stuff stuff

portrait of a semi-urban childhood by o&poecormier

last week was all eulogies and elegies with a literary weekend to boot. a whirl.

now, i am spun out…a top fallen over. i want to hide in the corner awhile, collect dust.

but it is a holiday. children home. beds to strip, laundry to hang. walks to take, with two little bikes. one without pedals. one soon to lose its training wheels, but not yet.

we live in the middle of a small city, not quite the charming old downtown, but not quite a full-blown residential neighbourhood, either. we look out onto the corrugated tin of the liquor store. the bones of an apartment building are currently rising where the motorcycle chop shop used to sit, praise be. our neck of the woods is not fancy, but it is damned convenient. we are zoned mixed-use. if i should decide to open a hair salon or a tattoo parlour, it’ll be perfect.

we are one street over from the local Co-op. i came here as a kid with my grandmother, for King Cole tea and canned soup and jello parfaits. only this past winter did they renovate, leaving a nook in the parking lot where the first automatic doors i ever marvelled at now sit unused. this forty foot indent of asphalt is suddenly our own, untrafficked, enclosed almost on three sides. a personal pavement paradise, in the after-supper evenings when we take the kids to ride. or sit, if little legs get tired. Oscar rides alongside the row of concrete barriers, pretending to deliver milk. we admire the tags and graffiti left behind by those who claim the space after we are long abed.

Dave grew up on a dead-end road in a town of three hundred souls. when he bikes alone, he goes for the trail, the wilderness, a space of living things. someday, they will go with him.

for today, we make our tiny pilgrimages to the parking lot.

where did you learn to ride a bike? where do your kids ride? do you have public spaces that feel – in moments – like yours?

part one is here.

so, my two day Ph.D orientation was September 1st and 2nd. yesterday. the day before.

i was not there.

i’d been joking for awhile about the campus tour part of the orientation, since the campus is about as big as a minute and i’ve worked there for five years, in four different buildings. but i was still looking forward to it. it’s the first Ph.D program this faculty has ever run: there are only four of us entering, and we’d spend the two days with pretty much the full faculty contingent and get a lot of the research and funding questions i’ve had since the spring finally answered. this was the fullest, most concerted access we’d have to each other just as people, stating interests, exploring options, before the race of the year got underway.

but last Friday i had a headache. Saturday, i woke up with a sore, sore throat and an overall sense of ick. Sunday, i could barely even GET up. it was like a flu on a scale i’d never had: full body aches and chills and sweats like a roller coaster. i felt 107,and a weak 107 at that . Monday, vomiting started, and i could barely swallow. Dave took me to the ER. doc said strep: i got an IV and a couple litres of fluid and a prescription for Amoxil. went home, looking forward to getting better right quick, like a bunny. because i had orientation.

instead, Tuesday morning my throat was more raw than ever and i cried each time my body spasmed into swallowing. every drop i choked down i brought back up. but i got the Amoxil down with Gravol and they stayed and i crawled into bed and waited for relief.

instead, something crawled behind my eyes.

if you have ever taken hallucinogens in your misspent youth, you will notice, i’ve heard (ahem), that there is a point at which you think these goddam things aren’t going to work. and just as you are about to give up on the excitement you’ve, say, paid good money for or crawled at dawn all over a good golf course to pick, there comes a slight crawling, trailing motion behind your eyes and you realize the Tilt-A-Whirl has just started up and you’re locked in and there is – quite literally – nothing to do but go along for the ride for the next, oh, six or eight hours.

this felt like that. which when you have a 103 fever and can’t swallow and have long left silly college experimentations behind and have An Orientation Tomorrow to get better for, is not exactly the feeling you are looking for, whatever thrills it may have conjured in the past.

i lay in the bed wondering if i was just being silly. i opened my eyes, looked around my room, nodded, and closed them again. the exact imprint of my cat, who stood staring down at me from the side of bed, popped out in white against the dark curtain of my eyelids. then the sounds started, my ears like bizarre amplification instruments out of Dr. Suess’ own torture chamber. i could hear in 3D. i could hear conversations across town. i could hear my throat, my ragged breathing.


i carefully got up, dressed my shaking body, put the pills in my purse, and called Dave. by the time he got home i was hiding under a pillow on the couch. by the time we got to the packed ER, for the second time in less than fifteen hours, i was near feral. we didn’t wait five hours that time. i was in a lovely private ER room in minutes, courtesy of myapparently perfect mimicry of a total nutcase.

they thought i had meningitis, swelling of the brain. nobody seemed interested in my theory that i was being poisoned. possibly because i was also adamant that if they made me take my sweater off – it was a swelterish 30 degrees out – i’d drown.

i came back to myself almost exactly four hours in, about 1 pm. i remembered the events of the previous few hours, but as if through a prism. i felt wrung like a wet rag. they took more blood than i thought i possessed. a poor student nurse was the first to try, shades of the night before school twenty-four years ago, but she might as well have stabbed me with a fork and i screamed and they sent in the elder LPN instead, the one who could thread needles like butter. i babbled incoherently at her, not because i was still delusional, but because i was so damn grateful the student had stopped.

twelve holes in my arms to add to the two from the night before. i have tracks like Keith Richards in 1968.

then, after the IV took hold and the fever broke and i lay spent in the pool of my own sweat, a spinal tap. or actually four, because the very nice doctor kept saying, in a curious flat tone, i can’t seem to find any cerebrospinal fluid.

it is a strange thing, to be bent in half, mostly naked and sick, over a hospital bedside tray with the most vulnerable corners of your spine stretched like a cat to a man you’ve never met before and have him say such a thing about your white little back. it felt oddly my fault, as if i’d thrown a party and failed to ensure my guests had drinks. fluids are the hostess’ responsibility. and that silly feminine guilt was easier than acknowledging the fear that raced through the pathways of my brain, recently fried like eggs. i had a spinal tap once before, twenty years ago. i’ve had three epidurals. but in none of them has anyone ever said, i can’t seem to get this right.

he did, on the fourth try, leaving me mercifully unparalyzed though with the killer cerebrospinal headache that still haunts me to this moment. while he waited for the fluid to drain a nurse strolled in and announced Bed Twenty-two? She has a blood alcohol level of ninety three.

there was clucking, impressed though not unkind, from the faceless sea of medical professionals circled around my C-curved body. out of nowhere, afraid i would laugh and paralyze myself if i did not get the thought out, i muttered, I’ve had drinks that had alcohol levels lower than that. they skipped a beat, because they had all, i think, forgotten me as more than a back, an exposed lumbar. then they laughed, again kindly, and the doctor spoke wearily to the nurse and made sure that the woman would get all the treatment they could give, even though she was apparently uninsured for some of the extras. or something. it wasn’t clear, nor was it my business. and yet in that moment, i felt the doctor’s tired, capable, patient hands on my back, and i felt more human than i had in hours, or would again until i got home.

our local ER is new, quite lovely if understaffed, and full of state-of-the-art private rooms. so i was rolled, all taped up to multiple monitors like a neonate, to one of these glamourous holding tanks until late late, just when i’d decided to sleep, a cheery nurse named Kathy came for me and brought me inexplicably to pediatrics. i realized later it was the only private room available in the hospital. they were keeping me in isolation until the meningitis tests came back.

rooms with Disney stickers are lonely when you miss your kids.

i felt better the next morning – my throat less raw after the fourth bag of IV fluids – and my fever came under control and by 4 pm when they came in to say that it was definitively strep and not meningitis, i was feeling pretty good.

then they said, here’s your Amoxil.

i mentioned that the nice ER doctor had said i wouldn’t be having any more of that. the whole “thing” the day before might have been a reaction.

they stared blankly at me, these particular nurses in their teddy bear-print shirts. they had just come on shift: i had never seen them before. do you have a rash? they said. Amoxil reactions are rashes, one clarified, with an abrupt finality. they said the doc on call had ordered it, for strep. she emphasized the last part slowly, an equation, like i might be a little stupid.

they shook it at me. my mother was there, both of us uncertain. i understood there were no chinks for my words to get a toehold on in this particular version of the system. no way out but through.

i took it.

twenty minutes later, i asked my mother to kindly put out the bathroom light behind her, as the sight of it was suddenly searing my eyes. then the crawling started. goody.

this second time i understood what was happening, and was neither feverish nor dehydrated nor in debilitating pain. and so, with my mother patient beside me and then, team switch, with Dave, i rode it out again, watching the big black hospital clock on the wall. with my eyes open it crept around, unruly. with my eyes closed, only the stark white circle of it stood out, imprinted against the back of my lids.

four hours, i told myself. four hours.

lucky me. i have a rare neurological allergy to amoxicillin, my file now states.

the night nurse, in the absence of a rash, still eyed my nightside table suspicously and treated me like a juvenile delinquent all night long. the one who came on the next morning couldn’t have been more different, more warm, more empathetic. people. timing. random luck.

and so i walked out of the hospital yesterday morning, shaky and weak but slowly recovering from the fever and the strep, with a prescription for an unrelated penicillin and a sense of having been to another land, one out of time and body.

which i suppose, in the end, is as good an orientation for going back to college as i could have had. whatever i missed at the actual deal, i think they’ll kindly avail me of anyway. but the strange heart of darkness that can come – even for a 38 year old woman in a pediatric ward, attended by her mother – hell, that kind of exploration i’d forgotten.

i’d forgotten that reality isn’t truly the same for us all. i’d forgotten that being treated as rational, knowledgeable, human, is a privilege, not an everyday occurrence in all circumstances, something that one can be stripped of in a heartbeat. i’d forgotten that institutional systems are not always inherently benevolent, no matter how helpful nor how needed in a given circumstance. i had forgotten, from years of good luck and good health and the taking for granted that comes when one has all the privileges of race and class and education, what it is like to be vulnerable to other people’s misconceptions about your particular circumstances, what it is like to be vulnerable to the human frailty of power, even if that power ostensibly means well and has teddy bears on its shirt.

i could have taken an entire Ph.D and not learned something so valuable, so human.

for all those of you who kindly asked…i’m doing a lot better. throat decent, fever down, food slowly making its way back to my world. as soon as the Old Testament prophet behind my left eye stops smiting it with the lightning bolt that is my cerebro-spinal take-home present from the spinal tap three days ago, i’ll be grand. the headache still gets worse every day. i am hoping today is its pinnacle. tomorrow, we have a hurricane coming.

i walked out of the hospital today feeling almost – though not quite – as surreal as i had when i stumbled in two days ago.

almost as surreal, because no matter how flattering, 38 year old women do not normally stay in the pediatrics ward, in rooms festooned with Cinderella stickers and Mickey mouse. the pediatric nurses all waved a kind goodbye as i tried not to wobble on my way to the door. i rubbed my head. four or five days of serious fever and two hospital visits all kind of blurred together, and i counted the days as we wandered through the corridors: Thursday. September 2nd. i nodded internally, steady now. i love September: the crisp air, the boots, the socks, the sweaters, the new pens. okay.

we walked out of the hospital into the hottest day we’ve seen here all summer.

and then, oh right, there’s a hurricane coming? funny, nobody talks about that on pediatrics. it was all just how much did you pee? and here’s your tray of chicken fingers and fries dear…uh…ma’am. you know. small talk. of course, i was in isolation. maybe all the kiddies in the playroom were chattin’ it up about the weather non-stop.

i rubbed my head again, Rumplestiltskin who seemed to have slumbered in the wireless-free confinement of my little quarantine room for long seasons. or simply woken up in another latitude entirely, one where hurricanes are actually expected to make landfall. see, i live in Canada. we have cold. that’s OUR extreme weather. the rest of you get all the scary shit.

can a spinal tap make latitudes shift?

for a moment, that thought spiraled out like a kite on a breeze, and i wondered if that golden liquid treasure that runs down all our backbones is actually what centres us in the time and place we happen to belong to; if spinal taps are not the portal to time travel, to instant tropical vacations.

then my brain clamped down on itself like an iron door.

you are to make sense, it said sternly. not making sense has been absolutely NO FUN.

when i was fourteen, you know, i missed my first week of high school. so none of this should really have been a surprise.

i had been shopping with my best friend Jill with money earned at a little summer babysitting job and i had these strange hiccups that wouldn’t go away and i kept embarrassing her, hiccuping my way around the fancy store until she finally turned around like a little pouf-banged martinet and said, STOP! exactly the way i speak to Posey now when she insists on hitter her elder brother and i remember raising my eyebrow at her like WTF? it’s the HICCUPS, i CAN’T stop, that’s the POINT and then turning a cold shoulder so she would not know i felt betrayed.

but when i got into the dressing room with those awful 1986 high-waisted monstrosities of jeans i was dying to spend hard-earned money on, i noticed my belly was sore and bloated and tender, and i couldn’t button anything where i thought i ought to button anything. and so that was when i left Jill there and walked home carrying new pants i hoped would fit better in the morning, thrilling to the terror and uncertainty of the brave new world of high school waiting right there on the other side of this awkward, not-quite-as-i’d-hoped-for day.

i hadn’t seen nothing.

by six pm my belly was sore enough that i mentioned it to my mom. by seven she was worried. by eight we were at the hospital. by ten pm i was in an ER room with a nice young doctor explaining that my appendix needed to come out.

i remember nodding at him, most obligingly, and suggesting that anytime after about the second week of October would be good for me. we’d be getting into midterms by then. i wouldn’t mind the rest.

no, he’d said, most soothingly, in chorus with my mother. tonight, dear. it needs to come out tonight.

i had stared at the two of them, blinking, twice betrayed in the course of a single day. then, indignant. were they stupid? i had HIGH SCHOOL tomorrow, i reminded them. i start grade ten at Colonel Gray, i chirped, patiently, as if to children.

not tomorrow, sweetheart, i remember my mother saying, with extraordinary gentleness. and then the student nurse who couldn’t start an IV to save her life came in to torture me for awhile and that was that; out like a light.

in the end, it was okay. i limped back into school the following week and saw old friends and met new friends and my life took a new shape not so different from the old and until a couple of days ago i had long since forgotten that i’d even spent those first few days in the hospital and not at school.

this week, i remembered, all too vividly. i started high school a week late. and i will do the same with my Ph.D.

and in the process of being late for school this go ’round, i may have learned – or remembered? – one of the most important things the world has to teach me, Ph.D or no Ph.D. now, i need desperately to rest. but i will tell you the rest of the story.

tomorrow. or as soon as the headache is gone?

it ought to be perfect.

there are steel rails installed, by the toilet and the shower. the LaZBoy throne has been replaced by a marvel which – at the touch of a button – deposits him from its egg-carton-cushy-foam seat onto his feet, and gently. there is a hospital bed in the master bedroom. nurses come daily, to take his blood pressure, check for bedsores, make sure he is nourished and cleaned and supported.

my grandfather is home. after almost four months of hospitalization and convalescent wards, he has come home well enough to stay.

he ensconced himself on the fancy new recliner and with an ancient Zippo, lid aflame like an Olympic torch, lit up the cigar that he kept in his bedside drawer the entire time he was gone.

and then he asked for the keys to the truck.

during the long days of January and February, when he lay in bed, one arm swollen to the size of a football, and his skin and circulation breaking down faster even than his heart appeared to be, he was confused a lot of the time.

i would visit, and he’d ask how my father was, even though my father was there every day. he asked his own room number over and over again.  he seemed unable, a great deal of the time, to hold his moorings: the day-to-day that had been his life for years appeared to slip from him. we did not talk about his house or his job.

what we talked about was the Lysander.

my grandfather, a farm boy from PEI, was a British agent from 1939-1949.  he spent WWII and the early years of the Cold War between Camp X and Bletchley Park and occupied Europe, with homebase in NYC.

he spent half his war in planes.

in lumbering matte-black Lysanders, unmarked, navigating by moonlight, they flew perched on trunks of plastic explosive. they smoked as they flew. they made their way over enemy territory, readying themselves to parachute behind lines to Tito’s resistance, to the Free French.

the Lysander was an ungainly thing, but it could take off on ten feet of runway or less, a hulk of engines and fabric rising into the sky like a fat bird. during WWII, its main role was with intelligence, dropping agents and doing photo reconnaissance. it was no good for bombs, too slow for fighting. but it was steady, reliable. it could be flown by any agent who made it alive to the pre-agreed point of takeoff. and a Lysander brought my grandfather home safely.

in June, an airshow on PEI will feature a reconstructed Lysander, air-ready. before the heart attack in January, my grandfather was contacted by the organizers. would he like to fly in the plane? he would.

he thought, i think, that he’d like to fly the plane again.

and so all through the confused days of the winter it was the Lysander we returned to. he did not worry – aloud – that he would not make it to see the plane, but rather that he would not be able to climb in. that he would not be well enough to go up in her.

mostly, though, he told me that he could fly her.

he last flew a plane only three years ago, with his equally octegenarian buddy. the event made me wonder if i ought to warn the whole of Prince Edward Island to take to their basements while the cast of Grumpy Old Men ruled the skies.

but it is different now. for the first time in his life, his body has failed him, showed its vulnerability. he knows he will not fly the Lysander, ever again. and he curses being old.

there is a service that brings meals, as do i, and my stepmother. but the restaurant he ate at daily for 21 years – the one that burnt last spring – has reopened. my father brought him back the first time, while he was still on the convalescent ward, frail but triumphal. he was welcomed like a prodigal.

the diner is down the road from his house. and he drives. when we arranged last week to meet there for supper, he said, “i’ll meet you there!”

i balked. we can pick you up! i chirped. we have extra seats in the new car!

“oh, i’m good.” his tone brooked no argument. “i drive down most nights.”

he is perhaps no more dangerous a driver than i. i do not know. i know the idea of him behind the wheel still makes me terribly nervous, Cassandra attuned to all the doom the horizon can hold. it is not him i fear for. it is the someone else the candy apple truck could run into: the lives – theirs, his, all of ours – that such a tragedy would eat away at. if he is no longer independent, then we are all complicit.

this week, he will take his provincial driving test again, for the first time in seven decades. they have endowed family doctors with the capacity to order driving tests for seniors, finally. after having watched the fierce struggle between my mother and my grandmother fifteen years ago, when it became clear that at eighty-nine, the latter was no longer safe to commandeer her Datsun through the streets of Charlottetown, i am grateful that my father does not have to fight the same battle with his father.

but i fight it in myself.

i fear he will ace the test, come home with a bright, shiny license and no place for any of us to stand and caution. and i fear what will happen to him if he does not. i grieve the idea of him trapped in his house, waiting for others to wait on him.

he is ninety. he will never fly his Lysander again.

i know there is no such thing as perfect. and still, i feel cold and cruel for wanting to take his truck too.

it is nearly the end of term.

the skies grow gray, the days grow short. the exam looms.

and for students – hell, for me – dragging one’s carcass  out of bed to come to class gets harder and harder.

teachers are a vast repository of entertaining if specious excuses for missed classes. we hear it all: the grandmothers who die three times a term, the mysterious “appointments” that seem to occur at the same time every second week, the belly aches that magically disappear just in time for the afflicted learner to be located lounging in a coffee shop.

i’m a bit of a hard-nose about attendance. i expect an email and a decent reason, just as if school were a job. and i notice. i have small classes, where an empty seat yawns like a missing tooth. i know everyone’s names the second week of class.  there’s no hiding from me.

but they are adults, my students, at least legally, university kids far from home for the first time. some of them straggle in at noon, late, flustered, clearly having just rolled out of bed. i gaze upon them with vicious, bare-fanged envy.

some miss too many classes. the exam for our course is a repeat of the placement exam they wrote back in September; a single timed essay, its purpose to determine whether or not they can meet the demands of full-time credit courses without additional English support. if they don’t attend, they have to wait an extra couple of weeks to write it.  no traditional grading scheme, not much to hold over their heads. their only real punishment is that they miss out on my delightful company and my wisdom, of course. and i miss theirs.

still, most buy in. it is an amazing fact of human nature that when treated reasonably, most people respond reasonably. i teach things they need. i make that explicit, strategic. and i am clear about my expectations without getting terribly het up when they do not meet them, particularly in the realm of attendance. oh, i give them The Look. and The Grave Talking To. I explain consequences in terms of things they actually give two shits about, like ultimately getting the heck out of our mandatory program. but i have been fifteen years a teacher. i do not get excited about their white lies, the emails that clock in three minutes after the start of class saying – again – dear Bonnie, i sick. tomorrow i will not sick.

i do not bite.

i edit these notes, sometimes, send back refined versions explaining how to craft an appropriately professional excuse for absence, but i do not get excited. i will know when they are truly slipping, endangering their term, beginning to shred under the strange, unspeakable pressure of navigating my world and their own internal lives and priorities and burdens. then i will flurry into action and do everything i can to whip & bolster & comfort them back into line, because then and only then will they allow me any real part in the process at all.

as it should be.

the fact that i expect them to come to class at all is an act of stunning hypocrisy. if my undergraduate profs had kept attendance records, i’d have had to apply to get them expunged in order to land a teaching position at any self-respecting institution.

i was once the Queen of Excuses. it started early, along about eleventh grade, when i simultaneously learned to mimic my mother’s handwriting and noticed that she left for work before i walked to school in the mornings. this happy coincidence, combined with the fact that i had English class first thing every second morning and my English teacher had a significant if unfortunate Valium habit, meant that i went back to bed a lot that year. i still like nothing better than to crawl back into bed an hour or two after rising. i do my best sleeping at about 7:53 in the morning.

i embarked on this first of my creative writing projects with enthusiasm, crafting regular notes detailing dramatic yet seemly reasons for not being in class. i made sure to keep most of them painfully normal: eye appointments, dental troubles, vague feminine complaints, flu. but i also let the purple prose of adolescence run away with me a few times: had my teacher been fully aware of who i was, i suspect he might have wondered why my mother occasionally wrote notes worded as if she’d recently escaped from Wuthering Heights. but he said nothing, poor lost man, even when i broke my own rule of no-more-than-twice-a-month and dozed through an entire week of Catcher in the Rye safe at home in my own bed, handing in notes that hinted, with the delicacy of bricks, that i’d been at exotic locales named in the book but utterly unheard of near our provincial capital: a prep school, the zoo. i stopped short of the mental institution that frames the story: i didn’t want to make my teacher feel embarrassed. still, i felt Holden Caulfield would’ve been proud.

over the years, as i gradually learned the art of intrinsic motivation, i stopped making excuses and learned to haul myself out of bed. and that was good.

but as i began collecting excuses from students instead, i realized you can tell a lot about a person by the kind of excuses they make.  in delving into our psyches to validate ourselves – however speciously – to authority, we expose a lot about what we’ve been raised to think of as worthy of excuse, of forgiveness, of coddling.

all liars, after all, ultimately want to believe themselves.

the students who present with a hushed, eyebrow-raised disclosure of “stomach problems” – or better, in twenty-somethings, “tummy problems”: oh, how they blush when i ask about their diarrhea.  and suddenly fifteen years falls from their faces and they are little children again, learning to keep their bodies the ultimate secret, the That Which Shall Not Be Named.

the ones who send vague notes like “i have a headache”? i call them to the mat, later, and ask, with great, head-bobbing interest, big headache? little headache? did the lights bother you? generally they blush and avoid eye contact, caught out in the act of having not bothered enough to write a decent excuse. i then teach them the word “migraine” and hopefully a lesson in being organized, intentional, and specific in all acts of writing.

i particularly enjoy the ones who describe their afflictions in detail, digging out dictionaries or Dr. Google to look up medical words. these are conscientious class-skippers, this lot, the kind of kids who generally work hard and feel guilty about their trangressions and are clearly accustomed to having someone take more than a passing interest in their health. they tend to equate severity with validity, even if they are most often found missing early morning consultations but assuring me heartily in their notes that they’ll visit the clinic and make it to class at 3pm.  i once had a student recover fully from what he described as acute pancreatitis by 3 pm. i asked the class to join me in offering praise for the miracle, particularly since i’d noted their stricken classmate downing a pizza in the Student Centre only an hour past the missed appointment.  alas, sarcasm is somewhat lost on intro-level ESL-speakers.

yesterday, however, i came face-to-face with an entirely new breed of excuse, one i wish i’d had the creativity to dream up all by myself.  i call it Medical Excuse by Obfuscation. the email which delivered it ran like this:

Bonnie, after I ate my lunch, I feel bad with my bingy, I have to go to the washingroom every ten minues.

bingy. huh. what in the nameagod is a bingy?

do YOU know? me neither. and for once, i was afraid to ask. and so this very lovely, generally hardworking student returned to class today utterly unmolested except for a vague “you okay?” from me.  and i bit my tongue, and thought, well done, dude. you got me. you foiled the Queen of Excuses.

what kind of excuses do you make?

and please assuage my guilt and tell me i’m not the only one who perfected her mother’s handwriting? (if you’re reading, Ma, forgive me. it’s all made-up, total fabrication. Munchausen’s syndrome, i’m sure. i’ll be better by 3 pm).

Wednesday. i am on my knees under the high chair wiping up sludge that was once food for what feels like the twelfth time today even though i’ve only been IN my home awake for perhaps three hours of an already long day.

it feels like a yoke, this constant cycle of menial drudge stuff.  it is the thing that weighs me down, frustrates me, leaves me sharp and shrill and dreading the transition from work to home everyday.  in through the door we hustle, dragging shouting children and bags and dirty diapers, to be greeted not with sanctuary but the breakfast dishes.

garbage and compost and cat litter to be emptied. laundry to be folded or put away or retrieved from behind the washer where it fell, neglected, while waiting to be returned to its rightful drawer. everywhere i look, there is something that needs to be put away. every corner and cranny is full. and i am a pack animal, stumbling under the burden of this strange slavery to what ought to be a refuge.

it is not a mess, nor squalour, i understand that. we stay on top of it, just barely. but the omnipresence of it is slowly squeezing me until there is no time, no room left just to breathe. to be freed.

i should let it go. i do not know how.

to be a grownup is to have sanctuary become a day job. the sanctuary of the home swells, grotesque, until it is only a to-do list with no place to hide.

i want to live in a Japanese zen garden. i want two bamboo mats and a thick cotton futon and the illusion of space. i want minimalism and parallel lines and an artful flower, just-so, adorning the austerity.

i want to walk into this garden and fall down and sleep for a week.


Friday.  the children in bed after a day that began too early and ended too ornery. i pull the tray of caramel apples from the fridge.  failures, prematurely dipped, candy coating now pooled thinly on the bottom of the tray.  i contemplate a second box, second try. i contemplate the party in the morning, the brownies to be made, the junk food to be bagged. my mind skips and reels, uncertain even how to fit ten or twelve or fifteen children and their parents in this little house without a basement.

i contemplate the after.  i wonder what in gawd’s name i’m doing, having a Hallowe’en party when i’m mess-averse and stretched thin and brittle. i know Dave wonders. neither of us have slept more than a few hours straight all week; old colds coughing their way out of our systems, deadlines driving us without respite.  we are horses pulling against each other, each of us headstrong and easily wounded. there has been no time to regroup, take stock, heal the scratches. i sink in my own sadness and it spills into hopelessness and rage and i say aloud, i cannot live like this.

i keep hoping someone will hear and magically make it all different.

there are tears in the second batch of caramel. it suffers from my distraction and a phone call and the fact that a meat thermometer is not, in fact, a candy thermometer. i miss the soft ball stage this time and go straight to hard crack, though of the candy rather than the drug persuasion. the first apple mires in the wicked goo until the stick breaks. i end up tossing the entire batch into the compost bin. it hits the cold plastic with a thwack like glass threatening to break.


Saturday. our house overflows with people, most of them short and costumed and sweltering. i note that costumes are plush these days, no longer the paper-thin flammable plastic of my childhood. in the same breath i recall the quick-chilling beads of my sweat inside the white-backed masks with clown faces, Snow White, whatever other selves i became briefly in those Octobers of long ago. masquerading, i think, has always been hot work.

my mother, without being asked, herds Posey the wee caterpillar through the throng of three-year-olds and a few stray elder siblings. i gather the taller group on stools around the kitchen island and hand out weapons of mass destruction – globs of homemade icing, sprinkles, gummi worms, candied pumpkins – for them to amuse themselves with. things of beauty are born, sampled, discarded. my child licks his plate. Dave disentangles himself from the role of greeter & coffee provider and leads children and more than a few parents upstairs, a Pied Piper with a glow-in-the-dark Dr. Suess book and a maglite. they jam themselves into Oscar & Josephine’s tiny, darkened room.  i hear him through the baby monitor, clearing his throat, announcing A Spooky Story. the thrill of little giggles, scaring themselves. later we throw them all out in the leaves, bob for apples in wild defiance of H1N1 protocol. my doctor’s kid’s booger floats in the water.

the whole thing goes off seamlessly, a team effort that leaves me standing in my kitchen after, wondering at the relative lack of mess, at how dismissable those stray candy wrappers that remain can be.

i still want to sleep for a week. i still want a slim bamboo & paper screen that i can raise at will between me and the hurly-burly of this life that is by turns both rich, homey pageant and zero-sum grind.

i wonder which is the masquerade.

i look to Monday and try to breathe deep.

i tend to take research results with a grain of salt.

our accumulated human & societal experiments fascinate me. but when your own flawed self has been the architect of a plan or project designed to illuminate the human condition in some way or another, truths and illuminations from other people’s plans and projects start start to look a lot more jury-rigged themselves. it’s not exactly that they appear less true than they might have before; rather that true itself starts to seem like a conditional state, a window in time and perspective rather than any stamp of mythical absolute authenticity.

still, when i read the other day that 50% of children born in this decade may live to be 100 years old, my head swivelled.

sure, it swivelled in part because i’ve been reading Consumption, by Kevin Patterson. it’s a story of tuberculosis and famine and the Hudson’s Bay Company & mines that all eventually combined to wrangle the Inuit in off the land less than fifty years ago, and the diseases of affluence that have since ravaged that population on a scale that even the most forbidding landscape on earth never touched. diseases of affluence we all suffer from and carry the seeds of deep in our bodies the way that previous generations and many of the world’s poor still today carry TB…diseases like cancer, vascular impairment, diabetes.

we die today mostly because of how we eat.  how we choose to eat. as i type this i’m wiping crumbs from homemade pumpkin tarts off my keyboard. hey, they’re seasonal. they’re homemade. they have only 2/3 cup of sugar in, like, the eleven of them i just inhaled. whee. but i wasn’t actually hungry.

if this is how i have to suffer from my own affluence, it’s no wonder people are getting on board this train. even if it is bound for the boneyard.

still, however naively, however in denial of the effects of what i feed them, i like the idea of my kids living to be 100.  i usually live in abiding fear of the planet up and belching us all off its weary back long before either of them get their threescore and ten in, and so the possibility that this generation may have longer lives rather than shorter, more brutish ones is deeply comforting.

still, that wasn’t why the news made my head swivel.

it swivelled, dear friends, because i first came across the info as tweeted by film director Duncan Jones, object of my first stalking experiment in social media.  poor Duncan. i’m sure it would crush him to know that of his 6000+ followers, the chirpy mom with the slightly twee username who chats him up now and then is actually, uh, strategically and shamelessly using him.

it’s probably not his first time ’round this block. because Duncan Jones, whom you may know better as Zowie, is the 38 year old son of David Bowie, with whom i’ve been conducting an, erm, faithful if one-sided twenty-five year love affair. in my head.

imagine if twitter had existed in my angsty adolescence. i always knew Bowie had a son my age, but seeing as my parents weren’t interested in sending me to a dour and pricy Scottish boarding school, and Zowie cum Joe cum Duncan never once put up a penpal ad in Rolling Stone, i had little access to this otherwise obvious avenue of ingratiating myself into the Bowie clan. pity. dude was probably as estranged from his father at that age as i was – we coulda been buds. and then, you know, i would’ve finagled myself an invite to Christmas dinner and my charming insights woulda brought son to a renewed appreciation of father and father to a recognition of the marvel of a human being lying undiscovered in my old soul – in a manner most un-Polanski-esque, of course – and he’d have married me and that pesky Iman woulda just had to find herself another rock god. i’d have been Bonnie Bowie and the director of Moon my stepson and we’d all have lived happily ever after.  ahem.

oh dear god, i cringe in anticipation of my children’s adolescence, if they have imaginations and wills anything like mine.

anyhoo, i follow Duncan Jones on twitter. it entertains me. and the other day he mentioned the study reporting that children today have a 50/50 chance of living until the age of 100. to which i tweeted back some crack about needing to invest in their retirement now, before they’re outta diapers. to which he responded. and then he RE-TWEETED ME.

(because – all kidding aside – i’m damn right. if the poor kids are going to live to be 100, somebody better be planning to pay for the cancer-causing morsels of mush that will sustain them into that long-delayed good night.)

but i digress. research smesearch. the nifty study was merely the catalyst, the subject matter upon which i belatedly and somewhat circuitously launched my lifelong dream. i had a Real Live Online Conversation with the son of David Bowie. direct descendant. fruit of loins. the thirteen-year-old still lurking inside me swooned and fainted dead away.

twenty-five years is a long time to carry a torch.  my engraved invitation to the Bowie Christmas dinner? on its way, people.  Duncan & i, we’re getting tight. we chatted again, with me at my obsequious best, on Tuesday. we’ll be BFFs in no time. at my current rate of progress, i’m guessing on actually graduating from son to father and finally making personal Bowie contact about 2038. The Thin White Duke’ll be a mere 91. maybe i can spoon-feed him.

then we’ll get married and i can die a happy woman, of whatever disease of my affluence would like to have its way with me.

sigh. if only Bowie’d been born in this decade, i could be half-certain he’d live that long.

when i was a kid, i spent a lot of time alone.

i was not lonely, not particularly. i remember myself as social, eager, a child not overly burdened by shyness. yet i spent the majority of my time, it occurs to me, in solitary pursuits.  books, Lego, Barbies. i remember spending a lot of time lying on my stomach. hey, it was the 70s. gimme a shag rug to sprawl on and i bet i could still while away a Saturday like nobody’s business.

mostly, i drew. i was good at drawing, or so the adults around me told me. and i liked that. so i drew more. and whether it happened because i wanted to be good at it or because i was naturally inclined towards it, drawing became my oeuvre. i got lost in it, created worlds with pencils and blue Bic pens. i was never into colouring. all the little boys in my colouring books, i diligently turned into long-haired girls; beyond that, colouring held little interest. i liked the lines i followed to be my own.

over my elementary school years my busy hands must’ve filled a hundred doodle pads, those newsprinty sheafs of absorbent pastel paper. each would’ve been chock-full and bursting,  every one an almost-picture-book with wordless narratives and imaginary worlds now lost to history. landfills today are still shifting and digesting my childhood fancies.

i am impatient, these days, with Oscar. he is not yet three-and-a-half, and the fact that he does not like to be alone, sleep alone, or play alone is perhaps no terrible oddity on his part.

it is, however, driving me crazy.

true, i’m an extravert, a social creature who gets energy from interactions with others. but i am the kind of extravert who binges, who will go all out for a given occasion if opportunity arises, who can stay up til sunrise having just the right conversation. and who is then sated for, oh, months. or at least a few hours, y’know? i’m an extravert who needs a few minutes of silence to catch up with my own head every couple of hours, at least.

so the Mommy Mommy Mommy of a three year old who wants my attention and participation in everything he does? combined with the sweet chirpings of a one year old just learning to say Mama? my heart hears the crescendo and reminds me these little voices will only be small once, and swells, wearily. my ears hear the crescendo and want to run and hide themselves under a pillow until i can hear myself think.

i found the infancy of both children hard. it was partly colic, partly leftover grief, largely my own personality. a few months into Oscar’s life i found myself crying at the kitchen table late one night, worn to shreds not only from the incessant crying but just the need that came with a high-intensity infant. he needed me around the clock, took an hour to feed, fed every two hours. there was no time to regroup, to collect myself, to be anything other than a stumbling purveyor of milk and clean diapers and kisses. and though i loved him deeply and dearly and fiercely, i had to admit to myself that being needed to that extent was not a need of mine.

maybe there are women out there – people out there – who fall into parenthood as into a vat of butterscotch pudding, an all-consuming satisfaction of everything they’ve ever dreamed of, even if it is a bit hard to breathe. me, i never liked butterscotch pudding. i’m a compartmentalizer. and Mommy is not a role that compartmentalizes particularly well.

i marvel at people who accomplish things when their children are small. baking, writing, decorating, exercising…you name it, i marvel at it. because just in order to keep the house functionally clean & tidy and keep us all fed and clothed, Dave & i seem to be busting an awful lot of ass. and doling out a lot of hush, honey, just a minutes.  it’s not pretty, the number of times i seem to say that to my kids in the course of a day, or even a supperhour. it’s even less pretty, the cacophony that still permeates our house despite my gentle entreaties for just another bleeping second to finish chopping your carrots so you don’t CHOKE to death, thank you very much!! ahem. i can barely chop carrots in that headspace. if you can decorate your house or write your magnum opus under the same conditions, you are an ubermensch.

please don’t tell me otherwise. i’ll just feel worse.

in the meantime, i’m just hanging on, hoping they learn to draw – or knit or dance or quietly hatch diabolical plans for world takeover, whatever their little hearts desire – soon.

mind you, if they do begin to draw like fiends, i’ll just have a  new time-succubus on my hands. what do YOU do with all the art projects your little Picassos generate? is your living room wall, like that of my college friend Susie’s family, a giant colourful varnished collage of your children’s most beautiful creations? or, uh, do you send ’em to the trash?

inquiring minds need to know. the box on the freezer in the back porch? she’s gettin’ full.

every year on the 30th of April, Dave’s parents set the lobster traps.  out to sea, to open the season.

some part of me finds this fitting, that this day is also the date of Finn’s death. blood inheritance and heritage and salt water all swirl around incoherently in my imagination, making me wish i could cobble an Alistair MacLeod story out of it all, set the bones of the frame, tidal and unforgiving, around what is not there.

this year, we went to New Brunswick for the opening of the season.  Dave went out with his father, the small boat loaded down with traps and bouncing in the whitecaps. the kids and i watched on the beach; i buttered toast for the return to shore.  i am useful that way.

Dave and i met on that beach behind his house, almost thirteen years ago.  we thought we’d like bring some of Finn’s ashes to the beach…and scatter them on the first day of the season, four years to the day of his death.

except i, uh, forgot them.

huh. one gets used to things…to a white ceramic urn that sits at the back of the dresser top, to packing the car with suitcases and diapers and snacks and videos and wet weather clothing and asthma meds and plastic in case of puking.  one does not normally trot about on family vacations with an urn.  the two do not relate.

and so Finn got left behind. i realized my mistake about two hours into the drive, halfway there. and i felt simultaneously ill – wracked with guilt – and wryly bemused – wracked with laughter.  what kind of mother forgets her child? i whispered over and over in my head, first in lament, then with the increasing mania of a dawning joke, until the contorted expression on my face caused Dave to turn his head and stare.  we forgot one of the kids, i nearly quipped, but caught myself.  our skins have thickened, mine and his, over the metaphorical holes in our hearts, but there are places where there are still thin patches. one does not want to stick a foot through.

i wrote his name, instead, in the sand on that gravelly beach, that night when the other two were safe in bed and watched over by grandparents. Dave & i took some wine down to the beach, our bodies bundled up against the bone chill of the night, and we sat and watched the sun go down over the Gaspé Peninsula and there was driftwood and the smell of the tides in the air and we were peaceful.

and the dead child, he did not mind. that is the thing about the dead, the gift they give in the end when the life’s blood of sorrowing is finally bled out and you realize that they are still there with you, in their way. what remains is steeped in forgiveness.

so the little urn still sits upstairs, some of its contents under the trees in the backyard, the rest waiting until we are ready – or just, erm, smart enough – to remember to bring them with us some lobster season. maybe next year.

in other news, i – lifelong disdainer of seafood, and shame to my Maritime roots – was the one who managed to convince Oscar to try some lobster the next day at lunch.

Oscar has been an adorer of lobster – in their living, tank-swimming form at the local Superstore – for some time. i don’t know how it started…but every time we’ve gone grocery shopping together for months now, he’s clamoured to go see the “los-bter.”  he waves, and they sit there prehistoric and piled up on each other pitifully, and i cringe even if their brains are the size of peas and he calls out joyously “bye bye los-bter!” and we roll away.  i tell him it’s Seaworld.  it’s as close as he’s getting.

but Shamu is unlikely to magically show up on his plate, fished by his beloved grandparents. so when he turned up his nose at the morsel in front of him that lunchtime, we all hesitated a little, unsure whether his rejection was just the usual toddler turndown of anything new and non-cupcake-related, or a far more complex emotional quandary surrounding the eating of his fun marine friends.

i told him lobster was good with butter.

he downed most of a claw, dipped in hot gold goodness, and wanted more. so much for the fun marine friends. though we have yet to return to Seaworld the grocery store since our homecoming…i wonder if the los-bter will retain their in-tank crustacean charms?

while we were in NB, an old friend and colleague from our Korea days dug up a video of Dave and i rehearsing a two- person play we later performed at one of the local expat poetry slams.  i’d never seen the footage, had forgotten it had even been taken. me, platinum blonde, spiky-haired, smoking, Dave without sideburns, both of us lighter. perched awkwardly in the big wooden chairs of the bar i liked to call my “living room” in that strange, liver-rotting year…familiar chairs, obviously, but ill-suited to the frenetic body shifts blocked by our director.  i resemble wooly-headed insect, all limbs and corners and bravado and unladylike postures; Dave a comic study in intensities. we play out scenes of courtship and bawdy humour, alternatingly awful and amazingly connected, we who had been friends almost five years and had started sleeping with each other only weeks before in that far-away land where we were both so unmoored.  time capsule, June 2001.

the video confirmed two things. one, that Academy Award acceptance speech of my dreams?  i don’t think i need to worry too much about polishing it. i am the twitchiest, most physically unnatural creature ever to grace a stage. i need confine future acting aspirations to voiceovers. two, i was not that much better-looking when i was thinner. so there, muffin-top.  take that.

it’s been eight years for he and i, now. our anniversary the other night coincided with the unfortunate splash of my IWK “news” all over the local media in a manner that pandered to the cheap stereotypes of “grieving mother complains” and brought the best of the trolls out from under their rocks. it was ugly, and distinctly unromantic.  the fact that my radio interview even got picked up by the news cycle was a shock to my naive ass, o lesson learned, and the shoddy and inflammatory way in which the story was misrepresented disappointed me immensely.  but Dave, chivalrous internet knight, had my back with tweets and emails to the troops…and with support from many of you and me repeatedly stating my actual position in the comments section, by yesterday afternoon i had a direct apology from one of the trolliest trolls and the tide had utterly turned. a small victory, i think, of social media over mass.

the issue of how the story was taken up in the first place is something i’m addressing with CBC.  in the interview broadcast i made it clear that i was actually in a good place, giving me the strength to address the issue and risk exposing myself as a bereaved person, which is always draining because there is no comfortable cultural place for the narrative of child loss. but the story pulled from the interview immediately recast me, and then used the headline term “complains” to represent what i had hoped was a constructive and respectful point.  such is the discourse around motherhood, unfortunately, and so go headlines. but, as i said to CBC,  if anything related to a supposedly grieving mother making a point consistently gets reduced to a story that sounds like someone playing victim, then comments will be vicious, the discourse about language being important will never get anywhere, and people will clam up for fear of being attacked at their most vulnerable.

i do not want a public apology or anything, though. i’m too afraid of the trolls that would drag out of the pond bottom.

in terms of the story that should have been told if indeed the interview even warranted clipping into a newsbyte, the IWK Foundation has been admirable and prompt and open in their response to me, and ultimately we’ll be sitting down together next month to try to work towards a positive fundraising strategy that respects all the families served by the IWK.  the CEO of the Foundation, the Mr. Shaw to whom my letter was directed, also lost an infant daughter at birth. her dates almost coincide with Finn’s. i am grateful to him and his staff for being willing to give the issue of language and wording their attention, and for being gracious enough to include me in the process.

now i just need to keep thickening that skin of mine.

and then sometimes it just all builds up and the urge to run, to outdistance, unfetter, leaves me shaking.

i live in the nexus of family and old friends, in the town where i grew up, the town where, sometimes, i feel smallest. the sidewalks testify to memories three decades old and to go out in public is to shoulder the burden of all the selves i once was, those big pink 1984 coke-bottle lenses and the gym suit with the bow around the waist and those times i didn’t know what to say so i got too loud and tittered at That Boy like a shrill macaw, all these Bonnies dragging around behind me like tin cans off a wedding jalopy. clang, they jar into my present, blurry shadows when i turn to look at them yet heavy still, time having layered them with the cement of self-consciousness and discomfort in my own skin. my tin can necklace, encrusted with pearls of shit.

elsewhere this accoutrement dissolves, worn away by years of learning to laugh at myself, to walk tall, but here the past sometimes is too much with me. here there is no distance from which to shed myself, those skins long outgrown and constricting.

i’ve been watching CBC online while nursing, watching Erica Strange wander through her own past to learn lessons missed along the way. i’m compelled by the show on one level. Erica’s ‘failed potential’ schtick resonates, though not quite so much as seeing my own wardrobe on tv for the first time ever…so what if its in all the 90s flashbacks? ahem. but on another level the premise frustrates, as stories of time travel so often do…if the Erica who goes back to the prom makes different choices than she did the first time ’round, wouldn’t the cumulative effects of the experience carry over into the intervening years, thus changing the person she ends up being at 32? or at least making different lessons necessary?

what keeps me glued to the screen is the hypnotic sense of homesickness that creeps over me every time Erica flashes back to an era i hadn’t ’til now fully realized was so long gone.

i would like, for an afternoon, to shed the years between now and 1992 just to go back and walk through that life, to revisit its minutiae. sure, it would be good to take a long, kind look in the mirror and see the beauty in that twenty-year-old face and twenty-year-old body and convince my twenty-year old self of both those things once and for all. and if i could walk once more into the high, cool foyer of my grandmother’s house and find her waiting, see her eyes glint blue for smiling at me…my joy would be without bounds. but that is too much to ask. i would settle for far less.

for one afternoon, i’d like to walk down the road that runs by my street and see it as it was seventeen years ago. not because i expect it was so terribly different, or better, or worse…rather because i’d like the luxury, now, of simply being present to it. i’d note whether the cars were bigger than i remember, the hair bigger, the peg-leg jeans as funny as i remember. i’d walk drugstore aisles and say, hallo there hair gel and salutations, photography film and yo, Snapple, did you change your packaging somewhere along the way? i would drink in all these once-familiar mundanities, walk through the old grocery store like a museum-goer, all enamoured by what was once just life.

i would say, this is 1992, and i would know that those were magical words.

the day-to-day is impossible to recall in detail once the backdrop changes. the dramas and hurts that get lived out over that background sometimes linger far too long. i wish i could shed the past and cradle it to me all at once, visit in doses like a favourite seaside rather than find myself drowning and sputtering in tides too strong only to be cast up on the shores of the unfamiliar future, unready to let go wholesale of worlds that once were mine.

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