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.

 

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“Your Ovary Looks Like A Bagel” and Other Stories About My Uterus

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When it happened, the pain was so severe I couldn’t move or speak. It felt as though something had violently burst inside of me, tearing my insides to shreds. I couldn’t explain to my boyfriend why suddenly in the middle of the night I was first screaming then saying nothing, rendered unable to communicate to him what was happening. I couldn’t even cry, I almost couldn’t breathe, barely able to mouth the words, “I think I need to go to the hospital.”

I barely remember getting into the cab, checking into the hospital, or waiting in the waiting room, though all three of these things must have happened. The pain disoriented me, left me unable to process what was going on. By the time a doctor came to see me it was 6:30 in the morning and I was so exhausted, my eyes were barely open. Unable to explain the situation, the doctor told me to come back at nine for an ultrasound.

I went home but didn’t sleep, only to return to the hospital a couple hours later. The ultrasound was uncomfortable, and I was concerned, increasingly so as the technician kept returning to one spot in particular. I became anxious. What could she see?

“I’m going to get the doctor,” the technician said. “Stay here.”

I lay on the table, my heart racing, and I waited for the doctor to come tell me what was wrong. “You had an ovarian cyst rupture,” he explained. “Your ovary looks like a bagel, but it should go back to normal soon. You will be fine.”

A bagel? Fine? He sent me home, but I wasn’t fine. In addition to worrying about my now bread-shaped reproductive organ, the pain never fully went away. Months before the incident, I had started experiencing crippling, sudden pains that were so severe I would have to stop whatever I was doing and remain perfectly still. I had gone to the doctor about it, but they told me, again, that everything was fine. The pain was becoming much more frequent, happening several times a day.

I went back to the doctor, but nobody seemed concerned. Nobody was willing to listen to my stories about the “phantom” pains I was experiencing. I knew something was wrong and I wanted answers.

A former classmate of mine had endometriosis and was seeing a specialist about it. I asked for her doctor’s name, and then promptly got a referral from my own doctor. If he wouldn’t listen to me, I wanted to talk to someone who would. This was in October and it was just starting to get cold outside. It is customary to have to wait for a specialist appointment, so I started counting down the days to January.

When I finally saw the specialist, she ordered a new set of ultrasounds. She didn’t take long to call me back, requesting I return to her office only a few days later. “You appear to have something blocking us from being able to fully see what’s going on inside of you,” she said. “I recommend exploratory surgery to determine the cause.”

Surgery? This sinking feeling began to overtake me. I was scared. What was inside of me? Did I have cancer? Did I have endometriosis? Would I ever be able to have children? You don’t realize how bad you want children until there’s a possibility you might not be able to. At 22, it was a luxury I assumed would be afforded to me and now I felt like it was being taken away.

I agreed to the surgery. For the next month, the world looked different to me. I imagined a different life for myself than the one I assumed I’d have, the eventual home, a husband, and two kids. I wondered how this would affect my relationship. Would he eventually leave me because I was infertile? In those nights when I worried, he held me and promised he wouldn’t. My sister and a friend offered to carry a baby for me. I cried into their arms, overwhelmed by the kindness of their offers. I felt so close to them, these people who came through for me in a confusing and difficult time. I met other women who were going through the same thing as me. I’m not sure how the conversations ever happened, how we ever discovered we shared this connection, but somehow the stars aligned and I found support in strangers. Together we mourned the children we were not sure we’d ever have.

These thoughts plagued me until I was able to undergo a small day surgery called a laparoscopy.

My specialist called me back in shortly after. She went straight to the point as she pulled out a diagram. “You have a large uterine fibroid the size of a grapefruit attached to your uterus,” she said, once again my reproductive organs were compared to a breakfast food. She took out a pen and drew a giant fibroid beside the pre-printed uterus to give me perspective. Uterine fibroids are usually benign, she explained, and I was beyond grateful to learn a biopsy showed mine was too. Fibroids have been linked to infertility when they grow inside of the uterus. Luckily, she said, mine was outside. It’s unlikely my fertility down the road would be affected.

I breathed a sigh of relief. A huge weight lifted off my shoulders knowing I would be able to have children. Even though I was still in pain and my journey was ongoing, hearing that made me feel like I was allowed to be 22 again.

My specialist told me I should undergo another surgery to have it removed right away. I agreed, and less than a month later I found myself in the operating room once again.

I couldn’t stop thinking about how none of the other doctors or technicians had noticed this before. How did something so large go undetected? Fibroids are actually more common than people think, affecting as many as one in five women in their childbearing years. Many women never even know they have them. In fact, the reason mine was likely causing problems is that it was actually attached to my uterus by what’s called a stalk. The fibroid would twist causing the stalk to get pinched, shooting sharp pains through my body.

Laying on the operating table cloaked in hospital light, I was less afraid this time even though the surgery was a more complex procedure. It would four leave tiny scars, a permanent reminder that nothing is in this life is ever guaranteed. But I felt so much more at ease. I was no longer worried about whether or not I was dying, or if I’d be able to have children of my own one day. For the first time in months I had answers.

It felt like I had lived so many lives during that time, forced to think about my life in its entirely in ways I hadn’t really considered before. For a while everything changed. And now, just one more surgery and it would all be back to normal again. I’d heal and go back to my job. My social life would resume. I would be okay. Everything finally would be fine. So I closed my eyes and counted down from 10.

Stress Sucks!

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Stress sucks.

This candid observation doesn’t come off as anything new,  as I can witness that it is clearly affecting everyone around me at various levels, especially at this time of the year (exams! essays!). Lately, my stress levels took on a different toll. To be honest, they were pretty high for most of the semester, university years, and life since high school come to think of it. It’s the end of the semester, which means that all time is intended towards stressing about the last assignments to hand back, and it also seems the only thing that people in school talk about. I am now in the underworld of graduate school and it comes with a renewed stress load and a truckload of work. There are red-eyed zombies galore: just check in to any university library at this time of year. 

Stress is a major cause of all the world’s sickness. Just looking at the hordes of CEOs that get cancer diagnoses from overwork is a terrible wake-up call.  I’m no exception, as I always become sick when I’m beyond stressed-out. I never take breaks: I need to be sick or have an injury to get a mandatory break and a doctor’s note. I’m not going to lie, the two breaks I got this year (besides, granted, my fabulous trip to the USA) happened because I sprained my ankle and I got a severe sinus infection. Oh! The luxury of reading magazines and drinking tea in bed, writing or watching movies! It made me realize how necessary it is to give my mind and body a break, otherwise, it’s spinning and stressing in various directions.

When typing ”stress” in Google, I found a plethora of images of stressed-out people holding their heads,  hurt from too much work. I totally get it, and I’m happy to know that I’m not alone, although I’m less content with the fact that stress is inherent to the workings of our society.

It’s the end of the semester, which means no time for absolutely nothing besides work. And I don’t mean to say that as in ‘’it sucks, I have no time, it’s all about me’’ but as a general observation of the modern work world. I have read instructive academic and non-academic books on the issue and it always comes down to chilling yourself out, but unfortunately, it’s not 100% realistic (although it is a fact that breathing evenly and having a positive attitude goes a long way).

At times,  I feel a stress rush running through my spine and behind my head, like a whirlwind of expectations.  I also often feel stuck at the throat because a coffee overload is ruining my nervous system, even when exercising regularly and drinking herbal tea such as camomile, linden or red clover, religiously.

Of course, there are positive kinds of stress: the kind that makes me want to go beyond my initial thoughts, that propels me further (harder better faster stronger). Positive stress goes hand in hand with my ambition, as step by step, I’m getting further ahead. Unfortunately, positive stress is still related to competition, sickness and unhappiness (as in ”it’s never enough”).

My favourite kind of stress has to be stage fright, which is I found that  studying and writing was harder to do this semester, as I’m forever a theatre kid and I prefer to do most classes in studio spaces and to stretch while I work . Yesterday though, I experienced a modest form of stage fright in my 15-minutes  oral presentation (you know what they say: ”fifteen minutes of glory”!) as part of an 8-hour seminar. 8 hours seated is about the worst kind of torture for me, especially after working all weekend chained to a computer. As my presentation was about performativity in protests, I ordered everyone to close their computers and stand up (”I’m serious!”, I told them). I was glad to witness everyone in my class, people that are strangers to theatre and stretching for the most part, stand up and relax their bodies. For the rest of my presentation, I had sixteen attentive students listening to me carefully as computers were out of sight and bodies reawakened: I think I made my point understood in reassessing human contact and shutting electronics down. Fundamentally, the body and mind are  more vital than stress. Unfortunately, the Western society always tends to privilege productivity. It’s important, of course, but health is a priority, which might be the most important lesson I’ve learned this year.

I only have two days of school and work left: it is an absurdly short time. Ironically, it’s exactly the point when my USB key self-deleted all its files and that I forgot my cell phone and books at the library.

At least, I’m realizing that my nightmare is coming to an end and that there are infinite wonderful events to come very soon, such as more writing for fun, hangouts with friends and family, walks outside, creative projects, little trips, but most importantly, sleep and yoga.  On that note, I’ll go back to my last essay due in about 24 hours with some steam off and afterwards, I’ll take a much-needed break. 

I’m very excited to relax, people.

Lili Monette is a born-and-raised Montrealer, artist, actress, writer and entertainer. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theatre and Development from Concordia University and is currently undertaking a short graduate program in Political Communication at Université de Montréal. 

Photo: Amber Valletta by Peter Lindbergh for Vogue Italia

Here’s some Québécois hip-hop about the topic under a different point-of-view: Trop de Stress by Sans Pression.

The Disgruntled Server, Issue I: The Health Foodie

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I softly whimper into my pillow. It’s that time in the morning that the majority sleeps through. I’m not sure why it’s me that’s awake lying here in a sea of pillows still slightly buzzed from the evening prior. Memories from childhood cascade through the brain to add to the self-guilt of it all. What would my mother think? I decide next week will be one of lemon water and good behavior. I write a seven-day checklist to post on my fridge– exercise! H2O! sleep! Is it for dignity– a good life– or a forfeit to what’s considered proper? Will I actualize these plans once the hangover passes?

I’m 28 and I work as a server at a restaurant. It’s not where I imagined myself five years ago, or where I imagine myself forever, but for two years since moving to Toronto I’ve paid rent by serving health foodies gourmet veg dishes, fresh juice, and all the wine. It’s a great time with great coworkers, but here is an occupation that does drive you to drink.

At this particular restaurant, the primary demographic of customers, or “custys” as we call them, is somewhat of a walking cliché; a niche, if we’re being polite.

People are consistent in coming through our doors wearing overpriced loungewear and an elevated sense of self-satisfaction. They are a combination of type-A professionals, people who don’t need to work for a living, yogis, and undergrads living like high rollers on mom’s credit card. Those who can afford to throw down twenty grand on spiritual gurus in India l-o-v-e  us– you saw that movie Eat, Pray, Love, right? We’re the back-to-reality follow-up. What I might call “entitled,” they might call “enlightened.”

Though the menu is vegan, about 85% of our clientele is not vegan, nor do they care to be informed on what the diet fully entails. That’s okay, it’s nice to see people dipping their toes into a new, well-meaning cuisine; however, when you’re working 4-5-6 nights of the week, the shenanigans of fluffy feathered health nuts with surface-level proficiency will wear on mental motors.

These are people educated enough not to want to put garbage in their body, but not interested enough to explore sights beyond their own self-worth and alkaline levels. After two years, I’m still shocked on how blissfully blah some are okay with being when it comes to acquiring information beyond buzzwords and newspaper trends. Sometimes I feel we ain’t nothin’ but a bandwagon.

The cliché custys are funny ones– servers are privy to a unique glimpse into the animal kingdom. These people aren’t so much funny in the way you’d get on together in real life, but funny in the way where you’re just not sure how they make it in the real world.

When the table of PR girls ask for “real milk” for their coffee, I provide a lax “You mean cow’s milk?” reply. I’m met with strained facial muscles and a confused awkward silence. I have no ill will to non-veggers, and I realize I may come off as a little sassy, but I can’t help but feel some amount of responsibility to instill just a wee mental note for later. And besides, didn’t the whole “Drink Milk” campaign get outted 10 years ago? I like to think they’ll go home and utilize Google. (I promise I’ll never bring the sass outside of these walls­– nobody likes a know-it-all. And when people are genuinely curious and kind about the menu, I will give them all the respect. I’ve had some pretty precious moments with first-time custy exchanges.)

Three seats down, the tiny yoga instructor with the groping boyfriend is about to begin the usual circle of demands that will keep me buffering from the bar to their table for the next 40 minutes. They tip well, so I’ll be sure to grab that extra side of Himalayan sea salt somewhat promptly. A woman at the table of twelve writes a list of her allergies in which I must present to the kitchen. Her naturopath says she can’t eat the color red. She and I go through the menu in full and she’s not really getting it. She asks about cross-contamination with fish. Sigh.

It’s around this time when I start fantasizing about the glass of red I’ll enjoy an hour from now. There’s something about busying around at the wake of night chatting up strangers, dancing between orders, cash, the kitchen and the door that makes going home to sleep immediately afterwards next to impossible. This adrenaline rush requires remedy.

My coworkers and I almost always gather post-close to unwind after a hard night’s work. Though the bulk of our clientele remains somewhat of a running joke, we do make the point to acknowledge the righteous folks who were awesome to serve. The good people make it worth it. Still, the big picture and the defeatist in me thinks people who dine out-of-home are the ones who should be required to take that silly Smart Serve test.

However, this stint as a lowly minion is a reminder to we servers to check ourselves– keep it real, ya know? Who knew an $8.90/hour job could be such a lesson in humility– a non-institutionalized education in humanities.

Sometimes there are many nightcaps / too many nightcaps after work. Shit gets black. I realize the incline of booze intake I’ve experienced since starting serving and bite my lip. Our mornings are not exactly in demand, and there’s a certain means of survival involved when you’re subjecting yourself to all walks of the general public every day of the week. In the first season of the television show of Bored To Death, George Christopher (Ted Danson) says to Jonathan, “Men face reality. That’s why they drink,” while sipping chardonnay in a bathroom stall at a party. We servers– even those of us in the health food bizz (shhhh)– can relate. It’s not so much a means of facing reality, but more of a buffering process.

Custys come and go– and so does our sanity– but when you get to work alongside artists, actors, writers, graffiti kings, and future entrepreneurs, it’s the close-knit camaraderie between coworkers that’s the real saviour. A few drinks are simply the celebration. And with this, I conclude: the circle of [a server’s] life.

Iris Wolfe is a writer from the East Coast living in Toronto. She’s into Scandinavian sensibilities, migrating towards cosy perches with red wine prospects, and using her estranged psychology degree as a touchstone. (or sometimes not) She’s often found biking, writing short stories, or wiggling around in the comfort of her own home. People are usually surprised to discover her affinity for good hip hop.