick and poisonous. I ache all over. My movements are slow and exhausting. I know from reading about diabetes that when my sugar is high my blood can become acidic. I know from experience that if it gets high enough it makes my kidneys hurt.

All of this makes me appreciate the blood that flows through me, keeps me alive, and warns me when things are wrong.

When I underwent plasmapharesis to stabilize my Myasthenia Gravis before surgery I saw my blood in a new way. With tubes in each elbow I watched dark red blood come out one elbow, enter a large loud machine, and return to my body through the other elbow. Large glass bottles, filled with plasma the colour of champagne, hung at the end of my bed and were quickly drained as they were added to the mixture going back into me. When I got up after three hours I’d see the bag of my old plasma hanging above the head of the hospital bed. Cloudy, like homemade apple juice with particles still in.

I hated that process more than anything in my life and it made me appreciate my kidneys and the way my body cares for my blood on a daily basis.

A close up of a book with the headng “Transfusions.”  Medical infusion tubes lay across the book.

As I lay reading in the sun on the lawn I came to the middle of the chapter where Dr. Brand starts to write about transfusions.

He explained how transfusions work. He explained how vaccinations and inoculations work. That they take the “blood of an overcomer” and introduce it to a sick body to lend it the strength it needs to fight infection.

A close up of my side.  Needles can be seen taped to my hip.  I am holding and reading the book “Fearfully and Wonderfully: The Marvel of Bearing God’s Image” by Philip Yancey and Dr. Paul Brand

As I lay in the sun I was very aware of my infusion kit lying beside me, of the needles taped to my bare skin where my shirt had risen up, of the antibodies pumping slowly into me. Other people’s blood, processed and refined, mixing with mine. Lending me the strength to live.

I am so grateful for those who willingly give their blood for people like me. They don’t know the stories of everyone who may benefit from their gift but they recognize the powerful potential of their blood, not just for themselves but for others. And they give freely.


Green leaves on tree branches against a blue sky.  The sun shines through.

Oh the places you’ll (not) go – (Monday’s are for Memories)

Every day of this isolation it seems I remember another place I’ve been. Some are familiar, routine locations that I’ll go back to when this is over while others are from my distant past; places I’ll never return.

Right now they all feel the same – distant and unreachable. I started making a list:

  • McDonald’s
  • EB games in the mall near my house.
  • The little pet store beside Blockbuster in Gatineau that we visited a couple times over a decade ago while renting movies with friends.
  • My grandma’s condo.
  • A roadside cowboy themed souvenir and western wear shop along the trans Canada highway where I bought a rabbit skin when I was 17.
  • McDonald’s.
  • My friends’ house where we like to cook together and wrestle with the kids.
  • The Baskin Robbins where I always order peanut butter chocolate ice cream.
  • My local yarn store that sells hand dyed wool and Soak woolwash which I am running low on.
  • The London Children’s museum that I went to as a child with my family and on field trips, and then brought my own daughter to many years later.
  • McDonald’s.
  • My office with its comfy ergonomic chair and people to talk to.
  • A Christmas store in Frankenmuth that had the most diverse selection of ornaments I had ever seen and the hotel we stayed at nearby when Eleanor was a little, just-barely-walking, baby.
  • Camping with my parents in our tent trailer on Lake Erie when I was a kid.
  • The library on our way home from school/work where we visit with our favourite librarians.
  • Straßburg, France where I saw a double decker carousel that included a giraffe in its selection of animals, and we went to an Italian restaurant that put shrimp and curry on their Hawaiian pizza.
  • McDonald’s
Me sitting on my couch knitting.
The only location safe right now – I’ve got my knitting and my home and my family, which is really all I need.

… I think I’ll make burgers for dinner.

Mondays are for memories – popcorn and apples

I was five years old and it was summer time. We were in the process of moving from our triplex in the city, to a farm. I know it had always been my parents dream/plan to move to the country.

My dad and I had driven out to the farm because he needed to talk to the owner, Manno. I sat in the car with the windows down and waited for him to come back.

Parked on the front lawn, I was close to the little sidewalk that ran around the house and to the door in the porch. There was a girl, younger than me, sweeping.

Manno and Matti had 10 children, and this was their youngest, Esther. I don’t remember meeting her but someone must have introduced us, at least from afar, because I knew her name. I liked that her first name was my middle name.

She didn’t talk to me. I don’t remember if I talked to her. I probably did, but I’ve found most Amish children are quiet when they meet outsiders. She just watched me as she swept the sidewalk and I watched her through the open car window.

I was eating pink popcorn. The kind that comes in a white box with an elephant on the front. I offered her some. I held a handful out the window and dropped her broom, came over to the car and let me drop the pink puffs into her open hands. She ate it, still saying nothing.

Then she disappeared inside the house.

I listened to the birds, looked at the white bridal veil bush, felt the warm air, and wondered when my dad would come back.

Esther stepped out of the house with something in her hands.

It was an apple, broken in two by her mother. Not cut, but twisted and snapped into two equal halves, seeds and all.

She reached up and handed me half and we ate in silence. Watching each other. Never speaking.

This body

I saw her in the mirror.

I had just had a hot bath as an attempt to soothe my aching muscles and I was getting dressed in the bathroom when I caught a glimpse of my bare shoulders in the mirror but it didn’t look like me.

Something about the way I moved, unencumbered by the big winter sweaters I’ve been wearing lately, made it very obvious.

I have my oma’s body.

I’ve always been told I look like her.

My great uncle would tell me as a child that I looked like his sister.

My parents tell me I am another Alma. A couple years ago my dad woke up from a nap at my house and, in that half awake/half asleep state when you’re not entirely sure where you are, he was flashed back to his parents house. He heard his mother’s foot falls as I walked across the floor upstairs.

As I’m getting older I’m starting to see it. I have a mothers body, a middle aged body. Her body.

This was a particularly bad day for me in terms of weakness and pain and truth be told, I was crying as I got dressed in the bathroom. I felt so defeated. So worn down.

But I saw my oma’s body and I remembered what it endured.

She birthed 5 babies but only got to raise two of them.

She walked for seven months through war torn Germany, separated from her husband. She gave birth during that time while also burying her baby and her toddler.

She found her husband and moved across the ocean to live on a friend’s farm in Alberta. She lived in a barn.

She cleaned houses and banks. She raised 3 kids. She baked tortes and kuchen. She made things. (All the things.) She worked hard.

If her body carried all those pressures then surely it can carry my life now.

She was strong and this iteration of that body is strong. It will carry me through my days and it will get up again. And when it doesn’t, that’s okay too.

Physical strength is not the only kind that matters.

an old woman and an old man sitting on wooden chairs in a kitchen in the 1970s.

Monday’s are for memories – Pflaumen

Those tiny little blue plums. Shaped like an egg but smaller. Green inside. Not that great but plentiful when you have a tree in your backyard, which we did. Two actually.

I first knew the plums from my grandparents’ yard. And I think my aunt had a tree too. It seemed like a cultural requirement of being German. But we always called them Italian plums.

Or pflaumen.

A hand is in the foreground placing plum halves in a cake pan filled with white dough.

Once when my brothers were young they decided to run away. Maybe it was just one of them, maybe both, I don’t remember. They packed a duffel bag with food for their journey and stashed it under their wardrobe until an opportune moment to sneak away. (One of the weird things about living in an old farmhouse was that there were no closets so we had dressers and wardrobes to hold our clothes.)

I don’t know whether they changed their mind or simply forgot to follow through but they never did run away and their bag of food stayed where it was. Until my mom came in the room about a week later and stared complaining about the smell. She searched the room and found the bag. She opened it to reveal that it was filled with food.

But only one type of food.

Plums. Piles of rotting plums.

Grandma made plum jam and the little bits of plum skin would roll up in tiny coils that we thought looked like slugs. Even when she filtered the skins out we still called it slug jam.

Crumb topping being spread over plums on a cake by hand. A red bowl is in the background.

Oma made Plflaumenstreuselkuchen frequently when we visited. I preferred the taste of plain streuselkuchen, all butter and sugar and flour. But now that I bake it I understand how satisfying it is to start with firm, greenish, ugly plums and plain white dough and to end up with bright pink fruit bubbling through the crumble topping.

Baked plum crumb cake.

In English it’s Plum Crumb Cake.