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

remembering monica

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.

Beyond the Grain

saint john

The art affected me almost instantly. We went to the gallery to support Adrienne, a Toronto-based artist who was exhibiting the work she completed after spending a few months in Syracuse, New York. She left to take part in the artist residency program and came back with a large body of work, most were pieces painted on wood bearing feminist and lesbian messaging, the lines in some designed to look like vaginas. Some of the pieces were colourful and abstract, while others were subdued and sad, exuding a feeling of loneliness and loss.

It was the latter that inspired us to buy a piece, our first real art. As we stood in the gallery two summers ago tipsy off complimentary wine, another friend offered to give us a tour. She was familiar with the work and had a way of describing the paintings in a manner that made you fall in love with each one. Not that the work wasn’t great in and of itself, but the stories played a quintessential role in our decision to buy the art. There were these intricate details behind each of the works that resonated deep within me. Story after story, I felt myself admiring each piece in a new way.

But when we came to the one we would buy something stopped both of us. The piece contains five pieces of wood, each one found somewhere in Syracuse, assembled in such a fashion to create one larger work. At first glance, all you see if the five pieces of wood, but upon further inspection it is clear the grain is actually painted on and stained. It is a work of five paintings of wood, painted on wood, against the grain. It is an illusion and a lie. It is control and chaos. It is beautiful and dark. It is haunting.

I loved it before I knew the story, but I loved it after I knew the story more. Adrienne felt a deep isolation in Syracuse. A college town, she was there on off months when almost everything was closed and no one was around. The town, my friend described, was broken and lonely, a series of abandoned homes with nobody to love them. Adrienne was staying in a room in a house that was shoddy at best. One night, she noticed a perplexing repair. It was painted wood, maybe along a floorboard, but whoever painted it had done so against the grain. Adrienne couldn’t understand why someone would do that; make such an obvious mistake. She felt like it summed up her trip perfectly.

TJ and I had just returned from a trip our selves. We had left Toronto for Saint John, New Brunswick in a hurry upon news that a dear friend of mine had been in a horrible accident. The ATV she was a passenger on had flipped and landed on top of her, crushing her beneath it. She was alive, but the accident left her paralyzed from the waist down. When I heard the news I was devastated. I could not stop crying and I called everyone in tears, TJ, my mother. It was hard for me to breathe. Shyla and I had been friends since middle school and she was like a sister to me. I felt like I was mourning her. I felt like she was dead. The news hit me so hard I had to keep reminding myself that she was alive.

Seeing her meant going to Saint John, a town that sounds to be much like Syracuse. On the way to New Brunswick we got delayed at the airport in Montreal. I cried into TJ’s lap for what felt like hours, devastated that we would arrive in Saint John too late to visit Shyla in the hospital. I hated the airline. I hated the feeling I felt in my stomach, this horrible knot of despair that turned and coiled until I felt so sick inside I thought I could die.

By the time we made it to Saint John it was pouring rain and midnight. The cab driver asked what we were doing in town and when we told him, he already knew of the accident. It had been all over the news. The scenario of seeing her in the hospital played out in my head over and over like a broken film reel with missing frames. The emotions were so strong they overrode the images. I couldn’t see her smiling in my visions. I couldn’t see me smiling in my visions. I saw only unparalleled sadness. I felt this sense of complete and utter loss even though she was alive.

Visiting hours were over and so TJ and I had little else to do but waste time in Saint John until we could see her in the morning. We grabbed an umbrella and decided to check out area. It was so late and we were exhausted, but we thought we’d better grab a drink somewhere down by the water and experience a taste of the town while we were there. We were also hungry, but nothing was open. Saint John is a port town, a place for cruise ships to stop through. But it felt like a ghost town, the rain sinking inside our bones and forcing us to confront the shiver we felt inside.

We weren’t able to see Shyla in the morning. She had a rough night and barely slept, finally resting her eyes some time after the sun had come up. So TJ and I decided to explore Saint John in the daytime. Even in the sunlight, the town felt desperate. The buildings and houses were so old and evidence of a fire that wiped out half the town many years before still remained. Nobody was around. In a coin and collectibles shop, old men talked about wars of the past. We walked down streets that were so empty we could hear our footsteps on concrete. It was a place without many sounds. As a city girl used to the noise of the streets, the silence disturbed me. I don’t remember hearing any birds.

When we finally saw Shyla, the experience was hardly the depressing scene I had been imagining and instead she possessed this unworldly acceptance of the accident, of her fate. I never saw her cry and she never once looked like she might. Everyone else, including me, was a total mess, but Shyla was calm. She knew something we didn’t yet. She knew that everything, including her, would be okay.

Back at the gallery, our experience in Saint John still haunted us. While our visits with Shyla turned out to be beautiful, the town itself had left scars on our souls. It felt like the painting knew this, that it recognized this inherent confusion, this suffering and intensity that we had experienced in the days leading up to our visit to Saint John, and the kaleidoscope of emotions that came with it. Some people don’t understand why we purchased art that reminds us of something so depressing, but the work continues to speak to us each day, forever its meaning just slightly evolving. These days when I look at it, it reminds me not to take things for granted, that everything can be taken away from you. Whether it’s in a minute or gradually over the span of a few months, you can lose things you never knew you could lose.

But more importantly, it tells of the power of turning something painful into something meaningful, and of seeing the beauty beyond the grain. It inspires me. It reminds me that everything is going to be okay.

In the Wake of Loss

candles

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.

Now You Know… No You Don’t

Shelby-Blonde

How do you deal with a friend’s suicide? How do you move on when a person that you have slept with, have been your most intimate self with, decides it’s no longer worth it? You could do what I did and run away, again and again and again. In the span of a year, I ran away to Barbados, the other side of Canada, Montreal, Antigua, and took a five-week train trip across the USA alone. This week marks a year since his death. Here I am, back where I was when he kissed me, sleeping in the bed where we watched movies from and sipping coffee on the balcony where we would gaze down to stare at the drunks walking by.

I’m just as stuck now as I was then, or possibly more so. Beating myself for walking on that plane in San Francisco where I ended my USA adventure instead of staying in a place that filled my lungs and allowed me to breathe. Coming back from my last trip to the USA, I never expected how painful it would be to come home again. There is nothing for me here. When you’re away from home you sometimes feel that way, but deep down you know it’s just the vacation talking. When you come home, no longer on vacation and still feel there’s nothing for you, that’s when depression sinks in. No job, no boyfriend, at times feeling like not even a friend in the world since everyone is all caught up in their own lives. Everyone is out spending their well earned money and you’re left alone, at home, because you don’t have a job, you don’t have a man… why are you here. Then you think about him. That friend who saw it was no longer worth it and you’re at home, looking at nothing, feeling nothing and you just don’t know what to do.

After I came home from my five weeks on the road, everyone has been asking me how it was, wanting to see photos and expected me to tell all. It was amazing, it was perfect, I will say that. It was also an immense healing process, one that I don’t want to share. My trip was a personal journey and not something for me to make light of or present with a slideshow. You don’t know how depressed you are until you leave your comfy bed and face the world head on. I was depressed before I left (my counselors could tell you that), and I can say I am doing better now that I’m back. While I was gone though, I was never so happy. It felt like that’s how my life should be, a lone wanderer. Since I was a kid I could never keep long nails; I have a nervous nail biting habit. On my travels my nails have never been so long in my life. Back home, it would be impossible for them to be any shorter.

How do you deal with the suicide of a friend? I have no idea. I know sex is now more terrifying than it was when I was a virgin. It will probably remain terrifying until I find the answer to my question. I keep pushing away any man that tries to touch me, since I have no idea what that touch means anymore. Eric wasn’t the first man I had been with and we weren’t romantic when we were together, but he left me with so many unfinished conversations. I’m left not wanting another man, not trusting another man, though still longing for another man. Why did I ever come back? How do you deal with the suicide of a friend? I don’t know. I don’t even know if we’re all in this together anymore. I do know suicide can’t be the answer. If you have ever been left behind and know how this feels, then you know also, it can’t be the answer. Apparently the strong prevail. I’ll let you know if that’s truth or bull shit.

Shelby Monita is a freelance writer living in Toronto. Her writing mainly focuses on music, more specifically underground and punk rock. She welcomes the travel bug with open arms and loves to share her stories. You can read more of her work on her site casamonita.com.