Today I’m expecting my new book to arrive. It’s my thirteenth book and I should be blasé about it but I have to confess that this never gets old—the anticipation, the greediness to simply hold the book in my hands. To read what I wrote in a form that is not a computer screen or pages from my printer. Will the cover really look as lovely as I hope it will? Did I leave anyone out in the acknowledgements? Did I miss any major spelling errors? (I have the excellent Mother Tongue team behind me…)
A year ago this week, John and I went to Vancouver for a couple of reasons. He was scheduled for a biopsy and we were meeting Forrest, Manon, and Arthur at a hotel near the airport; their flight was going to be late and because we had to be in town the day before, we booked a room at the hotel where they’d be staying so we could bring them back home with us the next day. John had already had a biopsy a few years earlier and thought this one would be like that one—a little uncomfortable but not so big a deal. Somehow the fasting was more difficult this time around and by the time we drove down the Coast, took the ferry across Howe Sound, made our way over to the hospital, and waited, waited, for the procedure, he was pretty woozy and depleted. It didn’t seem like the time to tell him that I could barely breathe.
After a belated breakfast, we went to Richmond to the hotel and had a long nap, followed by dinner nearby. If I sat up straight, it was better. Lying down was painful. I quietly wondered if it was something to do with my heart. Or what? But then a text came to say that our young’uns were enroute to the hotel and there we were in the parking lot as the shuttle pulled in, hugging them, helping them up to their room with all the stuff you need when you travel with a baby. (Arthur was not yet a year old.) Though I have to say they travel quite light. And we have a big basket of cloth diapers, covers, shelves of clothing bought at thrift stores, in varying sizes because there are three grandchildren. We have a crib, a highchair, toys, and books.
And then it was morning and we were in our car heading home, Arthur in the car seat we’d recently bought. We were driving home, singing to the baby (though I had a hard time catching my breath), and stopping here and there for snacks, a bit of a break.
That night, just as we were getting ready for bed, I told John I thought he better take me to Emergency in Sechelt, a 45 minute drive from us. I couldn’t breathe and the pain in my chest was phenomenal. He was feeling a little grim himself but raced us down the Coast and the rest is the story of the year between then and now. Double pneumonia, which shouldn’t have been such a big deal—antibiotics worked quickly and well—but the first chest x-ray was disturbing apparently, full of weird stuff, and a second was scheduled for two weeks later.
But before the second x-ray, somehow the week of my family’s visit was memorable. Angelica came for part of it and everyone helped to make beautiful meals. After a day or two of the antibiotics, my breathing improved and the pain went away. We went up to the Laughing Oyster restaurant one day for lunch (it took the whole day because there was the ferry between Earls Cove and Saltery Bay, the long drive to Desolation Sound…) and it was wonderful to sit by the weathered wooden rails and look out to Okeover Inlet, drinking lovely cool white wine (I’m not one of those people who eschews wine while on medication…), watching seals in the water below us.
The second x-ray led to a CAT scan 6 weeks later, then a second hurriedly arranged (I was driving home from the first scan as the radiologist was frantically trying to call me) because that one showed not only a pulmonary embolism but also strange shadowy areas in my lungs which were thought to be metastases. There were tests, more tests, blood thinners to keep more clots from forming (and not rat poison but something new and very expensive that made me grateful again for Tommy Douglas and our health system), doppler scans of my legs, a visit to a specialist who showed me images of my lungs that were like maps of deep water, with areas I thought resembled amoebas. No, not amoebas, he assured me very formally. But maybe metastases. He used a pointer to describe the margins. He spoke of biopsies, gold standards of treatment, and so forth. He also scheduled a PET scan at the Cancer Clinic. He hoped this could happen before Christmas but it was possible I’d have to wait until shortly after.
So that was the fall. John’s biopsy results were negative, a huge relief, but the poor man was so worried about me that other issues developed. I insisted he swim to relieve some of the stress and he went off three mornings a week to our local pool (where our children learned to swim three decades ago). And what did I do? I wrote most of a book. In late summer, around the time that I was developing double pneumonia (though I’m not implying the two are linked!), Mona Fertig of Mother Tongue Publishing wondered if I might have a non-fiction manuscript she could consider for fall of 2017. I didn’t think I did. I’d written a long essay called “Euclid’s Orchard” and I had two other short essays in something like final draft form. Masses of notes, masses of fragments, all of which I hoped to eventually turn into essays or maybe even something longer, of a piece. These had to do with research I was doing into my family’s history in Canada. In the spring of 2016, John and I were in Alberta and I spent a little time at the Archives in Edmonton, thinking I’d find one thing and instead discovering a whole chapter of my grandmother’s early years in Drumheller that I hadn’t known and I suspect my father hadn’t known either. We drove down to Drumheller that spring, hoping to find out more. And it might sound strange to say this but there were ghosts everywhere, some of them mine.
In the nights while John slept, I came down to my desk and turned on the little lamp to make a small light to work by and I wrote about three quarters of the work in the manuscript that I did send Mona in late November and that she liked enough to say, Let’s do it! It wasn’t in finished shape in the fall and winter but I felt that I needed to do what was required to make it as good as I was able to. I didn’t know if I’d have more time, more seasons, and there was no one else who cared enough about the material to do anything with it. Maybe “care” is the wrong word. My brothers care and my children care but somehow I felt that I was called to do the work. I saw my ancestors everywhere in the winter. Looking out to the patio, they were just leaving, wispy in the cold air. Before sleep, they were around my bed, holding the edges of the sheet. I felt their hands on my shoulders. I felt them in me. I can’t say I regret the strangeness of that time, the uncertainty. I learned things. I was given things. I was welcomed into the odd embrace of people dead a hundred years. They spoke to me, though I couldn’t understand their language; and they sang to me. In the darkness, I might have felt alone but thanks to my ghosts, I was never so surrounded by love and continuity. This is true for my living family as well.
I wrote about the post-Christmas PET scan here and was relieved a few weeks later to learn that there was no sign of cancer after all. A final scan in June was also negative. My specialist says he doesn’t need to see me again. A happy ending certainly, though there are still mysteries: if not metastases, then what? And the embolism? Who knows. I joined John at the pool three mornings a week and all summer we’ve been going down to Ruby Lake around 8:30 and swimming for half an hour. Some mornings there are kingfishers. Always crows. Some mornings there are bear tracks in the damp sand. Ghosts there too but more familiar ones. My children from infancy to adulthood, and their children. When Forrest, Manon, and Arthur were here last month, they came down to the lake with us and I loved hearing their voices as I swam back and forth in the green water under the old cedars.
Someone recently said to me, “I didn’t think you’d have another book out so soon.” Well, no. I didn’t either. But sometimes the stars conspire, they spark and set off fierce events in our lives, and we respond. I felt like a door opened. What was beyond was a little frightening but also mysterious and beautiful. Some days I still feel as I felt on the winter day when John and I listened to Christy Moore singing an arrangement of the Yeats poem, “The Song of Wandering Aengus”.
We held each other and wept, for the uncertainty of our future, and for everything we loved, and when the song finished, I went downstairs, looking up to an old portrait of me, painted when I was 22, another of the ghosts who gave me comfort on those dark nights. Who is still alive to me. (I couldn’t photograph her well because she’s in a stairwell and so you see everything else reflected in the glass but maybe that’s appropriate.)
…someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
And look, apple blossoms in her hair.