THOUGHTS ON THE SECOND DAY OF THE SECOND MONTH OF THE YEAR 2020

Part of the THIS IS THE MOMENT series

February 2nd, 2020

I slid under the covers and my comforter last night, waiting to slip into sleep. I had just finished a perfect book—a posthumous compilation of essays by American writer Brian Doyle, titled One Long River of Song.  After first reading about it in the New York Times, I went looking for it online, where it was unavailable.

It seems now that booksellers had underestimated demand for this title, or that the timing of things was off, and demand had shown up a little before supply. Because the author was unknown to me, and because he was described, here and there, as a “Catholic writer” (I still don’t understand why anyone bothered to make that distinction), I let things go for several weeks, thinking that maybe it wasn’t for me. But it niggled at the back of my mind and so, shortly thereafter, I tried again to order it, and was happy to learn that it was now stocked all over the place.

I want you to know that for me, One Long River of Song is a perfect book; and by that I mean that it found its way into my hands at precisely the moment in my life when I needed it the most, when I was most ready to absorb its lessons and its copious amounts of joy and elevation, poignancy, honesty and wisdom.

Brian Doyle died four years ago, at the age of 60, of brain cancer and so, as I read the many dozens of short essays in the book that Doyle’s colleagues and family worked very hard at collating and bringing together under one cover, I knew that the flowing, passionate, exuberant, funny, earnest, hopeful,  occasionally wrathful and chastising, soulful and startlingly honest voice speaking inside my head as I read each essay was, in fact, no longer here on this earth. But of course, it is, by virtue of the writing this glorious human being left behind. As often happens when a book discovered randomly turns out to be a treasure, I read through it very quickly, in less than a week, and even managed, during those few days, to re-read many of the essays that reached deepest into me. And I had the shocking thought: I have lived longer than he did.

Michael Bennallack Hart (b. 1946)
Stonehenge

I know, now, that I will keep it on my night table—close by. Always. And I know that it will help me through the harsh episodes that surely lie ahead (as they do for all of us except that with stage 4 cancer, they loom; they are adamant).

Once I finished the last pages of the book last night, which included four pages of acknowledgements ( ! ), I lay in bed holding it close, passing my hand over its smooth cover, finding it difficult to separate from it. As I write this last phrase, I know it sounds strange, but what can I say? It is filled with thoughts, feelings and a spirituality based on joy and humility—not humbleness, Doyle was effusive and forceful—that are helpful to me and resonant. They feel very close to sacred. There is an energy emanating from Doyle’s words that speaks on a frequency that I need to remain connected to.

I think that he may have known, in a whispering premonitory way, that he would die quite young (though his parents lived long enough to celebrate their 75th wedding anniversary!), as one of his older brothers did, at the age of 64. It is woven through everything he wrote—this sense that life is glorious and bristling and swift. His life and his writing were one long prayer of gratitude.

 

*    *    *

Among the many dimensions of my life that preoccupy me more since my diagnosis (or maybe it’s just that I have more quiet time to stop, consider, meditate), is spirituality, and I wonder if anyone reaches the end of their life with beliefs and a sense of the transcendent that have remained unchanged through the decades. It seems unlikely, even near impossible, but of course I look at current events and see so many communities that have become more rigid, dogmatic and even calcified in their systems of belief, that I don’t know where I fit in and am not sure that I want to belong anywhere.

Neilson, M. E.; Sky, Hills (Autumn Evening); NHS Lothian (Edinburgh & Lothian Health Foundation); http://www.artuk.org/artworks/sky-hills-autumn-evening-184589

Like Brian Doyle, I was raised a Catholic. As time passed, it became clear to me that the faith of my parents was no longer mine. For a very long time now, it has seemed crucial to me that my spirituality should be fluid enough to be able to embrace and integrate the discoveries of modern cosmology and science; that it should also be attuned to the voices of the mystics of the past and those among us, all of whom are able to distill life’s truths, retaining and sharing only that which is essential;  that it should draw from Nature; and that it should be universal and unifying. After so many years teaching students from all over the world, with such a wide variety of cultures, languages and systems of belief, I’ve come to understand that there is always a core spirituality that binds us, that is expressed through love and joy and light… How we give, how we laugh together, how we see.

But where does that leave me, in times of weakness, fear and suffering? I can no longer speak to a personal Deity, the way I did when I was young, speaking to God the Creator, or the Spirit, or the personal Jesus…My understanding of the universe, thanks, in part, to the writings of people like Alan Lightman and the philosopher physicists, astrophysicists and quantum physicists of the 20th and 21st centuries, has opened me up to the notion of noetic experiences, but even more simply, to the necessity of a different language to talk about matters of the spirit, of the soul. And yet, the need to pray and to reach out to a force beyond me is still there, though personal entreaty never did feel right: there was always that feeling inside me, even as a young child, that so many people other than me deserved the ear of a listening God.

Since my cancer diagnosis, especially when the sun has set and the day is winding down, and I am more aware of my solitude, I do find myself speaking silently to the vastness, sending messages out that begin with “Dear Universe…”. Sometimes, the repetition of prayers learned in childhood such as the “Hail Mary” and the “Our Father” serve the same function as any mantra (it was lovely to discover recently that sometimes, Simon does the same thing, over in his bedroom). I wonder if I might feel comfortable sitting in a circle among Quakers, in shared silence.

Since my cancer diagnosis, I have felt a great need to reach out beyond myself to tap into the energy, the source of Love—that love that is all around me and lifts my spirits and brings me a deep sense of connection to others. It has made itself felt most pressingly when I’ve experienced feelings of bone deep, heart swelling gratitude.

Mi-Young Choi, Enlightenment

15 ROUNDS WITH AN IMPLACABLE ENEMY

The norovirus

Part of the THIS IS THE MOMENT series.

It must have been the bragging.

The way I’d been stating, with wonder and pride, that in the 15 months I’d been receiving chemotherapy, I hadn’t been sick; hadn’t caught the plague that felled Christian in the late fall of 2018; hadn’t even had a cold.

Tsk, tsk, tsk. All it took was the good ol’ norovirus.

On Thursday, November 14th, thinking that I had allowed for a period of “minimum safe distance”, I drove the 35km down the TransCanada to visit my mum, who had been sick with the stomach flu since the previous weekend. Her partner, a retired physician, was taking good care of her, but he had returned to his home in the city on Tuesday to look after things there.

My mum, who is the Energizer Bunny of octogenarians, was still weak from her ordeal and in need of supplies. So I scooped homemade chicken soup from our freezer, enriched it a bit with some gently simmered vegetables, bought some Yorkshire Gold decaf and also regular tea (for guests) and a whole assortment of dry biscuits from the British tea shop here in Hudson, picked up some bananas, some applesauce and delivered them the same day.

Looking fragile, as she does more and more, my mum was nevertheless visibly jazzed to have some company, and so, with my white cotton gloves on (because you can’t be too careful with stomach flu, even after 5 days), I warmed a bowl of soup for her, made the tea, and got the cookies arranged on a plate.

Sadler, Walter Dendy; Afternoon Tea; Cardiff Council; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/afternoon-tea-158989

The conversation was lovely! My mum brightened, and soon we were talking about books and Christmas and a whole bunch of things I can no longer remember. I purposely—in spite of the multiple cups of tea—did not use her bathroom before leaving. As I left, my mum said: “We have to do this more often, it’s such fun; our conversations are so interesting.” That was mostly just a good sales pitch. Mothers want to see their children, and cancer (and the added distance between us since my move to Hudson) has made a serious dent in my ability to visit her in any kind of regular fashion.

There is so little I can do for her…so little I can do for anyone, that I drove home imbued with a feeling of having done SOMETHING to alter my general ineffectiveness.

Ribot, Augustin Theodule; Mother and Daughter; Glasgow Museums; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/mother-and-daughter-85855

The next day, Friday the 15th, Simon was invited to dinner by one of the coolest couples on the planet, Heather and Adrien: she, a geology teacher at the same college as Simon, and he, an anthropologist at Université de Montréal—who speaks at least 5 languages fluently. They live in the most cutting edge house in Hudson. It looks like something out of an upscale Wallander episode. It’s a giant wood bungalow with all of the wooden structural features (ceilings, beams, walls, the works!) exposed. It’s geothermically heated, and situated on several acres of woodland. They’re vegan and grow most of their own food (of course!). Heather and Adrien are at the forefront of preparedness for climate change. They’re also warm and kind and that’s probably why Heather thought to say to Simon: “Hey! Bring your mum!”

The evening was so lovely. Mostly, I just sat there dazed by everyone’s brilliance and the breathtaking scope of their knowledge. I’d time-travelled and somehow wound up in a room with a bunch of Renaissance polymaths.

Plague doctor masque

And then dinner was served. And as the large bowl of tasty, multicoloured (there were beets!) roasted root vegetables served over basmati rice was placed in front of me—suddenly, as though someone sinister wearing a plague doctor mask had quickly entered and exited my field of vision—I felt the first gentle wave of noro-nausea move inside my stomach. The conversation was as animated as ever, but I was retreating from it, feeling hot and sticky and clammy as the waves of nausea started to build. I forced myself to finish my meal, sitting there like a stump, while the realization of what was happening to me became clearer and clearer, and then, in the gentlest, most urgent-without-sowing-panic voice, I asked my hosts: “Is there a bathroom nearby?.”

Stainton, Alice; Trug with Carrots and Vegetables; Bushey Museum and Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/trug-with-carrots-and-vegetables-16026

That poor powder room. Poor toilet bowl. It was hit with a thundering cascade of totally undigested, colourful root vegetables. Once. Twice. Oh God.

Twenty-four hours after visiting my mum, I was noro-infected up to my eyeballs. Is there a more mortifying way to experience a first encounter with brilliant and generous hosts?  The odds are against it, I think.

Of course, this was just the beginning. I didn’t sleep a wink that night, and was up at least 10 more times, my stomach turning itself inside out. By the next day, it was like I had been scraped off the battlefield—like someone about whom the triage people would have said: We’re not sure about her.”

I spent Saturday in my bed, flattened under the covers, drinking only water and a bit of salt-spiked apple juice (I eventually switched to salted orange juice cut with boiled water—the hydrating mix recommended by the CHUM).

Sunday, I graduated to banana and some apple sauce and as much water as I could drink. And an extra-protein Boost I think.

I had my sights on Monday, which was my sister Danielle’s birthday. I wanted to keep my promise to her to take her out for BBQ chicken and GREAT fries (= Côte-St-Luc BBQ), and then bring her back to Hudson for the afternoon. I succeeded!

Tuesday and Wednesday, it was back to the CHUM for blood tests, my pre-chemo check-up and chemo itself. Back to the routine. Back to….just cancer and treatment. I had lost a kilo (2.2 pounds), but otherwise, I was good to go.

Except that…I wasn’t quite right. I still had occasional waves of nausea. Slight pain in my stomach. I was still skittish around food, and Simon was watching my intake like a hawk.

Then came the evening of Monday, November 25th. There we were, Simon and I, watching a movie while we ate the chicken parmigiana I had prepared. The movie was fun, the company, as wonderful as always and…oh no…my guts were out to sea. It was happening AGAIN.

This is the thing about the treatment of cancer (most especially after 15 months’ worth): it leaves you immune-suppressed. I had thought myself above this. I had developed a false sense of security. And boy, did my body let me have it. I spent another complete night heaving over the toilet bowl only this time, both ends of my digestive tract were expressing their outrage in tandem.

The next morning, with Simon off to teach but checking in with me every hour, I would have scared a ghost. I kind of looked like a ghost balloon that has lost all its air. I also had dark circles under my eyes (well, I think they appear when there’s no more moisture in your body tissue) and a chalk-white face. Every time I got out of bed (to get water, my hydrating juice and more water), I did it in stages, just to make sure I wouldn’t just slump onto the floor. I wasn’t sure I had measurable blood pressure.

And I slept and slept and slept. And when I awoke, I’d sip a bit more liquid, and then, at times, my mind would wander about, picking questions out of the air like: How many times in a row can you relapse with gastro-enteritis? Can cancer spread while you’re being desiccated by a virus? How much weight am I losing, I wonder? Will food ever appeal to me again? Could I just live on bananas instead?

 

* * *

Tuesday ended, then Wednesday, Thursday and so on. And here I am, living what should have been chemo week, but turned into a period of convalescence.

Cursiter, Stanley; Abstract; Orkney Islands Council; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/abstract-167473

It’s Friday, December 6th. I’ve lost weeks of my life, and 3 kilos (about 6.5 pounds). Chemo was cancelled this week when blood tests indicated that my calcium and potassium levels disqualified me. Well, gee, d’uh. Call it dehydration or desiccation or The Great 15-rounder with the Norovirus, but expect a person’s electrolytes to be damned scanty when the final bell clangs.

I’ve been taking calcium (mint green coloured) and potassium supplements (white and looking alarmingly like suppositories) since Tuesday morning. I feel much, much better,  but every visit to the bathroom is still a full systems check. I’m getting there. God bless electrolytes. And the love of sons who care for you and check in on you.

* * *

I hope you’ve smiled through this. Though every word of it is true, it was meant to make you chuckle and okay, cringe a wee bit too.

But during all of those days when I was just lying quietly under bedding, too tired and sleepy to read or watch Netflix or Britbox or anything else, I was still living. Lying there under the soft,  warm weightlessness of my duvet, my head propped up by three pillows, able only to watch, through the window, the light changing outside, and hear the cars and occasional trucks zip up and down the street, I was mostly inside my head.

I feel as though I’ve just lived through a dress rehearsal for my last days—for my palliative weeks. I think I got a glimmer of what it might mean to become so debilitated that I can no longer, or barely, get out of bed; that I no longer have any sort of appetite. It’s easy for me to see why I might choose not to fight. No more 15-rounders. No more rounds at all.

The norovirus telescoped from out of my immune-suppressed chemo body which telescopes from my cancerous body…the tendrils getting thinner at each remove from the point of origin, until I could barely touch life at all…if only temporarily. This time.

I was recovering, quietly, in a home that is mine and also Simon’s and soon Cindy’s too, and it’s a place where I feel loved and safe. This fills me with gratitude. A place where I’m surrounded by books and all of the human experiences, stories and meditations these contain. This brings me joy. A place where the spaces left on the walls are decorated with the faces of family members—my children and grandchildren—and the artwork of friends. This gives me hope for the future. Their future.

My fifteen-rounder has brought death closer to me, and helped me to feel less afraid.

To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it!”- Charlie Chaplin

Rand, Michael Anthony; Sunshine through Mist; Lyth Arts Society; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/sunshine-through-mist-166839

 

 

ARTFUL ANTICIPATION

IMG_2750
Pointe-Claire Village, December 28th 2015

Right after Halloween, it started. Christmas decorations up in every shopping centre. Lots of bling. Christmas music—not that many traditional carols—playing in endless loops.

The usual.

My work schedule picked up a lot in November-December. Days just whooshed by. And then suddenly, it was the second week of December and I had done almost no Christmas shopping. Hadn’t put up a single decoration in the house.

With Christmas just a few weeks away, I felt like a beat up old winter tire: half-frozen, half deflated.

It’s right about then that my son Simon arrived on the scene. With his glad tidings. Or to use 21st century language: with his irresistible, upbeat energy and effortless joy.

In no time at all, we were on a focused and fun track.  We were on a mission. First, there were the recipe searches. We sat together on a Saturday afternoon and looked through the magazines I’ve collected over the years that are stuffed with proven recipes. We surfed online, stopping a long time on Nigella Lawson’s website, hoping to pay homage to my son Christian’s year in London by making some smashing British Christmas puddings and cakes.

Then came the marathon cooking/baking weekends. Two of them, in fact, that caused us to STOP all of the work we normally bring home and pore over for far too many unpaid hours (we are both teachers), and instead, make things happen in the kitchen!

 

The tree in the heart of Pointe-Claire Village. December 28th 2015
The tree in the heart of Pointe-Claire Village. December 28th 2015

We cooked and baked till our backs ached and our hair and skin smelled of it all: mini-tourtières, ragoût de boulettes, shortbread, gingerbread, Nigella’s chocolate fruit cake (to die for—thanks, Nigella!), jam-filled butter cookies, chocolate hazelnut mocha balls and cinnamon roll cookies…

We did it all with my laptop next to us on the table where we rolled out all of our dough, drinking gallons of tea and listening to The Great British Bake-Off (Simon’s idea, with Christian’s tech support). We got through seasons 2 and 3.

 

 

When we were too tired to cook, we shopped.

This year's tree
This year’s tree

A week before Christmas, my husband, Christian and I got the tree up and decorated.

I lost track of lots of things (house cleaning among them), and it didn’t matter.

And some time, in the midst of it all, it occurred to me that this, in fact, is what anticipation is all about. And that anticipation can be a very good thing.

As part of the yoga practice that I’ve been developing for the past two and a half years, I’ve been working on mindfulness, and on learning to be more centered; more in-the-moment. There’s something to be said for pushing out the anxiety that wants to build and build, as pressure from both the outside world and my own mind swirls around inside me.

And there’s something important about turning away from the expectations that my mind manufactures constantly; the mental check-lists of what my life should be.

But it also occurred to me—with a bit of coaching from Simon and Christian—that pushing things out of my mind to keep stress at bay also prevents me from feeling the joy of anticipation.

In Pointe-Claire, QC.
In Pointe-Claire, QC.

All anticipation is, really, is the ability to see the joy in every part of a process, in every step of a journey. Regardless of its destination.

Time will pass, we will move through it, inevitably, so let’s mark every moment of it as we discover where it’s leading us.

Some people seem to have a natural talent for joy and understand the value of artful anticipation.

What Simon never loses track of is why he’s doing all of the things he undertakes at Christmas time.

Full moon on the rise, on a snowless Christmas Eve, in Pointe-Claire, QC
Full moon on the rise, on a snowless Christmas Eve, in Pointe-Claire, QC

It’s for love. Love of life and of his family and friends. That’s what makes the planning and the doing fun. Joyful. Even when things don’t quite go according to plan. Even as plans change.

This year, for instance, winter forgot to show up in time for Christmas. With temperatures rising to weird numbers like 17 Celsius on December 24th—instead of a more familiar minus 5 degrees C—it became obvious that we were definitely NOT going to have a white Christmas. People shopped in t-shirts instead of parkas.

 

 

On Christmas Eve, a friend of mine posted this on Facebook:

« This Christmas is all awkward… There is no snow…,my boys don’t believe in Santa anymore… So no halfway eaten cookies and milk under the tree…no letter from Santa…no hiding wrapped gifts

Another step farther from childhood…

Anyways
Happy holidays everyone! Wish you all health and happiness and all the best! »

 It was such an honest post. There were personal elements in it: her sons growing up, the wistfulness of small traditions being abandoned, the fading of a phase of her family’s life.

But there was an unease that we could all relate to: strange, unseasonal weather that left us feeling «off». That felt ominous. Weather that echoed the feelings and fears we have about change in our lives. About Christmas, like so many things, becoming undependable, or unrecognizable.

All the more reason, then, to live in the advent of important moments.

Home on Lakeshore Road, in Pointe-Claire.
House on Lakeshore Road, in Pointe-Claire.

This is what I realized this year. And it changed everything. And my three Christmases—one with my in-laws (about 30 of us!) on the 24th ; a quieter Christmas day at home with family and a dear friend; and a third, on the 26th, with my mum, family and extended family—were the happiest in years.

Because everyone showed up. Full of cheer. Because we were sincerely glad to be together.

There are people who have a special kind of gathering energy. They are the ones who bring everyone together. My mum and son Simon have that energy. They change things for all of us. They make things happen. And that’s okay. All we have to do is cooperate. Jump on board.

IMG_2475
A house just around the corner.

My son Christian cultivated the art of anticipation by planning and effecting his gift purchases  months in advance. He was just bursting to finally give them to us.

I found myself responding to the lights that are hung everywhere at this time. So I went off on foot or in my car photographing my freshly dolled-up home town and neighbourhood, when I had a few free hours.

We went together to see Star Wars: the Force Awakens, which my sons have looked forward to for years!

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Simon, Christian and my husband, at the Kirkland Cineplex. The Force Awakens!

My granddaughter Penelope, who is 3 ¾ years old, took at look at the season’s first snowfall and exclaimed:

« I love the snow! It makes my heart beat faster! »

That’s anticipation.

Penelope and her brother Graeme, playing under the table, on December 26th
Penelope and her brother Graeme, playing under the table, on December 26th