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 ...

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