I have been working on some writing. Trying to get my writing chops back after a long hiatus … here’s a little something I wrote about my recent vacation to cottage country in Ontario. Hope you like it.
Shoshana and I sat on what we jokingly called the “dock waffle” watching a pair of loons float past us while we talked.
The dock is a large quadrant of floating docks in the middle of the water that has been fastened together and secured to the bottom of the lake. It is surrounded by cabins, trees and a never-ending summer sky and when we are at the cottage it is our favourite place to hang out.
On the dock is a wooden picnic table with a large patio umbrella for shade. The cottage had a small pedal boat (the kind you see at mini-golf amusement parks) and we would load up the boat with supplies; sunscreen, food, water and my trusty sunhat to keep me from burning. We would pedal from our cottage for about 15 minutes out to the “dock waffle”.
We had been on the dock for hours taking turns dipping into the water to cool down. Since we arrived at the cottage we had been endlessly talking about our lives and how much had transpired in the last 45 years since we met in daycare. Is that how long we’ve known each other? I wondered out-loud if our parents had met earlier and that maybe we had even met before daycare.
Daycare is where my memories of Shoshana start. She was hysterically hilarious even as 4 years old. Her comedic brain has always been razor sharp and even as a small child she had the timing of a finely tuned Catskills comedian.
My first strong memory of her is napping in a darkened room. We would lay side by side on floor mats while she would do her best to make me laugh. The teachers would shush us and tell us to nap but I don’t ever remember napping. I would lay on my side and stare at her profile – waiting impatiently for her to wake up because I was excited to spend the rest of the day following her around like a happy puppy.
Around those daycare years I have a memory my mother telling me she was pregnant but to not tell anyone yet because it was too early to share the news. As soon as I got to daycare I ran at full speed to tell Shoshana about my new baby. We were playing near the teeter totters when I told her and she was excited for me and hugged my neck.
The new baby died before it was born.
I had a set of Matryoshka dolls that I would line up on the table. Big one was my mother because she was taller then my Dad. Then my Dad, next doll was me, next was my brother and the teeny tiny doll in the centre of the set was my dead baby sibling. I played with that little wooden baby doll and I remember putting it in my pocket to bring to daycare so I could show Shoshana. I think we buried it in the sandbox.
On the dock I sat with my leg dangling over the edge and traced the cool water with my big toe while Shoshana talked about her mother and how much her death had changed her. Linda was a special woman. She was like a 2nd mother to me when my mother was gone.
Linda’s house was open to all the misfits who needed safe shelter. The door was never locked and the fridge was always full. She would sometimes pull me into a bear hug and ask me how I was doing. She was as gentle and soft as she was loud and argumentative. Her laughter rang through the house and was contagious.
I listened carefully to Shoshana talk about her mother. About the heartbreaking loss of losing her so suddenly and how the pain had forever changed who she was. Shoshana looked at me with her eyes full of tears and I couldn’t hold back my own. I know the feeling of losing a mother. My own mum died when I was 10 years old and like Linda her death came out of nowhere. Now Shoshana and I are both card carrying members of the motherless-daughter club and we cling to each other for support.
I have a memory of my Dad asking me if I wanted to go on a drive with him to the country to spread my mums ashes out in the wild of the prairies. I declined. My pain was so immense that I couldn’t let him see it. I had been told by my Zeyda to not cry or fuss about my mothers impending death and that I was now in charge of the family and I needed to take care of my brother and Dad.
At 10 years old – I did as my grandfather told me and I shut down all the grief, anger and pain so I could focus on taking care of everyone. I did not want anyone to know how heartbroken I was so I pushed it deep inside and locked it away.
Shoshana knew my pain. The day my Dad tossed my mothers ashes into the wind; I was sitting on the roof of Shoshana’s fathers truck when I told her about what my Dad was doing. Then we sat in silence eating our melting popsicles as they dripped down our arms. I can still remember the feeling of my sticky sugary legs sticking to the warm roof of the car.
Shoshana tells me that I’ve always been the mother – even when we were in high school I never drank or really lost control. I was always checking on everyone to make sure they weren’t too high or fucked up. I was always the designated driver. I only had one serious drunken episode where I drank too much before the school dance and when I walked into the coatroom to drop off my jacket I projectile vomited over everyones coats. Whoops. I think that might have been the last time I ever got truly wasted.
Even now as an adult I never really cut loose. I like to make sure that everything and everyone is happy and content and only then can I relax a little.
This was our 2nd visit to the cottage. A friend had loaned us her place on the lake where Shoshana and I went to “work on some writing”. The first year we talked a lot about what was holding us back from exploring our work as writers. Mine is pure distraction. I am always so busy taking care of everything and everyone around me that I never have time to sit and work on my writing.
Or maybe I focus on everyone else so I don’t have to work on my writing.
We napped a lot those first few days. Shoshana had a difficult year where her husband was in and out of town a lot and she was doing the “single mom” thing while he was away. Her son is a beautiful and precocious boy who has great difficulty sleeping and by default Shoshana also gets no sleep so by the time we got to the cabin she was so depleted and rundown that she was unable to do anything but sleep.
On our first day and after she woke up from her first of three naps that day – she lifted her head up from her pillow and said in a childlike voice “when are we going to start being creative?” I told her “You need to nap and sleep without guilt for 2 more days and then you’ll be ready to work.” I was right. Once she was recharged she was ready to sit in front of her computer and do some writing.
We set up our computers in the dining room and sat end to end at a giant harvest table and worked. Shoshana courageously wrote about the death of her mother and I started working on a story that I’ve been wanting to write for a while. We also made a list about what we wanted to accomplish during the year so when we arrived the next year we could see how close we got to our goals.
This 2nd year at the cottage there was a lot less work being done and a lot more introspection. Mostly because it was my turn to nap because I had caught a cold on my travels and was in no shape to do anything but lay around. We spent most of our days on the floating dock eating lunch, swimming and making each other laugh and there were also lots of tears.
There are very few people who I feel comfortable being emotionally vulnerable with. It’s never been easy for me to share my emotions. I continuously shut them down whenever they bubble up. I’ve been doing since I was 10 years old and it’s a hard habit to break.
Both of us have been in and out of therapy for years. Right now I am talking to someone once a week to work on my grief. More then grief – I’ve been working on actually feeling my feelings. It’s been incredibly difficult to troll through old trauma and really feel it without pushing it down and stifling it. Therapy makes me feel lighter. I am starting to make healthier emotional choices. I’m being kinder to myself. Therapy is a lot of work but it’s gratifying.
We laughed together about how we both have a tendency to have an emotional breakthrough or say something earth shattering in the last few minutes of therapy. Shoshana calls them “door knob” issues because your session is almost over and you’re about to walk out the door so you drop an emotional bomb on your therapists lap because you know you’re out of time and about to grab the doorknob and leave.
One of the things I appreciate about my relationship with Shoshana is that whenever we are together we always dig deep. It doesn’t matter that she lives in Toronto and I live in Victoria and that we only see each other a few times a year. We are connected through time and space like cosmic soul-sisters. One day on the dock after a particularly serious conversation I joked with her that anytime either of us had some kind of epiphany that we should jump off the dock into the lake the celebrate.
The next afternoon we were talking for hours about our respective families; Shoshana had a heartbreaking realization and then suddenly jumped up and leaped into the water with wild abandon. It startled me because I had forgotten about my idea about jumping into the lake and I laughed and cried with her as we splashed around feeling victorious.
After that – anytime either one of us realized something important we would immediately jump into the lake to celebrate. Then we would unpack the “door knob” issue while we swam laps around the perimeter of the dock.
The lake was very quiet. We would see the occasional person fishing or kids on jet ski’s but we mostly had the lake to ourselves. We lay on the dock drying our suits in the sun when we noticed a row boat with 3 kids and a woman on a paddle board floating our way.
Shoshana and I talked over whether or not we should leave to go back to the cottage. Not because we are antisocial but more because this time we have together feels sacred and we didn’t want to share our space. I told Shoshana not to stress and that we would stay in our corner and if things got weird we could just leave.
The 3 boys in the boat were about 12 or 13 years old and all speaking French. Shoshana said it sounded like sophisticated French. Educated French. The woman on the paddle board was lean and strong as she paddled her way towards us. We said polite hello’s and watched her climb gracefully off her board and onto our dock.
Shoshana can’t help but be social. She’s never met a stranger she doesn’t like and she asked the woman where she had purchased her paddle board and the next thing we knew we were sitting shooting the breeze with our new friend Barb while her kids played in the lake.
I don’t remember if Barb started sharing or if we asked her the question but she told us all about her life on the lake. She lived there year round but took occasional trips back and forth to Montreal to manage her hair salon. Her husband was an engineer of some sort and while she and Shoshana talked about their respective kids I marvelled to myself at Barbs confidence.
A strawberry blonde with a few freckles peppering her cheeks she was a creamy skinned vision of womanhood sitting confidently on the dock in her 2 piece black bikini. She told us she was 53.
I had just turned 49 about 5 days earlier and can’t look at myself naked in the mirror. My body has always been a source of shame. How I feel in my body never matches how I look in the mirror so I disconnect from my body most of the time and just focus on looking out and not looking down at myself. I jokingly call it “not good enough” disease. That’s another thing Shoshana and I have in common.
Shoshana told Barb that we were visiting the lake for the 2nd year in a row and that we had been best friends since we were little kids and that’s when I saw a flicker of something familiar cross Barb’s face. It was grief.
She told us about her best friend who recently passed away. About how her friend found a lump and the doctors didn’t think it was important until it was much too late to do anything. While Barb was talking longingly about her friend – I looked over at Shoshana and we caught each others gaze but I looked away quickly because I knew I would start crying.
I had a moment where I wrestled with whether or not to tell Barb my story. As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to understand that you don’t have to tell everyone everything about yourself. You can just tell them as much or as little as you want.
But Barb had shared so much with us that I felt comfortable telling her about my breast cancer treatment. How I did the full-meal-deal of mastectomy, chemo and radiation. She asked me if I was ok and I said smiled and told her I was. She smiled back and turned her head to look wistfully at the lake.
What I didn’t tell Barb is that every time I tell someone that I’m doing ok – I have a deep dark fear lurking inside of me that the cancer is going to hear me boasting about how healthy I am and come back to kill me and that sometimes that thought keeps me up at night.
We chatted for a long while and then as Shoshana and I started to pack up to head back to our cottage. Barb looked at us both and said “Cherish each other. Really. Really enjoy each other. Life is short.”
I walked over to Barb and gave her hug and she held me tightly in a warm embrace and said “Oh Sarah. Be well. Be well.” I could see Shoshana standing behind her with tears in her eyes and I closed my eyes and held my breath so I wouldn’t start sobbing.
Shoshana and I said our good byes and climbed into our little pedal-boat and made our way back to the cottage. We got about halfway back when we stopped peddling and drifted with the current.
We started talking about Barb and her loss and I buried my face in my hands and started to cry. “It could have been you Shoshana. Barb could have been you. If I had died you would be sitting on a dock missing me. It’s so sad. It’s so sad.” Shoshana hugged me as best she could from her seat in the boat as we floated quietly through the lily pads back to the cottage.
Our last night at the cottage was a quiet one. We packed our suitcases and got things ready for our trip back home in the morning. Even though the cottage had 4 bedrooms and 5 beds we had spent the week sleeping together in the same bed.
Partly because I had brought along a memory foam mattress topper. The year previous I had hurt my back sleeping on the firm cabin beds but I also think because this trip had felt more tender then the year before and we needed to be close to each other for comfort. The need to be in close proximity had been a running joke all week. One time I went into the basement to grab something and Shoshana yelled from upstairs “TOO FAR! You are too far away from me.”
Our last night in the cabin I had a hard time getting to sleep. I had received a late night text from a family member that is struggling with some personal stuff and I agonized over what to text back. Thankfully Shoshana was there to remind me that it just needed to be heartfelt, loving and supportive.
Laying in the darkened bedroom my thoughts were racing – I rolled over onto my side and looked at Shoshana’s profile in the dark. I watched her chest slowly rise and fall as she slept.
One of my “door knob” issues was about my propensity for taking care of everyone around me and ignoring my own needs. Cancer is a terrible disease but like anything terrible it offers many lessons in it’s wake. Cancer gave me a year reprieve from worrying about anyone else but myself. During that year of treatment I only focused on me but now that treatment was in the rear view mirror and my life was slowing getting back to how it used to be – I had become keenly aware that I have started to fall back into the bad habit of putting myself last.
I thought about our last swim around the dock where we talked about what life was all about. We ruminated about all the usual cliches. How life is so precious and precarious. We asked each other why we were both living for others and not ourselves. We talked about being more in the moment and convinced ourselves that if we are happy that the people we love will be happy.
Then I thought about Barb and her long-gone best friend, about my mother and Linda. I felt a warm surge of gratitude for being alive. So much appreciation for this life-long sister-like relationship I had with Shoshana that has weathered all the ups and downs of life and how we were both so much stronger because of all our heartache.
Laying there in the dark with the sound of the bullfrogs and the chirp of crickets I let go. Instead of pushing down and stifling my feelings I let the tears fall onto my pillow and I curled up close to Shoshana like I did when we were in daycare. Only this time I closed my eyes and fell asleep.