Her words enraged me: my mother, swollen and yellow on the bed, dying at fifty-six, and my aunt saying what? Don't.


Illustration by Rosie Pea

Congratulations to Vania Selvaggi, whose submission was one of the two honourary mention winners of Good News Toronto’s True Story Contest — a creative non-fiction personal essay about “An Encounter that Changed Your Life.”

My mother has been dead for two months. I’m in the bathroom and my fingers squeeze the toothbrush handle as I scour the surface of my teeth. In the mirror, I try to imagine how my mother saw me at age three: foam around my lips, my eyes seeking her approval, the basin spotted with spit and blood. Ma had said, “Don’t press so hard. You’ll ruin your gums.” Now, at twenty-eight, I’m desperate to hear her voice again. I dare my dead mother to speak so I scrape the bristles over the pink skin in my mouth. But no voice comes, just more blood.

Normally I’d go back into the bedroom to dress for work, but today it’s the hospital. My uncle’s having an operation and my aunt is waiting for me.

She and I are not close. I view our past through memories tethered to rules. When I was nine and got stung by a wasp, my aunt said, “Don’t cry. Worse things can happen.” When I was twelve, she said, “Don’t act silly and when you speak, have something thoughtful to say.” There were many more rules, but as the distance between my aunt and I grew, they faded only to come back, boldly, when my mother was sick.

“Erica,” my aunt said to my mother, her sister. “Don’t take this cancer lying down. Get up and fight.”

Her words enraged me: my mother, swollen and yellow on the bed, dying at fifty-six, and my aunt saying what? Don’t.

I think about this as we hold hands in the waiting room. I try to make sense of this woman, because she is the closest thing I have left of my mother. When the doctor tells us the operation went well, and my uncle is in recovery, we link arms and walk the corridor.

A woman, about my age, approaches. She looks at my aunt, who pulls away from me. To this stranger, my aunt says, “Tell me?”

The girl sobs and my aunt holds her, listening to the story. The girl says her father had a cancerous lump removed. I want to run, but my aunt stands firm.

“Listen,” says my aunt. “Don’t lose faith. Don’t show your fear. Your father needs you to be tough, strong. Have courage.”

The girl stops crying and kisses my aunt’s cheek. Then she’s gone.

And only now do I see my aunt clearly. I envision the place where she writes don’t, over and over again. It’s not a cold place of control, but warm, filled with the intent to better, not just herself, but those around her. And for the first time, I appreciate the word don’t.


Vania Selvaggi

Vania Selvaggi

Vania Selvaggi was born in Toronto. She is currently working on her first novel and will be graduating from the Creative Writing Certificate Program offered through University of Toronto, School of Continuing Education Studies in the spring of 2012.
Vania Selvaggi

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23 Responses to "Don’t"

  1. Eva Gomes   January 4, 2012 at 9:47 pm

    Loved it. She’s painted a beautiful story. I felt present throughout the journey.

    • Vania Selvaggi   January 7, 2012 at 4:41 pm

      Thanks Eva! I’m so glad to have had you come on this journey with me.

    • Pat DiVittorio   January 9, 2012 at 5:49 pm

      you say so much with so few words which can only be done by a brilliant writer. Beautifully written and refreshingly honest…loved it

      • Vania Selvaggi   January 9, 2012 at 11:53 pm

        Thanks pat! The support here has been quite overwhelming and I’m so grateful that readers have taken the time to let me know they liked the pc.

  2. Darryl at Loving the Bike   January 6, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    It is so easy to see why this article received honorable mention in Good New Toronto’s True Story contest. When I first read the title I wasn’t sure how the word “don’t” was going to be spun into a positive piece of writing, but I was awarded with a kind sense of positivity once I saw how it all came together.

    This is a beautiful piece of writing and I congratulation Vania on bringing me in and stirring my emotions.


    • Vania Selvaggi   January 7, 2012 at 4:42 pm

      Darryl – Thanks so much for your support. it means so much to me to have inspired as sense of positivity within you.

  3. Ian   January 6, 2012 at 7:05 pm

    It takes a great writer to evoke such emotion in such a short piece. It is rare that I read a story and have it at the forefront of my mind all day.
    May your words dance across the lips and minds of thousands.

    • Vania Selvaggi   January 7, 2012 at 4:43 pm

      Ian – your consistent support of my efforts keeps me going on a daily basis. thanks!

  4. Joel Phillips   January 6, 2012 at 9:04 pm

    “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me”. ~ 1 Corinthians 13. Through the eyes of a child it’s difficult to understand actions of adults, but most magnificent is when we understand all we ever witnessed was love.

    Wonderfully written story, very touching. Thanks to my friend Ian for bringing this to my attention. I love enriching my life with eloquent stories from life. Bravo Vania and thank you for sharing…

    • Vania Selvaggi   January 7, 2012 at 4:44 pm

      My goodness – i want to say that your comments are better than the piece itself! Thank you so much for your thoughtful words, Joel.

      • Joel Phillips   January 7, 2012 at 6:06 pm

        Vania, you are too kind, I wish you nothing but the best and am excited to read more of your work.

  5. adena   January 6, 2012 at 11:20 pm

    Beautifully written, your words, they will stay with me for days. Thank you for sharing this, it’s got me thinking about my mother, my own aunts and especially my nephews.

    With love, an often misunderstood aunt.

    • Vania Selvaggi   January 7, 2012 at 4:49 pm

      Thank you, Adena! I love that you identify with my aunt…tough place to rest and i say rest because while it took me a while to get my aunt, one tiny seemly inconsequential event, packed huge learning for me…

  6. Sophie Tolias   January 8, 2012 at 1:38 am

    Vania, such a wonderfully written piece. You’ve painted great images and great use of dialogue.
    And the beginning is so powerful.

    ‘Ma had said, “Don’t press so hard. You’ll ruin your gums.” Now, at twenty-eight, I’m desperate to hear her voice again. I dare my dead mother to speak so I scrape the bristles over the pink skin in my mouth. But no voice comes, just more blood.’


    Thanks for sharing. I’d love to read more of your work.


    • Vania Selvaggi   January 8, 2012 at 8:47 am

      Thanks so much for your kind words on the pc., Sophie! I have to say that I’m grateful to Good News for offering immerging writers the opportunity to get work out there.

      It’s great to read encouraging comments like yours about reading more of my work as it inspires me to keep at it. thanks again!

  7. Patricia Tonin   February 12, 2012 at 4:48 pm


    Beautifully written. I know this must have been very difficult for you ….

    I look forward to all that is to come that I know is in you, and judging from the readers responses so are they….


    • Vania Selvaggi   February 12, 2012 at 6:36 pm

      Pat – I feel honoured that you read it and took the time to respond. Thank yoo so much for the support. Honestly – it means the world to me…

  8. Ross McKie   February 20, 2012 at 11:28 am

    Beautiful story. Such a tender intimacy.

    • Vania Selvaggi   February 22, 2012 at 5:48 pm

      Thanks Ross! – I feel very honoured given your abiity in the craft!

  9. Lisa   May 19, 2012 at 1:27 pm

    Congratulations wee doll !! Im soooo PROUD xxxxxx

    • Vania Selvaggi   May 22, 2012 at 8:19 pm

      All the way from northern ireland…thank you for reading this! x.

  10. Brad K   June 9, 2013 at 9:06 pm


    I was so pleased to stumble upon your piece! I know from years gone by how important writing was to you, I’m thrilled to see you’ve been pursuing. AND this is amazing, beautiful writing. Clean, concise, moving, well done.



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