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

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.

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.

You and Me

girl buddhaThe city is still gritty and muddy and brown, and we’re mostly still wearing black, and I have a hard, hard pebble lodged under my skin, deeply housed in the muscle that carries me. But we’re waking up after a very long sleep, and we’re outside again, walking on the dusty sidewalks, and the ice on the river is breaking up, and the sky is blue this afternoon. And when I left my student yesterday she leaned out her open window where the wind was whipping her curtains around, and shouted something, and I felt a spark of something I’d almost forgotten.

She and I are working on English language skills, but we’re working on so much more. She asks if my husband is a good man. I tell her he is, and she crosses her arms over her heart in gratitude. When I tell her she’s done an excellent job reading a story we’ve been working on for a while now, she grins suddenly, puts up her hand, and says, “high five!” When she meets a new neighbour in the hallway she shouts his name and embraces him.

She is teaching me about the magnificent size of our spirits, about just how much grief a single person can carry with dignity. She lowers her eyes and tells me a few more bits of her story, and I tell her I’m so sorry for her loss. She can’t look at me. I put my hand on her leg and suggest she misses terribly her husband and the children she has lost. She doesn’t seem to know exactly what I mean by this, and says only that she has become very tired, but I see tears slip down her beautiful cheeks. I feel tired too, just thinking about her losses. Grief does that, I remember as she speaks, it makes us tired.

So we sleep, we sleep, sometimes for months and months at a time. And then the mountains of ice begin to break up, and we feel a little less tired, and I think I may feel inspired enough to try dislodge that other old pebble again.

 

I am such a Princess sometimes

I am such a princess sometimes. Yes, I’ve done more unpaid and underpaid work in my life than any man I know. Yes, much of it has been thankless, even when it’s been physically and mentally and rigorous, emotionally exhausting. Yes, my cancer and treatment has taken much from me and left me altered, unable to recover much of what I’d princessstill hoped to recover even at midlife. Yes, I have permitted others to steal from me, and I have regrets. Yes, midlife for me, as for most of us, is a lake of incompletely lived life and broken dreams. Yes. But.

All of this, I saw close-up yesterday when I met my new student, is nothing in light of what some people face.

“You live close?” she asked, at least I think that’s what she asked. “Yes,” I told her, to which she responded by saying she has no home.

To be homeless and injured and unemployed and alone in a country whose language you don’t speak, whose ways you don’t know… I can’t even imagine. To begin again at midlife with the most basic building blocks of language and literally everything, when you’ve been traumatized beyond anything most of us can even imagine, to have virtually no education, to be at the bottom of our society’s pecking order, to be disadvantaged and invisible… this I have difficulty processing. Here, hope and silver linings become elusive.

She is alive, and safe here now, in Canada, but still. My parents did this too, but they were young, they had each other, and they came from a culture that had, in many ways, equipped them to adapt. They also had a vibrant community of others in the same situation, and they worked hard, learned quickly, and made new lives for themselves. Meeting my new student overwhelmed me.

I know our lives—whatever shape they’ve taken—can be a grind, and I don’t want to take away from anyone’s pain in any way. I know that the disadvantage of others does little to mitigate our own frustrations and losses and loneliness. I know that we all lack in one way or another, we all hunger for strong minds and bodies, for intimacy, for respect and fulfillment in our work, a place in our communities.

But sometimes the best way for me to ward off my own despair–to make at least a temporary peace with my own struggles and defeats and to clear a little space for gratitude and empathy–is to spend a little time with those whose losses and challenges are infinitely greater than my own and share a little in their struggle and hope.