Updated: May 26
*Trigger warning: discussion around grief related to losing a parent to cancer*
Paige | Toronto, ON | Artist
This past year I’ve been on the verge of getting my name out into the Toronto Art & Design Scene. This pandemic eliminating a lot of employment has given me a lot of free time to focus on myself. I went to OCAD University (Ontario College of Art & Design) and it definitely helped shape my style of drawing, painting and design, but in terms of opening doors, it didn't help as much as I thought it would. I guess the fear of rejection is what has been holding me back from reaching out to pop-up collectives or art showings. It's a huge factor in why I'm stopping myself from really putting my work out there in general. I'm definitely a trained artist in different techniques and styles and mediums, which has allowed me to play around a lot with my work - but unfortunately, we can be our own worst critics which is why I have waited this long.
Before OCAD, right after graduating grade 12 I went to the University of Ottawa. I did two years there in the general arts program. In grade 12, I received acceptance into OCAD initially and was so excited, but I didn’t end up going. I remember in first period english one day, my classmates and I telling each other where we got in and this guy (who I don't even remember his name, that’s how much relevance in my life he has held) told me, "good luck with your life" and I was like, "what the fuck???". That night when I got home all I could think was, “.... what does that even mean? How can you say that to someone?” I’ve never truly cared about what others think of me but this really got to my head. I was in panic mode. The next day I made an appointment with my guidance counsellor and told her I needed to start reapplying to other programs. She didn't really understand why, I told her I was scared about my future and that’s how I ended up at Ottawa instead. I don't regret going, I met a lot of amazing people, but I should have gone to OCAD the first time instead of absorbing the opinions of others. Sometimes you have to go through those lessons to learn them first hand.
Those two years in Ottawa felt like the longest years of my life. I was sinking into an extremely dark place and I was forced to basically confront everything running through my mind all at once, since I was constantly alone. In high school it was easy for me to distract my thoughts by hanging out with friends and any extra curricular activities. I was always planning something with any and all of my friends. It was around age 18 when I started thinking about my mom, who passed away years prior, a lot. Like, whether or not she felt she taught me as much as she could in the time that she had? Did she think about what our lives would look like without her? Did she have faith that we were all going to be okay? Did she wonder about the woman I was going to become? Every wonder I could have possibly had about her was running through my head constantly. It was heart-wrenching. I would be up all night in tears thinking about her and I never told any of my friends or family. There is something about my brother, sister and I going through the same grief, so young, that I think we were all just too frightened to talk about it because it would be too painful. To me, grief is ongoing. It needs to be felt. It’s been over 13 years and it is still hard for me to talk about her without worrying when I’m going to burst into tears, get clammy hands or my throat drying up. I miss her with everything that I have.
My mother was the love of my life. She was, still is, and always will be. She was sick for about eight years and passed away when I was almost 13. Apart from that, I had an amazing childhood. My parents did everything and more for me. I was 4 years old when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. It was an age where I obviously didn't really know what was going on until I started to see the changes myself, like when she started losing her hair because of the chemotherapy. Or having random nurses coming in and out of our home. Most of my memories of her are so good but the ones that are bad, are horrific. The cancer spread to her brain and bones in the last couple years she was alive. It was as if she was already gone before she even left us. When I was 8 she was in remission for a year or two until she started getting really bad pain in her shoulder, which she thought was an injury from an old skiing accident flaring back up. When she went to our family doctor he told her that she needed to see her oncologist right away. At that point, the cancer had spread to her liver and the tumour was so vast in size, it was pinching nerves running up to her arm. That’s where the pain was coming from. She was treated by one of the best oncologists in the world here in Toronto, and she made sure of it. When it spread to her brain, it caused her to hallucinate. I remember my dad warning me about it. During that time, I can still remember, she had called me into the hallway one night and was pointing to the wall saying, "Are you going to clean this up?" she thought I had drawn on the wall with crayons but there was nothing there. My dad was standing there on the sidelines making sure that I played along so that I wouldn’t confuse her. My heart still hurts thinking about it. It was truly traumatizing. Here was this stranger dictating me nonsense who was supposed to be my beautiful mother. There were a few times she would fall asleep at the wheel driving on the highway because of the chemo medication she was on, and I would have to grab the wheel and scream at her to wake up. Or help her quickly undo her seatbelt so she could pull over and vomit. She didn’t deserve cancer - no one does.
The good memories that I have of her though are incredible. She worked as a customs officer and put so much hard work into everything she did. She was all about friends and family, and she was the life of any party. Her death really jolted the community, and I couldn’t believe the amount of people that attended her funeral. It just confirmed to me how many lives she really touched. Her confidence was practically coming out of her pores, and she radiated honesty. If something was ever wrong between you and her, she would make it right. My mother was born to be a mom. She was just so good at it. A few weeks before she passed away she had the majority of our extended family over for Christmas dinner, and she cooked everything all by herself, as she always did. It was absolutely amazing, we were all in awe of her. Every family has that one family member that just lights up the room, the one that sticks everyone together - and that was her. She was the glue.
My mom wrote a lot, not just about her journey with cancer but about the complexities of being a mom, and navigating the things that are outside of our control. Journaling was her outlet. Everything I know now about her experience with cancer is because of what I’ve read in her journals, she kept it transparent to me when she was still alive. She wrote about my dad and how blessed she was to have such an amazing life partner. My parents had a difficult time trying to have children, and then they got 3 at once. She wrote about how she wanted to publish a book about her struggles with cancer while raising triplets. She wanted to connect with other women. My sister was also diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was 3 - the same year my mom was diagnosed. I just recently found some of her journals, one of them I found in my dad's sock drawer. As I read through it, I had to hold the journal away from my face to make sure my tears didn't drop onto the pages. I read it repeatedly. I clung to it. Some of the sentences she wrote are the most heart-breaking things in the world to read. About the day that she found out she had cancer, she wrote, "how could this be my life?" She wrote about how she was anxious about her CT scan results so she took the day off from work. To her surprise, the doctor called her first. After he broke the bad news to her, she hung up, paced back and forth in our hallway and then stared out our kitchen window, crying thinking about her children and husband. I never saw her cry once. She was a very private person. She didn't want people to know because she didn't want to be treated any differently or want people to worry. She wrote about how she was hesitant at first to tell my aunt, who was one of the closest people to her. She didn't even want to tell my dad when she was first diagnosed, she wanted to have chemo scheduled before she told him. She broke down and ended up telling him that same night. She wrote about it - how he brought her into the living room and they sat on the couch and cried together. They were devastated. She would have tried anything to stay alive for us. It's comforting in a way to read those things in her journals, because I can so clearly visualize it and where exactly in our family home they were sitting that night. I can visualize her staring out our kitchen window. Reading things like that just puts her words into perspective. It makes me wonder, was she acting differently when she picked us up from school that day? Did she hold us a little tighter that night before going to bed? I was too young to remember any of those things and those are the things that are so hard to think about. I’m thankful I have one of her journals because when you lose a loved one so close, you hold on to any belonging of theirs that you can get. It’s now in my sock drawer.
I remember the early January morning my dad had to tell his children that their mother passed away. He called my siblings and I into their room the morning of, and I just knew before he said anything. He said to us, “She didn’t make it, but we’re going to be okay.” That was it. She died in the hospital, I’d just seen her a day or two before and she seemed fine - in good spirits. She seemed happy and fully awake, but she wasn't herself. I could see that. I wasn’t there the night she died, which was okay to me because it's not like I never got a chance to say goodbye to her, I did. I remember I didn't cry when he told us. Not until I called one of my best friends to tell her that I wouldn't be coming to school and the reason why, and that's when it hit me. The words coming out of my mouth made it real. It was hard because all I wanted to do was be around my friends and be in school. I love my friends - I always have. Not being able to be around them was difficult while also trying to understand how to grieve because I wasn't just grieving the loss of her, but everything else that comes afterwards as well.
I think a lot of us have a hard time understanding grief. There’s nothing that you can do that can make you prepared for how it’s going to make you feel, or how you’ll handle it. You just have to embrace it and keep on going. I feel like when I meet new people, it's definitely not something I tell them right away, but when it does come up I feel awkward and I’m afraid of them thinking, "Oh, well she died 13 years ago so you're fine now." In ways, time heals but in other ways, it can make things worse. It’s taken me so long to realize that she lives on through me, and that I have total power to keep her memory alive. I’ve been afraid of forgetting her. It doesn’t mean that it's not as painful as it was 13 years ago. The magnitude of her death isn’t something I can just kick to the curb. I’ve never had the ‘how could this happen to me’ mindset, I’ve always understood that death is a part of life, even at a young age. For so long I just despised that she had to die when she did. Being a teenage girl without a mom was hell. It was so easy to distract myself from those thoughts in my teen years, when truthfully I should have been addressing all of it then.
My twenties have been a whole lot of reflecting on my childhood and figuring myself out. I never had any sort of motherly figure to vent to about anything after she left, so I kept it pent up. In Ottawa, being completely alone for the first time, my motivation to be with new friends was gone. This was alarming because I've always been very social, and it was the first sign to me that things weren’t okay. I’ve tried fighting the fact that her death doesn't define my life, but it does. I'm at a point now where I've accepted that. I've thought about her death a lot and how it has shaped my life in positive ways. She ignites the inspiration in the things that I do every day now, which is defining for me. The year that she died, I met all of my best friends and boyfriend, and even though that was one of the worst years of my life, it was also in a way one of the best - they've been there for me ever since. I wish they could have met her and she could see how much they mean to me - someone who will always have a piece of her heart missing.
My sadness is rooted in the fact that I will never get answers to a lot of the questions regarding my mom, and the thoughts that will continue to run through my head. Being without her, I struggled with my purpose in life and my identity. I struggled with staying true to myself. It was heartbreaking to think of all the times that her guidance or advice was never going to be there. Thinking of that made my heart ache, and as a result of being sad I lost all motivation for everything that I loved. I started laughing a little less, and I was a person who laughed at everything. I lost my appetite. It's not that I didn't want to eat, I just physically couldn't do it. It got to a point where I was so noticeably thin that I never wanted to be in any pictures, I would avoid cameras. I didn’t feel good about myself anymore. I never actually talked about it with anyone, not because my friends weren't supportive, I just could never bring myself to open up. I hated it when people didn't have anything to say. I didn’t want people to see me cry. I felt weak. Being able to connect with another human going through the same grief is something so special to me. There’s something profound about being understood in that way. I haven’t met many people my age that have lost a parent or a sibling young, but when I do it’s as if there’s this unwritten instant bond already there. I know it can be hard to connect with people who don’t understand, because they got a chance to know their mom, whereas I never did. Most of the time people just don't know what to say, which is fine now, however it can still make it hard and overwhelming because all you want is somebody to say something - anything.
Throughout it all, I've learned that it's okay to have a heavy heart, that it doesn’t make you a weak person. If anything it makes you stronger. In many ways, my mom's death has drawn a huge sense of compassion in me. Because of her, I'm not a judgmental person. She taught me how to stand up for myself, and to believe in myself. I’d just forgotten those lessons over the last several years. I've learned to be grateful for what I have, and I’ve learned what self love is really about. Her passing has helped me learn how to be kinder to myself, and to others. Therapy is something that I could still do, but it hasn't done a lot for me in the past. I tried antidepressants in my first year of university, but they made me feel nauseous to the point where I couldn't even stand up straight. To this day I don't know if it was a side effect, or something that was all in my head. My early twenties were hazy with despair and now today, I feel grateful to be surrounded by such supportive people who help me to talk about her more, and about how I feel.
I definitely still have my bad days, I always will. I can now dance to the music that reminds me of my mom that I used to cry to. I can listen to her favourite songs and think of her, turning the volume all the way up instead of turning it off. My dad told me once that my mom always thought that I was incredibly resilient. He told me she always spoke highly of my creativity, and of my determination to get what I want. Right now I do have everything that I could ever want. She wanted to share her own story, so I’d like to think that I’m doing a little bit of that for her, since she never got the chance. About a year-and-a-half ago I got into running. I was never a huge runner, I always enjoyed it growing up but it wasn't anything I incorporated into my lifestyle. One cold spring day off from work I had, I decided that I wanted to run a race in memory of her. I thought to myself - if she can go through 8 years of chemo while raising triplets, one of them being diabetic, then I can run a half marathon. That half very quickly turned into a full marathon. My dad made sure he got there early to see me before it started, I can always count on him. I’d never been so humbled in my life, I had no proper training - and it definitely showed. I’ve since then joined a run club in the city, so my next races can be trained for properly. The people who run are so inspiring to me, because of their hard work and determination for something that so many people groan about doing. My mom’s strength is most of all what inspires me to run - to keep going. It started as something for her and now I do it for myself. It’s something I know she would be proud of me for. I’m proud of myself. Like my mom, I’m quite a private person and can be closed off, so opening up about everything is one more thing I know she would be proud of me for. My motivation can be extremely trying some days, but it’s never made me want to throw it all away. The strength it takes to run isn’t comparable to the strength she had to have in any way, but it's the closest thing for me. I still have a lot of growing to do, but I’m content with the woman that I am today compared to a decade ago - even a few years ago. I have more good days than bad now, and on the bad I just have to remind myself of how lucky I was to have had my mom, how rich with love that I am, paint, and then go on a run.
Instagram: Paige Brawley