Clean and Elegant

Clean and Elegant

Thursday, 21 May 2015

This is the New Story of My Life

Last January, I made a new Word document called, “This is the new story of my life.” For inspiration, I opened a journal from when I lived and worked at L’Arche, a community for adults with intellectual disabilities. During my two years at L’Arche, every morning I would try and scribble down three “stream-of-consciousness” pages at 6 a.m. I would write as I drank coffee and waited for Isabelle’s 150 mL of Peptamen to descend from the bag hanging from a pole beside her bed through the squiggly tube that led to her stomach. Isabelle’s school bus arrived and left at 7:15 a.m. Cynthia the bus driver would not wait. At 6:27, once all the Peptamen had descended, I would unhook the feeding tube and it would be time to change Isabelle out of her pyjamas, wash her armpits and change her into her clothes. Then I would lift her into her wheelchair so that I could wash her face, and brush her teeth and hair. So many days, Isabelle would remain half asleep the whole time, smiling and laughing here and there. Despite this, rarely have I felt as connected to the rest of the world than during this hour of preparation that ended with me rolling Isabelle down the ramp to meet the school bus.

On April 27, 2007, I started a brand new journal. I had about three months to go at L’Arche. At the end of each day, I would make a big X on my calendar. On the beginning of each day, I would do a countdown. 91 days left. Then I would try to figure out what date was 91 days ago and whether it felt like a long time had passed or not. Usually it felt like a very long time had passed. I was twenty-one years old, and I’d already lived at L’Arche for twenty months.

Frog and Toad Are Friends. This what it says on the cover of the journal that I began on April 27, 2007. Underneath the words there’s a picture of a fat toad dressed in pants and a jacket, reading to a longer leaner frog, who is also wearing clothes. The frog has a finger on his lips and he’s listening intently.
Frog and Toad Are Friends
Who remembers the Frog and Toad stories? My father read me all of them. All I can remember is the story called The List. Toad decided that he would make a list of all the things he had to do throughout the day. Wake up, brush teeth, wash face. He didn’t have any hair to brush. Then there was breakfast, the newspaper, and other typical obligations of toads who wear clothes. After breakfast, Frog came over and asked Toad if he wanted to go for a walk. Frog wanted to search for mushrooms or something like that. Toad said no, because it wasn’t on his list. He went about his Toad errands. Sweeping, gardening, going to the store. Then his list blew away and he had no idea what to do with himself.

That’s the trouble with lists.
Toad was the uglier one and also the smarter one. Neither of them was particularly smart, or good-looking.

On the first page of the journal, I write about a conversation I had with the assistant Paul, one of L’Arche’s many virgin saints. Paul lived at L’Arche over ten years. After that, he volunteered at our house every Thursday, to help with baths and make us supper. Paul was an exquisite cook. He used to slice the carrots in such perfect long thin lines. And he always marinated tofu for me to ensure that I didn’t starve to death.
On April 26, 2007, we talked about a new planet the NASA people had found. It was light years away. The planet can apparently sustain life. Paul thought that humans should be able to find a way to get there efficiently before the sun dies. But in the meantime, we can build bubble like structures to shelter us when we leave the earth. Kind of like the moon hotel in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. Charlie flew to the moon with Mr. Wonka and his parents and four grandparents. I think all of Charlie’s grandparents became obnoxious in outer space. They were nicer when all four of them shared a bed in a tiny shack. I never finished that book.

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator
A few pages later, I wrote about a picnic on Mont-Royal. I remember getting ready in the morning. It wasn’t my turn to give Isabelle her Peptamen and get her dressed. But that would mean that I would have to make sandwiches which I wasn’t very good at. Talia, my boss switched with me. “Il faut aller où sont nos forces,” she said. We must go where our strengths are. For me, this meant not making sandwiches. Talia made better sandwiches than I did, and there was something so earnest and beautiful about her. She remains one of the great people of my life. A guru of sorts. L’Arche was full of earnest and loveable Catholics. Virgin Saints, and Nun Friends.

About halfway through the Frog and Toad journal, I learn about someone else’s spinal cord injury. One Saturday, Isabelle’s teacher Elizabeth went for a bike ride. Then she hit a bump and went flying over the handlebars. She landed on her back and now she can’t feel or move her legs. I have been terrified of spinal cord injuries ever since I knew they existed. I felt so traumatized that someone who had spent her whole life working with kids in wheelchairs would end up in a wheelchair herself. Surely, it was just a matter of time before my spine endured the same fate. For weeks, all I could think about was Elizabeth and her spine. And my spine.

During a weekend off, I went to have beers with Tom, one of the volunteers. We both drank four delightful Keith’s in his bachelor pad near Guy Concordia metro. I had such a huge crush on him, not knowing that he had a girlfriend. As I left his apartment ready to bike home, I made a nervous joke about paralysis. He said that I would probably live until I was ninety-three years old, and none of the horrible things that I’d imagined will have happened to me. I’ll be jogging with all of my legs. On my death bed, I will count and feel all of my limbs, and it will be an immense relief. I wonder where Tom is now.
There were a bunch of cards inside the journal, and a photo.

The photo is of Simon, my ex-boyfriend who jumped off a building. When I started, “This is the new story of my life,” Simon was still alive. I used to think of Simon every time I started a new creative project, and it was going terribly. I still do. In the picture, Simon is smiling, posing for the back of his book cover, or for his application to be in some movie. His teeth look very large and his eyes seem kind of manic.

Simon thought I was really fucked up and hopeless, but that I had some talent for writing.
I’m pretty sure the Boatman doesn’t think I’m fucked up and hopeless.  He thinks I’m an okay writer.

Maybe one day all this will be an excellent novel. For now, it stays between the covers of my Frog and Toad journal, and here. One of the cards in my journal has a baby gorilla on it. I’ve always had a thing for primates, and this card is from my mother. She wrote it for me when I was in the psych ward in Kingston, having overdone it on the Ex-lax.

Let’s transcribe the whole card. My mom can have the last word.

“Dear Erica
                 You are a very special and

                Beautiful person.

                                I love you as do many many people.
 Remember to love yourself for all the wonderful little things that are you.

When you were a baby I could never get over the way you would lie on the bed with your feet and hands waving and how you would giggle and gurgle and laugh from deep in your little belly. You would have us all giggling.
Don’t forget that your smile can be no one else. You don’t have to do anything else but be our Erica.

Love Mom.”

The End.
Mother, Sister, Me.

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