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.

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.

 

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.

Dear Momma: Here’s what happened in 2018

Hi Momma.

I know we talk a lot, but I wanted to take some time to lay out everything that’s happened since the beginning of March. It’s been such a busy, heartbreaking, extraordinary time.

Most mornings I wake up and forget that you’re not here.

Sometimes you’ll have visited me in my dreams – your way of stopping by and saying hello. I get glimpses of your life in New York or you’ll tell me about the old classmates of yours that you’ve decided to haunt.

I see your smile and hear your laugh and I when I touch you, it’s real.

Woznow04

Momma, I feel like I could pull you back into life.

Your magic, it burns brightly, everywhere.

You died on Thursday, March 8th. International Women’s Day.

I was holding your hand while Suzan Maclean held the other. I think that she, like me, doesn’t really believe in a world without you.

The day I flew back home, I took a lot of your clothes. I took your light blue jean jacket and your tight black pants. That striped heart sweater that you bought in Brooklyn and your gray crop-top turtleneck.

A few of your sweaters still smell like you. Sometimes I hold them and breathe deeply.

Because I wear your clothes every day, all of my friends are obsessed with your style.

Many of them also have your postcard pinned up in their offices. They tell me that you inspire them to take risks, to wear colour, to try something new.

Hearing this and writing this makes me cry.

In April I joined a gym to learn how to get strong. You would have laughed because when I went in for my assessment, I couldn’t even do one squat. But working slowly and intentionally with my trainer Jules I have developed a new-found respect and appreciation for my body.

And I am getting strong.

Last week I deadlifted ninety kilograms. That’s one hundred and ninety-eight pounds! I know you’re probably thinking, “I just got her to stop running marathons through the mountains, and now she’s doing this?”

But you know that it’s your spirit that drives me.

Thanks for that Momma.

I am sorry to say that I’m still not doing yoga but I do keep your beautiful bag in my office so that I see it every day. When I do start a regular practice, you will, of course, be the first to know.

I’ve started seeing a wonderful grief counsellor who has helped and continues to help me so much. I was seeing her every week and now go about once a month. I also have an amazing “grief community” here in New West, made up beautiful, strong and inspiring women.

You would love every one of them.

They are often who I call when I’m can’t drive because I’m crying too hard, or when I’m paralyzed by grief in some grocery breakfast aisle, or when just the thought of living in this world without you is too overwhelming for words.

Their love helps me.

So does that of my friends. And of Kate and Jessi. Marc.

They all hold me close when all of my pieces are breaking apart.

I cry almost every day.

I hope this doesn’t make you sad. Because I know that the only reason it hurts this much is because of the depth and the beauty of our love.

I think a lot about this when I run. There is a tree down at the river boardwalk here in New Westminster that I call “The Momma Tree”. It reminds me so much of you because of its vibrant colours and delicate leaves. Every time I run by it, I whisper a hello to you and high-five your branches.

Your magic, it burns brightly, everywhere.

This November I ran the Fall Classic 10k and placed ninth. It was one of the harder races I’ve run because I had just had gum surgery two weeks prior and couldn’t exercise at all in the lead up, because it might disturb my graft and slow my recovery.

Not to point fingers, but this gum recession is definitely genetic and it’s definitely from your side of the family.

At first I was so disappointed and I cried at the finish line. I’ve been chasing the elusive sub-40 time for so long and I felt so tired of trying and failing. But Marc held me and helped me.

I know you’ve always loved how delicate he is with me.

Here are some other things that have happened this year, so much with our strength and love:

  • In May, I attended my first New Westminster Community and Social Issues Council Committee meeting. That same month I also started working on my first municipal political campaign, helping my incredible friend Nadine Nakagawa get elected to city council.
  • In June, I presented at Pecha Kucha and spoke about you and grief and love and compassion. Marc and I celebrated our ten year wedding anniversary.
  • In July, I filmed my favourite story of the year at the Sharing Farm in Richmond. In total this year, I wrote over 70 stories for United Way and shot 15 videos.
  • In August, we welcomed beautiful Loic Stewart to the world, and I have loved every moment of being his aunty. I pour love into him. Just like you did with us.
  • In September, I joined the New Westminster Hospice Society’s board of directors. I was the first woman up Grouse Mountain for United Way’s Tech Grind, even though I couldn’t officially compete. (Yes Momma, I am that competitive.) I hosted a fun night of improv with a local feminist collective, MCed a wedding with twelve hours notice and managed to take another selfie with my mayor and council after presenting about United Way Day.
  • In October, I moderated the New Westminster Chamber of Commerce’s All Candidates Debate which was exhilarating and if there is just one thing I wish I could have had you there for, this was it. I started my Compassionate City Crew training with New West Hospice and hosted a very fun Halloween dinner party. You would have loved Marc’s and my costume – I was a lawyer and he was the devil, so we were The Devil’s Advocate.
  • In November, I took a stand against racism in my city, attended the annual civic dinner, completed my hospice training, moderated a panel on brand building and philanthropy, shared a story at The Flame about my absurd decision to get eyelash extensions and hiked around Whistler with Marc for our anniversary.
  • This month there are story performances and holiday get-togethers and both Kate and Jessi are making your gingerbread and I can’t stop crying whenever I sing along to the Barra MacNeils’ Christmas albums.

Just know that I think about you every day. I miss you every day. I see you in a soft rose gold sunset. In the wind that blows the hair from my face. In my dark roots that always grow in no matter how often I dye my hair blond.

You’re the blood in my veins, the green in my eyes. My smile. My laugh. My long legs and cold hands.

Momma, I carry you close.

And I will never stop missing you.

I wrote you this letter even though I know you know all of this.

Because you’re in the sky.

Sea. Land.

Air.

Mommm. Momma. Momma.

You and your magic are everywhere.