ELIZA'S CROSS CANADA LOVE TOUR
Grief messes with your mind and mine never felt particularly regular to begin with.
For example, long before grieving, I used to have this recurring sensation of a pair of scissors cutting through my clothing. The blade would cut through my t-shirt and bra smoothly, in one even stroke, leaving me exposed. The leftover scraps of clothing would fall gently to the ground. The sensation would come to me most often in public. I would describe it as a sort of vertigo. Akin to standing on the edge of a high platform and feeling you will jump, even if you don't want to, that some unstoppable force will intervene and cause you to throw your own body over the edge.
In this sensation/vision however, I would often be the one wielding the scissors. The feeling hinged on the fact that I could be suddenly naked by my own hand, that if given the tools I could be laid bare for all to see at anytime. Instead of feeling afraid and out of control, like you might during a bad bout of vertigo, the image in my mind made me feel free. As if at any moment I could rid myself of society’s trappings, clothing, identity, civility, sanity, all in one or two cuts. It became a strange sort of fantasy. Not one I was actively choosing but one that would come to me from time to time, and land in my mind as a comfort.
"Ah yes, that’s an option"
I wouldn’t choose it of course…but it was an option.
I would venture a guess that sudden public nudity isn’t an uncommon desire. We were all born naked after all, and if no one else wanted to be naked in public there wouldn’t be nude beaches, or exhibitionists. Still, probably imagining that I might cut off all my clothes in public isn’t totally “normal”. Even so, it never bothered me much. It was only a thought, and everyone thinks weird things you wouldn’t want to say out loud…right?
My current mental “comfort” is more extreme, but it doesn’t concern me much either. Perhaps the only thing unnerving about it is how little in concerns to me.
I see myself cut, sliced open with the same ease as the t-shirt being torn apart by scissors. In my mind, the cuts do not cause pain, but instead create an opening, a way to see inside. To see my heart, my chest, my spine. To be able to scoop out the pain, to tear myself open in order to let the pain pour out of me.
Right now, everything feels trapped, I feel trapped in my body. So, in my mind, I see myself being able rip apart so easily that the pain would have no choice but to leak out through all the empty spaces.
To be explicitly clear, for everyone reading this who loves me, I don't want to hurt myself. Not at all. The same way I don't want to be naked for no reason on a crowded street. What I want is to feel free, only now the trappings to escape aren’t societal, they are on the inside. Grief, despair, anger, guilt, pain, the possibility that my genes are diseased or broken. It all feels too much to bare, I want it all out, I need it out of me.... but I can't use scissors. I can only use tears and words.
Even after watching Grey's Anatomy for years, I never understood the appeal of surgery before, but now I do. It’s efficient. To take the broken diseased part of you out and leave it on a sterile tray. Just like that it’s gone, no longer tormenting you from the inside.
But what do you do when you can't live without the damaged broken part? When everything you are is a broken part. When you can't cut yourself open take out the pain and leave it behind.
I don't know…but I do know that, sometimes, imagining that I could is a comfort.
I would also venture a guess I’m not alone in that either.
Face The Truth
On November 12th, 2018, I sat down on the bed and cried.
I was in the guest bedroom of my Grandpa’s condo in Brandon, Manitoba, the same bedroom my mom had been living in before she was diagnosed with cancer only a few months before.
Sitting and crying on what still felt like her bed, I couldn’t understand what was happening and I didn’t want to. Instead I started down the familiar path of painful questions. How had this become my life? How can my mom be sick? Why did this happen? What could we have done differently? What had any of us done to deserve this? How is this possible? Then for the first time, I said to myself “It’s not fair.”
“It’s not fair.”
I chanted it again and again to myself until eventually the tears started to slow, and, to my surprise, I began to feel more and more calm. I took one deep breath after another and on the exhale, I would say it again “It’s not fair.”
In my journal that day I wrote about the clarity that came from that simple statement:
Is it strange that eventually that idea felt comforting? Just... that it isn't fair?
I can't explain it.
I guess it’s because it really isn't fair and at least I know that is true.
Amidst all the uncertainty I know one thing for sure-
It's not fair.
Months later the grounding effect of these words does not seem strange to me at all. I didn’t know it at the time but through acknowledging that the situation I was in wasn’t fair, I was also acknowledging that it was happening, that it was real. I had spent months up until that point in disbelief being unable and unwilling to believe what was happening. I knew in my mind that it was true, but it was too painful to go there.
Denial is like a hallucinatory drug that tricks us into believing we are safe in our beds when in reality we are wandering around a cliff’s edge late at night about to fall to our deaths, plunging head first into the icy waters below. If we were to become sober to the reality we would at first be disoriented and terrified, the illusion would feel safer, but it is only with our sober minds that we have any power to save ourselves from the danger at hand.
When you cut yourself you have to acknowledge you are bleeding before you can stop it. Acceptance heals, plain and simple.
Once I accepted what was happening to my mom was “not fair” the first question inevitably became “okay…so now what?”. My mom is sick, she may die, this is the reality, what do I need to do to move forward? For me the answer to that question was “pretty much exactly what I have already been doing” (be with her, make sure she knows I love her, say what I need to say and really hear everything she has to tell me). Finally I had an answer.
While I was in Manitoba, I began watching a lot of horror movies. I found them suddenly relatable for obvious reasons. One common thread present in almost all the horror that I watched was the moment in the film where the protagonist stops doubting themselves or thinking they are “crazy” and instead accepts that the terrifyingly insane situation are experiencing is real. In other words, the moment they stopped screaming and running away and turned to face the monster head on. This is a perfect example of the power of acceptance; You can’t overcome anything you refuse to acknowledge.
Even now, the days I spend most lost in grief, most distraught and heartsick, are the ones when I can’t seem to accept the reality. Days after nights spent dreaming of her, where her alive self feels as real as it ever did. Days like that are the most painful because they confuse the truth and make acceptance much more difficult. On the other hand, I feel strongest and most clear on the days I’m able to know for sure what has happened, to remind myself she has died right away. Knowing she is gone helps me stay present. Do I still wish things were different? of course, but wanting things to be different won’t change reality. As much as it’s not the reality I would have chosen it is still my life, and sure life isn’t fair but it can still be beautiful. For me, there is great freedom to be found in the truth, in the times am brave enough to face it.
Feel The Love
In times of tragedy, gifts will appear. They may be small like a card or a casserole. They may be large, like a place to stay or a plane ticket. They may be difficult to see through darkness, and you may deny that they are there at all, but they will be there.
Accept all the gifts with joy.
Let yourself feel the love.
Let yourself be loved.
If a gift is impractical or unneeded, share with the giver what you do need.
If you do not know what you need, that is okay, but find a way to accept the love.
The help being offered may not suit you, but you can always accept the love.
When you are lost and your heart is broken, there will be gifts of light and kind words.
When you are grieving and you soul is heavy, there will be gifts of strong people to help shoulder the burden.
The gifts may not come all at once, they may trickle in slowly over time, but if you pay attention they will be there.
The gifts and the angels are everywhere. Look for them.
Do not treat them as a consolation prize for your pain, receive them as if they were born of no sorrow.
If you are afraid you are taking to much, or you do not feel worthy, remember that greeting the givers and receiving their bounty is also an act of giving.
If giving is a gift to yourself,
receiving is a gift to the giver.
Receiving with love is how to give when you have nothing left.
The more we turn away good things the more we teach people not to offer. Even worse, we teach people that their offerings are not enough. We teach them that their love has no worth to us. Let the love from others hold worth to you, and you will let others feel their love is worthy.
Heal by accepting.
Give by receiving.
Allow yourself to fill up on love, to become so full of love that it will begin to overflow, showering back onto all the givers. So full of love, that through accepting help, you have once again become one of the givers yourself.
Through accepting the gifts that tragedy brings you, you can become the angel you needed.
I am someone who has tended to avoid painful experiences if I can help it. I'm only assuming, but I guess that's pretty common. Not only have I avoided physical pain, but also emotion pain and especially conflict of any kind.
When I was a kid and people would start fighting, I would quietly back away and find anywhere else to be hoping that no one would notice I had gone. When the “scary parts” of movies came on, like in “Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone” (spoiler alert, but also, you’ve had your chance) when Quirrell slowly unwraps his turban to reveal Voldemort underneath it, I would close my eyes. If I got physically hurt, I would nurse my wounds diligently and show them off to anyone who was around, and if I was emotionally hurt, I was not quick to forgiveness. I was the youngest in a big family full of cousins and being coddled was one of my greatest joys in life. I was hard on myself and a not-so-secret perfectionist, but I loved the “get out of pain free card” that being the baby of the family often afforded me.
Consequently, whenever I did encounter pain, it felt like a monumental event.
There was a phase of time when I was around 8 years old when I remember thinking that I was cursed. We had been lucky enough to be able to go to the indoor play place “Adventure City” a couple times that year, but each time right before going I had hurt myself badly. The first time I had a huge wipeout on my bike, and the second time my finger was accidently caught in a slammed door and I lost most of my nail. The nail incident was especially traumatic and the combination of the two had formed a very clear pattern in my head; “I go to adventure city, I get hurt.”
Confirmation bias then kicked in for me hard and in the coming years anytime we went to adventure city I would look for examples to prove my theory true. “I got kicked” or “I slipped in the ball bit” or “ I scraped my knee”, incredibly common things to happen in a rowdy day of playing on a giant play structure, but in my mind, irrefutable proof. It was reassuring to feel like I knew the way of the world and when the pain would come. It felt like I understood the pain, and if I could predict it then maybe I could control it.
As I grew up I unconsciously continued this pattern. I was a mostly a healthy gal but the times I did get sick or injured almost always centred around big life events. Specifically, things I had been excited about and looking forward to. Trips, sleepovers, performances, camping trips etc. Examples of this include but are not limited to: Falling off the stage in my middle school’s production of Annie, injuring my back two days into gymnastics camp and throwing up hours before my high school holiday show. I could relay each and every detail of these events and all the dozens of other examples, because I told these stories to others and myself over and over again. For so many years, I was surprised when I would get through an exciting event unscathed by injury or illness. I suffered through countless trips, friend’s birthday parties, performances etc. plagued by ailment and eventually I just got used it it. It changed my view of reality because I truly believed that for me that was just how life was. In many ways it became a part of my identity. It made me feel weak, and like a part of me was always holding my breath.
The incident that broke the camel's back, or more aptly its neck, came when I was 17. I have mild scoliosis, but I started doing ballet at an early age and the introduction of proper posture into my life came before puberty, so many of the negative effects my condition were mollified. That is, of course, until I woke up in the middle of the night in searing pain screaming for my parents. In that moment I was pretty sure I was about to die, all I knew about neck issues was that if your neck was broken you could die, and I couldn’t move a millimetre without experiencing more intense pain than I’d ever every felt, so much so that I was sure it must be broken. Up until recently it was the scariest thing I had ever experienced. I felt trapped in my own body, unable to move for fear of even worse pain, but somehow my parents and I made it to the emergency room.
The drive to the hospital was less than three blocks away but every second was excruciating. Every bump we encountered made the pain 10 times worse. Once the doctor finally saw me, I was informed that I had temporary torticollis (or wry neck), and to our dismay there was nothing to be done but take some pain medication and wait for it to go away. It could take days or longer, but the next day my performing arts high school was putting on its annual holiday variety show (the one I had been throwing up during two years prior) and I was supposed to be in 3 group dances as well as a variety of sketches and songs. In my condition, I would be unable to perform. It had happened again, only worse, because I couldn’t suffer through it, I was going to have to miss out altogether. Nothing about this felt controlled or reassuring, I was terrified.
The stiffness and the pain went away within a week (with the help of a chiropractor/naturopath that I still see) but the fear burrowed deep inside me, infesting my brain with questions: “Should I go on this rollercoaster?” “Should I stay home today?” “Is my neck going to spasm again?” “What if it just keeps getting worse and worse and worse?” “If it’s like this now, how will it be when I’m older?” “What kind of life will I have if I’m always in pain?”.
In many ways the fear of the pain became bigger than the pain itself, and as much as I continued living my life as I had, the shadow of that pain followed me and the next several years of my life were spent in constant conversation with my pain, attempting to fend off it’s advances. My neck never spasmed again after that first time but I spent many days in bed, my neck stiff and immovable, forced to rest for fear of it becoming worse.
I recently re-read a journal entry I wrote a couple of years ago on one such day. In it I wrote “I wish to know myself as intimately as my pain does”. Pain had become my barometer for what I could handle. It stopped me before I went too far, it pulled me back if I had been pushing myself too long, it forced me to rest. Unlike what I believed when I was a child, I was not the one who predicted, understood or controlled my pain, it predicted, understood and controlled me.
My beliefs around pain controlled my life.
The pain was real, but the stories were not. I can have fun without getting hurt, I can live a life uncontrolled by pain but to do that I had to face it. Not only face it but embrace it in every way. I had spent so much time resentful of the pain, trying desperately to push it away, and it only made things worse. I was ashamed of myself for not being stronger, embarrassed of what I saw as a character flaw, instead of merely incidental. When I look back at those events now, I don’t see my weakness but my strength. I am amazed by how I was able to make the best of those situations. I wasn’t weak, I was strong and brave. When I fell off the stage I got back up and kept going, when I injured my back during gymnastics camp I still went back every day doing modified versions of every exercise, when I had the flu during the holiday show I rested curled up in a ball in the dressing room whenever I wasn’t needed onstage, but when I was called I pulled it together and made it through each number so that my grandparents (who had flown in from out of town) were able to see me perform. Pain had not actually controlled my life, it was just a part of my life, a part I had tried desperately to avoid for fear of seeming weak for not being able face it. Except, I had faced it and come out the other end repeatedly. For all my avoidance and self blame and resistance, I had faced pain and it had not proved me to be weak, it had shown that I was strong.
When my mom was in the hospital, she was in pain pretty much all the time. She never described it as pain to her nurses, she used terms like “tight” and “uncomfortable”, but still it was present most of the time every day for months. Not just physical pain but emotional pain too. Through all the pain my mom was resilient and brave in the face of unimaginable circumstances. Even still, one day in a particularly hard moment she told me that she was afraid we would think she was a fraud because she had always believed in things like being able to “heal yourself” and meditation and “breathing through the pain”, but she hadn’t been able to do that. From the inside she felt like she was fighting a battle with pain she couldn’t win, and in that moment needed help seeing her strength. I responded right away "Don’t think that for one second when you are in the middle of pain you have to do anything but experience it, however you need to. It can be all consuming, but in the moments of grace you have been kind and encouraging and hopeful and playing with babies and having birthdays and living your life, so you have been doing exactly what you said".
She started to cry saying "How did you get so smart" I laughed and as a not-too subtle compliment to her I said, "I've been paying attention".
I feel like wisdom has a way of floating back and forth between people depending on who needs it. In that moment she needed to hear those words from me, even if she was the only reason I knew what to say at all.
I can’t overcome pain, no one can, I can’t control it or will it away or find some secret key to becoming its master, but I can accept it. Instead of trying to avoid pain I can embrace it as a part of life and stop letting it have so much power over how I feel about myself.
The other day I woke up stiff with a familiar twinge in my neck. I put on some muscle relaxing cream, I drank lots of water, tried to relax, and I kept going about my day. I had to clean the apartment I was staying in, thanks to a generous friend, before I left Halifax the next day on a five-hour bus ride to PEI (a not-so fun activity to do with a painful neck). I spoke with a friend on the phone and expressed that I was slightly nervous, but I was just going to start cleaning anyway, gently and a little at a time. So, I swept, and I dusted, and I washed the dishes and I cleaned the bathroom and did the laundry and made the bed and a few hours later the same friend checked in to see how I was doing. Much to my surprise I realized that pain had left as easily as it came, and my neck felt almost 100 percent better. I also I realized that even if it hadn’t started feeling better, I probably would have kept cleaning anyway, or I would have stopped and rested, either way it wasn’t a big deal.
"What would you do if you were suddenly homeless, jobless and mom-less all at the same time?"
This is not a typical travel blog. Or really, it’s not a travel blog at all.
More than likely I won’t mention the traveling much as that is not really what this “love tour” is about.
On January 05th 2019 my mom passed away from uterine cancer. I had spent five months in Manitoba, away from my home in Toronto, to be with her. After she died, I intended to return home to my “normal” life, if that was even possible.
Surprise! It was not possible.
On the morning of January 22nd, 2019 there was a fire next to my apartment. I woke up to a bunch of text messages from people who thought I was home when the fire broke out. I was not. I was safe in Manitoba at a friend’s house, set to fly home that evening. There was also a frantic phone message from my boss, you see, my apartment was located right on top of where I worked. By the time I returned home it became clear that my apartment and the store where I worked had been so badly smoke damaged that it would be many months, if not longer, before either would be safe to live/work in again.
Everything had gone up in smoke. Literally.
I just lost my mom and now I had no job and no place to live. The fire felt like an outward representation of how I felt on the inside: Altered, damaged and entirely unrecognizable to myself.
It was the crappy cherry on top of a horrific year, but if I’m being honest, a tiny part of me felt relieved. I wasn’t ready to fit myself back into the life that had been waiting for me. My former life felt like a beautiful dream, a perfect intangible place slipping away in the harsh light of morning. A place that I was no longer able to inhabit even if I wanted to.
I didn’t have room in my heart for the fire to devastate me, but I was completely lost, and had no clue what to do now. So, like the mediocre millennial I am, I posted on Facebook:
“What would you do if you were suddenly homeless, jobless and mom-less all at the same time? Looking for actual plans as well as humorous suggestions as either would brighten my day.”
Aside from the recommendations to adopt a pet ferret and purchase a monocle, almost everyone told me to come and visit them.
When my mom was in the hospital, she often felt guilty for having to turn down people’s requests to come and visit her. She was exhausted and unable to predict how she might feel on any given day. In an effort to calm her worries I would tell her she didn’t have to spend any energy worrying about whether she could say yes to every visit because if things “went south” I would go on a “farewell tour” and visit everyone to thank them for the love in person. It was slightly morbid, but dark humour becomes a comfort when every day feels like a mini horror movie, and I do believe it comforted her slightly too.
“I’ll visit everyone.” I promised.
Now a few months later it seemed like I might actually have the opportunity to “visit everyone” and travel across Canada to see all the people I love and the people that loved my mom. I knew this is exactly what she would have wanted for me, an adventure. It’s the kind of adventure that we would have done together if she were alive.
This is usually where someone might mention making lemonade out of lemons, and sure, you could say that. However, I prefer to see it as taking my lemon on a road trip. The lemon in this metaphor is grief (in case you were confused) and It’s not going anywhere. I can’t smash it or squeeze it or add sugar to its juices to make it any less bitter or more palatable, but I can bring it along as a passenger. I can let my lemon propel me forward or at the very least, not hold me back.
Lemons aside, it has only been a few months since I lost my mom and I am still right in the thick of it. My mom was my best friend and I miss her constantly with every fibre of my being. This trip will be a journey through grief as much as it is one across Canada, likely more so. There may be a travel anecdote here or there, but mostly, I plan for this to be a place to share my thoughts, feelings and musings about life and loss and my mom. Then again if I have learned anything so far, it’s that plans change, so who knows what this blog will become.
Either way, you are invited to join me and follow my “Love Tour” as I travel both across Canada and the treacherous waters of my grieving heart.
Love to you,