It was a weird day. My family was away and I was at home working when a box arrived.
I signed for it. At first I figured it was the usual stuff, but the weight of it was substantial for such a small box - maybe 15 pounds or more. And it felt like something.
Then I realized what it was. Last October, I'd done an Internet search. Usually it's to find information. In this case, it was to find something lost - my husband's birth mother, Alice.
When Chris and his sister were little, she began acting "funny." She took the kids away on a number of occasions. She would leave Merritt, B.C., and go to Fort St. John or Vancouver Island because she was worried someone would take her kids away. It was alarming for Chris's dad and the rest of the family.
When Chris and Shannon were about 6 and 4, they visited their mom for the last time. After the visit, they came home and talked about the vitamins their mom had fed them. Alice was health-conscious and loved her kids more than anything. But following that visit and the vitamin stories, the court issued an order: The kids were taken away.
I wonder if Alice's paranoia about losing her children was an intuition about her condition. Alice was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was committed for a time. Being a person who wanted to but was unable to have children, I can only begin to imagine the trauma of having your kids taken away. Her pain at the loss must have been unbearable.
Alice was given shock treatments. I don't know how many and I don't know where she received treatment. It's hard to piece together a person's life years later.
She lived for a time at the YWCA in Vancouver before it closed. Then she had nowhere to go. She lived on the street and called it "camping." She said she was sure people put things on their garbage cans on purpose, to help her. I think she tried to work at odd jobs here and there, but I'm not sure where.
After living on the street in Vancouver for a long time, Alice took a bus to Edmonton. There she lived on the street for decades, and became well known as Edmonton's bag lady. I have an article from an Edmonton newspaper about Alice and one of her lifelong friends.
In October, I began looking for Alice online. I contacted a number of social-service agencies that assist street people. The response was amazingly fast. Within a day I knew where she was, so Chris and I wrote a long letter and sent photos. Then, nothing.
This spring we received a call from a social worker - Alice was in hospital, and our letter had been found among her belongings as a social worker searched for next-of-kin.
Chris spoke with the social worker. Although he hadn't seen his birth mother since he was a small boy, he was asked to become Alice's guardian and make decisions about her health. This is a difficult thing to do for someone you don't really know, and it's a strange experience to take responsibility for your mother when she never really had the chance to be your mother.
In May, we went to visit Alice in the hospital in Edmonton. We saw a frail woman who had clearly lived a hard life. She was tiny, with white hair and only two teeth, which flapped when she spoke. But the smile she gave when Chris hugged her will be etched in my memory forever.
She had an amazing spark, and if she didn't agree to something about her care, her small, high-pitched voice rang out, "I don't need that!" Although the records said she was incompetent, the woman I saw was strong, autonomous and demanded to remain in control. Even though she had a large abdominal tumour, she refused painkillers. She passed away in her sleep on July 23 without anyone nearby.
I can't help but wonder so many things about her life. What was it like "camping" on the street with no one to look out for her? To live with schizophrenia and experience shock treatments? I think about the pain she must have endured during her last weeks in the hospital. She was only 71, but she looked much older.
So, the box that arrived was Alice.
We had asked that she be cremated, and that her ashes be sent here, but I guess that's as far as the thinking went. I didn't know I would feel so strongly that there really was someone in that box.
We're planning a trip to Naramata to sprinkle Alice's ashes. It's the only place Chris recalls her talking about being happy. I know she was happy in the hospital that day, though. Happy to see her son, to meet me and see him happy, and so pleased with the photo album we brought to show her the rest of the family, if only on paper.
She was an incredible person. I can't let her life go by unnoticed. She really did the best she could with the cards she was dealt, and she, like so many others, deserves a tribute.
Lori Waters lives in Saanichton, B.C.