Telling the story of my life in my home - Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Cloudy Vision, Clear Perspective

There is nothing like watching the bright lights overhead flash by while being wheeled into an operating room on a gurney to put your life into perspective.

I have been fortunate in my life to experience relatively good health, barring this eye disease which began with an attack by a common virus on my cornea fifteen years ago. In those ensuing years the disease in my eye has waxed and waned, with this summer proving to be one of the most challenging during that time. This past week I spent several days in Edmonton under the care of a veritable army of ophthalmologists, residents, nurses and corneal specialists as they fought to save my eye from a corneal perforation, a rare occurrence considered to be a true ophthalmic emergency and a potential threat to both vision and general health. On Tuesday after a quick check by a renowned corneal specialist I found myself being admitted to hospital for a procedure to seal the perforation with glue (the same substance as crazy glue, if you are wondering, but of medical grade). It was a sobering experience on many levels.

As I lay in the OR with my new corneal specialist hovering above me and doing things to my eye that I would rather not know about I thought a lot about my life. I thought a lot about what mattered - the Intrepid Junior Blogger, of course, my sisters and my friends who have become family. I thought about the Triple M Zoo as we have begun to call our house, the menagerie of creatures who share our lives. And I thought about writing and my work, because all those things are part of me, too.

I am not the same person who started this blog in April of 2011. I suppose I started it with a certain degree of naivete, never thinking about the concept of success or failure because those had never even occurred to me. I never thought about what the journey would be or where it would take me. Along the way I have made so many friends, found so many things I loved, and yet I have found myself in recent months giving far too much space in my head to people who hadn't paid the rent to be there - the anonymous ones who sent hate mail, the ones who questioned not only the value of my work but my value as a person, the ones who I had considered friends but who for reasons that seemed inexplicable to me turned their back on me. I thought about the disappointments, the politicians I had believed in who had proved unworthy of my faith, the machinations and games that individuals who had entered my life played with me and with each other, the complexities of a world that had seemed so simple when I first began this blog.

I had become so jaded and tired, I think. Notoriety of any sort comes with detractors, and I had attracted a few who took every opportunity to remind me of my imperfections (reminders that were unnecessary as I am quite cognizant of how many there are). Just a few weeks ago I told a close friend that I was considering ending the blog because I found myself struggling to find the joy in it I had once found. I found myself spending far too much time weighing whether a new post would draw hate mail or people threatening me in vague ways. I found myself weighed under doubt and uncertainty about whether this blog had value because I was beginning to believe those who said it didn't. I would open the blog and stare at the blank screen and close it again, no post written that day because I couldn't find the words to say.

But then as I lay in the OR and the surgeon dropped glue into my eye I thought about some other things, too. I thought about how I went to the first press conference I have ever attended where Claude Giroux came out dressed as Gene Simmons, and how I am now the person who plans those press conferences, ribbon cuttings and groundbreakings. I thought about all the conversations over the past 3 plus years, the ones that forged connections between me and others in ways that created unbreakable bonds, and how some of those individuals have become so close I consider them family. I thought about all the opportunities I have had to make a difference, to contribute to this community but also to contribute to the life of my own IJB. I thought about all the moments of happiness, and then I remembered how I felt when all this began in 2011.

My recovery process will be long. Writing this single blog post will undoubtedly leave me with a nauseating headache as my brain is adjusting to the almost entire lack of vision in my left eye, which was always clouded but is now virtually gone and which is uncertain to return. Simple chores exhaust me right now and I deal with a throbbing pain in my eye as it adjusts to being home to a dot of glue meant to save it. My journey is not over, as this is a temporary fix and there is a corneal transplant in my future (so please don't be offended when I ask if you have signed up to be an organ donor, because that cause just became very, very personal) which will entail another long recovery and new adjustments. And I know there are those who will read this post and think nasty thoughts about me, about how this blog is all about me and what a narcissist I must be and how what I do has no value - but while my vision is cloudy my perspective has now become very clear.

Yes, this blog is about me. It always was and always will be, because it was always about my life in Fort McMurray. It was never meant to be the narrative of everyone here, and if it resonated with others I have always been deeply touched that it did so as it meant I was not alone in my experience. I won't stop writing this blog, and I have decided to stop giving rental space in my head to those who have not earned it, because they don't deserve to live there. But most importantly I have realized I need to keep coming back to the roots of this blog, the desire to share my story of my life in this community and what it means to live here. Over time it is easy to lose those roots and drift away from your initial path, but a short trip to the OR helped me to re-align my course.

On Thursday I asked my corneal specialist if I could go home. He asked why I needed to be home right away and I gave him three reasons: the Intrepid Junior Blogger's fifteenth birthday, a groundbreaking for a facility which has been part of my professional life since my first day on my job and which I had a significant role in planning (although it was executed by my amazing team of colleagues, who came together in my absence to make sure the event was a tremendous success) and a farewell party for someone who was not only my boss but someone who had been part of my life since this blog began as a friend. I needed to get back to my life, I told him - and he laughed and said it sounded like a good life, and to go home and enjoy it.

And that, dear friends, is exactly what I intend to do, and continue to share it right here in the blog that has become as much a part of me as my eye, clouded in vision but clear in perspective.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Graffiti Wars

There are a few things that get people really, really excited, and not in a good way. Death, taxes, graffiti...yes, graffiti, as I discovered when I posted recently about an innovative idea for graffiti and had the audacity to refer to graffiti as art.

You always know you've hit the button when fights start on Facebook and you get more than one vitriol-filled email accusing you of plotting the destruction of the world through your nefarious blog posts. Usually this kind of reaction is reserved for political posts or those having to do with municipal issues (man, have I ever been anonymously spanked over some of those) but on occasion another topic so inflames and incenses that people get a wee bit dramatic. Such is the case with graffiti, apparently.

My particular favourite is when people send messages in ALL CAPS because you know they mean business when THEY USE ALL CAPITAL LETTERS TO MAKE THEIR POINT. Graffiti certainly seems to bring out the all-caps crowd, which is intriguing because it seems like a fairly minor issue compared to the whole death and taxes thing.

Nobody likes property being defaced, including me. However I also believe in innovative solutions and in grassroots movements. I happen to think yarn bombing and guerrilla gardening are pretty cool, and the idea of encouraging graffiti artists (there I go calling them artists again, cue the angry all-caps types) to paint on plastic wrap seems like a great way to address some of our current graffiti woes.

I think many people fail to make a distinction between a graffiti artist and a tagger. Graffiti artists create works that may not appeal to everyone but that go beyond "tagging" everything in sight with a few shots of spray-paint for the sole purpose of name recognition. A tagger might take seconds - an artist could take hours. Taggers don't seem to care much about aesthetic quality. Lumping taggers and graffiti artists into the same group truly isn't fair as it's like comparing my doodles to the work of Picasso. 

There are some who believe graffiti of any kind has no redeeming qualities of any sort. They aren't interested in innovative ideas for allowing graffiti artists to do their thing while also protecting private property, and I'm not only cognizant of that but fine with it.

But I swear to god the next person to send me an an angry email will find their words spray painted across my back fence for the entire world to see. 


Breaking Down the Walls - Mental Illness and Suicide

I don't actually know who found him. I have long suspected it was my mother and that perhaps that moment in time was responsible for some of her later struggles, but I don't know for certain as she and I never discussed it. In fact I never discussed it with anyone until after my mother died unexpectedly because while it wasn't a family secret it wasn't out in the open, either.

My maternal grandfather committed suicide.

From what I have gleaned he ended his life shortly after my maternal grandmother died after suffering a  cerebral aneurysm. My grandparents were very close, apparently. My mother often spoke of their marital bond, and from her words I could see that she worshipped them both. She described her father as "sensitive", likely  in reference to a man who struggled with mental health issues and seemed fragile to others. I never knew either of my maternal grandparents, both gone long before to tragic diseases.

This narrative is one that has hovered over my family for decades. While it was never completely hidden it was never really pulled into the light, either. The stigma of mental illness and suicide is a deep one, powerful and tough to counter. My mother never spoke of her father's death, although she would often speak of her mother's.

I have tried over the past three years to break the cycle. I have shared stories of my struggle with depression, and stories of my mother's long battle with mental illness. I have openly discussed the genetic legacy of mental illness in my own lineage, and yet for some reason I admit it took me a very long time to tell the Intrepid Junior Blogger how her great grandfather died.

I suppose it is because I didn't know how to explain it. I didn't know how to have that conversation, but last year I did. I wrote about World Suicide Prevention Day, and I sat down with my daughter and told her the few details I know about her grandfather's death.

I suppose it is why I have become so adamant about the fallacy of calling those who commit suicide selfish. From my mother's description of her father I know he was not selfish. His death was not about a selfish choice. His death was about a troubled man dealing with a disease he did not choose and that is in the end no different from the disease that killed my grandmother. Her death from a cerebral aneurysm caused by a weakened blood vessel in her brain was not her choice. My grandfather did not choose to suffer from a mental illness that led to taking his own life any more than my grandmother chose her illness. Mental illness is a disease just as real as brain aneurysms, heart disease and diabetes, and can be just as deadly.

Just as in other diseases early intervention can often prevent the worst outcome. In the case of mental illness and those who may consider suicide such intervention is crucial. Things have come a long, long way since my grandfather's death but we still struggle to break down the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide in particular. It is still a topic we try to avoid and one we find difficult to talk about with our family, friends and colleagues - and yet it is so vital to do exactly that.

It is the most difficult conversations we often need most to have. In many ways I regret never talking to my mother about her father's death, but my mother was sensitive, too, and I suspect her fragility was rooted not only in genetics but in the untimely death of her parents. They were both lost to diseases that seem tied to my family through our genetics, not diseases of our choice but ones with which we contend regardless.

It was difficult to tell my daughter about my grandmother's death and the fact that cerebral aneurysms can have a genetic link. It was equally difficult to tell her about my grandfather's death and another disease that is tied closely to our family. But knowledge is power and education is a tool, and these discussions have better equipped her for the future. We have begun to break down the walls of silence in my family and to talk about our genetic legacy, the good and the bad, and all the factors that make us who we are.

Wednesday is World Suicide Prevention Day. It is the day to bring it out into the light, to talk about it with friends and family and colleagues. It is the day to remember how it has touched our life and to learn how we can prevent it from touching the lives of those we love. For me it is another opportunity to tell the IJB about her great grandparents, and not just their deaths. I will share with her the loving stories my mother told me and I will share with her the stories of their deaths. It won't be an easy conversation - but it will be one so very necessary to have.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Brother, Can You Spare a Cornea?

So, hey, I have a question for you...

Have you signed your organ donor card?

I know this seems like an odd question to appear out of nowhere. It isn't really nowhere, though, as you see within the next few years I am likely going to need one of your corneas - or at least someone's cornea.

I have endured a chronic eye disease for fifteen years. After years of irritating medications, repeated assaults from the virus that scarred it and emergency glaucoma surgery, my left cornea finally surrendered this week. The perforation in my cornea, while small and likely repairable at this point, is an indication my cornea has begun to degrade, and the time to consider joining the corneal transplant waiting list may have arrived.

I have known for some time this could be coming. About eight years ago my ophthalmologist at the time asked if I had considered a transplant to address the deep scarring of my cornea. I was so used to the scarring, though, that I rejected the idea. My brain has learned to virtually ignore the signals coming from that eye as they are of such poor quality, and I am not even certain what it would be like to see clearly with it once again. I have been so fortunate that my right eye has been unaffected and so I have muddled along for years, dealing with chronic eye problems but rarely of the severity that has occurred this summer. This latest development, though, has me thinking a great deal about donor cards and transplants.

Current statistics are a bit tough to find but there are thousands of Canadian on the waiting list for new corneas. Some are in far more dire straights than I, needing two healthy corneas to replace their damaged ones, and some have been waiting for a very, very long time to see. And of course there are all the other organs needed in order to prolong the lives of others, but it is a topic we are still hesitant to discuss because it deals with things like death, a subject which makes most of us squirm.

The reality though is that the people on waiting lists for hearts and lungs and corneas are just like me. They lead their lives like we all do until some part of their body fails them, like my poor cornea which has just grown weary of years of damage and insult. For some their very continued existence depends on that donated organ, while for some of us it will simply change our lives by just maybe allowing us to see again.

This week I am in Edmonton as I receive care for an ophthalmologic emergency. It seems most likely that my cornea can be salvaged for now, but my future very likely includes a corneal transplant. As I sit here in my hotel room I think about that eventuality and how I have long known some day my vision in my left eye would depend on someone signing a small card indicating their wish to donate their organs, including their corneas, when they will no longer be using them. I always knew it would depend on a family who, after their own tragic loss, finds the strength and courage to allow some good to come from it in the form of changing and saving the lives of others.

One day in the future I may well see the world far more clearly, with an undamaged cornea that once belonged to someone else. I am still working through my feelings on that, because as a writer I cannot help but wonder about the person who may one day allow me to see. And I know this: they may be signing their organ donor card right now, or thinking about it.

It is humbling to be so reliant on the kindness and generosity of others, particularly when that generosity means they must think of their own death. Now I look into  a future that includes seeing through the eyes - or at the least the cornea - of someone else.

I hate to ask, but when you aren't using them anymore any chance you could spare a cornea? I would be so very, very grateful - as would the thousands of other Canadians waiting for corneas, hearts, lungs and more.

Sign your donor card. People just like me - in fact, me - are relying on you to do it. And we want to thank you in advance for giving us the gift of life - and sight.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Free Falling

I could never get the hang of it.

It came up in almost every drama workshop, an "exercise" designed to break the ice and make us work together, trusting each other. But I couldn't do it.

"You are stiff as a board when you fall," said the instructor. "The idea is to relax and let yourself actually FALL," they would say, shaking their head in frustration. "You need to learn to TRUST people to catch you."

"It isn't about trust," I would say, my own frustration mounting as I tried again and again to simply let myself fall into the outstretched hands behind me, allowing them to catch my limp body before it hit the ground. "I can't ask people to catch me. I don't know how to ask that," I would say.

"I don't think you get this exercise," the instructor would say sadly, convinced it was about trust or a lack thereof - but it wasn't. It was about the inability to ask for help, even if it meant avoiding hitting the ground.

I was the child who never asked for anything, you see. I suppose I grew up very comfortably with parents who could provide well for me, but even so my mother would often remark about my lack of requests. I never asked for new clothing or money or toys. I never asked because I didn't know how to ask, and so I was always just content.

When I graduated from high school a cousin came to live with us. She was going to school in the city and her parents lived a fair distance away on a farm. When they came to visit her and us they brought her a small stereo because she had asked for one. A day later my father came home with a small portable stereo (aka the ubiquitous 80's "ghetto blaster") and left it on my bed. I was perplexed and when I said thank you my mother told me it was because I never asked for anything, even if I wanted or needed it.

Over the decades, and particularly in the last two years, I have become far better at asking although it is still difficult for me. It is not about a lack of trust but rather about an inability or unwillingness to show vulnerability in this way, admitting to needing help. I am on occasion distressed that the Intrepid Junior Blogger displays the same behaviour, unwilling to ask for help from teachers, store clerks or friends. It is not necessarily the most beneficial of behaviours to pass on, and I ponder how to change it.

I suppose first though I must change myself. This week I let myself fall. It was hard to release myself that way, to let myself go limp and ask those around me to catch me. I won't go into the details - not yet - but what I found was that when I asked those around me to catch me what formed beneath me was a safety net woven from the hands and hearts of friends, family and colleagues. I let myself go limp and simply fall into their hands, always knowing I could trust them but finally finding a way to ask them to catch me.

This week I went into a free fall, but it was ok. Those hands that were always there waiting were right there to catch me, and I didn't hit the ground.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Today is Her Day - and She is Off and Away

I sit and watch her go, freshly dyed ebony black and lime green hair streaming behind her. The hair almost matches the emerald green shoes, with just enough difference in shade to keep it interesting. She has grown so much over the last few years and I as I sit there I realize we have entered yet another stage of this adventure we call childhood, except she is no longer a child in many ways. She is off to high school and I am sitting in my car, and that sniffling noise you hear is most certainly not me fighting off tears.

This year the Intrepid Junior Blogger entered high school as a Grade Ten student. Watching her bounce up the sidewalk with confidence in her stride reminded me of all the “first days” over the last ten years, every single one of them at schools within the Fort McMurray Public School District. She is now a Westwood High School student, one of the many entering those doors that will arrive as new students and leave as graduates.
Parenting is full of trepidation. You worry if they will find friends, if they will meet the expectations of their teachers in terms of academics and behaviour and if they will be happy. It is always such a tremendous relief when they are happy, and I am so incredibly grateful that the IJB has begun this new adventure, the final chapter of her educational life here, with happiness.

“How were the first two days?” I ask.
“Terrific!” she exclaims.

“Terrific?” I ask. “Like, really terrific?”
 I am surprised only because the IJB is not typically effusive about most things, being far more reserved than her mother who loves everything almost indiscriminately. The IJB is far more careful and measured in her evaluations, and few things beyond her pets, some select websites and her beloved computer games are deemed “terrific”.

“Yep, terrific,” she says. “I love my new English teacher, she is amazing. And my French teacher? She speaks almost only in French, it’s great. The school has a 3-d printer so my CAD course should be pretty cool. And hey, do you know what an isotope is? How about atomic weight, do you know what that is?”
I pause because while I studied chemistry long ago I do not recall the fine details, and so she patiently explains isotopes and atomic weights and shows me how she has to memorize the first 32 elements of the periodic table.

She is happy, engaged and excited about her first semester in high school, and I am so equally happy and grateful I almost find myself in tears.
When I went to the orientation for students pursuing AP courses I suspected the IJB would love her teachers and her classes. I pretty much fell in love with the teachers myself, wishing I had teachers like them in high school, brimming with enthusiasm for their subjects and students. I had a few teachers like that, especially my English teacher who not only taught me to write but to strive to excel. It was those teachers I remember, the ones who shaped my school experience and who even now I think about on occasion – but that was then, and this is now, and my high school days are long over. The IJB’s have just begun.

I think perhaps it is not always easy to be my kid. On occasion the IJB will comment on how strange it is when her friends say they read my blog, or when people recognize her and refer to her as “Theresa’s daughter”. The IJB is very much her own person, with a strength and resiliency and character that is all her own and in some ways much like me and in many ways far, far different.
“Oh, and one of the teachers stopped me in the hallway to tell me she loves my shoes,” says the IJB and grins at me, her love of good shoes, especially the Fluevogs we both adore, written on her face.

I grin back because while she is her own person and quite different from me this apple has not fallen far from this particular tree.
As the venerable Dr. Seuss wrote, today is her day. She is off to great places. She is off and away.


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Milk Matters in McMurray - Supporting Local Moms

“You don’t SEEM like a crunchy granola mommy,” he said.

I was bemused by this response when I once told a man that I was an ardent supporter of breastfeeding. Somehow in his head he had linked breastfeeding with the earthy, Birkenstock wearing mommy crowd – and absolutely no offense to them as they do exist, but I am not one of them.
“You seem pretty normal,” he continued.

Normal indeed, much like the crunchy granola mommies are normal, too, and much like breastfeeding is normal, and the way nature intended for us to feed our young. I should make clear I am also not one of those moms who levels judgement on other moms for choosing formula for their babies, but I do believe in the benefits of breastfeeding – and even more than that I believe in ensuring the moms who choose it receive the support they need to succeed, because while it is normal and natural often new moms need that support.
It’s why I was pleased to attend the recent anniversary celebration for the Fort McMurray Breastfeeding Support Group. Held in the concourse of the Suncor Community Leisure Centre it was wall to wall mommies and babies, taking me back to a time when the Intrepid Junior Blogger was much, much smaller.

The IJB was born in a small community in northwestern Ontario. I fully intended to breastfeed, and thanks to the support of the local La Leche League I had strong support getting started. When she was three months old, though, I developed the chronic eye disease with which I still contend even today, and my ophthalmologist tried to convince me to give up breastfeeding to use oral medications that he was worried could prove harmful to my new baby.
I was terribly torn as I was committed to breastfeeding my daughter and I was devastated at the thought of quitting when we had just gotten the hang of it. I went online to search for information, and that was how I found Dr. Jack Newman, the Canadian physician who has proven the saviour of breastfeeding women everywhere.

I fired off an email to Newman, never expecting a response – but not only did he respond to me he contacted my ophthalmologist and between the two of them they devised a treatment plan which would not require me to give up breastfeeding my daughter. There were people who thought the lengths I went to were absurd, but I knew I wanted to breastfeed and I was going to do it, come hell or high water – and I did, weaning my daughter when she and I were ready and having been satisfied that both her needs and my medical needs had been met.
Being surrounded by breastfeeding moms, pregnant women and those who support these important initiatives for women took me right back to those early days. I was grateful for the initial support of my local La Leche League, but even they were in a bit over their heads when it came to the medical crisis I faced. What I would have appreciated back then was an even larger core of groups dedicated to supporting women who choose to breastfeed and who could provide the resources I needed when things got tough – which is why I am so grateful to see this kind of support network in our community.

I have written in this blog about our need for a birthing centre as our community grows with each new family member added. I have written about the need for doulas and midwives, the support systems many pregnant women seek, and I have written about breastfeeding. And this isn`t about saying breastfeeding is the only choice, or that doulas or midwives are better, or that birthing centres trump hospitals – it`s about providing women with the options and support they need as they bring our most important asset into this world: our next generation of citizens.
Every member of a community is important, of course, and we all have our respective roles. To me, though, there can be no more important role than raising children as the continuation of our species, community and society relies on that very act and I am not only an advocate of breastfeeding but an advocate of parenting as it is so very vital. As a community and society we have a responsibility to provide the support and encouragement and fundamental services parents need so they can focus on what matters most: the children.

You see it takes a village to raise a child, and in our village we need to come together to support those raising the children, making sure their parents have the best possible support, resources and options they can to succeed in their incredible role in building our community.
 to support local moms and babies!