From Joanne Vannicola’s Memoir

Jun 29, 2017 by

From Joanne Vannicola’s Memoir

Walking Through Glass


I never knew what condition she would be in when I arrived at the hospital: if she would be lucid, sleeping, in an altered state, or maybe even gone. Dead. I waited, though, finishing my cigarette outside, squatting on the ground in the grass. While snow melted and life was emerging from the earth, my mother lay dying. I exhaled and touched an exposed patch of grass as if it were the fur of a sleeping cat.

My fingertips were yellow with nicotine. The skin chewed. The sky seemed scattered and uncertain as if the spring sun might disappear and a storm might crash in.

“Are you okay?” asked a woman.

I squinted, shielded my eyes from the light as I looked up. She was in heels, with bold red lips. Everything perfect and in place.

“My mother is dying,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” she said softly and walked away.

I stood up, squashed my cigarette with my shoe, crossed the street, and went through the revolving glass doors of Princess Margaret, Toronto’s renowned cancer hospital. I waited for the elevator, popped peppermint gum in my mouth, fished my shades from my pocket and jammed them on, covering the dark circles around my eyes.

The elevator was crammed with gowned patients clutching their I.V. poles, hospital staff and fellow visitors. Some were here for those in the beginning stages of the disease: the newly diagnosed who were in treatment or having surgery. Then there were people like me, the disheveled and overtired, the ones on constant duty, hurrying to the bathroom or stealing away for a quick smoke, afraid to miss the end.

It took forever to get to the 17th floor: the palliative care ward. My sisters were outside Mother’s room, talking in whispers. They had traveled from Montreal and Vancouver to say their goodbyes, even Jamie who was taken by the Children’s Aid so many years ago, the day the rest of us were left behind.

Mother slipped in and out of consciousness, almost in a coma, her body bruised from multiple needles and the morphine drip. Her eyes were glassy, hollow.


It was winter when Mom was admitted. I didn’t know, then, how long was left—weeks? Months? But I knew I had questions that needed answering.

I walked into her room, her bare feet exposed, the skin like cracked mud under a hot sun. I should have applied cream but was afraid to touch them. I was thirty-three years old, but my insides still revolted when I got close to her.

The need to feel separate was so big, so old. So immediate, it always sent me back to something.


Mom sitting on the toilet, naked. I was five. She didn’t close the door, an easy reach from the seat. She didn’t say anything, just stared at me. There was no toilet paper so she grabbed a towel that hung from the rack, wiped herself and widened her legs for me to see, her expression, vacant. After breakfast I dressed for school, pulled my rainbow colored t-shirt over my head, one arm then the other, putting my underwear on then jeans and socks, brushed my teeth and said goodbye to mom who was lying on her bed staring at the ceiling. I ran out of the house with my shoes still in my hands.


I ignored her parched feet and busied myself with the messy counter beside her bed as I formulated the first question. I had to learn as much as I could, as quickly as I could, without conversational buildup as if we were mid-discussion even though it had only begun. Death intensifies and condenses everything.

“Why did you marry him? Why Dad?” I asked, wiping the counter and rearranging the clutter: the box of Kleenex, the water jug, three Styrofoam cups, juice from breakfast.

“Because I had to,” Mom answered. She grabbed the remote and turned on the tiny television that stretched out from the wall like the arm of a crane, “The new kids are so good,” she said after finding a figure skating competition, “That boy Sandu, he can dance too…”

“But why, Mom? Was it because you were pregnant with Jamie?” She paused as if the answer was lost to her. I had seen it before, this vacancy, how she fumbled, made things up she didn’t know and avoided reality.

“I think so…” Mom said, her voice stuck somewhere in her throat.

“You think so or you know so?”

“I don’t know… I…well your grandfather wanted me to marry your father,” she said, finally turning off the television and pushing it away from her bed.

“And I loved him.” She tried to cover herself with the thin green hospital blanket. “I loved your father. Isn’t that enough?”

“Love…really?” She’d been a teenager; he a violent brute. What was there to love?


I had more questions to ask, facts to gather. I wasn’t afraid of Mother’s emotional pull anymore, but I was afraid of something else—that there were no answers. No understanding or reason, only information that I could rearrange pointlessly like the items on her counter.

The silence was broken by mother.

“I want to speak with all my children. I forgive you all.”

“What did you say?” I turned to stare at her. “And what do you forgive your children for? What have your children done to you that requires your forgiveness?” My voice low, measured.

She stared at me without answering; fidgeted with her bedding.

“Do you forgive me?” she asked.

I gulped my water down.

“I don’t really know, but I know I won’t forget.”


She tried to find other ways into my heart.

“And you’re sure you trust me with this thing?” I held the cheap plastic blue razor up to Mother’s head of curls while she sat up in her hospital bed. Her hair would fall out from the last-ditch effort to prolong life with chemotherapy.

I hated her vulnerability, recalled childhood fantasies when I wished her dead: when I hoped the plane would crash or the car would go off a cliff; her heart would stop or she would slip on the ice some winter night and crack her skull.

She did horrible things. But here she was, powerless, afraid of losing her long luscious hair and unable to bear watching it fall out. I wanted to keep my distance, but she needed me, needed help, and it seemed like the least I could do.

“I think I need to cut your hair with the scissors first, Mom. It’s long.”

We stared at each other in silence before I put white towels around her neck to cut her soft hair, applied the shaving cream and carefully moved her head while the sharp blade scraped against her scalp.

Shaving her head turned out to be a very intimate act. It was the closest I had allowed myself to get to her in over fifteen years. The only sound came from the hall where nurses congregated, laughed or complained at their stations; buzzers whistled from other rooms, visitors shuffling by, catching glances as I angled around ear lobes and more of my mother’s flesh became visible.

I patted her head dry. Raw. Exposed.

It’s hard to hate when someone is dying.


Joanne Vannicola is an Emmy award winning actor and LGBTQ advocate; her memoir, All We Knew but Couldn’t Say, is her first book.


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