I’ve been on blog strike, attempting to actually get my Exhibition blog form published in a real (paying) literary magazine. Success at last, and here it is, as published in Prairie Fire out of Manitoba:
My ex-boyfriends rise up out of the Saskatchewan dustbowl like ghosts behind me. I painted them like this in 1988 at the age of twenty-one, and now this painting haunts me from the wall: an intense red and ochre self-portrait, the men swirling and indistinct.
I was living in Brownlee Saskatchewan, taking care of Mrs. Nellie P., who was ninety. She came to Canada to visit her WWI war-bride friend and wound up marrying one of the local boys — one of the ones who were waiting at the train station to get a look at her the moment she arrived. She lived the rest of her life in the dustbowl, where I found myself seventy years later, at about the same age.
I had just finished my final year of art school, working as the printmaking studio lab assistant, mounting my BFA show in the middle of a professor’s strike, and getting drugged at a party during my final exams and ending up in the emergency ward. The perk of my summer job was being able to paint in the old Brownlee bank building, which belonged to Nellie’s grand-daughter.
Nellie was suffering the first effects of Alzheimer’s disease. She kept searching for her purse, unplugging all the appliances — fires in the walls, you know – and was always worrying about something, maybe everything, that she had lost or was about to lose. Away from my friends and family, away from my boyfriend who was travelling in Europe, Nellie became my only mirror, one woman to another, one who was still schooling herself in the art of life, and one whose life was slowly ending.
Adding to the intensity, was that absent boyfriend of mine, who was travelling Europe. He was sending me letters I couldn’t reply to, because this was long before the advent of the internet café. The one-sided conversation, in which he got to do all the talking, was like a hand coving my mouth.
Speechless in the dustbowl, as I walked through the hot sand-stinging dust-devil that crossed the gravel road under the endless blue sky, as it sucked the breath from my lungs and threw stones against my ankles, and twisted and flamed my hair above my head, I had to repress a passionate rage.
How badly I wanted to dump him.
That spring was one of the hottest of all time. There was a plough wind one day that created its own dust-blown dusk. I sat in the kitchen doorway and watched the glowing streetlights whip back and forth in the wind. Huge hailstones hit the neighbor’s garden, sent up explosions of shredded pink and white peonies, and bounced two metres in the air. I had forgotten to shut my bedroom window and there were drifts of sand in the sheets.
The painting of myself and my ghostly boyfriends is one of several I took away from my experience in Brownlee. It’s called “Drought: What Now, Eve?” because, in a sense, we are all first women, coming into existence without experience, and the experiences of those who have come before us are not necessarily relevant or accessible to us.
And when I was young, the old seemed almost like a different species.
The first time I helped Nelly step into the bath, I had never seen an old woman naked before, and her similarity to myself shocked me. Her skin was wrinkled of course, but the wrinkles were only a few scrawled lines, and were nothing compared to her substance: her body, her limbs, her head, her breasts; she was as solid and female and human as I was — my gentle mirror who was so afraid of losing things.
She didn’t have the rest of her life to look forward to, and, after living with her for two months, it seemed like I didn’t either.
I left Brownlee with my paintings, but also carrying an apprehension of my own, too soon, death.
* * *
In 2013, the young man that I had waited for that hot summer, and eventually cut from my line, took his own life at the age of forty-five.
The first time he raged at me about wanting to kill himself, he was only nineteen. We were in the University of Saskatchewan printmaking studio and I remember tears blurring my vision behind my goggles and respirator, tears that obscured my view of the baths of acetic and nitric acid, the shelves around me stacked with carcinogens: asphaltum, rosin, talc, kerosene and acetone.
Good Christian girl that I was at the time, I thought I needed to save him.
And I did save him for a little while, by that narrow fundamentalist definition, and I opened my arms and became his first girlfriend; in our naivety, this surprised both of us. Once that spring, we sat on a stone wall in dappled shade, the trees dizzy with wind. He peeled and shared an apple with me. The first poem I wrote that was published was about this moment of intimacy; one of the first stories I’d believed in, Adam and Eve, was reenacted and re-interpreted: he with the apple, she accepting the portion, the apple skin coiled at their feet.
He had been impossible to completely leave behind because he’d stalked me in various ways over the years. He’d stated his intention to be like the main character of Gabrielle Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, watching me all his life until we would finally be together, perhaps in our old age.
Suddenly, he wasn’t watching; he wasn’t forcing me to play to his malevolent audience anymore. He no longer existed.
I was disoriented. For years I’d been afraid he’d knock on my door and then shoot himself in the head, to make sure I would have to watch. The feeling of mourning him was turmoil; there was sadness and relief, pity and anger, as well as selfish bitterness: stupid idiot.
He had married late, and had recently had a child. I had hoped he’d found happiness and a cure for whatever it was that ailed him, or at least some kind of equilibrium.
And then, a few months later, to satisfy my father’s curiosity, I did the modern thing, and Googled a different ex-boyfriend.
I found his obituary.
I’d left him because he wanted children, and at the time, I didn’t. I’d left him because, according to him, my commitment to bear at least two of his children had to come before his commitment to me. I’d left him because, if I didn’t want to bear his children, he said would find someone who would. I’d left him because he certainly didn’t love me — didn’t want to spend the rest of his life with me – though he’d said the word love often enough. It’s no crime to be determined to have children, to have a desire that is non-negotiable, but to me, the woman who was faced with either leaving or accepting his plan for my life (he would not be giving birth, after all), he was only searching for a womb to use.
So I sent him off to continue his hunt.
We stayed ‘friends’ even after I married. The last time I saw him, I was helping edit one of his books. He came to visit while I was breast-feeding my second child, a daughter, and it must have been hate I saw in his eyes. Years later, he phoned me, drunk, and years later still, phoned me while he was trying to quit drinking and had the DTs. More years passed, and my husband pointed out an article in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix: this man who had so wanted children had re-offended, broken parole, and was incarcerated again. The obituary I’d found on-line was dated a few months after his second time in prison.
Suicide or alcohol poisoning or both? Obituaries never say.
I had two of them, then, ex-lovers who’d exed themselves — XXs — just like Ted Hughes.
And I used to blame Hughes for Sylvia Plath’s suicide, especially after I found out there had been another self-slaughtered woman in his past.
So. Was this my questionable taste in men? Were these my narrow escapes?
Angry again – grief is so selfish — I wondered whether I would have to sand off those particular notches on my bedpost.
And should I be checking up on the others?
There was no question of me leaving some sort of terrible wreckage in my wake and contributing somehow to their suicides; I’m not that spectacular.
Both of these men were more than 20 years in my past. Both were intelligent and creative, found themselves abandoned in different ways in their forties, and both had their demon. The first had a mental disorder, and the second… his demon will have me shuddering for the rest of my life.
In that newspaper article, I’d read that the man who wanted children had been squatting in the furnace room of an apartment building the first time he was arrested. The second time, he was passed out on the floor of the Salvation Army soup kitchen. The man who wanted children was put in prison again for the possession of child pornography: little girls, ages four through eight.
Some would say, good riddance; I have moments like this myself.
What does a man like that have to live for?
Is it a shame that he is gone?
Is it a shame that both men are gone?
On average, do women live longer than men partly because they don’t kill themselves as readily? Are we more connected to others? Do we have more to live for? Are our demons less incinerating? Is age harder on men during their forties, when the mid-life crisis happens, when all the plans of youth are either on track, or derailed?
Last year wasn’t the beginning of the end for those of my generation. It started when I had cancer, nine years ago. That experience introduced me to a small group of women around forty who had the same odds as I did: fifty-fifty.
And now, as the odds suggest, half of us are dead.
And we were all kicking and clawing to hold on to life — to the world that held our children – in spite of any carcinogenic demons or dust-devils.
But I could see then, how one could decide to leave: because there was too much pain.
During chemotherapy, I hadn’t been able to place my hands on certain parts of my body – the parts that were mutant and foreign and devouring, and maybe getting smaller, getting killed off, but maybe not. My whole world at that time was cancer, and I refused to deliberately touch it.
After my last chemotherapy, between the emergency removal of my chemo-shocked gall bladder and my five weeks of radiation, I finally started to touch myself again; I tenderly tried to get to know my damaged body, so I could protect myself, as I was supposed to, from recurrence.
There was a lump in my armpit, near where the first lump had been.
I thought the lumps were coming back and I was going to die. Slowly.
Lump is the wrong word.
The word should be bombclot-landmine-gangrene-stonedtodeath-fuckfamily childannihilator.
I lived in terror until my oncology appointment. The doctor pressed his hands into my body and told me the cancer wasn’t coming back. What I had felt was scar tissue from my first surgery.
I no longer knew the flesh I once called home.
During the previous days of terror, I’d paced my house in the city of bridges, only a block away from the wide Saskatchewan River. I thought of the river: black and steaming in the winter with its round, grey ice-pans floating slowly toward the weir, where logs and branches and bodies and other detritus churn in an endless underwater loop. I didn’t know how much more suffering I could stand, after nine months of surgery and chemotherapy, and with radiation still to look forward to. Was I one of the doomed, who wouldn’t be able to get rid of the damned mutation, and who would spend years in inner death-battle, getting out of bed to walk that road to that destruction, every day?
For few days, I thought I was.
After I was diagnosed, waking up from the forgetfulness of sleep was like opening my eyes and getting shot in the face by a stranger every morning. The physical pain was nothing compared to the mental anguish.
I didn’t know how much longer I was capable of knowing I might die and abandon my babies to a motherless world. Some people, when faced with death, cling to religion, to the illusion of an after-life so they can deny death and dying itself, so they can diminish the importance of this life, their only life… so they can go about their days without a constant inner scream. This was not for me. When I thought cancer was come back to kill me, I wanted nothing to do with a supposed heaven in which I would still have to know I’d abandoned my children — a hell of knowing.
To me, death meant not knowing this anymore.
I wanted it.
During those days of terror, I said nothing to my husband. He was barely hanging on as it was.
Our children were 4 years and eighteen months old.
And the river was out there.
But I decided I was not allowed.
I did not have the option of suicide because I didn’t belong only to myself, but to my children and husband as well. What had I been living for, every day of my treatment? To exist as long as I possibly could, not merely to watch my children grow up, but to exist to give them my love, day after day, for as many days as I could, to feed them love even if I could barely get out of bed.
My children: I tell them that when I was still a baby in my mother’s womb, I was already carrying the seeds that they would become; I tell them that we have always been together.
But after you think of the river, it will always be there, too.
I can imagine worse suffering than my own — the suffering of mental illness that makes life not worth the pain, or a suffering so long and pointless, when death is certain, that suicide might be the last good thing one can do for oneself.
Those who deny this can’t imagine it.
And they are blessed.