30 November, 2015

"Microaggression"

It's not my fault that I'm positive, I just stuck a needle in my arm
And nobody told me that sixty a day would do me any harm
My liver's shrivellin' like a leaf, but it's not the whiskey that do's it
Call me irresponsible and I'm really gonna lose it

--The Proclaimers, Everybody's a Victim

Surely I'm not the only one offended by everybody's offence.

I wrote a post about trigger warnings last year in which I was sharply dismissive of what The Atlantic  has called "The Coddling of the American Mind". Since I wrote that piece, the trend has broadened and deepened, and the word "microaggression" has entered the language.

Microaggressions are "everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership." Put into plain English, they are "the things we say and do which people insist on being offended at." The list grows every day; if this goes on we'll all be rendered deaf and mute at birth, the better to avoid giving or taking offence (my apologies to Deaf people; I do not mean to suggest they are in any way inferior to the hearing community, nor that various sign languages are any less capable of being offensive).

This rebuttal piece, also from The Atlantic, makes the case that "Microaggressions matter". Or it tries to: the specific microaggressions used are trivial bordering on ridiculous.

It starts off with an arresting sentence:

When I was studying at Oberlin College, a fellow student once compared me to her dog.

We quickly learn something the author doesn't grasp, even though she notes she "wasn't particularly offended": the fellow student didn't actually compare her to a dog, she merely noted that the dog and the author happened to have the same names. If you tell your friend John that you are going to the john, you are not suggesting your friend is a toilet.

The writer, an immigrant whose name is Simba, goes on to note other microagressions she has suffered that "cut deeper". Some of them are actually phrased as compliments. She, an immigrant, is often asked "how come your English is so good?" and she immediately jumps to the conclusion that the questioner is suggesting eloquence is "beyond the intellectual reach of people who look like" her.

Guess what? There are plenty of melatonin-deficient fifth-generation Americans whose English is terrible. Further, many (not all) people are ignorant of history and culture outside their own immediate areas; they may not know, for instance, that many people from India speak impeccable English because India was a British colony for a very long time. Being ignorant is no sin unless it's willful.

Her next example, by my lights at least, is an aggression, no "micro" about it:

An African American friend once asked an academic advisor for information about majoring in biology and, without being asked about her academic record (which was excellent), was casually directed to “look up less-challenging courses in African American Studies instead.”

There is no possible way I can think of to construe that as anything other than deeply offensive.

That's the thing, though. There is a line. On one side, there are trivial utterances that may well unwittingly expose prejudices, but are not intended as insults and should not be perceived that way. On the other, there are blatant examples of racism, homophobia, misogyny, and other offensive behaviours that are unmistakable. It seems to me as if the line is moving, such that last year's innocent remark is this year's scandal.

---------

I have, on occasion, brought what would be called microaggressions to light myself. When I've done so, it has invariably been a systemic condition: not a single innocuous remark, rather an example of something quite pervasive but largely unnoticed. For instance, I once had this to say on the subject of pop music:


Listen to popular music and ask yourself how much of it speaks to gay people. Not a whole hell of a lot of it. Quite a bit of it pretends gays don't even exist. "The Game Of Love" (Wayne Fontana, 1965, later covered by a multitude) is a prime example.

 "The purpose of a man is to love a woman, The purpose of a woman is to love a man..." 

Imagine being gay and hearing that. Kind of annoying. Imagine hearing that message and variants of it every time you turned on a radio. Not annoying any more--depressing instead.

I can easily imagine "The Game of Love" being banned from airplay on campus radio stations because of blatantly heterosexist lyrics. Which is too bad, really: it's a good tune, and you can't fault a product of its time for being a product of its time.  Or at least, you shouldn't.

It's happening everywhere, though, especially with literature. Apologies to any atheists--God forbid we read something set in 1960s Mississippi that contains, horror of horrors, racism. I've been reading Greg Iles' trilogy that starts with Natchez Burning. It's a deeply uncomfortable read, because the racism in it seems so over the top: supplementary research has convinced me it's entirely authentic. Is writing a work about racism prima facie racist? I should hope not: we can't learn from our past, or present, if we're prevented from depicting it truly.

It boggles the mind to find out that two of the most controversial, often-banned pieces of literature over the last century are Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird.  Both striking examples of racism overcome; both objected to because of the racism in them. Crazy. These days, any college English major who has somehow escaped one novel or the other in high school will be presented with "trigger warnings" due to disturbing content. That's if Huckleberry Finn is presented at all: it was written by a white male of privilege, after all.

It goes on. Read this the next time you find yourself craving sushi, or anything else that comes from a culture that isn't yours.

Today I learned it's offensive to seek out "authentic" ethnic food, because -- I am not making this up -- in doing so, you are reducing an entire region and its people to a foodstuff. You are (yikes) "fetishizing the sustenance of another culture".

Really? I'd have thought, if anything, UN-authentic ethnic food would be offensive. I had a housemate of Italian descent who would become apoplectic over my Kraft Dinner consumption. I mean, mortally offended, to the point of screaming at me.  Tell a Mexican about the great Mexican food you had at Taco Bell and prepare to run away fast.

Even more problematic if your ethnic food of choice comes from a culture that has been colonized or otherwise oppressed. Banh mi (sandwiches) and banh ex (crepes) are relics of cultural colonization and you are supposed to know this and avoid ordering them in Thai restaurants.

And don't go looking for recognition for trying exotic foods. That means you're calling those foods bizarre or weird.

Um, yeah, I am. And people from whatever culture are perfectly within their rights to call my poutine, butter tarts and maple-flavoured everything bizarre and weird if they want to. TO THEM, IT IS.

As if all this isn't enough to digest before you digest something, you are cautioned to avoid 'loving the food, not the people". You must be deeply mindful of the oppression faced by Mexican labourers as you blithely consume your enchilada, and forget that falafel if you aren't fully up to speed on your Middle Eastern cultural appropriation.

Fuck me. Pardon my French. Wait, that's not French at all. Sorry about that.

Look, I'm not into giving offence. But grow a damned spine.

29 November, 2015

My First Poly Relationship

...wasn't.

My first  and so far only, stab at a real honest to self and everyone else polyamorous relationship was an unmitigated disaster.

It was twenty years ago. My idealism was completely untempered back then, and it mixed not at all with a nasty streak of self-centredness.  Polyamory made emotional and logical sense, therefore it would work, damn the real world feelings, full speed ahead.

Looking back at it now, I find it hard to believe I could be so stupid. Or, actually, in the context of the lost decade that was my twenties, all too easy to believe I could be so stupid.

The ONLY thing I can say in my defence is that in 1995, we were all pretty much flying by the seat of our pants. There were few local poly groups unless you happened to live somewhere near Hippieville, U.S.A. The first book to even take an end run at polyamory, Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy's The Ethical Slut, had yet to be published. The Usenet news group alt.polyamory was only four years old and still a small enough community that we all pretty much knew each other (for online values of "know".) Poly back then was trial and error, lots of error, for almost everyone.

That's no excuse, though. Even if you're flying by the seat of your pants, or maybe especially if so, you'd think you'd put a belt on, check the weather forecast, complete some sort of rudimentary safety checklist...something.

I'd been in a relationship with Claire (names have been changed) for a few years at that point. She knew I was polyamorous before I knew there was a word for it: spend much time with me, then as now, and it's kind of hard to miss. She was completely accepting of it to a point, the point being where it would actually have a real effect on our relationship.

Claire couldn't decide if she was hardwired monogamous or if she had just been thoroughly culturally conditioned; polyamory in the abstract fascinated her. She spent a fair bit of time soaking up that alt.polyamory newsgroup, paying particular attention to the threads like "I'm mono, she's poly, can this work and how?" (Some things never change: that's a staple of /r/polyamory on Reddit today). Some people told her to run, far away, fast; others told her that yes, it could work, in theory. The latter group included the founder of the newsgroup and also a woman who went on to write a highly respected book on nontraditional relationship styles; between the two of them and a few others, she was convinced to give it a shot. Tentatively.

 You should know I was perfectly okay with Claire looking for another partner--demanding freedom in a relationship without being willing to grant the same is disgusting behaviour. I may not have known much in 1995, but damnit, I knew that much.  Claire didn't want another relationship, though.  She wanted one, with me, and she was terrified that one would turn into a half of one. I assured her this would never happen.

Enter Colleen.

Actually, Colleen had existed all along, and there's another big red flag: it's generally not a good idea to have a third all picked out before you've even remotely squared things with your partner. You can maybe see how that might be perceived as just a tad threatening.

I didn't. I was oblivious. I had met Colleen online, and developed that near-instant, seemingly deep chemistry so easily mistaken for "love". She lived about six hours away--close enough, after a time, that she started to talk about meeting me.

Yes, I was honest with Colleen about Claire's existence and place in my life. That much I did right. And I talked with Claire at some length about what might happen and what definitely wouldn't happen if and when Colleen actually did come.  Claire gave her okay, but (she argued later, and persuasively), under duress.

Better and better!

AND I didn't suss out Colleen's feeling on the state of things beforehand. That's Poly Sin #1: Assuming any one partner is in agreement with something and not bothering to check. In this case, the "something" was rather important: what framework the relationship was to take.  It turned out Colleen and Claire agreed on two things: one, they'd be willing to put up with what they both insisted was "half a relationship" for a short period of time; two, the endgame for both of them involved one monogamous relationship with me.

To recap: I had not communicated near enough with Claire, I'd barely communicated AT ALL with Colleen, and I was moving waaaaaaaay too fast. What could possibly go wrong?

Colleen came for a summer weekend, one of exactly three weekends I ever managed to book off from my job in something like four years. On the surface, everything seemed fine at first. She'd brought gifts for both Claire, me, and Claire and I with her; all three were thoughtful and the the gift for Claire and I was decidedly meant for both of us. I resolved to pay Claire just as much attention as I did Colleen, to prove to both of them that I was serious about this whole poly thing.

That was, of course, another error on my part. What I should have done was skew the affection in Claire's favour--instead of 50/50, it should have been something like 90/10 Claire.

On Saturday we went to Toronto. Highlight of the trip: my first visit (Colleen's, as well) to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Do I have to tell you just how big a hockey fan Colleen was and just how big a hockey fan Claire wasn't?

By the end of Saturday, Colleen had taken Claire aside (without telling me) and let her know that she--Colleen--and I were "meant" to be together. Claire was already deeply insecure (can you blame her? I hadn't said or done anywhere near enough to make her feel otherwise),  and this caused her to break down and isolate herself.

And then what did I do? Again, entirely the wrong thing. I made a token effort -- very token -- to try and calm Claire down, all the while knowing I was leaving Colleen alone two rooms away. When it became clear to me that a few words weren't going to do the trick, I (God, this hurts to admit) abandoned Claire entirely, figuring I could deal with the aftermath better once Colleen had gone home the next day.

Ugh. NRE--"new relationship energy"--the bane of any priorly existing poly partner. Falling in love causes all of us to go just a little bit gaga, and it's way too easy...if you're immature and stupid, like me--to get your priorities all buggered up when in its throes.

Two friends of mine were along for the ride that weekend and saw it all. Shockingly, both of them still talk to me.

Claire and I stuttered along for a few months after that awful weekend, but both of us knew it was over. There were lots of problems in the relationship with Claire--maturity on my part being by far the biggest--and as the poly saying goes, you can't fix a relationship by adding people to it.

Colleen and I had a brief fling the following summer, but that chemistry I had thought so powerful was only superficial, certainly not enough to maintain anything long distance.

And me? Polyamory remained an ideal for me, but one bad experience that I had engineered entirely myself had me convinced, for years, that an ideal was all it would ever be. In retrospect, I had made yet another mistake: blamed polyamory for failures which were mine and mine alone. For a while, I took to calling poly "personal communism"--lovely idea and ideal, great in the abstract, but fraught with peril if applied.

It doesn't have to be that way. Add a healthy dollop of maturity and emotional intelligence, increase the communication by a factor of ten, and simply be considerate of ALL the relationships in any given polycule...and you have a recipe for successful polyamory. There will be bumps: there are always bumps. But if you follow the Poly Golden Rule: "the people in the relationship are more important than the relationship"--those bumps won't capsize you.

Oh, yeah, and dating within your species certainly helps. Mono/poly partnerships do exist and do work, but they are understandably rare. Even attempting one in 1995 showed considerably more guts than brains.

I wish I could get a do-over on all of that. Neither Claire nor Colleen was right for me...but I didn't have to hurt either of them the way I did coming to that conclusion.

28 November, 2015

All Things in Moderation, Except Moderation

Diets don't work.

Eating healthy, tasteless foods in minuscule quantities while sweating, panting and pulling muscles WILL make you lose weight, of course. But many of us decide fairly quickly that the cure is worse than the disease. Whether it's because we actually enjoy eating food that tastes like, you know, food...or because we dislike pain and shortness of breath (or both)...we choose to remain corpulent. "I have the body of a God...the Buddha." "I'm in shape...round is a shape." "A waist is a terrible thing to mind." And so on and so forth.
The only way a diet will work is if you make it a permanent lifestyle change...stop calling it a diet and start referring to it, if you have to at all, as "the way I eat."
I've never managed to do this, simply because I've never managed to convince my brain that "food" is actually medicine. Contrary to every commercial for food you ever saw, nourishment is not supposed to taste good. You know how Buckley's Mixture "tastes awful...and it works"? The same can be said for tofu, flax, and whatever else you masochists are pushing as health food these days.

Also, like medicine, you're only supposed to eat a teaspoon of food at a time.

Okay, I know I'm exaggerating. A little. But seriously, folks, tasty food is a function of four things:

CALORIES
FAT
SUGAR
SALT

Do you ever find yourself craving some nice, unseasoned iceberg lettuce? I rest my case.

You can deprive yourself of all the good things in life for a while, but you'll get to missing them, and sooner or later you'll invite them back. Unless you're really committed. Some of you people should be committed, is my view, but I keep that view quiet and only write it here where nobody will see it.)

So, yeah, diets, fitness regimes, whole new ways of living...none of that really gets along with me. I'm a creature of habit and routine. I find it comforting.

Usually.

Lately, though, a significant part of my everyday routine has turned toxic. I hadn't really noticed how toxic until the real world stress ramped up considerably. When the important stuff comes calling, it has a way of throwing all the crap you thought was important into sharp relief, and the picture it reveals isn't pretty.

(I don't mean to be cryptic, truly I don't. Some of the stress you can guess at, some you probably can't. Most of it should be resolved relatively soon, at which point I will spill what can be spilled, okay?)

Behold, the Social Media Diet. Which isn't actually a diet, but a whole new (to me) way of acting and interacting on  social media.

I've been on Facebook since 2008 and on Reddit almost as long. Both places are giant buffets with nearly unlimited options. Any particular click can send you down the rabbit hole, where you may learn wondrous and sundry things...or dark and dirty things. More of the latter, latterly, it seems to me.

I've never been one to slow down and look at the accident in real life...yet another of the many effects of my overactive empathy gland. Gaze too long at carnage and it produces a kind of malignant psychic echo in me.
But somehow I found myself doing that more and more in my virtual life. I'd venture into forums where the prevailing point of view was different from my own, and try to engage. I'd tell myself it was to better understand opposing viewpoints. Maybe that was even true, a little.  I'd tell myself it was to help center both myself and these nameless strangers. That, too, was marginally true.

The thing is, though, more and more people are absolutely wedded, or perhaps I should say WELDED, to their ideas on an increasing number of topics. You can't dislodge them with facts. You can't influence them with rhetoric. You can't even budge them with bullshit, because they are quite simply not interested in changing their minds. Mention a different point of view, no matter how gently, and they'll treat it as a personal attack.

I can, of course, be guilty of this myself, although I try not to be. There are certain triggers that cause me to dig in my heels...and lately those triggers are everywhere.

It's amazing how many topics nowadays  turn out to be all about Syrian refugees. You may think you're in a thread about music, or something to do with health care or education, and sure as hell somebody's going to bring up the regiments of ISIS soldiers masquerading as refugees. and there goes the neighbourhood (and the country, and the discussion, and my sanity.)

But Syrian refugees aren't the only hot button. Our Prime Minister is another: the same online forums where the ISIS hordes are on the march are the places where Justin Trudeau will singlehandedly be responsible for the apocalypse. (To be fair, there were times I felt that way about the last Prime Minister, and all of us except him are still here.) I get that you may disagree with political policies. I do it all the time. But the personal attacks, the name-calling, the ranting and raving...is it really necessary? Apparently it is: that's how the game is played, now.

Well, I'm not playing any more.

I've reconfigured my subreddits to avoid  unfiltered political crap,  and I'm unfollowed most of the media I had subscribed to on Facebook. I've also cut down, and will continue to cut down, on my own Facebook posts. Really, at this point, my Facebook friends know what I'm about. I don't have to repost every meme I see and agree with  to drive home the point.

It's meant losing a few friends. Two of them abruptly cut contact with me earlier this year: I obviously offended them so grievously that they choose not to speak to me again rather than bother to tell me what I did. Six or twelve months ago this would have really bothered me. Now I find I don't care. I am who I am. I certain don't mean to hurt anyone, ever, but I guess sometimes it's unavoidable. So be it.
I've been offended myself, just that grievously, by some others. I checked first to see if they really were welded to their hate; they were; click click "unfriend". 

I don't need hate in my life. Simple like that.

So many people seem to be capable of going days, weeks or months without posting to Facebook. I don't know if I'm one of them. But I can moderate my activity, in frequency and importance. I already have. And I've noticed a difference in my mental well-being just cutting back the little I have already.





22 November, 2015

My final word on refugees (I hope)

The Breadbin has gone cold these last two weeks out of respect for my mother, and also because grieving is hard work that doesn't leave much room for extraneous feelings. What feelings do break through are strong enough to overpower rational thought, and pervasive enough that sometimes it's hard to tell what's grief and what really is a reaction to the situation at hand. Pile on the kind of unthinking, unfeeling hatred that has infected our media, especially the social variety of late...and it's just too much.



It has led me to unfollow almost all the media I'd subscribed to on Facebook, and it's also led to a few unfriendings of family members, on the grounds that I don't need that kind of poison in my world, just now especially.

It's been shifting into (what I fervently hope is) high gear for about a month now, and at the risk of invoking Godwin...it reminds me of nothing so much as the period leading up to Kristillnacht. The sentiment is there in spades: all it would take is a demagogue Trumping up the hatred that already exists. Go here and note the hate crimes that have already occurred. It doesn't take much to fan flames. A saving grace is that there are many people, less vocal than the haters but more numerous, who refuse to be manipulated by the turbulent tides of frothy bile sloshing around.

What really astounds me is that people go out of their way to make things up. Of course they all spread like wildfire--I've been duped myself into unwittingly spreading false information more than once--most recently that Steve Jobs was the son of an Syrian refugee. (He was the son of a Syrian immigrant who fled BEIRUT... but that's not quite the same thing, is it?)

All of the Paris terrorists were either French or Belgian. You don't hear people clamouring to ban immigration from France or Belgium, do you?

While we can quibble over semantics, the fact remains that very few refugees intend to harm us, and those that do are almost invariably found out in the vetting process.

Which brings us to Canada's pledge to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year.

This is only fourteen percent more than Harper, to his credit, intended to accommodate. What's different is the timeline. Harper intended a two year process; Trudeau promised two and a half months. It sounds drastic, chaotic, certain to fail.

It isn't.

The vast majority of the refugees Canada is proposing to take in are currently living in camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. These are not the people tramping across Europe, the ones dismissed as "economic migrants" (as if there's something wrong with that).  They have been pre-screened by the UN. They will be screened again by Canada prior to resettlement. In the coming days, you will hear Trudeau try to allay fears that these people are all ISIS shadow agents coming to behead us.

He won't succeed, any more than this blog will succeed at allaying fear. Fear is an emotion; it resists sober analysis. John Michael Greer, linked in my sidebar, has an exceptional article on how this works (in a completely different context). Put facts in front of fear, and they will be mocked, denigrated, and if all else fails, utterly ignored.

Given that these fears exist and are fuelling an ugly anti-Muslim backlash (and not just anti-Muslim: a Hindu temple was vandalized in my city recently...come on, bigoted troglodytes, at least get the religion you hate right)...it would be politically prudent for Trudeau to slow down.

I doubt he will: he's caught up in first-year political zeal and feels he can't break a single election promise; he also probably figures, and probably correctly, that an unpopular measure like this will be all but forgotten by the time re-election rolls around.

Hopefully the hate will be all but forgotten too.

07 November, 2015

Dear Mom,

Dear Mom,

Just checking in. I figure you must be getting used to your new digs by now. I bet it feels wonderful to be so free, after so long trapped in a body that was trapped in a chair that was trapped in a  house that was trapped in a world with limits in it. So many layers discarded, like peeling an onion. Maybe that's why I'm crying right now. Yes, that's it, onions. 

I miss you. I have missed you for a long time; I REALLY miss you now. I hope you’re not offended when I say I hope it’s a long time yet (by my measure of time) before I do get to see you again. I feel like I have a lot of unfinished business over here just yet. You were the first one to teach me about reminding People Who They Are and Mom, I gotta tell you, there are so many People over here Who have forgotten. 

As you’ve probably discovered by now, time, just like space, is a relative thing, and since you’re no longer in the realm of the relative, it doesn’t have any meaning for you any more. What a relief that must be. So of course I’m with you now, because you never left, and neither did I, and “now” is all there is. But please forgive me when I get stuck in the illusion of time and space. It’s kind of pervasive. When I get to thinking you're nowhere, please remind me to split that word up properly: now/here.

I'm going to be writing you letters for a while. Some of them, like this one, are going to go into the blog for other people to see, while others will be just between you and I. I think you know me, especially now, well enough to know my intentions are pure and I will not disturb the trust of your privacy. 

That said, Mom, I think you should know that a lot of us over here are pressuring for some sort of service to memorialize you. I know this isn't something you wanted--you were never one to take to the spotlight--but we kind of need it. There are so many walls in our family, Mom. They were built with many motives, and they have served their purposes, but some of them need to be scaled. Or torn down. Even if for just a day. The walls are what's making this grieving process very hard for me. I have been steeling myself against your passing for years now, and I've largely come to terms with it, but the walls and moats and such--I never even spared them a thought, and now I find they're everywhere.

I hope you understand, and that you set your celestial alarm for the day it happens. You'll see how much you are loved. But you know that, right? So many energies mingling with yours, both those who have gone "before" you and those who will come "after", all of which you have touched. You know all this, but we still want to experience it ourselves. Love is like that, isn't it?

I don't want to dwell on your last moments here. I've chosen to concentrate on the knowledge that we are all at cause, on some level, for everything that happens in our lives, and that includes our deaths. Where you are now is much more important. I'll be one of the people gently transmitting that message to those who still fear death. I want you to know we understand.

I never got a chance to thank you properly for your role in shaping me. I tried, but as much as you taught me about words, some things are beyond the power of words. You taught me that. You taught me to revel in words--we wrote some damn fine resumes and cover letters together, didn't we?--but you also taught me love is sometimes where the words end. So...

...

...



Your son,

Kenny








04 November, 2015

Mom


I’m just glad I got a chance to talk to her before she died.

 The obituary will probably read “after a long illness”. There’s so much left unsaid in those four words, so much pain only hinted at. And you’d never know, reading such an obituary, that my mother actually died in a fire.

I don’t know how to feel. The overwhelming emotion is a species of relief: Mom had been battling an array of diseases for years, and I know for a fact she wanted to go. I know this because Eva and I have had at least four conversations with her in which she begged for permission to die. The first time was nearly three years ago. I wrote her a short letter, using a first-grader’s vocabulary, telling her everything was okay and I loved her, signing it ‘Kenny’.

I hope she kept that letter.

I feel so much guilt, too. Not for feeling relief: as far as I’m concerned, death was a great relief to Mom and so it should be to me as well. I feel guilty because I wasn’t as close to her as a son should be. That the distance was largely imposed and maintained by her seems like a poor excuse. I feel guilty for knowing this day was coming, preparing for it for years, only to be bushwhacked when it arrived.


My mother was a fighter. All her life she fought demons within and without. She left a highly toxic home environment at sixteen and made a life for herself, by herself, in the big city three hundred miles to the south. Her first husband died in a car accident; she lost her firstborn son, my twin brother, after two days (and nearly lost me). Her second marriage, to my father, was a fair approximation of hell for both of them; it dissolved in 1977, when I was five years old. For three years it was Mommy and I against the world. She met my stepdad, John McCallum, in 1980 and intensely disliked him on sight. It was one of the few times in her life that her first impression was a hundred percent dead wrong. And I’m forever grateful she overcame it: all John did was marry her, rescue and raise me, and remain devoted to her for 34 years. He was her primary caregiver as her illnesses progressed: in that he has borne, and continues to bear, a great burden, the same way he does everything: privately, with quiet grace and strength.

We had a falling out, my mother and I, not long after I met Eva. It was a silly thing that snowballed into anything but silly: both of us felt very much disrespected by the other, and some very hurtful things were said on both sides. She did not attend our wedding, which had its intended effect of wounding us deeply.  For roughly five years, there was no real contact between us.

John called me at one point and told me Mom’s health was starting to slip, and I realized neither of us was getting any younger: it was time to put away my bitterness. She had her reasons for acting as she did: to her they were damned good reasons, whatever I may have felt myself.

Our relationship reset, but it was not the same. Entire wings of her life’s mansion remained politely but firmly closed to me, the largest being her health. This was only to be expected: my mother was an intensely private woman, used to guarding her heart against betrayals, and while being weak didn't faze her, appearing weak certainly did.  And as her diseases — COPD and a form of dementia among them — progressed, taking away her independence and eventually most of her sanity, she was adamant that she didn’t want ANYONE seeing her. Almost totally housebound, shrunken and shrivelled to a seemingly impossible 67 pounds, and often incoherent, I could certainly understand her direction. But I resented it all the same: I wouldn’t be going to see her so I could look at her, if you understand my meaning. My resentment was at least partially founded in my own feelings of guilt for not being a proper son, not to mention my bewilderment in no longer knowing how to be.

She had her good days and bad days that ever so gradually became good hours and bad weeks. I’d never know which Mom I was calling: if I caught her in a lucid period, she sounded footloose and fancy free, as if she was about to get up and go gallivanting. Those were rewarding, if increasingly rare conversations. Through them I learned that she, raised deeply Catholic and terrified of hell, had cast off the shackles of her religion and embraced a spirituality that, strangely enough, wasn’t all that different from my own.

Then  there were the bad calls, when each sentence she uttered was an adventure, seemingly devoid of context, impossible to parse or respond to. What a horrid feeling: so many words  said, all of them doubtless meaningful as they’re spoken, all sense of meaning utterly stripped between mouth and ear. How do you talk to someone for whom each utterance takes place in a different era, years apart?

No matter how confused she got, she always remembered my wife’s name. Considering the tumult that accompanied the first year of that relationship, and the five years of radio silence afterwards, that meant the world to me.

I did get to see Mom in the hospital a few months ago — a place she had sworn up and down she’d never go to again. She sounded, when I saw her, quite remarkably well: God alone knows what effort that took, or how much it took out of her. What struck me more than anything else was the sheer vitality in her eyes….her body may have been most of the way to dead, but her eyes fairly burned with life. I’d long since given up any pretence of prognosis for her, but my sense then was that she had a good long while left yet.

And indeed, she got out soon after, returned home, and seemed better. Not well, but better. For a while.

On November 3, just before 11:00 a.m., I called her. She picked up on the fourth ring, and we talked for about five minutes. It was definitely a bad call: her confusion was a palpable thing. She asked me three times if I kept my cats at home, apropos of nothing at all; seemed convinced I was going to see my dad the next day; was inordinately happy that I was working night shifts. One of the few things she said that made sense was that she was “pissed off” that she couldn’t breathe. And this time she must have said she loved us both six or seven times. It felt final. I hung up thinking how final it felt, and then immediately chastising myself for having thought that so many times before.

About two hours later, the fire department attended her property and discovered her dead body. A volunteer firefighter was first on scene and was overcome by smoke trying to rescue her; he was treated and released.

The fire seems to have started in her chair, but she was not burned. As far as we know, she died of smoke inhalation. With her lungs in the state they were, it would have taken her quickly. The fire itself is still under investigation, so I couldn't say more now if I wanted to. What I can tell you is that she is free from pain, free from indignity, free from suffering.
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Everyone tells me I’m a lot like my mom. It horrified me when I was a teenager. I hotly denied it every time. She was so damn stubborn, I would stubbornly insist. Moody, too, I brooded. Endlessly loving, curious about people, passionate but reserved. Complicated mind, largely self-taught; simple heart, ENTIRELY self-taught. Many insecurities that sometimes manifested irrationally; many securities that made you look past them. A love of music, a love of words, a deep, deep desire for and appreciation of truth and sincerity. Cared so much for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t care for themselves. No, we aren’t alike AT ALL.

In her time she was an RPN, a patient advocate at a psychiatric hospital, an auxiliary police woman, an ambulance dispatcher. A devoted wife. A loving mother.

So many regrets. I regret I have no children to pass the mother in me on to. I regret that I ever said bad things about her, and to her. I regret so much the stolen years, both those long gone and those that will never come. She was 67 years old: an age when people are just settling down into no longer punching a clock and wanting to punch a boss. Too early. Far too early.

So many memories. Being a ‘momma’s boy’ for so many years, and proud to be THAT momma’s boy. Cookies and cupcakes baked for every school occasion. The satisfaction of knowing home was an oasis of peace and love, a priceless gift to a child for whom it wasn’t always. Teaching me how to write cursive…endless pages of capital K’s for me to butcher. Songs sung, stories read, laughter and love shared. A life.

My mother was a good woman, a strong woman, a true woman, and I love her.

I love you, Mom.

ARLENE JEANETTE McCALLUM June 10, 1948-November 3, 2015