Beginnings, grief

The Losing and Lost

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I walk swiftly out of a room and pause.

My finger tips twitch – like the tail of a cat, like typing on a phantom keyboard, like…

I walk back into the room and sit.

I

I

 

I was raised by my parents to question authority and institutions. Or rather – they modelled it, punk rock kids turned into uncomfortable adults, while as parents they encouraged me to play nicely in the world.  It’s taken me a few years into my own adult life to identify that sudden electric pulse of resistance that lights up my electrons every time I come across a rule, a form, a chain of command. I resist as a reflex.

You cannot argue with grief.  No matter how intrinsically counter-culture, no matter how self-designed a whimsical rogue you may be.  Cliches come, unbidden.  Everyone’s loss is unique, a matrix of circumstances between two people that create a singular chasm of said and unsaid, of regrets and triumphs, of questions unasked.  But grief visits in ways that are humbling in their universality.

It’s not necessarily what it looks like from the outside, per se, but the impulse.

Did you know there’s a ‘club’?  There’s a club.  They found me before I could recall whose battered membership card I have held for them on rough nights or intimate coffee dates.  Like battle-worn nurses in a triage ward, they stepped forward, hands on open wound, applying steady pressure and checking vitals.  I send texts.  “What’s happening to me?”  Mere minutes later they respond, always ready for the call: “You’ll see.”

I caught myself reading Hamlet on the beach.  Shakespeare, a true and steadfast friend.  Prose so visceral I had to put the book down and look at the thoughtless hot bodies parading on the beach, the exhausted, shrieking children wrestled by haggard parents, the fat seagulls feasting on abandoned fries. How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world.  But I’m not one for melancholy.  I rolled my eyes at the contrivance of turning to a famous dead father narrative for guidance.  I texted a member of the club, looking for a better role model.

I can’t decide if I look older or younger.

I make lists.  Is it a Virgo thing? I don’t know.  I’m an atheist and a brutal pragmatist, but these days I look up, out, anywhere but inside for some lists and some answers.  I buy plants and tend to their mysterious needs, watch their leaves reach for the sun, grow and fade.  I download an app that shows me the stars and crouch at my window looking for planets.  While trapped at work and spinning out, I make a list of things that I think I would like to do.

  • paint toenails
  • yoga video
  • read for 30 minutes

When I get home, I have forgotten making the list.  I lie on my carpeted floor and flip through Hamlet.

It keeps happening.  I find myself moving, full force, having just summoned the strength to stand and walk, with no idea where I’m going.  A perfect blankness of the mind as the body, a husk ruled by synapses, continues on its path.

Did I mention there are metaphors?  There are metaphors.

  • Plants: Helping living things to grow
  • Cleaning out belongings: letting go of the past
  • Astrology: finding a larger order to seemingly random events

There are more but they’re not coming to me right now.  Also, some of those are not metaphors.

For someone who makes a living from the things they say (either scripted and memorized, or painstakingly crafted) I’ve been wildly entertained by not being entirely sure what will come out of my mouth at any given moment.

I have a friend who I worked with years ago who would make jokes constantly about their late parent.  I found them funny and yet also inherently unnerving.  Never sure if they were an attempt at levity, a cry for acknowledgement, or a signal flare for help, I just made sure they knew I was listening, and laughed if I could.  Now in their shoes, I realize it’s a tough crowd out there. I am the orchestrator of the suspended drum fill, a creaky silence as my gallows humour swings confusingly in the social atmosphere.  A tip for future members of the club – making a dark joke and then yelling “but I’m fine!” is the worst possible way to end your set.

I was barely learning how to be, and now I have to do it all over again.  I don’t know anything anymore.  I don’t know how to write, how to make food, how to talk to people. Who to forgive, what to forget.  The script is blank.  The stage directions are crossed out.  I’m going from memory now.

I clutch old t-shirts.  I turn pictures face down.  I light candles.  I spend sleepless nights.  I cry to my counsellor.  I stay home.  I make lists.  Cliches follow me like the frame of a Hallmark movie, but I am one parent down and no longer afraid of being just like everyone else.

We know what we are, but know not what we may be.

I walk swiftly out of a room and pause.

I

I

I take a deep breath, and wait.

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Aqui, hogar, and other simple palabras

As soon as my feet hit the ground in Mexico, I have a panic attack. Curled up on top of my suitcase in the bathroom of the baggage claim, gasping for air, it takes me a long time to realize the urgent female voices I hear are talking to me.

“Estas bien? Estas bien?”

**

When I was 12, my friend went to England. I have wanted to go to London terribly, my whole life. The day she traveled, I stayed up until 3AM so she could call me from Heathrow just so I could hear the air over there. She held up the phone for me so I could hear the sounds of the airport. I was too excited to go back to sleep after.

I still haven’t gone to London.

**

I’ve google searched my way to a beautiful restaurant in downtown Calgary. I am by myself. They sit me at the bar, between two couples that have their backs turned to me and keep elbowing me unknowingly. I am served the best pasta I’ve ever had. I tell the bartender who is serving me that it’s fantastic. He can’t hear me over the sound of the martini shaker, and I’m too shy to repeat myself. I think about taking a picture of my plate, but it’s too dark and it doesn’t look like much of anything anyway.

**

I’m sitting alone, drinking a glass of white wine at an airport bar, conveniently located immediately facing the gate of my delayed flight. I have my sunglasses, wallet and passport on the table in front of me. The television is broadcasting updates on the Nigerian school girls, abducted from their towns. I put my passport into my jacket pocket and zip it closed.

**

As she leans over the kitchen counter at her home in East Van, my mom tells me that my abuelo used to drive every day from their home in El Paso to go work in Juarez, just on the other side of the US/Mexico border. Two days later, I board a flight, YVR to LAX that my dad must have done hundreds of times. Work, home. Trabajo, hogar.

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On our day off, we drive to the East LA apartment building where I grew up. I haven’t been here since I was 4 years old. Tentatively, we walk through the apartment compound and find the one that was ours – I don’t want to intrude on the current tenant’s privacy, so I take a picture of the outside of the building and we head out. Through a fence, I see a pool and memory shocks me like jumping into cool water. I only ever had one fuzzy memory of LA, and I’m suddenly looking right at it.

**

In LA I see fellow Chicanos evaluate me, choosing English over Spanish so I understand. Fair enough. I try not to take it personally.

**

On the first day of the festival, the facilitator asks us to imagine the stage as a map of the world, placing LA, Central America, Australia, China for reference. “Go to the place you call home,” she says. Hundreds of us go down to the stage, and it’s so densely packed that it’s impossible to tell where I’m standing.

**

After almost two years of frequent visiting, I finally have a dream about Toronto. I’m headed west along King Street, waiting to get off at Spadina so I can take the streetcar up towards Bloor. The dream is accurate and unremarkable.

**

Sometimes I can have a conversation in Spanish and it’s no problem. Sometimes, the words tangle up in my mouth and shame locks up every syllable. Often the person I’m trying to greet will switch languages. If they can’t, I apologize in any language I can muster, smile, and leave as quickly as I can. And sometimes with a good new friend the conversation flows freely, dancing easily back and forth across the invisible fronteras of language, meeting one another where we can make ourselves understood.

**

Whenever I arrive somewhere new, I have a routine. I open the window, if I can. Put lavender oil on the bedspread. Turn on the lamps and turn off the overhead lighting. Open my phone and start my white noise app. I will try to text someone at home, but the time zones almost never work out.

**

We’re in Puerto Morelos, a small beach town hidden between two major tourist centres on the Yucutan Peninsula. We’re sitting at a plastic picnic table outside and I’m chatting with the restaurant’s server and chef en Español, while my boyfriend holds my hand and looks over my shoulder at the stray dogs playing on the sidewalk. For the first time in months, I can breathe. My heart feels like a raincloud, heavy and full.

**

I text my friend.

Me, 8:56 PM: I’m really, really ready to come home.

Her, 8:58 PM: Where?

**

The last day before leaving is always strange. Permeated with an urgent finality, the place appears to me vivid, iconic, crystalizing into instant memory. The past leaps up to meet my foot with every step, bending time zones and timelines to create a dizzying déjà vu of alternate lives. “You were always here,” some part of me says. “Where do think you’re going now?” I look at my watch, check in for my flight exactly 24 hours before. Get on my hands and knees and feel under the hotel bed to make sure nothing is left behind. On his million trips there and back, my dad would often bring me a present. I try not to accumulate too much stuff, though. I have to carry my home with me.

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The Intermission

 

all is calm
all is bright
 

I keep having vivid dreams about fires and floods.  Everything is gone.  I see the end of our world in eerie detail, and I’m immersed in the immediacy of coping, of decisions and priorities.  I see Vancouver, in particular, subjected to some immense catastrophe – but we are calm and orderly, deeply afraid but focused on the task of survival.  When the horror of the situation finally dawns on me, I wake up.

There’s a constellation of thumbprints on my heart.  One for every worry, big or small.  They show up, echoes in my subconscious magnified into devastating nightmares.

They’re surfacing with increasing regularity, because in a lot of ways I feel like these fears are coming for me now.  For us.  The undercurrent of dread in our part of the world and beyond is tangible – and I don’t need to remind you why.  It feels like we’re at the end of Act One of the sweeping drama of our times.

But we can’t be surprised, really.  We were told everything at the beginning, just like a prologue to a play.  We knew that we lived above our global means. We knew about inequality, about injustice. We knew that tremendous inequity kept us in strata.  There’s nothing surfacing now that no one saw coming.  But here we are, gasping as the curtain falls. 

 
through the years we all will be together
if the fates allow
until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow
 

So it’s fucking Christmas, and I don’t really know what to do with that.  I think about what gift I should get my mom, and then I go to sleep and dream about rotting corpses on Robson street.  I don’t really know what to make of the holidays, because in many ways it feels like a part of the big machine that is eating us alive, but also I guess they’re pretty nice too.    Still, I don’t know if we have the right to turn off the news anymore.  I don’t know if we have the right to keep buying new things we don’t need, wrapping them in paper and throwing it away.  I don’t know if we get to do that anymore. 

It’s intermission.  We’re in the lobby with our drinks and bathroom lines, talking to our dates and children and friends and spouses.  But the show will start again.

What happens in Act Two?

Tremendous acts of courage.  Startling revelations that leave everything changed.

Devastation.  Sadness.  Loss.

Hope. 

I don’t know what the next year will bring us.  I think I’ve read a script like this before, and I don’t like the way it ended.  So it’s up to us, now.

If any of this life that we have been given is to matter at all, we will need to be the heroes of this story.  The good people whose courage and resistance and love rewrite the narrative.  It has to be us, or it will have been for nothing.

Take the vacation time, the cookies, the gift cards, the awkward family dinners, the boozy house parties.  Make your heart strong, no matter how vast your constellation of worries.  That’s what this time is for.  Because we’ll need all the strength we can get. 

later on, we’ll conspire
as we dream by the fire
to face unafraid
the plans that we made

 

Stand up.  Act Two is about to begin.