I was born on July 21st, 1981 at Nanaimo General Hospital. I can't remember whether I was a difficult birth, and I don't know when in the day that I was born, but I'm going to assume that there was nothing easy about my entrance into this world.
It's just too fitting.
My mother, Sandra Lucille Gallagher (Jack), was born on April 15th, 1955 and died on October 15th, 1999. She was forty-four years old. Sandra grew up the youngest daughter of Ernest Jack and Shirley Jack (Chester) and lived in Bamfield on the west coast of Vancouver Island until the 1960's, when my grandfather moved the family to Parksville so his children could attend school past the tenth grade. She met my Dad when she was fourteen and they stayed together for twelve years before I was born. My mother was the product of a traditional home, though it became apparent to me that she aspired to be much more than what was expected of her.
My mother's life was hard. Looking back, I remember hers as a life lived through hardship, disappointment, sadness and addiction. She was an alcoholic, and though no one has ever officially told me, she was also the victim of abuse at a young age. It was, ultimately, this sadness and alcoholism that led to her break up with my father when I was younger than thirteen. My mother persevered, though, and she made her children her life for the longest time. She made real sacrifices for us and only now upon reflection do I truly appreciate what she done for me and my brothers.
To the point where I feel ashamed at times that I wasn't a better son.
Later in her life, she returned to school and learned many skills. It started with courses to become a legal assistant. She completed that work and became interested in mapping with computers, GIS, as it was connected with the early efforts of my First Nation in pursuing a Treaty. Yes, I followed in my mother's footsteps. She worked with the earliest form of the organization that now employs me, the Huu-ay-aht Treaty Office, helping to create the maps that would guide land selection and resource management. It can be said, fairly and accurately, that she did good work for her people and her family. And that she actually had a chance at truly being happy.
My mother had health problems. She had lupus. She had arthritis. She got headaches for no apparent reason. And, of course, she smoked cigarettes. My family has a history of circulatory problems: heart attacks, strokes, and the like. She was no exception. My mother died from a stroke.
She collapsed in the bathroom after crying for hours because her head hurt so much. She was hyperventilating and unconscious by the time the ambulance got there to take her to the hospital.
I wasn't there when she died. She had already passed by the time we got to the hospital in the morning.
I hate hospitals.
I don't remember much about the next few days, but one thing that just sticks in my mind is when they told my little brother that his mother was dead. He was seven years old and sitting on the couch at home wondering where Mom was...
Nothing's ever really been the same since then and to say that life changed on a fundamental level is to make an absurd understatement.
I remember the funeral being in Port Alberni. I remember wondering why the hell it was there when she lived in Parksville, when she raised her children in Parksville. I only now realize that the people she loved and cared about and were friends with were mostly from Port Alberni and Anacla, the home reserve of our native band. Now that I look at the funeral card, or whatever it's called, I see names that were not at all familiar to me at the time had spoken eloquent words for her and had been her honoured pallbearers. These are people I now work with, these are people that I interact with on a regular basis, and I find myself thanking them for everything they did to help my family through this tumultuous string of days.
After the service, we left Port Alberni to drive for long hours down dirt roads to a place called Sarita. My mother loved Sarita. It used to be the site of our band's winter village and it was sidled next to the Sarita River deep in our traditional territory. There's a cemetary in Sarita, up on a hill with steep access. My mother lies in Sarita next to her brother and among her relatives.
I helped bury her.
It's been eight years since she passed away. I lived in a self-imposed exile from the world for a bit more than seven years because of her sudden death. I must admit that it's taken me hours to write this, to remember the pain and the fear and the uncertainty. I think I need to be able to write about this and post it out into the open for anyone to read.
I have yet to return to her gravesite.
I'm going to try to visit Sarita this October.
The prospect of going scares me, but I think it needs to be done. I have grown and I have healed.
Wish me luck.