Content note: this piece deals with addiction, abuse, and intergenerational trauma.
I wish my father a happy birthday. He tells me he’s drinking again, And that he hardly heard from anyone. I can only ever write poems about him.
Write back, he always says. His emails come quickly, contain hardly anything. Write back, he always says. Write back.
I have to come up with more to say, more that I can share. There are so few safe topics to choose from. He wants to see me. I don’t know if I can let him. Just a few years ago, seeing him on the street would send me reeling— Running, hiding, heart pounding, panic swelling. I don’t know if he ever saw me run away.
I don’t know how to write that fear into a poem, And perhaps this is where I fail as a poet.
I never thought I would speak to him again, Never expected to write to him. Five years of estrangement passed, And then I did. Something within me shifted. Words like abuser, monster, Jekyll, and Hyde Moved over to the side— Making room for Illness, sickness, and intergenerational trauma. It took five years for my fear to begin melting, For my anger to start eroding, Revealing layers and layers of fresh-cut Pain, Confusion, Compassion.
Write back, he always says. Get your brother to write to me, And write back. Write back. Write back.
Content note: this piece contains discussion of death, grief, and hospitals.
I don’t really know what to write. My usual way with words has gotten away from me. I’ve been left with a chaotic swirl of thoughts, images, and feelings that are difficult to articulate.
Thinking about death. Thinking about grief. Thinking about meaning, about birth, about loss, about change.
Your life can change in a moment, with one voicemail, text message, or email. One moment.
I was homeschooled for most of my childhood. My mother was the primary person in charge of my education. For a few years, she would drop me off at her parent’s house once a week to learn from them. My Poppa taught me math. My Nan taught me french and poetry. She had me memorize and recite The Owl and the Pussy-Cat by Edward Lear to her, which I initially hated because it was hard, but eventually managed because she wouldn’t let me give up on it. She had it memorized herself and would correct me mid-recitation if needed. We went again, again, and again until I got it.
Everything changed with a voicemail. When I first heard the recording over the phone, I assumed it was for something else. I had last spoken to the caller a few years ago about arranging a surprise party for my Nan.
I heard her voice. She said her name. Confused, I thought, “Why is she calling about the party? The party already happened”. I was almost irritated. Who calls about a party that’s already happened?
Then she explained her reason for calling and it clicked. Ah, it’s one of these phone calls.
My partner was sitting in the room with me. “Is everything okay?” he asked.
Heart racing, I told him what I had just heard. I called the person back. No answer. She hadn’t been able to reach my mom, she’d said. I called my mom. No answer. I left my own voicemail.
While I’d been trying to call my mom, the person had called me back. I called her. She picked up.
She was with her, there. She explained what was happening, what they had found, and where the paramedics were going. She mistook me for my mother. I explained who I was and said I would keep trying to call my mother. She said she would keep us updated. We said goodbye.
I tried calling my mom again. No answer.
Wait, had anyone told my brother?
I called him and he picked up on the first ring. Later, he told me he’d been looking at his phone while walking home from work, just about to change the song he was listening to, when he’d received one of those kinds of phone calls from me.
I told him. A few minutes later, he walked into the house and told my mom. A few minutes after that, she responded to my messages.
Now they knew.
As I got older, lessons with my Nan became less formal but just as formative. We moved away from memorization and practice and towards discussion. After the day’s chores were done, we would sit together in the evening with tea and snacks and talk for hours. I would tell her all about my life, my plans, and my questions. She would listen openly and curiously. She would ask me to elaborate sometimes and share stories from her own life. She didn’t pretend to have all of the answers or try to make me see things in any particular way. She would just share what she knew and had experienced. She would also tell me stories from the books she read or movies she watched in great detail. She was a wonderful storyteller, and often, just listening to her take on a story was more interesting than the books or movies themselves.
I had to get there. I haphazardly packed a bag, forgetting socks and underwear. I arranged a ride with a friend. The conversation on the way down was surprisingly normal. When we neared the hospital, I realized what was about to happen, what I was going to walk into. I felt scared.
We got there and it all happened very fast.
I was in the bathroom shortly after, looking at myself in the mirror, drying my eyes and blowing my nose. I was still scared. I didn’t know if I could handle this. I was buzzed back into emerg and told they were moving here into a private room in the stroke wing.
The damage was too severe. They couldn’t operate. This was the end.
She squeezed my hand when I first arrived but never woke up. There was a substantial bleed in her left hemisphere from the blood thinners she was on.
Two days went by. I won’t go into detail about them. They were awful, beautiful, powerful, painful, bizarre, long, exhausting. They are private. At some point during those two days, I stopped being scared.
Then she was gone. Just like that. Gone but not really gone. Gone but still here, gone but everywhere. She left that room in the hospital and went everywhere.
My Nan told her grandchildren she was a witch. She would cast spells sometimes to be dealt a better hand of cards or win a draw prize. She told me one of our ancestors had been a witch, a powerful healer who shared my name. I asked her about this when I got older and she maintained that it was true. That magic is real, everywhere, and accessible to all of us was one of her lessons.
Look for me when my spirit leaves this earth look for me above, I wish to join the eagle’s flight and soar with them at dawn’s first light. Think of me each time you see a pair of wings, close your eyes & in your mind see hummingbirds + dragon flies, the gorgeous wings of butterflies, when they alight then look for me, a flash of light in a twilight sky just know I’ll be close by.
– Wendy Pantony
I went for a walk on a trail the day after I got back home. I looked for her in the birds that flew above me. I looked for her in the light and the clouds. I felt her presence everywhere.
I still do.
Your life can change in a moment, with a voicemail. One minute, you’re going through your Saturday routine, and the next, everything is different.
At some point during those two days, I wrote a poem about grief sitting next to her. My brain was fried and scrambled, so it wasn’t very good, but in essence, I was trying to describe grief as being like a ball of energy. When it first forms, the ball is huge and takes up every part of you, beginning in your core and seeping into every limb, into the tips of your fingers and toes. Gradually, it shrinks down to a more manageable size, until eventually it can be tucked away and stored. Once acquired, that ball of grief will always be with you. Even if you manage to tuck it neatly away, it’s still there. It will always be there.
My Nan will always be everywhere now, and nowhere. She has gone to that expansive place where individuality, separation, definition, and lineality are not factors. She exists differently now. She is here and not here. We miss her and she is with us. She has moved on, gone elsewhere, but the love she gave us is still here, within us alongside the grief.
I wish I could write about this more articulately, beautifully. I wish I could find all of the right words. I wish I could express the depth of everything I’m feeling, but this is where I am and what I have. Maybe better words will come with time. Maybe words themselves are too limited to capture death, loss, or grief. Maybe all of these things are too big for words.
I think my Nan is at least partially responsible for my being a poet, which I’d never thought about before now. It didn’t come from nowhere. She introduced me to poetry at a young age. She was a closeted poet herself, a private one. She wrote a collection of poetry throughout the course of her life that she never published, but she let me read some when I was a child. When I started writing poetry, she was always keen to read it. She encouraged me to get my work out there and was proud when I would occasionally get published. A few years ago, she asked me why I hadn’t published a book yet. “I thought you would be like J.K. Rowling by now,” she said. At the time, it irritated me to hear this because it felt like a lot of pressure. She had high expectations. J.K. Rowling wasn’t even J.K. Rowling at twenty-four, but maybe it wasn’t high expectations so much as highly complimentary. She just assumed I would become a famous writer and was wondering when, exactly, that was going to happen.
I cry a little bit every day. I write a little bit every day. I go back to work. I act normal. Sometimes, I feel normal. Usually, I feel surreal. I’m exhausted, in body and brain. I keep crashing with fatigue. I keep thinking I’m getting sick, but I’m just tired. It hits me in waves and the waves contain all kinds of things. I keep thinking about how I’ll never talk to her again: never share anything with her, never ask for her advice, and never hear her stories. Occasionally, I’m hit with feelings of elation and surges of energy. Is that her? I wonder. Is that her telling me she’s happy now?
I don’t know. I have no way of knowing. I’m realizing I don’t really know anything.
Nothing matters and everything matters. We’re all going to the place she’s in now. I hope it’s a good place. I hope she’s happy there. I think, if she is, she’s trying to tell me that.
Before all of this, death had affected me, but I had never seen it, never touched it, never gotten that close. At first, I was scared. Terrified. I wanted to leave. I didn’t think I could do it. It was too much. And then, at some point, I just got comfortable there. I had to. It doesn’t scare me the way it did before. I was able to see the beauty in it. I was able to see it as natural, normal, just another part of life—the counterbalance.
She gave me so much all my life; so much love, so many lessons, so many adventures and questions. The last thing she ever gave to me was a close proximity to death. This was the last lesson she ever taught me.
Death is natural, normal. It is coming for me, for you, for all of us. Do not be afraid. Do not avoid it. Do not run away. Come into the room, sit down, get comfortable. Be with death. Hold space for death. Respect its power, its inevitability.
I watched my grandmother die and I learned about death. I also learned about life. She was fearless, dedicated, grounded, open, loving, generous, and always curious. She and my grandfather built a beautiful and enriching life for themselves and their family from very modest beginnings. I believe love was her guiding pillar, she pursued what she loved and centred the people she loved in her life. I can’t count all of the lessons she gave me. I am grateful she was in my life and I was in hers. I am grateful to have been with her at the end, to have held her hand during that final lesson. It was a hard one to learn, but it will be with me until my end, until the cycle repeats itself again.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince, Which they ate with a runcible spoon; And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, They danced by the light of the moon, The moon, The moon, They danced by the light of the moon.
Content note: this piece contains discussion of illness and grief.
I’m waiting for the leaves to come back on the trees. I’m waiting for the New Year to really begin. I’m waiting for the spring air to roll over me, Chilled but full of moisture, Smelling of plants soon to be. I’m waiting for the grass on the hill to turn green.
I’m waiting for the opportunity to try again. My false start has come to an end, But the world will come back to life And I will be able to try again.
We’ve survived another winter, Apart and together. Now we have the chance To breathe again, To live again, To think again, To reimagine.
My false start has come to an end And I am getting ready to try again— When the leaves, the grass, and the fresh air Come rolling back in.
I turn twenty-six on Tuesday the twenty-sixth. I feel more like myself than I have for awhile. I am writing more like myself and I am writing more in general. Poetry has come back into my life and is taking up more space than ever before. Prose and ideas for prose are everywhere. I am compiling the past few years of my transition into a zine. It’s all been falling into place since I let go of the need for a refined product, success, or legitimacy and focused my energy on the process instead.
I love the process. That is the essential piece, you know, loving the process. The piece that can so easily go missing. You can become so focused on the end goal, on the need to be and to appear productive, that you lose sight of why you create in the first place. We create because we love and need to create. This doesn’t mean that creating should always be easy or simple or fun. Sometimes, especially when you are deeply invested, it can be incredibly difficult and confusing and frustrating, but if you love it, that drive will help you move through those challenges.
I was sick last night. I lay on the bathroom floor for hours, shaking. Something went wrong in my body and I felt it in every part of me. I could barely keep my eyes open. I was alone. I lay there and cycled through the following thoughts: I wish this wasn’t happening. What’s wrong? When is it going to stop? Why is this happening? I wish this wasn’t happening…
Then another thought came into my mind as if from elsewhere: this is what it means to have a body. This is what it means to be alive. Having a body means that sometimes that body gets sick. I felt lucky for a few moments just to have a body, even if that body was angry with me. Then I fell back into the cycle: I wish this wasn’t happening. When is it going to stop? Why is this happening?
I was cold and couldn’t stop shaking, so I ran a bath. I lay down in the warm water and felt just as unwell, just as alone, but didn’t shake anymore. I lay back and I let go: this is happening. I can’t stop this from happening.
I started to sing an old song, a song I learned from a community that would stand in two rings and sing two rounds into the night. I sang that old song in an old language and thought about how I didn’t know what the words meant but could feel what the song meant. I sang it to myself, over and over, and I stayed there with my hurting body in that bath and became okay with what was happening.
I was at a New Year’s party a few years ago when something traumatic was triggered and my vision took on a ring of black spots and I felt like I was going to be sick. I lay alone for hours on the cold tiles of a stranger’s bathroom floor, even though I hadn’t had a single drink that night, and rang in the New Year. I had just lived through one of the hardest years of my life and felt the weight of it in my body that final night. I didn’t sing then but I did ease into the pain, mind and body joined together on that cold tile floor. This is what it means to have a body. This is what it means to be alive. Sometimes, you will be sick and you will feel it in your body whether the cause is from your body or your mind. Sometimes, you will be sick, you won’t be able to make it stop, and you will have to get down on the floor with it.
My body is a beautiful alarm system that has always reliably sounded the bells whenever I’ve become too cerebral. Pay attention to me, it says. Take care of me.
That New Year’s Eve, my body took on all of my grief and pain and made me lay on a cold floor all night so I could move into the coming year with a clearer mind. Don’t take this with you, it said. I felt the fog of death, disappointment, betrayal, anger, loneliness, and fear rise like smoke off of my body and leave the room. I came back downstairs at one in the morning and smiled quietly at the party guests who were getting ready to head home. It was a new year and I was new. My family and I drove home in the car. It was dark and they were tired and I was awake and feeling better than I had in a long time.
Yesterday, I lay on another cold tile floor and then in a warm bath. I let all of the awful feelings wash over me. I sang an old song that I did/didn’t understand and thought about renewal and how I was turning twenty-six in three days. Pay attention to me, my body said. Remember to pay attention to me.
I can’t promise to always pay attention, body, but I will try. You will be twenty-six soon, as will I. You have carried me this long and have always been my friend. I will try my best not to let my mind get in the way of your needs again.
Spring is almost here and soon it will be my champagne year. I am leaving something bad behind. I am writing every day. I am searching for community. Just like that NYE all those years ago, something in me died last night and something new came alive in its place. I let toxic smoke rise from my body in that bath and I became new.
I am turning twenty-six in two days and finally, I am ready.