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Category Archives: death

Journey

School starts on Tuesday. Tomorrow! yikes. I’m still getting the syllabus together for the class I’m teaching this semester. I’ve taught it about half a dozen times already, I could just use the same plan as last year — But every year, I do the same thing. I have read more stuff, talked to more people, thought of new things, and made different mistakes in previous classes. So I want to change things around. But I get bogged down in the details of looking for more current articles about this and that and didn’t i see a meme on facebook that makes a point so elegantly, and should I use the article i used for my summer class in my fall class instead? and… I get tangled up in all the loose threads and sometimes i never get ’em pulled together and tied up.

I took off for a little road trip a while back. Drove to my hometown. My agenda was to help my brother sort out our mom’s stuff, give some away, sell some, clear some space in his basement. I wanted, too, to go to Regina where there is a burial plot waiting for her next to our dad and their first son, our unmet big brother who died in 1961. But Shawn isn’t ready — he didn’t have the time to travel, and doesn’t have the heart to go through Mom’s stuff yet. That’s okay. I tell myself that. I wanted to do something, though. He has done so much–before she died he would take her to appointments and get her groceries and check in on her all the time. After, he was executor of her will and went all over town for banking and lawyer signatures and all that stuff — he’s done so much work, and I haven’t done anything. But I have to wait. I have to do what he thinks will be helpful, if I am to be helpful at all. I am not very good at patience, though. sigh.

The summer has been very difficult. My mom is dead. I went home every summer (as much as I could) for the last ten years or so to see her–especially since Dad died. Now home is, well, not home anymore. Not in the same way, anyway. We’re settlers, right, I grew up there, but my ancestors were from somewhere else. Our roots are shallow.

And, too, a significant relationship with a woman I love very much is in shreds. I don’t know if we will find a way to repair it. In July I asked for six months no contact, though I yearn.  For her and for my Mom, in different ways, but deep — I don’t have words for it. I have beautiful friends and allies, mind you, and strong women in my corner, helping to hold me up. But still — I am so lonely. These are difficult times — loss and endings. Grief.

Before I left, i felt a bit crazy. Every time I was alone, I wept. I couldn’t contain my sorrow — even in public. walking to the grocery store. driving to work. riding my bike to the gym. IN the gym, in the grocery store, at work — all of it, the tears came, there was nothing I could do to stop it. An abyss of grief–and sorrow like a giant hair ball made of twine and wire knotted in my gut. I was afraid that on the road, all alone for days at a time, that I would come completely undone.

“great love and great loss will break you open like no other experience”.  I’m seeing a counselor, a spiritual director, (atheist me, too. Go figure)– to help me sort out how to get my feet under me. That’s what she said, “great love and great loss will break you wide open”. Note the distinction, though, eh–she said “Open”. Not “Apart”. I’m whole, still whole — not yet anchored, not yet at peace, not yet. but all the bits are still there. here.

On August 23, I was seven years clean and sober. I did come relatively close to drinking when I was on my way home. I thought, briefly, that drinking would buffer that ball of wire and teeth in my gut– drinking will take that feeling away. and hell, I’m on the road all alone, no one needs to know. But then I played the tape forward, and felt the remorse and the grief return ten-fold. Lonely as I am now, a drink will lock the door and throw away the key. Alcohol will keep me from ever finding my place. I don’t need to wake the dragon, not that dragon anyway, I have to much to do. I am already so far behind where i think I ought to be.

I didn’t drink. I sought out people who have known and loved me my whole life. My brother, beautiful quiet loyal grieving brother Shawn. My old tree-planting brother Carl — who’s just like a big black Lab. “what are we eating now? wanna play? oh. time for a nap!” he’s grieving too, the end of his marriage to Carmen — whom I also love. We went to the Edmonton Folk Festival on the first night together, Carl and some of his huge family. Their all kinda like puppies, and we were all crammed onto a tarp together, loving the music and the people we were with.

My brother Shawn, at the track in Rimbey. IMG_1399

My best friend from Jr. High, and her husband, who helped me so much when Mom died and after. I played my accordion on their front porch and we had dinner together in their 100 year old farm house. Inside, she’s painted a mural on the cupboards, and painted a rug on the floor. She painted pictures of their cows and dogs and pigs along the staircase to the second floor.

IMG_1361

I met two of their sons, one I’d met once before when he was just an infant. It’s easy with us.

My mom’s friend from High School, my godmother Auntie Lorna. Our neighbours Colleen and Ron, Auntie Lorna’s husband Joe, “anything you need, you just help yourself”, and her son Lane who took me kayaking on Lacombe Lake one evening.

Lane had been to the funeral of a friend of his, turns out the man who died was the husband of one of the women with whom Mom taught kindergarten. I so much wanted to tell her about his death, and how his wife was, and how many people were at the funeral and how well the family was caring for each other. Auntie Lorna said she had a dream about Mom one night.

I went to Colleen and Ron’s for lunch one day, too. On my way I picked some Saskatoons from the bushes along the road. saskatoons 2015

They were nearly done, but two weeks early. It was a bit unnerving, all that ripeness so much earlier than harvest season ought to be.

It all smelled of home. Cottonwoods by the river, dust, faint whiff of manure out on Highway 2A. There’s a sweetness in the air. Marigolds and gladiolas, caragana and wolf willow.  I never realize how much I miss that smell until I’m there again.

Everyone prays there. Before every meal, we held hands and someone gave thanks on our behalf. They all thanked god for my visit, and asked his (God is a “he” there, no question) protection and care for me, and their other loved ones. Usually “in Jesus’ name” they offered their prayers. I’d forgotten that we used to say grace before meals. We didn’t, our family, by the time we were in high school, I think. But I don’t know when we stopped. I found it comforting. I liked that mostly no one asked for direct interventions, and offered thanks for the gifts of our friendship and the food we were to share.

On my way home, i went to visit Bob. He lives a bit out of the way of my route home, but his wife, Darleen, had been one of Mom’s best best friends since we moved to Red Deer.  She was so much fun. She smoked cigarettes and cursed. she laughed easily and she was generous and full of life. She and Mom passed the same birthday card back and forth for 45 years. It was one of those cards that congratulated the recipient on being 29 — AGAIN. Darleen gave it to Mom for her 35th birthday, and Mom sent it back to Darleen a few months later when Dar turned 30. Darleen called Mom up and called her a cheap so-and-so, and sent it back the next year again. It crossed the Canada-US border several times, each year a little note added. Dar always wrote something like “Roses r red/violets r blue/we’re in the States now/I sure do miss you!”

Anyway, I called him up my last morning on the road, and he answered on the first ring. He gave me careful directions (I just used my smug phone GPS, but I didn’t interrupt him), and asked me to call if I got lost. When I arrived in his town, it was a bit later than we had estimated I’d be. He called again, “are you lost?”

“Nope, I’m nearly there, Bob”, and he again gave me detailed directions to their place, which helped this time. When i got to his door, through the frosted glass I saw him run toward it, as if to open it before I changed my mind and slipped away.

We spent a couple of hours together. He told me about the renovations they had made when they moved in, the new appliances, the landscaping. He is a man. His whole life he learned to not display his feelings, to talk about stuff and business and plans; not love and people and relationships. So there he was, deep in grief, (how could he not be? They had been high school sweethearts, she was a force of nature), disappointed and lonely, showing me the original architect’s drawings for the house he lived in now.  His sadness felt like a sheet of lead under his skin. Neither of us cried. This is not like me, by the way. Particularly these days.

Everywhere I went, I went to a meeting, too. I was with strangers who could see me; strangers who felt like family too. One hour at a time, sharing our stories, our struggles our loneliness or our delight. At some of these meetings I made coffee or helped to set up or to clean up. Most of the time people greeted me and made me welcome. Every time i heard something true that unravelled that knot of grief and regret a little bit more.

I am not the only one. My mother is gone, my love is unrequited, my future uncertain. I am lonely and afraid, but I am not the only one. Everywhere I went, from home to home and stops along the way, there were moments of beauty and peace. A bit of breath, some colour and warmth. I’m treading water, but i’m not sinking.

It’s days after i began this post, here you go, here you go — class starts in two hours.

circle of life

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Hello, my handful of readers. it’s been a hell of a week over here in easilyriled’s world. My head is full of dreams and self-doubt, my heart is in tatters. again.
this past weekend, though, was devoted to BIG THINGS in the lives of other people. Friday I went to two twelve-step meetings, and spent the afternoon in between in the hospital with a friend. She’s pretty sick, but she’ll be going home this week. She had a seizure, which is related to other stuff going on for her. We’ve been friends for more than 30 years, she was my first love, and first big heartbreak. We re-connected about three years ago after a ten-year break. She is one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. We don’t agree anymore about everything, politics-wise — but she was instrumental in my journey to feminism. And we’re bonded, you know…
Saturday was the wedding. You remember i was all tortured about it last week, or week before last, right? yea. But it went really well. Stephanie and I were MCs for the evening. I did get in a few digs about the institution of marriage, I played my accordion, sang with some beautiful people, carried around some babies, and ate a lot of pakoras and lamb curry. there were a couple of gay men at the party, they though Steph and I were partners. “is she your wife?” one of them asked me.
“have you not been paying attention?” i wanted to say, “what, just because i’m a dyke, you think i should be all married and shit? even though i have just finished ranting (just a little rant, the day, after all, was not about me) about the institution of marriage and ownership papers and patriarchy and shit?”
I didn’t, though. i just said, “Um. no.” They’re GAY, fer cryin’ out loud, there is a reason we call homosexuals that. bless them.
So I went away to play a sad Ukrainian waltz on my accordion. I only know three songs. But i play them different every time, so it’s like having a repertoire. Music does mend broken hearts, that’s a true fact.
the newly institutionalized couple were very happy, their families were very happy. It looked like people had a good time. And everyone there, you know, we took care of each other. In our presence our friends made their commitment to each other, and in so doing, invited us to hold them accountable. They brought people from all parts of their lives together, added music, flowers, food and speeches–the signing of the ownership papers (for the approval of the gubbmint battery farm) was the least of it, really. There were a few of us broken-hearted, kinda cynical dykes there — i am not the only one — and we just felt the love in the room and did our best for our friends. Plus, you know, i had my accordion and an audience, so that made me pretty happy, too.
Then yesterday I went to a celebration of the life of a young man I knew for a while. Ten years ago, when he was 17, he and his mom joined up with our friend Sharon as she was heading to her death. She had cancer, and it moved slow then fast from her breast to her brain. For ten days in April of 2005, we stayed with her — her husband, her neighbours, her friends, her relations — and she let us carry her to the doorway. It was a beautiful gift she gave us, to let us in like that. there was lots of laughter, many many tears, all the songs, and stories galore. As he was dying he told his mom that he wanted to do it the way Sharon had done. With grace and humour, surrounded by love and music, engaging with everyone who came as he could. I didn’t know that he was ill, nor that he had died until his mom posted on facebook that the memorial would be July 12. He was a beautiful young man, sensitive, smart, kind and quirky. the celebration of his life was excruciating. His mother was so poised and shattered. All that care and love in the room for her and for her son held her up. But there is no making sense of such a death. “Why him? Why one of the good men?” people will ask. But the question might just as well be “Why not?”
It is not true that everything happens for a reason. Not true at all. the true thing is that everything happens. That’s all.
This afternoon I will go see my friend in the hospital. Then i’ll drive my ex-lover’s mom (whom I adore) to the airport. And it will be some time yet that i will be in mourning.
I am glad for the wedding. And I am glad I spent the weekend in service and celebration. it’s been a year of loss and endings. That wedding was someone’s beginning, and that’s kind of encouraging, even though…

Grief

I feel wide open and cold all the time. A north wind sweeps through me. It’s bracing, kind of, and my frequent tears are warming.

She was very cold. I asked to see her. My brother didn’t want to, nor did my uncle. But I did. I wanted to see if she looked like herself. I wanted to see if I could sense her there. She did, but I could not. Well, there was one brief moment, when I touched her forehead, laid my palm across her forehead like I used to do when we were little. She would have headaches and ask us, my brother and me, to rub her forehead with our soft cool palms. I couldn’t bring myself to kiss her, but I touched her face, and stroked her hair and said “goodbye” and “I love you” and “I’m sorry”.

I’m sorry I was impatient, I’m sorry I wasn’t with you when you died, i’m sorry i didn’t write down all the stories, i’m sorry your life wasn’t all you wanted. But I love you, i love you, I love you Mom. I know you were proud of us, and you loved us more than I can fathom. You gave me my sense of humour, my terrible feet, my capacity to love, my asthma, my ability to keep friendships —

She was found fully clothed on her bed in the mid-morning. Probably she had been dead for an hour — two at most. Lately, the effort of getting ready for her day had tired her out. She probably got ready to go to her physio appointment, then had a little rest before heading out to meet the bus. She had some card-making stuff on her table, her purse there, too. Her door was unlocked. She NEVER left her door unlocked when she was home. A copy of her will was on the table too. And a birthday card for a friend who lived a few doors down the hall.

That was like her, you know. It would have killed her to have been found in her nightie.

I hate goodbyes. I always have. I didn’t know the last time I visited when I said goodbye to her that it would be the last time, but I had a feeling. A feeling I pushed away, because I had a feeling like that last Christmas, really strong and sharp, when I woke up in that narrow bed in her spare room, the first thing I thought was, “this is the last time”.  It wasn’t the last time, though, because I returned this summer, just for a few days. So I put that very strong feeling of ending into a box and shoved it into the corner where it sat, glowing a bit and every once in a while giving a little rumble. And it would rumble a little louder each time I talked to her on the phone. the Monday, that week that she died, I talked to her on the Monday, and she sounded tired.

“Did I wake you up Mom?”

“No. I just got dressed” she said. And at the end of the call, she said, “Well, I should let you go.”

I didn’t know she meant the BIG “let go” — I was going to call her on Thursday afternoon, and have a good long talk. I always called her when i had a million things to do, and i would walk around with my phone tucked between my shoulder and my ear — washing dishes, picking up trash, idon’tknowwhatall — while she told stories about people I didn’t know — But Thursday I was going to sit in one place, and listen to all those stories for as long as she wanted to tell them.

I went to visit this past summer after I finally finished my PhD. We had a good time, and lots of long talks, and we went for drives and out for meals and I took her to the mall to get some clothes. My brother Shawn was great about groceries and appointments and helping around the house, but not so good about blouses and knickers. Not that I’m such a good choice when it comes to sartorial matters, either, but one takes what one can get.  I tell you what, glaciers melted in the time it took Mom to try one a couple of t-shirts. But I wasn’t impatient at all. didn’t act it, didn’t feel it — which is most unusual for me. She said to me near the end of our adventures in retail, “Erin, you have so much patience!” — she was surprised.

“I know!” I exclaimed, “what’s happened to your daughter?” and we laughed. Then I said, in the fine tradition of the Morgan women, “I think it’s on account of I’m a doctor now, doctors need patients”.

She herself was a relentless and unrepentant punster — she appreciated the joke. After she died, as I was ticking through my memories of recent visits, looking for clues, maybe something I could have done, I realized that Mom hadn’t been so quick with the puns lately. Not for a long time, in fact. She just wasn’t as sharp. She forgot appointments, she fell asleep in her chair, she misplaced things more often–not entirely, you know, she was still tracking most things, but the puns stopped.  She wasn’t firing on all cylinders, you know? But i didn’t want to see that.

I made Welsh cakes a couple of nights before her funeral. When Dad died, we put out a bowl of licorice allsorts for people to take. They were his favourite candy. Mom used to make Welsh cakes. They’re easy, and one batch makes A LOT of cakes. But they’re time consuming, and lately Mom made them when I was home, (’cause I could make ’em and she could boss me around from her chair) but not really any other time.  So I made a double batch late Sunday night. I used both of her electric frying pans, (one that I’m sure is over 50 years old, the other only about 40), her rolling pin, her pastry cloth, the cookie cutter she’s had since the farm (older than the frying pans). I wore my shoes and my hat in the house, and I wept as I mixed up the dough, rolled it out, cut it and fried it. tears mixing with the currants and eggs, “Mom am I rolling them thin enough? Will you please watch so they don’t burn? Is one of these frying pans hotter than the other? When was the first time you made Welsh cakes?” She didn’t answer, of course. I didn’t feel her near, even if I was using all her stuff.

She was going to come to Vancouver for the graduation ceremony. NOW i know that she was too frail to make the trip. Even though I would meet her at the door of the plane with a wheelchair, even though I would have carried her everywhere if I had to, even though…”Do you think I should take my cane?” she had asked me, just a couple of weeks ago [no. not a couple. she’s now been dead for two weeks and three days. tick. tick. tick.]

“yes, bring it along, Mom. It’ll be good to have a three-foot extension to your arm anyway.”

When I was making the Welsh cakes, I said, “Jesus, Mom–if you didn’t want to come to Vancouver, you could’ve just said so, I wouldn’t be mad at you — you didn’t have to be so drastic“. I swore a lot more this trip than I usually do, too. But not around my Auntie Lorna, or the Langs, or at the funeral home or…

One day, the Saturday before the funeral, my brother came to Mom’s house. We were going to go through all the pictures and music and pick some for the slide show at the funeral. Shawn said, “We’re going to go through the pictures, then we’re going to clean this place up, make it like Mom … ” he sounded angry and then he started sobbing. Place didn’t look bad to me, but then again, Shawn is like Mom, fastidious like a cat. I am like Dad. Fastidious like…well, like not at all. I just opened my arms and folded him into me as he bent and sobbed into the top of my head.

There was a lot of that going on. Shawn and I holding onto each other. When he drove me back to Calgary to fly home, he said, “you’ve changed. You’re way more patient now than you’ve ever been.” He was relieved, I think. that I wasn’t as volatile as I used to be. That I was much more steady and patient. It’s because i’ve been working on that stuff, me and my sister travellers “on the road of happy destiny”. It’s because I know we’re not alone.

Louise came to be with us. I called her the day Mom died. She said, “Do you want me to come?” I said yes, but I didn’t know yet — When I got home to Red Deer, I talked to her again and Shawn was with me. “Will i be in the way if I come?” she asked, and Shawn said, “No! Come”. We have been friends for 24 years, were lovers for six of those years, and I played my accordion at her wedding to Diane. She helped me stop drinking, she’s helped mend my broken heart many times, and we hold each other up.

She met Shawn 20 years ago, and they sparked together from the beginning. Every time I go visit, Louise says to me, “Give Shawn a bone-crushing hug from me” and I do and Shawn giggles. I don’t know what we would have done without her. We would have done okay, but she was balm and glue when we were depleted and raw.

While I was making the Welsh cakes that night before she came, I was digging around in Mom’s pantry and i found a box of whisky. There were several opened bottles of rye, blended scotch, drambuie — and some little airplane bottles of johnny walker red, all of which had a tiny sip or two missing from them. I found that very odd. Who would take a sip out of each of those little bottles? weird. When Louise came, she noticed that these bottles were all sealed — the alcohol had evaporated. That would NEVER happen in my house….

Anyway, I was baking and weeping and feeling all of my feelings all at once and it was so painful and awful and i thought, “I could just shut this hurricane of emotion down right now–just go over there and get that bottle of scotch–“. I didn’t do it, and I knew I wouldn’t, but there was the thought, and there was the whisky, and the pain that it would most certainly ease…The next day I called a woman who had worked with Mom to tell her about Mom’s death, and she said, “I want to help, can I do anything?” and I asked her to take me to a meeting. She was happy to do that, and at the meeting i remembered again that all this is normal. This pain, this sorrow, this big grief — it’s human and it’s loving and it’s fine. When Louise came, she said that I knew way too much about what was in that box, and we should pour it out. I didn’t want to, so she didn’t say anything, but when I left to do something and Shawn was with her, they poured it all out. I didn’t know I was uptight about it until I came home (the place smelled like a field of lilies AND a distillery…) and felt such relief.

Even though Mom is gone, she didn’t leave us alone. We have each other. All these beautiful people. Our family, our friends, her friends–We are all family. I will always miss her, and right now it’s almost unbearable. But we are all connected, and this grief is a gift, really, it means the love she gave is every bit as big and powerful as this sorrow. as deep and wide as the prairie sky.

An unruly mob

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That’s what cancer is. it just gets in, and starts marauding all over the place.  Giving cellular reproduction and fission a bad bad name. It’s like when the cops send moles into peaceful demonstrations, or when undisciplined politicos go to organizing meetings. They start yelling and fomenting revolution and calling for direct action and mass organizing and “subvert the dominant paradigm!” and all this with Molotov cocktails and chairs smashing windows and it looks like a revolution, but it’s more of the same corruption of power and plays into the hands of the neo liberals. Cancer has no vision. It just lands somewhere and starts tearing shit down and putting up crappy slum housing. Cancer doesn’t care. it reproduces and becomes a mass here and a mass there, and starts taking yacht cruises through the blood stream and just ends up colonizing everything in the body. Cancer is the European of the disease world.  Walking right over all the cells that were already there, just going about their business.

Way, WAY more bad-ass than a virus or bacteria. It’s like rabbits in New Zealand.  Except not nearly as cute.

Jackie died May 30th. she was a big woman,  a humble genius– kinda misanthropic–with an eye for beauty, a soft spot for troublemakers and a devilish sense of humour.  She left a box of play scripts and stories, some paintings and collages, art cards, puppets, watercolour series’ of boiled eggs and strawberries; collages with lilies and sparkles; photographs from her life–

and she left a lot of love too. Nora and Polly, the love of her life and her oldest dearest friend — the beautiful people who were lifted by her talent and her eye for beauty. There’s no need to settle for less than bread and roses. She met death the way she lived her life — with curiosity, grace and humour. Surrounded by the people who loved her.

Her memorial is Sunday. She’s gone from us. But she’s still here in her art and her words.

damn, though.

another gone

George Atcheson died this morning. It’s December 29, 2012. He was 96 years, one month and 18 days old. He had been ready to die for a long time, but it was only recently, within the past three or four years, I suppose, that he was increasingly disabled. In 2005, the year he turned 90, he came to my dad’s last birthday party. I remember that day, because I was home. It was April 20. Dad turned 77. He had fallen some weeks earlier, Dad did, and had broken his knee. So he was in the hospital. We got him a pass for the day, hired a handi-dart, or whatever it’s called here, and brought him home. As I wheeled Dad into the front lobby of their building, I saw a woman watching for us. She scurried away to the big common dining room when she saw us coming, and as we wheeled into the dining area, one woman struck up “Happy Birthday” on the piano. A quaver of elderly women sang the song to Dad, all off key and out of synch, but it was the most beautiful song. there were some men there, too. Fred, Dennis (I think), Merv, and a few others, and George. The men all sat together at a long table, and I sat with them, next to Dad. Mom brought a carrot cake she had made (Dad’s favourite), and all the women came around, fluttering like birds around the men seated like logs washed onto the shore of a river. Dad blew out the candles (I helped I think). And I took a seat beside him. We cut the cake and passed it around, one of the other women poured coffee or tea. The men ate in silence. Each of them took turns looking at Dad. “Happy Birthday, John” one would say, and another, “yep, Happy Birthday”, and Dad would say, “thanks”. Other than that…not much.
Later they stood around in the courtyard as Dennis and one or two others smoked. They talked about how much harder it is to quit now than it was years ago. “I quit forty years ago,” said George, “started on roll-your-owns, not so much junk in them then as there is now”. And Dennis grunted in agreement. George didn’t much like Dennis. Mostly because Dennis swore a lot.
Every year another one dies. Fred died last year sometime, I think. Dennis was two years ago. Last year Sheila, George’s daughter, died. This year it was George’s turn.
At the party, six and a half years ago, he said, “my next birthday, i’ll be 90. That’s long enough.”
Yesterday, Mom and I visited June. She was Auntie Jean’s sister, and Jean was George’s wife. She died at 80 some 16 years or so ago. June said to Mom, “George has been ready to die since Jean’s been gone.”
I think she’s right. Jean was one of my favourite grown-ups. She was elegant, graceful and kind. She painted beautiful pictures of fields and mountains. I liked her prairie scenes the best. She also did ceramics, she poured ceramic into molds and fired them in a clay oven she had in their basement. Then she glazed and painted them. I don’t know the whole process, but she let me make some things with her sometimes. She always took me seriously and was affectionate and attentive with me. With everyone. She made George human, i’m sure she did. without her he was not quite whole. Always politically conservative, he took a dim view of people on welfare, anyone who broke the law, cursing and rudeness in general. He was kind of stiff and detached. But he was a loyal and generous friend to my dad, and he was in love with Jean from the moment they met until the day he died. Which was today.
Mom and I went to see him earlier this week. Boxing day, maybe? Maybe the day after. We brought him Welsh cakes, because Mom always does that, and he loves them. He loves us, too, i know he does, though he did not recognize us at first. He didn’t know who Mom was at first. He put it together when we gave him a Welsh cake from the bag we brought him. When we sat beside him, as he was at the table of the care facility where he lives, he looked at me with his blue eyes, all watery and tired now, he said, “are you Shawn Graham?” I said, “no, i’m his big sister, Erin.” He said, “you look like Shawn Graham.”
I guess my moustache must be a little thicker than I thought. Shawn has worn a moustache since he could grow one.
I told Uncle George that we look alike, my brother and me. We swam in the same gene pool after all and have the same devastatingly handsome parents. He smiled, and Mom laughed a little.
The 25-word story I wrote a while ago, last year, I think, the one that begins, “The tenderness of old men.” That was about George and Dad.
One of the Atcheson kids always calls Mom when something happens. They invite her to the annual family reunion, too, it’s not always about bad news. This morning Colin called. he is one of the twins. Colin and Curtis. They are both older than me, and i think they’re both cops. Retired now. Colin called to say that his father was gone. He called about an hour after Uncle George drew his final breath. “We wanted to make sure you were among the first we called, Edith,” he said to my mom.
Last year, when his big sister Sheila died, he called and I answered, as I did this morning. I passed the phone to Mom, as I did last year.
We should all be so lucky to die as George did. He was surrounded by people who loved him until his dying breath.
He was one of my dad’s best friends. Another gone, another link to my dad gone. That’s how it goes.

Life. Ghosts.

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When a friend dies, grieving is private. All the cards and letters and flowers go to the family of the deceased. the friends cook and clean and help prop up the partner and the parents and the children . We weep quietly alone at home, or in the spice aisle of the grocery store when the grief washes over us, or we scream our sorrow into the wind while riding down a steep hill.

I see her, my friend Shannon, I see her sometimes still. There she is now, in fact, sitting in the bus across the street, looking out the window. She doesn’t see me. It is not her. there’s another one, look, the way she is walking as she turns the corner, it’s her–

no it’s not.

Shannon died in 2007. She died in pain and alone. I was awake, probably the moment she gave up the ghost, about 2 or 3 in the morning. I’m often awake at that time, i get up and have a glass of water and read a paragraph of one of the books by my bed or I stand at my window and look for the moon.

that night, i was troubled. i try to remember if I thought of her, I don’t know if I did. She had just got out of the hospital the evening before. She’d been there for 5 weeks. and was let out not because she was better but because her bed was needed.

god. how i miss her.

and sharper now because an extraordinary thing happened.

I met her sister. A sister that she never met. Here’s the story:

in 1961, Shannon’s mom had a baby. She couldn’t have an abortion, she couldn’t marry the man she was dating–(not then, she eventually did, but not for a few years). She gave the baby for adoption and did the best she could.  what to do? birth control was obviously ineffective, abortion was inaccessible (and unthinkable at the time, for her), and she just … capitulated.

Fast forward, Shannon’s mom and dad had a whole bumch more children. One of them, the one born shortly after their marriage, was in and out of foster care and addiction–his father took it out on him–the reason for this dreadful marriage, he figured. it was never Daddy’s fault, he never considered that had he kept his pecker in his pants, he would not have had to take care of all those children. it was the oldest boy’s fault that he had to get married, it was his wife’s fault that they had to get married, it was anything but his own behaviour. He blamed his wife, he blamed his kids, and is wife, this bright beautiful sensitive girl, she blamed herself, too.

Shannon was born in 1970. Into this tragic family.

oh, she was a gift. the only girl in that family–she was her mother’s pride and joy. Smart, beautiful, athletic, stubborn, willful. She was a handful. I don’t know the half of it.

I met Shannon in the late 1990s, we worked together in a mental health drop-in, a place for people who’ve been involved in the psychiatric system to come–whether they were ‘patients’ ‘survivors’ or ‘consumers’–didn’t matter. C’mon in, have a cup of coffee, wanna game of crib? want to sign up for lunch? There’s walking group in an hour, you in? these things, this place, we were a family. After a while, we were a family. I loved working there.

Shannon was finishing her master’s degree. Anthropology? Sociology? i think the former, but i’m not sure now. She was living with a man, (but she broke up with him after a while)–she had a daughter, she was always laughing and joking and cleaning at work. We took a shine to one another.

And we started drinking together. I don’t even know how it happened, that partying thing. but we’d get together every week for a while there to drink. Sometimes I’d babysit her daughter while she was off working or something, but not often. Her daughter used to like me, when we first met, but I drank too hard, and was not good for her mom, she could see that, and it made her really mad. Then she hated me.

Oh, alcohol.  How I wish I had never met Johnny Walker and his ilk.

But then again, in some ways, he brought me to Shannon.

We sobered up together finally, after burning a few bridges and damaging a few more. Can two drowning people save each other? Yes. we could. for a while.

This is hard to write. My friend was bi-polar. I’m sure it was because her father was a brute, and she was not safe from his anger her whole childhood. She loved her dad, oh, yes–but she was so mad at him. and she had a lot of trouble holding that anger and that love for him in her heart. She had a hard time.

We loved each other, Shannon and I. she was a good friend to me, generous and funny and kind and volatile and troubled and belligerent and tender and all of it all of it. We went through some hard times and then we went through some better times and I couldn’t see that she was losing her grip. She loved life. LOVED life, with that big heart, all of it, she loved–but she couldn’t find a way to be in life. She couldn’t find a way out of the depression that caught her time and time again over and over and darkened the way forward and hid her friends in shadows and stifled the spark she had.

I know i’ve written of her here before somewhere. early on. I will always know her. Always love her.

and her oldest sister, the one she only spoke with a few times, the one she never met but always knew and understood, she contacted me. She wrote me a letter…”I am S___, Shannon’s older sister…” she wrote. And i leaned back in my chair as all the air left my body with a ‘whoomp’.

Shannon. Shannon, she’s here, I’ll send her your love.

So I wrote her a letter too, and I told her as much as I could remember and some of it was hard to write and probably hard to read. But we met and she read it and she said, at one point, “it’s okay. I want to know everything” and she looked at me with eyes so like Shannon’s, and she gave me a gift of cookies and a photograph in a nice frame (Shannon loved to cook and bake, too, when she was well–she was always feeding people she loved). She was gracious and a bit nervous, my friends sister. And she was her own woman, a totally different woman than my friend had been, but so much alike. The way her hair fell over her forehead, the way her voice sounded, that one gesture she made as she was ordering tea at the shop in the Quay there. I feel like we have begun something.

She looked for me. She looked for me because I was an important friend–among many many important friends–I didn’t know Shannon for long, we didn’t grow up together, we were not related, we only worked together for a couple of years, really. But we were kin. We knew each other, deep and sure.

I hope that I will be able to share my memories of and my love for Shannon with her sister. We are in a way grieving her loss on the peripheries of  Shannon’s life–She is family, but they never met–she grieved alone, far from anyone who ever knew her sister, or even knew of her.  To find and then lose such a bright spark–almost too much to bear. Maybe we can be something to each other that can ease that lonesomeness a little.

A beginning.

Life is Beautiful. Even when there’s bad news in it.

Saturday morning my darling friend Deborah who lives in Montreal called me. Well, she called Friday. and i called her back and left a voicemail, and then i called my mom, because Deb was on her way to Red Deer (her home town and mine). Her mom was in the hospital “and it doesn’t look good. Can I ask your mom if I can stay in the guest suite in her condo?”

Of course she can.

I didn’t hear from her, so this morning I sent her a text message. Sometimes these alienating electronic devices can be handy. I said, “i hope you’re okay. I’m sending love. Call when you want to.”

She received the text about a half  hour after her mother died. Her lovely, spirited mother. “She waited for me, Erin. I know she did. I held her hand and I said, ‘we’re here, Mom, we all love you, and we want you to be at peace.’ And she relaxed, I could feel it.”

We are at that age now, my friend and me.  We need each other more than ever. We’re all pretty resilient, yea? We needed our parents and now they need us, and it’s a scary gift to be able to be good to them. Mom told Deborah, she said, “Erin was very good to me when we were in Maui.” and Deb said, “Of course, there’s no other way she should have been.”

Christine, Deborah’s mom, she was an athlete, and she was a writer and she was a musician and she was a nurse. She had newspaper clippings, pictures of her playing ball when she was a young woman, her softball team somewhere in Southern Saskatchewan. She raised three children on her own, and she always wanted to write her life story. She lost her sight before she could finish it, but I think she got a good start on it. I hope so. She had a sharp sense of humour and an unmistakable Prairie accent (though people do often mistake Prairie accents for just about anything else). She was fierce and hard to get along with sometimes, she had a temper, according to her daughter–but don’t we all have conflicts with our mothers. Is that because women give up so much to become mothers? Is it because we can’t understand how complicated and urgent it is to love someone to whom you gave life? Unless we become mothers ourselves, I guess.

I don’t know.

Mom called me tonight and said Deborah had called and was going to come over tomorrow, “don’t worry about cooking for me or anything,” she said, “all I need is a hug from you and I’ll be okay.”

How many more? Well. All of us. There are no easy bits to life, really, are there? Sometimes there are moments of peace and ease. But there is always conflict and upheaval and change and life and death.

I’m sick again today, kinda run down and wrestling with a sinus infection, so i’m not really firing on all three cylinders, but i wanted to…I don’t know. Acknowledge Christine. And the friendship between me and her daughter. She’s the friend i went to my high school reunion with, I wrote about her in “Haunting”, in, when was it? July. if you want to look it up, it’s still there.

Deborah went to visit her mom a couple of times while we were in Red Deer, and the day she left was one of those times. I picked her up at her mom’s place, a nursing home on the north side of town.  We had tea together in the cafeteria-style kitchen. Christine was blind by then, but took me to get a cup of tea, and introduced me to a man who also lives there, and found the sugar and milk for me to use.

“Mom can get around almost as if she can see–she’s good in here,” said Deborah to me. And she said to her mom, “come to Montreal in August, Mama. You can come with your friend, and the airline people will be happy to help you. The children would love to see you.”

Christine lit up. Then shook her head, “I don’t know, I haven’t gone so far since I’ve lost my vision. I’m afraid.”

“Afraid is a good sign,” I said, “whenever I’m afraid of doing something, and then I do it, it’s pretty much as cool and fine as it was frightening.”

She laughed, and agreed that that had been her experience too. And agreed to go.

And when she went, everyone along the way treated her well, she had a wonderful time. It had been years since she had seen her grandchildren and they enjoyed each other very much.

Now Deborah has no reason to go to Red Deer.

Deb and her younger brothers gathered ’round their mom one last time, and gathered around each other. There is so much to do, such furious activity after a death. Cleaning and sorting and reading your mothers writing and feeling shy because “am I supposed to read this? But who else will, now?” this life of a woman from the prairies, this big life of hope and promise and disappointment and suffering and grace–the material is contained in a box. Photo albums, a sheaf of paper, notes scribbled on napkins. But carries on, too, that life, in the hearts and memories of these three grown children and in the grandchildren who knew her only a little.

Deborah’s partner and children came from Montreal. My mom fell in love with them. Every time I talk to her, she tells me how polite and smart Deborah’s children were, how much she enjoyed Deb and her husband, even though it was such a sad time.

Today (which is a week after i started this post), they took Christine’s ashes to Banff. She is in the mountains now. singing no doubt.

Life goes on. The circle closes and opens and closes again. Perfect. Awful. Radiant. Life.