Reflections on resilience

April 2022
Helaine Ortmann

In these past two years of our shared global trauma, I have spent time every day (and many sleepless nights) working on being resilient; if not to gain mastery – who among us has that kind of chutzpah? – then to achieve some level of coping. 

It’s a full-time job, and I’m grateful I’m retired to have the time to do it.

My mother was one of the most resilient people I knew. On a number of occasions in her later years, in the emergency department or an in-bed hospital unit, doctors gathered with us, her three children, to discuss end of life measures. In each instance, my mother made it clear, in her own voice, that she wanted heroic measures. She always chose life. 

If the Kessler/Levy family DNA were put under a microscope, I’m confident the resilience molecule would rise to the top of that petri dish.

In the early stages of the pandemic, in a manic attempt to exorcise my anxiety and despair, I walked more than an hour a day until my right knee broke down in Gage Park and I had to hobble home. After months of physio and learning how not to hyperventilate under double masks, I now walk 30 to 35 minutes, comfortably. 

I never tire of my 100-year-old central Hamilton neighbourhood; home to relatives in the 1940s-50s and the Jewish Community Centre in the 1950s-70s. Even in winter, under layers of fleece, a balaclava and a hat, with spikes on my boots to navigate slippery conditions, I walk. It restores me. 

I reflect on my strength, ability and resilience with gratitude because a year ago I slipped on a sliver of ice at the top of my street and suffered a concussion and brain bleed. More than the vertigo, the onset of eye floaters, the blow to my tailbone and two to three months of recovery, the fall happened the week my 95-year-old mother was diagnosed with Covid and kept me from saying goodbye to her at Shalom Village and days later, at her funeral. 

Our house in the Stinson community, where we have lived for 43 years, has become my familiar, safe space. When grief, sadness and world-weariness creep into my conscious and unconscious places, unannounced and uninvited, I escape.  

To my kitchen where I have  discovered the magic of Fleishmann’s instant yeast; the joy of making challah (a year ago my cousin gave me a master class over FaceTime); and the thrill of attempting authentic French recipes such as strawberry moelleux cake, fresh tomato velouté soup and classic vegetable Tian; all the while remaining loyal to Norene Gilletz  and her tried-and-true recipes for lokshen kugel, potato latkes, knaidlach, tangy sweet and sour meatballs, and never-fail sponge cake in cookbooks, gifted to me over 40 years ago by my mother and mother-in-law. 

To my spa (code for bathroom) that I have retrofitted with fabric shower curtains (vinyl forever blessed and released), plush towels, nature-themed pictures on the walls, soy blend candle and Eucalyptus-scented Epsom salts that promise to “calm and soothe.” 

To my backyard, where perennials change colour through the seasons and three raised garden boxes hold our precious cargo: vegetables that make me quell all summer long (I don’t have grandchildren) and that I transform into soups, pasta sauce and baked goods that I happily give away to family and friends, or freeze, so that deep into the February chill we can still savour the taste of summer.

To my music that truly calms and soothes, transports me to a happier time, and that I often fall asleep to. Influenced by my father, I love Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Tony Bennett. I listen deeply to the lyrics, the elegant musical arrangements and the depth and range of their voices. In my mind’s eye, in the ballroom of nostalgia, I dance: swing, jive, jitterbug, waltz.   

To visits with my family — inside when safe, bundled under blankets outside, masked, unmasked, in person, virtual. Stubbornly adjusting and re-adjusting as if I were Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day trapped in a daily “re-do;” naïve or optimistic enough to expect to wake up to a different, better, new (normal) world. 

If 2020 was a blur, 2021 was a reckoning… with grief, loss, isolation, uncertainty and fear. That said; I am, unquestionably, one of the fortunate. 

I have a family I love and that loves me. I seek out and value the people, services and programs available in the community that are there to help. And with all the koach I can muster, I turn down the volume of negativity (my own and in the media) and give myself the time and permission to do those things that nurture and sustain my mind, body, heart and spirit. 

Helaine Ortmann is a Hamiltonian, by birth and by choice. Recently retired, she seeks to stay active, bring meaning into her space, and be open to new possibilities.