THE SPOTLIGHT

Birthday cards on the piano

What’s wrong with me?

Inside me, joy, love and sadness share a space so tight they’re all tangled. The way they were yesterday.

I’m a July baby, and my birthday fell on a Saturday this year. I don’t know whether you have specific traditions surrounding yours, but a weekend birthday is different, I think.

On the one hand, it’s probably a little less busy on the social media front, because people are not as close to their phones on a beautiful summer Saturday. But on the other, because it’s the weekend, people are free to be with you, and to make plans without feeling harried.

What happens then is that rather than being spread out over several weekdays—a coffee or drink with a friend on Monday, breakfast with your mum on Wednesday, dinner out en famille on Friday—everything becomes focused on that one day. Your friends and loved ones are free. They’ve had time to conspire. They’ve planned.

I was the very fortunate focus of this embracing attention this year.

When I was a child, my birthday experiences were very different. It was summer vacation for everyone, so I had few birthday parties with balloons, hyper excited neighbourhood friends or classmates, games and cake with super-sweet icing. School was out. It wasn’t easy to reach classmates and usually, we were away on family vacation. Mostly in the Maritimes, but almost always away and sometimes even in the car all that day—traveling.

This year, things began the night before, with a terrific supper at a local bistro and a terrible two-hundred-million-dollar movie at the Cineplex with my son Simon and friend Cindy. We dined, drank wine, and laughed like mad at the movie’s end (shame on you, Luc Besson !).

Waiting with Penelope and Graeme for everyone to arrive at the party.

Yesterday was B-Day. It started off under a GORGEOUS, glittering blue sky (it deserves the uppercase letters: such days have been so infrequent in Montreal this summer), and breakfast in a new pub a few kilometers west of here. Simon picked me up and whisked me away.  We were joined by my dearest friend, Louise, who drove all the way from her country house—where her husband was still sound asleep—to be with us.

(You likely already see where this is going. It’s a tale of kind, generous people being their usual, exceptional selves.)

In the afternoon, I was expected at Jeremy’s (Simon’s twin) and Anne’s, to be with them and my grandchildren, Penelope and Graeme, and to be joined not long after by my mum and her partner and finally, by Simon and my sister Danielle.

And that’s when I started to feel an internal wobbliness that makes no sense.

It has to do with the number of times someone said: It’s Grand-maman’s birthday, to my grandchildren, and It’s your birthday! to me. It’s about a pressure building around that, and how I wished I could stand up and send a giant wave their way, filled with all of the love and gratitude and bliss I feel having them in my life: enough so that none of the fanfare would ever be necessary. The being together? Yes, oh yes, most certainly, but not the rest—not the spotlight.

Wating for Christian’s Facebook video message with Penelope and Graeme (all photos taken by Danielle Payette)

With that spotlight following me, I flounder. I’m not meant for it. The sadness in me floats up with the love and joy. It’s so strange. Opening boxes and boxes of extremely generous and thoughtful gifts with the help of Penelope and Graeme’s paper-ripping skills…It’s all so much. There’s no reciprocation possible.

Then it was dinner at the big table that fits everyone. Burgers, delicious salads (thank you dear Anne), chips, condiments galore, wine and laughter. Penelope and Graeme suddenly becoming a comedy act.

An experience of communion.

 

Passing the phone around

And finally, there was Christian, live and in colour, brought to us on my IPhone all the way from Milne Inlet in Northern Baffin Island, three thousand miles away from home for the next three months; due North, in the Canadian Arctic, in the same time zone as us ( ! ); his face the size of my phone’s small screen, missing us, looking, looking, looking and feeling outside of it all, looking for the love on our faces.

And suddenly all of our attention was on the miracle of that phone and the person it was bringing to us. And the phone passed from hand to hand, each of us asking questions in the noisy room where the rest of us chattered as we eavesdropped.

And then it ended up in my hand, and I turned and held it up over my head so that everyone at the big table could catch a glimpse of Christian while he first answered my maternal questions, then told us stories of his first days there, and then just took questions from everyone and made us laugh, and made us feel connected.

Christian speaking to the gallery.

As the signal weakened, we all said our goodbyes and see-you-soons. And then it was bath time for the kids, and time to kiss, hug, and say goodbye.

And my wobbliness was gone.

Photo by Danielle Payette

 

 

 

 

MY INCREDIBLE EXPANDING LIFE

No one tells you this, but a human life, just like the universe that cradles it, is always expanding.

One of the ways we experience this extension first hand is through the social connections we make. My teaching life has accelerated this, and in the past ten years or so, I’ve come to know so many people that I could and want to call friends; people I don’t want to lose…not wanting the flow of time to sweep them away, beyond my reach.

Last week, my student Mira reached out and pulled me into her life.

In late 2016, Mira left Toronto to come live close to her daughter and grandchildren. In our quiet conversations after class, she had mentioned having just found her new place, which she described in such ecstatic, giddy language that it seemed unreal. She said it was beautiful, surrounded by woods and birds; that her new neighbours were wonderful; that they planted flowers and perennials at the foot of the trees for everyone to enjoy; that she had found a haven. That she was immensely grateful and happy.

And then she invited me to dinner. Her home was exactly as she had described. Sitting on her patio that’s enclosed by a screened gazebo, we listened to the sounds of the birds and the breeze and of a piano tuner next door, who arrived not long after me. As he worked, he played. Beautifully. Every note bouncing off the sparkling light of approaching dusk.

Everything about our evening together was enveloping. Despite a long day at work, Mira had put together a bounteous meal that left me speechless (because I was at a loss for words and because my mouth was always full).

 

I felt like a funambulist in our first hour together, trying to find my way from the interactive dynamics of being Mira’s teacher to being her friend. It’s a subtle thing, because of course in adult education, we’re equals who are simply playing different roles. And yet all my teacherly reflexes were there: asking questions, steering the conversation and adjusting my language (we were speaking English, Mira’s third language after Ukrainian and Russian—French is her newest challenge).

I’ve spoken elsewhere of the pain of letting go of my students at the end of my teaching contracts. The obverse of this requires a different kind of energy and thoughtfulness.

We all know this. We learn it as we move through time, shedding friends and making new ones in grade school and high school; opening our lives to new colleagues as we enter adulthood; merging the social circles of people we love with our own.

This pulsating movement continues for decades. Our neighbours become friends and through our children and all of their involvements, new people enter our lives constantly. There’s always the possibility of friendship and attachment, but there also comes the moment when we realise that it isn’t possible to maintain each connection—that there just isn’t enough emotional energy to go around.

Every time I choose to stay in touch with a former student, I think of this and have to take it into account. I’ve sent and received many enthusiastic Facebook messages to and from former students expressing the wish that we see each other again: “We should have coffee!” “We have to meet!” “Are you free in March?”.

The desire is sincere. There’s only good will. But of course, it can’t always work out, and so I/we settle for whatever time we manage to carve out of our overstuffed lives.

It’s enough, because it has to be. It has meant breakfast with Patty and supper with Karen. It has meant an evening at the pub with Kathryn and my best friend Louise who joined us so that Kathryn could get some serious French conversation practice (there could and should have been so many more such evenings—sigh).

It has meant the unexpected joy of finding emails from Will, then Yan in my Inbox; both engineers, one a British bachelor and the second, a devoted father of three, catching me up about their lives.

One time, it was coffee at Tim Horton’s late in the afternoon with Neshat and Maryam, while their children emitted happy sparks of mischief at the next table. There was phlegmatic Thomas, fresh out of university and a long way from home; elegant and thoughtful Saran, a kindred spirit who has officially joined our Best of the Worst soirées, and there was exuberant, endearing Hatem, whom I met at his five-year-old daughter’s school, where he had joined the French for Parents class I was teaching. Though he was with me for just a few weeks before finding work, he still sends me email updates that are a study in gratitude–he gives thanks for every part of his new life–and an inspiration.

And there’s Facebook, Facebook, Facebook, and its limitless tentacles, for which I’m so grateful.

Mira at home

But Mira isn’t on Facebook. She simply cut through all of the potential barriers to friendship with her extraordinary emotional energy.

Mira’s brilliant: she’s an engineer who specialises in systems, processes, efficiency and ergonomics. One way of understanding her profession is that she has a talent for observing people and their systems and seeing all of the ways these aren’t working properly. She connects people by removing obstacles that hinder functionality and their ability to work well together. Things flow better when she’s around.

Our shared meal in her new condo provided the setting for a long heart-to-heart. In French class, I had witnessed Mira’s brilliance, competence and will, and caught a glimpse of her creativity—she’s a talented painter—but in her new home, where she claims to have found, at last, a space to simply be herself—woman, mother, Baba (grandmother), artist and engineer—she radiates gentleness and incandescent plenitude.

Speaking of her grandfather (Mira was an only child), with her soft voice and Slavic accent, she told me: “When I was small child and sat in his arms, he would stop breathing, he loved me so much. Everyone give me so much love”.

Except that she pronounces it “law-ve”, which sounds even more beautiful.

“The universe is full of doors.”—Frank Herbert, Dune

Painting by Mira

 

TRIAGE

After thirty-four years in this house, we’re slowly but surely taking our first steps toward leaving it (I know, 34! Honestly, we were very young when we moved in).

When I say we, I mean my husband of course, but also my sons—especially Simon and Christian—because we’re all bound up in what comes next. Simon most of all, because though he has lived away from us for quite a while now, this reconfiguration of the future was his idea.

A few years ago, he floated the notion of all of us investing in a multigenerational living space. A subdivided house, a duplex, a triplex—anything that would allow us to live with privacy in proximity to one another; a super-home where Simon could gain solid footing in the real estate market, a more permanent roof over his head, and live a life most suited to his values and vision of human ecology: shared space, shared costs and community. The window for making this happen is two to three years.

It has always sounded right. All of us have looked at the horizon, trying to imagine the shape of the world to come, and experienced a shiver of apprehension and a feeling that our futures will be better faced in solidarity. Together.

Together is a word that right now means as many as six of us. When I’m gone or when my husband’s gone, together will still mean…who knows how many people? In some future iteration, it could include Christian and his family, and Penelope and Graeme and their families. Anything’s possible. It’s a word signifying that life is better lived among loved ones. In proximity.

I’ve noticed a change in myself since Simon’s idea began to germinate. My connection to this house, which has been the centre of gravity of my entire adult life, is weakening, and that’s helping me to tug at the roots that ground me to this place. The pain isn’t as acute as I feared. I don’t know what it’ll be like the day the moving truck pulls up and all we leave behind are scuffed floors and nail marks on the walls, but lately, the thought of moving away has taken on the aura of liberation.

My neighbour Gail took this picture of our house from hers, March 7th 2016

Our warm and welcoming little house is dragging me down with the sheer weight of all of the stuff that has accumulated inside it. To quote Sheldon Cooper, it has become “a swirling vortex of entropy. If left to our own devices, we’re each capable of filling any room, any free space with stuff at a remarkable speed.

With the exception of my husband—whose contribution to burying us alive is related to his difficulty throwing out or giving away things that still have monetary value (at heart, he isn’t a packrat), resulting in a crammed crawl space in the basement—Simon, Christian and I * are all afflicted with the ultimate room-filling compulsions: bibliophilia and cinephilia.

[*My married son Jeremy is very neat and orderly—I often think how he must have suffered, growing up, from the effects of our shared talent for agglomeration.]

Simon’s apartment is just like our home, with walls hidden by photographs, artwork and overstuffed IKEA bookshelves that are doing fine with his huge DVD collection, but straining under the weight his books.

It must be genetic.

  

But consider: the photos are of people we love and places we’ve been; each painting or piece of art has personal meaning, including a laminated poster of the 2007 Montreal Jazz Festival where Christian performed when he was 16, and oil paintings created by my aunt. We don’t hang things because they match a room’s colour scheme. The DVDs represent hours spent watching and re-watching them together. And the books? I know that Christian, Simon and I have no interest in seeing walls. I know that all three of us (as well as our friend Cindy who is part of our super-home project) envision rooms encased with floor to ceiling bookshelves (she builds them!).

On one side, there’s the consumerism of this century that I want to run from, and on the other, its antithesis, a movement toward decluttering, minimalism and micro living environments.

There’s a beauty in the latter: the order, the simplicity, the detachment, the shedding, the room to breathe.

Darlinghurst apartment
http://www.idesignarch.com/minimalist-inner-city-micro-apartment-with-smart-functional-design/darlinghurst-apartment_3/

I can look at examples of minimalist spaces and the minimalist lifestyle and admire their aesthetic, but then my mind revolts, and what was fresh and cleansing very quickly becomes bleak in its blankness (imagine coming in from the cold of a snowy winter’s day to a white box that passes for your home), clinical in its austerity (like my dentist’s recently redesigned workspace) and devoid of everything except the rarest of personal items.

And that’s the rub. In the spaces where most of my family members live, meaning and material things are bound together through the pathways of sense memory. We feel compelled to live in very personal, evocative environments in which objects reflect and remind us constantly of who we are. This isn’t nostalgic or narcissistic, but rather, I think, a nesting, comforting behaviour. This is who I am because these are my loves.

Some of Danielle’s boxes

My sister Danielle moved here from the West Coast earlier this year, months before finding a new place. When she did, and the movers’ truck finally arrived and we helped her to begin unpacking, I was reminded of this desire to recreate the familiar. This was my Facebook post the following day:

[…] Danielle left her life in BC behind and is finally settling into her new nest.

This is the stuff that made it to Quebec, except for the furniture, which has of course already been spread throughout her new place by the friendly movers.

This is what a lifetime of baggage looks like–once you’ve sorted through it, evaluated its worth and decided that it will follow you to your next destination across a continent.

Every box that’s opened tells a story. Out of every box floats an echo, a hundred memories.

With every box come the beauty of music, the pleasure of books, the familiar feel and smell of clothing, and tchotchkes–those tiny, useless, priceless mementos of the struggle to have a full, rich life.

The unpacking of the tchotchkes mattered. We stored them in a large glass cabinet in her new living room. Each was dusted off and placed on a shelf with great care. Minimalism, shminimalism.

Painting by Suzanne Howard

A few years ago, I came across a little book about a big question. It’s The Burning House, and it asks: if your house suddenly caught on fire, what would you grab as you fled out the door?

We’re spared some tough decisions thanks to our laptops. With those tucked under our arms, photo albums could be left behind without too much anguish, I think, but what of the rest?

I’m not a phobic person, and yet I often find myself spooked by thoughts that one day, I’ll be driving home from work and see charcoal plumes billowing from our cottage. The fact that our house is sixty-three years old plays a part, but it must certainly also have something to do with The Burning House question. What I would grab seems less significant than what I would MISS.

The burning house scenario is the experience of most immigrants, no matter their status upon arriving in their new country. They’ve left so much behind. Nothing is familiar. What do they ache for and what is most precious?

 

SAMUEL

Henderson, Anne G.; Life Circle; Poole Hospital NHS Foundation Trust; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/life-circle-59910

June 21st 2017

My day had an upbeat beginning. My teaching engagements have slowed to a trickle, so I have more windows of time to fill differently.

This morning, that meant accepting my mum’s invitation to a tea party at her house with Anne, my daughter-in-law, and Penelope and Graeme, my grandchildren (now 5 and 3).  While my mum and Anne stayed at the table a little longer enjoying each other’s company, I was called to a higher purpose—that is, playing with P&G (or Beans and Chuck Norris, as their papa calls them).

Aside from a bit of teaching preparation for tomorrow that still needed doing, the only other thing on my agenda was (and still is as I write this) an invitation to attend the vernissage of the latest collection of works by members of the Montreal Camera Club.

In between, I spent some time in front of this laptop. A couple of hours ago, an email dropped into my Inbox. It was from Miriam, a former student of mine whom I last saw in class last fall. Its title is MEET OUR BABY BOY.

These are just words to you. Happy and upbeat.

But in me, they’ve set off something altogether different: a swirling wash of feelings that have completely taken me over. Even as I sit here typing, I’m almost entirely absorbed in the emotional memories Miriam and Abmel’s newfound joy has awoken.

I feel such bliss for them. Such empathy and euphoria. And something close to disbelief, because this event is sublime, and laced with a residual sadness that has made me cry and left me with a pressure in my chest from so many more tears still wanting to be released, and my physical self just barely able to contain them.

Miriam and Abmel became parents on June 15th, at 9:12 pm. Their son weighed 7 pounds one ounce. A lovely time of day to be born. A perfect weight. In her email, Miriam wrote: “We are very happy and just wanted you to share our joy.”

How perfectly normal.

Munn, Michelle; Untitled 1954; Birmingham City University; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/untitled-1954-32987

But no, no, no. NOT to Miriam and Abmel, who are in their early forties, who have lost several babies, I think, to miscarriage—the last time, at more than twenty weeks—a baby they could hold and touch and recognise as having everything and yet still did not live. A baby old enough to tear their hearts out.

Miriam was a beginner when she first started French lessons, and more than once had to endure the litany of beginner questions like: Are you married? Do you have children? How old are they? What are their names ?—to which her colleagues responded so naturally, but which required of Miriam tremendous grace and discretion. I only realised this later.

When she first became my student, and those questions came up and Miriam answered “No, no. No children”, with a polite smile, I thought that perhaps there was a fertility problem with the couple, or that they’d just chosen not to have any. Miriam was always so private.

But when Abmel, who was more advanced in his French, became my student, things changed between the three of us. While Miriam is ebullient and expressive, Abmel is quieter and more intense.

Anima 1
by child artist Iris Grace Halmshaw

He was struggling with his pain, and with a weariness that was in part the result of dealing with family problems back in his native Cuba, but more profoundly, with an incipient loss of meaning in his life.

Miriam is always warm and optimistic, despite the trauma of her losses, but Abmel’s was the energy of someone aggrieved. It isn’t just that he had the words to say more; Abmel wanted to say more; to express his feelings of growing dissatisfaction with a life in which career pursuits seemed hollower, and in which there was nothing, yet, that he could imagine on the horizon, to quell his unease.

Miriam stopped coming to French class a month early. I’d heard that she was very busy with work; that her department was overwhelmed by the effects of a recent project. And then, one Friday afternoon in December, after his class, Abmel waited till everyone had left the conference room and told me that Miriam was pregnant again. No, that’s not quite right: he whispered that Miriam was pregnant.

Fisher, Samuel; Mater et filius; Solihull Heritage & Local Studies Service; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/mater-et-filius-55683

I remembered an earlier class when, speaking of the last child he and Miriam had lost, Abmel had spread his hands out in front of him—the width of a shoebox—his opposing palms slightly curved, as though touching invisible feet and an invisible head, to show me that THIS was the immensity of their loss.

On Abmel’s face last December, I could read everything. He didn’t smile when he delivered his news and I knew why. He was afraid that Fate was listening.

He didn’t smile because he was afraid to hope and to believe that this time could end differently. He didn’t smile because he was now on guard. Again. Thrown into a state of powerless vigilance. There was fear in his face and a tightness—each experience having further compromised his capacity for carefree joy. Abmel’s face is beautiful, and lined.

MEET OUR BABY BOY detonated in my Inbox. I had resisted contacting Miriam, asking for news. I knew that she was on precautionary pregnancy leave and I worried that if something had gone wrong, my inquiries would only cause her distress.

Downie, Kate; 12 Minute Baby; Glasgow Museums; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/12-minute-baby-83821

MEET OUR BABY BOY. And attached to her words, a photo of baby Samuel, minutes after his birth, resting on Miriam’s breast. And on her face, an expression of completeness and peace.

I lost most of this afternoon to a flood of feelings that I couldn’t contain and that left me spent and all upside down and, improbably, calm.

A Lullaby, by child artist Iris Grace Halmshaw

Miriam and Abmel’s son Samuel is like my Christian: the life that vanquishes a grief that seemed bottomless.

His parents are not sleeping very much these days. Their lives have just expanded a thousandfold and are no longer their own. Abmel’s search for meaning is over. And Miriam? Well…I like to imagine her in the moments captured by Abmel’s photo.

June 15th, 2017

 Dear Miriam,

                 Today, you sit up in a hospital bed. It is early evening. Your bleary-eyed husband stands next to you, staring in awe at the beautiful new son you cradle in your arms, who is as fragile and miraculous as life itself. And imprinted on his tiny head and body are all the joys, sorrows and pains that Fate will cast upon him. But you will love him enough to make his journey worthwhile.

             And then, you turn him toward you. You lift him to your face, feeling his breath, absorbing his scent. And you bring him closer, ever so gently, so that his tiny head might nestle in the warm hollow of your neck. And slowly, slowly, you rub your jaw along the silky down covering his delicate skull, and then it happens: that long awaited moment of absolute remembrance. It is exactly as you knew it would be. It is timeless. It is sacred. And at long, long last, you tilt your head and kiss your son.

Collins, Cecil; Dawn Invocation; Towner; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/dawn-invocation-73112

 

                                                   

AFTER THE FLOOD

I’ve been away from my blogs for over a month and I’m sorry. In part, it’s because in the spare moments that I had, I was doing some writing at the request of someone else—a gratifying, if time-consuming opportunity. But mostly, it was because of a series of disruptive events.

The word cascade comes to mind and it works because it really feels as though I’ve been swept up by the forces of love and connection,  including the aftermath of my mum’s recent flirtation with disaster; the coinciding timing of my younger sister’s move back to Montreal after three decades away, just as my other sister came to visit from afar accompanied by her daughter and new granddaughter; and the ending of a teaching contract, which invariably knocks some of the stuffing out of me.

It also works because everything about this spring has been about water: its wetness; the greyness it brought when sodden clouds hung overhead for weeks on end through late march and most of April and May, delivering more and more of it; and its impartial cruelty as it accumulated above the barely thawed ground and seeped into houses while riverbanks overflowed and storm drains backed up.

Montreal is a city and it’s also an island. For modern Montrealers, this has, of course, meant learning to put up with the frustration of crossing bridges that are always either under repair or choked by traffic. But our proximity to water has mostly been the loveliest of natural gifts.

If you draw a straight line southward from my front porch and walk along it, you’ll reach Lac St-Louis in twelve to fifteen minutes. From my street, I can see the lake, which I’m cut off from by the CN and CP railroad tracks. Fortunately, I can take the shortcut provided by one of several pedestrian tunnels for commuters that run beneath the tracks and the highway.

The island of Montreal and its waterways

Lots of people near the southern or northern shores of the Island have this same luxury of proximity to moving water—all of it feeding into the St-Lawrence river.

Le fleuve Saint-Laurent. That’s its name in French, but not, of course, its original name. The Tuscarora and Mohawk had that honour. Still, it’s noteworthy that while the word river—rivière—exists in French, there’s no English equivalent to fleuve, which is such a resonant word in the province of Quebec.

Fleuve is used to describe a very large river that flows till it reaches the sea. And so it is that the shores of Montreal are swaddled by moving water—fed by a network of tributaries—that increases in speed as it rushes eastward in search of the Atlantic.

This is the geography of my home island, which I love and have always appreciated. Then came the flood.

In a matter of weeks, the West Island of Montreal, my home, was transformed in ways that I’d never before seen in all of my decades growing up and living here. In ways that seemed unimaginable. Impossible. Some of the worst hit areas were at least as far away from the water as my own house, but on lower ground.

Evidence of this appeared everywhere. It was almost the only story being covered (it took a deluge to wipe Donald Trump off everyone’s screens here for a while). Our concerns shrank in scale. My Facebook feed connected me daily with former students and friends I’ve made through my work, and I was able to live the flood by virtue of their posts; see the damage done by the mounting water with every photo they uploaded; and helplessly share the anguish of their messages.

One of the worst hit was my friend Karen. When the water finally crested, it had wiped out large parts of her neighbourhood and was on her doorstep. Her next-door neighbour, an elderly woman, had just been evacuated when I read her most anguished post.

Meanwhile, my former student Sharon, a native New Yorker, documented the slow invasion of her riverside paradise home. It was shocking. Up until then, her Facebook posts had featured images of her beautiful grown sons, of her home town, of jazz musicians and of photos of sunrises and sunsets taken on her back porch.

In early April, before any of this had happened, I listened to an episode of The Current on CBC radio that featured a segment on eco-anxiety—the distress more and more of us live with as we experience the mental stress of living with climate change. It’s early June now, and the skies are still relentlessly grey. It still rains three or four days a week.

Rain on my doorstep, this morning

Our anxiety is amplified by the sheer scale of the threats we face. We’re overwhelmed by a different sort of flood, a torrent of information from every part of the globe, warning us of dangers and looming threats. But this recent flood threw a lasso around our fears and tightened them.

For Karen, Sharon and thousands of other people, the threat was tangible. It was cold, invasive and destructive. It was visible. It glistened and pooled, staining everything in its wake. It smelled of bilge water, humidity and nascent mold.

Karen and Sharon and all of us were reminded of our powerlessness before nature and the problems we’ve created. Of the illusions of protection and safety that we cling to. Of how fragile a lifetime’s worth of work and planning and acquiring really is.

We are like the three little pigs, believing that we are as safe as the walls that surround us.

Men build too many walls and not enough bridges.” -Joseph Fort Newton

Davies, Gwyn; The Wall  (http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-wall-120868)

 

 

EMERGENCY

Nicholas, G.; Hospital Scene; Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/hospital-scene-43150

At about 3:20 on Tuesday morning, the phone rang, and then rang and rang, piercing the silence and finally my sleep which was much deeper than usual. An unfortunate stroke of good fortune—my deep sleep, that is—because it took me a while to emerge from it.

This wasn’t a problem for my ever-vigilant husband who snapped into alertness and rushed to the ringing phone (we don’t keep one in our bedroom). I heard him speaking quietly and heard the seriousness in his voice.

He came back to our room and said, in French: “It’s your mum. She’s had a heart attack and there’s blood everywhere.”

His words exploded the quiet of night. But it still took too long for me to activate—precious, dangerous minutes for me to become fully coherent and functional. Mostly, as I struggled to get dressed and clear my head, all I could say was oh my God, oh my God, oh my God…Imagining terrible things. Unable to reconcile the cardiac event with the blood—why the blood?

John Bellany, Self-Portrait in Hospital; The Ingram Collection of Modern British and Contemporary Art; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/self-portrait-in-hospital-233775

Because my mum lives so close by, we were there in a flash. It was a terrible time of transition and my husband drove too fast and not fast enough. With our own key to her house, we let ourselves in and there she was, lying on the sofa covered in a blanket, her bloody head on a smeared pillow.

Waiting for help.

This narrative ends well. I’ve no desire to build suspense. My mum had passed out twice. Falling to the ground in her kitchen, she’d hurt her face and ribs. She then made it to the bathroom and tried to wash the blood from her nose, her face, her hair—she’d lain in it. The second time she lost consciousness, the water was still running in the bathroom sink and soon spilled onto the floor around her.

Blood and water.

She woke up again and thought to turn off the tap, got herself to the sofa and waited till… (I can’t finish this: I can’t explain her reticence to call us asap).

And then she phoned us.

There was an ambulance and paramedics. Two women working in tandem like they’d always been a team, with very few words—spoken with equanimity—probing, observing, evaluating. And my mum answered every question with perfect lucidity. Out came the spinal board, the cervical collar and a long, narrow, dark oval wrapper that enveloped my mum like a giant synthetic canoe.

Carter, Grace; Miller Hospital; Greenwich Heritage Centre; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/miller-hospital-193755

My husband and I reached the hospital before they did. He went to park the car and I walked into EMERGENCY. It was a weirdly dissonant, anticlimactic moment. Except for a security guard behind glass in his booth off in a corner, the emergency waiting room was empty. I’ve never seen this before and don’t expect to ever see it again. Stranger than fiction. There was an aura of calm after a storm. I was thrown by the sudden deceleration.

The ambulance arrived without fuss, or flash, or drama. My mum was unloaded right in front of me. The medical baton passed from the emergency medical technicians to the nurses, one woman and two men, all working the last few hours of their night shift.

I stayed close, then was sent to an out-of-the-way corner to sit quietly, and then allowed back to be with my mum. All permissible because it was so quiet everywhere in triage. Pumped up on adrenaline, my husband just couldn’t sit still and so he was released to go back home and try to sleep.

Fox-Pitt, Douglas; Indian Army Wounded in Hospital in the Dome, Brighton; IWM (Imperial War Museums); http://www.artuk.org/artworks/indian-army-wounded-in-hospital-in-the-dome-brighton-6030

My mum and I had now entered the stall zone, an area of time existing only in hospitals, which probably feels like an endless succession of shifts to the medical personnel, but is a state of static, passive half-life to patients and those who love them.

With her preliminary examinations and tests done, my mum and I moved to spot 15, one space from the window at the far end of the Emergency ward and right next to where I had spent several scary hours at my husband’s side along with my sons, in December 2012, after he suffered a serious, amnesia-inducing concussion.

Being in Emergency stirs up all of those past memories—layer upon layer of emotional scar tissue: a child’s badly broken arm, a slashed eyelid, a gashed finger, a scary virus and more. Long days, long waits and feelings of helplessness.

Enough time had passed so that the ward had filled up again. When we’d first arrived, my husband had read on a monitor mounted on the wall that Emergency had operated at 211% of its capacity the previous day and into the night.

During the twelve hours that my mum and I were there together, I came and went, getting tea, getting food, walking through the rows and rows of people on stretchers as I exited and returned, realizing that my mum had lucked out, that she was in fact in a sweet spot in the ward. Because by midday, there were patients everywhere, filling not only the small spaces defined by curtains, but what remained in the aisles between them.

Curtois, Mary Henrietta Dering; Ruston Ward, Lincoln County Hospital; The Collection: Art & Archaeology in Lincolnshire (Usher Gallery);

Whether patients or loved ones, we all shared the same sense of unease. Emergency is a terrible place to be and while we’re there, we’re trapped—by our injuries, by disease, by the ties that bind us.

Nobre, Manuel; Hospital Scene; CW+; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/hospital-scene-178621

Emergency is the ground zero of health care and government bureaucracy, and everyone who enters knows this and feels the first tingle of fear. It’s a place of serious and possibly critical illness, trauma and pain. Sometimes, it’s just the first part of a long and harrowing passage toward death.

Every new person on a stretcher who gets wheeled into its corridors pushes every other patient that much closer to the indignity of anonymous suffering. Of being overlooked. Of being left alone for hours, exposed and vulnerable.

It’s a place where discretion and compassion must constantly be exercised. Women and men leave decades of conditioning behind and suffer constant assaults to their sense of personal modesty within view and earshot and smell of each other. Bodies are not beautiful in Emergency.

While I was there with my mum, I was struck by the number of older men who’d been admitted, having been fitted with oxygens masks or else tubes in their noses; many with COPD, diabetes, failing kidneys. Some with concerned and tired-looking wives by their side but too many, alone.

Such solitude is unimaginable to me.

Awan, Sara; Hospital 2; Durham County Council; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/hospital-2-43866

My mother didn’t have a heart attack on Tuesday. For want of a better explanation, the most likely reason for the two periods of unconsciousness she experienced was a vasovagal reaction to a bacterial or viral infection. As her condition improved and my focus was able to shift a little, I abandoned discretion and began looking at faces. When you look closely enough, you can see the invisible walls that some have built around themselves with the intention, I think, of containing the scale of misery and worry they have to endure. It looked to me like most of the time, the wall builder was the companion, not the patient.

On most faces, you can read tension, fatigue, worry, restlessness and fear. Sometimes, submission. Sometimes, combativeness.

As I came and went and even as I stayed by my mum’s side, I decided to make eye contact and smile at people. That’s how I met 89-year-old Mr. Pilkington, his wife and youngest daughter, and that’s how I met the tiny, mischievous Italian woman who immediately took to calling me la bella signorina every time she stopped by on one her short and restless walking tours.

My mum was badly shaken, but has bounced back. She’s such a marvel. I didn’t realize how affected I was by it all until the following day, when it was all I could do not to cry when my thoughts slid just slightly sideways to her and how close she’d come. I was so tired.

Emergency is a reminder that our daily wellbeing is built on clouds and  can be undone by something as simple as  a night-time walk to the kitchen for something to settle your stomach.

It’s a place full of dangers, the very worst of which, in the tumult of medical care, may be the breakdown of human solidarity.

Pomeroy, Tim; My Old Men, Hospital; Art & Heritage Collections, Robert Gordon University; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/my-old-men-hospital-105860

 

MAKING THE BEST OF THE WORST

It’s been a weird weekend.

Last Thursday, our passage from winter to spring took an unwelcome turn. A rainstorm washed in and dumped a record-breaking number of centimetres of water onto ground that was still frozen. That’s a rotten recipe.

From Thursday morning through Friday night, rivers overflowed their beds, sump pumps failed and hundreds, if not thousands, found themselves ankle deep—or worse— in water in their own basements.

We were among them, and that Thursday vigil by the submersible pump (borrowed from my saintly brother-in-law), in the damp and cold basement, was a long, lonely night.

Hardly the ideal circumstances leading up to a trimestrial Saturday gathering organized by my son Christian, this time named:

Best of the Worst (BOTW to the initiated):

AMERICA! DISSTOPIA/UTOPIA

From Megaforce.

Inspired by the fellows at Red Letter Media, Christian has made the event his own.

I’ve been struggling to remember how long we’ve been at this. At least four or five years by my count. Christian is a combination movie buff and collector of trivia and esoterica with an elephantine memory. Mix this with a tight group of friends who are each as nerdy, sharp-witted, good-natured and crack-me-up funny as the other, and you have the makings of a rosy tradition.

The basic formula of a BOTW evening is simple: Christian selects two films from the vast and shameless videosphere of intentionally, ironically or accidentally terrible movies that are so bad, they’re good. We watch them together, eat, drink and, when it’s over, vote for the “best” bad movie. The BOTW. More recently, Christian has added some pretty terrific Pub-night style movie quizzes that are the extra fun between viewings.

There’s real artistry behind Christian’s soirées. It takes a deft touch to get the balance just right: to create an atmosphere in which hilarity offsets mockery, and in which a genuine sympathy for endearing cinematic intentions gone horribly awry prevents the mix from souring. At his BOTW evenings, scripts and scenes are usually in such awesomely, spectacularly poor taste and effects so cheesy, that you just can’t help but deride them with glee and genuine affection. It’s often hard to hear the movie over the guffaws and running ribald commentary of the BOTW gang.

I get to attend because this house is still the only Daoust venue big enough to hold and host everyone who has now been drawn into Christian’s and the event’s orbit.

Last evening, while Megaforce and America 3000 were filling the darkened space, I surveyed the room, and it struck me how unlikely a bunch we were, and how many mutations this group has experienced. The tight nucleus of Christian’s college friends, which also drew in his brothers—especially Simon—now exerts an unpredictable gravity.

Among those packed like sardines into my living room were Cindy, who was first the friend of a friend of Simon’s, but who is now, well, family, and who arrived with Raouf, who in the beginning was her lodger and is now her friend, having come to Montreal all the way from Egypt to complete his MBA. This was his second BOTW evening, and he was better prepared for the mayhem.

Then there was Thomas, in Montreal from the Maritimes to start his first job eighteen months ago, who was originally my French student but integrated my sons’ lives first through sheer necessity and then, in amity. He’s now a BOTW veteran.

John Wells, Near and Far

There were Pat and Patricia, the world’s most convivial couple, who both work and teach at the same college as Simon, and fill every room they occupy with joy and energy. They get along with everyone.

There was Alec, who grew up in the house on the corner but alternates between two different living spaces, miles apart, and whose presence is both constant and sphynx-like, though his knowledge of movie trivia is spotty.

There was Saran, a former student of mine and wonderful person. Now in Montreal after studies in London, England, Saran works in I.T. He was very brave to accept my invitation. He couldn’t have known what he was walking into but then, he is an explorer at heart.

Last time, my son Jeremy was able to join us and this time, it was my daughter-in-law Anne’s turn. Their integration was seamless.

Network, by Steven McDade

Our evenings have seen couples come, go, and reappear in new configurations. They’ve welcomed every new person one of us has wished to include. The only limitation is the size of my living room.

Among Christian’s friends, the regulars: Rainforest, Owen, Danieli, Pavlo, Li, Stephanie (and now Marco), there’s an understanding, I think, that BOTW evenings constitute the beginnings of a tradition—a promise to be kept as often as possible—a means of acknowledging the depth of friendships and solidarity in this world.

As always, change is imminent.

Thomas is leaving in a few weeks for Sudbury, Ontario, to begin a Master’s degree in Geology and find a new life path;

Rainforest, one of Christian’s original college friends, is in the process of choosing the university where he will next begin doctoral studies in Game Theory. His options include California;

Alce Harfield, Swans Flying Together

Raouf received his degree and has just found work, which means he’s now officially a Montrealer. He’s here to stay—we hope;

Christian will leave Montreal at the end of July to take up a three-month posting at an inlet on Baffin Island;

Owen is just about to become a Fine Arts graduate and head into his school-free future;

I don’t know how long we’ll be able to keep Saran in Montreal, but as long as he’s here, he’s a BOTW alumnus with an open invitation.

The world has become a much smaller place, and few of us dare to scrutinize the horizon. Instead, we turn to each other seeking companionship, friendship, a port in a storm, meaningful connection and best of all, the bonds of laughter.

The Best of the Worst gang, most recent version.