Life keeps writing my story for me: A personal reflection on my mother’s birthday

May 2, 2022. My mother would have been eighty-eight today. This week just passed, between my father’s birthday on April 26 and today, is always the time when I think most of my parents. When they feel closest to me, like stars circling the planet. When their memories haunt me. This summer, they will have both been gone six years. But this past week has been a whirlwind of emotion in its own right and I’m afraid the time I wanted to set aside to be with them has evaporated.

Which has led me to think about what family means. About how much love and pain we can bear. And yet, what I can really say at this moment is guarded.

Same trail, same time, last year.

Last Sunday, April 24, I took a fall on a muddy, icy trail and fractured my left fibula above the ankle. At the time, I was still a treacherous distance from a point where I hoped medical attention might reach me and I knew from the screaming pain in my leg that I would never be able to walk all the way back up the hill to my home. Or, for that matter, drive my small standard transmission vehicle to the urgent care clinic to get it checked out. But I was still hoping on the idea of a “bad sprain,” so I called my son and asked him to come down with a trekking pole and I started to limp toward the access point.

I was inching my way down an incline thick with mud, clinging to a rope railing, when a young man came along. He was new to the city and new to the trail but he didn’t want to leave me alone. There was no place to sit without putting undue pressure on my injured leg so we waited until my son Thomas arrived and together the three of us continued down and then across a desperately slippery sheet of mud-covered ice. Soon a third helper arrived, one of the men I regularly meet and talk to on this path, and he provided extra support as we made our way up another hill and down a flight of rough steps to an open paved area. I called the emergency line and we tried to figure out how I might be reached. The normal access road is still impassable at this time of year, but a paramedic in an SUV was able to reach me on the bike trail and drive me out to where an ambulance was waiting.

Of course, there was still a long wait ahead, five hours at least, just to see a doctor at the clinic. With x-rays I had the verdict that leg was indeed broken. I was incredulous. I have some early bone loss and my diet and daily exercise have been focused on strengthening my body, but in the end it only took a rather classic fall to produce a common fracture. Common in athletes, I might add, if that is to make me feel better because I did not take up trail running until I was fifty-nine and never imagined myself even a casual “athlete.”

One week later, a little grief and depression has settled in along with the discomfort and agonizing difficulty of accomplishing absolutely anything on one leg and a pair of crutches. My injured leg can bear no weight at all for at least the rest of the month. I return to the orthopedic surgeon on June 1. I did rent a wheelchair for outings (assuming someone is available to carry it down a flight of stairs from my second floor apartment while I cautiously and gracelessly make my way down on my bottom end. I am terrified of falling on the narrow, old staircase. Chances are that could spell my end.  And no cruise around the neighbourhood will replace my daily walks and runs on my beloved trail—especially as spring arrives in force.

In the meantime, I have my adult son close at hand to help out. But I’m afraid that the responsibility and fear heightened his anxiety to the point that he turned to even more alcohol than usual and we had some very difficult moments. That’s all I will say at this time, because it seems like a change may finally be on the horizon (or a bottom has been reached). It won’t be easy but I’m willing to provide as much emotional caregiving as I can along the way.

It is this situation, however, that brings me to what I really wanted to talk about. For years I have fussed with the idea of a “memoirish” project while, at the same time, memoir and autofiction has exploded into a genre of often very dubious quality with authors who seem to be able to drop boundaries and expose everything about themselves and those close to them without thinking twice. That holds no appeal to me. As a writer or as a reader. There are ideas I want to explore about living with mental illness, having a gender-different history and parenting a child with his own challenges. But my questions have always been more metaphysical than personal-detail-oriented, and I believe that my experiences, if interesting in themselves, are at once unique to me and in some sense universal to this messy business of living we all engage in. I am also aware that, even though both of my children are intrinsic to my story, they each have their own stories (or versions of my story) that I do not own.

How can one tell a “true,” yet necessarily subjective story that involves others closely and still respect their dignity and boundaries? There is a lot of anger, grief and joy in my story, like any other, but how can one write toward that emotion without exposing too much of one’s self or others? I know I keep waiting to move beyond all that before writing while knowing at the same time that writing is possibly the only way I will ever understand what I feel.

In recent years, I have published a few personal essays and poems in which I have sought to strike a chord between the raw and the abstract, but more recently I have been frozen. I only feel safe writing about the words of others. My own words about my life have remained strangely out of reach. However, of late, the desire to find them has returned.

So, on my mother’s birthday, with at least a month of down time ahead, as my son is making his own resolutions, I’m thinking it is perhaps time to open that work-in-progress file again. For my parents and my children and myself.

And maybe someone else will want to read it too.

My father’s library: A very personal reflection

Originally published in December, 2015, I have updated this essay with an addendum.

I was standing in my father’s library last night, looking for a book I could not find, but as I scanned the titles I began to read the shelves as life lines, like the lines that always creased his forehead and fanned out from the corners of his eyes as he squinted through the windshield or glanced up into the rearview mirror of the car. For as long as I can remember, my father never drove without a grimace. The shelf lines are deep and distinct. His love of classic literature represented in tattered hardcover volumes with faded lettering on the spines. His life long obsession with Russia marked with rows of history books, discourses on Stalin and Marxism taking up more space than I’d remembered. And the Soviet literature, of course. Then his more recent forays into western American literature, Ivan Doig, Wallace Stegner. I wonder when he ever took the time to read. When other men might have eased into a life of retirement, my father resisted. Retirement is, like false teeth or hearing aids, for old men. He is 87.

My father is one of those men who, living by Dylan Thomas’ dictum not to go gentle into that good night, has spent his life fighting death with massive doses of mega-vitamins, a deep-seated distrust of doctors, and the belief that if one keeps on working, dedicating oneself to physical labour day after day after day, the Grim Reaper will never get a foothold. Ever. That means continuing to struggle with wheelbarrows full of wet cement, devising new projects, and never turning his back on a beloved old Mercedes that has broken his heart and nearly cost his life a few times. No matter how bent and weary, despite occasionally falling into the wood stove (“it’s nothing”), my father shuffled on defiantly until last Sunday morning when he fell and suffered a massive stroke in the simple human act of putting his pants on, as we all do, one leg at a time.

Yesterday, Christmas Day, was my first opportunity to get up to see him. Fate was not conspiring to make it easy – unless I am reading it wrong – but my car collapsed before I even made it out of town. For better or worse, we were across the street from an established mechanic shop and outside the house of a family who kindly took us in out of the -21c weather until we could make arrangements to get up to my parent’s house, a little cottage in the woods outside a village about 2 hours north of the city I live in. Long story short but one of my brothers was able to drive us, when attempting to rent a car proved impossible. From there I drove my mother, in her car, to Red Deer where my father is hospitalized – a further hour each way.

My first reaction to seeing my father helpless and restrained to his bed was, naturally, heartbreaking. But as my daughter and I took turns holding his hand, stroking his now smooth forehead, witnessing the genuine joy in his eyes – so pleased to see us even if he won’t remember – I realized that I have never, in my life, felt closer to this complicated and difficult man. Meanwhile, my son, hung over and fighting a panic attack, held back, not ready yet to come close. And that’s okay. They have had their own challenges over the years (the long hair and beard chief among them), but he and my father are, in their way, remarkably close. They have gone to the opera together and Thomas has already been given some of his grandfather’s most precious books.

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A childhood favourite of my father’s. My son keeps it safely in a plastic bag.

My father has never been an easy man, but as I grew older I was able to appreciate how harsh his own upbringing was, and to recognize in him the mood disorder we both share, even if he denies its existence. I learned to leave him space, to meet his outbursts without taking them too deeply. After all, how could I, the intellectually inclined, queer black sheep of the family, not love a man who worked in construction camps in remote Ontario, learning the electrical trade organically, until he could save enough to money to do what his family always discouraged – move to New York City and enroll at Columbia in his late twenties. He studied engineering, but he should have been an academic if he could have justified the path. His greatest thrill was reviewing opera and classical music performances for the student newspaper. His love of all things Russian also stems from this era – I am not entirely certain of the exact genesis, but seem to think it may have involved a woman. Hard to imagine,as my father never struck me as the romantic type but he did, in his younger years, bear a striking resemblance to Humphrey Bogart. Maybe there was smoky Russian woman in his past.

As it turned out, he never finished his degree, in those days it wasn’t necessary for an engineering designation. When he met and married my mother in 1957, school was abandoned for full-time employment and, over time, they would move to rural western Canada where he would pine for the New York of the 1950’s while simultaneously looking for more and more remote locations in which to settle. These last few years, working away in defiance of death in a cottage outside of Caroline, Alberta, have probably been some of his happiest. And now we don’t know what the future holds. In the months ahead as my brothers and I seek to find accommodations for our parents, I want to make sure I can look after the library, because unlike the countless carefully labelled jars of salvaged nut and bolts that insulate his workshop, for me, this is where his heart lies.

I want to curate it for him. Whether or not he is ever able to read again, I know he would want the company of some of his books if possible in the future. And I want to trace and record those shelf lines in his honour.

Update: My father did recover to return home, against his doctor’s orders and, for a time managed better than expected. On July 5, 2016 he suffered a stroke and was involved in a head-on collision (as to which came first it will never be known). Remarkably he survived the initial trauma and the stroke, but further complications continued to arise in hospital and he passed away on July 20.

In the midst of all this, my mother was taken to the hospital on July 6 due to infected sores on her feet. When she arrived her oxygen levels were less than 60%. Her lungs had been so restricted by long term effects of osteoporosis that the exchange of CO2 was severely impacted. A respirator failed to reverse the situation, and she passed away on July 9, 2016.

Within two weeks, we lost them both.

This Is Paradise, or where does fiction meet real life?

I cannot remember ever really wanting to be anything other than a writer. How then did I get to mid-life believing that my aspirations would never extend beyond the inevitable writing and editing of newsletters and promotional material with every job or volunteer position I have ever held? Why have I been hit with a curious mix of pride and anxiety every time someone has commented on my facility with words?

In truth, there was a point in my late teens or early 20s in which I made the conscious decision to wait until I had lived a little before writing. I assumed a little experience would provide material and perspective. I had not bargained for the complicated experiences that awaited me or how long it would take for me to wade through and unravel it all. And when I did find my way through I found myself unwilling to bare my soul on the page. But every writer has a story they were born to tell, or as James Baldwin said about Go Tell It On the Mountain, the story they have to tell if they tell no other. Frequently it is a coming of age story, a coming out story, a tale of childhood loss or trauma. But that not need be the case. Nor is it necessarily the first story a writer sits down to tell. It can be recounted in fiction or presented as memoir, but the telling is essential, cathartic and close to the bone; even if no one beyond a few friends or relatives ever see the manuscript or hold a copy of a self-published book.

As I look back, I finally understand why I decided to put my writerly aspirations on hold so many years ago. I also understand the barriers I have placed between my impulse to protect myself and my identity and any story I thought I might tell. In this context those reasons are not important. I have also come to recognize the story that I really need to tell is one which I have only recently come to understand myself. So with the unexpected time that my present inability to return to work has afforded me, the gift of introspection and a desperate need to get this story out onto the page and hopefully gain some distance; I want to see what I can do.

But the challenge with stories that find their source close to life lived, is that this same life not only belongs to me. It cannot be divorced from real people. Or real experience. I am not certain how to balance the need to breathe truth into an experience and the desire to protect those I love.

paradiseMy latest read has inspired these questions. After my enthusiastic encounter with Will Eaves’ The Absent Therapist, I turned to his 2012 novel This Is Paradise, which I have had on hand for nearly two years. The right book, at the right moment it seems. A relatively spare novel that is at once intimate and ambitious in scope, this book opens with Emily Allden’s difficult pregnancy with her fourth child, and closes decades later following her death. Benjamin, the youngest, unborn at the beginning is an enthusiastic traveller on his first chance to join his older siblings and parents on their regular holiday trip to France in the first half of the novel. In the second half Benjamin, now grown becomes the lens through whom we see the family – his well meaning but emotionally distant father; his intelligent but volatile older brother Clive (who is clearly dealing with perhaps aspergers or a mental health disorder) and his two sisters, the capable Liz and the delicate Lotte – as they cope with their mother’s increasing dementia, the decision to place her in a care facility, and the lingering final days of her life.

Eaves’ deft ear for the nuances of conversation, sensitivity for the complex social dynamics that bind and divide family, and keen eye for visual detail allow him to create a coherent interplay between the members of this large family and a handful of supporting characters across the decades. He does this by employing a style that is at times fragmentary, sometimes reflectively slipping back into passing remembrances, but always evocative of the way that we tend to think about and experience our lives over time. The result is rich with wonderful moments that add depth and resonance.

Yet as I was reading This Is Paradise, I was especially struck by the pivotal account of Emily’s illness, the details of her physical and mental disintegration, and the mixed emotions that rise and fall between the various members of the Allden clan throughout this process. It rang true in a way that made me wonder if it was grounded in lived experience. It was then no surprise to find that Will Eaves had in fact published an essay in The Guardian about his mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s. When he recounts an event repeated in the novel I naturally wanted to know where reality and fiction intersect in his story. And how does an author decide what to paint clearly and what to disguise?

To be honest I am not generally drawn to family dramas, especially ones with such a sprawling cast and ambitious reach across the years. Mind you in another writer’s hands this would likely be a book at least 600 pages long. In half that length, we trace a loving portrait of a complex and deeply human family from childhood spats through adult stresses and concerns to the bonding moment of shared loss.

And since it is from my own immediate family that the story I want to tell arises, I suppose I will be paying closer attention than ever to the way such dynamics are played out in literature.