The zygote that became me was formed inside a poisoned woman. Tina’s heart was pure and strong, although it was broken by the man who provided half of my DNA.
The heart is a symbol of love in the same way a skull and crossbones signifies a poisonous substance. Sometimes the two collide. Tina’s blood kept pumping through her heart, but it was challenged by something far more insidious than lost love and being single, pregnant and Catholic in small town Cape Breton.
Maybe Tina doesn’t remember my birth on March 11, 1953, because she was in a Twilight Sleep. It sounds like a lovely dream, but it was a combination of morphine to relieve pain and scopolamine to dull the memory. Scopolamine was made from a plant called Angel’s Trumpet, but the drug has been called devil’s breath.
Our bodies are made of chemicals. We’re formed from a stew of life-sustaining proteins, oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen. The oxytocin in my mother’s body started labour. The prolactin that stimulates breast milk production also triggers tears.
This was the modern age, however, and women deserved to spare their minds from the pain of childbirth, their breasts from the tug and pull of a hungry child. DuPont advertised “Better Living Through Chemistry” and people wanted to believe that was true. So the devil came in the form of the drugs that took away the joy my mother should have felt giving birth. He hid in tin cans disguised as the perfect substitute for breast milk. Mum fed me diluted Carnation evaporated milk.
The devil also hid in the pond beside my mother’s house. Her family lived at the corner of Ferry St. and Walker St. in an area of Sydney known as the Hoople Block. It was located beside the manmade concoction known as the Tar Ponds.
When Tina was a child, she played in the toxin-filled soup with her siblings. They chewed the gobs of black, sticky tar like it was gum. We may be formed of chemicals, but the polychlorinated biphenyls, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heavy metals that were run off from the steel mills don’t belong in the human body.
When I was a year old, we moved away from the stink and dirt of coal mines and steel mills. Toronto may have its own hazards, but they didn’t compare to the place I spent my first year of life.
Sydney was still in my mother’s blood—or maybe it was the hidden evil at the bottom of the pond. The poisonous chemicals were man’s mistake, and I say that because it was men who were the captains of industry. It was also the poor men of Sydney who worked in the coal mines and steel mills that created of one of Canada’s worst environmental disasters. But it was often women who bore the brunt of their sins.
Mum got breast cancer when I was eleven. She woke up from what was supposed to be a biopsy to find a deeply mined expanse where her right breast used to be.
My mother never committed the sin of vanity. She was a plain woman who didn’t wear makeup or jewelry, but her personality needed no gloss. At home, she rarely wore her bra, which had a prosthesis filled with something like birdseed. She said it was uncomfortable. She would leave her bra hanging on the bathroom doorknob. When I was sitting on the toilet, I’d squish it in my hand, like a bean bag.
I was also single when I got pregnant. The toxins I put into my body were alcohol, weed and nicotine. It was the early ’80s. I knew there was a baby growing inside me before I missed my first period, and as soon as I felt that call from my womb, I stopped poisoning that new life.
There was no Twilight Sleep for me, but an oxytocin drip to induce labour; nature replaced by the wonders of modern medicine. By the time my second son was born, I was careful about what I put into my body.
I watched my children grow strong and healthy as the demons hiding in my mother’s body made their presence known again. Her bones were rotted with cancer.
My two blessings were mine because my mother gave me life. When you hold your baby in your arms, you forget the pain of childbirth. But there is no Twilight Sleep to take away the memory of watching someone you love removed from this earth in a flurry of pain that no chemicals can tamp down.
The Sydney curse affected many of my mother’s relatives. The fruit of our family tree is breast, ovarian and colon cancer. I, too, got cancer. My right breast is still there, it just appears to have a bite taken out of it.
Sydney was never meant to be a Garden of Eden, but it didn’t have to be the Malebolge. The site of the Tar Ponds has been turned into a green space called Open Hearth Park. The sludge has been solidified and buried under grass where children play. It’s buried, but is the curse truly gone? Maybe, like cancer, it lies in wait.
I imagine my mother standing in Open Hearth Park. Her arms are outstretched and sparrows feed at her right breast. Her C cup birdseed breast becomes a B, then an A and disappears. Some seeds fall to the ground and where there was poison, there is now life.