Summer 2012. It had been about a year since my father died —directly from liver cancer, indirectly from years of drug and alcohol abuse—and I felt a sense of true freedom for the first time in my life.
For decades, I had chased after my dad’s love and affection, tripping over myself to get his attention, longing for him to acknowledge the damage he had done, to make amends for the pain he had caused, but it had never happened, and now the chase was over. No more what-ifs, no apologies. We had finally reached the end of our story, and I could make my peace with it at last, in my own way, on my own time. Dad had wounded me intensely with his regular absence, but his presence had hurt just as bad, and so his death was, I like to imagine, a release from sorrow and suffering for both of us. Contract fulfilled. See you on the other side.
My second marriage had just celebrated its one-year anniversary, my youngest child—one of four under the age of ten—had barely weaned off the breast, and I was submerged in major PTSD-related symptoms on a regular basis, including flashbacks, nightmares, and hyper vigilance, as well as anxiety and depression, so it was perhaps not the best timing in the history of the world to make a change, but I was restless and ready for a little something more. I figured that a formal education might be my next right thing. As it turns out, I was right.
I chose university for a few reasons. I wanted to open doors, to alter pathways in my brain by creating new ones, and to challenge myself in new ways. I needed to prove to myself, and to everybody else who had ever doubted me, that I could do it. Make my dreams real. I knew that my life could not support the structure and regular routine of college, with its daily classes and required attendance, but I figured I could handle a few hours each week on a uni campus. At least, maybe I could, most weeks. It was worth a shot.
I sat on my balcony one afternoon watching the sun tickle the leaves of a tree my landlord has always insisted is nothing more than an overgrown weed, closed my eyes, and asked God for confirmation. A sign. If I was meant to make such a massive change in my life, surely the Universe could send me some kind of smoke signal—yes, I am One of Those People who believe in God, the Universe, signs, and symbols—so that I could be certain I was on the right path. I opened my eyes slowly. Nothing. I waited for a several more minutes just to be sure.
Still nothing. Oh, well.
But then, suddenly, just as I turned to head back inside, a flawless white feather drifted down from the sky and across the yard to land at my feet. And I knew what I had to do.
I found daycare for Baby Girl and, once a week from September through December, I attended a women’s Bridging course for mature students, in order to determine my eligibility for school.
I passed with an A+ and got accepted to Carleton University, where I took two classes the following winter term, and then continued to do so for the next ten consecutive terms—nearly four full years—without a rest. Oh, sure, I had a week or two off classes here and there, but without fail, one or all of the kids (or myself) would get violently ill—maybe break a toe, require surgery, or contract lice—and before I knew it, my so-called break would be over, and I would head back to class more exhausted than ever.
In any case, I loved school, I really did, everything about it. I got excellent grades. Gave it everything I had and then some, often to the detriment of myself and, occasionally, my family, but I could not help it. Couldn’t half-ass it. I had something to prove.
Once I knew that I was capable of success, I pushed myself, harder and harder, adding more and more to my plate each year: a non-profit (creator of The Ottawa Journal Project), a magazine (senior editor at Anthem Little Magazine), research for my first book (the Biography of Bronwen Wallace)… But perhaps the fact that I hit a wall was inevitable. Over the past few years, my personal life has been a fucked-up series of ohnosoclosetogether storms, and I cannot always determine where one ends and the next begins. Joy has been elusive (to say the least).
I survived last fall by the skin of my teeth.
By the end of April, I had reached my breaking point, and I knew it, but refused to pay attention and registered for summer courses anyhow, only to withdraw in the eleventh hour, shell-shocked from another heartbreak, and empty, hollowed out, bone-dry.
Grief had run me down.
Actually, grief had knocked me on my ass, punched me in the face, then sat on my chest until I could no longer breathe, let alone, say “Uncle!” Grief gave me a hard stare, challenged me to acknowledge it, dared me to face it once and for all. I was afraid—okay, scared as hell, truth be told—but I knew that if I wanted to move forward on my path, I would have to let grief run its course. I could no longer avoid it.
I just needed to be brave, to listen to my body and trust in it, to love, honour, and nurture it for once in my life, rather than neglect, abuse, and ignore it, and if I did, grief would loosen its grip. I would be free. It all sounded fantastically simple in my head, totally doable when I explained it aloud to my friends. In reality, however, letting grief “run its course” has been a lot harder than it sounds. In many ways, I suppose I would still prefer to distract myself from pain than to face it, but I am working on this.
Summer 2016. Quite surprisingly, rather than sitting at my desk in the cool office to write feverishly all summer long, as anticipated, the majority of my time has been spent barefoot in the backyard, under an audacious sun and cloudless cobalt sky, tending to an ever-evolving faerie garden, playing in the sprinkler with my children and our dog, and growing baby grass, sweet peppers, and basil, among other things. Nothing fancy. But, oh, how we have all blossomed! Still, there is always room for more growth and pruning…
The seasons continue to change and, soon enough, it will be September again. I sat on my balcony last week contemplating whether or not to return to school this year. This time, I was far too exhausted to talk to God or consider signs and symbols, so I just spaced out instead. It was a huge decision, but I had been vacillating for what felt like aeons, and it was time to make up my mind. I knew what I wanted to do, what I felt like I needed to do, what was my next right thing, but that did not stop the critical voice inside from tearing into me, or keep the teeth of fear in my belly from gnawing holes in my dreams. Still.
As I watched my daughter’s smile catch the last sunbeams of the day, and quietly reminded myself that change did not have to mean failure, I observed a small white feather slide gently off the roof of our house and drift, drift slowly, slowly across the backyard to land delicately in the newly sprouted grass growing in the shade of the tree my landlord always insists is nothing but a giant weed… I knew what I had to do.
I reached for Baby Girl’s small hand and, together, we collected the soft white feather.
It has been five years since my father died, and in that time, I have rediscovered and reclaimed parts of myself that I had forgotten even exist. I am more like Arwen at ten than at thirty, and that is a very good thing, because it means I am finally becoming myself again, who I was before I became who I thought I had to be, back before I started denying Who I Really Am, in the beginning, when I was just me. Arwen.
Education has opened my mind to possibility again. New doors open every day. The dreams I have nurtured since childhood are beginning to manifest, piece by piece, and I feel like I have found my place in the world. I have begun to, as my friend Jessica recommends in a recent post, claim my space.
I will not be returning to university for this year.
Instead, I am taking time to focus on my family, my health and my overall sense of well-being, as I write every day, go for long solitary walks, and attempt to make a serious dent in my first book. Although I am not quite finished my degree, I know this is the next right thing for me. My path has never looked much like one anybody in their right mind would ever choose to travel, I know, but it is mine, and it is beautiful.
My path has a heart.