How do you measure a year?*

“What a weird day.” is something I’ve probably said thousands of times since this time last year, and you have also probably said this or something similar an equal number of times. Perhaps more, who knows. Last week we marked the anniversary of the WHO declaring COVID-19 a pandemic, and a lot of us marked that as the first last day – or the last first day – or something like that. For me and for my coworkers, our pandemic anniversary (I refuse to say pandemicversary) comes this week, and so like a lot of people, we did a little reflecting.

On Friday (this year) we had our weekly meeting and our director talked about how much we’ve done for the past nearly-a-year; how quickly we pivoted (a word we all heard a LOT) to online teaching and information desk help and everything else we do as the health sciences library in a research university. And indeed, we were able to quickly move our services online, almost seamlessly last March, without even missing a beat.

We talked, in this meeting, about the Friday before shutdown, when we learned that schools would be closed for an extra long March Break. On Monday we all came back and put up signs saying the circulating collection was closed, no more borrowing until further notice. We had fewer students in the library than usual, and those who were there were asked to email library staff if they had questions, we’d help them that way. No one wanted any help, and we mostly stood around – far too closely, in retrospect! – and chatted; we compared stories of what we’d heard, we talked about the risks, things like public transit and how are we going to deal with the books that come back? Procedures were put in place and by the afternoon, our library director told us to prepare for closing. That preparation came in the form of a half-day teach-in the next day where we learned Zoom, we had the phones forwarded from voice to email so students and faculty who preferred to phone could still reach us. We exchanged cell phone numbers so we could text each other. We created a LibGuide (because of course we did!) for library staff that had all the information we needed to log into our desktops remotely, to access the library system and the catalogue, and a lot more.

March 17 was our final day in the library, and then we were closed “for a few weeks” or so we all thought. Although we weren’t closed at all, really. Not service-wise anyway. And that’s kind of my point.

This story isn’t really unique, nor is it probably even interesting, by now. We’ve all – across the board – got similar stories of the “now you see us now you don’t but don’t worry we’re still online” at our jobs or our schools. We closed, we pivoted, (sorry) we did it all and then some online without even missing a beat.

And now that a year has gone by I often think, “But what if we had missed a beat?”

I know why we didn’t, of course. We’re a service-driven organization. We had students who were, at that point last year, finishing up assignments and theses, preparing for exams. They needed us. But what if they, too, could have missed a beat?

What if – and hear me out – we had ALL taken an extended March Break? What if we’d actually pulled the plug for a bit, just taken some time to breathe? Could we have avoided some of the burnout?

I guess when you think you’re only closing for a few weeks, a couple of months at best, there doesn’t seem to be any point. But once we were four then six then ten then twelve months into this year of pandemic, the pressure to keep on keeping on was immense. We’ve been doing it all along, haven’t we? And look, everything is going really well! But, as they say in the movies, at what cost?

I’ve been in meetings where there is so much “business as usual” that I’ve cried, muted, with camera off, because I wanted to scream, “I was just at the grocery store and the shelves were empty and no one was wearing a mask!” but instead I said “Yup, I can do that! Let me have my thoughts to you by the end of the day! Ok sure, no problem, I’m on it!” Because that is just what you do.

And I don’t mean that my employer didn’t give a shit, I mean that I think perhaps early on we should have normalized the feelings of despair, of helplessness. Normalized saying “You know what, that experience on the bus was scary and I can’t really give you those notes by the end of the day, is tomorrow ok with you?” Or whatever. There was so much business as usual, and a year in, has it mattered?

The pressure to appear just as normal has taken its toll. I find myself reminding people in meetings that “We are still in a pandemic, so maybe don’t knock yourself out?” And sometimes people laugh at that but I also remind them that I’m serious. Or, maybe I’m the only one crying off camera, stressing about the rising numbers, worrying about my son who has to go into work every day, feeling the pressure of a year of living the way we’ve had to be living. But I doubt it.

We spend a LOT of time bucking up, keeping on, soldiering on and not talking about it. And maybe if we’d had some more time at the outset to take stock, to breathe, to make a plan, to feel the feelings and share them, and to take a short break before we launched directly into this new normal (again, I’m sorry) it might have set the tone for the future. But again, we didn’t have the foresight to know that a year from then we’d be in the same situation, just now with less disinfecting groceries.

Looking back is a gift, and this gift is not lost on me. As is having a job, having a roof, having my family with me under that roof. Things aren’t hard per se. But maybe that in and of itself makes it hard. How can I complain when I have all that I have? So many people are much, much worse off, so it’s not right that I’m complaining. It’s not right that I’m stressed when I’m as fortunate as I am. Tell it to your therapist, you might be thinking, and please know that I am.

We congratulated ourselves at last week’s meeting: look at all we’ve accomplished, look what we were able to do with little to no extra budget, little or no extra time. And it’s impressive for sure. But I am so tired. And I’m sure I’m not alone.

One year of pandemic living has taken its toll indeed, and should I still be working at the outset of the next pandemic, you better believe I’m calling for things to be done a little differently.

*Apologies to anyone who thought there were going to be RENT references galore in this post. I only realized after I’d created the title what I’d done. (Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes, actually, if you’re curious.)

A Week for Cold Earth: Book #4 of 2021

I finished Cold Earth at lunchtime yesterday, a day where the sun was shining through my living room windows, warming my hair, and causing me to shed my ever-present (since the pandemic started, really) hoodie. And yet, I shivered as I read the final pages. It’s just that sort of book, and really the best sort of book to read when it’s not yet spring but no longer quite winter; that limbo season we are known for in this part of the province, this part of the country.

It’s a book that is about 10 years old, but it’s been on my to-read list since I recently saw it on this Book Riot list, 10 Books That Take Place in a Desolate Landscape because if that just isn’t my jam, I don’t know what is! And yes it’s a book about a pandemic (I’m back on that bullshit, because of course I am) but in all fairness in Cold Earth the virus is much more peripheral than in books like Station Eleven or Severance, both of which I highly recommend if you are, like me, fascinated by plague fiction. And desolate landscapes.

Cold Earth, by Sarah Moss, tells the story of a team of six archaeologists on a dig in western Greenland, there for a few weeks in summer to excavate a medieval Norse settlement. The story evolves through journal entries and letters home, and we hear from each character in turn, beginning with Nina. Nina is a somewhat reluctant participant in the project, the only non-archaeologist, and shortly after arrival she begins having dreams. Dreams that are filled with violence and destruction, dreams that stay with her in the morning light. She begins to hear footsteps and voices, someone or several someones moving about in the night, taking her boots, messing with their dig site, and she becomes more and more convinced – and terrified – that something is present there. The others, with a job to do, are somewhat sympathetic at first, but mostly not interested in her ramblings, and see her as a threat to the project.

In the backs of all their minds as they work are thoughts of the virus that is moving through the rest of the world. Not, as of yet, rapidly enough to shut down travel (obviously, they made it to Greenland) but it’s enough of a worry for most of the team to want to check in regularly with family and friends via email. Eventually the websites stop responding and the team begins to wonder if they’ve lost contact not due to an equipment or internet problem, but what could ultimately be an end of civilization as they know it problem, and of course, what does that mean for the plane that is to bring them home again?

Part ghost story, part love letter to a world and worlds past, this is the kind of book that gets deep into your bones. Unintended archaeological puns aside, it’s the kind of book where you too can experience the weather, the freezing cold, and feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end as you are confronted with the utter darkness of a Greenland night, exposed tents with only the rocks and the water, a few sheep, and the subject of Nina’s horrifying dreams. Moss does an incredible job of conjuring ghosts – real or imagined – with an urgency that transports you. Stylistically, too, the book feels urgent. Each section is told from one of team member’s point of view, and while we hear first from Nina, then Ruth, then Jim, by the time we are hearing from Ben, Catriona, and Yianni, their sections are short, tense, and filled with the imagery and language of survival.

I loved this book. I loved its themes of love and loss, unspoken grief and unresolved pain. And I loved its look at worlds that can change seemingly in an instant, juxtaposed with what remains in the earth forever. Forever, or at least until scientists dig it out and remove it for further study. Human lives have always been fleeting yet they leave indelible marks on those who are left, and I adore how Sarah Moss teases out those paradoxes throughout the book.

If you’re curious about Cold Earth – and I hope you are now! – I also read Ghost Wall by the same author which is also brilliant and evocative and creepy and perfect. And highly recommended.

Cake, on occasion

On Tuesday I posted the following on Instagram:

Nothing says “We are so happy you survived a pickup truck hitting you and sending you to hospital one year ago today” like a chocolate cake from Weil’s Bakery!

The post got several likes and comments and one dear friend, confused, mentioned in her comment that she hadn’t heard this before! What happened??

Rather than tell the tale on the post, I decided to text her to fill her in. I told her the story of how Max was walking our dog and when he was (legally! with the lights!) in the intersection, a driver in a large pickup truck hit him not once but twice, knocking him down and sending him to hospital with slight bleeding in his brain which freaked us all out, given what he’d been through 18 months before.

I concluded with “So, we have cake to celebrate being alive.”

I can’t remember when we started marking random occasions with cake, but it was definitely before Max’s hospital ordeal of late 2018. We have birthdays in pretty quick succession in our house – December, January, February – then no birthdays until July, and then nothing, again, until December. Now, I know cake isn’t only for birthdays, but those are truly the traditional “occasion” cake days that we mark in our household, anyway. And so after John’s birthday one February, I declared the new tradition of “a cake a month for whatever reason” which was wholeheartedly embraced by everyone.

And it needs to be said that these cake occasions had to be what I call “occasion cakes” the kind you order from a bakery or pick up at the grocery store. These cake occasions did not include things like banana bread or other types of loaf or pan cakes. No, these needed to be, for want of a better term, birthday cake cakes. Chocolate or vanilla or marble. One or two layers. Heavily iced, preferably with flowers or balloons and such. I don’t know why this is, but those were my deeply arbitrary rules for this new tradition I totally made up. We did mostly grocery store cakes for our occasions which had more to do with me not planning ahead than any great love for grocery store cakes (although who among us can resist a good old-fashioned sheet cake?!) and having to quickly stop by the grocery store on my way home from work to ensure the needs for our tradition were met.

So, that year we had St. Patrick’s Day cake, Easter cake, then cake for Mother’s Day, for Father’s Day, then for a birthday! Then came Civic Holiday, then Labour Day…you get the idea. Sometimes our cake eating fell on the appropriate days, sometimes it did not; sometimes there were random “holidays” like International Turtle Day or something that may or may not have been legit, but it didn’t matter. Because CAKE.

Our tradition stopped when Max went into hospital, but it resumed in full force when he was released, once he started to get his appetite back. Only now, the occasions were a little different. We celebrated “No more IV antibiotics!” and “The PICC line is out!” and “Physiotherapy graduation!” and all those milestones that were so important in his healing. And sometimes there were even two cakes in a month because there were, and are, no rules.

So, on March 2, one year after the accident, we celebrated once again, with cake.

Sometimes cake is all you need

Given the year we’ve been through, it’s surprising that I haven’t continued the cake a month tradition, but it’s never too late to start up again. After all, Easter is only a few weeks away at the beginning of April. And maybe 2021 will see some new milestones requiring cake: “First outside friend hang of 2021!” or “Got your vaccine!” etc. Covid-19-related cake things should probably exist. We’ve all endured so much.

And so when I told my friend that we have cake to celebrate being alive, it felt like I was being funny, but there is just so, so much truth to it.

Maybe cake isn’t your thing, maybe your thing is popcorn or red wine or chicken wings or Skittles. But whatever it is, I hope you also celebrate being alive with it. Regularly, if you can. Because we need that. We need it now, but I honestly think we’ve always needed it. Now just seems more urgent.

Watercolour Wednesdays

Back at the end of December/beginning of January, I signed up for a 4-week Zoom watercolour class. It’s not something I’d ever tried before – except for provincially-sanctioned art classes from grades 1 through 8, of course – but the classes were being offered by a local artist I know, and I wanted to give it a shot.

I first met Nancy through a yoga class we both attended regularly and learned she was an artist because for a time, our yoga studio was also a sort of gallery, and I immediately admired Nancy’s work hanging on the studio walls. Her style tends to lean to the abstract which I love, and her use of colour is both soothing and exciting, and I’ve always regretted not purchasing one of her pieces back then.

I would see Nancy over the years at yoga, in the grocery store, dancing at 80s nights at the Casbah, the usual places I run into people in Hamilton. We started following each other on Instagram which is where I learned about her classes and signed up.

And oh friends, was it ever fun.

I assembled my supplies from my local art store and for four Wednesdays in February, I tuned in as Nancy led us through a variety of watercolour techniques and styles and we all followed along. There was no pressure to share our work, no grading or correction, it was just a group of people with visual artistic experiences ranging from pre-beginner (me!) to advanced (a woman who is an artist but in other mediums) and I had a blast.

In previous visual artistic pursuits (see above and provincially-sanctioned and required art classes) I was always afraid to start. If I didn’t have a vision of what the final finished product would look like, I would hesitate, lest I start something in the wrong way and then not be able to make it look like what I wanted it to look like, what it looked like in my head. And so, I spent many an art class carefully sketching drafts, carefully searching for and gathering just the right colours, the right tools for the job; cutting out all the pieces of construction paper that would eventually be the finished product BEFORE I started gluing, in case I glued incorrectly, which would of course mean that the entire project was GARBAGE.

And yes, if you’re curious, it IS exhausting being me.

I was always envious of my classmates would would start slapping down paint, who would start GLUING or drawing with no idea what the picture or the collage or the painting was going to be ahead of time. Renegades! It was thrilling to behold, and yet I spent those same classes getting organized to the point of not actually being able to start and ultimately having nothing to show for anything. It was the same in shop class, but that’s a whole other middle school memories blog post, honestly.

Now, if writing has taught me anything it’s that some words on the page are better than no words on the page and if they’re garbage words, or garbage idea, that’s ok because you can make garbage words and garbage ideas into really nice and good words and ideas later, once you review and edit. And guess what? You can do the same thing with art.

Some of the things I worked on in watercolour class

So, in my watercolour Wednesday evenings, rather than sit there wishing I could make something beautiful, I actually did it. I applied the same guidelines to painting that I do to writing: get it down, fix it later. And it worked. In some ways. The difference is that once the paint is on the paper, it’s a challenge to remove it, but this time I was able to go with the flow, to let the paint show me where to go next, and it was really lovely to relinquish control and just see what happens. ‘Go with the flow’ and ‘see what happens’ are not, and have never been, phrases that I utter in relation to anything in my life, but something about these Wednesday nights just allowed me a level of freedom that I think I’d really been needing. And I have Nancy to thank.

Do I think painting will replace writing as my creative and artistic outlet? No. But, I do think painting will be something I come back to frequently, perhaps working on a small watercolour when I’m feeling blocked in other ways, and letting the paint guide me toward an opening, letting it act like a passageway to further creativity.

See? I’m learning.

If you’re interested in art classes, or you just want to see some lovely art check out Nancy’s website. You can also follow her on Instagram: @nancybenoy

Blue Skies Ahead? Yes, Please

In December I bought myself the gift of the Headspace app. If you don’t know Headspace, allow me to fill you in a little bit. It’s a meditation app for your phone or computer allowing you to have a pocket full of meditations of all shapes and sizes that you can do wherever you want.

I had used Headspace before, 4 years ago or so, when things were stressful in my life and I decided I really needed to do something other than pace and stew. And then things got a little easier – although it’s still life, so stress never does actually go away – but I found I was using it less and less, so I stopped the subscription. Then, of course, 2020 happened, and while at the beginning of the shutdown/lockdown/quarantine I didn’t have the patience to sit and be mindful, (you know it’s chaotic when!) there were news reports to read and toilet paper to hunt down, after all. But as we all got into the swing of the slowed down pace (for those of us lucky enough to have been able to maintain our jobs and homelives, of course) I found myself once again needing some brain relief.

Headspace is one of many meditation and mindfulness apps out there. When I first decided to give it a try, I tested a couple, signing up for their trial periods. Now, there are quite a few to choose from (stress is big right now, go figure!) but Headspace was the one that clicked for me, the one I stuck with, and the one I’m using daily now.

The theme of the current series of meditations I’ve been doing is Appreciation and throughout, the instructor reminds you to, at the end of the day, write down three things you appreciate/are grateful for. The first time he suggested this, my mind went straight to a blog I used to follow in the mid-2000s, Three Beautiful Things. I was pretty sure the blog had ended a few years ago, but when I looked it up, I was so pleasantly surprised to see that the writer had started back up again in 2020 as a way of coping and finding light in the bleakness of the current world. I suppose it’s a bit weird and somewhat selfish to think “Yay, you’re blogging again because life is shit!” but reading Clare’s blog was a true comfort and rediscovering it has felt a bit like reconnecting with an old friend.

For a time I used the 3BT as prompts in my journal, trying to notice the little things that make life so bright and it was honestly one of the best things I could have done. I didn’t publish them like Clare does, but they were daily sparks for me when things were hard. Sometimes my three things came first thing in the morning on my bus ride to work, for example. I would notice kindnesses that had I not been looking for them might have escaped me, and I would arrive to work feeling grateful for 3BT, for everything, really.

If I were to look back at old journals, my three things of beauty entries ended, as did all my journal entries sadly, when Max entered hospital in November 2018. There was no joy, no beauty to be found at that time, there was only darkness and worry, stress and tears. And yet, if I’d been thinking straight (which I rarely was) there were actually SO MANY moments of beauty that could have been found in that pain. So many wonderful people at the heart of his care, so many friends and strangers who provided love and support, so many things that I saw and experienced that just never made it to my journal.

When you get started with Headspace they talk about the Blue Sky, that clarity of mind that is always with you, even if you can’t see it. Thoughts and feelings can act like clouds. Some clouds are ok, a few little ones flitting around are fine, but too many of them build up to create an all-consuming storm and it’s at that point when you start to wonder if you’ll ever see that blue sky again. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but it’s a really great image. And if you’re struggling with a storm of your own, writing down three things that you’re grateful for, that you appreciate or even three beautiful things, three lovely things that you observe in a day, can be a really great way to help you find your way back to blue sky.

In the journaling workshops I’ve hosted in the past with Hamilton Public Library, some of the questions I get asked the most are variations of “What if I can’t think of anything to write?” or “What if I open my journal and there is nothing to say?” or “How do I write when I don’t know where to start?” And these are valid questions! For those participants my suggestion is always to start with three things: three feelings you have currently, the three items closest to you, three random words. If nothing else flows from there, you’ve at least listed three things on a page, and that’s better than a blank page. But three things – any three things – will usually lead to more. Three is the magic number, after all.

2021 is proving to be as much of a challenge as 2020, and if you’re struggling to find your blue sky, or even your three lovely things, you’re not alone. But remember, it’s there, it’s always there. When you push away the clouds, there it is. And when you are able to take notice of the little things, the beautiful ones will be revealed, too.

Wishing you blue skies and beautiful moments as we launch headfirst into this year, friends.

Book #1 for 2021: Migrations

I chose Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy as my first read of 2021 not for any real profound reason other that it’s a library book and library books need to go, eventually, back to the library. I checked it out before Hamilton went into lockdown then forgot about it over the Christmas break due mostly to the fact that a stomach bug knocked me out for nearly 72 hours and I didn’t have the energy to do much of anything except stare into the middle distance feeling sorry (so very sorry!) for myself. Eventually I came around, got my act together, and started reading again on New Year’s Day.

And while I didn’t plan out the book that would usher in a new year of reading for me, it turns out that I could not have chosen a better one to set the tone for 2021.

“The animals are dying. Soon we will be alone here.”

In Migrations, the animals are mostly all gone. Climate change and humanity’s role in it has driven wildlife not just to the brink of extinction (where we are now) but has pushed it completely over the edge. There are no polar bears, seals, or wolves; no lions, giraffes, elephants. Think of an animal, now think of the thousands, the millions of others. All gone or nearly gone. It is staggering to imagine. This is the world Franny Stone inhabits.

A young woman with a troubled past, a troubled mind, and cursed with the inability to stay, Franny’s obsession with the Arctic tern, the bird with the longest migration of any in the world, forces her aboard a fishing vessel, one of the last of its kind, to follow the terns for what is likely their last migration.

I will always, always be drawn to books where bodies of water – especially large, northern bodies of water – are prominently featured as central locations, almost as central characters. For Franny, the sea is as much her home as any place else and McConaghy develops her sense of belonging to it in a kind of magical way. Franny meets two women surfers who are astounded at her ability to brave the freezing sea without a wetsuit. “Seal blood,” she tells them. Then, “Oh aye, you’ve the dark look of them, too,” one of the women tells her, evoking the mythical selkies, the seal people of Norse and Celtic mythology. And you get the feeling, then, that there truly is something otherworldly about Franny, something that explains her need to leave, to keep moving, to keep searching.

As Franny’s past is slowly revealed and as we learn her all-too-human story, McConaghy deftly blends the stark realities of this life, as well as the science surrounding the extinction of the world’s animals and ultimately the destruction of the earth, with lyrical, poetic, almost dreamlike prose. A continued blurring of the lines between fact and folklore, the mystical and the real, gives this novel an incredibly magical feel.

The characters in Migrations despair of the state of the world and of humanity’s role in it, but, when faced with the cataclysmic, catastrophic realities of extinction, of the irreversible change to the climate and destruction of the earth, McConaghy finds for them, for Franny especially, a sense of hope which leads finally, ultimately, to the desire to remain.

This book is a wonder, an absolute gift and I am so grateful for it.

Happy New Year indeed, dear friends.

Behold, I Bring You Tidings of…Something Something…

I feel like I’ve been hitting you pretty hard on the blog lately, what with all the big feelings and deep-rooted traumas. So in honour of the festive season which is upon us as of today, December 1, please sit back and enjoy this tale of how, once upon a time, my newly-formed family became not just any family but the family. I’m talking the big three, here. The Holy. Family.

John and I were married on December 30, 1995 at St. John the Evangelist Church on Locke Street here in Hamilton. You might know it as the “Rock on Locke” but while it didn’t yet have that hip moniker, it was still a pretty nice place. I didn’t grow up in a church, in any church, and as such I would have married John in a parking lot, but he did have a church background, and so partly for his parents and partly because a parking lot in December in Hamilton just isn’t feasible as a venue, we had a church wedding.

When we chose that date to get married, we didn’t expect that not quite two years later we would welcome Charles to the family on December 24, 1997. His due date was December 17 but as we know, babies don’t read calendars, and as the days dragged on (and oh they can drag so goddamn hard when you are 18.5 months pregnant) I feared I would be having a Christmas baby. Feared? Really? Yes, I did fear that at the time. I didn’t want to be in hospital over Christmas! I didn’t want my poor baby to share his birthday with Jesus (I am aware that December 24 is the arbitrary date for the birthdate of Jesus but you WOULD NEVER KNOW IT given…everything!) I didn’t want him to endure the “this is for your birthday AND Christmas” gift situation for his whole life, so I hoped that he would arrive well before Christmas or possibly just after. But mostly before. My god I was tired.

At the beginning of December 1997, a good family friend died after a long illness. I had known him and his family my whole life. He had a long career in the Anglican Church, culminating in being named (promoted to? ascended to? I don’t know the process) Archdeacon of the Diocese of Niagara many years before, so his funeral brought Anglican priests from miles around, including the one who married us two years before. When he saw me at the reception, great with child, (see where this is going?) he pointed at my belly and asked “When is that baby due?” I shrugged, and through a mouthful of church egg salad sandwich I said, “Few weeks, probably?” He explained that the epiphany pageant committee at the church always liked to have a real human baby to play Jesus, and could he tell them to give me a call?

So Charles came into the world December 24 and I did have to spend Christmas in hospital, but whatever, our baby was here and he was perfect and so a few days later we went home. And then, a few days after that, the epiphany pageant people called.

“We would love for you to bring Charles to be in the pageant!” and in my sleep-deprived state I said “Sure, why not?” and so on the appointed day we all bundled into the car and off we went to church.

The ladies all ooohed and aaahed at the tiny human and gave us instructions as to what he should wear, how the show would work, etc. and I remember thinking that this might be nice, actually. Sitting in the front row while Charles made his debut, ready to jump up in case he cried but also enjoying the show, the warmth of the candlelight, the traditional songs and carols. And then they started measuring me and John for costumes.

I remember we looked at each other and then John spoke up, “Wait, are we in the show? Doing what?” and the costume lady just laughed and laughed.

There was one rehearsal. It was all very surreal, but we had to walk up the aisle toward the altar carrying Charles while the choir was singing. After that we mostly we just had to stand around holding him, moving here and there depending on where we were the story. At one point I had to kneel at the altar and I honestly wasn’t sure I would be able to get back up, but I made it. And Charles, that absolutely perfect little human, slept through the entire thing. Little lord Jesus, no crying he makes.

A couple of weeks later we received a package in the mail. The pageant committee had taken some photos that they had included and there was also a really lovely letter telling us how impressed people were with our performance, how so many parishioners were moved to tears, how radiant we all were, the perfect embodiment of the holy family. Never mind that we were so, so sleep-deprived, that I was still healing from the emergency c-section I’d had; that John hadn’t shaved in days, that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d showered. But maybe that was the point. Maybe what they saw was a couple of 20-somethings with their first child, without a real clue what to expect, fumbling along, doing their best in front of everyone. Maybe we reminded some of them of their own early days as parents, or maybe they even thought of that family in the stable and how staggeringly tired and confused they would have been, too.

Over the years it’s become one of our favourite stories to tell and while it isn’t the best Christmas pageant ever (that title belongs to this incredible work of art that you should definitely read) it still has everything. A delightful baby! A hilarious mix-up! Two people completely out of their element but just kind of going with it! A happy ending! And, as much as it was a bizarre, exhausting experience, I’ve always remained happy we did it. They got their live action baby Jesus, and we got to make a lot of people happy. And we got some photos that are absolute GOLD. Everybody wins.

But, while the people of the church were delightful and friendly, and adored Charles, please know that we never EVER answered their calls about the Easter pageant.

Your Life Can Change in an Instant

Although the actual date of the ‘incident’ as we’ve come to call it in our family happened on November 16, 2018, it was a Friday night two years ago when it occurred, and so today I have spent a lot of time thinking about what used to be the unthinkable.

A day like any other is how they start the movies, just a normal day doing normal things until… And it was. And I will always marvel at how fucking normal a day it was until.

We went to work, to school. I met a friend downtown for dinner. I had the duck and we shared some wine. She had dessert because she always has the lemon tart (we go to the same restaurant every time because we are like that.) I hugged her as we left and walked a few blocks towards the theatre where I met John who was just parking the car and we carried on together. John had dropped Max off there a few hours before, his call time was 6:00 or 6:30. We showed our tickets and took our seats. We watched the first act, we had a glass of wine during intermission and watched the second act. It was a very good show and we enjoyed it. We waited for Max to see what his plans were. Sometimes he went out with friends from the show afterwards but this time he was ready to come home with us. His head hurt, he told me. A splitting headache. We left the theatre and he was holding his head. We’ll get you home, I told him. What did you eat today? Did you drink any water? You’re probably dehydrated. I’m dizzy, he said. And then he vomited. And then I can’t see, mum, I can’t see, what is happening to me. And on the sidewalk he collapsed and John ran to get the car, we need to get him to the hospital, but then no, not the car, we need to call 911.

I had never called 911 before. I tried to explain where we were, I don’t know the address, I told him, but you have to hurry. I gave an intersection. MacNab and Vine and please hurry. He asked a lot more questions and I was frustrated, then I heard the sirens. People stopped nearby, do you know him? they asked. He’s our son. I wanted to go in the ambulance but the paramedics said no, better to follow us, we’re going to St. Joe’s. We followed, John drove. I jumped out at a red light in the middle of James Street and ran into the hospital. There was no one to ask, where have they taken him. John parked the car and came back. The ER doc saw me, is this your son? Yes, how is he. A stupid question. He’s intubated now, we have the neuro team ready at the General, CT scan showed a bleeding in his brain. A stroke, I said. But no, not a stroke. Something like that but not that. You can see him for a minute, but the team is ready to go with him. And don’t give up hope, just yet. I wasn’t planning on it, honestly.

At the General Hospital, directed up to ICU to the surgical team. Papers to sign. Consents for contrast CT, blood products, more. Definitely a brain hemorrhage, surgery will take several hours, he will go back to ICU. Back to the waiting room. A foam cup of water pressed into my hand. Waiting. Practical to a fault, I make lists. Appointments to cancel. People to call. Work. The director of the play. The school. Charles. This can’t be where it ends, over and over. This can’t be where it ends. I don’t pray, that is not me. I ask my parents to pull some strings, wherever they are. If anyone can do it they can. I let the idea of a funeral suck me in occasionally but then I force it to go away. This can’t be where it ends.

At 7am the surgeon comes back to us. We have been there since 11:30 the night before and so has he. He is happy, confident. He is so kind. The surgery went well, we removed the faulty blood vessel. We won’t know the full extent of the damage to his brain for a couple of days. Can we see him. They are getting him settled in ICU, go home for a bit. Rest and come back later.

Saturday now. A plastic bag of his clothes, his wallet, his phone. Personal effects. Phone calls and no sleep, little food. When can we go back.

ICU day one. The nurse says he’s doing well, all things considered. Max, she says, you have visitors, do you know them. The breathing tube muffles his voice, makes it hard to talk but we hear it. My mum and dad. I squeeze his hand he squeezes back. Max, the nurse says, can you move your feet for me? He does. Wiggle your big toe. We love you, Max, you don’t have to talk. But he does, softly, around the tube, I love you too.

ICU day two. That breathing tube needs to come out, the nurse says, he doesn’t need it. Progress. Let me get the doctor. Extubation. Better, Max? Yes, better.

You need to know this story has a happy ending and many of you do. Max remained in hospital for another 30 days and endured more surgeries to clear out infection that had developed, but on December 19, 2018 he got to come home and after heavy duty antibiotics to clear his brain of all signs of infection and a few months of physiotherapy to work on strength and balance, he is the same kid he was. We are so very lucky.

I wish I could remember more, Max tells me and I laugh and say I wish I could forget. But I don’t, not really. I need to remember, even though it’s so hard. The details of that night are there and sometimes they creep up on me, startling me with their clarity, and I’m back on the sidewalk, in the ICU, in the surgical waiting room.

Your life can change in an instant, they say. And they are not wrong.

Future Promises

Like you, I was extremely relieved this past Saturday morning by the outcome of the US election and also possibly like you, I’ve been tense for so long that it’s truly become a challenge to untense. Everything from stiff and sore shoulders that remain up around my ears no matter what I do, to a jaw that seems permanently on the ‘extremely tense setting’ in spite of my best attempts at relaxing it, to the kind of sleep I’m getting – or not getting as the case may be. If you’re like that, I empathize. Everywhere we look there are reasons, so many reasons to be anxious.

But I was able to breathe that sigh of relief along with everyone else, even though I recognize that there is still an incredible amount of tension in the air, in our bodies, in our world. We are, after all, still in the middle of a global pandemic. And, if you live in Ontario, you’ll know that our government still doesn’t seem to be taking that as seriously as it should. Cases are rising daily with no end in sight. As I write this, there are over 1,500 new cases today and a new model for the pandemic to be released later this afternoon is said to show that by mid-December, daily new cases will rise to 2,000 or more. The ineptitude of our provincial government is staggering, it has to be said.

However, if you felt that relief on Saturday morning along with everyone else, you might have allowed yourself some joy (I hope you did!) to know that decency triumphed over evil. Or if not evil, exactly, at least decency triumphed over what had been a complete and utter disregard for everything decent. I mean I like using evil to describe that man, that administration, but that may not be your cup of tea. There is a lot to say and to read on this subject and I am not the person to do that, but what I do want to say is that feeling you have? That better things are possible? That sense of relief and those tears that you had been holding back for the past four years? Those things are real and they are valid. They reflect hope and a sense of optimism, a way of looking forward that is bright and beautiful.

On Sunday, the day after the election had finally been called, I went outside to put my garden to bed for the winter. I cut back dead flowers, trimmed the leaves of our beloved peony bush, pulled the long since wilted hosta leaves from their stalks and cut back the fall blooming aster too, on its last legs by now in the first week of November. I left the leaves that had fallen from our weeping mulberry because why rake and pick up leaves when you can leave them where they are and cover them with black mulch?

Before the mulch, I planted some bulbs. I usually shy away from bulbs because this city’s squirrels like to dig up and rearrange them, and so it always seems a waste of time unless you enjoy garden design by rodents. But this year I wanted to try. I wanted to see something that I planted grow from, quite literally, the ground up. Well, from below the ground, I guess.

I chose Tulipa ‘Vincent van Gogh’ an extremely goth, so ‘dark purple it’s almost black’ tulip whose petals are serrated, like a knife. So, goth AND metal. By contrast I also chose Narcissus ‘Acropolis’, a delicate white flower with hints of palest pink. I think they will make a lovely couple.

After planting, we spent the rest of the afternoon spreading the remaining mulch, carefully blanketing the plants, ensuring the most delicate ones received an extra layer for warmth and safety. For the already established plants along with the newly planted bulbs, tucking them in for the season until it is once again safe to grow and bloom brought a comfort that I wasn’t expecting. It is still so soothing to me to think of all my plants safely underground, sleeping their long sleep through the remainder of autumn, through winter, with the promise of spring on the horizon.

It’s that promise that gets us through, isn’t it? Whatever is happening in our lives, in our world, the promise of the future is what helps us remain hopeful, helps us make plans for better days. If we have that plan, that promise, we can thrive during the bleak times.

Planting spring bulbs in the fall has always been a way to plan for future beauty and this year it just seems so, so necessary to want to lay that groundwork for the hopeful season to come.

There are no guarantees, as we all know, but if we can hold on to the feelings from last Saturday, those feelings of relief, that sense that change and growth and better times are coming, finally, all that will help so much in the depths of winter.

My plants will make it through. We will too.

Remembering. Always.

In March 1973, my grandmother died. For awhile before she died, she lived with us, sleeping on a sofa in the rec room in our basement, and my brother and I used to go “visit” her there. My grandparents lived in Nanticoke, too far for Nanny to travel for all the appointments she needed, so she stayed with us. I remember sitting with her, reading the cards she’d received, looking at the little gifts her friends had sent; hard candies in a little round tin, rose-scented hand cream. I remember the feel of her quilted dressing gown, too, but not much else. After she’d been with us awhile, she went into the hospital, and we didn’t see her. Kids weren’t really welcome in hospitals back then, and I don’t think my mother liked the idea of us seeing her so sick. I was six, my brother five.

I have a vague recollection of the day she died: there was a phone call and then my parents were bringing my brother and I into the living room where we all sat together on the sofa and they hugged and hugged us. I don’t remember being sad. I suspect I was, but at six, nothing seems permanent, and Nanny had been gone for some time by that point.

When I was in my mid-twenties my Mum and I were talking about Nanny and she mentioned that the day after she died, she and my Dad took us to the carnival that came to the Centre Mall every March Break. I was shocked, how could you do that when Nanny had just died! What was wrong with Michael and me, that we still wanted to go to a carnival?! Because we had promised we would take you, because life goes on, because you were both too young to understand grief, to comprehend that level of loss, to understand what it all meant, she told me.

On October 19, 2003, my Mum and I left the hospital early in the morning and after I took her home and we made some initial arrangements, I drove home to tell John and the boys that my Dad had died. John met me at the door, the boys – Charles almost six, Max, three – were playing in the living room.

Tiny boys with the World’s
Best Grandpa

Charles knew something was up by the look on my face and he came right over to me. I sat down on the floor and told them I needed to tell them that Grandpa had died that morning and the rest of the conversation went something like this:

Charles: Grandpa died???

Me: Yes, honey.

Charles: Max! Bad news! Grandpa’s dead!

Max, looking up from whatever he was playing with: What? Grandpa’s dead? Oh no!

Me: …

Them: …

Charles: Can we watch Power Rangers?

Me: Of course, sweetie.

SCENE

The first time I told the boys that story, they were horrified for the same reasons I was horrified by the carnival story. We were monsters, they said. Not at all, I told them. Because life goes on, because you were both too young to understand grief, to comprehend that level of loss, to understand what it all meant.

For the boys and their Grandpa and for me and my Nanny, the grief came later, once we could better understand loss. We grieved (and we still do grieve) not just for the person we loved, but for the time we never had with them, for what was taken away from us, for the unfairness of it all.

I used to think that the ache would disappear, that the hurt would fade but seventeen years later I’ve learned that grief is a journey without a real destination. Sometimes the road ahead is calm and smooth and other times it’s a goddamned wild ride, but you’re always on it.

So today, in my melancholy state of reminiscing and remembering and grieving, I think of how much my Dad my dad has missed in seventeen years. I think of how utterly unfair that he died so young – 68, just 15 years older than I am now. I alternate between rage and sadness, which is how grief often is, but in the midst of this I also smile to think how much he would have laughed to hear Charles announcing Bad news! Grandpa’s dead! and immediately segueing into the Power Rangers. Because really, what else needed to be said?

Life goes on, indeed.