Hello, goodbyes.

I haven’t been home in a while.

It’s been a year and a half since I last landed in Halifax – which, when I think about it, is probably the longest I have ever been away from the city in my entire 34 years.

Sitting here in the desolate and utilitarian Ottawa International Airport, dining on Twizzlers and Tim Horton’s hot chocolate, I’m feeling nervous. (And twitchy from the sugar.)

I keep thinking about how my last visits, and now this one too, have been about goodbyes.

Last February, I flew home to spend two weeks with my mum helping her prepare for her third round of chemotherapy. When I hugged her on Sunday, February 25th, I did not think that it would be the last time I would hold her fully, tightly in my arms.

But I did cry the entire way home to Vancouver. I knew something was off – and I was feeling unmoored and panicked.

Three days later I received a frantic text message from my younger sister at 5:45 in the morning letting me know that our mother was unresponsive in her bed and that paramedics where on their way to the house to take her to the hospital.

A few hours later, I was on a flight back to Halifax with my sister, her wife, and their son. I sometimes try to remember pieces of that day, but everything is hazy in my desperation – how sick I was with sadness and fear. A soggy salad at a sports bar in Montreal.

Forgetting to pack socks.

Watching Battle of the Sexes on the plane because my mum had taught me about Billie Jean King as a young girl, and I believed somehow that this would bring her healing energy.

(I think this is what Joan Didion calls ‘magical thinking.’)

Instead, I just wept into a cocktail napkin and tried to stop my palsied body, shaking from worry.

She died eight days later. We said goodbye as I held her hand.

In May, I flew down for her celebration of life and to pack up her house. I was delayed leaving Vancouver, which made me miss my connection in Calgary, which then necessitated a further connection in Toronto.

I broke down to the man at the WestJet information table.

“I have to get to Halifax today,” I cried. “My mum died.”

He was visibly taken aback. “Oh dear, I am so sorry.” But he explained to me that there were no other flights, and that I would be stuck with my new route.

“She died,” I whispered. “And I’m tired.”

On the last day of the trip I told my older sister, “I am never coming back here ever again.”

We had spent the entire day packing boxes and moving furniture. I was emotionally and physically exhausted.

I felt like I had been hit by a truck.

As we drove to the Greyhound station to ship several pieces she wanted to send back to Vancouver, I told her that I hated the city.

“You don’t mean that,” she said.

“I do,” I replied.

I had already been to the station earlier in the day with two boxes of my stuff. As she sorted out her shipment, I bought a can of Coke and sat outside on a bench.

It was one of those perfect Maritime days – where the sky is too large and so blue, and the clouds are somehow both backlit and glowing. It’s a beauty that pierces. It stings, and it hurts.

And it breaks your heart in two.

Sitting there, I felt the warmth of the late spring sunshine on my bare arms and legs, and I tried in vain to catch the crumbling pieces of my heart in the palm of my hand.

And I said it again, aloud, to no one.

“I’m never coming back here again.”

A year and a half later, I’m still tired.

And yet here I am, waiting like I have countless other times, to fly back to Halifax.

To a city that I do love.

A city that is my blood.

A city that is my mum.

And maybe I’m just tired of goodbyes.

Maybe this time, I’ll be quiet.

Happy birthday momma. It’s a party.

Today is my momma’s birthday.

She would have been 70.

The last time I visited her, in February of 2018, I asked her, “what do you want to do for your 70th? Maybe we could do something as a family – like go on a trip together or organize a big party?”

I remember she was flossing her teeth – something she took very seriously. She paused before looking straight at me.

“If I even make it that long,” she laughed half-heartedly.

Her comment left me upended – as though I had just missed a step at the bottom of a staircase.

I had somehow kept believing that – despite the stage four metastasized breast cancer – she would live forever.

It was the first time I heard her acknowledging the opposite. Her words were like a knife to my heart.

“Of course you will make it!” I blurted out, wanting desperately to erase this subtle, yet momentous shift that had just occurred.

She shrugged and went back to flossing her teeth.

I went to bed dreaming of a birthday party abroad.

When I talk about my mum, which I do all the time, it’s always to marvel at and impress upon just how well, and how often she lived.

It’s why I had such a hard time imagining her dying – and why I have such a hard time remembering that she is dead – because no matter how sick she got, she never stopped.

She never stopped working, and she never stopped working out; doing yoga and volunteering; helping with her grandkids and with her daughters’ professional and personal pursuits.

She hosted the most brilliant and boisterous dinner parties, marched in solidarity with other women, challenged herself to know more about reconciliation and how to be a better ally. Debated her friends who held competing views. Loved and nurtured and believed in the incredibly unique and beautiful community that she built and that she held close in her heart.

It is these people who have consistently reached out to myself and my sisters over the past year. On Mother’s Day, Christmas, the day of her death. To tell me: I see you. I am hurting too. I miss her. I miss and think of her every day.

I get so angry sometimes, thinking of others who have remained silent and conspicuously so. I feel like I have been cut off, like a gangrenous limb. Severed from a family who no longer thinks or feels about her, or her daughters, or what it’s like to live every day without your North Star. And the painful journey of reorientation that reminds me every day: she died.

Especially on days like today.

But then I hear a gentle voice at the back of my head: a voice that pipes up, mid-floss, reminding me to hold close the community that she held in her heart. Because those are the people who held her.

And to celebrate today.

So happy birthday, momma. I know you’re somewhere beautiful.

And that’s it’s a party.

Putting my best foot forward

I wrote this story with my momma in the Fall of 2016. All names have been changed to protect the innocent (and barmy).

After a panel interview with seven senior administrators – at an unnamed Maritime University – I said to the headhunter, “So are you hiring me for this position? Or are you hiring me for the job of campus president?”

I nearly fell off of my chair when, instead of answering my question, he told me that the next step was providing him with nine references.

Nine references!

Three from people who were in superior positions, three from my peers, and three from individuals who were my junior in the professional world.

I said to him – “This is paranoia gone crazy.”

At this point, I didn’t even know if I even wanted the job anymore, so I told him, “I don’t know if I want this job anymore.”

You would think that was the end of the line, but you’d be wrong.

After providing nine positive references and a blood sample, (I’m kidding but I wouldn’t have been surprised), I was told that the person to whom I would be reporting needed to speak to my current boss. Flabbergasted, I asked the headhunter how he thought that would look to my employer.

“There is no way this is going to over well,” I said. “Where is the win-win for me?”

It’s also at this point that I should point out that everything about this process had done a complete number on my self-esteem. I had begun to think that the university had discovered some hidden malfunction within my character, and each step down the rabbit hole was one new way of checking to make sure that I was indeed a legitimate candidate.

The whole experience was so stressful that after I received an offer of employment (and accepted it), I literally had to flee the country.

In an effort to relax, and mend my frazzled nerves, I booked a holiday cruise around the Caribbean.

Unfortunately, my imminent, sun-drenched relaxation was immediately railroaded by an emotional breakdown at Pierre Elliot Trudeau Airport – the catalyst being watching every flight take off for Florida, except for mine.

My healing process had been usurped by a crash course in full-blown disfunction – courtesy of Air Canada.

As I stressed about missing my trip, some hapless flight agent told me, “Oh don’t you worry. Cruises never leave on time.”

I asked her, “Wanna bet?”

This did not make my flight leave any earlier.

Because of my tears, Air Canada did bump me up to business class – probably out of fear that I would completely fall apart in coach and traumatize everyone within my immediate flying radius. Never mind that the reason for my distress was Air Canada’s awful and unreliable service in the first place.

I spent my entire flight worrying about my cruise.

Unfortunately, upon my arrival in Florida, insult was immediately added to my misery. Even though the airline literally ran me off of the plane, I couldn’t get to my luggage because the baggage carousel had broken down. The cruise van was hustling everyone to get be on board, but I steadfastly refused to get on the vehicle. Instead, I stayed behind, defiant to get my clothes. There was no way in heck I was going to wait two days for my stuff.

After half an hour, I got my bag. Upon exiting the terminal, I could see that the ship hadn’t yet left the harbor.

I threw twenty five dollars to the nearest cabbie and ordered, “GET ME TO THAT SHIP.”

The guy was pretty happy as it was only about a two minute ride to the dock.

When I got to the boat, there were six cruise personnel waiting for me. Each one of them practically carried me up the gangway and threw me onto the boat. As I brushed myself off, I heard the captain announce our departure, apologizing for the delay that was due to a “rogue passenger.”

Four thousand people delayed because of little old me!

Once I put my luggage in my room, I went to one of the ship’s bars and ordered the biggest drink the bartender would give me. This ended up being gin and tonic the size of a milkshake, filled right to the brim.

I met some people and they told me, “Oh! You were the one that was holding us up! We kept getting announcements.”

My claim to fame.

The thing about that trip was, I had never before been on a cruise and I was concerned about getting seasick. A friend had told me about the gravol patch that you wear on your arm, so I went out and bought a pack.

Turns out, that stuff really threw me for a loop and I was stoned for the entire trip.

I would go to the gym and couldn’t move my legs. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what was going on!

It wasn’t until I returned and started my new job at said aforementioned unnamed Maritime university that I finally figured it out.

After recording my out of office answering machine message, a colleague told me, as diplomatically as possible, that “it sounded a little strange.”

I listened to it and was horrified to hear that beyond strange, I sounded completely out of it on the other end of the line!

There I was – the candidate that survived three interviews, nine references, one reference from my immediate boss – unable to string together a coherent sentence.

And I am sure they were wondering, “Who have we hired? And how didn’t we find this out sooner?

Running through it: The story of my eating disorder

In act II, scene i of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the character Quintus Ligarius turns to Brutus and says, “Now bid me run, and I will strive with things impossible.”

I love this quote.

I love this quote because it is an excellent description of my life.

I have been running since the moment I started to walk. Growing up, I would careen about our neighbourhood, setting up races between myself and other kids, flying until I was winded, and only resting until I was ready for more.

It was like a tiny little flame had been lit inside of me, and the more I ran, the brighter it shone.

The summer after grade five was when things really began to kick off. I was pretty obsessed with Donovan Bailey and his amazing gold medal run at the 1996 Olympic Games. I would race around my house whispering, “9.84, 9.84.”

I begged my parents to let me join a local track team. They did. And I continued to fly.

Two years later, half way through grade seven, I grew eight inches and something happened. I didn’t recognize, didn’t understand my new body. At a sleepover one night with my friends, we all weighed ourselves, and I was horrified to see how much heavier I was then them all. I didn’t matter that I was almost a foot taller, I hated it.

I hated being heavy, because to me, heavy meant bad. Ugly. Wrong.

That week, I threw out my lunch for the first time. I started going to bed with ropes and scarves tied tightly around my waist, thinking it would stop me from gaining weight while I slept.

And then two years after that, at a family dinner, I forced two fingers down my throat and made myself throw up. I felt like my eyeballs and my heart were going to explode.

I did it again.

I threw up again, and again, and again.

And I didn’t know how to reconcile my running – my running that made me feel strong and unstoppable – with my now constant need to control and dominate my body.

I didn’t know how to stop. Didn’t know if I wanted to stop.

So instead, I hid. From my friends, my family, teammates, coaches, and eventually boyfriends and employers. And I took my running and did everything I could to marry it to my eating disorder

Tame it, mold it. Innovate it to something that could help me exert that control.

When I was in high school, I used to eat and then run, stopping midway to force myself to throw up.

In university, I would binge and purge first. Then I would wash my face. Blow my nose, dry my tears, and smooth concealer over all of the blood vessels that I had broken under my eyes and along the tops of my cheeks.

Running after purging is scary.

Everything in my body would scream out that what I was doing was wrong. My legs rubber, my head a haze; my digestive tract a battlefield.

The spastic lurch of my heart, as if it might actually punch its way out of my chest; as if it might stop, at any moment.

Break.

The long hours it would take for it to finally return to a normal, constant beat.

And I did all of this for fourteen years.

But try as I might, I could never fully extinguish that childhood flame. Every so often I could feel it flicker, warming me, from a deep part inside of me. It was a light in the darkness that helped me believe it wouldn’t always be like this.

And it helped me start talking.

To my partner. My family. A counsellor that I trusted, after meeting many that I did not.

The thing that you need to know about eating disorders, is just how insidious they are. Even when I wasn’t restricting food, or throwing up, I was thinking all of the time: how much have I ate? Have I gained weight? Do people think that I’ve gained weight? How well can I feel my hipbones? Are my clavicle more prominent than they were yesterday?

And I would run, and run, and run – through parks, up mountains, across cities on little to no food, and then I would see how long I could last post-run before I needed to eat.

I signed up for 10kms, half marathons, and marathons and would train without water or food.

Two years ago I met a friend running a MEC trail race. We began training with each other on the weekends and he began encouraging me to look at ultramarathons. I had done everything else, so why not try a new challenge?

The Tenderfoot Boogie was a fifty-five kilometer race from Squamish to Whistler, along highways, through fields and up mountains. A feat that would likely require 6 hours of running and 6 months months of training.

Training that included learning how to properly fuel my body – pre, post and inter-race.

“You’re going to have to eat while you run,” my friend told me.

And here’s the part of the story that I want to tell you that this happened. That training for this race made everything simple and easy for me. But it didn’t. I trained exactly the same as I ever had. I may have drank and ate marginally more, but never enough to properly fuel my body for training runs that would regularly take me from my house in New Westminster, right to the tip of UBC.

Truthfully, I ran that race on sheer grit. Across fields, down valleys, through fields and up mountains – literally, kilometers forty to forty-eight were straight uphill – on nothing but jellybeans and a some peanut butter.

At kilometer forty-nine I wept into my husband’s arms, horrified that I still had six more kilometers to go. As he gently encouraged me, whispering how well I was doing and how far I had come, I stumbled over to the food table. I picked up a chunk of fried potato, dunked it into a vat of salt, and shoved it into my mouth.

It was the greatest thing I have ever tasted.

And I ate another. And another. And about twelve others, washing them all down with a can of coke.

Eating that food brought me to life. I ran those last six kilometers in thirty-six minutes. It was the first time that I properly understood what it felt like to give your body what it needs, in order for it to do something you want to do. And every time I think about going out for a run without eating, I think of that moment. I remember.

And I’ve realized that I had it wrong all along. I couldn’t innovate my running into being an agent of my eating disorder, because it was the antidote, all along. And I’m proud to say that I haven’t thrown up since that race.

I choose recovery every day.

I know will always struggle with my impossible. But I will always run so that I can strive with it too.

This moment. This.

When I was thirteen years old, I started going to bed with ropes and scarves tied tightly around my waist, believing that it would stop me from gaining weight in my sleep.

I would tie them so tightly that they would cut into my skin, forming a ridge of angry red scars along the tops of my hipbones and the small of my back.

I don’t know how my mother found out about what I was doing, but she did.

Obviously horrified and desperate to get me to stop, she was sensitive enough to know that depending on how she broached the subject, I might shrink further inside of myself.

So her approach was simple.

Instead of getting angry with me, or throwing out all of the things I used to harm myself, she would wait until I had gotten ready for sleep, and then gently knock on my bedroom door.

Sitting on the side of my bed, she would stroke my hair and softly ask if I had wrapped anything around my waist.

I would squirm and fight, never wanting to admit that I had, or confess how ugly and hated I felt on nights when I couldn’t bring myself to bind my skin.

Sometimes she would ask to see my stomach, although never in a confrontational or accusatory way. In a way that ached with a stark and simple love and sadness. The heartbreaking futility of knowing that your teenage daughter finds such monumental faults in the skin that you helped make and shape.

After I had either showed her my bare skin, or grudgingly removed the ties, she would take my hand in hers and ask me to tell her one thing that I loved about myself.

For many nights I dreaded this moment. A slight, cold sweat would break out on the back on my neck. I would push my face into my pillow and half-heartedly murmur something into its folds; gnash my teeth and force out a canned answer.

“The A on my math test,” was my garbled response.

But she would sit there, patient as a stone as I wrestled with the question, until finally, exhausted, I would whisper a truth.

“I love my hair.”

“I’m funny.”

“My friends.”

Even after I stopped going to bed with the scarves, my mother would come see me. Stroke my hair. Hold my hand. And ask me:

“Tell me one thing you love about yourself.”

As I grew older, I forgot about this nightly ritual. I left home, adopted new routines, and practiced new methods of self care.

But every so often, when my anxiety is particularly high, and I wake in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, I lie in bed, and breathe deeply.

And I imagine my mothers hand on mine, the tone of her voice, soothing.

And I tell her.

My hair.

I’m funny.

This moment.

This.