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He Died the Second Time

When a friend delivered the brown cardboard banker’s box from the Vancouver Police  evidence warehouse my reflex was to tear the lid off and see if my son was inside. Or rather – –  what of my son was inside. There must be something in that box to explain it all. 

Summer light spilled in the kitchen window and I was searching for ways to make his sudden death untrue. I flipped open the lid and saw the box was filled with several sizes of brown paper bags and envelopes. There were intricate labels on all of these items. Rows of stickers like the ones on prescription bottles. I ran my hand over the bags and envelopes and my chest contracted. passport – one of the labels said. bank card. work-boots. socks.   

“Are you sure you want to do that now?” My husband asked.  What is the appropriate  action to take when the last personal effects of your son arrive on your kitchen table? Our eyes met across the box, “I mean, maybe you could just think about it for a while.” He knew better than anyone that I had the resilience of damp tissue paper.  I nodded. He gently closed the box, tugged it from my reluctant hands and took it down to the basement where he placed it on a high shelf in the storage room with the camping gear and Christmas decorations.

About three months later, on a rare day I was alone in the house, I crept down to the storage room and reached for the brown box on the shelf. I sat on the cold cement floor with the box between my knees and opened the lid. There were the brown paper bags and the familiar printed labels: t-shirt blue. backpack black. work gloves. samsung phone.

I snatched the envelope containing the phone, slammed the lid on the box and ran up the stairs before the earthy smell of my son’s work-shirt could dilute my resolve.

Upstairs I slid the phone out onto the counter and saw the screen was cracked but not shattered. I saw Holden’s finger prints smudged all over it. Very likely the last thing his hands had touched.

After a lot of deep breathing I pressed the power button and the phone vibrated, chimed and easily buzzed to life.

What to do now? I wanted to see him, so I instinctively tapped the photos icon. The last picture he had taken was of a poster for a heavy metal show at Pat’s Pub on Hastings Street July 3, a day he would not live to see. But the one before that was of a forested trail, blackberries, salal, ivy and dappling light. The one before that showed he had been up on a hillside, looking out over the ocean with islands in the distance, the sky a brilliant blue, the next a warm grassy road, forgotten by cars, I could feel the warmth of summer now faded. The next few pictures showed a diminishing sunset from the beach, glorious oranges letting go to yellow and the blue grey of the pacific. The experience of looking at these photos was transformative, I could be where he had been, see what he had seen, get some sense of his mood, these photographs were light, beautiful and calm.

Look, there is the arc of the highway overpass and the rushing Capilano River. He was close to our house, he was almost home. Knowing he had been surrounded by the beauty of nature was comforting. The next picture was a blurry photo of his face surrounded by leaves and sunlight. His last selfie. I began sending these photos to myself. My own phone came alive on the counter ding, ding, ding, messages coming in from Holden, Holden, Holden. It’s him, he’s alive, wait, there has been a mistake. Wait.

A few days later I launched the familiar blue Facebook app on his phone. I had looked at his page from my own computer to read the messages of condolence from his friends but I had never thought to open his profile and read his private messages. Like many kids who don’t pay their phone bills Holden used Messenger to communicate.

This, I thought, will fill in the blank space, the unaccounted for hours leading to his death, I’ll be able to tell who he was with, what his frame of mind was, who he spoke with, where he went. I will at least know some of what happened. 

The app opened, his page came into view, I clicked on the messenger icon and blurry words began sharpening into focus. Anticipation and hope rose in me, a helium balloon in my chest, I sat a little taller. I could find my son here. This would explain things.

Then entire screen faded to blackness and lettering appeared saying something like: ‘This account has been memorialized. No further access will be permitted.’

I was being strangled. He was dissolving into vapour, again. My son had been dead for three months and I was forced to watch another part of him die. His last communications would not be mine to see.

I emailed Facebook explaining the situation, pleading for help. The next day I received a automated reply saying that my son’s account had been memorialized on the instruction of a friend or family member and could under no circumstances be reverted back to it’s active state, nor would they, under any circumstances provide any additional details. This, they declared, was in order to keep the account secure.

I hadn’t given them permission, nobody is our family had, none of his friends had. Could there be some kind of automated algorithm that triggers the slamming of the gate? Too many RIP’s posted or too many key words of condolence?  I have heard from others in similar situations, grieving parents with mysteries to solve, who have experienced a similar sudden cutting of the rope.

I consulted a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property. After some research she advised that: ‘there is no point in trying to fight Facebook. There is not enough money in the world for that.’ So I gave up and added one more cruel devastation to the long list of other devastations we had already and would continue to suffer.

Down in that storage room in the basement I have my son’s books, his personal sketches, his report cards, his teapot and his high school diploma. I have his music collection  and his underwear. I have his private emails and text messages but I have no knowledge of my son’s last few hours. Not because Facebook can’t provide this closure for me, because they refuse to.

Facebook now has a provision for users to appoint a legacy contact which would allow access after death, but what 21 year old man thinks he’s going to die?

So, there remains a blank section in time, an area just out of reach that does exist, but not for me. Words that could perhaps deliver a greater acceptance will never be mine.  And knowing that, keeps me forever at arms length from peace.

*** This Essay is broadcast on The CBC Sunday Edition with Michael Enright, Sunday June 17, 2018.  Here is the link to the audio and the show’s website.***

 

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Stuart McLean Was Nice to Me When Nobody Was Looking

All any of us want to be is seen and heard and, if we’re lucky, understood.  Stuart McLean’s greatest gift, one that he shared with gleeful abandon, was to reassure us that we are fine, we are normal in our abnormality, and our little, seemingly insignificant lives do mean something after all. He revelled in the regular.  He got me.  And he got you.  He saw us.  Stuart held up a big mirror and in that reflection we looked just fine thank you.  Better than ever actually.  He polished us until we shone with his affection for the every day.

Reading other people’s email these days is asking for trouble (Hillary!) but in this case I think we’ll all be forgiven as they reveal something valuable about an extraordinary person.   Stuart McLean was a friend and inspiration to me and I choose to show you some excerpts from our correspondence to illustrate what a thoughtful and kind man we was, even when no mic’s were on, no tapes were rolling and nobody was looking. Continue Reading →

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How to be a Basically Normal Human Being

Make eye contact.

Respond when people speak to you, full sentences please. 

Ask questions. 

Listen to the answer.

Consider offering a thought or opinion.

Engage.

Care.

Smile.   

I feel like I am parenting a young child who is off to school for the first time or teaching a newly arrived foreigner how to conduct herself in our culture.  I’m not.  I’m talking to myself.  Asking, what a level-headed, un-crazy, pre-wounded, sound and solid person would do in this situation?  The conversations in here are endless spirals of complete and total fun.  It’s good times.

There is coaching from within too.  A softer gentleness has replaced the suck-it-up-buttercup cheerleader voice that used to run commentary before my son died.  Now it’s more like: Way to go, you held a meaningful three-minute conversation at the grocery store.    You made it an entire day without crying.  High five.  You used an exclamation point in an Instagram comment!  Woo hoo!!

The inner talking never stops.  It’s a two-way conversation. 

Smile?  I don’t think so.  You go too far.   

I mean it …crack a grin once in a while.  It will not kill you to smile.  

But it feels like it may?  It feels like a lie. 

It’s not completely untrue, there are many things to smile about.   And whatever you do, resist the urge to turtle.  The turtle no longer serves you.  She might be a groovy spirit animal but the turtle is not your friend.  When you start to squirm  just take a deep breath and look to the light.  You are in charge here.  Direct this mess.

You’re not the boss of me. 

Oh for God’s sake.  When you want to look down or run, don’t.  Stay.  Do the work to build some happy.  When someone says ‘how are you?’  the appropriate response is ‘I. am. fine. thank you.’ 

But that’s not true either?  I’m not fine, what about this is fine?

It doesn’t have to be 100% true.  Partial truth is still truth.

You should be a lawyer.  Or work for Donald Trump.

Hey, look at you making jokes.  See…I knew you could do it. 

I’m sure it seems rudimentary and even obvious but this really does feel like beginning at the beginning.  I’m in human pre-school.  Searching for joy as if she’s tucked in last winter’s jacket in the back of a closet, or is it the basement, or the garage?  The mechanism of happy is simply not a 24/7 buffet any more.  It takes some pushing and cajoling.  Have you ever tried to get a three year old to appreciate broccoli?  It’s like that.  I used to resort to chocolate sauce. 

I just realized I’ve been ducking behind the barricades for a year and a half.  I’m not sure if I’ve been sheltering myself from the painful world or sparing the people I care about from…well…me, the unidentifiable stranger.   So the question now becomes…how to behave when the person I was before doesn’t live here any more?   

Oh sure, I appear basically the same.  Skeleton and skin arranged in a recognizable stack.  Address and phone number status quo.  Solid freckle game.  Outdated clothing, not a trace of makeup.  Apple shaped.  But there’s an imposter in here.  Some days I can see that old me in the distance, running just out of sight.  I really want to have her back.  To inhabit her.  She was so much fun.  Hang on, there’s a flicker of dark hair as she disappears behind a cold barren tree in the woods. 

It’s time to stop chasing that out of date model and let her go.  She’s done her years of service and she is exhausted.  Moreover she’s obsolete.  New upgrades are typically faster, slicker, more flashy.  Tara 2.17 is slower, more contained and hopefully a little more functional.  I get to re-design so I get to choose.  This time I’m going for a substantially more peaceful, mindful version.  When that crackling static starts to fire up in my ears I say to myself – look to the light tara.  Put him in you pocket and look to the light.  He’s not gone, you’re not ignoring him, you are choosing to rise.  Holden won’t mind.  In fact, he’ll probably be pretty stoked about the idea.

treeChristmas was tough.  Perhaps more difficult than last year.  Last year I prepared myself for the awful newness of the first holiday season without him.  Everyone told me the first everything was the worst.  I barred the door and wallowed.  This year I thought it would be easier, that time and distance would round the edges, but I was very wrong.  I was a big fat faker.  It was okay for a while.  We went to a couple of parties early in December and enjoyed ourselves.  Not the old ‘life-of-the-party-dance-til-two’ couple but a decent effort.  I’ve never used the expression ‘meh’ much but it seems to fit here.  My sweet husband felt the same way.  That old, easy jubilant nature was a slippery fish for him too.  I am furious with Holden for stealing the happiness of the most naturally big hearted, joyful man I have ever known.  Not even Grandma’s butter tarts could cheer him up.

Then something happened.  About half way through December a shift or acknowledgement that it was all just pretend.  That true contentedness was impossible and the missing was just too strong.  I was sucked into a black vacuum I call the ‘blackuum.’   Amongst the cookies, visitors and gravy I fell apart for hours and days at a time.  When our puppy chewed Holden’s stocking so it could not be hung up by the fire I sobbed like a toddler.  When we put up the tree I, imagined the four of us in years past and shuddered while fat tears raindropped into my eggnog.  Eggnog that did not taste anything like it was supposed to.  Thank God for Michael Bublé or the afternoon may have been a total loss.  Doing the brunch dishes one morning I crumbled and shook.  I think I scared my Mom.

I went through the motions like a marionette being controlled by a wizard behind the curtain. His name is Mr. Tradition.  At times I felt like all that was holding me together was a clear film not unlike the top of a crème brûllée.  Now I completely understand the term “cracking up.” Let’s just say there is a lot of snot on some very solid shoulders around here. 

Then a surprising thing happened.  New Year’s Day.  Such a cliché I almost laughed out loud in my bed.  I woke up and before I even opened my eyes I said to myself – enough, time to look for the light.  It was that simple.  You’ve had your head between your knees for 18 months.  Give yourself a break.  Start over.   Maybe it was hormone fluctuations, the earth’s orientation to the sun, sugar withdrawal or the quietness of the house.  The relief that ‘The Holidays’ were over actually felt like a crane had lifted a skid of shit off of me.  I walked around that day feeling elevated.  I rearranged the furniture.  I dusted! 

I have decided to try to authentically inhabit this new self.  She is a vastly different chick from her former edition.  She says ‘no’ more, she is quite lazy, she eats junk food, she reads constantly and rarely watches TV (except Gilmore Girls re-runs on Netflix with her daughter because… Gilmore Girls!).   She does not lead conversations or fill in awkward silences. 

I have put a moratorium on longing for the former, easily joyful, flippant person who used to reside in me. To unapologetically direct this gift of a life with more intention.  That means driving the boat instead of being dragged along behind it.  It’s a very hard thing.   I hope I can do it.  I mean hey, we are five entire days in and it’s working so far.  Well, actually, I’m crying right now because writing has a way of releasing the hounds.  But basically, it’s better.  Looking ‘to the light’ is physical, as in the splendid sunshine that we have been blessed with since the year began.  It’s also figurative.  Choosing the light option on the menu.   For instance, when I’m out walking the trail near my home and thoughts of sad unfairness and confused anger bob up into my consciousness I just say to myself ‘look to the light,’ and there it is, the blue sky and the cute tumbling dogs and the clear blue icicles we so rarely get to experience here on the coast. 

Often when I would ask Holden how he was, he would say ‘I’m alright Mom, I’m alright’  which I totally get now.  ‘I’m alright’  means ‘I survived another day but I am in pain.  Nothing is fine here.  I am not fine, I am simply functioning and life sucks.  I am confused, anxious and I don’t know what my life is for.’  I used to get so excited when he would say ‘I’m good’ or ‘I’m fine’ or use an exclamation point in his texts or emails because if Holden was anything he was impeccable with his written word.  He would never snow-job me with some puffed up punctuation. 

As with any renovation it happens in stages.  One day soon I hope to be able to honestly answer the question ‘how are you?’ with ‘I am fine thanks,’ and really mean it. 

Then I might feel like a basically normal human being.

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Red Letter Day

“I’m crying in the doctor’s office.”  There is emotion inflating her voice.  “ I saw your email just as they were calling my name to go in and I thought, I’ll wait and read it after, but then, I thought ‘fuck it’ and I read it right away, and I started crying and then I had to go straight in for my checkup, there’s nothing wrong with me, except my grey hair, but my doctor thinks I’m nuts.”  She has a beautiful way with the run-on sentences. 

“I’m crying too.”  It’s more of a blurt because a sob-laugh combo is chiselling at my words.  Through the window in front of my big black desk I can see the rock garden I made for Holden last summer with the delicate white ceramic Buddha perched on granite stones.  It’s where I leave him little presents of rocks and flowers and prayers.

“I am so happy for you.  This is your turning point!  Oh, Dolly, this is just what you need.”  She calls me Dolly when she’s bubbling over.

“But I’m so scared, I feel nauseous.  It’s just… it’s just…  I don’t know, it’s going to be so hard.”  Scanning around to find the words as though I had dropped them on the floor and they scattered like marbles.  “All the emotional mining I’ll have to do, you know?  It’s just so much.”  Of course she knows, she’s been there.  “The other day when I had to edit a piece for an anthology it threw me down the well for hours.  I don’t want to be like that for a whole year.”   

“Oh but, this is very different from writing by yourself.  You will never be alone or unsupported and you won’t have time to be sad, you’ll be too busy getting the sentences just right.  Remember, everyone in the non-fiction cohort has a tricky story too. It’s all going to be just great. Believe me.”  I do.

“Okay, you’re right.” I say softly into the phone.  “Ughhhh, It’s time.”

“It’s a Red Letter Day!  As my Dad used to say.  You should celebrate.  Do you have any idea how many people apply for that program?”

“Nope.”

“Lots.  Many many many people.  Talented people.  And you have been accepted solely on the merits of your writing.  So just for today, please don’t say that phrase ‘it’s just…” any more.  This is really good.  It’s so great and I am so proud of you.  It’s the change you need and what an endorsement.  Holy Cow!”  Enthusiasm may possibly be one of her strongest characteristics.  After precise grammar and the effective use of swear words. 

“It’s a red letter day.” I whisper with the up inflection that makes it sound like a question.

“Yes, it is!”  She is very likely happier than I am.  “Oh Dolly, I’ve gotta run.  Love youuuuu!”

*****

red-let·ter day
noun:  a day that is pleasantly noteworthy or memorable.
Origin:  early 18th century: from the practice of highlighting a festival in red on a calendar.

*****

November 17/2016

Dear Ms. McGuire,

I am very pleased to inform you that you have been accepted into the Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University Continuing Studies for 2017. Welcome!

There was a large and talented pool of applicants this year, and our four mentors each selected their respective group of students from this long list.  Each mentor read all the applications and chose who they would most like to work with for the year. You were accepted in the first round.

Congratulations on submitting a successful application.

My very best,

 Wayde Compton | Associate Director, Creative Writing

The Writer’s Studio, Simon Fraser University

*****

Holy.  Fuck. 

** note – I have never felt unsupported in my writing.  Quite the opposite in fact.  **