Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Through the Black Humor

Below I am posting something from Kate's blog, Auntie Cake's Shop, a thing she wrote, December 15, 2010. She gave it the title, "Virginia Speaks to Me." I'll have something to say about it another time.

Take it away Kate:

I worship Virginia Woolf. She has spoken to me at so many different junctures of my life - provided me with solace, and food for fervent thought. My friend Gabrielle found this for me:
Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and desert of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentists' arm-chair and confuse his "Rinse the mouth - rinse the mouth" with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us - when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.
Indeed. The spiritual change part is perhaps why it is not in included in the literary canon. The spirit seemingly has been left to clutches of the religious canon, with its heavy dogma and big sticks, and generally, it seems to me humans are assigned to Heaven or Hell depending on their acts or repentance for such acts. Even the saints really have to take one for the team to reach the Nirvana-like state of acceptance into Heaven - martyrdom. It  is only touched upon, delicately, obtusely even, in literature. Also perhaps because it is not typically one of the triumvirate sources - man vs man, man vs nature, or man vs himself (sic).

The ancients believed that cancers was in fact one of the humors - the black humor that oozed throughout he body and ate things up, but clearly dared not admit this was man vs. himself. Man, and I mean MAN, believed himself to be created in God's form, and thus perfect but for those outside influences, or invading humors - they took over the body like an incubus. I am stepping way outside my realm of knowledge here. But what we know of cancer now is that it does come from within, triggered sometimes by carcinogens, but it is in there. It is the mutation of our own selves - normal cells- run amok. That is all. It is man vs himself, and proving difficult to overcome.

M favorite part of the Woolf quote is this - when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed. This is where the journey really begins, into ourselves, to find out what it is that makes us who we are, and how we will bow to prevailing winds or prevail over them in the face of the black humor. What undiscovered countries will I find?


Sunday, March 29, 2015


Yesterday I was going to write about routines, and I went off down a different road altogether.

Routines. What about them? They are pattern, number one, and pattern is meaning.

When Kate and I decided to make a go of it, she and her kids, adding me, mix and serve, we spent a lot of time talking about routines. Establishing pattern. The ground rock routine was the schedule for the kids, established between Kate and her ex- before my arrival. It was part of the deal. I can still recite it in my sleep, though it ended the week of Kate's funeral. Not my choice.

I wanted to write as if a letter to Kate, saying what has changed and what remains. At the beginning all routines were self-conscious, then after a while they become unspoken. There are the simple ones, like reminding the kids to always brush their teeth before bed, take their plate from the table to the kitchen after eating, opening the backpack and emptying any homework immediately upon returning from school.

Some routines are work. Taking out the garbage. Others are heart warming. Bed time stories. Some end as time goes by. Sharing bath time. Other linger well past any meaningful end point. Tonight Owen asked me to make him an ice cream cone, though at nearly 15 he's well able to do so himself. Then there are seasonal routines, like making colored eggs at Easter, like Naomi and I did tonight.

Kate established a routine of watching Survivor with the kids as far back as 2007. We still do it. Monday night was spaghetti, Friday was pizza. Saturday morning was often waffles or bacon and eggs. Bed time routines evolved over time. It started out with me reading Harry Potter to Owen, while Kate cuddled with Naomi, then Naomi wanted me to read her Harry Potter, but she was too impatient to listen to the story unfold, so I just started making things up, while also looking like I was reading, because she didn't want me to make things up. Later it was me putting Naomi to bed, telling her a made up "fairy story", while Kate helped Owen decompress at the end of the day. Then, when Kate couldn't do it any more, too tired herself at the end of the day, I balanced both kids, giving Owen a backrub, then telling a fairy story, then checking in on Kate.

Through full catastrophe living routine makes the day to day possible.

None of it prepared me for being alone with the cat. The doing, the caregiving, had been cathartic and purposeful. The empty house was none of those things.

The kids were here this weekend, and I was thinking about routines, about what I wanted to say, about what routines were still in place, and which had fallen away. I need to make new routines for myself, with my cardiac rehab. Right now I am to walk quickly for two miles, five times a week. That takes about half-an-hour and gets my pulse up to just under 120 beats a minute. Over the next six months the program will get more intense, and I will need to keep finding ways to include it in my patterns of existence. All cardio all the time. Exercise is my new life.

My reading habits have become highly fragmented and my fiction writing even more so. These are signals to me that my life is not as it should be. I need to think about my routines and figure out how to make them better. ("Actually, this could be better," hey, Kate, remember that?) Inside joke, incorporated into our wedding. Still applicable. Take the sad song and ... da da da da.


Saturday, March 28, 2015

One More Memory of March

When we went to Mexico in February 2012, I was sitting on the beach with Kate, sitting by the pool with Kate, staring out at the Pacific Ocean with Kate, and one thought kept coming to me: I need to make changes to my life. I'm not going to survive this, if I don't make changes to my life.

So when I got back to Toronto, I looked up caregiver support programs and I quickly found Wellspring and a group meeting just blocks away from my office. The first meeting I went to was in March 2012. One of the things I said I was worried about was getting grief support for the kids. They told me about the Max and Beatrice Wolfe Centre, Mount Sinai Hospital.

But when I told Kate about it, she pushed me away. She didn't want to talk about grief support, she wanted to talk about life support. Life was really, really hard, let's just focus on that, but I told her I needed to reserve part of my brain for what would happen after she was gone, and I said I was going to call Max & B to get more information, whether she wanted me to or not. So I did.

They gave me some general information about their program, such as the fact that it took about 6 weeks between a referral and an actual meeting with a counselor and the children. The way their program worked then (it's since changed) was they would meet the kids before the death and continuing meeting with them after. But if the in-take took 6 weeks, and the moment of death was unpredictable, what then? Well, first they said they couldn't officially open a file because ... they could only talk to a biological or custodial parent, and I was neither.

I can't possibly articulate my frustration with this wall. Monumental understatement.

When I got home I told Kate about the 6 week delay and that I had done all I could. If anything more was to happen, she would have to take it from there. Thankfully, she did. She called them and opened a file and gave an in-take interview and, long story short, a grief counselor came to our house hours after she died and met the children in the basement, and it seemed completely natural, and it was by far the best thing that happened that day, and it all sort of started in Mexico, and it definitely started because I called them, even though Kate didn't want me to, and it finally happened because Kate made it so, and when the end approached I kept calling and insisting that they needed to show up. It was, after all, two months since I had first called them, and they hadn't met the kids yet.

Later, we ended up in a news report about one of their Christmas events. The deal was to make a gingerbread house and put messages inside to your deceased person. Naomi and I did just that. The message had "I wonder ..." and then you could fill in the blank. Naomi wrote: "I wonder if you still think of us." I don't remember what I wrote. Owen went all Dead Poets Society and chose to exercise his right to ignore the point of the project.

I went to three caregiver meetings. One in March, one in April, and one in May. Later, in September, I participated in a grief support group, also run by Wellspring. I found the only thing I really wanted to talk about was the kids. Kate was gone, but fragments of our family life remained, and I wanted to keep as much of it together as I could. But that's another story, for another time.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Heart of Mine

If you can't to the time
Don't do the crime
- Bob Dylan

Been mumbling this song to myself all week, and I try to find a way to listen to those things. This is a song about a dude talking to his heart.

When I was going around the track at the rehab institute two days ago, I was talking to my heart, too. Get better, I was saying. Get better, get better.

This is a song about a dude saying to his heart, Be cautious. Some of the language is not that interesting, but the final verse is explosive.

Heart of mine so malicious and so full of guile
Give you an inch and you’ll take a mile
Don’t let yourself fall
Don’t let yourself stumble
If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime
Heart of mine

I said to my cardiologist last summer, "I don't know if my heart is broken or if my heart is broken." It's broken in both senses, I know now.

I have survived the triple by-pass, now I need to live with the fact of chronic disease. It makes me think of 2011 and people telling Kate that cancer isn't the killer it used to be. It's become a chronic disease for many people. That was supposed to be good news. It was still hard for her to hear. She wanted, I know, to go back to a life without cancer. She wanted to fight and kill the fucking thing.

Eventually she would write that she needed to welcome the disease, because she knew then (later) that it would never leave. It was part of her, and she needed to be friends with it.

As usual, I hear her voice offering me the same advice. I'm the one who will live with a chronic disease. While I also live with chronic loss, the measure of love, said Jeanette Winterson.


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Five Long Years

Was it really 1988 when Colin James released that song? Wow.

I'm not sure if the last five years have been "long." Right now they seem to have gone pretty fast. Today as I changed trains at Bloor/Yonge I had a moment of looking for Kate. We used to meet on the Bloor platform, near the front of the train. She came from her office and I came from mine, and we would meet to take the eastbound train home together.

Last time we did that was five years ago.

"It's been five long years, and I love you just the same."


Sunday, March 22, 2015

We'll always have Sunday mornings

I'm not sure there's a Sunday that goes by when I don't hear Kate telling me that we'll always have Sunday mornings. She said this to me first in 2007. The kids went to their dad's on Saturday night and didn't come back until Sunday dinner time.

Sunday morning was our time to lounge, snuggle, sleep, linger over coffee, sleep, lounge, snuggle, catch up with the newspaper, snuggle, sleep, lounge.

The chalk drawing is by my niece, Jasmine, summer of 2008. Says it all, doesn't it? Me and Kate, holding hands, happy, the sun over her head, the world bright, bright, bright.

Today is Sunday. I slept in. Well, the cat got me up at 8:00, after trying for a hour. I fed her, then went back to bed, back to sleep, slept until 11:00. I went to bed last night at 9:00, so that was a lonnnng night. I feel good today, but where are you Kate? Sunday mornings are supposed to be for us.

I think she's here. She's in my thoughts and in my feelings, but I wish she were really here. I wish she were the one poking me, saying go make breakfast, instead of the cat.

I found another drawing of the two of us a while back. It's by Naomi in her school journal, February 2012.

Her comment in her journal is that we had come back from Mexico. She writes this immediately after saying she'd been so sick that she'd coughed up blood. There's a drawing of that, too: "it was so horable" (sic).

The first time I saw this picture, I confess my first thought was that I don't remember being happy at that time. But it's not true, we had fun in Mexico, we laughed, we smiled, we went to Walmart to get a pillow so the flight home wouldn't be so painful for Kate, whose back was going beyond chronic to something "horable."

I read through Naomi's journal to the end of the school year to see what she had to say at that time. She doesn't mention cancer even once. She doesn't mention that her mother died.

When it gets to May, she's writing about her dance recital and the musical "Grease." She writes about getting her nails painted and going to the Spring Fun Fair.

I took her to get her nails done, the same day as the Fun Fair. It was the second Saturday after Kate died. I was just numb.

Notice how even when she's coughing up blood ("so horable"), Naomi's smiling.

Hey, Kate, I know you're watching. Look at the archival record. Look what it shows. Curious, isn't it, how kids protect themselves, is how I see it. Owen was the same age, grade two, when we moved into this house, and his school journal from that weekend in 2007 said his father took him to a movie.

I'm heading out for a walk now, down to the beach, down to grab a coffee, because what else? and why not? You still power my sun. You still motivate my smile. Maybe I should get my nails painted? I told Naomi I would "next time," and we've never been back.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Holding Space

"Holding space" is a concept related to care giving. The care giver enables the ill one to feel in control and as able and alive as possible, absorbing anxiety about decline and helping to keep activities and expectations as normal as possible.

Heather Plett writes about it here.

I only heard this term recently, but it describes my experience of living with Kate as she died, as she went through the process of dying, by which I mean her last several months.

Tonight I pulled off the shelf the book I bought in January 2012 on helping children through grief. Kate didn't like that I'd bought it. She wasn't dying. I was anticipating too much. I never got around to reading it. Still haven't.

Not sure what drew me to it tonight, but I found within it a section on step-parenting!

Oh, step-parenting. What days were those when that was the biggest challenge we had. We did everything right and then everything fell apart. That's the whole story right there. I found it again in the book tonight.

Step-parenting isn't the same as the formation of a family with biological parents. The book names seven phases step-families go through, stages of bonding, struggle, and ultimately continuity.

It says it usually takes seven to 12 years for the process to play out. Kate and I were only married four years and nine months, together five and a half years. But I can say me and the kids have now been together eight.

Are we still within the same process, or did it start all over again when Kate died? Interesting question.

There's held space in step-families, too, is kind of what I'm thinking. Patience to let the process play out, if we can all make it that far. Ooodles of beauty for those who survive.

The photo is from N.'s birthday last month. It was the first time we'd been on the hill tobogganing in three years. Didn't do it in Winter 2012-13, or 2013-14. Just once this past winter. Why not? I dunno. I suggested it to the kids a number of times, but they didn't want to, and I don't push these things. but I was glad to be on the hill again, with that light blue toboggan. I remember the day I bought it and brought it home, such delight and promise of fun. 'Bogginin, N. used to say. One of our special words.