It was Friday, November 13, 2009. What a year! Michael Jackson and Farah Fawcett, hallmarks of my adolescence, both passed away. Obama fever was in full swing. For me, it was one of the hardest years of my life for a whole other reason. Before we get there, let me tell you about Gisele.
Gisele is my mother.
She was born on February 15, 1929 in Pointe-aux-Trembles, Quebec. She was the eldest of 10 children: Gaston, Yvon, Claude, Renée, Paul, Janine, Huguette, Jocelyne, and Vivianne. At that time, the priests regularly visited families to ‘encourage’ them to raise large families. My grandfather loved the priest very much. My grandmother, not so much. The priest lectured her, “If you don’t make 10 children, you’ll go to hell!” So, my grandmother would often fall asleep at the kitchen table before going to bed. There were a few reasons for this – one, because with 10 children you can imagine that making meals for 12 and washing dishes was particularly long and two, after the priest’s visit, she was in no hurry to find my grandfather in bed!
Mom in her 20s
Gisele had beautiful eyes that were sometimes blue, sometimes green, and sometimes grey but always piercing!!
She loved children very much, possibly as a result of so much time spent looking after her siblings. Being the eldest she always had to set a good example and be responsible!
At 17, she was tired of being ‘responsible’, so she left her parent’s house. She wanted to be independent and become a fashion designer, just like her favourite aunt. After leaving home, she found a job as a seamstress.
In 1948, Gisele was 19 years old and dreaming of a man in uniform. The war had just ended and Canadian soldiers were seen as superheroes. She met Jean, eleven years her senior, and it was love at first sight for both of them. She wanted to be the perfect housewife so she took diction classes, learnt how to cook and did everything she could to fulfill this role.
Fast forward six years later, Jean and Gisele married and had three daughters.
Mom happy with her three girls
My mother was fantastic, a beautiful ‘joie de vivre’. She loved to sing in the car – Aznavour, Bécaud and Reggiani. She loved the piano, so my sisters and I all learnt how to play. She loved people and people loved her.
She would spend several hours on the phone with Madeleine, Florence and several other good friends of hers. If anyone ever said anything bad about an acquaintance, she would quickly come to their defense. She was, simply put, a good person.
Every night she made a good supper, because she believed in the importance of having family dinners. Every morning for breakfast, all the cereal boxes were taken out and she prepared a beautiful table with freshly squeezed orange juice. Sometimes there was even a small note wishing us good luck on our exams that day!
It was very important to her that her daughters were healthy, so she was one of the pioneers of brown bread and healthy cereals. If we were lucky (not really), she would make us good healthy juice from her juicer: apple- carrot-celery. Ah, and don’t forget the finishing touch: a big spoonful of cod liver oil to top off this healthy cocktail – eurk!!
She honestly had a heart of gold. She was always entertaining her friends, our friends, family… everyone was always welcome.
Mom young at heart with my son
She often spent nights making us costumes for Halloween contests at school. Gisele’s costumes were so well-made that the judges sometimes thought they were rented! I dressed up as a bottle of 7UP, a skunk (I know) and Kermit the Frog, among other things. She would probably have been an excellent designer, but instead she chose to be our mother.
Gisele was beautiful. She wore virtually no makeup and never had a wrinkle to hide. She was stylish and feminine, often seen in skirts or dresses, with a small elegant shoe.
My whole life, she’s always been in perfect health. I don’t know if it was the cod liver oil or the garlic that she put everywhere. Did I tell you that she cooked illegally well?!
She was a regular jokester but once she sat at the bridge table with the ‘women’, she often surprised us all by winning 1st place!
I loved that woman whole-heartedly.
Mom at my wedding
That’s why in 2009, I devoted all my time to her. It’s not always easy when you have an 8-year-old and a husband. It was important for me to paint a picture of her for you, because when we talk about an 80-year-old lady often we imagine an elderly person of no importance. The fact is, this is rarely the case. Older people often find themselves prisoners of an old body that doesn’t reflect the youthfulness of their hearts.
Between 2008 and 2009, I moved my mother 4 times. At some point, I stopped counting the number of times I had visited her in the hospital. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and as if that wasn’t enough, her breast cancer reappeared. I was burnt out and exhausted, and so were my sisters. When the doctors gave her 3 to 6 months to live, my heart was broken into a thousand pieces. I couldn’t imagine not seeing her anymore, but I knew I was lucky to be able to be with her every remaining day. I was very strong in front of her, but I always imagined the worst in private. Before I entered her residence, I always took a deep breath to remind myself to stay strong and yet, believe it or not, I lived the purest moments with her even as her impending death approached.
It makes me sad to admit it, but I think I took her for granted before she got sick. She had always been so healthy – she had cheeks so pink, I imagined she would definitely live to be 90, even 100 years old. So I was often in a hurry, impatient at times, not really present. Once I knew her days were numbered, she had my full attention.
I was afraid to go into her apartment but once I got there, I didn’t want to leave her. Often, she would sleep in her room and I would stay in the next room, reveling in my closeness to her as I wrote. I felt like I wasn’t doing anything and yet time was passing so quickly, meanwhile all I wanted was to stop the clock.
One of the last times I was with her, I felt like I was with my child. I lay down next to her and held her in my arms. She hardly spoke. At some point, she said softly, “It feels good”. Just hearing these words was a beautiful gift. Another time we looked at each other, and I felt all the love in her eyes, then she gave me a beautiful smile and said, “my Zabeth”, the nickname she had given me as a child. I had a flashback in that moment, right back to being 5 years old again. An incredible love came over me. She was there, Gisele, I felt my mother’s bright spirit so intensely in that moment.
On Friday the 13th, a few minutes before midnight, she passed away. She gave me everything and in turn I tried to give everything I could back to her. Our love did a full 360.
As I’m writing this it’s Friday the 13th, 2020.
My sister asked me earlier today if I was sad and truthfully, the answer is no. I certainly wanted to keep my mother alive forever but we all know that’s not possible. It’s the cycle of life. Over time, I’ve come to understand and accept this simple yet powerful fact.
We attach great importance to the last moments of life, but what matters more is the legacy that a parent leaves with us – the good memories, the small moments of happiness, the love we felt, the good meals we shared, the life lessons and values we will practice and the traditions we will continue with the next generation.
No, I’m not sad, because I still feel her here all the time. I start my day with her voice saying “Don’t forget your breakfast, it’s the most important meal of the day!”, and strangely I find myself repeating it to my son! Her voice comes to me throughout the day in different ways.
Mom happy Mammy
She’s still here. That I can say with certainty. In my everyday routine, in my sisters, her sisters, my nephews, my son. In every meal I prepare I see myself with her in the kitchen, happy to gather everyone around good food, a beautiful table & family values.
I don’t think it’s correct to say that we die. There’s some energy left when people leave this lifetime, this planet. I don’t understand everything, but I know that as long as there is love, you never die!
If you enjoyed this article or relate to it please share it and tell me your story in the comments. It’s a crazy time we are living, and I hope this text can help someone in some way.