Her feet dip into the cool waters of Lake Joseph. Ankles crossed, her toes emerge at the surface, then drop below again creating miniature whirlpools in the sapphire water. Her cotton drawstring pants are rolled up, the cuffs tucked away from the gentle waves while her relaxed, linen top flutters lightly around her petite frame. She is perched at the side of the weathered dock, her torso canted toward the water’s edge. One arm wraps around her lap, the other supporting her chin pensively. Although her face is shaded by the shadow cast by her wide-brimmed sun hat in the late morning light, I can conjure up her profile in my mind perfectly. Wisps of her fine, red hair move in the breeze, peeking out from under her hat. Her pale blue eyes are closed, deep in quiet thought.
On that same dock, I am a child in my one-piece bathing suit, my back pressed against the warm brown siding of the boathouse, lake water dripping down my skinny arms. I am a teen in a sundress, feet propped up on a chair, cradling an open novel in my lap. I am a twenty-something in running shorts, my strong legs swirling in the water, sweat dripping down my spine.
Regardless of my own age, either eight or twenty-eight, the image of my Nana is always the same. Her ninety-pound frame leaning towards the water as she silently sits on the front dock of our Muskoka cottage, gently lifting her feet in and out of the water, in and out, in and out.
My Nana was the strongest lady that I will surely ever know. Strong in will, strong in spirit and strong in body, I always said that if I ever aged half as gracefully as she did, I would be content. She was the family matriarch, the reason that my parents met, the reason that I grew up in Muskoka and the reason that I spent every privileged summer of my childhood at our cottage, the Pointing Pines on Lake Joseph.
Born in Hamilton, Ontario in March 1920, my Nana grew up in Steeltown where her father became the president of Hamilton’s steel manufacturing company, Stelco in the post WWII era. Looking to escape the city during the hot summer months, my Nana’s family began annual treks to Cottage Country as Muskoka’s tourism industry grew at the turn of the century. As a child, my Nana would take the train from Southern Ontario to Gravenhurst, then travel by steamship from Lake Muskoka, through the docks at Port Carling into Lake Rosseau and finally into Lake Joseph. There, my Nana would spend her summer days at the Pointing Pines happily playing on the shores of the then-pristine and quiet lake. Nana used to tell me stories of that time – buying fish from Indigenous people who came to the cottage’s dock, gliding across the late in the cedar rowboat and filling the ice box with large sawdust covered blocks.
Summers at the cottage continued for my Nana as she married my Grandpa, Henry Sprague after WWII, then later as a Mom of three trouble-making boys – my Dad and my two uncles. Muskoka is where my parents met as my Mom waitressed at a nearby resort, Elgin House on Lake Joe. The story goes that my Dad would court my Mom by canoe in the moonlight. Soon, with a family of their own, my parents moved to Muskoka to raise their young children – my brother, sister and I.
As kids, we simply had no concept of the good fortune of our childhood in Muskoka. Growing up in Bracebridge, we spent our entire summer holidays each year at the cottage, just 20 minutes from our house. With the final days of school behind us, we’d toss our shoes aside and would run barefoot for weeks along the flat stone paths throughout the expansive lake-side point which housed the main cottage and it’s sleeping cabins. The point was flanked by two shallow, sandy bays where we spent every waking minute in and out of the water, picnicking on the dock, waterskiing behind the green, 1980’s style motorboat, sipping Canada Dry ginger ale during the adults’ Happy Hour, gorging on barbecued flank steak during family dinners that often included a grand total of thirteen people or more, boat rides in the beautifully restored wooden Launch and ending each day skinny dipping with our cousins, the water slipping over our naked backs as the sun dropped slowly over the horizon of white pines. A true Muskoka cottage – rustic and full of charm. It was a place of joy for all of us, including my Nana. I have so many glorious memories of our truly carefree summer days on Lake Joseph, all of them intertwined with memories of my Nana. Although the Pointing Pines now rests in the hands of another family, the precious memories of our days spent with our extended family there will forever be ours.
Nana’s final trip up to Muskoka came in September of 2012 when she was 92 years young. Blake and I were married that fall at a small resort called Sherwood Inn right across the lake from our family’s cottage. My Nana looked truly radiant that night. She revelled in the festivities, danced with my father-in-law and even stayed up past midnight, long after Blake had hit the hay. I hold that evening so close to my heart.
Well into her late 90s, my Nana had lived independently, playing bridge with friends, going out and about in Dundas to carry out her daily errands and visiting the Royal Botanical Gardens with her great-grandchildren. In medicine, we test an Elder’s mobility and balance using a tool called the ‘Get Up and Go’ test which essentially entails asking a patient to rise from a chair and walk three steps under a timer. Blake always laughs at the memory of one our last visits with Nana when she had heard the kettle boiling. At the age of 97, she had jumped up and had gotten to the kitchen so quickly that she had beaten Blake’s offer to help by a mile! On another occasion at the age of 98, while assisting Nana on an errand, her walker had started to roll down a slight decline away from her. Without skipping a beat, she had chased it down before neither Blake nor I could reach the escaping device.
Nana’s physical strength and agility weren’t the only memorable aspects about my Nana. I will always admire Nana’s liberal perspective on many issues, her deep generosity, her pragmatic nature and her forward-thinking environmentalist ways. In her condo, she never had a garbage. Every single piece of waste was either composted, recycled or reused! She was a truly inspiring woman.
Last month, just a few months shy of 100 years old, my Nana was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with pneumonia after a fall at home. So consistent with her practical nature, she lamented the fact that she was ‘taking up a bed’ in hospital – a much needed acute care bed in an overly stressed health care system, she had complained to my sister who sat at her bedside. Declining medical treatment, my Nana instead requested a physician consult for medical assistance in dying (MAID). She had had enough of this world as her body finally began to fail her. ‘Come now’, my sister had urged. ‘I’m not a doctor, but I have a feeling this will be the end’. When I told Blake, he kissed me, then gently nudged me towards the exit of our local arena. ‘Go now’, he encouraged, the kids flailing on the ice during Can Skate behind him. My colleagues without hesitation stepped into the void I left behind at work as I raced to Thunder Bay, then onto Toronto and finally to Hamilton, anxious to say good-bye.
In medicine, as physicians, we are privileged to bear witness to so much pain and suffering, but also to joy as we see life come into existence and also see it let go. Observing the monitor flatline after removing life support in the ICU, calling the end of resuscitative efforts of the tiny neonate after only three hours of life, standing at the back of the palliative care room, where a family collectively grieves – I have witnessed death arrive many times in my professional life. Yet, it is never the same experience when it is your loved one, when it is you and it is your family at the bedside. Although, my Nana, as I will always remember her had long left prior to my arrival at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton, I am so fortunate to have been able to say good-bye and to have helped see my Nana pass. Those hours spent waiting and waiting as her body, resilient to the end, hung on long after my Nana had left us were incredibly crucial, in my perspective, for all of us – it gave us an opportunity to collectively shatter at the realization that she was truly leaving us, but also the chance to remember her, to laugh together and most importantly, be overcome with happiness and relief on her behalf that she was finally able to go.
These days, when I stare into Alice’s pale blue eyes and stroke her red hair, I cannot help to fight tears. She is a living memory of my Nana. Born 97 years and one day apart, Alice Harriet is my Nana’s namesake. I can only hope that Alice will grow up with the tenacity, resilience, intelligence and strength that my Nana possessed. Nana, you will be so dearly missed.