KOOTENAY PLAINS, ALBERTA
When folks came to visit us at our first wilderness home in central Alberta, they were provided with little more direction than to turn right immediately after a particular “curve” sign on the David Thompson Highway. They would then drive down a dirt road for a short distance and park near a footbridge at the North Saskatchewan River, where they would load their belongings on their backs and begin the five-mile hike in to our camp.
Here the beauty of the stark, yellow poplar leaves against the snow- topped mountains and massive open sky looked almost too picturesque to be real. Treading a log bridge across the Siffleur River, they would notice the hoodoos jutting along the bank like jagged stone fingers. Smaller wildlife abounded along the trail—rabbits, chipmunks, porcupines, eagles, woodpeckers and grouse—and on a good day, a bear or moose might wander into view. Farther inland, the variety and number of trees thickened into forest, where the smell of the air changed to include pine and moss. The silence was punctuated only by twittering birds, rushing water and leaves crunching underfoot.
By the time visitors walked into our camp, they could well appreciate why Dick Person had chosen this particular part of the world to move his family to. And by the time they tasted a wild game meal cooked by my grandma Jeanne, succumbed to the soothing rhythm of Papa Dick’s rambling teachings and sampled some of my family’s home-grown against a background of Jimi Hendrix, they’d feel like they never wanted to leave.
Perhaps the counterculture dream would have remained intact for Fred if it weren’t for my uncle Dane. Then again, considering our complicated family dynamics, maybe Dane was just the biggest festering wound among many smaller ones.
I don’t remember Fred. When he came to stay with us, I was three years old. He was one of many summer visitors who came to our tipis during that year and the year before and the year after, eager to meet my grandfather and learn our off-the-grid ways. I say “my grandfather” because even though my mother and two aunts and Grandma Jeanne and I were there, it was always Papa Dick they flocked to. Some suggested he might have missed his calling, that he had the rare brand of charisma found in a cult leader and could have been more than a wilderness guide who extolled the virtues of wild game meat and shit pits and life in the bush in minus-fifty-degree weather in canvas tipis. But my grandfather had none of the zeal required to assemble a cult following. The only religion he preached was nonconformity.
This was Fred’s fourth visit to our tipis. He’d been introduced to my family by David, an experienced bush guide and regular around our camp. Fred didn’t think there was a person in the world who loved the outdoors as much as David did, until he met my grandfather. Here was a man whose beliefs left no room for other people’s opinions, and though Fred sometimes found this hard to take, he also admired it. With my grandfather, he always knew just what to expect—or so he thought.
This time when Papa Dick greeted Fred, David, and Fred’s brother at the footbridge to accompany them into our camp, they were met not with blissful silence but by the grinding noise of a chainsaw. “My son’s building a cabin,” my grandfather said by way of explanation. “Just came up from Ponoka—arrived here last month, and he’s been going at it ever since.”
Fred nodded but didn’t comment. My grandmother had mentioned to him once that they had a son with mental issues, but the son’s presence wasn’t as surprising as the fact that Dick was allowing a cabin to be built at all, much less with a chainsaw. Fred knew my grandfather’s views on such things. Papa Dick had chosen to live in a tipi because he believed the thin walls brought one into closer alignment with nature and also because the circular structure encouraged the flow of energy, while square buildings blocked it with their man- made angles and thick walls. And other than the old VW bus my grandfather occasionally drove into town for supplies and the car battery he used to power his tape deck, he didn’t believe in technology. Batteries, electricity and gas-powered motors changed the molecular charge of the environment, he explained, which was why he himself had built the structure for three tipis and all of our family’s furniture using nothing more than a handsaw, an axe and a hammer.
As if reading Fred’s mind, Papa Dick glanced in the direction of the noise. “I don’t like it either. But at least he’s not building at the camp. I wouldn’t allow it. He’s up Siffleur Valley a bit.” He paused, scratching his head through his wool cap, then dropped his voice slightly. “And he’s, well . . . off his meds.”
“Ah. An unexpected visit, then,” Fred responded through a plume of frozen breath.
Everything Grandma Jeanne had told him was coming back to him now—the paranoid schizophrenia, the years at Ponoka Mental Hospital, and the final straw that had sent him there: Dane snatching me from my mother when I was a baby and locking me in the cellar with him.
“You could say that. And there’s not much talking to him. In fact it’s best to not try at all. Here’s the thing . . .” Papa Dick met the men’s eyes in turn. “Dane’s got a bow and arrow, and he’s a good shot.” Then he stepped closer and pressed his rifle into Fred’s hands. “Don’t be afraid to use this. If you feel threatened, don’t hesitate to shoot first.”
Fred stared at him as a jumble of questions whirled in his head. But Papa Dick had already turned to lead the way back to camp, leaving Fred and his companions exchanging uneasy glances in the fading daylight.
After they arrived at our camp, the first order of the evening was to organize accommodations. Since the frozen ground of late fall made tenting a rather miserable option, Mom and I decamped to the cooking tipi so Fred and his companions could sleep in ours. At that point, Mom and I were still a couple months away from having a real wood stove, so in the meantime our tipi was outfitted with the Guzzler, which wasn’t really a stove at all but a rusty barrel with a hole cut out of it. The stove smoked incessantly and lent little warmth.
After shivering in his sleeping bag all night, Fred would come over and help Mom set up breakfast. The cooking tipi wasn’t much better, because to make room for the stove’s chimney, the flaps needed to be left wide open, allowing into the tipi a steady cascade of snow.
“Kids. They don’t feel the cold, do they?” Fred commented to Mom, watching as I ran outside coatless.
“Probably just used to it. It’s pretty much all she’s ever known.”
Fred tried being friendly to me, but I wasn’t having it. Most men who visited our camp ended up doing the screwing with Mom, which meant Mom paid more attention to them than me, and attention was already hard to come by. But I needn’t have worried about Fred. The real threat to my security was Randall, who came by regularly attempting to woo Mom back into his bearskin bed. Randall was the chief of the Cree Indian tribe across the river, and he and Mom had been going hot and cold practically since we’d moved here. Once, at the sight of Randall’s face and while Fred looked on, I threw myself into Mom’s lap and screamed as if I were being mauled by a bear. Fred was twenty-two years old and hadn’t paid much attention to kids before, but I made myself pretty hard to miss. While I cried, he held my Suzie Doll out to me and tried to coax me to play. I ignored him, but the next day when everyone gathered for supper in the cooking tipi, I let him sit next to me.
For Fred, mealtimes were the best and worst part of his visit. Best because Grandma Jeanne was a fantastic cook, and food was abundant that time of year, so there were caribou tacos, bear meat with dried wild morels, grouse in soy sauce butter and pancakes served with strawberry preserves and homemade yogourt. But mealtime was also when Dane came around. As Fred walked over to the cooking tipi, my uncle would announce his presence by swaggering around outside with his bow and arrow, taking sudden aim at nothing in particular while muttering under his breath. Inside, Dane would stand near the stove, fingering the hunting knife at his hip while yammering on about fellow patients at the mental hospital. “Stanley, you know, he just can’t keep it in his pants. We’ll be sitting around at supper, and he’ll whip it out and go for it right there. Even during group he’ll do it. One time he did it and smeared it all over the walls before the nurses could catch him.” He’d cackle wildly, but nobody else even broke a smile.
At least when supper was over, Dane would scurry away again, leaving the women to cleanup duty. With no electricity or plumbing, there was much to be done—water heated on the stove to wash the dishes, food put back in coolers and up onto the tree platform to keep it safe from animals, and preparations started for the next morning’s breakfast. Papa Dick would clean his rifles or sharpen his hunting knives or read a book, but Fred didn’t mind helping out. He’d dry the dishes with Grandma Jeanne while I put them away, then he’d grind the wheat to make flour for the next morning’s pancakes. Other than me, Fred wasn’t quite sure what to make of the Person females. My aunt Jessie was slow because of her mentally challenged state, but at least she was helpful—unlike my aunt Jan, who seemed like a different person each time she showed up. So far Fred had met screaming- and-throwing Jan, despondent Jan and maniacally productive Jan. My mother was the highest functioning of all of them, and even she lacked common sense and seemed way out of her element as a parent. But there were plenty of positives too. One thing Fred noticed was that no one ever complained about the work to be done—especially Grandma Jeanne, who seemed to carry the burden of it. She’d pass a joint around to Fred and her daughters, and as they tackled chores, they’d talk about food foraging and the uses of various plants and animal parts.
Fred and his companions’ main reason for visiting us this time was to fell a big game animal with Papa Dick. They weren’t sport hunters, of course, as such an ignoramus would never be tolerated by my grand- father. Whatever they hunted would be used completely—meat, bones, organs and hide. Day after day, as the four of them made their way through waist-high snow and across deep crevices along the Ram Ridge, the constant buzzing of the chainsaw faded into the background. The noise, which annoyed and likely scared off animals, actually became a comfort to Fred, because he knew that as long as he could hear it, the hunters were not being hunted. Still, as Dane continued to show up at the tipi with his tales of screaming paranoiacs and compulsive masturbators each night, Fred grew more uncomfortable. He tried to be sociable with Dane, but my uncle just growled in Fred’s face and laughed at him like he were some sort of bad joke that only Dane was in on.
One night, everyone was eating curried elk ribs when I happened to toddle across the fir-bough floor in front of my uncle. He kicked his foot out and punted me across the tipi. Instinctively, Fred moved to comfort me as I screamed indignantly from my landing place in the woodpile, but Mom and Grandma Jeanne got to me first.
“You asshole!” Mom screamed at her brother. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
Dane shrugged and went back to his dinner. “Not everyone can like kids.”
The next morning, Fred packed up, along with his brother, and left us with a heavy heart. His utopian ideal had been shattered. What’s more, he was going home empty-handed; no big game had materialized during his visit. But as he got into his bus and began the drive south back to Calgary, there was one thing he couldn’t get out of his mind: me. He thought about an only child in a world of questionable adults that included a deranged and potentially lethal uncle. He remembered Dane kicking me into the woodpile. But he also thought about the family members who had rushed to my aid. I may have been grubby, poorly dressed and at the mercy of the elements, but I was also well-fed and seemingly happy. At least I was loved—that much he could see. It gave him some comfort, because he knew he would never return to our tipi camp again.
I looked up from my notebook. “So, that’s it?” I asked him across the table, and he nodded.
I tucked my pen and notebook into my handbag, once more becoming aware of the sounds and movements around me: orders for skinny half-caf extra-hot lattes being placed, BMWs and Land Rovers cruising by the windows. I was still here—the Bean, West Vancouver, 2015. My past was safely tucked away, only to be brought out if and when I felt like examining it. I leaned across the table.
“Thank you, Fred. You’ve given me the first chapter of my new book. But more than that, you’ve given me your honesty.”
“I’m just happy I could help,” he replied. “I guess I sort of always wondered—seeing that little girl like that, you know?”
I nodded. Sitting across from Fred, his hair still long and clothes still bush-ready, I felt closer to the spirit of my passed-on family than I had since I’d written about them in my first book. Fred was one of the many folks who’d known us in the wilderness and re-entered my life since my memoir was released eighteen months before. Initially I’d dreaded their responses, worrying they’d find my portrayal of my family too unvarnished, lacking the idealism of their own experiences. The reality had been the opposite—beautiful, heartfelt emails thanking me for revealing the complex facets of the Persons.
“You heard about David, right?” Fred said, sipping his herbal tea. “He died a few years later. After he left your camp and went off to live in the bush with his family.”
“Yes. Rescuing his pot plants from a storm, is that right? Drowned in a river.” I shook my head. This story seemed to sum up my feelings about my family’s lifestyle—how opposite their values were to my own.
“Uh-huh. Crazy story.”
I gave a little laugh. “Yeah, crazy. Seems to be the theme of my life. I mean, I didn’t even know Dane was in the Kootenay Plains until you told me just now. I wrote my entire first book having no idea of that. Just goes to show how the past can change, even when it’s immortalized on paper.”
“Yeah. Well, Dane was the worst of them, but your grandparents didn’t have it easy with any of those kids. At least in the wilderness, they didn’t have to worry about them fitting into society. I guess you couldn’t blame Dick for wanting to be free of his children’s problems.” Maybe, I thought, except that my grandfather was at least partly responsible for them. Along with eschewing government and societal expectations, he and my grandmother had also shunned boundaries, discipline and formal education. Instead of spending their teen years at school, all four of the kids had spent them at home doing drugs and having sex with various partners. How much of an effect their lifestyle had had on their varying illnesses—from mental challenge to schizophrenia to bipolar and depression—was uncertain, but the result had been four uneducated adults with few life skills. One of them, of course, was a young parent destined to repeat her parents’ patterns—my mother.
“Oh, well,” I said lightly. “It gave me a great story to tell, right?”
Fred didn’t crack a smile, and I felt my own wilt and vanish on my face. I recalled a conversation I’d had several months ago with another woman who’d known me as a child. It’s a miracle you survived your family at all, Adrienne said to me. A lot like what Fred was saying to me right now. But until recently, I’d spent my life downgrading my experiences, choosing to view them as the carefree whims of a freedom- loving family, even seeing my past as comical at times.
Now I understood that what happened in my childhood had been more than abnormal—it hadn’t been right. My family’s insistence on living without fear and rejecting nearly everything deemed acceptable by society had made me constantly question my intuition about what felt wrong. In truth I’d been in real danger on more occasions than I could count. And I had my published memoir to thank for this revelation. Since its release, I’d fielded questions from hundreds of readers alarmed by my family’s lackadaisical treatment of young Cea. Had I not written my book, would I ever have learned to trust my own gauge for “normal”? I couldn’t be sure, and by virtue of that, my readers had given me a gift that I could never repay. If North of Normal had been a test of how my disclosures would be received, my second book would in part say thank you to readers for embracing them. Because now, finally, I was ready to tell the rest of my story.
Fred leaned forward in his chair. “So, I’m curious. Where does your new book pick up?”
I propped my hands beneath my chin, thinking of myself nearly two decades earlier at the age of twenty-eight. For years I’d managed to hold it together—succeeded at a career, formed reasonably functional relationships and kept the veneer of my past and present smooth and shiny-looking for outsiders and close friends. But I’d always suspected that the repercussions of my childhood would one day be my downfall. What I had never imagined was how far and hard that fall would be, or that it would take me almost a decade to make it through my dark tunnel of reckoning.
“Vielen dank! Auf Wiedersehen!”
I blew a cheery kiss to the photo crew and exited the studio, closing the door quickly behind me.
Standing on the sidewalk for a moment, I let my chin drop and my shoulders slump. The act was over for another day. I’d done my job, smiled for the camera and the client, cracked self-deprecating jokes with the photographer, learned the other model’s life story in a day. In a month or so, I’d be rebooked for another job with this client and repeat the whole process, with no one ever suspecting that in the weeks between, I’d been desperately looking for a way to unmake this perfect-looking life I’d created.
I walked in the direction of the U-Bahn station, wishing I felt the same sense of urgency to get home that I imagined the drivers of passing cars to have. Home—it was a word I pondered all too often these days. I wondered what it must be like to take it for granted, to not question its definition nor yearn for something so basic. I’d lived in Europe for nine years, and still it didn’t feel remotely like what I imagined home should feel like. In theory my home was Canada, a place where I’d rarely known a fixed address and yet whose memory still lent me comfort. It was strange to think of my country and not be able to picture an actual shelter to return to. Back in Calgary, Mom lived in a rundown apartment with a boyfriend whose dislike of me was about as strong as mine was for him. My vision of home was a place that didn’t exist yet—a cottage-style house with a front porch, furnished with white sofas and painted wood tables. I’d been collecting items for it for years, slowly building up an inventory of dishes and wineglasses and linens like a child with a hope chest. Lately I’d taken to opening my boxes of treasures and gazing at them longingly, furnishing my house room by room in my mind as I tried to ignore the whisper at the back of my mind: You know it’s not going to happen. Move to Canada and your career is over. Now put your pathetic little dreams away and get back to reality.
This was true enough—Canada’s small-scale fashion industry made it nearly impossible to support yourself as a model, especially in the western provinces. And for as long as I could remember, my career had been the one thing in my life I didn’t have to question. I’d wanted to be a model as a child, I’d become one at thirteen, and I was enjoying a successful career. I’d always figured that when I was done with it, I would pursue writing, though I’d done shamefully little to prepare for such a career switch—since high school, I hadn’t written much more than postcards to friends and a few tortured poems. I had every reason to stay in Europe, but at twenty-eight years old, I felt as lost now as I’d once been in the forest as a child. My past still haunted me. I drank and partied to forget it. Six months of therapy had done little more than pull the scabs off my wounds. The bottom line was that I wanted out, and these days, my choices seemed to have little to do with logic and everything to do with emotion.
I entered the U-Bahn and took the train to my neighbourhood of Schwabing—young, hip and full of trendy shops and restaurants that no longer held my interest. I let myself in to my apartment and picked up the mail from the floor. At the top of the stack was an envelope with a Vancouver return address. I smiled as I tore it open and pulled out a letter and photograph. James had been introduced to me through the mail by our mutual friend Suzana, and I’d taken the lead several weeks earlier by sending him the first letter. I gazed at his photo. He was handsome, in a Robert Redford sort of way, though not the type—tall, stubble-cheeked, ever camera-ready with a dazzling smile—that I usually went for. None of those men had worked out so far, so maybe it was time for a change. He was a man of substance, Suzana had assured me, brilliantly intelligent and ready for the right woman to come into his life. And he lived in Canada.
A switch turned on in my head. It was easy, too easy—but why shouldn’t it be? I’d struggled for as long as I could remember: to survive my family’s lifestyle, escape their values, establish my career, and move beyond my failed first marriage. Maybe it was finally my time for something to come to me painlessly. I placed James’s photo on my bedside table and got out my writing paper.
A few days after I received the letter from James, I was robbed on a train. Though it was not evident to me until later, all my life I’d seen signs when I was making a mistake. But no, I thought. Not this time.
For as long as I can remember, impatience has been my greatest curse and blessing. My mother’s nickname for me was Now-Now Girl, because I wanted everything right that minute. Mom was the opposite. Slow and leisurely, she often slept until well past noon and rarely got around to making decisions at all, instead letting life blow her where it would. As a result, I felt powerless over everyday activities. When I was a child, I just wanted her to wake up and make me some breakfast, or look for my coat because we’d just moved again and I wanted to go outside. When I could manage it, I’d help myself—find an apple in her purse, or unpack our bags one by one to find what I needed, leaving our belongings strewn about our latest tipi or tent. But when I was at her mercy—to find a school for me, buy us some groceries or walk me to a friend’s house—I would sit waiting, ready to go, while she rolled out of bed, bathed, ate breakfast, smoked a joint, got dressed. Two, three hours I would wait. Near the beginning, the first prickles of impatience would crawl up from my legs into my stomach. An hour later, I’d feel like jumping out of my skin. The energy that built inside me felt like poison, so I’d try to expel it by pacing, commenting, looking pointedly at the clock if we happened to have one. This went on for years, until I became completely self-sufficient in my teens—and each time it happened, I reached my boiling point faster.
“You’re so impatient, Cea,” Mom used to say to me all the time. I saw it differently, that I was probably just medium impatient, but her lagging made it worse. Whatever the cause, the wait for any kind of gratification came to feel like a toxin crawling beneath my skin. My cure became a forward rush, arms stroking and legs kicking as if they could propel me ever faster through time, into newness and away from whatever situation was ailing me. Only when I became an adult did I realize that at some point, I had begun to equate patience with lack of productivity. And this was sometimes dangerously incorrect.
Right from the beginning, James made an effort to be in my life. I’d been in plenty of long-distance relationships over the years, and often I found that I was the one visiting; I was the one calling and writing and sending the mixed tapes in the mail. That was my pattern, of course—to take all responsibility off others so I could feel worthy of being loved. Once, I had a flash of insight—that my ex-husband Kevin, the one person who had clearly loved me more than I had him, had also been the man I’d cheated on with practically any guy who looked my way. I’d felt suffocated by and squeamish about the level of closeness he wanted from me, so after we split up, the easy answer was to seek out men who didn’t desire such intimacy—men who cared less for me than I did for them. But that moment of recognition was fleeting and unwelcome, because I didn’t like to think of myself as the same person who’d married at twenty-two for little more than a sense of normalcy. I wanted to think of myself as tough and independent, as someone who didn’t need a man in her life but would welcome one into it if he was special enough.
My correspondence with James continued through the mail for two months. “I’ve always wanted to change the world,” James said to me not long after we finally met in person. “But now I can’t imagine trying to change it without you.”
Yes. To me, James was special enough. Right away I sensed a loyal commitment in him that I could imagine stretching years into the future. His introversion balanced my extroversion. He had a brilliant mind, with no shortage of passionate ideas. When I imagined telling him the truth about my past, it didn’t terrify me. I hadn’t yet told much to anyone, and the one time I had, it ended badly. But now, for the first time in my life, I felt ready for someone to truly know me. Not long after we met, James flew to Germany so we could spend a week together. We visited the local lakeshores, drank beer at Oktoberfest and spent three days strolling the streets of Prague. “Look,” he said one day, pointing through the window of a café to an elderly couple walking hand in hand. “That’ll be us someday.”
My cheeks warmed pleasantly. “You think so?”
“Are you kidding? I never imagined I’d meet someone like you. I feel like the luckiest man alive.”
“I feel the same way,” I replied, and it was true. I’d fallen in love with him in a ridiculously short amount of time. That was my standard MO, of course, but I conveniently tucked that knowledge away. I’d already decided that James would be my home, the arms that welcomed me back to Canada, and any further insight into that decision would only present an inconvenience.
James smiled and took my hand. “Listen. I know it hasn’t been very long, and you’ve got your career to think about—”
“My career? Well, I’m kind of at a crossroads right now . . .”
“Right. So. Would you ever consider moving in with me? In Canada, I mean.”
“Yes. I mean, of course!” My stomach fluttered happily. This was going to be easy!
Six months after James and I first exchanged letters, I packed up my life in Munich and put it on a plane to Vancouver. I’d never been more hopeful that I was doing the right thing, because deep down I understood that if I couldn’t bury myself in James’s world, I had no idea how I was going to face mine alone.
Settling back into life in Canada was like renewing a relationship with an old boyfriend: comfortable and a little thrilling, but also a reminder of all the reasons I’d left. For me, the reason that stood out the most was my family—especially Mom. To say that she and I had grown apart during my twelve years away from Canada was a convenient way to satisfy those who enquired, but the truth was much more complex.
I knew my mother and I had been close when I was young; I could remember how I felt when she was near me, that I wanted happiness for her even more than for myself. But when I tried to think back to when that might have been, I kept coming up against barriers. I’d think it was when I was ten, after we moved to Calgary, but then I’d remember that she was taking me out to parties every weekend and bringing home strange men—so it must have been before that. When I was eight, maybe, the time she and I hitchhiked from Vancouver to the Yukon and nearly met our end when some psycho picked us up, but that’s when she was pretending not to know her boyfriend had molested me—so it must have been even before that. When I was six, squatting in the summer cottage in Celista? Yes. Back then, I accepted her completely, because I had little understanding that our life should be any different. She was my entire world, and I believed I was an important part of hers. It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I became certain I wasn’t.
During my time in Europe, I’d tried to come to terms with my conflicted feelings for my mother. “She will never be the parent you want her to be,” my therapist there said to me. “That doesn’t mean she can’t add value to your life. Find the good in your relationship, and release your expectations.”
She was right, I had to concede, and from across the planet, it had all sounded doable. But her boyfriend complicated matters greatly. He’d entered our lives when I was eleven, quickly sweeping her out of my world and into his world, despite the fact that he was a married father. As Sam’s presence in our home grew, mine seemed to disappear. Though my mother spent much of her time crying and I spent much of mine trying to talk sense into her, the affair continued. It was clear that Sam resented my disapproval and refusal to accept their relationship, so I learned that my best strategy was to avoid him as much as possible by staying in my room. But this also meant avoiding Mom, because every minute he was in our house, she was stuck to his side, and when he wasn’t, she was pining for him in a faraway place that had nothing to do with me.
Five years into their affair, Sam returned to his wife, but not long after that he and my mother reunited. She swiftly moved in with him, putting me in the uncomfortable position of being forced to see him whenever I wanted to visit her. To mitigate the situation I tried to get her to come to Europe, but year after year she refused, insisting that she was needed at home. I did my best to choose justification over anger. It’s a long way to come. She always says how much she loves me and misses me. She tells me how happy she is that she had me. I wanted to believe that we were not completely broken.
Now living in the same country as my mother, I came face to face with the full force of the expectations my therapist had tried to erase. “Come and visit me,” I said to Mom again and again from James’s place in Vancouver. “It’s only a one-hour flight. I’ll pay for it.”
“I just can’t,” she’d say softly, and her unspoken words revealed to me again and again who was winning in the ongoing contest for her attention that I always seemed to wage against her lovers.
And then, just a few months after I moved to Vancouver, Mom called to tell me she had breast cancer.
Our conversation was terse, an exchange of information with little emotion. But after we spoke, I put the phone down and cried hysterically. Was this really how it was going to be? That her doctor had reported her tumour to be slow-moving and likely survivable offered me little comfort. With sudden force, all the layers of our relationship, all the trials we’d been through together and all the love she’d ever shown me gathered inside me in a complex bundle of pain, guilt and longing for what could never be. I’d been holding on to a secret hope that we could one day regain the close relationship we’d had when I was a child, with only each other to rely on.
Pushing my pride aside, I went to the house she shared with him, and I was sitting on the sofa drinking tea with her when he came in the door. He smiled at me as if we were old friends; I gritted my teeth and let him hug me. Mom beamed at us.
“It was so good to see you two getting along so well,” she said later, and it occurred to me that she’d said these very words to me just a few months before her old boyfriend Barry started molesting me. “You see? You just had to give him a chance.”
I kept my mouth shut. Was it really that simple for her? Did she think that decades of damage could be undone with one awkward hug? My mother’s eagerness to bury painful memories was as strong as my own need to remember and privately process them. But if there was one thing we had in common, it seemed to be our shared inability to learn from the past.
A month later, Mom went in for a mastectomy. I was sitting in the hallway outside the recovery room with Grandma Jeanne and Sam when an orderly wheeled her by on a stretcher, and all three of us reached our hands out toward her. She squeezed her mother’s hand briefly and then gripped Sam’s, missing mine completely.
When I left modelling behind in Europe, I had a good idea of what I wanted my next career to be. Hadn’t my high school English teacher always told me I had a talent for creative writing? I would write novels along the lines of Anita Shreve’s, I imagined, full of multi-layered characters and family dramas resulting in tragedy. I figured I’d give myself some time to adjust to my new life, take a creative writing course or two and then get started. But not long after Mom’s surgery, I was flipping through Jane magazine in my doctor’s office when I noticed a section called “It Happened to Me.” I stopped, read, scrutinized. Readers—tell us your crazy story! the banner at the bottom of the page urged me, and I mentally snapped my fingers. People had been telling me for years that I should tell my life story—people who barely knew the iceberg’s tip of it. It wasn’t fiction I was meant to write; it was my memoir.
Excitedly I rushed home and down the stairs to the basement. James was sitting at his workbench tinkering with his new invention, a contraption whose purpose I didn’t have much hope of understanding. But that was one of the things that had attracted me to him—he seemed to contain mysterious, exotic depths of knowledge.
“Check this out,” I said, jabbing a finger at the article. “You know how I’ve had this, like, really crazy childhood, and how I also want to write? I know I haven’t told you much about my past, but—well, we can talk about that later—the point is, that’s what I’m meant to write about! And I can start right now, with this magazine!” I thrust it in front of his face, and he laughed.
“You’re so dedicated to finding your calling—I love that about you,” he said. “Whatever you decide to do, you’re going to be amazing at it.” He went back to his project, but I didn’t mind. James was like that—calm, focused on his ideas, encouraging me to come up with my own. My writing, I was certain, would make him proud.
Over the next couple of days, I banged out three hundred words about my childhood in the tipis and slipped the pages into a mailing envelope. It was a crazy story, even I could see that—how could they not publish it? And that would be just the beginning—some editor would come across it, beg me to turn out my memoir, and voilà, my new career would be born! I got into my car and drove to the post office, buzzing with anticipation.
Two blocks later, I pulled over to the side of the road with my pulse jumping. What the hell is wrong with me? Open this can of worms and I can never hide again. Everyone will know my past, my secrets, my shame.
I drove home and dropped the envelope into the recycle bin. And as I did, something inside me closed. I realized that not only had I not gotten around to telling James much about my past, but he also hadn’t asked about it. Maybe, I thought, the only way I could be with a man was to create and embody the person that both of us needed me to be.
I stood at the Banana Republic cash register trying to ignore my mounting anxiety as each beep of the scanner rang up my purchases. Part of who I was was a consumer. Shopping had been my weakness since I’d earned my first dollar. In my modelling heyday, I’d easily spent a few thousand dollars a month on clothes and shoes and household items, and even though I could afford it, I did sometimes question my deep need to acquire. Was it rebellion against my family’s non-consumerist values, a reaction to growing up feeling ugly in my thrift-store finds, or an attempt to fill a deep well of emptiness by stuffing replacement love/acceptance/belonging into shopping bags like some stuffed food into their mouths? Or perhaps it had something to do with my growing up thinking “making money” was the change you got back from the cashier after you bought something at the store. In any case, my dwindling bank account didn’t keep me from indulging more than I should have, especially when my life felt directionless. Since giving up on my writing idea, I’d had little success in finding my life’s purpose, and after working steadily since the age of thirteen with a clear intention, such aimless floundering was excruciating. I craved productivity, busyness, a place to focus the energy and drive that had propelled me for so many years.
“Keep at it. You’ll figure it out,” James would say. He believed in me, I knew he did—just as I believed in him. Unlike me, who could barely come up with a single creative career idea, James was full of them. Venture concepts bounced like rubber balls as he excitedly cast them out to me over dinner. Though I understood little of what he was saying—science, technology and business plans were not my forte—his enthusiasm was infectious.
The Banana Republic cashier read out my total with a smile, and I handed over my debit card. At least James wasn’t here to see how much money I’d spent; though he’d come shopping with me, he was nowhere to be found. I did a quick round of the store and then walked into the mall, annoyed by his disappearance. I was about to dial his number on my cell phone, when I spied him in a jewellery store across the way. I rushed over and stood beside him, hand on hip.
“Hey, I’ve been looking all over for you. What are you doing?” “Buying you an engagement ring.”
“What?” I pulled back in surprise. This was typical of James, to deliver startling news with little emotion or preamble. I was sometimes struck by our absolute opposite characters—I was always rambling on to friends at parties while he stayed quiet; self-deprecating where he was serious; uncertain of my convictions where he seemed unwavering in his; grounded where he was busy dreaming up life- changing ideas. But so far, it seemed to be working.
“Sure. We’ve talked about it, right?” James said, shrugging. “Do you like this one?” He held out a modest solitaire set in white gold.
“Well, sure, I mean . . . okay.” My thoughts were spinning.
We had talked about it, of course, and generally things were on track. We’d just bought a house in deep suburbia, the only area we could afford in this overpriced market, and I was hoping our new space on neutral ground would finally give me the sense of home that had continued to elude me.
I gazed down at the ring in James’s hand. At least I had him. At least I wasn’t going through the motions of a pretend-happy life alone.
“It’s very pretty,” I said.
“All right.” James smiled, slipping it onto my finger. “We’ll have to get it fitted, of course, but here you go.”
I sat beside James in my window seat, staring glumly out at the whiteness shrouding the plane. I knew I should have been happy— after all, I was on my way to the beautiful island of St. Lucia to get married—but my head felt dark and heavy. Just before we left, Mom had called to inform me that although her oncologist had recommended a round of radiation to kill any remaining cancer cells, she’d decided against it in favour of alternative medicine. As far as I could gather, this would consist of Chinese herbs, acupuncture treatments, and her go-to homeopathic cure of Rescue Remedy drops. There was no talking to her about it, and I knew with absolute certainly that she was going to die. More than sadness, I felt helplessness and anger at her absolute refusal to face reality. It seemed this was destined to be the dynamic of our relationship—her making bad choices, me trying to make her see reason, each of us frustrated with the other. Sometimes I wondered if she ever saw the poor choices I’d made over the years—certainly she didn’t comment if she did. I put it down to her unfailing determination to live in the present and remain positive, but sometimes it infuriated me—weren’t mothers supposed to offer their unsolicited opinions? I would happily have labelled it guidance.
I sighed and turned to look at James’s profile. The man I was four days away from marrying was right here, a potential captive audience to my musings for the next three hours, and I couldn’t say a word to him about what was going on in my head. Since early in our relationship, it had been clear to me that James regarded my mother as little more than an annoyance, so what I shared about her had petered out to almost nothing. It occurred to me that my ambiguity over revealing my past had resulted in my subconscious choice in a man—someone who really wasn’t interested in hearing about it. But maybe this was for the best, I thought. Maybe my childhood and complex family relationships needed to stay where they were, buried beneath layers of love and resentment and joy and pain. I could never hope to explain them to the man beside me, or to anyone else for that matter.
I sighed and opened my book, trying to redirect my foul mood. My cheeks felt too warm. I stripped off my cardigan and then my T-shirt. Even wearing just a tank top, I felt my face breaking out in sweat. I turned to James and put my hand on his arm.
“Hey. Are you okay?” he asked in surprise.
“No,” I managed to say as I unbuckled my seat belt. “Bathroom—” I tried to step over his legs, and that’s when I blacked out, tumbling into the aisle headfirst like a rag doll.
When I regained consciousness, James, two flight attendants and a passenger were looming over me.
“What happened?” I asked.
“You fainted,” a flight attendant replied. “That’s weird. I’ve never fainted in my life.”
“How do you feel now?”
“Fine. I think.” I was helped up, put back into my seat, buckled in. “Thank you,” I said to no one in particular, embarrassed by all the faces now turned my way. “We’re, uh . . . on our way to get married. Just nerves, I guess,” I added with a weak laugh.
The lady in front of James turned to peer at me between the seats. “Well, let’s hope this isn’t a bad sign, then.”
Of course it wasn’t a bad sign. If St. Lucia was lovely, our Sandals resort was magical, immediately putting me under its spell of breezy palm trees, bottomless piña coladas, and sugar-sand beach. This was the sort of place women in childbirth or people on the verge of painful death might transport their minds to, and being there did well to erase the tumult of my anxious thoughts.
A couple of days before our wedding, James and I went scuba diving. He’d recently introduced me to the sport, and though I’d quickly come to love it, I had only a few dives under my belt. As we swam side by side, I watched a school of fish go by in a synchrony of flashing yellow and blue. James pointed to a dark shape, a massive manta ray cruising the ocean floor above trailing sea plants. I swam after a baby sea turtle. Lobsters’ antennae waved in the current. A moray eel darted out of its den, startling me. I stopped beside the reef wall. We were at 110 feet, my deepest dive yet, and I knew that between the depth and my nerves, I was sucking air too fast. I checked my dive computer. I was down to 400 PSI, just enough to get me to the surface again.
I spun in a slow circle, looking for James. I could see a few divers from our boat in the distance, but not my fiancé. James was an exceptionally safe and conscientious diver, and I knew I had a tendency to swim off. If I couldn’t see him, he had to be just behind me, hidden by the reef. I started back that way, but anxiety was making me breathe fast, which was exactly what I shouldn’t do. Stay calm, I thought. You need to stay calm. Ascending alone was a bad idea, but I would have to make a decision soon.
Suddenly James was beside me, holding my dive computer and signalling for me to remove my regulator. Relief rushed through me. I took the regulator from my mouth, trying not to think that all there was between life and death was a single, accidental inhalation of water. James pushed his spare regulator into my mouth and slammed the purge button.
Are you okay? he signalled with his hand, and I signalled back that I was.
We bobbed in place for a minute, while my heart rate returned to normal. James pulled out his underwater slate and started writing, then held it up for me to see. I love you. Will you marry me? he’d scrawled in messy black letters.
I nodded, filled with relief. Though I hadn’t wanted to make him feel bad about his original proposal, it hadn’t exactly bowled me over. But I hadn’t given him enough credit—he did get it.
I put my hand in his, and we stayed like that, two people connected to a single life source. The moment felt symbolic. As we floated face to face, it occurred to me that maybe I’d been looking at James the wrong way—that his power in helping me heal lay not in his ability to listen and empathize but in the similarities I recognized between him and my family. In James I saw the protection of my grandfather, the hard work ethic of my grandmother, the optimism of my mother and the intelligence of the father I still yearned to connect with. Perhaps this was my second chance to experience their best qualities without their selfishness and dysfunction. Maybe I could actually have the happy life I’d always pretended to. Because for as long as I could remember, I’d been smiling through my pain.
If the porcupine caught up to me, it would jump on me and jab me with its quills. I counted as I ran: one, two, three, four . . . If I made it to the fallen log up ahead by the time I got to ten, I decided, the porcupine would climb a tree and leave me alone. I made it to the log by the count of eight, then I stopped for a moment to catch my breath. Not for long, though, because if my grandparents got too far ahead of me, I’d never find them again, and I’d be lost in the forest just like Hansel and Gretel in my Big Blue Book.
“Grandma Jeanne, wait up!” I called.
My grandmother stopped and glanced back at me. “Keep going, Cea. Try to keep up with us, okay?” She started walking again.
“But how much farther? How long?” I asked for the hundredth time.
“Soon. We’re almost at the river. You’re doing great.”
I scrambled after them. Papa Dick walked just ahead of my grandmother, the quietest on his feet even though he had the heaviest load on his back. There had been a wet spot on my bum for the past hour or so, and I knew what it was without looking. My pack was filled with chunks of the caribou Papa Dick had shot this morning, and some of it had come free of its wrapping and was dripping blood. But there was no time to fix it. Papa Dick had said we had to get back to our tipi camp before sundown, so that we could get the meat into coolers before it spoiled. That and so we wouldn’t get lost.
I was four, a year older than I had been when a man named Fred came to visit our tipi camp. I wasn’t born in the wilderness, but I may as well have been, because it was all I remembered. Mom told me that she’d carried me all the way from California to Canada in her womb, that I was born right at sunrise and that we all lived in a drafty old house in a town called Hills. She had one picture of me in that house. I was sitting in a chair with a tray around my belly, and there was flowery paper on the wall behind me. I liked that paper. When I asked Mom why we didn’t stay there, she told me that the house had never really been part of Papa Dick’s grand plan. He’d moved his family to Canada so we could be in the wilderness, and we’d only stayed at that crappy house because Mom had been so sad about my dad leaving her, she’d almost gone crazy like my uncle Dane. At that part of the story, I stopped asking Mom questions, because I didn’t even know my dad, so he was boring to talk about.
But hunting trips weren’t boring. We’d been away from our camp for four days, and I’d loved every minute of it, even though Grandma Jeanne kept saying how she couldn’t wait to get back to take a bath in our river and eat some real food. We’d taken just a few supplies along, so we could fill our packs with the meat from Papa Dick’s kill. We wore the same clothes each day, ate dried meat and bread for every meal and slept in forts that Papa Dick built from tree branches and twine. Going hunting with my grandparents was like being on a treasure hunt. Papa Dick would point out clues like broken tree branches, piles of poop, tracks, and marks on tree trunks, and when we found a few of those things in a row, we’d all stop talking and walk as quietly as we could to look for the animal. Papa Dick had even let me bring my bow and arrow along to practise. The only thing that made it not perfect was that Mom didn’t like to come. She would stay at camp, because, she said, someone needed to look after it—but this time I knew it was because she wanted to be with Randall, the Indian chief from across the river. I knew they were back together because they were doing the screwing again.
My tummy was grumbling. “I’m hungry,” I said as we walked. “Can I have a snack?”
Without stopping, Papa Dick reached into his pocket and passed a leather pouch back to me. I opened it, already knowing that it held pemmican, my favourite. I ate the dried, powdered moose meat as fast as I could so I wouldn’t have to slow down. At least the taste of the food distracted me from the pain in my feet.
I tucked the pouch away and tried to come up with my next game. I’d already done a bear and a cougar chasing me, and I was getting bored of pretending to be their next dinner. I watched the ground as I walked, trying not to step on rocks, because if I did, the earth would open up and swallow me whole. When I got tired of that, I just started chanting in my head to the beat of my footsteps. One more step . . . almost there . . . one more step . . . almost there . . . And finally, there it was, the best sight in the world—sun-dappled water sparkling through the trees.
“The river!” I shouted, darting toward it. Thirsty from the pemmican, I dropped down, stuck my whole face into the water and drank until I was full.
My grandparents filled and drank from their enamel cups, and when they were done, Grandma Jeanne knelt down beside me.
“Let’s take a look at your feet. How are they doing?”
“Okay.” I smiled gamely, glancing down at them. I knew my grandparents were proud of me because I hadn’t complained about my feet once. And anyway, they were in pretty good shape, seeing as I’d been walking barefoot for three hours. My soles were tough enough to protect me from most pokey things, but my toes were covered in scratches and thorn pricks, and there was a long cut on the inside of my foot from stepping on a sharp rock.
It was all my stupid moccasins’ fault. Grandma Jeanne had already fixed them a few times, and yesterday they’d fallen right off my feet. “Talk about timing,” she’d grumbled as she threaded sinew into her needle, but no amount of thread could put them together again. After that she’d tried strapping the leather pieces to my soles with twine, but they hadn’t held on longer than a few minutes.
“It’s okay, I can do it,” I’d said to her bravely, and I had.
Looking down the riverbank now, I couldn’t see our canoe, but that was probably just because Papa Dick had covered it with tree boughs before we left it. No one ever came down the river this far into the bush, but Papa Dick was extra careful about our canoe. “It’s our primary source of transportation,” I’d heard him say more than once, and whatever that meant, it sounded important.
Papa Dick took one more drink of water and pointed at the sky. “The light’s fading. We have to keep moving.”
“Where’s the canoe?” I asked.
Instead of answering, he just pointed and started walking along the shore. I followed behind Grandma Jeanne. The rocks here were sharper than the twigs and fallen logs in the forest. I won’t say anything won’t say anything won’t say anything, I repeated in my head. But time passed, and there was still no canoe in sight. My sore foot was hot and red now, and my grandparents were getting smaller and smaller as I fell behind.
Suddenly I’d had enough. I stopped and stood as solid as a tree. “Ow!” I yelled. “My feet hurt!”
“Not much longer, sweetie. Just around the next bend,” Grandma Jeanne called back, turning and giving me a smile. I rubbed my eyes and kept walking. But there was no canoe around that bend or the next one either. I was getting tired and hungry and mad, and the rocks were hurting with every step. I stopped again, but this time I dropped my bow and arrow and let my pack slide to the ground. Then I wiped my hand across my butt, looked at the blood and let out a howl.
My grandfather turned to me impatiently. He was so far ahead he had to shout for me to hear. “Cea! You know we don’t have time for this!” I howled harder. “I can’t walk anymore! Carry me! Carry meeee!” “We can’t, Cea. You know that. Now come on, we’re almost there.
You’re being such a big help—don’t give up now.”
I crossed my arms over my chest. “No! I don’t want to be a big help. I want you to carry me!”
My grandparents looked at each other with squinty eyes, the way they always did when they weren’t happy about something. But I didn’t care. I was staying right there until someone picked me up.
Suddenly Papa Dick’s gaze swung toward the trees above the riverbank. He was still, and then he shot his hand out to let Grandma Jeanne and me know to be quiet. The only reason would be for an animal, but we already had our caribou. My tears forgotten, I walked on tippytoes toward my grandfather.
“What is it?” I whispered.
“Shh . . .” He knelt down beside me. “Look.”
I followed his pointing finger and saw a large brown rabbit with a twitchy nose. I slumped over, disappointed. Bunny rabbits were nothing to get excited about. Actually I sort of hated seeing them, because sometimes Papa Dick would kill one for dinner, and they were icky and tough. I was just about to say so, when a shot rang out beside me. The rabbit fell onto its side with a little bloody hole over its eye. Papa Dick threw his rifle over his shoulder and picked up the animal by its back legs.
“Is that for supper?” I asked with a scowl.
“No. This is your new shoes. Winter’s on its way, and I bet your grandmother will be able to make some nice warm moccasins out of this fur.”
“Wow. Really?” I reached out and touched the rabbit’s fur, thinking how my feet would feel wrapped in that softness.
“Really,” Grandma Jeanne said with a smile. “All you have to do is make it home, and you’ll have some nice new shoes to look forward to.”
Papa Dick nodded. “Now let’s get going. We don’t have time to fool around.”
I did a little dance on the spot and started walking again. New rabbit moccasins, Mom waiting for me at home and caribou for dinner! I was pretty sure I was the happiest kid in the whole world.