Thursday was my birthday.
Now I have a clear view of the top of the hill I am about to descend, due to how I spent Christmas – in a Montreal emergency ward with my mother.
Thursday, I was supposed to celebrate – more like commiserate – with friends but we had to postpone. That's because we all thought we'd be racing east on the 401 instead, I to my ailing mother, they to one's mom in Kingston.
Somehow dinner together at the Wendy's at the 90-kilometre mark just wouldn't cut it.
Oh I know every single inch of that horrible highway. I have parsed it so many ways, by kilometres, by miles, by exits, by radio stations, by rest rooms, by hamburgers, by how many idiots drive in the winter without snow tires.
There oughta be a law about that in Ontario, just as there is in Quebec.
Anyway, I suppose my friends and I should consider ourselves lucky that we, relatively speaking, are close to our relatives, at least distance-wise.
And, as much as I hate the drive, particularly in bad weather, it's not that difficult, given sufficient podcasts and iTunes.
If I didn't have to worry about the dog, I'd fly, as I sometimes do.
Point is, I have options – and airline points.
My siblings are also pitching in, with one sister in Montreal carrying the biggest burden.
Also, we're fortunate that Mom, now 92, has the resources to maintain 24/7 private caregivers, who treat her with patience and kindness.
Always the wit, she, in one of her more lucid moments, gestured at one of them and said to me, in Greek, "There goes your inheritance."
Still, it's difficult. I can't make long-range plans. Every time the phone rings I jump. My bag is always packed, my gas tank full, I have a month's supply of my prescription drugs, and enough dog food to feed an Iditarod team, all just in case a weekend trip turns into a month-long stay.
Which is pretty much what happened over the holidays.
I know that many ex-Montrealers are in the same boat.
In fact, according to a Statistics Canada report published last week, 340,000 other Canadians are also long-distance caregivers.
For most, the financial burden is crushing.
"Even after other socioeconomic factors and the number of caregiving hours were taken into account," says StatsCan, "the odds of having extra expenses were three times higher for caregivers living more than half a day's journey away than for those in the same neighbourhood."
Yes, well, imagine having to book a flight last-minute – no deals, no discounts – to Vancouver or Halifax.
Obviously, we also have to take more time off work. And guess who carries most of that load? About 46 per cent of women missed full days of work to provide care, compared to 27 per cent of men.
No wonder women's average pay remains lower than men's. Not only do we interrupt careers to carry the greater parenting load, we also do the same to baby our aging parents. (This is not to knock men here. I know some wonderfully dedicated sons.)
But few employers make allowances for this, and it just sets women even further back.
I don't resent the expense or the uncertainty involved with doing what I can for my mom.
Yes, it's stressful, but it could be worse. Much worse.
And I love my mom even though she didn't remember my birthday Thursday.
She started to cry when I reminded her, apologizing for not sending me at least a card.
I still have every single one she ever mailed to me, long-distance to Toronto.
All day yesterday, I replied to emails from people who have taken on incredible loads.
One man would leave his office every Friday at 3 and drive to a Montreal suburb to clean and cook for his parent because they couldn't afford any help. He did it for 10 years. Imagine the toll on his health.
Not much more to add really, except a few words about the photo that ran with the column. It's from Greek Easter, 1979. We always did it right, complete with a whole lamb on a spit on the patio.
Easters, like Christmas, were always at the house where I grew up, and we'd number 50-60 with aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. I don't know why I look like such a goof. I just remember being very happy at that moment, maybe because it was my first Easter with my second husband (that's him partly hidden behind me) and giving attitude to one of my uncles as I often did.
He's gone now, as are all my mother's siblings but one.
And here I sit, 31 years later, more time than I had behind me when this photo was taken.
And my Mom? Just a little older than I am now.
Time sure does fly when you're having fun.