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 ...