Unfinished conversations: Still unable to address my mother, two years later

In memory of Mary Jane Ellis
1934-2016

I have accepted an offer on my house and, if all goes well, I will be moving. Knowing that I’ll be looking to purchase a much smaller space, there is, after twenty-four years here, an urgent need to reduce the collected detritus and all the unwanted belongings that have accumulated over time. Two children, a dissolved marriage, and my own double-folded existence have left a mass—no, make that a mess—of stuff to sort through and clear out.

One evening I uncovered a shoebox of cards and letters tucked into the most unlikely cupboard in the basement. I brought it upstairs and sat down to sort through the contents. Anniversary cards celebrating a marriage that ended seventeen years ago; longer than that if you count the painful years of unravelling that preceded the formal separation. Birthday cards addressed To a Beautiful Daughter. And letters. From friends. From my mother. From another time and life. Some I kept, others I tossed into the recycling box. I opened none of them. It seems one cannot bury the self, but one can put it aside—until a later date.

My mother’s death, two years ago today, opened a raw vein, exposed a deep insecurity that I believed I had moved beyond. As a result, my faint efforts to articulate my loss have continued to come up against an impenetrable wall  of guilt and shame. That box of old cards and letters troubles old wounds. Likewise, yesterday’s the discovery of nearly two decades of prayer journals uncovered in  a container stored at my brother’s place compounds the pain. When I suggested that the journals be burnt, unopened, my other brother admitted he had read some and that her prayers had been focused on our father—no surprise there—and me. It seems I had been her pressing concern. Me. The daughter who failed her. The daughter who could not be a woman.

I have always insisted, to myself at least, that my mother was my one and only unconditional support through the years of my transition and beyond. That when she died, I lost the one person who really believed in me. But, in truth, we never got the chance to properly address the impact of the shift in our relationship. We always talked around the subject.

In the last month of her life, when I was finally beginning to try to confront the extent of the loneliness and grief my own tangled life journey has caused me—when I needed more than ever for her to assure me I was a good person and that she still loved me—she was already slipping away. As her lungs became constricted within her shrinking frame, her energy and cognitive abilities declined rapidly. We thought she needed rest, a break from our father. We didn’t know she was on her way out.

On July 6, 2016, one day after my dad was in a serious accident that would ultimately claim his life, my mother was rushed into the city with critically low oxygen levels. She ended up in ICU in one hospital while her husband lay unconscious on the stroke unit of another. I saw her the next day, and although disoriented, she was hungry and joking with the nurses. One day later she was barely responsive. The respirator was not helping as we’d hoped. On the third day, Saturday July 9, I received a call from the hospital. A family member was needed. Both of my brothers were out of town, so my daughter and I went down. Ginny was twenty-three at the time and had been very close to her grandmother. We spoke to the doctor and agreed that the respirator should be removed, but requested that we wait until my brothers could be there—one was a few hours away, the other six.

So Ginny and I kept vigil. Held her hands. Told her we loved her. My son was too distressed to come. When my brothers and their wives arrived, the respirator was removed and we kept her company through her final hours. Eleven days later, our father would follow her. Throughout those troubled weeks, I sat many hours by my parents’ bedsides. To my brothers though, whatever I do, whatever I have done, is never enough. I am the oldest and the odd one out. Always wrong. But as they’ve been supported by their wives and extended families, I’ve been alone with two adult children, the three of us shocked and bereft.

It has been a long two years now. My mother’s absence still sits heavy—an empty space inside me. I cannot address her yet. I have no words. I’d like to think she would be proud that I am writing, but she never wanted to read anything I wrote. It might have been too painful. Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to write my grief now. We were, it seemed, so close. We spoke on the phone every week, shared our hopes and concerns. But what of what was left unsaid?

And what of the daughter she lost, the one in the cards and letters in the shoebox, did she mourn her? She saw me happy, for a while at least, in this new masculine form. If I could trust that she remembered that person, her unexpected son, in her last hours, could I move on and begin the grief process?

Or am I still mourning a lost self too?

Ever tried. Ever failed. You know the drill. August 2017, the month that was.

As August draws to a close, and September opens, I have some thoughts about the pressures of prescribed reading and the complicated emotion of loss.

Joseph Schreiber 2017

At the outset of the month I pulled out a selection of potential books to choose from for Women in Translation month. I knew that with several review related reading projects underway I was unlikely to get to more than a few titles. I managed three: one of my must-reads (Carmen Boullosa’s Before), one that was somewhat disappointing (Kjersti A. Skomsvold’s The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am), and one late addition (Isabelle Eberhardt’s The Oblivion Seekers). However, I found that many of the books I tried to pick up did not work at all for me— that is, they were not right for right now. Feeling that I ought to try to manage one more before the month was out I found myself frozen, almost unable to read anything… I had to stop and remind myself what such reading projects are all about.

Raising the awareness of the fact that fewer female writers are translated is important, as is celebrating the terrific authors who may not be well known. It never hurts to look at one’s reading habits and challenge one’s self. But it is another thing to get stressed and defensive. And that is what happens when I start to measure my reading by gender. I will admit, more male than female authors line my shelves. I have addressed this fact before in other posts. I also wrote about how for the better part of two decades I read almost exclusively female writers in an essay for Literary Hub last year. For a long time, I hoped that by filling my head with female voices I would find my own. And, of course, I never did. The sense of myself as male was unassailable. Seventeen years ago I set off on a course to realign my presented and internal gender. And here I am.

At this point, I like to think that the gender of the authors I read is secondary, although I will admit to a growing need to connect with gender-queered and gender non-conforming perspectives. Most specifically I am drawn to writing that is challenging, exploring style and form. In recent months, some of those writers have, in fact, been women in translation—Fleur Jaeggy, Can Xue, Marie Ndiaye. Before next August rolls around again I am certain there will be more. And I know for a fact I will be turning to some intriguing experimental female writers writing in English. But, as a person with a differently gendered history, gender is a complicated, messy space of being. Whenever I start to feel the burden of gender pressing on me from the outside, the existential anxiety (and anger) that haunts me is stirred.

So, let me read—as and how I need to read.

But my own self-imposed reading ambitions are not the only pressures that have weighed on me this past month. My brothers and I listed our parents’ house and it sold within one week. With the possession date looming we made several trips to clear the house out and, on the final visit, I found my mother’s nail file. She carried this file with its ivory coloured handle and tattered red plastic sheath for decades. Just looking at it I see her hands. It is perhaps the single most important keepsake I have. More than anything it reminds that she is well and truly gone.

When I first came out to my mother, back when transgender was just beginning to draw some serious public attention, she asked for some time to process what I had shared, but promised that she loved me unconditionally. And she never let me down. She was my advocate, my best friend, the one person I could call for comfort and reassurance, no matter what. I was otherwise alone. There were no local supports, I faced the challenges of being a single male parent of two children with learning disabilities, I experienced a breakdown, the loss of a career, and a life-threatening health crisis. Even though she was unable to travel far near the end, she phoned me every week without fail, and I spent as much time as I could with her and my father in their final months.

When my parents died last year, my mother’s death opened an intangible void.

My parents’ house. Our last day there.

I did, however, still have one faint, yet vital lifeline—a friend in South Africa, the closest queer friend I have ever had. Bookish and bipolar, like me, she was a sort of soul mate even though we only met in person once when I visited her in 2015. But as I was tumbling, she was falling further and farther. One year ago today, September 1, Ulla took her own life. Images of the rugged Indian Ocean shoreline near her home have been seeping into my dreams. As we spread our parents’ ashes before leaving their property for the last time, all I could think of was Ulla’s being spread on the beach. I couldn’t touch the urn. My son spread my share.

Eastern Cape, South Africa

Suddenly I am doubly aware of how alone I am. How alone I have been and how weary I am.

The intersection of Pride Week, rather than providing a distraction, exacerbates the sense of loss. I cannot imagine anything lonelier than a mass of shiny happy people. I did excuse myself from the volunteer commitments I had made and now I am free to avoid the parade as I usually do. I also happened to have a doctor’s appointment so I spoke to him about my recent depressive dips and my frustration with the reality of long-term trans loneliness that nobody talks about, that isn’t fashionable, that doesn’t fit the script.

Sometimes loss feels less like a temporary passage, than a layering, compounded, defining quality of life.

Welcome to my closed space reality:

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

And so on.

Note: I should have included a link to the requiem I wrote for my friend. This piece was published at Sultan’s Seal last November, is constructed of salvaged language, and features photographs from my visit to South Africa.

A dream beyond sorrows: A personal reflection

One year ago I read and wrote a review of Peter Handke’s brief meditation on the life and death of his mother, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. With my birthday several days behind me and Canadian Thanksgiving coming next weekend, it seemed to me an appropriate moment to stop and take stock of the past twelve months.

8040751642_2c979863e1_zIt has been time of growth and a time of grief. Neither are quantifiable experiences, neither can be parcelled off, measured and checked like the items on a to-do list. Growth, like grief, can only be appreciated in retrospect and, perhaps most critically, as experiences that are bound together in the business of living, of being in the world.

Moving back a year, my simple Handke review led to a Twitter encounter with Douglas Glover, the mastermind and driving force behind the online magazine Numéro Cinq, who invited me to try my hand at writing a review for the magazine and, cliché as it sounds, that changed everything.

Since my “debut” if you like, I have become a regular contributor at NC, and have gone on to write book reviews for a number of other sites and online publications. I confess that I still struggle with a little of an impostor syndrome, ever worried that a lack of formal training in literature or creative writing will catch me up—out me as a pretender.

So far, so good.

Writing, or rather, the courage to put my own creative or critical writing “out there” for others to read, is something I could not have imagined doing until fairly recently. The response has been very encouraging; and the growing friendships and respectful connections with other readers and writers has far exceeded my modest expectations. I am ever excited by the works, ideas and reading suggestions of others. The community afforded by online connections is invaluable.

But moments of isolation and loneliness persist, feeding waves of existential anger and grief.

Five months ago I published my first piece of essay/memoir writing. It is honest and raw—the product of more than a year of worrying words onto the pages of notebooks. Some of my anger and grief is channeled through this essay, and there is a relief in having released this fragment of my truth.

Within two months, though, I would begin to know an entirely new grief.

In July, in the span of less than two weeks, both of my parents died. The circumstances that swept them from us were not entirely unexpected, but the rapid intersection of the two events has left me numbed. And then, in early September I learned of the death, by suicide, of one of my closest friends. Hers was a fate, again not unexpected, but long feared and, in a strange and painful way, respected and understood.

8084371103_590f71e383_zWhich brings me full circle, to Handke’s essential, heartbreaking memoir. A novice to loss on the magnitude of that which has marked these past months, I imagined myself crafting a response of immediate grief, as Handke attempts. But I realize I am voiceless. At least for now. Articulating my grief will take time. At the moment I cannot even sort it out inside.

So with Thanksgiving coming, I am thankful for outlets for writing, new friends who support and inspire, books, words and, yes, even grief.

And for the opportunity to continue to grow.

That is my dream for the year ahead.