Monday, October 31, 2016

Just a Flesh Wound

This is a figuring kind of post wherein I try to make sense of it all. I have all sorts of thoughts about breasts now.

I had to get the dressing changed today, so I got a glimpse of myself for the first time. The nurse at the CCAC was wonderful. She taught me to "milk" my drainage tubes so they don't get clots in them. When she asked how's my milking going, I thought she was talking about lactating, and I was baffled that it was still possible. It's not. Nobody had mentioned clearing the tubes before, so good to know. She was very gentle taking off all the bandages, and the only place that hurt were my armpits, which I predicted with all my feminist hairiness and all. It felt great to have the bandages off, to be able to scratch the sticky places and get nice and clean before it was all covered up again. I didn't look too closely at where the drains went in; that might have turned my stomach. But looking down at my flat chest wasn't so bad. It's absolutely amazing how quickly we can adapt to some pretty significant changes in our lives!

I'm deliberating over posting a picture of myself, not because of any sense of decency (since I have little in that respect), or because people might say mean things about my middle age body, but because I'm a teacher. We get fired or otherwise penalized for weird things from time to time. Supporting the BDS movement can be enough to get suspended. I'd hate for someone to be traumatized and then it be decided that the community has lost all faith in my ability to school the young because I'm willing to let people know I look like a boy. So maybe another day.

Pietro Boselli in some tiny shorts.
I didn't march in the topless parade, which happened here just over a year ago, for the same reason. Teachers generally have to remain covered up. Well, actually, it's perfectly okay for male teachers to have their shirts off. So, is it the case that it's okay because there's less fat on their pecs? Because then flat-chested females should be okay, but they're not. Facebook policy makes it clear that it's female nipples, specifically, that can't be seen. Women of any cup-size can bare their breasts if they have their nipples covered, but male nipples of any size or shape aren't nearly as offensive, which spurred the whole "free the nipple" campaign. Then Rolling Stone said they'd show uncovered nipples on men and trans women only, which implies that women's nipples are still offensive, and, worse, that trans women aren't really women so it's okay to show them too. I'm not sure if I fit in with the men or women now, but if it's only women's nipples that get censored, the fact that I don't have any nipples at all should mean it's okay to be topless, right? And it's legal in Ontario anyway. But there's always that community standards thing that can costs someone their job. Even this paragraph might be enough to do me in!

When I first signed a teaching contract in the early 90s, I was unmarried and just that day found out I was pregnant. A few older teachers I barely knew came out of the woodwork to suggest I couldn't continue to be pregnant and teach - that I'd have to make a choice - because what will people think?! I'll tell ya what they'll think: I had sex outside the confines of matrimony, like most people do. I wasn't doing anything harmful or immoral or beyond the boundaries of current customs, but carrying the pregnancy to term, unmarried, made it clearly known that this is what's acceptable to us now. I kept teaching and even had two more little bastards to complete the set. I was just showing us what we all knew already but weren't quite ready to see.

Mastectomies are nothing new, but I'm wary of sharing too much because it's still something women do privately. We're not really ready to see this part of our reality yet either. Women without breasts typically use something to make it appear that they have breasts sometimes just so as not to offend. Which is a shame. I don't think it's a problem if someone feels like breasts are an important part of their identity - that option of reconstruction should definitely be available, but I do think it's unfortunate if some women only want prosthetics so they don't freak people out.

Normal is overrated.

My surgeon did a great job! I was worried that I'd have little dog ears of fat or uneven bits, but it's pretty smooth. I feel like I'm ten-years-old again! And there's just enough fat in the middle that I could fake a bit of cleavage if I were so inclined.

I have some knitted knockers that I ordered weeks ago just in case. They're cute, soft prosthetics that a small army of volunteers knits and sends to women losing a breast or two. I can add or take out stuffing to make them any size I need for the occasion. I have a couple dresses with darts in them where breasts would go, so the top would droop and flap on someone flat-chested. I'd hate to never wear them again, but now I have options. I can use my prosthetics in a bra when I'm feeling like looking tailored and womanly, but when I'm biking or building or doing anything useful, I can be completely unencumbered.

But can I really be a different shape each day? It's curious that there's a certain consistency expected in our appearance. Changing wigs or style completely throws people off - unless someone changes styles so regularly that that is their style. Actually, on second thought we're okay with someone getting a hair transplant, or a good dye job, but not a crappy toupee or have monochromatic Grecian Formula hair. Sitcoms teach us it's acceptable to laugh at people doing a bad job of trying to improve themselves. I guess it's more the case that if we fake it, we have to fake it well enough to pass.  If you're going to the trouble to make yourself look better, then you have to do it well. You can get a boob job, but get caught stuffing with kleenexes and you risk being a laughingstock, like Jenna in the first ten seconds of this trailer.

Or in the last 20 seconds of this oldie, when Rob Lowe makes fun of her Spanx.

People laugh when we try to be something we're not, but only if we're not savvy enough to carry it off. It's the Caitlyn Jenner effect that she can be lauded because she's got the money for the best surgery and outfits going, but it's that much more difficult for Cathy down the street to be accepted in old Value Village outfits and falsies. It's not cool that we do that, but there it is.

So what drives that? It's curious that I'd also roll my eyes at anyone trying but failing. I'm wondering to what extent I can change my boob size daily as the mood shifts knowing that I might raise an eyebrow at someone stuffing their bra.

Natural beauty is what it's all about, right? We used to be told to accept ourselves as we are. That's trickier to teach now. It's still a good lesson in general, to appreciate what makes you unique instead of trying to match an inaccessible ideal, but then there's a wall that some people hit there. I can embrace who I am as a very short, stalky woman. I was never bothered by taunts of "thunder thighs" because somehow I had internalized how useful it was to have strong tree trunk legs (well, stumps really). I have no idea how to teach that kind of self-acceptance, though. The quest for perfection is a problem individually because it's unattainable and socially because it has us ignoring useful differences in a move towards uniformity, which, worst of all, is really boring. But if it can get us through the day, if it can help us to reach a modicum of social acceptance that allows us to manage our lives with fewer hassles, then sometimes a shift towards the narrow range of media-driven ideals might create more personal benefits than is lost by a rejection of our own "natural" beauty.

Watch out for some nightmarish results.

But sometimes we don't look anything like we think of ourselves as looking. Somehow I just adapt to however I look and move on even when others might be horrified, but others can't move on so easily. When my son was seven, he got some skin tags removed from his face. I left them there until he was old enough to make his own decision about them. If he ended up punk, I wanted him to have options of more things to pierce! But he wasn't headed in that direction, so off them came. It was a really minor event, and at no point did I think it necessary to try to convince him to embrace his natural self. He's still himself, just without the extra bits that didn't quite fit with his personal perception.

Sometimes the natural self isn't quite what works for us. So maybe it's not such a big deal to stuff and squeeze, to paint, powder, and pad as it suits us each day. Hmm...

Oh, what the hell:

72 hours after surgery.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

How to Let Go of the World

I was really looking forward to seeing the latest Josh Fox film on fracking. I loved Gasland (for which Mark Ruffalo was just added to the US Terror Advisory List for promoting), and then Chris Hedges gave this film a nod, which means a lot to me. And then one reviewer wrote that the film will "restore your faith that we, as a people, have the power to save ourselves." Exactly what I need. So I bought it on iTunes and settled in for some enlightenment.

Maybe my expectations were a smidge too high.

It fell into the same problems that made Rob Stewart's films less than stellar. In Sharkwater, Stewart had long dramatic interludes focusing on himself and the problems he experienced being unwittingly thrust into activism. And then in Revolution, he spoke at length about beginning to learn about the environment. At least Stewart, near the end, seemed to recognize the part he himself was playing in exacerbating climate change with all the air travel the film required. Did it really require it, is the question. Stewart starts asking himself some really hard questions, which I respect. Fox doesn't go there.

Like Stewart, Fox is just learning - or, at least, he presents the appearance of just learning about climate change. He's been in this a while, so I can't imagine he doesn't get the big picture yet, and I'm really not a fan of the technique of feigning ignorance to get people on board. It feels like he hadn't done any research before the shoot so we could watch him discover what it is to "eat from the tree of knowledge, and now there's no going back." I want a documentary to tell me something I don't know, and tell me with confidence. I want a climate change doc, especially, to tell the world everything they need to know to get with the program. There were too many shots of Fox walking through forests in awe of nature - look at that spider! and that tree! and that bird! Even worse, most of those shots weren't of the forest, but of Fox looking at the forest. We were to be enthralled by his wonder at nature, not by nature itself. If he were my son, this would be my favourite movie ever. But he's not.

That gets to the bigger problem here: that this film is way too focused on Fox to be compelling to anyone who isn't related to him or doesn't have a crush on him. It starts with a painfully awkward dance to show how happy he is that a river nearby won't be polluted with oil. It was a hard-won victory, and I get the celebratory tone, but there are other ways to show joyfulness without forcing us to watch a guy dance in his living room for the entire opening credits. He finds it helpful to cope with tragedy by playing the banjo. That's really nice for him, but it's doesn't necessarily translate to helping us cope by listening to him play.

Like Stewart, Fox does it all, and sometimes it's better to spread the jobs around a more talented pool. His narration is stilted, with long dramatic pauses mid-sentence throughout. There aren't rises and lulls in the intensity of his tone; it's all drama all the way through: "Just a few months later.  New York City.  Was about to get.  A wake-up call."  Couple that with a really quiet voice juxtaposed with sudden bursts of loud extended musical interludes meant my finger hovered on the volume the whole time. He had some great footage from a camera strapped to a drone, and he had the cash to film in twelve different countries, but he didn't spring for a steadicam, so much of the tromping through the forest had a Blair Witch effect.

He collected the usual litany of talking heads: Bill McKibben, Michael Mann, Elizabeth Kolbert...  but only for a few minutes each. If I had the chance to chat with Elizabeth Kolbert, I'd have so many more questions to ask. She's got a wealth of knowledge that was largely ignored. And the McKibben interview was in a food court, and they decided to include their argument with mall security about filming in the mall. I struggle to see the purpose of that clip - why they'd choose a food court to film in, and why they'd choose to highlight the conflict. Is it to mirror the pipeline protests? A corporation vs citizen struggle? He was just a security guard doing his job. Weird.

He threw in some stats about increasing weather events, rising sea levels, endangered animals, factory farms, ocean acidity, threatened protesters, that the window to slow the expected 2° rise by 2036 closes within a year from now (NASA thinks we may have already hit 2°), and that all our 40-year-old pipelines are going to break. He referred to the Amazon rainforest as the lungs of the world even though the oceans create significantly more oxygen. Standard stuff. But a few of his poignant pieces of information were learned by most of us in grade three: "People. And animals. Exhale carbon dioxide. Trees. Take in. Carbon dioxide."

What I learned? To make a good documentary, you really have to get over yourself and your personal learning experience and make the subject matter the star of the show. Read some Monbiot before you start shooting so you don't sound like you've never heard of any of this before, and so you can temper your amazement at what's being shared. A lot of it is old news to anyone remotely familiar with the issues, like that Republicans don't think climate change is caused by human activity. Even better, read the IPCC reports that came out in 2014.

As far as learning basic information about climate change, there are better films to watch to understand all the meetings leading up to Paris. Like this one at only 4 minutes:

And then Grist also explained what happened in Paris, but in much more positive terms than Fox:

So his big question, the big draw to the film, is the focus on what won't be destroyed by climate change. His thesis is that we'll still have courage and creativity and resilience and all sorts of other wonderful human attributes that should be celebrated. But, I think we won't have any of those if we don't have any humans left. This is where some knowledge of Naomi Klein's and Gordon Laxer's plans for change would have helped add some substance to his song and dance. He's struggling with how to cope with all the knowledge, but he hasn't gotten far enough in depth in his own journey to have us walk with him. He seems to want to escape rather than actually cope with the reality of it all - to actually feel that reality.

By comparison, a much better film on the complexity of coping with the environmental destruction in our own backyard is Fractured Land with Caleb Behn. Both Behn and Stewart were willing to question their own motives and involvement in a way that Fox skirts around, refusing to acknowledge, which leaves his film feeling superficial at best. And of the three filmmakers, Behn's film offers the most complex understanding of the situation and leaves you with the most hopeful spirit. We can't have real hope if we distract ourselves with music in the face of significant loss. We have to have a clear path to walk to help make it okay.

One of the Lucky Few?

I've been reading other blogs about mastectomies, and the level of pain described makes me feel like someone's made a huge mistake, and they'll take off all the bandages to find they forgot to remove my breasts! I'm experiencing zero chest pain. I could be taking up to 12 pain pills a day, but I'm down to just four - the minimum. I've got cramps that feel no worse than mild menstrual cramps, but my belly is still puffy from the gas. I have become one with my hot water bottle. And I can comfortably raise my arms enough to put my hair in a ponytail. Of course, because I love to worry, I'm thinking it must get terribly worse. But I could be wrong.

I get my drainage tubes out once I'm "producing" less than 25cc per day, and I'm already there on one side. Many others have tubes in for weeks and then removing them is a horror show. I'm expecting both out within a week. I guess it makes sense that people who comment on forums are likely people who are having a difficult experience. It kind of feels like gloating to say how easy it's been for me.

The bandages are giving me grief though. It didn't occur to me to shave my armpits before surgery, and the bandage tape gets right up in there. I had to get my kids to perform the delicate task of trying to cut some of the hairs that are being tugged whenever I move my arms. And the tape on my back is hella-itchy. I fantasize about scrubbing myself with Goo Gone.

I'm still working at getting my body to relax. It takes a conscious effort to notice my breathing and the tension that gradually takes over from my shoulders to my toes. My body is still recovering from the shock of it all, and it's not ready to let down its guard completely despite my reassurances that it's all over.

My kids, on the other hand, were wiped by the experience. It's emotionally draining to sit at someone's side all day. And now I'm worried about how much school work they're not getting done because they're practically in a coma.

It's curious how they take the shape of their containers.

My cats have been in heaven about all the snuggly time on the couch. I seem to be the only one with any energy around here! It doesn't help to be surrounded by Hallowe'en candy. I was so good about making sure I ate really well before surgery, and then yesterday I was up to my elbows in Kit Kats and Nibs. Today I'm back into raisons and sunflower seeds and raw veggies again. I'll be better in no time!

Saturday, October 29, 2016

And on Recovery in All its Glory

Mom-ishly waiting for the kids to get their shoes on!
I walked into the O.R. for a three-hour surgery just yesterday, and I feel fine. I'm taking half the pain meds that I'm allowed to take because the pain is minimal. Weirdly minimal for all that's been done to me. The worst of it is in my shoulders from gas settling there. I have an ice-pack on the top half of me and a hot-water bottle on the bottom half. It should be raining on my rib cage.

Liam thinks I'm a badass for walking there!

Pre-surgery fashion show.
When we first got to the hospital, the place was completely deserted. We were just five minutes early to register, but it took a while working through the maze of darkened hallways to find an actual staff member. It reminded me of The Kingdom, but, listening to me complain of nausea, my kids recited Wayne's World instead: "If you're going to spew, spew into this." Foreshadowing!

Once begun, the day started with a whole lot of hurry-up-and-wait. We were shuffled from room to room, closer and closer to the O.R. We were stuck in one room for an hour and regretted not bringing the crokinole board along for a few games; I was too restless for cards. I was glad my kids were allowed to hang out with me during that time to help relieve the boredom and anxiety. But when nurses tried and failed to get an IV going, jabbing each hand before giving up, my daughter got a little pale and exhaled audibly, and all the attention shifted to her: "Take off your coat; you're going to faint!" "Put your head down!" "Are you going to be okay?" I had to remind them that I was the patient lying here with two bloody hands. But she has good reason to be stressed watching it all. She inherited my mutant genes, so she'll be next. That'll be an even harder day for me, I'm guessing.

Trying to be Zen about it all.
Staff kept remarking on the fact that I was getting two procedures at once, but I'd much rather one long surgery than two shorter ones. It's the anesthesia that scares the bejeebers outta me. It's like I'm a sickly animal being put down only to be magically awakened again. I don't trust that waking up part. I told the anesthesiologist as much and he offered to do it the old fashioned way with a bullet to bite on. I was totally up for that, but, alas, he was kidding. Bugger.

I expected to be wheeled into the O.R. like it happens on TV, but I just walked on in and hopped up on the table. There were eight masked people in the room milling about talking to each other jovially with music playing. I felt like I was intruding on an oddly specific Hallowe'en party. The anesthesiologist asked me how much I drink, and when I told him a few beers most Friday nights, the nurse and I got talking about what beers we like. She prefers a dark ale. It was all very chummy. Everyone checked my wrist band and asked my name and what I was doing there. I'm not sure if that was for their sake or my own. They covered me in toasty warm blankets and got the IV going, and tried to put an oxygen mask on my face but were really good about taking it off and just holding it close when I got all claustrophobic about it. Geez, I didn't used to be so neurotic!

And then I woke up, and there was much rejoicing!  I felt totally fine and lucid, and well enough to be annoyed that they couldn't find which waiting room my kids were in and insisted they must have gone out for coffee. They wouldn't have both left, I told them. Wait a minute... they don't even drink coffee! Eventually they let me call their cell phones to get them to me.

Post-surgery: the calm before the storm.
But then I had some troubles breathing. When I'd doze off, it felt like I kept exhaling and not inhaling again for ages, then waking up in a panic: Anesthesia-induced sleep apnea. Waking to a row of nurses staring at me, and telling me I'm not imagining it, wasn't remotely reassuring. I was supposed to be out the door by 1:00, but they kept me until 6:00. I kept getting really confused and having mini nightmares - terrors, really - about things I had to do right away, but couldn't. I was glad to have taken drugs in my wayward youth so I was well-prepared to talk myself down from a bad trip. I was hoping to come out of the O.R. saying hilariously inappropriate things to people; no such luck. The oxygen mask made my face itch, and there was vaseline on my eyes (WTF?), and the inside of my mouth felt like it was coated with glue. And then came the puking. Each time the nurses told me, "Now you'll feel 100% better!" but they lied.

After a few hours of that mess, they taught my daughter how to drain my tubes and carefully measure the blood loss. That would make anyone ralph. They got me into a pressure camisole to keep the swelling down. The nurse called it a teddy, but not many Victoria's Secret products have handy drainage bag pockets like this one does! Then they got me in a cab with a jerky driver, and I barfed just once more as soon as I got home. By 8:00 at night, twelve hours after walking into the O.R., the fog miraculously lifted, and I was up and about and watching Star Wars with my kids. Piece of cake! I almost feel like I could go to work on Monday. Almost. But I did all that prep-work, so I may as well enjoy my time off.

I thought I would feel much more fragile and broken at this point. But I really don't. I feel like I'll have to remind myself not to do too much over the next few weeks. The main surgeon recommended two to three weeks off work, and I pictured going back worried about being bumped in the halls, or unable to write on the chalk board, or too tired to make it through the whole day, but it's nothing like that. It was just two globs of fat taken off my chest and my ovaries and fallopian tubes slipped out of a hole in my belly button. I've had worse hangovers.

The doctors and nurses were all really wonderful. Not a crabby one in the bunch! But I did get my daughter to ask one to keep her voice down, and I immediately felt like such a princess for doing that. She was at the desk in the recovery room and kept talking about her weekend and life in general really loudly to the other nurses around her, while I was trying to focus on basic survival. I'm a little sensitive to chatter at the best of times. I was exactly the same during labour, demanding that my midwives whisper to each other. People are so gosh darn accommodating of my idiosyncrasies!

And my kids. Whenever the nurses would check me over, they'd get my son to leave the room - well, to stand on the other side of the curtain - because he's a boy, and one would lower her voice to ask about bleeding "down there." But he helped me give birth years ago! Nurses kept remarking about how incredible my kids are, as they'd hold my hand and stroke my head and rub my feet and get me whatever I needed. They even held my hair back when I threw up! I felt badly for how gross it all was, but they were troupers. My son's the best masseur I've ever known, and my daughter is amazing at doctoring, and remembering all the many instructions thrown at us, and telling people off as necessary. She's got my back.

Classic composition - my boy snoozing at my feet. But why won't that washcloth stay on my forehead?

A friend commented that it's just like me to keep this all a secret until the last minute. But I didn't do that for any noble reasons. I was keeping it from myself. I could pretty effectively block it out of my mind so long as I didn't talk about it. And then it was realer than real. And then it was over.

Friday, October 28, 2016

On Justified Worry

I’m going to be writing more personally for a bit. I have a lot to get off my chest.


I’m getting a double mastectomy today and an oophorectomy for good measure (which sounds to me like something Willy Wonka might do), because I have all the fancy genes that make a human body a ticking time bomb. They're mutated genes, but I'm still waiting to discover my superpowers. My sister had cancer by 40, and my mom died of it at 69. The many specialists I’ve seen over the past six months have offered differing opinions on reconstructive surgery, but they all agree on one thing: my girly bits have got to go. Like, yesterday. The geneticist explained it to me like this: "Most women have a 1 in 10 chance of getting breast cancer. You have a 9 in 10 chance." So here I go.

I’ve been actively distancing myself from my breasts for weeks - ignoring them when I look in the mirror the way you can scan a packed room for a friend and not once meet the eyes of the enemies sitting front and center. They’re dead to me. They’ve served their purpose - to solicit for mates and feed my young - and now they’re going to kill me if I don’t get rid of them.

I have to get up in about an hour - yikes, half an hour! - to drink two cups of apple juice, then have a shower with minimal soap, and then I'm off to the hospital with my requisite surgical camisole and legal will. I imagine the trip playing out like the end of In Cold Blood, in that beautifully written scene when the two murderers walk to their execution and the one falters and collapses a bit from the terror of it all. I’m like that any time I walk onto a plane. And I’m going to feel like that walking down the long, rain-drenched street to the hospital, pre-dawn, with my children on either side of me holding me up and half dragging me there.

Oh for crying out loud. It’s just day surgery!

I’m nauseous with worry though. I’m a worrier at the best of times, so when something is actually worry-worthy, I do it justice. My shoulders and neck are painfully tight, and I’ve got a bit of a headache from the tension, but I can’t take anything for it. I’ve read the instruction booklet they gave me over and over, making sure I don’t miss any tiny detail that could cost me my life.

The thing of it is, is that I’m perfectly healthy right now, and I’m undergoing surgery to prevent getting cancer. So, if I die on the table, that would just be the worst! To die preventing myself from dying?? It’s like when a tiny woman driving a car has a minor fender bender that would have had little impact, but then the airbag deploys and breaks her neck. It’s the worst sort of irony when safety precautions end up being deadly.

So I better not die.

It’s funny how one worry will take over another one. It’s handy, really. I've been so terrified of the surgery that I've barely mentioned it to anyone. It makes me weak in the knees to say it out loud. But now that I have a bit of a cold, I’m terrified that it will be postponed, and all my exquisite and thorough lesson planning for the 33 classes I'm going to miss will be for nought. I've been hyperaware of anything remotely resembling congestion. I can't do that all again. This is the one major downfall of teaching: making explicit, in writing, every idea and explanation in your head for each class and every possible contingency plan just in case, and then worrying that something could still go wrong and you'll come back to a disaster that's your responsibility to fix. But at least thinking about nasal mucus is keeping me from thinking about the surgery! Planning a trip for Christmas is another way I’ve managed the anxiety. It helps focus my attention towards a much bigger fear of air travel, with a whole lot more to do to make it happen than just showing up for some blood work and trying to stay healthy. It just goes to show you, it's always something. There's no end to what we could be worrying about. And climate change will take us all out in the end anyway!

I try to get all Epicurean about it. It's not happening to me right this minute, and it's ridiculous to lament something that's not actually happening to us right now, amiright? It really does soothe away the mini-panic attacks that wash over me from time to time whenever the reality of it hits like a brick, when I start to vibrate with fear. Epicurus brings me back into the present. And then Epictetus guides the rest of the journey. He's my go-to guy when life sucks, except his bit on death being an end to suffering doesn't quite work here - I'm not currently suffering at all! But this surgery isn't necessarily a bad thing, he'd say. It's a great learning experience that will provide me with a fantastic story to tell later! I'm one of the rare few who gets to go through this incredible adventure. I won the golden ticket!!

And, of course, this too shall pass, amiright?!

Want to read even more about it? Check these out.

Day 2 - And on Recovery in All its Glory
Day 3 - One of the Lucky Few?
Day 4 - Just a Flesh Wound
Day 5 - Now I'm Trendy, Dammit!
Day 8 - Preventing Ovarian Cancer Program Logistics
Day 9 - On Character
Day 15 - On Missing the Girls
Day 17 - A Genius Kvetching Ring
Day 19 - Back to Work Boobless
Day 42 - And the Saga Continues
Day 60 - On Cancer Doulas


Sunday, October 2, 2016

On Dying and Grieving and Judgment

My dad passed away this week. He was older than the hills: 93 and a half years old. I’m not sad about his passing; he lived a long and fulfilling life. But I am troubled by how he went, and our expectations around grief. At his 90th birthday party, he was jovially talking with old friends and extended family. He lived a quiet life with his wife in a beautiful care facility. I once likened him to a cat, sleeping much of the day, and happy just to watch the world out his window. We don’t need to be doing things to be content. But the past few years haven’t done him any favours. He had a commanding presence that gradually shrunk until he disappeared into the ether, cremated a block from his residence.

A couple weeks ago he got pneumonia. He was verbal and lucid, but didn’t recognize anybody accurately. Last Sunday I visited, and he was no longer saying words. He could just make sounds. His mouth was slack-jawed, but he would grin reflexively and wide-mouthed from time to time, with the unselfconscious extended gaze of an infant. When we walked in the room, he was sideways on the bed (they're not allowed to use waist restraints), completely uncovered, and wearing only a diaper. His body was skin and bones, riddled with age spots and moles. As we tried to cover him, he kept throwing the blankets off his tiny body. His nurse said she tried to put a dressing gown on him, but he kept pulling at it, so she left it off.

It reminded me of being in labour. My body was working hard and heating up, and my instinct was to tie my hair back and strip down naked regardless friends and family coming and going, oblivious to typical standards of decency. My focus was surviving the ordeal of birthing. I wasn’t thinking at all of the baby I was about to have, but about my own ability to live through the process. My clothes were simply in the way, every fibre a distraction making coping with the task at hand all the more difficult.

And it reminded me of every Christmas and Thanksgiving of my childhood, when the house was so full of family milling about, and there were so many pots on the stove cooking that the windows would weep condensate. My dad would start carving the turkey in the kitchen, fully dressed, but by time he was digging the last bits off the carcass, he’d have stripped down to his boxers in fits of swearing and chasing all of us kids out of the kitchen. He couldn’t do things with his clothes getting in the way. A former student once astutely remarked on the new trend of falling asleep with phones in hand: “We’re too lazy to get ourselves to sleep.” Going to sleep is an effort. I wonder if dying is similar.

Or maybe he was just hot.

So there he was in bed, sideways with his legs partially over the edge, working, like he was struggling to get through it all. His toes were curled under and his legs bending and pushing frenetically, arms flailing, looking for something to grasp on to, like a baby thrashing and kicking but failing to have any useful effect on his surroundings. The movements didn’t stop when he was sat up and then was repositioned in bed. It’s hard to watch frustration. He looked confused and scared and agitated. My sister and I each held a hand to comfort him the way I was taught to hold a newborn’s hands during the first couple diaper changes to help them feel safe and secure. It seemed to help a bit, slowing the thrashing down and keeping him steady, but soon enough the nurse came in with more morphine. We waited with him until he was calm enough to fall into a light sleep, and loosen his death grip on us, then we stole away home.

Relief from the pain of bearing witness to his plight was much stronger than my sense of guilt and cowardliness. They crept in to show themselves later, after it was too late. It would have been nice to be with him when he passed, but nobody knew how long it would take. As it was, he left us the following night.

And I wondered at the possibility of the nurse giving him just that much more morphine to make this end a little sooner and with us in the room at his side. His days had tipped the balance into far greater pains than pleasures, with no hope for any improvement. Is there a purpose or meaning to be garnered from these last days? The morphine suppressed his coughing, and he was barely drinking or eating. He was essentially dying of suffocation and dehydration, and it’s lucky he had the means to do it with the best possible care so his pain was minimized. But does a natural death trump a peaceful one?

This might seem morbid, but I regret that I didn’t take photos of his body, so foreign to anyone raised in a world sanitized of death. But it would have felt objectifying and disrespectful. There were instructions in place to take his body to the hospital for cremation immediately, so I knew I wouldn’t have another chance to marvel at what becomes of us, to, at my leisure, stare prolonged in wonder at photos of his curled feet and aged-marked back, the skin hanging from his legs, and the twisted and contorted postures of his final days. As it is, I already can't quite remember what he looked like at the end. I also wanted to make a plaster casting of my mother's face when she passed at home, but my siblings don't see art as the useful path to healing that I find it to be. It can help mark that moment of transition from one form to another. It allows us to redefine the situation on our own terms and turns the chaos of being into a thing of beauty. Maybe I should leave instructions or permissions for my own children, all of whom have a creative bent.

I recently re-wrote my will because I’m taking a trip, and I’m always pretty sure I’ll die any time I get on a plane. I have a pull-the-plug clause, but, after seeing my dad, I asked about including instructions in case I’m mentally unfit or incapable of communicating but clearly languishing. My lawyer clarified that advance directives like that can’t be included in a will because, according to the new law, the patient must be mentally competent at the time of an assisted suicide to agree to it. I understand that it prevents people from terminating the lives of anyone against their wishes, but, in cases like this, I can’t see the point of a natural death.

I’m projecting my own preferences here, but I’d rather be surrounded by family at a predetermined time, allow my children to say goodbye and hold my hand while I’m given an injection, than to have my kids rush to visit one last time, one at a time, some of them too late, and know that I died alone essentially of dehydration or suffocation. I can’t see any way that it was beneficial for my father to continue struggling and suffering. Is there something to gain from seeing the end come naturally? Do we have something to learn from it? Or is it just our belief in life at any cost that maintains laws to keep suffering people alive? The only argument that I’d give some leeway to is one based on the family’s faith or tradition. For the atheists among us, it seems absolutely barbaric, and most of us wouldn’t let our pets die like that. But I really have no right to say anything. I was negligent in visiting since he first moved more than walking distance away.

I was never very close to my dad; I always found him difficult to be around. We’re both introverts who were awkward together once my mom was no longer around to carry the conversation along. Even before that, he spent much of his time in his basement study reading and playing music at ungodly hours of the day. I kept books on the register in my bedroom to muffle the sound of his trumpet playing or his opera records, cranked to ten, jolting me awake before the sun was quite up. My bedroom faced a forest, and I looked forward to waking with the sun filtering through the trees, not the pitch blackness of his pre-dawn rituals.

Unlike most family rifts, we agreed on every fundamental issue. He was very progressive for someone of his generation, and he held feminist principles even if he might never have used that word. He had a strong sense of equity and justice and was extraordinarily sensitive to the plight of others. When we were kids, he would sometimes walk into the TV room and then storm back out, revolted by the violence we took for entertainment. It didn’t stop me from enjoying those kinds of films, but it did make me question my choices. He made me think about a lot of things along the way. He was a brilliant man, and I greatly admired him, but largely from a distance. We didn’t talk much at any point in our lives together beyond sharing knowledge. Before the internet, he was my go to for translating the odd word from Greek, Latin, or German. As a kid, he let me break a thermometer and poke the mercury with a toothpick on a disposable plate, and he let me play with a soldering iron and his power tools with minimal supervision. I made a maze for my pet mice and an outhouse for my Barbie dolls. We spent the summers camping, and he told us the names of the plants and the types of rocks surrounding us, and he could name most of the stars in the sky, too. He admired the experiments I set up labelling rose petals coated with any liquid I could find in the house to determine the liquid with the best moisturizing properties. He was always there when there was something to teach. But that was as far as we ever got.

Truth be told, he was an ornery bugger. He was neither gentle nor patient. He wanted to spend his days reading and thinking and playing music, but he was surrounded by noisy children thwarting his efforts. His frustrations with us were duly noted. I added “irascible spirit” to his obituary to ensure we acknowledge the man he really was rather than mourn a glorified version of him. None of my siblings objected. It’s important to bury the right person. I’m so thankful to family members who did all the dirty work. I’m glad he was comfortable and cared for, and that although I largely ignored my responsibilities, my negligence had little impact on the quality of his life.

And then I didn’t mention anything to my friends or colleagues until yesterday. How weird is that? I found out about it at work Tuesday morning, and I wrote the first draft of his obituary at lunch, surrounded by colleagues who would have been very supportive. Because I'm not sad about it all, I was worried that people would misread my behaviour. There seems to be a narrow range of acceptable reactions to death.

I didn’t want to take any time off work because it’s always more work and stress than it’s worth. Taking three days off from teaching would have required a full evening of preparing, and another day afterwards of cleaning up and catching up. And I wouldn’t grieve any differently at home alone. It was in the forefront of the mind the whole time, but I wasn’t teary-eyed at all. I felt like since I wasn’t behaving in a grieving fashion, it might draw suspicions that I must be coldhearted. I’m not repressing emotions or distracting myself with work, and it’s not that I’m not affected, but sometimes it just doesn’t come out like it does for most people.

Times of trauma and tragedy bring out a lot of projecting. People look at someone going through a death of a loved one, and they overlap their own feelings and responses onto the freshly grieving. Any behaviour that doesn’t match their own expressions is sometimes suspect. People watch people’s reactions at these times and make assumptions about their inner life. That’ll happen in retrospect anyway, once someone reads about it in the paper and shares the news, but my silence on it got me almost a week to process without a battery of questions and concerns about my decision to be at work while I was most vulnerable.

It gave me time to steel myself for any possible onslaught of whispered accusations of heartlessness or aloofness, or of just plain being weird. If they think it must be a hard time, and you're as happy as ever, that disconnect begs for a label. Even the kindest people can sometimes fall into the trap of judging others. I needed private time to process. I needed a week to get my head around it all before I had people sharing their condolences and looking at me with sympathy, quickly followed by disdain. As soon as people know you’re going through something difficult, they pay more attention to you in a way that can be oppressive. Well-meaning people can feel intrusive sometimes, and I wasn’t ready to deal with that just yet.

And although I’m affected by it, it’s just not that sad to me. He had lived a really long, fulfilling life. This was a good death in that respect. I’m not beside myself weeping because it was long expected. I am still grieving a colleague who took his own life almost a year ago. That one haunts me, and I can't get over the guilt of not doing more; I'm sometimes ill with remorse. But my dad went when he should.

When my mother died, twenty years ago, we all expected him to go quickly after. They were a couple so united that it seemed impossible for one to live without the other. When students say that being raised with divorced parents makes it unlikely they’ll have a good marriage, I counter it that I was raised watching an intensely happy marriage, which totally ruined my chances at a relationship. Nothing could live up to that ideal. Yet after she died, he quickly re-married and moved and had a whole other life. Life's full of surprises like that.

So it goes.

So bring on the dancing girls!  (My dad's common refrain after an especially good meal.)

My Uncle Jack and My Dad

ETA: The University of Waterloo's Daily Bulletin obituary.