4. “Feeling fragile” – Recovery, Part 1

“The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.”

This perceptive observation by American country music legend Dolly Parton reminded me of something I wrote as part of the Preface to this book, dear reader.

Here it is again, in case you cannot remember anything about it (or skipped it altogether):

There once was a university prof in Saskatchewan

Who survived cancer and then went on

To spend a year on an island

That made her feel like a diamond

In a tiara she had created all on her own. 

The last two lines reflect how much of my “sparkle” (as in physical, emotional, and spiritual life energy) I had lost as a patient undergoing active cancer treatments, and what I did to get some of it back.

Spoiler alert: I had not expected flickering lights and sudden power outages which caused me to trip over “stuff” that should not have been there in the first place.

And who knew that “a jeweled ornamental band worn on the front of a woman’s hair” (to quote from an online dictionary) could be so heavy?


It’s always sunny on my balcony

We arrived at my twin sister’s place 30 minutes after we had pulled out of the airport parking lot.

“I hope you are hungry,” she said, smiling.

“And thirsty,” I admitted when I sat down at their dining room table.

Her son (my youngest nephew) who was about to finish Grade 11, was waiting for us. He had grown a little since I had last seen him a year and a half ago and was quite chatty.

“How long will you be staying in town?”

“I will have to return for regular medical check-ups, but all in all, it’s going to be about 15 months.”

“Awesome – would you be interested in watching some quality TV with me?”

“I would love to!”

This short conversation turned into a weekly and beloved “aunt and nephew watch TV together” routine during my time of healing (Gravity Falls, Bladerunner, and The IT Crowd, anyone?).

As a small token of my gratitude for my relatives’ ongoing support, I began treating them to a take-out meal once a month (“That’s very generous, thank you.”)

My twin and I usually ate Subway sandwiches, while “the boys” (that is, my brother-in-law and at least one, if not both of their sons) alternated between ethnic specialities and comfort foods of sorts.

“I better take you to your new place now,” my twin sister said, grabbing her purse.

“This is weird and wonderful at the same time,” I said when we fiddled with the remote control to “my” parking garage door less than five minutes later.

“I have only ever seen pictures of the inside of this place, you know,” with my sibling nodding in agreement.

She had sent many snapshots over the past few months, but it was not the same.

“It’s quite a hike to get to your unit because it’s on the other side of the building,” my twin sister said as we exited the elevator on the third floor.

“As long as it’s not turning into the hallway from the movie The Shining (and a certain piece by Bartok starts playing), I’ll be fine.”

I was grinning from ear to ear. (“Both scare me to death,” my inner child promptly admitted.)

My twin sister handed me a big set of keys, and I opened the door.

It’s a window, not a hallway

A beautifully bright but terrifyingly empty place greeted us.

“Oh @#$%,” I thought, feeling frightened to the core.

I immediately opened the balcony door and stepped outside. If nothing else, I was going to have the best sunsets because my large living and bedroom windows faced west!

“How about I show you around the building?”


In truth, all I really wanted to do was to lie down, but the lonely mattress that had been placed in my bedroom looked most uninviting.

“You must be exhausted,” my twin sister observed 15 minutes later.

“I am about to collapse,” I wanted to say but smiled instead.

We had “toured” the garbage room and mailbox area on the ground floor and looked at the storage unit and bike room in the basement as well.

“It’s been a long day already.” I yawned.

In this “new reality” of sorts, everything was either unfamiliar or brand-new (or both.)

I, on the other hand, felt, well, old and decrepit.

“Then get some rest – I am going to pick you up in a couple of hours.”

“Bye for now.” I gave her a big, long hug.

Then I locked the door and called my best friend to tell her that I missed her already. I had texted my sister in Germany, my trusted neighbour, the “TV couple”, and my pastor-friend shortly after my plane had touched down.

Later that evening, my sister took me to a yoga class.

In pre-pandemic times, I had always enjoyed tagging along and willingly turning myself into a pretzel of sorts. It helped calm down my entire “inner crew” (and you know by now just how much chatter goes on in my head on a daily basis.)

“You’ll be fine,” my sibling had declared confidently when she picked me up.

All participants and the teacher would be wearing masks and be physically distanced (with “x” marking the spot where each participant’s mat was to go), she said. Even better, everyone was vaccinated, and the studio windows would stay open the entire time.

“Let’s do this,” I said to myself and got into her car.

I regretted my decision within minutes after arriving at the studio. Why?

Because my post-cancer body and pandemic-weary mind went into complete shock. There were way too many people crammed into this admittedly sunny space with its creaky hardwood floors – had it always been this small?

I had always loved the studio’s calming vibes. Now, I was decidedly uncomfortable and could feel a splitting headache coming on.

Ten minutes into the actual class (“Welcome, everyone”), my belly scar started paining. And why was my back so sore?

“Because you spent many hours crammed into airplane seats,” I was told by my health guide, “Barb 2.0”.

“Maybe I should get up and do the various yoga poses out in the hallway?”, I wondered.

“I vote for getting out of here altogether.” (That was, of course, my inner child chiming in.)

Then I felt someone gently touching me from above.

“Just breathe. You are safe here,” the instructor whispered.

Her instruction and comment surprised and comforted me at the same time.

A fellow German immigrant who had at one time lived and taught in Saskatchewan, the yoga teacher only knew my “official” story: that I would spend a one-year study leave in town.

Or had my twin sister blabbed after all about my cancer journey …? (She had not.)

Tears welled up in my eyes.

I had never felt this fragile in my entire life.


Shopping is my new cardio

“Good morning,” I said to myself (or, more precisely, my “inner crew”.)

I was standing on my balcony and enjoying the view. The first night in my new place had been tough, and not just because I had been sleeping on an old mattress on the floor.

To my surprise and delight, my inner child had been totally excited about my new place – and being near my twin – because it represented the future (“Let’s celebrate!”).

“Dr. Barb”, on the other hand, kept me up for hours because she resented having been “uprooted” from her “prairie home.” To that end, she also bemoaned the lack of furniture (“Will there be an office area of sorts in the condo?”).

My main guide promptly suggested some simple grounding exercises, such as listing five things I could see from my balcony (including hills in the distance and a massive tree.)

They helped calm my general anxiety level that morning, as did a special phone call.

“Happy birthday,” I sang to my older sister in Germany via video chat.

“Thank you so much.”

It had been quite a year for her, too (“I cried all day when you shared your diagnosis with me.”)

“What are you up to this morning?” she asked.

“Shopping for stuff.” I sighed and rolled my eyes.

“Sounds like you feel overwhelmed by that prospect.”

“That’s right.”

What had once been a pleasurable activity (“I got that jacket at 80% off!”) had turned into a chore many months ago, and for good reason.

As an immuno-compromised individual, I had been sticking to the same shopping “routine” during active care in 2020 and 2021. Wearing a tight-fitting mask, I would:

1.) go to one, gigantic grocery store that carried everything I would need to stock up my fridge, freezer, and pantry;

2.) go early in the morning when there were very few people shopping to avoid risk of exposure to Covid-19 (and the flu, of course);

3.) disinfect hands and shopping cart upon entering store;

4.) shop for items on list in record time (no browsing allowed whatsoever);

5.) pack and pay for items;

6.) disinfect hands upon exiting store.

Translation: all the “shopping fun” (for lack of a better label) was now gone, thanks to the pandemic. Worse, the supermarket’s enormous size and awful lighting managed to “scare the bejeepers” out of my inner child every single time.

“Why don’t you just order everything online?” my microbiologist friend-colleague had asked. “It’s so convenient, because they deliver, too.”

“Leaving my apartment to buy bananas is the highlight of my week,” I quipped.

It was true, though.

I looked forward to engaging in conversation with my trusted neighbour as she drove us to and from the grocery store, regardless of the weather (“I am glad to hear that you had another good night, Barb.”)

I did not look forward, however, to stopping at a medical laboratory on our way home so I could have my blood drawn for an upcoming chemotherapy treatment.

During the winter months, this could be a most unpleasant experience due to inclement weather and pandemic restrictions: only a fraction of patients was allowed to wait inside at any time, while the rest had to line up outside, even if – or despite of – a pre-booked appointment.

“What are you going to shop for first?” my older sister asked me, bringing me back to the present.

As usual, we talked in German, specifically in the ancient North Bavarian dialect I grew up speaking at home.

The latter tends to make fellow Germans from other parts of the country smile. In fact, my distinct “southern drawl” inevitably conjures up the traditional Bavarian garb such as a Dirndl or Lederhosen, even when I try to speak standard (“high”) German.

“Kitchen and bathroom items.” Then I realized that it was time to quickly say “Servus” (“goodbye” in Bavarian.)

My twin sister was going to pick me up in five minutes; I was to meet her on the east side of my building (my condo faces west.)

When I closed my apartment door from the outside, it took me a while to locate the correct key. I also decided to take the stairs to the main floor which was faster – only to fiddle with more keys (“I should have taken the elevator!”).

Three hours later, my twin sister and I returned with so many bags and bulky items that we had to make two trips from the building’s parkade to my apartment.

Was my credit card positively exhausted? Yes, and so was I.

In fact, I felt absolutely drained, if not worried that I had overdone it. Would I have to pay for it somehow …?

As always, my twin sister was helping me put things away.

“When are your new bed frame and mattress supposed to arrive?”

“I am expecting a text any minute.”

An hour later, one of the delivery people commented that “this bed platform is so sturdy, you can dance on it” – and then promptly hopped up to do a tango of sorts!


Soon after, my twin sister and I walked around a beautiful nearby golf course to get some fresh air and exercise. (In hindsight, I realized I should have stayed home and rested instead.)

But I always enjoyed her company. And the “Caution” sign we passed at the bottom of a hill made us laugh.

Afterwards, we enjoyed a (take-out) supper at her place. Looking back, I realize that I should have insisted on eating it by myself in my new home, as I was clearly peopled out.

By the end of the day, I sat on my balcony on one of the two chairs my sister had put there prior to my arrival and quietly wept because I was so overwhelmed.

“Barb 2.0” promptly gave me a lecture.

“Stop pushing yourself so hard – you still need a lot of rest!”

“You are right.” I sighed out loud.

But the sooner I was finished furnishing my place, the faster I would feel at home and could settle in, I figured. (If you guessed that I am not a procrastinator by nature, you are right.)

To that end, we literally “shopped until we dropped” for the next few days, always early in the morning when my energy was best. In the afternoons and evenings, I rested – that’s what beds are for! – and enjoyed many amazing sunsets to boot.

By the way, spending a lot of time outside was getting increasingly difficult. On June 26, 2021, Victoria hit 35.2 degrees, a new record (“Maybe we are still in the prairies and don’t know it?” my inner child wondered.)

Undeterred, we drove 30 minutes west that afternoon to visit with a very special lady in my twin sister’s life.

The two of us had met her and her late husband in the late 1980s. She was a girl from Ottawa who had fallen in love with a Lutheran pastor from the States who spoke fluent German and had lived there for over a decade.

Since they considered my twin sister and her family “our kids in town,” her two boys addressed them as Oma and Opa (“grandma” and “grandpa” in German.)

My sister had been visiting this bubbly senior on a weekly basis throughout the pandemic, and to help her with her big house and even bigger garden.

She was happy to see me since our last visit had been at Christmastime 2019 when her husband was still alive (“It’s been so long!”).

As always, Oma had prepared a feast for lunch, having e-mailed me ahead of time to ask what was “off limits”, as my gastrointestinal system was still giving me a lot of grief.

After dessert, I was told to lie down – which I did happily.

In hindsight, choosing furniture for my empty apartment that week had turned out to be much more draining than anticipated (“Too many choices, Herr Mozart.”)


The other twin

Thankfully, I did not have to worry about assembling the sleeper sofa I had decided upon (“The floor model is perfect.”) My sibling had kindly asked friends of hers to come over and help us with that.

The husband of the couple had even brought a bunch of tools with him, “just in case.” Much to his frustration, however, the instructions on paper were “not intuitive,” as in most unhelpful.

“I’ll call the help line.”

“You are the second person to inquire about this,” the customer service representative said to me. “I’ll put you through to a technician.”

“Line the sides up vertically, not horizontally” (“Got it!”).

A mere fifteen minutes later, I thanked my three eager assistants and invited them to take a seat. Then I took a “Smile, everyone!” picture to mark the occasion. (It is not included here for privacy reasons.)

Later that evening I sent it to the friend who had suggested I pre-order my bedroom furniture in Regina. She was thrilled that I loved my new purchases.

“Who is the couple sitting next to you, Barb?”

“What do you mean?”

“LOL – that’s your twin sister, not you, right?”

“Yes, of course.”

I knew immediately that she had mixed up my sibling with “pre-chemo Barb”, and for good reason. They had shared a similar hair colour, a subtle combination of dark blond, light brown, and copper red for many years.

Being mistaken for my fraternal twin (“There are two of you?”) was nothing new – despite the fact that I am an inch taller than her, and my feet are a size bigger.

In contrast to my younger sibling, I inherited my mother’s round face and lower vocal range while she looks like our dad and qualifies as a mezzo-soprano.

My twin is also married and the proud mother of two boys, while yours truly has always been single, never been pregnant, and recently evicted certain “unwelcome tenants” from her belly on the advice of her medical oncologist. Shall I go on?

Yet, I had fallen into the same “who’s who?” trap once myself during my 40s.

I blame it on brain fog, a particularly insidious symptom of perimenopause. (There’s a long list of other, similarly annoying issues that affect “ladies of a certain age,” to quote my main guide.)

In any case, I had asked my twin sister for a picture of myself to include in a semi-autobiographical presentation of sorts that my church community had asked me to give.

Is that me?

“Why are you sending me a picture of yourself?” I was shaking my head. Maybe she needed new glasses or something?

She laughed out loud in response.

“That is you – your jacket had a brown stripe, while mine was blue, remember?”

I have included the picture in question. It proves that this immigrant to the Canadian prairies was no stranger to snow during her teenage years.

It also always reminds me of a time when I rebelled against the “twin look” as a teenager living in Southern Germany in the early 1980s.

Wearing hand-me-downs at home and occasionally receiving new clothes to be worn at school and church all year long as “birthday gifts” in mid-August was the rule at our house.

After all, my dad was already on long-term disability when we were born, and the widow’s pension my mom received after his death was tiny.

Imagine her surprise when, at age 15 or so, I returned with a big bag in hand from a shopping spree for which I had saved up for by playing the organ at church.

It contained – wait for it! – butter yellow pants and a bright pink blazer! (If there had been smart phones with cameras around at the time, I would likely have taken a selfie, but there weren’t.)

My mother promptly tried to talk me out of wearing this outfit at an upcoming public church choir event but gave up eventually (“I am old enough to pick out my own clothes.”)

To my absolute delight, she received multiple compliments about her daughter’s fashion choices that day (“Finally, Barbara in colour!”).

Given how different my twin sister and I looked and felt now – she was full of energy, while I still tired quickly – I wondered when “Barb 2.0” would read me the riot act again.

I should not have worried.


Watershed moments

“I want you to rest more,” said my health guide the next day, using her “I am serious” tone.

“I am resting.” I was sitting on the middle of my bed.

“Stop agreeing to every activity your twin sister suggests.”

“That’s unfair – we have not been able to do things together for ages.”

Looking back, I did have to admit to “Barb 2.0” that my agenda had been very full ever since my arrival.

Besides going on shopping trips almost daily (including to local thrift stores), we went on walks whenever the weather was nice (and it was.)

Physical activity of any kind reminded me to be grateful to my body which had been “through the wringer” (to quote my inner child.)

Enjoying the views from nearby Mount Tolmie turned out to be much easier than making it up all the way up to Mount Douglas, however.

Prior to my cancer surgery, that climb was never a problem – now it took twice as long and required resting on a bench, if not two on the way up to the viewing platform.

Less physically challenging were our walks along the Pacific Ocean. My favourite has always been the trail along Dallas Road, and I love passing the statue of the late Terry Fox.

Terry Fox, my hero

It reminds us of his Marathon of Hope for cancer research in 1980. This wonderful young man continues to be an inspiration to me as a cancer survivor, now more than ever.

Twice a week, my twin sister and I would also attend hour-long waterfit classes.

In pre-pandemic times, this type of workout had been incredibly important for my physical and mental health, and never failed to increase my (already high) energy level.

Now, I would get comfortable on my couch for at least an hour afterwards, if not more.

Did I feel like an, um, old woman whenever that happened? You bet.

But at least my excuse beat the “old age syndrome” that eventually catches up with most of us (or so I am told.)

By the way, I found it tough to spend quality time with more than one person at a time. It still drained my body’s battery rather than recharging it. Was that due to the cancer treatments or the pandemic?

“Possibly both,” concluded “Barb 2.0”. I was to be patient with myself (“Okay, I hear you.”)

It always felt good to see familiar faces around me, including members of my twin sister’s church choir.

As the music director and organist at a local church, she had taken me to their annual church choir party shortly after my arrival (“Welcome back, Barb”.) I had also accepted her invitation to join the – tiny and masked – “summer choir” for live-streamed services on Sunday mornings.

“I am sorry for crying like a baby through most of the first hymn today,” I apologized the first time I had come along.

Worse, “Dr. Barb” was positively mortified that I had “lost it,” given that professional organists are trained to “always keep it together.” (The risk of being ridiculed by one’s peers is high, especially at funerals and memorial services, many of which feature specifically selected music.)

Granted, before my cancer diagnosis, I would get a little nostalgic whenever one of my mom’s favourite pieces happened to be played on the radio (for example, Lippen schweigen, “Lips stay silent.”)

But weeping during a live-streamed service, a recording of which would be put online? That had been a first, even for my inner child, the (occasional) drama queen.

“I was totally expecting you to get emotional.” My twin sister gave me a big hug.

She explained that “everyone at church” had been caught off guard by the power of music during their first time back worshipping in person.

“That’s good to know,” I replied, somewhat relieved.

Would I shed tears the next time I played the organ at my own church, that is, during my next checkup trip in late August 2021? (Spoiler alert: by that time, the province of Saskatchewan had dropped their mask mandate and lifted other pandemic restrictions as well.)

I was, incidentally, also close to crying on the Canada Day long weekend. (This statutory holiday is celebrated nationwide on July 1.)

How could one not be moved by the recent discovery of 751 unmarked graves near a former residential school close to my hometown in Saskatchewan?

I will never forget attending an academic book launch in 2015. The soft-spoken author, a fellow academic, suddenly admitted to being a residential school survivor (“I have never told anyone about this until today.”) Then he  shared some positively horrifying experiences (I’ll spare you the details.)

I realized there and then that, in comparison, my own educational experience, if not my early life in Germany as a whole, had been paradise, as in highly privileged – and that I was never going to take it for granted again.

What could I do to distract myself, including my decidedly heavy heart?

“There’s a lot of dirty laundry piling up,” my inner academic noted with a “Get your @#$% together” tone of voice.

“Okay,” I replied and suddenly got excited – this was the first time I would get to use my brand-new washing machine.

There was only one problem.

The “damn thing” (to quote “Dr. Barb”) refused to cooperate, and the instruction manual was, well, useless (“Who writes these things?” she asked, clearly annoyed.)

I promptly felt “pretty stupid for someone with a Ph.D.,” to quote my trusted neighbour.

Where was this highly practical individual when you really needed her at your side, I wondered? Far, far away, in another galaxy, it seemed.

Maybe the couple who lived next door could help.

“Thanks for popping over,” I said to a young woman in her early 30s on the Sunday afternoon.

I had knocked on their door with a “My life is falling apart and only you can save me” look on my face.

“No problem at all, Barb,” she had said with a smile. “This washing machine is indeed tricky to operate.”

She was a nurse and her fiancé a physician. (“That’s excellent,” remarked “Barb 2.0”.)

They also owned a cute rescue dog from Mexico named Winnie. (I would have to tell my beloved Winston – whose nickname, incidentally, is Winnie – that I had made a new four-legged friend.)

“He’s welcome to join us,” I said, suddenly very excited. “And I’ll promise to have yummy treats next time you visit.”

Then I leaned down to pet this American Village canine. Since he is not much of a barker, he just looked at me with a “I don’t know you, lady, but treats are always welcome in my world” look on his face.

That was the exact moment my inner child fell in love with this medium sized dog. (She was less impressed with the huge Great Dane that lived on the first floor and loved barking from the balcony at random people who dared to walk by.)

“Winnie is so sweet,” my “little one” concluded. “Can we please adopt him?”

His mom told us about his best friend, Ollie, another rescue dog that lived down the hall, on the other side of my apartment. The fact that this building was a pet-friendly one had, incidentally, been a major selling point, as far as I was concerned.

It meant that I could adopt a pet (or two) sometime in the future. That made me happy!

“I had been wondering when someone would move in.” My new neighbour watched me open the door to the space in my condo that hid my washer and dryer.

“There’s a reason for that.”

While I gave her a brief synopsis of my recent health journey, she showed me where to put the laundry soap (“Mystery solved!”). Then she turned the washing machine on (“Hold the button for at least three seconds and listen for the click.”)

“Please let me know if you need anything else, Barb.” She smiled.

“I will. Thank you so much!” I smiled back at her.

“And if Winnie ever bothers you, please let me know – he’s got separation anxiety and has been known to, um, howl when we are gone.”

Then we exchanged phone numbers, and less than an hour later my new appliance sang a little “beepy song” to signal the end of the washing cycle.

“I think we have made some new friends,” my inner child and “Dr. Barb” concluded independently from each other later that afternoon.

“Both human and animal ones,” my top-hatted guide and “Barb 2.0” observed together.

“That’s awesome,” replied both my best friend and my trusted neighbour in Regina. “They will help you heal.”

Mr. Winnie

I have included a picture of “Winnie, the therapy dog” for your viewing pleasure. He was very quiet, if not pensive, when I took this shot of him looking out my living room window several months later.

By that time, he had become a permanent fixture in my apartment which he soon considered “an extension of his own home” (to quote his human mom.)

Incidentally, I did not have to use my dryer at all on that “laundry weekend.” My clothes dried in record time on my balcony because most of Western Canada was setting new temperature records daily. In fact, an unexpected heat dome and burning wildfires had destroyed the town of Lytton, B.C.

“My heart goes out to everyone affected,” I said to my twin sister upon reading the news.

On a brighter note, I coped rather well with the unexpected heat wave by dragging a brand-new standing ventilation fan from room to room to stay cool.

What, no air conditioning, you ask?

Indeed, due to its moderate climate and comparatively stable temperatures, central air conditioning was still the exception in residential buildings on southern Vancouver Island (at least in the early 2020s.) But climate change has begun to affect it, with major snow fall becoming a regular occurrence at Christmas time.

Thankfully, the weather had cooled off slightly when I welcomed another first-time and very special visitor.     


The Tickle Monster

“She’s really big for her age, and so smart,” I said, a proud first-time grauntie. I had never met my oldest sister’s first grandchild in person until now.

She had been born in late January 2020. To celebrate her first birthday, her parents hosted a Zoom party online that was a lot of fun. Why?

Because yours truly made everyone laugh when pointing out that we had “the same hairdo,” a subtle reference to my chemo-induced baldness at the time.

“She is also a perfect mixture of her dad and his sister when they were little,” I observed with a big smile on my face. Those were the days!

First visits are always special

This bright-eyed toddler immediately began to explore my new place.

Her favourite “game” was to open and close my bedroom door and sit on my balcony to watch people and their dogs walk by (“Woof, woof, woof.”)

Much to her delight and that of her parents, I quickly turned into Elmo, the tickle monster (“Here I come!”), because her howling laughter made my inner child bounce with joy.

Two hours later, my grand niece was suddenly rubbing her eyes and yawning.

“She’s ready for a nap,” my niece-in-law observed.

“Me, too,” I thought. Was that perhaps how some grandparents felt after a round of babysitting?

“I would love it if we got together at least once a month while I am in town, for some quality bonding time.”

I was busy putting shoes on my grand-niece’s little feet.

“That would be awesome.”

My easy-going relatives then checked their phone calendars to find a suitable date.

Hosting them had been lovely. Not only had they arrived hungry (“Cake and ice cream, anyone?”), but they had also admired the classy artwork on my walls (“They are all originals that were hiding at the local thrift store for next to nothing!”).

Was I exhausted after they left? For sure.

Was I looking forward to their next visit? You bet.

Would these family visits be intensely healing experiences? Absolutely.

To that end, let me share some favourite memories of my great niece engaging in the following activities while visiting her (favourite?) relative from Saskatchewan.

On a hot summer’s day, she went down a slide at a nearby playground about 100 times in ten minutes, clearly trying to break some sort of speed record – “She wants you to join her, Tante Ba,” my nephew said (and so her great auntie did!).

On a sunny fall afternoon, clad only in a diaper, she watched people walking their pets from my balcony (“Look, there’s Winnie!”).

On a dreary November day, she donned an apron with a traditional Bavarian pattern that I had bought at the Munich airport many years ago.

As a result, she looked beyond classy while expertly sweeping my living room floor – “I should get her to do that at home as well,” my niece-in-law quipped.

My favourite time during every visit, however, was when she channelled her inner opera diva.

Her repertoire consisted solely of nursery songs in German (including my favourite, “Backe, backe, Kuchen”) to which my late mother was clapping along in heaven, I reckoned.

In other words, my heart was overflowing every time this little human being was around me.

“She’s like magic for the soul,” my inner child observed, with my main guide nodding in agreement.

“I’ll take her over Chicken Soup any day.”

I laughed at “Dr. Barb’s” joke about this wildly successfully series of books whose authors tried to “share happiness, inspiration and hope,” according to their website.

That was exactly what I had come “home” for, right?


Stompin’ Barb

I had spotted the small, brownish envelope taped to my mailbox downstairs right away. My unit number was written on the front for everyone to see.

“Odd,” I thought and put it into my purse. Was that my stomach doing somersaults?

The letter could not have been from my new neighbours, I figured. They would have texted or knocked on my door.

“I am going to read it later,” I said to my twin sister who was with me at the time. We had been to the pool and were now going to enjoy some quality tea and quality conversation, in that order.

As we walked up the stairs to the third floor, I reminded her of what had happened “in the neighbour department” (to quote “Dr. Barb”) in late February 2021.

A folded piece of paper had been slipped under the door of my Regina apartment on the seventh floor a couple of weeks after I had moved in.

Evidently, my neighbour on the sixth floor could hear me “stomping around upstairs.”

I vehemently disagreed, to say the least.

“She does not know me from a bar of soap,” I informed my trusted caretaker shortly after having read her unexpectedly well-crafted letter. “And I am no Stompin’ Tom Connors either.”

He smiled. “Talk to her directly, Barb. She’s a listener.”

Was that maybe code for “She’s a real pest but pays her rent on time, so we can’t kick her out, sorry,” I wondered?

A couple of days later, I knocked on her door. (I had tried once before, but nobody answered.)

An elderly lady opened immediately and smiled at me.

“She looks familiar,” I thought to myself.

Had we perhaps met before, like in the hallway, elevator, laundry room, or parking garage?

I proceeded to introduce myself to her and delivered a well-crafted mini-speech, courtesy of the ever so capable “Dr. Barb”.

My neighbour listened patiently and then looked me straight in the eye. Curiously enough, I knew that look – I used it myself with university students who were trying to talk themselves out of whatever trouble they were in.

“What are you doing up so early in the morning, Barb?” she asked, using a “Tell me the truth or suffer the consequences” tone. It sounded awfully familiar, too (at least to “Dr. Barb”.)

According to the rental contract, I was not to make “any noise” until at least 8 am, my neighbour explained.

“And as a senior, I like to sleep in.” Was that a twinkle in her eye?

If so, I wasn’t amused. In fact, I could feel tears coming on.

“Then you should know that it’s around 5 am when my diarrhea attacks typically start.”

Surely, this lady with supersensitive ears had heard about “poor Barb” from others in the building (maybe even from that creepy neighbour from the fifth floor)?

“It is a common side effect of receiving pelvic radiation for endometrial cancer, you know.”

The mortified look on my neighbour’s face spoke volumes.

“Sorry for assuming you were ‘training for the Olympics,’ Barb.”

That’s when it hit me where I knew her from. She had taught as a sessional at my college before her retirement, but I couldn’t remember in which subject area.

“Given how well that note was written, my guess would be English literature,” said an amused “Dr. Barb”.

“In that case, she probably loves crime novels and adores Miss Marple,” my top-hatted guide noted, grinning from ear to ear.

“And that’s where she could have picked up all those surveillance techniques,” stated my inner academic.

To the dismay of the adult members of my “inner crew”, the apology offered by my neighbour was short-lived.

A week after what I had considered a “successful” conversation, she called my caretaker shortly before midnight (!).

“It sounds like Barb is playing soccer upstairs,” she had told him.

“Oh, for @#$% sake,” I said out loud, making my caretaker laugh.

“I told her that you were fast asleep.”

“I was! Were you able to figure out what happened?”

“Yes, after some careful detective work.”

According to my caretaker, the culprit – wait for it! – was an unidentified item being tossed about by the wind on another neighbour’s balcony on the seventh floor.

“You are a regular Hercules Poirot,” I concluded, and we both chuckled.

Suddenly, I was back in the present and standing in front of my condo door.

“Are you going to open the envelope now?” my twin sister wondered after I had unlocked it and walked into my apartment.

The neatly printed note inside was mercifully short.

You are too heavy on your feet,” it said.

My twin sister promptly started laughing when a bunch of, um, nasty German swearwords came out of my mouth.

“What is wrong with these people?” I sighed. “Am I supposed to grow wings or something?”

“No, but you should definitely respond.”

“Don’t worry, I will.”

I felt that I had every right to move around in my own home whenever I wanted to, including between 10 pm and 7 am; that is, during the condo building’s “quiet hours.”

However, communicating that piece of information to the person directly was impossible. I did not know my neighbour’s last name (that’s how the front entrance doorbell system was set up), only their first name and their unit number.

Knocking on their apartment door was not an option either. I could access only the main and the third floors with my keyset; that female lived on the second.

I let out a big sigh, feeling frustrated and annoyed at the same time. What was I going to do?

In the end, I took a picture of the envelope and of the note, “just in case this happens again” (to quote “Dr. Barb”.)

Then I printed only one, highly sarcastic sentence on a separate piece of paper, courtesy of my German upbringing (or “training”, to quote my mother).

It read “I will do my very best to accommodate your request.”

When I checked the next day, the envelope with my message inside that I had taped on my neighbour’s mailbox was gone.

Feeling relieved but outnumbered by “nasty neighbours” (to quote my inner child), I made every effort to be as quiet as a church mouse 24/7.

That brilliant strategy worked for a couple of months.

Then another small, brownish envelope was taped to my mailbox, once again for everyone to see.

I was not really surprised, however.

The night before, the same downstairs tenant had knocked on their bedroom ceiling – my bedroom floor – several times around 10:15 pm.

“Did you hear that?” I immediately felt unsettled.

My best friend from university, a fellow German immigrant to Canada, was visiting me at the time.

“Yes. I heard similar noises about 15 minutes ago but did not want to say anything.”

Then she smiled. “I wonder whether she’s European?”

I did not feel like laughing but knew what she was implying and why.

Dr. Google had already identified my neighbour’s first name as being Czech in origin.

Given that country’s close proximity to where I was born (on a good day, we could see the Bohemian Forest from our living room window), she could have been familiar with how many a German lodges a noise complaint – by using a broom, of course.

Then it hit me. Had my neighbour maybe recognized that my printing was, in fact, European, if not specifically German? (One’s penmanship is similar to the accent in one’s speech, in case you didn’t know, and thus differs from continent to continent.)

“What does the note she sent actually say?” my visitor asked.

To my great distress, her second message was much longer and ruder in tone than the first one. Evidently, I had dared to “disturb” my neighbour’s “sleeping schedule as a shift worker.”

My visitor as well as my best friend in Regina, who I rang to rant to about what was happening, were both appalled, much to my secret delight.

“What are you going to do to make this stop?” my solution-oriented twin sister wanted to know when I shared the news with her the next morning.

“I have sent an e-mail to the strata council.”

Despite accepting the assistance of “Dr. Barb”, it had taken me half the night to draft.

Adopting a courteous but firm tone, I had indicated in my letter that I was a recent cancer survivor convalescing in her own home.

Having received multiple unpleasant notes and being audibly assaulted by a common household item used for sweeping were unacceptable. Consequently, I was not going to send a reply to or engage with that person ever again.

“Well done, Barb,” said my visitor, twin sister, and my best friend, in that order.

Having successfully channelled my inner Michelle Obama (“When they go low, we go high”), I agreed with them (“Thank you.”)

“I am also proud of you,” declared “Barb 2.0”. “You have made your health your first priority. That’s wonderful!”

Of course, the strata council opted to ignore my e-mail. The universe, however, took pity on me – eventually.

Both of my “nasty neighbours” moved out within six months of each other, and the new tenant(s) did not seem to be bothered by me walking around. Hallelujah!

“What have you learned from all of this, if anything?” my pastor-friend wondered when I told her about it.

“Um, let me think … that people are crazy!” She laughed out loud at that realization.

Then something important began to dawn on me (drum roll, please!).

My thoughts and worries will not make me healthy,” that German author and fellow cancer survivor had said. “Therefore, I am no longer willing to be scared or get panicky,” she had added.

“I think I’ve figured it out,” I announced confidently.

“Let’s hear it, Barb.” I could see my pastor-friend’s grin through the phone.

“From now on, I am going to view my past, present, and future life as a series of events that fall into three categories.”

“Sounds intriguing. Tell me more, please.”

I explained that one category was to be called “Life threatening.

It was mercifully short. Losing both of my parents before turning 18 years old and receiving an advanced cancer diagnosis at age 52 are good examples.

The other one would be labelled “Annoying.

It was much longer and more nuanced, and for good reasons. It included whatever exasperating, irritating, infuriating, maddening, troublesome, and even highly vexing karmic tutorials the universe had thrown at me in the past and was planning to send my way in the future.

Did some of these “life lessons” make it into this sequel? Yes. After all, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

“Wait,” interjected a curious “Barb 2.0”. “What about the third category?”

I smiled.

“It’s simply called ‘In the Past’.”


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