aired on CBC's Sunday Edition on October 15, 2006.
Nico and I had been dating for eight years when we got engaged. No one was surprised. Well, almost no one.
I'll always remember the day I told Tim.
I'd known Tim since he was about nine and I was eight. That's when my mother started bringing him home some weekends from the nursing home where he lived and she worked.
Because of his severe cerebral palsy, Tim's arms and legs jerked; he grunted instead of speaking; and he needed a wheelchair to get around. He'd been put in the home by divorcing parents several years earlier and they hadn't been in contact since - no visits or phone calls or letters. Mom saw a spark behind his eyes and felt she had to do something.
I don't remember much about meeting Tim for the first time, although I recall being put off by the institution smells of disinfectant, urine, and stale saliva that clung to him. I'm sure I put on a bright smile and pretended not to notice.
I also don't remember the first time I sang to Tim, or when it occurred to me to change the words in the tune "I love little Willy" to "I love little Timmy." It was his favourite. Every time, it made him laugh and laugh - especially the second verse:
We wish to be married, we do, Mama.
We wish to be married, we do.
We wish to be married but don't you tell Pa
'Cause he wouldn't like it at all, Mama.
At times, I wondered what went on in Tim's head. Did he think the same kinds of thoughts as the rest of us? What if he was a regular kid inside? I hoped he didn't understand enough to really know what he was missing, and I shoved aside the unsettling feeling that he did.
Well into our teenage years, there were frequent weekend visits, special holidays together, and Tim was a part of all our extended family gatherings. And all that time, I kept serenading him, always leaving his favourite song for the grand finale.
When I went away to school and Tim was transferred to a group home about an hour and a half away from my parents' house. My mother visited him often, but I saw less and less of him. I was busy with my own life: travel, university, and soon, creating a household with my boyfriend.
Our meeting that day started off awkwardly. Unable to understand most of the gestures he was using, I kept having to ask the two caregivers from his group home what he was trying to say. We were like strangers.
After some stilted small talk, I showed him my diamond engagement ring and asked if he knew what it meant. And as I uttered the words, "Nico and I are getting married," I realized what this news might mean to him. I had the sensation of time slowing and sharpening, like when your car is skidding on ice and all you can do is hold on and hope there's not too much blood.
His reaction was immediate and needed no interpretation. Tim shook his head vigorously from side to side, then jabbed his chest with his index finger. NO, he was saying. ME. You're supposed to marry me.
The words of that song echoed in my head - the song I had sung to him over and over. There was no way to make this better.
Tim cried and choked and shuddered until his caregivers took him out of the room.
The worst part wasn't how deeply I hurt him, although that in itself was bad enough. It was that all this time he'd been waiting for me to come back for our happily ever after, while I hadn't been thinking of him at all.
In that moment I realized that despite all the time I'd spent with Tim, I hadn't seen him as a real person - although it wasn't until much later that I realized why.
When we were growing up, I was always proud of the number of people who commented how good I was with Tim. Glowing from the praise, I didn't stop to think that people were good with animals, or perhaps babies, but not with friends. I was so busy helping Tim and doing things for him that my eyes were closed to the ways he could help me. Until that day.
Tim's raw reaction hit me right in the gut - which is what it took to get me out of my head. Deeply shocked and guilt-ridden, I spent the next decade returning to the nerve endings that were exposed by that incident, like a tongue seeking out a sore tooth.
Many jolts later, here's what I finally understood. Much of my life had been spent creating and shoring up the roles I played for different people. Only one part of me was held up at a time: the one I thought would keep the people around me happy. To keep up the act, I had to assign similarly shallow roles to those around me.
Tim, as the boy with cerebral palsy, was the perfect foil for my generous little girl role. I made sure he never saw any sign that I sometimes resented him taking my parents' attention, or that I wondered how it felt to be abandoned by your parents, or that watching him eat sometimes turned my stomach. I couldn't acknowledge his existence outside of my neat little play, because that would expose me as an actor. It was much easier to sing a song, to perform for him, than to deal with feelings like jealousy, pity, disgust. And it was certainly easier than the heartbreaking recognition that he was someone who just wanted to be loved. Like me, like everyone.
It's been a struggle to lay myself out there, to live in the uncertainty of collaboration. But Tim showed me the alternative isn't a pretty one. His pain, his love, his honesty forced me to grapple with what it truly means to be engaged.
Down the Road
aired on CBC Radio's Sunday Edition in May 2005.
I thought I would just drop into the roadhouse, have a quick meal, take in the local colour, and be on my way. I was wrong.
A few bites into my chicken fingers, I glanced at the group sitting in the corner. Was that...? It couldn't be. It was. It was Earl from Grade 4. Actually, he was in my class right through to Grade 8, but somehow I only remembered the younger boy.
He was wearing a toque and checkered lumberjack shirt. He had a paunch and some extra flesh around his chin. He looked older than me - or at least older than I imagine I look - and I had to triple-check. But it was definitely him. He had the same reddish hair, same muddy eyes, and although I couldn't hear him, I saw his almost-motionless lips producing the slightly slurred speech I remembered from when the teacher used to ask him to read aloud in class.
Then the others at the table came into focus. I recognized most of them as the slightly younger cousins and siblings of my classmates, people whose faces I'd seen regularly on the playground or the bus. But wait. There was John, the shy dreamer who forgot his white Miami Vice-inspired graduation suit at the Chateau Frontenac at the end of our Grade 8 class trip. And who was that making her way toward the table? It was Jenny, with the same even, white smile, the same blonde hair, the same bushy dark eyebrows. She was a revered Grade 5 when I was in Grade 4, a straight-A student and class leader. I found myself thinking, "She's friends with them?" as though her one extra year of life and perfect report cards would still make a difference to people in their thirties.
The phrase 'ghosts from the past' came to mind, but in fact these were more like ghosts in the present. In my head, the past selves were perfectly solid and nuanced, these brothers and sisters from my tiny, rural elementary school. What was ghostly was the fact that they existed now in a world parallel to mine, unseen - and that after 15 years they could turn up to haunt me, caricatures of 'local colour' having a beer together on a Thursday night.
In some ways, it was strange that I was so startled. After all, the roadhouse was just down the highway from the farm where I grew up, with its miles of white fences, sweet-smelling barn, fairytale mansion with two staircases, and modest manager's residence, where my family lived.
But I had moved away from there, in every sense. I guess I never gave much thought to those who might have stayed.
It began when we went to high school and found ourselves in different classes, different streams, different clubs and sports teams. Although our homes were not far apart, we never ran into each other. After Grade 8, we disappeared from each other's lives.
Then, when I was 17, my world expanded again. I won a scholarship to spend my last two years of high school at an international school in Italy. Suddenly, I found myself speaking Italian, eating far too much pasta, and, on occasion, taking the train to Venice on the weekend.
My parents moved from the farm before I graduated. When I came 'home,' it was to their newly winterized cottage.
The next five years of university in Peterborough and Kingston left me feeling restless. "How would you feel about teaching English in Japan?" I asked my husband, and within months we had set off on a three-year adventure.
When we decided to return to Muskoka, we chose a spot on the other side of town from my childhood home. I rarely had a reason to drive in that direction, and when I did, my nostalgia was focused on the farm and the little school even farther down the highway.
That evening, walking into the tavern, which had been just a house by the road last time I checked, I had the sense of being separate - like a tourist or an anthropologist, a little like I had in Japan. There, I was always on the lookout for quaint or exotic details to include in letters home. Here in the roadhouse, the details had been satisfying: a small bulletin board with a jumble of flyers and business cards for local excavating companies, handymen and home-based hairdressers; a long dark bar; a patchy paint job; and a deer head mounted on the wall.
But stealing looks at that table, it hit me: I once knew these people well. We spent five days a week together for years. Learning our times tables. Playing baseball. Practicing songs for Christmas concerts. Riding the bus down the same stretch of pavement, day in and day out. I saw what they had for lunch, if they had lunch at all; I know who they played with at recess; I witnessed their academic struggles and triumphs; I know who they had their first crushes on.
I had the feeling I still knew them - the real people, without the veneer of adulthood.
Maybe I hadn't thought about them for years, but we knew things about each other that our spouses didn't know, that our parents didn't know, that we ourselves might not remember. There's something intimate about that kind of knowledge.
But I didn't go over to their table. Not because of shyness or awkwardness. Certainly not, as someone I told about the incident later hinted, because I felt superior. No. I wanted to preserve and protect our young selves. I wanted to keep them vital and rich and strong.
Talking would only have taken away from the intensity of our connection. What could there possibly have been to say except, "I remember you. I know you. Do you remember me?"
I left without even catching anyone's eye.
Winter's End - (Ultra-short story)
The ladybugs are dying now. Sarah collects the bodies in tissues, careful not to squeeze too hard.
Walking carefully is nothing new. But inevitably, she lets her guard down and there's a crunch under her stockinged foot, followed by a quick shudder.
"They're just bugs," John says.
When the creatures ventured into the house last fall, he humored her, getting off the couch to help ferry hundreds of them back outside.
"You're a nutcase," he said when they were done. She laughed then and pressed her cheek against his chest.
That was just before John stopped leaning across to unlock the passenger door for her in the mornings, watching instead while she fumbled with her keys.
Mug in hand, Sarah peruses the classified ads. A ladybug falls from the ceiling and lies dome-down on 'For Rent,' legs kicking.
Brushing it onto the floor, she reaches for a pen.
Pride and Joy - (Ultra-short story)
Every year, his mother began planning his birthday cake weeks - even months - in advance. It had to be perfect: the most innovative, dazzling, delicious cake ever. She brought home cookbooks and magazines, spread them out on the dining room table, and studied the latest trends and techniques.
Then, for a week's worth of evenings, she disappeared into the kitchen, putting a 'Do not enter' sign on the door.
Every year when she was done, people said she had outdone herself, she deserved a prize, and he was a lucky boy. She beamed and blushed.
And every year, a few days after the fall fair finished, his cake would arrive on the table in front of him, candles ablaze. It was only slightly stale, the icing hardly sagged at all, and the slice the judges had cut was very discrete.