About living George Bernard Shaw said, ‘I want to be thoroughly used up when I die’. My mother, Margaret, is the only person I know who lived like this. She didn’t pace herself ever, often to my family’s chagrin. My mother approached tasks at full throttle, then would ‘flake out’ as she called it, till the next round of activity consumed her attention. Hers was a richly textured and magnificent life full of adventures, driven by an unquenchable curiosity for new experiences.
My mother was a highly creative person in mostly understated expressions. For such a scholarly, practical minded woman she’d create surprisingly whimsical and sweet flower arrangements - combining a stem of begonia, a sprig of lobelia, and a garnish of foliage in a tiny white vase.
As children when we went on family hikes she’d celebrate the patterns found on the back of a snake on our path or point out the sparkle of the dew on a newly spun web while encouraging respect for the spider in it. When December days ended with a grand fiery sky she’d explain that the angels were helping Santa bake cookies and that was the glow from the hot ovens. Our birthday cakes were made from a traditional German marble pound cake recipe, the chocolate icing charmingly decorated with a folded tent-like chocolate bar house, with Smarties as walkways and candles as light posts.
Her active imagination was also inspired by her deep love of classical music. She told me when we were listening to Beethoven’s 7th symphony, 2nd movement that she always imagined someone slowly riding on horseback, serenely moving through an enclosed forest path of dappled sunlight.
My mother knit sweaters and socks, sewed clothes and sports gear, and stitched intricate, sometimes original needlepoint. She kept her hands busy to ensure arthritis didn’t set in and we were the happy recipients of her colourful talented labours.
She loved graduation ceremonies. My mother was a fan of higher education and scholarly enterprise. All our multiple graduations- my father’s, sister’s, brothers and my own- were happily attended with much more enthusiasm than any childhood public school plays or recitals. She loved to read aloud and translate the Latin inscriptions and decipher the symbols of learning adorning the programs notes and certificates. She enjoyed the pageantry of the processions, the gowns and was proud of her family’s scholarly achievements. Our graduations where the only pictures she displayed on her bookshelf.
My mother lived with true verve and courage. During the 2nd World war she was on a ship that was torpedoed and she knew well enough to jump off and swim away fast to avoid the pull of the downward current around the sinking vessel. She held onto a piece of wood for two hours in the cold dark water awaiting rescue. She also survived shrapnel fire that wounded and later scarred her leg.
She met my father in
Egypt when she was a doctorate of Theology student traveling
abroad for 4 weeks. After accepting his proposal of marriage, she returned
to East Germany to say goodbye to her family, secretly sell her few possessions
to pay for her return passage and escape from communism on a student visa
she negotiated with her professor, not to return or see her family again
for decades. My mother landed penniless in the port of Alexandria after
sailing from Venice, and met a weeping European woman fleeing the country
who warned her, “Never marry an Egyptian man!”
My mother was happiest when she was ready to dig into a ripe mango, or lying in her hammock somewhere in the world in a shady picturesque spot from which to read a good substantial book- usually a New York Bestseller approved title. She was a voracious reader, explaining that she’d meet people in books that she wouldn’t have time to meet in one lifetime and wanted to be enriched by exposure to a multitude of interesting personalities and their life stories.
The irony was that my mother was too modest to ever believe how widely she positively impacted, influenced and inspired those who met her, or simply heard about her age defying adventures and achievements. Horizons and possibilities widened in her presence. The world is truly a more interesting place because of the lives being more fully lived as a result of crossing her path.
My father would say that all was well in the world when she was singing in the kitchen. My mother cooked the enormous family feasts, with a refined skill that mastered Middle Eastern, French and German cuisine. She kept threatening that at age 70 then 75, then again at 80 that she’d stop cooking, but ultimately she was unable to let go of that task. Even this last summer with a chemo-drip sack on her hip, she’d be in the kitchen ensuring something yummy would be on the table for my brother Kareem and Dad at dinner.
My mother loved to spend time completing crossword puzzles and enjoyed exercising her brain for elusive vocabulary. This made her a formidable Scrabble opponent, a game she thoroughly enjoyed with a variety of friends and something special she and I shared on many occasions in my home and garden. She took up Bridge in her early 70’s just in case the day came when she couldn’t hike and required more sedentary entertainment, but she loved the game so much that we became Bridge orphans for years during her twice weekly meetings. Mahjong was the most recent game she enjoyed with my Dad in a neighbourly foursome.
When their only grandchild Emil was born, we saw a decided shift in her self expression. Endearments like ‘sweetheart’ and ‘darling’ slipped easily into her conversations with and about him showing us a softer side of her complex character.
Margaret ensured Emil had a variety of life enriching exposure on his visits from England- to the local fire station, water slide, Ontario Place, Science Centre, blueberry picking, snowman building, skiing, cycling, camping, canoeing and hiking on her beloved Georgian Bay. She read stories to him as she had done with us, and got him a junior Scrabble game. Theirs was a special bond and we were fortunate to have 7 summers together.
My mother dragged my Father all over the world on trips she meticulously researched and planned. The internet became a great travel ally this last decade. She told me in the late 90’s that the world would be split into two groups: those who could operate a computer and those who couldn’t. The latter would be left behind- this to prompt me past my resistance to learn how to turn one on and it worked! In keeping with this philosophy, she supported my father to enroll in a senior’s beginner’s computer class this summer to ensure he was equipped and in the know for the coming years.
They traveled twice to New Zealand, toured around Australia, they camped in Alaska, drove and hiked through the Grand Canyon. They visited Vienna and listened to opera, they lingered over the Brandenburg Concertos on the grass in a New England university town. They cycled on the beach in North Carolina, and enjoyed their 50th wedding anniversary hiking in the Dolomites.
My mother loved her skiing trips to the Dolomites and five years ago she annoyed her oncologist by delaying radiation treatments until after she returned from her trip, just in case it was her last one. But she managed to return each year including this one, seizing each opportunity as it came.
In order to get her fill of canoeing, my mother got herself a bright red solo canoe which she affectionately named her “Baby Tiger”. She had a double sided paddle and truly reveled in her freedom of motion independent of a paddling partner.
Less than two years ago my sister Marie-Claire presented my mother and father with a cat she had rescued and fed over several winters. Thomas and my mother became inseparable. He followed her all over the house and lay heavily on her whenever she sat or reclined on the sofa, often putting his paw loyally over her arm. Whenever I gave her Reiki he would stretch his paw over my hand as if to assist in the healing. They would look at each other with a connection hard to put into words and she loved him dearly. She thought he was exceptional and called him her ‘Lion Brother’, rather than her pet cat. Thomas was her constant companion these last months and brought her a great deal of comfort.
My mother would begin a book by reading the last chapter. She rationalized that knowing the ending helped her appreciate the authors plot construction and literary style. So it wasn’t that surprising after I asked her, to hear her say that in addition to not being afraid to die she was kind of relieved to know how it would happen, how her life would end.
Just recently she told me she would miss Nature the most. Passing on out of the natural world saddened her and I understood that it was with this beautiful planet that she had an ongoing love affair. It was nature that inspired her inexhaustible pursuit of adventure travel.
In addition to the grandeur of rock formations and waterfalls, breathtaking vistas and waterways, my mother also held precious the smaller delights in a riverbank covered with Forget Me Not, in discovering wild Lady Slippers, or a carpet of Trilliums in an Ontario forest.
It was profoundly poignant for us to be with her in mid August at the cottage she had optimistically booked earlier this year, a week that seemed distressingly out of reach for many days prior until she rallied enough of her strength to travel by car to Paint Lake in Muskoka.
For 7 whole days she took in every pleasure as a last precious gift to hold dear. The unexpected campfire around which we ate a BBQ’d dinner: later the full moon rising over the lake, at which all she could say was “Well WOW!”: the dancing mist on the water in the mornings, reminding her of previous enchanted swims. She walked barefoot in the grass, delighting in the cool tickle beneath her toes.
She watched us play and frolic in the lake, and my sister cooked meals worthy of her praise. She listened to my brother strumming guitar while she earnestly tried to complete a complicated knit sweater. In an impromptu ceremony she made Emil the new Ghattas Firebuilding Master, a role he was thrilled to be entrusted with. She let me give her Reiki and described each day’s unfolding to my Dad back in Toronto on the cell phone. She also spent many hours simply meditating quietly on the lake beyond the picture window, occasionally enjoying Pralines and Cream ice cream and butter tarts with Earl Grey tea.
Her humour is one of her abiding gift to us, weaving through a richly textured and often demanding life. She told me once when things were very bad, “sometimes the only thing left to do is laugh.” Her jokes came fast and complete, stumping all of us with her memory and skill in the telling.
My father always referred to us and our eccentricities as “The Adamms Family”. My mother adopted a provocative reference to a chicken in the media and ‘Clucking’ became the favourite curse word still used to this day- often with reference to cooking, such as “I still have to stuff the clucking turkey”.
Even at the most dire of times these last years she’d have a joke for us- coming out of anesthesia after an operation, with the paramedics assessing a house call, and lately with the palliative care doctor at her bedside. During his first visit I spoke to her and called her Hun, and she instantly emerged from a pain killer induced haze to firmly instruct “Never call a German a Hun!” My mother was always up for a laugh, and boy did she know how to throw her head back and robustly unabashedly laugh out loud.
Three years ago we had a difficult summer while she spent 7 weeks in hospital. Margaret was deeply touched by the expression of affection, concern and care from her friends and family. I asked her if she had had any idea that she was so thoroughly well loved, and quietly replied that she did not. But she did now.
That was the unexpected gift of her having to be progressively still in her illness; it granted her the space and time and ability to practice the new skill of receiving all the love that all of you and our family had to express in our gratitude and celebration of her beautiful, remarkable and incomparable self.
I believe she left this world as gently and peacefully as she did because she was carried by the steadfast strength of the abundantly present love in her magnificent life. Margaret Ghattas left this world with the hint of a contented smile of a life well spent.
Click here to read Laila's experience of miracles while being away from home when her mother passed away.
Click here to read reflections on coping with a terminally ill parent.
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