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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

The hole in my backyard is eight-feet wide and four-feet deep, and grows bigger by the day. It’s the work of a devoted crew of labourers, ages five to 10 years old, who delight in the job site’s complete lack of rules and regulations.

They broke ground in early August, around the same time my husband took flight on his new mountain bike and crashed into a tree. We had justified the extravagant purchase because his father was dying of cancer. We thought the woods and adrenaline might offer some relief from anxiety and grief. Instead, a concussion robbed him of coping tools he needed during the worst period of his life.

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My father-in-law died on Labour Day weekend, and through the initial shock of losing him, my two children and their neighbourhood friends kept digging. They pulled bottles, curious minerals and other treasures from the earth. They hit clay by mid-September, storing it in Tupperware containers and moulding it into bowls. They assigned point values to rocks of particular sizes, storing them in divots covered with flaps of grass. “We’re miners!” they declared one night, their faces glowing red from the bike light rigged over the pit.

Soon the hole was a metaphor for our chaotic life. Rain came with the fall, leaving our door handles, back deck and windows smeared with mud. My six-year-old daughter, caked in dirt, had to be carried to the bath some nights. The kids expanded their repertoire to include smashing rocks and bricks. Our small yard, in full view of our downtown Toronto neighbours, became an embarrassing brew of rusted hammers, shovels and debris.

Other parents marvelled at our apparently cavalier attitude. I joked, with some pride, that we had entered the “whatever” phase of parenting. Before the pandemic, I worried our children’s lives were too structured; a series of trips to school, hockey, choir and scheduled playdates. I felt they might never be bored, or have the freedom to find their own fun the way I grew up building mazes and forts with my brother and sister. The hole was proof that children of all ages are inspired by a pitchfork, especially if the adults in charge are too overwhelmed to supervise.

In truth, we were too tired to put a stop to it, so the hole grew. Like every decision made during the pandemic, our choice to let the mess go boiled down to risk versus reward. Outside was a disaster, but at least the kids were distracted from the stress and sadness inside the house. Sometimes it felt like they were pulling away too eagerly – digging a real hole to escape a different and bewildering kind of void left by their grandfather, cancelled routines and changed parents.

Months after the accident, my husband is sidelined from the job he loves by headaches, noise sensitivity and ringing in his ears. He doesn’t get enough sleep, strenuous exercise or playtime with the kids – all things that could help him manage his grief and ease the load on me. He replays the crash in his mind, feeling like a fool and wishing for a do-over. Things must be pretty bad, we agree darkly, if it feels like life would be easier if he only had to endure a dead dad.

Still, with winter coming, we wonder about being stuck with a frozen mound of dirt and a booby trap masked by snow. We try to get the kids excited about filling in the hole, promising we’ll bury a time capsule – a pandemic memento for another family to find 100 years from now. If you’re so worried about frozen dirt, they counter, we can haul it into the garage.

Recently, my father crashed his own mountain bike and broke his shoulder and ribs. On top of everything else, it feels like a signal that filling in the hole is less important than holding on. As long as the kids are happy, we figure, they might as well keep shovelling until we can dig our way out of this.

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Hayley Mick lives in Toronto.

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