Article Category Archives: Creative Nonfiction

Bringing Light to the Dark

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My period arrived when I was fourteen, announcing our future together by settling into my pelvis on a nest of corroding nails. I spent days in bed every month, curled around a heating pad, wondering at the euphemism of “cramps” because what I felt was a deep, greedy, constant pain. Eventually I realized I wouldn’t be able to take time off work every month in the “real world” after high school so I saw a doctor. Loathe to mess with my hormones and go on birth control, with its off-label benefit of easing menstrual symptoms, I accepted prescriptions for anti-inflammatories and painkillers instead. They didn’t work though, and eventually I succumbed to birth control. My auntie laughed at the indiscretion of a home video I’d made, the pills sitting on my bedroom headboard in full view. But I wasn’t using them because I was having sex so it hadn’t occurred to me to be more discreet.

After high school, the pill and the disposable heating pad stuck to my abdomen under my uniform made my monthly pain bearable enough that I could work my serving shifts, in the way that one either slices their tender knees and hands crawling over jagged glass toward bread, or starves. The gynecologist scheduled me for a laparoscopy so she could explore my female interior for fibroids and endometriosis. The good news: she didn’t find anything. The bad news: she didn’t find anything. “Don’t worry,” she said, “most women find their symptoms get much better after they have children.” I clung to that promise for over ten years.

Then, one early morning, bracing my sharply contracting underbelly beside the bed, I told my husband it was time to go. I phoned the rural hospital and a nurse met us at emergency with a wheelchair. “I forgot what this feels like,” I told her, between contractions.

“Oh, I thought this was your first baby,” said the nurse, checking her notes.

“It is,” I told her, “but this is how I feel when I have my period.” I was six centimetres dilated.

*

The gynecologist was wrong about my symptoms improving after childbirth—they got worse. Where I’d always had physical pain before, now I had other symptoms too. I could hardly focus, remember things or process information; writing newspaper articles required immense mental energy and I was still not sure they made sense. My breasts overflowed my bra, beginning to ache a week before my period and pushing pain into me with every movement throughout the day. I developed a chronic sore throat for two weeks each month that coincided with my cycle yet with my esophagus full of camera, the ENT told me it looked fine. I wanted to dig my nails in at the temples of every person I came across and tear the flesh down their face in strips, while simultaneously wanting to weep for all the beauty in the world. I was constantly nauseated during my period. I saw black. I fantasized about laying on the asphalt in front of our house, waiting for a truck to run me over. I breathed through the uterine contractions pushing fallow blood and clotted tissue from my body, just as I’d breathed through labour. I couldn’t stand to be talked to or touched so I perched on the basement couch clutching my hair, knuckles against my scalp, rocking myself; my husband and kids stayed on the upstairs floor, just so we could survive each other.

I wore a patch on my arm to stop my period completely but had breakthrough bleeding all the time. I saw a gynecologist who promised me a solution and learned seven months later he’d closed my file. I met with the best acupuncturist in the city, unable to watch while he tapped needles into my body. I endured visceral manipulation, the practitioner flirting with me while he kneaded my naked abdomen. A pelvic floor physiotherapist probed my vagina with her fingers, to work tight muscles she couldn’t access otherwise. I met with another gynecologist who suggested I get more sleep leading up to my period. A cardiologist confirmed I’d developed a fainting condition; it was my husband who noticed the episodes usually happened during my period, probably from the loss of blood volume. I heard a chronic pain doctor tell me that I might not be able to fix my period problems and that my period was a disability for me.

The Fetus, the Fibroid and the Fertility God by Kim Cain

We already planned our social lives around my period; on the advice of the chronic pain doctor, I began to plan other things around it too. I told my editor there was one week a month when he would get less work from me. My husband drove the kids to school and got to work late rather than me pausing every few steps on my way to the van to retch or collapsing onto the floor at the preschool entrance again. But my period didn’t always honour our twenty-eight-day anniversary and sometimes, even though I planned ahead for months, I still had to cancel work commitments or family outings when my monthly flu breezed in three days early or two days late.

More than one doctor recommended a hysterectomy but major surgery comes with its own potential complications that I wasn’t willing to undertake. And a uterus is a place-holder in a woman’s body—I had read about post-hysterectomy women whose other internal organs had squatted into the vacancy left by the former tenant, leading to other issues. Besides, the relationship between my uterus and me was far too complex to sever with a scalpel.

I scheduled an appointment with a new naturopath, made it for when I would have my monthly flu; I would have to claw my way to him with hands and nails of will instead of cells, but I knew he had to see me in that state. I had a suspicion, a theory that was more intuition than science. I had never spoken it aloud before. I was beginning to wonder: Is my uterus contracting so hard because it’s fighting the memory of something?

When my mother was a child,
she was raped in her home,
repeatedly,
over years.
Her mother was raped before her,
in a time past.

Is it possible the pain and trauma of their most intimate, feminine parts being assaulted has been passed down through their genes, so that my own most intimate, feminine parts rage against the unnatural abuse of the pleasure and life-giving purposes for which they were intended? Does my uterus cringe every month as my mother’s must have, as Grandma’s must have? Have their anguish and unheard cries echoed along twisting DNA strands into our futures since?

I gathered the energy to get out of the van and walk into the naturopath’s office, mumbling a sorry for laying my head on the counter as I checked in. Then I sagged on his office chair, depleted, aching. I told him of my symptoms and that if giving birth naturally without drugs as I had was a ten on the pain scale, I run at a seven or eight during my period.

Then, with my eyes on a poster across the room, I revealed the abuse in my women’s history, asked him if it could be related to my menstrual issues. “My God,” he said, shaking his head, “I’m so sorry.” He took off his glasses and wiped tears from his eyes, reaching for a tissue. “Of course it’s related,” he said, “we are souls first and bodies second.”

Sometime after that, in a newsfeed, I first heard of epigenetic inheritance—the genetic imprints of trauma passing from one generation to another via DNA markers—and the scientific research suggesting it exists. What if traumatic experiences can be inherited through generations, as an evolutionary adaptation, like a predisposition to the fear of spiders can be? What if muscle memory can travel the nucleic time machine into the future? My own anecdotal evidence confirms it’s so.

I think of my daughter’s uterus forming inside my uterus—the tiny cells knitting themselves together to become her uterine wall, nutrients and oxygen passing from my bloodstream to hers, directly fueling her development. But is that all that passed along, just some vitamins and good fats? Or did our bodies exchange other information in the rich, red, velvety room of the placenta, whisperings of my mom’s nervous breakdown when I was a teen, triggered by the abuse she’d endured as a child? Or mutterings of Grandma’s own breakdown, when my mother herself was a child?

My daughter is eight now, closer to getting her first period than farther. What will it be like for her? Among two generations of family members, most who know of the abuse don’t acknowledge it; some talk a little; others don’t know at all; and some feel the undercurrent that exists, even if they don’t know why. My grandmother knew of my mom’s abuse, because Mom told her.

Then Grandma ordered her never to mention it again,
spanked her,
sent her to confession
and, inevitably,
back to her abusers.

Denial and secrecy about abused women compounds the trauma. Could it be compounding cyclical pain in their female offspring too? I am not the only woman among two generations of my family who suffers each month—one imagines hanging herself, another lost a friend after too many cancelled plans, others have chronic sore throats, and on it goes. As a teen, my mother herself got very sick every month but was forced to go to school still, creeping off instead to her grandmother’s where she could at least rest.

The muzzling of women about rape suffocates their ­­­­­­­­­hearts and minds, distorts their wombs into shadowy caves. And the next generations of hearts, minds and wombs are models of theirs. But each reckoning with the truth of abuse, each telling, lightens the pain for the survivor and lessens the generational load. After all, secrets are only powerful in the dark. The trick is to carry a lamp into that velvety room, and turn it on.

The Unforgettable Journey

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Dadaab Refugee Camp

My name is Abshiro Abdille. I grew up in the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya after my family fled Somalia during the civil war in 1991. Growing up in Dadaab was hard. The temperature sometimes reached forty Celsius and we walked more than five kilometres to and from school, passing burning dumpsters that reeked of goat manure and then through the public market that smelled of fresh mangoes and bananas, which only made us more hungry. At times it was unbearable. But my parents were hard-working and resilient people. They put up with many difficulties to send me and my three older sisters and brother to school because education was what kept us busy and eventually paved our way out of the camps.

These students had hopes higher than the mountains and so did I.

One year after my high school graduation, I applied for a scholarship through the World University Service of Canada (WUSC), a Canadian non-profit organization that sponsors a number of high school graduates from Dadaab each year. In the camps, it was common to visit the notice board, which was the main news post, to see who was accepted for this scholarship or other resettlement opportunities. Students in their blue and white school uniforms would line up to check for any opportunity posted. These students had hopes higher than the mountains and so did I. The scholarship application would take eighteen months and acceptance would depend on grades, an exam and a series of interviews. I prepared myself for a process that would determine my fate in the refugee camp.

During that time, I worked at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees centre as a Somali-English interpreter, helping people access the necessary legal procedures to register as refugees. In the evenings after work, I taught young girls English and mathematics. I have always been ambitious!

One morning, while I was sleeping, my father came into my room.

“Wake up my dear,” he said, gently rubbing my head.

“It is Saturday father, I have no work.” I turned to the other side of the bed.

“It is not about work. I have good news for you.”

I uncovered my face and turned to my father. “What is it? You look so excited!”

“I am sending you to Nairobi to stay with your sister,” my father explained. “You are going to study for your scholarship interviews and exams. You must promise me that you will study hard and do well in those classes. I am not sending you to have fun. Remember that!”

“Yes, Father. I will do as you say,” I replied in a quiet, calm voice.

“Okay, now get up and help your mother with the chores,” he said.

I gave him the biggest hug I could and said, “Thank you, Father. You are the best.”

Later that day, I planned my trip to Nairobi and made a to-do list. I also told the news to my best friend, Deqo. It was a dream come true; my first journey out of the camps in nearly twenty years. No one seemed happier than me that day. My brother booked my bus ticket and I was set to leave for Nairobi the next morning.

That evening, I sat down under the shade of the neem tree. The beauty of summer was in full bloom and I enjoyed the sweet scents of the sedge. I looked at the sun setting and the few clouds across the horizon, my mind lost in deep thoughts of appreciation. And yet, I felt as if I were saying goodbye. When I heard footsteps approaching, I turned to see Deqo.

“What are you doing here?” Deqo asked as she sat beside me.

“Just watching the sunset,” I replied

“Manka, I know you. What’s the matter?” She called me Manka, which later became my nickname.

“I am not feeling good about this trip,” I told her. “What if I fail in those classes and never get to leave this camp? What if my father falls ill and I am in the middle of exams?” I said.

“What if I fail in those classes and never get to leave this camp?”

“This is a trip of a lifetime, Manka, and I am not going to let your negative thoughts question that,” she said. “Now let’s go inside and have dinner. It is also prayer time.” We held hands and exchanged glances as we walked together towards the compound.

Nairobi

After a few months, I became used to life in the city with my sister, Ardo. I was studying hard and no longer worried about failing. But one morning, I woke early to make coffee. With my mug in hand, I stepped out onto the balcony to inhale the fresh morning air. It was a cold autumn day and between the high-rise buildings I could see aeroplanes landing and taking off at Jomo Kenyatta Airport. I thought about what my journey to Canada would be like if I got accepted into the scholarship program. I was lost in that thought when I heard the phone ring. Through the balcony doors, I saw my sister pick it up.

“Salaam Hooyo,” she said. (Hooyo means Mom/mother in Somali.)

Suddenly, everything moved in slow motion. I saw coffee splash as the cup dropped out of Ardo’s hand. Tears rolled down her cheeks. Her mouth opened wide and she began to scream. I rushed into the kitchen as the phone also fell from my sister’s hand.

“What did Hooyo say?” I asked her.

I picked up the phone. “Hooyo, Hooyo, are you there?” No reply. In a panic, I turned to my sister and grabbed her by the shoulders. “What did Hooyo tell you? What happened?”

In a very low, soft voice, she said, “Dad is in the hospital. He is in a coma.”

The realization that we were a twelve-hour drive from the camp hit me like a hard punch in the belly. We had only one hour to catch the next bus to Garissa, the nearest town to Dadaab, yet ninety kilometres from our camp. Ardo and I grabbed a few belongings and rushed to the bus station. We bought our tickets and started the most memorable journey of my life. We reached Garissa at four o’clock but still had no way to get to Dadaab. Ardo said we would have to spend the night in Garissa.

“We have no other option,” she said. “There are no buses leaving for the camps until tomorrow morning.”

“We must find a way,” I told her. With my father’s health worsening by the minute, I could not stop the thought of losing him.

After five hours of waiting, we saw two lorries on the other side of the bus station. We decided to ask the drivers to take us to the camps.

“Hello? Where are you heading? Are you going to the camps?” asked my sister.

“I am leaving in twenty minutes,” said one of the drivers. “But this is not a passenger vehicle.”

“Our father is ill and we are not sure if we have enough time to see him again. Please help us,” Ardo pleaded.

Finally, after a long negotiation, he agreed and we set off late in the evening. Three hours later, the truck got stuck in a mud hole. Due to poor road conditions, travelling in the rainy season is always hard. As we struggled to get the truck free, we heard a roar in the distance.

“Ladies, that is a lion,” said Ali, our driver.

Luckily, we were soon pulled out of the mud hole by another truck. As we continued our journey, the gigantic animal stood in the middle of the road. Ali quickly turned the headlights off and on until the lion fled.

Two nights later, I lost my father to cancer and my life was never the same.

Within an hour we reached home safely. It was a great relief to see my father but deep down, I felt guilty for being away. Two nights later, I lost my father to cancer and my life was never the  same. I began to work even harder to get the scholarship and to honour my father’s hope of sending me to university abroad. Five months after that memorable journey back to the camps, I was accepted into the WUSC program and began making plans for a new journey to Canada.

I recently graduated from Mount Saint Vincent University with a Bachelor of Arts and have a job in a field that I am passionate about: immigrant programs with the YMCA. With all of my family now living in Canada, life is much better. What I have accomplished has been with the help of my family, especially my parents. Life has tested me in so many ways I cannot even count but I’m thankful that, for me, it has turned out well. My hope and prayers are with those who still live in the camps, either in Dadaab or elsewhere in the world.

I Am Black History

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My name is Donna Paris
And I am Black History

The story, I am told, is that my great-great-grandfather came to Nova Scotia from Ireland once slavery was abolished in Great Britain. Despite the many hardships he faced, he managed to send his three sons to university and dream into the future so I can have the life I now live.

I am Black History

The story, I am told, is that my white great-grandmother came to Nova Scotia from France. She met and fell in love with a Black man. Her family said, “You can have him or you can have us.” Their union produced my grandfather, who produced my mother, who produced me.

I am Black History

The story, I am told, is that my paternal grandfather was a member of the No. 2 Construction Battalion–one of over six hundred Black men from Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia who fought for the right to fight alongside their countrymen despite the prevailing sentiment that Canada didn’t want a “checkerboard” army.

I am Black History

The story, I am told, is that my family was the first Black family to live in the now closed armed forces base Cornwallis in Nova Scotia. When my father was posted there the commanders of the base went around and asked the families how they would feel about having a Black family live next door to them. Then they called my father in and said, “We don’t want any trouble from your children!” The five of us ranged in age from six years to six months.

I am Black History

The story, I am telling, is that when my Grade One teacher gave me a piece to sing and I couldn’t do it very well she said, “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know your people can sing?”

I am Black History

The story, I am telling, is that my Grade Five teacher accused me of cheating when I got a ninety-seven percent on a history test because “How could a little Black girl really be that smart?”

I am Black History

And the story, I am telling, is that there was a time and place when Black people were not allowed to learn how to read and I now teach children how to read.

My name is Donna Paris
And I am Black History

Service Works

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People used to tell me that giving was more rewarding than receiving. But once I started using alcohol and drugs in my early teens, my vocabulary reduced to “Gimme, gimme.” I started on a road to nowhere and no one cared. Not even me. I wanted more and more but ended up with nothing.

The seeds of my addictive behaviours were planted early, though I had no idea it was happening. By the time I was twelve, my home life in Montreal was dysfunctional. My mother had been a single parent for eight years by that time. For the first six years, we had our ups and downs, but she managed to hold things together for my two brothers and me. Then, literally and figuratively, she was all over the place. She couldn’t pay the rent so we stayed in an apartment only long enough for the eviction notice to be enforced, usually about three months. We moved so often we barely had time to unpack. There was no food in the house, no new clothes or shoes or school supplies. I remember coming home one day after school, so hungry. I opened the fridge and found only a dried up piece of ginger. Yet Mom always had wine and weed; she stopped caring about anyone or anything else. I just wanted stability—and food. I got it by leaving.

Remnants/Survivors by Sarah Mosher

I stayed with friends at first and often met my basic needs—food, clothes, toiletries—by shoplifting. Soon needs became wants. I wanted more clothes, better clothes, name brands, the best brands. I thought these things would make me an achiever. I wanted all the time—and I got what I wanted without paying for it. I didn’t end up on the streets, at least not until I was about forty years old. I found an apartment with a young couple and continued to go to high school often enough to keep the authorities off my back. I was six months pregnant at graduation.

After I had my daughter, we moved to Toronto as I knew my French would be an asset in finding work. I’d left my baby’s father and so, like my own mother, I was a single parent. I found work in Toronto—but I also found crack/cocaine and developed a habit I would keep for twenty-eight years. During those years, I travelled around the country and the world, wreaking havoc in all my relationships and committing crimes on an ever larger scale. I needed money for the poison I inhaled into my bloodstream and shoplifting would no longer cut it. I started importing. I threw in a bit of fraud. I felt shame and regret only when I got caught, which I often did. During my twenties, I also gave birth to three boys. I then had four children, all of whom I neglected on a regular basis to make ends meet and to have my substances. My daughter suffered the most. She was old enough to witness, if not understand, my bizarre behaviour. I would often leave my kids with my mother when I went off to import and when I was incarcerated. I knew it wasn’t a healthy environment for them but thought it was better than being with me.

I tried to slow down after my boys were born and actually managed seven good years. I moved to Jamaica with the kids. It felt like home and I found the man of my dreams. The children did well. I got married. Things were stable. But even though I wasn’t using crack/cocaine, my addictive behaviour was still very present. It lingered in the background of our lives and in the back of my mind. Every once in a while, I would allow it to come forward and go off for a weekend to smoke crack. But mostly, as always, I chased the money. I got involved in telemarketing scams and travelled back and forth to Canada many times. A rift formed in my relationship with my husband, and when we eventually split apart, drugs took over my life again. I did not want to feel. I would not return to reality for fourteen years.

During this time, I did so many things—and so many things were done to me—that I could never list all of them here. When my money ran out and I had nothing left to sell, I sold myself. I lived and worked as a prostitute on the streets of Jamaica and went to jail there several times. One night, I refused to have sex with a man because he couldn’t pay. He tried to kill me by stabbing me in the head.

But the worst, the most excruciating pain, was yet to come.

My kids had moved back to Canada and were living with my brother. Eventually, I moved back too but I didn’t see them much; I didn’t want to see anyone. I served time for crimes I’d committed before leaving the country and then went back to shoplifting to pay for more drugs. When my boys started to get into trouble, I felt guilty about being such a worthless mother—but only when I wasn’t high. Like me, the boys were drawn to fast money like magnets. My second son, Devon, started a street gang when he was sixteen. He handled guns; sold drugs. When he was eighteen, he was shot dead by drug dealers.

I would love to tell you that my son’s death woke me up, that I stopped using, got clean. But that would be a lie. He was murdered in 2008. My recovery came six years later.

In late April of 2014, I found myself back in jail. My lawyer, the crown, and the judge recommended that I go to rehab. It would be my third stint. I figured I had nothing to lose but I also sensed some sort of shift or awakening—my “moment,” as I would later learn in the 12-step fellowship. I had been to AA meetings in the past and found they held no interest for me but I knew I had to try again. I had to open my mind to possibilities. I started going to 12-step meetings at the rehab facility—Alcoholics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, and Narcotics Anonymous—and started to take their suggestions seriously. Service was one of their first recommendations. It made sense. Most of the people I knew who’d remained abstinent were involved in service. Some had even started within a day of being clean. So when I got home from rehab, I volunteered to help within my 12-step groups.

Soon afterwards, I was invited by the NA Hospitals and Institution Committee to share my story at another rehab in Montreal. The residents were so enthralled, so inspired, that when a volunteer coordinator position at that rehab facility opened up, I was nominated. The position involved organising weekly speakers. I knew other addicts at the facility depended on me. I couldn’t mess up. Finally, I felt accountable. And that’s how it started for me: I realised I could help others.

I have been clean since May 1, 2014. The 12-step literature says that once we are on a solid road of recovery, we should also do service in our communities; we should give back to society for the help we have received and for the damage we have caused. I’ve had my share of both so for the past few years I’ve shared my story at 12-step meetings, rehab facilities, and outreach programs. I’ve encouraged people to seek out 12-step fellowships; some do and stay; others don’t. I’ve also taken a volunteer position at the local Y in Montreal where I greet guests, swipe their pass, and direct them to various locations and activities. Mostly, I’ve been available to support addicts as they find a new way of life.

I remember when a young woman contacted me early one Saturday morning. She had been to my talk and reached out because she was having suicidal thoughts. I talked her through things; told her there is always hope. She asked me to be her 12-step sponsor and she’s over nine months clean today. I am so proud of her.

I now sponsor six women in the fellowship and support many others who call or text me daily. I never say no to speaking engagements and hope to one day do this work for a living. My biggest dream for the future is to offer community service in Devon’s name. I’d like to open “Devon’s Place,” a house for women who want to stop using drugs and have nowhere to go after leaving jail or rehab. This would be the ultimate service position for me: giving women a chance leave the deepest, darkest place and start a new life.

The Trouble with Margaret

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In my forty-eighth year, in exchange for free rent, I chose to become an overnight caregiver to eighty-five-year-old Margaret, survivor of one broken hip and a stroke that transformed her speech into a restricted language of gravelly utterances.

My move from Vancouver to Salt Spring Island the year before meant work was hard to come by, though I did find a part-time job at the island’s employment centre. One morning, I answered a call from a woman seeking a caregiver for her mother. I toyed with the idea. I’d just finished caring for my own mother: midnight trips to emergency, regular visiting, and lending a hand as she struggled with kidney failure. I wondered if my willingness to consider this new arrangement had something to do with missing a mother figure. I accepted the role—and became one of Margaret’s seven caregivers in an around-the-clock caregiving relay.

I am not a patient person. I do not suffer fools gladly. But with Margaret I was patient because she was no fool and I’d made a choice. So, four nights a week, I climbed the steps from my tiny suite, surfacing in her living room at eight o’clock. All that winter, we travelled through India, courtesy of Knowledge Network. When Margaret tired of a program, there was no asking my opinion. Click. She was onto the next. I remained quiet and tended the fire. The least I could do, given her lack of privacy, was leave her be with her thoughts. Every evening at nine, she clicked off the TV and her burgundy La-Z-Boy propelled her behind upwards until her feet touched the floor: bed time. I squeezed past her like security clearing a path for royalty. I picked up crumpled Kleenex, ensuring path from world-of-chair to bedroom remained obstacle-free. My fingers, hints at her elbow, guided her.

When I helped Margaret change into her nightgown to ready for bed, I snuck glances at her naked flesh. Her white breasts reminded me of cake decorating bags emptied of icing. After her flannel nightie had been slipped over her head, and she lay back down, I’d ensure the bulky material was not bunched underneath her. Sometimes it required all her strength to lift her small bottom millimeters off the bed as I reached up mimicking an obstetrician preparing to yank out a breach baby. I’d whip down the material in a most unceremonious fashion and my maneuver never failed to make her laugh.

Timeless by Annette Sawers

Once she was settled into bed, I moved about the house, apparition-like. I set the table for the next morning and stared at photos, younger versions of my elderly charge. There she was leaning up against a wall in a dusty back street in a hot foreign country. What had her adventures been? I’d then go to sleep in the adjoining upstairs bedroom where I stayed the four nights I was “on duty.” At seven the next morning, I’d pad quietly towards the kitchen. I’d stare outside while stirring the porridge, watching timid deer tiptoe down the road. I’d gather ingredients for Margaret’s special shake: flax, hemp hearts, blueberries, yogurt, soy milk, and chia. The whir of the blender signalled that breakfast was ready. Everything was timed. Shake. Porridge. Fair Trade coffee. Toast. Margaret definitely liked her routines.

*

I became nun-like in my service to Sister Margaret. Small acts of repetition measure out a lifespan. It didn’t seem that long ago that I’d been a child, listening to the cacophony of my own mother’s placement of cutlery on our family’s breakfast table, rarely time made for social intimacies with her children. I began to wonder about myself at eighty-five. Where would I be? Who would care for me? Would I still be at all?

*

Sometimes I couldn’t predict what would make Margaret laugh, like the day she pushed the button on her Life Force alarm. “My head. My head doesn’t feel right,” she said. I thought she might be having another stroke. When I returned from calling the ambulance she was chuckling.

“Why are you laughing?” I asked, annoyance in my voice.

“The look on your face,” she said, laughing more softly.

On a good night, it was what I didn’t hear that mattered. I didn’t hear that brass bell beside her bed jarring me awake. I didn’t hear my name being called out in darkness, though if I did, I could pounce through the adjoining bathroom in under a minute. I’d arrive tense and bleary-eyed upon a half-lit scene. The water glass had toppled. She’d be splayed on the carpet, as flexible as Gumby, that childhood toy.

Before her latest fall, I’d drive her the ten minutes to St. Mark’s Anglican Parish for morning meditation. The short, steep road leading to the church cast me as a reluctant character in a Margaret Laurence novel. I’d park the car and hover, moth to flame. She’d push her walker, its metal parts jangling across the gravel parking lot. Inside the musty museum of Christianity, a handful of others at the front of the sanctuary would greet us. I’d sink into the brilliant collage of light twirling through stained glass and inhale the whiff of polished mahogany. The red rug transported me back to my own Sunday school days. I’m beside my grandpa there. His cane taps its Presbyterian way, braille-like, towards his pew. Halfway through the sermon, he unwraps a Lifesaver and hands me one. Our very own religious ceremony. Following childhood, I rarely found myself in a church—until, that is, I returned with Margaret. The calm and the quiet. The feeling of being close to an elderly person and yet with others nearby, not solely responsible for Margaret’s well-being. St. Mark’s engulfed me like a reprieve.

*

When I agreed to my new living arrangement, there was no indication of the battle brewing between Margaret’s three adult children, her doctor, and her bevy of caregivers, a battle every bit as contentious as a child custody dispute. The disagreement centred on Margaret being moved off her beloved Salt Spring Island into a Victoria care facility. Margaret preferred to stay. Her caregivers needed their jobs. Her daughters were bent on a mission of removal.

Initially, I’d emailed her eldest with updates. I hadn’t even considered Margaret’s privacy. Only natural, I thought. Kids should know. Within months I felt like an informant. Who else was seeing my words? Secret meetings among the other caregivers reached epic levels. Whispers everywhere.

As Margaret’s condition deteriorated, her middle daughter scoured Victoria for the perfect care facility. “Best for her,” she told me. The eldest daughter agreed: “She hands over six thousand a month in caregiving!” I tried to imagine what it would feel like to have to pay people to care.

One rainy morning in March, I awoke to footsteps and muffled voices overhead. A short time later, there was a knock at my suite’s door. “They’ve gone,” said the middle daughter, meaning Margaret and the eldest were enroute to Victoria. Her husband got busy changing the locks. I wondered whose access, specifically, they were barring. They handed me the new keys in keeping with a verbal arrangement we’d had from day one: “Regardless of what happens with mom, you can stay in the house.” For insurance purposes, I’d assumed.

I felt queasy after Margaret left. Had she agreed or had she gone under duress? We never spoke of these matters: caregivers overstepping boundaries; middle-aged children kidnapping elderly parents to deposit them in places where others got paid to do what they couldn’t or didn’t want to do. Margaret didn’t talk very much, and when she did I found her hard to understand, so we kept communication to a minimum. But all by myself in her house, Margaret’s presence loomed in her empty La-Z-Boy, in the absence of our morning routine, and in her lingering personal scent. I moved out within the month.

*

Throughout my ten months with Margaret, I often thought back to my former life in Vancouver where I’d spent a few hours a week volunteering at the cardiac wards at St. Paul’s Hospital. I delivered warm blankets, filled water glasses, got ice, and diverted minds from upcoming operations. My first shift was nerve-wracking. Instinct told me when to go and when to stay by the bedside. Patients surveyed me with curiosity. Tubes snaked out of blankets and slithered down bare legs. There was no predicting which patients would inexplicably delight in showing me their serger-line scars.

“I’m not a nurse,” I’d said, urgently, the beeping of their heart monitors the white flags of fragile reassurance between us. “Just a volunteer.”

After a few hours, I’d lock my red smock away and head down Robson Street. My heart felt lighter. It was as if, patient by patient, loving angel hands had woven fuzzy threads around my own heartbreaks. I was the baby in a family that didn’t know lovey-dovey loving. Except with my closest friends, I’ve always held my connections at an orchestrated distance; independence has meant separate, in control. Before I volunteered at the hospital, before I cared for my mother and cared for Margaret, I would not have called myself a caregiver. I was a caring person, but never had responsibility for anyone. I didn’t even babysit as a child.

But somehow, by putting myself into these situations, just the simplest form of responding to people’s needs, being there for ten minutes or an evening, I realized it was something I craved. It felt good. It felt like I belonged. Despite my single, childless status, my unheralded acts of service have added me to an evolutionary line of caregivers eternal. Small ceremonies. Daily life. Heart open.