Background Story: Maxville and my mom

When my mother was very sick with cancer, six years ago, I drove her to the hospital on a cold day at the end of winter and I thought that would be the last time she ever drove anywhere. She was very frail, very weak.

She felt the same way – that she could be going to the hospital to die – but she was a strong woman and determined to fight the sickness for as long as she was able. When we arrived at the doors to Emergency, she asked: “When I’m well again, will you take me out for a ride on your Harley?”

She’d never been on my Harley. In fact, she’d not been on a motorcycle with me, or anyone, since I was 17 and I scared the crap out of her, riding too fast on my Honda 250. This was a big deal.

She did get better, sort of, with months of chemotherapy and treatment, and by the end of the summer, I held her to that request and took her for a ride on the motorcycle.

We rode slowly, just for 20 minutes or so, and my sister took these photos. It was a very special ride for both of us, of course. My mom was happy it was more gentle than the first time, and when she got off at the end, with a little help, she said she might even do it again. One day.

And that was her second and last motorcycle ride. The cancer came back and she died later that year.

I wrote a story about the first drive to the hospital that was published in the Toronto Star, and is republished below this picture.

CORNWALL, ONT.—It took my mother more than two minutes to walk from her recliner chair to the front door, just a few normal paces for a healthy woman. But she was not a healthy woman, far from it, and I was there to drive her to the hospital.

The cancerous lump in her stomach had grown rapidly since it was misdiagnosed as a hernia. It was now the size of a grapefruit. I thought this would be the last drive of her life.

I helped her into her coat with the same care as earlier, when I’d helped her from bed and she asked, in her pain and exhaustion, to be taken to the hospital. We walked out into the freezing rain where her little car was already idling, warm and ready, its door open to let her slump inside more easily.

“Thank God you came,” my mother said as we pulled away. “I can’t be at home anymore.”

The rain was battering the last of the rural snow drifts, slickening the road and focusing my eyes on the wet asphalt. Not focusing my mind though. As we set out on the half-hour drive to town, my mother resting haggard beside me, her eyes closed from the pain of the dim morning light, I was thinking back on all the other drives we’d shared. Back when she’d been at the wheel, directing the way.

*

We always had large cars because we had large dogs, Labradors, and my sister and I would often share the back seat with half a dozen of them when my mother drove us all to the country park for the Morning Walk.

We lived in Britain, and while my dad drove a little Triumph, she drove a Humber Hawk, built like a tank. It was white with a pale blue roof and other drivers would give us plenty of space because the police also drove Humbers, white with pale blue roofs. Then we would pass, furry snouts pressed to the gaps of the side windows and steamy dog breath fogging up the rear glass, and the other drivers would speed up to follow our convoy all the way to the park.

If we needed to go somewhere fancy, we’d leave the dogs at home but still take the Humber, giving the back seat blanket a shake first to get rid of the worst of the coarse hair. I always thought it was a good looking car and was sad when it collapsed one day when I was about 10, sometime in the early ’70s — it had been bought old and just grew older, much like its replacement, a tatty Morris Oxford.

As soon as I was old enough, I begged to cycle to and from school, about five kilometres. My parents were pleased with this independent streak, but the truth was that I was embarrassed to be dropped off or collected in their cars, especially the Oxford. The car was so ratty that its two rear passenger doors were loose and had to be held against the car with a length of rope across the rear seat that pulled them together inside.

I went to an expensive private school and the other boys would be collected by their mothers in Jaguars, a couple of Bentleys, a Jensen-Healey. Then my mom would turn up in the Oxford with my sister already in the front seat, and she’d get out and I’d climb in and over the seat to the back because the rear doors didn’t open, and everyone would watch as I tucked my legs under the rope and buried my head.

My mom never seemed to notice. A car’s just a car, she said. We’ll get home just as easily as if we’re in one of those Jags, she said. I buried my head all the more.

Today, we’ll get to the hospital in the little Cavalier just as quickly as if we’re in one of those Jaguars. My mom’s become used to the passenger seat of her car — for a while now, she’s been asking people to drive her into town.

The towel on the back seat has some dog hair, finer and shorter from her two small dogs. Her eyes are still shut but her breathing is noisy. We pass a stand of trees between the wide fallow fields and I tell her that the buds are coming onto some of their branches. She nods, but keeps her eyes closed.

It wasn’t until I’d moved on to another school that my mother finally relented and bought a halfway-decent secondhand Volvo wagon, which could carry four dogs in the very back and another two on the rear seat.

We drove all over the country, she and I, exhibiting at dog shows. The Volvo could hold its own on the motorway though it was always noisy — the windows had to be open to give the dogs fresh air at all times. There was little point trying to listen to the radio over the wind, so we shouted conversations for hours at a time.

The Volvo was reliable but once, on a late-night drive home from Scotland, the radiator was pierced by a rock and we had to be towed home, hundreds of kilometres. She was a member of the Automobile Association, the British CAA, and they loaded the car, dogs and all, onto the back of a flatbed and drove us from the Scottish border to London via Wales, blocking traffic for hours with the slow-moving truck.

When we got home, she got out my dad’s soldering iron and fixed the radiator herself. I decided then that she could do anything.

She’s quiet beside me now and I look over to make sure she’s okay. Her scarf has become caught in the seatbelt, tightening into her neck, and she doesn’t have the energy to loosen it, so I stretch over and pull it free. The car’s warm enough to not need it, anyway. She looks at me and I realize that she’s trying to smile, just a slight lift of the corners of her mouth. She looks about a hundred years old.

My mother stopped driving me when I got my own licence, first for a motorcycle, then for a car, then all over again a year later when we moved to Canada. I had learned to drive from professional instructors — twice — so she trusted my abilities over my dad’s ingrained habits, much to his chagrin. Whenever we went anywhere, she let me take the wheel, be it her rusty Malibu wagon or my rusty Ford LTD.

Once, when I was 17 years old, I’d taken her for a ride on my motorcycle. I rode too fast lane-splitting through British traffic and she tore me off a strip when we got home. She’s never ridden on a bike with me since.

Some of my happiest memories, though, are of driving my mother to places we could share. Driving her to tea at Henley-on-Thames when my wife and I were living for a while back in England; driving her through the Nairobi game park when she came to visit us living in Kenya.

The best of all, once I became the editor of the Toronto Star‘s auto section, was when I drove her in a convertible Corvette to a dog show in Campbellville to be a guest judge. She had just beaten cancer for the second time and her hair was beginning to grow back. I put down the top on the sunny summer day and she pulled off her hat and the warm wind blew through the short, grey stubble that was starting to cover her head.

“This is why I beat cancer,” she’d said then. “So I could do this!”

Now that I’m often driving a press car on my visits to Eastern Ontario, she enjoys their comforts but finds the electronics baffling. Besides, as far as she’s concerned, most of them are far more expensive than most people need.

This time, I’d driven up at the last minute in a Jeep Wrangler. It was too high off the ground for her to get into the passenger seat this morning, even if I’d been able to lift her, so we’re driving her little Chevy. That’s okay. She loves her Cavalier.

*

We’re near the hospital now and my mother senses this. She turns toward me again and speaks for the first time on this drive.

“I’m going to beat this, you know,” she says, and I stay silent as she pauses for a while to regather her breath.

“I’m not ready to go yet,” she continues. “Summer will be here soon — will you promise me one thing?”

Of course, I tell her, as we pull up under the awning of the hospital Emergency entrance. I look around to see if there’s a wheelchair.

“When I’m well again, will you take me out for a ride on your Harley?”

Of course, I tell her. And I’ll ride slowly, too, so that she’ll feel safe and we can smell the new-mown grass as we cruise together through the warmth.

4 thoughts on “Background Story: Maxville and my mom”

  1. Beautifully written. Again, this hit home pretty hard. My mother went through dementia, not cancer, but she was a wonderful lady and it was very sad to lose her slowly, day by day. There is a Muslim saying: You can never repay your mother” and this is so true. Still, I have the memories. We will meet again, according to the Good News. Then my heart will be full.

  2. My mother died of cancer in 2003. So much of what you’ve written here hits very close to home. Very touching and well-written. Found myself reading through much of it with moist eyes. Thanks for this.

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