Signing Off

Connie Howard died peacefully at the Norwood Hospice in Edmonton on November 15, 2016, surrounded by her family. She was 60 years old.

Connie was born in Lethbridge, Alberta, on July 19, 1956 to Ann and John Naundorf. She is survived by her parents; her husband of 14 years, Jeff, and his mother Lois; Connie’s three adult children, Byron, Natalie and Geoff; her three step-children Jennifer, Joanna, David and two step-grandchildren Bijou and Edie; her sister Kathleen, and brothers Daniel, Andreas and Martin; sister-in-law Maureen; and many dear in-laws, nieces, nephews and friends.

Connie found joy in connecting with readers through her writing. She published this blog (Sorting it Out), served as assistant editor of Eighteen Bridges magazine, contributed pieces to Alberta Views and the Edmonton Journal, and wrote a popular alternative health column (Well, Well, Well) in Vue Weekly.

Throughout the course of her illness, Connie often found relief through acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine. So in lieu of flowers, Memorial donations may be made to the Acupuncture Works! Community Fund, 201-10026 – 105 St NW, Edmonton, AB T5J 1C3, an outreach to those in the downtown core who lack the means to access these services.

Hovering

hard, loud, early morning rain outside my open window
a long, crashing rumble of thunder;
be warm and dry and safe out there, dear child

and you, you heart-broken one,
frightened by the intensity of the grief,
the endless dark tunnel,
try to remember you will emerge
to see the sun again
and learn to live in the space between dark and light

the blue skies of childhood may not return
but blue skies will
the bounce in your hamstrings may sleep a long night
but what returns will be enough

the body remembers

it remembers both the joy and the horror
and it doesn’t know the difference
between the quiet imagined story
and the louder, more apparently real one;
it will respond to both

so tell yourself a story

and remember the hot summer sun,
being mesmerized by the iridescence of the dragonfly

poised and elegant, she hovers,
forward and backward,
upward and downward,
side to side
hovering, she sees past illusions
to the depths

Joanne

Joanne, dear Joanne. We miss you so much. It’s almost been four weeks now since you left us, and I want to tell others what I told those who came out to St. Albert to mourn your moving on. I feel the injustice on your behalf all over again—we have each other for our grief, but you agonized privately, stoically, courageously, and graciously over yours. We know how badly you still wanted to be here.

It was a beautiful service. I’m pretty sure you would’ve liked it a lot. Lindsey and John did a wonderful job of choosing the photos and music and words that told your story. Even played Neil Young singing “Somewhere on a desert highway, she rides a Harley-Davidson, her long blonde hair flyin’ in the wind,”  and somewhere between the beginning and the end of it I soaked every tissue in my bag. You were—always and at every stage of your life right up to the end—beautiful. Jo

But I think you know it was a nice service. You weren’t there of course, not there in the way we wanted you there, smiling and hugging and talking and all those good things, but you were there. I had an image of you so comfortable again now, and happy, perhaps even dancing in the ether somehow as you looked on.

I have a plane to catch today, and woke up super early—5:30—in part because I wanted to have a chat with you. You’d understand, even though you were always more likely to be awake into the early morning hours than wake up then. You knew insomnia, and you knew the feeling of having run a marathon when it was actually only walking the tiniest fraction of one that created the conditions for an early morning hour leg cramp.

I went shopping for a dress yesterday, and I missed you. I had to take advice from the sales associates, who, while great, weren’t you. You would’ve been proud of me though—I walked the entire length of the mall and back—West Edmonton Mall, no less—and paid for it with only the one little leg cramp.

You always were a better shopper than I was. Less impulsive and far more discriminating. And generous. Last year, when for a while I couldn’t walk more than the distance of a very short city block, you not only quickly became the expert on which shopping malls had the best wheelchairs, you also got to work sharpening my fashion sense. I’d be looking at a floral dress or some oversize casual comfort thing, and you’d raise your her eyebrows just a little as if to ask “you’d wear that?” and then go on to suggest something a little edgier and talk me into it. Had we been a little stronger, you might’ve tried to talk me into a Harley and some chaps.

You did this wheelchair thing for me even though on some of those occasions you struggled to find enough strength yourself. It was the blind leading the blind, though we were anything but blind.

You were a constant, loyal, brilliant, quiet, strong and lovely light in our lives. I didn’t know you for as long as some of your friends, but I feel so, so lucky to have known you at all, because it was always and only a joy, an honour, a privilege.

It was four years ago we met, almost exactly, remember? With a Facebook chat, at Michele’s suggestion. It was the loveliest of gifts she gave me, introducing me to you. That first coffee, which lasted two or three hours, bonded us—in part over the shorthand cancer survivors know, but also simply because there was so much more there between us to bond over.

We’d been worried about meeting, we discovered. You worried you might become locked in with someone a little crazy, which, it turns out, was perhaps a legitimate concern. Both of us worried a little about wading in with another cancer survivor, afraid of the potential loss there. But coffee visits quickly became lunches at the Tea Place, and eventually anything, anytime, with or without our husbands. Sometimes one or the other of us would be too sick to make it for a week or two, and those were hard. We worried about each other, and felt bad when we were unable to help and be there.

I knew from the start that you were way cooler than I’d ever be, with your quiet, sharp dry sense of humour. And I knew you’d be a rare kind of friend, the kind where affection grows quickly and profusely and becomes deeply rooted.

I quickly saw your wonderful capacity as a mom to Lindsey, your deep, happy, proud love for her, and your deep, deep love for John too. I saw that you understood my husband’s humour—which is never a given and really an essential ability in my friends—and I quickly learned that you were his match that way, that you knew how to deliver irony as quickly and expertly as anyone.

You were determined and generous, always ready to help, to bring food, to listen, to find things to share a laugh about. You made it to my birthday party the summer you were trying to survive the beating radiation delivers. And you made it to the-grandkids-are-in-town party last fall too, when your health problems were really starting to snowball. Loyal and kind and quick to put the needs of others ahead of your own—that was you.

Your successes in the face of the odds stacked against you speak to your determination and intelligence. There was nothing you wouldn’t research and be willing to sacrifice to be healthier, stronger, and fighting for your life. You defied those awful odds they gave you for a nice long time, and you did it on your terms, maintaining an amazing quality of life for a good long part of that. But cancer is a still a determined and nasty thief.

Both of us convalescing off and on for much of the past few years, we often swapped Netflix entertainment ideas, and I soon learned that underneath your competent and contained social worker and biker persona lay the most tender-hearted human being. Almost embarrassed to admit I wept my way through endless seasons of Call the Midwife I was comforted to learn that you had wept your way through them as well.

Always, your top priority was Lindsey—you wanted her to have all the parental support she needed to get a post secondary education, to have a place to land, a home. And near the end, you determined Lindsey would finish her term, cancer or no—and you succeeded in hanging on to facilitate exactly that.

Recently, when it became apparent just how grave things had become, I felt crushing sorrow. Still we hoped. And nearly right up to the end, you’d make us smile when we’d visit, reminding us that we weren’t to be taken too seriously because we’re crazy.

Lovely, lovely Joanne. You’ve left an enormous hole in our lives. Our hearts are broken, but we will, as you and Lindsey have so beautifully engraved into your skin, carry you there forever.

A Thousand Not-Yets

When you’ve been blinded by the sun,
when three months of struggle have turned into eighteen,
one drug to second, to a third, to a fourth
and your monsters have not yet been defeated,
when your bones sprout blender knives that turn themselves on at will,

when spring rains never came, but fires did
and the earth is now not only parched,
but scorched,
when your skin has become equally parched and scorched
when your dear friend, too, has been blinded by the sun,
screamed a thousand not-yets,
and now lies awaiting her passage
What then?

You are wowed by the brilliancy and strength of those called to sit vigil.
You talk to friends who make you smile,
perhaps indulge in an afternoon G & T,
sleep when you hadn’t planned to
lie awake while others sleep.
You cry,
and hold each other close.
You wait.

For rain,
for thicker skin,
for joy,
for summer.sun2

Patron Saint of the Plague

Had I known St. Valentine encompassed anything but Hallmark love, I may not have chosen February 15 as our wedding day. Not only did it land at the end of reading week (I was a student at the time, writing mid-terms and papers), but I expected proximity to be a good thing: St. Valentine was the Patron Saint of love, after all. Had someone informed me thirteen years ago he was also the Patron Saint of fainting and the plague, I might’ve moved our wedding plans to June.

Fainting and the plague have been ours for much of the past five years. We have become raw and bruised, but also humble and tender. We have become more honest and thick-skinned, and sometimes impatient, but also more gentle and understanding, and infinitely more patient.

We know our run may not last the expected decades most of us get, and so we hold hands in the night, and wrap arms, and share our tears, our nightmares, our grief. We also make a point of finding humour daily, of laughing together. We have fallen and felt shamed, but we have also got up again, and felt profound gratitude. We have been in the crucible and had our lesser selves exposed, and we have emerged, and reflected the light. We are in the crucible now, but we’ll emerge again. We’ll do all these again, hopefully many times.

The crucible is unbearably hot at times, utterly capable of destroying love. It is intense, creating chemical reactions that threaten destruction. It tests resiliency, and if we don’t bend, we’ve learned, we’ll break. It is terrifying, as we’ve both experienced the death of love in our first marriages.

Still, before all this, and perhaps primarily during all this, our love has grown. I hope the future holds easier and happier Valentine’s Days for us, but either way, through thick and thin, in the fire or not, I believe we’ll be in it together.

 

Clear Skies, Cancer, Boxes of Chocolates

rain

I want it to rain. Rain, rain, rain, steady hard rain with the power to wash the hot, smoke-filled air and put a damper on the hungry forest fires raging out of control all around.

But then, I often want a lot that is beyond my control.

Just a few short months ago my doctor told me things were looking so good that I didn’t need to worry about resuming chemo until the fall. And just as I’d written my enthusiasm and joy about this amazing news, we learned that our niece had died of her cancer, and that our good friend’s cancer had gone on a massive offensive, progressing to where it had not been in many years, and later, that another friend who lives with chronic debilitating pain was suffering a turn for the worse.

I never did publish that post. It seemed gloating, self-absorbed. But then a short five or six weeks later, I got my own bit of bitter news—some suspicious pain, a reminder that I never did finish treatment back in March, some worrying test results, and an all-new treatment schedule of my own, one that was definitely going to interfere with my enthusiastic summer plans. No big surprise, but still, my husband and I sat down at the kitchen table and wept.

The good news was that we were going with a different drug, one that carried no risk of the horrible neuropathy and systemic pain I experienced in February, one that was going to be “virtually impossible to have a severe allergic reaction to.” This was calming, hopeful, gratitude-producing information.

Still, it is a chemotherapy, medicine on a mission to kill cells both problematic and essential. I tend to be both optimistic and anxious, sometimes in equal parts, sometimes in swings of extremes, but I set out for my first treatment relatively tilted toward optimism. It went well. Until two days later, when I again found myself weeping and cursing both the universe and our not-very-progressive state of cancer treatments. I spent nearly the entire time between my first and second treatment feeling miserable in old familiar and entirely news ways. And tonight, at 4AM two days into this most recent cycle, I’m insomniac (thanks to side-effect medications), and waiting desperately for rain.

Life, eventually for most of us, turns out not to be the proverbial box of chocolates Forest Gump’s mother promised after all. It has far too many bitter, not-at-all chocolate pieces, bad-tasting surprises covered in very bitter-tasting chocolate look-alike.

Still, through the heat this past week, I found sweetness alongside bitterness again too. My daughter has been wanting to accompany me to treatment for a long time now, and had the day off this time. She’s just finishing a move, and carrying sorrow and struggle of her own, but she put her curly hair up, and put on a bright yellow dress, and looking like the original blossom of beauty, drew smiles by the dozen walking through the halls of the cancer clinic with me. She held my hand as they started the drip, and we chatted, and I felt loved. The treatment was the most stream-lined ever, record-breaking for me. Not a hitch, in and out in an hour.

Another dear friend, highly skilled with tiny strategically-placed needles, offered instant nausea and pain relief and an amazing endorphin bath for my tears the next day. I felt loved. Another friend, by way of the music she makes, offered her version of prayer. I felt loved. Another offered steaks for the boys and birthday cake for two of us. I felt loved. Another yet is planning an intimate potluck birthday get-together to include a few other friends and our now-grown children. I feel loved. My sister, dropping in with a lovely plate of cooling watermelon in bite-sized juicy delights, had set a picture of me as her phone wallpaper. “I was having a moment,” she told me. I felt loved. My mom called to see what goodies she could cook up for us: Baked ribs for my husband, sugar-free apple-crisp for me, and who knows what else she’ll whip up. I felt loved. She’s 80, which is how long I plan to stick around in spite of the odds against me. Others texted and called, offering to come visit, or chat by phone, which I will joyfully accept with every significant return of energy I experience, I promise.

My youngest son, in excruciating back pain over the past month, picked me up from my needling friend’s place yesterday, and elicited the same enthusiastic looks and smiles as had my daughter’s sunflower-yellow dress the day before. No, it wasn’t a yellow dress, though it may have been as much his shorts and shirt as his charming grin. My son from California, the one who will be wearing his outstanding laugh and energy and medical mind, is coming for a visit, and will be here for his sister’s party, and mine, and his grandma’s, and just hang out with all of us.

I feel loved.

I have new and better chemo side-effect management pills this round, so should be much better by today’s end. Better yet, I get this week off treatment entirely. I’ll get to go to my daughter’s birthday party, and I’ll get to go to my own, and I’ll get to hang out with the kids. Love, like light on a horizon, or stars in a dark desert sky, beckons.

It may not be exactly the summer I planned, but I’m going to be hopeful the treatment schedule will accommodate at least one traditional highlight for me: Four days of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, for which we always go to great lengths to get tickets for. Many favorites coming this year: Angus and Julia Stone, Brandi Carlile, Danny Michel, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Harry Manx, Sinead O’Conner.

So alongside the box of imitation-chocolate covered bitter misery, there have been genuine chocolate surprises. And, from the weather experts yesterday, a promise of rain, lots of rain, cooler clearer air. I’m counting on them.

Jacqui

Jacqui, dear Jacqui, I’ve been thinking about you all week, and I know others much closer to you have thought of you every minute of every day. We all miss you so much, and wished you could have been there last weekend at the church where we gathered and wept waterfalls of tears into tissues and baby blankets and onto our dresses and shirts.

Many of those gathered to say good-bye got up to talk about you, about how magnetic your laugh was, how quick your humour, how you lit up the room. They reminded us that just as you loved intensely, you felt many things intensely, not just the positive. They talked about the wisdom you embodied, wisdom that went beyond your years.

I felt honoured to be there with those who called you daughter, sister, cousin, niece, friend. I felt thankful for the conversations we’d had in recent months, conversations that mostly revolved around mutually understood pain, uncertainty, heartbreak, medication side effects, cancer, and sometimes crayons and colouring books. jacqui blog pic

When I confessed to you that I often referred to you simply as my niece rather than explaining to everyone I was actually a step-aunt, and asked if you minded, you energetically told me that of course you didn’t, silly me! So kind, always, that was you.

My heart broke on Saturday for those who held you in your first hours here on earth and resolved to protect you from this world, and who heart-brokenly admitted there is sometimes little protection to offer. My heart broke for everyone who loved you in a million ways, and managed, through their choking tears, to tell the rest of us more about you, about the many ways you inspired and enriched them.

Before you left, you told us, clearly and eloquently in that well-read blog post, that life isn’t too short, that our lives are exactly as long as they should be. You told one of your friends that you’d enjoyed more joy and love than many who live to be 90, and how could that be something to complain about? I want to live with that kind of gratitude.

Still my heart broke simply for the seeming senselessness of a life snuffed out at 28 years. The faces of my now-grown babies came into sharp focus, and I privately allowed myself honesty: I know that believing our lives aren’t too short is essential to making peace with our imminent death, but today I can’t fathom how any of us will ever feel that your life wasn’t too short.

How well you prepared those closest to you for this day though. How beautifully they talked about it. I’m positive you listened in, and that you were happy with the humour that came through the grief. I’m positive you enjoyed us walking through your favourite park the next day, stopping at all your favourite spots to say good-bye and let you go once again, into the sky, back to the earth, to a time and place outside of this one. I’m positive you enjoyed us eating those ice-cream cones you’d so brilliantly and generously thought ahead to buy for us because you wanted us to end our getting together this weekend with pleasure too, not only tears.

I left resolving anew to live as fully as you did, to honour body and soul, to embrace rest as well as productivity, pain as well as sorrow. I want to milk life, and by that I don’t mean I have a bucket list or that I need to travel or that every day is a party. By that I mean I want to live with gratitude, whether I’m energized or tired, happy or sad, whether I’m reading or streaming TV, doodling or cooking or cleaning, whether I’m alone or enjoying family and friends. Whether my husband is next to me or not, whether my beautiful children’s faces or voices are nearby or not. Whether I’m laughing or my heart is breaking.

Still, I felt grumpy yesterday, really grumpy, and felt shame around it, because it was trivial grumpiness: traffic, and medications, and sore muscles, and neuropathy, and other components of everyday life. I felt my irritability was a failure of my resolve to live with gratitude.

But this morning I see it more clearly again: gratitude and irritability aren’t mutually exclusive. Life is irritating and terrifying and heartbreaking as often as it is lovely, and often at the same time. And underneath the irritation, I found intense feelings around life and death, around my dear friend’s current pain, and my daughter’s, and around the uncertainty with my own cancer. And I remembered that though we often feel alone with our pain, we’re not, not really. It’s universal.

You dear Jacqui, showed us all this beautifully. And this, young as you were when you left us, makes you our teacher, our guru. Your life reminded us that life is a messy and wonderful gift, and though I’ve often said these words, I plan to know this ever more deeply.