coping stuff

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
MacBeth, Act 5, Scene 5

it doesn’t matter, of course.

it is only a website and if i am not here it is not the end of the world. i tell myself this.

it’s just a website. a collection of digital words and images in a genre that’s been declared regularly dead for the last four years. dead like the squashed slug on the bottom of my back steps…except, unlike the slug, the blog has a whole Jesus thing going on where it regularly resurrects itself.

or at least quietly continues on, dead or no. i like that about blogs. dead is just a state of mind.

i repeat this to myself as i stare at the trail of ants marching back and forth around the slug’s worldly remains, efficiently erasing all trace.

it’s only a website, i mutter. and dead is just a state of mind, anyway.

i look around and wonder if i am my own set of ants.

once upon a time, if you wrote something, you knew when you were done. the story or the book came to an end and then – if you were very very lucky – it passed the sanction of the gatekeepers and went off to the printers and that was it for that particular tale, that voice, at least until the anniversary reprint edition or the sequel.

print media have an inherent finite quality. they create artefacts, discrete objects. books can’t be 73,000 pages long. you run out paper, of arm strength. you are bounded by physical constraint.

digital media have no such clear lines. i’m in the midst of writing about this, on my theoryblog, for the Reading in a Digital Age class i’m teaching this summer. i’m in the midst of writing a bunch of things, one of which is my long-suffering and increasingly long-overdue thesis proposal. i’m writing all the time.

but i’m not writing here.

at the end of April, i marked Finn’s birth and death here, as i have every year but the first. i didn’t write of him that first year. the blog was three weeks old. Oscar was eight days new and still in the NICU. my very first boyfriend – he of the first sloppy kiss by the bricks out behind the junior high – had just died of AIDS. he was thirty-five years old. his funeral coincided with what would have been Finn’s first birthday.

i was so full up with life and death that everything was dust in my mouth. i sat at the hospital computer and opened up a post window and closed it again. i was not certain, yet, that this was a place i could speak of anything beyond the platitudes of baby poop. i left the hospital for an hour or two, with Dave and my mother, to dig and mulch Finn’s trees. i went back to the NICU to feed my baby. while my friend was laid in the ground, i sat in a hospital rocking chair, my shirt lanolin-stained and my fingers dirty with soil, crooning OMD’s If You Leave to Oscar. it was the best i could muster, for all of them.

that dust is gone from my mouth, now. i have written it out. and that voice has been precious to me. but this year, in the post for Finn, i said “there really isn’t anything else to say, anymore.”

and i realized that that i do not know what to do with this voice.

if this were a book, i would simply say done. rest now. and i would close the covers and feel immensely satisfied at a chapter closed, a piece of life’s work done, and proudly.

but if this were a book i would have said nothing yet because it would still have to go through the gatekeepers and the editors and there would be no thousands of comments and conversations and networks formed here over years, no traces of friends found and since gone and i would be the lesser. and i know it.

yet i think i am finished speaking in this voice. i think i am finished with this story, this piece of the narrative. i think its hour upon the stage is done.

i do not want to mark another birthday.

this August, in NYC, i’m lucky enough to get to host a BlogHer panel entitled Blogging for the Love of It. and i do love blogging, dead though it may be.

but i do not know what to do with this one.

it is only a website, i tell myself again, but i shake my head. i know better.


another part of me recoils and throws my arms around this space as if it were a living thing, because that’s what it’s been, to me: a voice, a network of relationships, a narrative, a precious, tenuous growing thing. an artefact, yes, for my children. but so much more. in the grand scheme of things ever written, a tale told by an idiot, indeed. but to this happy idiot, a life’s work. or at least the beginning of such. an enormous, beloved chapter.

i do not like declarations of done-ness. i am not done with the network, the relationships, the people. i’ll be around, on the theoryblog, on Twitter, in the too-many places i’ve had the privilege of stretching to.

but this voice has dwindled to a whisper, and it occurs to me that in this digital age of infinitely expandable and reproducible and extensible creativity, perhaps what we miss is the built-in sense of knowing when to stop, of being pulled up short and silent by physical constraints. i cannot run out of paper, here.

maybe i wish i could. it would be easier, that way, to say fini.

here, all i can say is see you around. and xo.


it was 3:20 when we all raced in from the park and scattered.

four people, six different directions. the calculus of families. physics probably says it’s impossible but i have always said pshaw! to physics.

physics wins, of course, in the end: thirty seconds after scattering the two smaller ones were back, pulling me in entirely opposite directions. physics will not allow me to split myself in two.

physics is a damn honey badger.

but i have my own secret calculus: three, not two. sometimes the invisible has its own demands. i said, i am going to the basement now. and then i disappeared. sha-zam. magic.

they followed me, both of them.

but when i pulled out my laptop, they pulled out Lego and Plasticine docile as lambs and there we sat the three of us companionable and so perhaps it was magic after all.

and i made it in time.

i saw the numbers on the clock. i blinked and there he was, small and splayed as they swept him away from me to the bright lights and the yellow gowns flooding the room. dark hair and a trail of blood and one perfect ear and then i could see nothing else, then or now. the window closed. gone again.

i typed into the Facebook status update: “3:24 pm. seven years. happy birthday, Finn.”

there really isn’t anything else to say, anymore.

we planted two new baby trees, at the new house, but that was mostly by happenstance. we went over to the old house to see the trees planted that first Mother’s Day, seven springs ago. they are thriving, strong. we bought some cupcakes on the way.

a regular day – life for the living. a cacophony. physics.

until i sat down late last night and opened Facebook again and saw the comments, the likes, the acknowledgements. the love.

for us, i suppose. but for him, too. for a child almost nobody ever met.

each time i write about Finn, i feel a bit skinless, even now.

not because he makes me sad. he never made me sad. his absence made me sad for a long time, but it does not, not anymore.

still. too effusive in my words and you might think me maudlin, unkempt and troubled by grief even after all this time.

too casual in my “liking” of your comments and you might think me crass and cheap and ridiculous.

i do not want to be maudlin, or crass.

i simply want him to be part of my story.

seven years ago today, i woke like a bruised thing.

he had been there. i had held him. and i looked ahead and i thought i might choke to death on the silence.

i knew i could not sit, seven years hence, in polite sane company and tell strangers on a park bench: i had a son. he would have been seven today. he’s dead.

in person, in our culture, you cannot do that.

but in the networks of social media, you can. thank Jeebus. some say Facebook acknowledgements take all the human connection out of sorrow and remembrance: perhaps they do, by some people’s definition. but i would say they add back in a whole other dimension of possibility. i do not need you to wail and gnash your teeth on my behalf, especially not anymore. i do not need you to hold me.

i just need a space to speak him, now and then.

Josephine is reaching an age where she is beginning to understand “dead.” Her great-grandfather died last spring, and she has come around to understanding that he isn’t coming back. She knows, vaguely, that she had another brother. Oscar has told her Finn is a star in the sky. I smile, and say maybe he is.

but the other night they were going to bed and Oscar mentioned the stars, and Finn, and suddenly, from her side of the room, a sob.

i don’t want to die, Mummy! she burst out, her voice small and cracked. even when i’m an old lady, Mummy! i don’t want to be lost!

my heart. i went to her and stroked her hair said, of course not, pet. you will never be lost, my love. you are tied to me, to Daddy, to a thousand stories. you will always be my girl.

magical thinking, perhaps. physics might object.

but i write of Finn to tie him to me, to weave him into the fabric of my life. to say, you will always be my boy.

you have given me that space. you have received him, and nodded back, and layered love and kindness where once there was only absence.

he is dead. that is what it is. it is surprisingly okay.

but he is not lost: he exists here. he has a record, like the rest of us.

and more than that, i cannot ask.

so what i wanted to write last night on Facebook was, thank you. just thank you. and yet so much more.

they were away.

they pulled out of the driveway and i waved from inside the house though it occurred to me after they drove away that i could have stood in the driveway, waving until they could not see me anymore.

i’d like to be that mother. i’d like them to remember me that way, the way i remember my grandmother, standing in her pastel housecoat in her sunporch, waving until i walked out of sight of this very corner.

even into my adolescence, when i was otherwise too cool for school and riddled with the agonizing cringe of self-consciousness, i always waved back. the smile on her face as she watched me go sang, be well! i go with you!

i was one of the grand old ocean liners, an occasion every time i left.

note to self: start waving.

but Friday afternoon they drove away with their father, car piled high with plastic dinosaurs and cups of milk and the miniature Strawberry Shortcake with the scented scarlet nylon hair, smooth and glossy and eminently easier to comb than that of her three-year-old owner. hairstyling implements are weapons of torture when directed at Posey but delightful if aimed at ponies and Strawberry Shortcake. at least for a minute or two.

i threw in all the DVDs i could find. it’s a five hour drive to Dave’s parents house.

between the hair-combing and the dinosaurs and DVDs and the Read-It-Myself books that i placed conveniently by Oscar’s booster seat in paroxysms of proud motherly fantasies of him reading sweetly to his little sister, Dave probably got, what? ten minutes of quiet on the drive? fifteen?

i don’t know. i didn’t ask.

i was alone.

they left for forty-six hours because i had a writing deadline. half-way into it i’d completed a draft, based on days of work beforehand, all on a program i hadn’t used before but had been saving away on, diligently. then, whoops, i discovered that program doesn’t allow saving: when i’d closed the document to email it, i lost everything.

every word, gone.

cue swearing and wailing and gnashing of teeth.

that is how i spent my weekend alone, grunting like Sisyphus back up the hill of my own ideas, pushing the stone of my own chagrin and self-recrimination and disbelief.

still, i was alone.

alone. nothing but my work to get back to. reflexively, i sought out the children as distractions from the job at hand. nobody needs a bum wiped? my brain pouted hopefully, as i winced at the blank screen in front of me. i could almost see the old words. every time i looked for them they grew fainter in the rearview, and more and more beautiful.

that first draft has now become a verifiable lost Atlantis of Shakespearean proportions. may it rest in peace.

but i had time to recreate a thin shadow of it, because i was alone.

in my life as a parent, time alone is terrible and beautiful. beautiful for the unbroken stretches, the chance to forget the clock and the routine and mealtimes and the thousand tiny interruptions and really, truly throw myself into the flow.

terrible because alone? it is a devil’s bargain.

every time things go wrong in my life i am shocked by time’s irreversibility. really? i think. but i just HAD that. i can SEE it.

my hands flap and scrabble at the invisible clock, trying to turn it back. just a bit. a smidge. i blink, conjuring with all my powers that moment just seconds ago when whatever it was worked. or was unbroken. or Was. Not. Blank.

i am dogged and faithful in my magical thinking, my repeated beating of my head against the wall of time’s directionality.

it makes me irrational, fighting against my own reality in this tension of inbetween, in this life where deadlines meet snow days and trips to the ER because kindergarteners walk on the monkey bars, sometimes, and where i am always rushed and there is always something left undone and i am regularly convinced i am drowning.

my writing. my research. my parenting. all tied together in the constant push-pull of doing nothing quite as well as i’d like.

i stare baffled at the spectre of that alone time i used to have: the creative headspace, the flow. i still believe it’s out there, somewhere, not eaten by schedules and deadlines and responsibilities all freely assumed.

it isn’t, except on very occasional weekends when that car piled high with Strawberry Shortcake and plastic dinosaurs goes hurtling down the highway through moose country with the people i love most packed inside it.

and that is the devil’s bargain.

i could blink and find myself on the other end of a phone call, stunned and shocked and disbelieving. but they were just HERE. i can SEE them.

i do not let my brain go too far down that road. it makes me feel sick in my throat.

but standing alone in my kitchen, i see that the aloneness will come anyway, eventually. time moves only forward. and someday i will have long forgotten what the hell i was trying to write on Saturday and all i will know as i shuffle around my empty kitchen in a housecoat is how fast those kids grew up.

and so i mutter my secret mother’s refrain, a plea in two parts:

i want to be alone. just for a bit, though. just for a bit.

and then we all keep swimming on together, never quite going under, and i beam and wave until my arms hurt.


the day after. Susan’s gone.

i dreamed about her yesterday morning. we were some kind of Thelma and Louise, secret agents laughing, doing vague, crazy dream-things until little feet woke me at 5:45 am and i rose blurry from the fog and i wondered.

and then i waited – edgy and wrong – all day, and then i heard.

i like to imagine the dream was her saying goodbye. i like to imagine i will see her in the stars. i don’t know if i really believe either of these things, but i leave the door cracked to the possibility.

i do know that i will look at the sky with wonder for the rest of my life, because she taught me.

she will always be a teacher, in my mind. she was my friend, as she was a thousand people’s friend. she was Marty‘s friend, particularly: the real Thelma to her Louise. thank you, Marty, for sharing her. you two were damn lucky in each other.

Susan was one of my very first blogging friends. one of the first people who opened this space up and grabbed me with words by the bones of my wrists, building for me a world of the real that has nothing to do with in the flesh.

except when the flesh has ceased and you know there will be no more words. and you say to no one in particular, hey, there seems to be a Volkswagen parked on my chest. it’s made of cement. and then your heart swells up and leaks out your eyes

this is my first real experience of what it means to lose one of our own. i see us all out here as parts of a web, knots in an enormous 3D crocheted blanket snarled together like one of Dave’s rhizomes, all marvellously, intricately interconnected.

for me, Susan was one of the key knots, a touchstone by which I knew and understood the whole. the empty space that was hers, then, is distributed and strange, the grief ephemeral and yet amplified.

she was not mine, or yours, i know. yet she gave herself to us.

last night, after the kids and i lay in their little beds in their new room under a ceiling speckled with projected stars, i came downstairs and i looked up the comments she’d left here, over the years.

seventy-odd little messages over nearly five years, plus a couple of dozen emails. one afternoon together, running in the rain. gifts, each one.

Susan was adamant that what matters in life – what survives – is what we put into the world: publications and people.

i sat here last night re-reading these comments like old love letters, smiling through the tears that stung and dropped. and i thought, this is what we blog for.

i celebrate her tonight through a few of her words. private words, scattered across my own…augmenting them, making them more. they were a gift to me, these, and the other hundred messages or so. maybe i’m just giddy with the gravity of sorrow and all, but i keep thinking, don’t bogart that Susan. share.

inhale deep, while you’re here. breathe her in.

March, 2007. it has always been her perspective on the term “mommyblogger” that gave it dignity, for me:

Personally, I love the term mommyblogger when applied correctly to those
of us who write about our kids
 and delight in it (and who aren’t currently professional
writers or claim other labels and reject the term).

It implies and acknowledges the community inherent in child-raising, and it gives
voice to the nameless
thousands out there who have for centuries carried babies, held
little hands, wiped noses, and helped children learn.

The thousands — millions — tens of millions — who give their all to helping these little children
learn to talk,
read, cook, laugh, love, and find themselves in a big, scary world.
The tens of millions who,
in a world of “Dr” this
and “Mr” that, are known primarily by one name — Mommy.

I am proud to be a Mommy, and proud to be a mommyblogger. That’s my choice,
but right now it feels pretty wonderful.

– whymommy

May, 2008. her capacity for presence, even from far away, floored me. the one time i met her, she made me feel like i was the only person in the world. when her gaze was trained on you, literally or figuratively, you had her whole heart for a minute.

Thinking of you today.

My neighbor over the fence and I chatted about you today. We explained to her mother just
how far away PEI is,
 and how your writing resonates with our souls. She and I have never
talked much, but as we shared our
favorites and wished you well, it was amazing to see.
– whymommy

June, 2008. i wrote about pipers at a funeral, just a musing. and she shot straight back, from the hip. i had forgotten this one, until last night. it took my breath. please read. i don’t think Susan will ever be forgotten, but i hear her. can we find a way to honour this, in our big old crocheted blanket way?


I don’t want tears and mournful songs at my funeral. I want parents and children to
gather, to take my
 children in their arms, and to hug them closely when I can’t anymore.
They can sing if they like, but I really
just hope that friends and family will focus on life, and a
future that will encompass my children even when

I am no longer here to set up playdates and parties. I don’t mind if everyone
forgets me, but I could not bear it if
they forgot my children.
– whymommy

April, 2010. she was a rocket scientist, which makes me smile. i can barely add six digits. but we were both researchers at heart, for all the disciplinary differences, lovers of ideas and knowledge. what i realized last night is that we were bound, too, by journeys that both confronted the spectre of separating parent from child, in death. my writing began there, and has ended in healing. would that Susan’s trajectory could have been so clean.

Your voice is a dear one to me, and I am forever grateful that you did reach out on that day.
You have taught me
 so much about loss, and about daring to move on, while
never, ever forgetting.

Last week I heard the name “Finn,” and I snapped to attention, head swiveling so fast
to see the little boy being called
in the park. I thought for sure it must have been a mistake,
and, indeed, he had already disappeared behind the

climbing tree. I only caught a glimpse of his sneakers.

I thought of you, then, and Finn and Oscar and Posey and Dave, and wanted to tell you.

I know because of you that telling you that I remember him doesn’t hurt.
I hope, at least, that that is still true.

I remember Finn, and I am able to talk now to babylost mamas with an open heart,
not running away from the
topic, all because of you.

November, 2011. the last comment she left me. it makes me nod. yep: recognizing luck, counselling belief in beauty, in hope. stretching beyond me to the wisdom of perspective. yeh, that was Susan.

My map? Gone, pressed neatly into the family Bible, history upon history,
not mattering in the end. In the end, all I have is this hand I hold, and I cling tightly,
for he is all that I have.

There is beauty in relationships yet, bon … wait for it, the beauty will surprise you
again even while you mourn the losses of ten.

You are lucky in yours, as I am in mine.
– Susan @Whymommy

this was my friend, her generosity, her warmth, her incredible capacity to give of herself. the comment is remarkably like her final post: in the end, she was not ours, but Curt’s. it lifts the Volkswagen off my chest a little to know that she had that kind of love to hold her and carry her.

i am glad there is no more pain, for her. but it hurts me to think there will be no more words. she put so much of herself – so much beauty and thoughtfulness – into her words.

what words of hers do you have? in your comments stream, or from FB, or just from her own blog? what are your favourites? what can you share?

please don’t bogart that Susan. i am not quite ready to stop hearing from her.

seven years ago tonight i landed – in the middle of a snowstorm – back in PEI.

for good, it seems, or for the long run, though i could not have predicted that, back then. back then, i wasn’t used to staying in the same country more than a few months. i own condiments now far longer than i used to own furniture.

(should you ever doubt that time marches on with merciless mundanity, check your condiments. if you have none older than your children, you are truly living carpe diem.)

our last apartment in Korea had a chilly tile and concrete hallway that opened to the winter air: no security door in that building. it was 5am and dark and cold and the trusty little 1993 Kia Pride that had cost $300 was just about to be given up for scrap and it groaned and shook as Dave pumped the gas. i had three suitcases: five years of a life stuffed down to so damn little.

it never seems possible that you can be leaving a place forever. i remember staring wide-eyed out the window at the waking city: the shuttered shops with their tin grates, the pots of drying red peppers by the roadside. the hustle of the bus station even before dawn; the pungent smells of kimchi and deng jang paste and bad imported coffee. all so present and familiar, then. now, a dream half-remembered.

i landed here at midnight more than thirty hours later, in a snowstorm. home. i was coming home. my mother met me at the airport, even though it was late and the roads were slippy, as we Islanders say. she gathered me in her arms like a child.

i was laughing, beyond tired, beyond happy. i was twelve weeks pregnant with Finn. i’d slid his ultrasound picture between the pages of my passport; shown it to the flight attendants between Tokyo and Toronto. i slipped it out to show my mother at the airport: her first sight of her first grandchild. i breathed deep, relieved. safe. and i stared wide-eyed at my sleeping hometown as the cab drove us home in the snowy dark, my heart all hopeful in my throat.

everywhere is a dream half-remembered, when you are not there.

i wrote once about what seven years can mean, how our cells regenerate and leave us utterly new. except the cells of the children we carry, who remain, somehow.

sometimes it feels as if nothing of that girl who stepped off a plane that night seven years ago could be left within this body. i am more tired now, more cynical, more lumpy and stretched, as if i were silly putty and time were like gravity.

but i know her.

i know her soft little camel cloche hat, bought to look like a grownup coming home: it still sits in my closet, seldom worn since that first winter.

i know the child she carries…or i know him as well as anyone. he is an enigma still, seven years later, and it has been long enough for me to know he always will be. i know he will die, in her arms, in mine, a few months after she steps off the airplane. i know that he will be the dividing line between she and i; that the shocking ephemerality of his small face will take worlds with it that she will never see again.

but. when i think of her stepping off that plane onto the tarmac seven years ago, i no longer want to shout at her to turn around, to run like hell. i wince, but i do not flail.

i know the smile on her face, the one that looks forward expectantly in spite of whatever else came before. i feel it rising again to my own.

it scares me, this relentless hope. but there is no other direction.

next week i turn forty. i shake my head at the number, not in denial or even disbelief…just…surprise. that it can be. everything surprises me these days. these seven years most of all.

in fifteen days, we move. this house that we brought our babies home to, all but the one, will be in the past. and a piece of my own past, in its strange way, will be our present. our future.

the move itself – the chaos, the packing – have me properly panicked.

the transition, though? it is already in motion. i am watching wide-eyed through the window, trying to carve on my brain the sight of Posey clumping up the stairs here, the sound of Oscar leaning back on his stool in the yellow kitchen and drumming with hands.

soon, it will be a dream, half-remembered.

they say, wryly, that a second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience. so it is with a second shot at homecoming.

i know it can all go to hell, in a second. and still. i gather myself, the old little cloche hat in a box, and go. like stepping off a plane into another January night; my heart all hopeful in my throat.

wish us luck. (and send moving tips, if you have any. we’ve never moved with condiments, let alone children).



“There is no escape. You can’t be a vagabond and an artist and still be a solid citizen,
a wholesome, upstanding man.
You say yes to the sunlight and pure fantasies,
so you have to say yes to the filth and the nausea
Everything is within you, gold and mud, happiness and pain,

the laughter of childhood and the apprehension of death.
Say yes to everything, shirk nothing.
Don’t try to lie to yourself. You are not a solid citizen.”

-Hermann Hesse

i told myself i never wanted to be a solid citizen.

maybe everybody does that, when they are seventeen or twenty-three: or did, at least, before our culture started rolling out young Alex P. Keatons raised on the Disney Channel, with life goals and imaginations vanilla-bland and based on the accruement of millions. maybe it’s easier to idealize artistry when one is young: at that age the filth and the nausea belong to the most interesting people, none of them yet worn frayed and incoherent by decades of abuse.

the young make good outlaws: they can sleep it off.

but for every outlaw heart there is always a before.

that year i was eleven and twelve and we moved to the neighbourhood of solid citizens where all the girls i went to school with lived, i wanted to be a solid citizen too. i had the manners, the grades; my mother saved up for suede moon boots for the first day of school. i studied my role, went onstage everyday bewildered but keen. i relegated my dolls and my poems to the back of the closet, secret shames. i stumbled down the byzantine corridors of seventh-grade cabals, learning how power is played. i was a victim, then a mean girl: those seemed to be the parts available to solid citizens.

i liked myself in neither.

by the time a few years passed, i had found another compass. i had friends, some very dear, but my real world lived in books, in Elsewhere, in the mythology i made of Bowie and Iggy Pop and Dylan and all those models of debauched exceptionality.

i left home at seventeen, and it was easy to make myself one of Hesse’s vagabonds. i had no other life to step ready-made inside. i went hither and yon, tried everything once. saying yes to everything was my way of trying to find a door that would open and admit me.

yet i have never really believed that any doors would, not the doors of solid citizenry, of stable lives and sky’s the limit.

it is okay. i am good at being an outsider. i no longer like to remember that i was not born this way, blowing smoke from the womb.


but there is this house.

it’s low, cottage-shaped, shingled green, sage green. with yellow shutters. when i dream it reverts to the yellow paint and burgundy trim of my childhood.

it was the last house we trick or treated at this Hallowe’en. we approached the grand arch of the porch, kangaroo and dragon in tow, and i saw the sign on the lawn and one of those little swooning sighs escaped me, soft as dough, guileless.

my grandmother lived here, you know.

Dave glanced across the street. of course. across the street is the house my grandmother was born in, the other yellow house, the family home, the one i have dragged him by a hundred times since we first moved back here. nearly seven years. seven? can it be?

when we moved here, i thought i was bringing him to my hometown.

but it is this corner that is my hometown, really: the last trace of roots that go beyond me into the earth and history of the city. every summer and after-school, i walked these leafy sidewalks to my Nannie’s, to the old yellow house she’d been born in. this was the place that stayed the same: the family home, no matter where we lived. i know the way the light falls at this corner, every season and every time of day.

on this corner, my grandmother lived in three separate houses over a nearly ninety-year span.

my great-grandfather built here in 1901, already a rotund middle-aged businessman on his second marriage. the neighbours across the street – who were then the only neighbours – gave the happy couple a vase that had, so the story went, been given them on their own wedding some decades before. one hundred and ten years later, that vase lives beside my bed.

the neighbours’ son, a little older than my grandmother, built a house kitty-corner to his parents that was the mirror-image of my grandmothers. then he built an Arts & Crafts-style cottage next door to his parents. then they died, presumably, and he moved back to the home he’d grown up in.

so when my grandmother married in 1938, well into her 30s, she left her family home and she and husband moved across the street, renting the cottage from the neighbours’ son.

The Bungalow, they called it. my grandmother had a piano, there.

it is a pretty house, modest from the street and quaint. it looks like no other house in this city. a story and a half, with a concrete basement painted fifties rust-red. hardwood and all the horizontal lines of the Craftsman cottages.

my grandmother’s friends Doris and Mabel lived in The Bungalow when i was a kid. the neighbourhood was all old ladies in those days, the men vanished or barely visible: a land of milk and cookies. i pretty much had the run of the corner. Doris and Mabel had me over sometimes, when it was after-school and my grandmother had appointments she couldn’t take me to. they had a goldfish pond in the backyard.

Doris and my grandmother lived, respectively, in various houses clustered around that corner for nearly ninety years: i have a photo of the two of them, four years old, at a tea party the year Anne of Green Gables was published. the photo sits near the vase upstairs. i have been carting around the last remnants of this neighbourhood all my vagabond years.

here, on this corner, i do not need to be an outsider. on this corner, i am nine decades of a family history. it is whittled down, now, to my mother and i, my children, a few photo albums and a Freemason’s kid leather apron and a family Bible. in the context of this corner, all my baggage? just belonging.

i have flown around the world three times. there is no other corner of the world to which i have claim or pedigree.

the corner is my before. but it has been out of reach for nearly twenty years.

it was Dave’s idea, not mine. we should see it, he said. just a viewing. ha.

it is different than i remembered in my mind’s eye: same bones, but opened up, brightened. it had me at hello.

we can’t, i thought. but it appears we have.

we bought it this afternoon.

it doesn’t make me a solid citizen, no. i hope not. but the idea of going home to that corner maybe slides me a little closer to that balance between Hesse’s “laughter of childhood and the apprehension of death” than i ever expected to be again.

we closed on the house we currently live in the day that Finn was born: it has been a good home, but tinged always with that apprehension, that accident of circumstance, that wound. if we can all four of us move safely into the new place in February? grace, says me. new beginnings. full circle homeward.

(our friend is buying it. Finn’s trees will be with someone we love. that makes my heart quiet.)

this is our new home: the new crib. The Bungalow, where my grandmother lived. part of me still doesn’t believe it. but i am saying yes.



we pulled up the garden in shirtsleeves this weekend, somewhere in the middle of multiple pumpkin pies. it was warm, crazy warm for Thanksgiving. after two days of hail, and winter jacket weather, it felt like Wonderland.

i ate the last peas of summer, warm green time-travellers hidden in withered, weathered shells. a few last tomatoes clung to the vines we ripped out: they ripen on our kitchen sill. the long and winding rope of the squash plant we tried to leave intact: its prickly, flowered length had just begun to yield. one tiny gourd, the only one of the season. that our benign neglect brings forth vegetables at all still amazes me, but this was not a banner year.

i almost missed the gourd entirely. Dave pointed it out: pear-shaped, green. we thought we might leave the little thing to grow a bit, yet. then a hasty tug.


it is on the windowsill, with the green tomatoes. it is too small to put out on the deck with the gourds and pumpkins we procured at a more successful grower’s this weekend: small as a chestnut, it would be gone in a gust of wind.

i do not know why i care. it’s a gourd. can anyone speak to the purpose of gourds? but it was there, and now it is here.

the small, failed things always get me.

i am all elbows these days. overwhelmed, gulping, i push out space for myself like a skater, gouging those who get too close. i feel cornered by time, by demands. i wing everybody close.

overwhelmed, i say, and the small voice comes out like a shout, an attack with expletives.

i want to sit down on the ice and draw a circle around myself, and say stop. let me catch my breath. let me watch and take it in, all this bounty, these things i should have been more thankful for today. please. let me stop.

sometimes i feel like a collection of small, failed things i do not know how to leave behind.

we make ourselves out of a thousand half-baked parts, cobbled out of context. some serve us well. some are woefully inadequate, and always will be.

they have histories, these things, invisible vines that tie us up, that choke us. and we protect them, elbows up, with the same strange tenderness as the small living things that do not reach their potential.

i failed at Thanksgiving this year.

yes, there were turkeys, two of them, and family and friends, and pie. an abundance. but abundance comes with work. with accommodation. with stress. and it is the last that dogs me: i wasn’t even responsible for either turkey, yet i found the sum total of it all too much. when we sat down to give thanks at the end of it all, i choked.

i wanted to say, i am thankful it’s mostly done. please do the goddam dishes. i didn’t. i *think* i said i was glad that everyone was there. i hope i did, because i was. i said something lame about the weather, too. but i felt like a small, failed thing by the time we made it to that table.

the math of stress that i learned in my youth – jobs to be done = exponential multiplication of pressure and panic until all to-dos are erased from equation – has hidden sums that i need to untangle. i do not know where to begin.

i understand them as a part of who i am, a part of the way the world is. and so the petty jobs add to petty jobs until the time available feels divided into shards. my elbows go up, to protect what space and time i can. overwhelmed, i squeak, and the mouse roars.

i do not want to be the sum of small, failed things, forever in their thrall.

but they are what i give thanks for, this morning after Thanksgiving.

because i may think i do not know where to begin, but they point the way. you cannot change in yourself what you cannot see.

i see the stress today, small and lumpy, kind of ugly. it hides in a tangle of late summer vines of historicity, never fully grown. whatever energy or purpose it was started for is stunted, now.

i look at it, and try to own how it grew. i tug, attempt to disentangle vine from vine.

this will be my winter gardening. a daily job. i want eventually to pluck these small, failed things, one by one, tenderly. i want to set them on my windowsill; reminders, but no longer part of the living organism.

until then, i have the gourd. i hope it lasts. i need to see it.

and in spring i will try again to grow something that thrives and feeds, and does not choke.




sometimes i miss grief.

(a ridiculous thing to say, really. it is the speech act equivalent of wrapping oneself in tinfoil and swinging from a rooftop TV antennae in a lightning storm. HIT ME AGAIN, it dares.

it lies. or if you understand it as a wish for things to be anything but otherwise, it lies. it is one of the unspeakables, damned to misunderstanding because we are taught to receive messages as if they were swaggering suitors with one thing on their minds.

i do not want to be misunderstood. because it is not true: i would hunker down in the sewer to avoid the lightning bolt. we all would, if we ever saw it coming. keep all our precious ones safe, keep our own heads above the mire of rawness and panicky incomprehensibility and the Somebody-sized hole that sucks our breath and pulls us under.)

and yet.

if you know someone grappling with grief, know this. the cruellest trick is that to heal, one must become doubly bereft.

when somebody dies, you lose them. same when something precious, like a relationship or a dream or goal, comes crashing to the ground. but in the place of that which was loved, you make a trade.

you get grief. it’s the shittiest deal in the world, but it’s something. grief sits in the hole left behind, a living thing, a conduit for some of the love and pain and anger that come with loss.

then time does its thing. pain starts to look a little more like resilience. and if you are actually healing, the grief grows thinner at its centre, stretching out like taffy until it is no longer a thing unto itself, but an absence. what is left is mostly just the damage of the accommodations of having carried pain for so long, the twists and scars that pucker around the hole, the way you’ve grown used to holding yourself off-kilter.

one day you catch sight of your hunchback in a passing storefront window and you stare.

you are looking for the touchstone at the core of it all, because the grief and the lost thing have long since become one.

but that one day, it is gone. the last touchstone, the sharp corner of longing. you are still scarred, hunched, puckered. but there is no grief to touch. the wind blows through the hole.

eventually you come face to face with the fact that this is what “gone” means: all death leaves behind, in the end, is the living.

my children know they had a brother, born before them. they know his name. Oscar understands that Finn died. Posey is still working from the operational assumption that death is a very special thing that happened to Grandpa Cliff last spring, and that somehow Finn – who may possibly also be a star in the sky – is trying to elbow in on Cliff’s territory. this makes me laugh, in the very best way.

we don’t talk about Finn a lot. Oscar asked to see his memory box a few weeks back, the small green ribbon-tied memento collection from the hospital, with its footprints and its hair clipping and the impossibly tiny hat that once smelled like his newborn head. i had not dug it out in well more than a year, not in Posey’s memory. she chortled over the diaper, too small for most of her dolls. i traced my fingers over the small gilt imprints of my son’s feet.

for years, the sensory assault of the NICU lurked, in Technicolour and Surround-Sound, in the lizard core of my amygdala. i would be walking down the street, and a jackhammer a block away would jar me into a cascade of unprocessed memory, the bang bang bang of the ventilator and it would hit me that that was the sound he heard most and was he frightened and did it drown out my voice and did he hurt and i was not even there when they punched the tube through his chest and my gut would wrench and my mind careen until i would find myself stockstill on the sidewalk with tears streaming down my face. three, four years later.

this is how trauma works.

but when i touched the place where his feet once were, a few weeks back, in the green box, i found no lurking tide of memory. i touched the imprints of his feet and my brain went looking for the corresponding memory of those small toes on my skin. and yes, i recalled the toes, and i smiled wryly, the wonder of him and the chasm both acknowledged, but i did not feel it. my fingers did not tingle. i was not transported six years back. it was only memory.

those moments of being transported grow thin, rare. maybe they will come no more. i have other toes here to touch and tend to; my life is crowded and busy and good. i do not want to grieve. oh god, no.

but i want to feel.

i miss the grieving for its vividness, its, its trompe l’oeil effect of making present what is irretrievably gone. i look for Finn, now, and find…only me.

in the healing, the last of what’s been lost slips away.

and yet.

i found something the other day. our washer broke and for the second time in less than three years, we bought a new one, to the tune of much embittered cursing (mine). the delivery men came. and when they hauled away the offending appliance and i confronted the sludge beneath, i found it.

Dave’s ring.

i bought it for him for his 31st birthday. the year Finn died. it was seven months later. i was already pregnant with Oscar.

we do not have wedding rings, he and i. i wear my grandmother’s tiny 1938 Art Deco diamond, and her bands.

he lost it more than a year ago, at the gym, we thought. Dave has a history of precious things littered out behind him, lost. this was not grave. i was sad, but without recrimination. i have lost rings, too, and things far more important.

but when i found it, Friday, wedged between pine boards and tarnished, i felt.

six years washed away and i remembered my own shyness, handing it to Dave in its blue velvet box; how i stumbled over the words of hope and endurance that i meant for the ring to carry until i finally shoved the card at him with my eyes wide and blinking back tears.

it had only one name engraved inside it, then. it now has three.

and there’s the thing.

time is a shit. it’s a shit for physicists, refusing to go both ways even when it ought to, and it’s a shit for philosophers and it’s a particular shit for those who mourn. there’s no getting around it. you cannot go back, to undo the sorrow time brings. you cannot go forward – into the proverbial healing of all wounds – without bearing the day-to-day grinding work of living with pain and through pain. and when you finally get through, to that place of acceptance or resilience or whatever your personal post-traumatic Nirvana might be, you cannot go back even to visit the intensity of loss, and so you are carried ever away on the tide of time from that which you loved and grieved.

but. as you are carried forward, scarred and puckered but still breathing, time keeps on changing the game. when i bought that ring, six years ago, resilience and acceptance and healing were words i barely dared hope about, dangling way out at the edge of our horizons. fake it til you make it, i figured. the ring was a promise to try.

we made it, i think, by any standards that i understand. there’s been more letting go in the journey than i’d have comprehended, six years back. sometimes the numbness of that hole where the wind blows throw, it saddens me.

if i could play with time, i would hold in one hand the intensity of presence that grief once gave me with the intense, resilient present in the other. each would find the other accessible.

i never had that, not really.

but when i held Dave’s ring again, the other day, and saw Finn’s name, and Oscar’s and Posey’s, all together, for a second i did.



it is everywhere, Norway and the horn of Africa and Amy Winehouse.

we are such fragile creatures, in the end. we scrabble, empty-handed, to connect. we fall like paper dolls, and we are dismayed to discover – over and over again – that death is always with us.

the ancient Stoic Seneca wrote an essay called To Marcia, On Consolation. in it he proposes that Marcia, who has lost a child, float far far up and away and imagine the world just before her entry into it. he offers her what Foucault calls “the right to a view”; the threshhold perspective from which she can see her whole journey laid out from the gods’ eye view.

in rude paraphrase, Seneca says to her, You will see stars and planets and jagged lightning, mountains and towns, the ocean, sea monsters. you will see nothing that has not tempted human audacity. but there is trial. he talks of plagues and shipwrecks, bad weather, war.…And the premature loss of those close to you, and death, maybe gentle or maybe full of pain and torture. Seneca says to Marcia, Consider and weigh carefully your choice; once you have entered this life of marvels, you must pass through these things to leave it. It is up to you to accept it on these conditions.(1)

i accept. i have stood on Marcia’s threshhold: i have chosen acceptance. but Seneca, in the art of consolation, you’re a bit of an ass.

you Stoics were trying to discipline the dismay, i think. as a guide to action, you have a point. we should not turn away from death, nor be shocked when it comes knocking too near us.

but the gods’ eye view is a sham, a trompe l’oeil. in the end, when we stare loss in the face, we look through our own eyes.

there is no language to talk of all the death in the world.

to grieve someone or something is to mark its individuality, its particularity. you cannot honour anything from a thousand miles up.

we sat with Daniel under the trees the other night.

his friend Carmel is dying. Carmel officiated at the marriage of Daniel and his wife Sundi, six years ago now. Sundi lost her mother when she was a teenager: it was Carmel, a nun, her mother’s friend, who stepped up and in where she could. now Carmel has cancer. now Carmel and Sundi are both a thousand miles away, or three. i am not good at distance. Carmel is seventy years old, or thereabouts. age is only a form of distance.

Daniel became our friend half a world away.

this is Daniel looking at Dave.

since Daniel moved here at the end of May, he has sat in our yard a lot of evenings. he has chopped down trees with Dave on our cottage lot. they have gone out to listen to music. they have argued, and laughed. it is a gift to have an old friend around.

this is Dave looking at Daniel.

i have only known one other Carmel in my life: Dave’s aunt, his father’s eldest sister, the matriarch, second mother to the clan. they must have been born in nearly the same year, a country apart. no connection except the random friendship of Daniel and Dave and i, and a name.

Dave’s aunt Carmel was diagnosed with cancer at the end of June. liver and pancreas, the fastest. beyond treatment. she fell into a coma Sunday night. we got the news this morning that she is gone.

if i tell you that she had the loveliest singing voice and that her eyes crinkled, it is not to flout Seneca’s counsel. accept, yes. but each of us only comes this way once. our views of each other are singular windows, one-shot deals.

Diane Arbus has been dead forty years today, by her own hand.

this article paints her harshly, as a voyeur and exploiter of sorts, intruding on the power relations between her and the outsiders who were her subjects. the author claims that Arbus makes us viewers complicit in a predatory act, held in sway when “our better instincts tell us to look away.”

my better instincts disagree.

Diane Arbus’ subjects were often circus geeks, drag queens, nudists, people with mental and physical disabilities: people excluded from the privileged halls of portraiture. she was their friend, for the most part, and i think it shows. she photographed them in their specificity, their one-time-only-ness: they stare back at the camera like a challenge, and leap, for me, from the screen and page, from the mundane worlds containing them.

her photos have a carnivalesque quality, it’s true. yet each subject is intensely, immensely human: it is the backdrop – the so-called ‘normal world’ and our belief in it – that Arbus skewers.

if it is unseemly and invasive to look on difference, then we back away, floating up and up until we see through the gods’ eye view, where all is blurry and less raw.

but i would rather live in Arbus’ world than Seneca’s.

and so i sit in my yard and take pictures of my friend of and my partner, while we talk of two women named Carmel, who were here.

(1). Foucault, M. (2001). The hermeneutics of the subject. New York, NY: Picador. p. 283-284.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.

– Dylan Thomas

hello, handsome.

no response. none expected.

i knelt near his feet, cradled bandaged limbs. one first responder pumped hard and breathless in the steady, rib-cracking rhythm of CPR. another held a bag of IV fluids high, over an arm that had clearly not given up its veins with any ease. he was tubed and bagged, and had a four-day shadow of silver growth on his chin, in some ways a far more painful signal of infirmity than all the unfolding drama. he was an old soldier. until these last months, no hint of a whisker had ever managed to wave its flag from his face without being immediately mowed down.

he did not move and i sighed deep and nodded. tender, i spoke. hard day, eh, old fella?

the paramedic’s head swiveled involuntary. i winked and smiled, but my smile was for my grandfather. i met the medic’s eye.

the younger attendant gently pulled me aside. medical history: i was the only family who happened to be there. an ‘end of life situation’, he called it: they would be calling the doctor presently. i nodded.

can i go to him? yes.

i am a partial witness. this is what i know.

he was born on a farm on the 19th of December, 1919. he had two younger brothers, both of whom predeceased him by decades, and a horse named Topsy who presumably did the same. his formal education culminated in a one-room schoolteacher who was barely older than he was. he had a finely attuned understanding of authority: Miss Flossie whacked him with the dictionary whenever he got out of line.

he served and was forged – like so many of his generation – in the crucible of the Second World War. unlike most of the rest, he could accept almost no acknowledgement of his service until fifty years after war’s end, when the spywork of British Security Coordination was declassified.

he had stories of Churchill and of Molotov, whom he drank beer with, though never cocktails. he had stories of the man called Intrepid, who was his boss, and of Ian Fleming, with whom he trained at the top-secret Camp X.

when Camp X closed in 1949, my grandfather was offered a position with the CIA. my grandmother wanted to go home instead. so they moved back to PEI, and he became a mechanic, a fire chief, a working-class suburban father. he fixed airplanes, cars, anything that moved. he went to work every day until he turned ninety.

she died twenty-three years ago. i don’t know that he ever stopped grieving her, but he had himself a second childhood when she went. he was a soul in need of other people, and so he found them. he connected. he made friends, kept busy, went dancing, stayed young. he had a wider social circle than i do.

when the heart attack last year cut off his ability to do, i feared for him. his identity was one based in activity, and i did not think he would brook the loss. yet he did. he made friends with his home care nurse, had her move in back in the winter when he was no longer okay spending the night alone. he made his own decisions, and in the end he spent his last days graciously in his chair, his throne. i would not have bet. i was glad, glad to be wrong.

he smoked cigars, so faithfully til near the end that i am tempted to give them out at the funeral. there was a pipe, too, once upon a time, but it faded away where the cigars remained. only in the last weeks did he leave them behind. when i put my head in his hair the last time, at the hospital with the winding sheet pulled to his chin, there was no smoky Old Spice redolence and my brain reeled and searched and recognized, for the first time, what it might mean to have him gone.

radio silence. unfathomable. he was too big for silence. he was a character.

when i went to DC last month for the first time, i asked him, hey, you ever been there? he nodded. nice city. i spent a week out of every four there for awhile, in the war. when he was stationed in New York, out of BSC’s Rockefeller Centre offices.

i cocked my head. doing what?

stuff, he replied, ever coy.

one time, i got on the train to go down and the door opened and Stettinius – he was the Secretary of State – walked in. sat down. big strapping fella. i’m all ready to get to work when he says, “let’s cut to the chase. whaddaya say we sort out the important things here? where are the good-looking WOMEN?”

that was my grandfather, ever able to turn a story. he chortled. i held his hand and smiled at him. sly old coot, i said, because i knew he had told me nothing. he straightened, proud.

he was my living history book, from the time i was a child. but most of the real stories died with him, his oath of secrecy unbroken.

you don’t need me to tell you this. it is in the paper, on the CBC. TV cameras came to my house today. he is famous in death, “the spy from PEI,” and i smile, because i imagine him blushing, embarrassed but pleased. my ex-husband writes from across the country to tell me he heard it on national radio. i am amazed.

what is left for me to tell? my grandfather’s story was always bigger than me. he belonged to a hundred people, a born charismatic in his own faux-curmudgeonly way. he was fierce, and funny, tenacious and flawed. he was exceedingly human. he was loved.

perhaps we hundred will tell our parts of the tale, as the days and years unfold. one time, my friend Cliff… or i knew this fellowgod, he made me laugh. maybe. perhaps that is what he leaves, in the end…a hundred stories. a hundred friends, of all ages. in our words he will hammer through daisies.

we are what remains now, each of us with our piece.

this is mine.

can i go to him? yes.

i picked my way across the trauma scene and crouched and took his head in my hands, stroked the silky salt-and-pepper of his hair. i put my forehead to his, and whispered a stream of a dozen things, a hundred things, a lifetime of things into the void of his eyes, the colour of my own.

he could not see me by then, i do not think. but maybe he could hear.

there is no way to speak for the hundred, in the end. it was me. i did the best i could.

i love you. we all love you. thank you, for teaching me to waterski. for your kindness to my children. for the ice cream cake you brought that first Mother’s Day when we buried Finn’s ashes under the trees in the backyard. for being the only one to say to me, aloud, and angry, that it wasn’t fair.

thank you, for telling me i was pretty, when i was seventeen and no one ever had.

thank you, for teaching me all the words to Colonel Bogey. for teaching me that a person can remain a big kid to the end.

thank you, for being a friend, to so many. you did so good. you were good.

it is okay. don’t be afraid.

for a moment his heart jumped like a salmon in his bare chest and they hung up on the doctor who was declaring him gone; called a second ambulance. i moved out of the way, held the IV bag, watched warily.

i am only a partial witness; i did not get to be there for the rest. they took him out of his house for the last time. my hand snaked in to pet his hair as they rolled him to the ambulance.

goodbye, handsome.

his death notice says he died at home; he never made it to the hospital. it is a narrative choice, the one i think he would have wanted. it was him who taught me how to tell a story.
(here is the post-script: it does not feel finished.

a friend said to me this weekend, when the tall trees fall from the horizon, however expected, it’s disorienting.

i look to the horizon for a gesture, the upturned hand punctuating a story, the wry smile. i blink, bewildered.

he was my last grandparent, one of the tall trees of my life. i was lucky. i am grateful. )



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