Ice, c’est Radio Canada. Il est neuf heures quinze, et maintenant…..
“9:15! If traffic goes my way I can be at work by 9:30, and with a half hour lunch, be done by 5:00”, I calculated while racing through the yellow light. My day had started early with a brisk power walk to get me going, a quick shower, breakfast for the kids, then off to morning French class at the University. Fortunately for me, my job offered flex time, so I could catch the early class before starting my shift.
I strained to catch the gist of the radio program. Something about the funding of English schools in Quebec, and a debate about immersion. A hole opened up in the line of traffic to my right and I weaved around the slow driver in front of me, just grabbing the tail end of a yellow to turn the corner and enter the parking lot. I would make it to my desk with two minutes to spare.
“Bonjour!” I greeted my co-worker on the other side of the cubicle. I had been thinking in French since I left school, and forgot to switch back. “When is my mind going to shut off?” I wondered. It seemed like it was always racing these days, but I did have a lot to juggle.
I landed this job in early February, at a time when most corporations were not hiring. I got lucky. Just as the receptionist was turning me away, the Human Resources Manager was walking into the room and caught my eye. “What are you looking for?” she asked. “Can you speak French?”
“As a matter of fact, I can.”
“Follow me.” She grabbed some papers off a nearby desk and led me into a conference room. “Write these tests,” she said pushing the papers towards me. “There is a job freeze on right now, but if you do well, I’ll keep your name on file.”
The call came that same afternoon asking me if I could come back for an interview.
“No one has ever scored so high on the tests”, she said. “We’d like you to start right away. There is an eight to ten week training program you’ll have to do first in Toronto. We’ll put you up, all expenses paid.”
I was both excited and anxious. I hadn’t worked full-time since the my first baby was born, and I while I was happy to be able to provide for the family again, I wasn’t sure how we’d all manage. I’d made the promise to my husband though, that I would support the family while he took some time off to establish a new business. He hadn’t been happy for some time, and so we decided to swap roles.
I completed the course in five weeks, wanting to reduce my time away as much as possible. A year of training on-the-job proceeded the initial training. I was exceeding all expectations within months and at the approval of my manager enrolled in a fourth year French course to be paid for by the company. A pay increase followed as I was now their bilingual representative. I was moving up in the world.
My husband was not having the same success. Caring for the house and children turned out to be harder than he thought, and he finally admitted that it just wasn’t “his thing”. I found a sitter, resumed the cooking, housework, shopping, and laundry. He bought himself a race car. He was looking into starting a mail order business. Worrying that my income wasn’t enough, I picked up a job working weekends at a restaurant.
Sometime in the middle of all this, my oldest sister’s health took a turn for the worse. The doctor’s wanted to hospitalize her, but she refused, saying she wanted to die at home. A nurse was assigned for eight hours a day, but she needed around the clock care. In the beginning, the family rallied around, and we all did our part, but that was waning. Now it was only my mother and I who were committed to seeing her through.
“Can I see you in my office?” My boss’s voice brought me back to the moment. I followed her brisk walk down the hall. “I have been reviewing your work and there are a few areas for improvement.”
I couldn’t believe it. “I don’t understand,” I protested. “I thought I was meeting all the quotas.”
“You are,” she said, matter-of-factly. “There is always room for improvement.”
Driving home from work that night, I felt particularly exhausted. What more could I do? I arrived home to realize I had forgotten to pick up the kids. It was Wednesday night. Stuart wouldn’t be home till late. He was meeting with the car club.
Don’t ask me what happened next; the night, like many others, passed in a blur of cooking dinner, trying to keep the kids from killing each other or themselves, completing homework, baths, and then bed. Then when my husband got home, I’d grabbed my schoolwork and headed to my sister’s for the night shift.
I don’t remember Thursday at all.
Friday, Stuart headed off to the racetrack for the weekend. He’d be gone five days. It was the Thanksgiving long weekend. Even though he had a cell phone, he didn’t anticipate it would work where he was going, and the track did not have a contact number. I would not hear from him again till Tuesday evening.
It was later than usual before I got all the kids to bed that night, and even though I still had work to do, I just couldn’t face it. I decided to go to bed early. I was asleep within minutes, but not for long. I was jolted out of my sleep by an all too familiar image – myself alone with the children, living in a townhouse complex. Although I had dreamt of this place many times, with no emotional attachment, this time I woke up crying. What was wrong with me? The tears just wouldn’t stop.
Saturday was recreation day, and each of the children were enrolled in different programs. Marie was taking art, Ester dance, and John was attending some sports clinic, all held in the same building. This had been our Saturday morning routine for two months now, but somehow after I loaded us all in the car, and set out on our way, I could not remember where we were going. I drove up one street and down another, and with each miss, grew more and more anxious. Ester began to scream in the back seat. Marie asked me what was wrong. I didn’t know. I started to tremble. The tears started to come again. I turned the car around and headed for home. Our street ran off a main road, and all I had to do was turn left and we’d be there, but suddenly, I froze, mid-intersection: mind, body, and emotions no longer under my control. Ester screamed louder and the other two began to cry. A siren flashed behind me and a police officer stepped up to the driver’s side.
“Is there a problem, Ma’am?”
I looked at him through a flood of tears. “I don’t know where I am.” I handed him my license. He was young, and I could just tell he hadn’t expected this.
“Ma’am, your license says you live just down this street. Do you want me to follow you there?”
“Yes, please.” I don’t think I’d ever felt so humiliated. We crawled down the street and into the driveway.
“Is there anybody you can call?” he asked.
“I don’t think so. My husband’s away, and my sister’s dying, so my parents aren’t available.”
“Well, you need to call somebody.”
“Thank you, officer. I will. I’m so sorry to have bothered you.”
In the end, I called my Dad. Between choking sobs, I told him I needed help. He came right away.
That was the day I discovered that I have limits. In those days we called it a breakdown, but in retrospect it was a breakthrough: the beginning of a new way of being, one that took me out of the rat race.