Ahead of the Ice

Winner of the Jon Whyte Essay prize (2010)

By Diana Davidson



I stand in the line at the grocery store on a Tuesday evening. Outside, big fat flakes swirl to the pavement. It’s late October and this is one of the first snowfalls of the coming winter. Inside, tills beep and checkout girls chatter. Balloons with cartoon vampires and Frankenstein’s monster float above tabloid magazine racks. I am here to buy baby shampoo: the rubber-ducky-yellow bottle promises “No More Tears.” I am buying two bottles: one is for my four-month-old son and one is for my mother-in-law. The cancer clinic suggests Shirley use an infant shampoo and an infant brush on her scalp as her hair falls out. Shirley is staying with us while she undergoes biopsies, lumpectomies, mastectomy and now chemotherapy. The cashier looks at the two bottles and asks, “Is that everything?” I nod.

My mother-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer the day I gave birth to my son. She sat on a plastic chair in a hallway that smelled of pine cleaner and waited for the second announcement to change our lives that hot summer evening. I held my frantic, vernix-covered, squiggling newborn to nurse for the first time and was in awe that both he and my body knew what to do. As Ewan gulped up milk, I drank in his tiny nose, pink ears and bow-shaped mouth. I was overwhelmed by this new little life I held against my breast. I did not know that a new life, punctured with illness and loss, was also beginning for his grandmother. A mammogram three weeks earlier revealed a mass in her breast and a biopsy a week before confirmed the worst. Shirley got her news at 3:45 p.m. Ewan was born at 7:07 p.m. That day, I felt proud and shocked at what I had just pushed my body to accomplish and deliver. I still can’t imagine how betrayed she felt by hers. 


“Do you want a fresh cup of coffee?” I ask Shirley. I half-whisper and gingerly close the nursery door. Ewan’s down for his mid-morning nap.

“No, thanks,” she smiles. “I’ve still got some.” 

She points to an almost full mug on the floor. It must be ice cold. She is lying on our couch holding her hand to her forehead. For the first time in the decade I’ve known her, Shirley looks her age. She’s no longer mistaken for Stan’s sister when we go out for dinner. Her coveted high cheekbones and slim nose are starting to look pokey against her newly gaunt face. The chemo must be making her feel awful if she is refusing fresh coffee; we joke that we both drink so much it runs through our veins—it must be a Northern thing. Outside, four feet of snow covers the ground and the sun hangs frozen in the sky like bait on a fishing line. On this January day, we stay inside.

Shirley lives in the northern, rural community of Wabasca—Cree for “white grass.” My husband grew up there and most of his family lives there. We live in Edmonton. Wabasca does not have cancer care facilities. She and my father-in-law, Robert, drive 300 km each way to the city where we live, for all her surgeries, consultations and treatments. When she was diagnosed, Shirley hoped that by opting for the mastectomy, as opposed to a lumpectomy and radiation, she would save herself further trips. But her cancer looks like “salt-and-pepper,” so her doctors schedule eight rounds of chemotherapy to kill any rogue cells floating in her lymphatic system. Now she and Robert have to drive on icy roads and fight blinding flurries every three weeks for her chemo. At least they can stay with us. Winter on the prairies can be cruel.

Chemo makes Shirley smell chemical and metallic. A nurse at the cancer clinic explained that antineoplastic drugs used in chemo do not distinguish between cancerous and non-cancerous cells: bone marrow, hair and digestive tract cells are fast growing so they are destroyed along with metastasizing particles missed by the mastectomy. This is why Shirley throws up and has a mouth full of canker sores. Her long blonde hair disappeared at Christmastime and she wears a scarf wrapped around her head. She bought a wig but doesn’t wear it very often; she says it’s hot and itchy. Her scalp’s sensitive. I learned this when I tried to put a toque on her while she was sleeping and she winced as the soft wool touched her bare scalp. I wish there was something I could do to make her feel better but there isn’t. At least I’m on maternity leave and can be at home.

“Can I get you anything? Maybe some club soda, water?”

“No, thanks.” She pauses. “Do you want to see?” Shirley sits up on the couch and gestures to the place her breast once was. I’ve seen the prosthetic that looks like a pink rubber chicken fillet. We even put it on a scale once just to see how much a fake breast can weigh.

“Sure,” I lie, not knowing why she has decided to show me today.

Shirley unbuttons her blouse and her beige bra hangs empty on her left side. She pulls down the fabric. I know Shirley’s breast is gone but, even as a willing witness, I’m unprepared for the depth of the scythe-shaped scar. I draw in my breath and make a sucking sound against my teeth. Shirley’s breast has become a concave road map of scar tissue, veins and absence. The term “simple mastectomy” is an oxymoron; even if lymph nodes and muscles behind the breast are not removed (as they are in a radical mastectomy), there’s nothing “simple” about this.

“Oh, that’s not as bad as I thought.” It is much worse. “When can you have the reconstructive surgery?” 

Shirley pulls her shirt down. “In the summer. After chemo’s done.” 

“That’s good.” Okay, we just have to get through this winter, I think, and then everything can get back to normal.

My mother-in-law sat on a plastic chair ans waited for the second announcement to change our lives that hot summer evening.


Shirley, Ewan and I walk into the Cross Cancer hospital and I’m surprised at how calm she is right before having a treatment. I’m nervous and I’m just here to keep her company. The Cross Cancer smells homey. Coffee is brewing, freshly cut pale pink and fuchsia peonies from someone’s garden decorate the registration desk, and gooey cinnamon buns are on offer at the nurses’ station. It is much nicer than the hospital where I had Ewan.

After signing in and getting a plastic identification bracelet, Shirley sits in one of eight forest-green leather loungers arranged in a crescent facing the nursing station. She explains to me that “you can have a bed with curtains if you want, but I like to sit out in the open.” Shirley holds out her turned-up arm for a nurse to puncture with an IV. She tells me, “They usually use a ‘butterfly clip’ now to start my IV. My veins have collapsed from all the poking and prodding.”

The nurse tries to find a vein, can’t, and reaches for a pale purple clip from her equipment tray. 

Shirley’s happy today because this is, hopefully, her last treatment. Today she’s also happy to introduce the nurses to Ewan, who is being a really good boy, considering that he has just learned to run and that’s all he wants to do. Over a few weeks, Ewan has gone from baby to toddler. He now eats everything from yogourt to steak and has no more need for the sustenance, or even the comfort, of nursing. Being breastfed conflicts with his desires to torment our dog or remove pots and pans from supposedly childproof cupboards. He can say “Mommy,” “Da,” “Gama,” “Papa,” “Puppy,” “Twain” (for train) and the multi-purpose “All done.” 

A different nurse than the one struggling with the IV comes over and says, “Oh—the famous Ewan! Apple of his Grandma’s eye.” 

Shirley beams with pride as her nurse and grandson play peek-a-boo.

Ewan’s giggles attract the attention of an elderly lady in the chair next to Shirley. As the nurse struggles with the IV, Shirley says hello to this woman and they exchange updates on their conditions. The older woman’s bright blue shadow is smeared haphazardly across her eyelids and she wears an orange and brown housedress that’s seen better days. I can’t tell if her blue-tinged grey hair is a wig. 

The woman smiles and says to me, “What a handsome boy. So nice to see him dressed in blue. I like to see boys dressed in blue and girls dressed in pink.” Ewan’s turquoise T-shirt has a red and orange dinosaur on the belly. The bright colors make his blonde hair look platinum. 

The woman turns her attention from Ewan to Shirley and says, “Would you like to know something about me?”


“I have never in my life worn a pair of trousers.” 

Shirley smiles politely as the nurse tries a new vein. “That’s quite something.”

“Sorry to interrupt,” the nurse says gently, relieved to finally see the flush of blood. “The IV’s all set. Ready to get started, Shirley?”


Shirley dozes in her treatment chair and Ewan and I sit beside her. Ewan sits on my lap and we quietly read a book about farm animals. I try not to notice a young man on the other side of the room. He is movie-star beautiful—chocolate brown hair, sculpted features, tanned and toned arms. He is wearing stylish jeans—the same brand Stan buys—and a black T-shirt with a red rose and skull tattoo pattern. Half of his head’s shaved. The exposed skin is growing around industrial-size staples that hold together a pen-length incision. It looks like Halloween makeup. A nurse gently adjusts his pillow and covers him with a beige cotton blanket. His feet are curled up the same way Ewan’s do when he’s napping. The young man sleeps while chemotherapy drips into his IV tube. I look at him and wonder how many scans and appointments and surgeries he’s endured. I look at him and thank God Shirley’s getting better.


Shirley and I are in her porch getting dressed to go ice fishing. It’s a bright beautiful February day and Stan and I are in Wabasca for a long weekend. Ewan is in his snowsuit, running around the living room and chasing the dog. Stan has gone to his grandmother’s to borrow a fishing rod.

“I had a mammogram earlier this week.” She must be nervous about the results or she wouldn’t have mentioned it. 

“Oh. Is there a reason you had the test or is it just routine?”

“Just part of a checkup.” 

“I’m sure everything’s fine, then.” 

“Yes,” she smiles. Shirley hands me a black toque with an embroidered pink ribbon and lets her hand touch mine. Neither of us says anything else. 

Stan walks in the front door and asks, “Are we ready, ladies?”

We need to get out to the lake while it’s still daylight.

Shirley drives Stan, Ewan and me onto the middle of the lake in her silver SUV. Robert’s been out here since morning setting up. We are just coming out for an hour or two, as we figure this is how long Ewan’s excitement will last. Shirley slows down as she drives through the snow on the shore of the lake. She turns to me, in the back seat, and says, “Unbuckle Ewan’s car seat.” 

I do. If the vehicle breaks through the surface layer and starts to sink into the icy water, we want to be able to pull Ewan to the surface unencumbered by straps and safety harnesses. Shirley drives slowly, knowing that the weight of the truck creates fractures we cannot see. She knows that the movement of driving creates waves in the ice, and the trick to driving on a frozen lake, or an ice road, is to stay with the waves and not speed through or against them. I feel relieved when we get to Robert’s ice-fishing shack and get out of the vehicle. 

We sit in lawn chairs in a little house made out of plywood in the middle of a frozen lake. There are three holes in the floor that open up into the depths of cold, black water. Robert drilled each of the holes with a big auger that breaks, carves and dissolves the ice with its hot metal spin. The roof is made out of something stronger than plywood, more fireproof. A chimney, welded together out of scraps of metal, sticks out of the roof like a flag on a mountain. The chimney’s connected to a small wood stove, brought into the shack to keep everyone cozy.

I’ve dressed Ewan too warmly. He’s wearing a red and blue eiderdown jacket with hood, matching snow pants, his Spiderman winter boots, blue toddler jogging pants lined with fleece, a long-sleeved shirt with trucks on it, a blue and white wool toque and blue fleece mittens hanging from a string tucked through his sleeves.

He says, “Mommy, I hot.”

“We can take off your hat and mitts but the jacket stays on, Bun.”

“Papa Bob not have jacket.”

He’s right. But my father-in-law has spent his life out on the lake and the ice; as a young man he spent his winters drilling oil and gas in the frozen tundra, going to places only reachable when the muskeg freezes. Unlike the rest of us, he doesn’t need a coat or gloves. 

I point out to Ewan that “Grandma Shirley, Daddy and Mommy have toques and jackets.”

Shirley nods, “That’s right, my boy. We don’t want to get cold while we’re waiting for the fish to bite!”

Shirley wears her hair short now. It has grown back brown and curly; little spirals poke out from under her wool cap.

The black water of the frozen lake sparkles like a night sky full of stars. I can’t see where my fishing line ends: it dangles in this pool with stillness. Nothing bites. Nothing moves. I wait in the calm. I’m not here to catch anything. Outside, it’s warm—barely below freezing. This will be one of the last weeks for ice fishing because things will start to melt soon and spring will be on its way. In an hour or so, we will pack up and go home empty-handed: the fish we are hooking are too small and we have to throw them back. Ewan falls asleep on his grandpa’s lap. It is getting dark. Shirley will need to navigate and stay ahead of the waves underneath the ice as she drives us all home.

Diana Davidson lives in Edmonton with her son and her husband. She was one of Avenue Edmonton’s 2011 “Top 40 Under 40.”



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