Article Category Archives: Creative Nonfiction

Shifting Landscape

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The moment I knew it was time to give up sheep farming is etched into my memory. It was late February and lambing season. Checking the barn, I saw a ewe straining. She was trying to birth her lamb, but the lamb’s knees had gotten jammed behind her pelvic bones so that its head was out and swollen. I caught the ewe, carefully reached in, released the lamb’s legs, and pulled it out. I placed the lamb at the mother’s nose, and she started to clean it off while I pulled out the twin.

The second lamb got to its feet immediately, and so did the mother, turning her attention away from the limp first-born, whose head was so swollen that it couldn’t get its balance to stand. The mother’s attention might get it to its feet, but I could also take it inside the house to keep it warm, feed it, and give it time to get the swelling down. Experience said that if I did that, I’d have a bottle-lamb on my hands. I knew I could not handle that task again.

Earlier that year, in January, the same thing had happened. Inside the house, the lamb took all day to get to its feet, and I fed it with a bottle until it did. When it went back to the barn, we made four trips a day to feed it. Back in January, my eighty-year-old husband did half of those trips.

Now, with snow drifted to my waist, filling back in any path I made, he was not able to get to the barn at all. With my off-farm job and doing all the barn work and dealing with the mountain of snow, I could not handle four trips a day to feed one lamb. I walked away, leaving the lamb where it was.

When I went back a couple hours later, driven to check on it, the lamb was on its feet. The mother had done what was needed. But I had not intervened. It was time to quit farming if I could not do what needed to be done.

Six months later, we sold the farm: three hundred acres, two old barns, and a two-storey century home. We left the care of the land in the competent hands of dairy farmers. We suspected that they would take out the fence rows, thereby also taking out habitat for birds, squirrels, mice, and rabbits and removing trees that captured carbon, but they would work the land with sustainable agricultural practices. We bought a bungalow with a finished basement and a decent-sized lot on the shore of Georgian Bay.

When we took possession of the bungalow, the first thing I did was transplant roots, bulbs, and corms from our farm garden into the new garden. The comfrey and orange lilies I had inherited from the family that had settled and maintained the farm before us. Irises came from the home my husband grew up in and from my parents’ garden. The allium and other lilies I had planted. In each case, I took just part of the root, a few of the bulbs, ensuring the plants would still be there for whoever lived in the farmhouse. And for the wild things that ate from them.

Painting by Brenda Whiteway showing a woman in a doorway, floral wallpaper, and the roots of a plant outside.

Years Passing / Years Beginning by Brenda Whiteway

In our new house, I planted Jerusalem artichoke and the comfrey, loved by pollinators and hummingbirds, out near the road, a place where they could spread without crowding other plants. With the first lilies I put in the ground, also out by the road, I realized that the soil of our new location was clay; I mixed in generous amounts of compost. When I moved to the place I had chosen for the irises, closer to the house, my trowel bounced when I tried to dig. I cleared the mulch and uncovered landscape fabric.

I stopped. I investigated the rest of the yard. I found that under the gravel on the paths was black fabric. Under the mulch around the trees was fabric. Between the hydrangeas, around the ninebark and Russian sage, everywhere, the ground was covered with fabric. Wild asters and colts foot had found enough soil in the mulch to grow above the fabric, but no roots reached through.

I went back to plant the irises by cutting through the fabric. I found dead, grey clay. No worms or insects or roots of any kind. I ripped the hole bigger and put in a substantial amount of composted manure and planted the irises. I worried they wouldn’t survive.

The loam on our farm had been fertile. With plenty of manure to spread and a rotation that included alfalfa and trefoil, the ground was productive. Also, with forty acres of bush and thick fence rows, our carbon footprint was pretty well zero. What we put in the air our trees absorbed. But what about now on my little parcel of land? I wondered what mitigation strategies I could take up in this location.

About this time, I came across an article in a farm magazine about capturing carbon in soil. I realized that although I had much less land, I could intensify my practice and capture carbon in the ground. If I removed the fabric barrier that kept the clay dead, I could regenerate the soil, encouraging plants to flourish. I could capture carbon in living plants and soil as well as the trees on our lot.

That fall, I raked leaves off the lawn and into the garden. I dug them into the ground. Come spring, I carefully cut the fabric and lifted it without uprooting the plants. I dug in the mulch as well as some of the wildflowers that grew in it and were taking over. I planted snow peas around an ash tree. The next year, I decided, the peas would go near the irises. The year after around the lilac tree. They would put nitrogen in the soil while growing, feed us when the pods matured, and get dug into the ground when they were done.

I started a composter. I carefully avoided putting meat into it, as there is a bear and a fisher living near enough, and a fox who visits regularly. The first batch of compost made a tea to be used to water the vegetables. The next batch got dug into the hard ground where I planted the day lilies and old-fashioned roses.

The previous owner left me heavy cement pots. These I filled with herbs, coriander and basil, parsley and oregano. I picked up more pots at the thrift store to plant tomatoes and peppers that I grew from seed under LED lights in the basement. I planted borage in pots and in the empty space behind the shasta daisies, flowers for the bees, and leaves for our salads. I created a small terraced garden for beets and lettuce and zucchini. I don’t grow as many vegetables as I did in the farm garden, but for two of us there are salad greens and some good home-grown veggies. I planted two apple trees. It will be years before they produce, but there will be apples here. Not the wild ones I’ve come to love, but good fruit.

There was a lot to learn. I knew I had to water the potted plants, but I forgot they needed fertilizer more often. That compost tea has come to good use. The climate is different by the bay, with spring coming later. But fall lingers as well. There is a lot of shade, something I did not have on the farm. I’ve marked the sunny spots for next year’s planning.

I’m learning to live with the birds here too. The blue jays and squirrels compete over the sunflower seeds. The squirrels spill the seed for the wild turkeys and a couple mallard ducks who waddle up from the shore. We have no barn swallows but the hummingbirds love the flowers, especially the comfrey as it spreads.

I needed to turn away from farming, to leave the livestock and the buildings I could no longer maintain. I miss the acres of land. But I am still a farmer who watches the weather and notices how the shifting patterns affect what grows. And here, on this bit of shoreline, I do what I can to bring life.


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Hers was probably the fiftieth or sixtieth door I knocked on that afternoon. The sun had set enough that the white doors on the east side of the street were no longer too bright to look at. A dog barked inside her house, so I knew at least someone heard my knock. It’s always a guessing game: how long to wait before I accept that no one is coming. Thankfully, she answered quickly. She had a go-away face, though, her eyes hard and a tension around her mouth as if she were trying to spit me out.

I introduced myself and my organization and moved into the opening of my pitch before she could cut me off. “We’re a local non-profit that does a lot of environmental advocacy at city council and we’re in your neighbourhood doing some outreach this afternoon. I was wondering if you’re concerned about environmental issues?”

Her eyes hardened even further as I spoke, but her mouth relaxed to form the words with which she planned to send me away. “Well of course I am. Everyone is. But I don’t have time right now, so goodbye.” She shut the door before I could say anything more.

Hardly anyone has time to talk, so I was accustomed to this sort of rejection, especially at “cold doors” where the residents were not already on our member list. The closed door did not bother me, but as I moved on to the next house I pondered this woman’s assumption that of course she’s concerned, everyone is. Because everyone isn’t. That is one thing you learn when you try to talk to all the people on one street.

There were some houses I canvassed where the resident (often an older man) told me that he thinks we need more pipelines or, in one case, that he supports Donald Trump. These are the houses where we are trained to say, “Okay, have a nice day,” and move on, because the chances of recruiting them as supporters are slim. I wonder how the woman at the door that morning would have reacted if she encountered this kind of opposition from her neighbours. Would she have left her door open longer to prove that she’s on my side? Or kept it closed, satisfied that at least she cares, and that ought to be enough?

The vast majority of people seem to stop at caring, alleging sympathy, while still ushering me away claiming that this isn’t a good time. These are people with dinner on the stove or on the table, who are trying to bathe their kids, who just got home from a long day at work, who are trying to watch the game on TV. People who have someone on the phone, who are doing housework, who are just heading out, who aren’t feeling well today, and who don’t feel obligated to make excuses to a stranger. These people are me sometimes too, as I rush past a blue-vested street canvasser with my headphones in, pretending that I’m late to class.

Digital art by Katarna Marinic showing a composite being with arms, legs, eyes.

Composite Hybrid by Katarina Marinic

The present is sabotaging the future, and it terrifies me. Yes, the system is rigged by fossil fuel companies and powerful climate-science deniers, but on the local scale, “I don’t have time right now so goodbye” is also a substantial threat to environmental progress. People are so caught up in the quotidian details of getting by that they have no time left to step back and think about solutions to problems that will make it harder to put food on the table and be secure in their home and maintain their health in the not-so-distant future. It’s easier to just avoid the rabbit hole of anxiety. This is both a major obstacle and a call to action for activists.

As another dozen doors shut in my face, or as I burrow deeper into my hood to avoid being stopped for a sidewalk survey, I can’t help but wonder if capitalism did this on purpose. I really do have to get to class on time, just as my canvassees really do have to get their kids to soccer practice. Society pushes us towards fulfilling our individual responsibilities in a way that makes coming together for systemic change highly inconvenient. We are barraged with alarm bells through every form of media, on the streets and in our houses. To breathe, we shut them out.

When I began to get involved in environmental activism in my first year of university, I thought it was about yelling. Get out in the streets with as many people as you can muster! Sneak banners into strategic locations and be disruptive! That way, everyone would have to remember how dire the situation is. It baffled me how people could just go about their lives and not be (outwardly) concerned about climate change. Don’t they know, I thought, that if we don’t do something right now we’re quite possibly going to destroy the planet forever?!  The more I talked to people both in my daily life and while canvassing at their doors, I realized that most people do know, yet they oscillate between denial and feeling overwhelmed. Instead of feeling the urgency of action, they just want the chatter to stop.

Imagine silence. No one pressing for solutions, as climate change lurks in the shadows. It would feel unbalanced, a chasm of potential waiting to be filled with the floodwater on its way to our doors. As activists, we are compelled to lead the charge, banners flapping behind us as we rush to stem the tide, echoes of our rallying cry emphasizing the emptiness behind us and in the pits of our stomachs.

No one will follow us if they only hear our alarm but don’t feel heard themselves.

To grow our movement, we can’t rely on simply convincing people, adding more anxiety into their already-busy lives. Yelling louder won’t cut through the noise. I used to go into conversations with potential supporters as if they were stubborn legislators: a verbal bulldozer, determined to stick to my position and not back down. But effective activism is really about listening. When I listen to people’s concerns, I find that most people already have the motivation to do something.

At the door, it was my job to show people how giving to my organization was one way to make a small contribution to environmental work, and that’s not untrue: for those with more money than time, donations to community organizations are vital to move the cause forward. But off the clock, there are so many other things that people can do. They can vote. They can vote with their money. They can get out and protest. They can go to a beach cleanup. They can have a car-free day or a meatless Monday or bring a reusable mug and cutlery in their bag. Deep into a conversation with one young mom about her efforts to avoid disposable diapers, I fumbled for any information that she didn’t already know, afraid of losing her interest. But in the end, she donated not because I led her to care, but because I stood with her in her struggle to work out her path, accidentally managing to assure her that we are in this fight together.

Yelling about how everyone needs to be actively involved in the solution often rips the environmental movement apart. We are caught in the paradox between being palatable to centrists and acting fast enough to protect marginalized communities. Ironically, these arguments can keep us from both immediate action and slowing down to listen to our neighbours.

As activists, we can’t get so caught up in our own concerns that, just like the woman I met at the door, we don’t have time when people want to talk. As a movement, we can’t let the climate crisis become our everything, causing us to shut out the other parts of life that threaten to overwhelm us. We can’t assume that we have the support of the entire left without doing anything to include them. Closing the door keeps us from building support and making progress. Instead, let’s take a breath. Lock eyes. And listen to how we can move forward together.


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The woman looks up, curious but distracted by the little ones tugging at her skirt. I want to talk to her. I get out of the car and walk over, the translator now knowing what to ask before even saying a word to me. He speaks to her in Mandinka, the language of rural Gambia. He continues to talk and I wait to see if she is willing. Yes. She wants to talk too. And so we begin.

Have the weather patterns changed over the course of your life? I ask. Are things different now than they were when you were younger?

Questions about perceptions of weather and climate are often a part of my research and I’m genuinely curious to learn the responses. Here in the Gambia, however, I can now almost predict what I will hear: the weather is indeed changing.

Yet this particular woman seems to have a lot more to say and I wait for the translator to unlock her wisdom.

Yes, she says, the weather is different. It used to rain very reliably. These people, they are farmers and they could plant their seeds and the rain would come and they could rely on good harvests. But now, now nothing is reliable. The rains don’t come. People plant seeds and they die. It is getting very difficult to farm.

I ask further: Why do you think that the weather is changing and the rains are so unreliable?

She speaks quickly and seems agitated, her hands gesturing. I am eager to hear her explanation but surprised by the words that come from the translator’s mouth.

It is the young girls. They wear short skirts now … exposing their bodies. They don’t show respect to Allah. And so He is angry. We anger Him with this and He is punishing us.

The woman then asks if I could take a photo of her with her twin granddaughters. She scoops them up and hoists them upon each hip.


I first came to the Gambia, the smallest nation on the African continent, several years prior to this encounter. As a Geography Professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, I’ve had the chance to travel to the country on several development and academic trips. The connection with the Gambia had been forged by an historical relationship: my university assisted in the development of the University of the Gambia. Early on, when presented with the opportunity to travel there, I wasn’t excited. Poor and underdeveloped, I thought, dry and dusty. My head filled with stereotypes. But my first trip sealed my love for the so-called “Smiling Coast” and the people changed my perspective permanently.

On this particular occasion, a colleague and I were investigating perceptions of climate change among rural Gambians. The northern and eastern regions of the country are classic Sahel, dry and arid for much of the year and with people relying heavily on the distinct rainy season to grow food. I was curious to know what Gambians were thinking and feeling about changing weather patterns and what explanations they had for the changes. What would they do when the rains no longer fell?


Towards the coast, a group of women gather. During the week they sell produce at market stalls to support their families. They are talking to me about farming, their traditional ways of life and how things are getting harder now.

Before, there was enough rainfall. People were engaged in farming. There is not enough rain now. A lot of farmers have lost hope. Climate change has discouraged people.

Climate change. I did not expect to hear this term. It’s one we in the west use describe the impacts we levy on those in less-developed countries but not one that local people in the Gambia often use themselves. I don’t know where these women would have learned the term and I didn’t probe them. Perhaps it’s becoming more common through environmental education campaigns and the fact that food and water security depend on understanding the issues. It could also be that with the prospect of rising sea levels, in a country that is at or even below sea level, the term is making its way into the media and mindsets of local people. In any case, the women continue….

Government agencies and NGOs, they tell youth to think more about farming and fishing. Is this realistic? The drought is making it very difficult. There is not enough rainfall to harvest anything. So the youth go backway.

Backway is the local term for those who attempt the trek to Europe in search of opportunity and success. On the African continent, the Gambia ranks among the highest per-capita contributors to irregular migrants who make the journey across the Mediterranean. Primarily youth, they risk their lives on routes from West Africa through the desert to Libya; from Libya they get into over-loaded boats that will take them to Italy and other parts of Europe. They know the risks but they still do it, or want to do it, because of the pressures they are facing at home and the successes they have seen of those who have landed on the shores of Europe. So the very cultural landscape of many rural villages is changing. The youth are gone. The women, the caretakers of the villages, are hoping and coping and praying for the successful migrant journey.

Abstract painting by Renée Cohen showing rust hill and blue ocean.

Ocean Reflecting Rust Hill by Renée Cohen

In a rural village in the so-called upcountry of Gambia, I speak with with a group of young girls just out of high school. They tell me their frustrations with those of us in Europe and North America who view migrants as thieves and criminals. The girls want me to know that the boys they went to school with—the ones who left—were the brightest in their class. These boys were unable to secure scholarships to study in Europe and decided to travel the “illegal” route instead. Their boat capsized. They all drowned. The girls were grief-stricken, but also angry.

They were the top students. They should have been able to go to Italy, to Germany, to the UK. Just to study! They were not criminals. They were just boys. Their mothers are left without sons. They are gone. Like they just disappeared. These houses here, this is where they lived. Now they are gone. One, he was my boyfriend. We were going to get married. Now who will I marry and have children with?


I feel like a hypocrite, of course, flying all the way around the world, contributing to the climate changes that so gravely impact Gambians. I like to think I am somehow different and that by asking these questions, by seeking out audiences who willingly listen to these stories, I am not as complicit. I hope that my efforts to educate my students back in Canada, my efforts to lend voice to those who might not otherwise have one, are in some way are my carbon offsets. But I don’t know.


We walk into the dark circular home of a traditional birth attendant. Our eyes quickly adjust from the bright sun to the dark interior. There are only a few small seats and a bed inside.

I birthed a woman in that bed today, the woman says.

I looked at the bed and wonder how the birth had gone. How different and difficult delivering a baby must be in conditions so far from those in the west.

How many babies have you delivered? I ask.

Oh, I don’t know, I have lost count. Many hundreds or thousands, she says, laughing.

We smile awkwardly, trying to imagine the babies who have entered the world and the brave mothers who birthed them in this bed. Even getting to this traditional hut can be a challenge. There are physical limitations to travelling during the rainy season and when flooding occurs. Women therefore prefer to have babies in the dry season, so travel is easier and their planting and harvesting of rice isn’t impacted. Raising crops and raising children—both the sole responsibility of women. But now the extreme heat and the unpredictability of the rains and crops are making pregnancy and childbirth, which were never easy, even harder.


We talk of concepts like mitigation and adaptation in the discourse on climate change. But how can women in rural Gambia mitigate or adapt to their new realities? In my travels, I haven’t seen many options. “Adaptation strategies” can quickly become an academic conversation among those in circles of power. Something necessary to discuss. The reality for many, and for women and children in particular, is that they must simply confront new challenges. They must cope with climate change, no matter what. So it makes sense that a lot of the weight of climate change and the new challenges they face are lifted up to God. To Allah. And, ultimately, the blame is often laid on the shoulders of those who have nothing to do with the rains that do or do not fall: girls with short skirts, not the consumption and consumerism of the industrialised world.

Dragging My Soul Across A Hellscape of Broken Glass, or One Woman’s Account of Filing For Disability Support

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Last summer, I quit a performance I was doing with my collaborators in Calgary and booked a ticket home. I quit because my body had quit. My body was having “seizures” all the time, even when we were all three in our Charlie Chaplin costumes, inside the space we’d made to “live” in—a cozy little cell copped from the Chaplin film Modern Times, with a viewing window as in a zoo/museum exhibit. I couldn’t keep the movements from happening, the jerking of my arms and legs, even when the eyes were on us. I had to laugh and wink toward the glass as though letting the audience in on the joke, this Chaplin who has no control, this master clown who’s lost even the smallest amount of mastery over their body.

Later, the tears wouldn’t stop as my neck went rigid and jerky and felt like it’d snap. I barely got myself home, to the place I was housesitting. I barely got myself online, got a ticket. On the plane I held my neck in both hands to keep it from spasming too obviously. I turned my face to the window and cried until I ran out of tear-water. My collaborators empathized, they said it was ok, that I needed to forgive myself, that health comes first. I’ll never forgive myself. I am not a person who quits. I don’t get bested by pain. I suffer through it.

I suffer through, until it’s impossible. I need to dig a grave for the brightest part of me. I can’t act on stage any more, or in small enclosures as Charlie Chaplin, either. I don’t know when my limbs might jerk, or a loud, guttural, noise might leap out. Unreliable. I flew home saying goodbye to myself. I’d delayed this goodbye for so long—at least a year past the point when my hands flapped by themselves on the stage floor as I “lay unconscious” as a—hilarious!—character in chronic pain, in a play that had been written by a mentor of mine. I held my body still with force, to keep more flaps from polluting the performance. Later, she told me I’d ruined her show. Slowed it down. Did I? Added whole minutes with my pauses. Did I do that? Brain fog? Blackout? Did I fuck up that badly, or was I being gaslit? Did it matter? That one moment with my hands moving on the floor without my consent was enough. Unpardonable. It didn’t matter about the rest. If the instrument doesn’t function, it can’t be played in public any more.

I delayed the end of things, long past the point when performing meant giving up everything else. It’s meant that for years—five years, ten. An ascetic existence with all energy bent toward the magic hour on the stage. The rest of life caves in, becomes nothing but flare. All energy consumed in the time with the audience. I was in love with it. There’s something in me that isn’t there until I’m someone else, saying someone else’s words, making new some story that’s been rigidified on paper, making that magic feeling grow in the room under the stage lights, forgetting myself, allowing for other, allowing for a new sense of my physical self—how it stands, moves, where it holds its fear and power. How my voice is habitually caught, and how I can release it in larger, bolder sounds than I’d ever make myself.

I came home last summer in a state of emergency, with a sense of ungroundedness, of floundering. What do I do now? Who am I if I can’t be on stage? Why is my body so reactive? Is this all due to fibromyalgia? Am I possessed? My doctor made an appointment with a neurologist. I’m still waiting, a year later. I went to my naturopath, who, before talking about the seizures, asked me about my financial situation. (Freelance artist. Poor.) She suggested disability support. “Stress makes everything worse.” Asked if my parents could help me. I broke down and sobbed. She offered to treat me for free by email for a while, but I felt ashamed, and her pity unfurled my courage. I haven’t been back since, although it was the naturopath who made the connection between the worsening of my seizures and the medication the doctor had me on. My doctor was astounded at the correlation but admitted it made sense, and we started the dark, autumn-long weaning process where everything got worse and I regularly had the thought that I should die, so as not to be a burden on the world any more.

Throughout that time, I filled in forms, made lists of symptoms, and wrote paragraphs about my pain, my daily routines, why I could no longer maintain employment. As a self-employed, freelance artist working in several disciplines, it took a few months to prove my income was even valid, according to the government. Paperwork designed to regulate the disregulated and make sense of how dysfunctional you are, in comparison to other lives, other bodies—are you sick enough to be disabled? Or are you just sickly? Doctor must file medical report. She said she’d do it if necessary, but most people with fibromyalgia don’t get disability. I said I know, it took my mom three tries and a lawyer. I need this. I’m over a barrel, as they say. (Why do they say that?) I’m over a barrel and have no choices left. Can only write an hour a day. And writing pays nothing. I pay to write! I used to feed the habit with that fat acting cash. Get a film role every three years, put it in the bank and leak it out slowly while I similarly eke out the paragraphs. (Maybe I can still do film. Small roles? Short shoots. They can always fix me in post. Edit around the spasms and twitches).

It’s been seven months since I sent my claim in, and it’s been denied because they haven’t received my doctor’s report. Seven months later, and it’s still in the to-do pile. She’s paid eighty-five dollars from the federal government for each report. I call Service Canada. I talk to a kind and empathetic individual. She’s never heard of a late doctor’s report being the reason a claim was denied. It simply doesn’t happen. I go to the doctor’s office in tears, with a fresh copy of my paperwork and a plan to threaten a complaint to the College of Doctors and Physicians, if need be. My heart is in my lip, making it twitch, it’s in the front of my throat, and I feel queasy. My doctor is a nice person. She means well. I’m prepared to threaten her reputation, if I have to. I need this done, and I need it now, before my window for appeal runs out. I need this—a meagre-yet-steady income that would let me exist. Can a doctor understand this kind of desperation? I need a trickle, a steady trickle. The doc says I’m next on her list. It’ll take two weeks. I’m crying. She’s sorry. She has two thousand patients and five hundred reports due. She says it’s not her fault and not my fault. It’s their fault for requiring so much paperwork. No word from the neurologist on an appointment yet, but “I don’t think it’s life-threatening, whatever’s going on. Fingers crossed.”

What right to care can I expect? What right to be heard, understood, supported? Today, I’ll write to Service Canada with my letter of appeal, describing how my doctor’s been overloaded, and that’s why she hasn’t sent in her report, which they can expect by the end of this month, she’s promised. I’ve always been the type to believe in promises. Then I’ll cross my fingers, and wait four months for the review of my file. There’ll be another denial, this time on medical grounds. The government health advisor will find my body not yet tragic enough. Then I’ll hire someone to help me, someone who only gets paid if you win. The months will stretch on. I’ll keep auditioning for television, voiceovers—if I could land a decent walk-on, it’d keep me in kale and tahini for a few months. I’ll keep trying for translation jobs online, too, ghostwriting, editing—little gigs I can feasibly do. I’ll write grant applications and hope for something good to happen. I don’t know what, or when, or how. Hope keeps me upright and moving forward, even when my progress is so slow, it seems I’m inert. I’ve been dragging my past behind me, but it’s a new era, now.

A second act.

The stage is full up with actresses, strong, smart and hungry. I sit in the audience and try not to spasm. I do my best not to let my broken heart show—my final, ongoing performance.

You Can Do Better Than That

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I was two days away from my thirty-second birthday and giving birth to my first child.

“Push, push! Come on, you can do better than that,” the nurse was yelling at me.

“No, I can’t. I’m giving it everything I’ve got,” I remember saying.

“There’s something to be said for having your kids when you’re younger,” she grumbled.

Everything after that is a blur. My baby boy came out healthy and demanding my attention from his first breath. He weighed nine pounds but the statistic that impressed me was that his head circumference was thirty-seven centimetres.

“That’s a large head,” my doctor later told me. “Good for you, you did so well.”

“The nurse didn’t think so,” I said and then recounted my “moment” in the delivery room. I was still angry weeks later and now so was my doctor.

“Some people still believe that the best time to give birth is in your early twenties. It’s old thinking,” she said.

“Who’s ready for that in their twenties?” I’d had a long labour and a tough delivery.

“Exactly,” the doctor said.

Since then, a number of my friends have had their first children at forty-two and forty-three. I didn’t think that unusual. My mother gave birth to me when she was forty. And back then, that was definitely rare. I was the youngest of three; my sisters were ten and fifteen when I was born.

“Why the big gaps?” I asked my mother.

“Sometimes you can’t plan these things,” she said. “I wanted five-year spacing but after your sister was born, I had a hard time getting pregnant again. But I really wanted a third child so we kept trying,” she explained. “And now here you are, what a gift.”

“Was it because dad wanted a boy?” I asked what I had wondered for so many years.

“Oh, maybe,” my mother said. Her eyes were sparkling and she was smiling. “But he was thrilled when you were born. We both were.”

Looking back, I realise that I have always been around people who were older. It was normal to me. There were my parents, and my parents’ friends; my sisters and their friends. No one was surprised then, that I married a man twelve years my senior. I wasn’t bothered by our age difference too much, although there were times when I wondered if it was a good idea. I remember talking to my mother about it once and our conversation went something like this:

“If on average women live seven years longer than men and he’s twelve years older than I am, I’m going to be alone for nineteen years. I don’t know if I want that,” I said.

“Yes, but remember, those are statistics. You can’t plan your life out too carefully. Sometimes you just have to live it.” My mother adored Eric.

We had been married for ten years when both of my parents moved in with us. My mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and needed care. My sisters were working full time but I had taken time off the paid workforce to raise my two children. I was at home anyway, so why wouldn’t I look after my parents too?


Holding On (hooked rug) by Laura Kenney


Looking after my parents was not only what I wanted to do, it was what I had been raised to do. In our Portuguese culture, it’s normal, it’s expected, it’s just the way it is.

Our situation was more complicated than most in that my parents didn’t speak English very well. They had immigrated at the age of fifty and their knowledge of English at the time was limited to a few words and sentences. Both of them had started their Canadian life working hard, each of them often juggling two or three labour-intensive jobs. Learning English dropped on the priority list—they had to house and feed their family. After nearly three decades, they could get by in their adopted country, but their English was still broken.

As my mother’s illness progressed, she lost all of her ability to speak English and could only communicate in Portuguese. To have put her in a home would mean that one more time in her life, she’d be unable to talk to anyone. I couldn’t fathom that. So Eric and I invited them to live with us. My sisters helped regularly and, later, there was support from the health system. Still, for a few years, my life was a whirr of caregiving. I remember taking my parents for coffee one day. It was their preferred outing: coffee and a biscotti in the afternoon. As we were walking from the car to the coffee shop, we took up the entire sidewalk. I was in the middle; my mother held on to my arm on my right, and my father, with his cane, held on to her. On my left, I held my son’s hand and he held on to his sister who was then about four years old. We must have made quite the scene. One woman walking toward us stopped and said to me, “Well, aren’t you the sandwich generation.”

Yes, yes I was. My days were full of caregiving from the moment I woke up until I laid my head on the pillow at bedtime. And sometimes I’d be called upon once or twice during the night too. My morning shower was the only time I could guarantee that I would be alone. Sometimes, when I took an extra long shower, there would be a knock on the door, “Mommm! Vóvó needs you!”

I remember crying in the shower one day, thinking, Oh my God, I am going to be looking after needy people for the rest of my life.

That night, in bed, I turned to Eric and said, “I’m going to need to look after you too, aren’t I?”

“Maybe. Or maybe I’ll have to look after you. You can’t always plan, sometimes you just have to live, isn’t that what your mother said?”

“Yes, you’re right. I mean, I could step off the curb one day and get hit by a truck. That would be horrible.” I remember laughing so hard after I said that. I was exhausted.

My mother died after living with us for two years. My father died nine months later. And then, two short years after that, when we were finally recovering from all the grief and were establishing a new normal in our extended family, my sister Maria was diagnosed with aggressive, terminal cancer, and died. She was fifty-six.

Today, I am the same age Maria was when she died. I have taken a leave from work and I have become a student again. So many people, friends and strangers alike, have said to me, “Wow, good for you. A student. I don’t think I could do that, not at my age.”

That baby I pushed out all those years ago has now finished university; his sister is halfway through. Both are adults with their own dreams. Eric will retire at the end of the year and soon after that I hope to get my degree. No part of our lives follows the expected trajectory. We seem to live life by the seat of our pants and, most of the time, I wouldn’t want it any other way.