Monday, July 27, 2015


I've got this thing for the number 15. It seems like big things, bad and good, happen for me on the 15th. I broke up with my long-term boyfriend on a 15th (of February. I'm a jerk), I moved into my first apartment on a 15th, passed the test that gave me my current job on a 15th and my anniversary with TB is on the 15th. I remember thinking to myself last year that 2015 was going to be insane. It just had to be. Superstition was on my side. I mean, 2014 had been an effing rollercoaster ride. More travel in one year than I’d done in my whole life, landing a job I wanted, cool responsibilities at work, and, of course, more loss than I could fathom.

Imagine my surprise, then, that 2015 has been one long flatline of mostly even-keeled quiet. No travel outside the country, no big changes on the job front, just a lot of keeping my head above water and trying to go through the motions of everyday normal. Whoo!!
I had wondered if I should even do anything for my birthday – having a birthday on a holiday always leaves the question of a party up in the air – but once I heard my best pal Jax was in town for the first time in probably 7 years I knew I had to do something.

Sparkler fights: fun and inadvisable
Two years ago my birthday was, by far, the best party I’d ever thrown. 30-40 people showed up, there was chaos and trays of drinks set on fire and our brand new dog was scared shitless (just kidding, she’s never shitless) by the revelers and their propensity toward picking her up like a baby.

This year’s fete was a lot smaller- a more manageable 15-20 people- and a lot less work. We decided to have a barbecue, get some beer and then let off some fireworks and sparklers in the backyard.

Proof. (pun cheerfully intended)
Confession: TB barbecued, bought the beer and then let off fireworks. I put on a tshirt and made jello shots.

It was actually pretty great. I had two friends from miles away come out, at one point there were three dogs in my house – two pugs and a boston terrier – so you know I was into that, and everyone seemed to have fun. We let off the fireworks in our (very close to power lines, very urban) backyard and didn’t know we had an audience until tiny voices began chanting “We want fireworks! We want fireworks!” and we realized there was a trio of pint-sized piros watching from our neighbour’s balcony. So, you know, at least they weren’t going to rat us out to Bylaw.
Pepper pug is as much fun as she looks

People went their separate ways around 9:30 or so (my birthday fell on a Wednesday this year so the bureaucrats turned into pumpkins) and then we headed down to watch the professionals do their explody colour magic. We ended the night with Jax, TB, my sister and I playing “Cards Against Humanity” where I found a brand new favourite card!

And yeah, I missed her. I missed her when my dad’s name was the only one written on my card, and when her alto voice didn’t match his bass singing me happy birthday over the phone. I missed her wearing her traditional red and white outfit (complete with socks) and I missed the ease with which she’d pick out a great birthday gift (my dad, on the other hand kept wringing his hands until he panicked and bought some random chez lounge. My sister set him straight and I got an awesome zero gravity chair for the backyard instead.) This will be the first year of my life without her and the first birthday of mine she’s ever missed. But, like mother’s day and easter before it, my birthday was still good. Different, and maybe more reflective, but still good.

I remember a moment, when we were outside and the fireworks were blasting and we were shrieking and drinking and laughing and I just thought “I am happy.” It seems impossible that I’d get to that point again, and it was fleeting, but it was there. It is possible. Happy Birthday to me. 

Monday, June 1, 2015

Take me to Church

"Being in my garden feels like church to me."

It's something she used to say, somehow making it sound both off-handed and reverent. As a child, I never really understood what she meant. Summer was full of so many wonderful things: swimming pools, garage sales, bike riding, popsicles - what was so great about standing in your own backyard, fingernails full of dirt,  sweat pouring down your forehead, back aching as you tugged at a stubborn weed?

I think I get it now.

Swiss chards and mustard greens - grow little hipsters, grow!

When we bought our house in September 2012 it already had a cute little planter box, mostly left unloved as the previous owners had been gone since April. There were some bushes spilling over from the neighbours' side, a stubborn pine tree hanging over the fence that did no one any good, and a largely empty stone-wall-bordered garden that ran the length of the fence. Lots of potential, but not a lot actively going on.

An awkward view of part of the fence-length garden
Since then, I've been given bleeding hearts and strawberry geraniums and rhubarb from my mom and dad, taken some incredibly hearty chives from my grandfather's garden, bought a lilac bush and a mock orange and a blackberry bush, and potted some lungswart and irises.  Last year we placed a pallet beside the planter box and I keep adding to the collection of pots we have on it so far, filling them with black earth and whatever looks the showiest at the garden centres. Our vegetable garden seems happy and fruitful (little edible garden pun there for you) and this year looks like it might be its best year yet.

Chives, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, greens, peas, and squash all doing their thing.
There's something deeply satisfying about a hobby that takes something small, gives it attention and watches it bloom. I feel like I'm responsible for creating a little joy, for making the world nicer, even if only in the smallest of ways. It's the same sense of pride I take when I look at Lily, no longer the terrified shaking lump we first met, but now a sweet, funny, sassy neighbourhood watchdog, loving, goofy and, okay, occasionally pretty skittish, but so totally ours. Our garden isn't perfect or pretty or pinterest worthy, but we made something out of nothing and that's never not remarkable to me. Every day I carefully part leaves, run my fingers over new growth, inhale the scent of mint mingling with chives and lilacs and think how astounding it is that all this can come from taking the tiniest thing and giving it love and attention.

I'm not religious, but I think I understand what my mother was talking about. Faith as small as a mustard seed is all you need to make big things possible.

Friday, May 15, 2015

It's not the big things

"But it is not these big holidays that make his loss hard for me, it’s really not. He was good at big things but he was best at the small things, at making me feel seen and heard and understood, remembering all of the things that made me Nora and loving me in spite of and because of them."

- Find the rest of Nora's awesome words about her husband, Aaron, here 

Nora gets it.

I crashed a little before Easter. I was given some assignment or another, went back to my office to make some edits and then just stared at my back office wall and felt the grief come in a wave. I closed my door, silently cursing the tiny window that looks into the hallway, and turned away from it, letting the quiet sobs rack my body. In between sobs I called my friend C who was in an airport in Moscow, trying to cram an overpriced sandwich in her mouth before boarding the plane to Armenia. 

"You got this girl. Fuck, I should have called you sooner. Easter, Passover, shit, I should've known this weekend was going to be hard on you."
"*I* didn't know they'd be hard! I was fine. It just happened!"

Of course, you're always fine until you're not. And thanks to C, just as quickly as it descended on me, it was over. I pulled myself together, collected the paper someone had slipped under the door (seriously? You can't wait 15 fucking minutes? Okay, then.), made the edits and went on with my day. 

I had been silently dreading Easter for a while, until that point. I was convinced it was going to be a shitty reminder of a holiday I don't care for (don't like ham or scalloped potatoes, not religious, can take or leave milk chocolate or jelly beans) that was only kept going because of the people I'd lost. The human brain is so weird. For years I groaned as my mom made us dress up, go to Church, eat a dinner I didn't like, all while taking up chunks of an otherwise perfectly nice long weekend. It occurred to me then that there was no one to make me do that any longer. I am what I always longed to be - an adult. And while I wouldn't go so far as to say I wish someone was ordering me into a poofy dress and shoving a plate of milky taters my way, I missed it, sort of. I was really struck at how the loss her and my grandparents has led to my own forced autonomy. 

The day itself turned out to be okay, uneventful, calm, and with TB's parents out of town, very lowkey and family-free. Passover fell on Good Friday, so I did that instead, singing the songs, eating the food and reading the words that connected me to my father's history instead. Easter Sunday was spent with Netflix and discount peanut butter cups, and while I couldn't get the nagging feeling out of my head that I should have been doing something, in retrospect, my only wish is that I'd spent less time worrying about it in the first place.

This was my thought process going into Mother's Day. Of all the tough days I had planned for after my mom died this one was, punnily, the mothership. A day meant for worshiping moms and all they've done for you. For many of my fellow 30-somethings, this meant a day to thank their moms as grandmothers, posting charming multi-generational photos of their happy, intact families. Torture for the unmothered, in other words. But I decided to take my therapist's advice and just face the day as it came, no concrete plans, no expectations, just as-is. 

And it was okay. Really. My sister, dad and I went to a plant sale together, where we bought seeds and flowers and raspberry bushes from a bunch of nice, if slightly odd, plant folk. We went to brunch, where we miraculously found a spot at once of my favourite breakfast places. Even surrounded by mothers and their kids, it was okay. We toasted her with excellent cups of coffee and mimosas, ate so much other patrons stared and talked about nothing of consequence. My father bought me a bouquet of flowers just because, and we went to my place and barbecued a chicken with a beer can up its ass, then polished off a bottle of wine. I stayed off of social media for the most part, which was a good move. And I didn't cry, not once. Mostly because, as Nora says, the big days, the holidays, the missed events, aren't always the monuments to sadness you think they'll be. Instead, it's in the small, silent moments - the fastening of a necklace, the curled up leaf of a lily, the death of a beloved celebrity - that you realize she's gone, and you wish she wasn't. 

Happy Mother's Day, mom.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Nothing Special

Watching someone die isn't like the movies - add that to the long list of things that cinema romanticizes. Death can be ugly, thrashing, coughing, noisy. Death can be sudden, uneventful, unaccompanied by the flatlining of a machine and fists upon a chest begging the person to "live, Damnit!" My grandfather's was quiet. So quiet we weren't sure exactly when it happened. I count his death as 2:37 in the morning, because that's when I saw the small blip on the monitor make the shape of a top hat, then rest. Unassuming, just as he was. "I'll just show myself out" he might have been saying.

There was a pause right after my grandfather died, just this side of awkward, where we weren't sure what to do. There's a little bit of a mental shift in that moment, when you go from surrounding your loved one to being in the room with a dead body. They wheeled out one of his roommates in order to give us privacy, and we spent a moment or two saying something to a person who was no longer there to listen. I don't remember what I said, but I must have said thank you, I must have said goodbye, I recall saying that I knew he wasn't here to hear me. I remember kissing a cheek growing colder and calling TB to let him know I'd be home soon. But the most stark thing I remember is walking out to the parking lot and seeing two people, one male, one female, illuminated by the overhead glare of the emergency doors. The man was speaking in low, hushed whispers, and then suddenly this high-pitched mechanical whine issued forth from the woman's chest as she balled up her fists against the man's shoulders and sank into a crouch. I remember saying "Wow. Someone's having a worse night than us." I said that, knowing that in a few short days we'd be burying my grandfather next to a grave that was still fresh. But my pain was dulled, an outcome I'd predicted as soon as I hung up from that late-night phone call. Hers was still brand-new and raw.

I don't know why I needed to tell that story today, but I think it has to do with my last post about perspective. Some days I feel like I'm lucky, but mostly, selfishly, I'm just relieved to know I'm not alone.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Here comes the sun

I'm nursing a micro hangover today and, armed with my made-up science that vitamin D would help it, I chose to sit outside for lunch today. The sun hit the side of my face in a steady swath of light as a coworker and I gossiped, eyes rolling and tongues clucking like the 1940s hens we are. With temperatures in the high teens all this week, I think it's safe to say that winter's finally behind us - thank god. This truly has been the winter of our discontent - a meandering, lollygagging mess of a season that sleeted over everyone's good cheer and reduced life down to a cycle of being cold and warming up.

Every step forward feels unsure and awkward these days. It's not fear exactly (though CS Lewis' remark that grief feels so much like fear is really spot on most of the time), but more of a tugging at the heart, the stomach, the ribs, telling you that moving forward is dangerous, that staying still is best. Even if things aren't ideal, the idea of making plans and following through on them seems foolhardy and unwise. The gut instinct is to just keep taking calming breaths and convince myself that everything's fine right where it is. And mostly, that's what I do.

Literally me.
I mentioned that with my therapist recently, and we talked about the resiliency of humans, and how, for some, even when our lives are demonstrably "worse" than they were before, as soon as we've begun to adjust to our new normal we want things to now stay exactly as they are. After my mom died, I was desperate to hold on to everyone around me. Then my grandfather died and I became panicked, looking for some kind of superstitious pattern or charm to keep me and my loved ones safe. Now, as I adjust to this life without them, there are moments where I'm okay, not quite happy, but okay, but I tell myself that will only be true as long as everyone stays exactly where they are, forever.
Which is impossible, I know.

I suppose this is coming to the surface now because this week, one of my mom's best friends died. She was a wonderful woman, warm and kind, attending my mother's funeral even as she herself fought brain cancer. My mom cried at the dinner table when she heard about her friend's diagnosis, fresh on the heels of another friend's illness. "All my friends are dying!" she burst out. We joked that she was the healthiest of the bunch. At my mother's funeral her friend and I shared a small, tight hug after the plates of sandwiches and cookies had been cleared away.

"Thank you for loving her," I said.
"Oh, but it was easy!" she exclaimed.

It's my strongest memory of the day.

And now another home is missing its fourth wall, another grandchild won't grow to know his grandmother's hands, another husband adjusts to a queen bed made up for one, a set of daughters is left to grapple with life without their biggest ally. And so it goes. Not just for them, or us, but for thousands every day, all over.

I'm somewhat grateful, in a fucked up way, to be able to see the world this way. To know that so many people are carrying on in spite of what's happened to them, not because of it. It's like learning a new word and then suddenly seeing it everywhere. So many people have lost so much, have suffered so much, and yet we still keep going, still breathe, still blink, still beat. Winter becomes Spring becomes Summer, whether we open the windows or not.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Packing Up

Weekends have become very important to me. I mean, let's face it, I can't remember a time in recent years when I wasn't "working for the weekend" but now they've become virtual life rafts, keeping me afloat after a week of obligations and deadlines have had me going under for the third time. Something something water metaphor.

So when it was "strongly suggested" by my uncle that we start using the upcoming weekends to go through my grandparents' house in preparation for its sale this summer, I wasn't thrilled, to say the least. To be honest, the mere suggestion stirred up a lot of emotions in me - I felt panic at the idea that we were moving forward with the selling of the house so soon, anger that my personal time was being infringed upon by such an emotionally and physically demanding task, and resentment that the only reason I had to do this at all was because my grandparents were gone and my mom wasn't here to take my place. But ultimately, I wanted to help him and my aunt out, and I wanted to lay claim to a few knick knacks, so I agreed. Its times like those that I roll my eyes upward and mutter "See, mom? I'm helping."

I dreaded it all week, worried about the feelings it would stir up, thinking about how the last time I was here was to pick out photos for my grandfather's funeral. When I walked through the front door my first thought was how it didn't smell that strongly of pipe smoke. The scent of my grandfather's tobacco- the rich, warm, almost chocolaty aroma when it was lit, the acrid, greasy trace it left on your clothes - was the most distinctive part of him. It was so bizarre to not have him sitting in his chair, raising that pipe with a "hello, pet!" as we walked in. Almost as bizarre to think that nobody owned this house anymore at all; furthermore to think that I was now technically a partial owner. 

In the end, like most things, it wasn't as bad as I'd thought it would be. We did the three upstairs closets, the upstairs bathroom, a spare bedroom, the closet of Christmas decor, and the master bedroom. It took us 5 hours - 2 more than I'd originally committed to mentally. I vowed to come away with very little, and I think I held (mostly) true to my intentions. I took a few pieces of jewellery, some sewing scissors, a metal music box that cracked me up with a "made in occupied japan" stamp on the bottom, some blankets, some embroidered hankies and small linens, and the suitcase my grandfather used for his honeymoon. I assuaged the guilt I felt over taking these items by throwing out a trashbag and a half's worth of my own stuff once I got home, dredged up from cardboard boxes that had fallen victim to our rather leaky basement.

It felt good, in some ways. Throwing out my stuff and theirs, pairing it down to what was absolutely necessary felt important and cathartic - a way of bringing Spring to the surface even if the weather refuses to comply. I don't think the actual selling of the house will feel as good - my childhood and adolescence are contained within those walls, and the idea of walking away from that era entirely, in so many ways, makes my chest hurt. 

That's the problem with compounded grief - there's so many layers to it, and so much of this time would be made easier if only one of them were still alive. If my mother was here, she would have brought home practically everything. We would have admonished her for her hoarder tendencies and she would have shushed us and packaged everything up in the basement, my dad complaining all the while that "we don't need all this crap!". But she would have told us the stories of everything and she would have bonded with her siblings and she would have provided a buffer between us and our mortality. And if my grandfather was still here, then of course we wouldn't be doing any of this at all. 

I try to avoid introspection these days - I honestly don't have time for it. It so often leads to regret and sadness, a weariness that knocks you out of commission for ages, robs you of sleep and ambition. I have a job that needs me and a house to upkeep and a future to look towards so I keep it to a minimum. But it wasn't so bad being slapped in the face with the past this weekend. I liked hearing the stories I didn't know and seeing what my grandparents deemed worthy of keeping. But as we finished room after room, and kept closing doors behind us, both metaphorically and physically, I couldn't help but think that, while "see you laters" are decent enough, endings never really get easier. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

One Foot Back to Counter It

There are things I say to my therapist, not because I necessarily believe them, but because I want to believe them. That if I say them out loud, allow them to resonate, to bounce off the walls of the small, warm converted 2-storey walk-up where she works, then they will magically turn themselves to truth.

One of those things is "grief is not linear."

In my logical brain, I know that. I know that it is as true as anything that's ever been said. That you don't just "get better", with all the days lined up in neat rows, waiting for the "5 stages of grief" to tick by. But I can't help but feel that some days are setbacks, that I am not moving forward, that I am stuck.

I hadn't cried in weeks. I was showing up for work, if not on time, then at least close, did my job, and did it reasonably well. I was taking the bus again, and I went to trivia night, and made dinner, and paid bills on time, and did everything that, just a few weeks earlier, had seemed nearly impossible. And then, easily, delicately, like someone tugging at a loose string on a beloved sweater, it all neatly fell apart. On Monday morning, I stood staring through the front window, mud room door closed behind me, and I could. Not. Move.

I mean that quite literally. The simplest act- putting one foot in front of the other, walking down the porch and trodding the 6 blocks to the bus stop - seemed absolutely insurmountable. I could feel myself growing hotter and hotter, the weight of my winter boots around my ankles, the knitted hat my grandmother had made, lying itchy on my head, and yet I stood there, dull, doughy face peering back at me in the hall mirror. I envisioned myself picking up my purse and unlocking the door, but in reality I just stood, staring. After 5 minutes or so of this, I said aloud to no one, in a voice that sounded too small to be mine, "I don't think I can."

The Little Engine that Panicked.

I slowly took off my mitts, my boots, let the hat fall from my head, and went back into the house. I sent an email to work that blamed my absence on a physical illness instead, too cowardly to admit I'd been made catatonic by something deep inside my head, and too weary to put up with the sympathetic looks I'd get once I slunk back into the office.

I wasted the entire day in a forgettably boring fashion, watching YouTube videos of the Oscars, eating whatever was about to go bad in the fridge, and annoying the dog. I told TB, who was sweet and sympathetic as we made dinner. I got a good night's sleep and had a hot shower and went through my morning routine as normal the next day, hoping that I'd at least be able to make it into a cab tomorrow, if not the bus stop. But as I slipped an orange into my totebag, I heard a noise. A high-pitched wailing tone that was half mechanical, half animal. It was coming from me. 

I'd heard the idea before that some moments take us out of ourselves, that we feel as though we're watching ourselves from above, like we're in a movie. Like bolting upright when you've had a nightmare, I always thought that was just a cliche. But I get it now. I could see myself brace both hands on the dining room table, I saw my face crumple in on itself as the first droplets of my turns-out-it's-not-waterproof mascara hit my cheeks. I watched as my legs buckled, and my palms slapped the dirty wooden floor and my tears and drool made splashes on the cracks in between the hardwood. And I heard everything. The worst noise I've ever made, and one of the worst I've ever heard. I never fully understood what it was to 'keen' before, but this had to have been it. A rhythmic, rocking, shrill explosion that seemed to come simultaneously from my chest, my throat, and the top of my head. It sounded like some kind of alert, or alarm, though with no logical course of action. Less of a "Fire! Everybody get out!" and more of a "Let us all remark on the utter unfairness that fire destruction can cause!". Like ADT if it was run by Sartre.

The dog was totally perplexed. Here I was, about to give her breakfast, with maybe a biscuit if she did her business outside, and now I'd decided to eschew all that in favour of lying on the floor like a simpleton. She was not impressed, racing back and forth between her bowl and my pathetic display of surrender, trying to encourage me to pick up where I'd left off.

And with a shuddering breath, just like that, it was over. The skies cleared and I was back. And I slowly picked myself up, dusted myself off (seriously, we have to figure out some kind of chore wheel, we're slobs), and went back in the kitchen to feed the dog. I glanced at the clock on the stove as I walked by it - the whole thing had taken me less than 5 minutes. I may not be good at managing my emotions, but my God, I'm efficient.

Today has been better. I've had a few close moments, but no tears today, and I'm trying to go out and meet some people for drinks in order to do something that doesn't involve hibernating in front of a space heater or staring blankly at the myriad of glowing screens I possess. And hopefully the weeks and months ahead will be filled with more moments of normalcy and pleasantness than not.

It's not a step back, I know it isn't. But maybe it's a bit of a kick. A gentle tap of the toe saying "Hey, hotshot, this thing is bigger than you. And don't you forget it."