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?

 

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