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.
“I don’t see why you have an office, Mom, when you’re so happy writing in the car.”
My laptop was the best investment I’ve made, writing-wise. It comes with me to the pool, to the backyard, to the couch, to various soccer fields, to parking lots, and of course, to my pocket-sized car, aka the Chub-Chub.
I spent this past week driving my eldest daughter to a soccer camp about an hour away. That meant I had to stay for the day, which, trust me, was all part of my master plan. In this way, I carved out a writing week (or four days), mostly spent sitting in the back seat of the Chub-Chub. I napped there. I ate snacks there. I read stories there. And I wrote there. Next week, I’m off to a writing workshop in New York State, where I will be an anonymous participant: camping with a friend in our family’s enormous ten; eating vegetarian meals; doing yoga at dawn (if the mood strikes); and writing, of course.
On Sunday, I put that tent together all by myself. I was perhaps unreasonably proud of the accomplishment, as you can see from my body language, above. I’m not mechanically minded and this is the sort of endeavour I happily off-load onto to Kevin, but I did it with a little help from a YouTube video (an elderly couple lifting up a tent that vaguely resembled ours), and a lot of thinking, and some jumping and throwing (the tent is very tall and I am not, and getting the fly on is really a two-person job). It took over an hour, I will confess. In the end, I observed that seeing behind the scenes to the mechanics of production does not inspire confidence. I preferred not knowing that this airy structure over my head was made merely of thin rods and poles stuck through nylon sleeves. There is knowing, and there is knowing. There is knowing in a theoretical, yes, dear, way. And there is knowing in a visceral, I hammered those stakes myself way. And the thunderstorm that threatened the afternoon seemed much more threatening when I’d built the damn tent myself, and knew its materials intimately.
To be responsible is to be forced to confront vulnerability. That is my observation about growing up, generally. The older I get, the more fragile the structures around me seem. The more tenuous. The more invented, in a way. What I mean is that the security of everything I hold precious and dear, even my beliefs, is supported by a certain level of cognitive dissonance, but also by the suspension of disbelief. To dig in, to help build, to get my hands dirty, to make or unmake, is, for me, to witness the complexity and arbitrariness of experience, of life itself, against which there can be no absolute assurances of safety and security.
All of this from putting up a tent in our back yard.
And, also, from sitting with my laptop and thinking and thinking and thinking.
PS Yes, I have my voice back. It is weak and a bit raspy and rough, but it exists, and I am once again in the world, where it is so much easier to participate with working vocal chords.
I miss my voice.
There are so many common, every day interactions that just aren’t the same without a voice.
I can’t parent very effectively. “Mom whispered sternly at me,” Albus said on Monday, which cracked me up; but as of yesterday, I’m not even whispering. I’m clapping or stamping my feet to get children’s attention. I’m gesturing and writing notes or texts. But mostly I’m just letting things go by, because it takes so much energy to express the smallest idea. It means I’m not speaking my mind, often.
I can’t coach soccer very effectively. Earlier this week, I made it through a practice and a game using the three whs: whisper, whistle and whiteboard. The girls were great, respectful and helpful and understanding, even seeing the humour in our situation, but I can’t get all of the important messages across without a voice.
I can’t lead conversations around the table that draw everyone in, and bring us together as a family.
I can’t talk on the phone (not that I like talking on the phone, but it’s useful).
I can’t make small talk with strangers or kids or parents by the soccer field or people at check-out counters, or say thank you to a friendly swim instructor, or a person who is holding open a door. I can’t make that connection. I can’t start amusing little conversations, stand up for myself in complicated situations, or contribute to shooting the shit. I can’t make light because I can’t noise.
I can’t have long rambling chats with AppleApple as I drive her to soccer games.
I can’t talk to Kevin. We haven’t been able to have our tea-on-the-couch evening catch-up chats, or our dog-walk chats.
I can’t sing.
I can’t do anything social with friends. I’ve missed both runs with friends this week and will miss boot camp with friends tomorrow, all because I can’t talk, and I don’t want to strain my voice by whispering, and I know that if I go I will definitely whisper, because it’s really hard to be silent in situations that require at least a minimum of conventional social interaction.
It’s amazing how forced silence makes me feel as if my behaviour is rude, intransigent, unfriendly, unwelcoming. I’m not to blame for my silence, but my silence makes me feel that I must be to blame. I feel immense guilt for not being able to respond or reach out.
I have been without a voice since Sunday. Only five days, and already I feel more and more invisible, isolated, lonely, self-pitying, discouraged, and down. I am not myself without my voice. What am I learning? Compassion, I hope. Compassion for those in a new place, learning a new language, or silenced by circumstance. Speech is a gift. When speech returns, I’m going to remember how wonderful it is to CONNECT, to be UNDERSTOOD, to ACKNOWLEDGE, to THANK, to ENCOURAGE, to DRAW OUT, to QUESTION, to LEAD.
I have no voice.
After writing my previous post, I promptly got sick and spent most of last week shivering on the couch, feverish and dizzy. I dragged myself off the couch to coach a soccer game on Tuesday evening, heavily dosed with Tylenol. I’d recovered enough by Friday to embark on our trip to Kingston, with a detour to Sauble Beach to pick up CJ at camp. Kevin and I drove separately; he spent the weekend with AppleApple’s team, and I spent the weekend with Fooey’s team — same tournament, two different teams. Thankfully, we played at the same field, so we could spend Saturday near each other. The boys stayed with their grandma. It felt like we were all dispersed. One of my happiest moments of the weekend was during game two, when I looked across the field and saw a whole bunch of redheads watching from the sidelines: it is the only time everyone has come to see Fooey’s and my team play. Everyone got to see AppleApple play the following afternoon, when her team made it to the semi-finals.
Coaching was fun. I still had a voice, and I was feeling much better. The girls started the day slowly, but played a solid second game, and by game three they were firing on all cylinders. It was exciting to see the team play up to their potential. They played like I’ve imagined they could, with intensity and togetherness, and skill. It was thrilling.
We ended the day with a swim and a pizza party, and some late night goofing around at the hotel.
I woke up on Sunday with laryngitis. I could still speak raspily enough to be understood. But after another long day that included a family brunch, supervising five children (we had an extra child on the trip with us), three more soccer games, dinner out at a pub to watch the Euro Cup final (photo above), and a five hour drive home (many pee stops), my voice was done.
I woke up yesterday with nothing. A whisper.
I picked up the dogs from the kennel using this whisper. The women at the kennel whispered back. I saw friends at CJ’s swim lessons and explained my voicelessness in a whisper. My friends whispered back. The woman at the pharmacy whispered back. The chiropractor whispered back. My kids whispered back. With help from a whiteboard and a whistle, I coached a practice yesterday evening with my whisper. The girls huddled up to listen to instructions. “Why are we all whispering?” one asked, and I told them how everyone had whispered to me all day long, and they thought it was really funny. Tonight I will attempt to coach a game with only this whisper available to me.
I shouldn’t even be whispering, as it’s hard on the voice and will slow recovery.
Oh, how I miss my voice. I miss its command. I miss its humour. I miss its participation and connection. But there’s voicelessness and there’s voicelessness. Mine is temporary.
I want to comment on the way the world is blowing up all over the place. No justice, no peace. That’s the phrase that keeps running through my head. No justice, no peace! But what else have I got to say? I don’t always need to speak. Sometimes, like now, I just need to listen. I don’t know what it’s like to be black. I don’t know what it’s like to be a police officer. I don’t know what it’s like to own a gun, or to live in a country where gun ownership is so prevalent. I don’t know what it’s like to live in poverty. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a war zone, or to lose my home to war. I keep reading articles, watching videos, trying to understand, trying to imagine.
What I’ve been reading
- My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard: A Mother Jones Investigation, by Shane Bauer (July/August, 2016). Long form piece, difficult to read, about the hell on earth of the for-profit American prison system, both for prisoners and for those hired to guard them.
- An American Void, by Stephanie McCrummen (Washington Post, Sept. 12, 2015) Another long form piece, also difficult to read, about the man who killed black worshippers in a Charleston church last year. It’s a window into poverty and disconnection.
- Making a Killing, by Evan Osnos (The New Yorker, June 27, 2016) An article on the reframing of the gun industry from selling guns for hunting to selling guns for “self-protection,” all in the name of profit.
- full transcript of Obama’s speech in Dallas (added July 13, 2016) This speech left me weeping. Then I went and read some of the ugly commentary critiquing it, and I felt more hopeless than ever. The president is saying what needs to be said: that Black Lives Matter is not a movement based on paranoia but on real experience, and also that police officers are asked to contain all the evils caused by systemic poverty, lack of jobs, and a starved public education system. That we are imperfect in our humanity. But I disagree with him on one point, and that is when he says that “In the end, it’s not about forging policies that work …” Yes, it bloody well is! Go on and forge consensus and fight cynicism, by all means, but policies force necessary change. There’s no other way — precisely because we are utterly imperfect in our humanity.
- Remembering Sandra Bland’s Death in the Place I Call Home, by Karen Good Marable (The New Yorker, July 13, 2016.)
What I’ve been watching (too many to list, so here are just a few)
Balance. Is there such a thing? I’ve stopped looking.
This week, I biked to the university library on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, where I took over a carrel on the 9th floor and did research. Personal bliss. But every day can’t be spent zooming through the park and poring over dusty old books. On Monday, I volunteered on a class school trip to city hall, and today I am home with a sick child, who was up half the night, but is now drinking tea and told me I could go and blog. She is reading.
I’m really not kidding when I say that researching at a library is just about my happiest state. Researching, writing. I could do this all day. I don’t even take snack breaks.
Which is why it was odd to find myself, last week, spending a full day as a children’s entertainer at a school, reading my book The Candy Conspiracy to approximately 450 kids, and filling in the space around the reading with age-appropriate activities. I even brought my pineapple ukulele. I was pretty nervous in the lead-up (see happiest state, above). I tested my plan with my live-in focus group before unveiling it to the public: the 8-year-old sang along happily to my made-up songs; the 10-year-old informed me in no uncertain terms that I would be embarrassing myself. Ergo, kindergarten through grade two got to sing and pretend to be Juicy Jelly Worms and Clever Children. Grades three through six got a more traditional author visit, with a Q&A and a make-your-own book project. Each session lasted 45 minutes. At the end of the day, I crawled home and collapsed into dreamless sleep on the couch, like a toy whose batteries have run out. Apparently Robert Munsch did coke. I forgive you, Mr. Munsch.
This is feeling like a randomized news roundup. Let’s continue. This morning I went to boot camp and pulled a muscle in my back. Now I can’t look to the left. I’ve been writing in the car in the evenings when I take my eldest daughter to soccer or theatre, or, like last night, both, back to back. Here is a list of the books I’ve read since leaving France: Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin (you must read it even if you’ve seen the movie!); How Should a Person Be, by Sheila Heti (so Canadianly weird); Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire; a bunch of short plays; and one more play called Yellowman, by Dael Orlandersmith. None of these are the dusty old books I’m poring over at the university library.
Today marks 21 years since I met my husband. We always remember the buds on the trees busting out overhead. This morning, while he took our sick child at the doctor’s office, I walked the dogs up the street with our 8-year-old to meet his walking-to-school buddies, and he pointed out all the things that were coming to life around us: the tulip in our front yard (only one, randomly placed), the strawberry patch, the buds on the trees. It’s happening! Instead of going on a date tonight, Kevin will be driving our oldest daughter to Oshawa for a soccer tournament. I will be tending a sick kid and prepping for her team’s first soccer festival (non-competitive tournament) tomorrow, which it looks like she’s going to be too sick to play at; but I’m the coach, so I will be there. This is what 21 years has brought. We can do this! From randomized news roundup to randomized positive self-talk. Let’s stop here.
[This is what I wrote in my “meditation journal” on Monday, March 16, which in Canada was the first official day of March break, when the kids get a week off school.]
photos in this post by AppleApple
It is the first official day of March break. The kids are doing an admirable job of entertaining themselves so far. AppleApple and I picked up dog poo in the backyard, two enormous bags’ worth. I know. Why even mention it? But it was my first act as my energy returned. The sun was shining, so that was nice. The melting poo was not nice, but the yard is a lot safer to walk in now.
My dad and stepmom are planning to take the kids on a maple syrup outing this afternoon. I’m trying to decide if I’m well enough to go along. I was hoping to do one fun activity each day of March break. I will put fun into air quotes. One “fun” activity each day!
Such as, movie at the Princess. Niko Niko’s for supper. The library. Yes, I include the library on my list of “fun” outings. Because I am nothing if not a “fun” Mom. Also because we have overdue books to return. Also because I love going to the library, although March break is not really all about me, is it.
“There were two little animals with horns on their heads, Mom!” CJ, age six, reporting
I should be doing work.
But I hardly slept last night, due to congestion in head and almost constant cough. I had to sleep half-sitting up. My throat was enormously sore when I woke at 1AM, though it seemed raw from the coughing, which was a different style of sore from the original soreness. Also, fever has gone. Energy is returning. So, good things are happening. For a few minutes this morning, I let myself lie flat in the bed, hoping I could rest better that way, but was soon sitting up with ears splitting. It felt like someone was pouring water into all of the cavities in my head, using a little spouted watering can to be sure to reach every crevice—which is probably a reasonable metaphor for what’s actually happening inside my head right now. The pressure is uncomfortable. The leaking from my nostrils is pathetic. My eyes stream. I cough.
I blow my nose.
I bore even myself.
Something is troubling me. I’m worried because I’m reading almost exclusively non-fiction right now. Why? Why read what I can’t write? Why do I want to express myself through fiction, and why is that what I’m better at?
I finished reading What I Think About When I Think About Running, and it’s so freaking simple that I wonder why the heck I couldn’t write a book like that? I liked it, very much, but I couldn’t understand why it had caught on.
There were two ideas in the book that I wanted to remember. I can’t remember either of them now.
Let me think.
“Aw, sweet brother picture!” “Actually, CJ was walking really slow, so Albus was pushing him along.” “Ah….”
The kids have been sitting around the table playing cards, but just now Fooey stormed off. She didn’t like that Albus was helping CJ to organize his cards. “You’re all a bunch of cheaters!” she yelled, and stomped upstairs. I tried to say soothing things from my position on the couch, but I have very little voice left. I was roundly ignored.
Now, from the upstairs come the persistent sounds of the Harry Potter theme song being played on the recorder.
The other three continue playing the card game.
I continue to type, with dog resting on my legs like she thinks I am a pillow.
The kids let drop on Saturday that Dad (i.e. Kevin) had been telling stories about “sick Carrie” while at my Dad’s for a pancake lunch, which I did not attend, in my contagious state. The kids were laughing about how I had given Kevin various instructions, in the middle of the night, for Important Signs that I Would Need To Go To the Hospital. “If I’m unconscious, don’t minimize it,” I told him. “If I can’t breathe, take me to the hospital. If I start to hallucinate, you have to promise to take me to the hospital.”
Apparently this was the cause of pleasant hilarity amongst Kevin and my wider family. I felt unreasonably hurt. Even though it was all true.
The kids have now all stopped playing cards and are being bored and annoyed around each other. CJ and Albus are still wearing pyjamas. CJ cries that he doesn’t want to change out of his pyjamas. I croak that he can wear his pyjamas to the sugar shack.
Now brothers are pushing each other while sort of playing with a soccer ball. I realize I have no voice available for effectively stopping children from harming one another, nor rallying them out the door.
I text Kevin.
Kevin texts back that he has found problem in most recent software changes, and needs to resolve them before coming home.
Okay, better take care of that.
Don’t worry, I’ll be here, ineffectually supervising children.
Dad calls to say he’ll be here at 2:30 to pick up kids. AppleApple talks because I no longer have working vocal cords. I want to call them vocal chords. But that’s not right, is it?
CJ gets dressed. Others do not. CJ relays Mom’s message to others to get dressed. Sound of doors slamming.
CJ comes down stairs. “Give me some ideas of what to do!”
“Read me a story,” I say.
He goes to get a story in French to read to me. Very cheerful.
I look up weather on Weather Network. It is 8 degrees, feels like 6. “That’s not cold!” says CJ.
“It’s not that warm either.” Thinking bush, thinking no sun, thinking I’m not sure how long this outing will be.
But I am not going. I can’t even talk. I used to lose my voice frequently when the kids were little. I wouldn’t even be particularly sick, but suddenly the voice would go, and be gone for several days. Very inconvenient. I was thinking in the night (night-time thinking = totally rational thinking, right?) that I get sick more often than other people I know. I wouldn’t be able to work a traditional job with an immune system like this. I have now been sick for seven straight days. I am in no state today to go into an office setting, or, say, do home visits with babies, or be a doula, or spend clinical hours with pregnant women. I simply couldn’t do it. I couldn’t teach yoga either, or even creative writing. I couldn’t conduct an interview. I couldn’t be on stage. Am I lacking in fortitude? How do other people do it? Or do they go to work sniffling and hacking and voiceless?
I even got my flu shot!
And yet I got the flu!
Kids are gone, all was oddly peaceful in the hour or so before they left, and now house is quiet, and they are going to see sugar shack, and I am free to cough rawly and blow my nose and leak mucus everywhere charmingly. Whatever am I going to do with this peace and quiet?
I know. I’ll look up the Kardashians. I’ve heard of them. But I have no idea who they are.
Well, that was one of the worst mistakes ever. I just didn’t know who they were. Now I do. And I wish I didn’t know so much.
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