November 21st, 2014
The in-between nature of the last few weeks has done a bit of a number on us. We had a bit of a scary time with our attached-to-us-neighbours, which resulted in us having to call the police, which is the last thing on earth one wants to do with attached-to-you-neighbours. The situation has calmed down now, and the panic has started to subside. My bike is away for the winter, so I don’t have that outlet, I’m barely reading these days, so my brain feels a little mushy, and I could always be eating better, so you know the 3PM sugar cravings are just about doing me in. Still, I wasn’t prepared, like so many people in Toronto, for the absolute onslaught of winter. Freezing temperatures, an icy-cold walk home from the subway, big coats, hats, mittens–today I wore sneakers and said f*ck it to the boots. I’m just not ready yet.
But you can’t avoid the weather, just like you can’t avoid the truth of your own body. Blasting you in the face like a snowstorm in January-November, that’s what my roots were, a meditation in how my genes betrayed me, yet again, sapping all of the colour from my hair starting when I was twenty. So, I’ve decided, like wearing my sneakers in the winter, to f*ck it, and let my hair go grey. There were parts of my hair that had turned a greenish tinge from too much colour, from trying to hold the colour in, and I’ve given up paying a bananas amount of money I don’t have at the moment to keep myself groomed, which I was never truly successful at anyway. My mother’s hair turned grey when she was young, really young–in the above picture, she’s thirty-four–this is the summer, I think, just before the accident (it might be the one just before that, too). She could be thirty-three, if it’s the year before the accident. I’m not sure. And that’s okay. The timeline isn’t important any more. She, too, battled the grey, henna, hair dye, perms, you name it, my mother tried it. It was a different time. It’s a different time now, with so many women suspended in terms of their aging by being able to keep their hair in colour instead of black and white. By the time of her advanced stay in the hospital, toward the end of the second decade, her hair had turned white, so white it looked like down, and it was a beautiful colour. So like my grandmother’s, and I think if mine turns out half as nice, I can live with it for the next forty years I’m on this earth.
So, we’re I’m in the in-between stage, between giving up the ghost of my youthful looks and embracing my age. I’m in the middle of so many things these days. Waiting for the hammer to drop at work, maybe it will, maybe it won’t. Waiting for a big project I’ve been working on to drop, which I hope it will in December. Waiting for our neighbours to act bananas again. Waiting for the good weather to return and waiting to accept winter on its own terms. Waiting. And so much of my feelings around my mother, and what happened to her, and what happened to us as a result was about being in between, too. She was in between life and death, we were in between mourning and acceptance. She suffered, and we felt guilt. Those are complex emotions that are hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t been in the situation.
The theme of being in-between has, haunted me–I don’t really want to use that word because it implies a sadness, an echo of malcontent, that I don’t think is accurate. Being blessed with the in between has allowed me, after much therapy, to be able to see around the edges. Without the sadness, and the heartache, and the simply hard bits of my life, I would have no context for the rest. And I crave context. It’s what allows me to write, and to wonder about the world, and to feel empathy–a most important aspect of emotional life.
My book club has been reading Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams. It’s not a book that I would have ever come to without my ever-generous, ever-brilliant Vicious Circle. And I am finding so much in it, it’s a rich study, both because of Jamison’s writing, but also of her particular perspective, of her time, of her place, and how she relates to her life. She says, in an essay called “In Defense of Saccharin(e)”: “But why is it that my memories offer me back to myself in my most trivial moments? Why do I hunger for significant barometers but find myself tethered to banality instead.”
Here is my in-between. I am writing a post about being vain and letting my hair go grey. It’s banal. It’s not particularly saccharine, but I could inflict more of that within my post if I tried. But this toss and turn, and back and forth, and up and down–these are my memories at the moment. I’m reaching back for the everyday, to be tethered to the banality of the life I lived when my mother was alive, and I can’t get there. I find myself, raking back through my tired brain, and come up against the very happy or the very sad. The moment when I cut my bangs way too short (and all by myself) in grade eight because I was babysitting for the Andersons and was kind of bored. How my mother laughed when they dried and were about eighteen different lengths. How the principal made me take off my hat until he saw what I had done, and then let me wear it in school because it was so bad. How my mother laughed at me, giant, gaping, huge, laughter. And I mortified I was, but I was always doing stuff like this–half-sewing a skirt and wearing it to school anyway, threads trailing along down my legs, my seamstress mother and grandmother horrified, I’m certain in the wings. I have always been utterly myself. I’m sure I was born this way–barreling through life–through my own trivial moments hoping that they’ll own themselves up to me in a way that I’ll remember. Because there are moments that I can’t bare not to remember her. There are moments when I wish I had more than the memories I have. Where I wish, with everything, to ask her how I learned to read or what I was like when I was small, and was I anything like my boy who is so open it makes my heart ache.
So yes, Leslie Jamison, I remember the banal because my life was so boring–it was there and it was happy and I was a kid and I was awkward and silly and bright and loved and loved and loved. What I don’t want to remember, too, lingers on, and on: the hospital, and the deep welt of sadness that defined my life, and how it affected my brain, and my being and who I became. The in-between girl.
Still, even with all of this on my mind lately, wanting to write more and more about my mother and about these experiences, there are moments when I simply can’t help myself. We were coming home from the Santa Claus parade last weekend. After the cold, but before the snow, and there was a giant pile of leaves in Dufferin Grove Park, and I wanted to lie in them SO BADLY. So my husband took a picture and it was a lovely day. The small parts adding up, a bit of extra sleep, homemade waffles for breakfast, a parade, a long walk home, and the fading light of a fall afternoon. I was happy. But I’m sure I’m not at all making sense. I’m sure that’s okay, too. I’ll walk home in the cold, in my sneakers, ride the bike in my basement, work some of it out, and start again tomorrow.
October 21st, 2014
We spent the Thanksgiving long weekend at the cottage. It’s a bittersweet moment–closing the cabin down for the winter. Getting all the laundry into bags, emptying the kitchen, pulling everything out of the drawers and bagging it. The whole process marks the end of a season for me. Summer, well and truly over, the kids picking up multi-coloured leaves for crafts, apple picking, playing ball outside, still, fall has its charms. But what we lose in those deep winter months that the cottage is uninhabitable is our escape. Even getting out of the city for a day or two does wonders for your brain, reset, rewind, however you want to describe it, there’s something about being there that allows my mind to rest. For years, before I had kids or my cousins had kids, I would spend a late-summer, early fall weekend up at the cottage with a fire on all the time, reading, sleeping, reading, sleeping, eating, playing cards, reading, sleeping, writing. It’s odd, but I am more myself there than anywhere else in the world.
The theme from my last post, the idea of being set adrift from the expected course of my life by the death of my mother, is still resonating through me, and my thoughts. My aunt sent me some more photos of my mother, and I find the one attached profound. I have no memory of the photo itself, I didn’t take it, and it’s not familiar to me. Except that it is, intimately, in a sense, because I know exactly where my mother is sitting and the landscape she’s looking at. It’s been unchanged for as long as we’ve owned the cottage. The sun deck looks out at the lake, and this is what you see–the big island straight ahead, the bay to the right, pickerel bay behind the big islands, the dam at the end, and way at the other end, a beach. Cottages dot the shore, and there’s a small island that’s within reasonable swimming distance, if you’re wearing flippers or feeling strong.
The facts are the facts. The view is the view. But the intangibles are what catch me up. What is she thinking about? What happened before, or after this photo? The light looks like it might be later on in the afternoon, which means we’ve had lunch, probably on the deck. Maybe we’re in the water or running around somewhere outside. It’s that magical time when the kids are all fed, occupied with summer-stuff, and it’s not time to make dinner or do something. As a mother, now, I know this time well, or the gift of this time. Back then I would have been off with my cousins somewhere, not thinking about what my mother was thinking about, at all. Now, I wish I could ask her what was on her mind, not only that day, but in every picture we have of her. It’s the loss of a relationship with my mother as an adult that I acutely miss these days. Fourteen years is a good long time to spend with another human. Using my most successful relationship with my RRHB as an example, those years have flown by, but they are also punctuated with vivid memories, and I can crawl back through them at any point. But so much of the time with my mother was forgotten moments, too young to remember conversations, caring, cuddles, and all of the bits and pieces that punctuate my life with my son.
And this is tragedy. Standing in an ocean of your life, maybe a bit too far out for safety’s sake. A big wave crashes into you–a wall of water and you are swallowed up, salt stinging your eyes, scraping your feet on shells and other sandy detritus, until it’s passed, and you can find your bearings again. We don’t have waves that strong at the cottage. The biggest boat going by will barely make a ripple that doesn’t even throw you off your floaty. Still, this view, the one my mother’s staring out at, is our compass. We come to it again and again in our family. It’s comfortable and the closest thing to home we have. The landscape has not changed and nor has the meditative quality of a summer day at the lake. Of a life lived in bathing suits, in the water, out of the water, on the dock, and right up until you go to bed. I love that we spend the summer in bathing suits. I love that we dangle our feet off sun decks and docks, and that we feel as much love for this place as have for one another.
I am lucky. To have been loved by someone so much that still, decades later, the space they occupied in my life has never been absorbed by anyone else. Still, these places are never the same once they are left. An an echo of laughter is missing. Their contribution to a card game is an empty seat. For us, that emptiness became obvious in our everyday lives. For years we lived without furniture in our living room. I missed my mother’s parenting. The simple, stubborn fact of life never letting you forget that you are walking around while she was trapped in a hospital room–the dreary and dull air surrounding her in stark contrast to where she wanted to spend her time, I’m sure.
The summer swings by so fast. In a moment we’ve packed our bathing suits away and closed up the cottage. It’s too cold to sleep there in the late fall, takes too much to heat it up, and it won’t stay warm for long periods of time. We spend so much more time indoors in the colder months; it’s the nature of being Canadian. I don’t think that’s what my mother was contemplating in this photo. I’ll never know what she was. But I can take comfort in knowing what she was looking at is the same as the one I see all summer. There’s continuity there, and that will have to be enough.
September 24th, 2014
Since our boy’s been in full-time school, we’re all getting used to a new routine. Lunches away from home, half-eaten, yoghurt spilled all over his lunchbag–I never thought we’d need more than one. We (and by “we” I mean “I”) bought a fancy “bento”-style container-thingy to go in said lunchbag without really thinking about it. The issue? He can’t open it. So, not really going to work when it comes down to sending it to school with him. My husband is working these next couple weeks, and our lives sort of grind to a halt–there’s simply never enough time to do anything, and September is a sad month anyway. For all the new beginnings, I’m constantly reminded of endings as well, of the simple punctuation of life itself, and how we are tethered to one another by these invisible forces, family as gravity. It’s a metaphor I’ve been thinking about for a while of how untethered I felt after I lost my mother the first time.
Trying to explain it to myself, or to understand it, I kept coming back to the idea of an astronaut in space–left adrift to float until they run out of oxygen without gravity to hold them in place. And that’s what it’s like when you lose your mother. You’re adrift without any context of yourself in the world. Or, at least I was, because I had a wonderful childhood with two parents who loved me, who loved each other, and an extended family that worked hard to bring us up as one big unit. And then our lives began to be punctuated by tragedy, we are not alone in unexpected deaths–but, at the time, it felt like we were cursed. My uncle died in a car accident, a drunk driver hit he and my aunt. Two of my grandparents died while I was in middle grade. And then my mother’s car accident that left her hospitalized with a serious brain injury for decades. And when her body had finally had enough of the appalling life it was subjected to in a long-term care facility, she died on a beautiful September day. It’s not often that people go through losing their mother twice–once to an injury she would never recover from, and the second time as a release from the burden of life. Each time was different, but still, the feeling of being adrift resounded through me.
For years I’ve contemplated how to write or what to say about my mother. How to remember her. What I remember of her, her life, and of who she might have been. I have stories, but memory is a funny–I will remember some incident, a flutter in my mind, and talk to my brother, who’ll have no recollection of that day, that event. Stories cannot cobble together a life that was meant to be lived. They are paved stones in a giant field placed too far apart to truly make any sense. There it comes again, that thought, the idea of my life being that astronaut in space–set adrift when gravity fails to hold me down. The moment my mother had her accident, I lost all context for my life, and I am a person who needs context and clarity.
In the photo attached, we were at a wedding. The youngest son of the family that owned the cottage next to ours was getting married. We drove to Pennsylvania for the wedding. I was thirteen so my mother must be thirty-four in this photograph. She made what she’s wearing, and she made my dress too. My mother inherited my grandmother’s ability as a seamstress. It came naturally to her, from what my aunt has told me–she sewed from a young age and I can appreciate the skill, seeing as it wasn’t necessarily passed down to me. The ring she’s wearing, an amethyst, is too small for my fingers, even though I still wear it sometimes–it fits on my right ring finger, just barely. She’s wearing a gold chain with an Aquarius symbol on it, it’s the one you can’t really see–she wore it all the time. I wear it all the time, too, when I need to feel lucky. The blue eyeshadow she’s wearing is actually from an eye pencil. I watched her apply it time and time again sitting on the toilet in the bathroom as she did her makeup. Watching, as girls do, their mothers get ready to go out to party. In the weeks before the accident, the pencil, called Robin’s Egg Blue, ran out, and when my mother threw it into the garbage she said, “Well what am I going to do now?”
Her laughter was huge, roiling over like a pot at full boil, I can still hear it if I concentrate hard enough. She wore a musky perfume that I still recognize. A woman, years ago when I first started working in Toronto walked by me wearing it, and I followed her for blocks trying to get up the nerve to ask her what it was, because I don’t remember the bottle, only the smell. These fragments aren’t enough to pull me back down to earth. All those years my mother spent in the hospital, her life was unbearable–as much to her as it was for us, bed-ridden for the most part, her short-term memory eradicated, her body bashed up and never to recover. She faded and faded and faded, and even as I grew older, she never failed to recognize me, or my brother. We were tethered to her, as were her siblings, her mother, while she was alive, my father. And the guilt crushed me. And when she died, it was as if that floated away in the most positive sense.
All of this is surfacing today because I drove by the intersection of the hospital on Saturday for the first time since she died. I didn’t even realize, really, where I was going until I was there and saw the signs. I was on my way out of the city to drop my son off at his grandfather’s. A friend and I were going to Guelph junk shopping for the afternoon. The sun was shining. The weather was perfect for a day of hunting for treasures. And as I drove by the sign for the hospital, I said, “Oh, that’s the hospital where my mother died.” We did a quick u-turn (traffic) and sped off in another direction, and it wasn’t until we were stuck in another traffic jam (it was that kind of day) where I got to thinking about the fact that it was September, and my mother had died in September, and I hadn’t been back up to the hospital where she died or the hospital where she lived since then.
There are concrete places: she died at Humber River Hospital. There are concrete dates: she died on September 8th, 2008. But the rest is a blur. I remember when the hospital called to tell me that my mother had a serious infection, and that she had been transported from West Park to the closest hospital. My husband and I went to see her the day they called, and spent the next few days watching and waiting as she grew progressively worse, her lungs wet, her breath, raspy, until the very last moments when her body started to shut down, her limbs turning waxy, and in the very moment when she died, how she opened her beautiful, beautiful, beautiful eyes up wide and looked at us–in that moment, she was herself for the first time in decades. As if she knew it was time, and we would be okay, and it was okay for her to pass on–I will never forget the haunting wonder of that moment. I will never forget that moment–it was a gift of clarity for the years and years she was trapped by her injuries. It was a moment of freedom, when being set adrift was more then just the loss it represented, it was an end. Of course, there’s a finality to death. There’s an explanation and an understanding that’s easier to put words around. For years, I would say that I “lost” my mother when I was fourteen. Because I did. The accident happened two weeks before I was about to start high school, and while my brother and I were both away at different camps. But when my mother died in September 2008, the loss was different. We had been living with her dying for over two decades at that point. We had come to a sort of anxious peace about the state of her life, and where ours needed to continue. We visited the hospital as often as we could. Those days were unbearably hard. It’s an immediately sad and overwhelmingly clinical place–and I’d be reeling, in tears, for days around any visit depending on how she was. Nothing of how I felt could come close to what my mother must have been going through in that stale room day after day, what she knew, or how time passed for her. And still, she laughed, it wasn’t the same laughter, but she still laughed at times, at jokes, and she adored my husband, even though she wasn’t quite sure who he was.
Six years have passed. And in that time, I’ve had a child, moved forward in my career, written, read, travelled, loved, and been cocooned by my own family unit. Still, there’s an urge to roam through the memories of my aunt, her sister, of my father, her husband. For a while now, I’ve wanted to sit down and record everything that they might remember. Hope that it’ll give me a fuller picture of who my mother was out of context of our relationship. The space she occupied in my life is undefinable–I understand that now after having my own child. He’s his own person, but there’s not much space between he and I, especially now because he’s still so small. And after all these years, I’ve finally found some context outside of being the girl who lost her mother so tragically. Yes, that loss defines me in ways that I find hard to articulate. But I have also gained so much: a strength and understanding about tragedy and what it does to your brain; an appreciation for the family my husband and I have created; how I value loyalty, and how much I held on to my husband on those days when we visited the hospital; and how lucky I was to have my mother for those fourteen years. She raised me well in that time. She raised me into the person I am, and that is concrete–I have my feet on the ground, pulled down by her gravity, and there’s something to be said for that kind of invisible strength.
September 5th, 2014
September always means new beginnings for me. I can’t help but think of it as the real “new” year–school starts, the weather changes, we are knee-deep in real life that summer always provides an escape from. And yet, the last few years, September was more of the same, our same routine, a couple of days of daycare, more days off, race around on the weekend trying to get things done, and wham! it’s Christmas.
This September, I’m meditative. I’m finally, after over four years, off the prednisone. Keep in mind it’s only been a week, but still, it’s a week without that awful drug. I’m feeling it. My bones are achy, and I’m exhausted, and then it hit me. This is life with the disease. It’s not so much a complaint, but a full and complete acceptance that the good health I had before I had my son is gone forever. I can muddle through my life, I’ve been doing it for decades. But do I want to? Of course I’m not suggesting otherwise. In the sense that I’m not about to do anything dramatic. There’s a part of life with a disease that goes unrecognized in a way. To the outside world, I look like a middle-aged mum–my hair’s greying, I’ve got extra pounds in places where there used to be smooth skin, and, more often than not, I’m with our boy. That changes the perspective. The more people you meet later in life, how you need to keep telling the stories, how you need to keep explaining.
I was at a party the other night. I rarely drink, and I rarely go to parties, but this was a work event, and it was a lot of fun. And, inevitably, some question comes up, something about having another baby (too old! too sick) that I have to explain in a couple of short sentences the almost-life-almost-death way that I exist every single day. I’m not about to keel over. The disease is in remission for the most part, but the symptoms, they remain. The exhaustion is the hardest part. The feeling old, now. The constant nagging of my lungs when I try to bike up a hill. A lot of it is being out of shape and being overweight, but a lot of it is disease too. I’m fighting all of the battles of society these days, but with a backpack full of other crap on my back. And that is life with a disease.
So. Enough complaining, whining, whinging. Whatever. I’ve made a lot of new year’s revolutions on the blog. I’ve made a lot of sentences that start with, “I’m going to change this…” and start small. And still nothing sticks. Nothing has come close to dropping an appendix and becoming the healthiest I’ve been in a decade. I don’t have another appendix. I don’t have a lot of energy. I don’t even know how to change. Except. I kind of do. I know that if I have a good pattern, I’ll continue with it–it’s not much, but flossing every day has now become a habit. Biking is hard but I’ve managed it most of the summer with the exception of having a rotten cold for a couple of weeks. But eating, that’s the hardest part to fix–I have some terrible habits, especially with breakfast, and I’m not sure how to fix them. That is, I’m not sure if I’ve got the will power to do it. It comes down to that, when you’re so tired, so so so so tired, making any kind of change is akin to biking up the biggest hill in your neighbourhood on your highest gear. I just can’t do it.
I said I would stop complaining. And I spent a whole other paragraph, well, complaining.
And so I am, here. Decades into living with a disease. At this point in my life, I’ve spent longer being sick than I’ve ever been healthy. I’ve spent more time taking medicine than not. And so you would think I would have, by this point in my life, come to terms with living with the disease. Except, I haven’t. Now I’m taking more medicine than ever, and it’s morning and night, every day, every single day until the rest of my life. And it will be now more medicine instead of less, and unless I make some changes, it will always be more medicine instead of less.
I was feeling profound when I started this post. Feeling like the experience in having the disease for so long must mean something. The search for meaning in my ill health or the struggle to overcome it all, there must be a point. Yet, the existential in me understands there’s no overriding point to any of it. It’s random, and fool-hardy of me to think otherwise. The disease is not something to be filed away like my old tax receipts. It’s something to be considered.
This month is the ten year anniversary of having my hip replaced. It’s also the ten year anniversary of blogging, well, almost–according to the blog, I actually started on February 10th, 2005–but all that time blurs for me, because the major changes in my life kicked off with my hip replacement surgery. I left my job as an Executive Producer for television websites in the fall, had my hip replaced, moved into my house, got fired, had a nervous breakdown, healed, sought therapy, survived, and found my career. Here’s the first post:
Thursday, February 10, 2005: Happy Freaking New Year!
What a start to the new year! Let’s see — I had hip replacement surgery last September, so on January 1st I was still learning to walk. Then, I went back to work after being off on sick leave (you heard me: sick leave) to find out they had reorganized me right out of a job. Oh, and to add to the stress we (me and my Rock and Roll Boyfriend) had just bought a house. Of course, being a Rock and Roll Boyfriend, means he doesn’t have a steady job. In what’s supposed to be a time of renewal and regeneration, good luck and New Year’s resolutions, I’m standing on the side of the road worried I’m going to lose my new house because I’ve lost my big, fancy job and, well, frankly I’m having trouble standing up…because I just got my hip replaced.
So now, I’m temping for $13 bucks an hour trying to find a new job. Do you know anyone that’s hiring?
And, within a month or two of that post, I was working at Random House, which was a wonderful experience, being mentored by someone I still like and admire very much, and for two full years I was happy just to be in publishing (but not with the commute to Mississauga) and ended up at HarperCollins Canada, where I’ve been ever since. And in that time, I’ve almost lost my life twice–once when my appendix ruptured and no one could figure out what was going on, and then when I had my son. In the decade in between having my tragic hip be replaced, I have found my voice, written one unpublishable book (never knew I could write a novel, that’s something) and finished another that I like very much. I’ve written a bunch of abridgements, done some interesting freelance, become a teacher, have a respectable career, and a marriage, and a family.
I’ve done all of this with the disease just there, lurking, and poking, and testing, and falling up, and falling down. I’ve done it all through blood tests, and doctor’s visits, and trauma, and regular check ups. I’ve seen Paris, and London, and Ireland, and Cuba, and Mexico, and many places in Canada. I’ve seen bands I love and bands I’ve hated. I’ve read book after book and reveled in the power of the written word. I’ve blogged and then forgotten to blog. I’ve been swept away in motherhood and all it brings to your life (and takes away). I’ve celebrated anniversaries and birthdays and holidays.
And the disease has taken none of life away from me. Maybe that’s my point. Maybe I had to write it all out, everything I’ve thought about, and everything that’s given me pause over the last few weeks as I celebrate a decade being a bionic girl. I have this life. I have this life. I have this life. And it’s a gift even if it means the medicine, and the doctor’s visits, and the constant hum of the disease strumming under my bones and in my blood. I still have this life. I have a life. And I have given a life to someone else. Many things that weren’t possible on the ill-fated day the specialist came into the hospital room to visit a teenaged girl who had lived very little up until then, but been through so much. They never told me how hard it would be. Perhaps that’s a blessing in disguise. They never talked about the side effects and the ugliness inherent in the medication. And that’s a blessing too.
But I had to live with the disease to learn about how to live with a disease. In short, I had to live. And that’s okay. So if some things change this September, that’s good. If I can finally be off prednisone for a while, that’s a gift. And if I can finally understand that the point of the disease is that there’s no point to it, really, but that I’m still living, well, here’s to the next decade with my tragic hip. Here’s to another ten years of being bionic. Here’s to it.
August 13th, 2014
The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of vacations, driving, more vacations, and more driving. We spent the weekend in Montreal for my birthday, the start of a two-week escape from work, the first proper vacation I’d had in eighteen months. The break was welcome, and needed, and it went by far too fast. We were at the cottage for a good portion of it, our original plans, to go to Disney, were scuttled as our traveling partner-family replaced their kitchen this year, and the budget didn’t stretch to both. It turned out to be just fine, three days is about as much hotel living as our boy can handle, and our style of holiday–walk a city until our feet feel like they might fall off–is a bit much for a 3 and 3/4-year old. The city was nice, we stayed right in old Montreal, and swam in the pool every day. We ate at a couple of good places, and ordered really terrible pizza one night. But, mainly, we were not at home, which is sometimes as much of a vacation as one needs.
This September is the start of many things: our boy begins school; my RRHB begins his tenure as a complete SAHD; and I’m working on a new side project/venture that’s captured my attention and excitement. The days are long, and the nights too short this summer, just the way you like them, for fall, being just around the corner, will be a shock to everyone’s system. Our boy still has a hard time with daycare drop-off. I don’t know how he’ll find his way in terms of keeping track of his lunchbox, or all the many other “big kid” things he’ll need to do after Labour Day. There are still delicious baby-ish parts of him–chubby knuckles and malapropisms–that I adore and want never to change, but combing through photos, I see so many changes, big-kid haircuts, and high jumps, excluded.
There are moments when I still marvel that he’s in the world. My one boy. This little bit of himself that swims like a fish and has discovered the joy of a popsicle. Visits from cousins of all ages have happened at the lake, and it’s been nice for him, to have compatriots to roam around with–he’s still a little too little to go off wandering on his own, which he is prone to do, but I like that he’s growing up where I grew up, a consistency of place even if the trees are different, and the little island no longer has so many snakes. The rugged countryside of the provincial parks we’ve visited over the summer–Ferris, Petroglyphs–makes me romantic… in the Byron-Coleridge sense. Wanting to sit on soft moss and breath deeply while slapping a mosquito or two, or seventeen. The water has been spectacular, and swimming reminds me of the simple joy of a summer vacation. It gets hot. You jump in. You’re feeling a little droopy. You jump in. Rinse. Repeat. Dry off. Jump in again.
When you spend your days away from the constant movement forward, the never-ending stretch to feel caught up, and slow down–even with a preschooler, a house full of cousins, and kids, and more kids, there’s a calmness that descends. It’s more about not having to be somewhere for a very specific time. That checking email was something I did because I felt like it, and not because I had to. That being on vacation meant being myself–so I read, I swam, I laughed, I stressed, as I do, but I also soaked up the sunshine, and slept, well, I slept better. I still can’t find the energy to read a book if my life depended upon it. The couple I managed while on vacation were not literary, but more commercial reads, and it seems to be all I can manage at the moment. We’re reading James and the Giant Peach out loud at bedtime these days. The boy isn’t so impressed but I love it. I finished Landline, which was well-written but kind of silly. I read a novel that enraged me called Left Neglected because it felt like research jammed up in cliche, and now I’m just trying to stay afloat in terms of my book club books.
I am lost in my own thoughts these days. Finding it hard to get out a sentence, let alone two. I have wanted to post up some Facebook-style vacation updates like a fun picture from Montreal, accompanied by the “real” underlying statuses: “Great time with the family!” coupled with “Holy sh*t it took us nine hours to get here, and we’re about to kill each other, and whose idea was it to have just one bed for all three of us, and was it really necessary to walk all the way halfway across town for smoked meat when we could have taken a cab–but, hey! look at my smile.” The thing is–it’s hard to describe the moment; the being frustrated by the “travel” aspects of travel as much as being high on the same bits and pieces. The sheer beauty of a place different from that which you see every day. In the end, it’s okay that I didn’t get to travel too afar this time. I do miss hiking over the pond to Europe, as we used to do whenever we took two weeks off from work, and there are so many places where I want to go. But I also liked being at the cottage for such a long period of time. It was so hard to leave. We avoided it, stayed until the last possible moment, forgot something and had to head back, and now that I’m back in the city, I can’t explain what’s going on–it’s not dissatisfaction, really, it’s just a longing for those summers when I spent the entire two months there, and remembering why it was such a wonderful place to grow up.
July 4th, 2014
The summer has arrived, and we are in full cottage mode. We’ve already spent about 15 days there, off and on over the last little while, and I’m looking forward to a busy summer of even more weekends, even more family, even more visits, even more swimming, and even more nights staying up too late watching movies or playing cards.
My cousins from the west coast were here at the end of June, beginning of July–more like brothers to me, they are a pair (one older, one younger) and we are a pair (one older sister, one younger brother), and the four of us have played together at every stage of our lives. Having our fourth here, with his wonderful wife, and spectacular kids meant the cottage property was filled with my relations, and that felt right. It was chaotic and fun and the kids are all at such fun ages at the moment, playing together, not fighting too much, waking up with juice popsicles, and drawing pictures, sharing lunch, and their toys. Watching them made me feel very lucky for being alive–I know it sounds hokey. But every year, every month, every hour I get to spend being a parent is another one that I have survived in terms of the disease.
We are exhausted, most of the time. But I’m finding the days easier. Whether it’s riding my bike or eating a bit better (more fruit, homegrown lettuce!) or less medication (um, yes!), the usual bits and bobs of a disease-ridden life are quiet. Bloodwork only once every three months. Doctors every six. Deep breathing when I can.
The other morning, my boy clamoured onto our bed and said, “What fun thing are we going to do today mummy? Do you want to ride our bikes up the path?” And I laughed, and said, “What a good idea.” Except we spent Canada Day out with my dad, and he had just as much fun there as he would have on his bike. Oh, to have a life at the moment that’s utterly and completely punctuated by fun. That time and space for him are defined by the exciting events that will unfold throughout the day. It’s a wonder to have a 3.75-year-old. Even if there are still tantrums (oh goodness) and tempers (wow) and outright violence (helicopter arms, watch out!), there’s also the wonder of his smile and amazing giggle, the joy in him learning to swim, the brilliance of his “H’s” as he learns to write.
And speaking of writing–I’ve managed, over the last little while, to finish the second draft of a second novel (my first firmly in the drawer never to see the light of day, wow, that was hard to accept). And I like it, well, I like the ending, and that’s about as much as I’m going to say about that. I’m squeezing time in where possible, and all of my routines are working for me. My garden is growing. Some weight has finally come off. I don’t know what to do, really, when my life is this good.
One thing is for sure, I’m not going to wait for the second shoe to drop. I’m going to keep my foot up, and pedal along as if this is what it’s meant to be, how my life is meant to be, happy, healthy, and laughing at the next crazy sentence to come out of our boy’s mouth.
I don’t know how it happens. Months slip by, and my blog goes unattended. All of a sudden I look up and the season has changed. The cottage is open. And I’ve barely finished a book.
That said, there have been some amazing highs and lows, for all of us–the weather has been amazing. Warm so that your bones don’t ache, but not too hot to sleep. Perfect for biking, which puts everyone in my house in a good mood. My garden is mostly in–I have a sprinkling of Alpine strawberries this year but, for some reason, none of my bush bean seeds are coming up. I went a bit crazy with the cucumbers (I have 15 plants at the moment. I will have to cull)…. still, that I turn the earth, plant the seeds, and then food grows is a process I am forever awestruck by.
The highs of late–a wonderful opportunity presented to me by fate. DNTO was developing a story about crashes just as we had one, and so I was on the radio. Terrifying, but thrilling. I love the CBC so much. The podcast is online here. The best thing about being on the CBC, for me, is spending time with my friend Rosie, a producer there. She’s exceptional at her job, and I can get over my fear of, well, everything because it’s just she and I in the room talking. The part when it played on the radio was a bit difficult to appreciate, because you’re always afraid of acting, sounding, looking foolish. On the whole, definite high.
Then I had the distinct pleasure to be a part of The M Word launch in Toronto in the spring. Kerry’s wonderful book is starting conversations all over the place these days, and that moment, when I was surrounded by so many writers that I admire, made my heart ache. My husband and my boy were there–and he was the perfect “accoutrement” to my reading. Bounding up to me at the very moment I described his thrumming heartbeat in my essay, the response was a collective, “ahhhh.” Amazing high. Panicked and terrified throughout, I was glad it was over, and I was glad I faced that demon.
Over the last couple months, I’ve had very good news from the doctors–the disease is exceptionally stable right now, and I’m on the lowest dose of prednisone I’ve been on in over four years. But what that means is it’s time to face the music in terms of the state of my body–pummeled as it was by the one-two punch of prednisone and pregnancy–I’m woefully out of shape and overweight. I know the solution. I need to eat less, move more, and cut out the sugar, but the time and energy for both is simply not there. This is my low.
March 19th, 2014
Last Saturday we went to a conservation area near Campbellville called Mountsberg, where they have annual maple syrup / sugar bush days. We went with my RRHB’s sister, and her family, and it was one of the nicest days I’ve spent all winter. The conservation area was charming, we went on a horse-drawn sled ride, ate pancakes (ahh, Bisquick, ugh), walked around, and visited with the birds of prey they have rescued and rehabilitated (having never heard a bald eagle up close, it was spectacular). There was a lookout area, a great barn for the kids to play in, and some farm animals. The weather held out, not too cold, not too snowy, not too polar-gusty, and after lunch in town, we headed home, exhausted, but for all good reasons. The Boy and I watched The Jungle Book, which I’d never seen, and I was happy, content, and relaxed.
That was how it was supposed to be on the previous Thursday.
Except, the weather, as is its wont, dumped a pile of snow the night before we were supposed to go to the sugar bush, and made the roads a mess. It’s not the first time this year we’ve driven out and about in rotten weather. I mean, you’re not Canadian if you let the weather stop you from going places or doing things. So, away we went in our car, the Boy tucked away in the backseat, rushed as always, and everything was fine until we turned the bend of the 427 on ramp to the 401. And then: carnage. There was a car in the ditch, another crashed and turned around facing the other way, and a third accident we couldn’t see in front of a Crate & Barrel delivery vehicle, tow trucks littered the side of the road, and then in an instant we were slipping and sliding and crashed right into the back of the aforementioned truck.
A ridiculously handy Ukrainian tow-truck driver raced over to the car, our front end slightly crushed, helped direct us off the road, and while my RRHB dealt with the logistics of the fender-bender, sat the Boy and I in his truck. We were all unharmed. The car wasn’t going very fast, the slipping was unavoidable, and the chaos on the road made it impossible to do anything but slide into the truck. Our Ukrainian towed us to a collision shop on Kipling, and within a half-hour we had a rental car. Everything else wasn’t so smooth–the fact that I had upped the deductible on our insurance in order to reduce our monthly premiums over three years ago was an issue (I thought it was to $1000.00; it was actually $5,000!!!), because the amount is MORE THAN OUR CAR. So, we’re fixing it out of pocket, and it was just a pile on of a pile on of a pile on of financial issues over the last few months. The adjuster was lovely and understanding, and the insurance company is doing more than it needs to, and it’s all going to be fine.
So it goes, that our luck would have been better not to have an accident, but when it’s all said and done, we’re luckier than most. Our car will be fixed. I’ve learned a lesson about saving $10 to pay out thousands, and our Boy got to ride in a real tow truck. We finally made it to the sugar bush.
It’s hard to put into words, how I feel about car crashes. I’m terrified in cars and can’t find my bearing regardless of how many deep breaths I take. My family has had worse luck than most–a beloved uncle died as a result of a drunk driver; my mother’s unbelievably sad situation and subsequent death after living for twenty years with her injuries; an equally beloved cousin’s accident when we were just teenagers; and a night when I was with a bunch of friends and we rolled the car–it’s no wonder I’m scared. Yet, when we were slipping, and I was listening, quite outside of myself as my husband was saying, “we’re sliding, we’re sliding,” in a strangely-calm voice, I wasn’t as scared as I thought I would be. I have always expected us to crash, and we did. And when we did, it was the best possible way to face a fear, because, like I keep saying, we’re luckier than most.
And that’s the crux I’ve been rolling around in my mind over the last few days. Just because I expect something to have the worst possible outcome, doesn’t necessarily mean that it will when the worst possible situation actually happens. This is revolutionary for me. I was calm. I took care of my son. I let my husband deal with everything, and felt very bad for him for having to do so–tried not to make the situation worse, although I did for a minute let the stress get to me, and in the end it was okay. Somehow, this is the way of my life–incredible stress meets incredible bliss. I have a disease, I live with it, but I am alive. I lose my mother in a car crash, and it’s impossible, sad, but it also defines my life. I am pregnant, the disease explodes, near-death, but I have my son. I am consistently terrified, and when the worst happens, we just deal with it. And so I look upon my worry as necessary evil. Sure, it would be better if I didn’t worry. But if I didn’t worry, I wouldn’t be able to contextualize anything.
We stood up, we let people help us, we solved the problem, the car is getting fixed, we ended up having a wonderful day, and life goes on. There is wisdom in here somewhere. I’m sure I’ll reflect upon it even further but, for now, I’m just going to sit in wonder about the fact that if you’re going to have a car crash, it might as well be on a snowy day when there are Ukrainian tow-truck drivers handy, and dozens of other people suffering similar fates.
March 3rd, 2014
We are so big these days. We speak in big sentences. Have giant ideas in our heads. Have an imagination that makes for conversations Seussian in nature, and yet we are still so very small. Hold on tight so he doesn’t go over the falls small. Hold on tight in the middle of the night because I hear his feet come racing down the hall at some unholy hour because the monsters in his dreams are chasing him. Hold on tight because for the VERY FIRST TIME since he started going to daycare, this morning, he did not turn to say goodbye to me, but had all his attention on his teacher–and it was brilliant. Because I can say that his tears become my tears, and his stress at drop-off leaves me feeling awful all day.
We are enjoying family things as of late. A music class that he attends all on his own. Trips to the library to pick out our own books, with our own library card. Not one but two concerts in the last little while, Totsapolloza and The Monkey Bunch. Helping all over the place, so much so that we burnt our fingers on the oven racks because we wanted to help so desperately. We are cheeky in our language and having some issues with “please” and “thank you” and thinking the whole world revolves around us. We want to play, play, play, play, play, and then I worry and worry and worry that he’s an only child and will grow up lonely and bored with two old parents as his companions.
There are tempers and tempers and tempers, and most days, they are handled, with time outs, and taking things away, and trying not to baby the behaviour, but we are strong, opinionated, and very stubborn. We are giving up our naps. But when we don’t, we are awake until the wee hours of the night. We’re watching, perhaps, too much television, but we went to see our first movie–if we can call it that–because we took an awful lot of bathroom breaks (four, to be exact) and then I missed the end of the movie. Every day is different. I wish we ate more interesting foods. I wish we weren’t so spazzy when we’re tired. I wish I didn’t lose my temper, because I feel awful when I do.
I never wish I didn’t love him so desperately. I always wish that I could remember every single conversation because they’re so endlessly interesting to me–the sheer idea that ears can fall off and then get stuck back on just because they can, that the whole world is busy being divided up and cross-checked and put into boxes of same and different–is amazing. Every. Single. Day.
The endless questions are sometimes frustrating. And then I have to take a deep breath because it’s all about understanding the world around him. That he hasn’t experienced it yet. Living isn’t old hat. Living isn’t something to be enduring. Every day is a giant jump into ever-loving arms. I wouldn’t trade that for anything either.
The other day, we were sitting, where were we sitting? At our kitchen table, at our dining room table, we may have been surrounded by family, or not, but I was struck by how much of a person he’s has become, and those elements of his personality that have been there the whole time–that steadfast, stubborn, intense but happy nature that belongs only to him–are flourishing these days.
This is what three is, three.
The book goes on sale April 15th, and I’m so proud to be one of its contributors–in company with some of our countries best writers–and we’re even having events. Events!
The M Word Events
Waterloo: April 14 Indie Lit Night at Starlight Social Club, 8pm
Toronto: April 15 at Ben McNally Books, 6pm
Kingston: April 16 at Novel Idea, 7:30pm
Winnipeg: May 6 at McNally Robinson, 7pm
Hamilton: May 7 at Bryan Prince Bookseller, 7pm
Everywhere Via Twitter Livechat: TBA
And congratulations to Kerry Clare for shepherding, steering, and pulling the whole project together brilliantly. What a spring it’s going to be.