Published by CBC First Person September 2023.

I’ve never told anyone this story. Only my life partner knows.

One afternoon in October 2021, the telephone rang. It was a dreary day and I was alone in the house. The caller, a man, seemed to have a great deal of information about me. In an authoritative voice he said he knew there had been fraud recently on my VISA account and that I was retired. He revealed that there was some problem with my social insurance number: It had been scammed by criminal elements and my identity was now seriously compromised. 

I tried to ask questions, but he was very insistent. And directive. To fix matters, he said, I needed to deposit a thousand dollars in the Bitcoin machine at a convenience store. I had heard of Bitcoin but knew nothing about such a machine.

His voice projected immense urgency and he warned me not to tell anyone about our conversation. Not even my partner, who happened to arrive home just as I was scurrying out the door on my mission. He asked where I was headed but I wouldn’t stop nor give him any details. I was scared to spill the beans, the man on the telephone had been so insistent as to the secrecy required. 

I pulled over at an ATM machine not far from home and withdrew the money. I drove to the location of the convenience store in another neighbourhood and asked the clerk where I could find the Bitcoin machine. Hands shaking, I figured out how to feed the $100 bills into the machine.

Back in my car a few minutes later, I received another phone call from the man. He said he needed seven thousand dollars more to be deposited into the Bitcoin machine at the same venue. I questioned him, not having entirely lost my wits, and he again made it sound like a ‘life or death’ situation. This was the only way out. At the bank I was given the money in cash, no questions asked. I drove back to the convenience store and fed the mound of cash into the Bitcoin machine. I felt numb.

I returned to my car and the man called me again. He told me to go home and tell no one. He said that he’d bring a reimbursement and new social insurance card to my home the next day.

By this time, I was completely frazzled. When I got home, I told my partner what was happening. He was incredulous at first and then livid that I hadn’t told him, as he would have stopped me from making even the first deposit. He told me it was a scam and that the money was gone – nobody would be bringing a reimbursement to the door as promised. I started to cry and felt quite embarrassed. Deeply ashamed.

That afternoon I reported these activities to the police, giving them as much information as I could. They said it was unlikely I would get my money back and that this was a common scam among thieves. They also said the scam artists might try to get more money out of me in the next several months, now that they knew I was vulnerable.

I reported the incident to my bank and made arrangements at the branch for them to question me if I tried to withdraw that amount of cash ever again. They also told me to register with Equifax and TransUnion, as a way to prevent further frauds. Everyone seemed to think I got off lightly, in terms of the amount lost. It didn’t feel that way to me, it was a significant amount of money. I’m a writer and now live on a fixed income.

A police detective did follow up with me once to get more information but nothing every came of it. I do receive a certain number of fraud-like emails and texts, which I erase, and now only answer the phone if I recognize the number. I can no longer be the trusting individual I was.

Two years later, I just shake my head. I must have been incredibly vulnerable to have fallen for the man’s frightening but very compelling pitch. How could I have believed such malarkey?

In reality, when the call came, I’d been smack dab in the middle of a brutal anxiety/depression episode and evidently not functioning with a full deck. But there’s a lesson here. Scams can happen to anyone and the shame one feels does nothing to stop the scam artists from winning.



“Awakening”.  Shark Reef Literary Journal. Issue Forty-two. Summer, 2023.

When I picked up the telephone in the kitchen of my parents’ house that afternoon in 1975, I had no idea I’d be delivered such devastating news. A boy I was close to had been killed in a freak tractor accident the day before, on the kibbutz in Israel where I had recently lived. His name was Gilles and he had come to the kibbutz with a group of young people from France. He was my good friend during the four months I had spent there less than a year earlier. My heart broke when I heard the sombre words spoken over the telephone line. I was eighteen years old.

In 1974, just after the Yom Kippur war, I had made arrangements to visit Israel and work on a kibbutz. I did not come from a religious background, but several of my friends had been to Israel and it was like a rite of passage for our crowd. I arranged with my high school to leave six weeks before the end of term in order to make my trip. I had very good marks and the school agreed there could be a lot of valuable learning in this kind of travel.

At that time, I didn’t have a critique of the Israeli government. It was before the Intifadas. I don’t think I thought much about the plight of the Palestinians, the issue wasn’t on my seventeen-year-old radar. No, I was looking for adventure. I took ten Hebrew lessons to get a base in the language and off I went.

My parents accepted my plans to travel and work on a kibbutz. It was meant to be for a six-week period and then I’d return to Canada and take up the job I’d been looking forward to as a summer camp counsellor for young boys north of Toronto.

I flew to Tel Aviv and found my way to an office that coordinated international volunteers for the kibbutzim. The gentleman there assigned me to Beit Keshet, House of the Rainbow, in the shadow of Mt. Tabor near Nazareth. I travelled to the bus station and found one which would take me to a point close by the kibbutz. A few hours later, I walked the mile or so in to the community. It was scorching hot and I felt the weight of my backpack digging into my shoulders. All I could see for miles around were fields of green plants that I couldn’t identify. 

Soon after I entered through the gates covered in sweat, I was met by a scrawny-looking Englishman. He was about thirty-five and offered me some hot tea. I thought he was out of his mind but he insisted that the heat from the tea would actually cool my body down. He was right. Later, he showed me to the volunteer quarters where I would sleep. There were two other girls, young women, from the British Isles sharing the stucco-covered bunkhouse.

That evening I went with them to the “cheder ochel”, the dining room, for a meal of cucumber and tomato salad, with yogurt. We would pick up the plump, ripe tomatoes and small green cucumbers from a centre table, and then cut them up at our seats to make salad. I would soon learn that this was the regular dinner and breakfast meal. I met some of the other volunteers that night, as well as members of the young French group that had settled on the kibbutz a few months earlier.

Gilles was one of that group. He soon became my friend. In no time, he was also the subject of my unrequited love. He had lovely long, curly light brown hair and was fit and tanned from working in the kibbutz fields. He also played the flute beautifully. Everyone knew that he planned make a life on the kibbutz with his fiancé, who was still in France. I knew there was no chance for a love relationship, but I found him playful and charismatic and gorgeous, to boot. It did not go unnoticed that he and I were becoming good friends; nothing stays hidden for long in such a small community.

At that time, I was studying piano and could play well. There was an old clunker piano in one of the buildings and I would go there to play after a day’s work. Children started to join me in the afternoons and I taught them some tunes. Before long, their parents became aware of my piano-playing and the fact that I was Jewish. Most volunteers were not.

This led to a rather fortuitous work assignment for me. Until then, I’d worked in the kitchen and laundry, as well as the apple and lemon orchards. Working in the fruit orchards was fun as we manoeuvred mechanical picking machines up and down the trees to reach the fruit. Not so the lemons, which had very sharp branches. For them, we had to wear long sleeves (even in the heat) and creep under the branches to rescue the lemons off the ground. 

One night after dinner, the mother of one of my young piano buddies came and asked me if I’d like a special job where I’d be the only volunteer on a team of Israelis. She said it would be a great opportunity to practice my Hebrew, something I was quite interested in. I said yes, and the next morning at three a.m. I woke up and reported for duty in the cotton fields. My job was to open the leaves of cotton plants in a two-foot area to look for pests. Then I would move to a two-foot area a few rows over and repeat the exercise. I kept a notebook with my findings and handed it over at the end of each day. It was based on this investigation that the kibbutz would decide whether or not to spray the cotton fields – which were the same green fields I’d seen the day I arrived.

Our first break was at 7:00 in the morning when we went to a little hut and drank extremely strong Turkish coffee. This was a first for me and it took a while to become accustomed to its kick. Then we would return to the fields and I’d count bugs for another few hours. I listened to the radio as I worked, mostly Voice of America for the news. I don’t think I saw a newspaper the entire time I was on the kibbutz, certainly not one in English.

The cotton fields were near to Arab lands where watermelon and almond trees grew. The kibbutzniks were on good terms with these Arab farmers. In the hot sun at our break, my team leader showed me how to pick the ripest watermelon off the vine and cut it open so we could  eat the flesh and drink the refreshing juice. He also showed me how to pick almonds from the tree and crack them open for eating.  Delicious! I have to admit that it had never occurred to me before, that almonds grew on trees. 

There were several realizations of this type during my time on the kibbutz. Outside the door of bunkhouse where I slept was a pomegranate tree. Who knew? We picked and ate the colourful, sweet and tart seeds. They were so fresh and delicious, a nice addition to the steady diet of tomato and cucumber salad.

This introduction into kibbutz life away from the other volunteers brought me into contact with some of the resident sixteen-and-seventeen-year-old kibbutzniks. These young Israelis had grown up together and were like brothers and sisters. One young woman in particular, Hagar, became a very close friend. She had just turned seventeen, had light brown hair and a twin brother. She spoke perfect English and we spent a lot of time together, dissecting the world and laughing. I can still hear her splendid laugh now, fifty years later.

Hagar lived in a complex that was designed for the children of the kibbutz. As young people a year or so away from their compulsory military service, they enjoyed a fair amount of independence. All kids on the kibbutz live with their own age group. They are educated together and tend to socialize quite a bit within their cohort.  I was thrilled when Hagar invited   me to move in with them! It was a unique situation for the kibbutz and a very different experience than staying in the volunteer bunkhouse.

At about 4:30 each afternoon, families gathered to spend a few hours of quality time together. Parents prepared light snacks and the kids came over from the children’s houses where they slept. I was impressed by how strong the family unit seemed, even though they lived apart.

I was invited to join one family several times. The mother, Ofra, was maybe twenty years older than me. She was originally from Yemen and had beautiful dark skin and hair, with deep brown eyes. Her children were her pride and joy. When I met her, she was going through a rough patch. Her husband had left her, taking up with one of the American volunteers. While she didn’t speak English, my Hebrew was improving and we’d spend hours talking about relationships, her children and her sorrow. 

Ofra was also the chief of the “economia” which was the executive part or brains of the enormous kitchen operation for the community. She did all the ordering and other tasks related to keeping meals running smoothly. It was a lot of responsibility. One of her tasks each afternoon was to pack the lunch for the “shomrim”, the guards who patrolled the kibbutz and its perimeter at night.  She taught me how to make the sandwiches, package olives and cut halvah into pieces for them. I enjoyed being busy and helping made her job easier. And of course, we continued our non-stop conversations.

Around this time, as I was becoming more and more integrated into the life of the kibbutz, I made the decision to stay in Israel for the rest of the summer. It meant I had to give up my job at the summer camp. This caused my parents a great deal of consternation. They felt I had made a commitment to the camp, which I had, and that I should come home and honour it. I said no.

I was very wrapped up in my wonderful experience on the kibbutz. My new friends, my love-interest (no matter how hopeless), and the rhythm of each day were not something I was prepared to give up. 

Eventually, I received a very heartfelt letter from my mother, explaining that I would have to prepare myself to leave in September and that, under no circumstances would there be a further extension of my time there. She understood I was enchanted by the life and maybe was falling in love with it (and someone, she intimated) but that I needed to finish my last year of high school in Toronto. I kept that letter for many years, as it was an example of how my mother loved and also directed me. My father was so choked up about my decision, fearful that he was losing me to a far-away land, that he couldn’t write to me himself.

Gilles and I continued to be friendly. Some nights we play-wrestled on the grass outside the dining room, no doubt raising a few eyebrows. The entire French group and the Israelis would play football (soccer) together in the evenings. Now there’s something to be said for working outside all day and then running about, chasing a ball in the evening. These were young, beautiful bodies to behold. I didn’t have much sexual experience then but I certainly appreciated what I saw. 

Over the course of four months, I had a certain number of sexual encounters with these boys/men, never going “all the way” but exploring the terrain, so to speak. My mother had convinced me not to have sex until I was on the pill, and not to go on the pill until I was feeling in love with someone. It was, frankly, a bit of a Catch-22. But it didn’t stop me from experimenting. I noticed another handsome young French man who played classical guitar exquisitely. I seemed to fall for musicians.

Fortunately, Ofra was there to help me process some of these involvements. Another woman, the American, Suki, who Ofra’s husband had moved in with, also became a friend and an excellent confidante. She supported me waiting to on the pill and into a serious sexual relationship until I met a person I could truly count upon. Given that my stay at the kibbutz was only temporary, we agreed that I was unlikely to find that kind of love there. 

By the time September rolled around, I was trying to ready myself psychologically to leave the kibbutz and return to finish high school and apply for university. I began to think I might like to study in Jerusalem, and return a year later. It was hard to say goodbye to my new friends and a way of life that agreed with me. A lot of outdoor activity, simple meals and many heart-to-heart conversations with women I respected and with whom I felt quite connected. 

I grew up a lot in that four-month period. I’d discovered the counsel of wise women friends and experienced a kind of sexual awakening, without getting pregnant. When the excruciating phone call came that afternoon during my last year of high school to tell me that Gilles had died, a part of me died too. He’d had such promise, bright as a star and truly living his dream. To have that cut short was terrible, for him and those who surrounded and loved him. I’m glad that someone at Beit Keshet recognized that I too was part of his circle, and reached out to include me so many miles away.


-2335 words

My Son Jake: Reflections on giving birth to a medically fragile baby

Published by Humber Literary Review 2023

Diary entry April 20, 1990

An intravenous feeding line is threaded through a plastic bubble perched on our newborn baby’s head, the only site on his body where a large enough vein can be found. He is tiny and helpless. I am shocked by the multitude of tubes that, entwined round him like an exit ramp on a freeway, connect to various appliances. Some beep, others hum, their brightly coloured dials seeming to light a path by which our boy might wander out of this strange universe.

Groggy from an anaesthetic I meet our little son for the first time. Weighing less than six pounds, he is resting in a clear plastic rectangular box on wheels. It is the size of a small suitcase. The nurse assures me that he is snug as a bug but needs to be watched closely for respiratory distress.

Baby Jake is resting, the warmth of a pale blue knit cap offering him, I hope, some measure of comfort. He is fighting valiantly, making a difficult, meandering journey into our world. The nurses will not yet let me hold him – the danger of infection is too great. But, they say, I can start expressing breast milk to help sustain him. For the time being, he takes small amounts of water through the intravenous line. Burrowed in the transparent isolette, he resembles a creature descended from outer space – except that because of the unexpected Caesarean birth, his head is perfectly shaped.

My baby’s abrupt separation from my body is a jarring break from the nine months I carried him securely in my belly. If I were not so in need of healing time myself, I suspect I would feel even more at a loose end. We are able to stroke him gently through the small, antiseptic apertures that open like portholes on the side of his spaceship. He does not flinch from our touch. Still, the absence of the baby in my arms, at my breast, thwarts a most primal urge. At certain moments, I experience an overwhelming desire to spirit him away from this place.



Diary entry April 18, 1990

“Breathe me Vicki,” I implore our midwife. She is close by my side; we are practically face-to-face. I am nearly ten centimetres dilated after twenty-four hours of labour, impatiently anticipating the prize: the chance to push out the baby still encased in my body. But it is not to be. In excruciating pain, I am examined by an obstetrician who declares that a Caesarean section is required. It seems the baby’s bead is extended backward, a condition that makes the surgery necessary and urgent.

What had been a relatively calm labour starting at home, where my early contractions were accompanied by the tunes of Otis Redding and then a move to the hospital room, suddenly transformed into a high-stakes medical procedure. For some reason it took the anaesthetist three pokes into my back before he succeeded in shooting me up with pain medication. I was whisked to a stainless-steel operating theatre teeming with highly-trained medical personnel. That is all I remember.

I am told later that ‘able hands’ transferred our baby to a workstation a dozen steps away from my cot. A team of three professionals tried to kickstart Jake’s breathing by inserting a tube down through his nose into his lungs to suction out copious amounts of mucus. They positioned a pint-sized oxygen mask over his little face because he was not breathing spontaneously, his lungs evidently quite wet. Some resuscitation was required and, at thirty minutes old, a tube was inserted down into the trachea to deliver oxygen directly into his lungs to guard them from collapse. 

I was unaware of all this drama until I awoke a couple of hours after the operation. I then learned that our newborn boy had already been transported to the high tech neo-natal intensive care unit of the nearby children’s hospital. His condition was thought to be dire.


Jake’s first days in hospital were intense. Doctors and nurses poked more needles through his tiny feet and head than the average tattoo parlour artist. More plastic tubing was stuffed up his nose in seven days than most of us experience in a lifetime. In addition, he lost more than a pound during those first few days, a greater fluctuation than normally expected.

I now understand that the medical emergency at Jake’s birth was also a defining moment for me as a parent. I experienced early a challenge that comes ultimately to every parent: the release of control that our children demand of us as they grow. There is, in fact, no grand plan. We give them life, but raise them in conditions not entirely of our making.

In another era, Jake most certainly would have died at birth or soon after. Only my womb’s complex ecosystem was fashioned so that he could flourish. Inside me, he was well. The outside world could not sustain him. After seven days, he was scheduled for a CT scan. For some unknown reason, we were not made aware of this significant diagnostic procedure. The results were not good. There were marks indicating calcifications on his brain, and the corpus callosum, a key brain component that connects the hemispheres, was absent entirely. 

We received these results over the telephone one evening. Despondent and confused, my then husband and I consoled one another as best we could. Questions abounded. A treacherous journey had begun – for Jake and for us.


Once Jake came home, we struggled with his feeding, trying to get his weight up. Doctors insisted that we introduce formula as well as breast milk. One pediatrician became quite vexed at my insistence on breastfeeding. “I saw plenty of babies die of malnutrition in Africa,” she growled, “I’m not going to allow it here.” We began a feeding marathon, supplementing breast milk hourly — day and night — with formula fed to him though tiny tubes. In a week Jake had gained a pound and was considered out of the extreme danger zone.

His breathing continued to be problematic and after studies at the children’s hospital it was determined that he could not coordinate his breathing and eating. A gastric tube inserted into his stomach was the recommended solution. My husband and I struggled with where we would draw the line in terms of Jake’s care. We were against the taking of any heroic measures. We believed firmly that nature should be allowed to take its course, no matter the outcome. In the end, after a difficult meeting with the head of the gastro-intestinal department at the hospital, we agreed to the gastric tube so long as it did not prevent reflux. He had helped us to understand that it was the flow upward of fluid carrying bacteria from reflux that could lead to pneumonia, the most common cause of natural death for such medically fragile infants.

These were tough decisions to make. Our friends and family listened to us for weeks on end as we debated the pros and cons of different care modalities. The most important consideration, we felt, was that Jake not be in any pain. We put a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ order on his chart and continued feeding and loving him, no holds barred.

We were fortunate that Jake was our first child. We loved him like any other newborn, notwithstanding his challenges. We didn’t know any better. Certainly, he had problems — deficits even — and wasn’t meeting regular milestones. But no one could have prepared us for what came next.


When Jake was six months old, after many studies and tests, meetings with neurologists and feeding experts, we were called to a meeting at the children’s hospital. 


Diary entry September 15, 1990

The vomit green walls of the hospital ward are anything but inviting, but the baby in my arms is simply gorgeous. Pure and helpless, he is very still as we wait. He’s not had it easy. Low muscle tone has negatively affected his ability to nurse and he suffers from frequent seizures. Yet, I a struck by the sweet smell of baby powder that wafts from his compact body. We wait some more. Finally, a doctor beckons us to the hallway. He seems pressed for time. No introduction. No chair. He tells us our beautiful baby’s prognosis is a year, two at the most. I might just hurl.

It is then that we learned Jake had a rare neurological disorder called “lissencephaly”. His brain stopped developing in utero at 12–14 weeks and it had none of the normal hills and valleys that contain the information that governs normal development. These babies perish young and if they do survive, they do not learn to sit, stand or speak. We learned that this picture would define Jake’s future. 


Delivery of our baby’s diagnosis and prognosis was nothing short of brutal. I made a complaint the hospital ombudsperson, but nothing ever came of it. If I ran into doctor even today, thirty-two years later, I’d bop him in the nose. I might then explain why. His lack of professional empathy had been a devastating experience for us.


Later that same week, we were referred to the genetic counselling program at the hospital. The objective was to narrow down the possible causes of Jake’s condition. Over the course of a couple hours, the genetic counsellors drew out and debunked our fears one by one. No, Jake’s lissencephaly was not due to the fact I exercised during the pregnancy. Nor was it a result of the Tylenol I had once taken for an unrelenting headache. It was no such thing. They concluded that it was an ‘Act of Nature’; some rare chromosomal abnormality had occurred at Jake’s conception that was no fault of ours. 

This information was imparted in a skilled, professional and empathetic manner. It was not at all like our questionable experience with a couple of neurologists we’d met along the way. The genetic counselling team operated from a diametrically opposed framework: they wanted families to understand the issues facing their children and to assuage any lingering sense of guilt, especially for mothers. The team would also conduct research into the genetic issues, if any, facing couples who were brave enough to try again to conceive a healthy child.

The information that Nature had malfunctioned was very liberating. I had imagined all sorts of reasons for Jake’s illness and none of them were deemed valid. In effect, Jake had been born with a design flaw. The whole situation continued to weigh me down, and I sought the assistance of a psychotherapist to try and make sense of everything that was happening. This was a long and difficult process, and one that helped me immensely to carry on effectively as Jake’s mother and advocate as he grew.


Jake sprouted into a beautiful boy with soulful blue eyes that erupted into smiles at the flicker of light in his face. He was unable to sit, stand or speak and received nourishment through a feeding tube to bypass his raspy breathing. And yet, with a voice that sounded like the cooing of a pigeon, he communicated his pleasure and discomfort. Through all our trials and tribulations, I never stopped loving him at a 100 miles per hour.

In 2004, just before his fourteenth birthday, Jake’s heart and lungs finally gave out and he died peacefully in his sleep. He had outlived his prognosis by twelve years. He taught our family important lessons about loving and offering compassion to others. He is survived by his very healthy younger sister, Emma. She continues to be a joy and challenge in all the ways parents hope.


-1970 words


All in the Family: Intergenerational stories of mental health

Published in Papers Publishing February 2023

Mental illness and its impacts are embedded deeply in my family portrait. This is a story about how information about mental health tended to be communicated through the generations.

From a very young age, I was conscious of mental illness in our family. My cousin Bernard, who was actually closer in age to my father, lived with schizophrenia. Treatments were not very sophisticated in the 1940’s and ‘50’s.

We would visit his apartment from time to time where he lived with my aunt and uncle. Bernard’s main occupation was to lie on his bed, chain-smoking Lark cigarettes and watching sports on television. He would acknowledge my presence when I came into his bedroom to say hello, but that was the extent of the interaction between us.

My aunt devoted her life to caring for him, even once he was a big hulk of a man. She was a bright, elegant woman who could command the attention of a room with her deep, resonant voice. My uncle worked as the coroner for New York City. As a medical person, he understood that facilities available for his son’s care were often brutal, lacking in humane treatment. As such, neither he nor my aunt could bring themselves to place him in an institution. In her later years, after my uncle died, a hefty male friend of the family who had been a policeman would help my aunt with Bernard’s daily care. He did not enter a nursing home until his mother’s death when he was already in his sixties.

The information about Bernard’s condition was imparted to me by my mother. She would relay information from my aunt, my father’s eldest sister, to other family members. I suppose explaining schizophrenia to a five-year-old could be a bit daunting, but my mother believed I needed to understand – even minimally – why Bernard acted the way he did.

I don’t remember feeling scared of him. It was more of a question mark than fear. Why, I wondered, didn’t he get off his bed and play with me? I learned from my mother that it wasn’t anything I had done wrong. No, it was because of his illness.

It is interesting how such vital information was passed between the women members of the family. It was as if the necessity to share insights between generations as to the behaviour of someone so ill was stamped into our female DNA.  

In “Stories from the Motherline” Naomi Ruth Lowinsksy explores this notion. She writes that there is a pattern, an experience of continuity among women. “I think of it as a central organizing principle in the psyche of women…” She refers to relations between mothers and daughters, in particular, noting that they cast backwards in time and forwards into the future. “The Motherline is the embodied experience of female mysteries.”

I can locate my aunt, my mother and myself in this rubric. We are individuals, but we are also of a piece. “Envision the word line as a cord,” writes Lowinsky, “a thread, as the yarn emerging from the fingers of a woman at the spinning wheel. Imagine cords of connection tied over the generations. Like weaving or knitting, each thread is tied to others to create a complex, richly textured cloth connecting the past to the future.”

As I try and understand this web of relationships in my own family, I am reminded that my mother trained and worked as a social worker. Her mindset was that mental illness existed “out there”, as in separate from her or by extension, her immediate family. I think now that this was her way of surviving in sometimes chaotic, emotional situations. It was also one of the ways she tried to protect us. In effect, however, she was contributing to the “othering” of the person concerned and thus perpetuating a degree of stigma about mental illness. This was not her intent, but it was the impact of her approach.

Another family member, the wife of my father’s eldest brother was considered to be mentally ill. I don’t think I ever met her; she didn’t accompany my uncle on visits to our house. It could be argued that he was a bit nutty. He always insisted that he lived in a tree and as a very young child, I believed him. But it was his wife who was disturbed.

Again, my mother told me about this aunt, although not in a great deal of detail. It is interesting that these stories originated in my father’s side of the family, but she was the conduit through which they were conveyed.

In my own life, it became clear as I matured that I live with bipolar illness. I have grappled with how much and when to tell my daughter about it. In two important instances, I erred on the side of caution, wanting to protect her. During her grade 12 year, I was hospitalized with severe depression for one week. My daughter was angry that I hadn’t told her about the illness previously. She felt she could have taken better care of herself had she known. The second instance occurred when I read an essay I’d written for national radio broadcast in which I revealed that I’d made a suicide attempt many years earlier. My daughter was livid that she had not known prior to the public sharing of this unfortunate incident.

These are complicated matters. Although I felt I was protecting her from knowledge she didn’t need to know, she felt very differently. For her, both incidents constituted a kind of betrayal, as though I’d not trusted her enough to share my secrets. I don’t see it that way, but I can understand why she did. And I wonder if there is not a better way to handle these delicate communications.

One question might be ‘who is doing the protecting and from what’? My daughter believes that during her adolescence there were occasional periods when I was depressed that she felt called upon to play an adult role. Certainly, this was not something I wished for, but clearly it weighed upon her. In that scenario, I can see that my silence about the illness did not serve to protect her from the inevitable bumps in the road. Rather, she felt she had to look out for my well-being during those instances.

This kind of wrinkle in our relationship plays out from time to time. As an adult now, she has developed strong boundaries in separating out from me. It can be painful as we struggle to establish an adult relationship.  Like most things, it’s a process and we’re muddling through with a lot of love and much-needed patience. I remain hopeful that our conversations about our respective mental health will be characterized from now on by honesty and forthright information – on both sides.

Clearly, intergenerational communication about mental illness can unearth a minefield. Emotion runs high and feelings get hurt along the way. It is women who tend to pass along the delicate information and insights that family members need to care for one another. My own efforts in this regard have not always succeeded. I can only hope that as we speak more openly about mental health challenges, the powerful stigma hiding in dark corners will be found and brought into the light.


  • 1237 words

Weaving a Sibling Bond

Published in Réapparitions Journal. Issue#7. Fall 2023.

There is a very compelling photograph of my then four-year-old daughter tucking her older brother into bed. She is patting his head gently and singing a lullaby, one that I sang regularly to them both. We were at my son’s group home, a place where he received 24-hour care for his neurological condition.

He had sprouted into a beautiful boy with soulful blue eyes that erupted into smiles at the flicker of light in his face. He was unable to sit, stand or speak and received nourishment through a feeding tube to bypass his raspy breathing. And yet, with a voice that sounded like the cooing of a pigeon, he communicated his pleasure and discomfort.

His sister, born two years later, was bursting with health and an outgoing confidence. From the time she was an infant, she visited her brother or played with him at our home. There was a strong resemblance between the two of them, and a sense of belonging as sister and brother became evident as I dressed them, for example, in matching PJ’s. We didn’t hide from her that he was expected to die young, something she understood in deepening ways as she matured.

During these early years of their lives, I felt compelled to help weave a tender and durable relationship between them. In effect, I suppose I wanted my daughter to love and also remember her brother, no matter what happened. One of the ways I accomplished this was to encourage their communication, even during times they were apart. 

I noticed that a large, cuddly Pooh Bear inhabited my son’s room at his care facility. I searched out and purchased a second large Pooh Bear, this one for my daughter’s bedroom. I told her that she could send a message to her brother by speaking into Pooh’s ear. The Pooh in her brother’s room would hear the message and pass it on to him. This seemed to work very well for some time, the sense of magic still alive for young kids.

One of our favourite activities at the group home was to play on the swing stationed in the back. It was a large, flat apparatus on which I could situate my son’s wheelchair safely. We would rock and sway gently with the swing’s motion.  Sometimes we would jump around and my son seemed to be dancing along with us. His spindly legs would jut out – not necessarily on purpose – and sometimes he smiled widely. My daughter enjoyed this game in the fresh air too.

And they each, according to their abilities, appreciated the other’s presence.

We celebrated their birthdays at the group home. Before we set out for a visit, my daughter would help me find an appropriate birthday gift. Something squishy that he could feel with his hands or some fabric of different textures we could stroke across his legs. Face-painting was an especially loved activity. My daughter would draw designs on her brother’s face and we would take photographs of them together.

I believe now that my desire to create a feeling of family between them succeeded. Even now, nineteen years after my son’s death, my daughter has told me she often feels his presence close by. She misses not having a brother with whom she could share secrets, or roll their eyes at one another when their parents say dumb things. But there is an underlying feeling of love, woven carefully over the time they had together. And that’s a gift worth savouring.