The most popular personal essays of the past year
From a reluctant cottage guest to a happy transition, read the most popular personal essays by Globe readers in the last year.
Facts & Arguments essays have long been a favourite with Globe and Mail readers, but it's always interesting for editors to see what stories really strike a chord. Print readers send us e-mails and call in. But we're getting help from Sophi, an analytics tool created by The Globe to better understand the discerning tastes, needs and habits of our mobile and online readership. Sophi, named (and then shortened) from sophia, a Greek word for wisdom, combs through reams of computer data to help us understand what you are reading online, when you are reading it, how long you spend reading it, and if you're reading on your desktop or your phone. She keeps score, too, and ranks everything we post online with a number – the bigger the number, the better we did at getting our story out.
We are letting our readers peek behind the curtain by presenting the Top 5 Facts & Arguments essays, according to their Globe Score, from the past 12 months. To wit, Nina Dragicevic is a reluctant cottage guest, Kevin McGowan dreads waiting to be laid off, Ann Auld realizes her Down syndrome daughter is a dying breed, Pamela Kent can't understand why she and her husband have lived so long, and Lori Bona Hunt is cheered by the transformation of her daughter into a happier son.
#1. The doubtful cottage guest
Thanks for the invitation to the lake. You shouldn't have – no, really, you shouldn't have, Nina Dragicevic writes.
July 2nd sounds great! We'll get there around noon. See you then!
My dear friend. Contrary to everything I wrote in my e-mail – no, I don't want to go to your cottage.
But I go. I go because I am Canadian and because I live in a large urban centre, and therefore all summer culture, conversations and commercials burden me with an artificial sense of cottage entitlement, of pressing cottage urgency.
How can I say no? It's the cottage. Indeed – I see this now – man is not truly free until he has access to a secondary residence in a densely wooded area, preferably within stumbling distance of a body of water.
I don't mind driving four hours north to get to your cottage. On the way, I can look at lots of trees. I love nature at 120 kilometres an hour.
Also, there is such an inspiring variety of watercraft attached to people's cars – jet skis, tubes, kayaks, small yachts – that I am truly encouraged about our economy. It can't be so bad if this many people own this many vehicles for circling on small lakes, six weekends a year.
If I finish my student loan before I retire, I, too, will probably indulge in a light watercraft purchase. I want a lifeboat. I'll circle the lake, blowing my rescue horn, calling out to other cottagers: "Help! I'm trapped in a beer commercial!" or "I miss ethnicities!"
Your friends seem nice and bland – your basic white hetero non-urbans. Most of the guys have started that little thirtysomething pot belly, and perhaps some light male breast development. Inexplicably, their girlfriends have all maintained the figure of the average svelte 12 year old. My cottage weekend is a Judd Apatow movie from 10 years ago.
One of your friends, sitting alone on the dock, calls me over for some friendly cottage chit-chat. At the time of his invitation, I can't tell whether his isolation is self-imposed. I plop down next to him, alcohol in hand.
"Do you work for the government?" he asks immediately, in a jovial way. No, I do not. "I was just asking because a lot of people here work for the government," he says in a lower tone.
I look toward the shore where alleged government employees are innocently playing horseshoes. I didn't notice, I want to joke, I guess I can't quite see their fangs from here. But I don't say this because he is already eager to explain that they get their jobs because of "whom they know." So, basically, like a lot of us.
This conversation ends eventually, replaced by lots of other conversations on lots of topics – professional sports athletes, professional sports franchises, professional sports media coverage and the three breasts in Total Recall.
Your male friends do most of the talking, I've noticed.
Their girlfriends generally smile in the sunshine and delicately pull out the blond hair that's caught in the corner of their mouths.
As the sun sets on this paradise and the skies melt into a tender, peach-coloured dusk, that's when the AC/DC comes out. Didn't we stop listening to this music 20 years ago? And, of course, the mosquitoes. They emit a special frequency in proximity to a pear-shaped, rear-fleshed female, who has a city dweller's immunity to bus exhaust and apartment living but special allergies to northern insects. They circle me like carrion birds, hissing in lusty excitement.
I manage to escape the group with my fiancé. We sit and drink in the wooden shack you've assigned us for sleeping quarters.
My friend, calling this small pine coffin a "bunkie" makes it sound more hospitable than it really is.
You explained that we couldn't sleep in the cottage because of our dogs – your parents have recently laid down new flooring in the living room.
No problem. I dearly love my dogs. Your parents dearly love floors.
So, while you and your friends play cards in the warm glow of the cottage, we sneak out of our bug-infested shoebox and sit on the dock with our two quiet, loyal sentries.
The lake is a serene expanse of dark glass. I look up. My God – it's full of stars. Billions and billions of points of light. My eyes blur and attempt to refocus, and again it strains credulity.
And suddenly I have my cottage moment. A full yellow moon rises from behind the trees, and for the first time my neurotic inner narration falls into a hush.
We exchange whispered "I love yous" by the lake, in the middle of a dark Canadian landscape, under a sky crowded with stars.
The next morning I am fairly sick. I eat an apple, digest it briefly, then bring it up again behind our shack.
There you are, my friend, standing on the end of your dock, arm stretched above your head, BlackBerry held high like a torch of freedom – a homing beacon receiving the distant transmissions of past lives. "I have reception!" you are shouting.
I give you a hug. We herd the dogs into our borrowed minivan and start the four-hour journey back to my sweet, filthy city.
Thanks for inviting me.
Nina Dragicevic lives in Toronto. This essay first appeared June 23, 2016.
#2. I knew my Tuesday was coming
It was the day of the week when my company always issued its layoff notices: I waited with dread, Kevin McGowan writes.
Tuesday is layoff day for most companies. I've read this in several human-resources articles: Tuesday is the best day to let someone go. There have been studies.
So, every Tuesday for over a year, I walked into my office expecting the news. My projects were winding down, and I knew that others were not coming. My organization was re-evaluating and rebudgeting, and that meant bad news for me. I had two projects to manage, but they were coming to a close. As the projects completed, there was nothing to move on to. The clouds started rolling in.
Emotionally, I was a wreck. I was proactive and seeking other opportunities, but the jobs weren't there. I pinged my network regularly to see if anyone was hiring. At 40, with almost 20 years of experience in my field, I was overqualified for most postings. And for other roles that I'd like to grow into, I didn't have enough qualifications. I was stuck. My mood was bad and got worse. I was stressed, I was anxious. I started coming apart.
I have always battled depression and anxiety, and had built up decent coping strategies. The stress of seeing my job slowly disappearing was bad enough, but I held on. Then, in early 2015, my dad got cancer and the stress got worse. Then our youngest child stopped sleeping through the night, and I was exhausted all the time. My mental reserves were depleting quickly.
A therapist helped talk my way through it. I learned that I had no control over the organization and its plans. I could only control my own reactions. He suggested I get more exercise. I began running several times a week, several kilometres at a time. It helped for a while.
Not that I was positive about the inevitable, but I was creating more mental reserves to deal with what was coming. My mental state improved a little, and I felt stronger. However, no amount of preparation can make you ready for your Tuesday.
Then came Tuesday, Sept. 15.
As I walked into the office, I had my usual Tuesday sense of dread. I passed my boss's office, his door was closed. I passed the HR manager's office, her door was open. I glanced in and saw a stack of corporate letterhead on her desk. That's the paper they use for layoff letters.
I sat at my desk, in full view of their office doors, and watched the two of them go back and forth a few times. I picked up my cellphone and texted my wife: "I'm about to be laid off, I'll be home in an hour." Without a doubt, this was my Tuesday.
I opened my Gmail account and started writing an e-mail I would later send to friends and former colleagues. It started with: "Hi everyone, I have some bad news to share. I've been laid off from my job today and am starting my job search …" As I typed, there was a knock on my door. "Kevin, have you got a minute?" Of course I did. The hammer fell. My boss looked like he was going to cry. The HR manager was supportive, but sad. I called my wife and broke down on the phone: "I was right, it's over. I got laid off." The next 24 hours are a blur.
I was sad, angry, bitter, yet relieved. My Tuesday had come, it had passed, I could move on.
But like any loss, it was an emotional blender. Those five stages of grief came fast and furious. I skipped over denial, got pretty stuck in anger. Bargaining wasn't really an option (my lawyer agreed). Depression? Well, I had that already, so nothing to worry about. Acceptance took months.
I had to do a lot, and quickly. I had to update my LinkedIn profile, send a hundred e-mails. I had to ask several now-former colleagues for a reference.
There's nothing quite as humbling as asking a favour of people who just learned you are "no longer working here." Their positive response was heartening.
And then I thought about money, and things got darker again. I had to pay my mortgage, I had to pay for daycare. My son had a field trip coming up.
Christmas was a few months away. Suddenly, my mind was spinning, and my worldview quickly went from overcast to funnel clouds. I could see nothing but tornadoes, dollar signs zipping violently across the horizon.
That evening, I had to lead 25 young boys at our weekly Beavers meeting. My son played with his friends with no cares. I kept a stiff upper lip and accepted a gift of craft beer from a good friend. "Sorry, man, this might help." It did.
In a case of particularly bad timing, my Project Management Professional exam was scheduled for the next day. That designation would really help with the job search.
The next morning, I woke up after two or three hours of sleep, went to the exam centre in a haze, and failed.
I figured things could only get better from there. And they did.
The following weeks saw great improvement. Soon, I had a new full-time position I really enjoy, and I passed my PMP exam on the next attempt.
But for a while, negativity reigned. If you've been laid off, you know what this feels like.
It's a mix of panic, stress and paperwork. Life shatters, but continues anew.
If you're going through a job loss such as this, I feel your pain.
I've been there and really am better and stronger for the experience. My advice is to breathe deeply, and know there will be better Tuesdays ahead.
Kevin McGowan lives in Ottawa. This essay first appeared Aug. 2, 2016.
#3. A keeper from Day 1: Two decades on
My child with Down syndrome faces the extinction of her kind and that's breaking my heart, Ann Auld writes.
Within moments of her birth, the doctor said, "She's perfect."
Within hours of her birth, a nurse said, "Put that Mongoloid in an institution; she'll be too much for you."
Within days of her birth, the specialist said, "She'll be trainable."
Within months of her birth, the spouse said, "I'm having a vasectomy."
Within years of her birth, the psychologist said, "She's functioning at the level of a 2 1/2-year-old."
Within 10 years of her birth, the families who had been travelling this journey for many years said, "Once the cute factor wears off, you're on your own."
Within 20 years of her birth, the government said, "With the wait lists and no money, don't expect any services."
And here we are now, my daughter and me, an A-to-Z of need.
She is a fatherless adult who can charm with the best of them, yet cannot cross a street by herself. She's a person who knows all the Top 40 pop tunes from every online source and who wants to compete on The Voice, yet, cannot sing a note.
I am a graduate in writing creative non-fiction who keeps up the pretense of operating an academic tutoring service for forever learners; a woman with aging, inflamed joints who carries enough worry to fill up a universe.
Almost 20 years ago, I wrote " A keeper from Day 1" for Facts & Arguments about my daughter, who has Down syndrome. There was a text box in the upper lefthand corner of the page that proclaimed: "Every weekday, one million Canadians read The Globe and Mail." Yet, the only written response I received, in the following week's paper, came from a fellow who preached about "this chosen child," and offered up a herbal concoction that could "cure" her. The illustration that accompanied my piece, with the baby in utero surrounded by a flowering, thorny rose bush, hinted at what could be ahead.
I opened my piece with a question: "Do you want a boy or a girl?" I had wanted a healthy baby, the sex was unimportant.
When I wrote the piece, my baby was 10 months old and so much had happened already. She'd had life-saving surgery to correct an abdominal condition more prevalent in infants with Down syndrome. She had learned how to nurse and to feed from an adapted sippy cup. She had learned how to sit up and to begin vocalizing her wants and needs.
I had learned how to navigate, not always successfully, all of the major institutions: medical, educational, legal, fiscal.
I wondered about her heart's strength, as babies with Down syndrome often have significant cardiac problems. Now, I look for heart shapes everywhere and post photos of them online as a way of superstitiously warding off death and medical problems.
My daughter, meanwhile, has not only learned how to walk, but also to talk and to advocate for herself with help. She has graduated from high school. She has won so many awards I don't know where to display them in the house.
And, here's the thing: She is a keeper. With the paltry amount she receives from the government, she cannot afford to leave the nest, even if she were capable of making those kinds of decisions.
While her peers announced at commencement that they were heading off to university, to travel or to work to earn enough to travel or attend university, my girl simply stated that school had been "amazing and magical."
There are few plans for the future, other than a dim hope of continuing to have a good time, surrounded by friends. Not so atypical, after all.
What is atypical is that I, her aging solo mama, will carry on indefinitely as her unacknowledged, unpaid caregiver. Don't get me wrong: I am very skilled at this task, having been involved in it for more than three decades.
Of the numerous lessons I have learned, the one I never figured out is that I would be raising an endangered species. Yes, that's right: an endangered species. As one of a group of humans who are actively discouraged from reproducing, chances are that my "keeper" will go extinct in a few decades. A few countries are already enacting game plans, including genetic testing and termination that discourage women from ever bearing those deemed "different."
Back in 1997, I wrote: "I dwell at length on the what-ifs. If I had had amniocentesis at 16 weeks, would I have continued the pregnancy knowing what was to come?" So I, too, contributed to the notion that being different is somehow wrong, not okay, not acceptable.
But I also wrote: "What I have learned is that intelligence is as variable and unique as our baby's extra chromosome."
In a few months, my keeper may receive a few crumbs of support that will cost her entire paltry monthly government "pension" to put it into programs.
In a few weeks, she will attend a weeklong camp for other young adults who live for the joy they bring to others.
In a few days, she will receive yet another award for service to her community.
Within a few hours, she will celebrate having survived another day.
Within a few moments, she will break my heart and patch it back up again.
Ann Auld lives in Victoria. This essay first appeared July 29, 2016.
#4. Why were we so lucky?
Counting your blessings is easy, but figuring out where the time went is trickier, Pamela Kent writes.
My husband, Gord, and I recently celebrated our 65th wedding anniversary. Perhaps celebrated is a bit of an overstatement. I went up to the hospital to visit him and I brought along some Cornish pasties and butter tarts that I had just made. He ate them in his hospital bed, dropping the crumbs into the plastic container I brought them in. No table with a white-linen cloth and fine bone china to mark this occasion.
Gord was recovering from a nasty tumble that damaged his arthritic knees. At 89, with a transplanted heart, implanted almost 21 years ago, he realizes that he is lucky to still be alive and we are lucky to still be together. Two opposites, who have to make sure we both get out and vote in order to cancel the other's ballot: Our marriage has never been dull.
Even Gord's marriage proposal was unusual. It had a condition in it: "I'd like to marry you if you'd like to live in Canada."
Until that moment, I had never considered leaving England, my native land. We had survived six years of war – the horrors of the Blitz, the V1 and V2 rocket attacks and food rationing.
There is nothing that stirs the patriotic juices of a country like a righteous war. Now, all that was over. And this young man was asking me to leave my family and friends and move to a country I knew little about, except that it was very cold in the winter and grew a lot of wheat. After thinking it over for a day or so, I accepted Gord's proposal. In 1950, the aim of most young women was to find a suitable man, get married and have children – in that order, too.
We were married in March, 1952, and set sail on the Queen Mary for New York in July. I was 2 1/2 months pregnant and suffering from morning sickness, seasickness and homesickness. Food we hadn't seen in years was set before us and I was too sick to eat it.
Gord chose New York rather than Montreal as our arrival point in the New World, because we would be hitchhiking our way to Edmonton. With one 10th of the population – and one would suspect, one 10th the number of cars – he reasoned that our journey would be speedier going through the States. Gord's assumption proved correct. We reached Edmonton in nine days, never travelling after dark, except for the last day. We got a ride with an American soldier, on a weekend pass, who was visiting his Canadian girlfriend. He drove so fast that I fell off the back seat twice.
No seat belts in cars in those days.
Edmonton in 1952 was a town of 50,000 people. It looked like a frontier town I had seen on too many cowboy movies. Gord, with his spirit of adventure, loved everything about our new home.
Coming from a busy metropolis on the outskirts of London, I was not impressed. But even I had to admit that the people were very friendly.
We had the usual ups and downs of marriage, but in 1959, when I was 28 years old, I had a brush with death. I was stricken with a brain hemorrhage and the first doctor we saw told Gord my condition was inoperable and to take me home and make me comfortable for the time I had left. But another brilliant neurosurgeon took my case, devising a new instrument to reach the affected area of my brain.
This experience led me to conclude that, in medical matters at least, one should always get a second opinion. And over our long life together, I can't help but wonder why it is that we both should have survived for so long. Neither of us has contributed greatly to humanity, as would be fitting, since we have both been granted extra years of life. In fact, I like to boast, tongue firmly in cheek, that my greatest contribution to humanity is the fact that I never learned to drive, thereby saving countless lives.
We two immigrants from wartorn Britain have, however, contributed to the population of this marvellous country we have called home for more than 60 years. We now have two greatgreat-grandchildren to add to our four great-grandchildren, 11 grandchildren and four children.
At least we have obeyed the biblical command to be fruitful and multiply.
But, in spite of searching thoroughly, stretching the truth wherever possible, I have come to the conclusion that there is no reason or rhyme for our longevity. To be sure, we watch our diets and dine out rarely. Our alcohol consumption has decreased substantially over the years. I have a glass of sherry diluted with milk most nights and Gord drinks a bottle of beer now and then. Until recently, we exercised regularly, but so did many others whose lives have been cut short for one reason or another. And so I just accept our good fortune and give thanks.
Perhaps one or more of our descendants will be a brilliant inventor, or make a scientific or medical discovery that will prove of enormous benefit to humankind. Or perhaps, they will just be good citizens – and that will surely be enough.
Pamela Kent lives in Aldergrove, B.C. This essay first appeared May 5, 2017.
#5. The voice of my son, who was my daughter
This I know: My child is very much alive. And happy. And starting to love himself, Lori Bona Hunt writes.
I heard him sing for the first time the other night, and there were tears. Tears of joy and pride, and of other things.
It's a beautiful voice – rich, deep and melodic – somewhere between an alto and a tenor.
The voice of my son. The son who was my daughter – my daughter who sang soprano. My daughter who was a lesbian, which I got, but who is not now, which is hard to get.
My daughter was 12 when she first came out. It was not a revelation. I knew she was gay around Grade 4. She started crushing on girls the way I remember crushing on boys at that same age. She was always a girly girl, and she matured into a striking beauty – a "lipstick lesbian," some would say.
Her sexual orientation was a non-issue in our non-traditional family. Her father and I split when she was 6, but we remain close friends. We are free thinkers, with open-minded-to-radical parents of our own. Our tangled family dynamic includes liberal and supportive grandparents, step-parents, step-siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins.
But outside our home, there were bumps. Her junior high school wasn't ready for a Grade 7 student who wore Gay Pride T-shirts and rainbow wristbands.
She endured teasing and bullying, sending me into protective Mama Bear mode more than once.
The other complexities and complications of adolescence soon followed. There were girlfriends – too old and too young – and admiring boys who needed explanations. But also body dismay and dysmorphia, cutting and hair-pulling, anxiety and self-loathing. Years of therapists, psychiatrists, specialists, medications and more. No determined cause of her angst, the experts said. Just stay alive, I begged more than once. Be happy. Love yourself.
And then, university – finally a haven. Enveloped by the fellow artistic and eclectic, she thrived. There was talk of the future, even happiness. Then, suddenly, recently, changes. No dresses or makeup one month; hormone shots the next. Two injections and the soprano was gone.
Wait! What? Why? And why now? No waiting? No warnings?
It was a curveball I never saw coming. No fair! I was looking – I was! Always asking questions, being there, seeking expert advice. Hey, all you specialists: Why didn't you see? And my partner! Twenty years my senior with a transgender child of his own, now nearly 40. Back before Caitlyn Jenner, they'd navigated uncharted and choppy waters.
Surely he knew! No?
But. But. But.
But she is a lesbian. A woman.
And such a pretty one. And that voice, that angelic voice.
But. But. But.
But there is no pattern, said the nurse at the clinic that gives the testosterone shots. Sometimes people are 5 when they decide, sometimes 75.
Why does it matter? What is gender anyway? It doesn't matter. It doesn't. Then why this deep ache?
I make mistakes, call out the feminine birth name before I remember. I fumble with the pronouns. Remember to think before you speak! I am ashamed of myself, being a liberal and all.
I am embarrassed to admit that I am grieving, I'm mourning. I am not sure why. My child is the same person, who just looks and sounds different.
It starts so early, the gender thing. Before they are even here: "What are you having – a boy or a girl?" Birth certificates, passports, school records, check M or F, one or the other. Maybe some things – social norms, stereotypes and such – are buried so deep that even the self-professed politically correct don't know they're there. You have to dig to carve them out, lift them to the surface for examination. Maybe that's why it hurts and leaves scars.
Things are changing, I know.
New definitions, new pronouns, expanded categories on government forms. Maybe it will change how and when these things are ingrained. I hope.
Much reflection and worry. I am back on cub patrol. I stare down border agents who do a double-take. "It's an old passport photo," I say, daring them to ask. I wait outside the men's washroom just in case, tell my partner to keep watch in public change rooms. And after Orlando, the anguish of Orlando: "Where are you going, with whom and when?" This I know: My child, my son, is very much alive. And happy.
And starting to love himself. He feeds his new body, lifts weights and runs. He stands so tall while singing now, so confident, so sure. All I ever wanted.
Some 22 years ago, an ultrasound suggested a girl was on the way. I decorated the nursery in bold colours, mostly red.
"Why?" my mother asked. "Why, when you know, not pink or even yellow?" I scoffed – the very idea. We don't do stereotypes.
And my father-in-law, so disappointed the first grandchild would not be a boy: "Gender doesn't matter," I told him.
"Wait and see." Of course, I was right. That grandchild was – is – his everything.
It doesn't matter. So walk the talk, Mama Bear.
A beautiful voice is a beautiful voice.
Lori Bona Hunt lives in Guelph, Ont. This essay first appeared June 29, 2016.