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Thursday, January 4, 2018

My mom’s death when I was still in my 20's was the defining event of my young adult life.

My mom’s death when I was still in my 20's was the defining event of my young adult life.
Not moving to two different cities to get my education. Not getting my degrees. Not success in different areas. Not my travels. Not even living with a man, despite his bigger than life personality.
There’s before and there is after Mom’s death.
I still remember the phone call in the staff room at the school where I taught. My mom told me she had cancer. Generalized. She’d waited too long to see the doctor. She didn’t want any treatment. She had maybe 3 months left.
I was in shock.
At some point, Mom and I started believing that she would miraculously be cured or live with this condition for years.
So, I joined a tennis club in the city thinking I’d need someway to occupy the long summer break if I didn’t take a summer course. Yup, my mom was dying and I thought I’d be playing tennis to pass the time.
The club got my money, but I never showed up.
I spent the summer driving the triangle between the city where I lived, the hospital where mom was dying in a small Ontario border town and our tiny Quebec village where my childhood home was.
I’d drive back to the city to care for my cat and meet up with friends and my then-off-and-on-no-longer-live-in-boyfriend-soon-to-be-permanently-ex.
My mind was spinning overtime. I’d scream in the car. I’d imagine turning the wheel sharply and diving into the river far below the bridge but I knew that I’d be hurting everyone I loved. So, I kept the wheels straight.
The only time that my mind would shut up back then was if I’d had too much to drink or if I was shooting pool.
I shot pool in the city and in the village. I shot pool in billiards rooms and in seedy bars. I played not for money, but to run the table. I played government clerks, bankers and drug dealers. I got to be really good.
When lining up a series of shots, my mind would become still and calm if only for a few blissful seconds. It was a balm for all the parts of me which were crying in pain.
Day after day when a visiting a dying loved one, conversation can become awkward. She hated when someone would walk into her room and ask her how she was doing.
One day, I brought music books to the hospital. I wheeled Mom to the music room. She played the piano and we sang and harmonized as if we were on holiday in the Laurentians.
Another time, I brought in very old family photo albums. We’re taking early 1900 to mid 20th century. Mom had emigrated from the American south. If we didn’t identify ancestors in the photos, there’d be nobody north of the border who could. We managed to do a few albums before she got tired. We’d do the rest next time.
Mom had nausea and found meal times at the hospital the worst. Who wouldn’t? Dad and I took turns to be with her for lunch and dinner.
I’d never heard of meal replacements drinks. That’s what they gave her when she stopped eating. As if she could build up strength and what? Live?
I’d never heard of palliative care before. Mom wasn’t getting better.
I soon lost my appetite, too. I bought chocolate flavoured Boost meal replacement drinks by the case. For me.
Things took a turn for the worse when I had to go back to work at the end of the summer. I walked into my principal’s office one Monday at lunch after downing a couple of Boosts and told him that I needed to be with my Mom and I had no idea when I’d be back. He said “Go.”
That night, a nurse found me on the floor on the far side of Mom’s room. I must have felt that the end was coming. They wheeled in a cot and a blanket for me.
Alma, a kindly nurse from Newfoundland, would sneak in meals for me. She once rushed in apologizing for having been too busy as she handed me all she could find so late at night: a piece of pecan pie. It had been one of mom’s favourite. Relatives from Georgia used to send us boxes of pecans before Christmas so Mom could bake pies. She was drifting in and out of consciousness, but she would have enjoyed the coincidence.
I’d lied to Mom all summer that he and I were no longer seeing each other. I made the definite and final break-up call to my ex from a pay phone down the hall from her room. He wanted something I could no longer give. Time and attention. My reserves were empty.
That last week, with her eyes closed and morphine shots kicking in, Mom would babble in slurred bursts. I’d grab my notebook and scribble everything I thought she said. I needed her wisdom. I still needed my mom. She was slipping away.
When she stopped talking altogether and fell into a coma, I sang to her softly. I read her favourite psalms. She was a devout evangelical Christian.
I still wonder why I didn’t lose my faith right then and there.
It would take another 10 years and my Dad’s sudden death for that to happen. With faith gone, anxiety had room to take hold of me. But that’s another post.
Mom’s breathing became more and more laboured. My best friends, my Dad, my brother and sister-im-law all came to see her Saturday, September 21st, 1991. When they’d all left, I sat by her bed, holding her hand and timing the seconds between each shallow breath. Sadly, it never occurred to me until now that I could have climb into bed with her and held her.
All of a sudden she took a deep breath.
And then, there was nothing.
After many months and then all of a sudden.
Ma mère n’était plus là. She was no longer there. Her presence was gone.
I rang the station. A nurse came. She confirmed what I suspected, what I feared, what I already knew.
She said that I had to wait for a doctor to confirm her death.
As I waited, I looked at my mom’s ravaged body and realized that it was a shell. A vessel which had contained an incredible spirit. A daring and talented woman with a booming laugh.
A woman who’d lived alone on a sailboat, then on a tiny island with her dog, Tricky. A woman who’d moved to Puerto Rico after WW2. A women who came to Quebec on vacation and stayed on to see snow. Falling in love with our village, then with my father. A strict mother who made every kid and teenager we called friends feel welcome and loved.
A mother who set aside her own dreams, like many before and since, to raise us.
I felt like an orphan.
I called my Dad. My brother answered. I was the baby of the family announcing the death of our mom.
Despite her death being far from sudden, no one had contacted an undertaker. The nurse informed me, that I needed to empty her room. Only when I’d left the hospital, would they remove her from the room.
So, I went to work silently and alone in the room where my mom’s body lay.
Things accumulate in hospital rooms. Unworn clothing, nightgowns, gifts and other personal things.
I returned to the nurses’ station and asked for a pair of scissors and an envelope. I never told anyone before now, but I snipped a lock of her soft white hair. The same hair, I’ve now inherited.
There was only one thing left that I could not bring myself to carry home. Her pillow. It would have meant lifting her head to retrieve it. And, yet, when I finally arrived home that night and unpacked her suitcase, it’s the one question I can still hear my dad asking: “Where’s her pillow?”
When I started to explain that it would have meant lifting her head to retrieve it, he cut me off to say that it was okay. He’d had no idea that mom was still in the room as I gathered her things one last time. And he realized what I’d had to do.
What so many others have had to do.
After her funeral, I’d walk to her grave late at night trying to feel close to her.
Her doctor had predicted 3 months. She made it to five.
Within months, I accepted a position which would take me a continent away from everyone I knew for 3 years.
A few years after my return, I ended up taking over our family home in the quaint little village.
I rarely, if ever go to the cemetery now. I feel close to my parents when I smell the moist earth as I tend the flower beds.
When I observe birds at the feeders.
When I prepare one of their favourite recipes.
When I sit at Mom’s upright and play one of her signature songs.
When I enjoy the view from the home they’d named Hillview House.
When I come upon something noteworthy that I’d like to share with them.
When I choose to see beauty in every day life.
I haven’t been near a pool hall or a seedy bar in decades, yet I’ve found ways to still my mind.
Journalling, swimming, playing musical instruments, reading, hiking, kayaking, nordic skiing, snowshoeing, forest bathing in all seasons, writing, composing music, drawing, gardening, cooking from scratch, building things, and being grateful.
We all have defining moments. If we live long enough, we’ll have many of them. Some highs and some lows.
Mom’s death is now, 26 years later, one of my life’s defining moments.
May we choose to straighten our wheels, survive and learn from all of the moments which amount to our lives.

6 things I wish I knew at age 24

6 things I wish I knew at age 24
1. Not everything lasts forever and nothing is guaranteed, so take nothing for granted. Youth, looks, health, jobs, hair colour, gorgeous legs, friendships, colleagues, easy money, being nimble on your toes, energy, sanity, independance, and insouciance.
No matter what you lose or what you gain, be grateful every step along the way.
2. Keep on learning. Be it by trial and error, reading, asking thoughtful questions, shutting up and listening without interruption, taking a course, giving a course, shooting the breeze or watching how to videos. Your brain is malleable. You can train it to learn new things and you can retrain to break bad habits.
3. Sometimes, life kicks you in the head. You can get through it, survive and thrive. Surround yourself with people who will lift you up. Lean in to your feelings now. Yes, right now. I know it hurts. Bad. Stuffing them down will inevitably lead to worse things later on down the road.
Peaks and valleys make up the journey. Straight roads are numbingly boring. The view is beautiful from a summit. Ascensions from deep valleys are where you forge character and empathy for others.
4. Learn to be authentically you as soon as you can. When we are young, we want to fit in. Learn to embrace your quirkiness now. It’s what makes you you.
Develop your passions however odd they may seem. They hold the key to your uniqueness and success. You’ll eventually find or create your own tribe of wonderful weirdos whether face to face or online.
5. Take care of yourself. A life of experimentation and excess is fun and easy to bounce back from in your twenties, but if you want to be in it for the long haul, manage all of your resources wisely.
A. By all means, have fun, but learn to spend wisely and make saving a priority. Learning to live well beneath your means and you’ll always be rich because you will have the power to make choices.
B. Give up your vices. They’re bad for your physical and mental health and a strain on your finances.
C. Eat well. Learn to cook from scratch a.s.a.p., brown bag it and invite friends over instead of eating out 3 meals a day. It’s cheaper and healthier.
D. Move your body. Preferably outside. Find an activity that you enjoy and if you’re so inclined, find others who enjoy the same thing. You’ll be in shape and make new friends. Plus, there’s accountability in numbers. It’s harder to slouch on the sofa if there are folks waiting for you to go play outside.
6. Life is stranger than fiction. My 24 year old self could not have drawn the storyboard of how my life has turned out a quarter of a century later. Go ahead, make plans, but stay open to serendipity and surprise opportunities. And go for it when that still small voice whispers “Go for it!”

Colder than a witch’s t!t

Colder than a witch’s t!t
My ex had a way with words. I haven’t seen him since 1992, but with this week’s record breaking cold snap, that phrase came to the forefront of my mind as I walked around the village all bundled up.
I live in rural Quebec on the Ottawa River between Ottawa and Montreal. Wednesday, with an overnight temperature of -29 C or-20 F, Ottawa was the coldest capital in the world! We beat Reykjavik, Moscow and Nuuk (I had to look it up. It’s in Greenland.)We even beat in Mongolia’s capital Ulan Bator which is on average the coldest capital in the world. They had a balmy26 C or -14 F the very same night.
This ol’ witch ain’t complaining.
I pull on long underwear and warm socks first thing in the morning. I harden myself by going out at least twice a day, despite the cold and the wind. Sometimes, all you can see when you meet others are their eyes.
We Northerners have a tendency to recognize each other by our winter clothing and our gait as we approach one another. If you want to confuse the villagers and venture out incognito, just your switch your coats, tuques and scarves and walk funny.
So how do we embrace the cold? By playing outside! Make sure you dress in layers. Wear wool, polar fleece, or acrylic near your skin, but always avoid cotton. Cover up with appropriate outer layers that work against the wind and precipitation which can fall as snow, sleet or freezing rain. Pull on warm winter boots and strap on ice cleats if there’s even a remote chance you might end up ar$e over tea kettle (Yes, another one of my ex’s expressions).
We lose 50% of body heat through our head. Come to think of it, that’s a good way to let off steam if something has got you upset!
If you want to be warm, you have to live with a months-long condition called hat head.
I love funky knit hats with a polar fleece interior. Ear flaps are good but seem to be out of style around here this year. I’m way too frugal to rush out and get the newer vintage looking knit hat with big pompoms. Meh!
Move your body! Find a winter sport that you can embrace alone or with friends.
If you are engaged in something active like Nordic skiing or snowshoeing, you tend to heat up and cool down depending on the terrain (up and down hills, the cover of forests, wind-smacked open fields, frozen lakes and rivers).
When I go for off for more than an hour, I always bring a light knap sack with spare warm mitts, socks, a face mask, water, chocolate or energy bars, a whistle, small first aid kit, lip balm, matches or lighter, and enough room to stuff my packable puffy jacket.
Yes, it’s cold out there! Colder than normal. I’m posting this and then heading out to ski.
Want to come out and play?

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Meaty topic


I don't want to eat meat
I'm not following a trend. I don't kill living things.
Except maybe flies.
And mosquitoes.

I go without meat quite easily at home or in restaurants.

I don't want to be socially awkward so I occasioanlly eat meat when a guest or prepare meat when acting as a hostess. And this is where I struggle.
How can I sometimes eat meat? 

I'll admit that properly prepared and cooked meat tastes great. But, I've never been a big meat eater even when I was a kid. Long before I pondered the ethics, think it's a question of texture and colour. I eat with my eyes and I love vibrant colours in my plate.

I love animals. I am fascinated by the spiritual connection humans can enjoy with animals.

What has lead me to question eating meat in my life? 

1. What I've learned about the meat industry.
2. My love of living things.
3. Not wanting to participate in the suffering of another being.
4. Staying healthy and as lean as possible despite a slowing metabolism.

Yesterday, I ordered eggs Benedict. Decadently delicious. Then, I realized I was eating ham. I paused a moment before deciding to use mind over matter and to enjoy my meal. I'd totally forgotten there was meat in the dish when I ordered. I wasn't going to let this realization spoil a good meal with friends.

As things stand, I manage to avoid meat most days out of each month. I don't know if I'll ever be a total vegetarian. I doubt that I'll go vegan. I love cheese, yoghurt and eggs too darn much.

When I saw the photos of the baby animals in an old Oprah magazine, I wanted to cut and paste them in my visual journal for their cuteness. But then the journal page looked blank. I grabbed a pencil and and there went my whole rainy day afternoon.