Thursday, May 29, 2014

They Clap At Funerals Now

His face is waxy now. Pulled into shapes and lines with the help of some formaldehyde and no blood. None at all.

His buddy sits along the wall, legs splayed to make room for his belly, face the color of forgotten ashes, eyes layered in heavy bags.

Mom is wearing her Sunday shoes, her tiny body perched on little black heels, legs bowing more like grandma's now.

Dad, in his necktie and sweater (did he remember how to tie it? Does mom know how to knot a tie? How does he manage to get out of the bathtub?! Whats that new sore on his head?), he doesn't seem to bear the weight of losing his last brother. His younger brother. Dad is wondering- Am I 82? or 90? and- who will cut the grass? and- when will I get better?

My sisters and I sit in a row, flanked by cousins and remaining elders. Auntie Tina is the baby. When she takes to the podium and looks at her big brother, lying there cold and unfeeling, she is fond and reflective. Not resentful for being called a baby after all these years. It's just her and dad now- the oldest and the youngest. I can't help but put myself in her shoes and imagine losing all my siblings except my big brother Al. And I wonder why my dad isn't weeping until I remember that he can't remember- how old am I? and who will cut the grass?

My cousin wants to talk to me. But I want to stare at Uncle George's face. I want to ponder the death in it where his life used to be. I want to study the puffed up white satin his head rests on now, his suit, his bald head, the reconstructed lines where his laugh lines should be. My cousin grins at me, asks about the kids, and because we may only see one another annually, I recite their ages- almost 20, 18, 16, and 11. It astounds me to hear this, myself. I remember that he has grandchildren, and politely return the niceties. 5 and 7 now, you say? Wow- where does the time go.

Mrs Funk a few rows over is sitting with her old new husband. Her first one died, and she found this one, still breathing. What do they do, old, and adjoining their lives? Do they make love? Lay together, vulnerable, sharing their losses in the warmth of each other's rise and fall? Do they merge their bank accounts, introduce their children, go to seniors lunch on Tuesdays? (mashed potatoes, ham, and apple sauce. Rhubarb crisp, for dessert.)

Their kids, no longer kids, are going through divorces. They had kids, or didn't have kids, moved across town, or across the ocean, and my cousin sighs, leaning closer- it's not what we'd planned.... divorce, and living common-law...

Life hands us surprises, I say. We don't know until we're someplace else than we thought we'd be, that this might be the way it is, the way it might be. But we find our feet again, and walk on that new ground.

I think again of my children. The way I thought it would be, the way I thought that we would be. In my mind I kiss the backs of their hands, rub their scars, rearrange again the pictures in my head, making room for the surprises.

I look again at Uncle George, hands layered across his best suit. I wonder what he dreamed of for his kids. I wonder if he did.

Some cousins (from the other side), rise to the podium, talk about their uncle. Say strange, disjointed things, pretend to be funny. People clap. I don't want them to clap and I dig my nails into my forearms to ground myself from running outside for coffee.... air...grace.... room for questions without answers. And once they start clapping, they're committed- obligated to clap for each attempt at giving homage to George. And so every few minutes, a weak pattering of colliding old hands, making noise for the living and for the dead.

Today I want to be quiet. I want to watch and I want to listen. I want to stare at his dead face and be introspective about living, or not living, and what does that mean. I want to think about meaning and significance without the pastor going on about meeting at some river- if (he points out) we were lucky enough to say all the right words to get what we don't deserve that has nothing to do with us and our choices, except for those words we had better have once said. I want some space to study George's ear- the one with a piece missing from it. A dog, from what I remember. I want to see if his eyelashes ever grew back after that stroke that rendered his entire body smooth as a sandy beach. (or was it a heart attack?) And I become afraid of what I will forget my daddy has told me about his own scars and the bolts that hold his leg together.

When I have the chance, I put my hand on the cousin whose father lays there, and I say- I've had such thoughts for you. So many thoughts. And she says- It's been too much. But isn't life that way? Isn't so much of life too much?

And I have to walk away. Nodding and sniffing and nodding some more. Yes. Yes, it is.

Over to my mother, toddling on her Sunday shoes- I have to sit down, she says. Can't stand around in these. Dad is tired too, and he has already forgotten what auntie Tina said about it just being the two of them now. The eldest, and the baby. Tomorrow they will stand together in the hot spring that finally followed the impossibly long winter, and they will watch their brother being lowered into the ground. I don't suppose they make much room for introspection any more? To wonder whether they are living their lives to the fullest, to evaluate how they spend their weekends, their money, their moments?

I need to gaze my full of uncle George today. Tomorrow I can't get away- too many tiny little fledgeling lives will fill my house and yard. They'll be pooping their pants and eating their snot and throwing tantrums when I don't let them run out to play in the street. They haven't started wondering yet, either. No vexing questions about meaning, or significance. But I am vexing as I look at George. And I am wondering.

And there's not much time. I need to get home- make sure Sam practised his piano, that his swim trunks made it into the laundry, plan a lunch for tomorrow, put the dishes back into the dishwasher. There's laundry from two days ago still on the couch, needing to get folded before the dog pees on them, and the lawn sure has a lot of dry patches this year. Quack grass- what long roots! and I wish I knew who borrowed our extension ladder, there are tiny saplings growing in the eavestroughs. The raspberries should get transplanted before that fence goes in, and I wonder if Brian would agree to installing a slide off the back deck? The van is sounding funky, there's an oil leak, and the odometer shows a zillion miles. I must register Micah for drivers ed! and Jane needs that dental surgery. Why does Sam get so distracted, and who can I find to teach piano next year? There are grad decorations to assemble and the grass to mow. The router is acting up and the car is dirty. Brian might be teaching a different grade in fall, and I will have two baby boys to get used to kissing. The stairs haven't been swept in weeks! and the rhubarb should be picked. I should bring some to mom, who will be moving more slowly than she did last year, and helping dad a lot more than she used to.

They might be sitting in the shade of the yard, waiting for me to come and cut the grass.

Dad will ask me again- how old am I? And what grades are the kids in now? I will rub dad's head and kiss the top of it. My tiny birdy mama will take my bacon fat and turn it into snowy homemade soap, or maybe some rhubarb pie that tastes faintly of maple bacon. She will laugh at my jokes, at least the ones her ears will let her hear, and we will wander out to the garden to admire the baby plants, after this long winter. She'll tell me there no bunnies this year and that Walter brought her some compost, Al tilled it in. That the raspberries are coming in nicely and the peony will bloom again.

I will study them and try to memorize their eyes and smiles. I will drink in their grace and their gratitude. I take in their laugh lines, still soft and fluid.

As I vex and ponder my own.


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Our Girls

The first time I was pregnant, I knew that he was a boy named Graham. Hoping for a girl was just too much, I wanted a daughter so desperately. I couldn't bear the thought of never having a daughter, and so I made myself okay with it by falling in love with my son, Graham, before I ever met him. I read and reread all the pages in "What To Expect When You're Expecting". I studied the illustrations of my tiny son's developing body. I imagined his wee fingers, his eyes developing, his body changing from a blobby fishy thing into a human with limbs, a mind, a soul, a future.

Baby Graham just didn't want to be born. He was due at the end of June, but the calendar flipped to July, and there was just no sign of his arrival. After waiting two weeks and seeing no dilation, no mucous plug, none of the signs that I'd memorized from my well worn book, my Dr suggested an induction. I was anxious to meet my boy, and weary of hauling him around, and relieved at the thought of getting on with the work of mothering. At the hospital, they hooked me up to "the drip" and I lay in my bed, bored to tears as the hours ticked on and on and I still felt nothing. Nothing at all but frustration. After an evening, and a long night of drip, drip, dripping, the Doc came in and said- you're really not getting anywhere. Maybe just go home and let us know if there is any change.

It's not at all what I had planned. Not at all. I was filled with a restless kind of anxiety- I'd gone into the hospital to meet my son. And here I was, two weeks and a day overdue, and left again with waiting. We were living in an arty apartment at the time, with no television, no diversions aside from books, a few windows, and a hyper awareness of every tiny sensation in my bloated body. Not that there were really any to speak of. Overwhelmed and hopped up at the idea of sitting around endlessly, I suggested that we drive out to the Winnipeg Folk Festival. A diversion. Time with friends. Lots of walking, fresh air.

So we drove the 2.5 hours and sat in the grass with friends, listening to bands, and taking in the sights and smells. Gradually as the day progressed, I started to feel things. Little tightenings. My friends were alarmed and a little aghast that I would be so far from my Dr and my hospital when I was clearly in labour. But I knew little Graham, and I knew he was not to be hurried. So we spent the entire day, and then drove to my sisters' to spend the night. I didn't sleep much. My body was tightening and cramping and sleep came in little breaks between the pains. At 5:00 AM, I woke Brian and said we really needed to head home. He was so tired, and I was so tired, and the drive home would never make it into a Perfect Marriage book.

But it wasn't nearly over. Not nearly. That little fella that I had visualized and craved to meet and hold was stubborn as hell. Not going anywhere. But after another day and another night and part of another day, that crazy little baby was finally evicted.

And he was a she. A little girl. My daughter.

My heart broke that day, and by broke, I mean that a little piece of my heart, like Adam's rib, somehow morphed into its own little person. Another set of legs and arms and inside and outside parts that would learn to walk and would fall and would get hurt. A piece of my heart that would be walking around out there, that I would try with all my being to protect, to love, to do my best by.

And life would be even kinder to me and give me not one daughter, but two. My daughters, and, then my sons, have been the greatest gift that life could possibly give me. The toughest, most rewarding, most confusing, question-asking endeavor I've ever taken on in my life.

A few weeks ago, CBC aired a story about nearly 300 schoolchildren, girls, taken from their dormitory in the dead and confusion of the night. Girls who were some mama's daughters. Girls whose mothers had made sure that they would be educated. Maybe made some significant sacrifices in the hopes of their daughters futures.

As a mom, my heart felt ripped up. Ripped up and horrified, even just trying to imagine what the girls were going through in the hands of their captors. Ripped up and horrified, imagining being the mother of a girl, just an exam or two away from graduation, just like my own daughter. But whose daughter had vanished in the night and was likely being assaulted, mistreated, scared, cold, hungry. Living day and night with the mental anguish of imagining what sort of hell her daughter is living in.

I felt pretty frustrated, and wishing there was something that I could do. Some way of letting the moms know that I was hurting for them. Or a way for my daughters to know what incredible freedom and oppurtunity they have the privilege of taking for granted in their country, in their family, their neighborhood. The very least I could do was to show up at the Legislative grounds in red, sing along with the Nigerians- Bring back our girls!, march around a little bit, feel some soliarity, wish for a better world.

I ran into fellow blogger Heather Plett at that rally. She was there with her own daughter, wishing for the same things. Some time later, Heather sent an e-mail to women on her contact list. Part of her message read as follows:

"I may not have the power to #bringbackourgirls, but I have the power to #educatemoregirls.

That may be the best response to the tragedy in Nigeria. Keep educating girls. Keep telling the terrorists they can't win. Keep believing that love wins.

Here's what I'm doing… I'm helping to build a school in Uganda - a place that's known the kind of terror that these young women have gone through.

And I have to agree, that this is an excellent response. I like the response of LOVE WINNING. I want to put my money where my mouth is. Bleeding heart and anxiety are fine and good, but unless someone cares a whole lot, not a whole lot is really going to happen.

My bags4darfur project has been "on furlough" this year, in hopes of rekindling some energy, some passion, some clarity of vision. But still, it has generated a little bit of revenue. People show up, look through my stock, walk away with a bag or two and leave some money that I then donate to a worthy cause. In light of the missing 274 Nigerian school girls, I am putting my $350.oo towards educating some more girls through an organization called Uganda Kitgum School Foundation. I'd do it for my daughters, and I'd like to think I'd do it for yours.

Would you consider helping to build a school in Northern Uganda? It doesn't have to be a lot. It's just a way of saying- we're in this together, and love wins.

It's a way of continuing the chant- Bring back our girls!

Sunday, May 11, 2014


Last Sunday, I went to church in my pajamas and moccassins, hair rumpled, hot coffee and buttered bread in hand. The doves were mourning, calling out to each other- I know... I know.... ooooh, oooh, I know. I know. The ground was thawing, daffodils trying to be reborn. Chickadees called across the roof tops, tree to tree as I broke bread, raised my glass, and pondered the wonders of resurrection.

This Sunday, I dressed in red.

It was an outdoor service, on the grounds of the Winnipeg Legislative grounds.


We sang- "Soli, soli, Solidarity", standing shoulder to shoulder in red, some holding plackards reading; "Bring Back Our Girls!"

I noted a red sign that listed the names of all the girls who had been taken. Girls who had mothers, this Mother's Day. Girls who were somebody's babies.

There were prayers. Prayers to Jesus, prayers to Allah.

We were all asking for the same thing- rescue. Peace, reunions with mothers, protection.

It was impossible to hold back the tears.

We mothers stood together with the fathers, the sisters, the brothers, the uncles, the aunties. Our voices joined together- bring back our girls! as I tried to imagine being that mom. The one who must agonize over her daughter now in sexual slavery, just for pursuing her education, her right to learn.

And it wasn't about Islam, or Christianity, or just Nigeria. We stood all together for our girls, regardless of where they are born, or what faith they are born into. No one should suffer for their desire for education. No one should be stolen in the dead of the night, taken from their families, taken from a life of choice and purpose.

I like to think it was hope that brought us together. Hope for the girls, hope for peace, hope for living in unity, in spite of our diversity.

I don't know where I will do church next Sunday. I may mourn with the doves. I may hold a sign with strangers. I may read Nadia Boltz-Weber or Rachel Held Evans, or Glennon Doyle. I may do none of those things. But my hope is- to seek justice. To love mercy. And to walk humbly with my God.

I'm still learning what that looks like.



Friday, May 02, 2014

A Different Kind of Friday

On Fridays, Brian comes home laden down with bags of chips and coke, some slanty drinks, maybe a frozen pizza or two to indicate good intent. He is done work, and pours himself a martini, while I hustle around finishing my day, wiping surfaces, putting away evidence of Monday to Friday. Our (big) kids filter down to the kitchen, rip open bags of ketchup chips, crack open a root beer, lick the salt and vinegar off their fingertips. Last baby gone with their mama, I shout my commands- "Make me the best gin and tonic you've ever laid your magic hands on!" and he sets to work. He is a master, and soon I'm craving celebratory music. We crank the tunes until the wall vibrates and Micah complains he can't hear his computer game. If the blender is working particularly well that night, we start to dance and the kids roll their eyes and call their friends to Please! come and get me!

But Brian isn't coming home today. He left me for two men and someone named Jesse Cook in Minneapolis who apparently sings better than I do.

I recall the years I didn't need him. I summon them.

After work I take my own self to Bigway. I know where they keep the chips. And since they got fancy and broke away from East Village, there's a liquor aisle too- I didn't spend Friday afternoon quiet time pinning recipes for new gin drinks for nothing. Out in public for the first time in days, I'm suddenly aware of my self. Rumpled hand me down crop pants that looked cute on my daughter. Hairy legs poking out- forgotten since that "Heaven is Real" experience in Mexico weeks and weeks and weeks ago. And weeks. A big wool sweater thrown over a cardigan that fit me well ten years ago, thrown over a cami with a "built in bra" (WHO do they make these for?? Eleven year old boys?)

Mocassin shoes. No socks.

Put my head down, hustle to the liquor aisle. Be grateful everyone's given up on me by now anyway.

And dang. I need him. I've been known to phone Brian from the liquor store- "Brian? Do I like chardonnay? (No.) Do I like pinot grigio? (yes). Do I like Sauvignon Blanc? (yes).

But tonight he is out of range. I'm looking at flavored vodkas (i dunno... too sweet?), strongbow (I dunno... bored of that?), champagne....( but alone? That's completely pathetic?) and I'll never know because I've lost my phone a friend option. I know I've spent a really long time wandering up the two aisles in town and I'm getting paranoid- I look like I'm a beverage virgin, right? And the store is about to call the brotherhood to come and haul me away? So, although I don't know at all, and I forgot all my recipes at home, I pretend to know that I want berry flavored vodka. And four Mike's hard, Mango.

Two bags of chips and a box of frozen chicken bits later, and I'm on my way.

The house sure is quiet when I reenter. No dance tunes. No chip munching. Just a wee little note from my Sam- "gone to Aaron's. Sam." And my weird little heart breaks a little. My friend Karla thinks that Sam is perpetually three years old, the age he was when she first met him. And I guess in ways, I do too. How could I come home from the store, lovingly prepared frozen chicken in hand, and find that he's gone. Big enough, strong enough... and goodness. It stops me short.

It's just me and Micah now. Brian has left us for some guy named Jesse. Arianna went and grew up, moved off to "the village" and sends texts that make me love her like a friend. Jane is off to work, saving up for her own adventures. And Sam. Even Sam.

So I make some chicken for Micah and we crack open the salt and vinegar. He tells me what he's playing and I pretend to understand, grateful he tells me at all.

But its quiet after he says; "thanks" and retreats to his online adventures. Not so easily daunted, I remember Songza, which I had deleted from my phone to make more room for photos and pinterest. I love music as much as I love wine, but please don't ask me what I like. I'd have to phone Brian, and we all know he's not available.

Clearly, I don't know what to choose on Songza, and after trying, "Putting on your Party Dress" (nope), "Brand New Music" (nope), and "Drinking at a Bar" (definitely not), I find myself settling at "Today's Happy Pop". I suspect this may not be a good thing but there's just no way of knowing, until MIcah walks through and says- "One Direction?" and I say, humbly- "I have no idea."

I'm just relieved he didn't catch me at the stereo moments earlier, trying to figure out how Brian magically makes his phone play tunes through the speakers on Friday nights. I got so far that I knew what end of which cord to put into the phone and could faintly hear the songs trapped somewhere inside the stereo system, but there's no button I could discover to release the tension. Never mind that, the phone is losing battery power and that's just too many cords and options to think about for one night. Alone.

I refuse to think its a coincidence that at 8:20, just when I'm thinking; "I wonder when a responsible parent would pick up an eleven year old boy?" the song "Happy" by Pharrell comes up on Songza, immediately followed by "Thrift Shop".

It has been strange, this Friday, but happy. And if after I get Sam at 9:00 PM, I might just crawl into my big old (double mattress... same one for 22 years now... Is that illegal?) bed all by myself, with Miriam Toews' latest book "All My Puny Sorrows", No one will mind me keeping my lamp on past 10:10 (ha! Brian! I rebel at your need for the dark!). By 10:15 I will be fast asleep.

Plenty of rest to ready myself for a wee morning road trip- turns out I put a winning bid on an ancient sewing machine in a thrift shop on the Darp Side.

So raise your glass with me to Jesse Cook, to man road trips, to kids growing up, to small town life.

Even to dancing, all by yourself, to your phone.

On a different kind of Friday.