I received a telephone call from my sister, Janice. She told me that our mother had just been admitted to a hospital and that Jan's daughter-in-law, my niece, was about to undergo a brain cancer surgery after suffering a stroke. Jan told me she had booked a flight to Minneapolis to look after her two twin, elementary school and one kindergarten age, grandsons. I booked a seat on the next available flight bound for Calgary. We passed one another somewhere over the great plains.
At Calgary International Airport I met my brother-in-law, Don. He brought me Jan's 1997 Mitsubishi 3000GT Dodge Stealth.
I took Don home and immediately drove to the Rockyview General Hospital. My mother had been busted for stepping out naked into the corridor of her nursing home.
She turned to me and exclaimed, "My beautiful son!"
She recognized me, that was excellent but...
I discovered that the hospital staff were holding her for a psychological evaluation to discover the depth of her dementia which would take several days to perform and several more to evaluate.
Her room had a Rocky Mountain view but she was discontent and wanted to go back to her home and belongings.
The doctor said, "We were shocked to learn..."
I replied, "You were shocked, imagine me! My mother is and always has been a nudist!."
My statement was both true and false but, after assuring them that she would be allowed to return to her apartment, they released her into my care.
I booked a room in the dormitories of Mount Royal University which is about a walking kilometre from my mother's home. I watched the sunset from my student room.
The next morning, before attending my mother, I went for a walk in the Weaselhead Natural Environment. I was unable to continue my simulation training carrying weight but, I could walk.
From the bridge over the Elbow River I could see the Rockyview Hospital. It was almost but not exactly like looking in a mirror of days.
I couldn't go farther than the bridge. Crews were reconstructing the trails after the flood of June 20. Their powerful, small but clumsy machines lumbered over the trail. Back at the University, just as strangely out of place, I saw a jack rabbit road running.
The nursing staff was becoming concerned about my mother. She was not returning to her usual routines. It was extremely important for them to see her as she was before being committed to the hospital. It was my share of the contract to see that she did.
It took 32,000 steps and two mornings walking around my old postal territories to realize:
I was the reason that my mother was not acting like herself.
I decided, rather than take lunch and supper with her, I would watch from the common lounge of the lodge to see how she acted. She immediately returned to taking her meals with her "crew", as they called themselves, of four women.
After a few meals she caught me spying on her.
"Are you hungry?" She asked.
The nurses decided that she had reacclimatized herself to the home, my contract had been fulfilled, and she could stay.
I've been seriously questioning my role as "artist" or "not artist", whichever it is I might be. Most importantly, whatever I decide to do; I must take myself into consideration. I am the primary part of the equation. Without me, without my support, mon oeuvre will come to an end. The end of an evolving genre. As much as I try to only paint "the other"; I am painting for myself a vision of others.
There is something romantically tragic in the contemplation of it. But, it isn't actually me who has made the choice, it was a social choosing which left me to support my own artistic evolution almost absolutely alone my entire adult life. Canvas, pencils, paints, inks, papers, frames are vastly paid out of my own pocket without reimbursement.
What is the message I am receiving and have been tuned into for so long?
I'm like what? Jack Rabbit on campus? What am I trying to tell myself?
Am I a dillitante?
My meandering walks of now 20,000 paces (17K) through south west Calgary eventually brought me, drew me, to Letter Carrier Depot 5. I am not sure why; because in 1979 it was the last society to which I belonged?
Every morning we would take a coffee break, the entire complement of men and women, behind those windows. We enjoyed one another's company. We worked and played together. Even though we were the smallest depot we won the intramural softball pennant... together.
I suppose keeping a journal is a good way to get in touch with myself and the depth of suffering which has, in part, thankfully; dulled with the years.
It became my habit to visit my mother after her meals.
I walked the industrial east end where we lived. I passed through the tunnel under the hump of the classification tracks of Alyth railway yards. My patriarchal grandfather, father, uncle, and myself worked the railway. It was my first job after graduating university. On the outside of the tunnel was a sign which read "Workdays Without Accident". It always read "0", zero; a cold reminder that on the other side of the tunnel was another, more dangerous world.
I paid off my student debts and debilitating interest working the railroad for 5 years.
I had gone to Alyth to photograph the bronze memorial plaque that the men had placed on the control tower in memory of my father who had worked as their representative in court contests of liability. "On the Carpet" the men called it. He had died on the road in a derailment in the spring of 1968 just after I had completed my first year successfully at university in Montreal.
The railroad systematically attempted to lay blame upon workers for accidents. It was their way of avoiding liability. They claimed criminal negligence. My father with his grade 9 education won the majority of the contests single handed against teams of corporate lawyers. He had memorized the contract. I was his typist/secretary. We received no pay. It was an elected, volunteer post... Grievance Man was his title.
He saved many men's jobs and perhaps their families. That's why they remembered him and that is why they called me Doug, after him, as a living memorial, the super conductor who kept an open door to the road crews. After all, they knew more about the actual yards between Calgary and Red Deer north and between Calgary and Field, B.C. west that I controlled like a kid playing with a computerized train set in the control tower. What else could I do? They were my father's brothers, my uncles. I respected them and their advice. I learned the lay of the tracks, the slope and how to build trains which could be "spotted" with the least amount of effort, danger, diesel fuel, and switching. The cars rolled by their own weight organized by location on the work train, spotted onto the sidings. It was efficient "Japanese" management.
When the artist who had hired me to be his studio assistant while I was in high school received an Honorary Doctor of Laws for his life's work as an artist, it hurt. The clarity of the scope of understanding and the social class ignorance of the colleges hit home. Class Warfare? It's a rout with tiny pockets of rear guard action like my worker hero dad's union: The Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen and Conductors 1883-1973.
Busted. Long gone, Daddio.
I asked around if anyone knew where the bronze had been taken. Nobody knew. Nobody knew there was a bronze beside the office door where the conductors received their orders.
I was surprised by my ability to infiltrate the yards. I suppose that there was some familiarity in my deportment of a third generation nature that made my true self invisible to the workers. Imagine walking into a control tower at an airport.
Professor Alfred Pinsky, Art Historian, in his media classes claimed that bronze is not a valuable medium because it can be melted down and used for another purpose. Alfie insisted that stone was the ultimate medium because it had no value in itself but only in what was contained within the carving of it.
I loathed the east end. The poverty. The broken homes. The gang warfare. The bawling of the cattle being slaughtered in the night. The tank farm fires. The railroad yards. The ramshackle nature of it defies gentrification even now.
Even our old swimming hole on the other side of the Elbow River below the horse barns and cattle corrals of the Stampede Grounds, which was mildly repulsive to us children because of the junk metal in the water, is grotesque to me now when I have some idea of where those sewers that we haunted were (are?) coming from.