It’s bell ringing day!

 

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There’s a widespread tradition amongst cancer treatment centres including the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton where the following poem is posted on the wall of the waiting area outside each radiation treatment unit.


Ring Out

Ring this bell

Three times well

It’s toll to clearly say,

 

My treatment’s done

This course is run

And I am on my way!

 

Today, after 30 treatments over the past 6 weeks, it was finally my turn to ring the bell! I woke at 5:30 a.m. filled with anticipation and the morning crawled by as I waited for one o’clock to arrive. Now that it’s over, it’s hard to put how I feel into words! Perhaps it hasn’t really sunk in yet. Maybe it will seem more real when I board a plane for Vancouver tomorrow instead of heading back to the Cross!

I’ve been told not to expect the side effects to peak for another two weeks and there will be follow-up appointments in the future, of course, but this race has been run. Praise God!

Today was a bit anticlimactic in that, immediately after ringing the bell, I had to go upstairs for a CT scan to see what’s happened to my other cancer in the six months since it was last looked at but I’ve crossed one finish line. I’ve climbed that mountain and I’ve rung the bell! Now it’s time to move on!

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What is art anyway?

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A cool rainy afternoon was a perfect time to visit the Art Gallery of Alberta in downtown Edmonton. We had never been inside the unusual building composed mostly of windows and a winding ribbon of steel before and I was as interested in the architecture as the art inside.

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As we wandered through the exhibits, we saw pieces that we liked, pieces that we didn’t care much for and others that simply made us shake our heads. I couldn’t help wondering what makes something art. What makes one thing worthy of display in a prestigious art gallery and another not? For example, take a look at this:

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Whether or not they’re to our taste, I’m sure we’d all agree that the paintings on the wall are art, but what about the pile of hammers on the table? Yes, that’s what that is, a pile of hammers! What makes this pile of hammers a work of art and not simply a mess on someone’s workshop floor? I’m afraid I really don’t get it.

Perhaps Richard was right when he looked at the photo of two of our grandchildren that our daughter posted on Facebook yesterday.

Picture 3Photo: Melaina Graham

“All it needs is a frame and you could sell it for big bucks!” he said. Yes, that looks like art to me!

High Level Bridge Streetcar

Until I started looking into things to do while we’re in Edmonton for my radiation treatments, I’d never heard of the High Level Bridge Streetcar. Maintained and operated by the volunteer members of the Edmonton Radial Railway Society, there are actually four vintage streetcars that operate between Old Strathcona on the south side of the North Saskatchewan River and the Jasper Teminal on the north side, but only one is in operation at a time. Today, it was the Melbourne 930, built in Melbourne, Australia in 1947. In addition, the Society has five more double ended streetcars in operation at Fort Edmonton and several others that they hope to fully restore in the future.

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Prior to September 1951, the Edmonton Radial Railway regularly carried passengers across the upper deck of the High Level Bridge. At 755m long and 49m high, the bridge was one of the world’s highest streetcar river crossings and afforded the passengers a spectacular and exhilarating view. To the delight of visitors to the city as well as locals, seasonal service was restored in August 1997.

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After finding a place to park near the Strathcona Terminal, we originally intended to stay on the streetcar for the 40 minute round trip, but due to the fact that I’d forgotten my water bottle, an absolute essential on a hot day especially since my saliva production has been greatly suppressed by surgery and radiation, we got off at the Jasper Terminal near the corner of 109th Street and Jasper Avenue. After finding our way to a nearby convenience store and securing a bottle of water as well as a couple of ice cream bars, we enjoying our snack in the shade of a tree at nearby Railway Park before catching the next car back to Old Strathcona.

Alberta Legislature Building from the streetcar

Alberta Legislature Building from the streetcar

Losing my mother and finding her again

One night last week, my 92 year old mother went to sleep and didn’t wake up.

When the phone call came the following morning, my initial reaction was shock. It wasn’t completely unexpected but when I’d talked to Dad a couple of days earlier, there were no warning signs; nothing to indicate that the end was so near.

I went through the motions that day, showing up for my treatment and shedding a few tears behind my radiation mask, but as I thought about it, I couldn’t help believing that it was for the best. Mom died in her own bed in the building next to Dad’s in the care complex where they’ve lived for the past few months. She didn’t linger in a hospital bed and we didn’t have to sit helplessly by and watch her suffer.

The timing bothered me because, in the middle of radiation treatments, I couldn’t simply drop everything and fly out to Vancouver. The family has been wonderful, however, agreeing to postpone gathering for a memorial service until my treatments are complete. Dad, ever the stoic, put my needs before his own, feeling it was important to ensure that everyone who wanted to attend would be able to.

And so we wait. I don’t know about the rest of the family, but in the past few days, I’ve begun to experience a sense of closure. In a way, my Mom has already been gone for a very long time. She started to sink into the depths of dementia a long time ago. In fact, I don’t remember the last time I had a real conversation with her, one where she was fully cognizant and engaged, one where she truly knew who I was. In recent years, she’s been trapped in a body that was blind, incontinent and confined to a wheelchair. More recently, she’d started to lose her ability to swallow and could only consume pureed food and thickened liquids. In spite of it all, she managed to retain her sweet spirit, but that’s no way to have to live.

Dad burned himself out trying to care for her before finally recognizing that he couldn’t do it any longer and worrying about the two of them was hugely stressful for the rest of us. Now it’s over. She is at peace and we have only Dad to worry about. As I work on writing her eulogy, I can begin to put aside the agony of watching her mind fade into the mist of confusion and her body fail. I can dig deeper and revive some of my earlier memories, the warm and funny memories of a mother and grandmother who loved her family above all else. It’s actually a pleasant way to mourn.

In preparation for the memorial service later this month, I’ve been digging through boxes of old family photographs that are stored at my place and flipping through my photo albums putting together a pictorial display of Mom’s life. In the process, I’ve been finding more than pictures; I’ve been finding memories. Stories that Mom told us about her early life have been coming back to me and I’ve been reliving births, graduations and weddings as well as the day to day events recorded in the pictures. I even found a photo that I don’t ever remember seeing before. Here we are, Mom and I, when I was under two!

Mom & I

In losing my mother, I think I’m beginning to find her again!

Fort Edmonton, a walk through time

Richard and I have been to Fort Edmonton numerous times in the past, but always with a class of students, usually 5th graders, in tow. Yesterday, we thoroughly enjoyed taking a more leisurely stroll through time without having to constantly count heads and make sure we hadn’t left anyone behind!

When we were teaching, a visit to Fort Edmonton fit perfectly with the grade 5 Social Studies curriculum which was largely a study of Canadian history. We liked to prepare our students for the field trip by reading Alberta author, Brenda Bellingham’s novel, Storm Child, to them. The story of Isobel, daughter of a Scottish fur trading father and a Peigan First Nations mother living in Fort Edmonton in the 1830s, the book never failed to capture their imaginations and bring the history alive for them.

The best way to see Fort Edmonton, Canada’s largest living-history museum, is to begin your visit by climbing aboard the steam train and riding it back to 1846 and The Fort, an exact replica of the original fur trading fort which once stood on a bluff on the opposite side of the North Saskatchewan River close to where the Alberta Legislature Buildings stand today. The Hudson Bay Company fort, where natives brought their furs to trade for a wide variety of goods from Europe and other far away places, is presided over by enormous Rowand House. Built to house Chief Factor John Rowand, his wife and their seven children, it was often referred to as Rowand’s Folly due to it’s sheer size; a mansion in the middle of nowhere!

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Rowand's Folly

Rowand’s Folly

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After touring the fort and the Cree encampment outside it’s walls, we left the fur trading era behind and wandered down 1885 street visiting homes, school, church and businesses of those hardy souls who made Edmonton home during it’s early settlement days.

 

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1885 Street

Rounding the corner onto 1905 Street, we stopped for lunch and dined on bison burgers in bannock, the traditional biscuit-like bread that sustained hungry voyageurs, settlers, and First Nations people in the early days of our country. Then it was time to take a jump forward in time and head for the Cross Cancer Institute for my radiation treatment. Our plan was to catch the streetcar in front of our eating establishment and ride it back to the park entrance but unbeknownst to us, the streetcar driver had also stopped for lunch! A brisk walk got us back to the vehicle just in time to make it to my appointment without a moment to spare!

1905 Street Where was that streetcar when we needed it?

1905 Street
Where was that streetcar when we needed it?

Within an hour, we were back at Fort Edmonton. This time, we caught the streetcar back to our stopping point and resumed our walk through time where costumed interpreters help bring history alive for visitors. We enjoyed sipping iced tea with Alexander Rutherford, Alberta’s first premier, on the front porch of his large and comfortable home that even boasted hot and cold running water! Not everyone lived in such comfort, however. In the early years of the twentieth century, Edmonton was growing at such a rapid pace that some families lived in tents for up to two years waiting for houses to be built. Not too bad in the summer perhaps, but much more challenging when the winter temperatures dipped to -40º!

No, I didn't apply for the job!

No, I didn’t apply for the job!

By the time we reached 1920 Street, we were ready to stop at Bill’s Confectionery for ice-cream cones. After all, it was the hottest day that Edmonton has seen so far this summer! Crossing the street to the Capitol Theatre, we took in an excellent 15 minute interactive movie about the early history of the area and the city. A walk through the beautiful peony garden, which is in full bloom at this time of year, and a visit to the Motordome, where we were able to indulge our love of antique cars, brought our day to a close.

1920 Street with the peony garden in the foreground

1920 Street with the peony garden in the foreground

The only part of the park that we didn’t take in was the 1920s Midway, a fairly recent addition with games and rides that would likely be a hit if you visited Fort Edmonton with some of the younger set.

I’ve been told that fatigue is one of the most common and expected side effects of radiation. After spending a total of six hours walking through time in the hot sun, I was tired but I saw a lot of others dragging their feet back to the parking lot looking no more done in than I was and after a good night’s sleep, I feel fine!

124th Street

IMG_3864Today is a hot, blue sky day in Edmonton. One of the first truly summer-like days this year, it was perfect for exploring 124th Street, another of the city’s popular locations.

Beginning at the west end of Jasper Avenue and extending north to about 111th Avenue, this vibrant district is known for it’s many specialty shops, restaurants and small art galleries that feature the work of Canadian artists. We strolled from one end of the area to the other checking out several of the shops and most of the galleries.

Though we enjoyed critiquing the wide variety of art that we saw, I had to remind Richard to save some of his comments until we were back on the street! His question, “Don’t you think that this could have been painted by Drew and Jami-Lee?” (referring to two of our preschool grandchildren), asked within earshot of the gallery staff, was a mite embarrassing! In that particular case and a couple of others, I did have to agree with his assessment, but I also saw many pieces that were more to my taste. We both agreed that Bearclaw Gallery was our favourite due to our appreciation for Inuit and West Coast native art.

This was a perfect time of year to visit 124th Street. Flowers and lilac bushes bloomed everywhere adding to the already colourful scene and filling the air with their heavenly scent.

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A relaxing lunch on the patio at the Urban Diner, just around the corner on 102nd Avenue, completed our visit to the area. Fortunately, radiation treatments haven’t affected my sense of taste yet and I was able to thoroughly enjoy my salmon quiche.

There’s that hat again!

Fitness from the shoulders up!

“Normally you should be able to place the two middle joints of your index and middle fingers in your mouth” reads one of the many handouts that I was given at the Cross Cancer Institute this week.

You tried it, didn’t you? I knew you would!

I can do it, but barely. In fact, when I do, I’m left with imprints of my teeth on my fingers.

I’m amazed at all the services available to patients at the Cross and I haven’t even had to go looking for them. This week, I had appointments with a speech language pathologist (who knew that they also deal with swallowing issues?), a nutritionist and an occupational therapist and now I have a whole new exercise routine to follow. I have lip exercises, swallowing exercises, jaw exercises and neck exercises to do! Sadly, none of them requires cute exercise attire!

The lip exercises are meant to help correct the crooked smile that I was left with after last month’s surgery. It has been gradually improving as the facial nerve recovers and if it never got any better than it is right now, I could certainly live with that, but I might as well do what I can to help it along.  The exercises, which involve making a variety of funny faces, are simple and easy do while I’m engaged in other activities.

Surgery also left me with a fair amount of stiffness in the neck and jaw area, hence the difficulty getting two knuckles between my teeth. Radiation can cause increased stiffness in these areas so, rather than becoming a permanently stiff-necked person, I’ll be doing neck and jaw exercises at least 3 times a day for the duration of my radiation treatments and for several weeks or possibly months afterwards. Fortunately, they’re also simple to do and don’t take very long.

Dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, is a common side effect of radiation to the head and neck so the swallowing exercises that I’m doing are preemptive, designed to minimize or prevent problems from arising. They’re not particularly difficult to do, but because they’re done with sips of water, they involve consuming copious amounts of H2O. Since staying well hydrated is important, this isn’t a particularly bad thing but it does mean having to break the exercises down into manageable amounts spread throughout the day.

I haven’t lifted weights since having surgery and the treadmill is gathering dust again now that the weather is suitable for walking outdoors, but I’m still fitting in my regular morning exercises 4 or 5 days a week. This is the first time I’ve worked on being physically fit from the shoulders up though!

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