Falling Through Doors

Jul
28

Clearing my throat

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This piece was originally published in Kill Your Darlings No. 13 back in April 2013. It’s a long one. It’s reproduced on Falling Through Doors today because, for reasons I will surely expand on in a coming post, I ran out of time to write something new this week.

Enjoy!

– A


I’m standing in front of the mirror in the bathroom, pulling my hair back and opening my eyes as wide as they’ll go. It’s early May and I’ve just woken up. Aaron’s left for work already and it’s cold in here. I know outside is warmer. I’ve seen the rice fields sprouting green and filling out, but the house has been cold since we arrived in Tokushima last November. I lean forward and open my mouth, but I still can’t see it. I drink a glass of water and try again. A perfect pink bump the size of a pea is tucked so perfectly against the rigid ceiling where mouth meets throat it’s like it’s meant to be there. I drink another glass of water and go downstairs to put the kettle on.

I get to work an hour before my first class and tell my boss, Yuko, that my throat hurts. She suggests I visit the clinic over the road from our office, and says they’ll give me medicine. Japanese people are always asking me if I have the right medicine, or if I’d like medicine, but I politely tell her I don’t think I need any. I have a bump back there, I say. The day begins. I get through my lesson plans quickly and treat all my students to Pictionary.

A week later it’s raining and Aaron drops me off at the big University Hospital on his way to work. Here I see a dapper ENT specialist who speaks just enough English to make me feel comfortable. Despite my diligence over the past six months – attending Tuesday morning conversation groups, filling exercise books with childish Japanese scrawl, hours shouting into my Rosetta Stone microphone which rarely recognizes my voice, testing my progress through conversations with my youngest students about whether Rilakkuma is cuter than Hello Kitty – my Japanese skills remain in the basic comprehension/minimal production stage. The doctor says Open, kudasai, and looks down my throat.

The good thing about receiving bad news in a language you struggle to understand is that, among all the concentrating and inferring and contextualizing and body-language reading, there is little space left for emotion. What I hear is tumors. One word, exactly as if it were any other word, like badminton or brunch. I concentrate on that one word so hard I don’t have room to think about it, or even to be distressed by the doctor’s use of the plural.

He asks questions about me and my medical history that I am embarrassed not to be able to answer. I sit gaping when he asks me what my blood type is, and he frowns. He tells me that they will need to do a blood test and other tests, and that I will have to come back later to schedule surgery. I hardly let myself hear the word as I bow, thank him, and excuse myself.

I wait. Blood is drawn and I find it less gruesome than usual as I watch it pulsing into vial after vial. The needle is withdrawn and replaced by a cotton ball taped taut into the crook of my arm. I wait. The man facilitating the respiratory test is astounded by my lung capacity. He yabbers on and I glean that I am the first Westerner he’s ever tested, and that I’m blowing far above the level of the average Japanese patient. So even after my lungs have proven adequate to handle surgery under general anesthetic, he puts the clamp back over my nostrils and the giant tube back between my lips and admits that he wants to see just how hard I can blow. I find this irksome and embarrassing, but I pretend to be flattered by his excitement. Next comes the waiting room. Urine test. Elevator ride. The electrocardiogram is the most relaxing part of the day because I get to lie down.

In the next waiting room I meet Yuko, who arrived as soon as she could to help with translation and paperwork. I’ve already taken my own blood pressure twice today because there’s a machine in each waiting room and it helps to pass the time. Even though it embarrasses Yuko, I stand up, stride down the hall under curious eyes, sit down, shove my arm into the support and let the cool fabric squeeze the shit out of my arm. It beeps. Air hisses out. The machine relaxes, leaving my hand and eyes throbbing, and spits out a little printout identical to the two others in my pocket: some words, some numbers, and the image of a little penguin wearing a doctor’s coat and stethoscope. With its little head bowed it exclaims Odaijini. Get well.

*

It’s a Sunday afternoon in June, the day before my surgery, and I’m at home getting my hospital things together. I imagine myself lying in a hospital bed, staring at an inflamed IV entry point and bleeding in the back of my throat from little weeping burn sites for seven days. I’m reading a checklist and placing necessities in a canvas bag. Towels, cup, pajamas, slippers, toothbrush, hairbrush, soap, face cloth. I start to cry a little. Aaron comes in and asks, ‘What’s the matter?’

I tell him I feel lonely, and he says, ‘Come on,’ and leads me by the hand out to the car.

The eighth ward is quiet when I arrive. I bow as I walk past the nurses’ station. As soon as I step into room 825 I’m assaulted by the staring eyes of three roommates. It’s hot, too – being in the throes of the rainy season, the entire city writhes under a sticky wet blanket of thirty-two-degree humidity – and these ladies have the heater on. Their conversation stops. All three are sitting up in bed, their legs stretched out before them under matching hospital blankets. They let their gazes settle on me, and what I’m sure were meant to be welcoming expressions are contorted by raised eyebrows and open mouths.

I bow and say good evening in Japanese. They each give a little bow, but only one returns my spoken greeting. They keep staring. So I sit on the edge of my bed, open my cupboard and begin arranging my things. Both pairs of pajamas I’ve brought with me have long legs and sleeves because I was counting on an air conditioned chill. When I close the curtain around my bed their conversation resumes. I put on my pajamas and place my book on the stool beside the bed. I fold my jeans and slide my feet into the slippers I’ve bought specially for the occasion and slip out of the room hoping not to be detected. The women, though, are looking. From the bed directly across from mine the oldest one, about seventy, exclaims ‘Pajama!’ and all three begin to laugh. I look down at my modest heather-grey jersey-knit PJs, then up at hers, and feel underdressed. The old woman’s are made of crimson silk.

*

It’s morning. The yellow curtain that surrounds my bed flickers into view and I don’t even wonder where I am. I hear voices all around me and figure I must have slept in, until I glance at my phone and see that it’s just past six. The room smells like rice and miso and I’m excited for a moment before I remember that I’m not allowed to eat. The woman in the next bed is slurping and slurping, stopping only to contribute to the chatter.

An interesting phenomenon of only partially understanding a language is how attuned you become to the various nonverbal components of communication. You suddenly become an authority on the standard volume used, for example, by various demographics in society, and an expert in assessing tones. To my estimation these women are calmly irate. This, combined with my understanding of the words gaijin meaning foreigner and samui meaning cold, brings me to the conclusion that they are clucking about my having risen in the night under a cover of stealth and sweat-soaked pajamas, and turned the air temperature down by a couple of degrees. I had been lying awake well into the wee hours, silently slow-cooking and listening to Silken PJs’ gas-passing. After the nurse came at 9.30 to ask me to turn off my reading light as it was disturbing the others, I kicked off the blankets in smoldering frustration. They were still in a ball under my feet hours later when I whispered fuck this and rose to tamper with the thermostat. If they wanted to lodge petty complaints about the dim glow by which I was reading, fine, but I would roast no more.

I tune out the complaining roommates and am just dozing off again when my curtain is wrenched back by a nurse. In a moment of delusion I imagine she’ll wink and slip me a bowl of soup, but she is the IV nurse. I am disturbed and despite her greeting I take a strong disliking to her. I can’t make peace with the idea of an IV. It is not the pinch or the prick, but the sustained sight of this little invader that is at once inside and outside my body that I find upsetting. She sticks me, tapes me and walks out of the room without closing my curtain.

It’s just me and the needle and the stand with its dripping bag watching. My shelter now vanished, I am again under scrutiny. Silken PJs starts nattering on to me, but, again, the only words I understand are foreigner and cold, so I smile and look to the youngest of the three. I guess she’s about forty. She has wavy black hair and a warm face, and while her pajamas are not silk they are covered with a lively floral. As I smile at her I notice a thick tube coming out from the bottom of her shirt, and as she smiles at me my eyes follow the tube over the blanket, over the edge of the bed and into a transparent bag hooked onto the bedstead. The tube is draining a reddish pinkish yellowish fluid into this indiscreet receptacle. I shut my eyes tight. All I can think of is that mortality is an ugly thing.

I get up and lead my IV stand – like a pet – into the bathroom.

*

When Aaron arrives I’m looking at a sheet of paper a nurse left for me, entitled ‘Message Board’. I sense it will be a useful tool for communication and I am thus familiarizing myself with the various messages I might need to convey. The sheet lists some words and phrases in both English and Japanese. I can express whatever I must with the simple flex of an index finger, as long as what I wish to say is one of the following: I want painkiller; I want nausea stopper; cold; hot; thirsty; phlegm is hard to appear; bleeding; I cannot swallow a meal; I want to do urine; I want to do mail; I want to change my clothes; I want you to watch intravenous feeding. I am charmed and relieved by the appearance of this sheet, and I am working out the possible meanings and uses for some of the phrases when Aaron says ‘Hey there,’ and I see that he’s brought a mini clip-on fan and I’m so happy to see him. I tell him I’m a mess and he looks from my IV to my twisted pajama top to my pillow-creased face. He presses the nurse button, takes the paper from my hands, and when the nurse appears, points to I want to change my clothes.

I don’t know exactly what time it is, but if they’re on schedule it must be just before two in the afternoon. I have been wheeled on a stretcher from the eighth ward, west wing, through the twisting, shiny guts of the hospital. I am looking up partly by default, given my recline, and partly because a doctor is holding a clipboard above my face, communicating to me via sheets of A4 paper with English messages printed on them. Hello. Flip. Welcome to your surgery. Flip. Are you wearing any of the king’s metals? I think hard about this one and, deciding that it must be referring to jewelry, I shake my head. Flip. Did you eat or drink (vomit is likely fall into trachea while anesthesia)? I wince and shake my head again. Flip. Please inhale oxygen from the mask. Flip. You will become sleepy soon. Calmly. Flip. You will fall asleep before you realize. Flip. When you wake up the operation is already completed. This page has an illustration of a well-rested teddy bear wearing an oxygen mask and stretching his arms above his head. The next page asks whether I have any questions, but the doctor just chuckles and puts the clipboard away.

Now she is checking my wrists. At first I’m concerned by her confused expression until I hear someone say namae wa nanidesu ka and realize that she is looking for a hospital bracelet – which I was never given – to confirm my identity. Now there is collective unrest and I say my name, but everyone is speaking very quickly, including the surgeon, whose presence I’ve just noticed. His scrubs make him look small, like a preschooler wearing an old shirt of his father’s, backwards, as a painting smock. The nurse who wheeled me here goes sprinting down the hallway and I look back at my IV while we wait.

Before long, someone is fumbling with my right hand, and when I look down I see my hospital bracelet with my surname written twice in Japanese and a large A+. Now I know my blood type.

On the move again. Although I feel quite calm, I can feel liquid streaming from the outer corners of my eyes, across my temples and into my ears. The stretcher finally stops under very bright lights. I am disoriented and squinting, the medical professionals are hovering above me, haloed, masked and gloved. One of them is dabbing at my eyes and putting cotton in my ears and sticking ECG pads all over and pulling my left arm away from me. There is an intense pain in there and then it’s all black and a second passes and suddenly I’m coughing like I’ve never coughed before. It’s the kind of cough that strains your eyeballs and burns your ears and you keep expecting something to come up but it doesn’t. I’m still coughing when I discover that I’m back in motion and I figure it’s all done, that I’ve been burned.

The coughing subsides and gives way to a thick warm sting just as Aaron comes into view. His eyes are full of water and he says ‘How are you?’ and I say ‘Copacetic,’ but no sound comes out. He laughs and walks along beside me. I look at him and point at his watch and he says ‘Half an hour,’ and I marvel at the anesthetic’s thievery: thirty minutes and two tumors, gone.

*

It’s time for the evening meal and I am again taunted by the scent of the steam that fills the air around my bed. This time I am allowed to eat but cannot due to the searing pain in my throat. I ring the nurse and when she arrives I brandish the message board, pointing to pain and I want painkiller. They have given me pain tablets but they’re doing nothing. When it’s clear that I haven’t understood the nurse’s response to my request she runs off and returns moments later with an electronic dictionary, which she jabs a few times before passing it to me. sup•pos•i•to•ry. This angers me more than it should and I pass the dictionary back to her, shaking my head, no.

It’s dark outside now and Aaron has left. Though I enjoyed the companionship, I’m now glad for the solitude. The ladies also had visitors. Visitors who entered the room, did a double-take before pausing at the foot of my bed, staring, mouths open, confused. I wanted to spit blood at them.

So it’s just the four of us ladies. Drainbag and Slurper are carrying on quietly, and Silken PJs’ surgery has rendered her, like me, silent. She looks restful though, and I am restless. Thanks to the IV I don’t feel hungry, but I still fantasize about eating. I taste blood.

Well past lights out I feel the need to move. Silken PJs is snoring a sad wet rattle. I’m wide-awake and my fingers are twitching. I have to pee. As I maneuver myself into standing position I feel intense resentment toward the needle in my aching hand and I come close to ripping it out. I regain composure, pick myself up and begin the journey down the hallway to the toilet. I pull my companion across the metal-strip threshold and slide the door shut behind me, and when I’m finally sitting down I look at my hand. Now in the light I can see my own blood creeping up the tube. I want it back in me. My eyes fill, and when I glance at myself in the mirror – a pathetic nest-haired heap of rumpled pajamas on a hospital toilet in the middle of the night – I begin to weep.

*

Days later, I wake up in the morning and don’t move. I can feel my hair quivering in the breeze from the little fan and I stare straight ahead at constellations of fluorescent light penetrating the pores of my curtain. I imagine that I will be forgotten, scratching a tally of the passing days into the wooden night stand, my nails growing long and curling in on themselves, bedsores. My pajamas are starting to feel like my skin, and my skin is starting to feel numb. I remember in this moment that I haven’t spoken since Monday afternoon.

I close my eyes and whisper the word whisper. It works. I make a short, quiet humming noise with my mouth closed. While yet tender, I’m humming. I part my lips and say ahh very quietly and am surprised at the pleasure I take in hearing my voice. I do it again louder, then louder still. After several more tries it becomes a little too close to a shout and a nurse whips back my curtain. I close my mouth and make a face that says wasn’t me. She smiles, looks at her watch and walks away.

A few moments later she is back. She says good morning, takes my blood pressure and, without warning, slides the needle out of my hand and tapes a cotton ball over the not-so-little hole. She leaves, taking the IV with her. I am elated, waving my arm around to prove its freedom to myself when the nurse returns, this time with the coveted morning meal.

By the time the surgeon comes to see me I am chipper and manage a quiet hello. The first thing he does is hold up a jar containing a clear liquid in which two small greyish pink lumps are suspended. I recognise them and this lowers my spirits considerably. ‘Your tumors.’ In fear of appearing ungrateful or rude, I resist the temptation to look away. I stare at them bobbing around in there, so far from where they started, and tell myself that at least they’re out. The surgeon is saying some things and I’m not really listening, but I am suddenly brought back when I hear the word benign. He says they still have some paperwork to finish, but that I can leave tonight.

*

It’s after dinner and I stand up and wander out into the common lounge. My canvas bag is packed up and I’m waiting for Aaron. I am happy to find no one there except for one pajama-clad man who has been watching the television since my arrival in the eighth ward. He doesn’t look at me and this is comforting. I wander over to the window and stand looking out at the lights of the city, the black snake that is the Yoshino River sliding along the northern reaches, and the void to the south that is Mount Bizan, a looming hole in the night.

Jul
20

Beans and rice, and other measures of success

FullSizeRender 7I am unemployed. Not under employed, marginally employed, or nearly employed; I’m sitting at my dining table in my underpants with both a coffee and a smoothie, which I’m really taking my time to enjoy (coffee = tepid), at eleven in the morning, and finally coming around to doing some writing. The most interesting part of my day so far has been making a flash decision at ten-thirty-eight a.m. to put a tablespoon of peanut butter in the blender at the last moment before Liquefy; this was a first for me and now, twenty-two minutes and half a glass later, I can say it was a very good decision. When Nick gets home just after six o’clock this evening (because he has a job, only a week after getting his work permit, but whatevs), this will likely be the first thing I tell him. This is my life right now.

I recently met up with an old friend from my rose-coloured undergrad days in Montreal. Her name is Emily and we met while working in the McGill Bookstore in 2005. I was studying literature and she was studying sociology, and the last time I saw her was the last time I lived in Toronto, which was for a brief stint about ten years ago. We met up at 3speed on Bloor, and for an instant upon entering I went through a minor panic. What if she looks different? What if I don’t recognize her? But then there she was, looking just the same. (I wonder if I look the same to people. I know I look different, my features more worn, my hair greyer, my chin more whiskered. I really try my best with that last one.)

So we got beer.  And croquettes with micro-greens and balsamic dressing. And we reminisced. And we tried to catch each other up.

“I was looking at your Twitter,” she said. “Congratulations on your book. That’s so amazing.” It always takes me a minute to remember that having published a book is an impressive thing, rather than simply a source of anxiety. So I thanked her.

“And you! You’ve just finished your PhD. What an enormous achievement. Congratulations.” I could see in her face that Emily was going through the same process of remembering that she had, in fact, done a worthy thing. She thanked me. She told me, “Thank fuck it’s over.”

Emily and I are specialists, I guess. We are both well into our early thirties. I am an early-career author with a master’s degree, she is a doctor of sociology with a decade of research, writing and teaching under her belt, and when we talk about work we both mean the same thing: taking our laptop to a café and labouring to make our words somehow important to people. When we say important, we also mean valuable. We spent an hour talking about the impossibility of earning a living, about the commodification of education, about the placement of value in our society.

“I clip coupons,” she told me. “I’m being serious.”

“I got a hundred-dollar royalty cheque for that book,” I told her. “It took seven years to finish. I’m being serious.” (In the spirit of transparency, it is a book of poetry, and so there has never been even a single second in which I thought I’d make even a little bit of money from it, but still: value, etc.)

“None of the graduates I know have job prospects, yet the programs keep taking them in and churning them out.” She sipped her beer. “I studied at McGill and U of T, yet I have to do a postdoc in Ann Arbor next year because US schools are the only ones with any clout. My cousin has a PhD in literature and works nearly full time as a background actor. It’s crazy.”

I told her I knew what she meant: several people I went to grad school with graduated and then went on to start new degrees in completely different fields. I also told her that, coincidentally, I have recently been thinking about getting into background acting. “It’s so easy to apply,” I told her, my eyes momentarily crazed. “No customized resume or cover letter addressing key selection criteria; they just want a recent picture and your measurements.” There was a silence after we laughed, in which we appreciated the full weight of my admission.

I know we’re not the only ones talking about this, and that I’m not the only person exploring professional embarrassment in a blog post. But can this be true: do highly educated humanities graduates feel more embarrassed by the non-fruiting fruits of their labour than they do a sense of accomplishment for years of study, practice, near-blind dedication?

At times: no. I usually work on contract, and during those times my fruits are fruiting and I’m on top of my game. I’ve had some good jobs in the past few years: teaching undergraduate communications, guest-lecturing master’s students on writing creatively in academia (ha, I know what you’re thinking) and editing books at a large desk with an ergonomic chair, footrest, staff cake once a week, and a view of the skyline (which, I agree, does sound like a particular type of hell). Also, I publish my work, I read it in public, I revel in the praise of my peers, and in those moments I feel without a doubt that I am doing something valuable, and I am doing it well. The year before moving to Toronto was my busiest ever.

And at times: heck yes. I have spent several years building a freelance editing business and – as all freelancers know – when it’s good, it’s really good; when it’s bad, it’s beans and rice. The first thing many people (musicians, retail workers, servers, baristas, my Pilates instructor) have said to me when I told them what I did: Do you actually make money doing that? (Come on, musicians, really?) A few years ago, while teaching a course at La Trobe University, I took a job managing a discount book store in a mall to make ends meet, and the shame I felt when one of my students came in and saw me unpacking remaindered and slightly ruined copies of Pawnee: The Greatest Town in America under fluorescent lighting to the sound of tinny house music blasting from the baseball cap store next door can only be described as absolute.

Is it a money thing? Probably. It is a complex thing? Definitely. Is it a multi-faceted blame game? You betcha. In the late nineties and early noughties, when we were finishing high school, university was still seen as a step to take to set us apart, to step above, to gain an advantage. A bachelor’s degree was going to be enough to do so; it had been for the people who were raising us. But then: we all went! (And by we all I need to stress that I am referring to those members of my privileged demographic with whom I enjoyed He Man and Fruit Roll-ups in elementary school, Nirvana and pogs in junior high, and smoking pot and discovering the Criterion Collection in high school.) And the government gave loans. And the universities became a business, making money from the ambition of a generation of blind-believers, who somehow had the confidence (“Reach for the stars!” “Follow your heart!” “Do what you love!” “You are unique!” [please feel free to leave any other pseudo-motivational platitudes in the comments section; we could all use an arbitrary confidence boost because, let’s be real, we’re used to it]) to know that their undying love for the imitative realism of Georgia O’Keefe or nascent talent for landscapes in acrylic or accidental passion for the writings of Edward Said would be enough to get them what they wanted. And they were right, as long as what they wanted was this: meeting with friends after ten years and discussing how you’re broke, how you’ll be renting forever, how the future is somehow less certain now than it was back when you were crashing house parties together in the McGill ghetto in 2005, but how it’s ok because at least you took risks, and you’re actually happy you did it this way, you guess.

Our frustrations diverge, of course. The generation that came before us (those Baby Boomers, those ones with the wealth) continues to work. Emily’s father is an academic, in his seventies, and still working. “It really annoys me,” she said. “Their jobs never open up. They’re sitting on incomes we’ll never hope to match, taking their time to make way for the next generation.” For me, it’s different. I took seven years between my degrees and wandered. I took my uniqueness and followed my heart and made my choices.

And no matter who blames whom for being whiney and entitled, or for preparing a generation for an economic reality that would all but cease to exist, it is true that our parents only wanted the best for us, and it is true that our teachers really believed it when they told us all we would have to do was work hard. And let’s face it, for those of us in the aforementioned demographic, for those of us living in cities like Toronto, London, Seattle or Sydney, whether we studied law or liberal arts, whether we’re employed or not, human life – as in day to day survival and existence – has never been better. I can pick up a telephone and order any kind of food I can think of, and someone will bring it to my door. I can exercise in a sterile and even faintly nice-smelling fitness facility that provides clean towels. I can consider exercise a priority. I can swan about in a clean sun-dappled pool that is there for me to use whenever I want, just outside my building. I can get up at any moment and make another smoothie with fruit that is grown nowhere near here. I can sit in a clean, safe dwelling surrounded by things that I own, yearning for things I do not have – for a different chair to sit in at a different desk in a different clean building near a different subway stop. That, when you think about things historically, is pure bliss.

I think it really comes down to where we place value. I can’t think of anything more career-killing than travelling for as long as I did; the fact that people call it “taking time out” is telling of the value we place on voluntary travel. That said, those experiences formed me and – yes, I’m going to say it – challenged me exponentially more than if I had spent a decade in cubicles (or open-plan spaces or whatever), which might have led me to that other chair and other desk and other building and other subway stop. The past ten years have added value to my life, and added value to my writing. But what is the value of my writing? $100?

Some people ask about my travels, marvel at my stories, and tell me they always wished they’d done something similar. Some people understand what I mean when I tell them that one of the moments that best encapsulates the reason I travel, began with getting on the back of a stranger’s motorbike in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and letting him take me to his favourite spot, which happened to be the bottom of a lake. I clutched the back of my seat and tried my best to keep my leg away from the scorching exhaust pipe as we bumped rapidly down roads that narrowed to dirt pathways that narrowed to desire-lines through tall grass, all the while thinking with a sense of bliss that besides this nameless stranger (who would later turn out to be Pirum, with whom I’d spend the greater part of the weeks to come) not a single person in the world knew where I was at that moment, including me. This was trust. Real trust. Eventually the houses around us began to rise, towering on stilts metres above the ground. Fish traps suspended above us, tangled in mangroves. Animals milled and slept and bayed in teetering bamboo enclosures. Eventually we made it to the shoreline and stopped. I looked out at the lake, the far shore invisible on the horizon, and surrounding us here, a fishing village perched in the air, children climbing ladders to their front doors. He explained nothing, just stood with me and looked. Only later would I learn this to be the basin of lake Tonlé Sap, that in the dry season the water level drops drastically, that later in the year these houses sit on the water’s surface, that the fish traps are submerged. A small tour boat that had come too far into the shallows was mired not far away, so we helped them turn it around before getting back to the bike and leaving the lake for land.

Some people ask about my travels, but not that many.

From now on, before I complain with friends about value, about measures of success, about feeling embarrassed by my level of education or achievements that have not translated comfortably into capital, I will try to remember what it is that I value. I am assured persistence is key. I am assured that patience is a virtue. I will try to stop and ask myself what more, really, it is that I want. One thing is for certain: it’s definitely not a PhD.

Jul
13

Current Status: It couldn’t be less complicated

IMG_1154I’m not sure what it says about me that I sat down today to write a post about marriage, nor that it was inspired by my recent discovery of the phrase shredding for the wedding. Ok, so I do know what it says about me. But whatever. (FYI I’m currently eating something called Speculoos Crunchy Cookie Butter straight from the jar, so…)

Eight months ago I had been living in Melbourne for four years and had no concrete intention of leaving: I had an apartment in my favourite part of town; a contract in an air-conditioned cubicle with a view; a musician boyfriend, Nick, with whom I shared a bed, a Volvo, and household duties; and a temperamental tabby kitten we’d rescued from a storm drain and named after a fictional gangster. I called my mother fortnightly, and used words like fortnightly.

“So Mum, I was wondering: Is it important for you – I mean, in terms of you feeling complete with regards to the gamut of possible and even likely life experiences – to experience one of your kids getting married? What I mean is: Is it important to you and Dad that I get married and that you get to experience the wedding that would inevitably take place in such a scenario?”

“Are you getting married?”

“No.”

“Then no. Weddings are overrated, and really, Alison, who needs a husband?”

I was reminded of the day in the sixth grade – when I was eleven years old – that Darren Richardson walked up to me at recess and asked if I would like to start going out with someone called Shaun Downey. He pointed across the foyer to a blonde boy eating string cheese and looking down at the untied laces of his Reebok Pumps. It was my first week out of elementary school and I knew neither of these boys. I told Darren to tell Shaun that I would have to think about it. When I got home and explained the situation to my mother, she said: “Alison, tell him no thank you. You’re eleven years old! You’ve got better things to do.” At school the next day I walked up to Shaun and told him, “No thank you. I’ve got better things to do.” Shaun and I would continue at the same schools for the next five years and would never speak again.

“Right. Good,” I said to my mother. “Good to know. I just thought I’d ask, just in case.”

One day, two cubicles down, a young woman got engaged. The girls in the office bombed her desk: streamers, sweets, balloons defaced with wobbly Sharpie sentiments like He put a ring on it and Mrs Man’s-name Man’s-surname. Environmentally irresponsible, I said under my breath to the expanse of my glorious view. The woman was ecstatic, and I was happy for her. She dined out on the proposal details for weeks. She began looking at shoes and dresses and she talked about them, too. One day, she jokingly threw around a phrase that made me cringe, one that had to do with achieving an ideal weight and figure before exchanging vows. That evening I called my mother and rolled out the above overwrought line of questioning.

Earlier today I was staring at my reflection – red faced and panting – as I ran intervals on a treadmill with an incline of 2.0 in a windowless fitness facility, my engagement ring refracting a pleasing spectrum from the overhead fluorescent tube lighting. I took it off and slipped it into the secret pocket in the waistband of my shorts, the one meant for house keys and primary-coloured electrolyte gels.

Six months ago I knew I would be leaving Melbourne. My contract with the view was going to be cut short, and it was time to renew my visa, the cost of which was so heartbreakingly astronomical that Nick, Furio, and I looked into what it would cost to move to Canada.

“Do you think we’ll get married?” It was January and 42ºC and Nick and I were side by side, melting into the sofa we would soon sell to our friend Tito. It would be one of last things to go, its disappearance the first in a series of events that would spin nine-month-old Furio into an existential conundrum.

It has never been something I saw myself doing. As evidenced by the above dialogue, my mother stressed to me from a young age that a woman doesn’t need a man, and that it’s better to be happy and alone than with someone and unhappy. Through my twenties I was often single, often for years at a time, and while I embraced a life of spontaneity, adventure, selfishness, and self reliance, I always felt I would end up alone, and this always seemed like a bad thing, especially as more and more friends moved in with their partners, got hitched, and even had – gulp – babies.

“Yes,” Nick said. “I always thought we would I guess. Do you want to?”

Packing up the first home you make with someone is an astoundingly intimate act. So intimate, in fact, that you end up wanting to marry the person.

“I think so. Yes.”

My mother’s reaction when I told her about the sofa conversation was understandably abrupt.

“So you are getting married?”

“I think so. Yes.”

Once we got to Canada, Nick took me for a French meal in downtown Victoria, then to Dallas Road at sunset where he began with, “Well, we’ve known each other a long time…” My parents gave us their engagement ring. It’s beautiful and they chose it in 1979 and split the cost, and the continuity of it is meaningful to me. I’m almost used to wearing it now, almost used to saying “Yes, I’m engaged,” and almost used to removing it before showers, washing dishes, and going to the gym. For cookie butter, however, I keep that sucker on.

Jul
06

The Paralysis of Home

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In late 2008, I returned to Canada briefly from South Korea where I’d been living and working for a year. I rented a place on the Plateau in Montreal in the depths of winter and the global financial crisis, and after shivering through November, December, a rapidly depleting bank account, and an onslaught of professional rejections, the new year came and I moved out west to stay with my mother and father on Vancouver Island while I waited for yet another visa to be processed, this time for India. Then in February 2009, my Oma, my father’s mother, passed away. I was twenty-six.

Here’s something true: there are moments throughout adulthood that reduce us, repeatedly, to children. These are moments in which everything around us grows burly and imposing and suddenly becomes unreadable. These moments are different from those that spirit us to childhood, the ones in which we see things again through the veil of wonder and innocence and innate selfishness through which we once saw all things; rather, they’re host to the phenomenon of everything we’ve practised for falling out from under us, leaving us in that navy blue one-piece ski suit we wore on the bunny hill for the winters of ’86 and ’87, and which was difficult to get off in a hurry without help, and to which we once succumbed in a snowbank, and in which, as a result, we peed. These are the moments that make us feel insecure, terrified, cold, and wet.

A major catalyst for such regressive moments is visiting parents, as is well known to most grown people who have moved away from home and are well on their journey to building an adult life in which they make decisions for themselves and are capable of deciphering scarf weather from t-shirt weather, indoor voices from outdoor voices, and which pronged household items should and should not be inserted into electrical outlets. Some of us care for pets, raise one or more children of our own, are capable – even fond – of cooking nutritious and occasionally adventurous meals for our friends and families, and can keep our apartments clean. And yet: after the first two days of a stint back home, something that lurks in the shadows descends upon an otherwise perfectly – or at least somewhat – adjusted cluster of adults. This is when, despite the aforementioned capabilities and good habits, you forget how to be your adult self and things begin to play out how they did twenty years ago. You feel insolence, you feel frustration, you feel embarrassment and even sometimes voiceless. You suddenly crave approval. And your parents? They’ll be sucked into the pantomime, too, and dammit, they’ll insist you mind your manners.

Another source of such regression is grief, either confronting one’s own or seeing the raw pulsating face of someone else’s. This is something we never get better at. It is disarming and perplexing and causes the dreaded sensation of a spreading, dampening, humiliating chill. There is never the right way to articulate what you feel, and never the right thing to say to someone facing loss. Words become nonsense.

When Oma died it was not sudden or unexpected, just very sad. She lived in Villach, Austria, and had been cared for by my dad’s sister and a rotation of two live-in care workers through her later stages of Alzheimer’s. My father visited fairly regularly. From the time I arrived out west, it felt as though we were simply waiting. It’s a horrible thing to be waiting for, and everything felt paused; we knew when it happened we would need to be ready to go.

One morning, early, the phone rang. I didn’t answer it; I knew who would be calling. As a child, I was terrified of answering the phone at home in the early mornings and late evenings because there was always a possibility it would be a member of the Austrian contingent (nine hours ahead), who would speak to me in German while I panicked, gripping the portable phone and running through the house to find my father. It’s not that I couldn’t understand my Oma or my Tante; it’s that I was crippled by the fear of being misunderstood myself, or of suddenly being at a loss for words, or forgetting the word for something and standing dumbly, breathing into the receiver. It made me feel like a baby. This particular morning, early and cold and February, I listened to the phone ring twice, and then stop. It was around five o’clock and I knew at that moment that my father had answered it and I knew which words he was hearing. I knew he would be trying to brace himself with the justification that he had known it was coming. I knew he’d be finding himself surprised at how impossible that was.

My mother happened to be out of town and for a minute or two I resented her absence. It was her job to be here for him, not mine. I was ill equipped for this. My father’s grief was not something I felt grown up enough to deal with. I suspect no one ever grows up that much. I lay frozen in the spare bedroom – the room in which my mother’s father had passed away twenty years earlier – feeling like I was holding a phone to my ear, my father on the other end, and choking on my own silence.

I got up. I pulled a hoodie on over my nightshirt. I went into the hallway and stopped at the top of the stairs to turn the furnace on. As a child, lying awake in my basement room, the low rumble of the furnace springing to life had always seemed an indication of the day itself coming alive, an indication that my father was up and the world wasn’t as still and empty as winter mornings let on.

I stood near his bedroom and listened, and when I walked in the phone was on his nightstand and he was lying curled up on the far edge of the bed, his back to the doorway. I said, “Dad,” and he stayed still and said nothing. The room was that early morning grey–blue. The furnace hummed. My father, who stands six-foot-three, looked small. I sat down on Mum’s side the bed. He cried very quietly and I felt a quiet despair, not just at the death of my grandmother – my last remaining grandparent – but also at his pain, his loss, and my complete inability to know what to do in this situation. Signs were slipping, becoming unreadable. How do you truly comfort a parent? After a minute he turned to face me and rested his head on my knee. He was just as unprepared for his grief as I was. I grew uncomfortable, even disturbed, by the wrongness of the moment, given rise to by his tears, by the fact that my mother had gone away overnight, by my incomplete arsenal of emotional mechanisms. I had stepped out of my space, my framework. After a minute the situation became unbearable for me, and I stood up and said, “I’ll call Mum.”

Throughout the day I did my best to atone for having cowered in the shadow of the circumstance by doing things I knew how to do. I called my mother. I called my brother, who was living in India at the time, and told him I’d book him a flight to Austria. I called British Airways and negotiated bereavement fares. I made arrangements for pet sitting and cancelled the Island Farms dairy delivery (I have no idea why the little slice of heaven known as the Saanich Peninsula, in 2009, was still serviced by what we called The Milkman, even though we knew his name was Dave). When it came to the admin of flying to Europe for my Oma’s funeral, I seemed to know what I was doing.

I also held it together several days later at the actual funeral, a ceremony that unexpectedly left my brother completely unwound (it might have been the requisite Catholic drama of the whole thing, the rose-covered casket disappearing gracefully behind a sweeping velvet curtain to the tune of Con te partirò). I was moved by my brother’s show of emotion; there was something theatrical and heartbreaking about him weeping to Andrea Bocelli. Maybe it was because I could picture how my Oma looked when she listened to that song, which was one of her favourites: her eyes closing as she leaned back, the corners of her mouth curling into a slight smile, her small hands swaying on the armrests of her chair, conducting a tiny orchestra.

After the funeral and a week with relatives, I flew from Austria to Bangalore with my brother and spent the next six months traveling in India, Nepal, and Oman, figuring out my next move. The paralysis of the unknown, it turned out, would always be a passing, fleeting thing. The paralysis of home, however, lingers, and the memory of that morning, of my weeping father and lack of words, continues, years later, to disarm me.