A prompt this week to write about something in a health-care context brought out this story which, despite having been told over and over in my head, had heretofore not made it down in writing.
It wasn’t quite 5:30 am and Janice was already waiting for me on the main floor of Union Station. Her husband Randy, who drove her in from Ancaster, needed to get to work but first back to his parents who had been drafted to baby-sit the two kids.
Janice and I hugged, exchanging exasperated greetings, then continued the conversation from late the previous night.
Our brother Craig had been walking to his home in Montréal’s Le Plateau neighbourhood, arms weighed down with food and other birthday party necessities for Claude, his partner of sixteen years who turned 54 that 24th of April 2007.
As Craig approached their three-storey stone walk-up, he tripped and fell, almost instantly smashing his head on the sidewalk. The owner of a small store directly across the narrow street saw Craig go down and rushed to his assistance. He was clearly unconscious, his head bleeding profusely. She called 9-1-1 and eventually Craig was taken to the city’s well-known Neurological Institute (think “I smell toast, Dr. Penfield!”)
Claude was contacted at St. Luc Hospital, where he worked, and he rushed to the Neuro calling my sister Lynn in New Brunswick on the way. Janice phoned me after hearing the grim news from Lynn. They decided that Janice and I should go and stay with Mom at this critical time; that having seen Craig and Claude just a couple of weeks earlier over Easter she would be upset enough without rushing to Montréal. So Janice and I took the train to Kingston and then a taxi the eighty kilometres or so to Perth. Janice phoned Mom from Kingston, gently breaking the news and giving Mom a bit of time to absorb some of the shock before we got there.
I couldn’t believe it. Craig and I had both survived HIV/AIDS since the early 1980s, watching many loved ones die. But not like this!
Over the next few days Lynn kept us up-to-date on Craig’s condition which was critical at best. When our uncle told us he had to be in Montréal over the weekend, and offered to take any of us along, Janice and I decided to go.
The drive up the steep hill of University Street from the Ville-Marie Expressway seemed to take an eternity, not that traffic was especially bad but because of the pits of anticipation in our stomachs.
George dropped us off at the front door and Janice and I found our way to the Reception area of the Critical Care Unit. The hospital screamed, “Demolish me!” with its cracked interior walls and historic odours. Lynn stepped out of Craig’s room.
“I just want to prepare you as best I can for how you’re going to see Craig,” she said. “Whatever descriptions I’ve been able to give you over the phone this week really don’t count for much in person.”
She was right and, one at a time, Janice and I found out.
I went in first, Claude walking over in tears with a big hug and kisses on both cheeks. He made small talk in his broken English until I asked a few questions.
One of the first things I noticed about Craig was how the swelling of his brain had inflated his face to a preposterous size. His eyes were wide open and couldn’t shut even if he wanted them to. There was a large flap of gauze on one side of his skull, taped at the top but left unattached at the bottom to let the emergency surgery to relieve swelling of the brain do its work.
The most telling piece of equipment in the room, which was expanding his chest and belly the way his brain swelled his face, was the respirator and its associated oxygen pump, which rhythmically forced air in and out of Craig’s chest because he could, and ultimately would, not breathe on his own.
The artificial breathing made up in noise what the strained but quiet breathing of Claude and I did not.
Claude stood closer to Craig and shouted the news that Janice and I had arrived, at which point he gave the “thumbs up” sign. I eventually saw that to be his only method of communicating, and I now wonder if it wasn’t just some involuntary impulse of the brain.
Claude and Lynn reviewed what doctors had told them. Craig was in no pain, and no pain relief was necessary. They could tell this by the fact that he wasn’t restless at all. It almost went without saying that pain sensors in his brain were damaged, if not destroyed. Even in their earliest assessments, the doctors had told Claude and Lynn that if Craig survived he would not be the same person.
Janice and I stayed for an hour or so and then we all walked back to Claude’s (and Craig’s) place on de Grand-Pré. It was a cathartic walk, one which we would repeat, through the edge of the McGill campus, around Molson Stadium, and up Park Avenue, cutting across Fletcher’s Field to avenue Mont-Royal and Boulevard St-Joseph.
When Janice and I again visited Craig the next day before our ride back to Perth, I had a very tearful intuition, if not realization, that this would be the last time I saw Craig.
One attempt to see if he could breathe on his own had already failed. Staff hoped to try, or at least Lynn and Claude were certainly going to encourage another try, in the next few days. We were all in agreement, as much as feelings can be, to accept the results.
Ultimately the attempt failed and, while Lynn and Claude were out of the room having lunch, Craig died on May 9, 2007 – six days shy of his fifty-second birthday which that year also happened to fall on Mother’s Day.
That unimaginable Sunday was spent travelling to Montreal with Mom for the funeral service the following day. Then on Tuesday it was back in to two cars for the drive to Perth where a sunset burial was held at Scotch Line Cemetery next to the plot owned by Mom and Dad.
Later that spring, Claude bought a headstone with Craig’s birth and death dates as well as Claude’s birth date. The inscription described Claude as Craig’s “compagnon de vie”, the first openly gay – and surely among the first bilingual – grave-markers in the town’s three or four cemeteries.
Yes, ’tis true, the lovely Nevis Estate property, a B & B on the edge of the heritage district of Perth (Lanark County), Ontario is for sale.
The 1840s home sits on four beautifully-landscaped acres of land.
Something would-be buyers might want to take into account is this property line (you get used to it):
He’s maybe thirteen, going on thirty-five, perhaps a survivor of abuse who is experimenting with rubbing alcohol and having trouble in school. She might be fifteen, maybe pregnant, and unable to bear being at home after school.
They, and dozens of other young people with a variety of greater or lesser needs, have found both a family and a home at a place called YAK. The Youth Action Kommittee’s community centre is in a roomy loft on the main floor of a former shoe factory in the Lanark County Town of Perth.
During my tour of the centre last Friday I told Executive Director Tanis Cowan and Program Manager Donna Stratton (pictured above) how impressed I am that such a place exists in Perth. When I used to stay with my grandmother there each summer as a kid she kept me on a pretty tight leash, bemoaning the “nonsense” that town youngsters my age got into – hooliganism such as pulling out flower planters on the main street or defacing signs. (I got away with a few minor infractions unbeknownst to her!) These were but symptoms of much greater issues being faced by young people then (and now) but there was precious little for anyone, not – say – heavily into organized sports, to do.
That’s a drastic over-simplification of the issues, then and now, but YAK is doing an amazing job in a variety of ways to give youth a greater sense of purpose, making life in a small town much more bearable. Specialized services, more available in densely-populated areas, do not always measure up where school boards are one hundred kilometers or more across!
Community meals. A public health nurse. Addiction and mental health services. Mentoring programs. Recreation. Computer skills. Youth homelessness support. Literacy and homework help. (See the web-site for much more information available through YAK and its partners.)
YAK has a board of directors representing professionals and community mentors, backed by Town Council.
Notice the rainbow flag overhead. Respect for diversity is so ingrained at the centre that whenever staff hear a homophobic slur, for example, Donna says the offender knows to “drop and do push-ups”. Even better, the young people themselves exert their own positive peer pressure.
This is not the town of my youth!
I am setting myself some reasonable goals of assisting YAK, in ways yet to be announced, because I see myself wanting to help make the growing up experience a more positive one for young people who are motivated to move ahead against some occasionally difficult odds, in this town of Perth I hold so dear.