Esther didn’t have the the easiest of lives. Even in her early years growing up in the carefree life of a warm and sunny Barbados there was something amiss. A minor dispute with a sibling lead to a lifelong estrangement.
A chance encounter with Tom, an Irish sailor on ship’s leave at a dance, led to a courtship. Ultimately it resulted in a decision to leave her Barbados behind and start her own family in Ireland. It was a hard transition. She was the foreigner who didn’t quite fit in. Her olive skin and jet black hair made her stand out as being different. Not long after they were married, baby Jimmy was on the way. Just three months after Jimmy arrived, war was declared, Tom rejoined his ship.
The war years were very difficult. A single mother in a strange country. Not knowing where your husband was for most of that time. Hearing reports that his ship had been shelled with casualties. Cowering in fear as the bombing raids went over and hearing the nearby explosions, fearing that the next bomb would be landing on you. Going four and half years without seeing your husband.
The experience scarred her deeply, and she never really recovered.
The family moved to South Africa after the war. Tom had fallen in love with the country while his ship was being repaired after a particularly bad encounter. There were employment opportunities on the mines and a future for the family. The town they initially settled in was primarily Afrikaans speaking, and again Esther didn’t fit in. A second son was born.
The family moved again. This time up to Northern Rhodesia. The copper mines were hiring. Jimmy, now a young man, got hired himself as an apprentice. He warned a date about his mother. “You won’t get along with her”, he said, “no one does.”
Jimmy got married to that date, and moved to England where he had a child of his own. Tom and Esther followed. Jimmy moved to eastern Canada, and again Tom and Esther followed. One of the communities that Tom and Esther settled in was quite isolated during the winter and again Esther found this very difficult.
Esther continued to struggle with mental health. She would without reservation comment on the body shape of family members. She would misplace things and accuse others of stealing them. Her one grandson remembers being accused of stealing her sheet music to support his (non-existent) drug habit. The family recognized that Esther was suffering from Schizophrenia, and Jimmy began limiting how often his children would visit in order to protect them.
Jimmy’s family moved back overseas for a few years, but returned to Canada when Tom lost a leg to cancer. The cancer returned and Tom passed away.
Esther’s other son had settled down with his only family is western Canada, and there was a good retirement home not far from where they lived. Esther decided to move west.
In the retirement home, Esther finally found the medicine she needed. She got better. She started making friends. When once asked if she would like to enjoy some alone time in her room she retorted something to the effect of: “I am been lonely all my life, I don’t want to start being lonely here.”
Her one grandson, now with family of his own, came to visit western Canada. Out of duty, he visited his grandmother. When asked to stay for lunch, he declined. They had already made plans was the excuse. That was a decision he would regret for the rest of his life. The next time he made it back to that town was for her memorial service.
So why did I write this story. This week in Canada there has been a lot of talk about mental health because a promotion by a Telecom giant encouraging Canadians to talk about mental health. So, this is me following through on that encouragement. Having a close relative with mental health can be difficult and draining. We need to show compassion and love for the person with the mental health issues, and for their families. We need to reach out to the Esthers of this world and assist with a smile. We need to advocate for them and their families. We need to let them talk, and certainly not turn down an invitation for lunch.
If you hadn’t guessed it already, Esther was my grandmother. I really wish I had gotten to know her better.