On the certificate, the doctor wrote "failure to thrive" as the cause of my mother's death. This medical term took me aback, for anyone who'd met my mother would find the term inconsistent with the woman who, despite a lifetime of barriers, managed in her own way to flower, to shine, to thrive. Indeed, anyone who sat in the light of my mother's all-embracing love would find it difficult to believe she'd combated a lifetime of physical, social and psychological obstacles.
Those barriers included being run over by a car as a child, fighting bulimia all her life, suffering thousands of debilitating mini-strokes, Parkinson's, and dementia. She also faced the systemic barriers of sexism and anti-Semitism. Yet despite all this, my mother managed to express herself and her ideals passionately, lovingly and kindly. The years leading to my mother's passing were not pretty. When I think of her pain, and the fact that her life became reduced to lying on a couch or bed all day, usually lost in a confused sleep and losing interest in food, I wonder at the practice of putting horses who break a leg out of their misery. That process is legal.
Yet people like my mother, or terminal cancer patients, are not given the option of a compassionate way out, even if they and their family have given informed consent.
Deborah Cass Behrens (née Bernice Katz) was born on the street. Literally. On May 31, 1930, her mother, Helena Katz, squeezed out her first daughter on the poverty-stricken streets of Transcona, Manitoba. The street remained a place with which my mother would have an affinity for the rest of her life, whether working for Toronto's homeless, marching for causes or travelling the length of North America to "bring theatre to the people."
Her parents were Russian immigrants from a generation that firmly believed, inspired by the events of 1917, that a revolution might sweep the world, eliminating poverty, hatred and discrimination. Her father, Abe Katz, was forced to go underground after the Winnipeg General Strike. Her mother, Helena Katz, joined Abe in supporting the Communist cause of the 1930s, one of the few ways you could agitate for peace, civil rights and equality at that time.
When my mother told us the stories while I was growing up, it still seemed possible to believe in the purity of social struggle, in the idea that you could fight with laughter, joy, dancing and singing, for if the revolution was to create paradise on earth, it had to be the kind fought with love in our hearts, not the kind that would replace one kind of hatred and oppression with another. It was a passion my mother carried to her final breath.
My mother grew up in a thriving, progressive community where comrades (chaverim) joined May Day parades, raised funds for Spanish and later Russian war relief and gathered in a women's reading circle to argue politics and scream with laughter.
Some members of her generation no doubt look back with ambivalence, but no one could doubt their sincerity. And sincere they were in this wonderfully anarchistic Yiddish milieu, where so many wore their hearts on their sleeves and their hopes on their brows. So committed were my grandparents that Abe placed red dye, the Communist colour, in the still wet cement in front of their Lewis Avenue house in Windsor. To this day, a red walkway leads to that house, as if to welcome all who share the ideals of global solidarity.
Part of the social movements of the 1930s, my mother's parents helped start Camp Naivelt (Camp New World), nestled on the banks of the Credit River just west of Brampton. There, children spent the summer learning radical songs, performing dramatic skits, attending endless meetings.
I have a picture of my mother dancing under a huge banner that reads in Yiddish, "Tribute to Heroes and Martyrs." She eventually became drama director. She heard the songs of Paul Robeson, the Almanac Singers and Pete Seeger, who visited the camp many times. She remembered sitting on Robeson's knee when he stayed at their Windsor house.
Later, she attended the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, where she was exposed to the underground cultural scene, with its discussions of sexuality and poetry and radical critiques of the conformity being imposed on 1950s America.
My mother sparked controversy in early 50s Toronto when she played the lead in Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie. It was unheard of for a Jew to play such a role. Eventually, she had to change her name from Bernice Katz to the more "acceptable" Deborah Cass.
She went on to do a lot of CBC television and radio drama, and played everywhere from the Crest and Jupiter Theatres in Toronto to the Stratford Festival. She and my father, Bunny Behrens, helped found the Neptune Theatre in Halifax and toured North America with the Canadian Players, who during the off season at Stratford took their shows to communities across the continent.
While we were growing up she made sure we knew right from wrong, that we knew what Vietnam, Birmingham and the American Indian Movement meant. To this day, eating table grapes is still very new, since we grew up with the decades-long boycott called by the United Farm Workers.
Like another petite figure who was a volcanic source of passion, Judy Garland, my mother became a character, an emotion, an idea, 150 per cent. Also like Garland, my mother was forced by an image-conscious profession to take diet pills to stay razor-thin, and developed bulimia, which would haunt her much of her adult life. In those days, eating disorders weren't discussed, and the toll it took on her long-term health was incalculable.
The devastating effects of years of mini-strokes she never felt ate away at her balance and memory. Although no longer acting, she spent countless hours marching in the U.S. and in Canada. The chant of "No Pasaran" (They Shall Not Pass!) that had been the slogan of the Spanish Civil War she chanted again to end the U.S. war against Nicaragua. Her last demo on her feet was in December 1998, at the American consulate in Toronto, when the U.S. launched deadly cruise missile attacks on Iraq.
My mother's final years were spent in Niagara, close to the Shaw Festival, where my father continues to work. She kept abreast of current events, though her focus began to go.
The last few weeks, her family gathered around her. We lit candles in her room and played her favourite rabble-rousing music in an exhausting, round-the-clock vigil, administering half-hourly doses of morphine and swabbing her dry mouth. On the morning of July 20 at 10:45 am, my mother passed away.
Although she died in Niagara, her body was taken to Milton -- just a stone's throw from Camp Naivelt -- for cremation. Perhaps a few of her ashes will drift over this place of happy memories and lifelong hopes and dreams.