Happy birthday (the war’s not over)

January 6


She’s 15 and we’re still at home.


This past November, I was anticipating that December would be hard. Anniversaries always are. In December—which wasn’t great, but which wasn’t so bad, it could have been so much worse, things had been so much worse—I started to look forward to a New Year. A new leaf, a blank slate. I like those milestones: January 1, Mondays, the first page of a new notebook.

I made plans.

I fantasized, very conservatively. But still. I did.

I envisioned a future.

And now, again, life occurs in 15 minute increments.

And existing in most present moments is unbearable.


She laughs with joy as she comes downstairs and sees her birthday door. This is a happy moment.


At the weekly meeting of the Parents of Children Who Haven’t Died Yet But Who Very Well Might—But Don’t Worry Be Happy Because Suffering Is All In Your Head—we often talk about the challenge of appreciating the happy moments, the lulls between shitstorms. On this particular day, those of us in the room are all mothers who came to motherhood biologically. (The group is usually all mothers; a father comes every once in a while. But rarely. Let’s save that reality for another story.) And so, we all relate when I talk about contractions. About how you get through 12, 24 hours of labour by riding through to the head of the contraction, breathing, screaming to endure—and then, in that brief, holy space between pain and pain, resting as fully as you can. Not thinking about the next contraction. Not thinking when will this end. Not thinking, not thinking, not thinking, not wondering when, if, they baby will crown, will it live, will it thrive, will it be an artist, engineer or hobo. Not thinking, not dreaming. Just…. resting.

Body limp, mind empty.

(If you’re in labour for more than 24 hours, woman, get an epidural for fuck’s sake. But I digress.)

(I digress because she’s 15 and we’re at home, and this is a happy moment.)

Body limp, mind empty. Rest. And here comes the contraction again, ride that motherfucker to the top.

When I use that metaphor at the meeting of the Parents of Children Who Haven’t Died Yet But Who Very Well Might (—Bet Your Bottom Dollar the Sun Will Come out Tomorrow or the Day After or the Next Week, Month, Year, Probably, Eventually, Keep on Hoping, Why Are You Despairing? Bet Your Bottom Dollar!), everyone nods and sighs and says, so true, we all learn to rest and live in those spaces between contractions-crises.

Today, as I write the idea out—body limp, mind empty—fuck people, what’s wrong with you?

Body limp, mind empty.

That’s how you get through 12, 24 hours of labour.

But that is no way to live.


Flora wanted to spend her seventh birthday at West Edmonton Mall Waterpark. I found a great package deal on the Fantasyland Hotel and waterpark, but it meant going to Edmonton four or five days after her actual birthday. The seven-year-old decided to delay her entire birthday so that she could celebrate it the way she planned, at the Waterpark. She did not open her presents. She did let us sing happy birthday to her and blow out the candles on her birthday cake—but did not let us cut it. We transported everything to Edmonton; celebrated a few days later.

She was seven years old. IT still blows my mind. Can you imagine, getting your birthday presents, and keeping them, wrapped, untouched, in your room for four days? At seven years old? I’m not sure I could do it at 45…


How do you live in perpetual crisis?

I’ve interviewed people who’ve lived in war zones, refugee camps. I’ve talked with rape survivors and victims of ongoing domestic violence. Most of my extended family has vivid memories of living under martial law, in a police state, in fear of that knock on the door—in the middle of the night—that ends everything.

People live in this, through this. They love through this, they fall in love in this. How?

Humans are amazing survival machines. We habituate to just about anything.

We survive.


On Saturday night, my aman cara comes to hold me, love me, bring supper, because, as I sit on the couch holding Flora, I can’t even summon the energy to call Skip the Dishes. She comes back on Sunday—I’m on a board conference call , then Ender demands a 6 p.m. bedtime (he is so not ok) and so my aman cara comforts Sean and then helps him make 15 rainbows for Flora’s birthday day.

(It’s a tradition in our family—we did it first for Sean, when he was going through a crisis—decorated a door for his 38th birthday with 38 hearts, on each of which we wrote a thing we loved about him. When Ender’s birthday came two weeks later, Flora did his door—it was his fourth birthday, and she cut out four big hearts for him. Her birthday came next—Sean papered the door with hears for her. Now we had a tradition—and a Cinder who was turning 13, and did not want any rainbow hearts on his door, what the fuck? Flora and Sean made 13 bombs. And so it has gone. For her 15th birthday—15 rainbows. Each one drenched in tears and love.)

When Flora was in the hospital, my aman cara, my mother, and a handful of friends fed us, took care of Ender, did everything they could to help us get through. People are good, and people are amazing in a crisis.

So long as it is short.

You know this.

Your toleration for a friend’s heartbreak, divorce trauma, grief for the death of a parent? It has an expiration date.

It’s like that for personal crises; it’s like that for meta-global, political crises too. A tsunami or an earthquake devastates a region? We rally, give, donate, support… go home. A civil war rages for two years, two decades? God, is that still going on? I’ve stopped paying attention.

And in the meantime, two years later, that region far away hit by that earthquake, to which you’re not paying attention anymore? There are still people there who are homeless, who have no reliable water supply, who are still in crisis.

The people in the crisis, they can’t stop paying attention.

But even they become habituated to it. Accept it as their new normal.

How fucked up is that?


She insists on going to school and I spend six hours wondering if my child will come home.

There are precautions in place. I know she arrives at the school. I know she doesn’t miss classes. She checks in with me at lunch. In-between messages, I exist in soul-draining uncertainty.


Crisis. The new normal.

One of my fighting points (I have many) with the family therapist at Flora’s out-patient clinic is that she wants me to simultaneously have hope and to stop resisting what is. Dialectical thinking at its best, but seriously? How am I supposed to accept… No, no, no.


And yet. I know the bitch is right.

Sorry. Not a bitch—healer with a heart of gold. I just need to be angry at someone, anyone. And there she is, with her platitudes and really terrible metaphors and well-intentioned helplessness.

Crisis. Knives, razors, Tylenol and Nyquil, household cleaners under lock and key. I cut pickles for sandwiches with a butter knife as sharp as a spoon.

Cry at the ludicrousness of it all.


She comes home from school. I breathe.


Birthday supper at a Korean restaurant in the evening. My parents are there. She seems happy, almost chatty, and I wonder if my parents buy it, or if they see what Sean and I see—the mask pulled on, the effort required. Earlier in the day, I was a guest panelist at a webinar. And I did the same: Five minutes til show time. Breathe. Game face on. Perform. Laugh. Don’t let anyone see you cry or bleed. Done. Collapse.

She’ll collapse when we get home, as will we all.

But right now, as she eats bulgogi and thanks Grandma for her presents and lets Cinder tease her that she’s, how old? 13?—game face on.

Which is a reminder, I suppose, that awful though this is, it’s not as bad as the first five, six months of 2019, when none of us could put the game face on for anything.

But then, there’s also this consequence—game face on. Go see friends. Go do normal things.

A text: “Saw Flora today! She looks great! So happy that she’s doing better!”

Except when she comes home—she collapses.


She’s 15. She’s home. She’s still at home.


Post-script I was going to embed a video of John Lennon’s “Happy Christmas (The War Is Over)” below. You know which one I mean. The one that comes with all the warnings. And that will rend your heart. Because as I do my best to keep one child alive, and the spectre of war and hate pushes on me from the outside, I know only one truth: every soldier, every civilian, every victim of war is somebody’s child.

Why does this reality not infuse every decision we make, politically, personally? Somebody’s child.

Our provincial government is cutting 500 nursing jobs. Let me tell you, having spent 12 months in the belly of the system now–there are many thing wrong with it. But it is not overstaffed.

Every fired nurse? A nurse that’s not able to help someone’s child when they need help.

She’s home. The war’s not over. But she’s 15. And she’s still at home.

3 thoughts on “Happy birthday (the war’s not over)

  1. Pingback: The Year of Hell, with the Good Bits, too (2019 Collection) | Nothing By The Book

  2. Pingback: The Year of Hell, or, why there’s nothing from 2019 in my portfolio – Marzena Czarnecka

  3. Pingback: 18. | Nothing By The Book

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