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My grandmother, Nanny Murphy, was the first person close to me that died. I was sitting in my bedroom in my basement at home, listening to the Goodwill Hunting Soundtrack when the phone rang in the other room, and I heard my Mom starting to cry. She was on her death bed, we all knew it was coming, but it doesn’t ease the blow at all. It’s still the worst phone call ever. Your mother is dead.

Nanny had Parkinson’s Disease for almost 30 years. A bastard of an illness that takes its toll on your system in a methodical, painstaking process. Slowly but surely your faculties deteriorate, turning a robust, rotund woman into a skeletal, meek, mouse of a thing who eventually couldn’t talk, let alone walk. She used to live in our basement when I was quite young. There was one room that was finished and that was hers. Details surrounding her life there are vague, but I do recall her presence, and for some reason have vivid recollection of the furniture. What is it about our grandparents furniture? According to my mother, she did everyone the favour of checking herself into the nursing home. She got more and more nervous staying home alone, performing daily tasks on her own, and her body was quickly turning on her. Parkinson’s is a neurological disorder affecting your muscles with involuntary shaking fits affecting your movements and speech. Her jaw used to get so tight that she swore there were wires in her teeth. She wasn’t going crazy, but as if she was, she would take a hand mirror and peer in to the back of her mouth, just to be sure there seriously weren’t wires slowly tightening her mouth shut. Who would’ve put them in there was beyond her, but she was compelled to check to safeguard her sanity.

To save us all the heartache and guilt of deciding to take her out of our care and put her into someone else’s she did the noble, sensitive, and I would imagine incredibly difficult thing of making the nursing home arrangements herself. From here on in my memories of Nanny take place in two settings: her bed in the four share room at the Garden Home, and at either my house or my Aunt’s house for Christmas and Easter celebrations with the family. Every Sunday after church my mom and I and whatever combination of family members it happened to be, would go into town to visit. Sometimes she’d be in fine form, sitting upright, talking as loudly and as clearly as she could, and other times, most other times, the Parkinson’s would get the better of her and struggle as she may, her face would contort every which way while her hands would relentlessly shake non-stop.

I remember so many bizarre details from that room. The mints and occasional slowpoke in her nightstand, the poster above her roommates bed with that infamous verse from John 3:16 (for God so loved the world that he gave his only son…), her black and white TV with the dial you had to turn to change the channels. I remember the button on the cord on the wall used to call the nurse, the wheelchair next to the bed that either my brother or I would sit in and rock and roll about in while Mom sat in the comfy chair making most of the conversation, and I remember the quilt on her bed, the one I now own and cherish.  I also remember the woman down the hall who suffered a stroke and could subsequently only repeat one word – lovely. “Lovely, lovely…” It was a familiar distant voice during those visits.

It was really hard for me to get a sense of who my grandmother was. I’m not going to lie, it was awkward trying to relate to her. I was too young to know her when she was still able-bodied and as time wore on, attempting to foster a relationship with an increasingly shaky, old woman who was forever inaudible was nothing short of a challenge for a ten year old. I dreaded time alone with her, not for any other reason other than I was always embarrassed when I couldn’t for the life of me translate what she was so desperately trying to communicate. I kicked myself for years after one Christmas dinner where she repeated to me at least four or five times, “Could I pass her a serviette?” Well, at that age, I knew it as a napkin, nevermind that I just could not decipher her jumbled whispers. I eventually just pretended I’d got it and said, “Yes, mmm hmm,” clearly didn’t pass her the damn serviette, and it wasn’t until she, frustrated, turned to my mother’s well-trained ear and asked the same question did she get a hold of a friggin napkin.

When I was in grade 12 and totally wrapped up in my own life, she fell really ill. I can’t even recall what it was that happened to take her out of the nursing home and admitted into the hospital, but it was bad enough that they had to operate and the chances of an already weak 80 year old bouncing back from a setback that severe are slim to none. I didn’t go to see her in the hospital. I guess not having dealt with death up until this point, I thought it was the same as everything else I tend to procrastinate on. I’d get around to it, utterly oblivious to the universe’s timing vs. my own. I guess that’s one more reason that phone call announcing her passing was all the more shitty.  I could’ve, but didn’t, say goodbye. I was avoiding the awkward bedside conversation-making as always, and so I missed my chance.

Back in those days I was little miss public speaker and if there was something to be read aloud I was probably doing it. I was a natural choice for doing a reading during her funeral. Up until this point I was sad that she died, but I think the finality of it and the magnitude of who she was totally hadn’t hit me. So there I was, sad, but as nonchalant as I’d be prior to any other church reading I’d ever done, walking up to the podium to speak. I will never, ever forget the completely overwhelming emotion that washed over me as I walked past her casket. It was as if her strength of spirit hit me like a ton of bricks and I finally understood exactly the kind of woman that she was. Cue the tears.

I sobbed throughout my entire passage. I don’t remember the specifics of the selection, but I know it was very appropriate to who I was realizing in that very moment she was. Everyone told me afterwards that you could hear a pin drop throughout the church and as I would catch my breath between tears, the energy was palpable of the whole congregation collectively willing me to continue on.

Thirty years of suffering and she never once complained. These are the kind of sentiments that generally, unfortunately, aren’t reflected on until someone is gone, so it’s not something that had previously occurred to me about her character. My mother remarked as she revered that it was as if she just made up her mind early on in her affliction that no one was interested in hearing her winge and whine so she didn’t. Never. And I have yet to this day meet anyone in my circle of people who seemingly had or has more pain to complain about. She had some nasty moments. Like I said, awkward to watch. What do you do when someone is writhing in misery?

In addition to abstaining from harping on her ailments, all of those arduous Sunday afternoon bedside chats were always her inquiring about everyone else. “How is Clare doing?” “Did so and so tell you that Jimmy is doing better now?” that kind of thing. The woman could barely speak yet she forged on to conquer the battle of being understood to consistently express genuine concern for others.

That epic walk past the casket and emotional reading enlightened me and gave me the gift I was never able to get while she graced us with her presence. She was absolutely an incredible woman. I guess I was never meant to know or understand this until that very moment, but now I do. And when things get difficult for me and I hear myself complaining and going on about what generally pans out to be a minor challenge or inconvenience, she will sometimes pop into my consciousness, stand by my side and give me that strength of spirit I was ignorant to when she was still housed in that Parkinson’s stricken body. Complaining will get you nowhere, you deal with the cards you’re dealt and for god sakes think of others first. Simple lessons but it’s taken 10 years for them to even slightly sink in….

It’s 5:16 a.m. and I’m nowhere near tired. Considering I woke up at 6:30 last evening, and I haven’t even been awake for 12 hours, it’s no wonder. It’s easy as pie to change hemispheres and continents, but as for circadian rhythyms – not such a cinch.

I’ve just landed back in Toronto after a 9 month time out in a land down under. It was a relatively uneventful return flight. I mean, I certainly wasn’t surprised when I got to the check-in counter to discover I was 8 kilos over the bag limit and had 5 minutes to lighten my load. Pretty much a repeat of the initial journey so wouldn’t really call that an event. I waited in ridiculously long cues, ran through the terminal at breakneck speed (an impressive feat what with the 7 kilos of carry ons on either shoulder), passed 2 different security screenings, (what the hell are they really even looking for anyway?) and made it on the plane with mere moments to spare. Nothing special.

51E. I looked at my boarding pass, looked at the seat, looked at my boarding pass, looked back at the seat, and just couldn’t get the two images to jive. Why was 51E in between 2 young mothers holding 6 months old babies? Why was my seat so painfully close to the fold down baby bassinet? No. Really? 51E? Really? Holy mother of God. I’m in between 2 teensie, cutesie babe-a-roonies for a 13 hour flight. Wow. It’s ironic though, because during one of my lengthy line-ups, I caught myself admiring a few little miracles, thinking “Ah, maybe I should just find myself a man, settle down and make some babies…that would be alright, wouldn’t it?” The universe has a funny way of testing you, because not 10 minutes later I’m wedged in between 2 devoted mothers exchanging tips on soother brands. Christ. No thanks, and stewardess, can I please have another seat?

Event averted and luckily I did get re-situated next to an incredibly interesting woman. She was a journalist, a foreign correspondent for a well known newspaper, and she had heaps of stories about the trials and tribulations she’d racked up all in an effort to tell the story. Admirable…well, for me anyway…by default I’ve become a bit of a storyteller myself so I guess it’s easy for me to be awe-inspired and see the value in her life’s work.

You know, I’ve stated this before, but reflecting on what my latest chapter was all about, I have to say it was absolutely nothing I expected, but everything I needed. I set sail thinking I would accomplish this, explore that, find a new country and feel nothing but the wind at my back, edging me towards a happily-ever-after. Laugh out loud. It never ceases to amaze me how topsy turvy it all gets, and if you’re brave enough to roll with it, how incredibly rewarding it can be when you open your eyes to the true agenda. Yeah, the wind was at my back, but it also spent a helluva long time in my face, I pushed through a whole lot of storms, and was forced to chuck loads, kilos even, of plans and expectations out the window.

But the diamonds in the rough are shiny and marvelous. I’ve unearthed a few key points about myself that I’m happy to keep in my carry on. Number one is that I’m good enough. I feel a bit like Al Franken in that old SNL skit where he plays the corny life coach that looks in the mirror and recites his mantra, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone-it, people like me.” I know it sounds trite, but holy moly it’s true. I have an inkling that it’s not just me, but an epidemic of our generation that we’re zombie-ing around with an inherent belief that we’re not good enough and that it’s wrong to love yourself. Damn that all to hell. It’s a crock, and I’m done buying into it.

The number two thing I was able to admit was the fact that people, apparently, like to hear my stories. I have been posting a few random musings and was surprised and delighted to realize that the tales I was telling had found an audience. People want to read what I’ve got to write. So yeah, I guess I should do more of it? I’ll be cooking my dinner or washing my hair and I’ll find myself formulating clever sentences, putting together paragraphs, coming up with themes, and connecting ideas. It’s been right under my nose this whole time, but it’s taken me the journey of the whole, wide world and back to be able to say, “Ok, let’s do dis.” Much like my seatmate on Qantas flight 73, I’ve got stories to tell, and come hell or high water, I’m gonna tell them.

So, here I am, jetlagged, a bit delirious, but gungho. Gungho to get started.

My Irish mate, Caroline sent me a text one night back in Melbourne saying, “P.S. Look at the Moon.” Yes, it was particularly amazing that night, but that comment struck me, stuck with me. There was something to it. It was representative of a theme I had hooked onto during my journey. The idea that there are forces and rhythyms and plans that are waaay beyond our control. We don’t operate in a vacuum, we don’t (although we love the delusion) have all that much control over half of what we think we do. I mean, look at the oceans. The tides, the big, powerful movements of the waves in the sea are controlled by the phases of the moon. Why the hell do we think we’re exempt? The universe has got a tune of it’s own, and if we’re prepared to shut up for a minute and listen, we might find ourselves singing a different (more beautiful?) song. And I guess that’s kind of what I want to write about. For now anyway. Variations on that theme. Finding your way and finding the balance between fate and free will. When do we force it, and when do we buckle up for the ride.

I had a dream a few weeks ago, immediately after my trip to Uluru – the hugely spiritual rock in the centre of Australia – where the aboriginals were trying to kill me. I took their killing tools from them, pleaded for my life, and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll leave these tools out for you to retrieve them, but for now I’d feel safer hanging on to them so just leave me alone, please.” Shortly after my plea, I was on a bus ride. I had just turned a corner to go over a bridge and whatever it was that happened, I knew that they got me, my time was up, and the bus was about to flip. Just as I got that flip flop feeling in my belly, and I thought “I knew it, I knew this was the end,” I heard a voice say, “Pssst…LOOK UP!” and there was the moon full and bright in my face. Wow. Intense. LOOK AT THE MOON. I’m happier for it though, I needed the shift.

I don’t know, I guess it means stopping to smell the roses? Taking stock? Rebirth? Moving in your true direction? Believing in yourself? Listening to your gut? Living the good life? We’ll see. For now I’m going to have my dinner at breakfast time, and hope to hell I can get back on track, soon enough…

May 2009
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