I spent this past weekend at a writing retreat put on by the incomparable Allyson Latta. These past few years she has been my teacher, editor, and mentor and has instilled in me a love for life stories, a gift I will cherish for the rest of my days. Best of all, we became friends.
Allyson's velvet glove and kind but firm approach made a room full of writers reach high for their best work this weekend. The shared respect for this woman was the original tie that bound us in an all-too-fast intimate moment in time. But it fast became about new friendships, mutual respect for the craft and for each other, and about the creation of powerful new stories written and read aloud. Not for the faint of heart (okay, not for my faint heart).
I loved every minute of it.
Here's one of the exercises Allyson challenged us with: Two people/group. One tells the other a story about themselves that reveals who they are as a person. The other then asks questions, interviews them, and writes a profile. It's about listening, observing...hearing.
I was paired with the most extraordinary, interesting, funny, warm-hearted young woman who travels the world, blogs, and, well, simply put, is the salt of the earth. With her permission, I share the profile. Meet Christina:
Comfortably seated in her chair, ready for the onslaught, Christina’s soft brown eyes smiled their unabashed welcome with obvious enthusiasm. An explorer of the world and its heart she has mapped out adventures where few would dare go driven by her relentless curiosity and powered by an imagination befitting the best of storytellers. She weaves seamlessly in and out of memories yet keeps us in the moment masterfully painting pictures with her words as her face lights up or her brow furrows with some recollection.
Her travels have taken her to some of the most remote places, Peru (before it was tony), Cambodia or Hanoi for starters. Thing is, she does it alone, backpack filled with the bare essentials to last 6 weeks, sometimes 3-months.
Most would bail on day one of her trips but the hearty embrace of her laugh sweeps you into the story despite its evident dangers and solitude.
Like hiking in the Andes at nineteen, alone and unafraid, equipped with the Andes Trail pass, a guide for 50% of the time and her own wits for the other half. She hiked the remote trail, excited and awed when she rounded a curve to see a small village in the expanse ahead surrounded by a large herd of alpacas.
“They were amazing,” she said, still laughing with those eyes, her animated hands helping tell the story.
“Looked just like a petting zoo to me.”
Her cheeks had rouged as she if were in the thin, fresh air.
“I wanted to hang out with them.”
So she plucked a mass of alfalfa from the side of the path and went up to the herd and called out. One giant furball charged up and snatched the grass with a harsh tug and promptly turned his butt towards her.
“Look at that fur, she thought. I have to touch it.”
Thinking it would be soft and plush she reached out to the butt, pressed her hand into the animals tufts, removed it only to see her handprint briefly left behind before, like a sponge it popped right back unscathed.
“Apparently the animal did not appreciate my gesture,” she said because before she could blink the giant mountain beast raised his back leg and kicked her in the shin, dropping her to the ground.
At which point, the normal traveler might feel a modicum of fear but not Christina. She lay there, shin bruised and thought “I wonder if he knows I had an alpaca steak for dinner last night. Did I eat his brother?”
In her inimitable way, she rose, dusted herself off and carried on along the trail.
“I did the same thing in Bolivia,” she adds, a suggestion that the lesson perhaps had not been learned.
Once again she approached a small herd. Each animal was decorated with a colourful tag or ribbon to be easily tracked. As they watched her approach they began their aggressive growl-like noises and nervous movement. Fear be damned, she called out to the leader of the pack and made fun of it. As if dared, it began to aggressively follow her, nostrils flared and teeth bared, which wouldn’t have been so bad if she’d had more than one pair of shoes or could have avoided the shit-laden path he forced her to walk.
Her mantra is just do it and if something happens I’ll figure it out then. There’s nothing she won’t try. If she can’t find a hotel on a festival night she’ll take a cab around the city and sleep in it, like she did in Hanoi on New Year's Eve. If she gets stung by a scorpion, which she was in a remote place in minus 20-degree weather, she will ride out the inevitable fever. And laugh to tell the tale.
One might wonder if loneliness is a life companion buried deep inside her backpack. As she sits back in the chair to think about this she becomes pensive, no longer needing the energy to carry the vicarious traveler, a change from the faster pace of the alpaca tale. Her nomadic life, she shared, was nurtured by parents who instilled equal enthusiasm for other cultures into her core. But they always returned to Manitoulin Island. And while Christina’s travels take her away for lengths of time, like her childhood, they always lead her back to her home.
“I don’t miss or need company because I find easy intimacy with the travelers I meet. There’s a common bond that immediately seals trust into a connection. I may never see them again but I will have gained from the shared experience.”
She will always have a trip in the works, incessant curiosity and a brilliant mind that needs to grow will do that. She makes her dreams real like few others.
With that spit-in-your-eye-brother-llama attitude, a smile on her face and a giant heart full of courage she leaves footprints wherever she goes. Even in alpaca shit.
When my daughter Katie was four years old, my mother who wintered in Florida sent her a gift. Mum often sent mailable goodies if she found something fun as well as letters filled with newspaper clippings she thought might interest me.
In delight, Katie jumped up and down in quick kidlet hops all around the front hall, blonde curls bouncing off her shoulders the moment she saw the large manila envelope with a giant K on the front. She tore it open with classic kid enthusiasm, ripping and tossing the paper all over, and pulled out a small blue hardcover book with a drawing on the front of a toddler sitting on the tile floor of a bathroom wreaking havoc. Mum’s note said that it was recently published and had received rave reviews. I had not yet heard of it.
Katie loved books and I read to her every night, three books at least, without missing a line. Okay, sometimes I tried to skip lines to speed up bedtime but I never got away with it. Not once.
“MUMMMYyyyyy,” she’d say as she poked me, “you missed that part.”
That night we had a new book to read and we were both excited. Katie…because she loved stories and a new one meant something special. Me…well, because I loved new stories too and, shamefully, I knew that if it wasn’t particularly special she’d never know if I skipped something during the first read.
“Teeth brushed and squeaky clean,” I asked, “and ready for bed?”
A full-out toothy grin got her a pass and into bed she climbed.
“Okay, let’s read Grandma’s new book!”
She nestled in beside me, lying close so that she could side hug me and look at the pictures as I turned the pages, both of us ready for a new adventure.
A mother held her new baby and
very slowly rocked him back and forth,
back and forth, back and forth.
And while she held him, she sang:
I’ll love you forever,
I’ll like you for always,
As long as I’m living
my baby you’ll be.
We may all know it now but it was new to us then. Intrigued from the start, Katie enthralled by the rhythmic Munsch sounds and soft kind-looking illustrations, I happily carried on.
My voice began to crack midway through and by the time old Mommy was in her son’s arms I could barely speak, never mind breath. Katie was silent throughout listening intently as I read.
I was done, my voice broken by the last page when Daddy held his ‘very new baby daughter’ and sang while he rocked her.
Like every parent who read this book to their children for the first time…and the second…and third… it moved me to tears, one of which fell down my cheek as the story ended. I looked down at Katie without speaking, her cornflower blue eyes gazing into mine, she lifted her hand and gently stroked my cheek moving the tear away.
“It’s alright Mummy, it’s alright.”
Today, 25 years later, my daughter sent me a morning birthday video. Normally our celebration videos are family shout-outs, wild singing and crazy, silly comments that warm the heart so I was surprised when Katie’s birthday text said Here comes a special video you won’t expect!
Our four-year-old granddaughter is the age Katie was when Mum sent us Love You Forever. The still shot of the video Katie sent shows our sweetheart sitting on her parents’ big bed with scruffy morning hair and a book on her lap. I clicked the play arrow and watched, silent again, as this little girl who does not read yet, told the story, turned the pages, and recited by heart, guided by the pictures, the repetitive rhythmic parts and without knowing it damn near killed her grandmother with nostalgic joy.
With my daughter’s permission, I have included the video with this piece. It is long and, understandably, may not be interesting for everyone but for those who choose, who felt the heart of the Munsch story to the core like I did and can stand home videos, prepare yourselves.
To author Robert Munsch and illustrator Sheila McGraw I say thank you for changing how parents read to children and for teaching children that reading is the doorway to the universe.
And to all my family and friends, for your constant love and support, your complete and total unconditional love and understanding, today I say:
I will love you forever,
I will like you for always,
As long as I’m living
my heartbeat you’ll be.
It took me forty-odd years to realize I am not always right. That’s when, like acid on steel, other opinions began to seep into my self-appointed queendom and dissolve my throne, suggesting I might have grown up. But like my beautiful late sister’s lapel pin said If I haven’t grown up by the time I’m fifty…I don’t have to and I’m way past fifty.
It was more like I became a better person. I learned to accept and appreciate how people flourished in their own garden and more times than not, helped me grow in mine.
Today is Mother’s Day and I have cause to remember that.
First thing this morning, my daughter Katie sent a video of our three grandchildren screaming out Happy Mothers day to us. Then each one shared what it is they love about Grandma C and me individually.
The seven-year-old hesitated, head down, thinking carefully, and then with his giant hazel eyes and a big smile looked right into the camera and said, ”I love Grandma C cause she makes us stuffies so we feel safe” and “I love Grandma J cause she reads with me.”
Blinking the tears away I waited for the younger two to answer.
They’re at that lovely giggly stage where one eggs on the other so let’s just say they love us for our sounds and leave it at that.
Katie always gives us a flowering perennial for our garden. It’s a living symbol of motherhood…colourful memories, which take root, grow and prosper if the weather gods and my green thumb align. We do not take for granted that she is alive and well and sending us videos, giving us plants and gifting us with her beautiful children. That was in jeopardy, once upon a time.
It is a beautiful sunny day and the lake is a calm, solid blue, decorated by gentle ripples. The tree canopy has exploded…green and yellows everywhere, and our neighbour is mowing his lawn, the motor’s drone somehow comforting.
And that is Mother’s Day in a nutshell.
Except it isn’t.
Today, in particular, I know Colleen hurts so deep down that there is very little that can bring her back up. But little things, one by one, help her rise to the surface, like the embrace of those still with us whose unconditional love and understanding matters.
We have found peace at this lake house, just as we loved the farm before it with its fields and gardens. In summer their vibrant green enriched me; in fall the golden glow off the tall grasses swaying in the wind may have warned of the coming cold, but I watched the majestic beauties use what time was left to show themselves off. The windblown drifts rose and fell like the tide in winter’s harshest moments, and that mix of brown and buds brought spring’s welcome renewal to the magnificent gardens. But the weight of the physical work and memories made the old place too hard to manage.
Still, I remember how, on warm days, we relaxed in our Maddie Spot, the garden we created on the first anniversary of her death. C’s best friends, Jan and Cynny flew in for the week and together, in a quiet place by the century-old perennial garden, we placed granite field stones under an old majestic walnut tree. We built a Muskoka chair set, painted it Maddie’s favourite colour of blue, and decorated it with daisies of Colleen’s design.
Real daisies, coneflowers, and hydrangeas—Maddie’s flowers—surrounded the edge of the stones. It was where I could see her, reading Woolf, headphones around her neck, one leg stretched out, the other draped over the arm.
Doug’s lawnmower has stopped and the quiet brings me back. Bursts of spring’s yellow, red and purple dot the lakeside garden like the quilt that awaits Colleen’s next steps. I smile as the dogs’ nosy but protective barking breaks the silence, a smile, which lasts about two seconds and then I yell at them to stop as if they’ll listen.
No, I think, today is not all flowers and candy. It is a mix of old and new memories, of family and friends who recognize how life has touched one another. It is a day to remember the challenges of loss while remembering joy. Remembering our mothers who are sisters, aunts, and daughters, who are and were young and old, who have walked with us and we with them on our journey’s path.
We all endure loss. I have said goodbye to parents after long-lived lives; I have kissed my sister’s cheek as she lay dying from a cancer that stole her kind heart; I have mourned the loss of my step-daughter whose young life was taken at the hand of another, and I have lost a best friend who lived life fully as she fought the enemy at her gate for a decade before her season passed. I have weeded my garden of those who would overtake me and freed myself from the strangling vines of false friendships.
As I grow older I have learned to celebrate the breathing space I have created for myself, space now kept open and clear by the hands of those who continue to love me. I may not have grown up by fifty but I have learned to listen to the hearts of others and I have grown against all odds, my stalk now ropy and crooked, my demeanor often prickly like the stems of the wild rose but still smooth enough to allow my family to endure me.
And I see, in the smiles of my grandchildren, a trace of me that will be left behind when my season is done.
To you and yours, may Mother’s Day embrace you in your need’s way..
With coffee in my Be Kind mug in hand, as I sit contemplating the day, I can see the sun sparkling on the gently rippling waves as it rises through the trees whose budding green has not yet interfered with the view. The neighbour’s flag rests gently against the pole, somehow having survived last week’s fierce windstorm.
In this image, sunlight on water, I feel calm and see memories that have been lost in the turns of time’s path.
Listen to the salutation of the dawn, I remember. We recited these words every morning at camp as we watched the flag rise to the top of the pole, its majestic emblem on a swath of red, the British reminder in its top corner, years before the maple leaf would replace it, unfurling with each gentle pull. By the poem’s end, it would wave peacefully in early morning breezes, sending us off into the day.
The voices of that pure circle of sisterhood wrapped around me like a quilt of comfort, as the memory of them does still.
Look to this day!
For it is life, the very life of life.
It was years before the verses’ true meaning became clear.
Mum went to camp and sent my sister and me to the same one. The same morning ritual, unchanged in generations, welcomed each of our July days.
At our August campfires down at the boathouse of the cottage, where beautiful flat granite gently sloped into the water like a smooth table, where we picnicked and swam and fished and played and roasted marshmallows and hot dogs, and sang songs… Mum and Chamie, her forever-best friend from camp would recite the poem. Like the songs we sang over and over, it was just another favourite because it was the togetherness that mattered, not the meaning.
Until my brother read it at Mum’s funeral. Then it became more than a favourite.
I remember how the words filled me, easing the weight of my grief’s sorrow as he slowly read, smiling as he looked up between the lines. It was a gift he inadvertently gave...a gift of understanding. More than part of a quilted patchwork of memories, it became a promise to live differently.
In its brief course
Lie all the verities and realities of your existence:
The bliss of growth
The glory of action
The splendour of beauty
As a child, it was a comfort poem that felt good; as we laid our mother to rest, when comfort seemed out of reach, its real importance hit home.
For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow only a vision
But today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope
The sun is rising and has left the waves to embrace their ever-changing hues of green and blue. Like them, I should move into my day as tomorrow I leave for a too-short visit with my best friend Ellen. She lives on a lake north of here, equally mesmerizing in the sunrise with an abundance of wildlife and waterfowl. It has always felt like my home-away-from-home, perhaps because two people I love beyond measure, who welcomed me unconditionally for decades, regardless of how I screwed up or changed or moved around, lived there.
We said goodbye to one half of that heart two years ago when my best friend lost the love of her life. There are no gaps in her grief that can be filled. How I wish there were. I am too familiar with grief’s vice grip on life and I hate that for her. All I can do is love her and be there, as she has been for me whether near or far. Like when she drove for hours through the night without telling me to be by my side at my sister’s funeral knowing I was in broken pieces. That’s Ellen.
When Lyn died, we stayed close through voice and words. I was down for the count from surgery that had gone south, unable to be with her and heartbroken and angry at such an ugly twist of helplessness. We found each other every morning as she sat on her deck watching the sunrise. As my brother had done before, I shared the poem and its legacy, hoping it might offer her a moment of comfort, somehow soothe her sorrow if but for a moment.
Look well, therefore to this day!
“It’s beautiful, Judy. Lyn would have loved it.”
I knew she was crying. So was I.
“Yes, she would have, particularly since it meant something to Mum,” I said, remembering how Lyn and Mum had this remarkable unspoken affinity.
“Oh yes,” laughed Ellen, “they were birds of a feather, those two. Crunchy, warm hearts.”
Lyn, toughest woman on the outside I ever knew, had the kindest heart there ever was. On that rare occasion when she wrote something to me that was remotely mushy, she would end with a demand that I shred and swallow said correspondence upon reading. I loved her.
This week I will help Ellen pack, as she readies her home to sell. She is moving closer to friends and family—not away from memories but towards comfort and care. And tomorrow, when the sun rises, when the waves ripple and flicker in its reflection, together we listen.
Such is the salutation to the dawn.
– Kalidasa, Indian Poet
I have a confession to make.
I am prepared to accept that some will shake their heads and question whether they ever really knew me. Some will understand and accept me for who I am. Others may turn and quietly step away. So be it. I have taken many risks in my life, some wise, others not. Time will tell if this is a risk worth taking but today, after years of shame and denial, I choose to share my true self.
I play Candy Crush.
The simple game strategy, the rush of the win with all the celebratory swirling colours, and not a soul with whom I compete… it calms me. I play the five allotted free games, then sign out and hopefully move on to something productive. I spent a lifetime developing and managing strategic plans, scoping out competitors, and fighting for unheard voices. This new pace is perfect.
Clearly my definition of ‘win’ has evolved in retirement.
Many things have challenged my family these past few years; terrible things that can break other families have somehow strengthened the bonds of our love, how we care for each other and help each other survive. If those damn candy-shaped rows of brilliant red, orange, green and blue help me escape the wrath of real life, so be it.
I am out of the closet.
The game is ridiculously mindless but also brilliant. It cleverly puts up a roadblock for the dark alleys my mind can enter; a pause switch in a way, which lets me reevaluate the moment simply by not being in it. In this day of mindfulness and intentionally staying present – philosophies I cherish – every once in a while it’s nice to do neither.
C smiles and nods when I hold my phone and play while we watch a show. She gets it. She’s got a card game going on her computer.
Then there’s that other closet.
We all know it, regardless of the side on which we stand, its living wardrobe locked up by fear and shame, its key buried deep inside the walls of our hearts. The closed doors that destroy lives, kill children trying to silently navigate the fear their difference instills when acceptance is all they need...that closet.
I quietly opened that one years ago but not before suffocating on the thin air of a make-belief life. No calming colours in that fight for survival. Just hope.
It’s a terrible catch-22…damned if you come out, damned if you don’t. Hurt resides on both sides, and the risk is significant. But only on one side are the brilliant swirling colours of a real life, real love, real self.
And risk plus hope and courage guide the heart through change.
In memory of Maddie, who would have been 25 yesterday...for Colleen. For grace and courage...and hope.
The happy birthday banner, bright colourful letters on shiny foil, is longer than the doorframe it’s taped to so the ends fall lazily, rustling in an occasional draft. That old chestnut goes up for every family celebration, along with a balloon cluster I tie to the front porch rail. Both are up for today’s party.
I can see her—hoodie up and hiding all but the most stubbornly independent curls, her shoulders stooped as she leans into her signature lanky walk up the front steps. So much like my daughter, their golden curls, full lips, beautiful expressive cornflower blue eyes; both tall for their ages. Both share the same adolescent struggles with bodies and bullies and brats. Neither travelled in a close pack of friends, but their loyalty to one or two was a constant. Kindred spirits in almost every way, sisters of the heart.
“Hey, anyone here?”
The sound of her voice coming home takes the forever-winter chill out of my bones.
How did the dogs miss her entry? They rally their battle cry when our neighbours a block away open their door.
Still, she is here. Her strong beautiful voice rings out its hello and fills the house reminding me that it has been too long since we last saw her.
I am sure I hear C say, “Hi sweetheart” knowing she is controlling her need to mother-squish her daughter and smother her with kisses. I watch as she instead gives her a warm hug and a kiss on the cheek, and then I laugh as the grown woman-girl bear hugs her mother back, dismissing the need for controlled emotions.
Their bond is this living, breathing, palpable connection.
A small, sweet voice breaks the glass of my dream window.
“Grandma, I had a dream about Aunt Maddie.”
My mind had wandered for a moment as I thought about the day and how it should have been, but this little girl brings me back.
Amelia likes to help me cook and we are in the kitchen making a surprise for Grandma C who is on her way home. The child, three steps up on the footstool to reach the counter, is wildly stirring a sauce while looking straight up at me with fierce intensity.
“I was at Maddie’s place and then she turned into a baby.”
“Grandma C will want to hear all about your dream, Bean. That sounds very special.”
As I surreptitiously wipe the sauce sprayed all over the counter, she tells me about her dream, I think perhaps embellishing as young children do for a story. Although it seems non-sensical, she repeats it for C almost verbatim. Clearly, it is significant to her.
We are celebrating our grandaughter’s fourth birthday, a delayed party thanks to last weekend’s endless ice storm. Today is also Maddie’s birthday. She would have been 25. In acknowledgment of Maddie’s sweet tooth, our birthday dessert includes her favourite Marble Slab cupcakes. We stick a candle in Amelia’s and sing happy birthday to both girls.
When our eldest grandson, now seven, turned three, that old banner was up, complete with balloon bouquet hung outside for his arrival. Our family, less one, was ready to celebrate a boy who had stolen all our hearts.
I remembered how Maddie made a forceful point before she met the child, warning C and me that she did not like babies. He was one at the time.
“I’m just sayin’, so you know, I don’t like kids—so don’t expect anything from me.”
I laughed and said, “Fair enough, but I’ll just say, this boy is not like any other child. You wait and see.”
They arrived, and soon it was as if my daughter Kate and Maddie had known each other their whole lives. Katie, with her way of making someone feel warm and included, and Maddie a willing recipient of unconditional acceptance. But it was the sweet baby boy who won the day. Within minutes, we watched as Maddie dropped to the floor, children’s books scattered about, and tucked in with an adoring boy, reading to him while he stared back mesmerized. They didn’t leave each other’s side the entire visit.
“Where’s Maddie? I want to see Maddie?”
He was confused at his third birthday after the now-traditional toast included Maddie. He wanted to find her.
I remember how the room fell silent as he stared up at me. I knelt down and took his hand and put it on his heart.
“She’s in here, sweet boy. She’s safe in here.”
He smiled and looked at me with his giant hazel eyes that too often dissolved any attempted discipline but this time were fixed on me for understanding.
“We wish she were with us too, but Maddie died, sweetheart. So this is where we keep her,” I said, putting my other hand on my heart.
Satisfied, off he bopped to play. I had to turn away from the others.
“No one could have done that with him but you, Mum,” said Katie, when her tears subsided. “I couldn’t have squeezed out a word if I’d tried.”
Me, I wanted to disappear lest my already-frail composure dissolve.
We watch Amelia blow out her candle on the ice cream cupcake, shy from the attention but loving it all the same. Remarkably, she is quite content to share the day with the aunt of her heart.
Our grandchildren are too young to remember Maddie. All three have a normal childish curiosity about her death and explaining what happened is a tricky dance between grief, sorrow, fear, and joy. And while they know and love her through our stories, there is more to it. Little things like how they play alongside her image on the Wii games, openly declaring victory or dismay as she or they speed ahead, their questions and reactions, their unconscious inclusion of her in everyday things...well, it shows a spiritual connection to her that is much deeper than any picture we could ever paint.
Perhaps it is because the story of Maddie's life, is above all things, a story of love...balm on a broken heart.
When I was growing up a particular f-word was never said. Ever.
So bad was it that my father told me, in preparation for life, to never, ever f in front of the man you are going to marry.
So, to all those with similar sensibilities, forgive me in advance.
Here's my latest:
We were seated in the second row, me by the window. I love to watch the ocean change from its deep, dark, almost angry blue to the warm patchwork of Caribbean hues, so I got the lucky straw for this flight. More truthfully, C chose the middle. We are very tender with each other when we travel; have been ever since a traumatic loss forced us to navigate our way home from Europe in unthinkable circumstances. And this trip was for fun.
Except that my daughter Kate had surgery two days before we left.
Text me, I pleaded, as I sat there waiting while passengers filled the seats around us. Their hustle and bustle, early morning laughter and excitement sent me further inside my head.
Just text me to say you’re okay.
Tension had taken residence in my shoulders and neck and my clenched jaw left little room for words. C sat quietly beside me. She knows there’s not much to be done when I’m like that, other than be there and wait.
Kate insisted we go on this trip, reminding me her surgery was elective and that she accepted a cancellation date knowing we would be away, knowing she was in good hands. My efforts to conceal my anxiety, however nobly intended, were pathetic.
“Mum, remember, I chose the date and I’ve got a solid plan in place. Nothing’s going to happen. I’ll be fine. Go.”
That ‘nothing will go wrong’ piece was dismantled a long time ago. But according to her, even though she was in considerable pain, I was supposed to simply take off, as if everything was fine, like she hadn’t almost died five years ago, like she doesn’t manage a chronic illness every day of her life while stick-handling three young children, like the trauma she suffered a year before she fell ill when her step-sister was violently killed had no impact on her healing. Like, like, like. My head can be a tricky maze of what ifs.
She opted to have the procedure for its long-term health benefits, an inspiring show of courage and self-care. Although not excited about the actual hospital stay, thanks understandably to a five-week critical-care stay in the same hospital, this surgery went well.
Two days later, I drove her home into the loving arms of her husband and kids. That was the day before our flight. Her pain was excruciating but she put on a brave face, pretending that the abdominal cramps you get after surgery (which are worse than the surgery itself) weren’t so bad. I knew she did that for me. I also knew that those cramps were a surgical barometer - if her body began to function normally, good; but if prolonged it meant a blockage or infection or worse. Give my mind an inch…
So there I was in seat 3F trying to pretend I was excited to go, trying to imagine palm trees, blue seas, glorious sunshine while a hot poker shot fire through it all. I could barely sit, never mind stay upright. The flight was scheduled to leave at 6:15—leaving only minutes to bolt. I watched my phone obsessively, willing it to ding, which I had done from the ungodly hour we got up. Kate is an early bird so it did not seem unreasonable to hope for peace of mind.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please ensure your seatbelt is fastened and that your baggage is securely fastened under your chair or in the compartment above,” came the announcement as the final few passengers boarded.
“Please don’t close that door yet,” I said to myself, unsure whether I used my inside voice.
My baggage is not securely fastened.
That numbing sensation that starts in the head and works its way down the body began, bristling and prickling as the seconds ticked. C, not unaware but still quiet for me, placed her hand on my arm, slowing the speed of my descent.
I fastened my seatbelt.
My best friend from camp came for lunch today. Fifty-plus years of memories and still our hearts see no change, not a gray hair or wrinkle, no sagging neck …just young girls happily reconnecting. Even as we limp towards the table after struggling to get out of the chair…nope. Not a single change. Just a laugh and a push.
She’s a gentle soul. I was drawn to her kindness the minute we met. I was sent to camp a year early because my brother was seriously ill and an 8-year-old hanging around demanding attention would not have helped our mum. I loved it despite a moment or two of homesickness, like shamefully hiding my bed sheets in my laundry bag because I wet the bed crying for my brother whose illness and absence I did not understand.
But there was Gwyn. Not loud or attention-seeking nor quiet…just right. We became bosom buddies and traveled together through the next twelve summers. Whoever arrived at camp first saved the other’s bunk and from then on the month belonged to fun, friendship, and learning.
I learned how to be decent. She had a lot to do with that. She was calm; I was competitive. She was peaceful while I wanted to crush the bugs that bullied people. Her way was better. She seemed unfettered by self-image and angsts while my head was cluttered with a thousand arguments and conversations. She did not judge while I silently hacked away at everyone. I think back on those days and see myself as a tough little (brat) thing, competitive, envious, in need of attention yet loyal and willing to do anything for my friends. (I am still like that, however, the years have removed the delicacy…now I simply say Don’t F with my family or friends. Lovely.)
At least that was how I saw myself until Gwyn and I reunited a few years ago after an extended, unintentional absence. Nothing had happened between us, just time drifting the way it does with life getting in the way. Can’t even remember what prompted me to write but I did, telling her she was one of my happiest memories of childhood and was she up for lunch.
She wrote back: You were my best friend at camp but more than that. I always felt protected by your friendship. You staved off those horrible bullies when no one else would even admit that those popular girls were mean. I loved you for that. You were kind. You were my friend.
Her lens showed me differently than my own.
The other day someone’s memory of a younger me cast me in a less attractive shadow and I have been thinking about it ever since, peeling back the onion skin of their truth, layer by layer, to see what I could do – if anything – that would matter.
It’s tricky when these hard-wired fifty-year-old memories are challenged by someone else’s story. And other than an honest conversation with the compassion that age hopefully affords us, there is nothing to be done about past truths other than learning going forward.
But today Gwyn was here. She remembers more than I do and somehow always manages to revive the ghosts of bygone days that feel good. She sat across the table laughing and sharing and caring, reminding me that we are neither all good nor bad nor any one thing. We are our mothers and fathers, our brothers and sisters, our friends and enemies, just moments stitched together by the thread of time.