Today is my birthday. It’s the first day I’ve had time to reflect, active reflection, since we waded into the Christmas season, and when I sat down before my notebook such a whirl of disconnected thoughts poured out. I am thinking of starting an autobiographical cartooning project, as shown above. I’ve developed a relatively efficient way of making a 4-panel cartoon: I write for 3 minutes using the prompt “What’s on your mind?”; then I use a timer to draw four cartoons, scenes from the past 24 hours of my day, each completed in exactly 2 minutes; and finally I pair ideas or phrases from “What’s on your mind?” with the cartoons, creating captions that aren’t directly related, and yet, combined, tell a little story. I’ve been making these half-hapzardly, often while waiting at piano lessons, squeezed into a tiny amount of time. I love creating a visual artifact. I love creating something to keep.
I have sad news. On the morning of December 23, we said goodbye to DJ. Above is the cartoon I drew that morning, while she lay on the floor beside me, still very much alive. We were fortunate to have a vet come to our house, and the whole family was present in the room as DJ passed out of this world in the most peaceful way possible, with loving hands on her, truly surrounded by love, so I can’t be sad about that. And although I miss her goofy presence underfoot, I also can’t be sad that her suffering has been relieved. The end felt like a surprise, even though we were preparing for it for a long time, and even though signs had been accumulating that the time was coming. But really, DJ was fine right up until she wasn’t, and thankfully, we were able to respond quickly. As we made the decision, and prepared to say goodbye that morning, one of the kids wept, “I don’t want DJ to be a body!” That struck a chord deep within me. Yes. Oh, yes, I know what you mean.
I didn’t want DJ to be anything but what she was: alive, breathing, present, animated, here with us. But when I look at the photo, below, taken on her last walk that morning, I see her distress. And I know we can’t keep what isn’t ours to keep.
It is hard to say goodbye. I am struck over and over this holiday season by how hard it is to say goodbye. Even a welcome change can create a hole, nostalgia for what was. I’m thinking of the new parkland across the street, created by knocking down the houses that were there before, none of them very pretty, and yet, I found myself in the days immediately after they were gone irrationally missing them. Absence is absence. It’s why we keep telling ourselves stories that may not be serving us. It’s why we hang on to old pain and shame. It’s why we are afraid of making space for something new. Instinctively, we know that any absence, any loss, any goodbye will reshape us in ways impossible to predict.
Today has been a great day, a good birthday, and I’ve been doing exactly as I please and wish, which is my definition of the perfect birthday. I woke early to go for a walk with a friend. Kevin made me breakfast. I went out for coffee with two of my brothers. I treated myself at the bookstore. I hugged my mom, and my dad. I worked on the logistics for this new cartooning project, figuring out how to scan and edit images. I listened to music while drawing and writing. Oh, yes, and I blogged. Tonight, Kevin is taking me out for dinner.
Every year that comes around is a blessing. This past year has been full. Full of the unexpected, the hard, the surprising, and the miraculous. I learned how to draw this year! How unexpected is that? Never saw it coming. I also wrote a book by a hand, something that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been concussed. I’ve been kinder to myself in many ways, this year, accepting aging (I’m wearing new reading glasses, for example), deepening relationships, sending roots down into the earth, humbled by my work, demanding time to exercise and also to write. Many tears. Much warmth. Quiet, too. I can’t guess what will come in this new year. I have ideas, plans, stories to write, poems to memorize, kids to snuggle, friends to embrace, a new word to play with, songs to learn, habits and rituals to nurture.
Cartoons to create.
Below, from December 15: “I didn’t leave room for a caption.” Hey, lots of learning to do, too.
PS Soundtrack for this post: Lullaby, by the Dixie Chicks.
Today has not been the kind of day that I would call productive.
I’m sitting here with a marked-up manuscript at my elbow that is calling out for revision, for new scenes to be written, for work and attention and focus. I’m at the point in this project where I keep thinking, Don’t let me die before it’s done! Which makes me reflect on the courageous creativity of people who know their time is limited, like Gord Downie, who, in his final year-and-a-bit, wrote and sang the songs he knew he needed to share with those he loved. There is a real terror that the end will come before you’ve finished the work you intended to do. That terror is real.
And yet, I’m sitting here and have not dug in. On Saturday I spent nine hours glued to my desk, working on this book. Total luxury. Today, I’ve been unable to manufacture focus.
My mind is elsewhere …
As some of you may know, we have two dogs. They came to us as a mismatched pair, rescue dogs who were found, abandoned, wearing matching pink sweaters in the middle of freezing February in an industrial Ohio town. How they survived even a few hours in the “wild” I’ll never know, as they are almost entirely lacking in good sense. They were then impounded and doomed, only to be rescued by a Canadian group, who subsequently struggled to adopt them out as a pair … until we came along. We’ve had this motley pair in our home for more than five years. It took the dogs at least two years to settle in and fully trust us. Suzi still wakes up and begins howling around 5AM every morning. One of the challenges of caring for rescued animals is that their histories are unknown; even their ages are unknown. What we do know is heartbreaking: they were abandoned.
More than a year ago, DJ was diagnosed with cancer. Luckily, it’s slow-growing and she continues to enjoy life, eating well, going for walks, even while there are signs of her illness’s progression in her body. Today, we received news that it is highly probable that Suzi has cancer too, but hers appears more aggressive.
Truth is, I’m pretty broken up.
This is what I’m thinking about as my book waits by my elbow. Two little dogs.
I’m thinking about how a dog doesn’t have a mission in life, or not an articulated mission, not a mission in the sense that we invent such things; a dog doesn’t need a mission to enjoy its time here on earth, from what I’ve observed. A dog thrives on routine, loves food, and is highly attuned to the humans with whom it interacts. A dog can greet you at the door better than anyone. A dog is also reliant on the kindness of those who care for it; and therefore like all innocent creatures a dog is vulnerable to mistreatment and abandonment. It breaks the heart, as I’ve said. We’ve tried to imagine our dogs’ lives before they came into ours; we’ve tried to imagine them as adorable puppies; we wonder when they first met, and why they got along (two female dogs usually don’t bond like this). We’ve also fictionalized them in our imaginations, turning them into doggie detectives (more lucky than bright), and, most recently, cartoon super heroes (DJ’s superpower is her terrible breath, Suzi’s is her ear-piercing whine). Maybe I’ll write them into a book, someday, who knows. If there’s time.
This post feels too close to eulogy. The dogs are sleeping under the table, near my feet. They’re still here. Today is today. Pet your doggies while you may.
Just realized why this morning is feeling emptier than usual. For the past couple of months, I’ve spent Wednesday and Thursday mornings tutoring a new neighbour in ESL, and as of Monday, she’s attending formal ESL classes, which was always the goal. My intention was only to tide her over while she waited to get into the program.
Last week, we spent Thursday morning walking and riding the bus together, so her new route to school would become familiar. The next day, I listened to The New Yorker’s fiction podcast; the February post is Junot Diaz reading Edwidge Danticat’s story “Seven.” At the story’s end, two characters, who are immigrants from Haiti, ride the bus together. The phrase that spoke to me was: trying to see through her eyes.
I spent Thursday morning trying to see through my friend’s eyes, and it seemed that although we moved through the same physical space together, what we saw and heard did not mean the same thing to both of us. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. How privilege, skin colour, gender, age, wealth, familiarity, health, past experiences alter the world as we move through it. We exist in relation to what surrounds us, and in relation to how we perceive and are perceived.
Here’s what I wrote after listening to “Seven.”
When I am with my friend, I feel as though I am almost wearing her skin, her headscarf, I feel the exposure and vulnerability of being a newcomer, unaccustomed to the weather, to the language, to what is safe and what is dangerous. As we walk along a sidewalk, I see she fears the big black dog whose owner clips its collar to a leash on our approach — she recoils as she passes the dog, politely pulled off the sidewalk by the owner, who says good morning. But she does not seem to fear the white man and woman who come toward us with dyed and shaven hair, who I fear might be skinheads. Instead, I recoil.
Later, as we arrange ourselves on the bus, it is I who stagger unsteadily to a seat, uncertain of my balance, while my friend stands braced against the stroller and a pole, concerned for me. Her face is tired. She has been in Canada for almost three months. I think suddenly, she is tough, tougher than I can guess, tougher than me. All this time, I have wanted to protect her, but as I see her now I am ashamed to have been so reductive. She has told me about the guns coming to Syria, bang bang. She has endured more than I can imagine. Even so, I recognize her anxiety as she tries to orient herself. I want to assuage it, to reassure her.
I tell her, This is the stop. I pull the line and stand. The men move out of our way to let the stroller by. I want to help her lift the stroller, but she doesn’t need my help. We begin to walk. She sounds out the letters on the building across the street: “Don McLaren Arena.” Yes, I say, ice skating. I mime ice skating. She laughs and I think she doesn’t understand so I continue to mime. She taps her head. What she’s trying to tell me is that she will remember “Don McLaren Arena” — this is her stop. Great idea! I stop ice skating and exclaim.
We walk in silence for awhile. I don’t want to fumble with my phone and Google translate in this bright sunshine. I see a man walking a big black dog, ahead, different man and dog. They are walking on a cross pass away from us. In Syria, dogs inside the house? I ask. She laughs, No! Brother, chickens, sheep, dog, she says. Outside. I tease her: Maybe someday, you will have a dog. In Canada, so many people have dogs and cats. No, no, no, she says. No dog, no cat. A bird, she says to me.
I can see her face, turned toward me, smiling, an objectively beautiful face, no makeup, clean and memorable. She is wearing a light-coloured headscarf.
A bird, I say.
A bird, she agrees. We walk past Tim Horton’s where she and her husband have come to buy coffee and roll up the rim to win. He won another coffee. She was hoping for a car, a TV. But just a coffee. No one wins the car, I tell her. She tells me that a little dog scared their daughter, who is five, who began to scream in fright, and the dog’s owner, a woman, picked up the dog and held it in her arms. It was okay? I ask. It was okay.
My friend is opening up the world to me. I see that I can’t see through her eyes, though I try, though I want to. I can only walk beside her, often in silence. Wondering what this place looks like through her eyes. Is it ugly or beautiful? Welcoming or closed? Is it safe or dangerous? Is it home? Could it be home? Everything looks both brighter and starker when I’m walking beside her. There is a clarity to the light, and a barrenness, as if the objects and structures are being stripped back to their bones.
The light is bright for February, and we are warm. Even my friend, wrapped in her black coat, always cold, admits that she is now warm. The baby starts to fuss as we near their apartment. I don’t want to say goodbye. It seems I receive as much from her friendship as she could possibly receive from mine, because I enjoy her company, because I am happy when I am with her, more curious, more alert, more aware, because even a bus ride feels purposeful, somehow, when I’m trying to see through her eyes.
Saturday morning, just as kids were gearing up for soccer tryouts (parents too, as we’re both coaching rep teams), Kevin came into the kitchen and quietly said, “The vet just called.” I could tell from his expression that the news wasn’t good. One of our beloved dogs, DJ, has a suspicious lump in her mouth, and the vet thought it might be cancer.
And it is.
And so, with tears in our eyes, we told the kids, all of them gathered around the dining room table playing a board game together, in their soccer gear. There were many tears. We don’t know what will happen next, but as F (age 11) and I walked the dogs later on that day, she had many questions, many thoughts. “DJ doesn’t deserve this!” (No one deserves this.) “Do you think DJ knows she has cancer? I don’t think she knows. Maybe it’s good that she doesn’t know.” “I don’t want DJ to feel any pain!”
We decided that we would be grateful that DJ is currently her usual self, not showing any signs of pain or distress, eating well, and enjoying her walks and naps. But it is still hard not to worry about the future.
I have no time for this post, it has been written in a hurry. But I must explain that photo at the top of this post.
The kids had the Terry Fox run at their school last week, before we had DJ’s diagnosis, and CJ (age 8) came home with a large sticker which he stuck onto our kitchen counter. It reads (and I’m correcting his spelling): “Terry ran for me. I am running for … my step-grandma and maybe my dog.” F also ran for her step-grandma.
There are too many people to run for. I’m sure you have your people too.
Sending love and hope out into the universe.
Today, I want to write about the little things. Little things that might seem unimportant because they’re not on any to-do list, they’re not responsibilities. Little things that might seem incidental in a bigger picture, not the heart of any day, but the flavour. Little things that give me a little peace. I’m knee-deep in marking and have to stay on schedule, so this is not what I should be doing, but I’m going to make a list of “little things” to mark this particular moment in time. At other moments, I might put other things on this list. But today, now, here is what’s given me a little peace recently.
Playing the piano. Either my own improvised noodling around, or sight-reading cheesy Christmas songs, or accompanying my ten-year-old during her violin practice.
Crafting. I know, weird, right? Not my usual thing. But I’ve gotten into a latch-hooking project, initiated by my ten-year-old (who loves her crafts). Same child also initiated an ornament-making craft-time this weekend, and everyone in the family got involved. My personal fave are the Trudeau ornaments, crafted by my thirteen-year-old (who has a new haircut, very stylish, if I do say so myself; I gave both my teenagers haircuts recently, which is another kind of craft, in a way, I suppose).
Walking the dogs. I’m running very little right now due to injury, but I’ve found surprising peace in walking the dogs before bedtime, or on an early weekend morning when the neighbourhood is quiet. The pace is gentle. The dogs amuse me.
Swimming. To replace the running. Monday was my first day, and I went with my swim coach, who also happens to by my thirteen-year-old daughter. She should be your swim coach too. Our session was as tough as a boot camp. She’s demanding, encouraging and kind, and smart about correcting technical flaws in my stroke. (She also coaches Kevin and her younger sister on Thursday mornings. So this is a little thing many of us in the family are enjoying right now.)
Coaching. Right now, I’m coaching my fourteen-year-old’s indoor futsal team (similar to soccer), and I’m volunteering with my ten-year-old’s soccer team, too. I love working with both groups of kids — the teenaged boys and the younger girls. I’ve been practicing my deeper coach’s voice around the house, and every practice or game is another opportunity to learn something new, or put some new concept into practice (for me, and for them). It’s the perfect activity for a person with a growth mindset outlook. We can always get better! Hurray!
Writing. I haven’t had a lot of writing time, recently, so I’ve been taking my laptop to basketball and soccer practices at which I’m not involved. Earplugs in. Sweet vanishing into another world.
Stretching. My body needs to stretch, loves to stretch. I’ve been squeezing in a few yoga classes.
Reading. A couple of days ago, I thought I had a few free minutes. Ever have those moments? When you think, how strangely wonderful that I should have nothing to do? So I sat in front of the fire devouring Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name. I was so relaxed, so blissful — so blissfully forgetting that in fact I did have something to do. This strangely wonderful moment had been brought to me by a memory lapse. I’d forgotten to pick up my youngest at school; friends had to help out; and I felt embarrassed and somewhat shamed for my parenting lack as I jogged along the sidewalk, late, late, late. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wish for more of those rare “free” minutes for daytime reading.
All for now. Please comment if you have “little things” that give you a little peace, too.
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