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.

 

Losing Monica

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On November 18, 2013, we lost Monica. And I say lost, not as a colloquial term to avoid referencing death, but because that’s what it felt like—that one moment my brother’s beautiful, talented, kind-hearted girlfriend Monica was there, and the next she wasn’t. Gone. Lost. Never to be found.

I’ve been fortunate in my life, in that up to this point I had never really felt grief. Sure, I had experienced sadness—for lost friendships, missed opportunities, a difficult breakup—but I had never truly known what that all-encompassing, suffocating, painful grief felt like. I continue to be blessed with the love and support of all four of my grandparents, and my friends and family are in good health. It almost seemed like for the first 27 years of my life I enjoyed a sort of innocence—that I was blind to, and sheltered from, the harsh realities of loss.

In some ways, especially at the beginning, grief brings people together. Clichéd though it may sound, when you lose someone, you also lose a bit of yourself, and leaning on those around you helps plug the hole and stop the flood. I probably have never felt closer to my immediate family than in those first few days after losing Monica—at the very least, it had easily been a decade since we had all spent that much uninterrupted time together. My tears were their tears, and there was comfort in our shared sadness. And sometimes even through heartbreak, there are smiles—my younger siblings, Noah (now 6) and Leila (2), helped bring light to the darkest moments with their innocence, their laughter, and their love.

I was (and still am) touched by those friends and relatives who came to the funeral or visitation, who called or sent an email, or who reached out to tell stories of their own. I was grateful to my boyfriend for being the rock that I needed, and to my colleagues who picked up the slack, no questions asked. I also found a friend in Monica’s sister, who I had not met prior to her passing, and who I remain friends with to this day.

But when the dust settles, when life goes on for the people around you, grief is isolating and lonely. Everything seemed to be a constant reminder that I was no longer just Emily, that I was also now Sad. Returning to work after a week, finding my coffee mug in the exact place I left it and my computer still on, I felt alone and resented the normalcy that percolated around me. I found it hard to concentrate, and even harder to make small talk or sit in a meeting. When I heard people complaining about home renos or the weather or a subway delay, I wanted to scream, “Don’t you know what REAL problems and REAL sadness are?”

I was angry and fragile—like if someone pushed too hard, I would turn to dust and disappear. I hated to see people having fun. As much as I remembered and valued those who were there for me, I became fixated on those who weren’t. I was spiteful when people would ask politely how things were going and then shift uncomfortably in their seats if I told them the truth, or shared too much for too long, or—heaven forbid—cried. I know now, and probably deep down knew at the time, that this was unfair, but in my weaker moments it didn’t matter. To me, I had the right to be sad whenever I wanted, in whatever way I wanted, and that it was selfish and mundane to expect to talk about work or Christmas shopping when I had just lost Monica.

There were times when I too felt selfish, and guilty. Monica was a beloved member of my family, but I had only known her three years and she wasn’t someone I saw every day. Compared to my brother Jacob, or to Monica’s sister, parents and lifelong friends, I had hardly known her at all. I often asked myself if I even had the right to be as sad as I was, if perhaps in my grief I had claimed something that wasn’t mine to take. I had, after all, gone back to the office after just a week. I moved in with my boyfriend, had dinner with friends, even ran my first half marathon. On the outside I had resumed my life, even if in my heart I still felt Sad, Sad, Sad.

In time, I realized that to survive, I had to be gentle with others, and with myself. It was ok to cry, to wonder why, to miss Monica, but I also had to know that I couldn’t expect others to be sad alongside me all the time. I reminded myself that there’s no shame in accepting that things weren’t ok, but that running or working or having fun didn’t diminish her memory and didn’t mean I cared any less. Slowly I’ve also started to remember Monica, not just grieve her. She was a knitter, and I’d always wanted to learn, so I took a few classes—putting it mildly, knitting is not for me, but it helped me reconnect with the notion of Monica as a real person, not just someone we had lost.

It’s been a year now, and after losing Monica, I’m now on the journey of finding Emily. I have learned that grief can be erratic. It is confusing and completely non-linear, but it is mine and it is part of me, whether I’m alone or not, through the days that feel normal and those that don’t. I know that not one day has gone by where I haven’t thought about her, or missed her, and I know too that time may not, ultimately, heal every single wound. But, I’ve also learned that though there is so much pain in loss, there is beauty and even laughter in remembering—whether it’s something kind she did, a joke she made, a story she told, or with the scarf I’m (unsuccessfully) trying to knit.

This article is dedicated to the beautiful Monica Post (August 31, 1992-November 18, 2013), and to my courageous brother, Jacob Abrahams. I love you both.

In the Wake of Loss

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I have never understood loss. Not really, anyway. Not until a month ago.

Last month, I lost a dear friend of mine. She was smart, beautiful, funny, caring, and good. She was good. She was simply good.

I’m still unsure of what caused her death, but I know what killed her. My friend, who I have known for most of my life, wasn’t able to nourish her body the way most of us can. She suffered from an illness that I will never truly understand. And it’s this illness that took her life.

The thing is, I hadn’t spoken to my friend in quite some time. I hadn’t seen her in even longer. I found it difficult to be around her because I wanted to shield her from her demons, force her into some form of treatment. But I couldn’t. There was nothing that I could do to help her and that fact was hard to swallow. I eventually put distance between us; an act I will always regret. I just thought, eventually, she’d ask for help. Eventually she’d get better. And then we could all move on.

Now that she’s gone, now that I know I’ll never see her again and she’ll never have the chance to get better, I miss her so much. I have never before been filled with so much sadness. And now, a month later, I’m convinced I will always feel this way. I will always miss her and I will always be sad about what happened to her. There is no moving on, there’s simply learning to live without that small piece of myself that she took with her.

I still have days when I’ll wake up, think of her, and suddenly not know what to do with myself. I live alone and I work from home, which, I have realized, is toxic to someone who is in the grieving process. So, on these days, instead of taking care of my responsibilities, I immerse myself in worlds of fiction. I turn to lighthearted ChickLit and romantic comedies, where the girl always gets the guy, the good guy always wins, and everyone is always okay in the end. These worlds help me forget. Help me forget that my friend isn’t here anymore, help me forget about her family who lost a wonderful daughter, sister and aunt, and help me forget that I failed her.

All I wanted to do, for so long, was protect her. I wanted her to get better. I wanted her to want to get better. And I wanted her to know that I’d help her along the way. But I’m not so sure she knew that. Because I simply could not accept her illness and I couldn’t just pretend that nothing was wrong. Now, I wish I had just been there for her anyway. I wish I had followed through on making plans with her, called her, and just been a friend to her. I should have spent more time with her. I should have tried harder. I wish I could have just accepted that I couldn’t save her. She had to do that for herself.

I used to feel angry with her, that she wasn’t getting the help I knew she needed. Now, I accept it. I accept that she was suffering and overcoming her illness was just too hard. I just wish I had found this acceptance at a time when I could have told her, “It’s okay. I understand. I’m here for you anyway.”

My friend was smart, had a great career, was so funny, and was so very beautiful — on the inside and out. She was a genuine person, which is hard to find these days. She was quirky, and owned it. She was encouraging and somehow always made me feel good. Because she was good.

To my dear, sweet friend: I hope you are looking down at us from up in the clouds, eating and drinking to your heart’s content. I know you’ve finally found your peace. I’ll see you on the other side.

The Widening Gyre

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“ 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