July 08, 2013


Here's the (creative non-fiction) piece that I wrote for the 2013 Canada Writes competition.  It was long-listed, but didn't quite make it to the shortlist.  To make myself feel better, I will repeat the following sentence ad nauseam whenever that negative little voice inside my head pipes up:  "your story was selected from more than several thousand submissions... congratulations on this great achievement".

Some history.  My Dad died on his way to work in May of 1990.  His truck was crushed by a crane that fell off a flatbed; the accident happened about a half kilometre from our house.  It was a shitty day.

Twenty-three years later, I can talk about it without tearing up, but there is part of me that will never recover.  I'm still sad.  I really miss my Dad, especially when Nathaniel tries his hand at fishing or I hear Fleetwood Mac.

Here's my story.


    I yank back on the muck-laden handle, hard and fast, and hear a loud slurp as I expose a gash of wet earth.  My hand rummages in the deep pouch on my right.  When my planting bags are full, it is sometimes difficult to grab just a single seedling.  The rubber gloves I wear to protect my hands from pesticides and pine needles don't help. 
    Got it.  My fingers find a tree and stuff it into the ground, whisking in the roots.  I gently pull up on the tree by its tip until it is perfectly straight.  I stomp once, packing the earth at the base of the tree, chuffing out air. 
    My eyes scan the rough terrain for a decent microsite and seeing one, I lunge to the left.  I screef furiously with my shovel, rapidly clearing away the duff and barky bits.  I drive the shovel into the earth, opening up another pocket of rich soil.  I grab a tree, whisk it in, stomp and move on.  I repeat these movements several thousand times a day. 
    Some days I plant like an automaton.  I thrust my shovel into the ground with all the strength that I can muster.  I'm reckless; I know that if I hit a rock, the reverb will injure my humerus, but I don't care.  The pain is welcome.  I can't stop.  I won't stop.  Poverty is a great motivator for those who are paid by the tree.
    I continue my jagged, freeform bush-dance.  In the distance, in the slash – the coarse, woody detritus of the logging operation - I see a blood-red splotch of cloth weaving back and forth but definitely moving toward me.  It's Greg, my foreman.  I hope he's not coming to bitch at me about my quality.  I had to replant a few days ago because my spacing was off.  You never want to replant; you're not making any money. You plant the tree once, and do it right the first time. 
    He won't meet my eyes. 
    “Hey.  You have to come with me. It's your Dad.” 
    I don't answer.  I am trying to process the information.  It's difficult.  I can feel sweat rolling down my back and into the waistband of my spandex.  Odd to sweat like this, when the rain pours down. 
    It must be his kidney stones.
    I push away other darker thoughts.   
    I focus on Greg's back and follow him to the stash, which is where we bag up.  We walk in silence, listening to the rain patter on the earth. 
    There's not a soul in sight on the barren road.  I grab my pack and climb into the front seat of the truck.  Greg says nothing; his eyes focus on the muddy ruts. The dull landscape is starkly beautiful: the slash a jam of broken wood stacked haphazardly, trees riven to ragged javelins.  We pass a prescribed burn - scorched wood and burnt earth, ash and dust, dots of new growth here and there.  The bits of green look electric in this dead field.   
    I am nauseated. My clothes are stuck to me. I watch the wipers swish back and forth and try not to vomit. 
    Even thought it's the middle of the morning, the bar is dark.  The shades at the windows are drawn and it feels like evening.  It smells like smoke, beer and small town desperation.     
    I'm shown the payphone and Greg plunks in some change.  There's no answer when I call home.  I dial the operator and ask to be connected to the hospital.  I'm shaking.  When I ask to speak to my Dad, I'm transferred three times and I speak to three different people, all of whom put me on hold.   The last nurse I speak with tells me to call home:  “there's been an accident... I'm sorry... ”  Her voice trails. 
    I thought he was still alive.
    When I run out of the bar, into the street, I sound inhuman.  I wail at an incredible volume.  The street is empty save for three Natives, who are walking towards me.  They look worried.  I smack a concrete wall and hurt my hand, and then I cling to a post, sobbing.  The Natives are concerned for my welfare.  The eldest of the three tries to peel me off the signpost and I push her away.  I know that I'm being unkind but I don't care.  I don't want to share my grief.  It's mine; I won't explain.
    After the flight home, I light up a smoke, right in the living room.  I haven't smoked in the house before, in fact, until this moment Joanne doesn't know that I smoke.   Wisely, she says nothing.  We are waiting for my brother to get changed into his new suit so that we can go to the Funeral Home to see my Dad. 
    The funeral director is pale and bespectacled; his hair is weathered teak.  It's plastered to his head with grease.  I want to send him an anonymous letter, tell him to change his hair. 
    He smiles a smile that is reserved for families like us.  He greets us, murmurs apologies and leads us down the hall.  As we're walking, he casually mentions that my Dad doesn't really look like he normally does. 
    We stop.  This is news.
    “His head might look a bit swollen”.  He walks on.  
    He leads us into the room, and I can see the coffin, a body inside.  Is that really my Dad?  As we approach, and I get a better view I am speechless, initially.
    My father's head is indeed swollen; it is gigantic.  It's the size of a medicine ball.  His features have stretched to accommodate his new head and the result is horrific.  He's like a prop from a B movie – waxen and otherworldly - and I can see that the undertaker has used coverup to hide some cuts on one of his hands.  The colour is unnatural; it's a bit on the orange side.  I can't look, but I can't look away.  I have never seen anything so sad, so wrong.      
    What was my grandmother thinking?  And the funeral directors?  Are they completely insane?  How could anyone think that an open casket was a good idea after seeing this head?
    I can't get over the size of it.
    “That's not my father,” I sputter, bolting from the room.
    No one follows me.
    A few weeks after the funeral, I receive a package postmarked from Timmins – it's the last of my things from up north - my tent, a sleeping bag and some clothing.  There's an envelope addressed to me and the handwriting is my Dad's.  I open it tentatively.  Inside is a phone bill, and a letter from the university.  Attached to it is a sticky note with the words “Luv ya!” scrawled across it.  I wonder if he would have said more had he known that he wouldn't be here a few days later. 
    My heart breaks, again. 

    This morning, I wake up to the sound of a chainsaw roaring.  I throw off the bedclothes and peer into the yard.  I see two workmen in hardhats.  One of the men is using a sawzall and the other  holds a massive chainsaw.  There is a truck with a wood chipper parked on the road beside the grass. 
    I grab clothes, run outside. 
    I'm heaving; I can't breathe.  My body is on fire and then I'm sobbing, bent over in pain.
    They look at me, stunned.  One of them approaches me.  He considers my appearance, my behaviour. 
    He gestures at an erratic crack down one side of the trunk. 
    “It won't live.  It's damaged.”            
    Lightening struck the tree two summers ago.  It's a Blue Spruce.  My Dad staked it and we hoped for the best.  It is our favourite tree. The one that he adorns with lights at Christmastime.  
    Today, they are chopping it down. 
    He's not here to see it.  We buried him three weeks ago.
    I can't watch.

    I return to the bush the following year, thinner and hard-hearted.  I listen to a lot of Ella and Louis.  It's hardly planting music, but it calms me.  I'm numb but the smell of the earth is rich and I inhale it deeply. It is springtime and things are waking up. 

July 03, 2013

Chantez, Chantez, Sing a Little Paris Song!

A little more than a year ago, I got suckered into giving someone my contact information in exchange for this:

Yes friends, I gave out my personal info for a lipstick.  I come cheap, I guess; pathetic, I know.  And the lipstick was a horrible orange colour that did not suit my skintone. Damn my swag-loving self.

Several weeks ago, I received a telephone call from Nacel Canada, the very organization that had handed out the free lipstick.  They wondered whether I was still interested in participating in the homeschooling program.


I was a little taken aback, as I had completely forgotten about the program and the reason I received a crappy lipstick for free; however, I am always up for a challenge (and fodder for my blog!) and so I said that I would do it.  July 2013 was too soon (hernia surgery for yours truly) and so I suggested that we would give it the old college try in August.  I hung up the phone, not really expecting to hear from them again any time soon.

the manual

Flash-forward a few weeks.

Nacel called again two days ago and this time they seemed somewhat desperate.  They had a French student, whom I'll call C, 17 years of age, who had previously been placed with a family of smokers (who only smoked outside, apparently).  The young lady's parents did not approve, especially because their daughter has exercise-induced asthma.  The smokers were almost immediately rejected by the family and the jeune fille was placed in another home.  A week or so later, the new hostess decided that she didn't really want to participate in the program and so the young lady was again homeless.  Was there any way that we could accommodate the student?

Well of course we could!

We received the young lady's profile, which I am NOT going to post publicly (I do have some scruples!).  G, the chatty and huggy coordinator, visited us the same day that we spoke on the phone and did a house visit / interview.  She asked us a few questions (do you smoke?), inspected the room that was to be the student's, took some pictures of our house, admired our art (she's an art lover too!), and explained the program to us.  She was here for about an hour.  She thought that we would be fine candidates because we are both home all day - RB's a teacher and I am a SAHM / librarian.  She approved us on the spot - to my surprise! - and that was that.  I would like to point out that the approval process seems somewhat laissez-faire, which is RIGHT up my alley.  G did not ask us for a police check (seriously!).  In fact, I brought it up:  "What about police checks?"

G was nonfazed:  "I administer quite a few of these programs and Nacel is the only one that does not require a police check".

I was nonplussed.  In this day and age of the moral majority's complete fear and loathing of strangers (I blame the media), there still exists an international program that does not require participants to have police checks? What is this world coming to, I ask you?  RB and I have current police checks as he is a teacher and I am a professional volunteer.  We are good people (most of the time, well, excepting my recent interactions with a psychotic neighbour in which I attempted to drive him insane).

Yes, you read it right.  NO POLICE CHECKS NEEDED.  I personally don't feel that it's a big deal, in fact I kind of like it; however, I do find it to be strange.  I would NEVER send a 17-year old Gwen to a strange family's home without a proper background check.  Well, I say that now, but is she only 7 and still very much my baby. Call me hypervigilant when it comes to my own children, but a total hippie otherwise.

Here's a brief summary of the program:

  • C arrives.  We speak English only.  NO FRENCH! As if.  I am totally going to speak a little bit of Franglais just to make C laugh
  • C hangs with us every hour of every day.  Yes, this part is true. Nacel's curfew is 7pm if C is out in the evening without us (begs to be broken!).  Also funny, Nacel does not want the students mixing with others in the program.  More on that later.
  • There is a homeschooling program, but it seems very loosey-goosey.  The point of the program is to "offer students an opportunity to learn English in a family setting... improving language skills and Canadian cultural understanding".  Basically, there is a lot of chatting involved and you all know that I love to chitchat. Sample lessons include playing 20 questions (as a family, we are obsessed with this game) and giving each other compliments:  Why Christine, that shade of lipstick is so becoming on you.  
  • We have a one page "check-in chart" to fill out to prove that we have done some homeschoolin': "PLEASE NOTE:  'CHECK-IN CHART' IS YOUR ONLY PROOF OF DELIVERY OF PROGRAM, BY YOU TO STUDENT".  Awesome, this program rocks!  I love it already.  Check this out. Looks tough, dudnit?
This is my kind of form!

Last night, we received an email from C, asking us for a family photo. Why yes, I would be happy to send you our picture.  This is what I sent:



...............................  wait for it...




How funny is that? Yes, I am a sick individual.

In my defence, I only made her suffer for about 5 minutes and then I sent her not one, but two photos of us, in which we look moderately appealing:

Lord Roberts Funfair photo booth

Christmas 2012 - fancy schmancy!

And so it's 8am-ish on Wednesday and we are awaiting C's arrival (tomorrow evening at 11-ish at the Costco parking lot).  I will post again in a week or so.

It's Thursday at 11:51pm.  We were supposed to have picked up C at 11pm.  There's been a three hour delay, dammit. The plane has been delayed and it sucks.  RB is sleeping and I'm burning the midnight oil by reading Shogun.  Someone was just boiled alive in a pot of water.  Why do I do this to myself?  Why why why?

ClĂ©mence arrived at 2:35am.  She was as happy, friendly and smiley as someone who has spent the entire day traveling can be.

Updates to come.


Part 2 - click here!

July 01, 2013

The Hernia Hotel - Part III - Hasta la Vista, Baby!

And I walked

"A lack of exercise, extended sitting and bedrest will lengthen post-operative stiffness and discomfort," warns the Shouldice brochure.

And so, for the remainder of my stay at the HH, I walked.  Rain and mugginess be damned, I walked.  I roamed the halls of the clinic and every foot of the grounds. I peered in the pond down the road, explored the trails adjacent to the hospital and even tried to check out the golf course (I failed; I didn't want to climb through a hole in the fence).  I inspected every plant in the gardens, shuffled along the tree line and tried to walk my pain away, which wasn't too bad, all things considered.  I loved the walking.  What else did I have to do between mealtimes?

On one of my walks, I found myself swooning over the most heavenly and delicate scent.  It was this:

Japanese Tree Lilac - Syringa reticulata
I will be acquiring one of these trees for my yard.  The scent was completely delicious.  COMPLETELY.  If someone could bottle this exact scent, I would wear it as perfume for the rest of my life.  Dave at the Gardening Guru writes that "if you are adventurous [I most definitely am!], it [the tree] can be propagated by cuttings or by seed".  Funny how I had never noticed these trees before; on my walk to the grocery a few days ago, I realized that there is one on Elmwood!

Sunday, post-operative day 2

Clips out at 8:30am by the Stapler, with rapidfire precision.  No discomfort.  I initially worried that the incision might open when I laughed, which I do a lot, but Ratchet told me that the wound has three layers of protection -- dissolving stitches, catgut and wire sutures that hold the mesh in place.  I hope I have that right.  From Encyclopedia Brittanica - yes, I still love my encyclopediae - is a definition of catgut:  "tough cord made from the intestines of certain animals, particularly sheep, and used for surgical ligatures and sutures, for the strings of violins and related instruments, and for the strings of tennis rackets and archery bows. The ancient Egyptians and Babylonians and the later Greeks and Romans used the intestines of herbivorous animals for much the same purposes. The origin of the term catgut is obscure; it is not known if the intestines of cats were ever put to such uses".

My incision looked a bit scary.  I just measured it now and it's 3 and a quarter inches in length and runs down my right groin at a 35 degree angle.  On day 2, it was puffy and angry with lots of yellow and purplish bruising.  If it could talk, it would not have been a polite conversationalist.  The nurse said that it looked "pretty good", but I bet she says that to all the patients.  I would love to post a photo for all you fine folks, but you'll just have to use your imagination.  Today, one week post surgery, the bruising is almost gone, the wound is still on the swollen side but the incision is healing nicely.  It does feel numb when I touch it, which is a bit of an unsettling sensation. I am looking forward to a bath soon!

On the advice of Ratchet, I booked a massage with the RMT.  Sunday after lunch was the appointed hour.  At the risk of sounding negative, P's diatribe on children in daycare and her inability to zip that lip were unappreciated.  I mean, I am aware that I talk a lot, but I usually know when to shut up.

The 30 minutes of lymph node drainage and the ensuing "massage" down the front of my sternum, in which I thought my ziphoid process was being crushed, were both unpleasant and unnecessary. The "feathery" strokes around my incision were also puzzling; however, P redeemed herself with fifteen minutes of Swedish on my neck and shoulders at the end of our 45 min time slot.  I would not recommend the first part of the massage at all, but I do recommend P for the Swedish - she had very strong hands and her touch was formidable.  Just so you know, if you go for a 30 minute massage, you will not receive any Swedish; you need to book her for 45 minutes for that.  Book the Swedish only  - don't bother with the lymphatic baloney.

A lot of herniacs departed on Sunday.  I am sure that they had their real lives to get back to.  The surgeons recommended that we stay until Monday morning; obviously, I didn't leave early as I was on vacation.  As a sahm with a 7 and 9 yr old, I don't take enough time for myself (my fault entirely).  That is about to change.  Well probably not, but you know what I mean.  I loved my Shouldice stay.  I really did.  No cooking, cleaning, fighting, laundry and other forms of drudgery.  Just reading, writing, relaxation, gentle exercise, lots of laughter and good conversation and I EVEN GOT TO PLAY SCRABBLE, not once, but twice!  I also played snooker for the first time in about twenty years. 

My last night at the clinic was both fun and frustrating.  I saw a super moon, walked and laughed a lot and behaved badly - kidding!  Well, I'm not really kidding, the bad behaviour occurred when I tried to go to sleep and could not.  My roommate's snores rivalled a bullhorn and it made me completely CRAZY as I could not sleep at all.  I didn't have earplugs and the blanket over my head trick didn't work either. I tried making a lot of noise myself so as to awaken Snoring Beauty but this was also futile.  I briefly considered throwing projectiles at the dead weight in the bed next to me, but I couldn't do it.  I went to the nurses's station at twenty to 2 and begged for a sleeping pill and they wouldn't give me one because it was too late.  Horror!  The kind nurse took pity on me and offered me a bed directly beside the nurses station.  I finally fell asleep at around 2:30, but it was fitful.  I blame the super moon for everything that happened that evening -- the good and the bad.

Oh and I should also mention that there was a fire alarm the same night.  It wouldn't shut up; it drove me bonkers... I had to leave the building until it stopped (and I was in the middle of a game of Scrabble!)  The staff kept announcing on the p.a. that it was a false alarm but the ringing didn't cease until the fire department arrived.  To add insult to injury, the wretched air-con broke and didn't get fixed until the following day.

Day of Departure

The final checkup with a surgeon was at 9-ish.  I thought I would be seeing my surgeon - the wacky Dr. S - and it was with some disappointment that I greeted an unfamiliar face.  He whooshed in, said hi, told us to lie on the beds and pointed to me and said: "you listen to this too" (nothing if not efficient, I guess he doesn't like repeating himself).  He spoke VERY BRIEFLY on wound care, he checked our incisions and then he bolted to the next room.  Whoa!  These Doctors are FAST.  I didn't have any issues with this, but I am betting that there are some patients who had a lot of questions and wanted just a little bit more "care".

My mil came to pick me up around 9ish.  I visited the souvenir "shop" and bought a hat ($11) and a mug ($5).  I love me some kitsch.

And that my friends, is the end of my tale.

Today, it is ten days post-surgery and I am feeling FINE! I cooked a real dinner last night (oven roasted chicken, mashed potatoes and tomato and basil salad with balsamic vinaigrette - 9 out of 10 ;-) . I am no longer hobbling in pain; things are good.

Before I leave you, I want to write a couple of recommendations / areas in which the hospital could improve:

  • food - more fresh fruit and vegetables needed.  Some of the men also complained that portions were small.  
  • gift cabinet - is not open on Sunday.  A lot of people left early and many of them weren't happy that they couldn't purchase souvenirs.  I'm serious!
  • you should visit with your surgeon on the last day, not some nameless stranger.  I really thought that I would get a chance to talk to my surgeon.  I guess he was too busy operating on someone else.
My overall impression with the hospital is that it is a superb place to have one's hernia repaired.  I found the staff to be extremely helpful and happy; they did everything they could to make things the best that they could be.  The care I received was excellent; my only criticisms are above.  If you have a hernia, get thee to the Shouldice!!!

Leaving you with some fromage; I love this song.  Reminds me of my Grade 8 teacher - Ms. Pelletier - and "Beast" (her guitar).

Here's the official Shouldice website:  Shouldice


Okay, I'm still not done.  On a completely unrelated note, I received this letter in the mail on the Thursday that I arrived at Shouldice:

I AM SO PROUD!!!!!!!


I was just reading something on the Canada Writes website and they are trying to torture me:

Can you describe a couple of the entries that struck you as standouts?

I was drawn to three particular reflections about loss (or impending loss) not only because of the powerful emotions they invoked but also because of the insight they shared.

“Angus Gregor” is a mother’s heartbreaking account of her baby’s birth that starkly contrasts all normal expectations.

“Regrowth” relates the lingering effects of a father’s death. [this is my story!!!!]

The author of “Szeretlek” ponders multi-generational legacies over a lunch-hour visit with an ailing grandparent.