Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Race

I walk on the pool deck, the wet stickiness of the tiles pressing into my bare feet. The heat presses in on me, burning my cheeks as I line up to receive my time card. The monster of anticipation still rises, clawing at my insides, threatening to explode from my mouth the second I let it get the best of me. The air is hot and thick, clumps of half naked, bathing suit clad teenagers spread across the pool deck like weeds growing on a summer lawn. They are out of place from the normal city pool atmosphere, yet so naturally at home; it is as if they belong there.

I stand, track pants rolled low to expose my hips, bathing cap tucked under the seam, pressing into the crevice of skin where the spandex material meets my legs. A sweaty shoulder brushes against me and I shuffle forward in line to avoid being bumped again. I’m standing in a crowd of easily 20 women and from behind, you would never know the difference between us. Our sport has moulded our bodies to be as dynamic as possible, cutting through the water like the blades of a knife. Our shoulders are broad, our waists small. Each of us has our hair piled high above our heads and many, are chewing on the straps of the goggles as we wait impatiently for the race to begin. As waves lap aggressively against the edge of the tiled pool, we begin to pull on our plastic bathing caps. There is an unannounced pattern, a timing that you feel in the heat of the race before you, a sign that it is time to prepare. The caps form to our heads, each elastic, clip, every strand of hair held beneath them, tightly matted to the scalp, controlled, contained. The smell of plastic is strong and the cap digs into my forehead. It is the sign of the competitive swimmer, the mark left by this cap; a red indented line, stark against the whiteness of your skin. A billboard directly on your forehead reminding you that regardless of your being out of the pool, your race will still be with you. If I do well, I’ll look into the mirror and won’t give this line a second thought. If not, I know it will irritate me for the rest of the long day ahead.

We shuffle along, carrying our little pink cards. The smoothness of the paper mixed with the powder residue left on my hands from bathing cap makes it hard to hold on to, but I somehow manage. There is a thundering cheer from the crowd. 5 different teams cheering on 8 different people and suddenly it is silent. I shuffle forward again, taking a seat on the bench, waiting to stand behind the block once the next race is underway. I hand the pink card to the official behind my lane. She reads it quietly, Lane: 5 Event: 200m Butterfly. I’m in the right place.

I begin stretching my arms and legs, shaking out the muscles more as an act of anxiety rather than necessity to be loose. 7 years. I have spent 7 years on this sport. 7 years of 5:00 am practices, 7 years of Saturday mornings in the pool. 7 years of dedication to the sport that keeps me training nearly 35 hours a week. 7 years of striving for perfection, wrinkly fingers, dry skin, and blisters along my collar bone from the persistent rubbing of my bathing suit strap.

I stretch behind my lane. The roar of the crowd flares up around me as the race continues. Team mates are out of their seats. Timers and officials, dressed in sterile white, are looming over the edge of the pool, their eyes pinned to their stop watches, to the time clock, waiting; waiting for the swimmers to near the end of their race, to slam against that wall and win.

Their hands slam against the wall, one after another, and I reach to my left shoulder, unwinding my goggles from their place on my strap. The rough plastic scrapes my collar bone and I can feel the straps of my bathing suit pulling from the centre of my back up to my shoulders as I untangle the plastic cord. A swimmer, soaking wet and red faced, pulls himself out the pool, slaps me on the back with a wet hand and walks away. I place my goggles on my head. I pull them down and lick the inside of the eye piece, even though I know they’ll fog up anyway.

A shrill whistle pierces the air. My heart skips and I step behind the block. I shake my legs and arms like a child pretending I’m a piece of spaghetti. This is what I do. This is who I am. This is all there is; just me, and the water and this race. My mind goes blank as I pull my goggles to my eyes and firmly press the plastic rims against the socket. There is a foggy silence over the noise of the pool, my heart throbs in my ears. The second whistle sounds, loud and shrill in the silence of the awaiting race. I begin to climb up the block. The rough cement presses into my feet and I position myself; left toes on the edge, right leg curled beneath me. I grip the diving block hard and inhale the comforting scent of chlorine below.

One beep.

Two beeps.

Three beeps followed by a blinding flash.

The call is made.

I pull back hard; I am a jockey at the gate. Every muscle in my body straining to be released. In an instant I throw my weight forward, point my toes, straighten my legs, and throw my chin against my chest. I soar through my dive, cutting through the screaming of the audience and within a second, that small fraction of time, I hear nothing.

There is a thundering crash, my ears pummelled, my nose fills and I am assaulted by the water as I'm engulfed by its frigid waves. My arms remain tight above my head, squeezing my ears and instantly, I begin to fall into the groove of my favourite stroke. My hips delicately bob through the water and my legs obligingly follow. My broad shoulders, for once, are not hideous; they are not too large to fit into a sweater, not awkward or unflattering. They are my driving force and they beat through the water, churning against its resistance, catching it at the exact moment and pumping back under me to catapult me forward. I feel good. My stroke is smooth, my movement fluid. I am a powerhouse.

I pump forward; my head breaking the surface and sucking in air every second stroke. My lungs feel as if they may burst. A flash of red catches my eye. Another foot, another human, another swimmer. I am not alone. I am not in front. The red bathing suit is just out of reach. The swimmer’s feet are even with my fingers, are a stroke or two away. With one thought in my mind and one alone, I clamp my teeth and force my body to its limits. I thrust my hips forward, tightening my thighs and straining my arms. My legs burn, my arms burn, my lungs burn. My hips now move two times for every one before and my arms churn though the water as if my life depends on it. I come even with the swimmer’s hips. The wall is just ahead of me. Five more strokes and I'll be there.

I make a choice. I suck in as much air as I can without breaking my stride and throw my whole upper body into my stroke. Without raising my head, I focus on the wall and plunge forward as hard as I can. Three strokes, my biceps scream in resistance. Two stroke, my toes begin to cross as they cramp. One stroke, the lack of air causes my eyes to bulge, pushes behind their sockets, screaming for me to stop. I hit the wall with all the effort I have, slamming the blue tiles as if I can shatter them and escape the pain. I surface, gasp for air, and collapse on the lane rope. Exhausted, I lift my head and in front of me, in an eight lane pool, I see six swimmers; pulling with all their might towards the finish. I feel the pull of the water against my body and the slap of two hands resonates on a tiled surface. I feel the lane rope beneath me fall suddenly deeper into the water and I turn, startled by the change in my buoyancy, yet not bothering to keep my body afloat. It is the swimmer, the one in the red bathing suit. The one who was, at last glance, in front of me.

“Congratulations,” she says, “you won.”

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What happened last night?

From the reflection of a mirror I see a girl raising her head slowly, painfully, and staring at her dehydrated and chalky face. Her eyes are sunken, dark grey circles hanging beneath them, mascara smudged along the lower lids, her eyes swollen and red. Her cheeks are pale, the green and purple veins creeping across the lines of her chin and over the bridge of her nose. She runs her tongue across the rough and dry surface of her crackling lips and as she leans closer, I can see the scratches and purple bruising that is beginning to emerge just below her hairline.

Her eyes widen. She searches the reflection, gently brushing aside a mess of curls and flattening them to her head. Examining her battered brow, she is genuinely surprised. Suddenly, her attention turns to the room around her. The sneakers in the corner, neatly placed by the door are of particular interest and are, in fact, out of place compared to the general untidiness of their surroundings. She steps towards them, eager and quick, only to buckle part way and gawk down at her bare and bruised knees still bleeding slightly from their scrapes. The eyes widen even more so, the attention to this new detail is frightening, the effort to move clearly painful. In jerky strained steps she walks towards the dresser, resting her hands on the smooth wooded surface. She inhales deeply as she her face pales and her stomach revolts against the sudden movement.

She is confused. When she is alone, she slips frantically out of each article of clothing, leaving her pants piled on the floor behind her as she climbs into bed completely naked. When she is not, the sheets are torn off and kicked violent to the foot of the bed, pillows are generally knocked to the ground and she would have wakes up in a loose male undershirt if not entirely naked. Neither of these have happened. Taking a look at her relatively unruffled bed and the untouched pillows she was sure that she been put to bed, not taken to it.

With this threat dispelled the girl’s next concern is caffeine. Sniffing slightly, it is clear there is already something brewing from the room adjacent and the corners of her mouth begin to turn up in a smile. She walks from the room, eyes closed, inhaling deeply.

“ I love you, you know that?” she hums.

A young man sits in the chair before her, a steaming mug of coffee in hand, a television remote in the other. He looks surprised, his lips begin to curl, his eyes shine. He looks amused.

“Well that’s certainly a change from last night.”

The girl’s eyes snap open. Smile vanishing instantly, she freezes, hand stall mid-scratch so that her hair stands puffing out around her fist. Her stomach lurches violently as she watches the young man sipping from the purple mug. Lowering her hand from her hair, her shocked and horrified expression barely wavers as she reaches out for the ceramic handle, brushing past his bruised and scabbed fist.

Her body melts into the nearest chair, the purple mug cuddled against her chest as the hidden memories of the night unveil themselves rapidly in her mind. A giggling friend followed by an angry boy, this one with black hair, not the sandy blonde of the man in front of her. One of her bruises is explained, another flash of the black haired boy trailed closely by a powerful image of an infuriated blonde.

Her stomach lurches violently one more time and the last flood of awareness is that of her drunken body slouching against the side of a building, vomiting into the dirt of the ground. The memory is suddenly too fluid, to real, each sensation incredibly prevalent, the pressure building in her throat, the stinging behind her eyes. Pushing her chair back with a forceful shove, she jumps from the chair, hot coffee erupting from the mug as she rushes to the washroom. Barrelling through the doorway she throws herself towards the toilet, one hand flinging the lid wide as the other catches her falling body on the edge of the bowl and supports her lurching frame as she vomits fiercely, releasing the last of the memories from her system.

“How much did I drink last night?” she groans over the flushing toilet, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand and leaning her head against the cool tiled wall behind her.

“Enough for it to be coming up again this morning,” he answers leaning against with doorframe, his coffee dangling from his thumb and two middle fingers.

“Fuck off,” she says coldly, as she crawls towards the sink, pulling herself up by the porcelain basin and leaning into the running tap.

“Yeah, you said that several times last night too.”

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Growing Backwards

I can remember sitting in a large, overstuffed arm chair, an English textbook cradled in my hands and college applications strewn across my lap.

“ How am I possibly supposed to know what I want to do for the rest of my life?” I throw the textbook onto the top of the application pile in exasperation.

My mother looks up from her newspaper, she doesn’t look quizzical, she doesn’t look amused. She looks irritated, she looks aggressive, she looks angry. She looks exactly the same as she did the day she told me it would have be easier to have had a dog than me.

“You don’t. You think you do, you think you’re happy and you’ve made the right decision, but you honestly have no fucking clue”. The newspaper crinkles as she whips back into place, her angry voice, her aggressive looks fading behind the screen of newsprint.

Mom and Dad got married at 19.

It took me until my third year university to realize that it was nothing I had done to make my mother wish I was a basset hound. I was nearly 20 before I realized that my mother wasn’t angry with me, she was angry with herself.
We sat on the slippery lacquered benches of the cottage kitchen table, our vision blurry and our tongues loose from too much alcohol. Why I just told my mother about my latest relationship issue I'm not entirely sure. Why I just let her know I will always play second fiddle to my boyfriend’s pipe was another mystery to me. Still more concerning however, was her interest not in my failed relationship or bruised heart, but in the actual mechanics of a bong.

"I've never seen one," she says tipping the wine bottle upside down and watching the last of the droplets fall to the surface of her glass.

I look up at her. This woman that I've know my entire life. This woman that to me had seemed so pleased with the perfection of her life, so secure in her purity of morals. She eyes me apprehensively, waiting to see if I will break that barrier between mother and daughter, a barrier that I had built a long time ago.

"Well it packs a punch, that's for sure…especially if it's your first time smoking." She looks at me with the raised eyebrows of a woman prepared to count to five and send you to your room. But under those eyebrows there is a curiosity, there is a genuine interest in the dirty deeds of her daughters present.

"It's not that much different from the vase Grandma used to have in the living room, really."

Her eyes widen, not at the thought that I know the intricacy of a bong, but at the thought that her mother may have used one to house her precious roses.

"It's wider at the bottom though, more bulbous and there's a little cup with a filter that you stuff, light and then pull out to allow…"

The look on her face is nothing resembling concern for her daughter's well being. It is a complete and utter appreciation of new knowledge. She is actually smiling. My mother is smiling while I describe how to take a hit from a bong. The world is a very odd place.

"What else have you never done?" I too am overcome by a curiosity that I have never experienced. There are suddenly question I have never thought of and most certainly until this point, have never desired to explore. Nothing about my mother had ever seemed of any interest to me...unless it was how far away I should stand to avoid a swift kick in the ass.

I always felt like I was failure to my mother. Boyfriends would come and go and my mother would never fail to mention that by her age she was so much more that I was. If I was your age, I would have been married. That boy you just let walk out the door should have been your fiancé. I was constantly reminded that my father and she would have just bought their first car or they would have had their first child. My mother always neglected to remember that not everyone meets their soul mate at 15. Conveniently, she also forgot to mention that she was unhappy.

My mother hated my leaving for university with the passion of a woman who was stuck. At the time I simply hated her right back. It was the easiest solution. But sitting there in the dim summer light of cottage, swivelling my now empty wine bottle in one hand and gesturing the height of Justin's bong with the other, I realize that she didn't hate me. She didn't hate my leaving. She hated the fact that I was escaping for a journey that had never had and most likely never be able to experience.

There is a distinct moment in my past, where upon observation, it is clear that my mother had tried to find her own little piece of happiness. There’s a horrific memory of her dropping me off at school, in all her uncool glory. We were driving into the parking lot, windows down and Macy Grey blaring from the stereo. The tiny green v-dub is pulsating, forced to vibrate with the effort of pumping out such a ridiculously loud beat.
She slams on the breaks, sending the dashboard hula girl into a crazy-mad dance. She nods uncontrollably from the dash as I strain against my seatbelt for the book-bag in the back seat.

`` Four o-clock, OK Mom?” I have the door open, one leg on the pavement, the other awkwardly balancing my between the sidewalk and the car.

“What?!” She between the sidewalk and the car.

“What?!” She yells back over the music. I look at her in utter disbelief.
She’s pounding out the beat on the steering wheel, her blonde hair falling messily out of its constraining clip.

“Four o-clock,” I repeat loudly, slowly as if I’m speaking to a German exchange student. As if she’s deaf and not just too annoying to turn off her music. Her lips move as I watch her. She’s singing along. She’s not even listening. Seriously, sometimes!

I slam the door and she guns it, the little beetle flying past the students, top down, tires squealing, and music blaring.

“Grow up,” I mutter oblivious to the fact that my mother is simply enjoying the moment.

I twist the bottle around one more time, smiling at my mother as she asks me another question about illicit and illegal teenage behaviour. I walk across the room, shuffle through the old pile of CDs that lie beside the stereo. I find the one I’m looking for. I turn around, the music of Macy Grey slowly fills the room and Mom stops asking questions and smiles. She gets up, flings her hands in the air and begins to dance.

In that moment, I realize that I am growing up. I am becoming an adult and my mother is becoming a child. In that brief moment, standing there my cheeks buzzing, my mother twirling and smiling, I realize that maybe this is what we’re supposed to do. Maybe at some point, our roles are supposed to be reversed.

My mother got married at 19. She met my father when she was 15, her first boyfriend. She went from daughter to wife to mother and had never learned to explore who she is. And maybe the time frame is a little messed up, maybe my mother is 45 and not 18, but no one ever said you had to be young to discover who you are. Maybe my mother's job as living for someone else is over. I’m an adult, I’m alright. Maybe this is her time to find out who Catharine really is.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Cancer Is My Job

Cancer is my job. I don’t mean that figuratively. Literally, cancer is my job.

I hang up the phone, a tight ball of emotion tugging at the back of my throat. I thumb the bright yellow sticky notes in front of me and pen: leukemia. I lift the receiver and drumming the pen against the wooden desktop, I dial-in to my interoffice messaging system one more time. I scribble down the number and make a note to return their call.

The receiver clicks into the cradle and I glance down at the post-it balancing on the edge of my computer screen. Leukemia, 2 yrs. Next to that sits another note: Geoff, 23 testicular and under that; Miriam 42, Terminal.

All my life, I have been surrounded by notes like these. Sitting on my coffee table, scribbled next to the phone book, thrown into my lunch box by mistake. It wasn’t my mother’s fault. She had other things on her mind. When you have two notes side by side, it’s easy to get confused. With a flick of the wrist, your message about chemotherapy treatment suddenly becomes your daughter’s I love you honey and vice-versa. I would excuse myself from the classroom, wander down to the office and in my most polite, mind-your-manners-while-speaking-to-adults voice, I would ask to borrow the phone. Mom forgot easily those days. It was part of the routine. The information on the note would still be important and Daddy had taught us not to ignore them if we found them unexpectedly.

It isn’t a coincidence that ten years later I’m sitting in an office surrounded by notes like these.

The telephone rings again.

“Good morning, Canadian Cancer Society Patient Services, how may I help you?” There is a pause on the other end of the line. The sound of someone struggling to enunciate their exact needs. Really, what can you say? I have cancer? Take it away? That’s the only way we can really help these people. I wait. That is my job. I wait and I listen and I assist in any way I can.

“I have cancer,” the women says. She sounds shocked. She sounds exhausted. She sounds empty. Not a surprise.

This is always the hard part for me. Day after day people call me to find out about our services and most times, nine times out of ten, they are a newly diagnosed patient. They are someone who is still struggling with the reality of having an incredibly life threatening disease. How do you respond to this? You can be light hearted: With a false bravado in your voice you can tell them that this is the perfect number to call, you can be professional and explain to them that we are the patient services department and whatever they need, we can provide. Then you can be me: You can sit there sharing a silent moment with this person. You can know the effort it takes to utter those three words and you can hurt for them in just the same way you hurt when you saw those notes in your lunchbox.

“I have cervical cancer,” she elaborates after a moment, “stage 3.”

My heart sinks. Stage 3 means infected lymph nodes. It means it is not only in the lymph node, but scattered, spreading, tumerous and attacking both above and below the women’s diaphragm. It was this stage that forced my childhood living room to become a hospital cubical. It was this stage that made me hate the word cancer with a passion of indescribable depth.

“ This is always a scary situation to find yourself in...” I venture. I’m testing the waters. In fifty percent of cases this will lead to a question, in the others anger, a demand; do you really understand what I’m going through?

“Yeah...” she answers rather feebly.

“Well, there are plenty of services that we offer here. Patient support, peer to peer interaction, rides to treatment, any of the above. What can I help you with?” I have my post-its ready, prepared to make notes.

“I need you to tell me I’m not going to die.”

My body is frozen.

“I need you to tell me I can fight this.”

I sit rigid in my chair, all air sucked from my lungs by this request. I don’t have that answer, I want to tell her. I don’t believe that!, I want to yell. There is a piercing memory fresh in my mind. There is a dying women in my living room begging me to tell this women the opposite, screaming for her to hang up now, hug her children and say goodbye before it’s too late. There is a lot that I want to tell this woman, but I don’t. Instead I let the pen fall to note pad.

I look through bleary eyes at the mandate pasted to my desk top and I tell her that we will find a cure. I tell her that together, we are strong. I tell her that there are options, there are treatments and there are people who can try to work miracles for her. I tell her the success rates for women her age. I tell her everything I know about the disease and how to fight it. I tell her that for cancer patients the fight is not against cancer, but for life. I tell her to fight for life and let us fight the cancer for her. I leave her the number for a specialist in her field and I tell her if anyone can save her, he can.

By the time I hang up the phone, I almost believe myself.