Hedgebrook

Last week I went to Washington State, to Whidbey Island, to participate in a Master Class at Hedgebrook, taught by Karen Joy Fowler. I was delighted and blessed by the peace of Hedgebrook Farm and the wonderful staff there, and I found myself working not only on my novel, but spilling forth little pieces of poetry. Funny what comes when you devote yourself to creativity and work.

October 19th

things fell into place too easily,
I felt
lush forests awaited, taking me into their
embrace
I wept,
for the uniqueness of this gift
of acceptance
me, willow
home

October 20th

in the early morning dark
I crept into the garden to
pick fresh, cold raspberries
sweet, they
fed me
flowers harvested and
returned to my
vase
I found myself
happy
filled with simple
joy

October 22nd

met a dog on
my morning walk,
Jake by name
a good dog name
when I did not feed
him my apple
he abandoned me,
fickle male
but the birds in the shrubs
they found the core to be
delicious
how not, when
just picked from
the tree

Hedgebrook Morning

awake so early,

the dark is benevolent

the fire crackles

and hisses in my

woodstove,

water preparing

for coffee

the silence

a balm

in a busy

life

I open the

door

and listen;

it is not

silent

it is a world

alive with sound:

birds, insects, trees dancing,

rain dripping

this simple

Willow life

is such a gift,

silence and

the sound of life

moving around

me

peace and joy

an embrace

Rootiness

today, I found a root of myself
not roots, singular
wandering, a bumpy, twisty, painful
attack
it came growing up from those days of
solitary sojourn
in upstate New York
an empty place, a community
of strangers with souls and bodies

a boy I knew
recognized the void in which I roamed
but tormented instead of freeing
my fragile and powder winged frame

until today, those days were lost
very little of the geography or the people
lingered in my memory
I felt nothing for the day, the hours
of being there
nothing for the years or political strife—
in the news, on the street, invading the woods
and parking lots both
and
of course upstairs in our home
where my father cursed my mother for my sister’s
errant soul

she wandered then
I wander now

that boy
is very much part of the
psychology of me in those times
he both taught and erased from memory
he spoke of trust, peace, ecology
anarchy and moratorium
even love
all empty words, finally

oh, I know where he is now
but can he be that same person
for whom life meant everything
but lacked care for another’s essential dignity
words meant everything
feelings nothing
he fought me with words
but gave me none by which to soften
the woody roots beneath me
nothing deserved in memory
but pain

Mystery

When I held my father’s feverish bluing fingers in February and watched him take his last gentle breath, I marveled at the mysteries of life that had brought us both to this moment. He had lived eighty-five years and was reaching towards peace. I was fifty-seven and at last old enough to understand that and bear the responsibilities elderly parents bring to us; mature at last, thank God Almighty, mature at last.

On the last day of June I learned that I was to become a grandmother, another of the great and wonderful mysteries that life offers us: the experience of new life. I was struck dumb; I told my son and his wife how delighted I was, thrilled really, but I knew, as usual, it would take me a few days to process the information in my own way. Alongside my grief, I feel growing in me a small green and vital vine of twisty-turny love for this as yet unknown human being. Who will he or she be? Will s/he look like my son, or like my beautiful daughter-in-law? What will baby’s first word be, favourite food, smile be like? All of this is unknowable, but these are the small things that give life its mystery. How happy I am to be part of all this!

But there are many days of mysteries to be grateful for between now and then… the love and thoughtfulness of good friends, the cuddly ears of well-loved dogs, the shared meals with our talkative family, the sway of the dancing trees in front of our house, the quiet of Georgian Bay at sunrise and sunset, and this good and loving shared life with my husband, David. There are so many other things that I could have mentioned…but the awareness of these is what is important today. Life is full; my life is full. My cup runneth over.

Going Home.

This is a response to a prompt about “going home”, and I roamed through the past and found this moment.  I hope you enjoy it.

“Mom,” a call from the back of the van. “How long do you think it will be before we are home?”  This amidst teenage girl chatter and The Spice girls singing “Wannabe”.

“Well,” I reply, “I’m guessing two and a half hours.”  Generalized groans from the girls, who are quickly back chattering about things that matter: “Did you see Jesse and Kara together at the dance…EEWWW.  And Lynn’s friend, Mel, was, like all over John…and his girlfriend was at a tournament in Barrie!!  That is soooo not okay…  Hey are you going to Marsha’s on Thursday?…  My biology lab results are not right…who has Mr. B for Bio?” and so on and so forth. 

To our west is Lake Nipissing, and the evening approaches.  As the girls chatter, I reflect upon the day.  We left the high school around noon in order to make it to Sturgeon Falls for a one off game. These Grade Eleven girls have been playing together since they were in Grade Seven.  They are a team.  Not just because they play together as one, but because of their time together they are all friends, even if they spread out into different groups back at school. Our foreign student from Luxembourg has furrows in her forehead; the chatter is so fast and so colloquial that despite her gift for languages, she is missing a lot.

I have an underlying winter chill.  Sturgeon Falls does not yet have a Tim Hortons and as a result my stomach growls; there will be no food until we reach North Bay.

The girls had a good game, as always: lots of team communication and sharing and passing.  Their coach, George, has taught them well, despite the odd toss of his clipboard and impatient, “Girls, what are you doing? What play are you supposed to be running?”  It is all part of that rite of passage that is high school.  But, when you live in a one high school town, you travel a lot, and to preserve costs, parents must help.  It has been a long day of being largely the ignored taxi driver…can’t get no respect, nor tips!  Oh, but I don’t mind…they are great kids, and I can see them changing and preparing for university.  With the exception of one or two players, they are all honour students.  They are alternately loving high school and hating being held back at the same time.  I won’t be driving this group for too much longer.  They are leaving me behind.

On my right, the sky above Lake Nipissing is displaying sunset’s finest colours: purple, fuchsia, pale pink and orange.  It is stunning, breathtakingly beautiful.  I observe the rules of the road, but this colourful display is suddenly calling to me.

I stop the van and shout: “Girls, out…check out this sky!!”  They come pouring out, shaking off potato chip crumbs.  They, too, are struck dumb, at least for a few minutes.  We stand in the winter chill and take it all in, the prize of the day.

“Vicky,” one of the girls says, “thanks so much.  This is great.” The exchange student is aglow with the size of the lake and the sky.

“Okay,” I say, “let’s get to North Bay where we can eat!!”

“That would be great,” they reply. “Thanks for driving us, Vicky.”

“No problem,” I reply. Respect found; team good; sky a bonus.

“All I really want, all I really really want…I wanna ha, I wanna ha, I wanna zigggazighaa!”

One Week.

The bubbling noise is hard to ignore. It is followed by a laboured intake of breath.  My father has been struggling for breath for the last four days.  Today is the hardest to watch: he has a fever which medication is no longer helping, and bed sores are starting to form on his heels, his hips, his shoulders and knees.  It is a painful sight, but one to which I feel I must bear witness.  Five years, almost to the day, since he entered an institution, my father is finally giving in to death’s call.  But not without a fight:  The proverbial fight to the death.

What a long journey this has been. I had no idea when I first realized how confused he was that alcohol was not the source, but the solace to which he clung.  His well-built barriers now broken down, he was experiencing the after shocks of a much-delayed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  He had lived alone as a young teenager on the streets of London at war.  He had seen things that a child should not; at fifteen he had manned an anti- aircraft gun alone on the roof of a paint factory.  He had killed to save hundreds of lives, but he had saved lives with the cost of his own peace.

At the institution in Guelph, his first home away from home, I sat with him one whole day while he wept and kept saying, “Everything is broken.”  I couldn’t make sense of it.  “What’s broken, Dad?” I asked. He had no answer.  I tried reassurance, “The family is all well.  There is nothing to worry about.”  He was inconsolable. His words, “Broken, all broken,” accompanied by heart-rending wails of grief.  The social worker arrived and explained that this was something she had witnessed many times in veterans of the war: the mental strength to hold the memories at bay was leaving him, and he was, she thought, reliving a particularly difficult moment.  We were both helpless to do anything but stay stalwartly with him.

Since then, he has had months of alternating lucidity and fearful confusion.  I received calls at night when he was terrified that he would be found by some malignant enemy who he could not name, or that he had no money to pay the bill.  He was a traditional sundowner: agitated later in the day and unable to settle.  Often my reassuring words would help the nurses to get him to sleep.  “Don’t worry, Dad.  I’ll pay the bill tomorrow,” or “Don’t worry about a thing.  Please just be polite to the staff and return to your room.  We’ll sort it out tomorrow.”  But, of course, tomorrow he had forgotten the wisdom of the day before. His demons stalked him for months.  A woman in my fifties, with grown children of my own, I was finally learning what growing up was all about: Life is difficult and messy.  There are things that are broken that cannot be fixed.  My once proud, articulate and intelligent father was receding, slipping away.  I could no longer find him. He would never again hold my arm crossing the street; I would hold him, ensure that he was safe. This, I learned, was the rite of passage into later middle age.

The last two years he has not known who I am.  He has been more peaceful; the demons have vanished to be replaced by a vacancy and slackness.  He woke up one morning certain that he was unable to walk, and so it was. A wheelchair was ordered, and he never walked again.  How does one make sense of this? Ah, but there is no making sense of everything.  In my youth, everything had seemed so black or white.  This caring for elderly parents has taught me about the thick grey fog of uncertainty.

It hasn’t been all bad: I have learned that long-term care nurses can be such wise agents of mercy.  This week, this week of dying, countless people have cared for him as if he were their own. Loving hands have rubbed his skin with lotion, suctioned the fluid from his throat and mouth and soothed his fevered brow with cool cloths.  They have spoken to him with respect and gentleness.  Not a single one has failed to ask how they can be of help to my mother, to me, or my daughter as we sit through this vigil.  This, too, has been a revelation.  Gifts of mercy and kindness are given regularly and generously in this world of the dying.

Tonight, as I held my father’s bluing fingers, hot with fever, I urged him to rest, to let go, to rest comfortably knowing that the family was safe, that he had done his job well.  I sense, however, that he does not yet believe it. He is still trying to stay, to hold on to something, to make sure that we will not endure any ill.  We sang to him, songs from his childhood.  He moved in our direction.  He heard. The singing gave us joy.  Even in an unskilled voice, to sing is to release something that is beautiful.  Another lesson I will continue to learn. Joy finds us in the doing, not the seeking.

I am dogged by fatigue.

The words of the 23rd Psalm, read this afternoon by the Anglican priest touched me. ‘Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  Those words will stay with me, as will the feel of my father’s burning hand.  Lord, in whatever form you exist, show thy servant mercy tonight.

Sleep.

 

 

 

Impulsively, but fortuitously, I signed up for a memoir writing course with Cori Howard of the Momoir Project.  Our first assignment was a “new beginning” piece that was to be only a page long.  Here is my contribution.  By the way, a lovely group participating in that course.  Do visit Cori’s site.

 

At eight o’clock this morning a physician put a dipstick into a cup of my fourteen year old son’s urine and told me that he had Type 1 (Juvenile) Diabetes. The beta cells of his pancreas are no longer secreting insulin, and he will need insulin therapy for the rest of his life. I can’t think straight; I can’t feel anything; I don’t know what to say to my son besides, “I love you. We will get through this.” I am lying: I feel like dying, passing out, sleeping, just stopping breathing if this is what he will have to live with. I also have no information: what is this disease whose name I know?

Philip, my husband and I are in the car; he was deemed well enough to travel to the team who will explain everything to us today; we are all bracing ourselves, armor on. He is quiet; he doesn’t want the radio or his usual music. Our talkative son is speechless. As am I. He cannot eat until we have seen the team. No matter, he feels too nauseated to eat anyway, his normally pink skin white and clammy. We park in the car lot across the street and enter the building. The team is waiting for us. 

It is a bitterly cold afternoon, the roads slippery with ice and a dusting of snow. We have driven an hour to meet with the people in a small white building adjacent to the hospital. The sign says that it is the Diabetes Resource Centre. In denial, I’m still struggling with why I am here.

Two hours later, after graphs and explanations and drug descriptions, Philip is asked if he would like to test his blood himself and give himself his first insulin shot. He replies, “Yes.” His chin wobbles a little. My heart shrinks and squeezes until it hurts. Despite the numbness.

Philip, holding an Insulin Pen, dials up the appropriate amount of insulin, pulls up his shirt to expose his belly and tries to get hold of some flesh. He hasn’t any; the disease has wasted away all fat and even some muscle. Struggling with his fingers and fighting his emotions, he finally acquires a pathetic grip. He pushes in the needle and delivers the dose. His new life has begun.

Watching him do this, resisting the urge to run very far away, I breathe in and breathe out for what feels like the first time today. Suddenly I feel again, everything at once, but also such pride. So much courage our boy has. The briefest of smiles touches his lips as he sighs out his tension. I hold his bony body in my arms for the first time in months, teenage boys are so un-touchy, and hug his fierce bravery.

Motherhood is a powerful time in our lives, and, as I am learning from my own mother, it never really ends…that is the good news and the bad news.  But it is nothing that any parent wouldn’t know already.

I am also particpating in a wonderful writing program called “Writing Our Way Back Home”, and I will be posting from there when I have finished this week’s assignment.

January 13, 2012

 

 

 

Lucy…you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do!

For those of you who can remember the “I love Lucy” television show, you will recall perhaps Lucy’s gift for telling Ricky exactly what she had done during the day.  A woman of the 40s and 50s, she had to have an explanation ready for her husband.  And, she always did.  But Lucy’s explanations, or the stories of her day, were not exactly accurate.  There was a story all right, but with the elements of the truth twisted to suit her needs.  I always admired this in her; she had a gift for telling the story so that I laughed until I hurt. She was stubborn and true to herself. What other choice did she have? Lucy was, is, my model for the “contrary historian”, a woman telling a story, needing to change it up for her own protection and sometimes just to express her own independence.

My copy of the Oxford Reference Dictionary defines historian as “a writer of history, esp. a critical analyst rather than a compiler” and contrary as “opposed in nature and tendency…perverse, self-willed…mutually opposed.”  There you have it: I, by nature, cannot just tell the facts of a story.  I must embellish it, often with contrary information. I feel compelled to push the limits of the truth.  Perhaps that means that my stories tell another truth; I hope so. H.G. Wells wrote, “The forceps of our mind are clumsy forceps, and crush the truth a little in taking hold of it.

I intend to use this space to discover where this kind of slightly crushed truth telling can take me…and you.  I will be an intrepid hiker of the wild, walking blindly into an opening in the dark woods, uncertain of what I will find.  In the Celtic tradition, the woods are full of faeries whose intentions appear good, but are really self-serving and often malignant.  Wish me luck with the inhabitants of the woods as I wander deep into the darkness and lean my back against a fallen birch or mossy chunk of granite.

*                        *                        *

A couple of weeks ago I participated in a Memoir Writing Workshop through the NorthWords festival going on in my town.  Cori Howard, the teacher, is the founder of the Momoir Project and had some fine suggestions to make about memoir writing.  I didn’t get chance to ask her directly about my contrarian nature, but I did complete a twenty-minute memoir challenge, which I will include here: the task was “Paying Attention”

It is late for her to call, but as I hear her voice, I know that all is not well.  I have just settled myself for sleep, my book lying crooked on the bed, my light turned away so as not to disturb my husband sleeping beside me.  The phone, of course, has wakened him.  Call display told him to pass it on to me, “Your mother,” he whispers.

She is crying and asking at the same time, has the nursing home called?  I say, “no.”

“Your father…your father has pneumonia,” she says raggedly, “and the doctor does not think it is survivable.  Are we doing the right thing?”

“Mum,” I say, “we’ve talked about this before. He stares at the wall all day.  He does not know us.  Do you think he would want us to prolong this suffering?”

“No…no. You’re right.  We’ll go see him in the morning. Will you come?” She is whispering now.

“Of course, Mum.  I will be with you every step of the way.”  We say good bye, but now I am awake awake.  I turn to my husband and say, “I’ll be back…going to Mum’s next door.”

I wander through the dark house, slip on sandals, and walk down the dark driveway to her house next door.  I can see no lights on, but the door is open.  I walk quietly through the house, smelling the ever-present sandalwood, a hallmark of all her houses.  As I enter her bedroom, I see a tiny light glowing faintly.  As I reach her bed, she lifts her arms to me and we embrace; this is the moment we have both feared and welcomed.  She feels so frail, so distressed, so needy.

“I’m here Mum.  I’ll stay as long as you need me.”

She repeats over and over, “My heart is breaking, my heart is breaking, my heart…”

I wrap my arms around her hoping to hold whatever is left together.

September 30th, 2011.