My Mom, Gael Knowles. August 8, 1939 – May 14, 2021

I could continue going back to this and adding more and more. I can only speak to my experience of my mom, and I know that my words do not do justice to the complexity of her story. I needed to write something though.

When my Dad died in September of 2000, we had an endless stream of people for the visitations, and his funeral was packed. My Dad had been ill for the last 10 years of his life. The people were there just as much if not more so for my Mom and her children and grandchildren.

My Mom was the prime example of an extrovert. You could watch her battery fill in the presence of others and drain when alone. So for her Covid restrictions were a horrible thing. While the coroner may say differently, we know that when Mom passed away on May 14, 2021 at 5:12pm, she passed away from loneliness.

Covid stole so much from her in her final year of life. And as a final insult to injury, Mom won’t get to have the endless stream of visitors, nor a packed funeral. And her children, grandchildren, and great grand children are being denied the opportunity to find comfort and distraction and closure in those moments. We have had to get creative in preparing a socially distanced and responsible way to say goodbye to a woman who meant so much to so many.

I exist, I am here right now on this planet writing these words for you to read because in 1939, Ron and Belle Knowles had a son, and Jack and Eva McCausland had a daughter. Some time around Christmas in 1961, a guy named Hudson was playing a piano at the University of Guelph and two of his friends, Ron and Gael (who at that point were strangers), started singing along. They sang to each other that while storms and darkness may come, they don’t last forever, and that you can walk through it all with hope because you never walk alone. Ron and Gael started dating in February of 1962, got engaged in March, and were married August 6th, 1962.

In May 1963, November of ’64, October of ’65, November of ’69, January of ’79, and August of ’82, my family grew. Mom & Dad faced challenges over that time. Mom had extremely bad environmental allergies when they lived in Burlington and they had to move away from the support of their families to the small town of Shelburne, into a newly built house with no carpeting and other restrictions as well. Mom planted beautiful red rose bushes in the front garden, and years after moving away from there she lamented that her roses never grew as well as they had in Shelburne.

Mom and Dad drove across Canada with their four oldest kids in a full sized van that Dad converted to a camper. Traveling, and doing things with their own hands were traits that Mom and Dad shared. They also brought music with them wherever they went. Dad learned to play the guitar and Mom learned to play the autoharp.

In Shelburne, Mom and Dad formed the music ministry for their small country parish, and their kids joined in. Church and faith were cornerstones of their relationship with each other and how they raised their kids. Over the years they participated in many faith-filled activities, including summer camping trips for families, youth groups, confirmation groups, passion plays, and music ministry.

In 1985, my oldest sister got married and Mom made all the dresses for the wedding party including my sister’s wedding dress. It was a labour of love and my Mom rose to the challenge! I was only 3 and a half at the time and I did not appreciate the craftsmanship as I ripped the lace off the bottom of my slip and rolled around at the front of the church. Sorry, Mom.

In 1986 Mom and Dad’s first grandson was born, and shortly after that it was time to “tie a rope around our family” and bring us all together, we moved to Georgetown where my sister, brother in law, their growing family, and his parents, sister, brother in law, and their two kids all lived. Family was more than blood for us and I grew up with far more homes in Georgetown than just the brick and mortar house that my parents bought.

It wasn’t long after we moved to Georgetown that things with my Dad started to change. There was a tree house next to our home that he started to build with my sister Eva and me the summer we moved there, it was still unfinished more than 20 years later when it was disassembled to get the house ready to sell. Over time, Dad was getting more and more confused, and in 1990 he went to Baycrest Hospital in Toronto for Assessment.

While grieving the slow and progressive loss of her husband, Mom also had to rise to the challenge of suddenly being a single mother to her two youngest daughters and a full time grandmother to the ever growing next generation. My Mom loved her kids and grand kids so much and she would do anything to help us out. She lived for making us happy even as she was crumbling. I have so many memories of baking and singing and laughing and designing dresses that Mom would then create. I remember her belly dancing in my bedroom doorway to my 90’s pop music (yes, it was just as embarrassing as it sounds). I also remember her trapped in her bed under the crushing weight of depression, dishes piled high in the sink. I remember weekend trips to her parent’s place and how the weight of the world seemed to lift from all of us as soon as we walked though their side door. I remember camping trips full of laughter and singing with all of my sibs, and Mom, and friends, and extended family. I remember her wearing a plastic salad bowl on her head on one of our camping trips because she forgot a sun hat. I remember how my Mom came alive when her family and friends were around.

As much as Mom tried to protect Eva and me from the worst of Dad’s illness, I knew enough that it made it hard for me to sleep at night. As a kid and even into my teen years, I had chronic insomnia and even though I started every night in my own bed I inevitably ended up crawling into Dad’s empty side of the bed. Mom never seemed to mind. And as a wife now myself, I wonder if maybe she was comforted by my presence too.

My Mom was an excellent baker. Cookies, cakes, fudge… All sorts of sweets, Mom rocked that! When it came to cooking dinner every night, she had her moments, but it seemed her stove only had two settings: off and high. Most meals ended up with at least slight notes of charcoal. I didn’t think I liked steak until I was in my late 20s and had a piece of rare steak. I remember telling Mom that and she said that was how she liked her steak too, but *shrug*. I get it though… My mad kitchen skillz were directly inherited from her. And a cake can last a few days, cookies too, banana bread… Yeah, there’s a good amount of time after making them where you’re still appreciating and enjoying them. But a dinner that takes an hour to make is gone in 10 minutes, one that takes 10 minutes on high is done in 10 minutes too. It just seems like a waste of time to cook a good meal when it’s over so fast! But we rarely went hungry.

Due to Dad’s long decline from early onset Alzheimer’s disease, life around our home in the day-to-day didn’t change much. But on the whole we were changed. I was 19 when I hopped on my bike with a backpack full of clothes and moved to Toronto. I know that mom didn’t approve of many of my choices in that chapter of my life, but she always greeted me with open arms and a lot of love. It was always clear to me that Mom saw me as more than the sum of my decisions. She supported my decision to go back to school, I had to do a year long academic bridging program to apply at UofT because of my abysmal performance in high school (I graduated, but only after dropping out twice and only with the bare minimum number of credits needed to get my high school diploma) but Mom believed in me and was always proud to hear how I was doing.

2005/2006 was the high point of my adult relationship with my mom. I was working at Starbucks, going to school, living in a house full of friends, and I would call mom multiple times a week on my way home from work or school. I would walk home pushing my bike or passing the subway stations with a TTC token in my pocket. I would turn off of Bloor Street and wander the side roads, adjusting my route for the flow of our conversations. When I would go home to Mom’s house for a visit, I felt the way I assume Mom had felt years before when she’d go visit her mom. The weight of the world would lift from me and I’d feel safe. We could talk like adults and even though we didn’t always agree, there was mutual respect in our differing worldviews.

In 2007, Mom suffered her first round of devastating strokes and she nearly passed away. We didn’t know then how much of a reoccurring theme that would become. My relationship with Mom changed again and I now had to be the one to try to protect her from the harder parts of life.

When I met Malcolm in 2012, Mom knew even before she met him that I had found someone special. When he went to speak to her six months later, to ask for her blessing to marry me, Mom took her wedding band off of her hand and told him to use it to make my engagement ring. Malcolm proposed on April 19th, 2013, and at that point we really didn’t think Mom was long for this world. She was in hospital again and spending more time interacting with the spirit world than with her flesh and blood visitors. When we went to the hospital to tell her that we were engaged, she let us know that my Dad and grandparents were in the room as well. At one point Mom burst out laughing and I asked her what was so funny. She told me that her dad had made a joke. I asked her what it was, and she said “Oh, I can’t tell you. It’s inappropriate!” and continued to snicker. Mom rallied after that and she was able to be present at our wedding a year later.

In 2019, Mom celebrated her 80th birthday surrounded by friends and family, and if life were at all fair, she would have gone peacefully in her sleep soon after that, secure in the knowledge that she was loved and valued by so many. Mom’s eyesight and her hearing were quickly degrading and when Covid hit, Mom struggled with the isolation. In our phone calls she would tell me how the home felt like a prison with nobody allowed to visit. The phone calls got harder and harder as Mom’s hearing and vision got worse. She suffered her first heart attack in 2020 and a hidden blessing in that was that I was able to go to the hospital and see her and hug her. I had to wear a mask which meant that communicating was hard, but I tried. Mom contracted Covid when there was an outbreak at the home, but she somehow made it through to the point where she was testing negative. But the damage was done.

May 9th, 2021 was the last time Mom had to celebrate her husband’s birthday without him. I got to see her through a video chat on mother’s day and she was so small. She looked so old. She didn’t engage with the conversation facilitated by my sister Mary, and I knew that while I wanted more time with my mom I didn’t want her to have to spend more time trapped in her body away from the people that she loves. Loneliness was never good for her and the loneliness of 2020/2021 was more than she could take. She is no longer alone.

Throughout Mom’s life, she made it her personal mission to make people smile and to make even the most inconsequential of interactions significant. Mom saw people. She saw the person sitting alone. She saw the person filling the grocery bags, pumping the gas, handing out fliers, knocking on doors to tell people about their lord and saviour… We had a door knocker who became Mom’s friend. She didn’t come by to convert Mom, but to chat, to just have someone listen and to see her, to acknowledge her and the value of her story.

In every interaction, Mom saw the human being. Mom made eye contact, offered a smile, welcomed them and let them tell her their life story. As a kid and a teenager I didn’t get it. I just wanted to get our blizzards and get the heck out of DQ. But Mom knew the value of connection. Recently I found myself in a hospital waiting room with a couple of other women, waiting for scans that may have life changing results. Masks on, socially distanced, and without the privilege (that we used to take for granted) of having a person there as moral support who knew their stories and could hold their hands. I listened as one woman and then the other told me about their lives, their kids, their families, their careers… And I realized that over the years I have become like my Mom in that regard. I get it. I see how making eye contact, smiling, opening up the door for connection can be so good and so healing for everyone involved.

Empathy was Mom’s biggest lesson. We don’t know what others are dealing with, but if we can try to put ourselves in their shoes, even just for a minute, we can usually find a way to move forward without conflict. If we choose to see the good, we can be the good. Even when her heart was hurting, even when her world was crumbling, Mom built others up. She tried to ease their pain and help them find joy. Her smile, her laugh, her love… They are with me forever and I will never walk alone.

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