Start Up the Train

Wednesday December 18 (really Saturday October 13)

Accustomed as I am to feeling a stranger in a strange land, it was, nevertheless, an experience whose strangeness bordered on complete cognitive dissonance. To start, I was entering a building in which I’d been bullied and betrayed, a place I’d hidden in or run from. When I taught there, another teacher would accost me in my classroom, shouting at me until I stared woodenly at the board, blank and paralyzed. When he wasn’t finding me in my room, he would waylay me in the hallway and shout at me there. Students would tell me he’d been criticizing me to the whole class. It became normal, at the sound of the last period bell, to immediately pull down the blinds, turn out the light, and cower in the corner until I knew he’d gone. Only then could I spring to my car and drive quickly away. On Staff Meeting days, I’d stay in my room or go to the women’s washroom and wait until the last minute before entering the library where the meeting was held. Then I’d find a place at the big table out of his sight, away from his glare. Going to the Staff Room was out of the question. It was in the room, stay in the room, race home. Eventually, I took stress leave. When I was gone, he and another teacher dismantled my room and packed up my possessions. I hadn’t said I was changing schools. They somehow spoke on my behalf and a friend of the other teacher took my room and my classes.

Yesterday was the second time I’d set foot in the building since those days. The first time, I walked a short distance down the hall to what was then termed the small gym, circled the room and instantly felt I was going to pass out. It was an extreme reaction. This time, I would be returning but with allies, people I knew to be kind. My fear wasn’t that I’d fall apart but that I’d somehow wreck the evening if I got emotional. These weren’t their memories. They were mine.

What happened, surprisingly, was the layer of one experience over another. While I waited for the friends in what had once been the cafeteria, my son texted me a photo of my grand daughter. My current life entered the room. When I had taught there, I was a single mom, my son just entering adulthood. My father had just died, my mother years before. Now, I had a grown up son, a family.

Then my friends entered the room, grounded and pure. Each one of them I admire. Had I told them what had happened to me in that building, I know each one would have understood my trepidation.

Then the “event.” It was billed as a TED Talk meets Oprah thing, its theme forgiveness. That’s why I went. The coincidence was just too serendipitous. I hated the music, hated the format (fast paced, zero time for reflection,) didn’t connect at all with the guest speaker. The message seemed facile: Decide to forgive and then forgive. Oh, well. That’s it, is it?

And yet I got something. Something shifted. Two things became apparent: It is the nature of human existence to experience betrayal and loss; everyone experiences injustice, unfairness.

And? A building can’t hurt me. A memory can’t hurt me. If life is me on a train going from Point A to Point B, I can’t stop the train at the station and never move again. What I got, what I truly understood is that there’s movement. I know all the cliches about forgiving so you don’t give the abuser power over your life, blah blah blah, but that isn’t what I got. What I got is “Start up the train.” 

Advertisements

Afterlife

Tuesday December 18 (really September 16)

I wrote this after my father died.

The day my father died was like every day in the previous week. I awoke early, had a few seconds before reality hit me, then stepped out of bed, groggy and fearful. I walked down the narrow hallway, turned on the kitchen light, and phoned the hospital to see if he was still alive. There would be a pause while a nurse looked for and at a chart. There would be a pause while I held my breath. Then the exhilaration. “No change.” No news was good news. I would then carefully dress for my day in Extended Care. I’d drive to the nearest town, park my car, and get on the Skytrain.

It was September. School had just started and my son was at his first job. A few of those days he went to the hospital with me but there was no sympathy for a young man with a dying grandfather — not at a store that sold chatckes and was named Chatckes. The wealthy must be taken care of. So he’d go his direction and I’d go mine. Neither of us suspected Grandpa would die. It was incomprehensible.

When I’d reach Vancouver, I’d switch from one mode of transportation to another, taking a bus to the busy area of town where the hospital was. Then I’d pause again. I would go for coffee and wait, perhaps half an hour, building my stamina for the day ahead. It became a ritual. The same coffee shop on Broadway, sitting on a high stool at the window, watching the rain, watching the people, drinking the tea, waiting for the inevitable. I’d have to go.

I’d walk through the doors and the dread would hit me. Before I’d even turn to the right and see the elevators, I’d be in the Emergency, the same place they’d brought him by ambulance. The shock that this was really happening. My father — so separate and apart from the world, so king-like — was now just a body some young unknown man maneuvered and invaded.

Up the elevator, pleasant remarks to the nurses, always the good girl, the dutiful daughter, I’d be allowed to enter. And there he’d be. Stretched out, puffy, almost unrecognizable. I’d be so aware of the indignity. This man who was so untouchable, so aloof, now an object on a bed, prodded by strangers. What he couldn’t contain, I did. I held his shame, felt such pity, such sorrow.

The tubes. The glistening face. The stickiness of his brow. Even as his only child I kept my distance. His power was so complete even as an old dying man that I was held back, reserved. The nurses, so jovial — how unlike him, unlike our family. I could do it. I could act the part. But the juxtaposition of the “otherness” of the hospital was one more burden.

It was on the Wednesday he decided to die. The nurses were busy, I came in as usual and he wasn’t in the ward. The priest walked by and I asked, “Do you know where my father is?” “He’s in there,” was the reply. “I’m sure it’s alright to go in.” It wasn’t. Never ask a priest to do a nurse’s job. I know that now. He was in a bed, his open wound exposed, a slash of burgundy guts shocking beyond belief. I froze. A nurse exclaimed in annoyance and ushered me out. The priest was found and reprimanded.

The next day — Was it the next day? — the nurses were discussing his prognosis. He was prone on the bed, the undignified object of the discussion. He was recovering well. He’d need a caregiver. I was saying he’d come to live with my son and I. How this would occur, I had no idea. I had barely enough money for the two of us, having purchased a condo I could ill afford the year before.

The next day, peritonitis set in. He would have to fight. The nurses were amazed at his strong will. One said he was the most strong willed patient she’d had. Would the strong will prevail? No. It wouldn’t.

He was slipping, failing. Even then I knew. He wouldn’t want to live with my son and I, wouldn’t want the reduced life he’d have. It would be his way or no way.

And it was.

The next day, the last day, began in the same way. Same phone call. Same bus ride. Same pause to regroup. The night before I had asked the priest to give him Extreme Unction, the Last Rites. I had done it, not because I was Catholic, or even that my father was Catholic, but because my mother, now so tangible she was almost visible, would have wanted it. As Matt and I had stood on either side of his bed in the hospital gloom, the priest had recited the words that were like an entrance to the Afterlife. I realize now that the presence of God was in that room. At the time, I assumed it was the presence of my mother. Somehow, somehow, she was there. On the other side of the wall behind his bed, watching through the wall. That was what I thought at the time and still, irrationally, think now. There was a sense of impending reunion. A sense of gathered family.

It was a formal leave taking.

The next morning I knew the ritual started must be completed. But not today, I prayed. Not today. Some other day. Some other someday.

He had been moved, was in a private room. I sat by his bed, held his hand. Monitors buzzed. He was connected. Alone in the room with him, I was afraid. I was afraid of my father and afraid of death. I knew death was waiting. I had a talk with him, took on the mantle of the priest from the night before — continued the conversation. “I know you’re going to go,” I told him. “It’s all right. You can go.” (I had read somewhere that you had to free the dying, give them permission. How did I know this? Where had I read it?) “You’ll see Jesus and Joanne. Take their hands. They’ll lead you. Just hold on to their hands. They’ll take you toward a light.” I spoke and stared. Was this really happening? Numb didn’t describe the feelings. Exhaustion didn’t describe it. Hyper sensitive, more reality than reality. That described it. More life in the presence of death than I had ever felt. So intense.

So exhausted. A nurse came in. He needed his dressing changed. I was to wait in the Family Room, a special room reserved for the telling of bad news. Small, cream coloured, it held two ugly love seats and a couple of chairs. How many people had been told in that room, I wondered. What a horrible room. Would they tell me there? I sat and closed my eyes, waited. And then a shocking event. I felt joy. Joy bubbling up from the base of me up through my throat and a picture in my head: My father in his camel coloured sports jacket and that awful pink and blue tie, at Christ Church Cathedral. His hands were raised in the air.

Would he live? Was that the message? What was this? Seconds later the door opened. It was the nurse telling me I could go back.

Back to the room, the death watch. I sat at his side, again holding his hand. The monitors buzzed. I waited in the silence. And then it hit me. He wasn’t there. There was an absence. He was gone. The buzzing monitor said he was alive but I knew he wasn’t. He was empty. I stared. Fear. Discomfort. Then terror.

Outside I found the nurse and told her my suspicion. She wasn’t upset, wasn’t suprised. Simply said I might be right, she’d get the doctor, that the machines kept the body going even after the spirit had left.

I waited. The doctor was called. It was determined. The machine was shut off. And he was dead.

There’s a coldness and an ugliness, an impersonal nature that can’t be disguised in a hospital. It’s a perfect place for the last ugliness of life. I should think of it as a positive, the entrance to the Afterlife. But I don’t.

It’s an ugly sterile, dark, over lit environment. I hated it.

Trump Blanket

Monday December 17 (really Sunday September 16)

This week I bought a weighted blanket. It’s blue and fuzzy and it’s supposed to make your serotonin skyrocket while you sleep. Weighted blankets are also called therapy blankets. They’re used on autistic kids and people with anxiety issues and PTSD. They’re supposed to work.

So far, it makes me fall into a coma and wake up from dreams I can’t remember. Two nights in a row, I dreamed of plastic tubs. Those are the only dreams I recall. A fragment, really. Just the tubs.

In reality, the blanket just reminds me of Donald Trump and this website. I was thinking of it just yesterday. When I started writing these little blobbies, Trump was a name, just a slimy guy from New York whose dumb reality show I had never watched. He creeped me out and I didn’t like him. Then he became a candidate and I liked him less. Then he became President of the United States and I was beyond appalled.

Now he’s just this dull, thudding weight — like a non-therapy blanket. A now-you-need-therapy blanket, to be precise. I didn’t use to follow Twitter. Now it’s the first thing I look at. Is he still president? What did he do now? Who is he making suffer? I read the tweets of Americans daily and absorb their anguish. I live in a country he could care less about, a country he glibly talked about destroying, but I know it’s not my country he’s decimating. It’s his own.

People on twitter use the word “gas lighting” a lot. I don’t know that it’s his gas lighting, his “don’t believe what your eyes and ears tell you”; I think it’s the never ending flow of lies and meanness. Will we ever recover from that? A logical part of me looks at Germany and how that country has systematically ensured it will never make the same mistake again but I can’t know America isn’t fatally corroded. I don’t think anyone can know. We can only feel the weight of the Trump blanket and wait for it to be removed. 

Pinball

Sunday December 16 (really Sunday September 16)

Today is the anniversary of the day my dad died. I think that’s why I can’t get moving. That day was just so fraught, so filled with emotion. This week, too, has been fraught — in a different way, but fraught, all the same.

I learned someone who had been my friend died. I’ve lost three people in the last little while, three people who were important in my life, two who had been in it for decades, one since my birth. But this death was different. It was a person who had been my best friend at one time, a person who detached from me and, in trying to attach to a man she was attracted to, attacked me to get on his good side. (He doesn’t have a good side, but that’s another issue.) When she turned on me, then he attacked in an even more devil may care manner, and then I just left. I was terrified, then depressed, then lost. And I went from situation to situation, a human pinball for whom bad situations became the norm. 

Years later, I ran into her in a parking lot in front of a drug store. She was cheerful and hugged me. I’m sure she forgot all she had instigated. If she ever knew. At the time of the hug, I hated myself for not speaking up. But what could I do? You can’t say to another person, “Do you have any idea what you set in motion?” They don’t and they’ll deny it.

I thought of writing her a letter, telling her what had happened to me — but didn’t. It would have been one of those pointless things: you just make yourself vulnerable … and why? What do you gain?

And now she’s dead. I heard about it from a current friend and read about it on Facebook. Her halo shines bright.

Yet what do you do with the reality you carry? What do you do with the pain you drag along? If you avoid human contact, you can avoid being a pinball. But you can never avoid being a human. 

Boring Old Men

Saturday December 15 (Really Thursday June 21)

It has just occurred to me that I think of all opinionated people as boring old men. They don’t even have to be old men. Some part of my teenage self that was forced to submit to the dictates of B.O.M. is still in there, doing what I always did: listening, shutting up, saying my piece, being pounded with words, waiting to get away.

Today’s Boring Old Man was a young woman who looks to be in her early twenties. She follows me on Twitter and because she has a Danish flag beside her photo, I’ve been trying to ignore where I thought she was going. Today, I found out she lives there. I can’t remember how the conversation began but it was one of those back and forth instantaneous Twitter things. I thought I was communicating with a person but then I suddenly realized she was extolling the virtues of American arrogance. Seriously. That’s what she said. Polite Canadian that I am, I said, “I can’t get past this. Thanks for the discussion.” Exit, stage left.

I don’t think I’ll ever understand people trying to force their will on you. I hated when I was young and I hate it now. I’m sure that’s why I can be so reticent and detached. I really don’t want to infringe; even more so, I don’t want to inflict.

Yesterday, I sat in a park, felt the warm breeze, and read “Authenticity” by David Posen. In the chapter I was reading, he was talking about introverts and extraverts. Most of it I already knew from Susan Cain’s book but one thing absolutely reverberated: Extraverts don’t have a clue they’re exhausting introverts. Introverts are aware of the feelings of passing ants. Extraverts get energy by talking and hashing things through; the figure out how they think by talking. They’re clueless, not evil. So that is how I shall see the Empress of Arrogance from this morning. Clueless, not evil. And young. So very young to be a Boring Old Man.

Parent Words

Friday December 14 (Really Tuesday May 22)

These are the words of the father whose 17 year old son just murdered 10 people: “I saw the child. I didn’t see a child who is a murderer. A pure child, a child who was ashamed to look me in the face. He was thinking of his sisters, how his sisters will be able to get about. He said he loves me. He told his mother he loves her, and he will try to be strong to help us cope.” He said his son told him he had acted on his own and had spared “the kids who were the good kids so they can tell his story.”

I suspect I am supposed to be feeling compassion for him, understanding his confusion, caring that his son was bullied. What I really feel is based on the last sentence. It’s the same sentence the son wrote in the suicide note he left (although he didn’t commit suicide.) He spared “the kids who were the good kids so they can tell his story.” There are two things that repulse me and yet strike me as so normal. The idea that the son’s “story” is the issue, not the fact that he killed ten people. And the fact that the father accepts the son’s belief that the people he killed were the “bad” people, that his son had graciously deferred from killing the “good” people. What kind of thinking is this?

I’ll tell you. It’s parent thinking. We don’t get school shootings in Canada. In fact, there have been a total of five since the year 2000. What we do share with America is the sense of “It’s all about my kid. How are you focussed on my kid? How are you meeting my kid’s needs?” And did I mention “It’s all about my kid.”? This is the most extreme example I’ve seen of it — a man talking about the purity of his son after his son murders ten innocent people — but I’ve seen it over and over in the school system. People who defend their kid when they’ve been bullying or abusing others. People who act as if there are no other people in a class other than their kid. People who have no expectations for their kid, at all. 

According to other news reports, the father of the shooter was a control freak. It will all come out, I suppose. What I see is a man defending a murderer, a man oblivious to the suffering his son has caused. His son is pure. His son is concerned about his mother, his father, his sisters. Tell that to the parents who lost their children. Tell that to the family of the substitute teacher who was killed. Tell them how pure the murderer was. 

Wallpaper

Thursday December 13 (Really Tuesday May 22) 

I’m taking down wallpaper, washing walls, moving furniture, and reading. When I can’t stand the nitpickiness of what I’m doing a second longer, I go to the book. It’s “Late Nights on Air,” by Elizabeth Hay. I don’t know what it is about this woman’s writing. I can’t fathom it. It’s perfect writing. Perfect storytelling.

While I’m reading about Yellowknife in 1975 — which was down the way from Hay River, where I lived in 1972 — I suddenly am struck by a metaphor. It’s a continuation of the thought I had in the morning.

wallpaperWhen I take the layers of wallpaper off, I am going back to the colour I originally put on the walls. I am going back. It’s like not being in the school I taught at, not being around the principal who ignored me or the colleague who refused to look at me. They are wallpaper I can pull off the wall. I can go back to who I was, who I am. 

Who I was in Hay River isn’t much different from who I am now. Younger. Literate. Observant. Conscientious. It’s who I am. 

Being in a school I so profoundly didn’t match is just wallpaper. I can rip it off.