Tuesday, 31 January 2012

About Me, Part 27: Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again

I went to sleep a few hours after landing in Vancouver. Beforehand, my host showed me the view from the balcony, out over Fairview Slopes and False Creek towards downtown, and the strange strings of lights hanging suspended in the dark sky that were actually ski hill lights on the north shore mountains. When I woke up the following morning, I could not wait to see the mountains. I remember peering through the blinds in the guest room to see them and feeling a sense of promise and optimism. At the time, I felt things could only go up. But, I was also determined to not make my move all about running away from myself. I intended to find a therapist to do some grief work. I also aimed to find another t'ai chi instructor and a meditation center as well as make good use of the many natural and organic food markets around town.

On Day 2 in Vancouver, I traveled around the neighbourhood, had lunch in the nearby City Square Mall, then took a bus out to UBC campus to see where the library school was. The campus was larger than any I had seen before and was much less built up back then. When I got to the old Main Library building, across from the campus clock tower, I went up to the top floor and found myself in a somewhat secluded environment with a few offices. The halls were empty. I introduced myself to one of the professors and she, in turn, introduced me to a few of the others who were in that day sorting through paperwork. I remember mentioning that I had just arrived and what a year I had had up until that point. "Are you sure you can do this?" asked one of the faculty, meaning the work intensive library studies program. "Yes I am," I responded. Not only did I believe that I could handle the work load, but, still under the influence of all of the progressive ideas about the internet and its democratic possibilities, I felt that I could really make a difference in this field.

Later on, I followed my host and some of his friends to a production of Brecht's Three Penny Opera in Douglas Park, several blocks from I was staying. It began just after sundown and ran until about 11:00 pm. After which, I headed back to the apartment on my own. My host was leaving on an overnight flight to England. I had card access to his building. I relished having a nice clean apartment all to myself. I spent the rest of the week exploring downtown and Chinatown and went back to the library studies department to ask a few more questions. I also explored my own neighbourhood a little more and found a Shambhala Center not far from where I had seen the play in the park. It was scheduled to re-open the second Monday of September. I also went to close my mother's estate bank account, now that all necessary expenses had been paid, and open an account for myself at a branch of my bank at UBC. I spent a few afternoons at the Granville Island Public Market taking in the food stalls and craft shops. I was invited to dinner by some relatives (part of my mother's godmother's family) in the suburb of White Rock; I took the SkyTrain for the first time to meet them in Surrey.

On September 2, I went to an assembly in the Student Union Building to get my student residence assignment. When I got it, I walked a fair distance across campus to a small cluster of pink townhouses with a cobbled lane winding down the middle of them. Fairview Residence, a coincidence given that it had the same name as the neighbourhood I was staying in temporarily. There was a gym and a sauna as well as a cafe called The Beanery. I used my key to unlock the door to the suite I would be sharing with three other students. It was well-worn, but not run down. The common areas were clean. I opened the door to my bedroom and found a tiny, yet cozy nook with a bed, a desk and chair, a closet, a night table and lamp and a book shelf above the bed. The window was just the right size, with thick maroon curtains. I was quite impressed. It was then that I heard the front door open and two guys walked in. Two of my three roommates. They were each in their senior undergraduate years. They told me that they had cleaned up the mess that the previous occupants had left (eg. food, condoms). I was glad that I had not seen any of it and I appreciated that they had taken the time to do that. Never having had roommates before, this looked promising.

I went back to the apartment, gathered my luggage, food and the boxes that the courier had delivered a couple of days earlier and phoned for a taxi van. I left behind the card key for the apartment as well as some money for a few long distance phone calls that I had to make. I also left a huge thank-you note. I felt indebted to my host. I immediately moved into my new place and unpacked everything. We all spent the Sunday afternoon of Labour Day weekend grocery shopping at Metrotown Mall in Burnaby getting caught in the stampede on the way out at closing time.

The next few weeks were a rush of events. I started school on Tuesday, September 5. My roommates and their girlfriends surprised me with a birthday cake on Wednesday. My new phone got connected on September 12, just in time for me phone my father long-distance and find out that his eldest sister, my aunt, had died of lymphoma (she had been ill for years). I went to my first Monday night open house at the Shambhala Center. One member of the Center was a UBC graduate student in Social Work and lived in the adjacent Acadia Residences. She offered to give me a lift to the Center on Monday evenings. I accepted. I began looking for therapists at the Center.

By the end of September, the weather had begun to turn rainy. I began to get melancholy again. Eating alone at a restaurant or in my room listening to music, I would suddenly cry. On Thanksgiving Day, I went to my relatives in White Rock for dinner where I met some people who went to high school with my parents. Meeting them was interesting; hearing about my mother was awkward.

But the grief continued. I spent a couple of days at a Benedictine Monastery near the town of Mission, a couple of hours east of Vancouver, in part to work on a paper on monastic libraries. It was an all around healing experience: contemplative eating, hiking on the acreage around the monastery and conversing with travelers passing through in the dining hall. By coincidence, I met the widow of the former head of the library studies program. She was there with her Anglican church congregation. I was invited to their service that Sunday; it reminded me of my mother's congregation. When the service ended, I wept. That morning, clouds inundated the Fraser valley and wafted up our hillside, at one point, even obscuring the ground we were standing on. It was very dreamlike.

My first appointment with a therapist, who I had met at the Center, was on Halloween. On the same night, my home province was having its second sovereignty referendum. I readied myself for the tough grief work that lay ahead. Over the next few years, I would uncover things about myself that had been buried for years.

When I went home for Christmas that year, many remarked on how I had changed, how looked healthier and more confident. They could not see the work that went into it. And the work, both in my chosen field and my inner work, had only just begun.

To be continued ...

Sunday, 29 January 2012

About Me, Part 26: Stop! Look! Listen!

On first try, I did not get into library school, for reasons that I still cannot understand. I got onto the waiting list in April 1995 and waited patiently (or not so patiently) to hear where I stood. In the meantime, my grandmother and I moved into a condominium in the west island suburb of Pierrefonds. I started trying to figure out the logistics of moving across the country to a city I had never been in and that I knew almost nothing about. When my seasonal work at Concordia University Library wound down at the end of May, researching Vancouver became a full-time job of its own.

One of my mother's former coworkers had a son studying anesthesiology at UBC; he had just moved to a somewhat upscale Vancouver neighbourhood called Fairview so that he could be close to the university's medical campus at the Vancouver General Hospital. I had met him for the first time the previous Christmas when I was in Ontario. He offered to put me up until I could get my living arrangements settled. I was elated. Seven months later, I found out that I had been admitted to the library studies program, so I gave him a call to firm up arrangements; he would be in the UK with his fiancee for two weeks in August and September, hence I could have the apartment to myself. Things were looking up.


One day during the spring of that year, I noticed a bump on my shoulder. It was soft, kind of fleshy, and it felt somewhere between uncomfortable and painful. With cancer in my lineage, I was petrified. After a doctor examined it, he felt there was nothing to worry about, but I was at an all-time low in trusting doctors. I told him to send me to someone who could get rid of it. The plastic surgeon that he sent me to was quite short with me, but removed it anyway. I thanked him. The stitches came out a few weeks later. I kept low-key about this to my folks as I did not want to alarm them with another health issue in the family. We were quite weary at that point. Gradually the area on my shoulder healed and the fear and anxiety subsided.

I continued to practice t'ai chi that spring and summer in a park in Westmount. My interest in health eating continued. Whenever I was downtown, I would eat at health food restaurants as often as I could. I practiced meditation occasionally at the local Shambhala Center which, at the time, was located in a loft in the old garment district near Mile End.

I felt some interest in dating return to me, but I continued to have problems forming connections. I really was clueless about myself in those years, but I was set to learn a great deal soon enough.

I began the process of selling off most of my belongings and saying goodbye to my friends that summer. The sadness of saying goodbye was balanced with the happiness of being in the driver's seat of my own life. I saw the latter as a way to honour my mother's memory. In 1995, I got the best of the past and the future.

One of my cousins got married that summer and it was the last time I set foot in Toronto or Mississauga. I went to Meadowvale Cemetery to make sure that my mother's plot was being well looked after and I visited her friends one last time before staying at a relative's in the Parkdale neighbourhood of Toronto; the wedding was in the town of Kleinberg, north of the city. A friend of mine got married about a month later, in early August. People were moving on.

There were more than a few going away parties. Some friends from the Chaucer course I took in my first year (we still kept in touch) held one for me as did my old high school friends. My family held one near the end of August at the west island home of one of my uncles. Some money was collected as a gift. It was mostly my mother's side of the family although my father and step mother were also there. My father and step mother also took myself and my grandmother out to dinner earlier that week. Another relative took us and some out-of-town visitors on a drive around the western edge of the island of Montreal. High end burbs, a few beaches, some lush areas of greenery and a stretch of country road with a few farmer's markets; at the time, I felt that this was a great way to remember my home town.

And so on August 24, 1995, both my living and late grandfather's birthdays, I got up, made sure my luggage was packed, had the courier pick up some boxes to ship across the country, had breakfast and small lunch, and then, my father and step mother drove my grandmother and myself to the airport. Montreal was fading, becoming the transparent stuff of memories and dreams. After waiting around in the airport lounge, we made our way to the security area where I turned around to say goodbye and hug everybody. I felt a great deal of sadness for my grandmother, so many losses in such a short time, I hoped that she would see this, me moving on to the next stage of life, as something good. As I waved and headed towards the security gate, I felt a mixture of melancholy and joy. From within the security area I saw my father console my grandmother.

When the plane took off, I felt for a moment that I was leaving my past permanently, all the while getting the memory flashbacks that one would see in the final episode of a TV series. Was I really doing this? Myself?


By coincidence, the passenger sitting next to me was a friend of someone else who was going to be in my class at UBC. We chatted during the turbulence which settled my flight nerves. I landed in Vancouver at about eight pm local time and, after getting my luggage, got into a taxi which drove over the Arthur Laing Bridge and up Granville Street. I felt a deep satisfaction as I counted down the avenues on the way to the apartment in Fairview. When I got there, I called home like I promised. "The eagle has landed," I said.

To be continued ...

Thursday, 26 January 2012

About Me, Part 25: Our House

Once, when I was twelve, I had a nightmare. I dreamed that my mother had died of cancer. This was before she had moved to Ontario the first time. Over the years I forgot about it. Until September 17, 1994. It, and every thought, feeling and word about my mother that had ever occurred to me since I could remember came rushing back: every colour combined into a blinding, heartbreaking white light. A mother who had been so much to me, gone. A room full of people crying, a community of grief in the strange twilight of late summer. A mother and her daughter reunited just in time to be separated. A loner whose own heart had become to heavy to bear. The absurdity of my petty concerns of the past few years in the light of the truth: the truth that summers, even sad ones, come to an end, the truth that cracked the year, and my life, in two. It was too much to process at once. I went numb.

For the rest of the day, as we left the hospital and my mother's minister took me to the funeral home to make arrangements, was outside of time. I remember not knowing whether it was spring or fall, morning or afternoon. The conversation at the home was strangely detached, even darkly humourous. When I got back to the apartment, I called Montreal and spoke to my friends. I called my father and stepmother who wished me condolences. I called my friends in Ottawa. I alternated between tears and numbness. My uncle made a rice and fish dish for dinner which tasted overly tart and acidic: a meal made of grief.

Many came by the apartment over the next several days. My mother's friends came by to offer their help, in particular to me in getting the funeral organized, old friends contacted, accounts closed, belongings given away, the apartment subletted and cheques reclaimed. The visitation at my mother's church lasted two days. The service was on the evening of Wednesday, September 21. The women's auxillary sang "Amazing Grace." Still numb, I could not read the eulogy that I had written; I had my late grandfather's cousin, a Baptist minister deliver it. And he more than did it justice. I written it on the apartment balcony; a strong breeze started up and spurred me on to write. The burial was the next day, September 22, which would have been my grandparent's 59th wedding anniversary. It was bright, beautiful warm day and the beginning of autumn. The procession went up to Meadowvale Cemetery in Brampton. Afterwards some of us went back to the apartment for the wake. My grandmother and some of the women her age began to do something that seemed to be a generations old tradition: they began to tell raucous jokes, erupting in laughter: cathartic, purifying laughter. And then, one by one, relatives began to fly or drive home. By the weekend, it was back to my grandmother and myself. "Well," she said one evening before turning in, "It's just you and me, now."


It took until the last day of the month to liquidate the apartment. I spent sometime with my mother's friends including a small get-together hosted by the auxilliary. I had a meeting with her former place of employment regarding benefits. I had an inheritance. I had talked a lot to my mother about starting out on my own, possibly out west. Now, I could. She had passed the torch and I accepted. My grandmother and I left for Montreal on the Friday, September 30. Save for two more visits the following year my years in Mississauga were over.

I started back to work the following week. By mid-week, I was suffering from tiredness and painful urination. A doctor's test confirmed that I had developed a urinary tract infection. I spent a week in bed recuperating with anti-biotics. My energy was at a low-point from which it would take a long time to recover. But I ate well, although not much at first. Cranberry juice became a part of my diet.

By November, my numbness had worn off; I would get irritable or cry spontaneously. Songs that my mother had listened to were a trigger. I joined a loss and grief group through Concordia University which would last until the spring. Gradually, I started to socialize again. I continued to practice t'ai chi. My reading became more centered on various kinds of spirituality. I continued to seek out a meditation center and found the Montreal chapter of the Buddhist organization Shambhala International. I also watched my grandmother's process being there as much as I could. By the end of the month, I had sent an application off to the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies at the University of British Columbia. My grandmother made plans to go to Barbados for the holidays. I made plans to go back to Mississauga to spend a week with some of my mother's friends. Christmas Day, in Mississauga, was the saddest one I had ever had. That morning I was welcomed warmly around the tree with my host family, but I felt the loss intensely. We drove to pick up one of their grandmothers in Alliston and then headed to London to spend with their extended family. Dinner was hearty and the conversation was light. The following few days I spent with some others and then went back to Montreal on New Year's Day. I spent a month minding the house, empty, dark, filling with half-heard voices in the middle of the night. My grandmother returned from Barbados at the end of January.

On Superbowl Sunday 1995, I made the announcement that I had applied to UBC. It was greeted with mixed reactions: some were happy, others upset because I would be leaving. But it was time. My mother's whole mission had been to try and recover herself. Now it was my turn.

My grandmother eventually sold the old duplex that my grandfather had bought in 1962 and we moved into a condominium in Pierrefonds on the west island. Things began to look up by springtime. My therapy group was finished. Most of the paperwork from my mother's estate was finished. One day my grandmother opened an envelope that came in the mail. She handed it to me quickly and went into the kitchen. It was a picture of my mother's grave marker; it had just been completed. The epitaph was framed with a dogwood flower motif. I had chosen the dogwood flowers because they symbolized divine sacrifice. Her future unlived, became my future. As summer began, I was reinventing myself once again.

To be continued ...

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

About Me, Part 24: Still Water

My grandfather had always wanted to see me graduate from university; I think he hung around as long as he could knowing I was about to. But the last month was excruciating for him. A relative who lived around the corner from the hospital had come by daily to check up on him. One day near the end of April, he complained of not feeling well; that evening, he collapsed and was taken to the very same hospital where he died of kidney failure at some point during the night. My family kept this from my grandfather feeling that it would stress him out. I later learned that he had been told after all and that he had actually figured it out; the visits had stopped suddenly and no one was saying a word about it. My grandmother would not let me visit the hospital towards the end of May as his conditioned worsened. On May 27, the day my degree was conferred, my grandfather, aged 78, passed away.

I was at work at the library when I got called to the phone by a co-worker; "it's urgent!" I hurried home. The following few days were a flurry of funeral planning and family members arriving from all over. My mother came in by train a couple of days later. The funeral wound up being on June 1st; my mother's forty-seventh birthday. As my grandfather, and that side of my family were fairly well known in both the black community and in the community at large, many (about 400 people) attended the service and interment. As I sat next to my mother, I couldn't shake the sense that her life was tenuous as well. Things became quite surreal at the wake, at my grandmother's, when a birthday cake was brought out for my mother in the midst of it. My graduation photos were passed around. At some point, the house emptied, and the mood become very sad. I spent the night reading passages from the Tibetan Book of The Great Liberation before falling asleep.

My convocation was two weeks later. My mother and her best friend came as did an uncle and my grandmother. My father and step-mother did not, but instead took me out to dinner later that week. My mother was in town for the rest of the week spending some of the time at her friend's on the west island before heading back home.


The summer of 1994 was a strange one. The weather was gorgeous, very sunny. But the melancholy was intense. I remember paying special attention to precious things like the sun shining through the leaves on trees, morning dew, the stars in the sky at night. The were very few social events to attend that summer, but the few that happened were fun, and I really felt their fleeting nature as if I was realizing how precious life was. Dating was a non-issue, and not for my lack of interest in anyone; my mind was simply elsewhere. I went to see two films that summer. The Lion King was simply a great mythic story to bury myself in, as a distraction from my real life. Spike Lee's Crooklyn seemed to be a more sombre, reflective side of the director; set in the early 70s (this was when 70s retro replaced 60s retro as our collective soundtrack) the film was about a family losing their mother to cancer. The music in the film brought me back to my childhood. The story was too close for comfort.

All around me, my friends were moving and moving on. Some married that year, others became parents. I had gone to school with some people from other parts of Canada, namely British Columbia. I began to wish that I could move out to what seemed to many of us back east as the perfect health/nature oasis. Health of course was underscored given that I was surrounded by illness. Towards the end of June, I began to develop stomach pains that became a regular occurrence. Of course, I feared the worst. After several tests, I was diagnosed with four peptic ulcers and was put on muscle relaxers. These made me quite depressed. I also began lose weight. I had been a vegetarian once a few years earlier, but now I was more into eating organically. I had stopped working in May, but had saved up enough money to buy my own food and other needs. I felt the tenuousness of my own life.

On Canada Day weekend, my mother's side of the family hosted the bi-annual family reunion. Many of those who had been in town for my grandfather's funeral flew back into town for what seemed like a very happy occasion finally. My mother came back and stayed with one of my uncles. But the mood of the year found its way into this, too. During the reception dinner, a family member from Barbados (the only one who could make it that year) broke down during his speech as he spoke about those who had passed on that year down there. The following day at the church service, another family member had what seemed like a heart attack and the ambulance was called. The choir was singing "Highway to Heaven". After some paramedic attention, his condition stabilized. The lunch reception afterwards was quite low key. My mother had had to rush to church and looked frighteningly exhausted when she arrived. When the reunion weekend was over and everyone went on their separate ways. The quiet, sad mood returned full force.


On the third Wednesday of July, I came home from t'ai chi summer session class at Concordia and heard the phone ring. I answered it; it was my mother calling. She had complained of flu symptoms a week or so before. The doctors had discovered the cancer had come back again. This time, they had suggested a very aggressive form of chemotherapy with no guarantees of success ... at all. My mother was no longer up to treatment of any kind. The full impact of her decision did not hit me. I assumed their would be some other option available at some point. She asked if I could come down to visit. In serious denial, I made plans, but kept my previous commitment made with an old high school friend to visit her in Ottawa beforehand. My mother, sounding very understanding agreed with the arrangement.

My week in Ottawa was the calm before the storm. On the one hand, it was spent catching up with a few old friends and their families. The friend who had invited me came out to me; she was a lesbian. I felt nothing but pride and admiration for her. She looked at me as if I had some similar revelation to make. As far as I was concerned at the time, I had none. I had felt some more stirrings within me that year, but as usual buried them. The week in Ottawa passed, my ulcers healed for the most part. I spoke to my mother a couple of times long-distance; she sounded fine. When I took the train back to Montreal to get ready to go to Mississauga, I felt not so much melancholy as dread for what I would now be facing. Once I got back to my grandmother's house in the east end of Montreal, I told her that I was heading for Toronto to spend some time with my mother; then, I did some laundry, packed my bags and bought my open ticket the next day. I left for Ontario on Friday, August 12.

My mother and a friend of hers were waiting for me at Union Station. She seemed unusually subdued. The most shocking part was that she had lost a lot of weight. Her face had lost its roundness and her eyes had begun to have a sunken look. On the way back to her apartment in Meadowvale, she mentioned that she had been thinking of us going on a short trip to Niagara Falls, just to get away for a few days. The next day, I got up. I went about the day figuring that my mother was tired and had decided to sleep in. She was sleeping in, but did not get up for the duration of the day. In the early evening she got up to eat a few bites of supper that I had prepared and then, weakly, went back to bed. I was stunned; I had had no idea that her condition had worsened that much. The next day we went to her church. During the service, she complained that she was not feeling well. We stepped outside into the entry way (three different denominations shared the same building) and sat down. She appeared very faint. At that point, one of the other congregations was finishing up and people were milling about, some wondering what was going on. The pastor came over and spoke to us. At which point, I broke down. The severity of my mother's illness had hit me. 

I spent the next four weeks looking after my mother's immediate needs, paying bills at the bank machine, buying food, doing the housecleaning and laundry. She was having trouble keeping food down and continued to lose weight. I accompanied her (friends gave her lifts to Credit Valley Hospital) to a chemotherapy session. I remember my heart breaking when a small boy came in for his treatment. At one point, my mother told me to go out for a walk, just to get away for awhile. I headed over to Erin Mills Town Centre across the highway for a short while, coming back in time for my mother's lift back home. Soon afterwards, she began to lose sight in one of her eyes; it began to look swollen and unfocussed. Another friend gave us a lift down to Princess Margaret Hospital downtown for a scan. The cancer had spread to her eye. It was also in her knee joints. By the first days of September, She could barely get around. We had spent some time at the nearby pond in Aquitaine Park, but that was the last time she left her apartment.

My last days in Mississauga were increasingly sombre. A friend took us out for brunch on the 2nd of September. On the 4th, a Sunday I was at church hoping to invite a few of my mother's friends over. This was for two reasons: they needed to come together to make some kind of arrangements for her when I went back to Montreal (I still had not been told the prognosis, my mother had shielded me from it), my twenty-fourth birthday was on Tuesday the 6th. The morning of my birthday, my mother kept talking about the weekend I was born, how I arrived early, how that had thrown everyone off, how it was all for the better that my father and grandfather weren't in the delivery room at the same time given their strong personalities. The party was small, but a welcome break from the sombre mood. The last picture of my mother was taken, with her bent over with me cutting the cake for the camera. Although, she no longer smiled, I knew she was happy she had made it to my birthday. The next day was the saddest of my entire life, to this day, as I left for Montreal to start work again. As the midday movie on television (Goodbye Columbus) played in the background, my mother held my face weakly and said that she would always love me. I promised to come back as soon as I could. An old friend of hers from Montreal, who had lived in Mississauga for years, gave me a lift down to Union Station. We cried before getting into the car.

I managed to get to work the next day. I vaguely remember going to a couple of different friends' houses for dinner, but the days blurred together. In Mississauga, my mother had been moved to the palliative care unit at Credit Valley Hospital. I spoke to her a couple of times over the phone. On Thursday, September 15, I was shelving books at the far end of the library when my acting supervisor came to get me. In a strange repeat of earlier that year with my grandfather, he said "Phone call ... it's urgent!" I sprinted to the sorting room and picked up the receiver. One of my mother's friends: "Your moms not doing very well hon'." I told her that I would be down there as soon as I could ... and that I would be bringing my grandmother with me. Reconciliation needed to happen, now. Another strange repeat of the previous spring, running into friends on the way out of the library and campus, and filling them in on what was happening as I rushed out. When I got home, my grandmother (who always chain-locked the front door when I left) heard me trying to get in. She opened the door in a panic; "Is she dead! Is she dead!" "No," I said, "But we need to go right away." I called all of my uncles that afternoon update them. One of them booked train tickets for us.

When we got to the hospital the next day after an early morning train ride, we were briefed by the doctor and my mother's minister on my mother's condition. I went into her room first. About a dozen friends were in there with her. I saw her hooked up to tubes and pumps and looking very gaunt. I immediately choked up, unable to get my full voice out. The shaking I had had when finding out about my grandfather in the hospital, during the fights at home, indeed through much of the year, came back. I got to her bedside and told her it was me. "What are you doing here?" she asked, dazed, but somehow pleasantly surprised. And then, she paused. "I'm dying aren't I?" I couldn't see her through my tears, but managed to nod. Her own sight was almost gone. I told her that my grandmother was waiting outside. She agreed to have her brought in and I motioned to her friends to do that. When my grandmother came in, she rushed over to the bed and the reconciliation, awkward, sad, relieving happened.

One of my uncles raced down from Montreal in his car (he had got the news while in cooking class and left in the middle of it). He was in the room with us for a some period of time, I cannot remember. He went back to Montreal later in the evening when got back to my mother's apartment. He had made us something to eat and we ate as much as we could before heading back to the hospital to keep vigil along my mother's friends. We were there over night as my mother kept asking for ice cubes; her temperature was feverish. Her breathing became shallower and shallower. At around four in the morning, I went out to the hospital courtyard in the dawn mist to do a little t'ai chi. When I got back to the room, the sky was lightening. Once, morning began some people went home to clean up and eat before coming back again. My grandmother and I did the same and headed back to the apartment. While I was in the bath, the phone rang. We were told that we need to get back to the hospital immediately. I jumped out of the bath and got ready. I felt a fatigue in doing so that has been with me to this day, every time I rush or run. The only time I ever saw my grandmother run was when got back to the hospital lobby. We spent the next several hours at the hospital as more and more people gathered, old friends, church friends, and people that she had been on this cancer journey with for over five years. My mother passed away at 3:15 pm on September 17, 1994.

None of us has been the same since, none of us.

To be continued ...

Monday, 23 January 2012

About Me, Part 23: Up The Ladder, To The Roof

On the last day of November, 1993, I got a call from Concordia University Library. I had sent in a resume a month or so earlier not expecting a response. My job interview was the following day. By the end of the week, I had started work in the stacks department, where the books were sorted and reshelved. As a casual employee, I would be working on-call shifts until the end of the school year, and as the university closed for the holidays, I wouldn't have to work over Christmas. I started to relax immediately. The fall session at school was winding down well. My audio assignments in Sound Production had been fun and educational to work on and I looked forward to my two projects in the spring term: one where I would interview a dub poet, and another where I would be doing the sound design for one of the film students. In my new media course, I did a Hypercard presentation of the life of Chogyam Trungpa. That I was getting great marks in all of this seemed beside the point; I was enjoying myself and creative ideas seemed to be budding everywhere.

A day or two before Christmas, I got a call from my mother. Her doctors had found more cancer in her. Her voice wasn't just sad, it sounded very faint, almost a whisper. I remember that I had been out beforehand grocery shopping that day with my father and step-mother. It was unusually mild and rainy for Montreal in December. Very grey. I made tentative plans to go to Ontario over mid-winter break. Christmas day, my father drove me to grandparents (mother's parents). The snow had started over night and had become a blizzard. My father hung around for a few minutes, everyone had a few laughs, and then he left. My cousins and uncles came over later. I barely remember what the rest of the evening was like and who gave me a lift back home; my mind was elsewhere. After Boxing Day, the temperature plummeted down below minus 20 Celsius, and didn't go above that, day or night, for two months. In such cold, I didn't do much save for go to class and come back home.

I interviewed for my first audio project and began working on a soundtrack for the film project. I joined a support group called Building Positive Relationships hoping to un-learn the self-isolating I had built up over the years. The group lasted until mid-February. A week later I went to Ontario to visit my mother; things were about to go haywire very quickly.

The evening that I arrived, my mother got a call on her second phone line (only a few relatives and all of her friends had access to it) from one of my uncles. My grandfather was in the hospital. The doctor's were examining him; they thought it was stomach cancer; the news was being kept from my grandmother. My mother informed me after she hung up. I had just spoken to him a couple of weeks earlier. He had sounded fine. I sat down and started to shake uncontrollably; my mother held me for a while. But the troubles didn't end there. I called my father long-distance. An argument started over the phone between all three parties. The tensions of the past five years of more were coming to a boil. The rest of my stay was, incredibly, fairly quiet, but with tension beneath it. My mother had arranged a meeting with her therapist and I met with her briefly along with her oncologist. Both said that any treatment now would only be keeping things at bay and that the cancer was probably not going to be going away. The truth of this went over my head. I couldn't and didn't want to fathom it; my recollection of the meeting is a little vague after that, but I think I mentioned something about holistic health or becoming a vegetarian. The doctor didn't seem to think any of that would help.

Throughout the week, I felt a deep sadness underneath everything, but kept it to myself. I was touched by a couple of things. One night we were in downtown Toronto to see the Phantom of the Opera at the Pantages Theatre and we stopped beforehand at the World's Biggest Bookstore to browse. Outside, we passed a homeless person. My mother stopped me: "I don't know how you can keep walking like that." I had learned like so many people to block street people out of my mind. I would say most of my family had quite a haughty attitude when it came to the poor. But something in my mother had changed. She dropped some money in the panhandler's hat. She was beginning to live as human a life as possible, valuing things much more deeply. The end was coming. On the train home to Montreal I wept.

The morning after I got back, my father, stepmother and I got into a ferocious fight over the phone conversation earlier in the week. My mind was already full with two terminally ill family members and could not handle any more stress. I ran downstairs to me room and slammed the door, probably not the best thing to do, but I could no longer handle the dynamics that had kept me from expressing any grief of the past few years, and had kept my needs last. The next few weeks were painfully silent around the house. At school, I had trouble concentrating on my assignments. Work at the library helped me forget, but I would stay at the library later to delay going home as much as I could. I confided in some friends and found some solace. I needed a way out. Near the end of March, just before Easter weekend 1994, a solution arrived.

My uncles had had a few meetings regarding my grandfather's condition and what to do now that my grandmother was living alone. A cousin and her son, a toddler, had been staying with her, but would be going back to Quebec City after the long weekend. I was asked if I wanted to stay with my grandmother while my grandfather was in the hospital. I accepted and by the long weekend, I was settled in with a few bags. I made tentative peace at home, but needed to get away anyhow. To some degree it was going from the frying pan into the fire family dynamics-wise, but I would also, for the first time in nearly five years, be closer to downtown. My grandfather and I would visit my grandfather every other day.

School ended well considering. I My interview with the dub poet got an excellent grade despite some technical problems. The film I had worked on got a great response at the year-end screenings. My New Media prof had his class over for a party at his small bungalow in the small town of Hudson, on the outskirts of Montreal to the west. Most of us crashed there that evening and took the commuter train back into town the following day. I remember feeling quite sad that my program had finished; I had learned so much and had worked with so many great people in it. But 1994 was all about goodbyes. Goodbyes that would take years afterwards to complete.

To be continued ...

Sunday, 22 January 2012

About Me, Part 22: Where I'm From

By the end of 1992, I was more than filled to the brim with course work and my job. But, I was looking for something else, not another task, but something to help ground me. As the year turned, I started taking a t'ai chi class through the university athletics department. Within weeks, I began to relax. My chest pains were gone. I no longer needed my inhaler. What's more the philosophy behind t'ai chi appealed to me: soft overcoming hard, small overcoming large, not what I grew up with. At first, my folks couldn't see the value in what I was doing; they felt that I belonged in the hard sports "to toughen me up", and "put some meat on those bones". I didn't care, I knew what I needed and I was footing the bill.

Over the Christmas holidays, there was a truce between my mother and grandparents. The cancer had come back again and after treatment, my mother came to Montreal to spend a week. I'm not sure to this day what the terms were exactly, but I noticed something very strange over the holidays. During a dinner out with mother, grandmother and a few of my mother's aunts, I notice that she was very quiet, subdued. Most bizarrely, she was dressed head-to-toe in a very Victorian-looking outfit, complete with a high collar. I felt she was more than compromising herself. I felt embarrassed not understanding why someone would sell themselves out this way. More than me, I think she needed to get grounded in herself and this seemed like capitulation. She went back to Ontario just before New Year's Eve. By mid-winter, the truce was off.

My readings the previous year had led me to bell hooks whose books and analysis of popular culture and literature from a black feminist point-of-view fascinated me. In one of her books, I found out that she practiced Buddhism. A black Buddhist. I need to become centered, to see through my own habitual patterns, and not get swayed by my own, or another's, ego agendas. I began to read books by Buddhists like Thich Nhat Hanh (who was nominated for the 1967 Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) and D. T. Suzuki and Ajan Chah. You could say a flower was planted within me that year.

In Communication Studies, I finished my mandatory core courses that year and decided to focus on sound production, based on my radio experience, and new media in my second year. The word "internet" was starting to become a household word in 1993. Around the department, there talk about using the university's Gopher site to explore other ones around the world. There were private networks like America On-line and the Microsoft Network. People also subscribed to newsgroups and bulletin board systems or used telnet to get into remote databases and catalogues. All of the quasi-psychedelic 1991 and 1992 talk about "virtual reality" had simmered down and replaced by less heady examinations of digital media. The smart drugs fad of the early 90s ebbed leaving behind the term "smart" to be applied to everything by marketing consultants, ad people and the pseudo-hip in order to make their product, service or event sound oh-so futuristic. It was an interesting time to be in the field and talking about these media as they were being developed.

I went to visit my mother in June, for her birthday, and accompanied her to Credit Valley Hospital for a check up. She seemed to be pulling through, but was talking less about her condition. She had been off work and on disability since late the previous year and was involved in a dispute with her employer over issues related to her medical evaluation and benefits. All the while, after having some of her lymph nodes removed, she developed lymphedema; her arms became swollen and she had to rent a costly pump for them. The sight of her broke my heart. I had no idea what to do.

That summer, the recession and unemployment grew worse than the previous year. The mood on the streets was ominous. Every week or so there was another police brutality news story or another story about disaffected youth. Then in mid-June, after the Canadiens hockey team won the Stanley Cup, riots erupted along the main artery of rue Sainte Catherine (where the bookstore I worked in was situated) and vandalised businesses and vehicles the whole length of the street well into the city's east end. There was a riot at the end of the Carifete parade a few weeks later. Not long after that, the bookstore went bankrupt; it had been having financial difficulties for some time, but now publishers and wholesalers were not even sending us books. Our shelves were almost completely bare. I got a call one day from the boss saying that bailiffs had pad-locked the doors and that he would write my reference letter if I needed one. I started looking for work once again.

I did some volunteering in CKUT's production department in August working on a few station IDs, but the start of my final undergraduate year, I still had not found any work. September passed, then October. My mother had come to Montreal for my birthday and stayed with an old friend of hers in the west island. My birthday dinner was at a restaurant in Sainte Anne-de-Bellevue. It was raining. I remember getting a few balloons, but not much else. We all went back to her friend's house until my father picked me up later that evening.

As my classes started I also continued to take t'ai chi, as I had over the summer. My mother's employee scholarships had still kicked in for school every year since I had started, but applying for them every year meant that I never knew that I was going to get them. I dove into my courses that fall with a vengeance trying not to think about what I would do beyond graduation.

My interests in contemplative practices and psychology (I was seeing a therapist since the summer) were furthered by a course called the Psychology of Communication. The professor acquainted me with the writings of Chogyam Trungpa, the late Tibetan Buddhist who moved to the US in the early 70s and started an organization and community based around Buddhist practices and applications modified for North American consumption. His down-to-earth writings appealed to me. I began to look for a place to practice and attended that year's Tibetan Bazaar in an effort to connect with a local meditation center. The search would take me over a year.

As the weather got colder, much like when I was a young teen, I began to cocoon, watching a lot of television: cartoons, old sitcoms, public television marathons. A mini-series on PBS based on Armistead Maupin's book Tales of the City captivated me. I was fascinated by its depiction of San Francisco in the 70s with its gay and lesbian communities, but in particular, I was drawn to the eccentric, yet warm landlady Anna Madrigal, who was a transwoman. In fact, I was split in my loyalties between her and the lead character, the young single cisgendered woman, Mary-Ann Singleton who had moved across the country on her own to get her life started. This is what I needed to do. I knew it.

To be continued ...