Most of us have secret places in life. Places to where we can retreat when the world weighs too heavy upon our backs. My place is a small wooden cottage in the Canadian countryside. A place draped in nostalgia, a place where time stands still. Here I am concealed from the news that fills one’s head with illusory fears, sheltered from the ceaseless cacophony of the city grind. Here I am swept away by the rhythms of the fertile earth, unified with the breeze that blows through the forest, that rustles the leaves, that wrinkles the waters, that fills ones bones with an almost tangible comfort.
Bordered by towering beech trees with bark that peels off like onion skin, with tangled branches housing red-crested woodpeckers, where glittering stars freckle an opaque sky and the ghostly wails of loons can be heard from amidst velvet blackness, there exists a small timber cabin. Every year of our lives my sister and I have returned to this Eden beneath the trees. Now my life is carved into these wooden trunks, like an engraving made by young lovers, a museum of my identity.
I’ll never forget my mother’s beauty, a warm-blooded Canadian goddess, her long dark locks twisted into a high bun, her slim figure wrapped tightly in a one piece swimming costume, a child slung over a hip, a crooked tooth displayed proudly in the center of an infectiously wide grin. She’d carry down to the dock and wade with us into the water, our rubber armbands thrashing about, hours passing by seemingly unnoticed. Eventually we were bundled up into towels, red eyes peeking through the folds of soft fabric, our body’s catatonic from hours of play. As we grew from toddlers into little girls our cottage stood strong, like a familiar comfort in a world governed by change.
I love children because I see in them a reflection of my former self. I am reminded of the little girl I used to be, the crown of golden ringlets that sprang from my head, my unfailingly animated gait, the golden intonations of a child’s happy laughter, swimming until the sun disappeared, yellow light fading into lilac.
Freedom still tastes like sunscreen and ice cream.
This cottage, surrounded by towering trees of emerald green, perched on a hill overlooking a lake, a lake which reflects the trees so perfectly you would swear it’s a mirror, still reminds me of lazy mornings, sleeping bags, dog-eared novels and hot blueberry pancakes. Of my parents sitting weary eyed in the early morning as the sun began its languid ascent, nursing cups of steaming coffee in their laps. My dad’s tartan pajama pants, the sound of metal spoons clinking against mustard yellow mugs, the calming stillness of early mornings, my happy place.
Now when I return I am abruptly transported back to the rapture of those innocent days. I am once again two years old, playing in a sand pit, nothing but a saggy nappy swaddling my rear. I am nine years old, soggy braids and wobbly teeth, a mouth stained violet from too much grape Kool-Aid. I am six, bathing with my sister, our naked bodies squeaking against the metal tub. I am five, I am ten, I am twelve, I am seventeen, I am the sunlight that streams through screened porch windows, these trees whisper the story of my life.
As I grow older, seasoned by the hardships of life, aged by the losses that lineate this earthly existence, I find myself reverting back to the mindset I had when I was a little girl, that heavenly period of youth when the only time that existed was the present moment. It’s as if ones reward for having suffered is to grasp the transiency of this life, the fleetingness in every moment. The ebb and flow. The coming and going. When you see that it’s all temporary, cyclical, drawing and withdrawing like the tide of the lake that laps against pebbles, engendering them with a glittering opalescence, you start to feel the euphoria of the present moment because you understand that soon it will be over, another memory, another moment stored in the archives of your overworking mind and so you hold it. You squeeze it. You shut your eyes and breathe it all in, allowing the feeling of now-ness to pervade your entire body.
Every moment becomes sacred.
This year I return to my happy place one month free from a whirlwind of hospital visits. My body still weak from chemotherapy, the trauma still crisp, these wounds still healing. It’s strange to feel both older and younger at the same time. Aged by life’s battle, yet made younger by the realization of how truly extraordinary it is to be alive.
The baby hairs on my head reflect my current state of mind.
What struggle has taught me is that life is hard and painful and full of unavoidable tragedy. But struggle also gives you something precious. It gives you the gift of appreciation. You make room in your life for gratitude by clearing out all the clutter, by removing all the noise and dust and fear in your head. You become young again through realising how important it is to experience a moment while it is happening; to look up and see the softness of the world when the sun is leaking through clouds at dawn, when everything is quiet and golden. To smell the sunscreen on your skin, to hear the ripping of a boat’s motor in the distance, the transitory vapor trail of an airplane shooting across the sky, the way the skin by your father’s eyes creases when he laughs, the light in your mothers eyes when she smiles.
This year is especially important because it might be one of my mother’s last years in Canada. My mother, the same woman who carried us inside her agile body, who held us firmly upon feminine hips, who’s friendliness took you aback, for she was so kind, so generous, so concerning. The woman who tucked us in at night, kissed our foreheads, read us stories, who woke up early to venture out on solitary canoe rides, oars dipping into water as her sturdy arms carried her across the lake. The woman who painted city scenes onto canvas, who wore nude lipstick and colourful scarves, jerseys stained with oil paint, who taught me how to treat others with respect, who taught me how to love. This might be her last year here in Canada and so every moment is heightened, alchemized with the knowledge that nothing lasts forever.
Her mind has been deteriorating for years now, corroded by a disease they call dementia, her cognitive capacity stifled by a lack of blood to her brain. She struggles to do things on her own these days, my father her guide, her senses, her life support. My hero. He coaxes her into the water, the water she used to glide into with complete ease, now she holds onto the ladder for dear life. I watch the way my father persists with patience and grace, the way he makes her laugh and smile. Despite all of her confusion, he never gives up.
They say love is found in actions, not in words.
Time may have rendered her mind irrevocable but her sweetness lingers, like the smell of the forest after heavy rains, her eyes still glitter with kindness, her innate goodness lives on through stolen smiles and an eternal beauty.
I now understand that for all the pain in this life, for all the inevitable suffering, for all the sorrow that cracks open these fragile hearts, there is joy. There is goodness. There is happiness. There is always swimming on a warm summer afternoon, cold beer and a father’s hearty laugh. There is a little girl with blonde ringlets lighting up a room somewhere, her effervescent smile penetrating the cloudiest of skies. There is always another reason to wake up in the morning. Sometimes it is only a blue-gray sky or that first sip of coffee. But sometimes that is enough.
And I know when things get hard I can always turn to the memories of summer at the cottage, my most prized possession. A place where the past is embedded in each fibre of wood, in each dusty embellishment, in the fabric of old furniture, the fraying pillows, the oil paints and pastels in their plastic box. Where my youth is forever preserved in the green waters of the lake.