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.

 

The Day I Decided I Was Going To Be OK

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Since October or so, everything that could have gone wrong in my life has gone wrong. It started with little things that progressively got bigger, leading up to a huge fight during an otherwise pretty great Christmas vacation.

So when 2014 started, I decided that it was going to be my year. I wanted to turn things around.

But how are you supposed to make things better when you’re feeling so low?

I didn’t know where to start. When that happens, I usually write. But I was feeling so broken that writing about how horrible my life was made me even more depressed. I couldn’t put things down in writing as I usually do, and look at my problems with a different perspective. Writing was becoming a pain. Just getting up in the morning was hard.

I told myself to get my shit together. On the first Monday of the year, I set an alarm in the morning to try to find a job (because of course, I’ve been completely unable to find work in my field for months), or at least be somewhat productive. I missed my alarm. Then I proceeded to drop my jewellery-making supplies on the ground. There were beads everywhere in my apartment. Everywhere.

It’s going to get better, I told myself. I made a list of things to do. I love lists. Starting things slowly: apply for at least one job, call my cable company to know if there are ways to pay less each month. Simple, really.

So I made the call. I spent almost two hours on the phone with a customer service rep who either didn’t understand my problem, or didn’t want to help me. I completely lost it. Over my cable subscription.

I spent the next day crying in my bed. At this point, what else could go wrong? It seemed like even little nothings were going wrong in ways I never even imagined possible. That night, I went to bed wondering what the hell I was doing wrong. I’m a pretty nice person, I’m fairly talented at what I do, I’m not horrible looking… Why was the world against me?

When my alarm rang the next day, I was in a surprisingly OK mood. I still snoozed for hours, but I was finally able to extract myself from bed. I took a shower, put clothes on, went to my chiropractor appointment (which was quite lovely as my body had been aching a ridiculous amount). On the way there, I put on this new record I’d just gotten, even if it had been out forever. “FOX”, by Karim Ouellet.

I don’t know if it’s my newly repaired body or the feel-good music, but something clicked. Fuck it, I can do it. I can.

I got home. The cable company called and apologized for the horrible experience, giving me a bunch of free things. A million and one job opportunities I’m not only qualified for – I’m actually interested in doing – were published online. The news that I’ve been named an ambassador for a clothing company I love was released. A friend told me about a cool contest I should participate in. I wrote an article I’d been meaning to write for a month & that will get me great exposure when published. My favourite newsletter (Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Non-Conformity) arrived in my mailbox, with exactly the type of encouragement I needed to read.

I’m not saying everything has become perfect, magically, in a day. But now I’ve decided that it’s going to be OK. I’m going to be OK. Life is always going to have ups and downs. I was lucky in some aspects of life and not so much in others. I chose a more difficult path, an “alternative” lifestyle of travel and freelancing. I set myself up for more difficulties, but it doesn’t mean my life has to be a failure. It doesn’t mean I’m a failure.

It’s going to be OK. I’m going to be OK.

And until I actually am, I’ve got Karim Ouellet to listen to.

Beatrice lives in Montreal (when she’s not travelling.) She works in PR and marketing when she’s not writing for various publications. Follow her on Twitter @beatricebp.

Regrets: Just Another Thing I Can’t Afford.

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When I moved to Calgary 7 years ago, I had no idea that my split-second decision to give the West a chance was going to define the rest of my life. At the time, I was a hippie Literature graduate with a spirit I can now only envy while simultaneously shaking my head. I went to University in a small city where I could walk anywhere I wanted or needed to go.  I lived frivolously with my student line of credit. I experimented with clothes, hair styles, music, and, with other undergrads. It was a time of wild excess and freedom unlike anything else before or since.

Calgary was going to be the next big adventure.  There were jobs aplenty; I couldn’t wait to see the mountains, and most importantly, there was a guy who wanted me here. THE guy. You know the one I’m talking about. The two of you are friends who flirt, probably a lot.  He’s always involved when you’re single or vice versa. You go out to a club together with mutual friends and buy each other shots like sex on the beach. In other words your feelings are about as subtle as a flying brick but neither of you does anything about it.

Yeah, that guy.

After graduation he moved away and I went to my small hometown for the summer. We spoke on the phone four nights a week. Inexplicably, I missed him a lot more than I would a mere guy friend. So in typical me fashion I up and bought a ticket for YYC departing a few days later with $800 in my bank account, my measly credit card, significant student debt, and no place to live.

“The guy,” who is now my wonderful husband, offers me a couch and picks me up at the airport.  I don’t need it; I sleep in his bed.

That’s the kind of carefree individual I was.

A few weeks later I’m a waitress at a pizza joint with a bunch of kids who have no idea why someone with a degree was serving iced tea. I can’t give them an answer because I don’t know why either, other than jobs in writing are sparse, particularly creative writing.

The next few years are much the same. I work somewhere I don’t like or don’t fit in, assimilate a little more into the guy’s life, and write on the side. Four jobs come and go and our friends begin to think I’m a little eccentric. They are right, of course. They are also more practical than I am.   I’m broke.

Time passes and soon I begin to realize that a small spark in the always-optimistic me has faded, and, whether it’s simply age or circumstance I get a bit cynical. Bad bosses, bad drama, bills, and small insecurities take their toll.

The refrain remained the same. Be a good person, keep trying, keep writing, and keep looking. Something will turn up, things will turn around.

They didn’t and haven’t.  Still broke.

Writing is a challenging career and is often very isolating. Like many other writers I found that I started to drink a little bit too much and write not quite enough. I would eat poorly and sleep worse. My habits were not those of the successful-though-naïve hippie type I once was, but of a woman who was headed downhill.

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The strange thing is that throughout it all, the question of whether or not ‘the guy’ and I were meant to be together was never once an issue. Sure, things were hella difficult at times, and still are, but as a result our relationship is tighter than a Chinese finger trap.

And really, I don’t mean to sound like these past 7 years have been all bad because they haven’t. It’s quite the opposite, actually. I’ve made some wonderful friends. My family are truly amazing in every sense of the word. I love my husband.  I’ve learned to enjoy camping and hiking.  I’ve read some good books.  I’ve written a (pretty good) book myself. I’ve written some other things I’m really proud of.

Does that mean I don’t have any regrets? Of course not.

When I was younger I thought that regret was useless because feeling it couldn’t change anything. It only referred to the past and the past was beyond our reach; pointless. But then, when I was a kid I had nothing to regret in the first place and therefore no true concept of the word’s actual meaning. For example, I know now that it’s possible to regret things that haven’t even happened yet. Regret for an idealised, fantasy-future that can’t be.

I don’t regret my split-second decision to move here because I probably wouldn’t be married now and that’s something I wouldn’t change for the world.

I don’t regret pursuing Literature in school because as impractical as it may be, it wasn’t just any old option it was the only option. Because that’s who I am, that’s me.  It would be nice if I had pursued my Master’s degree before buying a house. I can’t afford it now and don’t know when I’ll be able to.

In life, there are sacrifices we make every day: for our loved ones, for work, for others, and for our sanity. As a writer my main sacrifice is a financial one. Choosing this life means not being able to afford the things that my friends and neighbors afford with ease. It is also a sacrifice of pride, in some respects, because many people will simply not be able to understand why you do what you do.

But it isn’t a sacrifice of who you are, and that’s why regret is just another thing that I can’t afford.

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Ashley Britten is a freelance writer with a BA in English who has recently completed her first novel in a YA trilogy. Ashley lives near the Canadian Rockies with her husband, their dog, and her betta fish Clyde. Follow her on Twitter @AshDWalsh until her new home on the interweb is up and running.

A Tale of Two Cities and One Suburb

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When I left Toronto just over five years ago and headed for the west coast, my Dear John letter read, “Dear Toronto, it’s not me, it’s you.” But it wasn’t Toronto at all. It was me. I was blaming a city for everything that was wrong in my life and thought, it’s time to hightail it out of here! Being a city girl, I chose a new city–Van City. I’d never even been there on a visit (I’d never been further west than Windsor, seriously); but when the option to apply for a job transfer to Vangroovy came up, I was compelled to apply. I needed an out. Toronto tasted like a hardened, stale bagel and I need to gnaw on someplace else.

I found myself an extremely cute little apartment in Vancouver’s West End. I had my cat, my dog, a place to learn to cook recipes from Julia Child’s The Art of French Cooking, and the ocean just 90 seconds away from my door. I ate too much butter, drank too much wine, and I buried any sign of the Trellawny who had ever lived in Toronto (literally, my new expanded waistline ate her right up).

But I never felt like I was at home. Three years, a seven-day uHaul drive across the country via the Crow’s Nest highway (I advise anyone against this route, by the way; and wish someone had advised me prior to the longest white-knuckle drive I’ve ever experienced), a parrot attack in a Thunder Bay hotel hallway, and a sublet in an apartment with a problematic amount of scary spiders later: I was back in Toronto. I was “home.”

Well…

Trellawny random city photoshoot

I was renting an apartment in the Beaches with a boyfriend I’d met in Vancouver. The door was on Queen Street and the lock broke; but the superintendent wouldn’t replace it. Not cool. So I bought a house. In the suburbs. I did a test drive; it was only 45 minutes back into the Beaches, where I worked. I could do this. Sing-alongs in the car every day! Hells yes! I was in a financial position to do it. I could pay into the equity of my own house rather than pay a slumlord and help his bankroll. This was a great idea. Homeownership = respect in our North American society. It’s like some sort of status symbol and I was about to be worthy of respect as an adult. Afterall, I wasn’t married, had no kids and no astounding career. But I could buy a house!

So, the suburbs. I grew up in the suburbs, not far from where I bought my house. My house. When I saw the house for the first time, my first response was, “It’s so cute. What a cute house!” But cute houses have lawns that need to be cut. And front porches that need to be replaced (unless you want to fall through them). And every utility bill? Yes, that’s up to me to pay as well. Shovelling in the winter: yes, must do that too. And I’ll tell you, that puts a damper on the drive-to-work sing-along. Also dampening, and not in the sexy good way, is traffic. Traffic. Other people get into a lot of car accidents. They don’t signal. They randomly drive slower than the speed limit…by a lot. And house centipedes. Let’s not forget those.

Other life events unfolded, like the end of my almost four-year relationship with that boyfriend. I started going to concerts again and went on road trips with girlfriends (of note: any trip I took had to be coordinated so my old dog was taken care of. During this time, my cat died, which just broke my heart).

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I lost 25 pounds. I cooked even more than I had in Vancouver–and made better foods. I started hula-hooping in my backyard. I BBQ’d. But everyday I had to drive in traffic: horrendous. Summer ended and girlfriends stopped visiting me.  Road trips stopped. Concerts dwindled. Bills piled up.

Owning a house. Not all it’s cracked up to be. Being a commuter: absolutely not for me. After almost three months of trying, I sold my house. Packing. Now that’s a way to get lost, especially when you are the type of person who keeps far too many items. But I did it. I downsized. I’m back in a city–Toronto–renting an apartment. I can walk to work. I’m just figuring out my routine. It’s just Maggie (my 15-and-a-half year old blind, deaf shih tzu) and me. Talk about feng shui-ing my life.

I have a lovely new boyfriend. He lives across the ocean. (We met at a concert and that’s a whole other topic.) I’m thinking about that move–across the ocean. I don’t know all of the details yet. But, what I do know is I’m a city girl. I know the specific city doesn’t matter. I know I need to walk places and be around people. I can still feel lonely in a giant apartment building, but it’s comforting to know there are people here breathing the same air as me, literally, who also feel lonely, lost, confused, inspired, encouraged, loved, happy… I know that if I see a bug, I can scream and someone will hear me! I know that “home” is not a geographical location. It’s where I can be comfortable. Be me. Be afraid of bugs, drink wine, paint doodles on a canvas, play my saxophone, write introspective pieces, be made love to, cook fanciful dishes or eat cheese & crackers. And where I can walk down the street and pass other strangers who aren’t sure where home is, but for now… it’s here in the city.

Trellawny has been teaching herself to cook for the past few years. She claims neither to be a chef nor a cook, just a girl who makes the most of making meals. You can check her out on YouTubeInstagram and www.distancedish.com