Two Years

Two years ago today – March 7th, 2014 – I had the day off work. It was a Friday, and while there was a very busy Mind Reels weekend lined up (Canadian Screen Awards broadcast gala and, I believe, Toronto Comicon, as well), I’d decided to go to the zoo for a while, before things really kicked into high gear. It was a nice day, and not only was there a handsome polar bear cub named Humphrey I wanted to visit, but there had also been a tiny gorilla baby born recently, and while I’d seen the top of her head, or a limb, and several photos of her, I’d not yet gotten a good look at her in person. I thought I’d give my luck another try that day.

I could never have guessed how impactful that day at the zoo would be for me, and in how many different ways my life would change – was, in fact, changed before I even left my apartment.

I think that was one of the first times I went to the zoo alone. I know the very first time was for Hudson’s birthday, because he was my bear and I wasn’t about to miss his first birthday, especially given that he almost didn’t live long enough to have it. But while I’d made my way out to the zoo on March 7th by myself, I did manage to meet up with a couple of people I’d recently befriended via our mutual love for the zoo and everybody in it. So there was that. I wasn’t completely alone.

I visited with Humphrey for awhile – and Steve, one of my new friends – and though I don’t remember much else from the first part of that day, I know I eventually made my way over to hang out with the gorilla troop. My other new friend, Laurel, was there, too, and because of her, I had the great honour that day of meeting Johari, the gorilla I’d seen as a baby on Zoo Diaries, but whom I couldn’t yet tell apart from others in the troop. I knew Charles the silverback, and Nassir (because he’s smaller than the rest), and Ngozi because she had a baby riding around with her all the time at that point. I was pretty sure I could tell Josephine from the others, but Sadiki and Johari in particular, I kept getting mixed up. I’d really wanted to meet Johari in person, so was thrilled when Laurel introduced us. As soon as I said her name, her beautiful eyes fixed on mine and I was in love.

Even though I still get her mixed up sometimes. Sorry Johari – I’m learning, I promise!

A couple of weird things had happened that morning, as well. A friend texted me out of the blue asking if I’d “heard about Alysia”, one of our coworkers, and one of my favourite people on the planet. My platonic girlfriend, we’d decided once day. I’d been texting with her the night before a bit as we sent each other selfies that our cats had taken with the Cat Snaps phone app her mom had discovered. After that text, though, I had a bit of an uneasy feeling, like maybe Alysia been fired, or something. I texted back that no, I hadn’t heard anything, what was going on?

When I didn’t get a response after a period of time had gone by, I decided to just go to the source, so I texted Alysia herself.

Are you okay? Is something going on?”

No response from that, either, which was extra weird, because she’d know I’d start to worry if I didn’t hear back from her. My uneasy feeling grew, but I pushed it aside. I was being paranoid, and I was at the zoo, so I turned my attention back to the present moment. I knew I’d be there for Alysia, whenever and whatever she needed.

So, as if getting to interact with Johari a bit wasn’t enough, I also finally got my wish of getting a better view of baby Nneka for the first time! Ngozi brought her over closer to the window while I was there, and despite some little kids being in the way, I still got to look on her adorable wee face for a few moments before moving out of the way. I went off to the side then, used my zoom lens, and caught a couple of sweet pics of the little one lifting her head up and looking around a bit more than she had before. Once again, I was in love.

Then my phone rang.

It was Tim. I figured he’d forgotten that I was at the zoo, and wanted to go over our plan of attack for the weekend, or something, so I answered.

It wasn’t what I thought. At all.

After some back and forth about whether or not I should sit down, he finally got it out: there’d been a huge fire. He didn’t need to say any more. My stomach dropped, and I spoke her name aloud.

Alysia.

In that moment I knew, and my heart exploded. She was gone.

A lot happened after that, but I don’t remember most of the details. Some I remember very clearly, but most not.

I told Laurel, and she hugged me and cried with me. She’d heard about the fire on the news earlier, and agreed that the kitten wouldn’t have made it, either. It was all too overwhelming to really take in. I texted Steve to tell him, and by then I was feeling really confused as to what I should do next, so when he offered to drive me home, I agreed. He asked if I wanted to leave right then, and I didn’t know. He asked if I wanted to see Humphrey again before we left, because the area had cleared out a bit since I’d been there earlier. I pictured the little furball in my mind and said yes. Yes, I want to be around him again for a few minutes.

I couldn’t breathe very well, and there seemed to be a huge hole in my chest that no one else could see, but it was hurting. A lot.

I got lost in the African Pavilion, and fought panic as I tried to find my way outside. I eventually did, and gulped air while taking stock of where the hell I was, and where the hell I needed to go to get back to the polar bear cub.

I finally got sorted out and headed in the right direction. My mind was spinning the whole time, trying to figure out how what I knew to be true could possibly BE true. I’d just been talking to her the night before. I’d hugged her goodbye when we’d parted ways on the subway, and told her to get home safe. Maybe there’d been some kind of mistake. But there wasn’t. I consoled myself with the idea that maybe they’d all slept through the whole thing; that the smoke had taken them before they could wake up.

That turned out to not be true, either, and it wasn’t really much comfort even when I hoped it was, anyway. I cried off and on the whole way back to the Tundra Trek, and as I got closer, a flash of colour out of the corner of my eye. A red-tailed hawk flew by, low, not much higher than I stood.

Alysia…” I whispered her name into the breeze and started to cry again.

Just then, the Arctic Wolves began to howl – the whole pack. It felt like they were giving voice to my shattered heart, and I stopped to listen to them a moment, waiting for the tears to take another break.

I continued on my way.

I found Steve, and moments later, young Humphrey wandered over, stood up and put his front paws on the fence, and just looked up at us for a few moments. Then he started to play, as though he knew being his entertaining self was exactly what was needed. It fixed nothing, changed nothing, but it did make me smile.

That day, the day the whole world changed, is now two years passed, and the Earth has continued spinning the whole time. The sun still rises and sets, I get up and come to work, I pay bills, I watch TV, I go out and laugh and have a good time. To all outward appearances, everything has carried on much as it did before.

But it’s not the same. The hole in my chest has taken up permanent residency, and while it’s settled into a general ache most of the time, there are still those moments that it blows wide open again, as though to remind me that it’s still there. Alysia’s dog, Brody, lives with me now, and is a bright shining light in my everyday life, just as she was. Her family feels like my family now, too. Her friends feel like my friends.

I’m sorry that I never met Jordan, Katie, little Frankie the kitten before they were taken in the fire, too. I’m sorry that I didn’t know Ethan before his world fell out from under him. I’m sorry that I didn’t know the Grahams or the Boyers as families before they were torn apart and forever changed by their unfathomable loss. I would have liked them, seeing them together, knowing who they were before this.

But I’m not sorry to know them now. I’m not sorry to love them now. And though I hate how I feel now, I’m not sorry I got to know Alysia as much as I did, even for as short a time as it was. Knowing her changed me a little, for the better. Loving her did, too. Losing her forever altered me in ways I still haven’t figured out yet. And as much as it’s a constant ache that I don’t think will ever go away, in a way, I embrace that, too. It means she’s a part of me, even now. Maybe especially now. And if getting rid of the pain means forgetting I ever knew her, then I vote no. Absolutely not. My pain and I shall remain forever entwined as I forge ahead through the world as this new me, whoever that is, and whoever that will be.

Until we meet again.

Alysia
Alysia
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Canadian Screen Week and Navigating Grief

So, this coming Monday is the start of Canadian Screen Week, which has quickly settled into position as my new favourite event of the year.  On the whole, Canada has never been very vocal about its own awesomeness, so to have a week-long celebration of the Canadian film and television industry is a huge step in recognizing some of the things we do really well.  Patting ourselves  on the back isn’t something we do very often, and I’m finding that it’s not only fun to do, but also something we have earned the right to do once in awhile.

Plus, I have friends in the nominee list each year, and that tickles me some.  I am proud of them.

This year, The Mind Reels will be covering Canadian Screen Week – and especially the big awards ceremony broadcast gala next Sunday – with a larger presence than we ever have before.  We’re adding a few new elements to our coverage, and continuing on with the tried and true things we’ve done before.

As crazy excited as I am about it, though, all of it also comes tied intrinsically to memories of losing one my closest friends (and Brody’s momma), Alysia Graham, in the #JAKEhouse fire during this week two years ago.

On this particular day in 2014, I was nervous about covering a non-broadcast gala by myself for the first time.  Tim wasn’t able to make it, but I felt The Mind Reels needed to continue our presence at the events, at least in some form, as a sort of thank you to Touchwood PR for allowing us to participate as much as they do.  I never want to give the impression that we are any less grateful than we are for all the support we receive from those amazing Touchwood peeps!

I knew I wouldn’t be doing any interviews that night, because it seemed weird to do it without Tim, and besides that, I really was nervous as hell.  I remember trying to figure out how much beer I could pound to calm my nerves but not be THAT girl in the press room.  But aside from beer, what actually ended up being my saving grace that night?

Alysia.

We’d joked about trying to sneak her in with me AS Tim, but in reality,  that girl gave up a few hours of her night at home to text me constant support as I tried to settle into my place in the press room on my own.  Thanks to her – her support, her humour, and her ability to seem present even from across the city – I was able to calm down enough to figure out a kind of perfect (for me) plan of attack.

Part of my luck was in the fact that my nominated friends ended up freaking winning in their categories!  The winners were brought back to a red carpet area in the press room, where photos could be taken and quick interviews could be had.  Rather than setting myself up there, though, I hung back a bit, and as they left the red carpet, I grabbed a few seconds for hugs, handshakes and a quick silly selfie.  I had the idea because I thought it would be fun to send them to Alysia as I took them.  As well, however, I realized that I could Instagram them and share to social media in real time, using all the appropriate tags, and it would make for a rather fun and unique bit of coverage for the event as a whole.

Thanks to that kiddo’s generosity with her time that night, I not only got past my nerves enough to survive the night, but I also stumbled across what’s become a bit of a Mind Reels staple moving forward, and had a great time doing it.

Little did I know – in no way could anyone know – that just 2 days later, that vibrant young girl would be gone, and the world forever changed as a result.  I think even now there is a part of me that still can’t understand how someone so present could suddenly just not be here anymore.  My mind railed against it for a long time after, so I think true grieving for me didn’t begin until I let myself accept it.  Until I let myself feel it, and stopped trying to control it or compare it to what anyone else was feeling.

Grief is a weird thing, isn’t it?  We all go through it, many times, over the course of our lives.  To varying degrees, sure, but we all have to live with it.  And yet it’s so different for everyone.  There’s no right or wrong way to navigate grief.  There’s no guidebook or manual to show you how to get through it.  I’m not even sure anyone CAN get through grief.  I think you just learn to live with it, and it becomes a part of a new you.

It’s kind of painfully ironic to me that my brief friendship with Alysia could have me feeling more like myself, but that then losing her so suddenly could change me so much more.  If I thought it was confusing before, trying to figure myself out, it became infinitely more so after.  The world turned upside down and inside out and fell off its axis and my emotions became so raw I not only didn’t know how to express them, but I also stopped being able to contain or monitor or edit them.  Sometimes, things just come out now; still now. And most of the time, I don’t know why, nor what to do with any of it.

By this time last year, I was consumed with dread over the pending first anniversary of the fire.  I was having regular panic attacks and had no idea how to face it or get through it to the following day.  I didn’t know how to help her family and friends, who had quickly become my family and friends, too, because it was the only way I felt like I could keep her close.  To keep her people close, and help take care of them for her, as best I could.  If I could at all.  And part of that fear, I think, was not only surrounding that first anniversary, but also in the vast of uncertainty of…what next?  What about March 8th?  What the fuck would any of us do then?  When the year of firsts is over, what are we supposed to do in the days that follow?

What happens when there are no more firsts?

My terror was that focus might then revert to lasts.  And I wasn’t sure how to move forward into a life of lasts, let alone how to be a useful support to those who’d lost her more than I.

This year is a little different.  Not more or less difficult, but different nonetheless.  The panic and dread is not as overwhelming, I think because we have gotten through March 7th, March 8th, and almost an entire year after that.  And the focus has not changed to lasts, as I’d feared.  I’m actually scheduled to work on March 7th, which I’m not sure was the best idea ever, but hopefully it will at least be distracting to a point.

Hopefully.  I’m a bit worried about it, actually.  Maybe I can meet up with people after work for a bit, just to mark the day together, or something.  We’ll see.

As for March 8th, I have THAT day off, and unintentionally filled it with things I can look forward to.  An appointment with my neurologist in the morning (okay I look forward to that less, but it’s good to have someone keeping an eye on my health), a trip to the zoo to – among other things – meet some baby panda cubs for the first time (and maybe with luck a baby rhino dude), then back home and downtown to cover the first awards gala of Canadian Screen Week 2016!

I think the new me – the one I am still trying to figure out as I navigate through daily life now – will always consider this a difficult and bittersweet time of year; a time of ups and downs and memories both amazing and horrible.

But I’m learning to accept that this, too, is a part of who I am now.

And in all of the things I am learning about the process of grief- for me – one of the smallest has turned out to represent one of the biggest achievements.

Like it or not, for better or for worse, I now know I can still find a way to make it to March 8th.