CBC Literary Prizes

Slow Violence by Jenny Boychuk

Jenny Boychuk won the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize for Slow Violence.

2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize winner

Jenny Boychuk is the author of the poetry collection Antonyms for Daughter. (Dean Kalyan)

Jenny Boychuk has won 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize for Slow Violence.

She will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have her work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.

You can read Slow Violence below.

This story contains mature language and difficult subject matter.

The room is cool with death. Quiet anticipation lurks behind family photos on the dresser. In the bed, my grandfather lies on his side, facing the light as he draws shallow breaths. He's smaller than I've ever seen him. Classical music lulls from the television, and the room brightens as afternoon light passes through sheer yellow curtains. A late summer breeze invites itself in through a cracked window.

My mother died nine months ago, and I'm here to show this man every shade of blame locked in my throat. I want him to face, once and for all, the damage he's caused.

Except — as though maybe I didn't believe it when my aunt called yesterday — he's dying. He's barely here. "A rapid decline," my aunt explained. "It happens with dementia patients."

I'd heard stories about my grandfather's fists, his bellow, his sharp Italian temper. My mother often talked about how violently he'd scold her if she forgot to shut her closet door or how he'd cancel a family vacation minutes after all four of his children and his wife had finished packing themselves and their luggage into the station wagon.

My mother told these stories as though she was reliving them. After, she'd take a long drag of her cigarette, shake her head and cry, "Just watch. That asshole will outlive me."

"You don't have to go see him," my aunt said. "It's up to you."

"No," I said, "No, I'll go."

My mother died nine months ago, and I'm here to show this man every shade of blame locked in my throat. I want him to face, once and for all, the damage he's caused.

My mother worked as a registered nurse for most of my childhood. When a neighbour's mother was in the hospital, dying of cancer, my mother stayed with her for days, sleeping at her bedside, ensuring she was comfortable. She stayed at her side until the woman finally passed away. Four years later, while we were on a camping trip, my mother jumped out of the car to aid an elderly woman who'd just been hit by a car right in front of us. After the paramedics arrived, my mother returned to us covered in blood and my father got out of the car with a roll of toilet paper to help wipe the blood off her hands. She poked her head through the passenger seat window, forced her lips into a smile, and asked my brother and I if we were all right. Then she told us not to look at her.

So many nights my mother came through the backdoor in our kitchen, her scrubs stained with blood and other bodily fluids, and told me not to hug her. So many nights someone called the house or brought their son or daughter to the front door, asking for medical advice. 

"What do you think this rash is? "
"Her fever has spiked." 
"He's having chest pain — should I give him some aspirin?"

My grandparents visited once or twice a year. 

Each morning, as I shuffled into the kitchen, my grandfather would set down his coffee cup and sing, "Here she comes! Miss America!" He was kind to me. He asked questions about school, encouraged me and always brought me a new novel with a sweet, handwritten note inside.

Somehow, this was the same man who, one night, watched his then 15-year-old daughter kiss a boy in the alley behind their house. My mother was past her curfew. My grandfather waited for her to come through the backdoor, then punched her in the face with such force that it knocked her to her knees.

At 15, I said goodbye to my mother as she left for rehab. I thought addiction was a temporary affliction. I thought she was wrong — no, I knew she was wrong. I thought she would come home in a few months, in June when the flower boxes my father and I planted in her absence would be in full bloom and she would be herself again. My mother, as I knew her, was a fierce, intelligent woman who took care of everything and everyone. Order bowed at her feet. I couldn't yet see the thick ropes of trauma and PTSD knotting her to her memories. I didn't know that she never felt safe, and I couldn't comprehend chronic back pain so severe that even a bottle of Tylenol per day and vials of morphine stolen from the hospital couldn't offer relief.

A week after my mother returned home, my grandmother died of cancer. It was late May, and she'd received the diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma only weeks prior. When my father told my mother about the diagnosis, she decided to leave rehab early.

It was at my grandmother's funeral, nestled in black between my mother and aunt, my neck laced with the sharp scent of vodka on my mother's breath, that I learned the word "relapse."

Over the next decade, my mother turned to opiates, benzos, cocaine, alcohol, marijuana, methadone and whatever else she could find to temporarily soothe what no longer agreed to stay hidden inside of her. She got clean, then relapsed. My parents spilt up, then got back together. In the mornings, my mother was herself, smiling with a cup of coffee as she flipped through TV channels. But by the time evening arrived, she'd be microwaving mint chocolate chip ice cream or passing out in bed with a cigarette lit in her mouth.

Sometimes, if she drank vodka, she'd work herself into such a rage that she would chase me or my father out of the house. One afternoon, as I pulled out of the driveway, she tried to hang on to my car window and dislocated her shoulder. She broke my heart the way only a mother can. The way only an addict can.

She broke my heart the way only a mother can. The way only an addict can.

Our neighbour, Lisa, brought lemon squares to my mother's funeral. She was in remission from breast cancer, but chemotherapy had hollowed out her bones, and she was recovering from one hip replacement while awaiting another.

Nevertheless, Lisa brewed pots of coffee for the guests and instructed her husband where to place the chairs. She plated baked goods and arranged bouquets of pink, red, and yellow Gerber daisies trimmed from her garden. "In case you and your father didn't think to bring flowers," she said. I had met her husband several times, but I'd never met Lisa. She shifted her weight over to one crutch and reached out to hug me.

"I didn't meet your mother many times," she said, "But what I remember is her smile. She was always smiling."

After the funeral, a friend brought me one of Lisa's lemon squares on a napkin. It tasted so unexpectedly bright, so sour and sweet and alive that I immediately began to cry.

My grandfather didn't attend my mother's funeral.

My aunt took me to see him after she died. He was still mostly lucid, greeting me as if nothing was different. But eventually, we began to talk about my mother. It was his opinion that she had let herself be swallowed by something terrible; she had chosen to walk straight into the beast's mouth.

I bit my tongue. "Would you like to see a photo of her?" I asked. Though they lived only a few hours from each other, my mother had not seen her father in almost a decade. She was afraid that he would be critical and harsh. More than her addictions, she was afraid of what he would say about her weight. She had always been thin, but a prescribed pain medication had recently caused her to gain 50 pounds.

"Yes," he said. "I would love to see a picture of her."

I handed him my iPhone. The photo was from our last Christmas with her. She wore a black dress, her blond hair brushing her shoulders, her dark blue eyes gleaming. She smiled in front of the table she'd just set for Christmas dinner. My father and I had agreed that it was one of the most beautiful photos we had of Mom.

My grandfather paused, then said, "She looks a little… plump."

I'd rarely experienced my grandfather's unsavoury behaviour firsthand; there were even days I'd wondered if my mother exaggerated how terribly he'd treated her. But, in that moment, I wanted to hit him or set his couch on fire or call him a name that felt sharp and good on the tongue. A name that wouldn't be nearly as close to a weapon as I wanted it to be.

But I stayed quiet because I knew — I forced myself to know — that somewhere, he was wrecked and grieving.

Sometimes, my mother would encourage herself to just wait her father out. "Once he's gone," she'd say, "I'll finally be free."

Two weeks before my mother died, I was home for the holidays when I woke up in the middle of the night to a racing heart and shortness of breath. I was 26 and had experienced hundreds of panic attacks, but each one felt different — new. Every panic attack felt like a heart attack that would kill me.

I couldn't catch my breath. I got up and pulled on some clothes in case I'd have to go to the hospital. I clutched the phone in my hand and slowly climbed the stairs, crept through the kitchen and hovered outside my mother's bedroom like I did when I was a little girl who'd just had a nightmare. I'd always hesitate because my mother would gasp when woken out of a dead sleep, and it scared me. Now, I was afraid because I'd never let my mother see me have a panic attack. But I needed her. My heart was still racing and she was a nurse.

We can't feel relief if those who have hurt us are still living inside us.

My mother gasped, then sat up and asked what was wrong. Tears rolled down my cheek. I told her I felt like I couldn't breathe. She hugged me, her body warm from falling asleep with the fireplace on. She tried to convince me to take one of the Klonopin tablets she'd been prescribed for her anxiety. I couldn't bring myself to tell her that my doctor had prescribed me the same medication.

"I'm afraid to take it," I said. 

"Don't be afraid, sweetie. This is what it's for."

After the white pill dissolved under my tongue, I slipped under the covers next to my mother. She turned off the light and lit a cigarette. "Is it getting better?" she asked.

"I think so," I said. 

I couldn't see her face, only the tip of her cigarette flaring in the dark. 

We were quiet for a while before she whispered, "I think I must have done this to you."

I didn't say anything. The pill dragged me, suddenly, into sleep.

My grandfather hasn't looked at me since I sat down at his bedside. His organs are failing. His mind is disintegrating. Hours ago, I was furious that he was granted almost 30 more years of life than my mother. This man, who caused so much hurt, who taught her how to hurt herself and those she loved, even though all she ever wanted was to help people heal.

Of course, someone taught my grandfather how to hurt. His own father.

Outside the door, a woman haunts the hallway with her walker, moaning.

We can't feel relief if those who have hurt us are still living inside us.

The music lingers gorgeously, and I can't bring myself to say any of the things I've come here to say.

I lean over and kiss his forehead.

My grandfather looks at me, his eyes dark, expression vacant, though somehow sullen. He's already in the in-between, already in the space where ghosts and the living mingle, indistinguishable from each other. I know he doesn't know who I am.

I cry as I run my hand along his arm. "I forgive you," I whisper, hoping it's not my face he sees, but my mother's, smiling at him.

Listen to Jenny Boychuk read Slow Violence

Victoria, B.C. writer Jenny Boychuk won the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize for Slow Violence, a story about transgenerational trauma, healing and reconciling past wrongs.

Read the other finalists:

About Jenny Boychuck

Jenny Boychuk is a poet and writer living in Victoria. Her poems and essays have appeared in venues across Canada and the United States, including Best New Poets, The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, PRISM international, Room, The Fiddlehead, Grain and Copper Nickel. In 2018, she won the Copper Nickel Editors' Prize in poetry. She holds an MFA from the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers' Program.

About the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize

The winner of the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.