coping stuff

i lean against a toyshelf that was once a changing table in a playroom that still contains within it an office. a child clambers over me and a sippy cup drips rice milk into the suit i never bothered to change after work, while the other child beats my head cheerfully with a hairbrush. brush mommy’s hair gently, i chirp. she pauses, cocks her head to peer at me, then swats.

jenNEE? she inquires solicitously. i beam. gently, i say.

we talk, now, she & i. we talk.

my brain flits for a moment on a memory of eighth-grade science class and a mustachioed teacher labouring over arcane powders and the mystery of States of Change. in the scene, thirteen-year-old me  sits slackjawed, nonplussed, an empty thought bubble half-deflated above her.

thirty-seven-year-old me ponders the conversion from gas to liquid and dismisses it.  rather ostentatiously showy, really.  hell, we’re all in a constant science experiment of State Change: life would’ve been simpler if they’d just laid THAT out in junior high rather than bothering us with all that garble about kinetics and theories of matter, whatever those were.

i am matter. my children are kinetic. never the one shall catch the others, nor keep them still and static. memorize that, kids.

world’s Slowest Ever Esprit d’Escalier. so there, Mr. Plaid Pants and Moustache.

Dave is at his desk two feet away, lord of itunes. he is at home this month, washing my delicates and harnessing GoogleWave as a home project management tool, meaning i can sit at work and pile pearls of  inspiration like “buy baby wipes!” onto his list rather than my own sad little daytimer. we’re four days in and he is rising to the occasion with grace. i gaze at him and imagine he sits in his chair slightly differently, more aware of the house around him, of the overflowing trash can sulking at his feet.

i hum a little Rocky Horror, slightly altered to suit:

in just seven days i can make you…a wi-i-i-ife.

i thrill, and wonder if he’ll start meeting me at the door dressed in fishnets, casseroles in his oven-mitted hands.  then i realize he needn’t bother with the fishnets. i am so goddamned tired i have the libido of a wet, dead mackerel.

time change is a cruel instrument of torture dreamed up by sadists. since Sunday morning, my children have not slept past the new 5:45. at night, they’re wired, exhausted, a once-peaceful bedtime degenerating into a drawn-out circus.

dear powers that be: i’m already coping with a chronic case of State of Change. nobody needs to fuck with my clock, too.

it’s a good thing i have a wife, even temporarily. it would be better if anybody was getting anything resembling a decent night’s sleep.

Dave reaches out an arm and scoops Oscar up to the computer, brown head and blondish one close together. Josephine beetles away from me, off to thwack her hairbrush on some unsuspecting inanimate object.

the music catches me off guard – the opening chords of the first pop song i ever loved. Annie Lennox’s voice thrums up through the synthesizers.

i want to walk in the open wind
i want to talk like lovers do

like lovers. ah, lovers.

i remember being perhaps twelve, in my bathtub, still ignorant of chemistry and States of Change but shaving my legs for the very first time, Eurythmics my soundtrack for this rite of passage.  i ran a finger up the expanse of one wet, newly shorn calf, trying to inhabit the song, to imagine – from a vantage point of utter innocence, pure tabula rasa – the exotica of whatever it might be that lovers really did do. then i looked over my shoulder, mortified, and broke down in giggles in my bubble bath.

“lovers” meant sex. whatever that was.  but…they talked? like in sweet nothings? what would i say to a lover? another empty thought bubble hung limp above my adolescent head. so much is unimaginable when the mind is young.

sitting on the floor, though, soft and tired and sticky with sippy cup spillage, i understand the lyrics for the first time.

i remember waking languidly and looking for his eyes. i remember being two, just two. i remember that once upon a time, i saw nothing in a room but him. the memory is so vivid i almost glance over my shoulder as i did at twelve, embarrassed to be caught out naked with my own thoughts.

i could spit across the room and dirty his shirt. but i barely see him. and the lovers we once were feel as far away from me as that bathtub where i first shaved my legs twenty-five years ago.

i would not trade. but oh, god, i would like to visit.

next week, we escape to Montréal for five days. just us. in a city, gray and anonymous and magical to me, sleeping late in hotels and buying baguette for breakfast.  cafés.  wine.  nowhere to be.

and maybe we will talk like lovers do, up late, lost again in a world of our own creation. maybe. maybe the constant State of Change can circle round.

i would rather that than a wife, even. and that’s saying something.

some things come easy.

it is fall again and the light is yellow and crisp and i swear i only brought her home yesterday but there she is, Josephine walking, tottering like a blithe drunk about the house, careening into everything faster than my hands can catch her.

she took her first formal steps, the first real replicable confident stutter from here to there, exactly on her first birthday. a true Virgo, fastidious and precise and on time. two weeks later, she is unstoppable, a whirlwind. she is delighted with herself. i am delighted in her.

it’s easy when thing line up tidy-like. smugness rises like cream, unbidden, unintentional. i have to slap myself.

i suspect that some poor lost Virgo – perhaps the part of me from which Josephine’s timeliness sprang – lurks under my Aquarian skin, trying to run a Prussian train line through the soup that is life. my inner Virgo wants to believe that someday all the books will not only be shelved but alphabetized, that the dishwasher will empty itself, that everything will go on schedule, that there will be an Answer.  all the things i just never made sense of in this big ol’ game of Go Fish, she’s been tallying, saving up, waiting for me to put in order.

this Virgo, she gets louder and more anxious every year. virgins are like that, i retort. she glares, haughty, above me.

but she forgets too easily, this Virgo. she lets herself believe that order=safety, that norms=virtue. she lets herself believe in the medieval laws of hermetics and falls prey to the mugs’ game of pride in random milestones, mistaking them for a promise that all will continue.

normal only means the bus hasn’t hit you yet.

normal is a trick of the mind, one that lets you believe yourself cossetted from the awfulness you glimpse now and then at the periphery of things. yet it is normal to have suffering come for you eventually, not only in the thud of mortality but in the hundred shocking ways a world can be swept from under you.

when you know this, and make yourself remember, nothing comes so easy. first steps – on a first birthday or months before or later – are a marvel, a quiet, private symphony unto themselves.

my Virgo, trapped eyeless under my skin, cannot see this. her lens turns only inward, tallying these small blessings gifted me by my children, and nodding yes, yes.  she believes she is due.

each September for the past few years we’ve gone apple picking in the same orchard not far from the city; a wide, sloping place that veers down towards water, all small, twisty trees abundant with fruit.

there are few things in my adulthood i’ve done five years in a row…i have not stayed still long enough for that kind of consistency, ’til now.  but this local teacher-turned-farmer and his earnest operation of organic apples keep us coming.

Oscar’s first year in the orchard he slept against his father’s chest, cheeks like apples peeking out above the carrier. two years ago he was just big enough to ride on the little apple basket trolley without toppling. last year, he batted at the trees and filled the basket mostly with half-eaten remains of all the apples he tried, while i carried eleven-day old Josephine in her sling and tried to pick one-handed. this year, even my baby girl took a chomp at temptation, her cheeks shuddering when the tartness hit.

the first year, though, we went without children. a friend dragged us out in our crappy old station wagon, her energy buoyant enough to break through the cloister we’d imposed on ourselves those months after Finn died.  i was newly pregnant with Oscar, as fragile and closed as an eggshell, emotionally, but the apple-picking pleased me, comforted. the small trees and the low-hanging fruit were easy, the first thing in that long season of drastic change and adjustment that seemed to come without undue effort. we filled baskets, the sun shone, i smiled. and then we paid and drove away and our friend said i know the prettiest country road.

isn’t that how Deliverance starts?

we were playing Lucinda Williams on the stereo. raw, reckless, rollicking Lucinda, wailing I think I lost it, lemme know if you come acrost it, lemme know if i let it fall along a back road somewhere… the only song i seem to remember from the haze of bewilderment and grief that had been that summer of ’05.  our friend Christina, with pipes like a church choir, competed with Lucinda from the back seat. i droned happily in my three-note warble.

and then a bang and a metallic ripping sound. the car bumped gracelessly to a halt. the scenic red-dirt lane had torn the ass-end straight out of our vehicular lemon and we were a good few miles from nowhere without even cows to gaze upon our distress.  Christina sacrificed a belt to try to tie the necessary underbelly back onto the car, to no avail, and Dave plucked at a barbwire fence for the same purpose. i did nothing. i had, with the very first bang, gone under.

normal may be an illusion, but there are times the human brain can only sustain so much of its absence. i just moved continents, been airlifted and lost my hard-scrounged job all in the same breath, had a child and had that child die in my arms. but it was our poor old fugly station wagon – bought for a baby who never rode in it – that sent me off the rails.

i didn’t do much. you wouldn’t have known, to see me. i sat by a ditch, patting my bag of apples, still singing Lucinda Williams. but inside something had snapped, gone rogue.

the Virgo had been telling me all my life that if i just worked harder, tried harder, was better, things would work out. the universe, though, was seemingly expending all its energy thwarting my need for any sort of positive outcome or expectation of normalcy whatsoever. or that’s how it felt, then, at the side of that dirt road.

and so for a minute, i gave up. i dropped my head to my knees and breathed deep and jagged and stared into the red mud puddle between my feet and forgot, briefly, that i was verklempt and bereaved and hopeless and apparently cursed of god and Hyundai, both.  i picked up a shiny, crisp apple, fresh from the tree, and bit it.

my brain said, this is nice.

the Virgo heaved and gnashed her teeth. i heard her, vaguely, through my chewing. you are sitting in a mud puddle! lost in the backwoods! your baby died and you’re broke and your ridiculous life makes no sense at the moment! and you had such POTENTIAL! did i mention that tow truck is going to cost a fortune? and that you’re IN a mud puddle?

i looked at Dave, ten feet away, trying to clean the barb wire rust off his hands. i looked at Christina, fearless in the face of our sadness, who had befriended us when we had nothing to offer except need. i looked at my apples and decided i could walk back to civilization on apple power if i had to.

i thought, these will possibly be the darkest days of my life.  i felt almost eager, thinking it, delusional and free, like a glimpse into some other time usually veiled from my eyes. i watched the sun play on my hands and realized i was going to live through these rotten, ludicrous days, even if they didn’t come easy.

states of grace never last, at least not for me. i told the Virgo to fuck off, and it was good. but she was back the very next day.

the places in me where she is woven deepest i still rise, indignant, at any sign of my own bad luck, any sign that i am again cast beyond the bounds of what i deem normal for folks to have to bear. i know better, and still i fall for it, the old line that i have somehow paid my dues and am exempt from future suffering.

someday, if we are lucky, we will all be old. and we will suffer. to be old is to ache, to lose one’s loves, one’s friends, one’s independence. i sometimes wonder if we have our goals straight.

but for right now, in this gift of my neglected functional body, and the healthy maelstrom of short legs that is my children’s sweet solidity and simple, easy development, i am replete. the Virgo be damned. i see blessings.

razors pain you
rivers are damp
acids stain you
and drugs cause cramp
guns aren’t lawful
nooses give
gas smells awful
you might as well live
– Dorothy Parker

i have always thought myself a cat person. and by some alchemical trick of metaphysics and assumption, my medieval mind has occasionally, therefore, convinced me that i am thus – metaphorically, of course – a cat.

it is only when things change drastically that i am forced to notice one significant problem with this little identification of the heart: penchants for napping and sloth and shedding notwithstanding, i am no feline. felines, thrown through the air, make graceful arcs and solid landings, all twenty-plus paw pads absorbing shock.

pretend felines, thrown through the air, claw and shriek and flail, spinning paws in mid-air like old LooneyTunes characters discovering the earth has given way beneath them. then they go splat.

both kinds of felines, the real and the ones with pretensions to cat-ness, then retire to corners to lick their wounds in private.  when one is not a cat, this can take awhile.

all this to say, i have been quiet, learning yet again that i am not a cat. and that landing on one’s feet is not a graceful process, when one is not a cat. seismic shifts disrupt my comforting routines and leave me anxious, unstable, vulnerable.

uh, yeh.  who, me? a tissue? don’t mind if i do.

but then this strange new world begins to take shape and its reflection in the mirror grows less foreign and i begin to understand the ways i can be competent with this, the ways not all is different, the gifts and possibilities of what this new will be. and my equilibrium recalibrates and i find my balance and stop kicking in midair, stop licking my raw spots.

when one is not a cat, one sometimes realizes one is an old dog, struggling yet again with these damn new tricks.

Friday, 3:56 pm
with a little wincing grimace that means, “i’m really sorry i’m leaving with a pile of painfully tedious data entry left to do so students can register Monday especially since i already left early Wednesday but Dave’s in Vancouver so i HAVE to go get the kids ’cause the sitter’s on summer hours” i wave happy weekend at my poor, patient, beleaguered boss – left sitting in the disorganized pile of new Soviet prison furniture dumped in my office earlier that day – and race out the door.

starting work has been easy, really.  the office is both familiar and welcoming, the culture there affirming and social and all i’d hoped and remembered it would be when i took the job. i’m taking over from a person who is tidy of mind, and working for a person who’s been the closest thing to a mentor i’ve found since i moved back here four-and-a-half years ago. my bestest friend, lifelong, is in the office next door. the data entry part of things literally nearly blew my brain wide open for a couple of hours until i pried it open and personally lobotomized a few errant and unnecessary bits i wasn’t using much anyway, but other than the fact that they have no couch for me to recline upon and Gulags R Us designed the gray aesthetic anaesthetic that passes for new desks there, i’m happy.

the rest has been harder. Dave was away. kids weren’t sleeping, either at the new sitter’s or at home. time was suddenly chewed up like an all-day pizza and come 9pm i’d find myself at the end of a long, long road of supper/tidying/bedtime/laundry/prep for tomorrow and staring down the prospect of watering my poor sunbeaten pansies and tomatoes and wanting to wilt myself for want of sweet downtime.  Oscar grew dawdly and i found myself frog-marching him through our hours together, trying desperately to get me and two kids dressed and fed and out of the house with all we needed for the day by the hour that two weeks ago meant we’d be sitting down to breakfast. Posey cried whenever she saw me, and my heart ached and fretted and pined for her, for the impossible assurance of a good decision made.

Friday 4:09 pm
i wedge the children and their daycare bags and the dirty-diaper bag and my own work bag (which is, ahem, actually still my regular diaper bag/purse/chasm of magical disappearance) into the sun-stroked, stifling car. four years ago, when we bought the cheapest car on the market, paying $1000 extra for A/C sounded like the most ridiculous idea i’d ever heard. now, of course, the most ridiculous thing i’ve ever heard is the whimpering of my sweaty baby slowly cooking in the back of a non-air-conditioned car because her mother is a cheap sow, but i digress.

the baby’s dress, i notice as i strap her in, is covered in a sticky brown substance that is unmistakably either Fudgsicle or chocolate ice cream. Oscar cheerily informs me that he didn’t nap today because a movie was on during quiet time.

my brain conflates these two pieces of information and comes to the logical conclusion that my children spend their days drinking Coke and watching soft porn and will grow up to skin kittens with their teeth. my spirits slump on the steaming, filthy car mat.  i wallow in the certainty of my own failure.

Friday 4:25 pm
the hot little car of misery and chocolate stains arrives at my grandfather’s cottage, because PEI actually is only three apples wide.

the cottage – and i use the term loosely, as “rustic plywood shack” might cover it better in some estimations – is a living testament to my late grandmother’s foray into creative needle art of the 60s and 70s. the curtains are faded brown and orange op art specials, the walls plastered with crewel work depicting owls, turtles, boats, and various other flora & fauna. souvenir ashtrays abound, relics of guests long since forgotten. the faded patchwork couch, a Coat of Many Colours for the furniture set, was replaced two summers ago by well-meaning family friends who meant to surprise my grandfather, but i think he misses the zany, threadbare thing. i do.

Rusty greets us at the door, from a prone position in front of the fan, towel laid over his hind end. in German Shepherd years, Rusty is about 107. he’s my father’s dog, though my grandfather’s soft spot for him is notorious and deep. they are the patriarchs, my grandfather and Rusty. he calls Rusty noble, and i sometimes wonder if he isn’t fishing for the compliment to be returned.

i met Rusty first as a pup in the Yellowknife airport in the summer of 1996. it was early August, tail end of the midnight sun, and i was flying back north for a second year of teaching. i crossed paths with my father’s clan on their way back from PEI to the town they’d called home for ten years. my half-sister had sweet-talked them into a puppy, and he sat bouncing in his cage, smiling at me.  when he licked me, i laughed, and was surprised.

Rusty still has the same open gaze, the same trusting brown eyes.  i’m not a dog person, have never been a dog person, but Rusty’s sweetness charms me. and even splayed on the orange shag rug in my grandfather’s cottage, his bounce long since gone, he charms my kids. Posey puts her hand on his nose and he bats his eyes at her like a scene out of Disney.  Oscar, upon discovering that Rusty can no longer swat flies away with his tail, fans them for him dutifully.


Rusty is a dog on borrowed time. his left back leg stopped working awhile back, and on Wednesday my father and stepmother had planned to make that last sad trip to the vet to put him down. there is a point after which sustaining life is no mark of love. but mercy is a tricky thing. when Rusty perked up and started enjoying his food, stopped showing pain, they decided a last week at the shore might be nice for all concerned.

at 89, my grandfather has to pick his way down the crooked steps to the beach with a cane. my father brings the old sky-blue motorboat in from its mooring, readies it, helps his father in. but once in the driver’s seat, my grandfather drops thirty years. he is still the best waterski driver i’ve ever seen – patient, smooth, able to read the pull on a rope and adjust accordingly.

Friday, 4:45 pm
Rusty can no longer go down the steps to the beach. when the crew make their way down the sandy red cliff – Oscar included, life-jacket-clad, in my stepmother’s arms for his very first boat ride ever – Posey and i stay behind with the old dog. he whimpers at them leaving. he is a water dog, a people dog, part lab, part shepherd.  this being left behind alarms him, say his big brown eyes.

i look at him and feel as if i’m looking in a mirror. i feel grizzled with exhaustion, with heat, with the anxiety of inexorable change and my own inability to keep up, to land easily on my feet anymore.  i reach out and rub Rusty behind the ears, where he’s still soft. i coo a little song of “we’re here, buddy, it’s okay,” though he is long since deaf. and we are companionable, two old dogs; one who thinks she’s a cat, one who’s sure he’s a person.

then i hear the boat grumble to life down in the water and i forget Rusty because it is Oscar’s first boat ride and i want to know that he is okay, want to mark with my eyes that he once rode in the boat with my grandfather at the helm so i can tell him someday. i step out the old screen door with the baby in my arms and it slaps shut behind me and i am peering, craning out to see the small form in the seat beside my grandfather when i hear the door creak again and it is Rusty nosing it open, unwilling to be alone.  he pauses at the small threshold between cottage and porch and then leaps, old strong front legs carrying his bulk despite the dead hind end and he crashes down beside me apparently unfazed and my jaw hangs open and i turn my head in strange respect so he will not see my tears.

Posey claps in delight.  and my grandfather’s boat speeds away over the water like it has done every summer since i can remember but this time with my son in front, so small and riding away from me, wind in his hair. and i sit with Rusty in his reprieve, in his last days, and ruffle his fur.

when one is not a cat, all you can really do is get through today and keep leaping, no matter how graceless your landing.

back a few years ago, when i was still frequently startled to discover that there were other people out there in this online thingy box, i woke up one morning to find i’d been given an award. i was more delighted than was strictly necessary, but the world of memes and blings was still a vast untrodden snowfall for me, and it looked right pretty. the bestower of said award had honoured not just me but another writer, so, curious, i clicked the link and wandered over to check out the company i was keeping.

and that was how i first stumbled across Vicki Forman. Vicki wrote a column called Special Needs Mama, part of the Literary Mama e-zine family, about parenting her son Evan.

in an ensuing email exchange the likes of which i never seem to engage in anymore, alas, i discovered that Evan’d had a twin, Eleanor, who died a few days after birth. and that Vicki’s elder daughter was Josephine.  had Finn been a girl, i wrote back, he’d probably have been Eleanor. or Josephine.

it was early 2007. it was the first time i had seen any shadow of my own reflection – in name tastes or in loss. and i found the idea that Vicki was out there somewhere immensely comforting, normalizing. i also found it thought-provoking.  she brought dignity and unflinching matter-of-factness to her narratives of Evan and her role as parent to a significantly disabled child. she did not pander to people’s pity, or expectations of a fluffy, inspirational happy ending. reading Vicki, i began to take steps towards writing my way out of a box i’d seen no other other exit to.

one of the most surreal parts of having lost Finn, for me, was the silencing effect it had. it created a space around me that felt filled with cotton batting, or a choking kind of insulation.  a dead baby is the conversational equivalent of a cement truck. i did not know how to introduce the subject in relation to myself, did not know how to negotiate the weight it carried without feeling awkward or skinless or somehow miscast. i was neither serene nor destroyed, which were the main culturally available motifs for my new role. i was simply…messy, then.  too messy and too vulnerable to even begin to invite attention to it all. and so this tremendously important part of me, the struggle with my grief and anger and fear and sorrow, became isolating and…unspeakable.

i was lucky, in that i was surrounded mostly by kindness. but people who knew me and knew of Finn skirted the subject, probably afraid of hurting me with reminders, probably afraid of saying the wrong thing.  i understood that. but in the midst of all that well-intended ignoring of the elephant in the room, i sat smothering under the silence and the elephant itself; the face i presented to the world a mask that ellided everything underneath.

i’d allowed my grief to be socially relegated to a little airless box, and i was choking in that box.

so i started to write about it, face-on, to allow myself to begin to explore here the things i desperately wanted to and needed to, but couldn’t, not aloud. and in doing so, i started to integrate my inner life back into the face i wore to the public, even this small, semi-private, semi-anonymous public out here online. it was enough.  i believe writing here kept me from suffocating  in my own bewildering loneliness and sadness.

mostly i think i’ve absorbed Finn’s death. sometimes, though, i’ll catch a scent in the air at a particular time of year, or read a story, or hear a pregnant woman dismiss risk as if she were immune, entitled, and scenes crash in on me, the horror reel of it all going wrong.

the grim neonatologist who came back to the delivery room to tell us, bluntly, that he would not make the night and then walked away. my baby’s tiny, punctured chest, only an hour old and already his body breached and bloodied while we were not even there to comfort. the machine-gun gasp and pound of the ventilator.  the  nurse who told me his blackened fingers and toes were a sign of something congenitally wrong, then the other nurse – when i finally got up the courage to ask – who stared at me surprised and said, no, he’s perfect, it’s just oxygen deprivation. the swell of fear and rejection that backed up in my throat the first time i saw him there in his isolette, splayed out, red-raw, so compromised, and how my mind hissed you’re going to die at my newborn son before my hand reached out without me and touched his and his fingers wrapped around mine and i was lost, in spite of myself, to wonder and tenderness, to loving him. the confusion of it all, the helplessness. the feeling of somehow having being stripped of the right to compassion by the crisis, and stripped of the right to hope.

all these swarm in and punch me in the gut and i am left gasping, stunned by what my memory has secretly stashed away.

i thought maybe i was crazy, the kind of closet cat lady who looks perfectly bland from the outside but one day snaps and ends up on the nightly news because the picture bombs in her head finally exploded.

apparently not. apparently it’s just my amygdala, a part of the brain “so ancient and original it’s present even in lizards,” where the raw fight-or-flight emotions triggered by significant trauma are preserved and kept alive. the brain cannot integrate or defuse those emotions. there they sit, preserved in neurotransmitter amber.

i have Vicki Forman to thank for the comfort of the amygdala, because Vicki published a book this summer, a book called This Lovely Life: a memoir of premature motherhood.  and i ordered it and ate it up and found myself reading it half in her world of the summer of 2000 and half in my own of spring 2005. and then she explained the amygdala, and i felt…once again…just a little more able to breathe.

Vicki’s book is not an easy read.  there’s no enlightened, illumined mama guru enriched by the smiling happiness of her disabled child. rather, the book tells the story of the trauma of the twins’ birth, Ellie’s death, and the unfolding story of Evan’s blindness, seizure disorder, and survival in a light that most of us would shrink from shining on our egos, our mother roles.  it is one of the most honest and troubling and beautiful stories i’ve read in a long time, and though Vicki is the figure at its centre, it is the evolving relationship between her and her son that the book stands as paean to.

in one of the cruel twists that life deals out sometimes, it seems that Vicki had just finished this book and landed a publisher when Evan, days short of his eighth birthday, died suddenly and without warning.  i read the book knowing that the child whose survival seemed so uncertain would grow to become the boy his mother wrote about at Special Needs Mama, but also knowing the heartbreak at the end of the story, the coda that even the writer of the reflections in its pages couldn’t see.

i want to thank Vicki for sharing Evan. i want to thank Vicki for consistently, at Special Needs Mama and in This Lovely Life, carving out a space of words and dignity that has helped me with my own processing, my own healing, my own understanding of how vast and fraught and boundless the word mother can be.

i want to encourage you to read this book.

he is three and i swear he shines.

this child i never imagined, my funny blond curly-headed boy who looks full-sprung from his father’s mother’s side of the family, the child who came into our lives in our deepest grief and whom my most secretbrokenself feared i might never fully claim…this Oscar of mine bursts me open with joy and is my heart with legs.

Thursday he started what was supposed to be his first preschool class, after 2+ years of mostly part-time care with a lovely home sitter whose daughter had become his little missus, bossing him around the house like a happily henpecked pint-size husband. but the other two kids his sitter cared for were much smaller, and he’s an acutely social kid, and we thought he needed a real peer group and maybe a little less tv and more learning opportunities so when a space finally came open at the preschool we’ve been years on the waiting list for, we leapt.

erm, leapt is a strong word. slunk would be more accurate. we slunk with heavy hearts, because we have loved this sitter and she has loved Oscar and her family has been his second family all through the craziness of last year’s bedrest and new baby sister and he cannot remember his life before her. but Dave & i both taught preschool once upon a life or two ago, and we felt that O was cracking for more and that he would thrive in this purported emergent learning setting in ways he simply can’t here at home or with a home sitter, and so we took the spot. which is full-time only, and this bit at my heart with sharp teeth because i’m home for another month and i like having him with Josephine & i on his ‘mommy days’ and it is summer and they will only be small awhile. but we took the spot, because spots are rare and precious in these parts and it is hard enough trying to find a job let alone nurturing placements for two kids at once.

i signed him up for what the new school’s manual call the 3-4 year old preschool class. last week, he visited twice. the graduating kids were all significantly older, of course…but he loved the classroom, engaged immediately with the teachers and the space.

Thursday he started. Dave dropped him off only to find he’s in a group with babies and non-verbal barely two-year-olds. in a room full of “learning materials” he mostly stopped being interested in a long time ago.

the teachers seem warm and engaged and kind, but there are no kids in that room with whom he can talk dinosaurs or play pretend, only crying toddlers suffering through the anxiety of transition.  they’ve apparently decided to shift from a 3-4 year old class, which they found didn’t work, to a 2-3 year old class. and O was left standing in the middle of the room plugging his ears.

Dave came home and said, “i feel kinda sick about this.” i walked by the play area an hour later on my way to a job interview, and saw him, his back to me, playing busily alone in the sandbox whilst toddlers milled about him.

the toys & manipulatives are age-inappropriate for him because the staff – quite reasonably – don’t want the little ones eating small, sharp things. but he outgrew their wooden block puzzles years ago; he’s been doing 48 piece puzzles for over a year now. by himself.  afternoon outside play involves the older kids, the ones who graduated from his room last week and took all the cool toys with them, but they aren’t really peers either and there is no scaffolding to introduce him to their play.  when i asked if they included him outside, he said “they don’t know my name.”

and i think a little coil in my heart came unsprung and did a whirlibird around in my chest cavity, tearing flesh as it went.

they tell me a few more three year olds will start next week, and i am heartened. they didn’t say much about the toys – which they don’t call toys because their pedagogy eschews the plastic crap our society is so enamoured with and dandy that but the stuff all over the classroom might as well be called something and it’s all too young for him no matter what rose you smell it by – but they did assure me, all of them, that in time as they get through this transition that there will be projects geared to his interests and all kinds of wonderful opportunities.

so i am hopeful. we will ride it out for a few more days, wait and see.  as i said, i really like the teachers, and the location is fabulous and this place comes highly recommended and i want – oh how i want – to make it work. but it has to work for Oscar. and it is taking all i have right now in this wait and see weekend to trust that they, as professionals, understand that and also have that as their priority.  if i am making a significant life change in my child’s world because you have told me you provide a 3 & 4 year olds class, then don’t go changing that to a 2 & 3 year olds class mostly suited to 2 year olds in which my child is waaaay older than the others without telling me, because frankly, he could have stayed happily at home this month and listened to his own personal baby cry for absolutely no charge whatsoever, and if you want me to bear with your transitional period please give me notice that it is coming and give me some sense that you care that it is my child you’re actually planning on using as your guinea pig to determine how the 2 & 3 year-old mix works out.

we have put him through a relatively significant transition in order to be there primarily because we wanted him to have a freaking peer group.  and turning him loose amongst the big kids for an hour a day does not make up for the fact that for two days this week he might as well have been stuck in a social playpen.  now, in the long run i don’t think that two days will harm him. but it is NOT what we prepared him for, it confused him and us both, and it has had consequences already in terms of how he’s acting out in relation to his sister and us: he’s gone from a stable social situation to an absolutely isolated one in which he has no capital and no social tools to integrate with either of the groups of children there, and given that we signed up for something different the lack of warning makes me terribly, terribly nervous.

i don’t want to be that parent. i don’t think he’s some widdle pwecious pumpkin who’s just too smart for the other plebian rugrats.  i do think that he – and us, as paying clients in this business of early learning & childcare, because it is a business and i understand that – deserve the respect of appropriate placements and advance warning of significant changes.  i don’t really care if he has carrots with lunch instead of potatoes, or if the wading pool activity is switched to Thursday.  i do care if he has no one to play with except babies, or if your idea of emergent curriculum means letting a little boy desperate for kids to talk to loose in a group of big kids without support or efforts to help him integrate.

i want to work.  between bedrest and all, i’ve been home now for well over a year, and was home or in hospital for another fifteen months with O before that. since January 2006, i’ve only spent nine months at a f/t job. and i look at this interval as a privilege, from one perspective – getting to have and be with these children i love – but for my physical and professional selves, it’s been house arrest, long seasons of forced invalidity followed by the craziness of colic and the never-enough-time of trying to balance a little freelancing here and there with parenting my children and keeping the cage house to a dull roar. i want the security of a steady job, much as the guilt of this wanting washes over me daily.

the guilt stays at bay much better when i feel like my kids’ care situations are positive. and so Thursday threw me for a loop, because not only did we drop O off into a vastly different setup than we’d believed we’d be doing, but by 4 pm that day i’d been offered the job i interviewed for in the morning.

of course.

i’d thought i’d only have to worry about finding a nurturing place for Posey.  by the time the job call came in, i’d picked up my boy and talked to all the teachers and had a pit in my stomach the size of a turnip, wondering if i’d done the wrong thing.

i suspect the essence of parenting for my generation, whatever choices we make regarding who cares for our children and when and how and whatever forms of schooling they receive or what they eat or whether they play soccer or try swimming or can’t do either because of financial constraints, is this: i wonder if i’ve done the wrong thing?

i want to do right by them, these small people with their sticky, pudgy, trusting hands.  but sometimes, no matter how i try, i end up feeling a little sick, like the options i’d bet on have slipped through my fingers, figments of a story i’m not writing after all.

how did you make the care decisions – and schooling decisions, if your children are older – that you have? were the options you wanted – whether in terms of available placements or work options for yourself or finances – available?

she had white carpet in the entryway.

i think there was a mirror there, but i have no recollection of my reflection in it, only the shock of the blood seeping into the white of my new shirt, proud-bought just days before with my very own money. it was the very last morning of my first summer job.

but i was not at that tall gray house, three blocks up a hill and right at the stop sign, where i should have been babysitting two little boys. i was in a stranger’s hallway, spilling blood onto a carpet, trying to catch the bright, thick drops that splatted quietly into the plush.

i grabbed at them like gumdrops, willing them back, attempting to unmark the snowy surface and wind time backwards as if the trail could lead me back through her door whole.  i leaned into the doorjamb and made a bloody handprint on its creamy surface. everything was white and red.

i gave her a number. she called my mother. i could not make my mouth move properly and a tooth hung like a cat door, teetering back and forth, fascinating my frightened tongue. i could not pronounce my own name.

she spoke into the phone hesitantly, Are you Monnie’s mother?

then we were in the car and speeding across the city, my mother and i, my mother who is cautious and measured in every action. we still had trains then, here, in that long ago summer, and blocks before the hospital there came the ding ding ding of the crossing and we were no longer moving and the sun poured in on the black upholstery. suddenly it was stultifying in that little Toyota and the train rumbled on forever and my mother, my upstanding mother, hissing Jesus Christ, fuck, come ON, and i knew absently that i must be dying.

i do not remember any pain. that only came later, when the technicians tried to lie me on my back over and over and over again for head x-rays, and the piece of my jawbone that had snapped in the centre and at the hinge kept falling back into my eardrum. they will not radiate a head like that, today.

somewhere between the stitches and the torture sessions at x-ray and the trip across the city again to the orthodontic surgeon’s office and back, my mother propped me up in a tiny washroom in the ER and proceeded to induct me into the arcane mysteries of the belted maxi pad, long out of date even then but all that the hospital dispenser provided. and i sat there, trussed and broken, nose packed with gauze and wondering how much more blood i could lose before i myself would fade to white.

then there was the blur of anaesthetic, counting backwards from one hundred, and the waking to find my face encased in bandages and jaw immobilized with hardware and then the pain, oh the pain and won’t you shake hands, sweet sister morphine? and then nothing is clear for weeks except a memory of finally coming home and seeing beetles emerge from under the radiator in the swelter of an early August bathroom and while some part of my brain knew there were only two another part saw Disney’s Fantasia march: two and two and two thousand, kaleidoscoping. morphine withdrawal is no joke. i remember my mother holding my full-grown body, bigger than her own, in her ams like a baby while i screamed in terror with my mouth wired shut.

and every time she changed those bandages more gravel emerged from my face, black spots in the red-brown stains on white gauze.

i think i have told some of this story before.

what i did not tell is that on a hot summer day when i see bicycles with long-legged children on them darting into the road i see splashes of red against white backgrounds, like Pollack paintings or blood drops on white carpet. i see my Supercycle, frame twisted, lying in the middle of a torn-up street with my retainer next to it in the gravel as it was when i pulled myself up and stumbled bleeding into the doorway of the woman who had been out retrieving her paper when i sailed through the air in front of her.

i babysat for that woman, a year or so afterward. she had called my mother to find out how i was doing. it was the carpet i looked for when i first walked in the house…they had replaced it with something in a more serviceable colour. i remember my bright flush of embarrassment at this realization: i did not want to take their money. i remember wondering at the cost of carpet.

Dave started biking last year. it is healthy, earth-friendly. and i have essentially not been on a bike in almost 24 years.

yesterday, i stopped at the toy store. and there in front, on the grass, was a shiny red Radio Flyer first bicycle, with training wheels and white handlebars. it was beautiful, and just almost exactly the size Oscar will need next summer.

and i took a deep breath and told myself i will buy it in August when it goes on sale.  like throwing salt over my shoulder, i will pretend that it is not the colour of blood and i will teach him how to pedal.

and i will put this story away, forever, because the stains it left do not belong on him.

tell me your stories of bicycles, instead. when did you learn to ride? what colour was your first bike? what are YOUR memories of hot days and bicycles?

on Sunday afternoon, at the park with the kids, my bracelet broke.

online friends made the bracelet for me shortly after Posey was born last fall. an ornate art deco clasp, and three strands of silver beading, each with the name and birthstone of one of my children. Oscar & Finn, April, crystals. Josephine, September, sapphire. it was gorgeous. and i cried when i opened the little package, because this bracelet made and sent by semi-strangers had all three of my babies’ names on it, the only thing in my possession linking the three so visibly.

it made me smile.

the strand that broke last Sunday was Finn’s. i scrabbled in the early spring grass, trying to contain the beads as they rolled brightly away and at the same time keep Posey from swallowing the ones i retrieved.  i found a few of the crystals, found the F, the two Ns. but the little square bead with the I escaped me. i got down on my hands and knees, traced the dirt with my fingertips. gone.

the strand of my broken child, always so elusive, broken. the wind blew my hair into my smarting eyes.

then i caught myself. i raised my head to the sharp gust and the dry leftover leaves skittering. he is not in a bracelet, i told myself. he cannot be lost again. he is everywhere, dust, in these leaves, in his brother and sister. he is written on you.  i stood up, spun my head around almost as if i expected to see him there, some little colt-legged shadow with a brown bowl cut.

hello, you.

i left that bead somewhere in that playground, lost like the child himself, relinquished to the world, the universe. it is there, somewhere, in that grass. i just cannot see it.

it is fitting, the bracelet perhaps more honest with its broken strand than it was before.  this is my family picture, three children, one floating free, without an I.  and on his birthday this year, i do not sorrow any more. where once there was a hole where he had been, a gaping wound, now time has left mostly love, indelible, stronger than death.

happy fourth birthday, my Finn…my wee one, my shadow baby, my son. i smile at you.


with  trepidation, i’m planning to send this letter later today…to the hospital where Finn was born and where i did all the bedrest with O and the legion of ultrasounds with Posey.

i’m struck every single year by the ridiculous way in which this fine institution handles its fundraising. i’m not a fan of telethons in the first place, as the emphasis on “look at the cute little hard-luck children and their miracle stories!”  makes me uncomfortable in that eerie 1950 flashback way…but the annual mailout of miracle stories to a population that inevitably includes many bereaved families seems grievously insensitive, even this year when i’m feeling pretty healed and pretty equivocal.

i could use feedback – how does this come off? i want to make my point while still sounding positive and…um…uncrazy. help? please?  all suggestions/constructive criticism welcome. (deep breath).

and yeh, this is the real institution – the blog has been too public to insert false anonymity now. if you’re local, please don’t consider my critique a reason NOT to support the hospital – rather, i’m hoping to inspire them to revisit their fundraising strategies so that more families can support them without being brutalized by mail every spring.

April 28th, 2009

Dear Mr. Shaw,

I received your PEI Cares Telethon newsletter/solicitation in the mail this week, and needed to write to you to explain why your institution’s fundraising efforts unintentionally but regularly raise my hackles.

Mr. Shaw, four years ago tomorrow my son Finn was born at the IWK. I’d been airlifted to Halifax a few weeks earlier, when my water broke at 24 weeks gestation. Finn was born at 26 weeks and a day. He weighed 2.2 pounds, and had brown hair and his father’s nose. He did not make it through his first night; he died in my arms early in the morning of April 30th, 2005. He was our firstborn.

I was and am incredibly grateful to the IWK for the effort expended to try to save Finn’s life, and for the care shown him and me, both then and in my subsequent pregnancies with his younger brother and sister. We – along with some family and friends – have made memorial donations to the IWK every year in Finn’s name and memory, and plan to continue to do so. I recognize that fundraising is an integral part of the ongoing operations of the hospital, and that it is a significant challenge to mobilize the necessary funds to keep the standard of care at the level of excellence Maritime families have come to rely on.

But, may I suggest that including bereaved parents in your regular fundraising mailout is insensitive and in poor taste? Last year, one of the children featured in the mailout and on the telethon was a little girl from here in PEI who was born at the exact same gestation as my son, at only ¾ his weight, on his actual due date in August 2005. We happen to know this little girl and her family personally, and celebrate with them the fact of her survival and healthy development. But it is painful nonetheless to be faced with the public spectacle of that “miracle,” particularly as part of an emotional appeal designed to raise money. It creates a discourse wherein the children who do not have the happy ending or the camera-friendly story are further negated, in a culture which already treats infant and child death as the last frontier of horror. The telethon only reinforces the isolation of bereaved parents by reinforcing the “Oh, I couldn’t possibly imagine” response.

I give in my son’s memory because he mattered to me, and because I wouldn’t want another family to go through the same grief that we did if it were at all avoidable. But I can assure you that being confronted with intentionally emotionally manipulative mailouts asking me to “imagine” the difficulty of having a child in hospital does not make me at all more generous.

If your hospital were a cardiac facility for adults, I suspect you would not solicit donations among the widows of lost patients by sending smiling pictures of happy heart attack survivors: “This is Fred. He had a massive coronary but what a precious champion – he’s a fighter and today he’s back golfing again! Fred never gave up. His wife Joyce is just so grateful to all of you who made this miracle possible through your generous gifts.” It would be understood, implicitly, that such a mass fundraising strategy would be offensive, salt in the wounds of those whose partners did not survive their heart attacks. Losing a child is no less difficult than losing a spouse. Please show me, my family, and the other bereaved families whose children have not been lucky enough to leave the IWK healthy the same respect you would accord us if our loved ones had been adults.

Perhaps a separate database could be established, Mr. Shaw, wherein families who’ve made memorial donations for their children could have a simple, tasteful, “We’re fundraising and would very much appreciate your continued support in memory of your child, should you feel so inclined” letter sent, instead of the standard telethon-focused “miracle” onslaught?

I genuinely want to support the good work the IWK does, and would be happy to volunteer my assistance in revising your fundraising strategy amongst bereaved families. I ask you to please consider doing so, and in the interim, to please remove me from your mailout list. I will continue to donate, but on terms that respect my son’s memory rather than erase him from view simply because he was not, in telethon terms, a “miracle.”

Yours sincerely,

Bonnie Stewart

the blog turned three the other day. and it snowed.  huh.  fuck you too, April.

i  could swear i’ve had no time to bake any celebratory blogoversary virtual cupcakes this year, except…erm, they’re virtual.  practically instant. perhaps it just feels like the circles we run in out here are too choked with sadness and fear lately for anyone to want to eat any.

grief makes me uncomfortable.

when i was in high school, five friends and i put on a play called Passacaglia in the local drama festival. we played the denizens and matron of a nursing home, rhapsodizing back on dreams deferred. my cynical, virginal self had to speak the line “we made love” aloud without dissolving into ironic distance or giggles. we powdered our hair, wore Tender Tootsies. the six of us spent a lot of time together that spring, talking about aging and who we hoped we’d be when we got old.

the following spring, one of us drowned, with her older brother.

their funeral was, as you would imagine, enormous. they played U2’s With or Without You. and i sat in the back, compelled and repelled all the same by the proceedings, my eyes on Sarah’s white coffin and the bent heads of her parents. i felt sad and angry. and scornful at the same time, at the weeping and the wailing from those whom i knew had known her no better than i, those who cried because it was a time for crying.

i wanted to say, i knew her. i knew what she wanted to be when she was ninety years old. but my claim to her seemed so small, so peripheral, that to speak it at all felt like playing a part. i did not know if i deserved to mourn.  to do so publicly felt somehow distasteful…not to do so, almost disrespectful.

i always feel weird when private sorrows become hugely public, go viral. our society creates spectacle out of grief, and part of me recoils, afraid of appropriating, claiming what is not my own.  and yet to pretend grief is not in the room when it has swallowed all the air…that only harms, i think, never helps.  grief is the dirty underbelly of living, of community, of friendship.  if ever you think it’s not present, scratch a little deeper. or wait.

in the three years of its existence, the blog has been the site of more public grieving on my part than i care to think about.  it is the place i put things i cannot say in my real life. i do not want to walk into the grocery store today and say, hi. did you know that this is the anniversary of the day things went irrevocably wrong for me?  that four years ago this morning i was airlifted to the IWK because my water broke? i was 24 weeks, almost. my son was born a couple of weeks later. he died the morning of the last day of the month. my son. my Finn, firstborn.

i am so uncomfortable with grief even after the intervening four years that if i had say the words above aloud to someone today, i’d grin all the way through, my rictus of pleasant polite-itude desperately trying to counter the message.

so i tell you, here.  because it is April, again, and i need to mark it.  without the grin. without needing the grin, or tears either.

i’d feel ridiculous telling anyone in person that tomorrow is nine years since my Nannie died, after a good long life and a miserably long death.  but i tell you.  i acknowledge, remember aloud, onscreen. a line or two is all.

and my heart is calmed, having borne its small witness to these people whom i loved, thrown those words into the chorus of sadness and memory and love that exists out here.

which is, i suppose, what we are all trying to do as we muddle through this mess of an April.


in one of April’s happier anniversary dates at our house, a “yellow cake with a yellow train” has been requested for Oscar’s third birthday next week. i tried to talk him into chocolate, to no avail. nearly-three-year-olds are a hard-headed people, i am discovering. and as sweet and quirky a kid as Oscar can be, he knows what he likes…so yellow his cake shall be. and possibly homemade, if i do not chicken out and buy a box of Betty Crocker yellow.

now, i have no clue how to actually make a cake from scratch, let alone make it, uh, yellow without adding brain cancer food colouring. but i like a challenge, so if you could bring on your best yellow recipes whilst i mutter curses at the babysitter for cultivating strange, non-chocolate-centred tastes in my offspring, that’d be great.

if it’s too ugly to serve to the three-year-old set, rest assured i will hand out virtual slices – and photos – here. one can always aspire to be on Cake Wrecks, if nothing else.

ah, blogging. you make everything just a little less lonely, at least.

the cuts seem to be coming hot and heavy now, after months of doom and gloom breathing down our necks. the downturn is crossing class lines, impacting manufacturing and media and corporate finance alike.

the shit from an inflated, entitled culture that fed on bogeymen and retail therapy is hitting the fan. now the bogeymen appear to be closer to home, bankers and polluters, a different kind of us & them than we’ve grown accustomed to stressing over in the past decade. it’s change, at least. we’ll see about hope.

i am looking hard for hope, peering around corners and down the decolletage of all the pretty girls tarted up to distract me from cultural dissolution.  ooh!  Olympics!  food porn!  mommy bitchfests!  my hands dip into the pop culture well and come up empty, grasping me and mine to me all the closer. i am looking for work in this economy, and i have kids i want to provide both a home and a healthy world for in the midst of this hysteria. i do not want to be the Joads, fleeing the dustbowl in our jalopy. i do not want to go up in flames or fourhorsemen.

part of me tires of hearing it all, wants to close in on myself and hunker down with my backyard tomato plant and my babies. i want to say, i feel helpless.

but a little voice that speaks an old, blood tongue deep in my familial bones says, don’t.

yes, there are terrible things going on.  yes, there is insecurity.  fear is eating at us, as a culture.  this is not a fear we can wall ourselves away from…this fear chews at all the fat we thought we’d socked away, untouchable. this fear makes us angry and protective and shrill, seagulls from Finding Nemo.

it’s easy to be transfixed by the sight of our ship that was a-comin’ in going down instead.   but the voices of my grandmothers, who lived through the Great Depression young and poor and Scots Protestant proud whisper, if we live as islands, we will die as islands. i think they mean at least metaphorically, but they were fierce and a wee bit harsh, those grandmothers. plain speakers, they hiss, stop yer whinin’ and get out and DO. grow. help. share. use your talents, use what you got. or helplessness in the face of this recession will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

the human interest stories i used to hear on the news don’t seem to be getting much play lately. we’re all downturn all the time, visuals of houses foreclosed upon our Dorothea Lange equivalencies, unemployment stats riveting us. these things matter. but if a magic wand fixed it all tomorrow, our world would still be a place of hurt, with cancer and hunger and loneliness.  helplines still need volunteers.  kids still need recess monitors.  seniors and their caregivers still need support in the face of dwindling health care and mental health resources. places like the Greater Good Network, where you click ye olde mouse once a day to accrue sponsored donations to causes like literacy, breast cancer research, rain forest preservation, animal shelters, and hunger are finding their clicks have dropped significantly. but all it takes is a computer and two minutes.  will it save the world? nope. will it save your mortgage? nope. but as long as you have a computer, can you do it every day? yep.  and you can buy fair-traded products from their sponsors for everybody’s birthday gifts, too, for less than you’d often spend at Walmart. the habit of considering the greater good, even in something as simple and surface as clicking a daily link, may help all of us begin to reconstruct our society as the place we’d like it to be.

hope won’t hurt. the lovely and talented shutter sisters are vying for the grand prize in Microsoft’s Name Your Dream Assignment – $50,000 plus the glass & technology to travel the world. they want to photograph stories of hope, focus our eyes on hope. you can vote for them here, if you like. check out the contest, at least. if you use Microsoft products at all, and even the most open source and Machead-inclined among us end up doing so almost inevitably at some point, you may as well direct a little of what the company is doing with its profits. beats what banks seem to have been doing with theirs.

there is an old adage of questionable origin that an ancient Chinese blessing and an ancient Chinese curse merge in the words, may you live in interesting times. we do, unquestionably. whether we make of them a blessing or a curse is, at least in small part, up to us.


what are your hopes, for your self and your family, for your culture and your world?  what do you feel you can and can’t impact?

« Previous PageNext Page »