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?

An (east coast) Christmas story

Christmas in the Maritimes is something special.

There’s lots of dancing and singing and great food and drink. But chiefly, Christmas, or winters in the east coast of Canada – and by east coast I mean the true east coast, none of this Ontario east coast fakery that people in Toronto are always trying to pull off because they think that they’re living in New York.

(They’re not.)

Winters in the true east coast of Canada are defined by freezing wet snow and lots of it.

It makes it hard to get places, so people who move away rarely go back and people who stay, don’t ever leave.

In 2007, I was flying home to see my family.

For the first time in years and years of going home for Christmas, I was travelling through Ottawa – a true mainstay of central Canada  – and the weather was terrible. Every flight was grounded.

Every flight, weirdly, save mine.

It was strange to see an entire list of cancelled flights, while right at the very bottom, shining like a beacon of Christmas hope was: WestJet – Halifax – on time.

I thought: I’m either very lucky or my pilots are daredevils with death wishes.

Turns out – a little bit of both.

As we began our descent into Halifax International, the woman sitting next to me proceeded to throw up the two mini cans of Pringles potato chips while breaking every bone in my right hand, to which she was clinging for dear life.

I too definitely thought we were done for. I distinctly remember being so sad that I was never going to get marry Marc, as this was to be our last Christmas apart before we were married the next year.

Luckily, we pulled through. (The plane, Marc, and I.)

Leaving the airport, I marveled at our surroundings. Halifax, like my airliner, had been completely buffeted by winter. Snow, ice and fog were everywhere. Driving into the city, the snow banks lining the streets were the highest I had ever seen them, as if the fallen snow had been parted by a wintertime Moses, and not the city’s plows.

“They’ve got to be like 9 feet tall,” I said to my mum.

“You should have seen them last week,” she said. “Before it warmed up.”

I checked the temperature gauge in the car. It read -12 C.

It was in this moment that I realized that British Columbia had forever ruined me and I could never again move back to Halifax, lest I die immediately from frostbite due to -12 C somehow being defined as “warmer”.

But, nevertheless, we made it home to properly set off the Christmas celebrations.

My family and I – that is my sisters, mum and I – are really big on traditions. Baking and decorating gingerbread men, holiday concerts with lots of singing and dancing, setting up the tree – it’s all a part of how we make this time of year special.

In terms of Christmas Day, it’s fair to say that we like to keep things simple: Stockings. Gifts. Cooking. Eating.

Which is why as soon as I arrived home, we set out to prepare everything for the big day. We trimmed the tree and helped decorate the house. On the 24th my older sister Kate and I traipsed over to the Organic Earth Market (the very broke Halifax equivalent to Whole Foods) so I could load up on tubers and cranberries and chestnuts and so she could get our free range, organic turkey.

“We only have frozen ones!” yelled the guy behind the counter.

We looked at each other and shrugged. SOLD.

Home we went, to put everything in the fridge before going to bed.

The next morning we opened our stockings, opened our presents and then set about getting ready to cook our dinner.

I’ll never forget my mum opening the fridge door, pausing and then exclaiming:

“THIS BIRD IS FROZEN TO ITS VERY CORE!”

Kate looked up from the stuffing.

“Oh,” she said, quizzically. “I…I thought it would defrost in the fridge over night?”

My mum’s right eyebrow arched so high it hit the ceiling.

“Defrost? In the fridge?” She shut the fridge door and began pacing.

Jessi, my younger sister, sauntered into the kitchen, picking up a piece of one of the carrots I was chopping. “Yeah,” she said. “That’s never going to work.”

Kate glared at her.

I dropped my carrot and looked around at the metric tonne of vegetables I had left to peel and chop and yelled out: “Let’s just order pizza!”

I was already imagining us hanging out in our sweatpants and watching a movie instead of slaving away for the next six hours.

The looks I received from my family immediately withered my enthusiasm.

“We are NOT ordering pizza,” they all yelled back at me.

We were going to eat Christmas dinner on Christmas Day if it was going to kill us.

My sisters and my mum immediately set out trying to find a place where we could get a booking.

Unfortunately, trying to locate a space available on Christmas day for four people was hard. Very hard. Most places weren’t open and those that were had booked up months prior.

I was really starting to believe that my pizza wish was going to come true when Kate yelled out from the living room: “I did it! I found us a place! The holiday Inn Select will take us! It will take us tonight at 7pm!”

I nearly fell over.

The Holiday Inn Select? I had been making fun of that place since before I even know what sarcasm was.

“BOOK IT!” yelled my mum.

We were in.

At 6:30 pm we started the walk over to the hotel. In truth, it was probably only a 5 minute walk, but it had gotten so cold and windy that we budgeted a lot of extra time. We all huddled together as we exposed ourselves to the freezing night. Swirls of ice and snow flew across the abandoned expanse of the city.

Walking up the deserted street, I stared ahead at the glowing, fluorescent sign at Cruikshank’s funeral home, which advertised both the time and temperature of the day.

The numbers glowed eerily cold against the dark of the night: -26 degrees.

As I contemplated my life, walking to the Holiday Inn Select on one of the coldest Christmas Days I could remember, I ruminated aloud on how weirdly poetic it was to be walking towards a funeral home, as this was something of a funeral march.

“That’s not funny,” was my mother’s response.

We arrived at the hotel right on time for our reservation.

The Maître D immediately perked up when he saw us, mostly because my mother, despite her insistence on coming to the hotel, didn’t want to be confused with any of the other people who had really planned on being there for dinner. She was wearing a full-length ball gown that had been made for her a few years prior when she and her friends had gone to a gala to ring in the New Year.

It stood in stark contrast to not only the majority of the other clientele but to my sister Jessi’s low-rise jeans.

“Reservation for Gillis?” I asked, making one final wish for an Italian, wood-fired Christmas.

He escorted us to our table.

The dining room was huge – probably not the full length of a football field, but it certainly felt that way. And despite it being a ballroom, my mother was the only one who had dressed the part. Everyone else was sticking to Nova Scotia classic – jeans, running shoes and a hooded sweatshirt that’s just a little too big.

It wasn’t five minutes into our arrival that my mother had garnered her first fan.

A woman with a very thick Valley accent (Annapolis Valley, not California) came up to her and exclaimed, “YOU ARE THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN I HAVE EVER SEEN. Can I take a photo of you?”

Over the course of the evening, my mother posed for no less than nine photos for this woman. To this day, I always wonder where those pictures ended up.

The dinner was a buffet so we all set about getting to our food. I’ve never been a big fan of buffets, so I mostly picked at a very large piece of cheesecake that I had topped with about a quart of cranberry sauce to give it more flavour. My sister Jessi on the other hand has always loved buffets and exploded the button right off of her low rise pants, effectively making them no-rise pants.

I laughed so hard I almost peed mine.

Kate, the most steadfast of our group, spent a lot of the night asking my mother to “keep her voice down” as she proceeded to provide colour commentary on all of the other guests and “what part of the province they had to be from.”

I wanted to say something about the bird not being free range, or organic, but I kept my mouth closed.

We sat, ate, talked, laughed and made plans for how to properly tackle our Christmas feast the next day. And despite the commotion of the ballroom all around us, and the cold of the outside night, I felt a distinct warmth between us.

On our slow, bundled up walk back to the house, my mum began humming one our favourite east coast Christmas songs and I immediately began singing along. Together we all linked arms, and began two stepping down the street – without any cars in sight, there was enough space for us to dance together.

Our voices rang out into the night.

And that – that more than anything, is a maritime Christmas.

She brought me to life

How do I write the world?

I am a woman of many words but in this, I am without.

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So I’ll tell you about crawling into her bed on early Sunday mornings and begging for stories about Antigonish and the always fabled east coast.

Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto.

Ottawa. Ottawa and the Minto hotel.

I needed to know these places. These homes that housed my momma, the indomitable supermomma, a women whom I loved more than anything and anyone in the entire world. So much so that I often wondered how – how could my little heart hold this much?

I craved her memories – needed to know, needed to see, needed to feel these things my momma had known, seen, felt – devoured every word, curled up perfectly, in a momma-sized crook, each piece of part of her life nourishing and sustaining, brightening the beat of my heart.

She brought me to life. She brought me to life.

I cannot find the words, because I am my mother. And she is me.

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I am the knowledge of a world and a love manifestly bigger than my own single self.

It echoes in the hollows of my bones.

Momma, momma, momma.

Donna Marie.

Vanessa Marie.

I feel her everywhere. I see her everywhere. She’s in my fingertips when I write. She’s in my laugh with friends. She in the tree dancing in the wind outside of my home.

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Tell me about Suzan.

Tell me about blueberry picking with Marilyn. Tell me about the dances and camping trips with the MacFarlanes. Tell me about the boys you liked and about the girlfriends you loved more.

Tell me. Tell me. Tell me.