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What Works

Posted in Adventures With Humans


I played basketball in high school. I was terrible. I was good at volleyball, and track & field, but basketball I found intimidating. Someone would pass me the ball, and instead of doing anything with it, I would unload it as fast as I could; so timid around any kind of confrontation, even in a game. Because of that, I never got anything going, nothing gained, no points. In the last game of the season, I took  a chance and dribbled the ball, you know, moved around a bit. I don’t remember whether we won or lost, but I do remember our coach looking at me and saying, “Why weren’t you doing that in all the games?” Dribbling; so simple, but for me, it took a confidence that I didn’t have. But I could have if I had just decided to try a thing. Somewhere along the line you need to discover what is important, where there is a little room for experimentation, or improvising.  It’s good to try things, to take a risk now and then, as long as it doesn’t inconvenience anyone else. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, then you learn from it, and once you get out of jail, you can try again.  
‘Opportunity’ is a key word. You need the stars to align at least a little bit in order to have any possibility of trying the thing. Back before kids, I was working at a large film production house in Toronto. The offices were in two renovated Victorian houses joined together, so lots of uneven floors, odd hallways and nooks, fancy crown molding and wood detail. In keeping with the tone of the houses, the company had a huge, antique armoire in the reception area where visitors could hang their coats. The fancy unit had to have been over six or seven feet tall, six feet wide, and three feet deep; it was essentially its own room. On a day when it was quiet, I had a bit of time to kill, so I wandered into the reception area and chatted with the receptionist. We were laughing about something. Without any real thought, I opened the door to the armoire, walked in, and closed the door behind me. I wasn’t in there thirty seconds when I heard two men walk into the reception area. I recognized one of them, his voice that of a big shot house director. The two were deep in conversation, and I could hear them sit in the two upholstered chairs that were set near the low round table that was in the centre of the room. Sitting in the chairs meant to me that the men were going to be there a while. I suppose that if they were going to be discussing something important, they could have gone to the house director’s office, but when you’re in an armoire, you might not be thinking as clearly as you should. I wanted to get out before they talked about something that they wouldn’t have if they knew that I, a lowly production and catering assistant, was listening. What if they were trying to cover up a scandal, one that involved someone eavesdropping? What if they were trying to get rid of a body? Running out wouldn’t have worked. I would have looked like an ass. Instead, I opened the door and slowly ran my hand along the edge of it like an inspector might do–an armoire inspector. I then stepped out and followed the line of the door with my hand, around to the hinges. I closed the door, stepped back, and looked the whole thing over while pretending to wipe the dust off of my hands. I turned around, nodded to the receptionist and the two men, “Looks fine. All in order,” and I walked out of the reception area and back up the hall to my office.
I didn’t get fired, so it must have worked. I loved that, the thrill of it, and the decision to commit. I had control, which was nice. Good not to get full of yourself though. On another day, I was talking with the secretary to the executive producer. I was standing in the doorway of her office, and we were laughing about something or other. Remember that we were in an old renovated building with odd hallways. I was so caught up with the laughing, that I turned the wrong way to leave, took one step and slammed into a wall. I hit it so hard that I went flying back like a character in a cartoon, and fell flat out on the floor. I was not hurt, except for my ribs from more laughing; you know the kind of laughing where you can’t breathe? Fun times. This had nothing to do with risk taking, but it was a funny story that took place in the same building as the armoire, so I thought I would take the opportunity to share it.
That was a bizarre experience, walking into that wall. You think you’ve got your body under control and then something like that happens. I think we get distracted, have things on our minds and forget how our bodies work. One clear example of this happened when Neil, my husband at the time, and our two kids were on our way back after visiting friends at a cottage deep in Algonquin. The cottage was on an island, way up in the northern part of the park. We had to drive around the park and enter at the top, then follow a logging road in before getting to the shore of the little lake, and getting a boat ride to the cottage. As per logic, we followed the same route, backwards to come home. We had gotten out of the park and were headed for home when Neil complained that his foot was itching. He was wearing Teva sandals, the ones with the fabric straps, and when he took the one off so he could itch his foot, he discovered an enormous, engorged leech dug in to what must have been a hell of a pumper in his foot. I pulled into a fast food outlet, feeling confident that I knew what to do, that all would be well. I ran in to the building, a Tim Horton’s I think, and got some salt packets. Easy right?  Salt will kill a leech. It dehydrates them, and doesn’t everyone know that? We had been talking about this,  kids too, that you don’t want to just pull the leech off. It can leave what is essentially leech barf in the wound if you do, and you don’t want that. Remember we had been at a cottage with our two small children and two other families for a few days and now, tired, we were on the long, long, long drive home. This is a different story from the armoire tale.  What happened was this: I took the salt packets, opened them, dumped the contents in my hand, then ripped the leech off of Neil’s foot–the very action we had agreed was terrible, and poured the salt in the wound. I stared at Neil’s foot. I couldn’t believe what I had just done. It was as if my brain just quit, and my arms and hands were on their own. Of course, Neil couldn’t believe it either. He had every reason to be annoyed, but to his credit, he was so kind, and blamed my fumble on tiredness.
I relive that moment. It bothers me, that mistake, and the running into the wall bit too. Where was I? Yes, there were more things in my life that I did right than I did wrong, but I wondered about the causes for those mistakes, some kind of lapse. When I was a kid, my brother did most of the work teaching my how to drive. This was the late 70’s and he had a dodge van that he had fixed up. He was a bass player in a band, and would use the van to haul gear around. We were in the van, returning from somewhere and listening to ‘Genesis,’ on the powerful sound system. My brother was driving, but when we were only a about a mile and a half away from the farm, he pulled over and let me get into the driver’s seat. I promptly moved the gear shift, stepped on the gas, and we shot backwards, the spinning tires shooting gravel out from underneath like fireworks. I was stunned, embarrassed, and so disappointed. My brother was also stunned, but not angry. Concerned, but not angry, and he let me try again, forward this time.
Of course, there are scenario’s where you really don’t want to fuck up, where there is no room for failing. I was looking after my elderly mother during covid. She was in her late 80’s, blind from macular degeneration, she had an essential tremor, COPD, osteoporosis, and an arrogant distance from any loving, sincere connection. One evening, I had left her apartment, just closed her door and had taken a step or two down the hall when I heard a dull, ‘thunk.’ I stopped, because it sounded like the sound came from my mother’s apartment. I turned around, opened her door, and found her lying on the tile floor there in the entryway. She had slipped on a loose rug, fallen backwards and knocked the back of her head on a cedar bench, thankfully light enough that it shifted out of the way. She looked at me, startled. I asked her if she was okay, if  her head, or her neck hurt, or her back. She said “No,” that she had hit her head, but was okay. I helped her up and we went into the living room where she sat in her big chair. I asked her questions, like the date, and where she was. I took a look at her pupils and they seemed normal. You know I have a degree in English so I know everything–a line I often said to her doctor to make him laugh, and he would. I reported the fall to my siblings, and I considered taking her to the emergency department to have an X-ray, but it was late at night, plus there was covid, so it would have been a big, stressful ordeal. I made the decision to sit with her for a while and watch for signs that the ordeal was necessary. I was annoyed, almost angry at being in that situation, nobody else around, no significant other to offer an opinion, to help me figure it out. I had to trust myself, have faith that I wasn’t a complete moron, despite the leech incident, and gunning the van into reverse. My mother was no help. Her fall and my helping her up did not bring us closer as mother and daughter, but as per usual, I could see her abdicating any responsibility, any opinion, and letting me twist. She was still fine the next morning, but did have a bump on her head. I called and let the doctor know what had happened. He arranged for her to have an X-ray, and everything was fine, I had made the right choice.
Later that spring, she called me one afternoon to tell me that she wouldn’t be coming down to dinner because she had fallen and injured her back. Part of me wanted to say, “Fine,” hang up the phone and continue on with what I was doing. I didn’t of course. I went up to find her lying on her bed in a considerable amount of pain. I asked her what happened, and she explained that she had been making her bed. When she took the end of her quilt and tried to whisk it up to the pillow end, she had fallen and landed on her tailbone. I let my siblings know, gave my mother some Tylenol, and helped her get through the day. She seemed fine as long as she was lying down. The next morning, she had significant pain and I had to figure out how to help her out of bed so she could get to the bathroom. This involved reaching in and putting my arms around her, just under her arms, then lifting her in a way that would enable her to keep her spine straight. I was glad that I had been going to the gym all these years, because this was a prime scenario for anyone who wasn’t fit to injure their own back in the process of trying to help another. I called the doctor, and he offered to come and see her which was really nice of him. I went out and bought her a walker, as she could no longer walk without support. The doc visited, assessed her, and did need her to go for an X-ray, which we managed. Thankfully the hospital was only minutes away so she did not have to sit upright in the van for long. Turned out that she had a compression fracture in her lower vertebrae which would take some time to heal. I began sleeping in the spare room in her apartment, so I could help her get out of bed if she needed to get to the bathroom in the night. She made it clear that she was in pain, but I managed to continue to lift her, to sort her out the best I could. Again, not having anyone else around was lousy. I felt like I was being judged by those at a distance, and my mother, and if I slipped up at all–in fact I felt like my mother was waiting for me to slip up, to dribble poorly and lose the ball. Then she could blame someone else for her misery; interesting, I think she’s been looking for someone to blame ever since her husband, our father committed suicide in 2004. That never occurred to me until just now, while writing this.
There are people who recoil when I say that I don’t really like my mother. I make it clear that I still want the best for her. She never ate a processed meal while I was looking after her, and I tried to make her environment pleasant. I painted a vase of flowers for her to put up on her bedroom wall, something with vibrant colours that she could see despite her blindness. My sister asked her if she wanted me to do more painting for her, and she said, “No, that’s enough.” For a while, I was playing along, being all subservient and deferring to her as she was my mother, but then, I realized that no, she offered nothing for me to love, no tendril or root onto which I could graph my own, rightful need for love. It felt good to come clean.
To continue the basketball analogy, she never threw me the ball, or set me up for any possibility for a basket; instead, I had to come and get it. Not so with my husband early on, or my brother during those early years. I have people ask me how my mother is now that I am no longer looking after her. When I say, “I really don’t care,” I feel like I’m speaking the truth about someone who really, never showed up for anyone. I’ve learned from this, and regularly reach out to my boys to see how they’re doing. It’s likely that I’ve screwed them up in other ways–the horror of the leech incident notwithstanding, but I at least make a good effort to communicate, to talk about important things. Yeah, I walked into a wall. It was funny. If I get another chance to step inside an armoire, I would take it without hesitation. I’m no longer so nauseatingly timid. There is nothing I am faking, no airs being put on just for looks. I will tell you the truth. This much I have learned.