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FOULDS: The priceless scraps of those who pass

Death is a constant, a part of life, we are told. But during this COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing pubic health emergency surrounding the overdose crisis, death seems to be that much closer to our thoughts. Last month, B.C.

Death is a constant, a part of life, we are told.

But during this COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing pubic health emergency surrounding the overdose crisis, death seems to be that much closer to our thoughts.

Last month, B.C. recorded the highest-ever number of overdose deaths in a month, at 170. Through May, 554 people in B.C., including 22 in Kamloops, died of overdoses.

Other people, of course, continue to die — in accidents, of natural causes and due to disease.

Each and every death leaves grief in its wake. How we cope varies from person to person. Here is something that helped me in the raw days following my mom’s death and continues to serve a purpose two decades later.

Perhaps it can help others.


My mom died on June 20, 1999. She was 63.

In 1950, when she was 15, mom started smoking Export Plain cigarettes. It was the cool thing to do in Burnaby in the age of James Dean and the dawn of rock and roll. By the time she was in her 20s, mom was smoking two or three packs a day.

She was also an alcoholic, usually calmly sipping through a six-pack of beer per day, sometimes amping it up with vodka/tonics and the fights that followed with dad during his drinking days.

Mom stood 5-foot-5 on tippytoes and a ladder and barely made the scale register three digits. She was tiny.

Heavy smoker, heavy drinker and no exercise whatsoever, other than the effort needed to rise from the kitchen nook now and then — to cook dinner or smack one of us six kids upside the head for some transgression — does not make for a long, healthy life.

Foulds Christopher column head

So it was that she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in the fall of 1998 and died the next year, on the first day of summer. She died on a Sunday, exactly a week to the day I last spoke to her.

The previous Sunday, June 13, mom had been doing what she always did as she lived with terminal cancer — she was propped up in her bed at home, an array of books and magazines spread out before her, the TV on the stand at the foot of her bed tuned to the news, with the volume low or muted.

From this perch, she entertained an eclectic mix of visitors, from her kids to neighbours to siblings to old friends.

I stopped by often with a newspaper or book and to talk for a bit. Sometimes, we’d just sit next to each other, reading and not needing to talk about anything at all.

On that June 13, I had a good visit and, as I was leaving, mom asked if I could bring her a specific book the next time I came over.

She grabbed a scrap of paper (she always had scraps of paper around the house, on which were scribbled so many indecipherable notes by her left-hand cursive, honed in the classrooms of the 1940s) and wrote on it, “Stopwatch Gang - Greg Weston.”

Mom wanted to read, for the second time, a book called The Stopwatch Gang. It was (and remains) a rollicking true tale detailing the adventures of The Stopwatch Gang, a group of Canadian bank robbers with panache.

Mom loved reading it the first time, years before she fell ill, and wanted to read it again. I took the slip of scrap paper, kissed her on the forehead and left for home across town.

Later that Sunday, at about dinnertime, my sister, Leah, four years my senior, called to tell me mom had slipped into a coma of some sort. I raced back to my childhood home and there she was, in what looked to be a coma, eyes shut, breathing raspy and chest rattling.

We learned from doctors and nurses this was the beginning of the inevitable end and we just had to wait.

Mom remained like that for a full week, then died on June 20. At least she spent her final months in her own bed. At least she died at home.

That was 21 years ago.

At the time mom died, I was 30, about to turn 31. I was married and we had a little girl, Veronica, who was six months old when her grandma left for either the Milky Way Bar or Red Devil Saloon, as mom was fond of saying when referring to the afterlife. Today, I am 51, turning 52 later this year. I am married for the second time and Veronica is now 21. My son, Atticus, who was born two years to the month my mom died, turned 19 earlier this month.

I have a black wallet that is too thick to slide into any pants pocket. I call it my Costanza wallet. It houses many cards — Mastercard, Visa, library, Costco, BCAA — and far too many slips of paper, from notes on story ideas to lottery tickets to receipts to McDonald’s coffee cards to work-related phone numbers.

The wallet also has a little pocket with a button clasp that is always closed tight.

In that pocket, folded four times, is that scrap of paper from 1999, a little less white and much more crinkled — the last words my mom ever penned: “Stopwatch Gang - Greg Weston.”

I don’t often unbutton that pocket and pull the scrap of paper out, but when I do, it always makes me feel good.

I have often advised myself to relocate that scrap of paper to somewhere in my home. What would happen if my wallet was lost or stolen? The thought petrifies me. For some reason, however, that scrap of paper — sitting in my various wallets over the 21 years since it was created, and binding me to my mom — belongs in my wallet.

Knowing it is there, even without seeing it for months at a time, just feels right.

Twitter: @ChrisJFoulds