Death, Grief, Bereavement

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Measuring Up

On Fathers, Sons, and What It Takes to Build a Home
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Love You, Ava Baby

Love You, Ava Baby

The Truth about Life after Losing a Child and How I Found Peace and Joy in the Sorrow
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A Victory Garden for Trying Times
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DRAFT

Chapter One

Before winter comes each year, I plant my garlic. In late October, usually. Early enough to give the thread-thin roots time to poke out of each clove and anchor in the soil before the first hard frost stiffens the ground, but late enough so sprouts as delicately green as fresh peas won’t prematurely shoot out of the earth on warm days only to be destroyed when the killing weather descends. That year, though, I waited until November because the fall was warm. Unusually warm. And I was worn out with worry, my routines as off-kilter as climate-change weather.

Planting any kind of vegetable — a seed, a seedling, a clove — is an act of faith: faith that there will be enough sun, enough rain. That disease, insects, and blight can be kept at bay long enough for beets to fatten in the soil, tomatoes to turn red and sweet, beans to multiply on poles. That we will be there to harvest them. But planting garlic in the fall, expecting it to survive the winter underground and then to start transmuting one clove into a head of new cloves at the exact right time, takes a special kind of faith. Plucking fat new heads from the ground eight or nine months later is a special kind of victory.

By the time I planted that fall, I’d had my garlic ready to go for weeks: five organic varieties from the local farmers’ market and a few heads left over from my crop of the previous summer. I’d pulled the individual cloves from the heads, careful to leave as much of the papery protective cover around each clove as I could, and then I stored them in a basket in the cold cellar until it was time. “Plant them during the full moon,” a farmer at the market had told me in a low, gruff voice, as if he were sharing a secret. I missed one full moon but didn’t want to wait for another. I assumed freezing weather was on its way even in the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, in one of the warmest zones in Ontario, where I then lived. And I wanted the garden put to bed for the year because there were more urgent things to do.

By the time I set out to plant my garlic, we’d received a definitive diagnosis for my husband, Peter: third-stage cancer of the esophagus.

The diagnosis came after a short holiday to celebrate my sixty-fifth birthday that fall, a trip to Colorado and beautiful New Mexico, where our faces glowed in the afternoon light and our thoughts grew darker over Peter’s increasing inability to swallow and therefore eat. In the twenty-seven years we’d been together, Peter had faced many physical challenges and conquered them all. We thought this was just another bump in a history of bad luck with his health. Maybe we shouldn’t have gone on that trip, but doctors had told us that Peter’s difficulties with swallowing could be anything and that swallowing problems are common as we age. We had finally made it to the specialist, a gastroenterologist in St. Catharines, the day before our departure. “Go on your holiday,” he’d said. Neither he nor anyone else had said the C-word about a polyp seen on an X-ray, and we were all too willing to accept their lack of concern. Blindly, I suppose.

Peter had found me the highest sand dune in North America to climb and he was eager to finally visit Santa Fe. I thrilled at exploring natural wonders, especially empty canyons, open deserts, and dunes, while Peter was content to sit and admire them. He was eager to learn the peculiarities of a new city — its odd museums, its quirky characters, and its unique past — while I loved to photograph its architecture, its splashes of colour and personality. I didn’t want to give up my birthday trip. Peter didn’t want to ruin another of my significant birthdays with a medical crisis, as had happened before. It was just for two weeks, after all. So, we went.

As soon as we got back, Peter underwent a probe and a biopsy that he’d scheduled before we left. After that procedure Peter had to follow up with the gastroenterologist’s office for an appointment. He was given a time two weeks later, a routine appointment. And we took that as a good sign. There was nothing urgent; this was something routine.

But when we arrived for the appointment, we sat in the crowded waiting room, nervous, afraid of what we might hear. When the doctor, a short, grey-haired man, called us into his office, we followed him into a small, claustrophobic room with a desk in the centre. I sensed there was clutter all around me, on file cabinets, on the desk, on the walls, but they were all in my periphery; I was focused on that doctor and what he’d say. Peter introduced me as his wife but the doctor didn’t respond, didn’t even look at me. Peter and I sat down in the two chairs across from him and watched as he shuffled papers. Without a glance at us, he turned his face toward his computer screen and muttered, “It’s cancer.”

Peter and I stared at the doctor in disbelief, waiting for something else from him, some hint of reassurance. I had to ask him what kind of cancer.

“Cancer of the esophagus,” he replied, not returning my gaze.

“How can we get treatment quickly?” I asked.

“You can’t, ” he said in a way that hit me like a snarl. “This is Ontario. There are procedures.”

We left his office with a form for blood work and little confidence that this doctor had a plan. In the hallway, Peter and I hugged silently. On the way home, we stopped the car and called my daughter.

“But is it really cancer?” Jane asked.

Like me, Jane had come to think of Peter as invincible. He’d been told he had cancer before. Twice. Once, an internist, after seeing a mass on Peter’s X-ray, had operated for colon cancer only to discover Peter’s appendix had burst and the mass was dead tissue. Another time I had to rush Peter to hospital when a blood test revealed a hemoglobin count so low most people would have been dead.

The first doctors we encountered that time were certain Peter had leukemia, but a clever hematologist diagnosed his inability to absorb B12 as the problem, and monthly injections of the vitamin brought back Peter’s vitality. But Peter and I both sensed that this time was different, and we told Jane so.

“But Petey will beat it,” Jane said of the father figure she had known since she was three. “He always does.”

I didn’t say anything; I wondered how much damage one body could take.

At home, Peter and I cried and tried to figure out how we could make things happen. We were journalists, competent people. We knew how to put things into action. We would find the best doctor in Toronto, get a reference somehow. It was an appeal to our family doctor that got us into the well-respected Juravinski Cancer Centre in Hamilton the next week. There, we met a team of oncologists who were kind, efficient, and ready to tackle the cancer immediately. In an examining room, the lead oncologist drew a picture on the paper sheet on the bed that showed the tumour in the middle of Peter’s esophagus, and he took the time to describe the tumour with terms like “squamous cell carcinoma.” The word squamous sounded like “squash” to me, but he told us these cells were the flat cells that lined the esophagus and they were now cancerous in the location of the tumour. He talked about treatments and didn’t mince his words when it came to his anger over the slowness of the specialist in St. Catharines. And we knew we were in good hands.

In the following weeks, a CT scan and a PET scan revealed that Peter’s tumour had spread into the surrounding lymph glands, making the cancer Stage 3. But there was still so much to learn: Could the tumour be excised after radiation and chemotherapy treatments? Would the chemotherapy destroy the stray cancer? Had the PET scan missed spots of cancer in other parts of his body?

In my garden, I knelt on the cold ground, drew lines with a stick, dug small holes six inches apart and dropped a garlic clove in each hole. The solitary cloves looked so pale, so small, so fragile in the cold earth. What chance did they or any of us have, I wondered. I patted the soil over the point of each clove with little of the joy I usually felt at the moment I set the process of growth into motion. I couldn’t help wondering if Peter would be there to savour our late-summer favourite: bruschetta made with toppings from my garden, including fresh, finely chopped garlic. Rain began to fall on the earth. Planting my garlic that fall took all the faith I had.

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All Things Consoled

All Things Consoled

A daughter's memoir
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also available: Hardcover
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     My mother came home the next day. The residence doctor dropped by in the afternoon, sturdy, energetic, reassuring. We had learned he was from Aberdeen, a fact that only endeared him further to my parents, for the Hays traced their origins back to the same part of Scotland. My mother greeted him cheerfully, and he said, “So you’ve come back.”
     She had. She had come back to us.
     Then once again, around the middle of March, she lost her words and twenty-four hours later showed no signs of recovering them. “I’m thinking—throne—thinking—th.” Starting on a word with an opening sound like “th,” she could not escape it, any more than a month earlier she had been able to escape “window—whether.”
     After I got her lying down, I went into the living room to talk to Dad, who was staring out one of the windows that overlooked the road and the canal beyond. Without turning, he said, “I don’t think she’s suffering, she’s just lost.” He choked up, as he did so very easily, before going on. “We just have to hope, or maybe hope is the wrong word. If she doesn’t make it, maybe it’s for the best.”
     The next day, “It’s snowing snowing snowing snowing,” she said, as we sat on a bench in the glowing sunshine.
     Certain words were no problem for her: yes, okay, right, super, thank you, well, son of a gun, really. Over the telephone, I told Sochi about the automatic responses that still issued loud and clear from her grandmother. Sochi laughed and remarked that they were all affirmatives; someone else’s might have been shit, goddammit and fuck. My mother’s “son of a gun” was as close as she came to an expletive and it was always said with good humour.
     Then the next morning, when I walked out of the late-winter sunshine into their living room, exclaiming what a beautiful day it was, my mother stopped me in my tracks by replying from the chesterfield, “Yes, it is a beautiful day.”
     Lazarus was back from the land of the mute. Open in her lap was the book I had brought to them several days before about Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition, and now she said how interesting she thought it was. Sitting beside her, washed over by relief and excitement, I flipped to the page with the photograph of ice flowers, delicate white rosettes blanketing the surface of newly frozen sea water on February 16th, 1915—four years before she and my father were born. I told her about seeing them in patches on the canal last winter and on a pond at the arboretum. And we made conversation. “Your words have come back!” She nodded and smiled and talked, and everything she said made sense.
     But Dad was less excited by her recovery than he was upset with her for having wet the bed. “And who is going to wash the sheets?” he wanted to know. I asked him what happened to the diaper I had helped her into before leaving the night before. Well, in getting her into her nightgown, he had taken it off. Then immediately on the offensive again, he lit into me about her bone-strengthening medication. Had she had it or not?
     “A nurse is supposed to give it to her early Sunday morning,” I said, “which is today.”
     “You haven’t answered my question!” he thundered, only to back off a heartbeat later. “All right,” he admitted. “Somebody came in and gave it to her.” Only to blast me again, “But then she fell asleep! She’s not supposed to fall asleep after she gets it!”
     He took things hard and he made them harder. There would come a day when he declared that the nursing care in this place wasn’t “worth coon shit.”
     I liked “coon shit.” Never in a million years would I have imagined those words coming out of his mouth. We went down for coffee, and then Mom and I went outside into the open air and abundant sunshine while he remained behind in the library reading Maclean’s.
     In the flooding light we walked to the corner. “Did you have wrens nesting in the garden in London last spring?” I asked her.
     “I am forced to confess that I do not remember,” she said, speaking in her old formal way. Her teachers at Renfrew Collegiate had been sticklers for grammar and well-formed sentences, and my mother had been an excellent student.
     “What was it like for you, the last couple of days, when you couldn’t find your words?”
     “It was unsettling. But it’s been unsettling for a while.”
     We walked on. I asked her what she was thinking about.
     “I’m thinking about what the future holds.”
     “Are you worried about that?”
     She said something vague about no one knowing what the future holds, or perhaps I said that.
     I had pulled from the wastebasket in their rooms another of her efforts at a letter, one she had been working on somedays before, wanting it, she said, to be “a reasonable letter from a reasonable person.” She intended to have it do yeoman’s service for all of the friends she hadn’t yet written to.

There must be a way in the English Landwich to say to
your English speaking friends a great deal more emphatic?
I’ve tried many ways but the best I’ve managed is

Thank you so very much from all of us
The Hays

     Around this time, I remember her taking several bananas—the three on the counter and the one from inside their little fridge—and lining them up on the seat of her walker, then pushing her walker into the living room. I didn’t follow for a moment, washing dishes in their kitchenette. Then when I went into the living room, the bananas were nowhere in sight. “Where are they, Mom? Dad, did you see what Mom did with the bananas?”
     “Sure I did.”
     “Where are they?” Looking around.
     “Well, just don’t sit on the chesterfield,” he said.
     I checked under the cushions and there they were: fourbananas lined up in a row.

They reminded me of characters out of Beckett. A pair of solitaries who had always headed out to the studio, in my mother’s case, or downstairs to his study, in my father’s (each to his own lair) were now sharing two rooms. They were like the aged parents trapped in dustbins in Endgame. Like Laurel and Hardy in another fine mess. Or like old Joshua Smallweed in Bleak House throwing cushions at his imbecile wife.
     “Oh the weather,” my mother said to me, “the weather now is the pits of wet roses.” She had been reading in the newspaper, she said, about a woman in her thirties “who came down under the overburden of blankets and probably isn’t going to live.”
     Her turns of phrase rather confirmed my view that poetry issues from the holes in our head, that whatever faculty produces the startling contractions and coinages and leaps in logic that we call poetry is also available on an unconscious and uncontrollable level to someone suffering dementia. One morning on the telephone, ever solicitous about my sleep, she asked, “How did you severe the night?” Blending the words “fare,” “survive” and “persevere” so deftly that a lifetime of labour in the sleep mines got summoned up and summed up. “Dad’s behind a shave,” she added, “but I think he’ll come to the phone.”
     Later, when I went over to see them, “Do you know what I had for breakfast?” she said to me.
     “What?”
     She leaned forward. “Too much.”
     But that was her sense of humour. Like her abundant hair, it was her lasting glory.

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Through, Not Around

Through, Not Around

Stories of Infertility and Pregnancy Loss
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also available: eBook
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Excerpt

Chapter 22: Round Two

Ariel Ng Bourbonnais

I’m relieved I don’t miss Dr. Singh’s call. I’ve been dying to know if my über-low egg reserve is now extinct. It’s been nearly two years since I’ve tested my AMH levels and I’ve mentally prepared myself to find out I have zero eggs left, at the tender middle age of 35.

What’s AMH? I had no idea until it was too late for me. AMH stands for anti-Müllerian hormone, and it’s easily measured by taking a blood sample. This test is not currently covered by the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP), but I think it should be because it’s important for women to benchmark their fertility health. And this blood test is a simple and quick way to capture a snapshot. High AMH generally indicates a greater egg reserve and better-quality eggs. Low AMH indicates a smaller reserve and sometimes that the quality is degraded, too. I tell myself it’s okay if my eggs are now rotten because I’ve already come to terms with my infertility after one miscarriage a few years back and many more years of struggling to conceive. I recently asked my doctor if I could pay for the AMH blood test again because it’s worth $75 to give me peace of mind, which is why Dr. Singh is calling me today. When I see her name pop up on my phone, I pick up right away. As usual, she doesn’t mince words.

“Ariel, the rest of your blood work is fine but we have your AMH results and you are at 2.9.” She sounds excited for the first time in our entire history of fertility-related conversations.

My coffeeless brain tries to compute what she’s saying. “2.9. How is this even possible?” My AMH was recorded at 0.78 a few years ago. I didn’t think I could improve my egg reserve at all and especially not by that much. It’s truly inconceivable, pun intended.

“I don’t know, but it’s a good thing. I know you said you and your husband were done trying, but I think you should go back to the fertility clinic. This at least warrants another conversation.”

“I guess we could talk about it again. 2.9, are you sure?” I ask.

“That’s what your results say. I’ll send your referral to the fertility clinic today, and if you don’t hear back from them within a few weeks, you call and let them know you’re a former patient of theirs and need to set up a new appointment.”

I’m glad she outlined the exact next steps I need to take, because I’m in a state of total shock. Hell, I think Dr. Singh is in shock, too. “Thank you for making my day,” I simply say.

I hang up and immediately call my husband, Lawrence. He’s not going to believe that I went from the 10th percentile of fertility to the 50th. I thought I had the eggs of a 45-year-old woman, but now I am back in my true age box. I’m skeptical. Something doesn’t add up and I’m trying to figure out what it is. I wonder if this is a miracle because of my recent lifestyle changes. I stopped eating meat and started doing cardio a few months ago. Could a regular trampoline class and no-burger lifestyle get me knocked up, with the help of my husband, of course? I’m confused but happy. Then I start to wonder if the lab made an error and my AMH is really 0.29 instead of 2.9. This would be logical, would make sense, and would align with my previous diagnosis. A score of 2.9 is heavenly, unimaginable, luxurious.

Lawrence picks up. “What’s up? I’m about to leave for work.” “Dr. Singh called and my AMH is 2.9, not 0.78.”

“See, I told you. I knew you were okay.” He sounds so relieved.

“I’m going to book us in to see the specialist, Dr. Adatia, again. Maybe we can do the government-funded IVF this time.”

My husband and I paid for one round of IVF two years ago because we wanted to save the government funding, in case we decided to proceed with an egg donor. The egg donor IVF is more expensive than my round of low-stimulation IVF was. My eggs needed to be more gently drugged because the regular doses of medication would have killed them off. During our IVF cycle, we retrieved four measly eggs and only one acted like it was supposed to with the sperm. One. This hurt even more when my best friend went through the IVF process a few months after I did and was able to retrieve 18 eggs.

We implanted the only egg with potential and it failed. My husband and I thought we were being smart by saving the government funding, but it ended up being a dumb decision because we didn’t go the egg donor route. We gave up all fertility treatments when the IVF didn’t work with my own eggs, and that was the end of that.

Or so I thought.

“Amazing, Love. I’m so happy. I knew it!” He is so happy that it turns my hardened heart as soft as a peony petal. I want to at least try to have his baby again. The worst that can happen is that it doesn’t work, and we’ve already come to terms with a no-kids lifestyle.

Or have we?

A few days later in a bathroom stall at work, my absolute favourite place to discover pregnancy, I find out that, in fact, I am pregnant. I had all the telltale signs that week. I had tender breasts, I was peeing every two minutes, and I was exhausted. I just didn’t believe it was actually possible for me to get pregnant again, so I read the signs as extra PMS fun.

“We conceived naturally,” I keep whispering to myself over and over again. This week is madness: first my AMH levels are practically in the normal range. Then I’m pregnant for the second time in my life without the intervention of a team of specialists. Somebody stop me.

When I tell Lawrence, he proudly says, “Cool, I knew it.” And he really did. Lawrence always believed there was a chance I could get pregnant again, but I shut him down each and every time. I owe everyone who’s ever told me that miracles happen a formal, written apology. The pessimist in me now has to believe in miracles, because this truly is a miracle. If I thought my AMH returning to normal levels for my age was good news, this is cake on top of cake on top of cake.

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