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.

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Night Skies, Fires, Songs, Remissions

fire“We must sit at the fire and think about which song we will use to sing over the bones, which creation hymn, which re-creation hymn,” writes Clarissa Pinkola Estés in Women Who Run With the Wolves. “These are some good questions to ask till one decides on the song, one’s true song: …What are the buried bones of my life? In what condition is my relationship to the instinctual Self? When was the last time I ran free? …The old woman sings over the bones, and as she sings, the bones flesh out.”

This sitting by the fire takes time, and ideally, includes the warmth of fellow travellers. And it isn’t something that needs doing only once in life, or twice, not unless you’re infinitely luckier than most.

I am so thankful. For the many, many good things in my life, yes, for remission status confirmed again, yes, yes, yes! But perhaps even more so for the bright stars and warmth so often around the fire with me. For those who understand that the waiting period preceding the verdict on my remission status is a time of (to use Victor Frankl’s term) provisional existence—a time for sitting by the fire. (Thanks to my friend Ike for the reminder.)

This sitting by the fire is never easy, not for anyone, no matter the reason for it. Not when it’s our own new song we’re searching for and learning to sing, nor when we are present to another trying to find and learn theirs. And I sometimes have to be reminded that not everyone is comfortable with sitting by the fire. It is however, in my view, a wonderfully rich experience, at least as wondrous as it is to be present for the light of day that follows night, the joyous times that come in the wake of discovering even the first few lines of the new song with which we’ll begin to sing flesh back onto our stripped-bare bones.

There are, if we keep our eyes open, always others ready and willing to sit by the fire with us as we search for new songs. The humility and patience and emotional vulnerability, the generosity and grace and courage and compassion of these bright stars make them the most miraculous of human beings to me, the kind whose very presence is healing. My night sky has often been brilliantly lit, and kept the fires of gratitude stoked. I hope I am this kind of star for you too—now, tomorrow, whenever.

The Rhythms of the Universe

alberta springA few weeks ago, with early morning insomnia, with psychic reaching and stretching, longing for my creative muse, I remember: the moon is dark. Like all life, we belong to the rhythms of the universe.

Since then: suppers with friends, a birthday dinner with the kids, a number of long intimate conversations. Love. Reasons to celebrate. A brightly-coloured and exuberant parade. A shared and perfect Reuben. The Fault in Our Stars, walking home afterwards holding my husband’s hand tightly, desperately willing my own cells’ propensity for runaway replication not to return, willing the universe to be kind to us, to our love, to the children.

On Sunday: sunshine on my feet, a breeze on my face, my book. A hike, and a picnic for two: croissants with chicken and cucumbers, an exquisite bottle of Viognier, a bar of dark cranberry chocolate. Afterwards, deliciously fatigued, and satiated, a bath, open doors and windows, breezes, no mosquitoes, the sound of voices outside, neighbours enjoying the early summer weather. Perfection.

Yesterday, drenching rain. Tired again, but in our wake, my daughter’s and mine, gleaming fridges and stoves and tiles, a sense of achievement, and now, not one but two deeply cleaned apartments, the old and the new. A hot shower. Dried out fingernails and skin (I never remember gloves), body butter to soothe. A hot cup of coffee. A terrible view, but flowers on the balcony, and the scent of rain.

A nearly full moon in the sky tonight. Another cycle of love and creativity almost complete, another cycle of aching backs and hearts and feet, of comfort and love and laughter and music and pleasure. Another cycle of the ordinary and extraordinary, all winding down again, preparing to shed, to take a long slow breath, take stock, and start all over again.

A quiet evening. Gratitude. Then, a phone-call, frightening news for a friend. Stabbing fear, railing against, tears. Outside, another drenching rain. In the morning, thick fog, much thicker than the one blanketing the ground.

Spirit Line

I cracked open Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home a couple of days ago, and, thanks to tonsils the size of small plums in my throat, loud drumming in my ears, and Benadryl, I finished this lovely, lovely memoir quickly. It left me deeply envious of Caldwell’s writing skills, and deeply in awe of the power of love and friendship. It’s the story of her friendship with Caroline Knapp, and about the strength, self-awareness and meaning intimacy brings to our lives. It’s about what they shared, about what they lost, and about the ocean of grief Gail was thrown into with Carolyn’s death. It’s about the losses we think we can’t bear.

Caldwell, much like my therapist so often has, reminded me that we only think we can’t bear our losses, that we can in fact bear them gracefully when we put our minds to it. And though life goes on, we never really get over the losses–we absorb the holes left behind into our very cores. They shape us profoundly. Our task is to embrace the core sadness of life without permitting it to keep us facedown in defeat. Our task is to allow the ordinary and quotidian joys and sorrows to be more heavily weighted and more alluring than fear and grief.

The rugs of Navajo weavers, I learned, carry a mismatched thread intended to release the energy of the rug and the story it holds. It is called a spirit line, and it paves the way for the next creation. It is the flaw that reminds us about hope. All stories worth holding on to contain a dissonant colour, a thread that points the way to the next story.

We lose so much over a lifetime, loves and dreams and hopes and abilities. Some die. Some corrode in acid rains, and remain like that on the edge of our awareness. Some become geographically difficult. Some are meant to be only for a short time. Some, unable to withstand the weight inherent in so much, fade into ghosts over the years. Some, genuine but infinitely complicated, live best deep within. Some sleep for a season, and then bloom again.

What matters is the love, whether tangible and present, or lost and now carried only in our hearts. What matters and fortifies us and gives it all meaning are the shared vulnerabilities and misunderstandings and naked honesties of friendship and love, because these, when handled with gentleness and generosity, cement us to each other, and to ourselves, and to the earth.

It was perfect timing for me to read this wise and beautiful memoir. It is April after all, and April in Edmonton isn’t exactly pretty, or conducive to pretty moods. It is April in which I most need to be reminded that I live here not for sunny days or the promise of sap, but for the roots I have here.

Antidote to the Night

Night. Or early morning. Brain chatter. All that must be done, all that begs to be resolved, all that has been taken in, all that must be faced, all that is yet unknown. Heaviness. The strong current of fear.

Sometimes though, this: Deep connection with the self—mind, body, soul, breath. Deep connection with another. Deep connection with a fictional character, a story, a poem. Laughter. The bright light of another’s love or gratitude. Her honest naked truth, her grief, her joy. His. Yours. Understanding. Feeling heard. Acceptance. Taking a step or two out of the jungle you’ve been lost in. Turning your face toward the bright, bright light of the sun.

Nights that follow just might begin to feel different, legs once again melting into sheets, ears once again tuned in to the thrumming of the universe. Sleep, longer and deeper, strength and balance and gratitude restored.

 

Textured Beauty and Joy

mall ceilingIt was lovely, the abundance of the week, but so is this right now, this quiet Saturday morning in the wake of it all. It was lovely, the intensity of a short but delicious visit from my son, the abundance of turkey and rouladen and dirty mashed potatoes piled high, of family with all its limps, of spirits and sweets and thoughtful gifts and silliness in the forefront, grief in the wings. But so is this, right now, just the two of us, our space, our love, our music and books and comfy cottons, a glass of water, a cup of coffee, some sit-ups, a few stretches, last night’s wonderfully crisp beer and juicy bacon avocado hamburger still resonating in my memory.

It was very powerful cracking those coconuts the other night too, with the full moon, just before the winter solstice, as a way to explore the concept of our souls. The loud noise, the milk spilling out, the instant awareness that to be alive is to be loudly cracked open, to have chips, to be uneven and raw and nourishing all at once. It was a brilliant metaphor, thank you, Tara!

Every year the sun stops, and we feel the darkness, and we light candles and think about the birth of hope, and how babies embody perfectly the beauty, strength, determination, and resilience of our humanity, how they embody perfectly our vulnerability, our dependence, our endless hunger, our existential loneliness, our desire, our need for connection.

Your new granddaughter, by the way, so much like you dear Jeff, is stunningly gorgeous.

I feel so lucky. I am so lucky. There is the confusion and fear and insecurity that comes with consciousness, but there’s also this: so much love, and the wonderful gift you give when you allow me to articulate my truth, my grief—the complicated grief we all have and are conscious of to varying degrees. The wonderful gift you, dear Robyn, give when you invite me to sync my vagus nerve to yours, when you listen with insight and wisdom and empathy. The wonderful gift you, dear Jeff, give with your presence, your arms around me, your truth, your edgy humour, your tears and self-disclosure.

Let’s do it again, and again—open our eyes wide and speak the truth—as long and as well as we can, because though consciousness, like all good things, is fragile and easily lost, it is what makes laughter and love possible, what makes it all so textured and rich and big and interesting and wonderful.

A Good Evening

I make myself go shopping for jeans, finally. I realize that, along with my old jeans, I’ve outgrown white lace, sheer chiffon shirts, five inch heals, and my old eagerness for weather that demands shorts. The skies open when I have finished, making this spring’s purchase of a raincoat with a hood the best thing ever.

It’s a good evening to wash the dishes, fold a little laundry, clean the bathroom sink, and then decide to ignore the cloudy shower glass and ever-present dust bunnies. It’s a good evening to skip the always-planned, sometimes-realized, rigorous after-dinner walk and stair-climbing, and have a bath instead, a good evening to watch a movie in my rainbow coloured polka-dot pajamas, open the door wide, and leave it open, to listen to the rain.

It’s a good evening to remember how desperately people want to feel alive and vital, connected and understood and part of something bigger than themselves, and that this is why they are sometimes drawn in by those promising enlightenment, love, depth of experience.

It’s a good evening to be thankful that despite the endless irritations and stresses inherent in most days, I still know how to laugh, and that laughing when you’re not supposed to, as was the case for me the other night, makes you laugh that much harder, and that this, though potentially disrespectful and perhaps even juvenile, is excellent medicine, and forgivable.

It’s a good evening to remember that we all let each other down sometimes, and that forgiveness, though sometimes necessarily slow and difficult, is available for anything, when the time is right.

It’s a good evening to remind myself that our bodies are more valuable than our retirement plans, that our souls are more valuable than our bodies, and that sometimes, for brief moments, we might even have our hands on all three, but that this is not a given.

It’s a good evening to be thankful for friends that invite me into their worlds, and are happy also to enter into mine.

It’s a good evening—an excellent evening—to be proud of my son, whose convocation we attended this morning, a good evening to remember how much hard work and persistence it takes to achieve our goals, and that we need start again, over and over, throughout life. It’s a good evening to remember that it is time spent in solitude that revives and fortifies us for the next hill in our path.

It’s a good evening to step outside and feel the breeze on my face, because a breeze on my face and the smell of rain always make me feel alive, real, connected to the universe.