Monday, July 24, 2017

Hole


There is a hole in the calendar every year on July 9th. It's been this way since 1994 when I lost my cousin Ricky to suicide.

On July 9th, 2013 the hole got bigger when my aunt decided that almost two decades without her only child was too much to bear. She jumped into that hole with both feet. Morphine and whisky, with the event marked clearly on her wall calendar.

Since my aunt's death, July 9th opens up its jaws and pulls me under for a while. I usually don't see it coming until about a day before. July 8th. Shit. I can feel my body slowly sinking, ever so heavy. The air becomes too thick to breathe, making me wheeze. And I often have dreams that mimic childhood memories of running through the forest, playing hide-and-seek among the fir trees, the smell of their sweet, pungent sap stuck to my fingers. I laugh as the branches catch my clothes. I hear the sound of Ricky's feet crunching the forest floor behind me as he follows in close pursuit. But unlike when we were children, in these haunting dreams I'm running alone in an empty forest. I think he follows but slowly understand that he is not there. The shadows become thicker, darker. I lose my way. It is the hole, opening up, filling its lungs with me. I am now the sap on its fingers.

I try to ignore hole, but it thrives on namelessness and it seems to have grown over the years. It has edges that I perch on, without knowing how I got there. Sometimes hole takes the shape of someone I've lost, or becomes the chattering voice of doubt at 3 a.m. Hole pretends to be someone I trust and takes me by the hand, leading me to nowhere.

But I've learned some things about hole over the years.

Hole doesn't like jumping out of a plane with me, or running through the woods. It doesn't like when I lay under the apple tree and listen to the birds while the clouds drift through the blue sky overhead. Dancing and laughter are talismans against hole. So are friends.

This year, hole was quiet and small. July 9th approached and I kept an eye on it. I spent that week by myself at home and didn't fall into hole, nor did I find myself at its edge. Rather, I played jazz while cooking in the kitchen, conversed with a crow in the backyard, and I read my book. I finally got in touch with a cherished artist friend from long ago. I bought a painting from her - an abstract of a sockeye salmon, splashing in the water, full of life and colour. I sat on the couch by myself for long stretches of time to see if hole would try to fill the space. It didn't.

Hole will always be there, like a blemish on my skin. Hole is sneaky and can change its voice and shape. Sometimes hole likes to make an appearance at other times of the year, and almost fools me into following. And sometimes I do. But hole is no longer stronger than me.

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Pilgrimage

If at first you don't succeed, then try, try again. Or you can bake a lemon merigue pie and throw it at the wall. I am still in the try, try again phase but sometimes I just want to throw the pie.

I found out today that my last submission to the CBC Creative Nonfiction contest did not make the long list, but that's okay. Because I really loved the story, and the story was mine to tell. Now that it hasn't made the cut, it is also mine to share. Grab and coffee and have a read.

Note: This entry is a revised, expanded version of a previous piece.



The Pilgrimage

The summer of 1999 pulled me in many different directions, one of them being the birthplace of my Cree grandmother who passed away long ago when I was just a girl. She was born amongst the open stretching plains of Spirit River, Alberta, under all that sky. I don’t know why I felt compelled to go there or what I would do upon arrival. I just packed my truck and I drove.

I drove through alpine meadows in the rain, surrounded by the towering Rocky Mountains. I ventured along winding, deeply forested, single-lane highways on clear sunny days. I stopped to explore waterfalls and scenic trails, made chilli on my truck tailgate while parked in an old forest grove. I photographed vast fields stained yellow with canola flowers. And finally, I arrived in a dusty old town called Spirit River.

Land stretched flat and limitless in every direction, clouds perched in the blue sky like thousands of cotton balls laid out in infinite rows on a glass ceiling. I emerged from my truck as an unsteady stranger on a sea of land, with the line of the horizon as my only reference point for dividing earth from sky.

I had arrived at a small, ramshackle gas station and asked the gum-chewing cashier where I could find the reserve.

“There ain’t no reserve ‘round here no more”, the older woman said. “Those guys moved outta here a long time ago. Went to Fairview”.

"Oh", I said. I did not expect this at all and had never heard of Fairview. “Well, is there a place to stay nearby? A motel or campground, maybe?”

"Motels and campgrounds are all full at this point". She blew a gum bubble. Pop. "Though there is a bed and breakfast down the road that might have room. People there are real friendly". She smiled, cracking dry rawhide lips. I asked for directions there, and was told to take a right on the first road, drive to an intersection, take another right and then a left. Or something like that. I thanked her and contemplated just moving on to Fairview, but it seemed like such a long way to come, just to leave. I hopped back into the truck and followed her directions.

Within minutes I became lost. I thought I had taken all the correct turns but found myself on a flat dusty road to nowhere. I followed it optimistically for ten more minutes before surrendering.

Tired from the heat and grit of the road, the thought of camping in some farmer's field offered reprieve. I eventually backed the truck in next to the only patch of shrubby alders for miles, hoping it would shelter me from passing eyes. I slid out of the truck and lumbered over to an edge of grass that sharply gave way to freshly tilled soil. I was completely overwhelmed by sky – its vastness threatening to swallow me whole. I grabbed onto the grass like a lifeline with one hand to keep from floating away like a stray balloon; with the other hand, I dug my fingers into the loamy earth and watched as the sun began to sink into the land. A kaleidoscope of colours seared across the heavens. The occasional sparrow cut through the air while robins scuttled cautiously over naked earth. A dragonfly alighted on a green stalk beside me, rainbow wings flashing momentarily before its departure.

The weight of silence hung heavy and ripe as I clutched the grass. Old familiar ghosts began to rise and twist before me; spectres of things lost or broken that stain my pockets and claw at me in quiet times. I knew they would find me, they always do. Damp, dark whispers that drag me under to shadow places where loved ones have gone and never returned. What are you doing here? You are alone in the world. You are alone now. You will always be alone. But their words rang shallow and empty in this place, and they dissipated into dust. A cool serenity remained, and a sense that my ancestors were with me there, protecting me and pulling a curtain aside so I could see the beauty of the world clearly.

Then slowly the memories came.

“I have something for you. She would want you to have it” my father said. Twelve years had passed since I saw him last as a five year old girl. He placed an object into the palm of my hand. It was a small, chipped wooden box shaped like a treasure chest, containing three small items: a miniature tomahawk made from real wood and metal but half the size of my little finger, a small ceramic squirrel with a ragged fake fur tail, and a small picture of my grandmother. In the picture she is laughing. In all the pictures I have seen of her, she is always laughing.

My grandmother was a force of nature, as changeable as the weather. A tiny warrior barely five feet tall, with bright red lipstick, waist-length black hair, and a fiery temperament that instilled fear in potential adversaries. She liked her whiskey and could drink anyone under the table. She had spectres, too. They thundered inside her and sent people running for cover as she cursed every white man in Cree, including her husband. The whiskey was a river of anesthetic, muting voices of the deep when they became too loud. But there were also times of calm without the whiskey, when the world would become still and she would teach her children some of the old ways. Ways that were secret, no longer allowed. Not in their home.

When I was four years old, I met her for the first time in a highway restaurant while visiting my father in rural B.C. As my father exchanged greetings with my grandparents upon our arrival, I stood silently by his side, tightly clutching his hand while transfixed by this small, formidable queen. Long, black hair bound loosely on her head like a shadow crown, high cheekbones, piercing eyes. I slid cautiously into the booth across from her. We eyed one another carefully over the course of a few minutes. Nothing else existed. Time stretched before us like the Prairie sky. She took a long haul off of her cigarette; I chewed my straw. She appeared to contemplate something as she looked me over. “She’s the cat’s ass, Gary”, she said decidedly to my father. Having been familiar with the business end of a few cats in my time, I did not initially recognize this as anything resembling a compliment. But she eyed me with a flinty spark of pride which indicated that the cat’s ass was something special. I wore her approval like a badge of honour and vowed never again to kick the neighbor’s cat.

I never got the chance to know her. A few years after that encounter, during my father’s long absence from my life, she apparently died from a fall down the stairs. My father pressed for an investigation on suspicions that she had been pushed, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. In the eyes of the world, she was ‘just another drunk Indian’. But to me, she was a vast space inside that longed to be filled.

A patch of grass rustled at the edge of the farmer’s field, bending towards me as if stroked by an invisible hand.  A small animal, perhaps. I stood still and intent as a hawk, waiting. But no animal emerged from the hidden shelter of green; only a breeze that rose up to caress my cheek, blowing gentle tangles into my long brown hair.

I looked up at the sky as those few memories of my grandmother began to fade into dusk. Brilliant colours blazed their last display: purple, red, orange. I receded to my truck, crawled under the metal canopy, pulled up the tailgate, and climbed into my sleeping bag. I lay bound in my cocoon by the dim light of a fluttering candle, listening to the loud crackle and roar of thunder as a storm rolled in out of nowhere like a freight train. The wind rocked my truck back and forth, sheets of rain bulleted the windows, and forks of lightning struck fields near and far. I quickly fell asleep in the arms of the storm. The final lullaby.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Runner


 I don’t know why I got into running.  I’ve always hated it. Running was something that other people did – people with longer legs, deeper lungs. Jocks. I really can’t remember having run for more than a minute in my life without feeling like I was going to die. But this spring, after a long winter trying to shave off some pounds doing cardio in my basement, I wanted to run.
So one fine Sunday in spring, I set out with my iPod playlists and running shoes and ran for as much as I could handle over a half hour period. I pushed passed the one-minute ‘feel like I’m gonna die’ barrier and ran for several minutes at a time, lungs heaving between intermittent hauls off the asthma inhaler. The inflated sense of pride I felt at my accomplishment afterwards was only slightly thwarted by the pains in my chest. These pains grew in intensity over the next few days and finally landed me in the doctor’s office. Ruling out a heart attack, it was determined that the running had somehow triggered acid reflux, promptly treated with Malox and the doctor’s advice to join a program called “Learn to Run” by the Running Room store. I stayed away from running for a few weeks and was reluctant to join a program, being the lone wolf I am often inclined to be.

But something inside of me still wanted to run. So, once the esophagus had forgotten its woes, I put on the running shoes once more and ran around my neighborhood for half an hour. The usual heaving ensued. I pushed past the imminent feelings of death. I started enjoying myself. But somewhere along the way during the last ten minutes, I began to limp. Not sure how, but I had sprained my right ankle. “Why are you limping?” asked my step-daughter when I got home. “Dunno”. The limp lasted a week. A co-worker suggested the Learn to Run program. On that same day, a Running Room Magazine showed up in my mailbox (addressed to the former resident). The universe was insisting that I end the torture. A clear path lit up before me. I registered in the program.
Before commencement of the program, as I was talking more about running and doing more research on it, I discovered that there are two different camps when it comes to this activity. Those who believe it’s great for fitness, and those who believe that it is harmful to one’s body. Some of my friends started sending me articles with titles like “The Answer is Running”. Other friends told me stories of how their running parents have undergone hip and knee replacements, and that you can end up with a prolapsed uterus from such a high-impact exercise. I researched ‘prolapsed uterus’ and was not pleased to find out that yes, your uterus can actually fall out. Holy shit.

By the time I began the very first day of my running program, I was a bit nervous. After an introductory presentation on the program, I joined all the other newbies on the trail. I stood near the back, introduced myself, and matter of factly stated that “you’ll be seeing a lot of me back here”. And then we were off, starting with walking and doing short stints of running. As I ran, I dismissed the idea that my uterus could bounce right out of me and focussed instead on the more imminent lung issue. I worried about keeping up but I was keeping up just fine. We weren’t running for long enough periods to warrant fear of collapse. By the end of the session, I was intact and actually felt good. The next day I didn’t feel like I had been dragged behind a truck.
I wasn’t as trepidatious about my abilities at the second class. When we approached the trail, I placed myself at the front of our line. Expectations of myself were still low; if people needed to pass, they would pass. But as we got going, no one passed. And they did not pass in subsequent sessions, either, despite that we were running for longer periods at a time. Sometimes they were so far behind that I was occasionally asked to run back to the group to keep together. At one point, someone referred to me as ‘The Leader’. Others said that they set their pace to mine. “As long as I’m keeping up with her, I know I’m fine”, said some lady. And up at the front, where I least expected to be, I was managing it. I didn’t want to be a leader and I didn’t want to set the pace, but there I was with my assigned role and a renewed perspective of my capabilities.

This isn’t to say that there seized to be an internal struggle. The “holy fuck, this is hard” voice was still getting ample airtime. But so was the voice saying “push, push, push, I can do this”. Needless to say that to keep moving forward, one foot in front of the other at the head of the pack took a lot of focus. Breathe in, breathe out was really all I cared about from moment to moment. So I wasn’t sure how I felt when someone new joined the group and found a place right beside me. She was an odd bird. Before our run, as we all gathered in the store, she gravitated to me and began telling me about getting her washing machine fixed, like she was picking up the conversation where we had left off at some undefined point in time. She continued chirping in my ear all through our run. To be polite, I gave her the odd grunt while running but I desperately longed for peace and quiet. Over the course of her monologues I discovered that she used to be a triathlon athlete and was recovering after having broken her back. On the same day as a regimental funeral downtown for a local fallen police officer, she shared that she was also an RCMP officer. “I have inadvertently acquired a cop running buddy” I told my partner that night. All my childhood friends, including my partner, would understand the tinge of cognitive dissonance this might invoke. I grew up in the rougher part of my hometown, where signs of police presence usually imply that you should drop what you’re doing and make a run for it. And in my misspent youth I often did. Oh, the irony.

Last week after a particularly good Friday night run, I came home and proclaimed to my partner that I was going to work towards running a half marathon, then finish working towards my black belt in karate. He gave me a look. “What?” I asked. “You’re turning into a jock”, he said. I laughed, but I kind of liked it, too. I had embraced the formerly unknown. I had become one of ‘those people’ who dwelled in the esoteric realms of fitness.
As we near the end of the running program, even the cop has dropped off. There are only a few of us who have made it to the end (including a gaggle of loud 20 year hens that it happens I can run circles around but just try to get away from most of the time). I have met people in my community, learned a great deal, and conquered physical and mental barriers. I have also discovered that I am a solitary runner. Just me and my breaths, one foot in front of the other through the forest trails. And I can run for almost ten minutes at a time now, which, prior to my current mid-life years had never seemed possible.

I recently read a running article that addressed the question of what makes a person a runner. The answer quite simply is: you run. And so another runner has been born. No one is more surprised than me.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Butterfly

I saw a friend the other night that I hadn't seen in 25 years. Lots of catching up to do. Somehow we fit it all into three hours: careers, family, partners, travel and all the foibles throughout. On my part, there were the usual excuses for having chosen the unglamorous career path of a public servant. "But I've been writing", I said. He replied that he had checked out my Blog which has been very quiet for a while. Yes, it has been very quiet here.

But I actually have been writing, just not posting. Some of this writing has been in the form of contest submissions, which I cannot publish until I get the inevitable rejection notice. And the rejection, as I've been warned by many writers, is all part of the writer's existence. I've got a nice collection of rejections piling up, and wonder if this somehow authenticates my existence as a writer.

I had coffee with a different friend yesterday, which happened to be International Women's Day, and we spoke of the things that replenish us. In much the same way the runner does not run because she needs to win the race, the writer writes because the act itself nourishes who we are. Not for validation, not for profit, but because it feeds the soul. My writing helps me understand the world better, and myself.  And so today when I found out that my first fiction short-story did not make the CBC Canada Writes long-list of prize contenders, I felt okay. Because I loved this story. It showed me something. I think it could be longer (I was confined by a word limit), and I also think it would make a good short film (screenwriting is my next endeavor), but I love it anyway - as I do the part of myself that created it. So here it is. Consider this our virtual coffee date at the Wild Woman Cafe.


The Butterfly

Monday morning was harder than most. I didn’t want to go into work but I knew that if I didn’t, the enemy would win. I could never live with that.
The Sunday morning before, I had reluctantly peeled my crusted, bleeding lip from the Persian area rug in the living room. The one my grandmother had left me as part of her Will. I would rather have been bequeathed her jewelry, but such a request would have shocked her into an earlier grave. Too much reality for the likes of her delicate little English bones, fragile and chipped like the fine china she loved.
Saturday night at the Gold Range was also too much reality for our little backwoods town. I should have known, but wanted to believe it was my big chance. I started to believe over coffee with a few of my close colleagues on Friday afternoon.

Tara started with a tempting but very unconvincing diatribe. “Ralph, times are changing. People aren’t allowed to hate you because you’re different. Fly your freak flag, dude. Come into the office on Monday as the person you want to be. We’ll back you if Greg gives you any problems.”

“Um, let me think about that for second. No.”
“Why not? Are you going to live your whole life under a rock?” Duane and Michelle gave each other quick, nervous glances. The walls felt made of glass.
“I’ll tell you why not. Because Greg is a renown bigot who probably eats kittens for lunch. He would castrate me if I came to work in women’s clothing. Oh, and not to mention that I might lose my job. But hey.”

Tara dug in. “Okay, well for one, you don’t want the gear anyway so castration can only help you. That aside, all I’m saying is that sometimes you just need to take the plunge. Head first. The shock would be brief. Everyone will get over it.” She waved her hand dismissively.

“Right. Whatever, Tara.” I took a sip of my latte. A loaded pause ripped at the seams. Duane took a sudden interest in the coffee shop artwork that we’ve ignored for several years.
“I know,” Michelle said. “Why don’t we all go out Saturday night to the Gold Range. Ralphie, you can dress up for it. No one will even know it’s you anyway.” Her hazel eyes sparked like flint. She grinned mischievously. “Think of it as a trial run. It will be your coming out part-ay.

Michelle could convince anyone of anything. No one questioned her confidence. The possibility ripened in the silence that hung before us. All eyes were on me.
“Do it,” she said.

“Maybe.”
My mind had been made up before I opened my eyes on Saturday morning. Cracks began to form in the tight husk around me; light filtered in. My senses, usually dull and heavy, felt sharp and acute. The edges of things gleamed anew.

I opened my bedroom closet and peered into the shadows to the dresses near the far end. Prisoners of my shame. I pulled out the black one with low neckline and long sleeves. This will go nicely with my blonde wig and red beaded necklace.
I headed to the bathroom mirror. Ran my fingers over my face. Going to need an extra-close shave today. I checked out my face from both angles in the mirror, side to side. I knew the transformation that was about to take place. I had practiced this a thousand times in the shelter of my den.

I arrived at the Gold Range that night with knees trembling like reeds in the wind, wishing I had chosen flat-soled shoes over the flamboyant red heels that somehow ferried me through the door. I nervously peered around looking for my friends under dim lights, my sweaty hands slipping on the leather purse I desperately clutched. My heart hammered in my ears to the beat of loud music. I ventured forth through the thickening crowd that closed around me like a fog.
A woman grazed me with an inquisitive glance. Was my lipstick too bright? Maybe I should go to the bathroom and take it off. I headed towards the men’s bathroom on the right before realizing it. Oh shit. That was close. Okay, maybe this wasn’t a good idea.

I was about to turn around and leave when my eye caught the frantic arm-waving at a far table in the corner. It was them. I walked over in relief. Rescued.
“Whoa,” Tara said. “I almost didn’t recognize you! Dude, you sure clean up nice.”

“Never mind her,” intercepted Michelle. “You look fabulous. You’d give Marilyn Monroe a run for her money.”
Duane stared with a disoriented expression. “Okay. I feel seriously underdressed.”

“That’s because you are underdressed, Duane,” Michelle said. “You should be taking lessons from Ralphie here.”

“Rachel,” I corrected.
“Yes. Rachel.”

They all nodded and smiled eagerly. Duane quietly slipped away to the bar to get drinks. Tara took a quiet inventory of our surroundings like a bodyguard for hire.
“Oh my god. I think you’re being checked out,” she said.

“Who?” Michelle asked. “Who is being checked out?”
We craned our necks around.

“Jeez! Don’t look, you guys! Can’t take you out anywhere. Ral – Rachel. Rachel is getting the eye from cowboy over there. The one with the denim shirt.”
We eyed cowboy surreptitiously. He looked about thirty-something. Dark, angular rough-and-tumble features. What most ladies would consider handsome. Cowboy smiled at me. I smiled back, then looked around nervously and began fidgeting with the strap of my purse.

A couple drinks gave me the need and the courage to venture to the women’s bathroom.  The successfully uneventful experience, combined with a few more tequila shooters, prompted me to submit to Tara’s unrelenting pleas for a dance partner. The music moved our bodies like ribbons in the wind. We weaved through the dance floor and twirled like dervishes on fire.
The evening ended too soon. We started gathering our things after they yelled out last call. I looked around. Cowboy was over playing pool. His friend pointed at us and whispered into his ear.

“Okay, Cinderella,” Tara said. “Time to start heading home before your chariot turns into a pumpkin.”
“I’ll give you a ride,” Duane said.

Michelle snickered. “Duane, don’t think you’re going to score tonight.” Our laughter reached crescendo as we fluttered out the door into the cold of night.

“I’m going to walk home,” I said. “I think I need a little fresh air. My flat isn’t too far from here.”
It was barely minutes after they left when cowboy called after me on the sidewalk with his friend in tow.

“Hey, doll – need a ride?”
“Oh no, thanks. I live close by.”

“Oh, yeah? Where’s that?” He lit a cigarette. Took a hard drag.
The weakness in my knees was back. I smiled, turned and started walking quickly.

“Aww, come on now. We’re just being friendly.”
My heels clacked faster on the pavement as I left their cajoling banter in my wake. The sound of pounding footsteps suddenly rushed upon my clumsy heels. An invisible hand ripped my wig from its stem. I dashed around instinctively, hands grasping my exposed flat, sweaty hair as cowboy waved the wig in triumph.

“Toro! Toro!” he yelled through peeling laughter.
Panic gripped me and I started to run. Seconds into my escape I felt something yank me back in mid-flight. A hard blow slammed into my head. I tumbled to the ground. Everything went black.

The police and paramedics were kind.
They eventually got me home. I promptly collapsed in tears on my grandmother’s fine rug. I awoke on Sunday afternoon to limbs heavy as lead. Memories of the night echoed through my empty core. “Well now, son, you’re lucky you got away with just a bang on the head,” the officer said. “Might want to rethink your wardrobe, though. This ain’t Broadway.” Fuck you, sir.

With the arrival of Monday morning, I took a long hard look in the mirror. It wasn’t the usual assessment of my would-be girlish features. Cold blue eyes stared back at me from hollow chambers, my cut lip framed by stubble. Grey hair whispered at the temples, close to the bruise on my forehead. I have lived with this stranger for too long.
I reached for the razor. I’m cutting loose. Good-bye, Ralph.

I emerged from the elevator that morning in the grey skirt-suit purchased from Ann Taylor online last year. The pink heels went nicely with my lipstick. I felt the bobbed brown wig brush against the back of my neck as I strutted past Greg’s office. Tara emerged from a boardroom, slapping a hand to her mouth in wide-eyed astonishment.
In moments, Greg appeared at my cubicle. “Uh, Ralph? This is a bit of a new look for you.”

“Yes, Greg. It is. And please call me Rachel.”


Saturday, July 5, 2014

Ten White Geese


I was in our local library early July 2013 when I saw this simple, innocuous looking book by Gerbrand Bakker. It’s about a woman who embarks upon a journey of solitude in rural Whales. That’s all I knew when I picked it up; I had never even heard of the author before (and no, this is not a book review).

For some reason, I brought it home and began reading this story that weaves its plot around a woman who has taken off from her husband, without a word, to rent a farmhouse alone in the middle of nowhere and in a completely different country than her own. Of course I wondered why she would seek to be alone, and in that manner. Perhaps she was fleeing an abusive relationship or going through a mid-life crisis. Over the course of days, she walks along some trails, meets the landlord’s son, feeds the slowly disappearing geese on the farm. It was all so simple and uneventful that I wondered where this book was taking me. At the halfway mark I reconsidered my choice to read it in the first place and didn’t think I was going to make it to the finish line. I did not know that this book was leading me to an answer. It was an answer to a question I had not yet asked about something that was soon going to happen in my own life. Something that would happen while I was reading this book about ten white geese.

The book was in my bag early one weekday morning on the bus. I had read a few pages of it on the bus commute to work and then tucked it back away as I got ready to disembark at my stop. My phone buzzed once. I checked it as I was about to get off the bus, and saw that it was an email from a relative with the name of another, closer relative of mine in the subject line. I opened the email with some trepidation as I was stepping off the bus. The message was short. By the time my foot had made contact with the pavement I had read that one of my most beloved relatives, my aunt Yvonne, had committed suicide.

I felt an immediate sense of emptiness and shock as I kept walking to my building, my senses dulled to everything else around me. I felt a surge of emotion start rolling to the surface as I sat at my desk, fortunate that no one else was yet around. But then a particularly chatty person approached and started chirping cheerfully to me about something that I couldn’t comprehend. I nodded my head and smiled, wishing she would go away. Tears were making their way to the surface, along with rage, confusion, and a gaping hole in my heart that was beginning to swallow me. I cannot be here right now, I thought. Soon she disappeared and I was able to go home almost immediately.

It took a long time to get answers, as the relative handling the situation was not releasing many details. I waited by the phone for answers from coroners, police, and anyone else willing to provide information. All I could do was wait. Eventually I remembered that I had this book that I had been reading. The story that seemed to go nowhere. I thought about the woman in the story and how she had made a choice to leave everything behind to be alone. I recalled that she had made a visit to the doctor to request a prescription for morphine. In the absence of answers I was getting from elsewhere, I started reading this little book again. And so I began the slow, dark descent into this woman’s eventual suicide; a journey I did not realize I had been taking since turning the first page. With careful planning and methodical determination, she meets her end in a peaceful, drug-induced sleep in the goose shed as classical music plays softly beside her. I happened to be listening to one of Chopin’s piano sonatas at the time I came across those pages, which I still cannot hear to this day without feeling an abyss open up inside me.

By the time the coroner divulged any information to me, I already knew everything I needed to know. I had been reading it in this book. From the front to back cover, I was taken on my aunt’s journey. She took her life on July 9th by taking a large dose of morphine, and was found lying peacefully in her bed a few days later by concerned neighbors. She had planned it carefully, without anyone the wiser as she started giving some of her things away. She had asked my father for my address only weeks before, to give me some of her old photos. They never made it to my doorstep. I’m sure those photos would have included ones of her only son, another of my beloved relatives (of which I have few), who had committed suicide on the same day 18 years earlier. My father told me after her death that he was surprised someone could “pack it in so easily”, to which I replied that I thought 18 years was a very long time to keep surviving after that big of a loss.

One of my fondest childhood memories was of when I was about four years old and staying at my aunt’s house. I was sleeping on a mattress in one of her rooms, and was just waking up while my aunt and cousin (who was roughly the same age as me) were sitting next to me, looking over me as I slept. “Isn’t she beautiful, Ricky”, my aunt said. I felt so loved. Maybe that is why I remember it so clearly. Now as I think of that memory, it is as if there is a white veil between us where before there was none; a divide that I cannot cross.

My own niece was born this past April. It was bittersweet for me becoming an aunt. On one hand so happy to have been made an aunt; on the other, sad for the aunt I have lost. When I met my little newborn niece, I got to hold her in my arms as I visited my brother and sister in-law. Her mother warned that it likely wouldn’t be long before she started squirming and reaching for her parents to be fed, changed, cuddled or any of the other things that babies continually need. But she just stayed in my arms peacefully over the course of a couple hours. She, someone who apparently doesn’t do much of that with strangers; and me, who never really liked babies all that much. But it felt good and I loved her instantly. The wound was there but it was getting filled with something else. I wanted to make her a silent promise that I would never break her heart, a promise that I know would protect myself as much as her. But I’ve gained enough wisdom to know that pain is a part of loving with one’s whole heart. I can only hope that if I’m unable to explain my actions to someone I love dearly, that the universe will do that for me. Maybe even at the local library.

It is almost that time in July again, and I can feel the pain creeping in through a few cracks. But the light gets in, too. In the words of Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in”.


Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Heart's Desire



Forty-six years ago a young, unwed teenage mother gave up her baby boy. She came from a small town on the east coast of Canada, but was living away from her family in Alberta likely in search of opportunities that might help improve her chances in life. The circumstances around her pregnancy are unknown and perhaps irrelevant for the purposes of this chapter, but what is known is that young women in those situations were often discouraged to become single parents. They were told that they could never do it alone, and were thus encouraged to give their babies up to families that could provide their children with all the things they were convinced they would never be able to offer.

She did not tell many people about her situation, lest it get back to her family in her home town. Coming from a Roman Catholic background, it would be safe to assume that her circumstances would not be looked upon favorably by her family or community. Likely she had slipped away from prying eyes during her pregnancy by working as a nanny or housekeeper in someone’s private residence until the birth of her child. The father of her child would never know, either. She was alone, and this was her secret.

When her baby was born he was delivered straight into the arms of the attending physician and quickly shuttled away. She never saw him again. Nor would she ever look for him upon regretting her decision: one of the persons involved in the adoption process thought that adoption complications could be averted by telling the young, distraught mother that her baby had fallen sick and died.

The baby boy was my partner, Andrew. He obviously did not die. His health thrived, and he was adopted by a nice married couple who could not have children of their own. He lived a good life, though was a difficult child. He learned of his adoption young, and the pain of perceived abandonment could not be easily reconciled. He often wondered why his birth mother had not come looking for him; why he was not wanted. But these big questions can be such a burden to bear for a little boy, and he eventually cut them loose.

Alberta is the only province in Canada that has opened up the adoption records, though I wonder how many mothers have never looked in those records because they were told by ‘well intentioned’ medical staff or social workers (who may have had a stake in brokering a successful adoption) that their babies had died. How many mothers would have changed their minds after delivery if not told that death had taken that option from them forever?

The adoption records in Alberta have been open for a few years. Since the unsealing of those records, it has taken Andrew some time on his own journey to arrive at a place where he felt he could dig that deep and bravely face whatever results he might unearth from his past. From the time of his request to the Ministry last October for his records and the arrival of the adoption package in our mailbox, a few months had passed - accompanied by a whole lot of wondering. He had knocked on a door: who would he find behind it? Would they want contact?

The package came on Valentine’s Day. We sifted through every inch of it before heading out for our dinner plans. It told the partial story about a shy, sensitive young woman from a small town called Heart’s Desire who named her first born son after her father. Under the veil of secrecy, she carried her burden alone and bravely delivered her son into a new life. A life of opportunity that she felt she could never offer.

Tracking women down after a lifetime, which often includes marriage at some point (and hence, a change of name) presents no small task. Also, as we later discovered, people from her part of the country go by their middle names rather than their first ones. There should have been hurdles everywhere, but instead small clues surfaced for us at every turn. Within an hour and a half we had located her.

The letter that Andrew had sent to her was marked for Heart’s Desire with the PO Box blank. Though we cautiously speculated that no post office would accept a partial address, we somehow knew that any of the potential failings of the postal service would be trumped by a much stronger force that was at work. This letter would make it into her hands. We knew there was purpose to our actions but didn’t realize that we were part of a miracle in the making: that a son was being resurrected for someone who could never know that one day she might finally get that chance to hold him.

Understandably there was a certain amount of shock on the receiving end of the letter on that cold, blustery winter day in a sleepy little Atlantic town. Feelings of puzzlement upon viewing a strange name on the label of the letter turning into tears of disbelief. Hope, where there could never have been any before. There was no waiting to respond, and no careful treading forth with letters or emails. Forty-six years had passed. Too much time had been wasted. She called our house looking for her boy. Since then they have spoken regularly, carving out the path that leads them back to each other across this great continent. This fall, we fly out to meet her.

Often in life, parts of our hearts can remain broken, wounded, and unhealed. Sometimes we lose people we love, and sometimes we lose ourselves. We don’t always get a second chance or even know that a second chance is possible. But for some reason in this case, a miracle has taken place and there is light shining in the deep ocean of the heart’s desire.