Dysfunctional Families

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My Favourite Crime

My Favourite Crime

Essays and Journalism from Around the World
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All We Knew But Couldn't Say

2002 — Princess Margaret Hospital

I never know what condition she’ll be in when I arrive at the hospital — if she’ll be lucid, rambling, awake, sleeping, in an altered state, or maybe even gone. Dead.

I wait, though, finishing my cigarette outside, squatting on the ground. My fingertips yellowed with nicotine. The skin chewed. The sky scattered and uncertain as if the spring sun might disappear and a storm might crash in. I exhale and stroke an exposed patch of grass as if it were the fur of a sleeping cat.

“Are you okay?” asks a woman.

I squint, shield my eyes, and look up from her stiletto heels to her bold red lips. Everything perfect and in place.

“My mother is dying,” I say.

“I’m sorry,” she says softly before walking away.

I stand up, squash my cigarette with my shoe, cross the street, and go through the revolving glass doors of Princess Margaret, Toronto’s renowned cancer hospital. I wait for the elevator, pop peppermint gum into my mouth, fish my shades from my pocket, and push them on, covering the dark circles around my eyes.

The elevator is crammed with gowned patients clutching their IV poles, hospital staff, and fellow visitors. Some are here for those in the beginning stages of the disease, the newly diagnosed who are in treatment or having surgery. Then there are people like me, the dishevelled and overtired, the ones on constant duty, hurrying to the bathroom or stealing away for a quick smoke, afraid to miss the end.

It takes forever to get to the seventeenth floor: the palliative care ward. My sisters are outside our mother’s room talking in whispers. My brother, Diego, is at home sleeping. We’re on rotating shifts. My sisters, Sadie and Lou, have travelled from Montreal and Vancouver to say their goodbyes; yes, even Sadie, who was taken by the Children’s Aid so many years ago, the day the rest of us were inexplicably left behind.

Mother slips in and out of consciousness, almost in a coma, her body bruised from multiple needles and the morphine drip. Her eyes are glassy, hollow. She is uncommunicative, the way my sisters like it. They don’t want to talk or listen; they have never believed a word she said anyway. Lou refused to even come to Toronto unless I was certain Mother was dying.

It was winter when my mother was admitted. I didn’t know then how long was left. Weeks? Months? I only knew she was declining, and unlike my sisters, I had questions that needed answering. I walk into her room. Her bare feet are exposed, the skin like cracked mud under a hot sun. I should apply cream but am afraid to touch them. I am thirty-three years old, but my insides still revolt when I get close to her. The need to feel separate is so big, so old. So immediate.

I ignore her parched feet, busying myself with the messy counter beside her bed while I formulate the first question.

“Do you want to finally talk?” I stare at her.

“Not yet,” she says and stares back.

I wipe the counter and rearrange the clutter: the box of Kleenex, the water jug, three Styrofoam cups, juice from breakfast. I throw out used tissues. I try again.

“Why did you marry him?” I ask. “Why Dad?”

“Because I had to,” she answers. She grabs the remote and turns on the extendable tiny television that stretches out from the wall like the arm of a crane. “The new kids are so good,” she says after finding a figure-skating competition. “That boy Sandhu, he can dance too.…”

“But why? Was it because you were pregnant with Sadie?”

She pauses as if the answer is lost to her. I’ve seen it before, this vacancy, how she fumbles, makes things up she doesn’t know, avoids reality.

“I think so.…” Mother says, her voice stuck somewhere in her throat.

“You think so or you know so?”

“I don’t know.… I … well, your grandfather wanted me to marry your father.” She turns off the television and shoves it away from her bed.

I actually know the real story, but not from my mother. From Diego, who told me years ago, after he had gone with Mother to a therapy session.

Mother was the youngest girl out of seven children: the “chosen” one, raped by her father. She told people, but no one believed her. I did. The moment Diego told me, I knew it was true. It was the only thing that made sense. A piece of her was broken long before any of us came along.

“And I loved your father,” she interjects before I can say anything more. “I loved him. Isn’t that enough?” She covers herself with the thin green hospital blanket.

It isn’t. Because it isn’t true. It can’t be. He was a brute; she was a girl. What was to love?

When I was young, I obsessively asked her why she married my dad. He was terrifying, and even at the age of eight, I couldn’t understand why she’d married him.

She would always say the same thing: “Because I loved him.” Then she would throw up her arms to shut me up, as if she thought I could believe her. It was the most insane thing I had ever heard.

She interrupts my thoughts. “I want to speak with all my children.” Her demeanour is imperious. “I forgive you all.”

“What did you say?” I turn to her, feeling nauseous, dizzy almost. After everything she has done, she forgives us?

“And what do you forgive your children for? What have your children done to you that requires your forgiveness?” My voice is low, measured.

She stares at me without answering, fidgets with her bedding. Her voice changes, becomes childlike. “Do you forgive me?”

“I don’t really know, but I know I won’t forget.”

I leave then, rush out, trying to stop the flood of memories. The dam breaks and I spend the night spinning backward, through my father’s violence and my mother’s collusion. And through something else, something hard to accept or talk about even now: how my mother touched me, and how I knew, even when I was a little girl, that it was wrong.

But I go back the next day, and she stares at me vulnerably from her bed. “I’m afraid of losing my hair.”

I am sitting as far away from her as I can. The hospital room isn’t big enough for the two of us. No room is big enough for the two of us.

“I don’t know if I can handle seeing it fall out in chunks. I’m scared.”

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A Mind Spread Out on the Ground

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground

He took his glasses off and rubbed the bridge of his nose the way men in movies do whenever they encounter a particu­larly vexing woman.

“I’m really confused. You need to give me something here. What’s making you depressed?”

His reaction made me think briefly of residential schools, though at the time I couldn’t understand why. Maybe it was the fact that he operated his therapy sessions out of a church. That certainly didn’t help.

I wasn’t sure what to say. Can a metaphor or simile capture depression? It was definitely heavy, but could I really compare it to a weight? Weight in and of itself is not devastating; depres­sion is. At times it made me short of breath and at times it had the potential to be deadly, but was it really like drowning? At least with drowning others could see the flailing limbs and splashing water and know you needed help. Depression could slip in entirely unnoticed and dress itself up as normalcy, so when it finally took hold others would be so surprised they wouldn’t know how to pull you to safety. They’d stand there staring—good-intentioned but helpless. Empathetic, perhaps, but mute. Or, as in the case of this particularly unqualified ther­apist, angry and accusing. Not that I necessarily blame them. I’ve done the same thing.

When what was left of my family moved to the rez we lived in a two-bedroom trailer—my sister and I in the smaller room, my three younger brothers in the master bedroom. My parents had no bedroom, no bed. They slept in the living room on the couch and recliner. As one may assume of such circumstances, privacy was precious, if it existed at all. Doors never stayed closed for long; at any moment someone could barrel in unannounced. This meant there was no place for my mother to hide her illness.

I’d mostly known her as having bipolar disorder, though she’d been diagnosed and rediagnosed many times. Postpartum depression, manic depression, schizophrenia. Most recently, my mother has been diagnosed as having either schizoaffective dis­order, which is a version of bipolar disorder with elements of schizophrenia, or post-traumatic stress disorder, depending on which doctor you talk to. None of these phrases gave her relief. In fact, they often seemed to hurt her, turning every feeling she had into yet another symptom of yet another disease.

What these words meant to my siblings and me was that our mother’s health was on a timer. We didn’t know when the timer would go off, but when it did, our happy, playful, hilarious mother would disappear behind a curtain and another would emerge: alternatively angry and mournful, wired and lethargic. When she was depressed she’d become almost entirely silent. She’d lie on our brother’s bottom bunk and blink at us, her soft limp limbs spilling onto the stained, slate-coloured carpet. I’d sit on the floor beside her, smooth her hair—bottle red with grey moving in like a slow tide—and ask her what was wrong. She’d stay silent but her face would transform. Damp, swollen, violet, as if the words she couldn’t say were bubbling beneath her skin, burning her up from the inside.

Terminology is tricky. Initially, depression was known as “melan­cholia,” a word that first brought to my mind a field of blue cornflower and golden hay. Its trochaic metre gave it an inher­ent poeticism, an ingrained elegance. It was delicate, feminine. Hamlet’s doomed lover, Ophelia, definitely did not suffer from depression. When she floated down that river, decked in gar­lands, stones in her pockets, she was in the throes of melancholia.

The term first appeared in Mesopotamian texts in the second century BCE. At the time, they considered melancholia a form of demonic possession. They weren’t alone: ancient Babylonian, Chinese and Egyptian civilizations all attributed mental illness to demons overpowering the spiritually weak. Exorcism—which often entailed beatings, restraint and starvation—was the only known “cure.” Even during the Renaissance, when thinking about depression began to reflect the more progressive views of the early Greek physician Hippocrates, a heavily Christian Europe had another way to describe those with mental illness: witches. They were “cured” by being burned at the stake. Sometimes, as part of their trial, suspected witches underwent an ordeal by water. They were tied to a rope and thrown from a boat. If they sank they’d be pulled back to a safety of sorts, their innocence proven, but their illness unchecked. If they floated, like Ophelia, they were considered a witch and sum­marily executed.

My quite Catholic mother believes demonic possession is a real danger. She pretty much used the 1973 film The Exorcist as an instructional video for my siblings and me. It was mostly effec­tive. I played with a Ouija board only once, reluctantly, and though I remained firmly in control of my body, I still try to avoid the game (and pictures of Linda Blair) at all costs. I know demonic possession is impossible, probably, but it still scares me more than I’d like to admit.

So when my mother, now living in an adult care home in Florida, told me she was hearing demonic voices and thought she needed an exorcism, I was legitimately terrified. Not because I thought she was possessed—she didn’t mention anything about floating above her bed, and her voice sounded normal. I was scared for her. She truly believed demons were real and could take control of the spiritually weak. If she believed she was being overtaken by these demons, logic dictated that she was spiritually weak. As if her depressed mind didn’t have enough to guilt her with.
She wouldn’t tell me what the voices were saying to her. She just reiterated over and over that she was a sinner, that she had impure thoughts, that she hadn’t been going to church enough. None of this seemed to me like enough reason to call in an exorcist.

Evidently her priest down in Florida disagreed. He said it did, indeed, sound like she was in the midst of a spiritual battle, that she should contact the church about sending an exorcist right away. Though he himself was part of the Catholic Church, he never offered any assistance with her “spiritual battle,” never offered to bring in an exorcist to slay her inner demon. He just gave her his half-baked opinion like a torch and watched as she caught flame.

As far as analogies go, comparing depression to a demon is a pretty good one. Both overtake your faculties, leaving you dis­connected and disembodied. Both change you so abruptly that even your loved ones barely recognize you. Both whisper evil words and malformed truths. Both scare most people shitless.

According to Diane Purkiss’s The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations, European colonists widely considered Indigenous peoples to be devil worshippers. In fact, during the Salem witch trials, the people of the Sagamore tribe were blamed—described by early Puritan minister and master­mind of the witch trials, Cotton Mather, as “horrid sorcerers, and hellish conjurors . . . [who] conversed with Demons.” One person on trial claimed to have attended a black mass with the Sagamore Indians. Mercy Short, another accused witch, took it one step further: she claimed the Devil himself was an Indian, describing him as “not of a Negro, but of a tawny, or an Indian color.”

Literal demonizing of Indigenous people was a natural exten­sion of early tactics used to move colonization along. In 1452 and 1455 the Catholic Church issued papal bulls calling for non-Christian people to be invaded, robbed and enslaved under the premise that they were “enemies of Christ.” Forty years later, when Christopher Columbus accidentally arrived in the Americas, European monarchs began to expand on the ideas contained in those bulls, issuing policies and practices that have been collectively referred to as the Doctrine of Discovery. These new policies dictated that “devil-worshipping” Indigenous peo­ples worldwide should not even be thought of as humans, and thus the land they had cared for and inhabited for centuries was terra nullius, or vacant land, and Christian monarchs had the “right” to claim it all. The Doctrine of Discovery was such a tantalizing, seemingly guilt-free justification for genocide, even U.S. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson adopted it as official policy in 1792—and we all know how much Americans wanted to distinguish themselves from Europe at the time.

The Doctrine of Discovery is still cited in court cases today whenever Canada or the U.S. want to shut up Indigenous tribes who complain. In an attempt to stop this lazy, racist rationale, a delegation of Indigenous people went to Rome in 2016 to ask the church to rescind these papal bulls. Kahnawake Mohawk Kenneth Deer said that after hearing their concerns, Pope Francis merely looked him in the eye and said, “I’ll pray for you.” Two years later, after the delegation’s second trip to Rome to discuss these papal bulls, they were told the matter was being sent to another committee. Nothing else has been done, though pre­sumably the Pope is still praying for us.

“Can you imagine going to a funeral every day, maybe even two funerals, for five to ten years?” the chief asks. He’s giving a decolonization presentation, talking about the way colonization has affected our people since contact. Smallpox, tuberculosis, even the common cold hit our communities particularly hard. Then, on top of that, we had wars to contend with—some against the French, some against the British, some against either or neither or both. Back then death was all you could see, smell, hear or taste. Death was all you could feel.

“What does that type of mourning, pain and loss do to you?” he asks. We reflect on our own losses, our own mourning, our own pain. We say nothing.

After a moment he answers himself. “It creates numbness.”

Numbness is often how people describe their experience of depression.

I was sixteen when I wrote my first suicide note. I was alone in my room, for once. It was cold; the fire in our wood-burning stove must have gone out. I was huddled beneath the unzipped sleeping bag I used as a comforter, listening to the only modern rock station my ancient radio could pick up. The songs washed over me. My brothers laughing, crashing and crying washed over me. My mother half-heartedly yelling at them while she watched a movie with my sister washed over me. My father’s absence washed over me.

Even though the trailer was full I was alone. I was alone and I felt nothing and it hurt so much. More than grief, more than anger. I just wanted it to end.

Tears fell on the paper faster than I could write. It was hard to read in parts. I didn’t care. As long as it reassured my family they shouldn’t blame themselves, it would do the trick.

I looked at the knife I’d smuggled from the kitchen, pressed its edge to my wrist. Nothing happened. The blade was too dull. I’d have to stab hard and slash deep just to break the skin. I was crying so hard.

I reread my note. I looked back at the knife. Even though it could hardly peel a potato it scared me more than the void I felt.

I lay back down, disgusted with myself and my lack of resolve. I tried to listen to the radio. I couldn’t hear anything.

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