Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Last Days of Louise Walker, Part 1

I would call Louise in Halifax every day at 5:30 pm her time. I had since she went into the nursing home four years ago. Louise had always had emotional ups and downs. Her downs most recently related to my father Ken’s daily pressing her to go back home with him to Cook Avenue. I think she used her bad spells to illustrate her general incapacity and need to stay at Melville Lodge.

Louise had had a long bad spell through early March, but was on the upswing by mid month. I remember she told me, as she always did with special things like dresses, coats and corned beef dinners, that she was going to die soon and this would be her last, so she wondered what I was going to send her for Valentines Day. I sent Louise a spring flower arrangement, which she loved. She later told me she hated Ken’s roses, they reminded her of funeral flowers.

Soon after, Louise came down with what was thought by the nurses at Melville Lodge to be laryngitis. My sister Kelly took her to the QE2 Health Center for x-rays. Everything appeared normal except for the laryngitis, so the doctor at the Lodge cut off Louise’s psychotherapeutic drugs and administered antibiotics.

Louise immediately went on a downward spiral. Our daily talks were difficult but we communicated. Louise would try to talk and I could get the gist of her conversation as we ran through our usual subjects, weather, meals, happenings at the Lodge and my big London picture. Louise was fascinated with the picture and couldn’t believe any artwork could take so long to make. Not long before, she tried to put my life and experience as an artist in perspective and said that she didn’t really understand what it was I did, but she knew I was a success at it and that was good enough for her.

After about a week of decline, I noticed a big change. Louise either couldn’t or wouldn’t talk to me. At first she’d pick up the phone and say things like, “ help me I’m dying.” Next day it was, “I want to go to the hospital.” After a while I dreaded hearing her gasping, squeaking voice. Ken was sitting with her every day when I called and as he didn’t seem to notice anything unusual, I assumed Louise was reacting to the stoppage of her psychotherapeutic drugs. Nonetheless, I wrote an e-mail to my sisters Kelly and Simone to express my concern. At that point Louise stopped answering the phone.

Two days later Kelly called to say she had found Louise slumped over in her chair and took her to the Halifax Infirmary emergency. The situation was bad from the start. After the first night in the emergency, Louise’s case doctor suggested Kelly call the children, which caused me to recall that I had said to Louise in one of her more lucid conversations, not to worry about dying, because if she were really dying the nurses (at the Lodge) would call everybody and tell them to come home. Kelly called again the next morning and was less emphatic. I had the impression she thought Louise might pull through. The case doctor was sending us mixed signals. At Penny’s urgings I made plane reservations for the next day and started to pack. Thinking hard about it, I decided to take my suit.

I got into Halifax and went straight to the Infirmary with Kelly. I was appalled by Louise’s appearance. She was only marginally conscious and her arms were bruised black from blood taking punctures. She did however characteristically compliment me on my new shirt.

At this point we had a meeting with the case doctor. He was a nice fellow and Kelly said Louise liked him. He told us he suspected Louise had either had a stroke, a heart attack or most likely it was cancer. It was a pretty wide field of speculation and we were all taken aback at the prospect of cancer. I don’t think any of us had considered it. He explained the water building up in Louise‘s lungs was likely a reaction to cancerous lesions, but he wouldn’t know until results came back. Kelly asked if it was cancer, how long Louise would live? The young doctor said weeks to months, then equivocated, “but then you never know?”

Louise Pothier after the war

The Last Days of Louise Walker part 2

Ken refused to believe Louise was dying and said he was praying for a miracle. The doctor tried to console him, “you’re right Ken miracles happen every day," he said, "but Louise right now is in grave condition.” Kelly and I described Louise’s long history of mental illness, a condition Ken refused to talk about and asked if she could at least have her psychotherapeutic drugs restored to lessen her misery. The doctor explained Louise had perilously low sodium levels and psychotherapeutics impeded sodium absorption, but he would consult with Louise’s psychiatrist and see what he could do.

At this point Kelly left the hospital and Ken I took over watching Louise. We talked quietly at her bedside despite interference from a sadly demented former nurse in the next bed who shouted orders to all the people in the room. Louise was now being infused with both sodium and antibiotics and because her lungs were filling with water she was taking oxygen and some kind of puffer medication through a mask. At the nurse's urging I fed Louise some pretty good tasting raspberry flavoured gel and custard. Louise seemed calm, but was in some pain. I had the impression she had discomfort in her stomach or bowel.

Kelly returned at 3 pm to pick up Ken and I spent the night with Louise. She didn’t really say much that I could understand. I just kissed her and stroked her face and held her hand.

Because at that point nothing was determined about Louise’s actual condition the very excellent staff of New Infirmary 8.2 were wary of letting family members spend the night in the ward. So after visiting hours ended at 8 pm, with Louise asleep, I went to the TV room and made a rum and Pepsi, from one of four airplane shots I bought at the Atlantic Super Store Liquor Commission on the way in from the airport.

Every half hour or so I went to the ward and looked in on Louise who was still sleeping. Three rum and Pepsi’s later. A nurse came in and said Louise was shouting for me. I went in and comforted her despite the objections of the Alzheimer’s nurse, who told me to, “shut up!” I kissed Louise and held her hand and she seemed to fall asleep. I was hoping she would die and that would be the end of it.

Morning came and the ghastly routine of drawing blood from Louise’s blackened arms resumed. I went down for coffee while she was being washed. It was a beautiful spring morning. Ken came in later and we sat with Louise until Simone arrived with Kelly. We gathered for another meeting with the doctor who confirmed Louise had cancer, but held out some of hope and said that he would put her back on one of her psychotherapeutics. Louise passed her last night alive with her first child, Simone, who sat with her until dawn.

Next morning the family assembled in the 8.2 conference room with both Louise’s doctor and case nurse. The doctor said that Louise was dying and had perhaps days or weeks to live. We had expected this and asked the case nurse to insure Louise wouldn’t suffer any anxiety in her last days. The nurse assured us that Louise would be made comfortable and described how she would die. She also said Louise would be moved to a private room where we could stay with her and offered us every assistance. Louise was immediately moved to a nearby private room with lots of sun. Simone, Kelly and Gerard all left to prepare for their shifts, while Ken and I settled in for the long wait.

Ken and I had been chatting for a while when the dietary person delivered Louise’s lunch. He suggested we should try some of it. I ate a little of the raspberry gel, which prompted Ken, who perhaps was a little disorientated to ask who was going to feed Louise and wondered why she didn't have an IV attached. I told Louise, who was not apparently conscious that Ken and I were just going out for a moment. I took Ken to the family room and told him directly that Louise was dying and there would be no more feedings or IV’s. Despite this Ken refused to believe this was the end.

Soon after we got back to Louise’s room. My aunt and uncle, Corrine and Paul Wallace arrived. We were very happy to see them. I knew Louise would love a visit from her most confidential sister. We all chatted for a while then Corrine spoke to Louise in French. I didn’t catch it all but she mentioned Louise’s parents and late brothers and sisters. Louise showed no sign of hearing Corrine’s words, but I am certain she heard. Corrine and I then chatted for a while. As we talked, Louise sighed quietly and died. Only two hours after being moved.

Corrine was the first to notice. I went out and asked a nurse to come in and have a look. The nurse confirmed it and said she’d call a doctor to come in and pronounce. While this was happening Louise’s sister Yvonne and her husband Leonard Martell came into the room quiet unaware of what was going on. After greeting them with the news I went out and called Simone and Kelly. Simone cried out, when I told her, but was greatly comforted that Corrine was in the room with Ken and I when Louise died. I asked Kelly to find Gerard and tell him.

Back in Louise’s room a woman doctor came in and did some small tests and pronounced her dead. She asked Ken if he wanted an autopsy. Ken was emphatic he didn't want one.

Curiously, one of the nurses, a person you would suppose accustomed to such scenes, seemed moved by the event and came in to offer condolences. She wiped tears from her eyes as she spoke. Perhaps she empathized with Louise’s struggle. She told us not to worry that they would call the funeral home and take care of everything.

Within 30 minutes Kelly, her husband Brian and son Ryan arrived, then Simone and Gerard, so the room was very full and we took turns saying our good byes. Yvonne and Leonard went back to the lodge to get Louise’s nail polish and as a final gesture Yvonne painted Louise’s nails before we all went away. Kelly and I were the last ones out. We all then went back to Cook Avenue for an impromptu gathering.


Thursday, November 3, 2011

1674 Hollis Street, Halifax, site of the former Manuge Gallery

The opening of Manuge Gallery, Halifax, 1975

The first art opening I can recall attending was in 1975. I was a student at Saint Pat’s High in Halifax and my pal Bill Sigsworth was going out with a girl named Marianne Manuge. Her father Robert Manuge was a retired senior bureaucrat who had amassed the largest collection of Canadian art in the Maritimes.

As one of Marianne’s friends I visited the Manuge house several times. The Manuge’s lived in a historic house at the end of a long driveway next to Tower Road Bridge. The building was originally the home of Joseph Howe’s father and only narrowly missed destruction in 1912 when the south end railway cut was dug.

The lovely two- story colonial home had a long, wide verandah with pillars and still retained period elements inside. I can recall going there with Billy, Mike Campbell and Robert Abraham. Marianne’s mother Elizabeth Manuge was the perfect hostess for teenage gatherings and made sure there were always hot snacks and soft drinks for us when we visited.

But the most outstanding thing for me, that I recall, was all the art in the house. The walls were literally covered with important Canadian art. As Mr. Manuge understood that I was headed for NSCAD, he actually took the time to show me the works and talk about his collection. He had a dozen Group of Seven pictures in the house at least and a Kreighoff in the tv room where the kids hung out. I was not educated enough at the time to recognize his contemporary Canadian artists, but it was an awesome collection.

Robert Manuge had for some time been acting as an art consultant to several wealthy Maritime art collectors, most notably Frank and Irene Sobey and I suppose that lead to the opening of his gallery on Hollis Street. Manuge Gallery was situated next door to the Halifax Club, so the essential connection between taste and wealth, as a precondition for selling art was plainly made.

I remember going out one night with Billy and Marianne, driving all around south end Halifax and through the small enclaves off Purcell’s Cove Road delivering invitations for the gala opening of Manuge Gallery.

The opening itself gravitated between the gallery and the Halifax Club where Robert Manuge was a member and I recall I was really into it, I suppose I must have drank too much free beer as the night is a bit of a blur. I have flashing impressions of the ornate Georgian rooms in the Halifax Club and the press of business suites in the gallery, but I know despite my gaucherie, that I was perfectly polite and well behaved, knowing my presence at an art gallery and in the rooms of the Halifax Club was on sufferance. It was a giddy night though.

Sometimes when I go to openings now, as I‘ve been doing for thirty years, I keep my eyes open for the newcomers, not the art kids who’ve been dragged to art openings since they could walk, but the social jumpers like me, who might mark their first opening as an important and signal event in their lives.