My name is Travis Niskigwun. I belong in the north - on the shore of Lake Superior and in the Shield beyond. I belong where lakes are still the eyes of the earth, and where the shadows of invisible beings move on the snow in the moonlight. I belong where there are bears and spirits still...This story comes out of the Lake and returns again. It’s many stories. It has many beginnings as the Lake.” (pg 5 in Wayland Drew’s “Halfway Man”)
My story comes out of the ocean and returns again. Its many stories. I’ve always loved standing beside the shoreline, wind harsh. Flapping everything, my hair, and jacket billowing. Blue-grey waves unrelenting - meshing life’s power and fragility into a rhythmic motion - tracing the sand with froth in its wake.
This is where my heart feels most held. Standing on the edge; life open and mysterious as it circles forward. Salt in my hair. Sand on my toes. The cold. The foam, the waves, the ripples and the gurgles. “Look at the sunset,” Grandma used to say when we leaned against the railing on the deck, “Look at how the sun always sinks into the sea and rises again each morning”. Her fingertips echoed strength. Her grasp was firm; I could feel her love in the folds of my sweater.
I hadn’t seen the ocean since before Aaron died. Barefoot in the moonlight – toes numb and tingly from the water – I dip my hand to taste the salt. This shoreline hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be free. Here, I come to know that the circle always ends where it began:
“A Search… for something seemingly more beautiful and expansive than the endless wells of grief and the day to day mundane. Something to allow the heart wrenching nature of loss to make sense to a child who didn’t yet understand that sadness is just part of the equation of love”.
The ocean, the "something". Beautiful in a different way: life giving, nourishing, and ferocious. Turning towards the water, where all life comes from. Bare toes in the sand, and surrounded by bright moonlight suspended in the blackened sky. Same windswept brown hair, here, as eight years ago before Aaron died. Same feet, toes, hands, and the same heart. A circle comprised of salty tears and a whole lot of love.
East Coast Trail 2018
It was grey when we began. Fog in the hills but soon the water softened to blue and you couldn’t tell where the sea ended and the sky began. Life blown up on a canvas, everything was intensified: aching feet and back, fear, and confidence. I had forgotten how to listen to my own body, everything was raw and real. Blisters. Tears. Sweat. Blood. Laughter. A sweaty, cold and tired body and nothing in the world was better than cured meat, hot lentils and dry clothes.
I didn’t use to believe that I’d make it in life. Make it through the day without being surrounded by posters of my teardrops. Or make it to a time when my heart learned to laugh outside the confines of its inevitable, dark truth. He’ll still be dead. Whether or not I let love back into my heart; or push it away in fear of losing what could never be permanent anyway. But here we are, eating lentils that are too spicy on a flat patch of grass in the company of seagulls and ravens and the pink light giving itself away to the water’s embrace. Blistered feet, aching toes and a body that’s beginning to remember itself.
One day in a meadow of wildflowers bordered by waves, the child in me came out to play. Unbraided my greasy hair and let it flap in the wind, while the child oblivious to the pain of someone dying, frolicked freely in the breeze. And every night the sea lulled me to sleep: a lullaby that lets go – waves crashing on rocks- eroding time.
On the trail I found compassion for my body. A deep gratitude for my body’s ability to carry me across the land. Feet that could walk hundreds of kilometers. A spine that could carry a backpack. Legs that could propel me up and down cliffsides. There were no big standards or expectations to amount to other than being a kind and thoughtful human being.
And in the most Eastern Point in North America, Cape Spear, I remembered:
That life does not always go from pure dark to pure light and back again. What is most plentiful is the existence of the in-betweens – when light and dark dance together. If you look closely, you can see that moment at day’s end, when light and dark take hands and begin to dance – the rolling hues of gray beckon you to let go and find comfort in the songs of the seabirds, the rhythm of the waves and in the heart that’s remembered how to listen to its body’s own truth.
Have i told you
about the river
sections of its banks
are concrete, someone must have
thought it couldn’t chart
its own course as it rambled east,
but if you look to the west
where the wildflowers
still grow to the edge of the shore,
you’ll see the river knows
that even hearts imprisoned
in their own shadows
still know how to turn towards the light
The concrete came long before
i was born, the river’s dance
in spring too forceful and
the city feared it waking up
from winter, have i told you
about the dam, it used to scare me
i thought it was going to suck me under
in the canoe, could never pass the red buoy,
i wonder how the water feels about
the harsh contraption that hinders its
destiny to the sea
Have i told you
about the river that frees love
from its shadows and will never flood,
no matter how many tears
trickle down your cheeks, this is the river
that says come and lean your bicycle
against the tree, stop running
from the thorns prickling at your soul,
come and sit awhile, and look at the life
that still lingers despite
the water’s concrete veins
Stop and see that you are more
than your grief, the river says
watch the evening sun, feel the chill
of the wind on your cheeks, flood the pages
of your notebook until you blend
the letters – purple salty ink – lean
against the tree trunk
That you are more than
your tear-drenched blankets
and your sheets of loneliness, the memories
that make you wonder if you’re worthy
of love and kindness, remember, the river says
you are still part of the trees
and the water,
we all do
Sometimes I remember
waking up to
my father’s screams
why is death so cruel
parents aren’t supposed to see
their child’s eyes go dark
when the light leaves
and the blue can’t look back at you
then the days become more gray
than they are light
and you wonder
is there ever a morning
when the birds don’t feel like singing
How I hated the nights
when I dreamed about my brother
it was always his ghost
we both knew he was dead
in life and in my dream
but he’d hug me anyway
and it felt like hugging the wind
there’re no arms to pull you close
no warm embrace only shivers
as I watched the silhouette of him
say “hey sis”
and then I’d wake
him dying all over again
I still remember the day
i biked down the trail
pedals thought they could defy
the grief that wouldn’t stop
squeezing my beating heart
until i stopped beside the river
and lay on the bank
The ground couldn’t hug me back
the trees could only listen
while I whispered to myself
“don’t fight the storm, Em”
“this is life”
when all that’s left is to surrender
to the world for awhile
and cry until your throat is raw
and sniffles drip from your nose
when you can’t know a time
where pain will ever set you free
And then you look at the trees
to hold onto life
because you know
it’s the only thing
that will always hold you close
that trace the outline
of this face,
suspended for a moment
on the cheekbone
in an interlude to their trembling,
have forgotten why
A deeply rooted fear
emerging to the surface
like when shoots
sprout into the sunshine
for the first time; a destiny
realized or a fate held
in the hands that have
pushed it away for so long
A relief that the ground
that the body knows how
the truths that used
to hinder its path forward; perhaps,
a marking of her growing up, and regrets
that the body begs itself
to be free of
Does the rain always have reason
today these tears; perhaps,
they’re watering the roses
from the melancholy
that sometimes the body thinks
its young soul knows too well
The tears that trace
the outline of this face; perhaps,
they’re washing away
her uneasiness in living
with so much joy and meaning
when pain has been her companion
since she traded innocence for truth
Suspended for a moment
in a lapse of time
the tears trace these cheekbones
so she remembers
how grateful she is
that the wholeness in her heart
is no longer fleeting
It was August
I was nineteen and we were canoe tripping
Swish of the paddle; water rippling in its wake
And the thud of wood on aluminum
Take rhythm again
Make the calluses more sore
I didn’t see it coming
Too focused on the campers
Refusing supper; tears
Missing home, friends
And an aunt who’d died
Consoling them was my priority
Then 9:30 PM on the path
A camper, she darts
And the trail is so bright
Like the middle of the day
The blue so vivid
And the white light radiant
Boots heavy; water sloshing
Heart pounding a mile a minute
I can see her pink shirt billowing
In the wind and her dripping brown hair
It shouldn’t be this bright
Too close to the lighting
Back in my tent I crouch
Stare into the deep orange colour
Of my Therm-a-rest still wearing boots and coat
I’m too old to be fooled
By the false sense of security
of cloth to electricity
And then, my co-counsellor returns
Amidst the blue lightning; will we ever be safe?
And she says to me that a camper
Has just tried to kill herself
My heart stops feeling
It must act; for life depends on it
Mine and someone else’s
I must go numb
But for a moment the ground below me
Gives way and I fall into being 12 years old
In the back of my neighbour’s car
In the nighttime summer air
Teeth clenching the plastic water bottle
I’ve been given minutes after dad called
to say about my brother,
“Aaron’s committed suicide”
Nobody can come across the lake for us
In this lightning
There is no specific protocol for self harm
At this camp
Spending the night with the suicidal child
In the midst of the lightning storm
We have no choice but to endure
3:00 AM I wake
Someone yelling my name
I stumble into the darkness
Afraid of what I’ll find
Could she have gone into the lake
To drown herself?
I wasn’t supposed to fall asleep
But all is well
Only a camper with a night terror who
Tells me people are coming out of the woods
To kill us all with knives
And is she sitting in the middle of the tent
In her tie-dyed bathing suit cross legged
Pale, white and cold like she’s seen a ghost
We all make it out safe
But I have become a ghost to myself
And in the months that follow
Panic ensues often
My body cannot feel safe
Tears won’t stop
I want to scream
And curl up in a ball
The flashbacks come
And I am back in that lightning
Her trying to kill herself
Everything feels difficult
To cook and clean
To do laundry
My mind won’t let me.
I see the blue of the lightning
The orange of the Therm-a-rest
The inability to keep myself
Or anyone safe
Thoughts of that camper
Trying to kill herself
There is no cozy under the covers
In my bed
One night I crouch on the wood floor
Back against my bed frame; 11:40 PM
No one to call; parents asleep; ringer turned off
Panic attack won’t stop
Lasts for forty minutes
I can’t breathe and feel sick
I can’t do schoolwork
Anything that’s difficult
Brings up all this; the panic
Finally go home to my parents'
Drop out of school for the term
What has become of me
I have lost touch with the true sense of myself
PTSD the doctor tells me
I force myself to go for therapy
Twice a week; but its terrifying to talk about it
The trauma that’s stuck in my brain
I want it out.
I want myself back
It slips away in layers
After many months
The panic ceases
My body knows its safe again
Not to close my eyes
When the memories come and I cry
So I don’t go fully back to those moments
To find ways to ground myself to the present
And to hold closely in my mind
The times when my body knows its safe
Every night when I fall asleep
Or walk alone in the dark
Or outside in a rainstorm
My heart soars with gratitude
That I can feel safe and happy
And how warm and dry and comfortable
The bed is when I slip into sleep; that death is not immanent
And for the people
Who’ve been instrumental in this healing journey
Who've helped me find peace in myself and life again.
My brother, where you’ve gone, is their snow there? Can you sit at the kitchen table and watch the mid-afternoon sun embrace the elegance of the snowflakes as they float fleetingly past the sprigs of cedar? Can you pull on your boots and run breathless into the exhilarating cold air and make snow angels on the ground? Can you lace up your skates and listen to the deliberate motions of metal slicing ice to make intricate circles and figure-eights? Can you watch the snowflakes fall from the clouds and feel their subtle hint of cold when they reach your tongue?
My brother, where you’ve gone, are their stars there? Can you stroll down the path, hand in hand with someone you deeply care about and take a moment to glance up at the quarter moon looking down on your happiness from a cloud covered sky? Can you pause for a moment before you open the front door to turn towards the few stars that the city lets you see? Do you feel the ache for wilderness like I do, when you notice how the streetlights stop you from seeing the shining starlight, and you wish to be up north where you can lay on your back in the middle of a frozen lake blanketed by stars and twinkling speckles of snow?
My brother, where you’ve gone, are their lakes and rivers for swimming? Can you run recklessly off the end of a dock and feel the rush of cold spring water envelop your body? Are their pools where you can swim when its cold outside? Can you swim lengths back and forth until your energy’s gone, but your body is full of satisfaction at the nature of it all?
My brother, where you’ve gone, are there trees? Are their leaves to pirouette to the ground in beautiful colours and elegant trunks to stand surely as strong, soulful shadows against the backdrop of a dreary winter sky? Are there weeping willows by the river bank for you to dance with?
My brother, how should I answer my own questions and attempt to comfort that which tears at my heart? Should I remind myself that heaven is not part of my own belief system and let my logical scientific side bring me to more tears when I think that there is nothing left of you except ashes?
Or, Aaron, my brother, should I stretch myself to see the bittersweetness of the life’s mystery? Should I learn to let myself slowly accept that your spirit is still here with me on this earth? And that all I have been asking of you is true because I have been describing what is meaningful to me as a living human, and perhaps your spirit is here with me?
My brother, if only you had not left me. Then we could still be watching the snowflakes together.
i am unworthy
there is something wrong with me
for letting it happen
for not telling sooner
for loving her like a sister
despite what she did
for being scared to trust
there is something wrong
with these breasts
that grew out of this chest
for feeling what they felt
when I was still a child
when it was all wrong
i should hide them away
hunch my shoulders
i am unworthy
it is not mine to carry
i didn’t give it to myself
she gave it to me
and I give it back to her
i am worthy
of love and pleasure
i am not wrong for being
these breasts and this body
are beautiful and strong
it was not my fault
i want the child to know
that there is a time to be held
when it feels gentle, right and true
when there is no shame in the body’s desire
i want the child to know
that its truly time
to let the shame go
because its not hers to carry anymore
i want the child to know
that now she’s safe
And what’s mine to carry
is self-love, kindness and compassion
strength, courage and authenticity
and the right to hold tightly in my heart
the simple sweetness of life
Eleven years old:
Her claws extend in and out; paws giving rhythm to the folds of the tree skirt as she settles into its softness. She purrs. And black fur scatters onto the stark white faces of the snowmen appliqué. Her eyes smile at me. They are green like mine except hers are an exquisite emerald colour, and they glisten in the lamplight while nestled in the branches, the colourful lights twinkle their good cheer.
I scoop her up, my Zoe, and she snuggles into the crook of my arm, purrs growing louder. The branches prickle my fingers as I break off a few needles. I hold them up to my nose and my heart swells with joy at the memories that each year’s Christmas tree has bore witness to.
This year both Grandma and my brother Aaron flew out to visit us and we had an early Christmas celebration with each of them. Grandma and I ate so much smoked salmon; our favourite. While Zoe and I inspect the ornaments, I picture Grandma’s glowing face and soft lap to sit on. Aaron’s present for me lies beneath the tree, unwrapped, but waiting for the right time to make use of it. A soap making kit. I am so excited to make a long loaf of soap and then slice it into tiny sweet-smelling pieces. Aaron made me laugh so much when he was here. Especially when he pretended I was a sack of potatoes and walked around with me slung over his shoulder. Mom and Dad made a lot of good food this year, as they always do. Stuffing, turkey and pumpkin pie, and they gave me a Webkinz for Christmas. He’s a grey langur monkey and is now one of my favourite stuffed animals.
Zoe squirms in my arms and I put her down. My eleven year old heart sings with the joys of all this year’s love and Christmas magic, and once more in the lamplight I burry my nose in the prickly needles for one last whiff of that pure pine sap.
Thirteen years old:
Why is everyone so obsessed with Christmas? Don’t they understand that my brother who was burned up in an incinerator when he was cremated won’t be here for Christmas and my Grandma is also dead and what’s left of my dear cat Zoe is the memory of holding her limp body in my arms and burying her to rest in the ground.
It is so hard to celebrate the love that does exist between my parents and I, to be grateful for all that I do have, when death has taken my brother, Grandma and cat. I feel pain so deep I want to scream and then I don’t feel anything at all. I think my parents call it numbness. The sky and clouds are not as beautiful as they once were. And when I walk across the field in the morning to school the snow reminds me of the tears I want to cry but cannot because I’m afraid and alone. I am falling in a way that I never have before and there is no one to catch me as I tumble through this darkness.
I don’t want presents or Mom and Dad’s good cooking. All I want for Christmas is for my brother and Grandma and cat to be living. What is Christmas in this house full of pain where smiles are hard to come by and grief-stricken looks are commonplace?
Twenty years old:
We are surrounded by Christmas trees. Mom, Dad and I and our dog Daisy. So many to choose from; stout ones, scrawny ones, round ones and lopsided ones. I turn to look at Mom, purple wool hat slouched on her head, golden hair magnifying the lightness of her skin. And Dad, like a puffy penguin in his giant forest-green down coat, saw in hand, watching Daisy prancing through the wet grass and patches of mud.
I admire the way the land’s late afternoon glow makes their love and kindness ever so radiant. Sun’s last touch of elegant light before it begins that day’s dance with darkness until it fades away into the horizon. I love this end of day’s light that causes the farm fields, row upon row of Christmas trees, and my parents’ faces, to glow with the sweetness of life. Like the way blowing on the embers of an old fire envelops the hearth in a glowing red mysterious light.
For the first time at Christmas since Aaron died, I can feel my lips smiling to their full capacity and my heart reflects our family’s enduring love made visible by the land’s evening light. I laugh with glee, grab the dog’s leash and together we frolic through the fields like a pair of young deer; no shadows surrounding our dancing souls.
the painful ones
be so steadfast in my mind?
While the ones I want
to hold and touch,
the joyful ones,
are so fleeting.
set in stone
of childhood tears.
the cold floorboards
beneath my feet.
In the corner
of my bedroom
where my pink beanbag chair
used to be.
like a rock weathered
but still enduring.
Sometimes the screams,
the sorrow, the fear,
beat loudly in the child’s heart
that now lives in a woman’s body.
Yet, it is not simply a house
It is a home
that has raised me to know
that strength and love
are forever enduring.
I must remember
that laughter filled these rooms
for many years
in spite of all the grief.
I must remember
is ever so permeable
to the child’s beating heart.
That butterflies too
And the sweeter
and more beautiful
you grow your garden’s flowers
The longer the butterflies will stay.
Tomorrow I will go to the vet with my mom and my aunt, so my aunt can have her dog Lilli euthanized. Lilli, a shih tzu-jack russell cross, has lived a wonderful thirteen years. I remember when I was seven years old and we went with my aunt to look at the litter of puppies. She had found an ad in the paper and we drove for several hours on that hot summer day until we finally reached the farm. My aunt wanted a male dog, but Lilli was the first puppy that came running over to us, and I was determined that she was the one. So little and sweet that even my small seven year old hands could cup her in my palms. My mom and I tried to convince my aunt to get two dogs; Lilli and a male puppy. But she was adamant that one dog was enough work and I was set on Lilli, so we drove Lilli home while she vomited all over the backseat.
My aunt lived nearby us and Lilli became the childhood dog I never had. Early on I learned to pick up her poop (despite my initial protests) and raced after squirrels with her at the park. My aunt and I took Lilli to puppy training and we even attempted to enter her in the local dog show. Living on her own, Lilli was my aunt’s constant companion and there was never a phone call where I forget to ask, “How’s Lilli doing?” Once I even bought some fake plastic dog poop and since my aunt has no sense of smell, convinced her that Lilli had pooped inside and did not tell her it was fake until she had finished scrubbing the carpet.
However, I guess there comes a time for everything to leave its living, breathing form. Some too soon and some even when we expect it, we wish they could live forever. But Lilli has reached the end of her healthy days; her back legs in too much pain to move through the world. So tomorrow we shall go and lay our hands on her warm body as she breathes that last breath of life through her.
What a miracle it is, the simple act of breathing. It is truly the life force within us. And when its gone, Lilli shall pass. Her body will start to grow cold from a heart no longer pumping blood and we will stare into those deep black eyes once more that no longer look back at us and then close them forever.
What a wonder it is, this life and those we have the privilege of loving, however short or long it may be. Grief and love are so darn complicated, but the act of dying, the act of truly passing away, it's so simple and fleeting. I think I can find peace in that. In the knowledge that the act of passing on is only momentary and that all the years of love that life's breaths have given us are forever impermeable to time.