February 14, 2022
Thirty years ago today I was blowing the smoke from my contraband Marlboro into the frigid night through the narrow opening between the window frame and its window, the cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other. I was visiting L in Charlottetown and we’d gone out to the country house that a friend of hers had lent us for a few days. I was on the mend from a recent break up, and still lingered in the territory we occupy after a loved one takes their life, in my case my father ten months earlier.
Two days later I was back in Montreal and a day after that my son was at a sleep-over I’d planned so I could go see Primal Scream at Club Soda. But in the grips of loss I’d changed my mind and I was lying on my couch watching Thelma and Louise instead, letting my concert ticket go to waste. Part way through the movie, two police officers were at my door with the news. I let them in and they sat across from me, not far from the frozen movie frame that was paused on the tv screen. I didn’t want them to think I was shallow for watching it. It was before the internet and cell phones, so who knows how they found me. Police work. They were there to tell me that my mother had been found dead in her Vancouver apartment. Suicide. Valentine’s Day. I apologized to them for having to come out on a cold night to deliver such news to someone.
A decade later I was married for a time and Valentine’s Day was fraught for him, on behalf of me. Somewhere in the mid 2010s he thought we ought to embrace the day, in my Mom’s honour. And so started the tradition of going to a big hotel bar for a drink on each Valentine’s. Which is what I’m doing today. The 30th anniversary of her death.
My mom lived with mental illness. Both my parents did. She raised me on her own, living on social assistance with the support of an exceptionally kind social worker. We lived in tiny one-bedroom apartments near Vancouver’s Kitsilano Beach (a fiscal impossibility now), me with the bedroom because she believed I needed privacy. She slept in the living room, first on a hideaway bed, and later, in a place a bit bigger, on a single bed pushed into a corner in the living room. When I moved out at 17 she moved into a bachelor apartment in a building for out-patients. There, we found another corner for her single bed, positioning it in such a way as to create a living area that felt separate from where she slept.
On her birthdays I would offer to either clean her apartment (though she was pretty tidy) and make dinner, or take her out. She always chose out. Who wouldn’t. Sometimes we went to Vancouver’s Four Seasons Hotel lobby bar, or the one at Hotel Georgia. Of course we were way out of our price range, which was part of the fun.
The husband is long gone, but not my Valentine’s Day hotel bar tradition. My mom would love it. So would my father. (I eat a donut on his birthday because he loved going to his local Krispy Kreme in Miami where he chatted up everyone seated at the counter with their snacks.) I love this tradition. I feel so much closeness with my mom on this day, doing this thing. I can feel our silly thrill as I sit amidst the tonier well-to-do. Since 2011 when I became single again, I often invite a friend or two to join me on my tab. Until 2016 that was in Vancouver. From 2017-2021 I was in Miami for it. Today I’m in Montreal for it—a first—and I’m on my own.
For thirty years, I’ve been pretty quiet about my parents’ health, and even more so about their deaths. Close friends know. It’s a big thing to grapple with and I don’t want to freak anyone out. I’m fine (now), but strangers might not be. I’ve been especially quiet in my work environments. People are judgey. Even if we're not supposed to be anymore--let's face it, diversity, equity, inclusion, and access hasn't exactly landed yet. This kind of disclosure carries a lot of heft and can carry even more innuendo. And so it concerns me that people will make assumptions and draw even worse conclusions. Not so much about my parents, but about me. I worry that people might ascribe to me whatever stereotypes they’ve acquiesced to—you know, shadowy, shameful stuff that can be weaponized to tank a career—taking away from me what they imagine my parents lacked. I worry that they can’t see past what characterized my parents’ deaths to see the resilience that characterized their lives. And mine.
This was my mother’s greatest wariness. It dogged her. And so today, on this 30th anniversary, I honor my mother’s life, and her death. And, I honor every minute in-between. In public.
I wrote an ode to my Mom on another Mother's Day. You can read that one here.