i flinch when i see aluminum bowls

      she’s not breathing. she’s not breathing. boys, please help, she’s not breathing. i can’t get her to breathe. wake up, come quick.

      bloodcurdling. these words are branded into my brain stem. those shrieks were much too desperate, much too despaired to forget. other details are hazy. it might’ve been midnight, it might’ve been two, it might’ve been five. i don’t remember. who called 911? i think it was me, but i remember dad talking to them. he had tried everything. i’m turning her over. i’m trying to hear her breathing. she’s still not breathing.

      she lay unconscious on the floor next to a pile of her own vomit; her tongue lolling out, her gaze empty. nobody home. the EMTs told dad to perform mouth to mouth; mom had just thrown up. he tried until he gagged. nothing. i was crying, of course. mom. mom. i kept yelling, believing somehow that would wake her up, it didn’t.

      i remember the firemen rushing in. maybe it was the paramedics? they surrounded her, tried futile compressions. there was nothing they could do for her at home and she had to go to the hospital. they probably put some breathing thing on her. i remember mom on a stretcher or gurney being taken out. i was waiting in the kitchen at this point, and saw her pass. after that, i don’t remember much. i can’t imagine i would have just gone back to sleep, but i don’t know where else i could have gone. i don’t think i ever spoke to her again. a few days later, she died in the hospital.


      mom had been sick for awhile. i remember when the diagnosis came back. i didn’t know much, but of course i was old enough to know it was bad. mom wasn’t big on “western medicine”. she opted instead for what i can charitably call “alternative treatments”. i love her, i miss her, but for this i am still so so so mad at her.

      mom used to sit in this big gray recliner, lurched over a big aluminum bowl. she’d smile and say she’s doing great while retching and vomiting into the bowl. this lasted months. i hate throwing up. i hate vomit. i fucking hate it. i flinch when i see aluminum bowls.

      she was the kindest human being i’ve ever known, self-effacing to a fault. it made her an exceptional friend, mother, partner. mom sparked my love of reading and writing. she’d always read to me before bed. mom had a rule—she would buy me any book i wanted, so long as i read it. that “new book smell” will always remind me of her. people sometimes took advantage of her tenderness, her parents especially. it didn’t matter how sick she was, she always had more to give—her kindness ablaze, a forest fire. i could never show her that same care back.

      i hate it when people tell me they’ve “come to terms with death”, “want to die early, because getting old sucks” or “want to live fast die young”. they haven’t approached death. they haven’t seen death, not in themselves, not in others. they don’t understand.

      language is a shield. i can talk and talk and talk but of what? i’m so good at avoiding my own emotions that i’ve tricked myself into pretending to know them. it’s emotional anesthetic. i am hiding from myself in a way you wouldn’t believe: cold, stunted, cauterized. i’m just better than most at covering up my emotional blindness. feeling too much isn’t safe. i don’t even notice i’m doing it most of the time. if you’re always on defense, you can’t be caught off guard. i don’t want to be caught off guard again. i want to be safe.

      when she started being assessed for her cancer, i stumbled upon a diary entry she had left open on the family computer; it talked about her mistrust of doctors and the “arrogance of allopathic medicine”. when they sent her tissue for biopsy, i asked her to sign a document agreeing to undergo proper treatment for her cancer. i was probably seven years old, and truly believed this contract was binding. it was not. her diary entries remained on that computer until it was eventually thrown away, but i could never bring myself to read past that same first one.

      dad has been put through more than anyone ever should. he mourned and fought and protected; he never complained. he was largely thanked with rebuke. you’d expect people to support you when your partner dies—often, they don’t.

      when you’ve watched enough people die, you start to recognize the signs. i didn’t know them then, i know them now. the rattle of air forcing itself through failing lungs. that blank stare—they may not even know you’re around. the trembling hands, the fatigue, the refusal to eat or drink. sometimes, the vomiting.

      i flinch when i see aluminum bowls.

      you’re never there when it finally happens. you always want to be. you say you’ll never leave their side. maybe you went to get lunch. maybe you went home for some much-needed rest. they always die when you leave. they die alone. you hold that with you forever. you weren’t there.

      her “doctors” told us she was getting better. she was doing the right things, eating the right foods. meanwhile, most nights, she’d wail, gripping her breast. i saw it once or twice. once, when she was really hurting and wasn’t aware it was exposed. another time, when she was applying some poultice and didn’t notice me enter. it was black and necrotic; the tissue was dead, rotting. they told us she was getting better. why the fuck did i believe them?

      frida kahlo has a painting called the broken column. it’s a self-portrait showing her body split and her spine replaced with a pillar. her body is covered with nails. the mangled body isn’t fixable. we think that because we can think we are more than our bodies. we’re not. just bodies confused by consciousness; weak, vulnerable, fledgling. when the body burns and screams and struggles, when the body withers—who cares what the mind is doing?

      i have a vivid memory of going to the farm with my family. it was brisk, autumn—i was bundled up in my little jacket and hat. just a baby. we sat at a picnic table and watched the horses pass by the corn maze. mom was holding me, she looked at me and smiled. i love you.

      i always cry when i listen to the record a crow looked at me by mount eerie. it’s barely music; it’s better described as anguish with occasional guitar. it’s about a man mourning his wife who died of pancreatic cancer. there’s a song on it called toothbrush/trash. it goes as follows:

     I finally took out the upstairs bathroom garbage that was sitting there forgotten since you

      were here/ Wanting just to stay with us/ Just to stay living/ I threw it away/ Your dried

      out, bloody, end-of-life tissues/ Your toothbrush and your trash/ And the fly buzzing

      around the room, could that possibly be you too?/ I let it go out the window/ It does not

      feel good.

      it does not feel good.

      after a long day of work, dad—a single parent, doing it all himself—would come back home. he’d sometimes make me and my brother a frozen pizza. i remember sometimes wondering “why doesn’t he cook like mom did?” i fucking hate myself for that.

      there’s no impotence like watching someone let themself die. the tumours metastasize, they settle new territory; venom travelling from breast, to lung, to marrow. lung cancer, never smoker. we watched it happen, did nothing. i always do nothing.

      i’ve now lived more years without her than with her; i’m beginning to forget how she looks. my memories of her face are now memories of photos. one day i realized i had forgotten the colour of her eyes; i cried.

      i flinch when i see aluminum bowls.


      dad keeps little bird statues in his houseplants. whenever a bird lands on his deck, he always says it’s mom.

      that’s mom, he says.

Yan Castaldo

Yan is a 25-year old writer based out of Toronto. He specializes in psychobabble, cultural criticism, and whining. If you want to deliver Yan from the drudgery of his 9-5, read his work at Yan can be reached at or