Mother, Nehiyaw, Metis, & Itisahwâkan – career communicator. This is my collection of opinions, stories, and the occasional rise to, or fall from, challenge. In other words, it's my party, I can fun if I want to. Artwork by aaronpaquette.net
She took her last breath at 6:30am on September 6, 2020. She was my little sister. Funny how we do that, no matter how close to seniors’ stage we are – little sisters will always be little sisters to the older.
Reva was beautiful; exceptionally beautiful. She certainly had no problem turning heads and often invoking envy. She was smart, a doer and a dancer and she was funny too. She held our family sense of humor, honed in the history of pain and endurance, in doing whatever it took. She wouldn’t have recognized how that humor and ability to persist was ingrained through many generations reduced to survival.
She didn’t much talk about our Indigeneity; it was not something we consciously talked about. We just were and mostly, we tried to forget about it. Mostly we had associated every awful and humiliating moment of our childhood with it.
We went through the fostering system together, until the day I ran away from it and she aged out of it. Even then, we weren’t really free. We still had the weight of all we’d gone through before, during and even after. In our own ways, we decided the only path out was to pursue the model of success that was firmly impressed on us throughout those years. We only had to just work hard; very hard. We only had to have a nice home and maybe husbands and kids and maybe a car too. We only had to be respectable.
My journey with that empty misconception ended with several years of help to undo those generations of trauma. She sought help where she most felt at home. I don’t know how stable or even healing that was for her. I think it mostly hurt her, really. Yes, she was beautiful and smart and so, so complicated.
It wasn’t always easy to love her. I suppose they would say that about me too. I just like to think all that therapy gave me some measure of genuine peace she didn’t have. It’s in that, as a big sister that I find most painful. It’s not much different really, from all those earnest wishes for happiness and safety we have for our babies.
We achieved those goals to similar degrees. In the end, it was our children and homes that mattered most, but the ugly monster that was our childhood never really left her. She never quite found the combination that would allow her to be, to just be, in ease and in the ability to admit failure. That sometimes made her a pretty tough judge and not everyone was interested in hearing the verdicts. Sometimes other events hardened hearts indefinitely. It’s one of the most miserable of human experiences to simultaneously love someone so deeply while fighting the soulful wish to feel only indifference. Hopeless dreams.
Still, she held out her hands, arms and whatever resources available to help anyone she could. Generosity was hers too. Her heart would melt at the sight of impersonal suffering. She was a force and it was a good feeling if she was on your side.
As a sister, there was plenty of special too; the way we knew what the other was thinking by locking eyes. Breaking into gut-busting laughter over things only we could understand. It was an indescribable comfort to know she was there when I was scared. It was gut-wrenching when her pain became mine.
I hadn’t been talking to her for some time when her boy found her on the floor. She’d been rushed into surgery to remove the discovered brain tumor that they said was going to take her in a matter of months, and that’s when I got the call.
It doesn’t seem real; not then and not now. One moment often replays in my mind. It was when I arrived at her home and saw her sitting in the corner of her couch, so small and quiet and beautiful, even with all those metal staples down one side of her head. She didn’t say anything, but I felt it all. I felt her fatigue and confusion; I felt her fear.
I could only go to her and take her in my arms and tell her that I loved her. In only a moment, all those years of trying to figure out life and our issues were done. One single, damned moment. One single, holy moment.
We had her for eight and a half more months; somewhat short of the 24 they told us was possible. I think we just knew, this time the possible was not an achievable goal. We were back to survival mode, where the practicality of what had to be dealt with in undoing an entire lifetime was paramount.
Her sons and I packed up boxes and tried to plan as best as possible for her youngest son’s eventual move to his father’s and her older son’s grappling with the baggage of the past and the infuriating circumstances of the present. Broken hearts can’t be boxed.
We spent the last few weeks just talking until she lost most of the ability. Then she would mostly just look at us as we’d try to regale her with any stories of normalcy.
Two days before she passed, I obsessed over the thought that I needed a sign when she was on the other side. I asked her to please show me something purple. “I don’t know why I picked purple, but will you”? I pleaded. She nodded, yes. She knew why I picked purple, but she wasn’t able to tell me. I didn’t even remember until she was gone, her birthstone is an amethyst. Anyway, when she nodded, I knew she would.
Eight and a half months to live what matters and even if she couldn’t say it often, I know she loved us hard and no one as much as her sons and grandson. I know this is mainly what she thought about in that time and if she could have made everyone’s wishes come true then, she would have. She had so many dreams…
In the end, she lived up to that final promise to me and I know she will for others. I can promise that. Another thing you could always count on her for was, keeping her word.
A couple weeks after she passed, I went for a walk. It was late September and the leaves were turning color. The wind that rustled fallen leaves was distinctly cooler. I plodded on, lost in thought until I was stopped in my <insert whatever cliché>.
Even if they had noticed, it might not have made much of an impression on anyone else. It was unusual to me though, and it happened to be one of my favorite flowers; a Lupin, a flower that blooms in spring. Of course, it was purple.
I didn’t have a thought. Not that I recall. I do remember the way it felt. It was like my entire being was suddenly filled with warmth that I find hard to describe. I instantly and absolutely knew my little sister was home and she was safe. That was all I really needed to know since I first got that call, and of course, she knew that…
Five years ago, I went through a set of circumstances similar to what I’ve had to navigate through this year. A year later I had some small moments of reflection that I see are as relevant now as they were then. I can’t help feeling that most of us are at that place now. So, here’s a re-tread of those thoughts. Hiy hiy for this indulgence.
Sooo, did I hear you type the word, cookie?
No matter what kind of curve ball life throws, even those 359 degree ones, there are two things that demand focus in any way they can get it – cookies and bacon.
Okay yes, I’m kidding… it’s whatever requires you to be relevant. In my case, those anchors just happen to be fairly typical – children and animals, not necessarily in that order…and thank you sweet, Geezus for typical anchors.
They see me at my best, and my worst – which they generally run away from – fast, usually to retain the emergency services of a stylist or a good martini mixer, but even so, they will love me again within minutes. If only that were true of the rest of the world…
They do see me cry and rail at times because I don’t often try to shield them from those moments because life is also an awful lot about ‘shite happens’.
My last few posts have reflected some recent hard knocks and I expect I will write in and around those events for a little while too. Writing is a critical component of healing for me, as much as talking things out with my son is needed to help his understandings.
We’ll go over what’s happening to whatever appropriate extent and then, what it’s going to take to cope and keep moving. My Jack seems to understand that, so he pretty much behaves accordingly – he’ll lick my face, then throw a paw at it for priorities – which incidentally are the same as my son’s – cookies and bacon.
My son, on the other hand, seems to have grown some pretty thoughtful insight for his age, which he occasionally jolts me with. He reminds that a laugh is good medicine or that I am forgetting to see my own value, regardless of anyone else’s assessment, and that he’s willing to stand up for me to anyone. It’s those moments that remind me that no matter how hard I’ve been hit by the challenges of life, underneath and overall, I have done some things right.
I’d like to think that I’ve mostly lived for the greater good. I’d like to know that I didn’t live in my own head as much as, or more than, contributing meaningfully to community. I hope that no matter what happens, most will remember me for living, giving, and seeing the worthwhile. I’d like to believe this is true for most of us.
At the end of the day, no matter what kind of day, I hope I will have earned the right to my own share of cookies and bacon. And poutine. God, I really love that stuff, way too much.
February 14th was changed forever for Indigenous communities 28 years ago. While we still share in acknowledging and celebrating love, we also use the day to recognize and memorialize our mothers, daughters, sisters, cousins, aunties and grandmothers lost to us inexplicably and/or violently.
We memorialize them in a march through town and city streets to remind all of those still missing and that despite calls for justice and formal inquiries, we have yet to receive any for those murdered. It’s a national disgrace that, as Indigenous women, we remain the most vulnerable demographic in all colonized countries.
A million smiles Crossed our hearts before goodbyes Home longingly waits
My cousin, Roberta Marie Ferguson, age 19 yrs, missing since August 24, 1988
“Mom – mom come here now – a crow just grabbed a robin in the air!” I ran to the front window to join my son, who was staring wide-eyed at what was taking place in our front yard. There was indeed a crow with a robin in its claws, but they were now on the grass. The robin was struggling under the crow as it tightened its grip and then began to peck at the smaller bird with brute force. Within minutes, a carpet of grey and red feathers covered my lawn.
I watched the crow continue to peck at it until all movement briefly stopped. Then the crow picked up its victim to carry it to the middle of our street – presumably because the harder paved surface made it easier to dig into flesh. That’s only a guess, as is why my response, even while horrified, was to grab my camera. I kept clicking and recording every motion of the bird’s devouring power. It didn’t take long to reduce the robin to a few small ribbons of red flesh, which it then picked up again and flew off with.
I stayed at that window quite a while after, until that early spring day started to darken. I know I was dumbfounded at what I’d witnessed and by the sheer amount of feathers laying from one end of my yard to the other. How could so many feathers come from one tiny little bird? It wasn’t the first time I’d encountered the ‘cold, hard facts of nature’, but there was an additional layer to the feelings this time. As the event faded, I was filled with a sense of dark foreboding.
Hindsight, of course can play into the narrative of any thoughts, but what was to follow within my own world not very long after, made it seem like that feeling wasn’t really all that out of line after all.
In a matter of months and over the next 3 years, I endured the loss of someone I adored beyond measure, part of the centre of my world, next to my son; followed by a devastating and punishing betrayal by someone I’d loved and leaned on while coping; and serious health crises over 2 years that would ultimately break me down to my own demise, albeit only momentarily. Beware the truthful tales of bad news descending in threes.
I know those events are whole stories of their own, but I wrote about them through the journey. I don’t much feel the need to recount the details now. In some ways, they almost seem like a lifetime ago. They were centre stage, but part of the play was the way those birds continued to star in revealing what was to come.
The next spring, my son and I went for a walk along a river. As we were talking, we were suddenly interrupted by a flash of black that passed right in front of us. It was a crow speeding toward the tree line to our left and it was being quickly pursued by a very vociferous little robin. My son and I looked at each other and we both reacted to that unexpected turn in events with a deep inner, ‘Whoa’.
That wasn’t the end though. As we went further, we next saw that little robin chasing after another bird, but this time it was 2 hawks! I know I was very relieved I wasn’t the only one seeing this. Who would believe me? Dare I even tell you that the last time we saw that little fierce fireball, she was chasing after an eagle? Well, she did. I don’t know if it was a she; it just felt right to assume that.
Of course, I pondered and wondered about the amazing activity of that day for some time. I also took solace in it. It seemed to confirm for me, that even though I was in the midst of major recovery on several levels, I would be fine and perhaps in some ways, even far mightier.
The experiences of those years had completely broken me and I needed to hold onto something bigger than me to keep moving forward. It wasn’t long after that, the resources I needed to begin the healing on all levels fell into place and I was on my way to becoming this newest version of me.
This brings us to this year… The edges of all that pain have been buffered and eased. I’m still regaining my physical strength, but I’ve made great strides in that. The rawness of my world has been tempered with understanding through grief therapy, and my re-connection to the teachings of my culture has pulled me through what I think (hope) is the last of the intergenerational wounds that left me vulnerable to a particular kind of predation. It’s a lifetime’s work, I know. I still have some way to go, but I know where to turn when any circumstances arrive to test my abilities. This is major healing weaponry.
So, what about this spring? Well, for over a week, I’d come home and have the be-gee-zus scared out of me as I walked to my front door. Yet another robin seemed to come out of nowhere. It would dart back and forth across my yard, but not straying beyond the trees of my property line. It would turn this way and that, sometimes even hopping onto the grass and bouncing along, in and out of my hedges. Of course, I grabbed my camera. Strangely, the little bird still wouldn’t move much even as I approached, clicking away. The next day, when I was once again, startled by the little red burst of flight, it suddenly (and finally) dawned on me; there must be a nest close by. I scoured all the hedges in the front of my house and found – nothing.
I hadn’t been looking close enough. I have a honeysuckle vine on the post at my front door. In that unlikely spot, almost right in front of my eyes the whole time, was one of the sweetest sights I’ve ever seen. When I’d moved a few branches to look for a nest, three enormous beaks with eyes popped up. Utterly adorable, and the sense of renewal within that literal new birth presentation lit up my heart like Christmas lights.
I enjoyed their presence for only a few more days after I’d discovered them. It was a little saddening, on the day I came home and they were all gone, but they did leave that beautiful, perfect little nest. I waited a few more days just to make sure they’d really flown off for good and then I brought the nest in. I moved a small bit of moss on the bottom and I discovered a gift within the gift – a most precious, tiny, glorious blue egg. I placed it all in a round terrarium vase.
All the events of three years were succinctly re-wrapped in this unexpected bowl of symbolism. I choose to see this as the finishing touch on soothing old hurdles and as acknowledgement of the start of life for me on a whole new level. Certainly affirms the old adage, ‘big things come in small packages’. Oh, isn’t that the truth; the absolute honest truth?
So, here I go again. A new round has begun. Cheers to small packages. The next time someone says life is for the birds, I’m going to say, “Yup, it sure is, at least, for me”. Thank God, and especially, all my grandmothers.
Chortles for healing
Yes, another truth cliché’
Eyes wide open; cured
Pain’s scales fully cleared
Nothing’s like smiling with you
Cleansing fiends away
“Stimuli response creature”
His faults “in stasis”
Ah, ha ha, behold
How sweet to laughably view…
Saps teach ogres words
Sadly, pulled below
Into sulphurous kisses
Repelled for solid grounding
Upscaled to real life
New knowledge; true tenderness
An exercise in summer re-discovery. A former summer’s draft of haikus met up with a friend’s last summer street art photography. Great fun matching up those thoughts to these illustrations of chance.
Outside of that, I’m guessing at this point in the year, many of us are in a need of some seasonal change. I’m definitely hungry for more sunny experiences in sunny destinations. I’ll bet you are too. Let’s get at ‘er, mon anges et amies!
All photos – various Toronto, ON street/graffiti art and graciously leant to me by photographer and writer, Randall Willis, of CreatedByRCW and So, What’s Your Story
During a year of upheaval, reflection and even amazing rewards, a walk back to beginnings can help to return a sense of balance, to find an equilibrium that helps make life make sense again. I’ve been going back to some significant and poignant moments for me for that purpose. One of those periods was returning home after time spent in child foster care. This story was also published a few years ago, but for anyone who hasn’t seen it, maybe something in this will resonate for you too…
Sometimes old memories float up in need of a little light…
A soul’s whisper to let it go.
I was 14 years old. My mother and I were living in an apartment on the 14th floor of a basic downtown high-rise. We were there because that’s where she was when I ran away from the last foster home I’d intended to live in.
I threatened to run away and never be found again if they made me go back to that home. The Department of Social Services, and my unprepared mother, gave in.
My mother had been struggling with escape from an abusive marriage, alcoholism, and no way to fully support her daughters. That’s how we ended up in foster care just after Christmas that year.
We were six girls, ages two to twelve years. I was twelve. They were my sisters, and because I was the oldest, they were also my beloved babies. There was no doubt that having already traversed a very rocky start together, we were a fiercely bonded ‘band of sisters’.
I was quite used to taking care of them, and the house as required, which it seemed was almost always. So, the demand to relinquish responsibility to the social workers who came to take us away or to the people who were to foster us was incomprehensible. It was shocking and infuriating and frustrating.
Many nights I’d lie awake planning our escape from that foster home and formulating the many ways I’d find our mom. I usually ended up crying myself to sleep immersed in the despondency of realizing how powerless I really was.
We were all together in that initial home, except the youngest who was instead taken to live with our father – another story for another time. I was eventually to move to two other homes within a year and a half. Only one sister was allowed to go with me; they gave me one day to choose between the four faces that pleaded to be taken. Despite everything that we’d already lived through to that point, it was then that I learned that a soul could feel fractured.
In short time, and with little choice, we adapted and carried on as kids are so able. Then two years later, suddenly we were all being taken to visit with our mom at her own new home. The visit went by as quickly as I’d dreaded. When it was time to say goodbye to her, it felt like the beginning of all the bad goodbyes again. I could not return to that pain; the next weekend I bolted for home, for her, for good.
So there I was, on the 14th floor in a small, sparse apartment, a temporary only child, but finally with my own mom. Life definitely took another turn in my day-to-day. I spent less time with my friends and more with my mother’s.
She had a friend on the 7th floor. Phyllis was one of those larger than life characters; a hard-drinking party girl, a queen bee who had great pride in being a full-time ‘player’. She seemed to take my mother under her wing. She was a louder than life distraction for a young woman bogged down with desperate problems.
Phyllis held court to an allotment of very proud and loud butch lesbians. They called themselves the girbols (girl boys, hard g). One of them was Margaret. She was pretty, a large woman, and very quiet. Though she liked to hang out with the crowd and indulged in the same drink and smoke, she alone remained quiet.
I came home from school one day, at the start of spring break, and went down to the gang. There was a brand new baby girl cuddled up in Margaret’s arms. I hadn’t even realized that she had been pregnant. The baby was so tiny and delicate, and wrapped in a pink blanket.
Spring Break began on a weekend and as on all weekends, it was time to get the girbol party started. I was immediately designated the girl baby’s guardian. I took baby, and all of her required possessions, up to my apartment.
The ‘weekend’ turned into nearly two weeks, during which I had full custody of baby night and day. It’s awesome, as in really awe-inspiring, how easily you fall in love with a child, even as a young girl, and you immediately wish to be everything it takes to nurture them to perfection.
She needed me for everything and I reveled in that. At night, I would wrap her next to me and listen to her breath and smell the top of her head until I drifted off in true peace. Every minute with her was another moment of reclaimed love. I was once again protector, friend, sister, mother. For awhile I was me again.
Spring break was over and I’d already missed two days of school, I had to go back. That morning, I reluctantly took her down to the 7th floor, gave her back to Margaret and left for school. When I came home, I dropped off my school things and grabbed one of her blankets to collect her. I sniffed her baby smell all the way to Phyllis’s apartment.
When I walked in, I saw Margaret sitting by the window, staring out with the curtains blowing around her. The girbol group was strangely quiet. I asked for the baby and no one said anything. I went to Margaret and asked. “Where’s the baby”? She wouldn’t answer, and then I saw her tears. I was instantly alarmed, even afraid that the baby had gone out the window.
“Where’s the baby Margaret”? I was ready to cry, but not sure why.
“They took her”, she said softly.
“Who took her”?
“Social Services. I phoned them today and they came to take her away”.
I know I asked her why, maybe a few times, but I don’t recall an answer. I doubt she gave one.
I turned from Margaret and I looked at everyone else. No one would look back at me; they kept their eyes on the floor or each other. I turned to Margaret again and watched her silently cry for a while. I walked to the door and quietly closed it behind me.
It was the last day I saw Margaret, or our baby. I went to sleep that night holding that baby blanket. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. Somehow, I knew in my heart then, that no matter how much I dreamed, I was never going to get my family, my ‘band of sisters’, back in the same way again.
What’s sorrow really, mom? … It’s hurt, sweetie. It’s this really deep grief, usually from losing love in some way, mostly suddenly… and I won’t say it, but it breaks my heart to know that it will happen someday for even my sweet, sweet baby. And another tear falls…
God… how many times have I heard it said, “It’s better to have loved & lost than to never have loved at all”? Well, that may be true, probably it’s true… like the old Garth Brooks song that said, “I could have missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance”. Except when you first feel the pain…. you just think, oh God, I really don’t want this dance… I really can’t do this; this is way too much to ask… Why isn’t it too wrong to ask that I endure this?
This pain… the pain of losing soul deep love… Seemingly snatched so quickly that you struggle to remember that they were real… that you held them, that you saw them, that you heard them… and you think how… how is it possible that they could actually have been here?
How is it possible that they weren’t just a figment of your imagination when you finally realize, when you truly, honestly, completely know … that you will never, ever touch them again… that you will never, ever hear their voice again… that you will never, ever hear them say to you again, I love you… I love you… I love you…
I’m really not sure what the worst of it all is. I can’t quite tell if it’s during the immediate shock of the event that swells my heart into a pillow that suffocates breath or that new quiet of the day that emerges later… the lack of talking about nothing… the laughing over just silliness or asking, sweetie – what do you think? Maybe that’s the most searing – those new quiet holes… those utterly empty extra minutes.
The fall, when sorrow called again, I switched on the autopilot. Only creativity was exceptional. The anger of pain has always been the most fruitful muse for me. Anger… once again my friend, made words fly through my fingertips faster than I could speak…through the struggle to breathe…and the primal desire to hit things and hurl them and hurt anything…
Grief, like fear, transmutes my normal fire into an inferno, a – set fire to the rain – fury. My inner warrior surges fiercely from me to fight and slash recklessly at the brutal fates; to slay the enemy of dreams, hopes and plans. To demand back what was mine, even while feeling within those pitiable new spaces of my broken heart, that it is only futility I battle.
He knew me… He knew me. Whenever I was rattled, he’d often say, poor bunny, you feel so much, so deeply….And just the sound of his voice saying those words was a comforting balm, a soothing hug. And he was right… I so do and I wonder how do I get myself through this too… Can I?
And then, eventually, reluctantly, I will admit yes, I suppose I will. I always have. It’s not even a choice, I just will. I know all of this; I’ve been on this ride awhile. I know I will slump soon… into a mix of muted warrior inertia.
I’ve lost before. I will breathe… I’ll walk through the motions of normal… in between the bouts of sobs and fury…and repeat, until I get to somewhere around the new normal. My spirit will once again console my heart.
Losses…to accidents or illnesses, those brutally tragic events, or to mental health issues, addiction issues, betrayals and even a great love gone wrong, this pain is the same sorrow. I know it is – I’ve lost people to all of these circumstances. When someone is gone, they’re gone and if you love them, it doesn’t hurt any less.
They’re gone… and that’s all we can feel – for as long as it takes to find our new steps in a changed song, until hopefully one day, we’ll also vaguely realize we’re humming the new melody under our breath.