Home For Mom

Photo: Rob Bye
Photo: Rob Bye


While I lived in Ontario for a year, I came back home every month. It was not for a boy, but rather for my mom. She has terminal lung cancer. She won’t do chemotherapy. At the point where she was, there was no use- it could have killed her rather than saved her. Yes, her slow demise is really painful, and it’s been on my mind every day for more than a year.

I learned that my mom was sick in February 2014. Even before that, I had a feeling that the news would probably be gloomy because my mom warned me that she was going through a series of tests.

I was also worried because in December 2013, we went for a four-day trip in Quebec City and I realized that she was more tired than usual. She was dragging. She needed more coffee breaks.

I was fearing the worst while hoping that it would not be lung cancer. I’ve had the intuition that she was going to die from lung cancer for years. It was not a death wish but rather a strong intuition. I also have an amazing yet disturbing intuition, and it’s mostly right- precisely what makes it disturbing.

My mother smoked cigarettes for years. When we lived together, she would go outside, mostly, or smoke under the hood to mask odours. Sometimes, when I would come back from my dad’s place, she would have had opened all the doors and windows to ventilate the apartment. She would also often try to hide this because she knew that smoking in the apartment, and in general, was not a good idea. Still, she kept doing it, despite my many pleas. I even made no smoking signs in a heart-shape, imitating a Health Canada campaign from the 1990s.

When my mother told me about her illness, I was devastated. I kept it inside and went to my father’s place to pick something up. It was towards the end of the afternoon that I started crying and I couldn’t stop. At the same moment, my father and his girlfriend came back. They were shocked, but not as much as I was. They dropped me off to yoga class. I went because I thought that it would change my mind. I spent half the class crying, to finally breathe. 

A couple of days after this, I got a call: I was accepted in the master of journalism at the University of Western Ontario.

I felt guilty. I didn’t want to leave my mother in Montreal, yet I knew I had to go. One of my dreams was coming true. It was my second and last attempt to get into one of the few master of journalism programs in the country.  Again, my intuition was kicking in, this time telling me that I had no choice but to go.

Discussing it with my dad, he understood my dilemma. ‘‘There are times in life where you don’t know what is waiting for you, but you know that you have to go,’’ he said.

My mom wanted me to go, telling me that I had to. She didn’t want me to feel guilty. That being said, I also always felt that I had to be back as often as possible to Montreal to visit, and I wanted to. 

In February 2014, the doctors gave my mother six months to a year. I did feel guilty at times for choosing my future over my mom, yet I didn’t choose. I managed to give as much as I could to both. It was not easy because it required tremendous energy. I often felt discouraged, anxious, angry or sad, but I did it.

In the months prior to graduating, I applied to a bunch of jobs all around the country, not knowing what was coming up. I would have loved to move to a new city, probably Toronto, get a high-paying job, find a new apartment and buy new clothes. I would have loved to start anew. I would have loved to become a real adult, to enter middle class, to reap the fruits of my labour. 

Despite my lofty goals, it’s not what life has in the cards for me right now.

On Easter, I had breakfast with my mom and she told me the result of her last scan: she has six months left to live. While she has exceeded her original life expectancy, I know that she won’t this time. It’s more or less six months.

Over coffee, my mother told me that it was fundamental that I’m there for the end of her life. I knew it, but it confirmed it. Time is finite and life happens and then it’s done or as Nas would say, ”life’s a bitch and then you die.” Time with loved ones is precious and it’s probably the most important thing in the world. It’s something that can easily be forgotten in this individualistic and workaholic society.

I’m my mother’s only child and closest family member. While the responsibility can be a burden, it’s also an opportunity to prioritize what is really important. In a nutshell, life and death. In a word, love.

My mother is not the easiest person to take care of. She suffers from borderline personality disorder, which means that emotions are heightened and days unpredictable. Add to that the physical suffering that is worsening as days go by.

As she outlived her life expectancy, she stayed seemingly healthy for months, although inside she was losing every day. She doesn’t seem as healthy anymore. She coughs constantly, and it is harder for her to go to public spaces or to walk outside.

On Mother’s Day, we were walking on Blvd St.Laurent and she was coughing so much that a 20-something guy gave me a concerned glance. I will have to get used to those glances now.

As much as I love my mom, I hate life for giving me such a hard time. My favourite aunt (her sister) already died from cancer in 2005. Why is it happening all over again?

I want my family to be healthy and I want to get on with my life. But then, I’m conscious life is not only about me and the most important thing right now is to take care of my mom.

I find the situation increasingly difficult as her health is disintegrating. I have a guy friend who went through a similar situation with his mother and he told me that despite it being the hardest thing, it is very important to be there constantly, especially in the last moments.

It is fucking painful. I want my mom to revert back to a healthier state. Instead, I’m seeing her lose strength as the days go by. She is scared, she is sad, she is constantly living the full spectrum of human emotions.

I’m trying to ease her pain and help her out as much as I can. I help her clean, I bring her food, I listen to her talk, I record her voice so I can keep memory files.

It’s difficult to know that for me, my mother will disappear soon.

I will never see her become an old lady with a full head of grey hair. She will never meet my future children. That is one of the hardest realizations to have.

Also, the worst is that everyone wants to believe that things are looking up, that she will heal. She will not. She will lose all of her energy. She will die. So many people ask me dumb questions about her state, about whether or not she is doing chemotherapy. People hope for the best. I understand. But the best doesn’t always happen. 

My mother’s illness has made me realize everything that she has given to me, everything that she passed down to me in my lifetime. I wouldn’t be as smart, critical, funny, sensitive and artsy if I had another mom. Despite her difficult childhood, she gave me everything that she did not have. She worked hard at being a mom. She worked hard at being an artist. She gave me everything. The list is infinite.

I will never forget that. I will never forget her. And when I eventually have children, I will make sure to tell them who their grandmother was.

 

I Was Raised On Rock ‘n’ Roll

Raised on AC/DC

I had just started working a new job in a new office and they were still doing renovations. I spent my first day building my own desk, which I should have taken as a sign, but that’s another story.

I started work at 9 a.m. At 9:55 a.m., I asked the renovators if they could put a pause on their construction while I made a very important phone call to my mother. It’s easy to get people to do what you want when you mention your mother, but little did they know the matter at stake was the pending on-sale of AC/DC concert tickets. This may not seem like some significant family matter, but that is a matter of perspective. For us, it was crucial we get these tickets. My mother had raised me on a steady diet of hair metal, heavy metal, and rock’n’roll, and from a young age I knew AC/DC like my abcd’s. So when it was announced AC/DC would be rolling through town, there was an unspoken understanding that my mother and I would go see them. We would both try to get tickets to double our chances.

The workers sat idly by as I dialed my mother. They drank from Gatorade bottles and chatted quietly, though not quiet enough that I couldn’t hear them wonder aloud about what could possibly be so important that this 20-something blonde girl would request they stop working entirely. (At least they were getting paid, they kept saying). It’s not like I needed it to be noise free, it’s just the anticipation was almost too much to handle. I felt nervous. Would we be able to get tickets? What if we couldn’t? Would we risk it and buy them online? We were looking for four, a hard number in concert ticket sale land, especially when you’re hoping for good seats. My anxiety ran rampant.

We both loaded our Ticketmaster screens and watched the seconds ticking up from 9:59:01. As soon as 10 a.m. struck the search was on. Seconds felt like minutes felt like hours as we waited anxiously for one of our browsers to load.

Mine loaded first.

“Mom! I got some! Section 200, row 19!”

“Get them!” She said, demanded. We knew there was no chance of us getting better seats let alone four of them. I began to process the order.

“Wait,” she gasped. “Mine just loaded. Row C.”

“C?” I asked. A letter? “What section?”

“Floor. Sheena, this is third row.”

We couldn’t believe it and squealed with excitement from our respective work places as my mother processed and confirmed the order. When the tickets were officially ours, the renovators got back to work and I left my newly built desk to giddily tell my new coworkers the exciting news. Now, the waiting game began.

***

I was an early adopter of rock. At three, I would adorn a headband and tell people I wanted to be Axl Rose when I grew up. When “Sweet Child Of Mine” came on, I would sway at the hips, close my eyes, and dance. It was the earliest proof that I am my mother’s daughter.

My mom got married at 20 and had me a little over a year later at 21. When I was seven and she’d sleep past 10 a.m. I found what could only be attributed to her young age to be a rather annoying trait. I had usually been up for hours by the time she reared her sleep head. But as we got older, I was forever grateful that we weren’t too far off in age, especially when it came to music. She taught me the classics, sang me Styx and Meatloaf songs as lullabies, and took me to my first concerts. We listened to it all, but there were two bands in particular that really solidified our bond: Def Leppard and AC/DC.

She would lament me with stories of her late teens and early 20s, seeing Def Leppard, AC/DC, Guns N Roses, and many other bands from the 80s and early 90s perform in iconic venues like the late Maple Leaf Gardens. I saw photos of her in tight denim and t-shirts, hair sky high and teased to the max. I idolized her life, imagined what it would be like if her and I had grown up together in that era and gone to concerts as friends. I imagined how much fun we would have had, partying together and drooling over men in too tight pants.

Not that we didn’t have fun and do this anyway. Every time Def Leppard performed in Toronto (and, one time, in Hamilton), we went. Once or twice we had too many margaritas. We saw them perform alongside Billy Idol, Poison, Heart and many others. I think I’ve seen them more than 10 times, and only once without her.

But we had never seen AC/DC together. Wouldn’t that be the day? We’d dream.

***

It took forever for the concert to come around. When the day finally arrived, I was disappointed we didn’t get hard tickets because I always liked collecting the stubs, looking through them later and reflecting on them like photo albums. They were trying out a new technology, paperless tickets, but we ended up getting lanyards instead, which I suppose was kind of cool, making the affair feel very VIP.

When we got to the stadium and proceeded to walk down the aisles towards our seats, I felt a thrill every time we were granted permission to go a little closer to the stage. As we approached our seats, we were shocked to discover there was no row A. We were actually second row! This couldn’t be real! A massive black curtain hid what was on the stage, and we waited with great anticipation for the show to start. The opening band got held up at the border, so the show was delayed. And when it had been decided that the band would never arrive, the curtain finally opened and a huge train that shot out fire revealed itself, as did each member of the band.

When Angus Young appeared, I couldn’t help but scream. He was one of my guitar idols. As a player myself, I admired his talent (and Malcolm’s too) and aspired to achieve his skillset. One Halloween I even dressed like him in my best boyish schoolgirl outfit, but unfortunately everyone thought I was Hermione from Harry Potter.

The show epitomized rock’n’roll. There were flames and explosives, giant blow up dolls, and more than two hours of blaring guitars, loud drums, and that infamous vocal growl. It was a family affair, for not only was I there with the woman who introduced this music into my world, but also my sister and my stepdad too. It is for reasons like this that music and family have such an entangled meaning for me. When I was growing up, music always had a way of bringing us together. There were the concerts we went to together, the ones they drove me to all across Ontario (and there were many), the ones I dragged my little sister to, and the ones I couldn’t ever stop talking about. I picture rolling the windows down and blasting rock and hair metal albums while driving down the highway on road trips. I picture the support everyone gave me when I decided to learn guitar, and for the four years after as I lent my life to the instrument, convinced that I too could be some big rockstar one day.

This didn’t happen. But still, music has always been all around me. From before I could walk to after I moved out on my own, it has been there with me, guiding me, helping me take that next step forward.

Belly Rubbing Buddha

tumblr_mxnweyZpD01rpmovqo3_1280

So, everyone is having babies and I’m still looking for The One. I am reading some Teal Scott to help me awaken the feminine within, all the while growling and humming. I meditate, imagining myself on top of a mountain and wondering why some guys won’t answer my texts.

Going through some baby blues at age 25 is perfectly understandable. I am taking care of things like learning skills, maturing, learning how to love. There is a dire primitive force at work, so much that I went and purchased a fertility soap a while back, which I still keep hidden in a drawer. Somehow I am scared I might get impregnated in my sleep by the Holy Spirit, and ideas like that gain momentum when I am watching a Jean-Luc Godard movie.  If I was looking for a sign, then there it is.

The time is ripe and/or will never really be. A lot of girls my age are putting off baby plans well in their lovely thirties, once they’ve eluded amassing the necessary economic confidence of a steady job and a cleared debt.

I, however, have been off the pill for a while now. That decision came along with my soaring disdain for Western medicine and the realization that sex is very sacred to me, so I have adopted a very self-loving, spiritual and chaste sexuality. I may have found a way to pin my social awkwardness on that choice, patriarchally speaking. I felt a lot of frustration against the traditional idea of partnership: the cataloguing of preferences and easy replacement of one another, especially when I caught myself objectifying the men I claimed to love. When I did end up falling in love, in the ideal land of no expectations, it ended up messy, unrequited and obsessive.

In my case, embodying the idea of the feminine had to do with somewhat distinguishing myself from my male counterparts. In conversations I had with some of them, their distinction between sex and love was physically significant, whereas in my romantic melodramatic perspective, I don’t consider them as two different subjects. I wish not to stereotype male and female, as we are all carrying a very dual gender within ourselves, but I find myself before a mystery I can easily compare to the spiritual enigma of faith, and that is where I discover the polarity at play.  I now feel a pressing need not to compete with the male energy, if only for the sake of creation. The idea is to perform a yin tai chi act on the matter. It is not about counteracting yang’s play, which tires faster and entices more of that opposing force (even so within ourselves!). Instead, yin ‘allows’ the energy and lets it subside, looking gracious and clever.

This newfound attitude towards the feminine springs every part of me into wanting to make a baby with the man I love, and go with it as a wonderful addition rather than as a load of responsibilities.  Whatever way we find to align ourselves with our inner femme, it is nice to take notice of the importance of woman and the unconditional love she harvests.

So here I am, looking at this curvaceous soap, vibing with the moon and all the new moms surrounding me, and I can’t help but notice how beautiful and powerful we women are, even if on a more subtle level, as male entity is traditionally transpiring a more ‘provider’ and material orientation, whereas motherhood comes full with strength and intuition. It is funny to witness men pace and wonder how to be useful, but then again, they are packed with light and cheerfulness.

On my part, the need to work from home and to raise my own kids is intensifying, with a tingling look out the window to see hubby chopping wood or scrambling to build our sustainable haven. I would be creating that dream with a man, but it would be nice to have him take care of the ‘big’ stuff and be a great cook, while I am busy giving excruciatingly amazing life.

Carolina Longo is a 25-years-old Montreal native.  She enjoys the works of André Breton, Jean Cocteau, William Blake, Max Ernst as well as Rumi and Binaural Beats on a rainy day. She crafts clothes and wings while listening to Terence McKenna and plays drums to release.

The Things I Fear

fear

I have irrational fears.

I am terrified of clowns, so much so that I will begin to shake and lose my breath when one is near me. My parents tell me I’ve been scared of clowns since I was about three-years-old. A ceramic lamp in my older brother’s room seems to have been the cause.

The very thought of snakes make me cringe. I am constantly worried that I will arrive home to find one slithering out of my toilet.

I hate hospitals. I’m scared of what happens inside them. More than once, I’ve panicked while visiting relatives. I begin to cry, uncontrollably. It becomes hard to breathe. And then I can’t escape fast enough. This doesn’t always happen, but it’s happened enough for me to want to avoid hospitals. My grandfather died in a hospital. I was six. I loved him. The doctor told us he passed away. I didn’t know what that meant until my father took me into his room and asked if I had anything I wanted to tell him. I shook my head. I stayed silent. I didn’t understand death then.

I fear that I won’t be able to conceive children. I fear this because I have a disorder called Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). It stops me from being able to menstruate on my own, among many other smaller symptoms including acne, oily skin, and mood swings. Most women who suffer from PCOS are still able to conceive. My fear is irrational.

More than not being able to conceive children, I’m scared of having a miscarriage. I’m strong in many ways, but am not strong enough to deal with such a loss. My desire to be a mother is too great. This would ruin me.

I worry that I will never succeed. That I’m not as great of a writer as I have led myself to believe for so many years. That I will never write a novel and, even if I do, no one will want to read it. I fear that I will never be financially stable as a writer. That, eventually, I will have to tuck my tail between my legs and go back to the type of job that eats at my soul. The kind that will give me stability, but make me so unhappy that I’ll no longer be able to recognize myself in the mirror.

I fear, as many do, death. I think about death often. My own death. My loved ones dying. I fear not being able to say goodbye. I wonder what it would be like to get sick at a young age and know that I’m not going to make it. I fear dying before I’m ready.

I fear that losing any one of my best friends would be something I wouldn’t be able to recover from. That a piece of me would die with them and moving on would be just too hard.

I fear losing my parents before I’m ready. I fear losing one parent will be too hard for my family. I’m not sure what would happen to my siblings and me if we were left on our own — I fear our relationships would crumble and I would lose them too. I also fear losing my brothers before I am able to build the kind of relationship with them I have always longed for. Before I can get them to love me the way I always hoped they would.

I am utterly terrified of the very thought of someday not having my mom around. She’s the single best thing in my life.

I fear being alone. That when it’s all said and done I’ve somehow alienated everyone close to me. I’m scared that I may be unlovable. That my many quirks and neuroses will drive people away. That one day I’ll look around and I’ll have no one to share my fears with.

Rosemina is a writer from Toronto, Ontario. She is a lover of music, bad TV shows and all things pop culture. You can read more of her musings by following her on Twitter @RoseminaN

One More Dime

sisters

I don’t know why it surprises me sometimes when we look so much alike in photos. Despite being born of the same X and Y-chromosomes, in many ways my sister and I couldn’t be more unalike. She, the younger one, is very much the country mouse to my city mouse. At 23, her idea of a good time is getting lost in the wilderness on horseback, following only your tracks back to the barn. She prefers the company of animals and has a way with them that echoes a Disney princess. She is truly a whisperer. At 23, my days were spent serving tables at a restaurant in the tourist part of downtown Toronto while dreaming of becoming a fulltime writer. My nights, lost to boys and bars.

Families are funny things. The dynamics and the roles can shift, but the direct relationships will remain the same. My sister and I have always been sisters. We haven’t always been friends. When we were young and small we did everything together. When we became our own people, we no longer understood each other in the same fashion. Things began to change. Our thoughts and ambitions no longer aligned. We didn’t share a secret language or a code anymore. We never called each other late at night after I moved away from home. I longed for our sisterhood to be as strong as our cousins, two sisters as close as one could ever dream. My heart broke every time I realized it wasn’t.

There were times when I would cry myself to sleep over this. The fractured dynamic of our relationship as sisters haunted me, forcing me to find in myself flaws where there shouldn’t be. I questioned my own character and my own dedication as a sister and a friend. I wondered if I as the older one am more responsible than she is, because I know what life’s like to not have a sister, while she does not. Sometimes she says she’ll call and when she doesn’t, I have allowed myself to remain sad instead of calling her myself. I have wondered, at times, if we are not closer because I am not trying hard enough. How different can we really be? Our eyes are the same and we both have dimples in our chins. Our stories are intertwined.

***

At our cousin’s wedding, we Googled the lyrics to Joan Jett’s cover of “I Love Rock’n’Roll” just to make sure we had all the words right. If you wanted the bride and groom to kiss, you had to interrupt the evening by addressing the gathering and singing a song with the word “love” in it. I was drunk because I am sick and drink too much sometimes to cope with it. My sister was not drunk because so is she.

We decided on Joan Jett because it’s one of the songs we have sang together before, driving down the highway as teenagers. We chose it because we wanted to do something together that we both enjoyed. The wedding had brought us closer together and reestablished a bond that had been long missing. As bridesmaids, we went from spending minimal time together to seeing each other every other weekend. We went dress shopping and planned showers. We danced the night away at the bachelorette party and laughed later as we carried the drunk bride-to-be back to the hotel. We danced in the middle of the dance floor and roared until we cried when the same guy hit on us both, separately. We were acting like sisters and it was beautiful and meaningful.

We also chose the song because we thought it would be a funny departure from the love ballads other drunks had been serenating us with all night long. We wanted something that represented our newfound sisterhood. We knew this but we did not say this. We practiced the lines and then sang it to the bride and groom. They kissed. Everyone cheered. We were, for a moment, invincible.

***

When I was in high school, I bought her Metric tickets for Christmas or her birthday and we drove to Kitchener to watch the band perform at a venue that had cages in it, usually reserved for dancers. There were no dancers the night of the concert. I was 17 and the proud owner of a new driver’s license. My mom let us borrow the car, a white Neon, as long as we called her when we got there. We did. Before we left, we bought Doritos at the grocery store and left them in the car for after. It was January. To this day we both agree they taste better cold.

***

My sister and I have an understanding and appreciation of each other that we didn’t have before the wedding. I don’t think we knew before how to manage our differences, focusing instead too much on the variables rather than finding beauty in them. Our DNA may be tangled, but we are different people and as we get older we are starting to recognize that this is what makes our relationship so special. At four years apart, our lives have not always aligned. When she was entering high school, I was moving away to university. In many ways I wasn’t there for her in the ways she likely needed, and it has taken a long time for her to feel confident in seeking advice from me, in recognizing my own experiences as potentially valuable to her own. In the same light, I must remember she is younger, that she is still learning things I have already learned. Yet in many ways, she continues to teach me new things about myself and the way relationships—and families—change; how they flex in and out, how they breathe and mature and evolve.

When we were little girls, we would sit by the window in the kitchen, sun beaming down upon us, and we would draw for hours. We would draw everything—from puppies to sceneries, from portraits of our family to cartoon characters. We shared this love of drawing passionately and it became integral to our understanding of each other. It was something we had together. It was a foundation.

Now that we’re older, now that we’re entering new phases of our lives and learning and growing as people, it is important to remind myself that these foundations still exist. We can look out into the world and see different versions of the same picture, we can experience different narratives of the same story, and of our own stories, but the significance of this parallel is something I finally am beginning to understand. I love her for who she is in her entirety and while I may not always understand her, and she definitely may not always understand me, I will cherish how it is both our differences and our similarities that comprise the fabric of our relationship, of our sisterhood. I will put another dime in the jukebox, baby.

Sheena Lyonnais is the founder of Blonde as well as the Toronto editor. Follow her on Twitter @SheenaLyonnais.

Image from Home of the Vein. View complete work here.

A Canadiana Christmas & A Happy New Start

alberta

In the month of November of my seventeenth year, I left the Canadian metropolis of Montreal to go inhabit the lunar landscapes of Northern Alberta. My knack for adventure had propelled me to subscribe to a youth program where locations were picked for the participants after their acceptance into the program, which was aimed at a bunch of 17 to 21 years old who were about to live three months in three different Canadian locations for a total of nine months. It was not the first time that I ever left home without any family, but this time, it was about to be a long and far-flung adventure, and anything seemed possible. At the Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, I instantly recognized two girls from the same program as me because of their badges sewn onto their backpacks and tuques, and so the three of us embarked on our first flight of the day together. We landed in the snow in Calgary, quickly grabbed a coffee and boarded another plane to Grande Prairie. The plane was noticeably smaller that its predecessor, and its passengers consisted almost exclusively of fellow young participants and their accompanying authority figures. We talked, laughed and interviewed each other. Me and the girls even did rounds to get a view from the window. Of course, we were a very excited bunch, deserting our hometowns, starting ourselves anew. It was the beginning of what already seemed like a year-long summer camp for late teens.

We arrived in Grande Prairie at night in the tiniest airport, one without chain stores, long corridors or hundreds of people. Instead, the airport consisted of one huge room and a snack bar atop a mezzanine. There were now about thirty to forty participants hanging out there, clustered on leather seats in the common public space next to the greasy spoon. The bunch of young folks, waiting to depart to their respective destinations, was sprawled in different directions, speaking French or English, and more rarely both. One of the purposes of the program was that the participants would become bilingual by the end of it, which was bound to happen, but as nerves were sensitive and travel exhaustion felt, most people kept to themselves.

A couple of minutes later, I embarked on a couple of charter buses and, while the first group was dropped in Grande Prairie, mine stopped at Falher and the other group was bound to settle in Peace River. The first thing that really hit me was the lack of light: there was not a single spot in sight in the few hours of bus after Grande Prairie. The only lights came from oil tanks at the side of the road and even more rarely from garages and convenience stores. The moment was quiet and kind of scary. I felt like I was about to live in the middle of nowhere (which wasn’t that far from the truth, come to think of it), while also feeling incredibly tiny in the infinite land.

We finally made it at the house, bleary-eyed, and were divided into three different rooms: three girls in two rooms, and the boys downstairs. The beds, made of white-painted metal, were noisy and uncomfortable. We were just about to start our own family in this house as we got accustomed to live together in it, doing various volunteer jobs during the day, and coming back at night. There were always a team of two that had to clean the house and make food daily, and we even learned how to bake our own bread.

The times were the most joyful with the group. There wasn’t a city to discover, and that helped us to bond. We were always playing in the snow like there was no tomorrow: having snow fights, making angels in the snow, going for walks. At one point, we even witnessed white and green Northern lights on a nightly walk. The sky was gigantic in proportion to the flat land and the connection to it was primordial in a way that doesn’t happen when surrounded by tall buildings.  The sense of space was all-encompassing, as if the sky could dictate our moods and lifestyle.

The program was a moment of togetherness, despite our differences of language, culture and hometown. We were always traveling in a mini van, doing various activities such as swimming or thrift-store shopping. Alas, the summer camp for late teens also came with a downside and its share of boredom:  the volunteer work I was doing involved too much time spent on MSN chatting with my friends back home and not enough time being challenged.

I learned to become happy in everyday life, with such small events as coffee breaks with fellow coworkers, but my gut was telling me that I needed to get out. As days went by, I realized that although I loved the group, I didn’t like how the organization was ruling our lives. I increasingly started feeling like an inmate living by strict regulations instead of living a grand adventure. I thus announced my departure and then, two days before Christmas, I was officially kicked out of the program. Luckily, I was taken under the wings of my lovely coworker, Yvonne, who had the same age as my dad’s but was already a grandmother many times over. Yvonne and her retiree husband’s André lived in huge house and they even had prepared a plush guest room for me. After sleeping on a bunk bed for weeks, the queen-sized bed felt like a dream.

I spent Christmas Eve with the couple’s family: their children and grandchildren came along for an evening of fun, gift-giving and card-playing. The whole family made me feel more than welcome, and it was the best gift I could have received that year, miles from home. It was another kind of Canadiana Christmas, not the typical Québécois one I was used to, but still one where food was abundant (there was a chocolate fountain!) and laughs galore.

On Christmas day, I returned to the group’s house to hang out with everyone. It was beyond frozen, and energies at the house were low as we watched movie after movie. I felt a tinge of melancholia as I saw the group together for the last time, while simultaneously feeling ready to face loneliness, challenges, and independence.

On December 26th, around 5 AM, Yvonne dropped me to the bus stop, direction Edmonton, where I had a plane to catch. I was so lucky that, when transferring my ticket booked by the organization to my hometown, an engaging young man decided to give me a first-class seat, with the explanation: ”it’s Christmas, right?”. In the bus, sunrise was starting to work its magic. For the last time, I got completely immersed in the boundless landscapes of the Northern part of the province.

I made it to the airport, and it was the first time that I was boarding a plane on my own. I remember writing in my notebook, sitting in the luxury lounge, feeling so many emotions at once, something that was to become frequent in following trips. The plane ride was short and sweet, under an hour and a half and filled with fresh coffee, crudités, the Vancouver Sun and a warm towel to watch my hands. I felt like I was becoming a grown-up.

I arrived in Vancouver in a overcrowded airport, and got picked up by a friend of my mother’s, who lived there since years. That night, at his place in the suburbs, I went to sleep with a smile on my face, proud of such a huge change in a matter of days. The next morning, I woke up at dawn armed and ready with a considerable pile of CVs. I walked outside, looked at the lush West Coast vegetation, embarked on a bus and went on exploring. It was a brand new day,Vancouver was just about to be discovered and I was learning (somewhat intensely) how to be a grown-up.

Lili Monette is a born-and-raised Montrealer and an artist by DNA and by choice. She holds a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Theatre and Development from Concordia University and can be found around the world entertaining people and gathering stories.

The Widening Gyre

1388126_10152025060165937_2033125715_n

“ Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure, nor this thing or that, but simply growth.  We are happy when we are growing”. – William Butler Yeats

 October 13th 2013 marks the 4th year anniversary of my brother’s death, and my brother being 3 years older than myself, I grew up following him.  As I begin to write, the feelings of chaos, complexity and inadequacy that encompass my attempts to express this swarm over me, like phantasmic wasps answering their call to arms.  My father had died the previous year from pancreatic cancer. Between my Dad’s death on August 10th 2008, and my brother’s death on October 13th 2009, a good friend was killed in a motor vehicle accident.

I spent the year following my father’s death in a state of relatively open bereavement among those close to me. After my brother’s death I didn’t want my grief to manifest in any way that people could recognize or assume to fathom.  At that point, it was as though expression would have only served to affirm others’ preconceptions of what it means to feel pain and loss.  I preferred “they” assume I was “taking it well”, which to me, served to magnify their ignorance.  About a month after my brother was killed, dead skin inside my cheeks and on the sides of my tongue began peeling off in layers.  This was due to having kept my mouth clamped shut and immobile during most of that time.  Sometimes I feel vibrations at different points in my body; sometimes I have a strange sensation while walking of my hips being in my chest, or of having another head above my head.  Sometimes I can only take very shallow breaths; it is a suffocating sensation.

The strength of a person is not defined by how much they can carry or withstand.  I’m very absorbent. After some time I began to realize that my ability to absorb does not qualify as strength.  A sponge has no solid boundary; it is thoroughly accessible and exposed.  Also, the exposure from sharing something so visceral becomes a dangerous act in itself.  To romanticize circumstances and people displaces them from the realm of reality into that of fantasy. Apathetically entertaining the projections of other people lures the unstable soul into a hopelessly unsatisfying state.  Foreign projections are ineludibly crude and all are biased according to personal experience and exposure to media, stories, and fairytales. Pretentiousness and condescension presupposes an omniscient understanding in the real world of people’s points of reference.  The inconsistencies between my self-perception and the identity projected onto me by friends, family and peers caused a writhing discomfort within me that I became accustomed to.  Followed by a wooly and detached horror-fascination when I observed that I could really disappear in front of people and no one would stop me, no one would know.  I appreciate the subjectivity of individual understanding very keenly.

Sometimes I feel as though even attempting to elevate myself beyond or within this grief is a sacrilege.  There have been times truly unbearable, but somehow they were borne and I’m still here, but that does not make me feel strong.  Somehow it makes me feel weak.  I understand this disposition to find roots in the Catholic value/hoax, that martyrdom is the ultimate expression of love.   I struggle with which memories to protect and keep private, and which to share and how.  It has taken a long time to take the most fundamental step of committing to a life in the living world.  Now I try to accept the responsibilities that come with that decision.

Grief, trauma, and mental illness are incapacitating.  I stayed in university for four years, not wanting to “give up”, or let go of another piece of my identity.  Early on, I decided on a degree in English Literature because stories were the only things that still made any sense.  Each semester followed the same pattern, goals, procrastination, paranoia, self-sabotage, and guilt, until in December 2012 I finally flunked out.

For a while there was nothing I could have done but go round and round in the chaos.  There is this terrible joke; how do you make a baby crawl in circles? Nail one hand to the floor.  I would liken the hand nailed to the floor to my experience of remaining in school. The anchorage to a spinning top at least keeps it moving, if only around and around.  There are worse things a baby could get into; there are better things.  There are no shortcuts when it comes to grief, but time widens the gyre.   Mostly I feel compassion for myself now that I realize the irony of my maddened logic; that due in part to my unwillingness to be misperceived by others, I became dissociated to the point of my own self-loss.   I believe in relativity and in process.  I believe in my own truths as they emerge under my perception of this complicated framework I’ve been bearing witness to all along.  Aspects of this framework are still very blurry, but tending to those places, deconstructing and constructing are among my responsibilities.  Truth will emerge during the process.

Polly Malone