She was 12, it was October. I heard her from inside the house and went out to her, “Mum, mum, my leg is sore.” An anguished tone to her voice that I had never heard before. I figure even then she didn’t know how to address a problem she didn’t think she should speak of. I joined her outside on the steps. Gemma had wanted to start out on a run–the idea cut short because of physical problem.
“Where, here? Just below the knee?” I took her to the doctor. In Gibsons there was a relatively large medical clinic at Franham Road and Gibsons Way. You could get an appointment straight away with one of the doctors there, even if your own doctor wasn’t in, and it didn’t matter, “a doctor is a doctor.” I can’t remember if the doctor she was seen by was a male or female. This being Covid-19, September 2020, I picture the doctor with a mask on.
The doctor wasn’t interested in the knee. “I know what this is. I don’t know enough about it. This is serious. Your weight is one-third less than it should be. Your whole body is affected–your organs, brain, and heart.” I didn’t know what to make of this–she was too thin, but in danger? I looked at her and she was unconcerned and didn’t seem in physical pain any longer. The doctor continued, “A paediatrician will be on the Coast next week. In the meantime, you cannot take ballet, you cannot run cross country, you cannot walk to school.” I was taken aback–not even walk 15 minutes to school?
I felt bad, there must be some wiggle room here–to be able to run cross country with the after school team and with PE, and ballet–she was taking two classes per week with a ballet teacher, new to her, who encouraged more classes, and I really should have turned that down, but what is easy, and what there is enthusiasm for? No one would want to dampen enthusiasm! But, no. The doctor was unwavering, serious, a big Stop sign in front of our faces. We left the appointment intrigued and quiet. Discussion ought to have started there. But we were both dealing with our disappointments and the unexpected.
The hospital program was in the City at BC Children’s Hospital. It was November and my mother was ill in St. Paul’s Hospital. She had been sick for about 10 years, with a stomach ailment that meant her digestion would not move along, no peristalsis taking place to move stuff along the digestion tract. I figured she broke her stomach–a lifelong smoker, she couldn’t taste food very well (was my theory), so lots of pepper and spices and piles of food at dinner time. Too much food at once, and, I reasoned, she broke her gut. She was also a Scotch drinker. I have heard hard liquor called “rot gut” and I think that’s the reason–your gut can only take so much, and then, it rebels, just quits. Truth is Mother’s condition was considered congenital–she was born with it, an anomaly, and it was going to happen no matter how she lived.
Upshot was I had my daughter in one hospital, my mother in another, I was commuting an hour and a half by car and ferry to teach high school, and both of them could die. My mother loved to eat, she couldn’t eat, she survived on TPN for 10 years. Mother died November 27, 2004. Gemma was admitted to Children’s November 8, 2004. My mother was concerned about her. In the spring when there was a high school zone track meet at Swangard Stadium in Burnaby, my mother, who was in a weakened condition but cheerful, had accompanied Gemma and me to the meet, sat with the team, and cheered Gemma on. Gemma refused to eat lunch until all of her events were done, then Mum offered her a chicken salad sandwich, beautiful, with mayonnaise, and I was surprised Gemma ate it up. “See?” said Mum. Nothing to worry about. Fast forward to autumn. I can’t remember whether Gemma was at Grandma’s funeral.
At Children’s Hospital Gemma gained 1 kg the first week. I think she was upset–and she never met the goal again. She was in hospital, with a school room, regimented times for preordered meals and snacks, sitting down to eat six times per day. The ward closes over Christmas, empties out and she was home in frail condition. In February I went to visit her and the psychiatrist said, She is uncooperative and we cannot treat an uncooperative patient. So I put her and all her stuff in the car, phoned the school that I would not be back for the foreseeable future (a year and a half), and took her home on the ferry. I remember taking her to school in the car each day. I remember going at lunchtime to see that she was doing her part–I remember checking with the band teacher, who said she had left early for the washroom, I remember waiting at her locker, and I remember her arriving in time for the end of lunch, all red in the face, having been on a run. Another time a neighbour phoned, having seen her in the neighbourhood, Grantham’s Landing, running, and I was grateful and got in the car to go and find her and return her to school. I was patient, I could do this, could do it forever. Gemma would come back to us with time. And she did. There were monthly appointments at Children’s–we took the car on the ferry, drove to the hospital, physical check-up with nurse, doctor, and then psychiatrist, and home by 6:30 PM, picked up her brother at Michelle’s house, and made dinner if her dad hadn’t already. The process was crazy-making, but I had a leave-of-absence, a lot of supportive acquaintances.