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An Incredible Gift

 Written Mar. 25, 2016 by Michael James Coyne

I have been planning to write out this story of my grandmother for many years and although I am sharing this version of it now, I intend to tweak it more in the years to come before there is a finished version. This version will include the most important details, and I hope it somehow makes a difference in sharing it. For all the advances we have made technologically, as one of the supposed top species of this planet we have not matured very well at all. This story is filled with a terrible loss of a life stolen, and ends with an incredible gift. The gift is not just for me, although I am the initial recipient; it is a gift for all of humanity. The gift is a lesson in which we can hopefully learn from to change our world for the better. There is purpose in suffering, and our greatest growth indeed comes in our times of suffering. My hope is that in telling this story it will leave a lasting mark on enough people that somehow it can spread in the hopes that one day this will never happen again to any person on the planet. It is hard to sit and think how much further we could be, the steward species of this world, if the story line of history was one reflecting in the truth that we are all the same. We are all equal. No matter the colour of your skin, your gender, your language or your religion. Take away the outer layer, the lessons you have learned on what should and shouldn’t be that is given to you by others, and everything is exactly the same, blood, organs, brain, and skeleton. How many more Einstein’s would the world have known if in our history we had not suppressed anyone?

My grandmother: Anna Ruffo McGoldrick.

Anna, who I spent my life calling Nannie (Italian for grandmother) was born on April 30, 1926 to her Italian immigrant parents Rosaria, and Vincenzo Ruffo. I am lucky to have a vivid memory of my great grandmother Rosaria. As a very young child, after the death of her husband Vincenzo, I recall she always wore a traditional black mourning dress. Rosaria was known for grabbing cheeks between thumb and forefinger uttering, ‘pincherella’. This would be followed with, ‘we musta fatten you upa’. I feel very fortunate to have met her, and retained this memory from such a young age. I wish I had more. Let that be a side note, if you have aging relatives, don’t wait until tomorrow to go and spend time with them, go today.

Anna (Nannie), died in the summer of 2010. For my entire life, I had always heard the line that Nannie hated men. This in fact was very apparent in my early years as a child, she did not take well to me back then, and looking back on it now I can see her thought process. To Anna, even though I was a child, I would still one day become a man. Worse yet was the thought that I would become a man like her son in law, my father; Mike Sr., a terribly selfish human being, who spent his life treating Nannies first daughter, Frances (my mother), in a way that was most repulsive to Anna. Frances to Mike is an underling; a servant to cater only to his needs. This created in Anna a constant reminder of why she loathed men. Thankfully, this would prove not to happen with me and in time, though it took years of therapy and self help books to become who I am today, I have not ended up anything like my father. Ironically, it was those years of therapy that helped me put the pieces of this story together in that I am able to share it. Luckily, I was able to make my way into Anna’s life in a more meaningful way in later years, and we became quite close. That was not always the case. Her disdain for most men was clear to me as a child and as such we had a precarious and clashing relationship when I was young. It is unfortunate that my father gave me some preconceived notions about how he felt about Anna, and in particular her brother Rocco. He did not like Rocco, and in telling me this as a child I took on my father’s attitude about it. It is with a heavy heart that I learned in 2008 just how important Rocco was to Anna. They were very close, brother and sister. By the time I discovered this, Rocco was already gone, and I never had a chance to know this man who loved and was loved so dearly by Anna. It is a tragedy of my life now, and I so wish I could go back. That is how it goes though isn’t it? Everything that we are, everything that we think, it all has been given to us by others. If you still to this day judge another person on what someone else says about them, I implore you to reconsider not letting that happen ever again. I wish now that I could have just one day to sit and talk with my great Uncle Rocco, and it is a hard life lesson to learn now that it is too late. That is only the tip of the iceberg, as there are many things engrained into our societal subconscious thought process that needs to be undone. It is and feels like an impossible task, but I remain hopeful to some degree that humans can somehow discover this before it is too late for all of us. Perhaps with this story the unraveling of one change is all I can manage on a small scale. My favourite quote from Desmond Tutu is; can one person make a difference? Yes. The ocean after all is just droplets of water that have come together.

When I was with Anna in 2008 she knew her time was closing, and the end was coming soon. We had such a great visit that year and I feel very fortunate for it. When it came time for me to leave, she commented that this could very well be the last time she ever saw me. I assured her with a promise that this would not be the case, and that she would surely see me again. I in fact got to spend a lot of time with her in the summer of 2010, and had some of the best conversations with her during her last month of her life. Stuck in an elderly care hospital ward with failed kidneys, and recovering from a broken hip, she glowed for me every time I walked in to see her that last month. She would beam and tell everyone who came through that this is her grandson who’s come to visit with her. The fact that I was able to provide this happiness for her is a close second to the gift she left me with the day she died. There were 20 seniors in her ward, and it was rare to see any of them have visits from family members. The elderly are forgotten about by the young. Let’s be clear on this part, in that this is only common to western culture. This does not happen in other cultures or with people of other countries in our world, and it is a terrible thing for our society to have driven us to doing. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to spend so much time with her in that last month and indeed the last day of her life. I’m not sure if it was just chance or if it was meant to be somehow, but I was in Ontario for the whole month and thus got to spend many days with her. A lot of the main part of this story came together in those visits, which lead to how special it was for me to spend the last day of her life with her, and the incredible gift she gave me that day.

Anna spent her early years in a remote, back woods railroad town, Metagama Ontario. Her father, Vincenzo, was a CP railway track inspector, and their town was built and owned by CP Rail solely for their workers. So remote was Metagama that it was only accessible by train or horseback as there were, and still to this day are no roads leading into the town. The children of the workers living there would have school only once every 5 weeks, when the ‘school car’ would be brought to town on the outbound train. They were given instruction for the day, and 4 weeks’ worth of school work to do until the next school car day. With little else to do to fill their days, the children of Metagama had a wilderness backyard for their playground.

As a side note, this area of northern Ontario was frequented by Archibald Belaney, better known as Grey Owl, a famous trapper turned conservationist who wrote several books. I do not have details but another man from the north, Mike Bates, must have crossed paths with Grey Owl, and they surely knew each other. Mike owned a series of cabins in the area, and ran the Mike Bates Hunt and Fish Club. Metagama was known North America wide for its world class fishing, bear and moose hunting. Hunters from all corners of North America were drawn to the area.

Mike Bates, watching my young grandmother took it upon himself to start training her as young girl (and two other girls, Gwen and Marian McKee) how to be outdoorspeople (outdoorsmen was the language of the era). He spent years teaching them how to fish, track, trap, shoot, hunt and be forest rangers. Thus in the early 1940’s while most men of the area were off fighting in WWII, Anna became a top guide for the Mike Bates Hunt and Fish Club. One can imagine the surprise when American hunters would show up at the camp to find their expert marksman and hunting guide to be a 19 year old beauty.

So enthralled were they that as the word spread about this in 1940’s Canada, it surely was news worthy. Several reporters made their way to the area to see firsthand, and write articles on this fascinating story. Local news people, Toronto reporters and indeed even one from the New York Times went to check it out and report on this unusually rare situation of the time.

This became quite the puzzle for me. Looking at the photos of Anna, private and those of the news articles she appeared in, you can clearly see a vibrancy of life on her face. Her smile was constant, ear to ear wide, mischievous, confident, and alive with an abundance of happiness. She was on top of the world and it reflects beautifully in those photos of this early period of her life. It was such a contradiction for me that in all the rest of the photo’s she was in for the remainder of her life, that vibrant smile and aliveness was never seen on her face ever again. She did smile of course, but you can see it was never the same again as those early years. Why? This became a great puzzle to me how someone who started out with the world at her feet could end up like this, hating men. The quest for answers started with her husband, Lawrence.

Not passing any judgment or focus of blame onto any one person, Lawrence was living out the life he had been taught to live by society. It is those engrained ‘societal norms’ that are passed down from generation to generation that we are not aware of on a conscious level, and are slow to change. Lawrence enjoyed drinking. Beyond that I do not know much more, other than Anna growing up the way she did becoming an incredibly strong independent woman, did not take well to being treated poorly. As such, she would stand her ground and fight toe to toe with Lawrence. Together they had 3 children, my mother Frances, and twin girls Joan and Joyce. Whatever happened with all of them as a family unit remains mostly unspoken. I was not even aware until recently that Lawrence passed in the 1980’s. Prior to this I was always told he died when I was a baby, not a teen, as was the case. There was enough info there to work with though and the seed was planted for me on the path to finding the why? The truth when it comes to you is filled with horrible sadness. It did not need to and should not have happened. If we were more mature as the top species we are supposed to be on this planet, the world would be such a different place. Anna in her early years was both fortunate and unfortunate in that she grew up as an ‘equal’ to men. In fact, there were a number of years in the back woods that she was the peer to the men who came there. They looked to Anna for guidance. It is the only life she knew and she owned the world, loving every minute of it. Until the day came that she would leave Metagama and move to the city. It may not have happened all at once, and perhaps even built over a period of years but eventually it would become an unmistakable reality to her.

The 1940’s men of the city, and indeed the 1940’s men of the world could care less what she had done, or what she was capable of. To them and for the rest of her life she was nothing more to men than just another woman. It is not hard to imagine how devastating this would be to her, building more and more as time went on and the truth of it became a disparaging reality. It is the aha of all aha’s. No wonder she hated men! I almost hate being a man thinking about this. Life did not play out the way it should have at all for Anna, and it was tragically stolen from her by men. Had things worked out the way they should have, she would have had a very different path in life. She and the McKee sisters should have been written about in more than just a few news articles; they should all three in fact be historical Canadian figures.

That is the back story that leads up to Anna’s last days of life, and of her leaving a powerfully extraordinary gift for me to carry in my heart for the rest of my life. Starting with the last week of visits while I was there, we had some moments that I will hold deep in my heart forever. As with most elderly, she had some moments of forgetfulness, but there were many more moments filled with great clarity. Waiting around for those moments paid off, and the details of specific moments of time in her life are now cherished memories for me. Instead of becoming the all too familiar, oh I wish I had more time, I have the memory of having actually taken the time in place of that. Of course, I wish I had more, there can never be enough I suppose. In the unfortunate circumstance of family estrangement however, out of 5 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren, I was the only one to take this time with her (though my sister made one last visit with her). For a few years prior I had been working on my niece and nephew (the great grandkids, who lived in Alberta) to just simply write her a letter. In the last 2 weeks of Anna’s life I finally had them convinced to write her, and Frances (her own daughter) wiped away all those years of effort with one sentence. She told them, ‘I wouldn’t bother; she won’t know who you are anyway’. That one line after years of trying robbed Anna of this pleasure in the last days of her life. It’s shocking to think about it now, in how many times people had taken away something special from her when she was such an extraordinary woman for her time. I was so disappointed in Frances, though at the point of this particular moment in time I had been estranged from her myself for 14 years. Anna had moments of repetition, but never once in all the time I spent with her did she not know who I was. One thing we joked about daily was my spiked hair. She would want to touch it and feel how sharp it was due to the extreme hold gel I use. I would tell her not to make me angry or I would poke her in the eye with my hair, and she would laugh heartily.

In another moment she gave me a piece of info that was going on secretly within her. We had just returned to her bed, and she was sitting on the edge just staring blankly. I was coaxing her to lie down, and at one point she quipped at me, ‘I know you want me to hurry so you can leave’. ‘No’, I said, ‘take your time Nannie, I am not going anywhere’. Even in her last days of life, she was an incredibly strong woman, not giving in to others pushing her aside. She was annoyed, and her acting this way with people was her fighting back. She was standing her ground, and in charge just like the strong woman she came into being 70 years before.

Her long term memory was as sharp as a tack. In wanting her to relive in memories from a happier time in her life, I searched the internet for popular songs from the 1940’s and made her a CD of them. ‘Oooooohhhh, Jimmy Durante’ she said immediately when his was the first song playing, and said it with a great big smile. I can never fully explain how grateful I am for this time spent with her.

Anna was losing ground however, and was in one way lucky. Along with complete Kidney failure, she was also suffering from uterine cancer. The cancer was starting to take over, and her demise was imminent. Though the decision of how she would die would lie in the hands of others, to stop dialysis was a much more pain free way to go. I had run the length of my time to wait there, and it was time for me to go back home to work. Wanting to be with her in the room at the exact moment she left this life was very important to me, so I asked lots of questions about how long she would have after dialysis was stopped. The decision to stop it was made within days of my arriving back in Alberta. Going on the advice of doctors, I booked my return flight for roughly before the time I thought she would make it to. Having been estranged from my parents, as previously stated, some inter family in fighting started to form. My father, Mike Sr., did not want me present. Luckily, the decision was made that I was welcome there regardless, so Mike refused to go instead. Surely, though not all the information of this situation is written here, it is the way Anna would have wanted it. Prior to my arrival my sister, Lori, and mother, Frances went out to see Anna one more time, with my sister leaving again for home in Alberta the night before I arrived back in Peterborough myself. Anna provided them with nothing. I am sure now looking back that she either suspected that Frances already thought she had lost her mind, or was acting in a way towards her like she had lost it on purpose due Frances treating her that way. She was full of awareness and it was choice from her not to give them anything.

Anna was alone at the hospital the morning I returned; just over a week after I had headed home I was back again. She had been moved into a private room for herself. When I came in, I held her hand as she looked at me. I kissed her forehead and told her, ‘I am back Nannie, I came back to be with you’. Already past the point of being able to talk anymore, she looked me in the eye, looked at my hair, then back in my eye. I told her, ‘yes, I will still poke your eye out with my hair if you make me angry’. Using up what I am sure was every ounce of strength she had left in her, she smiled at me. She knew exactly who I was, understood what I was saying, and in the moment of that smile I knew she was saying in her mind, my grandson has come to see me. It was a wonderful moment that I believe was as much a gift to her from me, being there on this last day of her life, as it was for me that she gave me this moment of awareness. I was very glad that she was still in this lifetime, and that I would still be able to fulfill my wish of being with her the moment she passed. I was determined for it. From that first moment onward, she went deeper and deeper though, and for most of the rest of the day she couldn’t even open her eyes. I spent the day holding her hand while we listened to Jimmy Durante together. Even though she could no longer respond, I kept talking to her throughout the day continually letting her know that I was there with her. I made a promise to her at one point to kiss her forehead every time I had to leave or when I would re-enter the room. After 12 hours of this my Aunt Joan came by with her sister, my estranged mother Frances. I had gone over the scenario in my mind of how things with Frances would go, this being the first time seeing her in 14 years. Somehow, I had it in my mind that un-tethered from Mike Sr. she would have jumped at the opportunity to see and know her son again, even if just for a short time. That thought was proven wrong immediately as they entered. I offered Frances a hug, which she at first walked past, then reluctantly offered one arm over my shoulder. Not intending to air family dysfunction in writing this, it is just another part of the story to be told as it sits with me. I am sure Anna was conscious and aware of this initial incident and also the hour plus after in which I made repeated attempts to connect with Frances again; offering to show Frances pictures of my life, trying at conversation, all to no avail. All I could get out of her were cold, frank responses. Anna heard all of it.

This time was spent with Frances alone as my Aunt had returned home, planning to come back later. After just over an hour, Anna’s breathing had started to become more laboured. I was pressing the nurses, who were very reluctant to answer, for their opinion on how much longer they thought Anna would survive. These next moments of what happened I wrote down right away back in my hotel room a few hours later.

Frances was out of the room at one point when the nurses entered for a checkup on Anna. I had been standing and holding Anna’s hand when they came in, so I let it go to reach over and turn off the music that was playing. Still reluctant to answer my ‘how long do you think’ question, they finally caved and said they have seen others in this state go another 24 hours, but they couldn’t say that as a guarantee. When they left, with Frances still out of the room, I kissed Anna on the forehead again and told her that she would have to wait for me to come back in a few hours. At that moment I was releasing her hand just to reach over and turn the radio back on, and she squeezed my hand tighter hanging on to it. I laughed, and said ‘you don’t want to let me go Nannie? I am just going to be a second to turn the music back on. She released my hand, then after reaching over turning the music back on I stepped back, took her hand in mine again, and kissed her forehead. She resumed to squeezing my hand off and on. Frances re-entered the room and I discussed what the nurses said with her. I told her that I was going to go and sleep for a couple hours then come right back. I kissed Anna one more time, and said ‘I will see you in a little bit Nannie’, and I left.

In the moments that I left the room, I washed up in a washroom, and had just gotten into my car outside when my phone started ringing. Less than 5 minutes had passed. The nurse on the phone said to me, ‘you better come back’. In my mind I was devastated. I was so stuck on the idea that I wanted to be right beside her when she left, that the nurse letting me back in offering a comforting, ‘they often wait for someone to leave’, did not register with me in that moment of time. Back in the hospital room, Anna was gone. Frances mentioned that she had her back to Anna and was making up the make shift bed in the room to lie down herself when she realized Anna was no longer breathing. Sad of course that she was gone, yet still upset that I wasn’t there to be with her I said to my mother, ‘I had just told her she would have to wait until I came back in a few hours. I really wanted to be here with her when she left’. Frances replied, ‘Nannie always did what she wanted, when she wanted to do it’. I agreed with Frances in that moment; however I was still feeling disappointment. What was I hoping for in being there? I am not sure. I just wanted to be comforting her as she passed from this life.

It was only a few hours later that I had been chatting with a close friend about all this back in my hotel when the full realization of what happened finally fell into place for me; in part because of the words from the nurse that they sometimes wait for a person to leave. In one moment of clarity it all came to me with absolute understanding, and a flood of tears burst out of me. The vision was so clear that in those last moments of her squeezing my hand, while in a state of seeming unconsciousness, were a moment in time that I feel deep in my soul that Anna was being called to. A bright light, a voice or face from her past, whatever understanding any of us could have as to what happens when we go, calling to her, ‘come Anna, it’s time to go’, and she was saying to them, ‘No, I am not leaving while my grandson is here’. Just thinking this as I write these words brings the tears back with no loss of power in them, and it has been 5 years now. For two thirds of her life, a life stolen from her by men, on her last day she had come full circle. She stood her ground in all her toughness and waited to leave this life for me, a man. I have so much thankfulness in my heart for this incredible gift she has left me with. Thank you Anna for this amazing memory and such an incredible gift that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

This is not just a gift for me to selfishly carry; it is a gift to be shared with all humanity. My hopes in sharing it are that it can make a difference somehow. Even if this only reaches one person, it serves its purpose. Our lives are preciously short, and we are going at it full speed wasting too much of it, not realizing that we are missing out on important things until it is too late. We need to change. Every life is as important as the next, and no one person is more special than another. We have to undo what we have learned, the thoughts that have been given to us handed down from generation to generation; the things that we have learned on a subconscious level that we are not even aware of. I cannot be sure what you learned in the first 5 years of your life, but I can tell you exactly what you learned in your 5th year of life when you first started to go to school, and it wasn’t the alphabet. The first lessons we all learn in school are, who is smart, who is dumb, who is cute, who is ugly, who is rich, who is poor, who is fat, who is skinny… and it goes on and on. Guess what? It is all a load of BS. We are all equal. We are all the same. Some have advantages sure, but at the end of the day we all share that we are human beings, and this is not the way we should be treating each other at all. Anna was poised to become someone extraordinary in her lifetime, and had that taken away from her simply because she was female. We can change this, and it all starts with you today. This being a holiday weekend, if you find yourself at a family gathering or not, go and visit with someone elderly in your family, or pick up the phone and call them if they are far away. Don’t wait until tomorrow when you have the ability today. Also, in the coming days practice kindness to other people you cross paths with. Simple things, like deciding for one whole day to giving every person in traffic signaling to come over a large space to enter, buy a homeless person a meal, or even smiling at someone who you can see is having a bad day. Hold your learned anger that someone else is ‘stupid’, and that somehow you are superior to them. You are not. Together is the only way we can collectively change this world, and stop this from being the norm. Together, droplets of water can create an ocean.

 

Michael James Coyne

 


 


Views: 550

Comment by Amanda @Kamazooie on March 28, 2016 at 5:50pm

This is a great story Michael!  Thank you for sharing it with our community. You were obviously a GREAT grandson to your Nannie. It is nice to see that she was able to leve you this gift.

Comment by Michael James Coyne on March 29, 2016 at 4:14am

Thanks Amanda for the nice words and fulfilling my hope that this would at least reach one person ;) !!! Cheers

Comment by Michael James Coyne on March 29, 2016 at 1:07pm

I have added some photo's of her and news articles that were written about her.

Comment by Martin James on March 30, 2016 at 10:08am

Michael, this is a great story. Thank you for sharing it. Your grandmother WAS an extrodinary woman and you are blessed to have known her and you should be very proud to share her story with others and not let her legacy be forgotten. The articles about her clearly show how impressive she was as an equal to any man in the Canadian wilderness.

Comment by Lorne Alan Riley on March 30, 2016 at 10:35am
Fascinating story thanks for sharing! The one thing that I did want to comment on is the sad truth that the old are forgotten by the young. I had a "Nanny" as well my grandmother on my fathers side and for most of the time I knew her she was in the hospital as an elderly patient. She was a wonderful woman and my mother and father to their great credit made sure we visited every week. As a young person I wasn't thrilled by the prospect and have never liked hospitals but I am glad my parents had the wisdom and strength to make us go. Thanks for reminding me of that.

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