Randy Byers (randy_byers) wrote,
Randy Byers
randy_byers

Blame Canada

As many of you will know, I just returned from a fifteen-day road trip in British Columbia and Alberta with an old girlfriend. I'm not going to use her real name here. If you know who it is, then you know; if you don't, you don't need to know -- and neither does Google. I'm going to call her Hortensia in this piece, because that's a pseudonym I used for her over twenty years ago in a fanzine covering difficult and intimate matters, as this piece also will. Please beware that some of this material is extremely personal and may be more than you want to know about me or her. Still, I will make every effort to be discreet about things that she wouldn't want me to talk about in a public forum, because it really isn't my place to tell her story.

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The view from Nanaimo on Vancouver Island


Suffice it to say that the trip didn't go well, or at least was fraught and difficult, with plenty of good stuff mixed in too. First of all, I don't think Hortensia was prepared for how beat down by the chemo I am right now, and she admitted as much at the end. She was frustrated by and impatient with my lack of spark and my inability to retain information such as directions. We spent much of our time together squabbling and bickering like an old married couple, sparring over my mental slowness and her incredulous putdowns of my failures of comprehension. To say that the romance had long since drained out of our relationship is an understatement. It was already gone by 2009, but the old married couple description is meant to indicate that we are still plenty close in a lot of ways. You have to be close to someone to really get on their nerves, right?

Worse than that, however, was the clash of what I'll call religious beliefs. Hortensia has in recent years developed a fascination for certain shamanic practices and what I think of as a New Age approach to life and health. She hadn't gone as far down that road in 2005, when I decided not to marry her after having agreed to in the first flush of our love affair in 2003, but the difference in religious/philosophical outlook was one of the reasons I came to believe (and she agreed at the time) that we weren't compatible. Now she's *really* into it, and from the moment we checked into the airport hotel where we had a more romantic stay in 2003, she started explaining it to me in great detail. Part of it was that she had just been to the Amazonian jungle in Peru and participated in some ayahuasca ceremonies there, and she was eager to share the powerful experience she'd just had.

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Hortensia had brought back Peruvian textiles depicting the ayahuasca plant and visions inspired by it


I've thought at times in the aftermath of this trip together that she was more interested in her healing process (she's trying to overcome trauma from her childhood) than in my health crisis, but I think it's more accurate to say that she rejects Western medicine and wants me to too. She believes that the shamanic practices she's following are superior to Western medicine, and she has in fact teased me that if Western medicine didn't cure my cancer, she'd drag me to the Peruvian jungle to try a different way. Well, by the end of the trip she was acknowledging that I would never let her do that. It spoke to the distance that had grown between us in the meantime.

I hesitate to get into an specifics about our disagreement, because I don't want to characterize her beliefs inaccurately or unfairly. To focus on the thing that probably set me off the worst, however, it seemed to me that she was saying that diseases such as cancer are caused by internal conflicts that we haven't been able to resolve. Thus curing the disease requires us to resolve those internal conflicts. To me this is blaming the victim. I mean, it's one thing to say that a smoker brings on their own lung cancer, but it's another thing to say that someone brings on their own breast or brain cancer. To me, it's even worse to say that it's up to the cancer victim to heal themselves by "resolving the conflict." I'll stop there, because there were other things Hortensia said that seemed outright bonkers to me, and I'm not ready to go there yet.

She told me that it was okay for me to dismiss her beliefs as "hippy bullshit," but it's my impression that I said things along those lines that really hurt her feelings. That's why religion, like politics, is such a dangerous topic to discuss. After all, she is pursuing these beliefs in order to deal with long-standing and devastating emotional pain that, among other things, she tried to self-medicate with heroin when she was in her 20s. By calling her beliefs into question -- by outright rejecting some of them as bonkers -- I was challenging the self-healing process that is bringing her so much relief right now. She is genuinely excited about the progress she's making, and I'm genuinely happy to see it, because I know how much she's been hurting all these years.

Which brings up another thing: Making up for lost time. She spent so many years lost to the world that she is trying to jam as much life and experience as possible into the time she has left. From my perspective it seems a bit manic, but I can also understand what's driving her. The agenda for this trip was largely focused on her connections and her needs, and in the past, when I've been less needy myself, this has been a recipe for grand adventures and new connections for me. It was still the case this time around.

20160705_Hortensia Will and Lorna on Gabriola.jpg
Hortensia (wearing, it should be noted, my Oregon hoodie), Will, and Lorna on Gabriola Island


We spent the first week driving around Vancouver Island in a rented mini-RV visiting old friends Hortensia had made when she was living there while her mom died of breast cancer in 2009. We spent a night with her mom's friends Alan and Carol, which was a bit difficult because Alan is now as deaf as a post and Carol is starting to lose her short term memory. Then it was off to visit Lorna and Will on Gabriola Island in the Georgia Strait, which was a complete blast, because both of them are total sweethearts and were very responsive to my situation. Will invited me to come back and sail with him on his trimaran whenever I want. Lorna was very maternal and pampered me to the max. Unfortunately this was also where my emotional reaction to Hortensia really spun out of control, and I got so angry that I couldn't sleep one night. As I sat in back of the RV spinning through my 3AM despair, I considered returning to Seattle. However, the whole desperate flight-impulse made me flash back to 1980 when I first visited Hortensia in Vancouver, had sex for the first time in my life, panicked, and fled back to Oregon, leaving her feeling abandoned and distraught. I swore that I wouldn't do that to her a second time, come what may.

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Hortensia repairs the sweat lodge


Fortunately this resolution calmed me down for our next stop, which was on the Cowichan reservation in Duncan. We stayed on the property of a medicine man who goes by the English name Fred. At Hortensia's request on my behalf, Fred had invited us to participate in a sweat lodge. I had never done one before, and here's what I wrote about the experience on Facebook:

'Did half a sweat lodge yesterday, lasting two rounds out of four. It was my first sweat lodge, and I had no idea what to expect, although I wasn't encouraged by Hortensia's reply to my question about what to wear: "Well, you're basically being boiled." [NB: After she read my post, she protested that she hadn't actually said that.] So it was incredibly hot and smoky, and it was so dark you couldn't see anything but the glowing rocks. I closed my eyes and felt claustrophobic and tried not to panic. Fred sat me by the door in case I needed to bail out early. The cool thing about that is that because I was one of the last people going in, Fred gave me the job of using cedar boughs to brush off the "grandfathers" -- the hot rocks -- before they were sent into the lodge. So even though my anxious state of mind meant I felt a little outside the ceremony, I still felt like I played my part. I enjoyed listening to the chanting and Fred's various incantations and speeches, and maybe I would have got more into it if I'd joined in the chanting. Afterward I chatted with a few of the participants, particularly the French-Canadian guy (Sylvain?) who had tended the fire, and that was a lot of fun, listening to the jokes and laughter and stories. He told me that one of the women who had participated was a former national Member of Parliament representing a district on the island. So it was an interesting experience, but I think I prefer to take my religious ecstasy served in the great outdoors of the rain forest, the reef, or the ocean beach.'

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The sporty red car


After we left Fred's place, we left Vancouver Island, traded in the mini-RV for a sporty subcompact, and headed for Alberta, where I'd never been before despite the fact that my father was born there. This stage of the trip was all about visiting Hortensia's family. (She grew up in Edmonton after ten years in Melbourne, where she was born.) In fact, when she contacted me after my GBM diagnosis, she told me she'd already been thinking of visiting Canada this year to see Aunt Helen, because Helen's husband, Roland, had just died. We stayed at Helen's log house in the Canadian Rockies near Mount Robson, and it was gorgeous and peaceful up there, as it had been at Lorna's place on Gabriola Island. I'd met Helen (and Roland) at Hortensia's mom's memorial in 2009. Helen was another very maternal person who pampered me shamelessly, although she also put us to work staining spindles for a balcony that had rotted and needed to be reconstructed. After that, we headed to Edmonton, where I finally met Hortensia's big brother, Lyall, who was great. Wonderful sense of humor and sense of centeredness. He's married to a Thai woman and is a Buddhist. We also visited Hortensia's niece, Elizabeth, who had just moved back from Toronto with her four year old son, Dash. I'd met Elizabeth before, but not Dash, and Hortensia hadn't met Dash either. Hortensia and Lyall had dinner that evening with their cousin Wendy (Helen's daughter), but by that time I was completely wiped out physically and emotionally, and I begged off.

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Helen and Hortensia

20160714_Hortensia and the spindles.jpg
The spindles we stained

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Elizabeth, Dash, and Hortensia


Hortensia was intent on pulling the family together. Elizabeth hadn't visited Lyall, Helen, or Wendy yet (only having moved back from Toronto a couple of months ago), and Hortensia exhorted her to introduce Dash to all of them. The family connections have obviously become more important to her, and the deaths of her mom and uncle, not to mention my cancer, have only impressed on her that the living connections can disappear before you know it. As with the shamanic healing practices for her PTSD, the focus on family connections are all about making up for lost time -- specifically that period when her drug addiction meant she lost contact with her family as well.

So the second week was physically trying because of the long drives involved. By the final day of the trip I was basically numb from exhaustion. It was also, perhaps pathetically, emotionally trying because it was all about Hortensia and not about me. I've really wrestled with this, because I would like to think I'm not such a complete narcissist. On the one hand, I think it was a good reminder that it's not all about me and that other people are dealing with serious problems too. I was also happy to see Hortensia becoming so family-minded, which I think is a very good thing. And again, the fact that she is feeling so much relief from her long-abiding trauma is incredibly good news. It was probably good for me to have the attention shifted elsewhere for a couple of weeks, just to break me out of whatever emotional ruts I may have fallen into. However, it's hard to deny that my immediate reaction to the stresses and strains of the trip, including not always being the center of attention, was to become a cranky, petulant, emotionally volatile pain in the ass. I was definitely on my worst behavior, which only added to my feeling that the whole trip had been a failure and a mistake.

With a few days to recover and gain some perspective through venting to friends and family, I'd have to say that a lot of this is an overreaction. However, the estrangement between me and Hortensia seems real, and maybe it was about fricking time. There's another side to all this that leaves me feeling horribly ashamed and pathetic: My need to cling to my old girlfriends so that I can feel that I haven't been a complete loser at the game of love. Well, I can only imagine Hortensia laughing her ass off at that. The reality is, my emotional neediness aside, whatever distance has grown between us doesn't amount to a hill of beans when you consider the strong connection we've established over the years. As she assured me at the Vancouver International Airport just before we parted, I will always be a major part of her life, and despite whatever grievances I now have, she will always be my first lover and the woman I came closest to marrying many years later. But I suppose we're both feeling more relieved than ever that we avoided the marriage trap. Who knows how much we'd be getting on each other's nerves if we really *were* an old married couple.

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Old friends


ADDENDUM: I showed this to Hortensia before I published it, to make sure I hadn't crossed any lines. Here are a few of her comments, which I offer as a counterpoint to my complaints:

I certainly come off as inconsiderate and self absorbed. I'm sorry that is your biggest impression. I guess that after Lorna's I was pretty unsure how to relate to you and went a bit into action mode. My coping mechanism.

Actually, I was expecting it to be worse. I'm sorry you felt I didn't really connect to your situation. I didn't know how to connect when you reacted so negatively to me.

I'm sorry if you felt I put you down for not remembering stuff. I didn't mean to, and I need to look at that behaviour.

You didn't mention the bear and the elk, and, remember, the long driving in the Rockies was so you could see them. Alone, I would have flown to Edmonton and rented a car there to go to Helen's!


Many thanks to Hortensia for her graciousness in the face of my grievances.

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The view of the Canadian Rockies from Aunt Helen's
Tags: friends, religion, travel
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