He’s grown so tall, so thin, I thought, wetting a cloth under the bathroom tap. My older son was kneeling on the cement tiles, holding back his long reddish-brown hair. He’d been dry-heaving for over an hour. He was hot, he was cold, and now and then I could just barely hear a little moan. He’s not one for drama.
I wrung out the cloth and laid it on his neck – look how his shoulder blades stick out! – and sat up with him on the rim of the tub. It was 2.47 a.m. and we’d been up since 12.30, since I’d heard tiptoes on the bunk-bed ladder, its every creak familiar and for years bound up with the ebb and flow of my own sleep. Someone’s awake, someone’s wheezing, someone’s coughing. He must have caught a virus from a door handle or a library book. Who knows? He’s almost fifteen, I can’t follow him everywhere, have to settle for repeating directions – Wash your hands! – and hope for the best.
Sitting on the bathtub staring at the crumbling grout between the tiles, you should have spaced them wider, picked a different colour grout, or is that mould? Can mould make teenagers sick? Will my inability to protect him from danger and indigestion lead to his death? You can’t stop death, it comes sooner or later, it must. But I refuse to be witness to my children’s deaths, let alone to have played a part in them. What error escaped your attention? What crack went unfilled? The questions cascaded forth as I clung for dear life to my whirligig of worry.
A Wind that rose
Though not a Leaf
In any Forest stirred1
All this was so terribly normal: I crave worry like a junkie needs a fix. Since childhood I’ve been powerless to resist, and have taken perverse comfort in being undermined by my familiar foe. Worry bestows intensity with one hand while robbing vitality with the other.
The next day, as my son lay recuperating under a blanket on the living-room sofa – he didn’t die, the sun is out, get on with it – I sat down and turned on my computer. That day, like every other, I had to chain myself to my desk and do my job. Would I be paralyzed, swallowed up by the hangover of my anxiety, or enjoy the clarity that sometimes descends during moments of crisis? Both were possibilities. I’d seen both before.
Writing does not tolerate interruption. We must return each day to the blank page with all we have inside and salvage something usable, no matter how slight. Getting dumped by a narcissistic lover while plotting a revenge story can be downright instructive; charting my parents’ generation’s dreams of free love and social equality as their neoliberal parties govern us so cynically, merely frustrating. What makes me persist? Stubbornness, a survival instinct, an unquenchable thirst for putting torment to good use. In thrall to my obsessive fear of losing my children, I wrote a play about what happens when rural services are delocalized – a boy falls, the ambulance comes too late, he ends up in a coma. And my consternation at the bigotry of a small but vocal portion of Quebec’s population impelled me to write a graphic novel about vulnerability as a form of courage.