There are the Alps. What is there to say about them? They don't make sense. ... You will have to go a long way round if you want to avoid them. It takes some getting used to. There are the Alps, fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble! -Excerpts from “On the fly-leaf of Pound’s Cantos” By Basil Bunting
I grew up on the West Coast of Canada, in a land of mountains and ocean.
At a seminar I attended years ago, the professor spoke of the idea of an “internal landscape”. He spoke of how, having grown up in the prairies, his internal landscape was characterized by endless horizons and vast stretches of sky.
For me, it was mountains and ocean that shaped my consciousness.
Growing up out west, the moods of the landscape held me fascinated. Sunny days were dazzling, the mountains and the ocean sharp-edged, as if formed from cut crystal, the vegetation seething with the dark green of ancient knowing. Equally fascinating were the days when clouds streaked across the folds and crags of the mountains and blurred the line between ocean and sky.
This marked my early, visceral connection with the spiritual. It has stayed with me since.
But there was another side to my spirituality as well. My Anglo-Indian ancestors had lived in India for generations, and I grew up with colourful family lore. One of my favourites tells of how my great grandmother encountered Death at the bedside of her ailing daughter, my great aunt. Nor do I mean the abstracted idea of death, but rather Death, personified as a wizened, brown-skinned woman in a white sari.
Growing up in such a family, I was introduced to notions of eastern spirituality early on, and first took up the practice of meditation in my early teens.
Between that, and the potent, seething landscape, I felt deeply connected to the world around me.
And then came 2005, a year that began with the earthquake that triggered a catastrophic tsunami that destroyed so many lives and livelihoods in the region of the world where I was born and spent my early years.
My 2005 also began with a far smaller, more personal earthquake. It began with the news that I was infertile.
I remained optimistic. There were technologies, weren’t there? Things that could circumvent the minor impediment of being unable to conceive.
Thus began the intrusive, stressful process that is In Vitro Fertilization. One failed cycle–and then success. I was pregnant!
But there was something wrong. I knew that from early on, and as my body reacted to the wrongness, I began to feel afraid, and isolated in that fear. My husband was a wonderful support and I had made a few good friends in my new home, yet I ached at the absence of the other pillars of my support system–my family, my larger network of close friends and even the landscape itself, all of which were so far away on the West Coast.
I was admitted to hospital, with fever and agonizing pain. A week later, they discharged me. The pain had subsided, but the fevers continued. No-one seemed able to tell me what was wrong.
Three weeks later, an ultrasound revealed that the heartbeat had stopped. I was waiting to miscarry. When I tried to reach my father the next day, to tell him the news, I was dealt a second blow: the police had to break open the door to his apartment. They discovered that he had died of a heart attack sometime during the night. No prior warning. Nothing.
I couldn’t go west immediately, to see my family and grieve with them, because I was waiting to miscarry. Two weeks, a miscarrage, an infection and another hospitalization later, and I was finally well enough to fly out to be with them. A good visit–a time of grieving and bonding.
I left with the solemn promise to return to Vancouver in December for the first Christmas that I would spend West since I moved to Ontario.
But it seemed that those fates had not yet finished with me. When I returned from Vancouver, an ultrasound revealed that I had a large growth inside me. The doctor who broke the news mouthed the word “cancer”, as if speaking it aloud might somehow make it more likely to manifest.
For the ensuing weeks, I didn’t know how to think of my future, and whether it would be in terms of weeks, months… or whether I would be fortunate enough to be granted years of life to look forward to. It was impossible to plan anything, to begin anything, to ground myself when I felt like so many pillars of my life had been removed from me so suddenly.
Returning to my meditation practice was part of what helped keep me sane–helped me to appreciate the beauty of the moments, the days, the mundane. The beauty of life itself.
I never did make it out for Christmas. My surgery was scheduled for mid-December, and by the time Christmas came around, I was only just well enough to be discharged from the hospital. The growth, at least, had been benign, and so I could begin looking forward once again.
While I was convalescing from the surgery, I began my search for a community, in Ontario. Over the months and years that followed, the search bore fruit.
It has been nice to be able to move out of the solitude of my writer’s life, which for the first time, amid deep griefs and losses that stole away my ability to concentrate, had become claustrophobic and difficult.
In the years since, I have discovered that, like the Alps, grief can be vast and impenetrable, but that I had a choice. I could sit and wait for it to crumble, or I could begin the long journey across.
It has been a slow process, but over the years, it has become easier. The craggy and forbidding mountains have become rounder, gentler curves and slopes. I suspect I’ll be on this journey for many years to come, yet with time, it has become such a deep part of who I am. The losses of that year shaped–both directly and indirectly–the person that I am and the life I am living today, in a way that becomes, with each passing year, more difficult to imagine relinquishing.
Sometimes, the grief still wells up, sharper than expected after all this time, as some part of my mind strays to that alternate timeline, where I’m a mother rather than a lawyer, and our child is thriving (he or she would have been starting grade one this year), or where the children from our subsequent, unsuccessful IVF cycles were carried to term and birthed, and transformed our lives.
But my husband and I made a choice, after all that loss. We decided we would live in abundance, not absence. Rather than forever dwelling on what we did not have, we would choose to do things, try things and take risks we would never have taken, if we had managed to have a family.
The life I live now is busy, rich, bountiful and meaningful. There are moments of sadness, yes, but also of profound sweetness. Despite everything that has happened, the journey has become one of abundance, blessing, discovery and a deep, still sense of gratitude for where I am today, on this serendipitous odyssey across an oft-difficult, humblingly spectacular landscape of mountains and ocean.