A SMALL RED BASKET

PART OF THE THIS IS THE MOMENT SERIES.

Written between September 20th and September 28th, 2020

A small red plastic laundry basket has been sitting in the corner of the den for months. Simon brought it up from the basement during one of his valiant efforts to create and maintain order amongst all of the stored stuff down there.

The red basket was a holdover from moving day. It has long resisted being displaced again (I don’t blame it). I remember it from that day in early July 2018, because it’s one of the very last things we filled. I think that it was Vickie, my beloved daughter-in-law, whom we’d known only four months at that point, who loaded it up with some of the last objects taken from my dresser. She was exhausted, her head and hair slick with sweat (it was 34 Celsius that summer day), but she left nothing to chance. I love her for it.

Then it was plunked in the new basement. Waiting. Waiting. Have you noticed how, if objects stay long enough in one place, there’s that risk that they’ll simply meld into the background, put down permanent roots, become invisible? But not with someone like Simon, who, from the first week in his new house, vowed (I feel sure this is true) that he would not make the mistake of burying himself alive under the weight of STUFF, ever again (a sentiment I am completely on board with). EVER.

So, after at least 18 months of internal foot-tapping patience (with me), he brought the red basket up to the ground floor, into the room where we congregate at the end of the day to watch movies and videos and all the streaming rest.

Tiens Maman,” he said,you can look at this stuff and see what you want to keep.”

It wasn’t a big priority for me and I barely looked at it for weeks that became months. And then, just a few days ago, probably because this long-ish break from chemo I’m enjoying has given me more energy, I picked it up, settled it on the coffee table, and started emptying it out.

Really, to any eyes but mine, the red basket contained bric-a-brac as indistinct as any box of junk you’d find in the back room of a thrift shop. Most visible were a thick, white and purple plastic bag—the kind commonly given, not so long ago, to customers of small stores—its contents undisclosed; a slightly beat-up, transparent plastic Ferrero Rocher box filled with mystery items; a strange looking, brutalist mosaic like an undersized, square dinner plate, and a small, carved, gilded wooden box with the appliquéd image of a Madonna on it.

My relationship with objects has changed so much since my diagnosis. They’ve become supercharged with the weight of memory and of meaning. Having left so much behind, I’ve come to realize that many of the things that made it through my move have remained with me because I feel as though parting with them might cause a break in my timeline, like removing a piece from a carefully set up domino run. It’s as though what I’ve held on to will need to say what I will no longer be able to say when I’m gone. Or maybe it’s also, and more so, that they will simply act as voiceless vessels of my presence.

That sounds horribly self-absorbed, but standing where I am, I feel that I want to leave traces; that it will be far less cruel to do so than to be snuffed out in one all-consuming flash. Of course, there are my books. I know that many of them—especially those I read during the past two years, and those I made a fuss about while I was enjoying them—will do that job, because I think they DO contain something of me, of my spirit, of my love. I’ve begun writing my initials and the year, 2020, into those I’ve ordered and read recently, hoping that even that simple scribble will transmit a gentle pulse when it’s read, and maybe evoke an emotional memory other than “the year of the pandemic”. Also, I smile at the mental image of family members—my sons especially—and friends holding one of my books to their chest. I like to think that at that moment, a spark of me will be there with them.

But you see, the fact of my books isn’t painful because they’re there for anyone. Books are meant to survive us and to pass through many hands. And that’s why I’m rattled by the small red basket. On the recent afternoon when I decided to start emptying it, I could have settled anywhere, but I chose to stay in the den, which is more cut off from the rest of the house.

Insulated there (while Simon was busy teaching online), I sat on the couch and looked at it. It’s strange that such an assortment of mementos should have wound up in it, because the basket itself has meaning. I remember it and always will because when Christian was 6 months old or so, I used to sit him in it, with some toys, so that he could be with his big brothers (who were almost 9 years old by then), watching them and being part of things, without the fear that he would tip over and clunk his head. It was just the right size for the job. It was, in a sense, his safe perch.

Why did I put off looking through its contents for so long? The truth is that deep down, many of the objects it holds reach back into time and have a  grip on my heart. It’s a basket full of junk and oddments that I cannot part with.

Digging into the dusty mound, I retrieved my Bombardier ID lanyard, which was my security pass, required for all of the contracts over several years that I worked teaching French at different Bombardier plants and offices, to craftsmen, technicians, administrators and brilliant engineers from all over the world. It’s a strange object not to want to part with, but there you have it. A piece of me will always be there, in the spartan basement conference rooms of the company’s many buildings. How many have emptied out since then? What’s left of that great aviation mecca? It was my one and only lanyard, and it must stand in for a decade of teaching in adult ed.

I found Christian’s first I.D. pass, given to him at the age of three, when he was registered at the YMCA to attend preschool at L’École les Trois Ours. I feel sure that I preserved this, held onto it, because it was also the year that Sylvain was in England from November to the following April. Christian had just turned three when his dad left. I remember how anxious Christian was the first few weeks he was at the preschool. It was also a very different experience for me, because, having only raised twins up to then, Christian’s aloneness, in all its ramifications, became clear to me.

I then found my Concordia student ID card. My years as an undergrad were among the happiest of my life. It was a time when I felt alive and hopeful about the future. It was a time when I had the most freedom vs the least responsibility I would ever have again, and I knew it. Of all of the souvenirs that survived the passing of decades, this small card is one of the most unlikely.

Next, I dug out the mosaic. A sad and delightful thing, really, that Christian made while in grade school and brought home, dutifully, knowing that it was like most of the rest of the arts and crafts he produced in class—pretty awful (I write this with a smile and the most tender pang of empathy) . Christian, my youngest son, the artistic actor-writer, had a talent—discernable from the age of four—for creating square igloos, brutalist crafts, and a whole gallery of objects only a mother could love. And so, the mosaic is here to stay. I’ll leave its fate in his hands.

And then I pulled out the gilded wooden box –from one of my mum’s two sisters (why can’t I remember which one?)—that I secreted away in a sock drawer and considered my most precious possession for years. I treasured it as though it had been dug out of an archeological site. Perhaps it was the way it was given to me: by a person who would not normally have done such a thing; in a way that made me feel that I had been entrusted. Only the smallest, most precious treasures of mine ever saw its wooden insides.

Its last and most important prize were the Connemara stone prayer beads, a string of cubic green stones beautifully held together by a chain running along them like a spinal cord, and given to me by Mr. Sweeney, my high school English teacher, who also gave one to my sister Marie. It’s a beautiful piece. I spoke of it to my sister today on Facebook, to confirm a few details, and that she had one too, and she answered: “Yes. Either in my jewelry box […] or souvenir box. I think that’s where they are. Green. You make me want to check.”

She found it. She had even preserved the original modus operandi it had come with, which explained:

AN PAIDRIN BEAG

(The little rosary)

 This is a replica of the single-decade Rosary used in Ireland in the Penal days.

 METHOD OF SAYING

 Place the ring on the thumb and commence the recitation of the Rosary in the normal way.

On completing the first decade move ring to first finger and so on for each decade.

Made in the Republic of Ireland.

We’ve held onto our Paidrin Beags for 45 years, and in spite of the fact that I no longer consider myself to be Roman Catholic, I have always felt a spiritual energy when I hold it in my hand. So much so that I often reached for it, in the dark, in the dresser drawer next to my bed, and pushed my thumb through the loop and held the chain of stone cubes tightly in my hand. To calm me. To connect me to the incomprehensible vastness, and to the source(s) of goodness, love and belonging that you might call God, or nothing at all, though I believe that any object that allows one to focus one’s most true and loving intentions is serving a spiritual purpose—even if it’s found in a tourist trap.

The next object I pulled out of the red basket was a framed reproduction of an adult hand supporting a tiny baby in its palm, next to which hovers a protective right hand…
My Mum gave it to me in January 1990, saying that it had been amongst my father’s possessions. She gave it to me when my son Gabriel was stillborn at 28 weeks, just a few seasons after my father’s death. It’s the only representation of my third son that I have. And it’s a repository for the deepest sadness I’ve ever known.

* * *

There are a few things that were tossed into the red basket on moving day that were just junk and will not last much longer here, but a shiver of relief ran through me when I retrieved the dark brown plastic wallet insert that I carried with me from grade school age, and that contained photos of my friends: strips taken in the photo booths that were such a fixture in shopping malls when I was growing up, and other such head shots—thumbprint size. This is my longest held treasure. I had lost track of where it was…hadn’t looked in the red basket since I arrived here, in my new home, in my new life.

Sitting in the den, I unfolded it. It has always felt talismanic. It opened in a downward flutter aided by gravity, unraveling one plastic compartment after another, photo after photo…And, oh! all those faces of my childhood and adolescence!

Photo booths made it so easy, even for preteens, to preserve moments in time. Many of these young faces were the most important of my youth, and tied to each of them are so many stories: of the terrible and awkward ways we failed each other and of the trusting, naïve and intimate ways we forged friendships.

The two best friends I ever had, right into early adulthood, Leslie-Anne and Laurent, are there. I could write a whole book about them, I think. They were buoys at times in my life when I might have otherwise drowned. Leslie-Anne was lost to me through circumstance, and the hole she left behind is still here, inside me. I had forgotten these two shots of her I had; I could barely breathe when I looked at them. Leslie-Anne. I missed her so much. But I have reconnected with Laurent since our high school days, and that complicité, that unique closeness that was always ours, is still there.

I see, now, that in my youth, they are the only people I allowed to truly know me.  I believe, now, that that made me a better person. When I think of them, I think of how much we laughed together.
I don’t know that I’ll be able to throw out any of these mementos.

It’s not as though I expect my children to hold onto any of them. I imagine they may spend some time just looking at them after I’m gone, but these things have no resonance for them other than that they were mine. They are just stuff. They do not carry, for them, the multitudes that they carry for me. And so be it.

A good friend of mine recently told me that, upon her 70th birthday, a close friend of hers had started sending her most beloved CDs to the people she knew would enjoy them—tokens of precious bonds. In a world that includes Spotify and the like, it’s a sweet anachronism to do such a thing. Inspired by this nostalgic act of kindness, my friend has begun delivering (well, at least pre-COVID) and mailing carefully chosen books from her large inventory, one or several at a time, to the humans who people her world and her great big heart. She has even gifted several of them to me.

I know that we are not like birds, most of whom spend their lives in flight, moving back and forth between promising habitats, stopping for periods just long enough to build their nests, have their offspring and then move on, travelling light; holding onto nothing but the ability to navigate in the open sky.

But even the most nomadic among us, the Pico Iyers of the world, do, eventually, find it necessary to stop and put down fledgling roots somewhere; and do possess treasures that we bring along to the places where we choose to live, because they remind us who we are, and who we’ve loved and continue to love.

We are of a different feather, aren’t we?

Bird Nest Painting Hailey E Herrera

INCHING PAST AN INVISIBLE LINE

 

Illustration by Bianca Bagnarelli

August 1st, 2020 (morning)

Edited voice memo transcription:

“I just stepped out of the shower—it’s Saturday morning—and it was the first one I’ve had since last Wednesday morning. These few days after chemo, when I can’t take a shower because I have to be careful of the infuser that’s hooked to me intravenously through my port-a-cath—these days feel long. Of course I don’t want infection setting into the catheter port, so I’m very watchful. This small device is extremely valuable to me.

I’ve watched battle weary patients in treatment or being prepared for MRI’s and CT-Scans for other long term illnesses who weren’t as lucky as I am, and who are limited to PICC lines, while others—people whose veins are in terrible shape—are simply made to endure the pin cushion treatment, by which I mean being stuck over and over by a nurse doing his or her best to get a needle into a collapsing, shredding or otherwise uncooperative, tired vein. Some close their eyes and resign themselves; some suck in their breath with every jab; some can’t help but make occasional moaning sounds…

When we’re all seated along the wall in the scan waiting space, in our colour-leached hospital nighties that make us all look even more wan and fragile, watching other patients go through the catheter insertion ritual is the only thing to look at. Some days are better than others for us and the staff.

The day after my Wednesday chemo, I really want to wash. I want that chemo/hospital smell and film off my skin. It’s like I’m carrying the miasma of the 15th floor with me, and the best I can do is run a hot bath, lay the fanny pack containing my infuser next to me on the side of the bathtub, pulling the fine, transparent tube attached to the infuser to its full length (about 18 inches) so I have some leeway, and just sit quietly in the blessed water, soaping my hands, legs, stomach…

Ford, Emily; Flying Figure; The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, University of Leeds; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/flying-figure-39069

That’s why, after my infuser has been unhooked on Friday afternoon, it feels so good to shower: to wash from head to toe. While I’m standing under the warm water—it has to be very warm and the shower curtains have to be drawn tight against the tiled wall, with no cool air coming in because otherwise I shiver and I’m uncomfortable—when it’s steamy and I can stay there for a long time and just feel the water streaming over me, I run my hands over my body, my shoulders, arms, and  especially down the sides of my hips, feeling all the sinew there, the ligaments, feeling for muscle—all of it more exposed because I have lost body fat— and looking to see how much muscle loss there is because I just CAN’T be as active as I was and I just CAN’T do the kinds of things that I could do physically, before—and so I rediscover my body and the hidden parts of it—all these areas that you don’t touch otherwise, except when you’re washing yourself or are with a lover (or imagining yourself to be).

In a way, it’s taking stock of my mortality; of the creeping up of the day when I lose my life. And I  wonder how many more days like this I will have,  and if it isn’t easier to have these kinds of thoughts in the summer, when the sun is long in the sky and it’s very bright and beautiful, and I’m surrounded by greenery and flowers and the GARDEN and this lush, natural life around me. Maybe it is.”

Photo by Michelle Payette-Daoust

*****

August 21st, 2020

(Edited voice transcription)

“I woke up last night, as happens more regularly now, because I had to get up and go to the bathroom (this only began when I started treatment, I’m always voiding poison, it seems), and even though it was pitch black, it was probably 5 o’clock in the morning. But no matter what time that happens, I have trouble getting up because I can’t open my eyes. They’re glued shut by the gel drops I put into them every night (and several times during the day). During the night, the drops have time to congeal, and I have to peel my eyes open first, even if only to see in the dark. Last night, my feet hurt from the sudden weight on them as I made my way around my bed, from one bedpost to the next bedpost which is the one closest to the door and then to the bathroom…

And when I got back into my bed, still wearing my ear plugs—a habit I developed during those transitional years when women begin to believe that they’ll never have a full night’s sleep again—and lay in the dark, all I could hear was the sound of my beating heart. In the darkness, there was only me and the thumping that seemed to be right inside my head and also hidden in some dark cavern. I think I put my hand over the left side of my chest, and closed my eyes to turn inward, to feel that acoustic space inside me. Heart, are you damaged? What have these two years done to you? Is the rhythm you’re beating at slower than it should be? Or faster? What have I put you through?How long will you be able to keep this up?

And some time during this quiet listening, another pattern, pulled from recent memory, laid itself over the beats of my heart: it was the sound of the intravenous pumps in the chemotherapy ward that had come to mind. Mechanical, but disturbingly synchronous. .

******

September 1st, 2020

The second anniversary of my first chemo treatment has come and gone, and like every other part of life, one adapts.

My chemotherapy session last Wednesday, August 26th, marked the FIRST TIME IN TWO YEARS that I didn’t receive Nivolumab. I’ve been thinking about metaphors that capture the feeling I have: being in a car without a seatbelt; being in a boat on the sea without a life jacket; betting money I don’t have…Something discomfiting, in any case. For the two years I was taking Nivolumab, I felt protected. It was an illusion, of course, but I was very lucky— it wasn’t disproved.

Last week, when nurse Chantal and I got together for my usual Monday pre-chemo checkup, we both felt it necessary to reach out to each other and to acknowledge that the past two years have meant something. We spoke of it. I offered her a gift; a memento. I let her know how wonderful it would be if I lived long enough to be there when she retires (in 4 years), because that would mean that we could move beyond the boundaries of caregiver/care-receiver—that we could be friends.

It had also become clear that after 8 consecutive months of treatment (my last break was at Christmas), I was worn down and becoming depressed. And that’s why I find myself, at this moment, in the first of 5 weeks of “vacation” from chemo. I will have to go into the CHUM on September 15th for my scheduled CT-Scan, but otherwise, I’m free of the physical battle—if not of the thoughts—of cancer and its treatment.

What do two years of cancer treatment look like?
Well.. they look like:

  • the hundreds of containers filled with medication that was prescribed for me;
  • The dozens of Salinex vaporisers I needed to hydrate my nasal passages and prevent pain and nosebleeds;
  • The half-empty containers with the remnants of prescriptions whose dosages had to be increased (like my Synthroid), and others that had to be decreased or even better, that I didn’t need to take, like extra cortisol and something with the scary name of APO-PROCHLORAZINE, for nausea, which I think I took twice in the early stages of fall, 2018 and never had to take again
  • Boxes and boxes of ocular liquid gel;
  • All of the different cannabinoid products that I tried after consulting the people at Santé Cannabis, but that, sadly, didn’t have much effect on me.

I decided one day to keep as many containers as I could, just to see them accumulate; just to give shape to the reality of the experience. Yesterday, I laid them all out on the dining table and took photo of them before sending them to recycling.

I hope the next 5 weeks help restore some of my vital energy and mend my body.
I plan to ask for more regular breaks from now on.

 

Though my muscles may stiffen,

though my skin may

wrinkle, may I never find myself

yawning

at life.

-Toyohiko Kagawa