original writing: the year of living widowishly, an imperfect work in progress

February 11, 2013

As some of you might know, I am currently on a sabbatical. I was calling it a “writing leave of absence”, but too many people gave me the pained face that said, “Oh. So you’re finally having a nervous breakdown”, that I started using the $10-word sabbatical. Although I should have used instead The Five Weeks in Which My Oven Finally Gets Cleaned. But I’m digressing. About digressing. So where was I?

One of the reasons I started 11th Ave., the blog of which this post is a part, was to give myself a deadline, a monthly reminder to write. Which addresses my particular strain of procrastination: “Yeah, I’ve been writing, but it’s not ready to show people yet.” So I called bullshit on myself. Just tell the damn story. If it’s imperfect, well look at it as a sacrificial humbling, an offering to God or the gods. Or to my immensely more perfect circle of friends who have read and listened to me read numerous versions of the following, which I performed in spring of 2012 at a Montreal literary event (currently in what I hope is merely a hiatus) called Poetry Plus, when I also read Elizabeth Rising and Matrilinium, those being wee bits about my mother and maternal forebears, respectively.

This here, below, is the beginning, or ending, or entirety of a monologue or one-woman play. I suppose. It was written to be spoken aloud, an urge I had been unaware of possessing previously. And since I had never written a monologue, I was, shall we say, unfettered by what I should do and what a theatre type might here spot as wrong or lacking or outrageously disrespectful to the tradition to which I was introduced by the great Spalding Grey (Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box). But in the spirit of Just Tell the Damn Story, and maybe of creating momentum that might get me to do something constructive with the hundreds of pages of notes and half-thoughts and story and play and movie ideas I have jotted in and on my phone, ipad, shopping lists, drug store receipts and even the palm of my hand over the past few weeks, I give you … an imperfect work in progress. Comments are welcome, but not necessary, either in comments option or via email.

“I’m here. It’s okay. Sh-sh-sh.”

I suppose that as a child, I’d heard these words or words like them a hundred, a thousand times. As a young babysitter I’d spoken them to a five-year-old clinging to me in terror during a thunder storm. As a grownup, i used them with the cat who knew that nothing good could ever come from going in the car and later with nieces and nephews hysterical with fear or pain or unknowable outrages.

And it works. “I’m here. It’s okay. Sh-sh-sh” is all that anyone’d need in a terrible moment, repeated and repeated, preferably in a whispery voice, by someone holding your hand, or holding you outright, maybe with a slight rocking motion.

“I’m here. It’s okay. Sh-sh-sh.”

I heard those specific words two years ago in Winnipeg, in the Riverview palliative care centre, 13 days before my mother died of lung cancer. In that moment, the previous three weeks of bedside stoicism cracked apart and and fell away after an attempt to care for her myself, in her own apartment. Feeling a failure in every way, I was also sobbing with the realization that she really would die, and soon. Seeing me cry, my mother snapped upright in her bed and pulled me close with strength she had not shown in months and held my head to her bony chest, and said:

“I’m here. It’s okay. Sh-sh-sh.”

Two days before mum died, there were other words.

“Watch for the signs,” said Helen, her nurse and a good friend to us both in those last weeks. Signs? I must have smiled a very unconvincing smile.

“I know how it sounds,” Helen said, “and you’ll either see them or you won’t, but be open to it. After my dad died, it was pennies. He had a stash of pennies that took us days to roll up and cash in. And for months after that, I found pennies everywhere.”

I smiled some more at Helen’s wish for me to find comfort.

Mum died on the Monday. The first non-caretaker thing I’d done in weeks was go to the 7-Eleven for a slurpee. In the parking lot, a metal glint caught my eye. Not a penny but a handsome brass button embossed with RCAF. My mother, a lifelong seamstress, collected buttons and was never far in her voracious reading from World War II.

A sign?

An invocation of “I’m here. It’s okay. Sh-sh-sh”?


In late March last year, I was awoken early one morning by the droning of what I thought was a lawn mower. Only it kept stopping and starting. Very annoying. Happened three, four mornings in a row before I spotted not a lawn mower but a giant bee apparently burrowing noisily into a sealed corner of the bedroom window. With a sheet of paper and a water glass, I scooped up and liberated the poor disoriented bee out the window and went back to sleep… For about 20 minutes. And then the bee returned and after a few moments of buzzing, walked up the wall and behind our armoire. Huh.

Buzz, because we had to name him, visited nearly daily for three weeks, including one afternoon when my boyfriend called me at work to say that Buzz had gotten caught in the layers of my mother’s last, unfinished quilt, which was in a bag beside the window. “Here,” Shaun had said, holding the phone to the quilt, where I could hear furious droning. Shaun, afraid of being stung, let Buzz alone and he eventually freed himself. And continued to visit.

We grew quite fond of Buzz. When he disappeared during a few days of high wind, we feared he was gone for good. Until the Friday morning when he set down on the chair by the window, on another blanket my mother had given me for Christmas, and died.

I was so moved by Buzz, I wrote about him, in The Ballad of Buzz. “I half want to believe,” I wrote, “as a couple of friends have suggested, that Buzz was a messenger from Betty (my mother). That everything’s okay. That people – and bees – die and yet somehow it’ll all be alright.”

“I’m here. It’s okay. Sh-sh-sh.”

I finished that essay on Saturday afternoon, June 11, 2011. I had a shower, drove with Shaun to have dinner with friends, and by 11 p.m. a very beautiful doctor with a pony tail was telling me, “I’m afraid it’s not good news.” Shaun died about 20 moments later. The cause was sudden heart attack, several in fact.

I remember everything. All of it, though most of it is still wrapped in fog.

I remember phone calls to normally gruff men keening like terrified children and decisions and arrangements and flights to and from Winnipeg for the funeral and panic, panic and then resignation that this was the one thing I would never be able to write about. Oh I could journal about it, and have filled a crate with journals so far, but the thought of really writing about it? It wasn’t even a question of bitterness, at the impossibility of finding meaning in the death of a 43-year-old. That meaning was and remains clear to me. He lived a big happy life as a wire photographer for Reuters that took him all over the world, a life with a girlfriend and a family and friends he adored and who adored him. Too short, certainly, but he lived the hell out of that life. Point final, as French speakers say. My problem with writing was in the vastness of it, our life. It would be like trying to see the whole sky at once. Impossible. No beginning and – despite his corporeal absence – no end. Impossible.


As Shaun and I had planned, I flew to Winnipeg to spend a week of vacation with his family, driving straight from the airport to Matlock, where we each had grown up, spending our summers about two inches apart on the map of Lake Winnipeg. Right after dinner, I walked down the driveway to the gravel road to watch Matthew and Abby, Shaun’s niece and nephew, ride their bikes.

“Want to know what we call you when you’re not here?” Matthew asked, standing astride his bike and looking up at me.

“Sure,” I said.

Hesitation. “Never mind,” he said, shaking his head.

Abby, age 5 to his 7 and all id, announced it: “We call you a hobo.”

I was staggered, but I didn’t want to upset them.

“What does that mean?” I asked, in what I hoped was a measured tone.

“Well,” said Abby, “a hobo is someone with no home and with nothing.”

“I know what a hobo is, but why are you calling ME a hobo?”

This time Matthew found his voice. “Because you have no home.”

And then they were off. And I was reeling. But also thrilled.

Of course I WAS a hobo. My home, my life as I knew it were gone, all demanding to be remade, reconfigured, reclaimed.

And this, THIS I couldn’t NOT write about.

A sign.

“I’m here. It’s okay. Sh-sh-sh.”

Or so I thought.

“Matthew read your hobo story,” his mother, Jennifer Facebooked to me after the essay I eventually wrote was published in The Gazette. “Then he said to me, ‘Oh, we called everybody a hobo. I didn’t mean anything by it.’ ”


There is a fairly predictable path in grieving. The numbness lifts. Energy, concentration span, appetite all return. The panic eases. But none of the progress is linear. Some call it a roller coaster. Some a loop. I look at it as an archeological dig. It’s the same territory, but you’re not able to go very deep in any one pass. You have to cover the same ground over and over, sometimes with a mallet and sometimes with a whiskery brush, and each time something new is revealed.

At work, at The Gazette, I’d seen this new intern a dozen times. Lovely girl. Dancer. Poised. Hard working. On this one day, she wore her hair in a pony tail. Something about it demanded a second look and I was suddenly jerked back to June 11 in the Royal Vic emergency waiting room. And I remembered, I FELT the bounce in my heart at the smile on the pony-tailed doctor. I remembered thinking two things:

She’s so beautiful and …

It’s all going to be okay!

I don’t know how they came to be connected, but it just seemed no bad news could come from such a beautiful, kind face. And then she said, “I’m afraid it’s not good news.”

In that moment on June 11, 2011, I made the decision (DNR), I called his parents, I signed the organ donation forms, I collected his watch, rings and bracelets, his phone, his wallet and his glasses. And I declined the nurses’ repeated offers to call someone to be with me. I walked the five blocks home and did a load of laundry. I drove to the bank, Crescent St. revellers scrambling for last call, and drove home. I called Shaun’s best friend at 6 a.m. and we began making phone calls. I did all that. It had to be done.

But in the newsroom, watching the poised young woman and her pony tale walk away, I was slipping under the freight train of what I didn’t do — the nonono this can’t be happening. No you’re too beautiful to give me bad news and my life is too precious to be broken this way. My love, my Shaun is too gorgeouslovelysexysmartkindlovingperfectperfectperfectstrongstubbornperfectperfect to ever let go of me. Isn’t he? Isn’t he? ISN’T he?

Back in the newsroom, where only a heartbeat or two had passed since the pony tail had jerked me back in time, someone was passing around pieces of cake for someone’s birthday and some headline wasn’t working and there was a question about an attribution in a story and … I put my head down and walked through them all to the bathroom, not breathing so I wouldn’t sob. And once I barred the cubicle door, I screamed – but made no noise because I couldn’t bear to be consoled, couldn’t bear the beautiful kindness that is powerless to make this better. I screamed and I screamed until I had snot running down my face and was crying so hard I could barely breathe … and then, as quickly as it came, I could feel it ebbing, my breathing slowing, my tears hovering but not spilling over the edge of my eyelids …

And then the toilet next to me flushed. And across from me, a stream of pee. Another flush.. And then I was laughing, and I didn’t care if anyone heard me.

A sign.

“I’m here. It’s okay. Sh-sh-sh.”


There is one thing that I did not read in any of the grieving books or hear in the grieving group I attended. Nor did I get any nods of recognition from the other widows I knew or came to know.

It was the crushes. So many crushes. The Starbucks barrista. The old friend. The new friend. The man at the conference. At a wedding in Los Angeles. At PA Supermarche on Fort St.

I know how it sounds. Inappropriate, mere weeks after burying her boyfriend of 17 years, to be swooning over him and him and him. I am also aware of the vulgar caricatures. Of the merry widow, of the mourner so out of him or herself, they flirt or worse, and embarrass themselves.

I am aware, too, that those I confided in saw these … crushes as vigorous distractions, probably a little sad, something in me to be tolerated. But watched.

But it didn’t feel that way. I felt like a warrior queen whose beloved king had died beside her in battle, urging her on. I had battles to keep fighting, life to keep living for both of us.

Standing at Peel and Ste. Catherine in the lunchtime crush of August heat and office workers and tourists, I felt like a ghost who could know and possess the life of any stranger she touched. “Are you my new husband?” “Are you?” “Are you my new future?” Are you? You? YOU?

While I didn’t go on any dates or otherwise act on any of these infatuations, it was months before the fever of them broke and during that time, this urge to hook up, to fall in love, to find my new life, my man, my new path… this urge never waned.

And few men escaped my virile imagination. Not even Brad Pitt, which is how I found myself in a movie theatre, at a screening of Moneyball. This was kind of a joke between me and Shaun. He would tolerate my crush on Brad Pitt, but I couldn’t go see a Brad Pitt movie without him. However, there I was.

The popcorn bag caught my attention first. Row behind me, about four seats to my left. I considered turning to offer a hairy eyeball, but decided to rise above it for Brad’s sake. And then … Brad made me laugh. Or his co-star Jonah Hill. But anyway, I laughed. And so did Mr. Popcorn Bag. And no one else. Jolted by this intimacy, I felt a pang of longing for Shaun and our shared and off-tempo sense of humour. For the fact of never again sharing … But no. I shook it off. This was my afternoon with Brad Pitt. Still, I was as desperate to turn around and see this unknown secret sharer as I was to leave the illusion to flourish. We shared a couple more laughs, me and Mr. Popcorn Bag. It was quite thrilling.

Until the lights came up and and something about the muscle memory of reaching for my coat and the need to find a restroom caught me in a sob. Once again, head down, I just made it to the bathroom stall and turned the lock before the tears came.

Of course that was not Shaun back there in the row behind me, laughing at all our usual spots. Of course not. And off course he was NOT standing in the lobby of the Forum movie theatre, waiting for me to go get noodles at the Asian place. Of course not.

And there is no stranger in the lobby, still holding a popcorn bag, waiting for me to stop crying and writing all of this in the bathroom stall, on the iPhone that Shaun bought me.

And he’s not going to introduce himself when I come out of the ladies’ room as a future husband sent by Shaun to watch over me at the Brad Pitt movie and laugh in all the right places.

And of course he won’t lean in and say:

“I’m here. It’s okay. Sh-sh-sh.”

Of course not.



  1. This is such a beautiful piece of writing. I was so moved. I love this . “I’m here. It’s okay. Sh-sh-sh,” so perfect.

    • Thanks Susie. That means a lot.

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