Unfinished conversations

The first time I attended the Giller Prize was on Tuesday, November 4, 1997, the night that Mordecai Richler won for Barney’s Version. It seemed all the writers I’d admired from the beginning of time were in the room. My job that night was to help wrangle some of them for interviews at Bravo’s live broadcast of the pre-gala cocktail party. Nearing the end of my first key-to-my career-year as communications director at Bravo, I looked forward to this grand event, knowing that it would be special and that after my official duties were over, I could drink up the atmosphere, mark the experience.

It had been a busy, event-filled week with the Toronto Arts Awards, the Gillers and, at week’s end, an important concert in the short history of the Bravo Rehearsal Hall, a live concert with Diana Krall.

Though I wasn’t the hugest Diana Krall fan, it was a chance to prove my PR mettle at an event meant to build on the success of the nascent arts channel. It was also an opportunity to put some of the naysaying about my promotion to Bravo (from MuchMusic) to rest. It also gave me the pleasure to offer my jazz-loving mother an invitation to an intimate concert of one of her favourite performers.

My mid-week phone call to her was to let her know I’d secured her a free parking spot for the Friday show and some other details. What was on her mind?

“Never mind that, how were the Gillers?” she said.

“The night of my life,” I replied. “I’ll tell you all about it when I see you.”

Friday came and went. My mom didn’t show up at Diana Krall; the next day we found her in her bed where she’d died of a heart attack. That was 19 years ago, November 7th.

The wind-up of one of the busiest and most exhilarating years of my career, my first Giller Prize, Diana Krall and my mother’s death are tethered in my memory. They are written on my body that, each November, relives the most horrifying days of my life so-far.

Had I the chance to tell her about the Giller Prize I would have said how thrilling it had been for me to be amongst so much literary talent, how I felt at home there, how I made a secret wish that one day I’d be nominated and thus begun a plan to get there. My mother was pretty much the only person I’ve ever let know how far up the ladder my personal ambitions go (and still go, though at almost 56, it’s assumed/expected I should be winding down my goals).

This is but one of many unfinished conversations with my mother. They’re not unfinished because I didn’t let her know how much I loved, respected and enjoyed (preferred) her company. I have plenty of letters and greeting cards that, if I ever forgot, remind me how often I poured my heart out to her. They’re unfinished because for 19 years they’ve been one-sided. I talk to her, she doesn’t respond. Sometimes I know what she’d say, though more often than not, her response to things was singular and wholly unexpected. That’s why talking to her was so much fun — intellectually challenging and stimulating.  I have missed our Saturday morning commiserations over news – though it’d be much different now with so much information available and so few trusted sources of it (at least I think that’s how she’d see it).

My mother taught me a lot about how to interpret the world, and how to negotiate my place in it. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I rely on those lessons, lacking any new ones other than my own experience. It’s not that I don’t trust myself – if I’ve learned anything from her and  through age it’s to trust my instincts, to listen to my intuition, to work hard, enjoy the benefits of that work and to face challenges with confidence (not always achievable) and to strive for integrity (an almost forgotten quality). Above all, try to be kind, even if others aren’t being kind to me (which happens more than I want to think about in our increasingly discourteous age).

Some of my female friends remind me every so often that I’m lucky to have had such a good relationship with my mother, such a healthy exchange of ideas, such acceptance. And I know I am. This knowledge doesn’t stop me from feeling sad at her anniversary, or missing her every damn day of my life — maybe it’s precisely why I do.

It’s not as if things were perfect. We had our fair share of fights. But they were over quickly because neither one of us were comfortable being upset with the other. We’d argue, even yell… take a breather, then within the hour one of us would pick up the phone to talk it out. The thing we disagreed on most during her last year was my planned move to Vancouver. She understood why I wanted to go; intellectually she knew and agreed it was a good plan and part of the writing goals I had. Emotionally, she wasn’t having it. At one point she forbade me from talking about leaving. I told her I wouldn’t stop because confiding in her edged me closer to making it a reality.

Finally, she said, “I’ll miss you.”

That first week after her death, me and my siblings gathered to pack up her things. On her living room end table I found my Globe and Mail book review – the first piece of published writing from the month before. Supportive to the end. I miss that too. I miss it so much.

My mother knew how much I relied on my career, on my hard work and talents to get me through, that in the end, I truly believed (and maybe it became a self-fulfilling prophecy) it would be all I had. While others had their relationships, they’re children, they’re close ties, I would have my professional success. My mother understood that my ambitions didn’t necessarily exclude those things, but that I wasn’t going to sacrifice them or compromise them. She didn’t want me to, though she made no secret of hoping I would have both. I remember when I got my job at Bravo she said, “Maybe now you’ll meet a like-minded man!” Maybe she thought he’d be a writer, a musician, a creative soul-mate.

I do wonder what she would think of how solitary my life is now. Of how much trouble I have balancing the copious amounts of time I need alone with a smaller, but important desire for connection. It’s the challenge of my mid-life and I dearly wish I could talk it over with her. The last thing I want to be is alone in my senior years (or even now) but I have absolutely no idea how to not be.

Although my mom had plenty of good jobs, she didn’t have a career, per se. Her support of mine might have been tinged with regret for her unrealized goals.

I’m no longer lucky enough to get invited to the Giller. I dropped off the invitation list when I moved from my job at Bravo pursue writing and journalism in Vancouver. I will be anxious tomorrow (her anniversary) to hear who wins. It takes on an additional meaning for me as I prepare for an intensive fiction workshop at the Humber School for Writers in January. Maybe hoping for a Giller nomination is a lofty goal, and who knows if I even have the talent but this year I reminded myself that it doesn’t hurt to try and I might as well.

Of course, there’s one person who’ll never know but who’d understand why this is still something I think is worth achieving and why it’s important to try. Some people will say that she sees everything, that she knows my life. I don’t believe in that. I really don’t. In dreams of her I can never see her face or hear her voice. Sometimes all I see are her arms reaching out to fold me in where I cry and cry. That’s a dream I have when I especially need to talk to her, want to work out a life problem, or just want to laugh and chat with someone with a common worldview. Armchair psychologists will say it’s time to get over her death. Or that ridiculous word “closure” will be rear its head. There’s no closure.

There’s just this: My mother gave me life, she gifted me with life-long reciprocal love and care, she taught me everything I know that’s important about living, she was my first (maybe only true) mentor, she was my most trusted, trusting and thoughtful friend.

And there’s this: I miss you. Always and forever.

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