Old Hands

Age spots, lines, and scars scattered here and there are etched into my frail nearly one-hundred-year-old hands. What do you see when you look at them? Are they only the fingers you remember from your childhood when I scrapped peanut butter and jam on to bread for your lunch and then shoved you out the door onto rainy or snow-covered sidewalks to shuffle your way to school?

Do you know these hands served other purposes?

As a chubby toddler, I used these same hands to wipe my face when my father came in with red eyes and no tears, to tell my brothers and sisters and I, that mother had died. Tuberculosis had killed her. I was young, too young, to know what that meant. My brothers didn’t cry because that’s the way it was back then. My sisters, on the other hand, howled and sobbed. Father did his best to comfort them as he wrapped his arms around us girls. This moment of grieving was short-lived for my family though; my sisters and I were expected to do Momma’s chores now; Daddy still had to put food on the table, and my brothers had to help with the farm. In that way, our family was a team.

These same fingers were intertwined in John’s hands when we walked along storefront sidewalks in the early moonlit evening. John was my first love. And, he was not your father. John’s hands slid along my clothes and I used my fingers to stroke his arms as we kissed and caressed each other by a small river not far from my house before he took me home. This was away from the prying eyes of father and my brothers because this form of affection was frowned upon back then. As well, my father who was always gentle would not be, if he found out.

When John was killed in the war, my fingers were wrapped tightly around my white handkerchief as I quietly cried in the back pew of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church. I was not considered acceptable by John’s parents; a non-Catholic, poor farmer’s daughter and for that reason, I was not welcome at his service. I went and hid in the back row with a couple of my girlfriends. I needed to say good-bye to the first man I had ever loved.

These hands were my instruments when I was young too and made love for the first time. Sure, you shift uncomfortably in your seat when you hear these words because all you see is an old woman who would never have had such desires. However, I was more than just a mother. You, my son, have never seen that. Or, you’ve always kept your blinders on to it.

But I am not resentful for my role as your mother. I love you. I hope it showed when I placed the back of my hand to your forehead to make sure you didn’t have a fever; or, if you had a fever, the way I gently placed cold cloths to your forehead and read to you until you fell asleep.  Indeed, terrible fear washed over me every time you were sick or injured because I didn’t want to lose another son. When I lost your three-year-old brother, Michael, because of measles it was by far the worst day of my life. (John’s death years earlier, was nothing in comparison.)

There are other things I could tell you about: the time I worked as a nurse at the end of the War and comforted and tended to injured soldiers beside doctors; or the one time I pulled your delinquent childhood classmate James (who skipped school that day and yes, I also knew he bullied you) from the river after he fell in and was almost swept away by the current. But I did not tell you that, or your father. I kept the secret. Terrified, James confessed to me that day he was frequently beaten by his parents and worried about what they would do to him if they found out he had walked too close to the embankment. After that day, you and James became friends, and our house became his refuge.

Did James tell you that before he died in a car accident in his fifties?

You do not know me, my son. But I suspect no one knows another person completely. We are complex and emotional, with things we want to share with others, and other things we don’t. But I wish you would ask me more questions, instead of believing you already know the woman I am.   

Kelli’s Diary

Dear Diary,                                                                                                November 8th, 2013

FAT.

STUPID.

Combined, he’s used seven letters from a twenty-six letter alphabet.  If we were playing scrabble, I’m sure he would lose. You would think that someone as intelligent as him (Mr. IQ, I’ve nicknamed him) would be able to choose better words.  But no, the man with the B.A. in English Literature, and a Master’s Degree in the same name, descends into common words used by “uneducated riff-raff” as he likes to call construction workers.

I told him my father was a Construction Worker. He bites his lip while smiling smugly at me. He doesn’t say anything. He knows better than to say anything else about the dead—and more importantly—about my dad.

And, I’m not fat. I’m rotund, portly, or big-boned. Seriously buddy, you can google synonyms.

Stupid? I hold a B.A. Honours in Sociology and Criminology.

So, there.

Never mind, that I barely squeaked by in finishing it. (Perhaps, I had one too many nights at D’Arcy McGee’s eating French fries while also pounding back Guinness with my two besties, Jan and Lois.) But I have the degree in a black frame, on a wall in my office, that’s above my desk.

I spent five years of my life and tens of thousands of dollars to complete it.  (Okay, it was a four year degree that took me five years. What can I say? I take my time with things.) But I don’t regret one moment or dollar of my investment. The experience taught me to work hard, see things through, and to scale insurmountable obstacles.  I’m proud of it.

Although, I’m not using my degree on the job now…But, that doesn’t matter…. For me, at least it sends a message that I’m willing to work hard to achieve my goals.

What’s the other advantage of having a degree? It allows me to point in the direction of my framed degree with a look of: TAKE THAT!

The name of a particular person comes to mind: Brent. He is the other person who inhabits this dwelling. Brent is the Loud-Food-Chewer, Remote-Control-Hogger, and Sheet-Stealer. I know, those aren’t horrible things. After all, I’ve heard no one is perfect.  But when you add in: Domestic-Chore-Dodger, Manipulator, Cheater, Liar, and Verbal-Abuser—it paints a different picture of my live-in boyfriend. I guess I should be grateful he doesn’t hit me.

Oh shit! And…he’s home! Just drove up the driveway.

I suppose he’s going to want dinner? Maybe my resemblance to the Pillsbury Dough Girl would be less, if I didn’t have to make two meals a day? (Yes, I’m on the hook for breakfast and dinner. I cave in to Brent because he will start squawking about how lazy I am and he can do better than me. I’ve tried to tell him, “Go then!” and yet, he doesn’t. He just rambles endlessly as he lists all the things I haven’t done: the pasta pot from two nights ago in the sink that I didn’t wash; the dirty curtains; the three weeks that have passed since I last tackled the bathrooms; and how I broke his favourite beer glass.)

I hate cooking. I miss the days when I could have cereal for dinner and I would have the rest of the evening to do whatever I want. No peeling and chopping vegetables, frying or baking meat, and then wiping the counters, and doing the dishes. AGAIN.

Oh god. He’s calling me. I’ve got to go.

Kelli

Elephant Lake

Gabriel said it was like this: it was cold and dark and you would feel as if you had nowhere left to go.  Then something would happen – you would be pushed by a sudden burst of warm air and you would find yourself tumbling backwards.  Then without warning, when you least expected it, you would stop.

Air bubbles would pop and burst around you. This would be followed by a quietness that descended on you as if you had gazed up to a calm black sky in the early morning and were transfixed by a thousand stars that pulsed at you. In that space, you wouldn’t hear buses that squealed to a sudden stop; or notice early-morning-risers that slammed their doors and clicked the locks behind them as they trudged off to commuter stops that would carry them to their jobs.

Charity told Gab he was a liar.

Charity had thought about Gabriel more than once and what had happened to her, and more importantly, to him. But she hadn’t gone there for some time and preferred the version of “truth” her brother told others as if he were handing out licorice or smarties to friends at a party.

You were pulled from Elephant Lake, Dexter said over and over again. How could you forget that? he asked Charity as he shook his head. But it wasn’t only his head that wobbled to the right and left; his hands and legs shook with something between pity and rage. Charity couldn’t tell which emotion was more dominant as his eyebrows drooped, and long lines crisscrossed his face that occasionally caused his forehead to twitch. Sometimes his eye would also involuntarily bounce as if it were a wayward basketball after a player lost control of it on the court.

You drank too much that night, Dexter told the party-goers.

Gabriel is missing.

When you see Elephant Lake from a plane in the sky, it resembles the African and Asian mammal that has always been known for their physical attributes of flapping ears, long trunks, and to their detriment – tusks, that will sometimes result in their slaughter by poachers.  Charity considers the more recent characteristics that science has proven exist in these massive creatures: they are social in nature, self-aware, and have long memories.

A few years ago sandbags were littered around the homes that border Elephant Lake. The area had never flooded before in the close to 175 years since their town was settled. But that year it changed. Forty-five homes were gobbled up by the Elephant and in the aftermath a birth happened: a baby elephant was born.

In an ironic twist of fate, where the baby elephant was born, there were no homes. When the water finally receded, the calf remained. And now when you fly above, you see not only the outline of the mother, but also of her baby.

Charity was pulled from the part of the lake where the calf exists.

Dexter’s right. She drank too much that night. That’s why she never argues with him. But he also said that Gabriel did too, and she doesn’t remember that part of it. Then again, she was in the habit of mixing beer and vodka. Sometimes to shake things up, she would throw in a cosmopolitan. But in the five years she’d known Gabriel he’d have one Stella. After last call, he would pack her into his car, drive her home, help her in, and if he was worried by the amount of booze she had consumed – Gabriel would sleep on her couch in case she needed him.

Charity is there again.

This night it’s just her and the calf. Charity stares down at her right hand and then flips it over to reveal her wrist. In daylight you can’t see them. It’s only in darkness that they are revealed. It’s something she received when she lost Gabriel that night: the outline of two sparkling doves drift across the veins of her wrist as if they are in flight.

The winged birds etched on top of Charity’s skin that hide her veins look as if they are a diamond tattoo: a message from the new born elephant of life and peace.

Zigzag

I hate winter. Why won’t it go away? Can we get any more snow this year? Oh goody! That’s a good two inches of marshmallow snow on my car. Excellent! Where’s my brush for the car? Oh there it is! Backseat! Why is this snow so heavy? Good enough. Must get to grocery store.

Keys in the ignition and let’s, let the car warm up a bit. Apparently wise men say it’s good for the engine – or something like that.

What was I getting again? Milk, eggs….there was something else? What was it? There were three things that we needed. Bread? Was it bread? No, I just bought a whole loaf a couple of days ago. It was only three things. Come on brain! I should have written a list.

Zzzzz…

“Arggh. Who’s that now?”

Text from Denise: Can we meet on Saturday at 2 PM? I need to discuss the renovations for your bathroom with you and Greg. There’s a problem with the electrical.

Electrical? Shit. What does that mean? Is that a hint that it’s going to cost us thousands of dollars to bring the electrical up to code so we can finish the bathroom? Why would Denise send me a text message about that? Betchya she’s seeing dollar signs.

Me: Hey Denise. 2 PM is fine. Any chance….

This might be more of a phone call thing. I’ll call her later.

Me: Hey Denise. 2 PM is fine. Any chance….

Off to the store!

***

Did I signal when I turned right? Ugh. Can’t remember. I hate that. I’m going to be one of those old people that will leave my signal light on for 2 KM after I already turned; or worse yet, one of those people who incorrectly signals the wrong direction they’re going.

Wait. I didn’t do that, did I? Shit. Why is my left signal light on?  Oh no, I am one of those people already!

I have to remember to put a load of laundry on tonight. I’m almost out of pants.

Seriously, what was the third thing I needed from the grocery store?

Renovations. Why did we even start?

Work. Right. Must remember to get in early tomorrow morning. Meeting with the boss to discuss that proposal. Am I ready? I think so. Mostly.

Now what? I don’t have time to be stuck in traffic?

Police. Firefighters.  Ambulance. Oh my god. There’s nothing left of that car. I hope those people are alright.

Zzzzz……

That can wait.

And never mind about the third thing. If I can’t remember, I’ll get it tomorrow. And there’s no point panicking about the renovations until we talk to Denise.

Big breath in.

I hope those people are alright.

 

Ms. Kangaroo Pouch

“Are you going to wear that?” Bailey’s eyes skim over me once, and then pass over me a second time. Her eyes are focussed on my stomach as she waits for me to answer.

“Errr,” I eloquently answer. Bailey’s one of my closest friends. I’ve known her since kindergarten when we would tell each other secrets and then, pinky swear we’d never tell anyone else.

Bailey appeared to be in a particularly foul mood today when she arrived at my house. She threw her purse on the couch and flopped down beside it. I know it doesn’t seem like it should be a big deal, but if you knew Bailey, you’d know she’s never like that. She’s poised and gentle and always in control of every situation. It’s one of the reasons I admire her so much.

I don’t really understand the reason why she’s so upset. After all, it’s a let’s-have-lunch-and-then-shop-day versus a 9-to-5-why-is-the-copier-jamming-AGAIN?-day.

“Yes,” I finally say after locating my verbal skills. “Why?”

Bailey peers at me with an “inspector’s look” as if I were a cow that was about to be sold at market. She says, “I wouldn’t if I were you. You’ve got a kangaroo’s momma’s pouch going on there!” she points at my belly and tosses her head back in laughter.

I place a protective hand over my swollen tummy. Okay, maybe granola for breakfast was a bad idea. Or, maybe I just eat too much. I shift uncomfortably and keep my hand on my stomach, trying to block her view of it.

Bailey gives me a half smile. Silence hangs heavily in the air between us. A few seconds later she says, “We have time. You could change.”

“Okay,” I answer as I blink back tears that sting my eyes.  I take the stairs two at a time while taking a deep breath in.

Bailey’s never like that. I must look really terrible if she felt like she needed to say something. When I arrive in my bedroom I stare at myself. In horror, I realize she’s right: Oh god! I look like I’m pregnant – with twins!

I’ve been upstairs for nearly ten minutes. Pulling on a pink dress, control top pantyhose, and matching Gucci shoes, I take a peek at myself in the mirror. I don’t want Bailey to see me if I don’t look perfect. Turning sideways, it’s still there.

Why don’t I own any loose fitting dresses?

I yank the shoes off, slide out of the pantyhose, and wiggle the dress off over my head.  There’s a mountain of clothes that I’ve thrown across my bed. I stare at the heap and pull one of my bulky grey winter sweaters out of the pile with a baggy pair of jeans. It’s a little warm for it, but not by much. The forecast is ten degrees, not twenty-five degrees. I won’t look like I’m hiding something. It’s springtime, I argue with myself. You can still wear sweaters in the spring.

“Hey, Mackenzie, are you almost ready?” Bailey bellows from downstairs. We need to leave now, if we’re going to make our reservation!” her voice booms from the family room.

I emerge from my bedroom still pulling the sweater over my head. But it’s just me and Bailey here, so there’s no chance someone else will see my pink flabby skin. Charging down the stairs, I race down the steps with too much speed. I misjudge with the last two stairs where one step starts, and the other ends, and my heel slips and I skid to the bottom of the foyer.  The only thing that saved me was that for the first time in my life, I had my hand on the railing.

Bailey’s seated on the couch and is flipping through my National Geographic Traveller magazines.

I mumble, “Sorry,” as I enter the room. She tosses the magazine aside when she sees me, stands up and says, “That’s better,” as she nods her head with approval.

Then she raises a finger to my eye and brushes it while saying, “You just have a smudge of eyeliner there. It kind of makes you look like a racoon,” she says with a snort.

I scrunch my face at her as heat rises in me.  “Maybe we should go to the farm,” I retort with bitterness that seeps through me.

“Sorry,” Bailey says while taking her hands off my face and backing up.

“Maybe, we should go to the farm. After all, you’ve already called me a kangaroo and a racoon.”

“Listen,” she says. “I’m just trying to help you. Would you really want to go out looking like you did?”

I shrug my shoulders at her. No. But I don’t say that. As a matter of fact, I got nothing. So I stand there stupidly. And everyone knows the problem with silence, is that if you can’t come up with a snappy come-back, it automatically implies the other person’s right, and you’re wrong.

“And seriously, your eyeliner was all smudged. You could make more of an effort!”

I rub my eye. “It probably smudged when I was trying on clothes,” I say grabbing my purse. “Are you ready to go?” I ask turning around to face her.

“Yeah,” Bailey huffs as her heels hit the floor and she clip-clops towards the front entrance.

As I stick my key in the door and begin to pull it closed, Mrs. Chrystenson walks up the front path.

“Dearie,” she says carrying a plant up my walkway.  “Here’s one of the ferns from my garden. I just pulled it out right away after we talked this morning. So, I wouldn’t forget. Oh…” her voice trails off, “what happened to the lovely blue dress you were wearing this morning?”

“Oh,” I glance at Bailey and answer, “it was a little tight.”

“Where?” Mrs. Chrystenson asks. Her face is the lovely smoothness of calm that woman of a certain age get when they’ve seen it all. She genuinely looks like she has no idea. It’s not that “look” people give you when they know, and they’re just being nice; or they’re secretly trying to get you to say how terrible you looked, so that way they can quietly snicker at you.

Bailey hangs onto her purse and leans against the stone wall of my house. Breathing out, she announces, “in the tummy.”

Embarrassed, my cheeks turn pink, and I drop my head. I wish I were somewhere else.

“Oh,” Mrs. Chrystenson says. I raise my eyes and notice my neighbour’s lips purse together at Bailey. “Did you tell her that?” she asks Bailey.

Bailey stands up straight as her shoulders square off towards Mrs. Chrystenson. “Yes,” Bailey answers, “I’m trying to live more honestly. So, I’m going to say what I think from now on.”

“Huh, well… I’ve always found that there are versions of honesty. Depending on who’s giving the version of the truth, it’s peppered by things that have happened in their own lives.”

I blink at Bailey and watch her jaw tighten and tears fill her eyes. She’s a good friend. I need to defend her. “No, she was right. The dress made me look like I was at the end of my first trimester with twins. I didn’t notice it at first, until she pointed it out.”

“Oh yes, well…” she says as she continues walking up the path and places the fern down on my front porch.

She glances over at Bailey and me, and nods.

“Well, you have a very astute friend. Good of her to look out for you. Have a nice day,” she says as she walks down the pathway.

“You too,” I say. I glance down at the fern and add, “And, thank you for the plant.”

“Quite welcome, my dear,” she says turning to me as she pulls her flowered gardening gloves off. “You know, it’s interesting what people see.  My son had a motorcycle accident years ago.  Terrible things. They should ban them!” she says shaking her head. “Anyways, he broke his helmet and he had a three inch scar down the side of his face. He was lucky to be alive. After the accident, he didn’t want to date. Thought that he looked too hideous. But I would make him go to the grocery store and get my groceries after my husband died. He met a beautiful young woman there who happened to be the whole package as well.” She turns and begins to walk down the pathway.

I hate it when old people do that. Don’t finish a story. Just leaving you hanging… It’s like they feel like you should know. But we want to know, for certain, how the darn thing ends.

I’ve been baited, and I know it. Reluctantly, I sigh and say, “And?”

Laughing she says, “She never saw the scar until he pointed it out. It had faded with time. But for him, it was as big as the day it was when the Doctor stitched it up. They’re happily married now. Baby number two is on the way. It will be my fourth grandchild.”

“Congratulations,” I beam at Mrs. Chrystenson.

“Thank you,” she says. For a second she pauses, and then says, “in the name of honesty, I didn’t notice. I thought the dress looked lovely on you.” With a shrug of her shoulders, a gentle smile, she then turns, and walks away.

Communication Matters

November 2, 2018

Dear Michael,

Michael, I fear I’m a relic with my insistence on sending greeting cards to loved ones; clicking buttons on my telephone to speak to those I care about; and scheduling face-to-face contact with friends to chat about our lives and problems. Although, now that I have written that statement it causes me to pause, and I wonder: is it true?

In all honesty, I find myself spending a great deal of time in isolation with my fingers tightly clinging to my mobile while sending text messages to friends. The message is a two second commitment from me when pressed for time and when I’m thinking of a friend, that shows a certain level of concern. The upside of this? Minimal effort on my part.

I know this to be true, but it doesn’t stop me. I wonder now what else I have missed, or who have I missed, when my head was bowed clicking at that miniscule keyboard sending a message to a friend or family member. Did I pass a homeless person and not see him? Or failed to help a person who dropped their groceries?  Did I make a cashier feel unimportant when I didn’t say, “Hello”, “Please”, or “Thank You” when I ordered my coffee?  Nothing speaks volumes about how much you care about one another, when you don’t even see the person standing in front of you.

With Facebook and text messages it’s easy not to see things. After all, words are a wonderful means of communication, but I would argue, images are more powerful.  You tell me. If I use this symbol 😦 does it mean the same as witnessing a person who is crying on the streets? Or worse yet, someone who isn’t crying, but you know there’s something wrong because their face has been washed clean of all emotions? The face of someone who wants to give up.

Technology today was meant to bind us tighter together.  Relationships were tested when prairies, mountains, rivers, and oceans separated people and required months of travel to visit one another. Now, we can send an email in North America and within a few seconds (as long your server isn’t down) it will be received in Europe. Face-to-face contact is also possible through computers thanks to Skype, where family memories can speak and see one another on the opposite side of the world.

No more reason to send a card. No more reason to travel to visit family and friends. No more reason to face one another. 

It’s different though to receive a text message from someone versus seeing them in person. I can tell you this: if I send a message to a friend and ask, how are you? it’s easy for them to click a couple of buttons and type, GREAT!  I would believe them. But if we meet for coffee and I ask the same question, and they say the same thing with water-filled eyes, or wear a face that’s void of any sign of life; their body language indicates to me something is wrong. From there, I’m more likely to enquire about family, friends, or work in order to flush out what is happening in their lives. It also forces me to be more committed and pay closer attention to my friend to ensure he or she is really doing alright.

I love the poem by John Donne, ‘No man is an island: a poem about interconnection and dependency on one another. We should be connected and care about family, friends, colleagues and strangers. Technology helps us to communicate with one another more easily whether we are only a few miles apart or thousands of miles. But this should not be a substitution for oral conversations and face-to-face interactions that require a larger time commitment because by doing so, it strips us of our humanity towards each other.

Perhaps it’s time for me to drop the phone more frequently and face the person in front of me. It’s time to be a part of all the life that surrounds me.

“;any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”

~’No man is an island’

John Donne

Fondly,

Catherine

Common Sense Factor

“It is a matter of common sense. Surely, you know that.” His eyebrows are arched and his nose is elevated as he says the words that are drizzled with disdain towards her. The sound of his voice vibrates in the air as if the echo is meant to offer more credence to his know-it-all statement.

“Common sense is subjective, Nathaniel. It’s open to interpretation. It’s based on one person’s perspective and is the accumulation of one’s experiences. But everyone is shaped by different life events.  A rich man or woman can tell someone who’s poor, they shouldn’t steal food because they’ll break the law, and if they get caught, they’ll go to jail. But for someone who’s starving, common sense says that if they don’t eat, they’ll die.”

“You are talking about a specific case. But we are not talking about individuals; we are talking about the general population. It should be the common man’s experience that allows a person to make a decision. That is common sense.”

“You mean – the common sense of an affluent, white man’s experience?”

“I did not say that.”

“Funny – you talk like a pompous white man from the early 1900’s.”

“Why do you believe that?”

“Well, why did you say, I did not say that? You could have said, I didn’t say that.”

“Contractions are a lazy person’s way.”

“They’re more efficient, effective, and relatable. Contractions get the job done without taking up more space than needed. Also, they make words more relatable to the general population.”

His arms are clasped behind his back and he stiffens at the general population comment. “Never begin a sentence with, also,” his voice crackles sharply at her.

It’s exhausting this conversation; watching every word spoken to a man who believes himself the expert on all matters. “Why?” she asks tilting her head.

“It is not proper English. When speaking with others they make assumptions based on your language skills? They will believe you are daft.”

“Daft!” she shrieks with final exasperation.  “Where am I? What time period are you from? So, what you’re actually saying is: I’m dumb?”

“Dumb is a word said by those with little vocabulary skills.  If you are seeking another word – perhaps – dim-witted, would be a better choice?”

A shrill laugh escapes from her. She rubs her right hand over her eyebrow to smooth out the twitching in her eye that commenced with this conversation with Nathaniel. This exchange has already lasted longer than she wanted it to and there appears no hope of a quick resolution on the horizon. “So far you’ve said….”

“Never, begin a sentence with so,” Nathaniel’s cheekbones twitch. She’s sure the twitching in his face is because he’s trying to suppress a smile.

“So,” she starts again emphasizing the word more than ever this time around. It’s as if she’s picking a scab on his leg, and yes, she’s doing it deliberately trying to make it bleed by picking it. “You believe that common sense is derived from a common man’s experience, that contractions are a lazy person’s way, and that I’m dim-witted because I begin sentences with also, and so?”

“The point of my observations about your use of language was simply to instruct you. You must be aware of how others would perceive you in conversation.”

“Others? You mean, you?”

“Well, I don’t mean to sound arrogant…”

“Oh no, why stop now?”

“I do have an Intelligence Quotient (it is better known as the IQ test) that ranks in the same levels as Einstein.”

“Oh, do you? Well, I have a common woman’s brain. And I like it that way. I think it keeps me more likely to assume my position isn’t always correct, and open to other people’s perspectives. You know,” she smiles at him for beginning the sentence with you know because she’s certain he won’t like it, “it makes me more common, and hopefully, a little more connected to others.”

Black Moon Rising

Empty bank account, barren fridge, tattered clothes and I brace against the ever-greying windy October skies. Summer seems so long ago with heat that reddened my delicate skin in less than ten minutes. I also miss that yellow fireball that kept me warm. But the sun has shrunk back distancing itself from earth. I shiver in the cold.

Cold has descended on this part of the world. I watch in quiet agitation as the frigid air has turned many people into impatient drivers that press their palms to horns. It’s a scream at the operator in another vehicle for a mistake made or worse yet, just because the palm-pressing-horn-blower left too late and will now be late for work. I know this to be true: because I’m one of those people. This city where cars race up and down streets, parkways, and highways are everywhere. We are in a rush to get nowhere.

This is a difficult time of year for everyone but I dread this month most.  It’s October – a time of year when everything changes; leaves shift with colour and people become more entrenched in back-to-work and back-to-school routines.

But for me, this month is the worst. Triple heartbreaks of loved ones who were diagnosed with something that meant their lives were at risk; or in a cruel sense of irony, one of them I had no idea was sick. He died suddenly with a 3:45 am wake-up call that said he was gone. No time for I’m sorry, or last good-byes. Just a call that said: He died tonight.

Tonight, there is blackness that I have never felt before. I turn my eyes upwards in search of the Black Moon.  I don’t find it. But what I find is a cold breeze that licks my face and sweeps my hair everywhere. The stars are however, brighter than I’ve ever noticed before. My eyes move back to the pavement where I watch as leaves hold hands together and are swept around in circles like Greeks do when they dance.

I secretly wish that I could be the moon and hide away from everything. It seems unfair that it gets to have some time to take a break for one night and then reappear brighter tomorrow. I wish I could get some quiet time: to breathe, to think, to feel. Instead, my days are spent checking off never-ending tasks and to-do-lists that leave me short of breath and stuck on a treadmill.

But maybe, that’s for the best.    

“What’s going on with you?” He asks red-faced and half-smiling at me.

“Nothing,” I answer defensively. I stare down at the ground avoiding his eyes. I hate it when he just pops in unexpectedly.

He’s watching me. I know it. It’s really a silly question on his part, because he knows what’s going on with me. I spin around and revise my answer to his question and in a crisp, growl of a  voice I say, “I hate October!”

“Why?” He asks with that mischievous grin. It’s the same look he had when he knew the answer to the question he just asked, but wanted you to say it.

I’ve decided I’m calling him out and answer, “You know why!”

“I’m not here. You know that, right, kiddo?”

“Yes you are,” I answer lifting my chin in defiance. I’ve locked the swelling tears in my eyes in and hold them back like floodgates. If the floodgates are released it will be a catastrophe. Someone will drown.

“Kiddo, just use your blue, happy-light. That’ll work,” he says chuckling.

I turn and face him saying, “I hate that you know about my blue light.”

“So, you’re not suffering from SAD then?” He’s stopped laughing now and scrunches his face in my direction. I notice the crinkle in his nose. The lingering remnants of mischief sit at the corners of his lips and it’s the same look he had whenever he was making fun of me. His eyes swirl with trouble. He’s a little more red-faced than a few minutes ago and full of life.

It’s the way I remember him.

He just wants me to say it. He wants to hear those words. But he can’t make me do anything now.

“Leave me alone,” I say deflated.

He’s suddenly serious and he softly says, “You know it will be alright, right, sis?”

“Only if I decide to keep going,” I retort. I look down at the ground and stare at small rocks that are sprinkled along the payment.

“October’s a triple whammy for you. But you’re made of tougher stuff.”

My head snaps up in his direction as I square off with him again. If he were here, I would put him in a headlock right now. Or, I would try to. I would probably lose. He was close to 6 feet tall, 200 lbs, and worked in construction. I am 5 feet 2 inches, 140 lbs, and am a slightly pudgy office worker.  He’s bigger and older than me. The cards are stacked against me. But I would try just the same. We’re siblings. It’s what we do. We fight.

My five-year-old has returned and I say, “Why does everything have to be so hard for me?”

“Hard for you?” He questions me in a tone that reminds me of Dad. It’s the tone of: You’re being a spoiled brat.

With his look, I turn my eyes away from him and say, “Sorry, I didn’t mean that.” His words sting me and it leaves the lingering burnt sensation as if I’ve had my knuckles rapped by the headmaster.

When we were kids, I absolutely believed I stood on higher ground than my brother. (That’s the way I saw it back then. I fully acknowledge now, there’s a good chance I was wrong.) But in the last few years of his life, my brother was brilliant, still funny, and much more resilient than me. He also had a better understanding of the world: what mattered, what didn’t, and how not to brood about your shitty luck. And today, he’s calling me out for sounding ungrateful when my life isn’t always that bad: just parts of it. I miss him.

I miss all of them.

“How’s Dad?” I ask changing the subject like my family always does. It’s a defence mechanism: Let’s not talk about the serious stuff like death, loss, and grief.

“Good,” he says quickly and without any hesitation. “He’s smoking as much as he wants to now without you nagging him,” he answers as he swings his head back and claps his hands together. Clearly, he’s entertained by his own joke.

In a few moments, he’s gathered himself and continues, “Oh, speaking of which….” he pauses for a second as he fumbles in his coat pocket, pulls a cigarette out of the package, flicks his lighter open, lights a cigarette, and inhales on it.

I half-smile and turn my head away from him. Mumbling, I sarcastically say, “Nice.”

He deliberately blows smoke in my face and throws his head back in laughter. I can’t smell the tobacco smoke. For that reason, it doesn’t set off my allergies. In that moment, I know he’s right. He’s not here. This realization makes my chest contract and my face crumbles.

I blurt out, “I miss you guys.”

The floodgates have opened.  

His cigarette dangles between his two fingers and rests relaxed by his side. He’s serious and says, “Triple whammy for you, sis.”

I breathe out and watch as white wisps of my exhale float in the darkness as droplets of water tumble down my cheeks.

“Hey, sis?”

I answer in a whisper of a voice as I try to gather my emotions, “Yeah.”

“Tomorrow night, the moon will be back.”

With his statement, I turn my gaze to the twinkling stars that sit above us and use my gloved hand to wipe the dribbling from my nose.  I quietly continue my gaze upwards for a moment longer, and then turn back and look at him. I’m smiling now, and with a giggle, I answer all the questions he asked me earlier that I either gave a smart-ass answer to, or never answered, while also providing a reply to his statement about the moon.

My answer is this: “I know”.

Anywhere

I slurp the icy Pina Colada through the straw and stringy bits become threaded between my teeth. Just then, I watch him swagger by SHIRTLESS. Every muscle in his shoulders and arms ripples as he strides by with confidence in every step. Mouth gaping, I stare at his tanned, chiseled abs.

Damn. I knew I should have gone with a one piece. I am an aquatic mammal nicknamed Ms. Beluga minus the perpetual toothy smile stretched out here on the Hawaiian beach.

Please don’t notice me. Please don’t notice me. Oh no, he’s noticed me. But I’m certain not in a good way.

Or, maybe he has?

“Hi,” he says, “are you using the copier?”

“What?” I stammer spinning around wildly to face the voice behind me.  Embarrassingly, I now know that my printing job may have finished some time ago and I’ve been busted staring blankly at the copier.

“Yes! But all done now!” I blurt out triumphantly and with a glowing smile. It’s my best effort to convince Mr. Davidson that I was NOT daydreaming.

Quickly, I reach for my papers and then with a swoosh, watch helplessly as they sail down fanning out across the worn blue carpeted floor.  “Damn,” I unconsciously mutter as my face burns from so many corporate blunders.

Mr. Davidson is one of the nicest people in our office but has no resemblance to the man I imagined on the beach: red-rimmed glasses, long wavy dark hair that’s peppered with grey, and his beard looks like it longs to be trimmed. On this particular day, Mr. Davidson is wearing a plaid shirt with green pants. Nice man that he is, he helps me gather my pages while chatting with me about a new restaurant that just opened.

I want to disappear. There must be a way to assemble these pages to form a boat so that I can sail away to Hawaii. RIGHT NOW.  Of course, my lack of an engineering degree may prove problematic in the construction. Then there’s the other issue that the paper is much too thin. I’m certain I would sink.

TRAPPED.

***

Parachute strapped on my shoulders, goggles on my eyes, cold wind pushes me backwards onto the plane. I vaguely remember some instructions about pulling some chord but can’t recall the specifics. Right now, I am too busy holding onto the edge of the plane and screaming to no one in particular, “For heaven’s sake’s! I can do this!”

Suddenly, some random clip I saw years ago floods my little brain: I’m remembering back to an incident involving an eighty-year-old woman who attempted a tandem jump and slipped out of the parachute.  Thank goodness it didn’t end badly for her but…

“Sarah, have you submitted your report?” my manager, Esmeralda, asks.  (I’m really not kidding. That’s her name.) Her voice snaps me back to my current location: and that current spot is my stagnant, dry-aired workstation with the black blinking cursor that signals the report is still a work in progress. With two lines written, it’s a barely-there report.

How does she do that? Every time I’m drifting off into fantasy land she comes in and literally “pops” my thought bubble. No fun permitted at work, should be Esmeralda’s work motto.  I could make her a bumper sticker. I’m sure she has a webcam on me. 

“Not yet,” I hesitate and continue, “but it will be ready in the next ten minutes,” I say in my most authoritative, in-control voice, and with my broadest smile. She frowns at me and she instantaneously looks ninety-nine years old as wrinkles crack throughout her face before she saunters out the same way she came in without a further word.

Clearly, she’s impressed with me.

“Yes, why don’t people start early with their bucket lists,” I grumble as I stare at the flashing cursor. I breathe out hard and then try to inhale refreshing air. But it can’t be found here. I sigh. Then I punch at the keys in front of me in an effort to write my delinquent report.

***

It’s late July and I am in Churchill, Manitoba. The temperature is around 18 degrees Celsius and it feels more like a warm spring day than the middle of summer. I am prepping my kayak! I am so excited! FINALLY! I will be kayaking with beluga whales! They are nicknamed “sea canaries” because of the constant whistling, chirping, and clicking sounds that they are famous for making. There are tens of thousands of them out there as they come up to feed, give birth, and take care of their young in the Churchill River. Or so, the “Town of Churchill” website said. It will be a beluga sing-along party.

Belugas have mushroom white faces that are long and yet, round at the same time. Also, they ALWAYS look like they’re smiling. They have the smallest teeth on any whale I’ve ever seen. I ADORE THEM. It seems impossible that they could bite you. Even if they did – their teeth are so small it would probably be like a puppy biting you. Now that I think about it a bit more, sometimes when puppies bite it hurts. They have razer-sharp teeth.

Never mind. Belugas can’t hurt anyone! JUST LOOK AT THEM!

With that, I step my right foot into the kayak and it lists heavily to the right side. I try to step in again but the whole kayak shifts under my weight. I step back. This kayak seems a little tipsy and I’ve never been kayaking before. I have gone snorkeling…

Let’s change that.  I’m standing in front of a mirror in a black, ultra-tight dry suit that I can barely breathe in; but it’s worth it to go snorkeling with the sea canaries. Advantage: it’s much more intimate. Why wouldn’t I get as close to the belugas as possible? I’ll never get this chance again.

Another benefit of snorkeling: I have full coverage on my body. While I can’t breathe, the suit does hold in all my jelly rolls. The best part – NO UNFORTUNATE INCIDENT INVOLVING A BIKINI! My mind drifts a bit and I start to wonder, can belugas accidentally bump you and kill you?

“Sarah, are you ready for lunch?” My best friend Rachel swings her head over my work station startling me. She stares at me inquisitively with her famous Han Solo lop-sided smile as she asks, “Daydreaming again, my friend?”

“Yes,” I mope.

“Where do you want to go today?” I ask her reluctantly.

“Same place as usual?”

“Of course,” I flatly respond.

***

Damp moisture invades my body and sends a small chill down my spine. The wind blows against my face sweeping my hair off my shoulders and it dances on the wind. Large soft snow flakes fall on me and this beautiful city. I am standing at the top of the Empire State building in New York City just before 1 am. With the snow it works in unison with the events that I experienced today to signal the start of the Christmas season.

I look across the city with lights that seem to wink in acknowledgement of me, the first-time traveller. It has been a perfect day: prime viewing of the Macy’s Christmas parade, Ellen’s Stardust Diner for turkey dinner, AND THE WAIT STAFF SANG TO US! I watch the new fallen snow blanket the city coating the buildings with what look like marshmallows, brightening a little more, this already bright city.

“Sarah,” Rachel turns and looks at me. She continues saying, “They’ll be closing the building soon. We need to go.”

“Alright,” I say dreamily.

Rachel stares at me for a long moment, tilting her head, and then she turns to face the New York skyline too. Finally, she turns again to me and says, “Any thoughts on where we should go for breakfast? I’m hungry!”

Still staring out at the view in front of me, I whisper, “Anywhere.”

 

The Remarkable

“What makes you special?” He asks as he pushes his eyeglasses back that are perched on his nose.

“Nothing,” Gwen answers as she gazes out the window of the room where they sit across from each other. Her arms are clasped around her legs. She unconsciously pulls them closer to her chest as she answers his question. Gwen’s bare feet rest on the leather couch and the coldness caused from the air conditioning blasting makes her shiver. Such a cliché: her sitting on a leather sofa and him sitting over there.  It’s what you would expect.

“What makes you different? Unique?” he asks again.

A small smile crosses Gwen’s lips and she says, “One breast is larger than the other.”

Dr. Tadani nods his head and replies, “That’s not that unusual.”

“Great. Even the things that I think, make me special, aren’t.”  Her chin lifts up a little, and there’s something in her eyes. She’s challenging him, trying to prove he’s wrong, and he knows it. But she hasn’t won yet.

“I noticed a scar on your elbow. How did you get that?” he asks resting his pen on his notepad.

“Oh,” she says turning her elbow over and looking at the scar again for the first time in years.  “Fell off my mountain bike cycling down this big-ass hill,” she says smiling at the memory. Hot sun, wind, and dust flew up from the dirt path making it difficult to see. But she’d done that path and hill so many times without one scratch. On that day though, she raised one hand to brush the dirt away from her eyes at the exact moment her wheel lifted up into the air. It was the way she started coming back down. She saw that spikey rock that she should have cleared before her tire nose-dived. It was too soon. She knew it. When she crashed to the ground and skidded along the rocks it hurt. There was lots of blood. Gwen picked herself up, dabbed the wound with a finger for a little bit, laughed it off, got back on her bike, walked up the hill, and took on that downhill slope again. That time she didn’t let anything distract her: she landed perfectly.

“You like to go mountain biking?” the doctor asks.

“I did, when I was younger. I haven’t done it in years now.” Gwen’s eyes turn towards the window again, turning away from the present, and the future. She’s fixated on the past: the good ol’ days.

“So, the scar,” Dr. Tadani says, “is it special to you?”

“Yeah,” she says. “It reminds me of how brave I was and how much fun I had when I was a kid. When…” her voice trails off and a then a few moments pass. “When-n-n thin-ings were good,” she finally finishes through splintered words.

“Does anything else make you special?”

“No,” Gwen says. Her mind is blank. There’s nothing else.

“Nothing?”

“I already told you, there’s nothing.” Her lips purse together locking in words she doesn’t want to say to him. Her cheeks flame hot with rage. Why is he asking these stupid questions?

“What about your paintings?”

“What about them?” she says stubbornly. “I’m not Vincent van Gogh.”

“He was never successful in his lifetime,” Dr. Tadani says.

“I know,” she says miserably at her blunder. She needed a name and pulled the first one out that she could think of. But she knows his story.

“You don’t think you’re paintings are special?”

Gwen doesn’t want to play this game anymore. “I don’t know,” she huffs with annoyance.

“Then why do it? Why paint?”

The hair on Gwen’s arms stand up straight. Muscles around her shoulders tighten. What does he want her to say? Her work sucks? No one will ever buy it?  She’s wasting everyone’s time?

Just like a lioness with her cub, she’s protective of her work. It might not be perfect, but it’s hers. She bore it, nurtured it, and continues to work at it.

“Gwen?” Why do it?”

Gwen releases her legs and plants her feet on the carpet. Back straightens. She sits taller than she’s sat in a long time. “Because, I think maybe I can reach others through my paintings. Maybe I will awaken something in them, and they’ll see what I see. I won’t feel alone. And other people won’t either.”

“That’s the reason for your painting called, Aftermath?” Dr. Tadani asks in a soft voice.

Gwen stares at him. Mouth drops open. She’s mentioned she paints in passing. But, how does he know about that painting? Sure, it’s in a gallery, one of the few she’s sold. But she’s never mentioned it to him.

“It’s a beautiful portrait of what people leave behind,” Dr. Tadani announces. “The woman at the front of the painting seems to be sleeping. That is, until you notice the empty bottles of pills that are beside her. All around her, above her, beside her, are people crying, some shouting, and many of them dressed in black with tears streaming down their faces. It’s brilliant.” He pauses and answers her unspoken question, “I’ve seen it at the new gallery that just opened. My wife likes art.”

Gwen’s head bobs up and down.  Her throat fills with mucus.  She takes a deep breath in, and drops her chin so she doesn’t have to look at her doctor. Muffled words come from her as she sniffles and says, “My mom – she left us a note, said we’d be better off without her. She was wrong.”

Gwen hears the doctor reach for something. A Kleenex box appears before her still downward cast eyes. She glimpses up at him and takes a tissue.

Dr. Tadani smiles at Gwen as gently as he can. Gwen never mentioned her mom’s suicide before. But now a lot of the other conversations they’ve had make sense.

“Have you ever read, Hector and the Search for Happiness?”

Gwen giggles and says, “I saw the movie.”

“The movie was similar. Message was the same. As you probably remember, the basic premise is that we’re always looking for happiness. Hector goes off to find it in the usual places. Studies have been done that show data that you’ll be happy if you exercise, if you’re rich, if you’re not rich, if you do what you love, if you have a family, etc., etc…the list is really quiet endless. Sure, many of those things may work. But everyone’s different. Having a family may not make some people happy, and running marathons every weekend may not work either. After all, no two people are the same. But the book and the movie both say that you need the bad stuff, as well as the good stuff, to be happy and that those terrible experiences allow us to better recognize happiness. That sadness is a necessary emotion too. Not that anyone deserves to be miserable,” he finishes with one eyebrow raised and with one of his rare chuckles.

Gwen smiles back at her spectacle-eyed doctor with the frizzy curly hair and the eight o’clock shadow. She’s still uncertain how the book/movie ties into how she’s special.

Dr. Tadani places his book on the coffee table. “I would go further and say that it’s the sum of all our different parts of who we are that make us special.  Sure, physiological differences in pairs of body parts make you unique. But that, in combination with the scar-clad, mountain biking woman, who paints to raise awareness about difficult issues and tries to connect people through her paintings, well – that’s what makes you special, Gwen.”