UPDATE: This story was originally published February 7, 2018. On August 18, 2018, Toronto lost one of its great treasures, Annette McLeod, the brave author behind this raw, heartbreaking and heart-mending story. Annette passed away in her sleep, on her 49th birthday. Her memory and legacy live on …
Twelve to 18 months. That’s what my prognosis was at my last oncology appointment. I’m sure many of us have had this macabre fantasy when we’re lying in bed late at night — you have cancer. Incurable. Get your affairs in order.
This is my reality. And although I’d certainly entertained such black thoughts, I never really thought it would happen to me.
In spite of being an on-again/off-again smoker since way back, I didn’t get lung cancer. I got ovarian cancer, which generally has a prognosis of five to seven years. But because some of the treatment options aren’t available to me, due to a preexisting condition, my prognosis isn’t quite so rosy. Yes, these days I look at five to seven years as rosy.
I’m 48, I have an eight-year-old son who lights up my life and a wonderful partner. I also have the best dog ever, friends who fill up my love bucket on the regular, a brother who is one of the best of such friends, and an enviable career doing something I love.
A lot to live for, in other words.
Fortunately, I also have a pretty good sense of humour, and a very firm grasp on perspective. It sucks, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not egotistical enough to think it should happen only to other people. Why not me? So, one gets on with the task of living, while accommodating the necessary evils of dying.
Where I do that living, though, has become central to the story. On July 1, just a month before my world changed irrevocably, I moved back to Scarborough, where I was born and mostly raised. Some timing, eh? And, so, I am back.
Scarborough has been a featured player in my life. Not only was I (and my brother) born in Scarborough General Hospital, but my grandfather and mother both died here. My grandparents and my Uncle Al are all interred at Resthaven Cemetery on Kingston Road. I had my first kiss in a field in the northwest corner of Morningside Park.
As a child, most of my summer family gatherings happened at David and Mary Thomson Park, where my cousin Glenn and I would feed under-ripe crabapples to the donkeys at the petting zoo until they were sick, then he and my brother would wander off by themselves and eventually fall in the creek. My grandparents lived just off Lawrence on Brockley Drive, for about a hundred years, back when the condo on the corner of Midland was the Broom & Stone and the FreshCo next door was Food City. (And Towers was a reliable source of yarn and books, for which my grandmother and I both had voracious appetites.)
My mom, too, lived in an apartment on Lawrence for years, five before I left home and 15 after. I got so used to the shooshing sounds of six lanes of traffic outside my bedroom window, I once spent the night at a friend’s house in the suburbs and couldn’t sleep. Too quiet.
Now I’m almost at the Pickering border, and my backyard is a park. Seriously — open the gate at the back of my postage-stamp-sized lot, and you’re in the park. It makes Harley the Mutt go all zoomy in ecstasy, offers a great splash pad for my son, has tons of walking trails, gazebos and barbecues, a playground and a couple of stellar tobogganing hills.
We’re just a stone’s throw from Rouge Hill GO and an inch or two away from the 401. This house has every imaginable fast food within minutes, Starbucks and two Timmys within a 30-seconds’ drive, LaManna’s legendary Italian Bakery (on which I have mixed opinions, perhaps a tale for another day) on the corner near the pub where Brian and I had our first date, and fantastic ethnic eats of all stripes.
Before I start sounding too much like a condo ad, let’s just say I feel like I belong here.
Within “here” is my house itself, my little world within my larger world. My home.
The first couple of months we lived here, I was so sick with blood clots (Who knew cancer threw them in, like some kind of sicko gift with purchase?) I could barely move off the couch. My partner Brian was working long days as a roofer, so not a lot got done. My dear friend Lisa would come by, clean, and try to make sense of the madness by unpacking a few boxes, but she was fighting an ongoing if not a losing battle. We made do.
When the blood thinners worked and I felt better, we took some time to mourn the home we would never have. We dreamed of a community of tiny homes, which Brian would build and I’d decorate. We’d populate them with a wonderful mélange of artists and writers, alongside carpenters and bricklayers — and any other like-minded souls who needed a place to live and had something to offer our budding enclave.
Cancer isn’t just robbing me of my own future, it has also taken away my daydreams. Who knows if I ever would have made that dream happen, but it was nice to harbour those thoughts all the same. I don’t let myself think them anymore. I am firmly grounded in this reality, which makes “home” all that much more important.
Eventually, we decided to make the most of the time left to us. We hung the lavish oils my father paints and the framed John Lennon poster, the big, red butterfly print I bought at Winners and the stylized, fiercely-feathered maven I bought at a little home decor store in Whitby. We unpacked more of the boxes and marvelled, once again, at how many books we’ve managed to amass over — quite literally in my case — a lifetime.
We haven’t unpacked all the boxes, but I can’t blame cancer for that. Rather, my nature and my desire to spend most of my time reading, writing, loafing and playing with my friends.
For a while, I wouldn’t let myself buy anything new. What did I need with yet more stuff? But around Christmas I decided anything that made a positive contribution to my quality of life was okay, and I splashed out: a new (red!) food processor to replace the confusing one with too many parts, a Magic Bullet, a Soda Stream and — on a whim — a Star Wars crockpot smaller than my other two.
I love to cook, and I take pleasure in these little appliances on a daily basis. Just seeing that shiny, red KitchenAid on the counter makes me smile. Likewise, the spigotted beverage dispenser I picked up for $10 at a kitchen supply store. The other day, I bought a giant stuffed sloth at Walmart, because whose quality of life wouldn’t improve with a giant stuffed sloth?
This house has a ridiculous luxury of bathrooms — four in about 1,800 square feet. That too brings me pleasure. The half-bath ensuite in my last house was too small to bother even using. The bathtub in the main bathroom there was also too small to lounge in, but my new bathtub has lots of room.
It makes my son, Callum, happy to have his own bathroom, and that makes me happier than I can even say.
And sadder, knowing that this won’t be a forever home for him. When I’m gone he’ll live full time with his dad and this house will retreat into memory.
But these days, I wring every drop of joy from his reactions, and he loves it here. He loves that he has a big bedroom with room for a couple hundred stuffies under his loft bed, and that the basement has become his very own video game-fuelled boy cave. He loves wandering through the trees in the park, which he calls “the forest” in that wonderful, awestruck way eight-year-old boys have.
I’m aware most days that I have a lifetime’s worth of stuff to go through. Not just books, but also old slides (Remember those?) of people I loved – whom Callum will never know. Beads, yarn and a big enough stash of assorted craft supplies to keep an army of kindergarteners busy for a year. Clothes, jewellery, paperwork from now-defunct businesses — all of it meaningless without me.
Brian shouldn’t have to deal with it while he’s dealing with losing me, and Callum certainly has no interest in 99 per cent of it. Most days, I push the thought aside. Some days, I have a look through some of it and make a decision or two. Some days, I even act on those decisions.
I gave Lisa my pearls, and she looks marvelous in them. One day, I’ll have to steel myself and throw out the program from my great-uncle John’s funeral. He died in Manitoba. I never met him, but I kept the program because it had meant something to my mother. See what a twisted little path this becomes?
If it meant something to me only second-hand, what could it possibly mean to Callum? Considering my mother only exists to him in things — stories I have to share with him for the things to even mean anything.
But life is for the living, and so we live here, with all its attendant messes and the frustration of closet doors that don’t always close and a showerhead that needs replacing, with its wood (light-strewn) bannisters and its convenient mudroom. With its flaws and its scars and its wonderful depth and personality, as we live with each other.
We’re making new memories here, too. The trick-or-treating in this neighbourhood was spectacular. And, one day, Callum and I snuck into the park, strung dollar-store spider webs in the trees and half-planted skulls in the grass.
Christmas was wonderful, with a house full of Brian’s West Coast family to cook for, Callum and his cousin tobogganing every day, and Harley in a constant state of heightened awareness – lest someone drop a morsel on the floor. The Christmas tree is still up, along with the bannister lights. I like it, and under the circumstances, I figure I can leave it up as long as I damn well please.
Our friends gather here, to eat, drink and play Settlers of Catan until we can’t see straight. My brother stays over and listens intently to Callum’s constant narration of life. We binge-watch Netflix from the comfort of our huge leather sectional (it’s red, by the way). We walk in the forest.
I won’t be splashing out on new furniture, but maybe a rug. Something soft under your feet is nice.
I know a few people who wanted to die at “home.” I don’t particularly. They didn’t know what I now know — that their families suffered, but wanted so badly to honour their wishes. It’s hard on those left behind. I’m okay with dying in hospital, so lit by morphine I don’t even know what planet I’m on, let alone what city I’m in, but I hope it’s in Scarborough.
So much of life is outside my control now, but this is still my — our — home, and at least we can, to the extent we mortals control anything, have some control here. We can sit under the paintings we like best in our comfortable clutter, with stacks of books on every horizontal surface. We can be at home.