In memory of a kindred spirit

I feel incredibly lucky to be able to say that I didn’t lose my first grandparent, my mom’s dear dad, until I was 25 years old. Not many people can say that. And I didn’t just have grandparents that were still alive, but I had them in my life, nearby. Nearby enough, anyway. My entire life my grandparents have lived an hour away from me and five minutes from each other, so sure I didn’t see them every week and maybe not even every month, but they were there, especially when it counted.

I know how lucky I am.

Still, I am incredibly saddened that two years later I’ve lost another one. My Grandma. My dad’s mom. My proper, quirky, practical, stoic, thrifty, particular, gem of a grandma.

As a kid, it’s hard to understand what a chronic illness is. Terms like autoimmune disease and arthritis don’t hold much meaning. What you are able to understand is that between your grandma and your grandpa, your grandpa is “the fun one.” He’s the one who takes you out for long walks on the beach in front of their house and builds forts with you out of driftwood. He’s the one who teaches you to play croquet on the grass. He’s the one who makes silly jokes. Your grandma spends a lot of time sitting in her chair.

And as a kid, what you are able to understand, is that between your two grandmothers, your grandma and your grandmere, your grandma is harder to relate to. She cares more about manners and is more set in her ways. She’s the one who, when you’re eight years old and lying on the floor in a long old-fashioned dress-up skirt, tells you the importance of being ladylike and sitting properly. She shows less emotion and is more stoic, so you never really know what she is thinking or feeling. A blend of how she was raised, a childhood on the farm, and her generation.

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All The Thrift Shop clothing

She is also thrifty. Very thrifty. She volunteers in a thrift shop, after all. The Thrift Shop, as you grow up calling it. Most of what you wore in your early years when your parents didn’t have much money came from your grandma through The Thrift Shop. And most of your family’s housewares. And this thriftiness combined with her quirkiness always makes for really interesting gifts from The Thrift Shop. Like the Christmas morning you open up a plush cat with masking tape on the paw reading “press here” that when you press it the cat meows calmly for 15 or so seconds before screech-meowing while the whole cat starts shaking, a feature which startles you so much that you throw the cat out of your hands. Your grandma is also completely taken with the idea of free toys and games in cereal boxes, and so she buys cereal just for the Tony the Tiger watch or the computer game inside. These freebies show up as part of birthday and Christmas gifts. You aren’t always sure what to make of your grandma’s gifts but by golly you always phone her to thank her, because that is the kind of thing that is very important to her. You do the same after every Valentine’s Day card and Easter card and birthday card, always with a $35.00 cheque inside.

As a kid, you love your grandma and you know that she loves you, too, but you also under-appreciate her in the way that most kids do their parents and grandparents.

And then you’re not a kid anymore.

You’re an adult now, and you get sick and your life falls apart. And you all of a sudden find yourself far less busy and scheduled because of the whole being too sick to do much of anything thing, so you make more of an effort to keep in touch with your grandparents. Your grandma has email now, and an enthusiasm for email joke and cartoon forwards like none other, so you start emailing your grandma.

And as an adult, now that chronic illness, autoimmune disease and arthritis are no longer just medical terms but the terms written in your own medical chart, you start to see your grandma differently. You know why you have so many memories of her sitting in her chair. You recognize how much pain and fatigue she must have been in all the time. You are able to see how important spending time with you and your siblings and cousins was to her because of the effort it must have taken her to just be present. You start to understand her in a way you wouldn’t be able to without that shared experience of living in a body that doesn’t follow the rules.

And you come to understand that she is able to understand you in a way that so many people just can’t.

You know how important education is to your grandparents. Higher education is part of the culture of that side of your family. You know that before she was married she studied to be a PT/OT. Then there’s your grandpa the dentist. Your uncle with the physics PhD. Your other uncle the doctor. Your dad with a master’s in engineering. Your siblings and cousins all with their degrees. And because education is so important to them, you know that when each of your siblings and cousins finished their degrees your grandparents gave them $1000 as a congratulations.

Then one day you get mail from your grandma and it’s a certificate she drew up herself congratulating you on graduating from The School of Hard Knocks. With a $1000 cheque. Because your grandma just gets it. Because she lives it herself.

When it comes to her own health your grandma is quite stoic. She doesn’t complain. You remember your grandpa, your mom’s dad, always telling you about running into her in the grocery store and how she would always give the same answers after he asked her how she was doing…”oh you know, I’m fine”…”well now, I’m okay” and you realize that you have the same go-to answers.

Over time your grandma lets down her guard more and more in her emails. She talks about pain and frustrations and sadness and challenges. You swap doctor and hospital stories. You know she got sick in an era when talking about being sick wasn’t as accepted as it is today. There were no online support groups and she didn’t have all the information at her fingertips like you have to learn as much as you do about what’s going on in your body. You feel sad for the isolation and loneliness she probably experienced because of her health. You wonder what treatments would be available for her if she got sick today. But most of all you feel privileged to be on the receiving end of whatever it is she tells you.

She ends every email by wishing and hoping you have better health coming and you just know how genuinely she means it. But she doesn’t need or expect positive health updates from you for the sake of making her feel better about what’s happening to you. She is one of the few people in your life who you don’t need to perform for.

Your grandma is still your grandma but now she is also your friend.

When your grandparents are in the process of moving out of the house they’ve been in for forty years, a very involved process because in your grandma’s own words it would make for a good episode of hoarders, you get an email from your grandma about her childhood doll. It’s falling apart but it’s really special to her and a mother of three boys, she wants you to have it. It’s important to her that this doll be loved. You promise to love it.

Then one night at 10:30pm your dad asks if you’re still up and if he can call you. Your grandma has had a really tough year, in and out of the hospital. And your heart starts pounding because it already knows what your dad is going to say.

She was proper and quirky and practical and stoic and thrifty and particular about a lot of things. And she was a gem. A hidden gem.

I am proud of the ways I am like her, my grandma-isms. And I am grateful that my illness allowed me to get to know her and appreciate her in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise. And even though I haven’t even been an aunt for six months yet, I’ve already sent my nephew cards for his first Valentine’s Day and first Easter. And I plan to never stop.

I will miss you grandma. I will think of you every time I watch curling and every time we dry our clothes outside on the rack you picked up for us at the end of someone’s driveway 35 years ago. I will remember you whenever I see a cuckoo clock or a singing Christmas tree or an owl anything, and every time I eat a marion berry…which may be never again because I’m not even sure they exist anywhere but your backyard. I will smile every time I go to my sister’s house and see your old dining room table with the five chairs, five not six, because why buy a sixth chair when you’re only a family of five? I will love your doll always.

I love you, grandma. You were a kindred spirit.

Thank you for being my friend.

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Sunflower Number 38

It started with a couple of potted plants on my balcony. They made me happy every time I looked out my window so I wanted a couple more. And then a couple more again.

There are now eight pots filled with various mostly-shade-friendly plants on my balcony. And they delight me. Sometimes on sunny mornings I’ll go sit cross-legged in the patch of morning sun and drink my morning coffee with my plants. Well, I don’t actually drink coffee, but it feels like what I imagine a morning coffee ritual feels like, just sans the coffee.

The reason I’m telling you this is so that you understand that I’ve become somewhat of a plant lady this year. I saw somewhere that plant lady is the new cat lady and I’m so on board for this because I am a cat lady in so many ways except for one key problem: I don’t like cats. They scare me. Also I’m allergic. But plant lady is something I can get behind.

So I’m becoming this plant lady.

I come by it honestly because my mom has a beautiful garden. But when I asked her towards the end of May if she was planting sunflowers this year she realized she had forgotten about them. And so I, in my new role as plant lady, decided I would make the sunflowers happen.

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Plant lady. Overalls. Sunflower seeds.

I bought some seeds, I put on my overalls, and on May 22nd I planted 40 sunflower seeds.

Yes, I have overalls. I learned this year that overalls are back in style which is most exciting because I went through an overalls phase as a child, around 6 or 7 years old, and I am sad about the lack of overalls in my life the past 20 years. My overalls phase was followed by my cargo pants phase, however I am not sad about the lack of cargo pants in my life since then.

Alright. So plant lady. Overalls. Sunflower seeds.

The packet said it would take 7-14 days for them to come up but you guys I must have planted magical seeds or else wearing overalls is the secret to gardening because they started coming up on May 26th!! 9 of them!! After just 4 days!! There were 27 the next day, 35 the day after that, and by the 29th, 37 of the seeds had sprouted. I was not expecting such success!

I was pretty ecstatic. And totally enamoured with my little sunflower sprouts. Anyone reading this who also follows me on Instagram can attest to this because I was posting a lot of story updates about them. Still am, actually.

So my sunflowers. All 37 of them.

Except!!

On June 2nd, when those 37 sprouts were now a couple of inches tall, guess who started to pop up out of the soil?? Sunflower Number 38!

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I was having a horrible day that day. It was a Sunday and I was barely able to move due to severe side effects from an infusion, but when my mom told me she thought she saw another one sprouting, I slowly and painfully hobbled my way outside to see for myself. Sure enough! There it was! In all its unexpected glory! 38 out of 40 seeds? That’s a 95% success rate!

(These detailed field notes are courtesy of the photos saved on my phone thanks to the previously referenced Instagram oversharing.)

I almost cried in excitement. I might have actually teared up. It might have actually been from the pain. I know it will probably sound a bit weird, but I was so proud of that 38th seed. I was proud of all the seeds-turned-sprouts! But especially Sunflower Number 38.

When I realized how proud that last sprout made me, it gave me pause.

Was I supposed to see myself in that last sprout? Making its way more slowly than everyone else, at times not sure if it would ever find its way out of the dark soil, fragile but feisty…? Nah. This is not one of those it’s-okay-to-go-at-your-own-pace-don’t-worry-about-what-anyone-else-around-you-thinks-or-is-doing posts.

The pause was because I realized I was more easily proud of a sunflower seed-turned-sprout than I usually am of myself. Not just more easily proud, but maybe even prouder overall.

I’m a very loyal cheerleader. For other people. I’m not just talking about the big achievements and the milestones, but the smaller things, too. Like when someone prioritizes their mental health or makes time to learn something new. I love when the people I love do cool and meaningful things, of large or small magnitude, and I don’t care about the pace they’re going at or what the people around them are doing.

But when it comes to my own life, I do get caught up on the timeline and the dark soil and the fragility. I am bothered by the slow pace and distracted by the seemingly bigger and better things the people around me are doing.

And I can’t help but wonder if maybe you’re the same way? Maybe we’ve all forgotten how to cheer for our own new leaves, and our own tiny but steady increments of growth, or even just the fact that we managed to avoid getting eaten by squirrels for one more day.

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Sunflower transplant day. All grown up moving from the planter box to the ground.

I said this was not one of those it’s-okay-go-at-your-own-pace-and-don’t-care-what-anyone-else-around-you-thinks-or-is-doing posts, and okay maybe it is a little bit, but not because that’s what Sunflower Number 38 did. It’s not about how and when Sunflower Number 38 made its way out of the soil, it’s about how proud I was of it for doing so, how much excitement I felt watching it. I want to start seeing myself more in the way that I see Sunflower Number 38, and Sunflowers Number 1-37, and the people in my life for whom I am a cheerleader.

Everyone deserves to have someone root for them and celebrate with them the way I root for and celebrate with my plants. And we owe it to ourselves to be that someone.

And so I’m going to make an effort to be my own proud plant lady, to look at myself more the way I look at my sunflowers. With care and concern and wonder and excitement. And pride, even if it seems like all I did was not get eaten by squirrels.

Because that’s enough.

I am enough. You are enough.

Seed to sprout to stalk. At any pace. We are always enough. And we see that in each other.

So now let’s put on our overalls and get some dirt on our hands.

And start seeing it in ourselves. 

Graduation season periwinkles

It’s graduation season. I have the graduation season blues. I thought that once all my peers finished their degrees then graduation season would go away. The problem with having been in a rather rigorous program, however, is that a lot of my peers went on to graduate school. And so graduation season didn’t end, just now it’s full of master’s degrees, PhDs and MDs. Now it stings even more.

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Me, probably talking too fast.

Ten years ago today I stood in front my of high school graduating class at our commencement ceremony and I delivered the valedictory speech. I don’t remember what I said, just that I almost certainly said all of it too quickly.

I do remember the day I found out that I would be giving that speech. Our high school determined valedictorian and salutatorian solely on academics and so the top two students gave the two speeches. I knew it would come down to me and one other guy, so when a few weeks before the ceremony the phone rang in physics class asking both of us to come down to the principal’s office, we both knew what it was about. I remember the gleeful chorus of, “Ohhhh you’re in trouble!” that followed us out the door. The two smartest kids getting called to the principal’s office was apparently very exciting to a class that was 83% grade 12 boys with senioritis and a gong show on the best of days.

But as I said, we knew what is was about. And we knew it was a close, but in the end I had come out a little bit ahead.

It felt really important at the time. And remembering this story ten years later, it admittedly still feels quite important. Which I feel pathetic about, by the way. It was just high school, after all.

The other guy probably doesn’t care anymore. He got his undergraduate degree, and then I’m not sure what but he’s in med school now, so he’s done just fine for himself. And the student who academically rounded out the top three of our grad class, she’s a doctor now.

Look at where they are now, their success. And look at where I am.

I think highly of those two classmates and I genuinely wish them the best. Them and all my peers who have worked hard to earn their degrees.

But as my best friend so eloquently put it last week when I was talking to her about my graduation season blues, “This is crappy and you’re allowed to feel crappy about it.”

I feel crappy about it.

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Quick pause for a photo of me and Best Friend at our high school graduation, ten years ago today!

I wasn’t able to finish my undergrad let alone go through the master’s program I was working towards. I’ve put in a lot of hard work over the last ten years, but my high school commencement was the last time I reached an end point for years of hard work. I know it’s not for a lack of trying that I didn’t accomplish what I set out to. I know what happened with my health is outside of my control.

But still.

High school doesn’t feel like “just” high school because high school was the last time I was healthy. It was the last time I believed that hard work was always rewarded with success. It was the last time I felt like I was in control, like I could do anything and be anything.

And now, realizing that it’s ten whole years since I felt any of that, it just gives me the blues. I want that back. Not high school itself, but the potential for my life that existed when I graduated. The version of me that got to give that speech. I want to be what she was set to become.

Speaking of that speech, I just went and found a copy of it and I read it. My theme, coincidentally, was success. Here are a few things I said:

“As we stand before you on our high school graduation, we are all hoping to reach that great place in life: success… but you see, true success is measured by impact. It is achieved by learning from your mistakes…And it is achieved by making yourself a better person every day so that you can help to make the world a better place…And our success is not who we are now, but how we have journeyed to this place. It is through perseverance and conviction that we have become the people we are today. We have worked hard and our work ethic will continue to lead us towards further successes.”

Well then.

Basically, current me, feeling bummed out because my life didn’t turn out the way I thought it would, just got schooled on the definition of success by 17-year-old me. That speech was a bit of a “snap out of it” tough love talk from my former self.

Don’t you hate it when those young’uns know what’s up?

When I said all that ten years ago, I had no idea how my life was about to change, but the last ten years of my life have still been full of learning from mistakes and intentionally bettering myself. My circumstances have changed but my work ethic has never faltered. It doesn’t matter where I am, or rather where I’m not, it’s about how I got to where I am, and there’s a lot to be proud of in how I got here. And 17-year-old me, while she would be surprised and probably sad about the way things turned out, by her very own words she would see me as a success.

And if that’s how she would see me, why shouldn’t I see myself that way?

Here is one more quote from my speech:

”My hope for every graduate here today is this: may we continue to push ourselves to our fullest potential, may we continue to find the joy in giving from our hearts, and may we never lose sight of who we are.”

I work within different limits now, but I have done just that.

I know who I am. I like who I am. 17-year-old me would be proud of me today, and I am proud of how she became me. It hasn’t been in the way that we had hoped, but she and I, we have still succeeded.

I can see that now.

I still have the graduation season blues, but they’ve softened. They were navy blues, but I guess they’re graduation season periwinkles, now.

I can see the flowers, now.

And that, well that is a success.