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Forging my own way

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My life quickly changed. It now took a different road – one which did not include my parents. As I endeavoured to trek down that path I asked myself, “Who am I now? What am I? Should my life take the direction it was heading when my parents were alive?” Only one thing became clear. Who and what I am had changed and I had to redefine myself. It was somewhere in that redefinition I would find answers.

I concluded that I couldn’t stay in the Whalen St. house surrounded by the trappings of the past while I searched for my new life. I also realized that just changing where I lived wouldn’t be enough to remake myself. The church I attended had to change as well. The decor of Corpus Christi church would constantly remind me of the many Christmases, Easters and special events of my past life that took place there. The people had to change too. I needed to be part of a parish community where the congregation would know me as Brian and not as my parents’ son.

“If I’m going to move this house needs renovating,” I told myself.

Room by room I painted walls and steam cleaned carpets. As I worked my way around the house I sorted through literally one ton of books and gathered the collectables accumulated by my parents over five decades. No way could I cart all this stuff around with me nor did I want to. It was my parents’ life and not mine. I donated the collectables and novels. The old sets of encyclopedias went to the recycle depot. Working on the house was a transition period when I prepared for my new life.

Two weeks before Christmas I finished renovating. I called Catharine. “Why don’t you and the kids come for Christmas dinner? It’s probably the last Christmas in this house.” She thought it was a great idea. That year I did something I had never done. I roasted a turkey. We had a wonderful holiday meal. In so doing Catharine and I started to say good-bye to the house we grew up in.

By March, 2000, my mind was set. I’d sell the house and a FOR SALE sign went up on the front lawn. Three months later on June 15th, one year to the day that I laid Tara to rest, the house was sold. I bought a condo across town and took with me only a scattering of memorabilia and, of course, my Team Canada autographed hockey stick. Catharine came over the morning of moving day and we toured the empty house talking about all the things that happened over the years. We ended up in the living room and decided it was time to go. I followed Catharine out the door and locked it. She drove with me to my condo and helped me move in.

Once I was settled into my new home I began the search to find myself. My first plan was to travel. I wanted to visit Switzerland. I waited five years to do this. In 1995, when Mom and I flew overseas to see relatives during the month I took off from Tara, while in France, I wanted to tour neighbouring Switzerland. It wasn’t in Mom’s plans and I didn’t go. This time I set the agenda and I made it my first order of business to see Switzerland.

The other goal was to establish my own relationship with my relatives. On the previous trips I was an appendage to my parents’ plans. As long as I was simply a part of Mom and Dad’s visits I remained, at least in my aunt’s and uncle’s eyes, my parents’ son Brian the boy. On this trip I was visiting everyone by myself on a schedule that I set. I would be Brian the man and self-determining individual.

My journey started when I arrived in Paris the morning of August 1, 2000. First on my itinerary was a city bus tour. Seeing the Louvre and Eiffel tower again was nostalgic. They reminded me of my previous visit with my mother when I was ten.

“It’s been 31 years since I’ve seen this.”

The buildings hadn’t changed but I had. In 1969, I was a boy led around by his mother. In 2000, I was an independent confident man. The day was mine. I freely spoke with people and walked about the city.

Back at the hotel I got ready to begin the rest of my trip. As I reviewed my plans I was filled with an anticipation of both excitement and anxiety. I was going to see a country of my choosing and establish my own relationship with my relatives. That evening I eagerly waited at the train station to board an overnight train to Zurich to start a three day jaunt through Switzerland. Day one saw me on a bus tour through Zurich, the financial capital. The next morning I rode the train to Luzern. It was a quaint little town with all its shops. I felt so at peace. A cogwheel train took me up the side of Mt. Rigi through “Heidi country.” The third day I travelled to Geneva for the most awesome fireworks display on the waterfront. The sky was a perpetual burst of colour celebrating Geneva’s birthday. It was worth the trip to Geneva just to see that.

The next day I caught the train to Lyon, France to meet my relatives there for the first time by myself. I was openly welcomed by Mom’s sisters, Delia and Nell, and cousins, Claire and Johnny (Delia’s children). It was a very pleasant four day visit. All too soon it was time to go and Aunt Delia and Johnny saw me off on the train back to Paris to catch my flight to Dublin, Ireland. As I left Lyon I knew I was leaving behind aunts and cousins who had bonded with me.

I spent four days in Ireland at Aunt Gertie’s house in Corofin, County Galway on the farm where Mom was born and grew up. As soon as I set foot in Corofin something stirred within me. It’s hard to put into words the yearning in my heart that began when I arrived in Corofin. I had a burning desire to record and preserve these moments. From then on my trip became a mission which I was compelled to complete. I walked around the area taking pictures of everyone and everything. While I walked I tried to imagine Mom’s life growing up on the farm and her thoughts when she last visited here in July, 1995. Was I seeing this place for the last time? Would I have conversations with my relatives here again? When would I be back? I had no idea. So I had to document it all.

I stayed at my Cousin Kay’s house in Dublin for my last day in Ireland. She and husband, Tom, saw me off on the plane to England to visit Aunt Jean, Dad’s sister, in Northampton, and her daughters, Diane and Valerie, for a week. I went to nearby Lower Harlestone, the village where Dad was born and raised, and where I would have liked to have grown up. Roaming through the village I noted all the places in Dad’s stories. Just as in Corofin I had to photograph and commit to memory as much as I could.

For the last three days of my trip I stayed with Mom’s sister, Josie, in London. I wanted to see Uxbridge and Hillingdon Hospital. They were only a short train ride away. I had to see the town and hospital where my parents had worked and met and where my story began. I had no idea where in Uxbridge Mom and Dad had lived. So I looked around the train station knowing they must have gone through it many times. I needed to walk around a few streets of Uxbridge to get a feel for what they might have seen. Then I walked to Hillingdon Hospital. As I approached I took a picture of the old exterior and went in to walk around the ground floor halls. I wanted to get a feel of the place and wondered what the walls could tell me. Eventually I had to admit it was a hospital that looked much like any other and had no special appeal to me. I left Hillingdon Hospital and Uxbridge with the satisfaction of having been to see them. With my mission complete I headed back to Aunt Josie’s. Early the next morning I said a quick good-bye and thank you to Aunt Josie, got into the waiting taxi and caught my flight back to Canada. This trip gave me a sense of closure on my parents’ lives and on the life I had with them. It opened the door to my own relationship with my relatives.

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Getting Back Out There.

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In January of 1975, when I was 15, I was back at Sick Kid’s to have my eyes straightened once more by the same surgeon who had operated on me when I was eight. This was minor compared to what I had just been through. I knew the surgeon, I knew the drill and I knew the hospital. I spent two nights in the hospital, one night in a downtown Toronto hotel and then home to Thunder Bay. Two weeks after surgery the stitches were out and I got back to my daily routine. With all the trials of surviving my brain tumour behind me I was confident my life could move forward.

Dad and I began building projects again. Dad introduced me to electronics. I soldered resistors, capacitors and transistors together by following schematic circuit diagrams with my trusty magnifying glass. Dad helped me by guiding my hand as I held the soldering iron until I could do it on my own. My most ambitious project was a radio. When it was assembled it wouldn’t work. After examining the schematic diagram I concluded that I hadn’t followed it properly. All the same I had fun piecing the radio together.

I got a rock tumbler and started polishing small bits of amethyst. Dad helped me glue the polished rocks onto jewelry mounts purchased from a craft store until I could do it competently for myself. I made pendants, bracelets and broaches and gave them away to Mom, her friends and the church bazaar to sell at their craft table.

I believe that challenging my eyes to focus on small rocks and electronic components helped to clear them. My eyes were like muscles that had been weakened by illness and needed strengthening. Once they were strong enough my eyesight became clear again. The dexterity needed to solder electronic components together and to make jewelry improved my co-ordination by making my fingers manipulate small objects.

By the time I finished homeschooling in 1976 the world was much clearer. I could see large objects in detail such as cars and people but reading remained a problem. Lines of 12 point serif text were still hard going – especially a full page of text. My eyes gave out toward the end of one page. They hurt and I had to stop to rest them.

I was probably physically well enough to attend high school by September of 1975. But the outside world had changed dramatically. Maybe the outside world seemed different because I had changed. I had spent two years inside the house. How would people accept me with my facial paralysis, poor balance, and the way I spoke? These questions swirled around in my head and made me anxious about the world out there that was so unfamiliar to me now – the world I wanted to re-enter – the world I yearned for but was fearful of. Home was what I knew and where I felt safe. Like a chick ready to hatch I pecked away at the inside of my shell of fear. Once I got out of my eggshell I liked being out as much as any teenager. The people who knew me were glad to see me back out in the world. With youth on my side and with the support of my family and friends I quickly adapted to the changes in my body, my life and how I had to interact with the world.

At age 15 I began to venture out into the public. People had a hard time understanding me. Their difficulty was due partly to me not moving my lips to pronounce words and not making facial expressions. As well my tongue was a half step slower and my articulation was poor. People would be confused. It sounded like I was talking to them but it didn’t look like it. Dad suggested that I had to animate myself by moving my head or hands while I spoke so people would know it was my voice they heard. It helped.

When I went to a coffee shop or restaurant I learned to point to whatever I wanted on the menu. When the server looked at what I pointed to, and wasn’t looking directly at me, I asked for what I wanted. This worked well. More often than not I was understood because he or she didn’t see me say it.

Another technique I learned to help people understand me was to put my hand in front of my mouth when I spoke as if I was scratching the bridge of my nose. My hand masked my mouth so they couldn’t see my lips. This was effective especially when pronouncing bilabial sounds like “b”, “m” and “p”.

People including me hear with their ears and listen with their eyes. That is we lip read. When I speak, since I don’t move my lips, it doesn’t look like what I am saying. Some people are not fazed at all. Others have difficulty with my “accent” initially and I understand this. Still there are those people who are completely floored. I see a wall go up, a glaze cover their eyes and an aghast expression that says, “I can’t understand this person.” These people I find very frustrating. I’ve been given a pad and pencil more than once to write down what I said. Communication on the phone has always been easier because people can’t see me and must hear and listen with their ears.

One day in May of 1975, I was walking through Grandview Mall, a small shopping mall near where I lived. In passing I met Mrs. D who was a friend of Mom’s. We said hello and I continued on my way. She was speaking to Mom a few days later and said, “Brian gave me the nicest smile.” The fact is that I couldn’t have physically smile at her but I left her with that impression. I took note of that and began to watch how people are left with an impression.

Something else that affected my interactions with people was that I didn’t smile when I laughed. I learned to wait a second. When they weren’t looking straight at me I laughed at what they said. This largely solved the problem. Since they weren’t looking directly at me when I laughed in their minds I smiled.

My whole life has been one of adapting to ways of doing things varied from the “usual” way people do them. Sometimes I had to cajole people into letting me try. More often than not they found I could do it. My methods were at times unorthodox but I got there. I set a ground rule for myself, which was, whatever I start I finish. Anyone who knows me can tell you that I don’t damned well quit.

I found that, as a group, women are the most impressionable people who use a lot of body language. This was most apparent when I was at a party and watched two women have a conversation using only body language. No words were spoken. “Cool,” I thought. From then on I watched how women express themselves using body language. I adapted it to help me convey my thoughts when I speak. It works well and it’s not surprising that women are generally the first to pick up on it. Be advised ladies I’m looking at more than your legs.