THE SHAPE OF TIME

Part of the THIS IS THE MOMENT series

  • My extraordinary friend Louise, who will turn seventy this summer, said to me (in French): “The thought of turning seventy, I’ve gotten used to, [it will happen in July] but then I think that the next milestone is eighty!” (she looks much younger and acts agelessly). I look at her and say: “Seventy sounds awfully good to me.” Ah. She realizes what she has just said. That’s how most of us live, isn’t it? Counting our decades before they’re hatched.
Field, Michele Elizabeth; Trees through the Seasons; Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/trees-through-the-seasons-43105
  • The list of my chemo side effects continues to develop insidiously. Lately, it’s eyes that tear and leak and burn almost all the time, causing dramatically reduced vision; joint pain all over the place. The other day, my right thumb felt like it had been sprained, and is still very sore; this happened as I walked in a parking lot, touching nothing (Ouch!). Instant injury. There’s my left knee, my right hip, my right elbow (preventing me from doing the cobra position in a sun salutation!); my lips are cracking and peeling; if I sit—the way I am now, to write—for any length of time, I can barely rise from the chair. Everything has become stiff and painful. I am the Tin Woman, like my partner in the land of Oz.

 

  • BUT (here is the loveliest of kickers): I have neuropathy in my hands and feet, which is why I’ve been taken off Oxaliplatin, as I’ve mentioned before. Probably temporarily. But what I love is what the doctors say. They say: Well, we’ll give you a good long break because otherwise the damage can become permanent.

I smile inside and out. A little, invisible balloon of hope rises from my fearful mind.  It could become permanent. You don’t say things like that to someone you know will likely be dead in 2-3 years…At least I don’t think you would. And that’s enough for me right now. They’ve given a new meaning to permanence.

Giovannetti, Luigi Pericle; March of Time I; York Museums Trust; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/march-of-time-i-8789
  • Last week, during one of the loveliest lunches I’ve ever had with my mum (who is 84), she says that of course, SHE DOES NOT WANT TO OUTLIVE ME (this is every parent’s nightmare—age has no bearing here). On the other hand, of course, as she is FULL of vitality and loves life, she wants lots more of it. I say to her that she looks just fantastic sitting across from me, and seems likely to be on track to reach well into her nineties. So we agree that we will try to leave this world as close together as possible, neither one having to live very long without the other. She seems satisfied with that. It’s a goal she can live with.
Day, Jean; Leaves, Four Seasons ; University College London Hospitals; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/leaves-four-seasons-124063
  • My son Christian and I are writing a Harlequin romance together. It was his idea, several years ago. It took us a while to get it on the rails. But oh, what fun we had thinking about it and planning it. It was an idea born well before we knew of my cancer. It was always meant to be serious fun: that is, something we would do for the joy of it, but with the wholehearted intention of having it published and earning income from it. We read some romance novels to prepare. Christian went to the Harlequin website to gather up all of their “How to” parameters. We’re more than half way in. It’s set in a place just like Hudson. It’s for real now. Not just pie-in-the-sky. We work so well together. I want to see this through to publication. I want it very much. And while he and I are busy making it happen, there is joy and lots of looking-forward-to. What I want most from this project is the doing, which keeps us close, and something more. Before I die, I want to know that Christian’s writing life is launched. I already know that he can turn out publishable books for the rest of his life—his writing voice is so distinctive, his mind a whirring generator of narrative (I don’t know how he keeps it all inside his head but that, apparently, is no problem at all)—but I want that to have begun. I want to see it and KNOW that he’s got his foot in the door..
The Cloud Man blew on our backyard trees last week (or perhaps he just kissed their tops? (Photo taken by me)
  • And then there’s Simon, and this multi-generational living project he conceived of, that took one hell of an unpredictable turn last summer when I was diagnosed just as we moved into our new home. His twin, Jeremy, lives happily in Beaconsfield with Anne, and Penelope and Graeme (we’re all goofy, over-the-top in love with them). Jeremy’s life is also enhanced by the ineffable bond he has with Simon, and by his love for Christian (and let us not forget that his mother and father also adore him). But Simon’s vision of the future included this house in Hudson, which is nothing to him if it isn’t a home.

I don’t want to die before our friend Cindy has come and converted part of the house into her studio apartment. This was always the plan. I know that time will allow Simon to create “family” in one of many possible reconfigurations that are meaningful and love-generating. But I don’t want to die before others are here with us. I don’t believe Simon is meant to live alone for any length of time whatsoever. I don’t imagine many identical twins are, but someone as gregarious as Simon? There are things I want to know,  that I want settled, and this one is important.

* * * *

Next month will mark our first anniversary here, in Hudson. This has been the year to topple all previous ones. I’m so glad that none of us is saddled with the gift of prescience.

EXPANDING CIRCLES

Dodd, Francis; Willow in Winter; Manchester Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/willow-in-winter-204869

Part of the THIS IS THE MOMENT series

December 31st, 2018

2019 will be here tomorrow. Am I happy to turn the page on 2018?

It’s a question that’s come up many times these past few weeks and though the people asking it actually pause and wait to see how I’ll answer, for most of them, it’s really just a statement. There’s no question mark. Good riddance, is what they mean.

Despite the obvious life-changing events of 2018 that dismantled my own existence and transformed it into both nightmare and epiphany, I’m never sure that turning the page on a year is cause for celebration.

There’s something about taking even a second of life for granted that prevents me from wishing time away, but in practice, just like everyone else, my mindfulness is set adrift by the slightest wind or whim.

That’s what’s brought me to this keyboard today.

I should be at the CHUM right now. I was originally scheduled for my bi-weekly pre-chemo tests today, followed by 5-6 hours of chemo on Wednesday. But I’m not going. That’s my decision, made after persuasive prompting from Simon, and a deep, deep fatigue and weariness that has settled in me this December. When Simon and I realized that my next round would require me to travel to the CHUM on New Year’s Eve and then again on the day after New Year’s, we instantly agreed that this mustn’t happen, and that I should ask that my chemo be postponed to next week.

A one week reprieve—that’s all I wanted. But it feels like so much more. My hands aren’t healing enough between bi-weekly rounds of treatment, and so they always hurt; my energy levels barely make it to 7 out of 10 before I’m back in treatment; my morale is being affected by the 14-day box I live in.

The season is icy and dark.

Walsh, Claire Cooper; Realms of Possibility; Art in Healthcare; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/realms-of-possibility-184111

January 2nd, 2019

I had dinner out last night with my Mum, her partner Claude, two of his three grown children, and my sons, plus Anne, my daughter-in-law. We got together on the West Island, as is almost always the case, forcing Claude’s family—city folk—to come to the burbs, which they do, graciously, almost every time we invite them. We were at La Maison Verte, where the food was delicious and the company was, well, family.

I spent New Year’s evening sitting across from my mum and Claude. My mum was in good spirits, so the conversation flowed. They’re both 84 years old, and doing well, but these days, of course, it’s hard to talk about most things without the shadow of my cancer there, poised to dampen everything. Then, somewhat to my surprise, my mum began to talk about the grim reality of growing old, and about the fortitude and the grit required to deal with the hard parts of each and every day. I think she meant the incremental losses that are inescapable: aching joints that lessen mobility and make this winter’s ice even more of a nightmare; eyesight that is not as reliable as it once was and has required cataract surgeries; the lingering side effects of cancers, multiple treatments, illnesses and the surgeries that each of them has dealt with, and which have sapped their resilience.

Beatty, P.; Season of Love #2; Art in Healthcare; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/season-of-love-2-184297

It’s such an interesting perspective from where I sit. I couldn’t help thinking that if the miracle occurs, and my cancer retreats for a good long while, then I may then have the privilege of entering the daily survival zone my mum and Claude inhabit.

What came to mind next was something I’d been thinking about for a few days, something that turned time on its head in an entirely different way. Looking too far ahead, when you have stage 4 cancer, is fraught with painful traps.

I’ve been observing my beautiful grandchildren, Penelope and Graeme, who are like the ocean, or a primeval forest, or a clear night sky in summer, or grand, symphonic music, or perhaps all of these at once. They are sublime creations, impossibly wonderful, painfully lovable and constantly changing into something new, and more, and completely fascinating. And of course, I can’t help but wonder how long I will be able to know them and follow their metamorphosis into adulthood. And I thought of my own mother who has had the immense privilege of seeing her grandchildren—all five of them—reach the ages of thirty-five (three in all), thirty-two and twenty-seven. She knows who they are, who they love, what their professions are, and what sort of humans they have become. She carries this knowledge inside. They have added rings to her life—expansions of love and joy.

Grant, Keith; Sunrise over Spitzbergen; University of Birmingham; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/sunrise-over-spitzbergen-34711

I’m not even sure I’ll see Penelope turn ten or Graeme turn eight. Who knows? That’s the thing. I don’t have those years secured away and well-lived in their company. But my mum does—and she has even been able to know and love her grandchildren’s children (once again, all five of them—so far). Another ring added, expanding her life.

One mistake that these thoughts twist me into making is to hold back from Penelope and Graeme, calibrating the expression of my love for them, so that my disappearance from their lives won’t cause them as much pain. Cancer treatment has kept me at the hospital an awful lot, lowered my energy and caused me to be less present anyway. I can’t run around and be the grand-maman that I was. Sometimes, I wonder if they feel the decay emanating from me. Why not recede, ever-so-subtly, from their lives?

These are awful, stupid, self-protecting thoughts that have strong roots, and persist. I struggle with them. I forget that love is a growing, expanding emotion.

Haughton, Benjamin; Dead and Live Tree; Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/dead-and-live-tree-24321

On Christmas Eve, this theory of love was put to the test when I went to join the Daoust clan, my husband’s family, for our annual bash. This year witnessed the best attendance ever, and we were well over thirty people celebrating. But this was also the first Christmas after my separation from Sylvain–their blood. It says something about my Daoust family that this made no difference to them, and that they were very anxious to see me, as I had disappeared since late June.

I thought I would be skittish, but as the day and hour approached, I found myself so looking forward to seeing each and every one of them, and swore to myself that I would share this feeling every chance I got. And I did. It was so easy to smile and to linger in the long, warm, encircling embraces I was offered, so many of which qualified as bear hugs. My Daoust loved ones smiled and asked me concerned, pointed questions, and then moved on to just being there, all of us together.

McDade, Steven; Network; Southampton Solent University; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/network-17290

I’ve reminded myself many times that I’ve known them since I was barely 17 years old; that I’ve been through so many happy events and tragic moments with them—that we’ve grown up and grown older together, and that our children are reaching further into the future…Ring after glorious ring.

On Christmas Eve and at New Year’s supper, there were so many smiles. There was such sincerity in what was said and how we touched each other.

There’s a lesson here for me. I’m an introverted person and this need of mine to retreat is not always the way to go. Saying “Here I am”, with open arms this year, allowed me to recognize the steadfast circle that surrounds me, to see all that it embraces and to understand just how limitless is its ability to expand.

(I trust in love. I abandon myself to love.)

Farquharson, Joseph; Dawn; Walker Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/dawn-97077

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE ROLE OF A LIFETIME

First, there was Penelope.

Made from the ingredients provided by her papa, Jeremy, one of my twin sons, and her mama, Anne, who also grew up in Pointe-Claire, Penelope entered the world four and a half years ago.

Penelope
Penelope.

I’m not ashamed to say that when her parents first announced that she was in the making, I felt both elated and apprehensive. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel ready to love her; it was that I felt too ready to love her, and knew in my gut that I would constantly be torn between my working life and my desire to be with her and watch her grow.

I’d been lucky enough to avoid making such a heart-rending choice raising my own sons in their first years. A generation later, it caught up with me.

This part of the story worked out just fine, because I’ve simply acknowledged that the professional life it took me so long to fashion is essential to me. I’ve accepted (with no small measure of regret) that there are tender and wonderful experiences in Penelope’s life that I won’t be there to see. It worked out because in spite of all that, I love her to death and she returns my love with a sweetness that would melt a heart of stone. And, most importantly, it worked out because there’s a small army of people who also adore her and spend as much of their time as possible with her.

Graeme at 2

Then, there was Graeme.

Made with as much love and equally miraculous ingredients from Jeremy and Anne, he was born two years after his sister. She weighed six pounds thirteen ounces; he weighed nine and a half pounds.

 

Graeme arrives.

From the moment she was able to focus them, Penelope’s eyes have had a disconcerting, penetrating and knowing way of looking at everyone. When she was still an infant, her uncle Christian called it getting “the ocular pat-down”. All I know is that when her large, round, intense brown eyes locked onto me, it was like being scanned down to the molecular level, and it was all I could do not to confess: “I’m not worthy! I’m not worthy!”.

Penelope at 13 months

Graeme’s eyes seemed to see the world differently. They smiled, even when his mouth didn’t. To her intensity, sensitivity and emotional life that is still always barely skin deep, Graeme brought a good-natured temperament and a fondness for the company of females and cuddles. He’s naturally funny, and she has a terrific sense of humour.

It’s hard to imagine two children getting more love than Penelope and Graeme, and an ocean of it comes from their uncles Simon and Christian, who were felled the instant they held Penelope in their arms, just hours after her birth.

Simon’s experience is unlike anyone else’s, because, as the identical twin of Penelope and Graeme’s papa Jeremy, Simon can claim a genetic kinship with them that none of us can match. They are of him to a degree beyond us. Simon was away in France doing post-doctoral research for the first six months of Penelope’s life (though he was here on the day of her birth!), which was a torment, and which he’s been making up for ever since. Thank God for Skype, which allowed him to see her daily on her mama’s lap.

Graeme in his papa’s arms, with Simon

 

Simon with P&G

Christian was away in London from September 2014 to September 2015 living an extraordinary year and was always anxious that somehow, Penelope especially (because Graeme was just a baby) would forget him or that he would lose that trust and closeness he had nurtured with her. He says that the day she was placed in his arms, just a couple of hours after her birth, something inside him opened up and he knew that he would do anything for her. Always.

 

Christian with P&G

All of this was useless fretting. Children recognize love and devotion instantly and move closer to it as to a source of warmth and life.

With Christian. September 2016

 

Christian with Penelope, summer 2016

These days, everyone is in Montreal at the same time. We often refer to the children as P and G in conversation, though Penelope is also Beans, a name chosen by her papa in honour of a favourite lunch dish. It’s what Graeme calls her. Mostly, he’s kept his name. While his papa and Simon often call him Buddy, the rest of us are happy with his given name which is solid and sweet and upbeat when it rolls off the tongue.

 

Simon with Graeme, Christmas 2015

The world got so much bigger with P&G in it. With a two-generation gap between us, they’re my intimate connection to a future that I will not see, but that now has several new and beloved inhabitants. They’re our progeny too. That’s how we feel about them, and it’s why we have reshaped our vision of life around them.

Having fun. Spring 2016

One of the strange tricks love plays on us is that it exists out of time.

I love you and will always love you. My love is limitless.

Every now and then, my mind will wander into the grey shrouded future, wondering what difficulties lie in wait there for my children, what hardships they’ll meet. In one such moment, as I visualized Simon, Jeremy and Christian aging and becoming more fragile and dependent, it struck me full force that of course I wouldn’t be there to help them and to love them. I didn’t give a damn that I’d be dead; what mattered was that I wouldn’t be there to care for them.

I mentioned this to Simon one day and he said: “But we’ll have each other. Siblings, mum, they’re so important.”

 And then we talked about Penelope and Graeme, and how good it was that they have each other.

With their mama, Anne, October 2016

 

This piece ends with a smile. To a degree that seems impossible really, Penelope and Graeme get along fantastically well. P is such a compassionate child that retaliation of any kind is never her first response to any of her brother’s transgressions, which are few. She’s grateful to have a companion in life, a sidekick. She’s happy being one of two. Graeme, in return, worships her, follows her, and mimics her before experimenting on his own. His go-to phrase is “Me too.”

They’re two peas in a pod. Last week, on her “Special Guest Day” at preschool, Penelope chose to invite Graeme. This was a breach of protocol because in the past, young siblings have proven to be uncooperative guests. But not Graeme. He moved through his sister’s routines alongside her like a small diplomat. When, after reading a story about an adventurous squirrel, Miss Honour or Miss Maria asked what the squirrel’s name should be, Graeme responded BEAR! which made his sister roar with laughter.

I see their mother’s vigilance, constancy and loving presence in the bond between them. They’re so well suited for the role of a lifetime.

With my two sisters thousands of miles away on the West Coast, I have found sisters in my closest friends. Siblings—ours from birth or chosen over time— embody our desire to love and to be loved and supported in intimate, lifelong networks.

But being a brother or a sister (if you are lucky enough) is the role of a lifetime.”

― Holly Goldberg SloanAppleblossom the Possum