It all started, I think, when I was a little girl and a neighbor on our street, Dr. Budd, was lambasting any country that would nationalize its health care. I instinctively knew not to trust this view, even though we liked all our neighbors. And didn't he know that he was saying this to the granddaughter of the woman who would watch Nixon and Agnew on TV and shout, "The bastards! The bastards!" whenever they opened their mouths? Grandma would pump her fists with so much vigor that her upper arms shook, and although Nixon did many things we consider part of the liberal project now, like funding National Public Radio and the National Endowment for the Arts--I began to understand at a very young age that the people who did not believe in health care for all were often the fans of my grandmother's bête noir.
Then, in junior high, I found out that Canada was the birth place of my two favorite singer-songwriters, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. Those Northern landscapes that had inspired such exquisite melancholy and grief, sweet romance and longing, plus some spirited protest against Da Man, the whole delicious range of human experience: Canada was obviously a land of soulfulness and rare humanity.
So when I moved close to the Canadian border in the 1990s to start my job at St. Lawrence University, the fact that the nearest big airport was in Ottawa, that I would have to cross a border to fly to other sovereign nations (including, quite often, my own) and to seek out fine dining and culture and the occasional beautification ritual at the York Street Spa: these were all perks, as far as I was concerned. And for quite a long time the exchange rate made them very affordable perks too.
I learned all the words to "O Canada." Whenever I sing it and hear it, my eyes mist over.
I love the maple leaf. And on a visit to Quebec City, I even tried poutine. How can you not love a country that invented a dish that features french fries, gravy, and squeaky cheese curds? These people know about comfort food. I love the Bonhomme de Carnival in Quebec City, and the ice palace, and how so many children in Quebec and Ontario learn to skate when they learn how to walk.
I love the way Canada does multiculturalism, its constant festivals where former enemies from, say, the Balkan States, are invited to wear their native costumes, share their favorite dishes, and sing and dance with people who, a generation back, they would have been shooting at.
I even love the stereotype about Canadians as pathologically mild-mannered. (People who joke this way have never walked into a pub where a hockey game is being watched.) I hate American pushiness and love Canadian politeness. I like the "eh" that rhymes with "hay." And the way my friend from Ontario pronounces "been" like "bean."
So when I knew I would be driving to Canada every three weeks to get Zoe her chemotherapy, even in winter, I thought I had lucked out. At first I had feared we'd be going down to Cornell University. Ithaca is about three and a half hours away, as opposed to Ottawa, which is 90 minutes each way. I could handle this.
I grew to enjoy the drive, to study the familiar markers in the transition from America's remote far north to Canada's rural south. I loved gazing out at the desolate, open fields and old stately homes as well as squat, ramshackle houses, passing roads with names like "Hardscrabble" and "Irish Settlement Road" and towns with names like Flackville, the occasional Amish horse and buggy clopping past. Then eventually the port town of Ogdensburg, the ritual of presenting my passport and explaining Zoe's situation to people at Canadian customs, the paying of the toll, crossing the great St. Lawrence Seaway on that high suspension bridge, and then turning onto Route 416 where, truth be told, I usually fly the rest of the way. I am cautious by nature, but I know that highway so well I often take it at 80 miles an hour and soon I'm at Exit 57. It's still very rural there, 57 kilometers from the U.S. border, where I make the turn, passing a farm or two, and roadside stands selling pumpkins, and get onto Prince of Wales until I reach Hunt Club Road.
If I time Hunt Club well and avoid rush hour, I can get past the six or so lights to Bank Street in about ten or fifteen minutes. At the fourth light is the turn-off to the airport, so sometimes it's bumper-to-bumper traffic. On a bad day, the same drive can take 40 minutes.
I drop Zoe before 9 AM, and then I find a coffee shop and park myself. It's usually a seven-hour wait.
I could do so many things, if I wanted to, in the capitol of this fine nation. I could get my hair done. I could go see a movie at the Byward Market. I could have lunch with a friend. I thought I would do all these things when I knew I would be a frequent visitor to Canada, but the truth is, I can't make myself go very far from the hospital. I've tried, but then I just drive back.
The first chemo day in September, that first scary session, I only traveled across the street. I sat in a bleak Chinese banquet restaurant that smelled like the disinfectant they used to clean the tables and picked at the same three dumplings for five hours while grading a stack of papers. The waitress was unbelievably nice about my inability to move. Even when she started vacuuming for the next shift, and spraying my own table with the disinfectant, she said, "Take your time."
Then I went back to the parking lot of Alta Vista and sat in my car for a couple hours like a stalker.
I eventually ventured two blocks away: to a pizza place called Gabriel's that does a nice breakfast at the intersection of Bank and Hunt Club Road. That became my office. The Greek waitresses there know me now and call me "honey." The clientele--mostly quite elderly--recognize me too, and nod their heads at me when I walk in. One gentleman and I talked about Canada's involvement in every major war since World War I and I learned a lot. He didn't realize once--possibly because of my encouraging nods and hmms and the occasional "ey"--that I was from a neighboring land.
The visit before last I went to my favorite Italian restaurant, which is off Hunt Club Road on Riverside, and this felt like a grand adventure, that six stoplight drive. The wait staff was so generous about my taking up a table for five hours on a busy Friday that I ordered extra food and brought it home for dinner.
The two times I was with my husband on chemo days, we actually did things. We did some holiday shopping on the December visit, and went out for a nice brunch and took in the art museum, which is downtown, in January. But when it's just me, I can't go further afield than a ten-minute drive away.
Usually, the Alta Vista staff is good about calling me and giving me a status report and a good guess on when I can get Zoe. I really count on that. But yesterday, it seemed like everyone was off their game. I called over there twice, and begged for mercy. A big storm was coming, and it was the talk of all the staff. I had brought pillows, a nightgown, and my toothbrush just in case Zoe and I got stranded in Canada and couldn't get home, but I hoped it wouldn't come to that. Since Zoe wasn't getting intravenous chemo, just the lung x-ray and blood work, I thought we'd be home before the worst of the storm hit, but I asked as nicely as a pushy American can to please bear in mind our long drive ahead.
Finally I gave up on waiting for news and just came back and parked myself in the lobby at 2 PM. When I finally got to see her, Dr. Bravo was very apologetic. It had been an extremely busy day and she was the only oncologist on duty.
"It must be really hectic on a Friday, especially the day before you go on vacation," I said. By now the storm had started and big fat flakes were falling in earnest.
When we made this appointment, I had been told by her staff that Dr. Bravo would be on vacation the week after this Friday, which is why I didn't cancel and reschedule when I heard the big storm was coming. I didn't want to wait too long and risk Zoe's life just because of my reluctance to drive in a little snow.
Dr. Bravo said, "Oh, are you going on vacation next week? I just have a spring break coming in March."
So basically there was no compelling reason for Zoe and me to be there that day. We could have waited until better weather next week.
And then when it was time for me to get my medicine for Zoe, they didn't have half of it in stock. Donna looked frazzled. At first she was saying I would have to come back. We looked outside the window as horizontal snow pelted everything in sight. She, herself, had just decided she would have to spend the night in town and not make the drive in this storm to Cornwall, where she lives.
But I was probably more frazzled by now than she was. "Isn't there another way you can get me this medicine," I said. What I wanted to say, but didn't, was "You knew we were coming and would be buying all this: why didn't you have it ready?"
Then she consulted Willow, who told her that there was a way to have the Arizona drug-makers ship the stuff to our house if Donna called in the prescription.
Zoe, by the way, is totally fine. One small nodule in one lung, two in another. I think there were five last time, so this is good news, but the three that are there aren't smaller. "We're talking about milometers," Dr. Bravo said. "She doesn't feel them at all, and wouldn't feel them unless they became quite large." And she made her usual encouraging remarks about how great Zoe looks, how her blood work is perfect, and how she is doing so well.
I love Dr. Bravo and would wait seven hours in a blizzard to see her. That hasn't changed.
But yesterday, after all the confusion, and after setting off in the snow storm with only half the medicine I'd come for I realized something.
Canada and me: maybe we need to start seeing other people.
It's so unfair, really. Canada never asked for my love. Canada never has asked to be anyone's ideal. My standards for Canada were so high that Canada was sure to break my heart sooner or later. So it finally happened yesterday. This way-overworked, harassed staff at a small animal hospital dealing with very sick animals turned out to be just as likely as the rest of us to screw up some stuff. How dare they be human?
I think all would have been forgiven, if it hadn't been for the storm.
Oh, that storm.
Zoe and I set out for home at 3 PM in my husband's Subaru, which has four-wheel drive, and I realized pretty quickly that I don't really know how to drive it in snow.
When I made my first left, onto Hunt Club Road, I fishtailed wildly, and skid into another lane. If another car had been there, we would have collided.
Then, in the bumper-to-bumper traffic, braking felt like pushing my feet through sand and taffy and broken glass. The brakes of my own car, a Toyota, are so responsive that I've learned to be gentle on them. My husband's car did not register the presence of a foot. And when I pumped the breaks, the rumble and quaking beneath, as the anti-lock system locked and unlocked--I'll never understand the hydraulics of this--made me feel like Fred Flintstone. I had the curious sensation that my feet were pumping against the road, the taffy-sticky snow and rubble.
Then the traffic just stopped moving. In the forty minutes we sat there, I was able to call Kerry and get a tutorial.
"Don't pump the brakes," he said. "Just press down."
I honestly didn't think I was going to be able to get us home. Not in this car. Not in this storm. I thought about hotels, and my friends who live in Ottawa, but pursuing either option would still mean using the brakes and turning again, and maybe fishtailing into another lane.
But I am capable of learning a thing or two when my life (and a certain dog's) depend on it. When I realized that riding the brakes, my normal thing I do when turning, was causing the fishtailing, I stopped. I hooted with joy when I got to Route 416.
But then we really stopped. The 8 kilometers between Exit 57 and Exit 49: I was there for an hour. The snow was blanketing everything, cars were skidding then stopping. We were going to spend the rest of our lives in this car, on this highway.
I called Kerry again.
"Can you see why there's nothing moving on Highway 416?"
He looked on his computer and there was nothing on the radar.
I imagined eight-car pile-ups. I imagined all kinds of cars careening wildly into each other.
I did see evidence of a few accidents, including one car that had been badly rear-ended--maybe not even by someone who was using her husband's Subaru and did not know how to handle the brakes.
Finally, by 5 PM, two hours after I had left the animal hospital, the traffic started moving again. I had traveled maybe 10 miles in that time.
And then I realized the problem, why the traffic wasn't moving. It wasn't an accident at all.
No one had plowed the roads.
Probably at about 1 or 2 PM, when the snow started sticking, the right lane had been plowed, but not the left lane, or the breakdown lane.
This was the biggest storm to hit Canada in weeks, after a winter of very little snow, and there was no one out there to help us.
I followed along in the tracks of big SUVs and trucks, blessing them for being huge: unusual behavior, from this corner.
Meanwhile, my bladder was about to burst. What would I do if Zoe started crying? There was nowhere to take her. She'd have to do it in Kerry's car.
To keep myself from freaking out, I alternately chanted "Shiva ham," the soothing mantra my meditation teacher gave me, and "Blame Canada," the theme song from the South Park movie.
(I realized my Canadian friends, had they been with me in the car, might have been singing, "Blame budget cuts," and I'll have to ask them to give me the scoop as to why a major highway in the nation's capitol would not have people out there trying to keep it safe for the many many many drivers who were out there in this storm trying to get home.)
We'd all, collectively, been going 5 or 10 miles an hour for a very long time. Then, as traffic became scarcer, Zoe and I could speed up. We skidded along at 25 miles an hour until we got to the bridge to the U.S. at 7 PM.
The first thing I saw in my sweet homeland: a snowplow. I followed him across the bridge.
When I pulled up to American Customs, I wanted to kiss the guy.
Zoe relieved herself on American soil, through transnational snow, and I gave her a gold star for being so quiet and good the whole way. I found a rest room too, at Customs.
On the American side, it was raining now, but the plows had been out in the snow, even on the side back roads of our shortcut.
Our return trip from the hospital, that normally takes under ninety minutes, took four and a half hours. Longer than it would have taken to go to Cornell.
America, I'm back, baby.
I am still fond of Canada, and when I return to Alta Vista to get Zoe's next lung x-rays in late March, I'm even going to get my hair cut. I'll make a day of it.
But if it's snowing, I'm rescheduling.
And between now and then, I think Canada and I need to take a break.