Private Pain / Public Scrutiny

Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and this November marks the same number of years since my mother’s death. I wrote this piece in 1998, pondering the connection between the two and my own journey a year into grieving. Looking at it after all this time, I ache for the person who wrote it. I’m well past active grief now, but I can hear the pain I felt coming through my writing voice. And yet, much of it is still the way I feel today.

What a difference a year makes. Last September I, like so many others, sat glued to my television set watching blow-by-blow coverage of Princess Diana’s death. I watched Diana’s funeral, not once, but many times. I listened to Charles Spencer’s eulogy over and over, and cried every time, as if repetition could somehow make it all true. Why did I do this? What was I waiting to see, to hear? What emotion locked deep inside was this spectacle tapping into? Flipping back and forth between channels for coverage and critical comment, I told myself that my interest was media deconstruction and trying to attach some meaning to the phenomenon of millions upon millions of mourners displaying emotions that they’d perhaps bottled up for months, even years. Feelings maybe not even their loved ones knew they possessed.

When I spoke to my mother about it all her attitude struck me as somewhat cynical and I was bothered by that. She was critical of Diana’s public persona, her courting and shunning of the media. And although she also watched, she seemed unaffected and unimpressed. But then my mom was no stranger to grief. As a young child she had lost her mother, then later, her oldest daughter before her youngest were grown, and two siblings far too early. All too often she’d been attending funeral after funeral as family members and friends succumbed to age or illness. Of course, she knew then what I know now – something that my multiple viewings of Diana’s funeral was in some strange way foreshadowing. Once you’ve lived through the real thing, you have little or no appetite for voyeuristic viewing of death via “breaking news” broadcast venues.

It never occurred to me last September as I watched and participated in the Diana display, that two short months later I’d be sitting panic-stricken at my own mother’s funeral mass. Nothing in my life could have prepared me for standing in a room full of caskets choosing one for my mother’s dead body. Or greeting every single family member and friend at her visitation – their presence creating a domino effect of memory of her life and my own. Nothing could ever be further from my mind than the few torturous minutes it took me, on rubbery legs, to walk up the church aisle behind her coffin. The fact that my private feelings would be publicly seen felt overwhelming and I remember trying to hide my face even from the familiar and also grieving gathering of people who knew and loved my mother.

Watching anniversary commentary and coverage of Diana now is excruciating to me. Suddenly my tolerance for anything funereal is drastically diminished. Reality, after all, is not at all entertaining. It’s painful in a way that only becomes obvious in the many months that follow – even almost a whole year later when I no longer expect to still remember the details so acutely. When what has forever changed my life is a faint memory to those around me. When nothing and no-one can relieve the emptiness of not hearing her voice for so many days in a row. After weeks and months of the processing and reprocessing that it takes to fully understand that the kind of comfort her voice provided is no longer available to me. The refuge of my mother’s love, custodian of my memories, champion of my successes, holder of my tears, my own personal spin-doctor, will sadly never be enough as a mere memory.

Remembering how much courage I had to muster for my brief walk behind my mother’s casket makes it impossible to think of what it took for Diana’s young sons to walk through the streets of London behind their dead mother. In order to purge a collective grief that probably had nothing whatever to do with the woman in that box, we forced two terribly impressionable boys to experience an extremely private moment right in front of far too many hungry eyes. Who can ever forget the picture of the word “Mummy” peeking out among the flowers atop Diana’s coffin? Not at all lost on me then, it has since taken on a much more poignant significance, and beauty.

For me, the death of my mother means the loss of my main relationship, my closest friend and my strongest connection to my personal history. But by this time, this is not outwardly noticeable. Inside me, however, everything has shifted so that even the tiniest occurrence takes much longer to process, leaving me with a block of confusion in my brain. I still need time and space to adjust to profound and unalterable loss. This fact is difficult to articulate in the real world of grief, where people need to see that you’re “coping” well. Sometimes I think we have more empathy for the loved ones of dead public figures because we can measure their loss without asking questions whose answers make us afraid for ourselves. It’s less messy with the protection of a television screen.

Ironically, I would have shared these observations with my mother first – a person whose point of view was both familiar and surprising, my daily breath of fresh air. Had I more experience with the extremely personal after-effects of losing her – or any such profound grief – I would have agreed with her about Diana. So, now when I reflect back on our differing opinions on the subject, I just know my mom is up there somewhere beyond the ether hearing me say: “Hey Mom – how come you’re always right?”

– August 1998 –

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More than a feeling…

August 6, 1978 – I remember it well. It was probably the best night of my life. The Eagles were playing at Exhibition Stadium –  the mists of time don’t allow me to recall now which of my girlfriends I was there with. But I do remember meeting the cutest boy alive, with a gorgeous head of blond hair, an adorably infectious smile, and a voice so distinctive that, to this day, I can still hear it. We took one look at each other and spent the rest of the evening completely focused on each other… oblivious to the concert in front of us. I was 17, he was 16. I couldn’t believe my luck.

The rest of the summer we spent hanging out at Ontario Place, back to the Ex to hide in the bushes and make out… and eventually, his bedroom. He was my first. We spent hours on the phone learning each other. I just wanted to hear his voice, no matter what he was saying. His favourite bands were Boston and Genesis, he played hockey and football, he was good in Math, he had a brother and a step-dad, he worked part time in the sporting goods department at the Bay downtown, and… I found out later, I was a rebound from his long term relationship, a girl he reconciled with when the school year started. It was short, but meaningful… at least to me.

We kept in touch, became close friends and intermittently spent time together; usually when we both happened to be single. We seemed to linger on the possibility of rekindling our youthful attraction, but we never reconnected physically. That one time, my all important first time, is still a singular memory. And a very nice one, despite my infatuation, and extreme nervousness.Those were still pretty innocent days, and this step was serious enough for me that this boy gave me his school ring to take home as a token of respect or some kind of promise. Of course I was heartbroken when he ended it, but I got over it in time. Through it all he was sweet, kind, considerate and a really wonderful listener at a pretty delicate time in my life.

Somehow, weirdly, except for the years I lived in Vancouver, we always worked in close proximity to one another. So even if we had fallen out of touch, we ended up running into each other regularly. The last time I saw him was about 3 years ago.

His birthday is in early May, so naturally I thought of him, wondering what he’s been up to, is he happy, maybe he finally got married and has a couple of babies, where is he? I googled his name and found his obituary. He died of cancer last fall, at age 51.

I felt overwhelming sadness. What a loss. He was an incredible person. Bright, articulate, funny, caring. Still so gorgeous, with that voice. An accomplished career in communications, he dabbled in photography, loved the cottage and fishing. And so much more I didn’t keep up with. His obit said he didn’t want a visitation or a service. He was not married, had no children.

Mostly, I couldn’t believe someone that I’d known since 17 was now gone. Why hadn’t I stayed in touch?

What I wasn’t was shocked. It’s the second time this has happened to me. The first was in 2005 when googling an old boyfriend who’d remained a good friend but whom I’d lost track of yielded the same unbelievable result.

There’s a lesson here. Stay close to those you care about. I probably shouldn’t have needed to learn it twice.

IMG_2215

Spring 1999, Toronto

The only thing I have of this beautiful man who meant so much to me in my young life and who was a fun and trustworthy friend throughout, is a series of photos he took of me in 1999. I needed a picture for a column I had begun to write and he offered to photograph me. Obviously, he’s not in the photos, but I think you can see him by the look in my eyes.

I will miss knowing he’s in the world.

Lonely, that old familiar

“I want to be seen, to be understood deeply and to be not so very lonely.” Jodie Foster ended her memorable 2013 Golden Globe lifetime achievement award speech with these words. At 50, she was honoured for her 47 year film career, among her peers, friends and family.  I’m sure it was an incongruous moment for many people. How could someone so successful, so talented, so obviously surrounded by love and support possibly be lonely?

That’s a million dollar question, isn’t it?

I’ve written a lot about loneliness, about my experience with it. I’ve defended it as a part of being human, as something to be worked through, not avoided. I’ve even said learning to deal with it is a kind of right of passage toward adulthood.

That doesn’t make it any easier to deal with when it unexpectedly descends upon me.

Lately I’ve been trying to describe what loneliness is like, put actual words to the feeling of it. What I’ve come up with pales in comparison to its reality. Loneliness equals emptiness, a void, a hole, an abyss. It’s a place where no thoughts or words can exist. There’s no sound but it’s not even numbness. It just is.

emptiness

It’s a big something that could easily swallow you up,  but it feels like a whole lot of nothing. I’d say a heart-shaped hole, but I don’t think that’s quite right. After all, the precise difficulty is in being able to feel the lack.

Loneliness is no-one’s fault. Not mine, not yours for not being able to fix it for me. Loneliness is momentary but feels endless. It comes and goes. Sometimes daily. Other times so intermittently that you think it might have gone away for good. Like you might have finally been able to banish it from your life. Somehow.

That’s why I’ve been very surprised by that old familiar feeling for the last few weeks. I’d been thinking, and even saying out loud, that maybe that part of my life, the lonely part, is over. I used to think it was attached to the loss of my mother. Then, I said my final goodbye to her by scattering her ashes last November and I felt only relief and a momentous push forward. On my birthday in early December I sat surrounded by good friends – some I’ve known for years, some newer than that, with an unfamiliar but beautiful feeling of satisfaction, and happiness.. joy even. I entered the new year on an upswing.

I’m not unhappy, but that’s besides the point, because it would seem that lonely has nothing much to do with happy. Jodie Foster can probably attest to that, as she spoke of loneliness while beaming out at her two sons.

I should have remembered that, for me at least, loneliness is attached to sense of belonging, that one persistent demon I have yet to fully conquer in my life. Where do I belong, and to whom, other than myself? Who’s with me in this life? Who’s willing to go that distance?

I can’t pin point the exact moment I felt that old familiar again. I might have been surfing the internet, tweeting, facebooking, tumbling, watching a movie or the news, or reading.  Loneliness freezes the moment and I can’t think of anything to think. It’s deep, long and empty. It doesn’t feel attached to anything, anyone or any circumstance. I don’t know where it starts or when it will end. It doesn’t make me sad until after it’s over. I don’t feel like crying, I don’t need to talk to anyone. It no longer feels desperate. I just have to wait it out. It’s only in the aftermath that I can name it. And then the intellectualizing begins. Why now, why me, why can’t it go away forever? What will make it disappear?

It’s just the strangest thing. It’s so incredibly…. lonely. And then it’s over til the next time.

See, I told you I couldn’t describe it.

TVO The Agenda guest blog / A Reckoning with Emotional Clutter

“On Thursday, The Agenda explored whether our modern obsession with collecting “stuff” — gadgets, toys, appliances, and other consumer goods — might be coming at too high a cost to our pocketbooks and our emotional well-being. (You can watch that program above.) 
Writer Carla Lucchetta, who has contributed many personal essays to The Agenda over the years, was inspired by the program to tell a story about a cherished object, emotion, and learning move forward.”

The Power and the Story

I’ve been telling 1st person stories for most of my writing life. I can’t help it, it’s my strongest voice. Which isn’t to say that by reading something I’ve written, that you will know everything about me. I get some criticism, but mostly praise and sometimes awe for having the so-called courage to put my life out there and myself on the line. The stories I choose to reveal my life through are the ones I think are the most relatable and the least told out loud. An example is my continual return to my feelings about being childless – I just think it’s a taboo topic that needs to be made a  little more visible in order to be understood. Another is my struggle with loneliness, a word and state still so feared. Yet, another is my interest in fatherless sons and the voids in their lives because of it. Not my story to tell, but the topic of my upcoming book because of the many men I know who have suffered in silence. When we reveal ourselves in the most vulnerable ways we show how connected we really are by the condition of life. It can only help.

lspThat’s why I’m so interested in a new show on OWN Canada (Oprah Winfrey’s network) called Life Story Project. My friend and colleague, the talented Dale Curd is a creator and co-host. Armed with deceptively easy to answer questions (“what was your most memorable 1st?” or, “what was your moment of truth?” and, “what does it feel like to fall in love?”) the two hosts – one a life-coach, the other a seasoned men’s counselor- invite random passers-by to  sit on a purple couch and chat. What ends up being revealed is often a surprise to them, even though they have so much experience listening to “truths” from their clients. The show is not over-produced or stylishly edited. Participants have not been cast, though I’m sure the footage has been picked over for the best, most moving or entertaining stories. That’s just TV.  The result is a fairly authentic representation of the powerful stories we all have living inside of us. People seem immediately to go to the crux of their pain or joy. One woman revealed how an accident she had caused resulted in her child’s eye disease which meant he couldn’t recognize her until he heard her voice. When asked if she had regrets her answer was a thoughtful and very raw, “I don’t know.”

Life’s just like that. It’s not always possible to wrap it up with a pretty bow and that elusive thing we love to say we’re seeking… closure.

While watching the debut show, I shared my experience of it with other viewers on twitter. Some of the comments surprised me. More than a few people said things like, “you never know what the person next to you is dealing with.” Really? Do we not know? Are we so caught up in our own private dramas that we can’t imagine others are having their own versions?

With all the soap boxing that’s available on television where people are continually revealing their issues to Oprah et al, how is it possible to still not realize we all have emotional confusion, pain, loss, doubt just as much as happiness, joy, contentment. You can’t have one without the other. Just because our minds return to the place of hurt when asked a simple question does not mean we haven’t processed it and moved on. Resilience is one of our finest qualities. But, why are we still so afraid of the dark side, even when we know experiencing it has certainly shaped our lives?

I think the beauty of this show is two- maybe even three-fold. 1) it’s local – the purple coach was placed on the Kew Beach boardwalk, in the middle of the Distillery district, and at Sunnyside Pavillion, so there’s always a chance someone familiar will show up. Not only that, but it’s much easier to relate to people nearer to us than on talk or reality show taped in some remote American city. 2) People seem to need a reminder that we all operate along the same thin emotional thread, though the manifestation may be different, and 3) Even the more empathetic of us who regularly tell the powerful stories of others, and our own, can be further moved by these ones, and also appreciate the skill of the hosts in drawing them out.

I recommend the show, especially if you need a reminder of the vulnerability of and the triumph over being human. Here’s the broadcast schedule.

Well done Dale & co!

Witness

Rummaging through some computer files, I found this piece that I wrote in about 2001. In reading it over, I wondered if it’s still true in the age of social media and quick, all-hours connection. Also, it seems I’ve been writing about loneliness for a very long time!

WITNESS

Henry Porter, the debonair British editor of Vanity Fair, was a guest on the talk show I work on and while the lot of us were out for drinks after the taping he said something simple, yet so profound that all who heard it have found cause to repeat it at one time or another. He said that recently a single  male friend of his made a confession of sorts, saying  he envied Henry his marriage relationship because when you live alone and are unattached, you have no witness to your life, and no-one’s life to witness. And it can be quite lonely and a little frightening.

True.

I call it the “check in.”

Something else:  While reading a book called Solitaire, in which writer Marion Botsford Fraser takes the temperature of Canadian single woman — currently an unprecedented 4 million of us —  one thing became painfully, depressingly clear to me. People will say anything in order to avoid saying they are lonely. Out of 50 excerpted interviews, only about four women were able to even utter the word. These four women were over 50. If you’re young and single you may not use the L-word (those damn L-words are a big problem, aren’t they?). It seems to be socially unacceptable.

But the truth is we all get lonely. Every single living being. Even cats and dogs get lonely. We are not meant to live in isolation from one another. It is the most natural thing in the world to be among people, and to fall into couples. To touch and be touched. To have a witness and to bear witness. What is unnatural is this denial and bravado we are all striving so hard to pull off. Like we’re fooling anyone anyway! Lest we should be considered crazy women with a small apartment, dinner for one, the cat batting about the ball of yarn we are using to knit doilies, or worse, booties for someone else’s baby. Lest we be perceived as drying up from lack of sexual activity. Lest we be considered social outcast loser women who sit at home every night crying into the hot water of our bubble baths.  But, God forbid and heaven’s above, don’t, ever, ever, ever let anyone catch us being human, and being (don’t dare say it… okay, but only if you whisper) l-o-n-e-l-y.

I used to be one of these women who feared a word. Not anymore. Maybe because of this book, and all the transparent denial within it.  I do get lonely. Sometimes capital L lonely. Used to be my lonely feelings were attached to a specific person. So, if I spent a great deal of time with someone and then we were separated, I’d feel lonely for them. Like a best girlfriend who went away, or a boyfriend after a break-up. That was before my mom died. As long as she was alive, I really never felt free floating loneliness because I knew I always had someone within reach. A witness to my daily thoughts, triumphs, sadnesses, boredom. laughter, tears, what’s for dinner. Someone to check in with. Someone who thinks what is on my mind at any given time is important and interesting. Someone to whom I can give everything that is in my heart and on my mind. Knowing that they are willing, because of trust and friendship and love, to share their personal self and all their intimacies. I guess I’m past the point of pretending, for whatever reasons I used to, that this is not what I want, what I need. I am willing to be strong enough to be vulnerable enough to be human.

Consecration

Last week marked the 15th anniversary of my dear mom’s death. So, I thought it was about time I scattered her ashes.

Shrine

If only because every single time I moved them (at least 3 cross-country trips and a handful of smaller ones), no matter how carefully I wrapped the beautiful  alabaster box that contained them, first in plastic bubble wrap and then in a small postal envelope, her dust would inevitably fall onto my hands. Moving them meant opening the box and nothing can ever prepare you for seeing the grey/white ash, dotted with small pebble-like pieces – no matter how many times you see it. So, wiping away a natural tear or two left some ash on my face or even in my eyes.

An accidental consecration.

Now, the odyssey of these ashes could fill a book but suffice it to say, I’ve never felt our family, or myself individually, has done her enough justice in an exact way to pay tribute to her. And then of course, I’ve never stopped missing her and still wanting to talk to her so nothing I could ever do would be as good as having her back in my life. Hanging on to this last vestige of her physical self was the best I could do.

The little alabaster box followed me to the west coast, where I moved three years after her death. Knowing how much my mom enjoyed the one time she spent there had me believing that she should be scattered in the Pacific Ocean.

In almost 6 years, I could never bring myself to do it.

I spoke to a de-cluttering expert about this while prepping her for a segment on the TV show where I worked. I boasted about my ability to purge my life often, about how easily I could let material things go. Heck, I even burned about 50 journals in order to draw a line between the past and my future. But I just simply could not cast off the contents of THE BOX. She explained to me that emotional clutter – like, for instance, the ashes of a dead loved one, has the ability to hold a person back from life.

Hmm…

My first summer back in Toronto, I visited my mom’s marker in Mt. Pleasant Cemetery – where one full year after her death, me and my siblings scattered half her ashes (I had asked their permission to hold onto the other half). The true nature of my relationship with my mother had always been somewhat of a secret from the rest of my family – she feared our closeness would cause jealousy and tension, and she was right. So in deference to her wisdom (I thought), I couldn’t allow myself to openly show the extent of my pain. While my sisters and brother looked indulgently on, I stumbled over a stanza of Leonard Cohen’s poem, There Are Some Men , not able to really convey why I felt the words important enough to read aloud.

That summer day after my return to Toronto, I wandered around the massive cemetery  grounds only to discover I had completely forgotten where she was. I had to double back to  the office to get my bearings. Though I didn’t have the ashes with me, I became convinced that what remained of her should be where the other part of her rested. I went home exhausted and heavy hearted by a day’s wandering on sacred ground.

Yes, I realized that whatever was left in the box resting on my dresser in a mini-shrine, had long since ceased to actually be her.  Still, I waited another few years. Last year, on the 14th anniversary, I made an attempt – at least in my mind, to do the deed. I even arranged a friend to come with me. But the more I thought about it, the higher my anxiety level became. Would I really be able to let go once and for all?  Could I live without these last pieces of dust that long ago made up the strong body, spirit, brain and tender heart of my beautiful mother?

I cancelled.

One helluva woman!

On Nov. 7th, 2012, 15 years to the day after the sudden and therefore shocking end of her life, a shock that lives in my muscle memory forcing me to relive it each November, I went with my friend D. to the Forest of Remembrance at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, and I finally reconciled my divided mother with her long gone other half.

I don’t exactly know why I was able to do it this time. It could have been that D – inseparable friend of my youth,  had been returned to me recently, alleviating a great deal of my loneliness. It could be that I felt that, of all the people in my life, D knew how the loss of my mother had deeply marked me, though I hadn’t seen or spoken to her since long before my mother died. It could be that, over the last few years, I’d begun to understand how holding on to the ashes meant vital parts of my life were standing still.

To do this properly though, I had to send a message to my mother that would only be between us. I had something I needed to say to her. Something fairly final. So I tore a piece of paper out of my journal, cut it in half and wrote her a tiny note, folded it into the smallest square I could and tucked it into the postal envelope ready and waiting to go. D came over at our arranged time, armed with a beautiful bouquet of fall flowers. Not only was she willing to help me out with this weighted task, but having known my mother for so many years, I think she welcomed a chance to pay her respects. We drove to the cemetery, but not before we reviewed the exact location of the garden.  It took a few minutes to find the area where we’d previously scattered her and left a marker but once we did I silently dug a small hole in the soil where I placed my note, then emptied out the ashes on top. Thankfully, there was no wind, but the ashes, which had now been sedentary for the last few years, stubbornly stuck to the sides and corners of the box. With a tissue, I tried to wipe them all onto the ground. Of course, the dust fell into my hands. The effort it took to do all this almost distracted me from the feeling of doing it. D. gathered up a few wandering leaves and placed her flowers on top of the note, the soil, the ashes… my mother. She bowed her head in a silent prayer. We held onto each other for a minute, and then walked back to the car. I could feel my mother’s ashes on my face.

kindred spirits

I never thought I could live one day without my mother, yet a decade and a half seems to have flown by and I’m still here. I think I finally learned to let her go. And it turns out it’s exactly the right time. I can’t prove that exactly, I just know something feels.. something IS different.

The truth is, I could never forget my mom because every time I look in the mirror, I see her. Every time I find myself rising in passion – for a belief, in protection of a loved one, for love, or for the love of voicing a well-thought out opinion, I channel her. So much of her resides in me and that was always the basis of us anyway – we were kindred, destined to find each other in the world, but lucky enough that her giving birth to me made the meeting easier.

Life goes on, as it was meant to all along. Imagine that!