When a child is ill

Last week, just after her tenth birthday, our granddaughter in Toronto was admitted to Sick Kids and ended up having her appendix removed. She was much on our minds these days of surgery and recovery, and I could easily imagine an even stronger and more tender attention by her parents during this time. I couldn’t help remembering her father’s tonsil removal as a boy and how I hovered beside his bed after the operation, nearly bursting with love and concern. 

I heard a story once about Susanna Wesley, mother of ten (living) children, including the famous John and Charles. I don’t recall the source, and for all I know, the story is apocryphal. At any rate, it was something along the lines of her being asked which of her children she loved the most. A foolish question, to be sure, but her answer struck me as true. “The sick child,” she said, “when s/he is ill. The absent child, when s/he is gone.” 

I so totally get that. It’s not that the child is a favourite in comparison to the others, but awareness and yearning and care fastens on to the ill or absent child, wanting everything okay or better for them. So it was after the tonsil operation. So it was the Christmas our oldest was in Europe for Christmas and he hadn’t phoned before we left for a family gathering in Alberta (this was in pre-cell phone days) and although I had two other beloved children to enjoy on that journey, the longing for the missing one was an ache. So it was when we drove away from the Southern Institute of Technology in Calgary where our daughter would study, the separation feeling unbearable to me — our youngest and last! — now gone too. Such particular sensations settle into regular, ongoing affection once the child is better or the child returns or, in the case of them leaving the nest, a simple and eventual adjustment to a new stage. But in the originating period, they’re powerful.

These days, I’ve also been entering into a computer file some memories my mother-in-law set down in a small notebook in 1991, some months before her death, when she was 83. One of them concerned her daughter Helga, who got polio as a child. The daughter lost the use of one leg but she grew up to be a teacher and compassionate leader in her community in Paraguay. Not  surprisingly, however, the mother could not forget those agonizing days of the child’s illness. It was another example of what I’ve noted above.

(My post ends here, but if interested, you can read excerpts of this story, which I’ve translated from German, below. Please note that the context was a pioneer settlement in a difficult environment — the Chaco, Paraguay — with a small and, by current standards, primitive hospital. And a still inexperienced doctor.)


Our Helga…walked by eleven months and had such lovely curly blond hair…. It was 1944. Our Helga would be 2 years in March. In February, there was a report in the Mennoblatt [local paper] about polio [Kinderlaehmung]. The report grabbed me and I thought about it…. On March 6, we wanted to go to church…but our Helga was somewhat feverish so I stayed home with her…. Then she became very sick, her temperature rose very high. I wrapped her in a cold sheet. Her temperature dropped and she wanted out. I set a chair outside and we sat in it together. When the children rounded up the calves I encouraged her to go help. She didn’t want to at first but then she went anyway. I noticed that her right leg moved oddly as she walked. I thought, but she doesn’t have a thorn in her foot…. [Later] I said to [my husband] that I feared our Helga would get polio. He didn’t want me to think such a thing…. She got feverish again. I brought her in her child-cot close to my bed. She slept restlessly and so did I. When she woke in the morning I immediately set her on the table. She stood only on her left foot; when I told her to stand properly, she said, I can’t. I said to [my husband], I’m going to the hospital right now…. I asked the doctor if it was polio and he said, Girls don’t get polio. I don’t know if I was given medicine for her…. On Wednesday I took her to Mrs Derksen [a local woman who’d studied as a nurse in Russia] and when I laid the child down, she immediately said, It’s clear to see it’s polio. The next day I went to the hospital again and when the doctor saw me, he scolded, Don’t you know there’s no consultations today? I swallowed and said, If my child is sick, I come to the doctor. He examined her carefully, took something out of her back, and said it could be meningitis. Meningitis? What does that mean? A disabled child. O dear God, not that. How worried we were.

The doctor gave me a thermometer, told me to measure and write it down three times a day. This was Thursday morning…. She was supposed to have lots of dairy. I still had some raisins, so Marichen [older daughter] made a raisin soup [with milk]. During this time, she [Helga] stiffened and turned herself to the left side, her head tipped back and eyes nearly white. I said to Marichen, Helga isn’t going to need that soup. I went to the other room, knelt and prayed, Take her Lord, I can’t watch the child die. When I returned to her bed, the crisis had passed. That was a hard morning.

When my husband came for lunch, she heard the gate and called, Papa, Papa…. She hung on him. Friday evening I brought Dr. __ the temperatures…. I told him how sick Helga had been. He said to bring her to the hospital the next day for treatment.

I wanted to buy Helga something for her birthday…. I found a little sheep with a lamb. There was not much selection in toys at that time. When I came to the hospital [to see her] she was sleeping. I had to hide behind a wall. I saw [when she woke] how she held the sheep in her hands. She is my child and I’m not allowed to go to her. I’m not allowed to go to her. Oh how that hurt. As I was leaving she spotted me from behind. She called, Mama, Mama, but I was not allowed to turn around. We could only visit her now and then; she would just want to come home. One Sunday when we visited she was frightened whenever [my husband] moved, afraid he would leave. So our child had to lie there four weeks and get hot compresses…

After 4 weeks without success, our child could come home. She was an energetic child, and though disabled [her right leg never functioned or grew and was amputated when she was an adult] she was clear in her mind, and we were grateful for that. Until she was 5, she crawled. I made her a few little pants. A layer of light material on top and stronger material underneath…. Often I had to patch the pants every second or third day, because they wore through from her crawling. [My husband] had some crutches made for her but she didn’t want them. Until he encouraged her by saying, When you can walk with crutches, you can go to the store and buy caramels. We had sweets very seldom. Then she really tried. Susi and Elfriede [older sisters] helped her. It didn’t take long and, Elfriede accompanying her, she went to the store for caramels. She fell once. That was a big victory for us.

She loved to play with the children, and to climb trees. One of the children’s favourite games was Tipp-tipp [like Kick the Can]. She could not run far. So she came into the kitchen, sat down on a sack, looked at me and said, Mama, will I never be able to run? O how that cut.    



Aunts, in particular & as beloved category

Susie Harder Loewen

My mother’s youngest sister died this week, at 91. So I’ve been thinking about her, my Aunt Susie, and gratitude swells as the memories gather. Her qualities of competence and hospitality and commitment to family. Memories of being junior bridesmaid at her wedding (though I mostly remember my dress), her hosting the gift-opening after my own wedding, and her house — of course — being the place we could drop our first child while rushing to the hospital for the birth of the second. It was Aunt Susie, not Mom, who taught me to sew, and I remember that week with them in their Winnipeg house, how patient and wise she was with her little girls. There was a sense of welcome about her, and as far as I was concerned, every expectation that the welcome should be there. Taking it for granted, I suppose. She was my aunt, after all.


Harder family (late 1930s?). My mother, Tina, standing far right; Aunt Susie seated beside their father.

She’s the last of them on my mother’s side — the last of The Aunts, I mean, a category all its own. (Mom, 98, the only one of her family still alive.) My mother had four sisters, thus we had the four aunts. As we got older and had families of our own, my siblings and I sometimes discussed and compared them, for The Aunts — the Harder aunts — seemed formidable women, strong was the word, and each in her own way, opinionated too.

I’ve noticed the role of aunts in fiction. Their usefulness as foil, as rescue. Just recently, for example, I read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, with its unconventional Aunt Izzy as contrast to Ursula’s traditional mother Sylvie. And in real life too — and I’m speaking generally here — aunts fill gaps mothers may not fill, provide near-hand models of other personalities to watch, perhaps emulate. Their faults become instructive as well, perhaps arouse appreciation for the mother one landed to. They belong to us, that’s the thing, they’re our heritage, but by virtue of connection plus difference, enlarge that heritage. Sharpen or soften it. Round it out. Sometimes, if they’re single professional women, they may tip a bit of money our way, which when we’re young and beginning, feels enormous. If we’re fortunate, they root for us, encourage, offer advice sought or unsought, in other words, freely help themselves to our lives, as we to theirs, and as a bonus, are interested in and involved with our children, and all this with less thanks in return than they deserve. Blessed be The Aunts!


An immigrant’s anniversary

This Saturday, June 20, it will be 50 years since my husband Helmut (also known as H. in my blogs) immigrated to Canada. Since the pandemic prevents us from having a full-scale celebration of this significant anniversary, I asked him if I could commemorate in part by sharing some of his “immigrant stories” here. He agreed.

H. did not flee his Paraguay homeland at 19 on account of war or catastrophe. He was motivated by adventure, greater economic opportunity, and the pull of others like his brother John and family who had already migrated north to Winnipeg, Manitoba. (There was considerable movement between the Mennonite communities of Paraguay and the Mennonite communities of Canada in those years.) He and friend Herb Giesbrecht, whose sister Elsie was John’s wife, came together. For the first months, the two fellows lived in John and Elsie’s basement.

At the local airport, jaunty in hat! The youngest child saying good-bye to parents and some siblings, nieces, nephews.

He remembers well his first evening in Canada. Why wasn’t it getting dark? He was so tired and yet the day blazed on. In Paraguay, the sun would be setting around supper time and, being closer to the equator, never had Canada’s seasonal extremes in daylight.

And what was that buzzing around his arms and feet? “Do you have mosquitos here?” he asked his brother, swatting and recognizing the vicious little beasts he knew from Paraguay.

“Yup!” — Ah, not quite the hoped-for land of Canaan then.

His father had given him one piece of advice. “Learn the language,” he said, “and the rest will follow.” Which H. proceeded to do, taking evening classes and enrolling in the local Mennonite high school for Grade 12. (He had finished school in Paraguay as far as it went there then, but it wasn’t quite Canadian Grade 12 equivalent.) He began Grade 12 in January and the only subject he passed that first semester was German, his mother tongue. The next year, he completed the rest.

He didn’t “look like” an immigrant, so he experienced instances of awkwardness and lack of sympathy from others. At Zellers, for example, he’d learned that one took the merchandise to the checkout at the door. At Eaton’s, he wandered around the store with unpaid merchandise looking for the same, only to be reprimanded by a store employee. “You need a bill!” she snapped.

First summer in Canada

Bill? He had a friend Bill, but Bill wasn’t shopping with him.

When people heard him speak, the question was inevitable: “Where are you from?” He got tired of it.

At that time, it was possible to come into Canada on a tourist visa and then do the paperwork for landed immigrant status from within the country. A relative was helping him with this, but he and Herb had begun to work, picking up garbage at his uncle’s construction sites for $1.50 an hour. “We were working for cash, we didn’t have the proper papers,” he recalls. “Whenever I heard sirens, a shiver ran down my spine–now the police are coming for me!

They would also collect drink cans and bits of copper wire, anything to make a little money. And they made friends, and the summer was warm and wonderful. The excitement of newness wore off, however. “I would see planes flying overheard,” he says, “and wish I was on board, flying home. If I’d had the money to return that first year, I would have.”

When he did return to Paraguay for a visit after some time, it was a wonderful reunion but now he found he also looked forward to returning home — in Canada!

Helmut Dueck (right) and Herb Giesbrecht (1949-2018), one year in Canada. “We liked water!”

One of the downsides of immigration is that unless everyone comes, families are divided. John and Elsie eventually returned to Paraguay, so for decades now he has been the only one of his siblings here. He also had to miss the funerals of both parents and two sisters.

Eventually, Helmut bought a motorcycle. He then sold the motorcycle to buy a car. He wanted to buy a Buick but couldn’t say the name–that “byoo” sound at the beginning. He practiced and practiced but couldn’t perfect it in time so bought a Chevy BelAir instead.

Winter was a shock and “snow wasn’t a bit like the Christmas cards I’d seen — fluffy and smooth.” It was cold and wet and difficult. He bought himself some gloves but not knowing what he needed they were too thin and he froze several finger tips.

“I’m glad we didn’t come in winter,” he says, “because although it was cold we knew what summer was like and we knew winter would end.”

Gradually, he got to know his new country and its ways and then he met and married me, Canadian-born and raised, which strengthened his commitment to staying. (We did live in Paraguay for two-and-a-half years in the early 1980s, though, first for a long visit with his family, and then on a development assignment.)

In 1979, H. got formal citizenship. “I was glad it had come to that stage,” he says. “There were people from all sorts of countries in the ceremony. The judge explained that now we were fully citizens with all rights and privileges, so afterwards I handed him my business card.” He’d started his own drywall company by then.

He recalls a worker on his job site once talking about the “f—king immigrants.” “What do you have against them?” he asked. “They come and take our jobs,” the other man complained. “No,” H. said, “they might also give you work. You’re working for a f—king immigrant.” The other man sputtered “Oh, I didn’t know!” and apologized.

“I think being an immigrant has given me sympathy and understanding for immigrants in Canada,” Helmut says. “Just the other day I got excited to read about Syrian refugees working with a farmer in Nova Scotia.”

Does he ever regret coming? No.

I’m glad he came too.