Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Apperception - Part 2 of 4

Continued from Part 1

I didn’t speak to him for an unforgiveably long time in social terms. Let’s call it ten minutes of staring blankly as the busy subway filled and emptied at the Queen Street, Dundas, College and Wellesley stations. He returned my gaze patiently, occasionally revealing an almost sheepish ‘Well, you’ve caught me’ smile that I assume was meant to be comforting.
Don’t talk to the apparition, I told myself. Talking to the apparition affords it the opportunity to respond, whereupon you will be talking to an impossibility so don’t talk to the apparition. While you’re at it, stare at the apparition and determine which film appearance you’re looking at exactly, which synapse’s worth of memory is firing this back at you for no reason you can fathom but do this without talking to the apparition.
This worked at first, but it felt rude not to at least acknowledge the dead-not-dead man. My application of the silent treatment ended shortly after passing Rosedale station, when he finally found a seat on the train directly across the aisle from my own. The passengers sitting to his left and right shifted their positions to accommodate his presence. 

That chilled me; I was no longer hallucinating one person. I had coerced bystanders into acknowledging his presence, or I had grafted his likeness onto some poor guy minding his own business on the train.
He actually looked rather happy sitting down, perhaps not surprising given his age. An older gentleman (he was 75 when he died) would understandably like to rest whenever possible. There was also no means of knowing how far he’d traveled to end up on my train.
He leaned towards me and said “Are you all right in there?” while tapping his temple with his index finger.
I didn’t move. He was close enough to touch me (which wasn’t an appealing prospect) and that was probably the impetus which updated my mantra from Don’t talk to the apparition don’t talk to the apparition don't dignify its presence don't let it make its own narrative to oh what the hell at least he's polite and if I'm crazy I'm already there I can't unwind the crazy clock and if this is all going south I might as well get on top and ride it down and talk to the...

Monday, January 16, 2017

Apperception - Part 1 of 4

I sat on the train, watching him standing only a few feet away from me.

I thought I am having a stroke.

He was hanging onto a ceiling strap in lieu of a seat on the crowded subway. He’d glanced in my direction a few times but didn’t appear to be looking at me or for me. I was just another stranger in his line of vision.

He wasn’t a complete stranger to me, although we hadn’t met in the flesh.

Based on appearance alone, he could literally have been anybody. Few people have entirely unique features and the art of looking average was part of his milieu. But I’d seen him enough times to recognize the facial consistencies from every role – a small scar on his left cheek, a bump on the bridge of his nose, unusually deep-set eyes – and it seemed impossibly unlikely that I was staring at an uncanny resemblance.

This left me with two conclusions; I had either gone insane (which I always believed was a gradual process), or I was undergoing a sudden, brain-altering medical condition that was broadcasting gibberish instead of reality to my cerebral cortex.

Having a stroke on the subway struck me as an undesirable, but not entirely horrible situation. The Toronto Transit Commission boasts of its robust support system of police and paramedics to deal with emergencies like the one I felt sure was happening to me. Upon review, I was confident that I’d be transported to an appropriate medical facility as quickly as possible after my inevitable collapse.

My cursory knowledge of stroke symptoms (gleaned from a 'Signs of Stroke' pamphlet I’d casually reviewed in my doctor's waiting room years before) included numbness of one’s appendages (the arms, in particular), facial paralysis, incontinence, blurred vision, slurred speech, and an unreliable, garbled comprehension of one’s surroundings. I didn’t feel any of the physical manifestations, but looking at him and simply entertaining the fact that he was actually there suggested that I was in the midst of a reality-bending episode appropriate to a stroke.

Having decided that he was the result of ischemic-related dementia, I was left with nothing to do other than wondering how I would eventually notice that my arm or leg had gone numb when, if entirely numb, there would be nothing evident to notice.

 I would have stood up to test my facilities but the train was crowded and I didn’t want to lose my seat. It also would have put me squarely in his line of vision and while I could handle the phantom from a distance, I didn’t want to do anything that would solicit contact.

That said, when we did lock eyes it was my fault entirely. I couldn’t stop staring at him – trying to make him into something less of him, looking for some telltale indicator of his not-being him – but eventually his eyes met mine as he continued to look for somewhere to sit in the crowded train. I realized that his eyes lived up to their billing; Terrence Pettigrew described them as “… mournful, but they can also be sinister or seedy… he has the kind of piercing stare which lifts enamel off saucepans.”

Monday, June 01, 2015

An Event (Unction)

I'm taking part in a fundraising event for the Canadian Cancer Society in Toronto on June 13th (you can get all my donation details here if you're so inclined). These events fly over my radar most times but this one felt like something worth doing. My mother is a cancer survivor and my father died from the disease over a decade ago.

I wrote and re-wrote about it for a long time. This piece was blogged in 2005 and removed to a different blog a few years later, resurrected here to maybe explain why I'm taking part in this year's Relay for Life. Reading it might generate an understanding of the phrase "Anything that helps," especially given the alternative. "I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy" applies as well.


Unction [uhngk-shuhn] – noun

1. an act of anointing, esp. as a medical treatment or religious rite.
2. an unguent or ointment; salve.
3. something soothing or comforting.
4. an excessive, affected, sometimes cloying earnestness or fervor in manner, esp. in speaking.
5. Religion.
  a. the oil used in religious rites, as in anointing the sick or dying.
  b. the shedding of a divine or spiritual influence upon a person.
  c. the influence shed.

     -As defined on

There are nightmare scenarios that are far worse in hindsight or in planning than when they actually arrive. The horror isn't diminished exactly, but is played out with an immediacy that spurs you into some kind of action, rather than introspection. Acting upon something is most often preferable to simply dreading it - you have the luxury (and this is a broad term) of thinking "I'm doing something. At least I can do something, at least for now."

In 1999, a second wave of cancer hit my family. My father had been in the first wave; he had lost his kidney two years before and after that time, further metastases had been undetectable. This second wave was my mother, who'd been hit by shooting pains causing her to crumple over in pain in her garden. She was rushed to hospital with what they thought was a rupturing appendix, and during surgery it was discovered that instead a cyst affixed to one of her ovaries had burst.

My mother is alive and well after chemotherapy and helped to no end through her faith as a high Anglican. My father's story, for reasons physiological and oncological, doesn't end as well despite his own chemotherapy and no less faith as a born and bred Baptist. But there are particular issues and minutes to each story that are etched into my memory of the whole. It's hard to reason what renders something indelible - one cannot remember every second of any event, even when experiencing a horror. There's no way to determine why some instances remain and others fade, or why you will step outside of yourself in spite of events and know I will remember this.


It's October 1999, dry and cold. My father's cancer (his first instance) has passed and his later condition is not yet an issue, not even considered in the wake of my mother's sudden illness. My wife Abby and I are visiting her in the hospital, I am watching her clockwork tics of her coping with nausea, shaking from the inital blast of chemo, aching from her abdominal stitches as her muscle and tissues begin to heal. I didn't own a car at the time; Abby and I took long bus trips for these visits. A cab would be faster and would not have bankrupted anybody but it was not necessary. Taking the bus feels like something to do that isn't cancer or chemo or being scared.

My father is at her side, doing what he can.

The situation isn't good. It could also be far worse. There are medications and nurses and a blanket of family and friends to support. But none of this is illuminating or soothing. There's too much awareness of what the cancer entails, the fear of blunt harm that bruises everyone in anticipation of nausea and biopsies. That said, nobody in my family is squeamish. The crisis-management gene has kicked in and everything is orderly, for want of a better word. We realize there's nothing to be done and our role is to be at the hospital to be sure my mother gets what she needs and has visitors when she wants them or simply has quiet when she needs it (during one chemo session she sharply - but not unkindly - told me 'I don't need to be entertained', I took her at her word and read a novel as her IV dripped).

My father, retired, methodical and no less scared than any of the rest of us, is her advocate. Abby and I arrive and we have our visit - not too long, allowing for rest, bringing magazines and bottled iced tea, fetching chips of ice from down the hallway. Attention must be paid. There is less fear in an order to things.

My father arranges to drive Abby and I to the subway after our visit, which doesn't have to be in a plan - my plan was a bus ride or a cab extravagance. My father, exhausted but smiling (tightly) has his own agenda, his own order of things to be done. And I feel it. He has arranged the night into a schedule that allows for visits, feeding my sister's dog, attending to groceries, preparing the house for my mother's return.

Driving Abby and I to the subway is on the schedule and there is a ticking, quiet inflexibility to the order that risks cracking his surface of control. I was no less scared than my father but knew that I lacked his responsibilities. I had been married less than a month and didn't want to imagine my wife in hospital, could only picture my father's upset in the vaguest terms, foggy and unformed. He was compelling himself though what needed to be done, I know the routine; I act the same way under pressure (no less so when he was in treatment), trying (hoping working forcing) to be normal, even in the context of something unexpected and horrible.

This hope for normality meant that I had to accept my father's quiet, well-behaved and stubborn insistance that his car had been stolen. On our way to the underlit garage, he looked into the corner where he was sure his car should have been and found nothing. He sighed and hearing him say, "Great. I'm going to have to go inside and report this to the police, my car has been stolen," was unspeakably awful, a instant etched-memory on a night that could have been set-directed for such an event; cold, snowy, a bitter wind and filled with sinistermachine-noises from the rear of the hospital.

I knew the car was in the open garage somewhere (Abby wisely stepped behind our backs, eyes darting for the license plate and shape in the darkness) and knew that he was about at his limit. I watched him process the information and make the only decision that he could handle at the time, which was that the car was beyond rescue and he had far more important and scarier things on his mind.

I didn't want to tell him to sit down and have a coffee as Abby looked for the car (or ran interference with the police if his suspicions were correct) because I knew it wouldn't help. It might break him, and thus far neither he nor my mother nor sister nor myself had snapped, we had been dealing. This - faulty as it might have been - was dealing. And horrible. I wanted one of us to snap, simply to cry out the awfulness of what it was, and knew that would neither be happening nor productive.

It was a long, dry, cold matter of seconds. I'd let him go inside and make the call. He's coping. I'm coping. By letting this happen as it is playing out I am coping for us.

Then it was done - Abby yelled "It's over here!" in a careful, controlled voice while standing beside the Taurus. I watch my father's mechanism twist for a second, could see One Less Worry pass through his gearbox and then we were in the car, to the subway, and home.

My mother recovered, not easily but well. And misses my father.

Less than three years later, I returned to the same hospital with my father in the last weeks of his life. He was thin, barely able to walk, in need of yet another X-ray to see if there were masses or bruising or fractures, it's difficult to remember. He was aware, awake, calm, apologizing that I had to miss work that morning for this visit (my mother was home preparing an air mattress and adjustable bed) and the trip wasn't difficult on the surface. He was attended to quickly and I was allowed to wait with him in the examination room, standing beside him as he lay, half asleep, undressed on the table.

The room was underlit and faintly green from the tiles on the walls.

He's going to look like this when he's dead, I thought, another frozen moment, stretched out.

I tried to admonish myself with That's a horrible thing  to consider and simply didn't have the warm blood for it just then, for one reason - it wasn't true, yet.

I held his hand for a moment on the table, he smiled sleepily. He might have said 'My son, my son' quietly, an expression he used to me for decades and I use unconsiously with my own child, wincing briefly seconds after.

There weren't any tears. No time for them. I was only aware of the silence, the sound of his breathing, the waiting moments stretched between. I can remember this, I told myself. It was horrible but done, yet. He was able to walk, and there would be some - if not much - time for he and my mother and sister, for anyone close to us and caring. This wasn't ending well but it was not over.

All of this played concurrently with that parking lot memory from a cold winter night. Now I was in his place, coping. If my father coped - still hoped, still lived - on the table, I could respect it, all of it resonant sharp-edged and indelible. He might have felt it in the way I held his - I'm coping, I told him. For awhile longer, I am coping for us.

August 2005 - revised June 2015

Monday, June 02, 2014

Stations of the Breath - Part Six

Continued from parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five and Interlude

Not everything matters, but everything happens.  

Monday morning in the last week of March, 1985.

I walked into school early, close to 8:00am when my classes didn’t begin until nine. A few years before I would have shuddered at the idea of arriving early at school, but I had come to enjoy and depend on that routine.

Three people were sitting on the floor against their lockers a few feet away from my own; Madeline and a flute player named Lilia on the other side of hall, and Lloyd sitting closer to me. They were talking softly to themselves when I walked in and stopped when I reached my locker.

I remember this, but didn't particularly notice it at the time. Nothing struck me as unusual.

“Did you see the Oscars last night?” I asked the group. “Prince won and showed up wearing a ridiculous purple snood."

Nobody said anything. Lloyd looked at me and didn’t smile and almost imperceptibly shook his head. Madeline didn’t look up from the floor. Lilia looked like she’d been crying and said “Michael? I still have your 'Purple Rain' sheet music. I’ll bring it back in a few days, is that okay?”

“There’s no rush,” I told her, wondering why this would be something to be upset about.

I thought I’d walked into something that wasn't my business. I turned to my locker, stashed my coat and bag and sat down to my textbooks. Ingrid (a violinist, I think) walked in a few minutes later and Lilia stood up in tears within seconds, burying her head in Ingrid's shoulder. Ingrid held her composure for a few seconds before until Lilia's sobs grew louder and her own eyes began to water.

I stood up for want of something to do - maybe to ask if I could help or to just leave the hallway and not be unwanted company. I glanced at Madeline, who looked sick with tears in her eyes but not exactly crying; I'd either missed it or she was just getting started. Lilia's sobs were getting louder and Lloyd was watching the three girls slowly, looking like he was going to say something.

He didn't have to.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Stations of the Breath - Interlude (a Mea Culpa)

Continued from parts One, Two, Three, Four and Five.

 There's a voice someplace that says Just finish it and let it be done and something else telling me Context, above all. History outside of context might just as well be fiction.

 I'm in a writing workshop near the end of university; let's call it 1991 or '92. I remember the room in an office space in downtown Toronto. I can't quite remember if it was a simply a staging area in my fourth year (which would have made me a York student) or the standard, bricks-and-mortar location for such things (which would have made it a University of Toronto course, where I finished my degree). I had written a piece that echoed an incident in Part Five of the series you're reading now, to wit:

I talked to Zoe a few days after the break and don't want to remember it the way that I do. She didn't look good. She was sitting at her locker in a third floor hallway and looked like she'd been crying...I noticed that her wrists were skinny again; I realized I didn't remember when they had looked normal. 

There were over 10 people in the course; I don't know why this sentiment (if not the exact wording) caught the attention of one of my classmates. But during the let's-discuss-it section of the evening, she latched on to that particular incident with an enthusiasm (for want of a better term) that I've never forgotten. The following exchange is as verbatim as I can recall between myself and a woman I'll call Lindsay:

You knew she was going to kill herself because of her wrists, that's why you've pointed it out?
 No. I just remember seeing her wrists like that.

You remember that by itself? Separate of  everything else that happened afterwards?

Yes. Otherwise, I wouldn't have mentioned it.

You didn't remember them after the fact?

I...anybody who remembers anything remembers it after the fact. I don't know what you're trying to suggest.

I'm just saying you wouldn't have (she used 'air quotes here) 'remembered' her wrists unless she killled herself, would you?

I hate to disappoint you, but yes. I would remember it. I just wouldn't have any reason to point it out after the fact.

How so?

I don't know what you're...

I'm not calling you a liar, Michael. I'm just saying that you might be putting undo emphasis on something you remember, rather that what you saw.

I...sorry. I can't agree.

This doesn't make you bad, Michael, it...

I don't think it does. That's your term.

You don't need to be oversensitive, I'm just...

 I hope I'm not being oversensitive, but can I suggest something?

Of course.

I don't remember the way she wore her hair that day. But I know she was wearing jeans. I'd seen that pair before, they were flared at the ankle which was a bit weird for the time. If I'd written that she was wearing a green sweater with floppy cuffs, would you accept that?

I don't know what you're...

If I'd written about the colour and style of what Zoe was wearing that day, would you be bringing up the same point about what I did or did not remember?

I don't want you to be defensive...

I hope I'm not.

I just think it's a lot to remember, especially putting such emphasis on her wrists.

Okay. I can't argue that. But I do know that her wrists were of no interest to me outside of that that moment. I just knew I'd seen them less-skinny before, but I didn't remember when. Maybe after the summer where everyone looks good when you're back to school. None of this matters to me now, or particularily then. I didn't think she was going to die because her wrists looked skinny. I just remember remember thinking about it at the time, before she killed herself.

Well, I can't tell you if you're wrong or right. I just think that you might want to think about it.

Fair enough. But I need to know what what you're trying to say.

I think you might want to think about what you've written.

What does that mean?

Just think about it.

Alright. (pause) I think I want you to explain that a little more.

I already have.


That particular writing class broke up a few minutes later. Lindsay apologized to me for what she called her 'tone' in a sort of way that suggested she had a certain degree of pity for those who disagreed with her. I shrugged it off at the time but never forgot the exchange.

For the record; I can only report what I remember, and not exactly unrepentantly at that. I know what I saw and can bear witness. Have I considered that I might be wrong, or inaccurate, or misleading, or simply not the person to report what happened? Yes. Not often over 30 years or so, but very acutely from time to time.

Everything that follows stems from the realization that not everything matters, but everything happens. To complicate matters further, there's another muttering from someplace deep and (usually) much more quiet, perhaps a mantra instead of literary criticism. A simple reminder to be honest in all recollections. Anything less would be a desecration.

Continued in Part Six

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