YEARS OF MAGICAL THINKING

Kissell, Natasha; Landscape; St George’s Hospital; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/landscape-87465

Part of the “This is the Moment” series

August 27th

Many years ago, when my boys were in grade school, I used to trek down the street every weekday morning with them to the corner where they caught the school bus. This was the late 80’s and also the 90’s (because Christian is 8 years younger than his twin brothers), and most of the parents congregating on the street corner—many with younger children in tow—were mothers.

For a brief period during that time, the bus stop was a 10-minute walk away, and that’s what put me in contact with Mary, who lived just a couple of houses from the spot where we gathered.

I never got to know Mary well. The broad street her family lived on was busy: there was a high school within sight of her house, which meant lots of school buses and city bus stops and cars. Just behind and east of the high school was—and still is— an elementary school and Catholic church.

Mary was fair-haired, as were her three young children, and pretty, but the lingering image of her, that mental snapshot that remains years later, is of how bedraggled she and her children always were. She couldn’t have been much more than thirty, but she also always looked as though she hadn’t had a minute to run a brush through her thick hair in months, nor her children’s mop tops either. Her eldest, a girl, wearing thick bangs cut straight across her forehead with what could have been gardening shears, by the look of them, was there to take the bus to school, but her younger brothers, little more than a year apart, stayed close to their mum while they poked and teased each other and hung onto Mary’s clothes.

Her husband, who was involved in the local soccer association, was a good twenty years older, short, pot-bellied and a chain smoker. He was as blond and dishevelled as his children. The whole family spoke in British accented English.

I wish I could remember what part of England they were from or what brought them to Montreal. I wish I had made an effort to talk more to Mary, even for only a few minutes each morning. She must have been isolated in that house with her young children, far from home.

But there was one day, on that same street corner, when we spoke just long enough for, of all things, the subject of sky charts to come up. Mary was interested in astrology. Would I like for her to do my sky chart? It was such an unexpected question that I said Sure! Why not? even though I’ve always seen the Zodiac and all things astrological as mysterious and fun and…a fiction. And so, I gave her the date, place and hour of my birth and that was that.

Years went by and I forgot all about it. I didn’t run into Mary and her brood any more. Maybe the bus stops had been changed again; I no longer remember. And then one day, as I was walking to the post office, I saw Mary. None of the details are clear, but I think she looked more settled, more solid. She was alone, and that makes me suppose that her boys were now in school as well. She greeted me, but you could tell that she had somewhere to go. She seemed to have found herself.

And then, just as we were parting ways, she said to me: “I never did give you your sky chart, did I?”. And I just answered something like: “Oh, gee, I’d forgotten about that, it doesn’t matter.”

Me, age 2

She stopped then, stretched her arm towards me and said: “What HAPPENED to you in childhood?”, with such intensity that she stunned me. We were still just strangers.

What did she “know”? What had she “seen”? I just remember answering something like: “Well…there were difficult times for my sisters and me…”.

It was such an unexpected turn. Who was this woman and what was this insight she possessed? But she simply looked at me with kindness and said: “Well, I’m sorry about that, but I wanted to let you know that you’ll live to a very happy old age.”

I don’t remember ever speaking to Mary again, and within a few years, I think she and her family had moved on.

This was her gift to me, on that day. She had seen something, seen deep pain, and had given me those soothing words: […] I wanted to let you know that you’ll live to a very happy old age.”

I haven’t written this because I felt like telling a story. I’m sharing this because, astonishingly, I held onto those words for all of these years. I believed Mary. Her words burrowed their way into the networks and channels of my body and mind with the power of an oath, a promise, a guarantee. Mary’s words were such a comfort to me, with their magic that restored an unexpected balance in my life. That made me feel blessed. Protected by some benevolent force…

Dahl, Johan Christian Clausen; Mother and Child by the Sea; The Barber Institute of Fine Arts; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/mother-and-child-by-the-sea-33070

Mary’s words are at the heart of a kind of magical thinking that has comforted me in dark moments for decades and given me a soft place to escape into when the pain of living has brought me close to my limits. It has nurtured an already natural tendency in me to put stock in the overwhelming grandeur of life.

And it made it harder, these past 5 years, to recognize that cancer was growing inside me. At some level, the mundane facts of my cancer were incompatible with my deepest sense of who I am. I couldn’t relinquish the magic.

At the CHUM last week, my last chemo cocktails of that day

 

 

 

 

 

FINDING A PLACE TO STAND

Part of the “This is the Moment” series

August 16th

When I sit down to write for This is the Moment, I include the date, and it’s a shock every time. Partly because the summer is entering its last month and I haven’t really experienced it. It escaped my grasp. I’ve been tied to this new house and its needs, and also lost within its walls, away from the oppressive heat, while part of me has been floating, hovering above my life like a lost spirit.

It’s a strange feeling to be made so captive by reality—separation, relocation and cancer—that there seems to be nothing to settle upon, nowhere to gain purchase. I won’t be restarting my teaching contracts, or zipping around in my shiny green Mazda 2 nearly as much as is usual for me. I’ll mostly be shuttling by train and metro between islands named CHUM CLINICS, CHEMOTHERAPY and CLSC. Those spaces on the calendar will be marked with the biggest X’s and dominate the landscape.

But most of my living can’t happen there. I haven’t quite figured out what my time there will be and what life elements I’ll find. For the most part, the CHUM is a state-of-the-art space that climbs up into Montreal’s skyline and offers almost everyone within its windowed areas the joy of looking out at the bright, beautiful city and the great river that’s wrapped around it. But it’s also the space where medicine is practiced with ferocious intensity and intention.

The view from a waiting room at the CHUM (Centre Hospitalier de l’université de Montréal)

When I begin chemo—which should happen on August 22nd—I’ll be in untested waters, for me that is. I’ve accompanied both my father and mother through theirs (events that occurred 25 years apart), and it has left its imprint, a shadow on me. As I watched the stellar nurses puncture my parents’ veins at each session, sending the poisons with inhuman names into their veins (the word Carboplatin still makes me shudder), I felt revulsion, for sure: I think that it’s the first, overwhelming and sensible reaction to have. But as I watched them and the other patients in their own recliners lean into the experience, the stakes became more easily visible. These were areas where sick but healthy people (the dichotomy that cancer creates, in which the medical teams treating you refer to you as both healthy and cancerous is one of the most perplexing to patients—it certainly was for my mum and has been so far, for me) have learned to live with their fear of needles, of pain, of indignity, of losing their hair, of losing their vitality, of losing their ability to eat, taste, walk, laugh, experience pleasure and engage with the world; of losing all of their beauty, and their grip on life as they’ve previously known it, and of ever having a carefree moment again…and yet resolutely accept what lies ahead.

There’s such strength in resignation and forbearance. Cancer isn’t all, or only, about fighting. I think it’s also about making peace.

 You can beat this!

Fight like hell!

Kick the crap out of it!

A positive attitude is so important!

Go at it with guns a-blazing!

 I’ve been cheered on already by so many people (again, thank you, thank you) with chants like these. I understand them. I do. But I don’t know if I’m capable of manufacturing this state of mind.

When I think of what’s happening insidiously inside me, I feel compassion for my body. Poor thing. It’s struggling with this tumour that has sent emissaries out into my bloodstream and has been doing so very quietly for a long time, exacting very little from me so far. Fighting this cancer, waging war on it, fills me with images of damage and destruction; of laying waste to parts of me that are my body. This isn’t where my mind wants to go.

Just in time, my sister Marie arrived in town 4 days ago (she’s on a flight home to Vancouver as I write) supercharged with encouraging energy and bearing gifts from her very recent trip to Morocco.

I felt shy opening them because we’ve agreed not to exchange presents any more. But she knew what she was doing.

Gifts from my sister Marie

Everything I opened was made in Morocco, and was a beautiful bright pink. Among the bounty, there was a necklace and leather bracelet which carry the symbol of the Hamsa or Hand of Fatima, a multicultural, multi-faith symbol of protection, and several other fuscia gifts. Marie explained to me that in Morocco, pink is a symbol of healing.

I immediately put on the Hand of Fatima necklace and bracelet, placed the cushion on my bed, and set the scarf and pens right next to it, in the hope, I think, that the message they carried would linger in my room, and settle in a quiet place in my psyche.

By an eerie coincidence, and not at all in character, the colour I chose for my bedroom in our new home is unapologetic pink. Not a speck of pink had ever graced a single space in any of my previous homes.

Love, protection and healing.

It’s among these that I choose to stand.

My room in Hudson

I’d never used the word destiny before. What is it? A coagulation of your hunger to find a path, to find a place, to set one foot after another. To come inside out: to show your guts, everything you are made of.

            If this was true about destiny, cancer was my ally on that course. It pushed me out beyond any boundary I had known. It threw me right into the pool of fear, stripped me down to animal survival. Could I face that polarity of life and death and find another place to stand?”

This is one of my favourite passages from a book by Natalie Goldberg, Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home, A Memoir. Also given to me very recently by my wonderful friend Gail.