A life sentence with mortal punctuation: part 5

Last week: A second routine surgery turns complicated and results in my second near-death experience.

The hits don’t stop coming

1987 was a massive year for me, not only because of my appendix problems, but also due to several other events, both related and unrelated to that trauma.

I mentioned some of the related bits last week: the implosion of my first serious relationship, academic struggles, and the revelations of the second surgery.

My first serious relationship yielded to my second in a few short months.  By the time of the second surgery, I was firmly entrenched in coupledom again.  At that point, I really didn’t know how to function socially without a partner.  I was still so awkward on my own, still doubted my own value so much that it seemed the only option.

The man in question was attracted to wounded women.  This is not to disparage him in any way, because he was an excellent person, but I still have trouble seeing my virtues and can’t figure out why else he decided to enter into a relationship with me.  This is just a statement of fact, something he revealed to me later himself.

With regard to my academic difficulties, I missed a lot of school and because I tended to fall asleep toward the end of the day, I was doing poorly even in the courses I was there for.  In an attempt to catch up, I wanted to enrol in a correspondence course in history to offset my poor performance in other classes.  My mom and I met with a counsellor to discuss my options.

I was told, point blank, “You’re not smart enough to complete a correspondence course successfully.”  The counsellor in question was clearly looking at my recent marks, not on the A’s and B’s of previous years’ courses.  When I tried to press the issue, she said that I didn’t have the time and dedication to complete a correspondence course.

“You’re recovering from surgery and still pretty sick.  You’re heading for a second one in a few months.  You have enough to worry about without a correspondence course.”  Essentially, she thought I was too lazy to complete the course.  This was not the case, but I couldn’t convince her otherwise, so I left the session empty-handed.

Other events were converging to form a perfect emotional storm.

English: Tropical Depression One upon being de...

English: Tropical Depression One upon being declared (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the winter, my paternal grandmother had a stroke while driving home from visiting my aunt and uncle down south.  Her car shot through an intersection just after entering Sudbury and ended up on an embankment.  Fortunately, no one else was injured, but the car was totalled.  She was admitted to hospital, but as the days and weeks progressed, she did not wake up.

At first, they thought the stroke had caused more damage than they originally determined.  Further scans revealed that this was not the case.  As time went on and her coma continued, they needed to insert a feeding tube to keep her alive.  She could not continue to survive on intravenous alone.

They couldn’t insert the feeding tube.  Something was in the way.  A quick exploratory revealed that her abdomen was full of cancer.

We couldn’t imagine the kind of pain she must have been in during her long months of silence leading up to the stroke.  My grandmother was an intensely private and fiercely independent woman.

Due to my own health issues, I was not encouraged to visit my grandmother much.  Then, when my state of infection became clear, I was discouraged from seeing her at all.  Finally, I was brought up to say my goodbyes.  Without the intervention of a feeding tube, my grandmother would slowly starve, if the growing cancer didn’t get to her first.

The decision was made to remove all supportive measures and let nature take its course.

Family came up to visit and either stayed or returned for the funeral.  It was about that time that I started to cry for no reason.  I couldn’t cry when it seemed appropriate: when saying my goodbyes and at the funeral, but at odd times, I’d just sob uncontrollably or stare off into nothing.

I had no idea what depression was then and even though my boyfriend tried to tell me, I was closed to the message.

My friendship with Margaret suffered as well.  My first boyfriend was very jealous of my time and rarely let me do anything on my own.  He was everywhere and became sulky when I wanted a “girl’s night” or to do anything with Margaret that didn’t involve him.

My quick turnaround into my second relationship didn’t help matters.  This time I was the needy one and relied on my boyfriend, the picture of the strong, silent archetype, almost exclusively.  Margaret found a relationship of her own to fill the gap.  She needed someone she could rely on too.

Margaret’s mother was getting remarried and would be moving to Mississauga at the beginning of the summer.  Margaret was allowed to stay on with me for the summer, in my grandmother’s house until she joined her mother in Mississauga and I went away to the University of Guelph in the fall.

My parents had settled my grandmother’s estate in the spring and my father had to buy out his brothers of their shares.  My grandmother hadn’t left a proper will and a lawyer was hired to sort through the mess.  They would be moving into my grandmother’s house in September after I relocated to Guelph and renting out their house to pay off the second mortgage they had to take out to make the proper financial arrangements.

My grandmother’s house, though large, only had one bedroom.  My move down south would be a permanent one.  There was no place for me at home anymore.

Throughout this time, I didn’t write, or even think about writing.  There wasn’t any room for it in my life and I was too busy trying to fast-track through highschool and try to maintain some form of a healthy relationship with anyone to spare any time for my creativity.

In a relatively short period of time, I had a serious infection bookended by two surgeries, ended my first major relationship and entered my second, lost my grandmother, my home, and my best friend.  This was the beginning of a situational depression that it would take me years to recognize and sort through.

Next week: Fumbling toward stability.


A life sentence with mortal punctuation: part 1

First: A note about memory, frame, and fiction

I have my memories, but as I get older, I don’t know that the biological hard drive that is my brain hasn’t been corrupted, that the memories reflect the reality that was, or reality as I want it to be.

My memories have also been informed by family stories and sometimes the latter influence the former, so again, I can never be certain of their veracity.

Thinking about this, I remember the academic and theoretical concept of “frames” from my undergraduate studies, now also more than 20 years in my past.  Everyone has their own frame of reference, influenced by their experiences and education, family and individuated world view.

Even if one attempts to be completely truthful, one’s truth can run counter to reality.

The writer cannot express anything but through the filter of their frame.  In this sense, all written work, whether scientific, academic, journalistic, historical, or honestly fictive, has in it the element of fiction.  It cannot help but be influenced by the frame of the writer.

Mathematics may be the only purely objective writing, but even there, unknowns and chaos creep in and beg interpretation.

This is just my opinion, but I wanted to get it out there as a way of saying that even though I write from memory and experience, I am writing a story.  It is my story, but not having time travel at my disposal, I cannot say that this story, based on real life events, is any more “real” than a movie based on the true story of X.

How it all began (yes, I’m really going there)

So, it’s October, 1969, and my mother, nine months pregnant, walks to her regular doctor’s appointment.  Her doctor’s office was at the top of Regent Street hill, and for those of you who don’t live in Sudbury, that’s a really big hill, of San Fransiscan dimensions, even.

The doctor enters the exam room and says, “I didn’t expect to see you.  I thought you’d have your baby by now.”  My mom shrugs and says that everything’s going fine, “but,” she says, “I’ve been having these really strange cramps all day.”

After a brief assessment, the doctor tells her to call her husband and get over to the hospital post-hasty: “You’re in labour, woman!”

My mom’s never been the kind to thrust the agony of my birthing at me.  I don’t know how long she was in labour or how painful it was.  I just know that it was the first, and only, occasion when my maternal grandmother, sober her entire life with that notable exception, got stinking drunk 🙂

Early memories

The only things I remember from my infancy are images.  Moments.  The colourful, plastic Fischer-Price mobile that hung above my crib; a tin, battery-operated locomotive; and this memory, which became a poem:

infant crawls

mother says she was crawling by six months and walking
by eighteen. situate her chronologically as you wish
any month and day in 1970.
reaches linoleum and drags
legs forward.  pivots onto buttocks.
suddenly sees black shoes and white tights,
spill of turquoise dress over thighs.
a contemporary picture reveals the dress in question.
shirred bodice, empire waist, short sleeves poofed and gently
cinched around chubby arms.  her hair is short and blonde, lovingly
held in place by two plastic pink barrettes in the shape of bows.  her baby
teeth are coming in.
fridge holds her attention for a moment.  then something moves
—brown shoes—ma ma.
though she was beginning to speak, her words were
carefully articulated.  not mama, but ma ma; syllables
spat out, exhaled along with breath.
low like this, ma ma is brown shoes and white-pink
calves.  ma ma is also round-white-pink, brown curly, and
long-white-pink ticklers, but they are all ma ma.  they all smell
of comfort.
the brown shoes were around for years, with large, square,
brass-toned buckles.  nylon-sheathed legs above them truncated by
fall of blue dress: straight, simple, homemade, with short sleeves.
horn-rimmed glasses frame hazel eyes and permed, dyed hair.  mother’s
smile was shy and kind.
chubby arms lift hands to grasp.  frustratingly ma ma seems to be between
wriggling grabbers, but cannot be touched.  “ma,” she says, and “ma.”  two
world-shaking clomps later, the long-white-pink lifters bring her up to the
round-white-pink ma ma and pudgy fingers tangle in curly brown.
this is my memory.  i do not ask my mother if she
shares it.

©2012 Melanie Marttila

infant crawls era Mel

‘Dis be me 🙂

Something I don’t remember

My maternal grandmother had a massive heart attack that required a multiple by-pass (not sure how many, just that they had to take the vessels from her leg).  In the wake of the ordeal, she was in a kind of fugue state, conscious, but not talking, not interacting.

My mom was allowed to bring me in to the intensive care unit.  Normally, a baby wouldn’t be permitted, but it was thought that either it was time to say final goodbyes, or that I might somehow remind my grandmother that she had a reason to live.

Fortunately, the latter happened.  My name was the first word she uttered in days.  I have no idea how old I was when that happened.  It’s funny sometimes the affect we have on others, whether we know it or not.

My grandmother was given a dim prognosis: months perhaps.  She lived to see me graduate high school and did not pass away until I was in university.  More on that in a later post in this series.


My first encounter with the spectre of death was the passing of my paternal grandfather.  When I was three, my grandfather was up on his carport roof, shovelling snow, and had a massive heart attack.  I was carefully sheltered from the event.

That year, the local television station broadcast “The Santa Show” which read children’s letters to Santa on the air.  The big Christmas news Santa reported that year was that Rudolph was sick and might not make his annual flight.  In trying to explain the situation to me, Mom told me that Grandpa was in the hospital.

“With Rudolph?” I asked.  Yes, with Rudolph, she said.

Only days later (I think), I was set to play in the snow while my father climbed up to clear that same carport roof.  The job had to be completed.  As he descended, the ladder slipped on the ice, and he fell, calling to my toddler self for help.

Understandably, I thought Daddy was being silly.  Patiently, through his pain, he convinced me, who’d never gone anywhere alone in my brief life, to go to the next-door neighbour for help.  I was frightened out of my wee gourd and Dad had to keep encouraging me to keep going.

Neither of us knew, entangled in our own drama, that Grandpa had died.

I only know this because my mother told me: Grandpa was a man of few words.  He loved to garden, and grew straw flowers so he could engage in dried flower arranging in the winters.  When he watched me, he sat in his chair, often reading the paper, and let me play quietly with his Salada tea figurines.  I still have the wolf.  It sits on my bookshelf along with other memorabilia.

I hardly had the opportunity to get to know him and he was gone.  Dad ended up with a fractured pelvis and was in the hospital over the holidays.

Truthfully, neither event had much of an impact on me, though I always thought that I’d let Dad down when he fell, not that I could have done more than I did, being three and all.  I got used to not having Grandpa around, and life went on.

I think that when you’re very young, death can’t be understood.  It’s therefore far easier to accept.  Absence becomes the new normal.  There’s no introspection or grief, and the grief of others is equally beyond understanding.

Perhaps these early experiences do have a lasting effect.  Maybe the trauma lies dormant, only to surface at a later date and hijack our lives.  For all the time I’ve spent examining my life, I can’t say.  I don’t feel any connection between these early experiences and the person I became.

What about the stories of your lives?  Do you have a memory of a death from your early years?  How did you react, or not?  Can you connect the experience to some trait or tendency that you embody today?  Have any of your early memories inspired your creative work?

Next week:  My first near-death experience and what came of it.

Until then, writerly peeps.  In the meantime, mine your memories for creative gold 🙂