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Archive for the ‘MEMOIR’ Category

Wow! Sixteen months since my last journal entry! Is it possible that some of my readers thought I died? It’s a logical conclusion.

The truth is that health concerns have monopolized my mind and time, and I was loathe to write about it, to give it even one more minute of my attention. Yet, I couldn’t really think about much else. My muse took up residence in a distant corner, put her feet up, pulled her hat down over her eyes and said “Wake me up when life returns to normal.” The truth is, it still hasn’t, and chances are it never completely will. Post heart attack, I am a very different person – but that’s a story for another time.

To bring some closure to the heart attack saga, I have to start by saying it was surreal. Once my pain was under control ( and for those of you who wonder what the pain felt like, the closest thing I can compare it to is the feeling you get if something icy is caught in your esophagus – think brain freeze, but in your chest, arm, neck and jaw), it was largely a matter of being closely monitored and medicated. On my second day, a young cardiologist came to speak to me. Part of me still had trouble believing their diagnosis. I’d been under a lot of stress for months. I’d suffered a personal loss. I had fibromyalgia, which mimicked a lot of other conditions. I’d read about something called Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy, commonly called “broken heart syndrome.” After all, I had gone through some scary episodes of chest pain when my mother dies 17 years earlier, and though a EKG initially indicated a heart attack, there was no indication that my heart had suffered any kind of true “event.”

Couldn’t that be what happened again?

He assured me that wasn’t the case this time. Blood work indicated the presence of enzymes that are a direct result of a heart incident. They were highest when I was admitted, then went down. But I’d had a little chest pain again the day before, and the markers had increased. There was no doubt that I’d suffered an attack. He told me that he wanted to do an angiogram to get to the cause. “That way,” he said, “perhaps we can get you another twenty years.”

It felt like those words were written in the boldest black marker. Twenty years? That was nothing! Twenty years was just yesterday! I wanted more than that ahead of me. I expected more. Until that day, I’d never really thought about my age. But I suddenly realized that from young doctor’s perspective, I WAS OLD. Shouldn’t living another twenty years be enough to satisfy me? Twenty years, as opposed to one or two years. What choice did I have?

They scheduled my angiogram for the next day. It hurt much more than I expected, the chest pain quite similar to my heart attack pain. Apparently that’s not typical. I learned later that the nurses and doctor who were to perform the test made bets between themselves that if I did have any kind of blockage, it would be minor. I seemed “too healthy.”How wrong they were! There, on the screen to the left of me, was proof of my attack, and just how serious it could have been. They explained that I had a 95% blockage in the LAD (left anterior descending artery). It feeds the largest portion of the heart. And because only 5% of people survive it, they have a nickname for it: THE WIDOWMAKER.

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Once again I have been away from the page for much too long. How much time must pass before I can say I’m finished processing all that has happened in the past year, and all that continues to happen now? It still feels surreal.

If I were to carry a tape recorder with me all day long, you would at least know the myriad of thoughts that run through my head. There are so many: all connected in theme, but disjointed in time, in emotion. Often, bad memories make me relive some of the panic I felt then. I am like a person who’s been miraculously transported from one country to another, one culture to another. It is really that foreign, that new. Over and over, the words “what a difference a year makes” play in my head.

People say “everything happens for a reason.” When your life is gaining speed on its downward spiral, their words make you want to scream. They sound far too simple and condescending, and though meant to comfort, they don’t help. But the odd thing is that when you get to the other side, and realize you’ve survived whatever mess you were in, you also recognize that something inside you has changed. And it’s what you do with that change that sometimes gives meaning or purpose to the suffering you endured. You find your “reason.”

That’s where I’m at right now. I feel altered, made stronger by what we’ve been through, yet more vulnerable to the suffering of others. I’ve been on the same playing field and it’s not something I can forget.

I can think of no better way to explain it than to share something that happened just before Christmas. First, allow me give you some of the background details. It involves a man who lives in a nearby low rental apartment. I often see him walking his two dogs. His blonde, straggly hair reaches his waist. He appears to be in his early forties. He has a speech impediment and is very nervous, which can make him seem simple-minded, yet I have seen him riding a bike to MacDonald’s to use their WiFi, an old laptop under his arm. His poverty is obvious. What isn’t obvious is what’s caused it. A neighbour has said that he has had some very “hard luck.”

On a very cold pre-Christmas afternoon, I saw this same man crossing a “big box” store centre’s parking lot on foot, a shopping bag in each hand, and my reaction surprised even me. There are some people who would see such a man and immediately think “he’s a bum, he’s on welfare and spending taxpayers’ money on Christmas gifts.” In the past, I might not have been so harsh, but at the very least, I would have pitied him. It would have saddened me.

But at a time in my life when I’ve just “come through the other side,” I found myself celebrating his strength. How wonderful that despite hardship, this man’s spirit soared and connected him to the most joyous of seasons. It brought tears to my eyes, but they were happy tears. It reminded me that when all is said and done, maintaining your dignity despite life’s trials is probably the biggest achievement of all.

Perhaps it is all transference. Maybe my pride in persevering and my gratitude and euphoria over our fresh start lends a gossamer brilliance to the simplest of situations and circumstances around me. But I will tell you this: there, in that moment, there was no person I respected more than that solitary Christmas shopper trudging through the parking lot.

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I’ve had a difficult time organizing my thoughts and getting them down on paper lately. It’s a problem I really didn’t expect. For the past couple of years, worry over finances and unemployment have dominated my life and sapped any creativity, but I honestly believed the words would just flow once life got easier. And it has. So what’s gone wrong?

The only explanation I can think of is that after feeling detached for so long, I’m transitioned into a phase that is very much the opposite. And it’s overwhelming. It sounds hokey, but everything seems intensified. Colours are brighter, the wind in the trees more soothing. I am mesmerized by the simplest of things, lifted up almost. And somehow, through it all, I find myself tongue-tied, unable to sift through the thousands of thoughts in my head and come up with one cohesive piece of writing.

Hamilton itself is a new experience in every way, more complex than anyhere I’ve ever lived. I never anticipated seeing squalor and hardship juxtaposed by beauty and prosperity. How could I know that a short walk to a wonderful park, the pride of the city, would take me past men and women so obviously sick and in need of help – not homeless, but desperately poor nonetheless? And what of the people who’ve lived here for decades? Have they grown accustomed to the pockets of poverty around them? Is that even possible?

Yes, it is a city of extremes. But the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” seems more due to circumstance than choice. My husband and I have just come through a huge financial upheaval ourselves, but we have renewed hope: a wonderful home, a new job, a true fresh start. It could have been very different. That middle-aged woman I see with the grey unkempt hair, the ratty sweater, the worn pink sweat pants? That could have been me.

Those are the thoughts that spin through my head. It makes me even more aware of our good fortune, but also makes me wonder about the stories of the people I pass each day. They were once precious babies. What could have happened to take them to where they are today? And why them, and not me?

And now I see I have finally written.

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Two weeks ago, our wonderful sons threw us a party. Its purpose was twofold: an official housewarming, and a celebration of our forty years of marriage. Surrounded by family, close friends, and some of our new neighbours, the day couldn’t have been more perfect.

In many ways, it symbolized a turning point for us. For over two years, we’ve been weighed down by sadness and a sense of doom, but on this day, we were ourselves again. Able to laugh. Able to feel joy. And everyone with us felt it too. They’ve worried about us for so long, but finally, they too felt hope.

The day was warm and sunny, ideal weather for entertaining. Our guests spilled over from inside the house to the backyard and front porch. Conversations were loud and peppered with belly laughs. I reminisced with friends from high school – women I hadn’t seen since the last alumni luncheon, nearly ten years ago. Being with them reminded me of who I was at eighteen, and who I still am inside.

My husband felt the same spark. At one point, my youngest son observed “I haven’t seen Dad this happy in a long while.” Later, someone made the same comment about me.

Towards the end of the evening, when most people had already left, we realized that we’d yet to make a toast to our anniversary. It seemed fitting that the ones remaining to share the tradition with us were these same high school friends – women who were there forty-five years ago, when my husband and I first met, who were there on our wedding day. With a finesse that only a veteran bartender can manage, my son cracked open a bottle of champagne and carried eight flutes back into the room. We toasted to love, to friendship, to new beginnings.

Later, when it was just the four of us, we drifted to the front porch of the house. Between the rush of preparation and the excitement of having so many wonderful people in our home, we were all too wired to sleep. For nearly an hour, we shared our feelings about the day.

We realized then that here, on our fortieth aniversary, not one picture had been taken of my husband and me together. Our porch “papparazzi” decided that had to be rectified. It didn’t matter that my make-up had melted hours ago, that my hair was askew, and my husband slightly tipsy. We were happy.

You can tell just by looking at us.

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We’ve now been in our new home for just over three weeks, and what a whirlwind it’s been! It seems that we’ve had barely a moment’s rest! But I’m not complaining . Compared to the sadness of leaving our last home and the limbo existence of the previous ten months, this is exhilarating.

The first five days here were a real challenge. It didn’t take us long to realize that we should have delayed the move by a week or so. First of all, my sister’s wedding was just four days later. There was a bachelorette party on Wednesday, the second day of our move, and a hair appointment for me on Thursday. Both meant a long drive back into the city. Each time, we made the rounds of friends’ homes where my husband still had things stored. Seriously, he could have easily filled a house all on his own, and my son had nearly as much to move. To give you an idea of just how disproportionate my husband’s and son’s possessions were compared to mine, someone said to me on the day of the move, “Are you sure you live here?”

The running around before the wedding wasn’t the only complication of the week. The biggest advantage of relocating later is that we could have cleaned first. I have never seen a house in such need of a good scouring. It had been sadly neglected for a long while – vacant for six months and before then owned by a widower who was in deep mourning over the loss of his wife. The house badly needed to be loved again, and that began with vacuuming and scrubbing things down.

Our furniture is now in place, and except for unopened boxes for the office, we are unpacked. We got a great deal on a used refrigerator that could pass for new. We’ve bought a few curtain rods, but no drapes yet. My husband has started to repair our double hung sash windows – original to the house. They must have ten layers of paint on them. They’re very hard to open and because the sashes are broken, they’re being held open by books. He’s removing all the paint and sanding them down to the original wood before repainting them. We’ve replaced locks on both windows and doors – almost all were faulty. We’ve fixed a leaky sink and replaced faucets, only to see that now, our water pressure in the kitchen is down to a trickle. Somewhere, there’s an obstruction.

The second-to-last owner was a big fan of big pot lights. Our bathroom alone has six of them, in addition to two wall lights. My kitchen has twelve of them, but only half of them work. None have covers, and many have wires hanging out. The wiring in this place is insane. We’re still trying to figure out why the lights on the staircase landing and second floor hallway don’t work. I have to use a flashlight to go up and down the stairs in the evening.

We’ve demolished most of the basement in preparation for new wiring. There is a walled off room that has us curious. Time capsule? Stash of money? Body hidden amidst the brick?

The most exciting work has been the complete transformation of our front and backyards. Okay, I’ll be honest. My job was just to supply food and beverages. My husband and sons did the serious labour. And what a wonderful job they did! Just looking at it makes me smile, and our neighbours are thrilled to see the changes.

The neighbourhood itself is a pleasant surprise. The area we’re in, which is just outside the downtown core, is built on a grid system. Daily walks with the dog are filled with new discoveries: heritage homes, gardens loaded with flowering plants that I’ve never seen before, stately homes that once belonged to the original “movers and shakers” of the city, and still show such pride of ownership. I take a different route almost every day. Cadeau, who’s never really experienced city life, is in paradise. Everywhere you look, people are walking their dogs; Cadeau stops every ten feet to pick up a new scent. Most nights, we head to Gage Park, a huge park just a few minutes’ walk room here. There are trees with trunks ten feet in diameter. There are gardens and a greenhouse, water features and playground equipment, a pink bandshell where summer performances take place and huge fountain that’s now being restored to its former glory.

This city has never had the best reputation. It’s quite solidly blue collar, home to Canada’s steel plants, once employing thousands. The view of the city from the highway is bleak. I used to watch the smoke and flames shooting from the chimney stacks of the refineries, and imagine that the air here must be awful.

The steel industry has had its share of troubles, and many have lost their jobs. The downturn has rippled throughout the city, particularly the downtown core. You can’t miss the businesses that have closed, or the higher than average percentage of poor people who appear malnourished, sometimes with signs of substance abuse problems. But this city seems to have a heart. The downtown core is peppered with services for the poor, the handicapped, the sort of person so easily forgotten and left to live on the streets in bigger cities.

We’ve seen that “heart” in the faces of strangers serving us in stores, and we’ve heard it in the voices of our neighbours. We’ve never felt more welcomed by a community. This is home, and after the difficulties of the past couple of years, this newfound contentment is almost euphoric.

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Shortly after my last entry, my husband and I learned that we were eligible for a mortgage. It would take a leap of faith on the lender’s part and on our own, because we’d have a higher interest rate than people with solid jobs or flourishing businesses, but we couldn’t let the opportunity pass.

Immediately we started to search in a city where house prices are still affordable, and the commute to Toronto and the outlying areas reasonable. Because we were considering homes at the low end of the price scale, we saw some real disasters. Some were so bad that it would be cheaper to tear them down and start over, rather than try to renovate what was already there. We saw homes that looked wonderful online, but those pictures were carefully cropped to miss the dilapidated homes on the rest of the street, or the fifteen story apartment that loomed behind and put the entire house in its shade. There were a lot of estate homes – easily recognizable by the dated decor and overall neglect of an elderly person who doesn’t have the money or energy to redecorate or renovate. We saw one place we loved, only to be told that the corner three hundred metres away served as home base for most of the city’s prostitutes.

One particular older home charmed us, and we considered making an offer. A closer look showed dangerous undermining of the foundation, and other structural time bombs. Another old place was lovely inside, but the floor was so uneven you’d swear you were hung over as you moved from one room to the next. My husband, ever the optimist, believed he could raise the floor himself. He did the research, then we went back for a second look. That’s when he discovered that the supports at one end of the house were rotten, and that without a mega transfusion of cash, the house would eventually crumble.

Across the street and down a bit, we found another home – sturdy, stately, with tons of character and original features. It took just one short visit for us to fall in love with it.

The purchase has moved quickly because the house is vacant. I can’t tell you how excited I am. Over the years, we’ve owned three brand new homes, and another that was only six years old when we bought it. Between homes, we’ve been lucky enough to live with a close friend. Now, after two tumultuous years, we are embarking on an entirely new adventure, something we’ve never considered before: a home that’s over one hundred years old, in the middle of a city we are only beginning to know.

It’s a fresh start for us, and it begins tomorrow. Wish us luck.

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Written the week before we moved away from our home of twenty-four years. I’m so glad that the feelings expressed here are in the past

A Day In July
My mind races to
the mantra of moving.
Sort, purge, pack tight, tape.
Mark books or china,
heavy or fragile
our life boxed away.

A fat black marker,
obliterates the item from my list,
one less thing to do,
one step closer.
The rhythm carries me,
keeps me numb.

Pretend with me.
Let the catch in my voice
go unnoticed,
my emotions contained.
Just one word of kindness
will shatter my resolve.

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