why i tell my story

I am fortunate to have opportunities to share our family’s story about our experience with our youngest son in the health system.  I do a fair amount of public speaking as a ‘mom’ to health professional and student audiences.

And while I am despondent at the slow pace of change in the world of patient and family centred care in the Canadian health system, I was recently reminded why I do what I do by a health faculty student at the University of Alberta’s Interprofessional Practice Launch.  I have been speaking to students there for the past three years.

A facilitator shared with me something she overheard in the hallway.  A student said, “hearing that mom speak is going to change everything about the way I see my education.”

BOOM.

If even one person out of hundreds has a slight shift in their attitude, if they see patients as people first, if they vow to celebrate the births of all babies (even the sick babies — especially the sick babies), if they take the time to understand a patient’s story and practice compassionate care… well, then I’ve done my job.  But that one comment from that one student has tempered all the preparation, anxiety and sweating that goes into these presentations.

This awesome quote shared by Teresa Chinn sums it up best:

stories

Let’s keep sharing our stories with the world, folks.  I think that’s the only way we are going to change the world.

food is love

IMG_5172After my daughter announced in early August that she was moving out, I clamped down on our loosely organized family dinners.  I sourced meat from our butcher, roamed farmer’s markets for seasonal vegetables, spent time standing in line at french bakeries, drove 45 minutes to buy authentic Baba perogies, and wandered the aisles of our Italian food market.

Every day, I started dinner prep at 3 pm, and at 6 pm I served a feast on our wooden dining room table: rack of lamb, lasagnas, enchiladas, steak, roast chickens, elaborate casseroles.  And the desserts!  Apple crumble, cheesecakes, and pies.  We ate like medieval kings and queens every night.  I am sure I gained ten pounds in the month before Ella left home.  But every pound was worth it.

I was very consciously, as Elizabeth Renzetti says, overloading the family dinner with expectation and symbolism.  I was feeding my family well in my desperation to demonstrate my love to my girl in her final days at home.  I want her to think of our house and recall the smell of cracking bacon, the sight of flickering candles at the table, and the taste of that silky linguine carbonara.

My now-adult daughter and I have spent a great amount of time breaking bread together.  When she was little, I silently vowed never to act like food was the enemy.  Preparing and eating food is a pleasure in our home, and I’m careful not to complain about burden of daily cooking. When she played competitive soccer, we talked about how food is meant to fuel her body.  I know countless grown women whose attitudes about food are really disordered. I’m no saint myself, but Krista Burton sums up my own philosophy about food when she says, eat that damn brownie already.

In my quest to hang out with blossoming daughter, we have taken regular Chick Weekends that have centred around eating – to Christmas in November in Jasper, to a cooking school in Seattle, on a food tour in Chicago.  We are currently scheming a food weekend in San Francisco.  Have I have been trying to nurture a positive body image through these culinary trips?  Hell, yes I have.

As a mother, food is how I’ve expressed my love to my family.  Is this old-fashioned, or sexist or wrong?  I don’t care.  My own mother, who is half-Italian, is an excellent cook, and in my memory banks is the smell of pigs feet, peppercorns and bay leaves simmering in tomato sauce on the stove.

Before Ella left home she asked for a copy of my favourite recipes, and I typed up a little book for her called Ella’s Recipes, which included little tidbits of wisdom like:

  • Italian Sausage Pasta – another Jamie Oliver recipe! Ya gotta buy a bottle of cheap white wine for cooking!
  • Beef Stew – an old friend named Cheryl gave this to me a long time ago – like probably 25 years ago! It can also be done in a slow cooker.
  • Beef Strogonoff and Noodles – any mushroom soup ones are from Grandma, but I love them – must be memories from my childhood.

(I realized I’m no gourmet cook with the amount of recipes that utilize cream of mushroom soup – a staple in the 1970’s in the suburbs from my childhood).

Now, Ella and I meet for lunch every week on her day off.  She’s the only family member that will indulge in sushi with me.   She texts me to ask how long to cook baby potatoes.  The last time she and her boyfriend came over for dinner, I rolled up my sleeves, and we had barbecued steak from the butcher, baked potatoes with real bacon bits, corn from the Taber truck guy, and Okanagan cherry pie.

When Ella and her boyfriend Eisech arrived for dinner, she was tired from starting work at 7 am, but she was in good spirits and smiling.  She’s working in her gap year before university at a local bakery.  There she’s a baker’s assistant, and I’m hoping that she observes the pleasure her customers get from eating her Mocha Nanaimo Bars.  Now it is her turn to craft her own food philosophy, and I hope it doesn’t include guilt and remorse, only delight and love.

After dinner, I load her and her man up with leftovers carefully portioned into ziplock containers.  I give them a jar of blueberry jam from the farmer’s market.  I tuck in an extra bag of frozen meatballs.  We must teach (and feed) our children well.

 

the reluctant good samaritan

streetOne Saturday night, my husband and I were downtown with two dear friends. We attended a foodie event, stopped for a glass of wine at a lounge, and were heading back to our friend’s car. We were walking down our main street, Jasper Avenue, and it was about 10 pm. It was dark and getting chilly. The sidewalk was filling with loud and rowdy revelers. I was happy we were heading to a quieter part of town.

An old lady walked quickly past us as we were piling into the car. We all turned and watched her, as she was quite elderly and did not have a coat on. She lurched to a stop at the traffic light, and waiting for the light to turn green. My radar perked up, but I was in a jolly mood, and looking forward to our next destination, so I settled into the car.

Suddenly, our friend John said sharply, “Someone should go help that lady.”

We all looked at each other. I was the only female in the vehicle. We figured I’d be the least threatening person to approach her.   I was voted out of the car. I walked to catch up to her, and the light turned green. She was walking FAST. I half ran to catch up to her. I didn’t know what to say.

I put my hand on her arm. I said, “hello, are you out for a walk somewhere?” Her arm was paper-thin and freezing cold. I noticed that she had no socks on.

She looked at me closely with her light blue eyes. “I’m going north of St. Albert,” she said. “I’m going home.”

Now St. Albert is a suburb of our city and many kilometres away. She was also heading east, not north – entirely in the wrong direction. I knew then that John’s instincts were correct. This old lady was lost, and confused.

I wasn’t sure what to do. A young lady came up and was softly speaking to her too. My friends had inched up with their car. I wanted to get her warm, and get her off the mean streets. I asked if she would come with us and we could take her somewhere safe. She hesitated for a moment, but thankfully she agreed to get in.

John was our driver. He spoke to this cold, lost lady so gently and with such great kindness. It was as if he was talking to his grandmother. He found out her name, and he kept using it as he chatted with her, keeping her occupied and calm.

“I got confused when it got dark. It got dark so fast,” she whispered. This was true. She was steps from our vast river valley, which is deserted and would have swallowed her up whole. I was thankful for the warmth of the car.

She kept repeating a street address to us. She had no purse or ID. Should we drive there? we thought.   No, she didn’t know the day of the week. I’m sure that address was a home address from a very long time ago.

We decided to drive a few blocks to the central police station. I got out to explain our situation, but oddly, the station was pitch dark and all locked up. There is no public counter on Saturday nights – having watched a lot of Hill Street Blues and Law & Order, I found this really strange. I had to call 9-1-1.

A police officer arrived immediately. We waited for another car, as he had a vomiting drunk gentleman in the back of his car.  (Police officers!  What a job).

When the other car arrived, the officers said they’d been looking for this lady all day. She was an official missing person. She’d been reported missing from a local hospital many blocks away. She’d been wandering the streets for over eight hours. Cold, lost and hungry.

She seemed wary of the police car. “You aren’t in any trouble,” I assured her. She gave me a big hug before she disappeared into their car.  “Thank you, dear,” she said. And then she was gone.

Now, I’m not telling this Good Samaritan story for any accolades. To be truthful, I saw this lady on the sidewalk and dismissed her because she was waiting patiently at the light, and walking so briskly. But our friend John is the real hero. He insisted that we help her out. So that’s what we did.

I’m haunted by the coldness of her arm. How long before she wandered down by the river, or got disorientated in the remote river valley trails?  How many people passed her on her during her eight hours on the street?   And why, oh why, didn’t anybody help to stop her?

Reflecting back on that night, I wonder why we have such reluctance to help a stranger. Is this an urban, city thing?  Are we so busy that we think we don’t have time to help?  Do we think that this isn’t our problem?  I have renewed respect for the young police officers who were searching for this lovely old lady all day and finally brought her back to safety. I hope she’s finally found her way back home.

the busy thing

 

The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win,
you are still a rat. – Lily Tomlin

Around this time of year, I post the article The Busy Trap on my Facebook page.  Well, this year, in an attempt to avoid the Busy Trap, I’m now off Facebook.  So I’m going to talk about The Busy Trap here instead.

I have been wondering lately if the trauma of the empty nest comes from a terror of being given the gift of time.  Suddenly you have time not driving to soccer practice, not nagging kids about homework, not making meals for a crowd, not doing laundry.  You have time with your partner.  You find yourself standing in your kitchen with nothing to do.

Most of us like to fill that time with The Busy.  Joshua Becker on the Becoming Minimalist explains why we do this in his post:  Nine Lies that Keep Our Schedules Overwhelmed.

I own my own business, and have a decent writing and speaking career.  I also have three children and two step-children.  And a husband.  And two cats.  But I’m purposely not busy.  Aaron has helped me slow down.   I live a quiet life.  I might be in the minority, but Joshua’s piece reminded me that’s ok.

This may be an age thing.  I reside in a city that gains 2,000 new people every month.  There are traffic and crowds everywhere.  I crave the peace of a slower pace.  (I realize that this is why people retire in sleepy towns with warm weather).

Here’s what I have figured out:

You can’t be creative when you are busy.
You don’t pay attention to what’s happening around you when you are busy.
You can’t be grateful when you are busy.

And the sad thing is, when your kids are busy too, they can’t cultivate that creativity, mindfulness or gratefulness.  There’s just no time to think when you are dashing from place to place.

Try sitting on the veranda after work and have a leisurely glass of wine with your partner.  Drop the activities that are scheduled right after school, so you don’t have to rush after you pick up your kids.  Even better, don’t drive, and walk slowly home from school  instead.  Make the time for a long, hot bath with a trashy magazine.  Turn off your phone.  Hide your laptop. Stay in your pajamas on weekend mornings.  Sit around and read the newspapers.  Lie on your couch and watch Downton Abbey with a purring cat on your lap.  Go to bed early so you can read a long luxurious book.

I do all these things all the time.  Maybe this makes me lazy.  But I’m very happy to avoid the alternative, because who wants to be a rat?

That’s All There Is (Boyhood, the movie)

boyhood familyWe saw Boyhood in the retro cinema with the big plushy red seats during the theatre festival. Parking was a bitch, and we hiked a significant distance, passing buskers and bars until we arrived at the theatre, breathless and wanting of popcorn.

The premise for the film from writer/director Richard Linklater is simple: shoot a movie over 12 years with the same actors. Watch a boy, his mom, his sister and his dad all grow up. The boy, actor Ellar Coltrane, was six when the movie began; 18 when the movie ended. Ellar’s character Mason is the same age as my second child, my daughter. It was fascinating to watch the world slide from 2002, with its clunky video games and Harry Potter books, into modern day’s sleek technology. Ellar grows taller and more handsome with time, just as my daughter Ella has grown more beautiful.

Twenty minutes into the movie, my husband started smacking his lips and shifting in his seat. “Settle in,” I whispered, “There are no car chases here.” He sat back in his chair and patiently waited for something to happen. But Boyhood is all about character, not plot. Cast aside all your Hollywood expectations for this quiet film.

Boyhood’s flower slowly blooms over 12 years and 165 minutes. Nothing happens, and yet everything happens. There are the rare big transitions – the mother gets remarried, the dad shows up, a half-sibling is born. But Boyhood is about the gaps buried in between the big dramas of life: the rock collections and the family meals and the jumping on the trampoline.

I loved the mom, played by Patricia Arquette. She ages unapologetically on screen – morphing from 34 to 46. (Funny, she’s the same age as me, too).  She struggles as a single mom, gravitating to the wrong men, forever standing in the kitchen, grabbing onto her life as an academic as her children grow up. She is perfectly imperfect.

She rages at her youngest son as he leaves home, “I just thought there would be more.” Poof and her job as a mother is finished. This is a bitter pill. When they are young, life moves from diaper changing and breastfeeding, to making dinners and herding them out the door in the mornings. The drift away from you is gradual – first they can walk by themselves for a Slurpee, they can take the bus, and then they are out after dark. Then motherhood’s big fluffy cloud floats right over you, and it bam, it is over, without much fanfare, except in your semi-broken heart.

Boyhood reminds us to stop waiting for the big stuff to happen. Embrace the Lego creations cluttering your floor, the procrastination at bedtime, the slow walk home after school, the negotiations in the cereal aisle, the reluctant unloading of the dishwasher, the messy teenage bedroom, the eternal digging in the fridge, the pile of shoes at the back door, the sprawling on the couch watching TV. This is life.

Peggy Lee asks, “Is that all there is?” And Boyhood answers, “Yes. Yes. That’s all there is, my friends.”

the book pile

Since my daughter moved out, she’s been alone on her day off from her job at the bakery. She can’t afford Internet or cable, and there’s only so much cleaning one can do in a 500 square foot garage suite. The other day, she unexpectedly told me, “I want to read more books.”

This is so old school and I was delighted.  I gifted her with The Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and she’s happily giving me daily plot updates.

Since I dumped Facebook, I’ve been reading more lately too. Here is what has passed through my book pile:

Close your eyes, hold your hands by Chris Bohjalian – A wayward teen, on her own after a nuclear disaster. Compelling and sympathetic.

House in the Sky by Amanda Lindout and Sarah Corbett – I was scared to read this, but someone I trusted recommended it. The true story about the kidnapping of a journalist. Terrifying but surprisingly full of hope and faith.

I am having so much fun here without you by Courtney Maum – well, I read it, hoping to warm to the protagonist. But I hated that guy right to the bitter end.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub – wow, this was lite (not even light), so I read it, yes, on vacation. A family drama set on a holiday in Spain.

The Year She Left Us by Kathryn Ma – another story about troubled girl, told from various points of view. At its heart, it had the interesting theme of international adoption.

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty – I was embarrassed to have this in my book pile. The cover is cutesy, and all covered in pink flowers. Once I got over my pretention about this book, I liked it. It was set in Sydney, and was a pleasant read with three different story lines that slowly begin to intersect in mostly unexpected ways.

the fall by diogo mainardi

Mainardi_theFall.final

I’ve never read a book written like The Fall by Diogo Mainardi. I’m still not sure I fully understand it. And that’s ok.  Some things are not meant to be fully understood.  They just are.

The Fall is a book about love. It is a father’s search to find meaning in disability – in this case, Diogo’s son Tito’s cerebral palsy. Now, I’ve read a lot of books about disability: starting with Martha Beck’s Expecting Adam when my son was first born, through to Andrew Solomon’s masterpiece Far from The Tree last year. There are so many lovely memoirs from parents (mostly mothers) reflecting on life with their children. Ian Brown waded into the philosophy of disability in his Boy in the Moon. But there’s nothing like The Fall.

The Fall arrived in the mail on Friday afternoon. I finished it on Saturday night. The book is split into little sections, each representing a step taking by Tito on a walk around Venice. Some sections are a sentence. Others are longer. It is a beautiful book, complemented with the occasional photo and excerpts from Diogo’s column with the Brazilian magazine Veja. I cannot properly explain this book.

There’s this:

“We loved Tito so much that we even loved cerebral palsy.”

And this:

“I want to celebrate the value of a life of a disabled son.”

The Fall is about the meaning of a human life. It connects Tito’s birth with art, literature, Neil Young’s music, historical events, math, and the horror inflicted on people with disabilities by the Nazi Action T4.

If this sounds like too much, it isn’t. Diogo carefully illustrates how Tito’s life is connected with all humanity. Tito is part of a beach in Brazil, a Shakespeare play, a painting by Monet. As is repeated like a mantra throughout the book: “That’s what Tito’s story is like: circular.”

We are all human, by the very fact that we exist. And that’s simply enough.