Playing by Ear

10 April 2024 / by Met Radio
Text reading "Playing By Ear" is set over partially transparent background images of a brain and an iceberg

Playing by Ear is a documentary series recording a life permanently altered by traumatic brain injury, Natalie Chuck narrates her mother’s life story. Through Natalie’s own recollection and details collected in interviews with women in her family, each episode of Playing by Ear examines a decade in the life of Donna Chuck.


From Natalie:

In 2006, shortly after my 9th birthday, my mother Donna was diagnosed with a 5cm wide brain tumour.

After a surgery that was expected to be non-invasive, my mother’s recovery and rehabilitation was 8x longer than expected. In addition to the chronic illness she has lived with since childhood, she was left with permanent short-term memory loss and had to undergo additional life-saving surgeries.

Upon waking up post-op, she lost all memory of my existence.

Playing by Ear documents my mother’s life chronologically alongside some of her favourite songs, those played on pop and easy rock radio stations.

Thank you for listening to this capsule of my mother’s time, both lost and found.


Track One: 1963-1975

[whimsical old-Hollywood strings, into funky jazz tune starts]

Donna Chuck [in-interview]: Whatchu up to?

Natalie Chuck [in-interview]: What’s the day today?

Donna Chuck [in-interview]: I have no idea.

Natalie Chuck [narrator]: That’s my mom, Donna.

Claire Chin [in-interview]: Today’s the twenty… what?

Natalie Chuck [narrator]: – and my grandma, Claire.

Donna Chuck [in-interview]: Twenty-second? September?

Claire Chin [in-interview]: No… no…

Donna Chuck [in-interview]: I don’t know what date it is…

Natalie Chuck [narrator]: My mom lives with short-term memory loss, which means that she can remember each day of her life, then, each night her brain’s proverbial harddrive is wiped of information before the start of the next day. It’s a real 50 First Dates situation.

Long term, we know that she can’t remember events that took place after approximately 1995, which includes my birth and the passing of her father. To me, the course of her life has been influenced by so much; fun, creativity, learning, community, love, providing, illness, & disability. Welcome to Play by Ear, Track 1/6

Listening to, playing and generally being obsessed with pop music is something my mother and I have always shared. As my mom put it,

Donna Chuck [in-interview]: Me ‘nuh listen to rock music.

– she doesn’t listen to rock music, though she remembers what it was like when it was being played everywhere in Toronto in the 80’s. Given her significant memory loss I am especially grateful that music by pop artists has remained something that we can bond over. While I wouldn’t say that my mother is a ‘stan’ or ‘fangirl’ per se, I will say that we both seem to keep up with the latest gossip about our favourite musical artists, though sometimes her references are about 15-30 years outdated.

My mom turned 60 years old in February of last year, 2023. Since knowing my mother, I’m lucky to say all my life up to this point, she’s loved soft rock stations. She’s kept her wake up alarm and sleep timer on her radio tuned to these stations, waking up to and falling asleep with them, for as long as I can remember. My dad, a self-proclaimed music non-enjoyer, has always preferred news stations in the car, but once evening falls, he’ll watch my mom change the station with no complaints.

I’ve often wondered what it is about pop as a genre that feels like a safe space for the two of us. Artists like Kelly Clarkson have been around since before my mother’s recovery, so I have to wonder if seeing these familiar faces and recognizing their unique tone quality in their discography – including their newer releases – is a familiar something that allows my mom to feel more comfortable in the present.

I’m making this series to produce a fuller image of my mother for who she is, and how she’ll be remembered by all who know her, even when her memory fails. I also want to build an example of disability representation that is so-called, ‘invisible.’ My mother’s relationship to brain trauma-related disability feels so different from those of terminal illness and physical disability in mainstream media – where physiological differences, challenges with hand-eye coordination, and obviously sickly-looking people are often the focus.

Over the course of this series, I’ll be charting my mother’s life alongside some music she loves that was released during it. Each episode will highlight a few of her favourite songs from each decade of her life, she’ll share about that time, some memories she’s lost filled in by some of her family, namely her sister Sharon and her mother Claire.

Cataloging the songs for the series, I reached out to friends and asked them to submit their versions of the songs, wanting to show that pop music transcends genre, familiarity, and memory.

I got into music and became a musician at a very young age thanks to piano lessons my mom put me in, and a very involved elementary school music teacher. Each episode of this show, we’ll discuss a different decade of my mother’s life. To begin, we’ll talk about the first 12 years of her life: the years 1963-1975.

When I asked my mom what music she wanted to feature in this show, she listed this one in her first message back to me. Here’s one of our favourite songs to listen to in the car: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, performed by Marion Chrétien.

[jazzy tune fades out]

[“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marion Chrétien fades in and out]

[reggae neo-rock song fades in]

Natalie Chuck: That was “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, sung by Marion Chrétien.

Welcome back to Playing by Ear. Let’s talk a bit about where my parents grew up. Jamaica’s national motto is ‘out of many, one people’ because of the multi-national and mixed-race ethnic roots of its people.

The first inhabitants of Jamaica are believed to be the Taino, who arrived on Hispaniola over 4,000 years ago. This means that everyone who’s lived on Jamaican land is a migrant. My great-grandparents arrived from their respective countries, raised children, who raised children, all of whom have now emigrated from Jamaica; many to Canada and the States, others to the UK.

I’m Hakka Chinese. ‘Hakka’ translates to ‘guest families’ because of the nomadic nature of the Hakka people. I like to believe that it’s in my nature to go with the flow.

Not so long before me, my parents were children too. They were both born in Kingston, Jamaica to hard working parents. My father’s parents were business owners, maintaining a convenience store and a grocery store, while my mother’s father worked at the docks and her mother in administration.

My grandparents’ generation was one trying to make it. All but my paternal grandfather, Raymond, a Chinese-Jamaican man, had come from families with unstable economic backgrounds. My maternal grandfather Noel was mixed race, Black and Chinese, and though this was not uncommon in Jamaica, he faced discrimination from each of the ethnic backgrounds he presented. His wife, Claire, is full Chinese, while my other grandmother, Maise, is Chinese-Cuban.

[reggae-neo-rock song continues]

​​My mother was born on her mother’s 27th birthday, February 8th, 1963. She describes her childhood in Jamaica as happy. If you were looking for the kids, you could assume that my mother and her brother Cary were playing outside, while their sister Sharon hung out inside and read.

My parent’s relationship can be traced all the way back to a kindergarten classroom. Before meeting as adults at Seneca College in 1983, my parents were assigned seats at school, their last names both starting with C-h, their seat assignments were next to each other, my mom in front of my dad. Chin, Chuck. This has obviously become a notorious story of theirs to all who know them. The odds of them ending up together are actually baffling, no matter how common it was to be a Chinese-Jamaican immigrant settling in Toronto at the time that their families immigrated

My mother was known to climb mango trees in the yard at school and toss the fruit down to her classmates. Though there was a language barrier, my mother and her siblings would spend lots of time with their grandfather, who went by David, and his stories about his life in China, from before immigrating to Jamaica as a labour worker.

Every few months my mother would experience intense vertigo for which she was admitted to a child care cruise that sailed around the Caribbean. Doctors found that her inner ear bone had grown backwards, likely the cause of what was throwing off her sense of balance. It was surgically replaced with an artificial bone and her symptoms lessened. Now as an adult, she is dealing with an onset of these same symptoms, with no apparent cause. We’ll get to that story when the time comes.

My mom is a Christmas music lover, and though this next song is in her top three, it would be a shame not to mention that her favourite pop Christmas song is Last Christmas by Wham! Either the love for sad girl music is genetic or I was very impressionable as a child, while learning about ‘good music.’

This song from 1971 will always make me think of her, as I’m sure many people alive today do their own mothers when they hear it. Here’s a song that I’ve always resonated with when I consider my identity as a first generation canadian. In her lyrics, Joni Mitchell sings about escaping her current reality.

Here’s “River”, originally by Joni Mitchell, covered by Carina.

[reggae-neo-rock song fades out]

[“River” by Carina fades in]

[“River” instrumental continues]

Natalie Chuck: That was “River”, performed by Carina. This song always makes me think about how disparate the idea of growing up in Kingston, Jamaica is from my reality of growing up in Toronto. What might my life have had in store for me if my family had decided to stay there?

[“River” instrumental fades out]

[soft trumpet R&B jam fades in]

Natalie Chuck: Thanks for listening to Playing by Ear, I’ll be here next week for Track 2, spanning my mother’s life from 1976-1985. We’ll learn about her as a Caribbean teenager, more on life in Jamaica, her independent music listening, and her family’s immigration and integration in Canada

I’m Natalie Chuck and you’re listening to Met Radio, 1280AM.

[soft trumpet R&B jam fades out]


Track Two: 1976-1985

[soft soca beat with vocals starts]

Natalie Chuck: I’m Natalie Chuck and you’re listening to Met Radio, 1280AM.

Welcome back to Playing by Ear. Here I’m documenting my mother’s life by the decade, alongside her favourite popular music of the time.

Last episode we talked about my mother’s first decade of life, her childhood in Jamaica. We talked a bit about her family and touched on the brain tumour, found in 2006, that changed her life forever.

This is Track 2/6, it’s 1975 in the story of my mother’s life and she’s just turned 12 years old. As outdoorsy as ever, my mom and uncle continued to spend a lot of time in the yard and exploring the neighbourhood, while my aunt Sharon was an indoor kid, always reading.

My grand-aunt Pauline, my maternal grandmother’s sister who was already living in Canada, was the one who referred my family so that they could begin their immigration application. Numerous members of my family represented each other to assist in everyone attaining their Canadian citizenship.

Jamaica’s political climate was a huge factor in why so many citizens – including many Chinese-Jamaicans – decided to leave Jamaica, at risk of communist rule coming into effect after Jamaica’s independence from Britain in 1962. Many Jamaicans had already emigrated since 1950 to seek better opportunities for themselves in Canada, the US and the UK.

[soft soca beat with vocals continues]

My mother’s family immigrated to Canada in 1978, and purchased their family home in Scarborough a few years later. For the moment though, my mother and her siblings arrived first, staying with my Pauline, her husband and their two daughters for a few months. Imagine the energy level in an apartment with 5 kids who were used to climbing trees and running around outside with hardly any curfew.

My grandparents arrived later that year and the family settled into an apartment across the street from Fairview Mall. Around the corner at Bayview and Sheppard, my dad’s family was settling into their new home.

Before immigrating in 1978, my mom’s family’s experience with Canada included a few trips to visit my grand-Aunt Pauline and her family here in Toronto. My mom’s family say that they didn’t feel as though they faced much racial discrimination upon immigrating. I asked if she felt the stress of cultural differences at school or in the workplace, about which she said,

Donna Chuck: No, I don’t think so.

Natalie Chuck: I’ve never immigrated or emigrated from a country, but the way my parents talk about leaving Jamaica so casually, as if it were just like taking a permanent vacation, has always seemed too nonchalant to me. Maybe they’ve told the story too many times, maybe I expect their experience to be more like the tragedy of diaspora-centred films that are rarely more than Oscar-nominated BIPOC trauma narratives.

My parents and I are two generations apart, technically, like many parents and children are. As tail-end Baby Boomers, I fear that they don’t have the vocabulary to describe the nuances of the micro-aggressions they might have experienced. Then I wonder if there are simply too many words for me to describe the way I often feel rejected by Canadian society.

[soft soca beat with vocals continues]

Surely my experience of high school would have been a little bit easier than theirs? Can I assume their accents were mocked? Maybe we came of age in different spaces; a classroom in Scarborough, versus a classroom in Newmarket. Maybe their experience being surrounded by other immigrants – their age whose parents voted Liberal – was easier day-to-day than mine spent with a majority of light-skinned folks with conservative-leaning parents.

When I was young, my mom guided me through a phase in which I was obsessed with The Bangles. I’d first heard their album Different Light blaring out of the speakers of the home office of my childhood home when I was about 8. That would’ve been 2005. I remember performing Manic Monday on a pseudo-stage [Natalie clearing her throat] patch of cement, for my friends during recess on more than one occasion.

Learning that all-girl bands existed did so much for my self-confidence at that age. I loved knowing that there were women out there making their own music, seemingly in control of their own sound and bodies.

[soft soca beat with vocals continues]

Now, in the spirit of female liberation, here’s “Manic Monday”, originally by The Bangles, performed by Carina.

[“Manic Monday” by Carina fades in and out]

[jazzy tune fades in]

Natalie Chuck: That was “Manic Monday” performed by Carina.

[jazzy tune continues]

Shortly after moving to Canada at 15, my mom worked a bunch of part time jobs to earn college tuition money, and start saving up for her future.

This was made a bit easier by saving money on rent, as she was living with her parents and siblings at the time. My mom and her sister worked at The Counter at Fairview Mall, the fast food burger joint.

In general, my family agreed that life in Canada felt much more closed-off from others than life in Jamaica where people were always out on the street, with music playing… people liked to laze there. Their nights were now shaped by getting dinner ready and checking to see what was on TV that night and not by what familiar faces you’d see in town.

This time in my mother’s life seems the start of her most carefree years, those leading up to dating seriously, marriage, a child, working for a salary. For the time being she could save up, there was economic opportunity, and having free time and summers off to go on roadtrips, it was a time just to be young.

In my interview with her, my aunt said that my grandmother’s approach to life planning at that time was focused on getting married and having kids, because of the sense of stability it provided.

In my interview with her, my aunt talked about my grandmother’s approach to womanhood, and in her case, motherhood. My mom told me that she wanted to have a child and that marriage was the simplest way to get there, while I think that my aunt Sharon’s point of view is a more self-critical approach.

Sharon Chin-McMurray: When I look back on it now, it was weird how I was…. Persistent in that dream, when I probably would’ve been better off being a single woman with a career and a life in downtown Toronto. I think that – that would’ve been… somehow more me, than this.

[cont.] It’s funny how something gets in your head, and – like I – like I’ve said, I’ve, you know, examined myself and thought about it lots, and I don’t know why I was driven – and I think part of it was my mom, I think, to be honest.

[cont.] I always, always, always though, knew in my mind that I wanted to be self-supporting. I still thought I would get married, and I remember Mom saying to me ‘why would you want to do a doctorate?’ Um, ‘if you do a doctorate, it’s less – less likely that you’ll get married and have kids.’ And now, she would have a different – now she would have a different view, right? But then, that would be 1984 – um, that’s what she said.

Natalie Chuck [in-interview]: There’s always two paths, it feels like…

Sharon Chin-McMurray: Yep. Well, there’s lots of paths. Yeah.

Natalie Chuck [narrator]: Over the years, I think my grandma’s learned a lot about what a happy and successful life can look like. From her kids, she learned that a 9-5 can be stable and comfortable. I think from my generation, my cousin Kristina and I, she’s learned that life looks different on everyone and that the things that make us successful are our health and our capacity to provide for ourselves.

[jazzy tune continues]

My parents met again after being separated into all-girls and all-boys prep schools in grade school, and this time they were in a new country. They were both attending Seneca College in 1983. My dad snagged them a couple of tickets to see Culture Club, the British pop group headed by Boy George, because he knew my mom ‘liked music.’

Their first date was at the concert at Maple Leaf Gardens November 16th, 1984, 39 years ago. Coincidentally, this is also the venue where I would graduate undergrad almost 35 years later, and they’ve been together ever since, their relationship changing so much in the 40 years that have come and gone.

[jazzy tune continues]

Thanks for listening to Playing by Ear here on Met Radio, 1280AM. I’m Natalie Chuck, join me next week as I catalogue the third decade of my mother’s life, in track 3/6: 1986-1995. Next episode, we’ll learn about my mom’s affinity for math and ABBA and hear about her young adult years but until then, I want to play us out with a song my parents definitely listened to on their first date: Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon”, covered by Sean Kua.

[“Karma Chameleon” by Sean Kua fades in and out]

[soft percussion beat fades in]

Natalie Chuck: That was “Karma Chameleon” by Sean Kua. I’m Natalie Chuck and you’re listening to Met Radio, 1280AM.

[soft percussion beat fades out]


Track Three: 1986-1995

[Soca vocals with rock beat starts]

Natalie Chuck: I’m Natalie Chuck and you’re listening to Met Radio, 1280AM.

Welcome back to track 3/6 of Playing by Ear, the documentary series where I catalogue my mother’s life by the decade, telling the story of her life alongside some of her favourite songs from that time. This week we’re covering 1986-1995, starting from when my mother was 23.

I knew that by making this series, I would learn a lot more about my family, through asking questions I wouldn’t have had a reason to ask before. I knew that there would be a deep rabbit hole, and it would challenge my idealistic view of family members to learn about their struggles, some I’m choosing to leave out of this series.

I understand now why Caribbean people often like to say it’s easiest to just go on with one’s own life, and not dwell on what’s passed. Luckily for you, it’s my parents who are Carribean, I actually just love gossip.

Alright, it’s 1983 and from ‘83-87, my mom attended George Brown, earning a certificate in electronics and continuing her schooling to be certified in communications at Seneca, where my parents met as adults. In her classes, she gained experience in media production and learned to build audio setups like the very one I’m recording this on.

Only through making this series did I learn that my mom and I both studied communications at post-secondary school. Though naturally quiet, I can’t believe that she’d never mentioned this commonality to me.

I like imagining my mom as a young adult, around my age just going to college. I love picturing that time for her, a picture made even sweeter by knowing that she can still remember in full, that it’s untouched by her memory loss. It’s especially heartwarming to know that when it came time to do the math homework for her acoustics classes, that she was known by all in her house to listen to one artist in particular.

Here’s her favourite ABBA song – “Fernando” – performed by Ziye Hu.

[“Fernando” by Ziye Hu fades in and out]

[R&B easy-listening beat fades in]

Natalie Chuck: That was “Fernando” performed by Ziye Hu.

During her post-secondary schooling, my mom worked at Eatons at Yonge and Queen and bought her first car, a ‘88 Corolla (we’re a Toyota family). My father would come downtown to visit her at work and hang out. Like most children, it feels silly to imagine my parents in their kickback era together, getting to know each other in their early twenties. I’ve always appreciated their shared introverted-extrovertedness which means that they love to go to events, but usually feel socially anxious while having fun. This is not something they passed down to me, an energetic extrovert.

By the late 90s, my mom was working at IBM in the tech support department, and had gotten my dad a job there too, just down the road from my kindergarten, Toronto Montessori. My mom worked hard to put me into private school and extracurriculars, and I made the transition to public school for grade one. While I genuinely feel like Montessori set me up for success and independence, at the time, I cried every morning at drop off for about a year. Only child syndrome is powerful. In those few years of kindergarten, I made a friend named Luke, a fellow first-generation Carribean-Canadian kid, and I’m sure what my parents would consider my first love interest, based solely on the fact that they themselves had met in kindergarten, and look how well that worked out for them!

I grew up telling people that my parents were nerds. Little did I know that my dad’s interest in gaming and computers would later inspire me to apply to and attend a computational media program at TMU. My mom continued to find work in tech support, while her male classmates from college all got studio or recordist jobs with radio stations or audio institutes.

She changed jobs to work at ATI, a computer part producer which later was absorbed by an American competitor, resulting in my mom being laid off. After this, for a while she was a stay-at-home parent.

On the way home from visiting my aunt in North Bay in 2021, this next song came on the radio. I was sitting in the back seat with my mom, who is often very quiet even when asked a question directly but this time she said, ‘I like this song, I haven’t heard this in a long time.’ I got the feeling that she was miles away, decades away, remembering the feeling of life in and since 1987, when the song was released. She’d turned 24 that year, the same age that I was that night in the car, this next song playing through the sound system.

I was a bit torn up over being ghosted a few months earlier. But they always come back, and this one did. I struggled with being wanted then. I was still getting used to separating being desired from being respected – the latter I found out is more important. There we were, two women in their mid-twenties listening to a power ballad written by two men…

Here’s “Try” performed by Natalie Chuck.

[“Try” by Natalie Chuck fades in and out]

[soft R&B song fades in]

Natalie Chuck: That was “Try”, originally performed by Blue Rodeo, performed by Natalie Chuck.

My parents were married on October 14th, 1995. I don’t actually know much about the story of the day, apparent from an insanely cringey wedding video VHS that I saw once. My dad’s father, Raymond, had passed away less than a year before, that same January. I never got to meet the man, but my grandfather is regarded with so much respect by all of his family. He was a provider and – more than that – was known to be extremely generous with his time, money and efforts.

[song continues softy]

We’ve reached the end of Track 3. Thanks for joining me at the halfway mark of the series documenting my mom’s life. Track 4, covering 1996-2005 is going to be a doozy, but you’ll get to hear about my birth! A big day for me. There’s so much to cover still including my mother’s recovery from literal brain surgery. Hope to be heard by you next week.

I’m still Natalie Chuck, thanks for listening to Playing by Ear on Met Radio, 1280AM.

[song fades out]


Track Four: 1996-2005

[funky music starts]

Natalie Chuck: I’m Natalie Chuck and you’re listening to Met Radio, 1280AM.

Welcome to Track 4/6 of Playing by Ear, the podcast where I document my mother’s life by its decades. Today we’re picking up the year my mom turned 33, 1996.

I was born early the following year in 1997, during that first part of a new year where Christmas and New Years’ have passed and it seems that society is resting in a finite limbo. Maybe dreams of sugarplums are still dancing in our heads, resolutions being tested and tried before we give in to the ever-present temptation of convenience and instant-gratification once again, just in time for Valentine’s day.

“Un-Break My Heart” by Toni Braxton was #1 the week I was born, and before we get into more details, just to set the vibe, I think we need to take a listen.

Here’s “Un-Break My Heart” by Fralita.

[funky music stops]

[“Un-Break My Heart” by Fralita fades in and out]

[R&B music starts]

Natalie Chuck: That was “Un-Break My Heart”, originally by Toni Braxton, performed by Fralita.

I was born 5 weeks premature at North York General hospital, just a couple of blocks away from my dad’s teenage home on Cusack Court. Visiting my grandmother each weekend, I watched as Bayview Village continued to undergo renovation after renovation, condos being built up, independent shops closing as I grew up too. Eventually, the residents of the cul de sac took sweet deals from land developers to vacate family homes they’d lived in for decades.

Across town in Scarborough, 84 Nettlecreek Crescent was my mom’s parents’ house, the place where my parents and I lived in for the first couple years of my life. I’d be at my grandma’s hip every weekday while my parents were at work. Only when my parents had saved up enough did they move us to Newmarket the spring after I turned 2.

Near the end of 1997, my grandfather Noel had a stroke. As my aunt Sharon seems to have the clearest recollection of the time, she’ll tell us more.

Sharon Chin-McMurray: It was just – it was just stressful, day to day, day to day, day to day, and uh.. Initially I think dad was in hospital for like three months, or, I don’t know how long, can’t remember.

Natalie Chuck [narrator]: After his recovery, he experienced memory issues and did physio to learn how to walk again. He learned how to write with his left hand, now experiencing partial paralysis on the right side of his body.

I asked my aunt about what that time felt like for the family, entering the early 2000s.

Sharon Chin-McMurray: It was busy ‘cause mom was looking after you, then she would have to go to the hospital in the evening and, so whenever I wasn’t working I would come and stay with you so that she could go.And uh, to be honest I don’t even thing we talked much, uhm it was just like, we were just – just so stressed out managing kind of the day to day stuff.

Natalie Chuck [narrator]: I don’t remember what my grandfather was like before the stroke, but after it he was my favourite guy to hang out with in the living room. We’d watch TV with the captions on and share snacks with my grandmother. Before I started kindergarten, every weekday, while my parents were at work meant quality time with my grandparents. It was strange because I felt like my relationship with my grandparents was so far removed from my relationship with my parents because I hardly ever saw them together. I guess thats the price you pay when you live in a multigenerational household.

When I was growing up, my mom and I were really close. There was always so much laughter in our house and in those of my family members. One of my favourite things about my mom is that when she laughs really hard she starts to applaud involuntarily. Everyone describes her as quiet, but she miraculously raised an extremely loud-mouthed person, it’s me I am an only child. A lot of our conversations are me broaching a topic and her not having much to say until about the 6th prompt, and sometimes she actually doesn’t have anything to say about any particular topic.

When I think of growing up, I think about getting my ears pierced at the mall and crying on the walk back through Sears to get to the car. Why didn’t we park at the entrance beside Carol Baker? I do not know. I think about the house we moved into when I was a toddler, completely empty and slowly being filled as the disposable income came in.

I remember, most of all, my mom listening to records, tapes, and CDs on the boombox in the so-called ‘computer room’. No matter the theme of the music – happy, sad, out of control, vindictive – this office space was hers to escape to. Britney, Ms. Spears’ third studio album, was a favourite shared by my mom and I. This is the song I find to be the most emotionally moving and it always reminds me of the necessary discomfort of entering my tweenhood. And really, life feels like entering tweenhood after tweenood, doesn’t it?

Crossroads starring Britney Spears was a hyperfixation shared by my mother and I when I was very young, about 5. I recently rewatched the film, produced in part by MTV in 2002, and I would say it stands up to modern day critiques, though none of the 4 lead characters own a cell phone. Here’s the theme song of that movie now: “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman”, performed by Natalie Chuck.

[R&B music ends]

[“I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” by Britney Spears, sung by Natalie Chuck fades in and out]

[funky piano beat starts]

Natalie Chuck: That was “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman”, originally by Britney Spears, sung by Natalie Chuck.

There was plenty more family stuff going on around the time I was growing up. My Aunt Sharon moved 4 hours away from the rest of the family to North Bay, with her husband and new baby. My grandparents were adjusting to my grandfather’s disability, my grandma continuing to caretake, Various family members helped by picking me up from school, namely my Grandaunt Jean and Uncle Winston and my Aunt Sharon would cart me around when she visited most every weekend. Life was just fine, I thought, this was all normal to me.

While it’s a Western superstition that bad things come in threes, there’s a Chinese proverb that suggests that bad things come instead in pairs. Toward the end of 2005, my maternal great-grandmother, my ja po, passed away at 94. Then my mom’s father Noel was diagnosed with stage four brain cancer, about seven years after his stroke. The tumour was only discovered after he, the cook of the household, couldn’t recall where particular dishes were stored. Maybe there is some truth to bad things coming in threes, after all another bad thing was on its way. But that’s for next episode.

Until then, I’m still Natalie Chuck, thank you for listening to track 4/6 of Playing By Ear, here on Met Radio 1280AM.

[funky piano beat fades out]


Track Five: 2006-2015

[R&B music starts]

Natalie Chuck: I’m Natalie Chuck and you’re listening to Met Radio, 1280AM.

This is Track 5/6 of Playing by Ear, this documentary episode will encompass the years 2006-2015. I talked last episode about another bad thing coming down the pipe, and we’ll get there. For now, let’s pick up at the end of 2005, a few months before my mother’s 43rd birthday.

Just before the Christmas season, my grandfather Noel was released from hospital into at-home care. He was suffering from stage 4 brain cancer, found far too late for there to be hope that he could recover. His diagnosis was terminal. I was nearly 9 and watched as my grandmother cared for a man who was virtually unrecognisable. We could not communicate with him, his own daydreams the only reality he seemed to have left. He was nonverbal, apart from acting out fantasies of winning the jackpot at Mahjong. He was in a lot of pain and had been prescribed morphine daily.

I turned 9 on January 8th, 2006 and the next day my mom picked me up from the school bus. My mom told me that her father had died that day. I thought about seeing him just days before, on the weekend, holding his hand for what had already then felt like the last time.

I remember my mother’s eulogy to him for how brave I thought she was at that moment. If you’ve listened to this series, you’ll know that my mother is not quote-unquote ‘a talker.’ Seeing her stand up and be the one to say something, when the rest of her family was so grief-stricken that they didn’t have the strength, is something I’ll always remember.

A few months later, in early March 2006, my mom fainted, falling out of her chair. She’d been peeling carrots at our kitchen table, getting ready to prepare dinner. Luckily my father was there to help rouse her. About an hour later, I got home from school and was caught up to speed. I think I remember my dad insisting that she would be fine, but I thought she needed to at least go to the ER.

After a CT and MRI, my mother was diagnosed with a 5cm wide brain tumour. About a week later, she was admitted to hospital for a quote-unquote “non-invasive” surgery, as her neurosurgeons put it. My mom didn’t wake up right away. There was extensive swelling of the brain, meaning her skull couldn’t fuse back together as expected. Since my grandfather was diagnosed with brain cancer almost two years prior, my mother had been asking her GP for an MRI. The doctor, a woman about her same age, told her that she was young, in her early 40s, too young to worry about having a scan like this.

By spring of 2006, my mother had started a recovery and rehabilitation plan that was approximately 8 times longer than predicted, with no full recovery possible. If I sound bitter about it, it’s because I am. In addition to an undiagnosed, chronic vertigo-like illness she has lived with since childhood, she was left with permanent short-term memory loss and had a life-saving permanent shunt implanted to carry excess fluid from her brain to her stomach.

Upon waking up post-op, she’d lost all memory of my existence. To this day, her memory of at least 1997 until now is foggy. Now, she suffers bouts of increased aggression when agitated, but is generally calm and quieter than before. My aunt had this to say about that time.

Sharon Chin-McMurray: While your mom isn’t a talker, so she’s not the kind of person you phone and spend an hour on the phone with. It was mostly just seeing – seeing her. Again, another stressful period where time just flew by, like I don’t even know what happened there.

Natalie Chuck [narrator]: Having been so young when these operations happened, I can’t quite remember what her temperament was like before all of this, nor can I understand how she might be different.

Playing by Ear is a project that tells my mother’s story. It is an artefact for my family to refer to whenever they want to, composed of both the good and the bad times we’ve had to share. For the better part of the 2010s, I found myself spiralling because of the instability in how I was parented. I don’t feel that there’s a part of me that blames my mother for not being able to be the version of her that I knew as a kid. I’ll always wonder how our relationships could have been different had this never happened.

Here’s a song about the little voices in your head as they argue to form new consciousness. This is “Little Talks”, originally by Of Monsters and Men, now performed by Peter Patersforfer and Natalie Chuck.

[R&B music fades out]

[“Little Talks” by Of Monsters and Men, performed by Peter Patersforer and Natalie Chuck fades in and out]

[funky piano beat fades in]

Natalie Chuck: That was “Little Talks” by Peter Patersdofer and Natalie Chuck.

During my mom’s recovery in hospital, I spent a lot of what should have been my leisure time at work with my dad. At the time, he was working as a security camera contractor for a small business. Most nights I’d get home with him at midnight or later, after having slept in the car on the way back from Waterloo, or downtown, or wherever it was he had to work that evening.

We were quite isolated from family in Newmarket because everyone else had moved away from the GTA, or was busy with my mom’s care. Sometimes we’d visit my dad’s mom because it was near-ish to Sunnybrook, where my mom spent her time in ICU. My dad and I would often visit her late at night after my dad had finished an installation. I longed for my own space to relax in, to be alone to process what was happening around me.

I don’t remember having any close friends during this time. My aunt Sharon outlined my mother’s recovery to help jog my memory.

Sharon Chin-McMurray: Your mom went to Toronto Rehab, and I think she started to come around and then she was walking. Her memory wasn’t the greatest, then she was, ya know, she could see progress, and I think she got a little bit of relief there.

Natalie Chuck [narrator]: The next 5 years are a blur.

By 2010, I was in full swing of teenagehood. I’d blast music from my room, right across the hall from where my mother used to do the same. But things were different now, there was no longer music coming from her sanctuary. She preferred her music quieter now. Often there would be me with my music and homework or Skype calls up in my room, while my mother watched TV downstairs, in an otherwise empty house while my dad worked or did whatever else he pleased. I resented him for not spending more time with us, after all that we’d been through, what we have been through together, the two of us together, especially.

At the time, I thought that my life was disjointed and hectic because I was a teenager and that’s how every high school show portrays it, and how every adult talks about Being a Teenager. I started to become a mall rat, dragging my mom along with me each time. We watched a lot of 2010s Much Music together. We didn’t know it at the time, but this turned out to be the station’s last hurrah before becoming a rerun station.

TV and music culture media had become a neutral place for us again, somewhere to be entertained and connect on shared knowledge. I cherish that time, even though I felt, until I was about 20, that I couldn’t truly share my life with my mom. I think I felt guilty experiencing new things, while my mother seemed to be becoming stagnant with the same routine every day. When I’d have emotional outbursts, the remorse I felt afterward was different, because at a certain point I realised that I was taking advantage of the fact that she might not remember. That the negative feelings associated with the confrontation would be the only proof that we had fought for her.

As a teenager when it was released, of course I loved this next song. It was, like, the most tragically hopeful song I knew at the time. Here’s “Just Give Me a Reason”, originally sung by Pink and Nate Russ, now performed by Yuli and cobu.

[funky piano beat fades out]

[“Just Give Me a Reason” by Pink and Nate Russ, performed by Yuli and cobu fades in and out]

[funky music fades in]

Natalie Chuck: That was “Just Give Me a Reason”, performed by Yuli and cobu.

Being with my mother, as she was disabled later in life, I think a lot of my family feared disability and was in denial that this was our new reality. Nothing prepares you for disability and anyone can become disabled.

Next week we are diving into episode 6/6 of Playing By Ear. I’m Natalie Chuck and thank you for listening to Met Radio 1280AM.

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Track Six: 2016-2023

[funky music starts]

Natalie Chuck: I’m Natalie Chuck and you’re listening to Met Radio, 1280AM.

Welcome to Track 6 out of 6, the last episode of this series, Playing by Ear.

Since childhood, I’ve known the women in my mom’s family to be early risers. I’ve always been a night owl and so I usually miss their morning shenanigans. There are instances when I’ll get up early and not be able to get back to bed, in which case I’d join the hushed conversation these women are having in whoever’s kitchen it is that weekend. Often, the topic of discussion is one tired after many years of being replayed, but I like to believe that these conversations in the wee hours, I’m talking 5:30AM, are when a mother and her two daughters get their best healing.

Through the interviews with my grandmother, aunt, and mother for this series, I’ve learned in greater depth how level headed they have grown to be in face of the chaos of their lives as women and mothers, and in contrast to the free will-ness of their male partners. While it’s disheartening to hear of the regrets and missed opportunities of those closest to you, I still see the value in making decisions without claiming to know their outcome. All we can do is make the best decision for us at any given moment. As my aunt said ‘well, there’s many paths’

Over the years, I’ve taken many pieces of my mother’s advice, my only complaint being that I wish she was more talkative, like me, so I can talk something to death a bit more before making a decision and acting on it. The biggest lesson I take from my mother’s personal philosophy is that life goes on, no matter what. A few of my friends tease me about my matter-of-fact approach to giving advice. Something I always say is ‘it’ll be alright, because it has to be.’ I do think it’s an effect of the Caribbean laissez-faire influence on my upbringing that makes me believe that good times are always coming, and that bad times won’t last forever. But, more than that, I believe that this attitude comes from my mother for whom nothing is ever irrevocably bad.

I think I’d have her to thank for never crying over a relationship gone wrong. Of course, I’ve wished that things had turned out a different way, more suitable to my expectations, but I’ve had a lot of pride in individuality instilled in me over the years. Whether this makes me emotionally repressed or well-adjusted, we may never know the answer.

On that note, as we ponder love’s instability, here is Jaded, originally performed by Miley Cyrus, now performed by Fox Revett and A.D. Morningstar.

[funky music fades out]

[“Jaded” by Miley Cyrus, performed by Fox Revett and A.D. Morningstar fades in and ou]

[funky piano music fades in]

Natalie Chuck: That was “Jaded”, covered by Fox Revett and A.D. Morningstar.

My gift to my parents for their 25th anniversary was a stay at the hotel I was working at, at the time. Their actual 25th was in October of 2020, meaning our celebratory dinner and their night out, away from home had to take place a year later in 2021.

This decade has somehow been the hardest to write about. I’ve had to do what many twenty-somethings also face as young adults – learning that our parents are people too, with pasts and things that tick them off, things they care about and others they don’t pay too much attention to. It’s been easier to write about what I consider to be the past. I feel like 2015 is just a little too close to write about comfortably because I’m still processing the things that have hurt me since then, and maybe they things I’ve done to hurt others, too.

As for my own decision on children, my aunt’s words on those big, life-altering decisions ring again in my ears: ‘Well, there’s many paths” she said. Honestly I’m inspired as a young adult still trying to find a big pull, if there ever will be, in a particular direction. Until I find that or make peace in not finding it, I’ll continue to do the things that make me happy and hope that the small moments of gratification will be enough to carry me through.

Recently, my mother was diagnosed with a form of Ménière’s disease, often abbreviated to M.D.. The disease is characterised by possibly severe, incapacitating spots of vertigo, tinnitus, hearing loss, or ear fullness for 20 minutes or multiple hours . This might explain the intense vertigo that she’s experienced on and off since she was young, though to different degrees of life-affecting intensity throughout her life. When she was about 6, she was admitted to a sick children travelling medical aid cruise. When she was being assessed in 2006, when they found the tumour doctors thought that the both diagnoses might be related.

With both my mother and her father having experienced life-threatening health issues involving brain tumours, my only cousin on my mom’s side, Kristina, and I always talk about going for CAT scans in hopes that we would catch something nefarious, at least early. Up until now, we haven’t. As a kid I was prone to headaches categorised as ‘growing pains’ and got an MRI before either my grandfather or mother had.

Instagram wellness and mindfulness influencers are *this* close to convincing me that the healthiest way to move forward is to accept the past and move forward in a way that prioritises protecting one’s own peace. I’m still learning what this looks like to me.

A lot of my hope for the future comes from believing in karma, something my mother’s side of the family has taught me all my life. While they love to gossip, moreover I feel that they always choose to act in ways that command good things to be brought back to them.

Even on my worst days, I don’t often give up because I know of all of the challenges the women in my family have seen and here they are still surviving and looking to thrive. As I said in episode one of this series, my mother’s life has been influenced by so much including : fun, creativity, learning, community, love, providing, illness, & disability.

At the end of 2023 as this show is wrapping up, my mother’s Meniere’s disease, which presents itself as intense nausea and vertigo, has been affecting her at least twice a month. I had hoped that for this last episode I’d have the opportunity to reinterview my mom to hear some of her comments on the completed series. Unfortunately, this won’t be in either of our capacities.

My mother’s short list of song recommendations for this series was largely a list of artist names especially for the more recent decades. Billie Eilish is one of those artists. Immediately, I thought of her song Happier Than Ever because of how beautifully it portrays melancholy in this era of smartphones and capitalistic dreams. Another artist my mother and I both enjoy, Kelly Clarkson, did a cover of this song, and so I thought it would be the perfect close to the series.

Thank you for listening to Playing by Ear. Thank you, mom, for everything that you’ve given me that is yours. Thank you Met Radio for this opportunity to bring this capsule of my mother’s time to fruition, one composed of memories both lost and found.

Here’s “Happier Than Ever”, originally by Billie Eilish, covered by Sean Kua.

[funky piano music fades out]

[“Happier Than Ever” by Billie Eilish, covered by Sean Kua fades in and out]

[R&B music fades in]

Natalie Chuck: That was “Happier than Ever” by Sean Kua.

Thank you to the musicians who worked on covers especially for Playing by Ear: Carina, Marion Chrétien, Ziye Hu, Sean Kua, Fralita, Peter Patersdorfer, Yuli Cruz & cobu, and Fox Revett with A.D. Morningstar. Thank you to Madalen Klare for recording and mixing the covers I took on. Thanks also to DJ For The People who created the vibey, caribbean-inspired beats you’ve heard under my voice for each of the six episodes.

You’re listening to Met Radio, 1280AM. This is Natalie Chuck signing off.

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