Fossils

I’ve been staring at my wedding photo.

What is shown:  We are standing in our finery on the Joggins Fossil Cliffs, turned sideways to the Bay of Fundy. It’s a cloudy day. The wind is blowing hard, as it always does there. (This was the first photo taken, and my hair was a mess for the rest of the day. I really did not think that through).

What is not shown: Under my feet are millions of years of plants and creatures, now extinct to this earth, trapped and fossilized in layer upon layer of stone. Stretching out behind us, hidden by the waves, are tunnels under the Bay where men like my grandfather worked in the dark and damp, chipping coal from the walls and sharing their lunches with rats.

All of that is hidden, though. An image rarely tells you what really is buried within.

Seventeen years ago, I got married just up the road from those cliffs, in the same church where generations of my ancestors were baptized, married, and eulogized. It’s in a small town — a village, really. No, not even a village anymore. It’s just a collection of houses:  some tidy, some abandoned, some falling down. When my mother and father grew up and there, it was a big town. There were many streets, a movie theatre, and shops. There were busy coal mines, and a thriving port. The train came there twice a day.

But now, many of the roads have been reclaimed into woods or fields. The train has been gone for decades, and the ships for over half a century. When the mines closed, much of the town closed with it. What is left only hints at what once was. Like one of the roses I plucked from my bridal bouquet and pressed in a book, it is dried up and sepia toned. It’s impossible to tell what colour it originally was, but a faint scent lingers. Still a flower, but no longer a flower.

We visit those cliffs, and that village, almost every time I visit my parents. Daisy and Puck like to walk along the rocky beach and search for fossils. Our dog, Pippa, likes to run in and out of the waves. We time our visits so that the tide — among the highest in the world — is out, and we can walk for hours on the flats where the Bay has pulled back its water to reveal its muddy underthings.

My parents bring a picnic, and find a piece of driftwood to sit on. They used to like to walk along the beach and look for fossils and beach glass with us. Lately, though, they are content to sit near the shore and watch us walk farther and farther out. My father takes photos of us — closer, at first, and then becomingly steadily smaller specks on the horizon where sea meets mud flat. My mother frets that we’ll be caught when the tide turns. She was always the worrier.

I stand far out on the mud flats and squint back at my parents. Even from this distance, my mother’s bright red hair stands out. At 80, it is only slightly faded. Her red hair is the one constant of her physical being, the touchstone that reassures me it’s her, no matter how else her physical self changes.

My mother is becoming frail.

She was a tall, slender woman. At 5’7, she towered over her much shorter daughters (I got her Irish colouring but my father’s French stockiness, alas). Now, she is shrinking into herself, and is not much taller than me. She is slighter than ever. My father says she forgets to eat if he doesn’t eat with her, and even then, she often claims to have no appetite. Each time I see her, she is less ‘her’ than she was before. Still my mother, but flaking away, layer by layer, under the pressure of the waves of dementia.

I walk back to where they perch, holding hands on their driftwood, and sit next to my mother so that my father can go play with the dog and the kids. My mother tells me a story she’s already told me twice today, about a neighbour I don’t know. Then she tells me a story I’ve never heard, from the time when she and my dad were dating. She is back in the 1950s, reliving another picnic on this beach. Her details are rich and her words spill out easily; it’s clear she sees in her mind’s eye what it was all like. She feels the scratch of her wool dirndl skirt, and the garters digging into her thigh. She smells the sea, both now and 60 years ago.

We drive home, muddy and windblown, our pockets bulging with sea glass and fragments of fossils we found on the beach. My mother points out where things once were, in this little town that is no longer a town. I never saw the town in its heyday. She sees ghosts of things invisible to me. To her, they are as clear and real as today.

She laments that things have changed, over decades. I lament that she is changing, so rapidly. I lament that the dementia is encasing her  memories in a cliff, and that soon she’ll be invisible to all of us. I believe, though — I have to believe — that the ‘ghost of the thing’ remains. The tracks of an old road are still there, buried under a hayfield, if you look hard enough. The rotting piers still mark where the tall ships used to set sail for the West Indies. The creatures that lived millions of years ago are liberated from their cliff-tomb by the pounding waves, to tumble onto a modern beach. My mother’s red hair is still visible from across the mudflats.

Still a flower, but no longer a flower.

The Island of Misfit Parents

School starts in one more sleep. Puck is excited, for the first time ever.

I am apprehensive.

His new school seems to sense the apprehension parents will feel. It offered a ‘Parent Orientation Night’ a week before school starts, to help ease our fears.

Daisy is almost 14, and Puck is 11. I’m a seasoned veteran of Parent Nights.

For the past six years, I’ve attended the Parent Information Night at Daisy and Puck’s liberal arts private school. They’re social events, held in the cafeteria of the newish, bright and cheerful, purpose-built school. Parents are served wine and beer, cheese and snacks. I usually rush to Parent Nights after work, so the wine and cheese does double duty as social anesthesia and my supper. Perfect.

The parents mingle – some, who socialize with each other regularly, mingle readily. Some Socially Awkward Penguins (like me) fiddle with our wine glasses and hope the actual information part of the meeting begins quickly.

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The past couple of years, as Puck’s behaviour deteriorated, have been increasingly awkward. His classmates’ parents give me wan smiles and drift on past. I am marked as That Mother. The one with the ‘Bad Kid’ who always gets sent home from school. The one their own kids tell them about breathlessly across the supper table.

The school Puck will go to this year isn’t bright and new. It’s a repurposed 1960s-era neighbourhood school, patched up and old-school in every sense. Cloakrooms. Blackboards. Dim, long corridors. On Parent Night, parents shuffled quietly into a gym that smelled of decades’ worth of rubber-soled shoes and floor polish. There were no refreshments, no socializing. I found a seat in the middle of the room, and looked at the families around me.

My discomfort was immediate. Some parents had brought a child with them — perhaps unable to get child care, or perhaps hoping to make the child more comfortable in the new school surroundings. These children were not like the children at Puck’s old school. They looked…different. They were 12-year olds who hid their heads in a parent’s shoulder. They were eight-year olds rocking in their chairs. They were high school students, biting their nails and tapping their feet to diffuse anxiety and energy, oblivious to the room around them.

They made me nervous.Read More »

Life Lessons Learned from Tetris

I’m hungover. I’ve been hungover all summer, actually.

There’s been no alcohol involved. Those who knew me in university will be amused to know I have one drink of wine these days and need a nap, so that type of hangover isn’t too likely. What I’m experiencing is one massive anxiety-hangover.

I’ve had migraines and stomach issues this summer, which I know are my body’s way of releasing all that tension I felt over the past school year.  I stopped imbibing those stressors a couple of months ago, but I’m still waking up each day surrounded by a mess, not quite sure how I got here, and feeling like hell.

I have fewer stressors in my life at this moment, but I’ve got more anxiety. Stress isn’t the same as anxiety. Stressors are things can make a person sad, angry, or worried, while anxiety is a feeling of fear, dread, and apprehension. Stress is often caused by external influences, while anxiety is an internal response. Anxiety can manifest on its own, without any real “trigger” or cause.

It almost seems that without being in a constant ‘fight or flight’ mode, my brain no longer knows how to function. Not having stressors is actually anxiety-provoking for me. I lie in bed late at night, sure that I’m forgetting things (and chastising myself for little things I did forgot to do five months ago, or when I was 13) and making endless mental ‘to do’ lists. I struggle to focus during the day, and have even started drifting off to sleep mid-afternoon. Too often, I find myself at the end of another day, having accomplished little on my many colour-coded to do lists.

My anxiety has turned me into a procrastinator. I was never a procrastinator. I was the type of student who finished an assignment weeks before it was due. Now, I know how much I have to do, but I can’t get out of my own way and do it. Instead of working, I spend too much time on social media, letting my inner critic jab me in the ribs and point out how focussed and productive and successful everyone else is.

I started off the summer by trying to be patient with  myself. I tried to practice self-care, and give myself time and space to bounce back and feel like myself again. But as the summer has gone on, my anxiety has only gotten worse. The level of my anxiety-hangover has grown in direct proportion to how well things appear to be going in my life. I’ve lived for so long with our anxiety amp turned to 11 that I can’t remember how to dial it back. Without a crisis to focus on, I can’t seem to focus, at all.

While everyone else went to the cottage last week, I stayed home and went on a midsummer cleaning binge. Cleaning and organizing helps me focus, and it’s also much easier to do when no one else is around. So I grabbed recycling bags and hit the closets, throwing myself into a task that was productive and didn’t require me to think much.

One of the treasures I found was my old GameBoy, circa 1990. It came with one Mario game, and Tetris. Tetris was my favourite — again, all about organizing and focussing. Things I used to be good at, back in the day.

I feel a bit like I’m living in that Tetris game, these days.Read More »

Put on your rubber boots, we’re wading through bureaucratic crap.

Puck starts a new school in September, because administrators at the school he’s attended since Primary have stated they can’t support him to the level he needs. He’ll be attending one of a handful of schools in this province that focuses exclusively on teaching kids with learning disabilities and/or ADHD. In the old days, when I was in school, I suppose we called this “special ed”. It’s taken a while for his dad and I to get our heads around that.

The new school is technically part of the public school system, but it’s a private school — meaning, you must apply, be accepted, and pay a sizeable tuition. Because it’s part of the public school system, however, tuition support is available from the Department of Education, if you meet certain requirements:

  • accepted to school (check)
  • diagnosis of learning disability and/or ADHD (check)
  • supporting psycho-educational assessment and IPP  (check)
  • previous attendance at a public school  (umm…..)

And that’s where the rubber boots and bureaucracy come in. Although Puck meets all the requirements and demonstrates a real need to attend a special education school, we’re not eligible for tuition support, because Puck has never attended public school.

Puck struggled socially and academically even at age three. He became anxious and overwhelmed in groups, and showed signs of language-based learning disabilities. Based on his preschool teacher’s concerns, we had a screening with an early interventionist when Puck was four. She found no obvious developmental delays, but there were indications of learning challenges that she felt would likely become more evident in the school system. She suggested to us that Puck might benefit from a private school, where there would be a lower student-teacher ratio and more individualized attention. Our older child, Daisy, was just about to start Primary at our neighbourhood school. After talking with educators, psychologists, and other parents, and giving much thought to what would be best for Puck, we decided to enrol both he and Daisy in a liberal-arts private school.

Daisy thrived at the school. Puck did not. The school environment was nurturing and the teachers well-trained and thoughtful, but from the beginning, Puck was lost. He was unable to identify letters, to read, or to follow directions. He became frustrated and angry, yelling at teachers and hitting himself. His first psycho-educational assessment revealed language-based learning disabilities and slow visual processing speed. The most recent assessment found that his learning challenges are much more severe than previously believed, and are compounded by clinical anxiety and ADHD. Additionally, he was diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome in 2014.

After both psycho-educational assessments, the school worked with a psychologist and a learning resource teacher to put in place accommodations. By this January, however, it was clear that the accommodations weren’t working. He was doing so little work that it was impossible to assess whether he was meeting any provincial learning outcomes (although it was evident to all that he was not meeting them). His teachers told us they were unable to teach him — they feel they don’t have the insight into learning disabilities that he needs. He would not be allowed to continue there.

While the academic impact of Puck’s learning disabilities has been profound, the impact to his sense of self and psychological well-being has been devastating. We have watched him devolve from a happy, curious five year old to an eleven year old who calls himself stupid, hits himself in frustration, and feels he is ‘bad’

He feels he’s not worth helping, and that he doesn’t fit in anywhere. We’re desperate to prove him wrong.

We believe the new special education school can help. Going there means he’ll have access to teachers who understand his learning challenges and how best to teach him. He’ll be surrounded by other children who have the same lived experience — he won’t feel isolated, or like he’s the ‘stupid’ or ‘bad’ one. He won’t automatically be sent home every day due to emotional outbursts. He won’t feel left behind, or left out. He’ll have access to specialized programming and services that help him not only to catch up academically, but that focus on teaching him to live (and thrive) with learning disabilities, and to develop social skills. He’ll have the emotional support and understanding that he needs to develop self-confidence, and to be a happy young person.

Maybe – we hope – he will, for the first time in his six years of school, not feel physically ill at the idea of going to school.

But…there’s the issue of money.Read More »

Put on Your Oxygen Mask

In past years, working in an air-conditioned office while the kids were in summer camps and organized activities, I kept summer at arm’s-length. Summer was a thing that happened on weekends, or on a patio with a gin and tonic after 6 pm. It was scheduled into my tidy and organized days and didn’t infringe on my 9-5 world.

For the past few summers, I’ve worked from home. The heat and proximity to the garden or ocean throw a veil of innate laziness over even my busiest days. I bring my laptop outside and work in the sun. I have meetings on coffee shop patios. I go to the cottage and sit on the dock while I write. Time slows to a crawl. The kids roam around like feral animals, spending days in their pyjamas and emerging only to forage for snacks. All structure is gone. The world condenses into hazy thoughts, blooms of honeysuckle, and quiet bird song.

This lack of structure worked for me, in the past. This year, though, I’m struggling. I’ve spent the past week being, basically, a lump. I’ve tried and failed to muster the energy to make it though my growing to-do list. I start ten different things, but at the end of the day stare at a blank computer screen. I am horrified by the dirt in the corners of the bathrooms, but have no energy to do anything about it. I drink too much coffee. I spend a lot of time staring at honeybees and wondering how such small, fuzzy creatures get the energy to do bee stuff all day.

I have run out of oxygen.

Puck wants to be a pilot. He’s obsessed with airplanes. And one of the first things you hear on a plane is the warning that in case of emergency, put your own oxygen mask on before helping anyone else.

My plane has been in a nosedive all year, and I have not put my oxygen mask.

One thing I’ve learned in my 48 years on this planet is that there is always ‘stuff’. There are jobs to do, bills to pay, relationships to navigate, fix, or leave. To be an adult is to tread water in a sea of stuff. For me, though, this year’s stuff has been dragging me under. I’ve questioned my own life-choices, and dealt with job uncertainty. I’ve spent sleepless nights worrying about Puck, and whether he will ever be okay. I’ve stayed with him through months of missed school and rounds of testing and medical appointments. I’ve been stabbed by guilt from not being with my parents more often as my mother’s memory slips away and my dad struggles to cope.  I’ve worried that I’m not doing enough to live up to whatever notion of ‘success’ society tells me I should attain today.

I realize now that I’ve dealt with it all by just diving into that deep pool of stuff — holding my breath, and not wearing a lifejacket. It’s been months since I came up for air. Only now that the pace has slowed — no school, fewer appointments, less anxiety, less structure — can I feel the shortness of breath, the heaviness in my very bones.

I am going under.Read More »

Report Cards

It’s 10 am. I’m sitting on my deck in the early summer sunshine, dog on my feet, laptop on my knees, and coffee in my hand. For the first time in months, I can focus on my work without worrying that at some point, my work-groove will be broken by having to rescue Puck from a bad day at school.

School is DONE. It’s summer.

My kids are still upstairs, lolling in their beds in their pyjamas. They haven’t actually been out of their pyjamas for two days. They might have brushed their teeth recently, but that’s doubtful. And given the number of granola bar wrappers on their floors, they probably should be brushing. I should probably throw a vegetable their way. It’s only four days since school ended, and they’ve essentially gone feral.

I don’t mind that they’re embracing sloth. At times, I have Pinterest-induced guilt that I should make them DO things…Clean your room! Go for a bike ride! Practice basic hygiene!…but in reality, I’m happy to let them do nothing for a while. This year has been hard on all of us, and we need to decompress. For me, at least, that might take all summer. Read More »

Always something there to remind me.

My 13 year-old daughter decided to clean her bedroom last weekend. Yes, this happens so seldom that it’s worth writing about.

For a year or so, her room has reflected her own internal transformation: artifacts of little girl fantasy bumping up against young teen reality. Tinkerbell and Barbie coexisting uneasily with algebra tests and bras.

I’d been telling her for months that she needed to clean her room. I’d intended only that she straighten things up. It was her own decision to do such a radical purge. (I like to see this as a successful change management strategy: I got her to think it was her idea, and she fully embraced it). She wanted to make space for the new parts of her life, and to hide the immature remnants that embarrass her now. She wasn’t just cleaning a room. She was curating an identity; translating the changes she’s been navigating as a middle schooler into her own surroundings.

She grabbed boxes and recycling bags and got ready to purge. I sat on the edge of her bed and got ready to save.Read More »