Monday, November 12, 2018

On my Mom's Passing

Wildflowers we gathered in my Mom's memory.

I got the call from my Dad on a Sunday morning in late October asking me to fly home to help care for my Mom.

We had almost lost Mom a month earlier to pneumonia, but the entire family gathered around her hospital bed, and by some miracle, Mom rallied. The initial relief we all experienced at her recovery was, however, overshadowed by the news that Mom had lung cancer.

That Sunday afternoon, my husband ran some laundry and started to pack a bag for me while I booked a plane ticket online. I practically ran to the gate to catch my flight that evening. Ironically we sat on the tarmac in Toronto for over an hour while the crew addressed some mechanical problem on the aircraft. When I finally arrived well after ten, I was very glad to find my brother at the arrivals gate waiting for me.

The lake across the street from my parent's apartment at the Berkeley.

Pearly Everlastings growing on the shores of the lake.

Reeds in the late-day sunshine.

My parents were in their pyjamas when we reached their apartment at the Berkeley (a residence for seniors). Sitting up in bed, Dad seemed relieved to see me. Mom lay at his side propped up on some pillows. I had been home for her 94th birthday the weekend before, but her decline in the intervening week was dramatic– she was pale and thinner than ever.

When she learned she had cancer, Mom elected to spend what time she had left at home with her husband of over sixty years. In the first weeks home, Mom did really well. Everything seemed almost normal. My sister, who lives in Ireland, even talked optimistically about booking a flight home to visit them in the spring.

It was all to clear upon my arrival that Sunday evening that an ongoing struggle with emphysema and the new battle with cancer were taking a huge toll on my Mom. I called my sister the next day and suggested she should fly home as soon as possible.


The difficult mornings began on Monday just before 5am.

With badly swollen legs and feet, Mom didn’t think she could walk all the way to the bathroom. Sadly the commode, that my Dad had once used while recovering from a stroke, was in pieces at the back of a closet. In the dim light of early dawn, my Dad and I began to struggle to piece the damn thing back together.

I have not the slightest nack for puzzles and Dad wasn't fairing much better.

"Read the instructions, Jen!" my Dad urged handing me a booklet outlining the steps for assembly. I took the manual in my hands, but the print was tiny with miniature illustrations that lacked any useful detail. In the meantime, I was acutely aware that my Mom waiting in the other room. To any onlooker, my Dad and I would have been a comedic pair if only the circumstances hadn't been so dire!

"What’s taking so long?", Mom called from their bedroom.

We did finally piece it together, but boy oh boy, it was a rough introduction to my new role as a caregiver.




When my mother learned she had lung cancer back in September she made a request to the doctor for medical assistance in death (MAID) that might alleviate any unwanted and unnecessary suffering at the end of her life. Mom believed that she had only to express her wishes and the doctor would put things into place and lead her through the process. The reality was very different.

There is a great deal of bureaucracy surrounding a medically assisted death in Canada. Laws and policies that vary according to the province or territory in which you live don't help either. In Mom's case, two doctors needed to do an assessment to determine if she was a candidate. Forms needed to be filled out and witnessed. After signing the written request, there is a 10 day reflection period (an exception can be made in special circumstances).

Just before receiving medical assistance in dying, the patient must be capable of providing informed consent. Sadly this last rule greatly impacted another Halifax woman who had stage four breast cancer that had spread to her brain. Fearful that brain cancer might impact her ability to provide informed consent right before the procedure, she opted to end her life sooner than she would have otherwise chosen. It's so very sad!

When life and death are involved, safeguards are understandable. But in my Mom's case, the bureaucracy surrounding medical assistance in dying couldn't respond fast enough to meet her rapid decline. At the time of her passing, we were still waiting on an assessment by a second doctor and palliative support was even further in the distance.

No one feels a bitterness about this more than me. It was me who sat with Mom in the early morning hours when the pain spread across her chest and down her arms. Over and over she'd ask me why she was being made to suffer when she had expressed her wishes to the doctor so clearly back in September. I felt helpless to answer her. Our healthcare system had ultimately failed her.

The gravel path that runs along the lakeshore.


On Wednesday night, Mom's breathing was horribly laboured. At eleven I called Kelly (nurse) to help me get Mom settled in for the night. Then I retired to my place on the sofa beside her bed. Troubled and unable to sleep, I lay in the dark and listened to the Mom's ragged breath and the rhythmic refrain of the oxygen machine. Finally, I drifted off to sleep sometime around midnight.

It was the silence that woke me just before two in the morning. I lay on the sofa for a moment feeling grateful that Mom was finally resting comfortably. But then that silence began to eat at me and I got up off the sofa to check on her. Mom had slumped down in the hospital bed. She looked so tiny she reminded me of a baby bird. I stood at the foot of her bed for a moment willing her chest to rise and fall. Nothing. I reached tentatively for Mom's wrist to check for a pulse. Nothing, but then I was so upset...maybe I was wrong.

Grabbing my cell phone, I went out into the brightly lit hallway to call Kelly.

"Can you come up and check on my Mom?" I asked my voice breaking a little.

A minute or two later I heard the elevator and Kelly appeared. "I think my Mom may have passed," I managed to blurt just before I broke into tears.

Thank goodness for Kelly! She was calm when I was anything but. She confirmed my worst fears and then left the room to call the paramedics. I picked up my phone again and called my two sisters, who piled themselves into a taxi in short order.

All the commotion awoke my Dad who was sleeping in the adjacent bedroom. With his walker, he shuffled into the bathroom still mercifully oblivious of Mom's passing. I paced back and forth outside the bathroom until he emerged and I was able to share the sad news.


The paramedics who arrived were kind and sympathetic, but because Mom had died at home and without palliative care in place, they informed me that her body would have to go to the medical examiner's office and a police investigation would need to be completed.

As the primary caregiver, I found myself viewed as something I never in a million years would have guessed were possible– a suspect in my own mother's death. I don't want to get overly dramatic here. The investigating officers were nice and respectful. I reminded myself repeatedly that they were just doing their job.  Thank goodness my sisters were there in time to see me through it all.

So many feelings and emotions have colored the last few difficult weeks. I am angry that our health care system failed Mom in her final moments–those hours of suffering were cruel. That Mom had a long and happy life is a great comfort.

I also feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude. What wonderful siblings I have! Many a time stressful situations like this can tear a family apart.

Thanks also go out to the private nurses at the Berkeley. Ladies, I don't know what I would have done without you! Thank you for your kindness and your council.

I am even grateful to Joanne of Because You Love Them Pet Services who came each day to play with the boys in my absence. Hearing the dogs' daily report cards was a bright moment at the end of what was always a long and difficult day.

Mom in her youth.

Painful as this post was to write, I feel I owe it to my Mom to speak out. When you're in pain and can't breathe properly, an hour can feel like an eternity. For Mom it was days. At this time, the procedures surrounding medical assistance in dying in Canada are too mysterious and too cumbersome. The process involved is a slow-moving mechanism that does not respond quickly enough to meet the needs of patients like my Mom.

In short, the laws and procedures that surround medical assistance in death need to tempered with a bit more humanity.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Making a Circular Thyme Courtyard


Spring is so busy and summer is too hot, so it seems that fall is the time I tend to tackle big garden projects. 

The work on this newest project actually began over a year ago. A temporary shed had finally been removed leaving behind a scruffy area of lawn and a row of rather bedraggled looking cedars. After the ugly cedars were cut down, I was left with a fairly blank slate. I could do just about anything I wanted to do. 

The area in question was not without its challenges. For starters, the soil ranged from poor to heavy clay. Light levels were a diverse mix of conditions. Within a matter of a few feet, the amount of sunlight could shift from full sun to full shade. Most of our backyard is flat and even, but this one section of the yard slopes down as much as a foot.

I started with the soil, which is where all garden planning must really begin. The horrible clay soil was amended to allow better drainage. Rich black topsoil was added to improve the quality of the poor soil and raise the grade up to be level the rest of the yard. While I can describe this work in two quick sentences, the task took all of my spare time last fall.

The area I am describing is a large space that includes what will eventually be a stream with a wooden bridge, a small pond, a generous flowerbed and a small courtyard with a wooden bench. To keep this post a manageable length, I am going to focus in on one small part of the larger project– the circular courtyard of thyme with the wooden bench.


The starting point for this courtyard was a concrete column with Celtic-inspired ornamentation.  I bought the column on clearance a few years back with no particular use in mind, but confident that I would eventually find a place for it in the garden. When I came across the sundial at a home goods store, I knew it was the perfect topper for the Celtic column.

A sundial is basically a primitive clock that tells the time of day based on the position of the sun. An armillary sundial, like the one I have, has a fixed rod or gnomon (in this case an arrow) that represents the polar axis of the sky as seen from Earth. 

My inexpensive sundial is more decorative than anything else, and one of the round sphere's is broken, so I am putting a proper replacement high on my wishlist for Christmas.

 Geranium 'Rozanne' is one of the many hardy geraniums that I added to this part of the garden.

 Most hardy geraniums bloom in June, but Geranium 'Rozanne' blooms much later. Come late summer and fall, you'll be so glad you planted it!

Creeping Thyme

Plants inspired me as well. On the part-shade/shade fringes of my courtyard, I decided to feature hardy geraniums as an alternative to commonly used shade plants like hosta (more on the hardy geraniums another time). 

For the courtyard itself, I wanted to lay down a ground covering of thyme. Thyme is one of those plants that can take a fair amount of foot traffic. Creating a steppable lawn of thyme is something I have dreamed about making for years. Until now I didn't have a sunny spot available. 

Thyme is a Mediterranean herb that likes full sun and hot, dry conditions. It can be a bit of a challenge to get it to overwinter here in Southern Ontario. The last thing thyme likes are freezing temperatures and soggy clay soil! 

To improve its odds for survival you need to provide thyme with really sharp drainage. The soil in my little courtyard was horrible grey clay. To improve the drainage, I dug out the top 6-8 inches of clay. Then I mixed into the remaining soil bags of fine gravel and sand. Hopefully, that will do the trick of improving the drainage! 

The garden at sunset in September 2018.

A circular courtyard with a sundial at its centre fits in perfectly with the rest of the garden's design. 

Circles a recurring element. There is a round seating area in the middle of the garden. When you walk further down the central path and pass through the wooden arbour, there is a large circular garden with an urn at its centre. 


How to Make a Garden that's a Perfect Circle

The first step in making a circular garden is deciding where you want the centre of your circle. The centre can be quite arbitrary based on whatever is pleasing or it could be based on preexisting elements in the garden's design.  


I already had flowerbeds, a bench and a central pathway in place. We used a tape measure to determine the midway point between the bench on one side and the flowerbed on the other. Then we found the centre point between the outside edge of the pathway (seen on the righthand side of the photo) and a flowerbed on the opposite side. The intersection of those two measurements gave us the centre of what would be my circle.


Once you find the centre, you can start to map out the outline of your circle. A simple measuring device makes the job easy. 

Using a rubber mallet place a rounded, verticle pole at the centre point of your circle. The pole could be anything handy; a wooden dowel or even a broomstick handle. Attach a length of rope to your pole (Note: choose a rope that will not easily stretch). Pull the rope out until it reaches the outside edge of your circle. Tie a 6-inch galvanized spike to end of the rope. 

Swivel your rope around the pole marking the stops around the circumference of the circle with galvanized spikes. As a demonstration, I have marked out part of a circle (seen above).


Once the galvanized spikes are placed around the circumference of the circle, you will have a pretty clear guide, but tieing and then wrapping some twine around each of the spikes will make the outline even more distinct.


I knew I would be working on this project over a couple of weeks, so I decided to use an old rubber hose to mark the perimeter of my circle.


I am by no means an expert at laying brick. There is probably a hardscaping professional out there that will cringe upon seeing my DIY methods. I'll tell you what I did to lay down my circle of bricks, but this is in no way a tutorial! 

With an edger, I dug in to mark the outer edge of my circle. Then I widened it into a trench that was big enough to accommodate my bricks. When the trench was finished, I levelled and compacted the soil. Then I added sand, compacted and levelled it. When I was happy with my work, I laid the brick and firmed it down with a rubber mallet. The final step was to fill the cracks between the bricks with sand.

Getting the sand flat and even took the vast majority of my time. That being said, things progressed fairly quickly. 


To compliment sundial and play up the celestial theme even further, I decided to create a stylized sun with a circle of precast edging and radiating lines of bricks (you can easily find this scalloped edging at Rona, Lowes or Home Depot).


The bricks mimicking the rays of the sun were by far the fiddliest part of this job. With my husband's help, I laid out my pattern of bricks (we eye-balled the placement of the bricks rather than doing any measurements).  

Once the bricks were laid out, I used one of the galvanized spikes to trace the brick's outline in the dirt. Using that outline as my guide, I dug a trench. The rocky ground was levelled and compacted. Sand was added, levelled and compacted as well. Finally, the bricks went in and the gaps were filled with sand.


So far there is just a smattering of Creeping Thyme planted in the gravelly soil. I will add lots more thyme next spring. Hopefully, all the hard work I did to improve the soil's drainage will pay off and it will spread quickly to create a dense lawn-like groundcover. 

I should also make mention the plantings at the base of the sundial. Presently I have a mix of Calamintha and Russian Sage. The sage was a dwarf variety, but it's quickly proven to be too big for such a small area. In the spring, I will move the sage to a new spot in the garden and replace it with one of two varieties of blue Catmint.


Dwarf Calamint, Calamintha nepeta ssp. nepta: has arching sprays of pale mauve-blue flowers. The foliage of this plant has a minty fragrance. Full sun or light shade. It tolerates average, dry and moist growing conditions and is suitable for normal, sandy or clay soils. Bees love it! Height: 20-30 cm, Spread 30-45 cm Hardy USDA Zones 4-9.


I will probably go with one of these two:

Blue Catmint, Nepeta racemosa 'Walker's Low' is a long blooming perennial that has a mounded, bushy habit. It has grey-green foliage and blue flowers. Full sun. Height: 60-90 cm (23-35 inches), Spread: 75-90 cm ( 29-35 inches). USDA Zones: 3-9.

Nepeta x faassenii 'Blue Wonder' is a bit more compact. Height: 30-45 cm (12-18 inches), Spread: 38-45 cm (15-18 inches). USDA Zones 3-9.


Despite the fact that the thyme is really patchy, but I am rather pleased with the way the whole thing came together.

When you walk over the bridge and into my garden, it surrounds and envelopes you and I love that!

You may be wondering about the very pretty plant on the righthand side of my picture (above). It is Eupatorium rugosum 'Chocolate'. 


Eupatorium rugosum 'Chocolate' has really attractive maroon-brown foliage in the spring. The tops of the leaves turn olive-green as the summer progresses, but the undersides of the leaves the plant's stems remain a nice contrasting shade of chocolate throughout the gardening season. In full sun, 'Chocolate' needs moist soil. In part-shade, it will tolerate somewhat drier conditions but it still prefers regular water. 'Chocolate' has flat clusters of starry white flowers in late summer/fall. It is important to deadhead the flowers to avoid self-seeding. 'Chocolate' will not come true from seed. Deer resistant. Height: 90-120 cm (35-47 inches), Spread: 75-90 cm (29-35 inches). USDA zones: 5-9.



A new grey bench replaces an old white one that you may remember seeing in previous pictures (We found it on clearance at Lowes).  

My husband made the tall wooden obelisk beside the bench. Eventually, I hope it will be smothered in the blooms of a Clematis viticella that has blue bell-shaped flowers.

Containers dressed for fall.




Piper's favourite lookout spot is the little bridge.

My final project for the year is to lay a brick path between the bridge and the arbour you see in the distance.


Here's hoping the temperatures remain warm enough for me to get the pathway completed!

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Friday, October 5, 2018

Unusual Spring Bulbs: Erythronium


If you are looking to add some early spring color under deciduous trees or shrubs, Erythroniums are a terrific option.

Erythroniums are woodland perennials that emerge early in April to take advantage of the sunshine before the trees overhead leaf-out. Within a short period of time they awake, bloom and store energy for the following year. Then Erythroniums slip quietly back into dormancy.

Though I have titled this post "Unusual Spring Bulbs" Erythronium aren't technically bulbs, they're corms. Very much like a bulb, a corm stores water and nutrients for a dormant plant. Erythroniums
are planted at the same time as other spring bulbs, so they all tend to get lumped in together by many bulb suppliers and nurseries.


There are almost thiry different species of Erythronium most of which are native to North America. Erythronium Americanum (shown above) is a tiny wildflower native to the eastern half of Canada and U.S. 

Erythronium Americanum will often form large colonies of plants at different stages of development. Plants with a single leaf are young and will be flowerless until they mature. Trout Lilies that have two basal leaves will produce a nodding yellow flower on a bare reddish-brown scape.

A detailed look at the unusual foliage. You can just see the flower buds starting to emerge.


Each of the common names for Erythroniums has a little something to tell you about the plant:

Dog-tooth Violet–it's a bit of a stretch, but the corms do somewhat resemble a dog's tooth. The corms are about an inch in length and are beige in color.

Fawn Lily–the leaves have the pointed shape of a young fawn's ears.

Adder's Tongue–the closed flower resembles the head of a snake.

Trout Lily–the brown mottling on the foliage looks a bit like the scales on a fish.

Erythronium 'Pagoda'

One of the Erythroniums most commonly available is a hybrid named 'Pagoda'. It's a robust plant with large yellow flowers. 

Plants with white and pink blooms are a little harder to find (in Canada at any rate). They also a bit pricier than the common yellow 'Pagoda'. Pink and white Erythroniums are beautiful plants, so it is well worth a search to find an online supplier. 



Planting Erythronium

Erythroniums like moist, slightly acidic soil with lots of organic matter.  You can grow them from seed, but you're in for a long wait. It can take as many as five years for a plant to mature enough to flower. It's much better to start with corms.

Erythroniums are easily grown in part-shade at the feet of trees or shrubs. These are tiny flowers that grow no more than 4-6 inches tall, so I'd recommend planting them in groups of six or more.

Plant the thumb-sized corms in the fall along with other spring bulbs. Place them 2-3 inches deep and 4-5 inches apart.

Plant type: Perennial

Height: 4-6 inches (10-15 cm)

Spread: 3-4 inches (7-10 cm)

Flower Color: White, Yellow, Pink

Bloom period: April/May

Leaf: Green leaves mottled with brown

Light: Part-shade to full shade

Water: Moist during the spring

Soil: Rich in organic matter

Companion Plants: Daffodils, Crocus, Snowdrops, Hellebores

Planting time: Fall

Deer resistant

Problems: None

USDA Zones: 3-8

Over the last few years, I have come to love the delicate flowers of my yellow Erythroniums. Spring is off to a wonderful start when they begin to flower.

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