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After School Aperitif?

Bestfriends
There was a time a million years ago, back in the 90s, when the alcohol industry was just beginning to ponder what might happen to their marketplace if their beverages tasted like soda pop. My husband knew a sales rep for one such company and, thus, our refrigerator contained one of their testers – a big, plastic pop bottle of booze. I’d never seen such a thing and so I hadn’t contemplated the impact its presence in my after school fridge might have.

We were both at work. I came home to a still-dark house. Strange, considering the two knapsacks on the floor of the front hall. And I heard giggling. Hm. I put the dinner on, called hello and hopped in the shower. Somewhere around the second rinse I remembered seeing the bottle in the sink. No way. Oh shit. I ran down the stairs wrapped in a towel, dripping the whole way and there it was. One giant, empty, plastic bottle of fizzy, fruity booze. And I heard giggling.

Um, mum? Her voice was small. Unusual for her. I grabbed the empty and headed, still dripping, down one more flight of stairs and there they were. Tell me you didn’t, I said. We didn’t know, they protested and, both talking together, presented their case. It tasted so good, my daughter said. It wasn’t until we felt woozy that we looked at it, her friend corroborated. We made sandwiches to soak it up, they proclaimed together, proud of their 14 year-old problem solving skills.

I have to call your mother, I said. You’re staying for dinner. I’m not taking you home ’til you’re sober. I’m sorry, I said. It dawned on them that they weren’t going to be in the shit for this one. They began their debrief in earnest. I fell down the stairs, her friend said. It tastes so good, my daughter yelled, unaware of her volume. Yeah, you said that. Is there anything worse than drunk 14 year-olds? I think not.

Eat the sandwiches. I have to call your mother, I said.

Fortunately for me, the innocent mistake we’d all made harmed no one and was even perceived by the friend’s mum as an honest mistake thankfully accompanied by an appreciative laugh. Needless to say, I never became a consumer of that product and, as a result of the experience, developed the opinion that alcohol should actually taste like alcohol just so we remember it is. It really shouldn’t “taste so good.”

The best part of the story, though, then and now, is experiencing it with your best friend. Now that my daughter is gone and we’re left only with the memories of her life, the people she brought into our lives fill out the mental photo albums we work hard to hold onto.

This memory, those moments, how they unfolded, the people in it: It is all we have now. I’m so grateful for its sweet innocence.

When this same best friend stood at the front of the church and recited a poem in eulogy for my daughter, this was the moment I reached for. It is that day and its honest hilarity I keep close. The pain of loss permeates like acrid, filthy sweat – collecting day upon day. Sometimes you have to reach through it to the other side and find something better. And sometimes when you do, you uncover a memory like this that just tastes so good.

© Kim Reynolds 2012

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2012 in Where's My Kid?

 

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Talking Turkey

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My late daughter was the original Christmas-phile. Anywhere, anytime – there’s never a wrong time for yuletide. It infused all parts of her life and it was only a matter of time before she’d cook a Tom turkey of her own.

She was living in Rits at the University of British Columbia, the joint Japanese-Canadian residential program. Her four-bedroom apartment consisted of two Canadian students and two Japanese students. She, this girl of mine, took cultural exposure to a new level and she took it seriously. Not a single event went uncelebrated and she dragged her new-to-Canada roomies into each experience with a vengeance. From Thanksgiving to Hallowe’en pumpkins with toasty, salted seeds and costume parties at frat houses I worked hard to ignore to Christmas and, along with it, her commitment to provide a Christmas dinner with all the trimmings shoved unceremoniously between Term 1 final exams like some kind of mortar.
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How do you buy a turkey? Fresh or frozen? What’s the stuff inside called? Do I have to put my hands in there to stuff it? At the store, frozen is cheaper, the gizzards, yes. That was just the first phone call. We booked a phone appointment for a stuffing tutorial from her Dad – the resident expert – and away she went over course content ranging from defrosting a turkey to making trifle for dessert – my personal specialty. She opened the doors and fed the floor and when she came home from school that holiday season she brought with her a new appreciation for what it takes to put a meal that size on the table.

That year, that Christmas holiday, provides me now with one of my dearest parent memories. I was making yet another pot of coffee in the kitchen one morning, indulging the luxury of having both kids home from school at the same time. They talked in the living room while we, out of sight, eavesdropped, unable to keep the permanent grin from our faces.

Don’t you love how there’s always food in the fridge and you never have to buy it, my son said.

It’s like a warm blanket, she said. They make better coffee, too, she whispered.

We two, in our hidden perch, choked to keep the laugh inside. Sweet, sweet memory now.
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Once back at school in the New Year, her cultural quest continued unabated. Valentine’s Day gave way to St. Patrick’s Day replete with green beer, bawdy Irish tunes at the bar and tiny, matching green miniskirts covered in shamrocks procured from Old Navy. She went all-out every time and when she couldn’t explain the significance of certain customs to her roomies, she made it up.

It never occurred to me before, she said on the phone to me one fine Spring day, just how stupid the notion of bunnies having eggs is. I never heard what explanation she gave them for that. I only know she was armed with painted eggs and bunny ears for all come Easter Sunday morning. On to Victoria Day!

© Kim Reynolds 2012

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2012 in Where's My Kid?

 

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I Will

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There’s a song every mother sings to her newborn child first to welcome her home to the world and later to ease her back to sleep in the lonely hours of the middle of the night. Every song is different for every child but each one represents the touchstone at the beginning of a child’s life, a safe place to return to time and time again. For my daughter, that song was I Will from the Beatles’ White Album. Now, sadly, I sing it each night to mark the end of my daughter’s life.

They say the first year of marriage is hell. My daughter was married for eight years and at the ripe old age of 30 found herself planning her own funeral. Apparently time is not a factor in the nation-state of hell. I spent my time writing and rewriting obituaries in my head that would do some kind of justice to my daughter’s short life. Is it glib to mention her favourite city was London; her favourite cereal Honey Bunches of O’s; her favourite makeup anything from Smashbox Cosmetics? All information gleaned from middle-of-the-night conversations, holding her close either in person or on the phone separated by the thousand or so miles between us, waiting for the medication to kick in.

I struggle now to remember and contain every small thing I know about her so it will last the balance of my own life. At 4:00 am, I’d lay awake singing the beloved song to her in hopes my words would vibrate on harmonic airwaves over the Rockies from the Pacific and land in her ear as she lay writhing in her prairie bed in the wee hours waiting for her suffering to end. This is not the journey a mother dreams about for her daughter.

I watched from a distance and felt her pain as she observed the milestones of others. A cousin makes partner, a friend has a child, her brother falls in love for real this time and she struggled not to resent them all. “Why me?” was never part of the conversation although “Why this?” was a constant refrain. Some people have cancer; some people neurological disorders; still others have heart disease or blood disorders. She had it all and more and was denied the simple pleasures of walking, eating, taking a piss. The tumor in her head grew daily, her grey matter pounded resistance and the every-four-hour regimen of pain relief barely delivered.

I want this pain to end but I know what that means, I said to no one in particular in the frozen foods section at the grocery store. I got used to leaking openly in front of strangers. My life was a series of footsteps in fog. Move forward. Keep walking. Don’t stop. I listened in private disgust to others as they bemoaned their respective lots in life, dissatisfied with their work, bitching about their marriages and the other minutiae that make up the average life. I perused bookstore shelves and felt flashes of rage at the litany of titles that litter the self-help section. Don’t sweat the small stuff, it orders. What I wouldn’t do for small stuff. I lost myself in work, in research of a world 400 years ago.

How do I help her? How do I survive it myself? I just don’t know, I said to young, pretty women in Le Chateau that offered their help to try and find something, anything soft and sexy in an XXSmall size 0. She felt like a total failure when she had to resort to the children’s section at Wal-Mart to buy her clothes. It’s hard to imagine my 30 year-old daughter dressed in clothes designed for the active 12 year-old but there was no denying it now. She retreated intellectually as well and that was the saddest part of all. Sadie so coveted her brain.

Clearly, I’m the student in the family, she’d say at dinner after bringing home yet another good grade in high school. Hell, I missed grade 10 and I still kick your ass, she teased her older brother.

Her illness changed us all. No more do we expect help when help is needed. No more do we trust the venerable institutions so valued by the average citizen to ‘take care of me when I need it’. No more do any of us have much to say to anyone preaching a higher power. She said it best for all of us when she said, you think “God” would put anyone through this? I don’t think so. No, Sadie. I don’t think so, either. And so I searched for poetry that might offer solace, or books that haven’t been written about how to experience the death of a loved one with a loved one, not separate from them. There are plenty of books about grief, still more about getting on with your life. There is nothing out there to help a group of people help their loved one die with dignity and share it together. Still, I wish there was. A God, I mean. I wish I could believe there was something, someone who would take care of me, she said. Until you get there, I mean, Mum. But don’t come soon, okay? I made the promise I wasn’t sure I could keep. You have to live it big, for both of us, she said. Those were the times I felt I had to be at my best. I had to engage, really hear the things she needed to say. She might only say them once. I had to hear them and remember everything.

One year, the Issues and Ideas section of the Vancouver Sun newspaper stated that, this year “…approximately 15,000 people died in Metro Vancouver; on average, seven people grieve each one of those losses. That means 105,000 people are grieving in Vancouver at any given point in time…. We have so few models of how to grieve that people’s coping skills at … [Christmas] time are not particularly useful.” No kidding. It goes on to share some brilliant suggestions that might help those people. Suggestions like “drink lots of water” and “rest” and, my favourite, “stay away from alcohol.” That’ll help all right. The enormous disconnect between the truth of life and death and what people tell themselves is the truth, that’s what got to me. If only the living part of the world would see the anguish the dying ones experience, maybe then some changes could take place. Instead the masses revert to such platitudes as “at least you have your health” and “at least your son is doing well”. This last one was always the last straw for me and, years ago, I began responding to it with a new move. Oh yeah? I’d say, which one of your kids are you gonna sacrifice? I have no problem admitting I enjoyed the horrified silence in response – my own version of violence.

I learned early in this game of parent-of-a-sick-kid that you have to be careful just who you say what to. It doesn’t matter now that I was right about the origins of my daughter’s illness all those years ago. The hospital, that money-sucking machine in Vancouver’s west side, preys on the fears of frightened parents everywhere, inveigling them to give, give, give and we’ll be there for you. They don’t tell you that if they blow the diagnosis, she’ll be beyond help by the time it occurs to someone in the system that the only thing left to say is ‘oops.’ Fat lot of good that does my daughter today. Those are a few of the million or so thoughts that flew through my head each day while my daughter still lived as she contemplated white cell counts, magnesium levels, grand mal seizure meds and catheter care protocols. Sometimes I had to remember to tell her I loved her. Often our conversations were so filled with medic-speak that it was only after I’d hung up the phone that it would occur to me it resembled a consultation and not a phone call between a mother and her dying daughter.

I knew it was getting close. I heard it in her voice. I saved messages from her for months, frightened that erasing them would erase her. And then there’s the question of when to go to her. When someone is ill for a long time and they live somewhere else, you parse out visits like cards being dealt from a deck. You don’t know how many there are, when the end of the hand will be played. You can wait and see only so long until you can’t stand it any more and you have to see them. I agonized over making a mistake. What if we wait too long?

I wasn’t ready when it happened. There were still things to do. She was going to help me lay out the chapters of the book we were writing about dying – our last defiant act together. And she still had to help me plan the garden we’re planting for her in the backyard of our new house. I’m good as long as it has petunias, Mum. Petunias? I didn’t know she knew a thing about petunias. Oh, and poetry engraved on rocks. I like that stuff, don’t you? That will make me feel like I have a place in your new place. Cool, huh?

The home we built was the beacon I needed, the flagship that would usher my baby back to her beginnings – the light in the window in case she got lost, its glow a reminder to her that she isn’t alone in the darkness. Here will be the place to heal from it all and learn to move into tomorrow without my youngest child at my side in this world. Promise me you’ll be all right, Mum. Promise me.

I will, I told her. One day I hope I mean it.

© Kim Reynolds 2012

 
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Posted by on December 4, 2012 in Where's My Kid?

 

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November 1st

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From the age of eight, my late daughter listened to Christmas music 12 months of the year. This caused no small amount of conflict around our house. Fortunately the advent of headphones allowed for resolution and we all moved on – sort of.

The strains of Jingle Bells could still be heard leaking from her open bedroom window on occasion on a warm June night; she was compelled to accompany her brother’s requested birthday dinner of turkey and fixings each July with seasonal song and; for good measure and a laugh, she’d slide a little Mariah Carey Christmas CD into his discman on an August road trip just to get a rise. Oh, she got a rise, all right.

It was, then, in the spirit of that kind of humour that I jumped in to do my part. Long after they’d grown and graduated to pagers and cell phones and university dorms, I’d take a page out her book and torment her brother, always within the guidelines of our negotiated peace. Years earlier we’d convened a family meeting around the dinner table, replete with talking stick, to find a solution to the sibling seasonal song assault. After much heated discussion and dissent we emerged with an agreement. Christmas music allowed within the household airwaves from November 1 to January 1; restricted to headphones the other ten months of the year with the exception of to-be-determined “special” agreed upon dates.

The first year they were both living in residence at university, I set my alarm clock for 5:30 am on the 1st of November, turned on the coffee pot and cued the boombox with the most rousing version of Here Comes Santa Claus I could find. I called his pager at 5:59, cranked the music and let it rip. Joy.

Each year a new delivery system; every time exhilaration. I was beginning to appreciate his sister’s pleasure at getting a rise. This is the happiness that never comes again when a loved one dies. The big loss is obvious to all. The small, personal moments, however, become the endangered species when grief threatens to overtake and drown all that you once were as a family.

Once my daughter had her own home, all bets were off. Her home might be festooned with Christmas into March and you might be confronted with Silent Night anytime. Get used to it, she said. You never know which Christmas will be your last. Indeed. She got that right.

This year, two days before Hallowe’en, I went to work collecting all that I would need. On November 1st, I picked my granddaughter up from preschool, took her home and together we decorated every square inch of the front window with Christmas paraphernalia. We chose the music, waited until we heard her dad’s footsteps on the front stoop and blasted Frosty the Snowman as loud as it would go.

He stepped inside the house, a smirk on his face. I’m grown up now you know, he said. It’s true and as he held me close in a hard hug designed to squeeze the grief from me, I held close a small moment that occurred earlier as I’d finished decorating his winterland windows.

As my granddaughter danced to the Christmas music (tutu intact) and I admired our holiday handiwork, the front door inexplicably opened. I’m not a bit surprised you’d come today, I said. Come in. Get comfortable. In spite of what stands between she and us now, his sister had arrived on cue. She can still get a rise – sort of.

© Kim Reynolds 2012

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2012 in Where's My Kid?

 

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The Anniversary

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Fishing was a constant in our lives as a family. There was always a little boat, a lot of rods and a less-than-stellar fishing shack to call home. Our first foray into a remote fishing camp took us deep into cattle country and, upon arrival at the top of the world, three of us and the dog tumbled out of the tiny Hyundai while one of us refused to move. My daughter, the dog, my husband and myself unloaded the car, made the beds, built a fire in the wood stove and put a pot of coffee on the boil. My son refused to budge, insisting that we had a perfectly good shed at home that he could sleep in if he was so inclined. We knew it was only a matter of time before nature would call and he’d have to venture beyond his car cocoon. In the end, it didn’t take even that long.

The dog, Nicky, a cocker lab cross without a lick of common sense between her ears, buried her head in the cow pies that littered the path between the car and the shack. Unable to bear the sight of his dog covered in cow cack, he finally broke down and made the 20-meter dash for the door. He pushed it open expecting, well, a shack. Instead he discovered for the first time that home was pretty much anywhere that we all gathered and that you can bake a mean banana muffin in a wood stove.

Unlike her reluctant brother, my daughter was the ultimate fisherwoman. Up at dawn with her dad and the dog in the boat while my son and I slept on, she’d catch fish when the seasoned veterans were skunked. She understood them, she said. She knew how they thought. And we accepted it as the truth.

One magical fishing week, years later and a hill or two away from that first lake, she and her dad rode out the wind on Walloper Lake one frigid fall morning. It’s a good lake, with a lot of good-sized trout in it but history had it that there was an epic trout in that lake that had beat the odds and many a fisherman for too many years.

Dad, do fish ever jump in a boat? He continued to row as he considered his answer. I dunno, he said. I guess they could but I’ve never seen it myself. Right then, right that very second, the one that beat the odds and always got away, jumped into the boat and landed at her feet. They stared at each other and at it as it slipped and flipped between them and said nothing. He picked it up, she splashed it with water and they leaned over the side to release it together. No one will ever believe this, she said.

As the dreaded one-year anniversary of her death approached this past summer, we decided to go fishing. She had given our son’s daughter a fishing rod for her first birthday and the four of us headed into those same hills to take it for a spin. Now three, she amazed us all with her ability to bob along in a rowboat for hours on end. That little apple doesn’t fall far from my daughter’s tree, that’s for sure. At dusk, on the 29th of August, I said a prayer, shed a few tears and tossed one of my daughter’s cherished Hawaiian shells into the lake and as I did, a beautiful trout leapt high across the bow of the boat in a perfect arc. My husband and I stared at each other and said nothing. He hauled on the oar to turn us to shore and pulled us against the wind. No one will ever believe this, I said.

© Kim Reynolds 2012

 
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Posted by on November 30, 2012 in Where's My Kid?

 

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Birth Day

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Squished like some kind of road kill between Mother’s Day and the long May weekend is the day she would have turned 32 – today – the 19th of May. Birth days, after the death of a child, become a countdown to death day. The now-closed loop between life and death is finite and each new day for me is one she didn’t have. It’s a useless exercise and yet it propels me through every day. One month, six months, nine months, ten. It’s not the way she lived but it’s become the way I live with it.

When she was young, the bulk of her birthday weekends were spent at the ballpark in Abbotsford – the first in a long season of tournaments her brother would play in and her Dad would coach. We’d throw her a party either before or after the weekend and her ball park buddies would use it as either a prequel of or sequel to continued birthday surprises.

As a young adult, her earlier birthdays set the table for future sports-related celebrations. She’d organize the teams, choose the sport and we’d follow it up with a barbecue. She kicked ass in football, failed miserably in basketball and surprised us all in golf. To her brother’s lifelong mortification, she’d hit a hole-in-one at the Stanley Park pitch and putt at the tender age of seven. Never a girl to miss an opportunity, she tormented him for years with that tiny, innocuous phrase – “hole-in-one”. Fast forward to 19. Having graduated to the big little golf course – Murdo Fraser Par 3 – she went at him with a vengeance on that birthday’s birthday competition. I don’t remember who won that day but I do remember it was a 1-point spread accompanied by catcalls and trash talk. Such simple pleasures. This is how we lived. This is who we were. How, then, to reconcile the vast gap between then and now?

This morning, the day she would have turned 32, my husband and I returned to the scene of the crime. We walked the course, a memory card of sorts, and each step brought a new tear, each swing of the club another laugh. I see us there still; our past imprinted against the incongruent backdrop of tall cedars and pink golf shirts.

She was born on the holiday Monday the day after the Mt. St. Helen’s volcanic blast shook our house to its foundations. We didn’t know then that this little girl would have the same effect on us. She blew the three of us open to make room for herself and she brought with her some old, soulful magic. Finding ways to live without that wisdom now seems impossible as we wend our way through this year of first firsts. We do our best.

The barbecue is lit, the appetizers prepared and her favourite cake awaits. Balloons festoon the balcony rail until their dusky release. We’ll sing Happy Birthday as we always did and trust that she knows we have. We go through these motions today, our love fierce and our memories intact. And we marvel at the signs.

Today of all days, the pink magnolia we planted in her name last fall, a gift from a group of well-wishers, blooms. There was never a doubt. It will bloom on her birthday, my husband stated, as sure as ever, months ago. It has. It does. She does – wherever she is. Happy birthday, Sadie-bumps. Happy birthday.

 © Kim Reynolds 2012

 
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Posted by on May 19, 2012 in Where's My Kid?

 

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Pyjama People

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Pyjamas are underrated, particularly by those who live in drizzle-free zones. Those of us who dwell north of 49 know the value of a good pair of pjs. The warmth they generate is not solely related to body temperature.

Psychologically, a prized pair of pyjamas can make for many a therapeutic substitution. Put on the flannels; pass on the Prozac. Feeling sad? Slip on the silk. Fancy some chocolate? Slide into chenille. For me and mine, rainy day feelings provide optimal pyjama-purchasing opportunities.

One of our oldest family traditions involved the Christmas Eve gift. Though the contents of the package were no secret, the style, texture and comfort level of the surprise sleepwear were left to the imagination. Let’s face it; this was mostly a girl thing. Though my husband and son participated, they were pretty much in it for the food that accompanied the Christmas Eve gift. At dusk on December 24th, the door to the outside world was closed and from that hour until bedtime, only the four of us existed.

Gathered around the living room coffee table, dinner started with appetizer after appetizer and grew with each course until the four of us lay bloated on the living room floor begging for mercy once the Swedish meatballs were done. It took hours – enough time to work our way from Frosty the Snowman to a National Lampoon Christmas. Stuffed, weary and ready-for-bed, out came the new pyjamas, the harbinger of good things ahead.

Throughout the years of my daughter’s illness, I took the pyjama game to new levels. Her discomfort and pain called for softer and smoother and I combed lingerie departments with my fingertips. The lighter its touch, the higher the priority assigned to a given garment. In the end, in the weeks and months before her death, even I gave up hoping I would find something that could alleviate the agony half an ounce of fabric weight produced.

I knew I would not survive her death without a good pair of pyjamas. I didn’t even try. On a warm September day last year, after her death but before her funeral, I ventured out. My husband and son were sad when I came home and showed them my purchase. They understood its significance. They held me tight on the driveway while I clutched this pair with purpose. I knew they would stay with me through thick and thin. I wasn’t so sure the two who held me now were as able.

Now, months later, and with another summer around the corner, it is another pair of pyjamas I hold close. A hat-wearing cat graces the shirt and it reads I love Mommy and Daddy. These were her first pyjamas, the beginning of our mutual admiration for all things cozy. It’s true I am still comforted by pyjamas, however, it is not the pair I purchased for myself that soothes me. Each night as I seek sleep, I wedge her precious pjs into the crook of my arm and hope they’ll lure her into my dreams and back to a time when life was sweet. Such times can be hard to find upon waking.

© Kim Reynolds 2012

 
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Posted by on May 15, 2012 in Where's My Kid?

 

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