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.
My feet breathe a sigh of relief as the harsh pavement trail gives way to a soft bed of leaves through the forest. No more jolting in the knees. The winding trail of damp pine needles and red maples now cushions my steps and I start to run faster, surrounded by a human planted pine forest on my right and the meandering river to my left. I smile as I remember the time my dad and I were biking off trail and got lost in that pine forest. “Slow down,” my friend says to me, laughing at how I randomly speed up when we are already going a good speed, “We have to pace ourselves. We are going 10.5 km today”. I’m glad for her reminder. Otherwise I’d have a hard time conserving my energy to run the entire distance. Our coach commented on my determination once. But it’s not determination that has made me commit myself to running faster and further week after week this semester. Its the freedom and gratitude in my heart that takes me by the hands and runs beside me, our faces toward the wind. That's what propels my feet forward.
Gratitude for being able to breathe. I will never forget all the times I used to attempt to run when my asthma was undiagnosed and every breath was a sharp stabbing pain in my chest. Gratitude for a body without physical pain. I will never forget all the times I used to attempt to run before I got orthotics and would get severe shin splints and often fall and roll my ankle. But now, the asthma is mostly gone and my body is stronger, and freedom and gratitude for my body's ability to run comfortably drive me forward...now the breaths that come in and out are gentle and full of cool autumn air.
Down the trail we continue, and my eyes shift toward the water. The river that has shaped me. That have I grown up with. Year after year I have watched the water levels dip low in the fall when they open the damns. I have watched the trees on the riverbanks bring their colours into full force before they let their leaves go. I have watched this water slowly become coated with ice until it fully freezes over and the sun dances on a dusting of powdery snow that coats its surface. Year after year I have watched it become full of new life again when the snow melts and spring’s water rushes in.
One my favourite authors, Rachel Naomi Remen, writes in her book “My Grandfather’s Blessings”, “But the life in us may be stronger than all that [is]…brutal, lonely, constricting, painful and terrifying, and may free us from that which we must endure”. The river’s pulse of life year after year. Its beauty and purpose embedded in its every motion of holding on and letting go and making new, has never failed to remind me that there is a light in each of us stronger than all the darkness that we must live through. Every week when my feet pound over the pine needle trail bed and soft autumn air fills my lungs, my eyes shift towards the water…And my body becomes full of power and strength…full of the source of life that frees me from all I must endure.
I need to remember that its not like it used to be. Sadness and regret and feelings of failure and self-doubt, they are normal and natural things, all part of the human condition and feeling them is not going to make everything fall apart like it used to. I am no longer the little girl who could never imagine a positive future for herself and I am not the teen plagued by depression day after day and week after week. Now time exists as a cushion between me and the traumas of childhood and I have learned to let go and hold those memories in ways that hurt so much less. I need to remember that things are different now and a day full of self-doubt is no longer going to be the push that causes me to fall all the way to the bottom of the staircase. Now I know how to hold onto the railings and not fall as far…and how to walk back up again. I am no longer the teen whose life felt like it continued to be torn apart by grief and sadness. It is different now. I no longer have to endure to survive. I have power. I know my heart better. I have more strength and I can consciously make choices that positively affect my mental health and will help me to thrive.
I need to stop fearing the falling the down because I have time as my cushion. I will not fall near as far as I used to and it will not hurt as much. There will be low days and hard days but they do not have to be my constant. I will remember the time when I was hiking and fell down in the mud carrying a dozen eggs in my backpack and none of the eggs cracked. Day to day life can shake me up and knock me down, and no matter how ungracefully I fall, I have time as my cushion and strength and humour in my spirit that the younger me never had, and I will remember that I can fall down and get back up without breaking any of the eggs.
I awoke to the sound of waves lapping on the shore-- soft and gentle---the water was calm-- and I listened to the wind rustling the leaves as the tent’s musty smell filled my nose. Thanksgiving weekend on the shores of Lake Huron. I had forgotten how expansive the Great Lakes were with their deep blue and endless sandy beaches. Could almost fool you into thinking it was the ocean if it weren’t for the absence of seagulls and salty air.
Swimming in the waves this afternoon, my body going numb with the chill of October lake water and my dog splashing beside me begging me to throw her ball, brought to mind 12 year old me on the beach in Oregon eight years ago. When days before Aaron died I frolicked gleefully in the sand and the childhood magic of life still held me tightly. Many times I have come back to this memory and I am filled by regret and bitterness about the joys of childhood that seemed to vanish after Aaron’s suicide. But this afternoon I smiled when I thought of myself running wild on the Oregon Coast, realizing that now I had finally found as much happiness and fulfillment in life as I once had back in the days before Aaron died.
Today at the beach that 12 year old me that I remembered, she needed me to remember with her, to use the strength I had cultivated over the years and walk with her hand in hand, holding her in the light and love that had been too faint for her to see in her long journeys through the darkness. So I walked with her, the 12 year old me who felt that life was no longer worth living after Aaron died and who could not comprehend how she and her family would ever be okay again. Then I walked with the 13, 14 and 15 year old me who moved deeper into grief as the numbness wore off and spent many nights crying herself to sleep drenched in a loneliness and deep despair that cast shadows over so many of her moments of joy and who felt that she had no one to talk to about any of it. I walked with the 15 year old that felt burdened by the feeling that she had to be strong for her family and resented her parents for not being there for her through the grief in the way she wanted them to be. And then I walked with the 16 year old me who just wanted to be normal and fit in and hated the idea that she would always be the girl whose brother had died. The 16 year old me who clung onto the hope that one day she would feel joy and happiness again to same depths that she felt pain and sadness. She and I dipped our toes in the water together. And then I took the 17 year old me in hand who had begun to remember the sexual abuse she had experienced as a child and who was finally beginning to understand the shame she had felt in her body for so long. The 17 year old who thought she would always carry this sense of shame and worthlessness with her, that she would always exist in a silent shadow of grief and who could not imagine a positive future for herself.
Today on the shores of Lake Huron I took each one of those children in hand, holding them in light and in love and told them about how the goodness of life now holds onto me just I tightly as I have learned to hold onto it. I told the 12 year old that I and my family have learned to “be okay” and I told the 13, 14 and 15 year old me about the genuinely caring people I have come across who have taken the time to listen and be present with my sadness and pain. I told the 17 year old that shame was never hers to carry and that there is so much freedom in giving it back to where it came from. I told her about how much I have come to value and feel grateful for my body's abilities and about the times when I was held by another in a way that felt truly right and loving and genuine. I told the children in me about the healing that my parents have found and how I continue to be amazed at the goodness life can bring. As I walked hand in hand with the my inner children on the shores of Lake Huron I told them about how grateful I am for the freedom that has come to my heart after hiking 300 km all the way to Cappahayden and gave them the love I could never give them before.
Tonight I will once again fall asleep to the sound of the waves lapping on the shore and the smell of Aaron’s musty old tent with the dog fast asleep at my feet. Full of gratitude for the family that has loved and supported me over these years. Full of gratitude for the resting place that comes after many years spent traversing through darkness, when all of us, Mom, Dad and I finally sit down around a fire and laugh and tell stories like we used to. With the waves lapping on the shore and the glowing embers, I sit in awe of the heart’s permeability to sadness and pain; that enables lightness and love to come into full bloom once again.