Short Stories & Essays

The 13th Dock

Buddy waves over to me and yells “hi,” his pubic hair and penis a black fuzzy circle in the middle of his groin.  Doesn’t he know I have a writing assignment to complete?  Helen said to start with the emotional heart of the story.  Now I’m stuck with Buddy’s penis as my enduring image and I don’t even like penises.  I mean, they’re okay but it’s not like I want one for myself.

The splash of Buddy diving in the water is echoed by Gracie, jumping off a rock to chase a loon, which has been teasing her for days by fishing close to our dock.  She never gets close enough to sniff or circle, and today the loon warbles out sharp cries, and flutters along the surface using its wings, as if to say come chase me, before diving away.  It resurfaces next to the green canoe that the Andersons keep tethered to their dock.  Gracie reluctantly turns and swims back to me.

Our lake is called Green Lake.  It is small and private, its circumference divided by thirteen properties.  I’ve counted them several times, hoping with each tally that I am wrong and there are 12 or 14 instead.  I’m not a superstitious person but I’m tempted to erase one of the docks that line the lake, but like the image of Buddy, it’s difficult.  But it should be hard, shouldn’t it?  It shouldn’t be easy to rid yourself of relationships because of a superstitious whim or a wanton careless dismissal.

Who should I pick anyway?  Would it be John and Manjit and their two beautiful blonde-haired daughters who come by kayak, and walk shyly up the steps holding hands, to give me the lake newsletter every year?  Or should I simply erase Audrey and Dave and their slew of boys, Dylan, Devin, Dixon and Dave Jr., because the young ones are screamers and the older boys are loud and obnoxious, especially when throwing each other off the dock or arguing about what movie to watch when it’s raining?

Buddy is swimming out to the middle of the lake and I follow his line to consider other docks.  How about the buyers of the Sellers cottage who rent it out?  Once to an asshole that launched a seadoo and drove it around and around Snake Island for a half hour, a return trip of no more than a minute.  Should I blame them and erase their dock as fast as the seadoo guy left when he realized people had come down to the lake and were on the end of their docks yelling at him to go away?

Rosemary and Peter didn’t yell of course.  Peter canoed over and I imagine him explaining to the seadoo man, in his quiet understated manner, that the lake was a no motor lake and if he could please take his machine out of the water.  He probably asked him if he needed help with getting it back on its trailer.  Peter also checks the clarity and quality of the water and Rosemary e-mails a list of all the birds that have visited the area, bi-annually.  Like with penises I’m not a bird person either, but the idea of erasing their dock just doesn’t seem right.  It would be an abomination.

I could choose Frank.  He’s single and owns the least amount of shoreline.  In this case, less is not more.  He could go.  But I like Frank and he lets me gather firewood from his property and I take care of Annie, his black lab, when he’s away.  I can’t have a fifth dog, so Frank stays.

Rich and Annette don’t like dogs but house two cats.  I could toss them.  It would be difficult because I admire their preciseness and sense of detail.  The writing on the carriage bolts used to fasten the corners of their dock all line up straight and level to the swimmer who reads.  The joints are tight, with impossibly equal spaces between the boards, whose ends and edges are all sanded to a quarter inch radius.  Who does that?  I know who.

I look at my own weathered and beaten dock.  It’s a pressure treated frame topped with red cedar that has now turned a soft grey.  One board is lifting at its end where I set the screws too deep, creating a well for water that has gathered and rotted the wood.  The patina at its end is scratched and gouged with the nails of dogs leaping into the lake, chasing Kongs and diving bodies.  Chairs and dropped bottles have dented and marred the decking and a rusted beer cap has wedged itself between two boards.

What if I’m the 13th dock?  I’m sure the never ending drunk crowd of women swimming naked was obnoxious and annoying, at least to some of my neighbours.  And though I don’t party anymore, I also don’t distribute the newsletter or test the water or count the birds, and while my dock is not as precise or pristine as others, it is a step above the jumble of walkways, ramps and decking that Buddy and Marilyn have cobbled together.  Theirs is a floating marina that shelters a canoe, a catamaran, a rowboat, a windsurfer, a pedal boat, a kayak and a sea kayak.  I realize they have too many water toys to blink away quickly and decide the number 13 must be a lucky compassionate number somewhere.  I’ll need to do some research.

Buddy is climbing back onto the dock, his ass white and bright against the dark tan of his back.  It gets brighter and a bit more hairy when he bends over and started to bail the rowboat.  I really should do part of the writing exercise Helen assigned.  Observations and whatever else comes from sitting still, swatting flies and sweating in one place for an hour.  I look around urgently for something, anything.  There, I’ve got it.

I observe that the branches of the white pines that stand on guard across the lake look like rock shelves and I could use the fissures as steps to climb to the crown of the tree where I could gather in the bottom of the clouds pulling their fluffiness into my face like cotton candy at the fair.

Fuck, that’s awful, but I’m out of time.

My tattoos speak of life and loss

It’s been five days and the skin on my lower leg is now shedding. Black pieces of epidermis are curling up and flaking off as my body heals itself from the assault of a tattoo machine. My leg hair is growing back and it’s bad, it’s ugly and it’s itchy.

I clench my fingers and perform breathing exercises to refrain from letting loose on my new piece with a scrub 

brush or cheese grater. A good scratching will provide me with relief, but I hold back because pulling off the scabs can lift the ink and lead to fading. Fading is to be avoided, but in my experience tattoos naturally fade over time, accompanied by a blurring, a thickening of the lines after years of living, either clean or rough.

A little premature fading of my new piece may be acceptable because it is a gypsy-like portrait of my mother and she died eight years ago at 61 after an extended battle with cancer. She led a tough life.

She wasn’t supposed to be a piece of art on my body anyway. Originally, I consulted the tattoo artist for a gypsy head piece to be done in a traditional style – thick lines, heavy colour. It was her suggestion that I give the tattoo characteristics of my mother. My initial response was, “Never – no way is my mother going on my leg.” Not after all the grief, dysfunction and denial we shared as a family.

Then a funny thing happened. An acceptance of life, a realization that the years have also faded the hurt, the harm. I was still sorting it all out when I e-mailed the artist a black-and-white photo of my mom. It didn’t take much effort for her to give my mother a sexier, gypsy-like look. Remove the double chin, give her large hoop earrings and lengthen her eyelashes.

I got my first tattoo in 1978 in Ottawa. The Rideau Street I knew then was in its infancy. There was only a whisper, a hint of its potential. Today a person can find and feed most vices while shopping. Back then, it took me a week of walking the street to find someone who tattooed. He was a nice, older guy who practised his trade in an apartment he shared with his wife. His selection of artwork was basic and traditional, mostly sailor stuff. I chose a small green dove and he put it above my right breast. It took less than half an hour and it wasn’t as painful as I thought it was going to be.

Later in the eighties, I got tattoos in Montreal and Toronto, where the shops and artists were more visible. I now have bands on my forearms, my upper arms are covered and a pair of wings flanking a heart span my chest, bandaged and torn to represent my personal struggles.

I was proud of my first piece, but at the time most of the reactions I got were disbelief. A friend’s girlfriend ran into their apartment and came back with a wet rag to try rubbing it off because she could not, would not, believe it was real.

Inevitably I was asked why I would get tattooed. The early answer was simple: “I wanted to … is it a problem?” The later-in-life answers often depended upon the timing of the question and to whom I was responding. I have met some inquiries with silence, others with, “It’s really none of your business.” When I feel the question is asked with a well-intentioned, genuine and respectful spirit, I share my feelings.

Being tattooed is not about anyone else but me. On some days it’s me being anti-establishment. Other days it’s me mourning losses and celebrating life. My tattoos have spoken for me when I could not. They protect me and make me feel strong. They have given me pain and relief from pain. Having tattoos has also placed me a little closer to the fringe than to the centre of society. Should it matter to others that I have chosen to illustrate parts of my life journey permanently on my body, with a medium that evokes images of toughness, violence and criminality? It shouldn’t, but it does. Should it matter to me? It shouldn’t, but it does.

I have worked in some tough places, blue collar to white. I spent time toiling in machine shops, welding shops and garages finishing my apprenticeship. I taught my trade, auto-body repair and refinishing, for 11 years at a postsecondary level and currently teach special education at a secondary school.

The harshest criticism I faced about my tattoos came in the white-collar world. Another teacher, seeing the tattoo on my arm, said, “I hope you were drunk when you did that.” Earlier in the week I had attended a meeting with this same peer. He described a woman as being on welfare and a drunk covered in tattoos. I wanted to pull up my sleeves, show him my tattoos and yell at him that I had to collect assistance once to get through school. I wanted to yell there was a time when people thought I was a drunk too. I wanted to yell, but I didn’t. Today I wear short sleeves at those meetings in a silent challenge.

I look down at the unfinished piece on my leg. It will take another assault and a few more hours to finish the colour and shading. My mom would have loved the likeness of herself. I do. I love the rendering because it doesn’t quite look like her. While I’m not sure, I want to believe she would be flattered and proud to have her image indelibly inked on my leg.

Regardless, I know my mother would be pleased that her daughter now has a great excuse to keep her legs shaved, like all good girls should, at least for the summer.

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The Globe and Mail original article here.

Why I’m thankful for multiple sclerosis

I wish someone would hurt me. Not kill-me kind of hurt, but enough to damage me visibly. They could run me down with their car or batter my legs with a baseball bat. That would work.

I don’t normally think this way but on my tired days when I’m really wiped I tend to get dramatic and over the top with self-pity. I have multiple sclerosis and one of my biggest challenges is battling continuously to

overcome debilitating fatigue that accompanies the disease. Like a junkie, I have worked my way through the available medications, but nothing has worked for long.

The medical community does not know what causes MS but there are theories. There is an increased prevalence of the disease in northern European countries, leading to discussions about environment, lack of sunshine and vitamin D. There is also talk about predispositions, viruses and genetics. Being female almost tripled my odds of getting the disease. There is no cure.

The tiredness is hard to describe. It’s not like the fatigue you feel when you have completed your first 10-kilometre race or triathlon. I wouldn’t know what that feels like, but I’ve seen the joy and elation that accompanies the exhaustion runners bring to the finish line and this isn’t the same kind of tired. Runners are rewarded with endorphin buzzes and recovery time. In the grip of MS fatigue I am not.

It’s also not the kind of tired you get when you’ve stayed up all night to study for an exam and then aced it. You are still grinning with the accomplishment on the way to giving yourself permission to sleep all day – a worn-out, blissful utopia. I know what that feels like and it’s not the same kind of exhaustion. There is no joy or elation, no rewards or accomplishments.

MS fatigue is lonely, depressing and full of guilt. It is being exhausted just thinking about doing dishes, vacuuming or knowing there is another day of work ahead. I have become proficient in the art of negotiating with myself.

When I miss work or a social activity, I obsess over the need to explain myself to people. Other times I play the silent martyr, hoping for compassion and understanding that I am unable to ask for because outwardly I look normal and I’m afraid people will think there’s nothing wrong.

Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks the myelin coating that protects the central nervous system and the brain. I have lesions on the white matter in my brain and on the days I stumble over my words, saying door when I mean window or open instead of close, I fear I’m losing my mind and imagine a giant Pacman munching away my sanity, my health.

The inflammation and scarring of the myelin interrupts the usual communication between nerve cells and can result in a wide variety of symptoms depending upon the affected areas. These may include blurred or double vision, loss of balance, trouble with co-ordination, muscle stiffness, bladder problems and memory loss or other cognitive concerns. Not all people will experience the same symptoms as the disease’s progression is unpredictable and personal.

At the height of my first major episode six years ago I went numb from the hips down. It started as a tingling sensation on the bottoms of my feet and within five days it had progressed to my pelvic area. When I closed my eyes, falling over was a concern because I couldn’t sense where my lower body was. I learned to shower with one eye open. Driving was out of the question and walking was limited to an uneasy shuffle with my hand on the nearest wall, railing or companion. The grocery cart became my walker.

I am in the initial stage of MS – relapsing-remitting. It’s likely that I will some day move on to the more progressive stages of the disease. I live every day as it comes, and every second day I self-inject a disease-modifying drug. Its side effects are flu-like symptoms – aches, pain and fatigue.

Most days, when I am only ordinarily tired, I cannot complain about having MS. The possibilities when I was diagnosed in 2003 were either a virus, multiple sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease. I wished for an easy-to-cure virus, but considering I could have had ALS, with a life expectancy of two to five years, I feel fortunate my outcome was MS.

My life is full and, odd as it may seem, I am grateful for all the disease has brought me. Since my first acute episode I have managed to quit smoking and drinking, two activities I was really good at. I started eating right and hired a personal trainer, lost 50 pounds and am now healthier and fitter at 49 than I have ever been in the past 25 years.

Sometimes I wonder if I had not been diagnosed with an incurable chronic disease would I have made this kind of commitment to myself and to my health. In a way having MS saved my life because I’ve chosen to live and fight every day. I’m glad I will never know what not having the disease would have been like.

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The Globe and Mail original article here.

#SICKNOTWEAK

THE TROUBLE WITH WISHES

Twenty-five years ago during my depressive and chaotic thirties I wanted, wished even, to be sick. I practically begged for any diagnosis during pointless doctor’s appointments I made, hoping for some sickness or disease. I would have taken anything, cancer, diabetes, heart disease. I felt like I was crazy.

Looking at the madness that was my life from a mature, sober perspective it comes to me I badly wanted a physical diagnosis that would make sense of the chaos in my head. I was desperate for a label to explain my depression, my insanity and on too many days, a paralyzing anxiety. Most of all, I wanted something tangible, anything concrete I could show to my employer, co-workers and friends to prove I was sick… really sick. A ‘real’ illness would verify I wasn’t a loser who avoided work. I wasn’t a slacker failing to do my fair share. It would give me the words to call in sick and feel as good as I could about it, instead of feeling afraid and filled with shame that I had done something wrong and was in trouble.

I WAS AFRAID TO SPEAK UP AND TELL THE TRUTH TO PEOPLE WHO COUNTED IN MY LIFE.

I recognize now I internalized the judgments of others, my own included, and the views of the disconnected and unthinking towards people who are the ‘so-called’ depressed. I heard the comments on the shop floor and in the lunchroom about the dog fuckers taking it easy at home, the fakers and slackers who didn’t deserve their pay cheques, the cop outs who always seemed to be absent when the hard work needed doing. I witnessed, and not just at work, the bullying and intimidation of those who were sick and depressed by others lacking compassion and empathy. It silenced me. I was afraid to speak up and tell the truth to people who counted in my life. I wanted to tell them I was depressed, sick, unbearably sad, and on the verge of wanting to take my life.

Instead, I pretended nothing was wrong and I drank… a lot. When I couldn’t cope with life I’d do the ‘coward’ call into work at a time when I knew no one was there so I could leave a message. Then I’d isolate, become invisible and disappear into my basement, some times for weeks to drink, smoke and watch TV. When I could, I’d latch on to any sickness. I could make a cold sound like life-threatening pneumonia or bronchitis, a knee sprain required orthopedic surgery and plenty of rest. Nothing seemed out of bounds with my lies to protect my real illness.

Eventually, I did try to take my life. My crisis was the joining of an imperfect storm. I was drunk. I was alone. I had rented my head to a looped tape playing one of my favourites, ‘If only my life had been different.’ I was vulnerable. I was fragile. I was without hope. I was held for 72 hours. Then transferred to the psych big house.

I’LL NEVER BE WITHOUT MY DEPRESSION.

The trouble with wishes though is that some times they come true, even belatedly. I am now diseased and disordered, but mostly happy and I wouldn’t wish for my life to be different, even with the low number days. I’ll never be without my depression. It is embedded into the essence of me, of who I am at the most basic level, and I will always have work to do to live my best life possible. Embracing the notion of For Me instead of To Me, I’ve come to believe my healing would not have been possible without my trauma. I needed to push through the darkness to reach the good place, the one where it is enough to be humble in spirit and to walk every day in gratitude. That is my wish now.

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