Who Stand and Wait

I can tell you what the problems are. In a very real sense, they aren’t problems.

I will roll off this project and it will become someone else’s problem. It won’t get better, but it won’t be my pile of crud to deal with. That’s not nothing. I’m actively working on finding another gig, so that will help as well.

I can tell you, at least intellectually, it’s normal to feel like I’m not quite smart enough to be back in grad school. I can tell you that everyone feels this way, it will pass. I can tell you, from knowing some prof’s, that the prof feels that way. It’s a feeling and not fact. It will pass. I tell myself this in the same way that I tell everyone else.

I can tell you that the problem of my nephew dying is in some senses not a problem. There is nothing to be fixed. There is nothing to do. There is not a problem.

And that’s the problem.

My family, those I love, they are walking through hell. I can go and help do laundry and I can text and call and tell them that I love them. When Christie asks if I will come and curl up in bed with her on the day that she can’t get out, I can tell her that I will. I will hold her and when it’s time, I will drag her out of bed. I will come at the end, if they wish. I will come and I will talk to doctor’s and I will direct traffic and I will kindly tell Christie when it is time to let go. I will look her dead in the eye and tell her that this is the hardest thing that will ever be asked of her, but she will not do it alone.

I will tell my nephew that death is a door we go through alone, but right up until that moment he crosses the threshold? I will be there. When he crosses? I will remain behind and I will hold his wife and children. I will guard them with every bit of fierceness I possess. I imagine I will find more than I thought I had.

I think of verses and I think of poetry.

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”.

“They also serve who only stand and wait”.

Doing laundry and buying milk and talking on the phone are not, I suppose, waiting. But they feel like it. My family is going through hell, and I can make sure they have clean underwear and a cup of tea. I’d say it’s something, but in the middle of hell? Let’s be honest. It’s absolutely nothing.

I can do nothing.

And that’s a problem.

Posted in The language of families | 2 Comments

Data Points

The night we told the children, I texted my best friend that I didn’t think I could do this. She told me I could. And I did.

As I was driving home from Montana, I texted a friend and told him that I thought I should be better at managing this than I actually was. He told me that he couldn’t imagine anyone feeling like they could handle this task.

Taryn sent me bath bombs to remind me to take some time for myself. Friends and colleagues stop by and listen and hug me. I am astonished at how kind people are to me. I’m not the dying one. This should be easier for me than it seems to be. It is not easy.

There are other problems which compound and add to this one. Work has exploded in the worst possible way. Something that wasn’t my fault, but will have dramatic, painful and long reaching implications to my career trajectory. Not the good kind of implications, I should hasten to add. School is busy in the middle of the term. There are things due, research to be done. My brownies co-leader is profoundly disorganized, leaving me scrambling when I least have time and fortitude to manage this.

People ask how I am doing. I can’t answer. It’s not won’t, I don’t know what to tell them. I am almost out of gas. I remembered the cupcakes for my colleague, but not the library books or the form I need to turn into university. This is better than yesterday, when I remembered none of those things. On Friday I came into the office without a jacket. I didn’t buy groceries on Sunday. I couldn’t tell you why or what I was doing. On Monday, I got to class. I had no idea I was supposed to present. It just slipped. It’s the sort of thing that would normally vastly upset me, leave me feeling ashamed and stupid for days. I shrugged, looked at the professor and said “Next Monday?”. I couldn’t tell you what I ate for dinner last night and I have no lunch for today. I seem to survive on granola bars and carrot sticks, and I do belive that I’m almost out of both.

Before I go back to Montana at the end of the month, I have to get the car serviced. I think it probably needs things done. I don’t really know what those things are, I’m not sure how to find them, I have an idea that turning up at the dealership and telling them to do . . . things is not a good idea, but I’m willing to bet that’s what is going to happen.

So, how am I doing?

The data suggests not well. I don’t know why I’m failing at this.

But there you have it.

Posted in The language of families | 2 Comments

Mr Rogers

Dear Ben:

I will make this apology to you on Sunday night, when I continue reading the adventures of Bad Kitty. It will happen right after I read to your sister from Anne of Green Gables. I will apologize, and I will ask you to remember this. I want you to know that admitting failure is both important, and ok. You will fail. Even as an adult. I also want you to learn from my mistake.

I made a bad choice on October 15. At 9:30 am that morning, having known for about 12 hours, and about 8 hours before you would know that your dad was dying, I got on to a conference call for work. Your mum and dad were making calls to their family. it was hard, difficult. I got you fed, I cuddled your sister, I started the process of negotiating clothing choices with you.

And you had a meltdown. Your shirt was too . . . something. It was an autism thing, a little boy thing, an “everything is wrong and out of sorts thing”. It was too much and your brain went into overdrive.

Here’s what I needed to do. I needed to interrupt the senior business SME, I needed to tell them that my family needed me, that I was on vacation, and I needed to hang up the call. I needed to put the phone down, the work away, and I needed to just be with you.

Instead, I tried to do both things at once. I tried to comfort you and get you dressed and still pay attention to the conference call.

You needed me. You needed Aunty Smarties, who has loved you since before you were born. You needed the Aunt that reads to you, sends you letters, is delighted by your kid drawings. You needed my full attention because in that moment you needed to be the most important thing in my world.

And you weren’t. You were an important thing. One among others. I allowed the fact that this project is on fire and my need to save things get in the way of the one thing I had to do. Which wasn’t about saving anyone, it was just about being present.

Here’s the thing. The thing I won’t tell you now, but I will tell you later, when you remember this apology as an adult. When I was 15 I tried to kill myself. They rushed me to the hospital, the hospital tracked down my mother. She arrived a few hours later, throwing the curtain open, demanding to know how I could do this to her, did I not know how busy she was. And I promised – I promised myself and the world that I would never do that. I would never put work ahead of people. I would never make my list of things to do more important than the people around me.

I broke my promise. I failed. I failed you and I failed me. Your mum and dad talk about Jesus, but I’m an agnostic. I think about being the person that Mr. Rogers wants me to be.

Great Nephew that I love beyond bounds – I was nowhere near that person at 9:30 am on October 15th. You deserved better. I failed. I am so very sorry.

Posted in The Cheerful Agnostic, The language of families, the nieces and nephews | 1 Comment

E-1

If you’ve never spent time around a campaign office (and if you haven’t, you should. Everyone should volunteer on a campaign at least once!) E-1 might not make sense. It means the eve of the election. It’s 9pm here in Alberta, which means the last of the sweepers have made sure that the door knockers are done. Someone in the campaign office has made lunches for the scrutineers. The scrutineers have their packages. The campaign manager is doing something called closing the lists. They have turned off the phones, they are counting their likely voters.

Campaign offices are hives of activity, and over tomorrow that activity will wane. There is no campaigning on election day. You can call voters to remind them to vote. You can offer rides. But you don’t campaign. You don’t tell anyone why to vote for your candidate. By Eday, it’s all over.

And that’s not what I’m thinking about. You might think I would be, with a lifetime of campaigning behind me, but no.

I think I was around 12. Maybe more, maybe less. At any rate, I was at the age where you ask your parents hard questions. And I asked my mother if she would vote for a candidate she didn’t like because of the party she ran for. She said she would. As a rather black and white kid, I was appalled.

On my front lawn is a sign for an NDP candidate. I know the guy, a little bit. I’ve followed him on twitter for years. I know a great many people who know him well. They speak well of him. He’s kind and lovely. I love the candidate. He’s good and honest and kind and he will serve his consistency and Canada well.

Here’s the thing. I’m not an NDP supporter federally. I’m a liberal. I’m pretty much completely opposed to a very large chunk of the NDP platform. Normally, in most elections, this wouldn’t matter. In this particular election, where there is likely to be a minority government, it does matter. The NDP will hold the balance of power. So, here I am handing them a vote which might elect a guy, which might give them another seat, which might lead to the enactment of things that will financially harm me in small ways, and which I will not like.

So Mumsy. You wouldn’t have voted for this guy. You and I both know that. I normally wouldn’t vote for him, save this.

I’m not voting for him. Not really. I’m voting for the single mum struggling to make ends meet. I’m voting for the Indigenous communities in Canada that still do not have access to clean drinking water. I’m voting for gay and trans kids and adults. I’m voting for reconciliation. I’m voting for immigrants and someone who will stand up for Syria. I’m voting for those who have no place to sleep, no food to eat. I’m voting for the children I will never have.

I’m voting for this thing called Canada. Which is a place and a set of documents, but also an idea. A dream.

And Mumsy, that feels about as Canadian as I can get.

Posted in Feats of Wonder, Politics, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

140 KM an Hour with Tears in my Eyes

I have struggled with how to start this.

The lab results they handed to me. The sinking feeling. When I thought my knees might buckle.

I could start with the scene in the kitchen – the part where Christie looked at me, weeping, saying that this was not the way it was supposed to be. He was supposed to bounce grandbabies on his knee. They were supposed to grow old together.

I could tell you about telling the children. I could tell you about when 9 year old Ben asked if his dad was going to die. We said that he would, but that we would make so many memories first.

I could tell you about the moment when I went and got the expensive bottle of scotch from my car. Poured Andy and I a hefty slug. Because I did not know how to do this. And then I dried my tears and went and did it.

It’s a glioblastoma. He has a year, maybe as much as 2. They’ll do radiation, then chemo for as long as it works or he can stand it. It’s fast, somewhat rare and aggressive. There will be no grandbabies on his knee. There will be no old couple on a front porch. There will be no dad at high school graduation. At weddings. There will be no 46th birthday.

I told her I would come at the end. When it gets bad, I will be there. I drove home from Montana as quickly as I could, with tears in my eyes. Not because I needed to be home, but because I need to know how long it takes to get back there.

11 hours. 55 minutes. Gas. Bathroom. More bad gas station coffee. 140 km an hour, with tears in my eyes.

Posted in The language of families, the nieces and nephews | 6 Comments

All those things that don’t change come what may

Douglas popped in and out of my life. Like many of the adults of my childhood, he moved in an unknown and unknowable rhythm. He’d ring the doorbell, stay for coffee, stay for dinner, stay for the night, stay for a month. I would turn up at my godmother’s, and he would be there. Sometimes alone, sometimes with his daughter. It was good when Christine was there – my god mother’s house is largely a house of men.

He was my mother’s first husband. A fact that was never hidden from me. They had a largely easy relationship. They maintained a friendship, never explicitly close, but always aware they had spent a decade together; lived through some good times and some hard times. I remember the line but not the context of the discussion – my mother saying “you forget Douglas, I was married to you. . . .” I can see both care and bemusement on her face, understanding and appreciation on his.

He was a singular man. Not in the sense of being exceptional, although I suppose he was that. No, he was singular in that he moved through the world alone. Late in life, he found a third wife, the one that stuck. He lived in a city I describe as 100 kilometers from back of the beyond. He liked it out there. He was happy. He liked the photos I posted of my cats, send me strangely punctuated messages. He still called me Cheryl-Nancy.

Christine called last night – he died suddenly. This morning, early I called his sister, a favourite aunt of mine to say that I was sorry. I called my godmother to let her know.

And while I was getting ready, I played Four Strong Winds. In my mind, I have this memory of Douglas and my mum singing along to it. My mother informed me that they used to go and watch Ian and Sylvia in the coffee houses of 1960’s Toronto. It’s a long way from Toronto and a longer way still from 1960. It’s a long way from the 1980s.

He was always bound for moving on.

****

Four strong winds that blow lonely
Seven seas that run high
All those things that don’t change come what may
But our good times are all gone
And I’m bound for moving on
I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Nature of Probability.

When you read that text at the bottom of a poll or survey, which says “19 times out of 20, with a margin of error of 5%, this poll is correct”, it has meaning. If I tell you that 50% of people prefer green beans to brussel sprouts, what I am really saying is that 19 times out of 20, if you re-ran this poll, somewhere between 45% and 55% of people would prefer green beans. It could be 47%, it could be 53%.

And the 20th time? Oh, it could be 12% or 98.2%. In the 20th time, all bets are off. That’s the very nature of probability.

I am seeing so many people offer prayers for my nephew. I have offered many of my own. Unsure if anyone was listening, but offered up all the same. The prayers, they are ascending.

And so many of them I see, they seem to ask for a miracle.

At some point, maybe a long time ago, maybe only a few short months ago, cells began to grow in Andy’s brain. Grow where they should not have. They are there now. They will be there when the biopsy is done on Thursday at 1. They will be there when a pathologist affixes them to a slide and stares at them under a microscope. When they are examined and graded. When the cytology report is written. When a diagnosis is made, when a course of treatment is prescribed. Those cells are immutable fact.

I believe in Genesis, after a fashion when it tells me that God (or the universe or just physics) created light. When the earth, which was formless was made into sea and land and sky. And I believe in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. When we are told that a light has been made to shine in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

I don’t believe that there are miracles. I believe at the start of time God (or the universe or just plain physics) created rules. The macro rules which give us gravity and plate tectonics, and the micro rules, which cover the division of cells. I don’t believe that God will suspend those rules, however much I’d like him to. At least in this case, for a little bit. That wasn’t what he promised. The earth began. The rules were set. The clock started. And then he gave us a light and he promised us nothing would put it out.

I don’t ask for a miracle. I’m willing to hold out hope that maybe, just maybe, this could be the 20th time. Not a miracle, just a mystery deep in the heart of probability.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

You Can Have Me

In the middle of contract negotiations last February, I got a call. The people in the room were asking me a question. I pointed at my phone, sort of shrugged and walked out into the break out room. .

My brother in law had died. It started last August. Radiation would buy him Christmas with his sons and grand children. By spring, he would be gone. In the late February they moved him to hospice. And then my phone rang. I finished the call, took a couple of shaky breaths and went back into the pitched battle.

I flew to Chicago. Took the train to Crystal Lake. Woke up early and drove my SIL’s car to the funeral home. Arranged the flowers. Handed out the bulletins. Organized the receiving line. Checked on my ex husband. Helped dish out food. I put one foot in front of the other, did what had to be done. Was the woman my mother raised me to be.

A few weeks later, laying in bed next to someone and talking about my trip, I began to cry.

The night of the funeral, my great niece Emma started weeping during her story. Now that the funeral was over, she had to stop loving Poppa because he was gone. She didn’t think she could. I explained that the world didn’t work that way. God doesn’t work that way. We don’t stop loving those who have died. We tuck them in the space between our hearts and our lungs to keep them safe. The hurt, it fades. But our love? Oh no. That never ends. We carry that with us, as close as our breath. You keep loving Poppa, little girl.

***

This time, the call came in the Costco line up. It’s my quarterly trip. Garbage bags. Toilet paper. Furnace Filters. The prosaic, the mundane.

My nephew in law, Emma’s father, has a mass in his brain. They’ve called it a tumor, although they don’t know if it’s cancerous.

It’s a mass. In his brain. He can’t see.

I’m not sure if the distinction matters.

I finished up at Costco. Paid for the furnace filters and the batteries and the saran wrap and the hallowe’en candy and whatever the hell else made up four hundred dollars.

I drove home. Put things away. Stashing the furnace filters, which may or may not be the right size, next to the furnace, I looked up. Spoke to an empty basement.

“You can have me.”

If there is some great karmic debt, if the lord of the universe has decided there is one inhabitant too many on this planet, fine. You can have me. I’m not good for much. I’m a drain on the health care system, I’m foul mouthed and I smoke too much. I admit that. Honestly, given that my estate goes to a charitable foundation for dead babies, and given that I’m worth more dead than alive, we could argue I’m a great candidate.

Someone will sell the house. Find new homes for the animals. The contract will find another project manager. You can give my ex-husband my scotch collection.

I will hold my son. That child I have held in between my heart and my lungs. The love that made me promise Emma that she didn’t have to let go at all.

I will go. In whatever way the universe would like. Quickly, slowly. So very willingly. I’d prefer non painfully, but we can negotiate. So, hey. Universe. For the sake of a little girl who had to learn too much about death too soon.

You can have me.

Posted in The language of families, the nieces and nephews | 7 Comments

22

They wanted to sit outside in the sunshine, so as we walked around the corner I heard myself saying “There are tables around . . . .” Well, there were tables around that corner.

22 years ago.

On Tuesday I walked through a door to a building I had never been in. I had no real idea what went on in that building. I knew it was old, I knew that it had offices. I knew it was one of the most beautiful buildings on campus. It’s where my new department is located.

You see, when I stepped on to the campus in 1997, I thought I had life figured out. I thought I knew at the ripe old age of 18 that I knew where life would take me. And here I am 22 years later, and nothing is like what I thought it would be.

My final assignment in this week of grad school introduction was to make a map. Not just a place that plots latitude and longitude in space. Something that evokes the idea of time and memory, that which jolts us out of the commonplace and makes us thing differently.

That’s been my entire week.

You asked how my week was. Exhilarating. Hard, balancing school and work. Challenging to write a python which scrapped twitter and build a new set of visualizations in Tableau in just a few hours. Amazing.

One of the things my team added into the map was a photo of me in front of the very first lecture hall I walked into 22 years ago. In 1997, I was dripping wet from rain, 10 minutes late because I was lost and utterly overwhelmed.

For the edification of my readers, I’ve given you a photo that was taken in late June of 1997. And the photo from today. You’d think I’d like the photo of younger me. It turns on I like the one of me now better. On Tuesday, she walked through a door and came home.

Posted in Grad Student, It's a Wonderful Day in the Neighbourhood, Life After Children | 3 Comments

All the Things

I start my next grad degree tomorrow. 17 years after the first time I went to University, I’m going back. It’s a bit strange – they give you the same student ID and I am surprised at how little effort it took to dredge up that 8 digit number.

Everyone keeps asking if I am excited, and I suppose I am, but mostly I’m terrified.

I’m worried I won’t be able to balance class work and a part time Research Assistant job and a very full time job. I’m worried that I won’t be able to manage the academic rigour.

I’m worried, like my first MBA team, they will hate me. I will be 19 years older than many of my classmates. That’s a world of difference right there.

I’m worried about all the things.

Exactly like every other kid going to school.

Posted in Grad Student | 3 Comments