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Around the Kitchen Table

By Donald Ward


My mother-in-law, Anne Fitzgerald, passed away April 27. It was unexpected, insofar as death can ever be unexpected at the age of 91. She had been urging the doctors and nurses to admit her to palliative care, but they assured her she wasn’t ready for that yet. Considering the shape she was in, they figured she still had a few good years left.

She had been hospitalized because she was suffering from consumptive heart failure, which is characterized by shortness of breath and general weakness from exertion owing to the inability of the heart to increase its output. The main treatment, from what I could understand, is the draining of liquid from the lungs, and this was proceeding without incident.

One evening they took her out of her room for some routine tests. When she came back she seemed no different. Then she was gone. It was quick and quiet, the way she would have wanted it. One moment she was there, the next she wasn’t. It was a blessing, for she had lived independently all her life and dreaded the idea of being placed in a nursing home.

My daughter Brigid was with her at the time, and Colleen and I soon joined her. Our other daughter, Caitlin, was called out of her evening Spanish class and was there within 20 minutes. Other relatives were either there already or came when they heard. Altogether there were 10 of us keeping vigil in the private hospital room where they had moved her: four daughters, two granddaughters, a nephew and his wife and daughter, and me. Tears were shed.

“Who’s going to keep everything together now?” asked Brigid. “Grandma always kept everything together.”

Indeed, she had taken a major hand in bring up practically every person in that room, and dozens more besides. Anne was the go-to person for anyone with questions and troubles, and whether she had an answer or not, she always brought comfort. She defined the notion of social justice — in her attitude, in her convictions, and in her work.

She was a political activist, supporting first for the CCF and then the NDP, working tirelessly for Father Bob Ogle, her cousin, when he decided to enter Parliament, against his family’s wishes, in 1979, when he unseated Liberal Cabinet Minister Otto Lang, and again in 1980 after the Clark government fell. She ran his constituency office until Bob’s sister, Mary Lou, could free herself to take on the task — and it was, in the words of one observer, “the best-run constituency office in Canada.”

She was a social activist, working for the poor, the handicapped, and the disadvantaged. In her middle years she converted her house into a group home for mentally challenged women. She raised her son John, who has Down syndrome, and her daughter Angela, who was severely handicapped with hydrocephalus, and neither suffered from lack of attention.

In the meantime she worked full- and part-time jobs to make ends meet. She worked as a cleaner at the church. She babysat my children, and others’. She worked as a server at the Bessborough Hotel, and when management refused to pay her taxi fare home after a late shift she organized the other servers into a sort of union who all got cab rides home on the nights they worked late.

Anne cared for her children and her children’s children. She was a founding member of Light of the Prairies, a community based on the L’Arche model, whose mission is to provide individualized residential aid for people with varying degrees of cognitive abilities. Her son John lives there now. Anne was also involved with founding the L’Arche communities that were eventually established in Saskatoon.

She worked for the church until the end of her life, and when the time came it was her old friend and longtime parish priest Msgr. Raymond Senger who laid her to rest. The prayers, the funeral, the interment — I remember little of these, as my memory tends to block out intense experiences. I remember my daughter read a beautiful eulogy, and I remember that everything was as Anne would have wanted it: simple, straightforward, glorifying God rather than God’s servants on earth.

I came away from it with a feeling that my mother-in-law’s life was worthy of imitation, and that I was a better person for having known her.