SWIMMING INTO MY LIFE
My mother was my best friend, confidant, guardian angel and a comrade in the world of visual art and poetry. Even when we lived in different provinces, we were like bread and butter. I still pick up the phone instinctively to call her, now, three years after her death. She was my Quan Yin, my Tara, my Angel of Mercy. How could I live without her, I asked, as she lay graceful and dying in the Cottage Hospice in East Vancouver in the Spring of 2001.
Nearer her passing, she asked me to be the caretaker of her Quan Yin, her white porcelain statuette of the deity, and the little Spanish cat we called Bocelli, thinking he was Italian. Quan Yin and Bocelli reside on my highboy in the bedroom, in arm’s reach of my side of the bed. I have added the rose beads of the Tibetan monks to don her shoulders and she never fails me when I ask for help.
I so wanted to join my mother, not so much from weariness or grief, but from awe when I saw the radiance of her face on the hospice pillows after she passed. The staff spoke softly, telling us they do not see this often. They do not see such radiance at death, the radiance of Frances as she passed into the world as our all-loving Quan Yin, goddess of compassion.
If I were to name the one key element that gave life and light to my healing journey, in all aspects at once physical, emotional, spiritual and psychic, I would praise the great Pacific Ocean into which I lower my body almost daily to restore breath and blood back to my veins, and hope back to my grieving heart.
My healing journey is indelibly woven with the fabric of my mother’s experience and her ultimate death from metastatic breast cancer. I cannot separate my own healing from my mother’s arduous journey. Our experiences were weirdly parallel, the timing uncanny and hauntingly cruel. I cannot reflect on one moment of this impossibly difficult period of my life without hearing my mother’s faithful voice. There is always something to be grateful for, she would say, something to cherish and learn from each and every day. My mother never lost hope. Hope for one bright moment, one pain-free afternoon, one more chance to share life’s mysteries with her family. My father, a man of heroic strength and constitution, was her guardian angel during the darkest and unrelenting hours of fear and pain.
I have been blessed with a family full of optimism and unconditional love. I was also lucky to grow up in a household where grandparents, parents, and children resided in harmony and mutual support. Being the youngest of three daughters, I was the last to let go of childhood fantasies and dreams, the last to let go of the harmony and fabric of the nest, and as a result I was most fearful to let go of my grandmother and mother when the time came. An early childhood experience of forced separation while I was in hospital traumatized me to a degree that I was always uneasy and longing for my mother’s company whenever she was absent. I never imagined that she would be taken from me by an insidious, debilitating and painful disease. I never imagined that my desperate words in prayer when her cancer returned: Please, let this be me instead, I am strong, I can take it on; would, in part, come true.
My own story of cancer began in 1996 when a suspicious mammogram was followed by a breast biopsy. The pathology results were negative for cancer, showing typical hyperplasia and proliferative breast disease. It was recommended that I be screened for cancer annually. Within ten days of receiving my biopsy results, my mother was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer. Her left breast was removed and axilliary lymph node dissection showed a spread of disease. It was not recommended that she undergo any further treatment at her age. Her family physician reassured us that she would most certainly die of “old age”, at some distant and future time, but not this cancer. She was home the next day following surgery, optimistic and energetic and happily working in her beloved kitchen – always the centre of our family’s home.
My mother continued to feel optimistic, energetic and cancer-free. Then, just less than four years later, she began to notice nagging symptoms and it was confirmed that the disease was back, this time in her lungs and bones. It was not until September of that year that her symptoms became intolerable. This was the same month that I returned for my annual mammogram, only to face the spectre of breast cancer myself.
A strange turn of events had also occurred that summer following a running-related leg strain. First my right and then my left foot became unmanageably painful. Nothing would relieve the pain, and I could not understand why a sport that I had enjoyed for many years without injury would now cause such incapacitation. I required crutches at times to walk. I was never without discomfort and tried every kind of therapy, including cortisone injections directly into the bottoms of my feet. It would take over two years of distress and immobility to find out that my foot injuries were directly related to my cancer. I was finally diagnosed by an orthopedic surgeon with “paraneoplastic syndrome” and surgery was offered to lengthen my contracted gastrocnemius tendons (heel cords), a result of the particular hormone-based cancer chemistry my body was experiencing that year.
I needed my feet to cope with the stress of my own illness and the preparatory grief of losing my mother. Running, hiking and cycling had always been life-savers for me, especially during difficult times. I had no alternative but to “be still”. My mother would tell me from her hospice bed that learning to be still was a gift. Her legs were immobilized by the bone cancer and she could no longer bear weight. She was confined to a chair and, more often, to bed. We seemed so much to be on parallel paths, and my mom, a passionate dancer of the 1940’s.
My place of meditation became the beach at Southey Point on Salt Spring Island where I would sit on the rocks and soak my feet in the cold ocean water. Taking the wisdom from an archetypal dream and creative surge, which led me to capture my vision in poetry and photographs, I began to swim in the ocean. I wore a light-weight wet suit with hood and gloves and experienced the freedom and healing potential of the sea. Most profoundly, I retrieved my weary and reluctant spirit, a spirit that half followed my mother on her death-bed to the next world, and was now returning to this familiar watery place on planet earth.
Swimming in the bracing sea forced me to breathe deeply and come up for air. The cold water also freed me from physical pain and conditioned my body back to life. The ocean, our great mother indeed, taught me that I still had life to live and much to share with others. I formed an open water swim team of like-minded women who thrive on the restorative powers of the sea. We swim with seals and other marine life and dedicate our bodies to the neighbouring bays whenever we can, rain or shine, storm or calm, darkness or light. We raise awareness and funds through swimming events and have made the Island Natural Care Wildlife Centre on Salt Spring Island our fundraising focus.
Many times while swimming I have felt my mother’s presence. I believe I am glimpsing the wonder, the freedom and serenity of the afterworld, that place of eternal light where my mother now resides as I am crawling through the wild and tumultuous sea, this Irish selkie’s element of maternal mystery. Frances and Mary, my mother and grandmother, are both swimming with me, riding the waves on this vast and marvelous sea of life.
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