My grandmother saved my life when I was a child. My parents were alcoholic and there was violence. The front room was forbidden territory, for Big People only, where voices started out happy and excited, and escalated to shouts and bumps and crashes in the night.
I remember when I was about four, standing outside my grandparents’ back door as dusk was falling, looking in at them sitting in the comfort and warmth and light within. I couldn’t open the door into that warmth and safety – it had to be opened to me, and I had to be invited in, out of the falling dark. I lioved in a different world, one I already knew had to be kept hidden, and I didn’t belong there either.
My Grandma’s house was so silent you could hear the metal clock ticking and tocking on the kitchen windowsill. A little yellow cottage on Christleton Avenue, surrounded by flowers and blooming bushes, it had a picket fence with a white trellis covered with pink roses arched over the gate. I would stand and swing back and forth on that gate, gazing out at a world stupefied with summertime heat. Bees scarcely had the energy to buzz; the only excitement was the tinkle of the ice cream truck coming down the street, followed by chattering children clutching shiny dimes.
I woke to the slap of the hose hitting the side of the house in the mornings, as Grandma wet everything down against the coming heat, then pulled the awnings down like sleepy eyelids over the front windows.
We could smell the freshness of the lake two blocks away, the scent of bulrushes and tall grasses in the fields behind Grandma’s house. Everywhere in Kelowna where there are condominiums today, there were orchards in those days. Almost every yard sprouted a profusion of flowers; the air was scented with lilac, sweet pea, snapdragon, peonies and pinks. It was a small town then, postcard pretty, sleepy and provincial in its ways. It was another era, the 50’s, and though my life with my parents felt like one long bad dream, life itself held an innocence and goodness as fresh as the special way the air smelled before the summer thunderstorms Grandma and I listened to in her back porch. The sky turned dark and the reverberations shook our little cottage, sounding as if the heavens were splitting in two. And then the sizzle of rain came, the fresh scent wafting through the screened-in porch where we sat for so many hours of my childhood.
My Grandma looked after me when I was a child, and when I got older I spent summers with her, and this is how she saved my life, by showing me existence could be other than it was in my house. She is the one who baked me cookies, told me stories, pointed out fairy folk dancing in the blue flames of her small gas fireplace. She took me to church and gave me standards to live by. Grandma developed conscience in me; I was more afraid of her than of God. She never raised her voice to me, but her quiet words of caution and her sorrowful disappointment when I behaved badly felt like hot lava pouring over my head.
“I have magic glasses,” she would tell me, “and I can see you even when you’re far away.” So I knew when I went back to Vancouver to my parents, she was still watching over me, which scared and reassured me at the same time.
When all her adult children were visiting in the front parlour, she would retreat to the back porch and I would join her there. I knew what was wrong. The tinkle of ice in tall tumblers of amber liquid was a sound we both hated.
My grandparents lived simply. My grandfather made a modest living selling herbal remedies in his little shop, Health Products, on Ellis Street. The shop had an exotic smell, from the shelf upon shelf of round cardboard tubs of herbs three decades before we began hearing about them in the media. Sometimes I was given the job of counting out the pills, filling the bottles and sticking the labels on.
My Grandpa was thin, silent and gruff, but he had a twinkle in his eyes and a soft heart for children. In years when men didn’t cry, as he got older, he would often be silently overcome with emotion; small things touched him deeply. “It’s the French in him,” the women of the family whispered to each other. The aunts and uncles adored Grandpa, and were in agreement that “Mother runs him ragged.” They thought it unfair that he had to go into the pantry to snort back “a little nip”. He did it out of deference to Grandma, but they thought he should be able to sit in his own parlour and braveky down glasses of amber like they did. They encouraged him to, when they visited. But when company was not present, he’d retreat into the pantry for little sips she pretended not to notice. It was their arrangement. I remember wandering into the pantry and finding him there, bottle in hand, looking like a thief startled at his work. We both pretended the bottle was invisible.
An often-told tale was how Grandma gave away Grandpa’s best suit to a hobo during the Depression. They said the house must have had a mark on it, so many hobos came knocking. Grandma could never turn away anyone who was hungry, even though feeding her own five children in those years was a challenge. One man needed clothing and Grandma figured Grandpa didn’t need the suit, since he didn’t wear it very often. Turns out, it was his best suit, the only other suit he owned being the one he wore every day. Another time Grandma found a roll of bills in the dresser drawer and merrily spent it, thinking it was extra money. It was the rent money.
In her seventies, my mother would tell us about the time she trudged home in the cold of a Prairie winter, after a long day on her feet as a hairdresser, looking forward to the pork chop she knew was waiting for her at home. She remembered with some outrage coming in the door to find a hobo sitting at the table sopping up the last bite dripping with gravy of her pork chop.
Grandpa got his family through the Depression by doing accounting for folks in exchange for whatever they could give him: a sack of coal, a bag of flour, potatoes, trudging from house to house and business to business for the bits and pieces that would keep his family fed. Grandma washed the family laundry – dresses and pinafores and sheets for five children – by hand in the bathtub for years. Sje walked miles to the railroad tracks to buy bruised bananas to make dessert for her children. My mom often said her best Christmas was the year each child received one orange and a small toy car hand made by Grandpa, and how they played with the cars all Christmas Day.
Through my childhood, when I was in Vancouver with my parents, he would often enclose a small envelope in letters to my mother. In it would be a shiny dime for me. In those days, a dime would buy a popsicle, some penny candy and some Dubble Bubble, with a penny or two left over.
I lived with my grandparents during the final months of high school, and I remember Grandpa, who wore a suit and tie every day of his adult life, skinny and vulnerable in his longjohns, stealthily padding from the bathroom to his bedroom in the morning. He was so much the head of the house, so respected, that it felt strange to see him frail and powerless in his underwear. Our eyes would meet; he’d smile and shake his head, with his customary twinkle, and we would both studiously ignore his state of undress.
Grandpa obligingly went along most of the time with Grandma’s plans. Her children jokingly called her The Brigadier. She was generous in offering his assistance to her widowed or single women friends, if they needed to be driven or picked up somewhere. He silently chauffeured everyone on endless drives in the country on long dusty Sunday afternoons.
His one small rebellion was at mealtime. He never sat down at the table without “playing checkers” with the salt and pepper shakers and the condiments. He always moved them a few inches to the left orright. They were never just right where they were. If he was feeling extra put-upon, he would thump them down more loudly. Thump! Thump! Thump! And the salt and pepper would go three inches to the left and the sugar bowl two inches forward. Sometimes the women would try to set everything just exactly perfect, to see what he would do. And then fall into fits of giggles when he sat down, surveyed them, and moved one item one inch, just on general principles.
My Grandma was Irish and proud of it. Her favouite song was Galway Bay which she played over and over. When she got older and began to think of death, another favourite was Beyond the Reef. She told me many stories, of relatives who had had supernatural things happen to them, of ghosts and fairies, and a perfect little girl called Vivian, who had impeccable manners and was set as a model of deportment for we grandchildren. “Vivian would never do that!” she would say, with smug conviction. We all hated Vivian!
Grandma would have tea parties in the afternoons, with trays of dainties, and fancy flowered cups and saucers. Ladies wore housedresses and aprons to do their housework then. For tea parties, they took off their aprons, and donned nicer dresses, and often wore impeccably white gloves to the wrist. And hats! Going to Church on Sunday was an occasion for finery, and on Easter Sunday everyone sported new spring dresses and hats and shiny black patent shoes.
Grandma tried to teach me manners. I remember her amusement when, at one afternoon tea, I got mixed up and responded to a question I hadn’t heard with a bemused, “Huh, Miss Hicks?” How she teased me on the way home! “HAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH, Miss Hicks?” she chortled, fairly chomping with amusement. (She and her friends called each other “Mrs. Marr” and “Mrs. Goodfriend” even after fifteen years of friendship. And when speaking of her spouse to her friends, she always referred to him as “Mr. Marr.”)
Grandma had a wild and zany sense of humour all of her descendants have inherited. She loved to play practical jokes, especially on her poor cat, a big fluffy Persian called Big Boy, who had a distinctive kink at the end of his tail. He got the kink from getting his tail caught in the screen door, with some assistance from my Grandma. When he wanted to go out, he was a torturous mass of conflicted desire. Grandma would stand, arms akimbo, holding the door open invitingly. Big Boy would assess the situation: the open door, the inviting scent of the outdoors, the needs of his bladder. Finally, no options left, he’d streak for the open door. Grandma, timing honed to perfection, would let it slam in time to connect with his tail. An enraged howl, my Grandma’s cackle, then Grandma serenely returned to her housework, while the cat sulked under the house. Grandma kept him supremely confused because, most times, she would let him out without incident. But each time, looking through the door, you could see him calculating: would this be the time the door let fly? Eventually Big Boy would come back inside, till bladder needs put him in the same predicament again.
Grandma cleaned the house in the mornings. Sometimes while she was busy in the kitchen, I would be allowed to listen to radio programs, while I rocked back and forth in the rocking chair. This was very special, especially my favourite show, “Maggie Muggins”, which always ended with the line, “And we don’t know what will happen tomorrow!” which about summed up the story of my life (and the cat’s!)
In the long, silent afternoons, everything tidy, wash on the line and the sweet peas watered, Grandma rested, to the peaceful and comforting ticking of the clock. I remember her climbing into the bunk beside me, when I was little, settling me for my nap, her soft womanly grandmother’s body providing me a safety and comfort I never knew anywhere else. It was with my grandparents that I went for drives, had regular meals, went visiting, saw life as normal people lived it. Home was a battleground, strewn with corpses that got up the next morning to fight again, where I retreated into silence and watched, with frightened eyes.
I got to pay Grandma back for those early years when she was old and in a nursing home. I saw with her through many hours and paid her back with time and love for the time and love she so generously gave to me when I was small.
Her life as she had known it ended when my Grandpa died, but she lived fifteen more years without him. Her spirit utterly rejected the nursing home. “There are so many old people in here!” she, in her eighties, declared. She was unable to adjust to where life had landed her. Grandma felt trapped for too long in a life she no longer wanted.
She would walk down Ethel Street to my little cottage full of children, and sit out under the grape arbor and chat with me while I weeded the garden. Then I would walk her home, her cane tap tap tapping, tears rolling down her cheeks, back to her room at the Lloyd Jones.
“I’m still here,” she’d say disgustedly, when I popped my head through the door, the next day or the next. “Just too damned healthy!”
But sometimes she would talk about the Old Days, the stories of her time, when life was vital and whole around her. One day she music on the record player, and started dancing lightly, a few steps, smiling, and I saw straight inside her, to the light, bright shining self inside the body that was failing; the self that she had been as a young girl so full of dreams was still there inside her.
Once she told me, “I wanted to raise you, especially after your father died, but your mom wouldn’t allow it. She thought people would think she was a bad mother if she let you go. But I wish I could have – you never had a chance.”
When she was moved to the extended care unit and could no longer leave her chair, she retreated increasingly into silent rekection of her outer world. Her friend was the talking clock she held in her hands and tapped every few minutes, to hear the mechanical voice tell her the time. On the hour, it crowed, a fact that at first we didn’t understand, so we were confused when she kept insisting “There’s a rooster in here.” This rooster was her constant companion, her final friend. Often in those last years, we would simply sit, after our initial conversation. I bicycled across town after work, before going home to the kids. I was tired, exhausted. But I could never set aside the thought, the many times I would have rather gone straight home, of her sitting in her chair, lonely and forlorn, her only bearable moments those when family members were present. I would wearily hop on my bike and pedal across town, our eyes would meet, we’d smile and then just sit, being together as the colours of the day faded away. One night we watched through the window as the sky turned purple and the sun went down behind the hills. Perhaps it is the last sunset she ever saw.
She didn’t want anything but to be gone from her body in those last years, but sometimes I would talk her into coming outside under the trees with me. I’d wheel her to where green branches arched overhead and we’d sit and listen, to the wind rustling through the branches, the birds chirping overhead.
It was under those trees that I told her I was moving away to the west coast, the move that had been my dream for twenty years. It was hard to tell her that her most frequent visitor and supporter was going away. I was full of inner tears, but also knew that I must go. I knew if I did not leave now, perhaps I never would. With characteristic generosity, Grandma gave me her blessing. “It’s your dream, and you have had a hard time. You deserve some happiness.”
We sat in silence some more. I watched her turning her ring around and around on her finger. Her engagement ring and wedding band were welded together, symbolizing the love she and my Grandpa had shared for the sixty odd years they were together. She was deep in thought, turning and turning the ring. The air grew electric and still.
Suddenly she pulled it off and handed it to me. I demurred, shook my head, but “No,” Grandma said, “I want to be sure that you have this. It has never been off my finger, but I want to be sure that it goes to you.”
I knew when I left that I would carry her with me, that she was so much a part of me that I could never really lose her. I went back for a visit later and found her much changed, not as aware of who I was or that I was there. She had retreated as far inside herself as possible, was more in the next world than this one. But when I spoke of the ocean and the eagles and the beauty of where I lived, she smiled.
I went back to help her make the transition from this world to the next, and spent a week at her bedside, listening to her laboured breathing, wetting her lips with moist Q-tops, when she lifted her hand and pointed at the glass of water with her long boney finger. In a moment when she was still aware, I leaned close beside her ear and told her “thanks for all the love” and watched a single tear slide down her cheek. I knew she wanted nothing more than to be released from her body and that hospital bed, to be with my grandfather, and her oldest son once more, so I supported her with love in her dying, as she had supported me with love in times when living had seemed too hard for me.
My mother broke down at the end of the funeral, when the strains of Galway Bay wafted through the church. And on the bus, heading home through the pass toward the beaches and wilderness I love, I was looking out the window, remembering that the real parting had been when I moved away, but how I knew then that I would carry Grandma with me inside my heart forever. She was a part of me like the air and the sky and the trees and the wind, and so we would never really be apart. Suddenly the strains of Galway Bay tinkled through my mind. I was not thinking of the music; it was playing, in my mind. Instantly, I thought “Hi, Grandma, I love you,” and the music drifted out the other side and away. And I knew that it was Grandma, passing through.
The Casorsos were a story-book family to me, when I was a child. They lived in a big old farmhouse like the Waltons’, a rambling two-storey place with wrap-around covered porches, out in the Mission. They had a pig farm, and orchards; for generations, they had lived off the land. Their lives seemed clean and simple and domestic with a capital D.
In those years my parents, my small sister and I lived in four squalid rooms, with a root cellar, an icebox, and a woodstove. We had a storm door through which my father once threw my mother on a Sunday afternoon, the crashing of glass breaking the sleepy silence and bringing alarmed and nervous neighbours outside their front doors.
So the Casorsos’ large Italian, multi-generational family seemed like a dream family to me. I remember driving into their driveway on Sunday afternoons with my grandparents, to dogs barking, children darting in and out, busyness all around. A man or two could always be seen somewhere out back, gumbooting across the muddy field, buckets in hand.
In the dark downstairs rooms lived smiling, toothless, old Grandpa Louis. He looked the same every time I saw him through decades of visits: the same whiskers, wrinkled face, overalls, battered hat, and gap-toothed smile. He seemed either never to have aged, or to have always been old. He always had a pot of soup simmering on the stove for the multitudes of laughing grandchildren streaming up and down the stairs.
His son Augie (for August) and daughter-in-law Muriel and their children lived on the upper floor. In the years when I was going to school with them, there were five daughters. The entire church congregation knew they longed for a son. Muriel’s pregnancies were dangerous and difficult, and she was told each pregnancy might be her last. I remember anxious nuns leading us in prayer during her confinements. The Casorsos were strict Catholics, placing their trust in God. Somehow Muriel always pulled through. When the sixth child was finally a boy, we heard they placed him on the altar and dedicated his life to God. The seventh and last child was a boy too.
So the upstairs was a hive of activity. Muriel was always ironing or sewing or cooking and while we visited, she never stopped. The children were well cared for, always clean and bright-eyed and smiling. All had brown glowing eyes and open trusting faces. They all sported simple, straight, bowl-shaped haircuts, and the older girls were each responsible for tending one of the smaller ones, for getting them washed, dressed and their hair brushed every morning, and bathed and bedded every night.
My Grandma told me Muriel put a Christmas tree in each of the bedrooms every year, as well as decorating a main tree for the family to share in the living room. Muriel told Grandma that she never knew how long she would live, and so she wanted to make happy memories for the children while she was alive.
Their family life, the goodness and honesty and discipline was something I hungered for. I longed for domesticity, for family, for clean clothes and rules and mealtimes, so their life was like a fairy tale to me, and just as unattainable.
Margie, the oldest girl, was in my class. She was innocent and modest, so good that there was some expectation that she might become a nun. Lost in my adolescent agonies, I admired her shining example, while I knew I could never manage it. She had led a sheltered and protected life. Nothing could get near enough to harm her, and she faced the world with wide eyes, expecting only goodness.
Then she went away to college where she met a young man, Bill, who had “problems” and we heard he was making Margie sad. In her inexperience and innocence, she did not know how to escape. He was wildly jealous and possessive, threw scenes, threatened her.
As the years went by, the stories got worse. They were engaged, to her parents’ dismay, then married. And once married, given her faith and her parents’ example, there was no turning back. We heard Margie had had a miscarriage. Then, that she had decided to have no children, for she would not bring a child into an unhappy home.
Her parents provided a cottage on their property so Margie and her husband could live nearby and they could watch out for her. But as for what went on behind closed doors, that was Margie’s business, and they left that up to her. She was a teacher now, at the Catholic school, and she gave to her students all the love and care she would have given to her own children. She attended Mass regularly and lived her life of quiet self-sacrifice and duty uncomplainingly. As was the teaching about personal happiness and suffering in those days, our reward was not to be expected in this life, but the next.
It seemed we both met much the same fate, Margie through being protected too much, unprepared for life being less than wonderful, and me from not being protected enough, with no experience it could be wonderful at all.
The other daughters grew up too, tall and beautiful. One became a gym instructor, another a dancer. The older son, whom they had hoped would become a priest, gave his parents some worry during his teens. The mother did not die and, in fact, outlived her husband.
The generations still gather at the big rambling old house that is the heart of their family. And the pigs and apples still provide the family’s livelihood. Everyone’s eyes are wiser now. Real life happened to the storybook daughters, as it did to us all. But their laughter still rings out, the sisters still call from room to room, while they help prepare holiday feasts, and tend the next generation of brown-eyed children.
That house and family lives on somewhere in my memory. I picture the little girls lined up in the pew at Sunday mass, from the tallest to the smallest, in their ruffled pinafores and petticoats, white gloves and black patent shoes, looking out from under the brims of their sunbonnets with their grave, shy smiles and upturned round and innocent brown eyes.
The orchards still bloom every spring, and I imagine that sometimes, of an early morning or a soft summer sunset, the ghost of childish laughter echoes hauntingly through branches that, even now, remember those vital years when a herd of brown-eyed children in overalls lived off their bounty.
SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES
My mother always said my father was the only man she ever loved, and it was true. She said I remembered only the bad times, and it is true that, looking back, all I remember is lying in bed shaking with fear, listening to the blows and crashes coming from the living room. I worried one would kill the other and I’d wake up in the morning left with the wrong one.
But as my mother lay dying, in memory she returned to her happiest years, the years with my dad when they were young, and she was able to say, as few of us can, “I had it all.”
I was glad that, looking back, she could remember her life with happiness, that different memories lived in her than lived in me. There must have been a whole other life hidden from my childish eyes that I was unaware of. Perhaps the best years were before I grew old enough to become aware of a steady deterioration through the years after I was four, years in which our small nuclear family, and then our larger extended family, steadily disintegrated and scattered to the four winds, flung by separation, by rifts caused by alcohol and differing beliefs and then, finally and irrefutably, by death.
My Grandma always gave my father full credit for his charm. “When he was sober, he was the most charming man on the face of the earth,” she would say. I remember times when, face alight, at that critical moment when he had imbibed enough to be happy, just before he fell over the lip of the cup to anger, then rage, then violence, when he could hold a crowded room in thrall, telling stories with full awareness that he had the gift of humour, of storytelling. He had wit and humour and intelligence and, most of all, he had music.
But “Brick’s parents told me they rued the day they bought him his saxophone,” Grandma would reminisce. My father had studied classical violin since early childhood. I didn’t know till later in life where my love of the violin came from. I never heard classical music in my home as a child, discovering it with a passion at twenty-seven.
“From the day he got his saxophone, he was lost to them,” Grandma recalled. But he had found his passion: horns and jazz, the big bands and the stage. He turned to the popular “swing” music of the era; he began playing big band gigs around Saskatoon. Now I often play those tunes, the music that filled our house when I was a child: I’ll Get By, Stardust, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, Skylark, and that era is returned to me entire: a time equated in my mind with the home movies taken in those years, that roll once more before my eyes: my aunts and uncles, my mom and dad, in their glory years, all beautiful, all romantic figures from a bygone time, like the cinematic stars of that generation: my mom with her long rolled pageboy hairdo and tight skirts, soldiers in uniform, young war brides with tight curls and distant gazes, glasses of liquor ever-present in their hands, cigarettes dangling at angles on their crossed knees, smiling out at the world through a smoky haze, feeling terribly sophisticated, the world their oyster.
Such nostalgia hits when I see these films, or photographs from that time now gone. Not, certainly, for the life I lived then, for it was scary and lonely and sad, lived on the fringes of the adults’ preoccupation with their own existence. But for the innocence of that era: the romance that Hollywood held out as being available to us all, through the love songs and movies and stars of the time. My aunts and uncles seemed utterly glamorous to me, like movie stars themselves. Looking back from the vantage point of forty or fifty years, knowing how their love stories played out, (or didn’t), how the years, illnesses, deaths and the hand of fate would implode and disperse our family, I feel a great tenderness for us all, smiling hopefully into the wobbly camera, at a time when we still believed we all had happy endings up ahead, just waiting for us to get there.
My mother loved to tell the story of how she and my dad met. She had just dyed her hair blonde. “I was a knock-out,” she remembered happily. “I had long blonde hair hanging down my back and I looked good! I was sixteen but trying to look older and your dad jumped right over the piano and bee-lined straight across the room to come and meet me.”
That was it for both of them. My dad at the time was twenty-seven, unhappily married and the father of three. Plus he drank and played in a band, My grandparents, in the 40’s in small-town Saskatoon, were scandalized, as well as afraid for their daughter.
“I didn’t know what on earth Renee saw in him,” Grandma would reflect. “He was overweight, balding, a drinker, married with three kids. But the more we objected, the tighter she clung to him. We couldn’t do a thing with her.”
But they tried. By then, Dad’s wife had found out and kicked him out. He had rented an apartment near the club where he performed. Grandma told me how one night, late, she and my Grandpa let themselves into the suite. In the darkness, hardly breathing, nerve-wracked, they waited for my father to come home. My Grandpa held a flashlight and, thin and grey and quiet by nature, a gentleman who had never raised a hand to man nor beast his entire life, was goaded by my Grandma to “settle this once and for all”.
When dad opened the door, from behind it in the darkened room, out leaped my Grandpa and Grandma, tackling him in a wild melee of curses, yells, arms and legs and at least one resounding clunk of the flashlight on my dad’s bald head.
When the three extricated themselves and stood facing each other, panting, my grandparents told my dad to leave their daughter alone.
“I think he would have, too, but your mother wouldn’t let him. He tried to break it off but she kept after him. We sent her to stay with Cecile [her older sister], in Regina for a while, but he went there to visit her and she came back,” Grandma told me.
“I remember one night she came home late and crawled into bed with me and she was shaking. I think he must have already been beating her. She was still only sixteen and just beautiful. We sent a photograph of her to Norman Rockwell and he wrote back that if she went to New York, she could be a model, but she wouldn’t leave him. How different her life might have been,” Grandma would say sadly. But it was meant to be, for my sister and I to come to this world.
My mom carried lifelong guilt for the way she left home.
Just seventeen, “All I knew was I loved Brick and had to be with him. They gave me an ultimatum, it was Brick or them, so I had no choice. But it killed me to walk out the door, with both of them crying in the doorway,” my mom would say. “It was the hardest thing I ever did.”
It was ten years before they met again. My dad’s ex-wife would not agree to a divorce, and I was born before they were married. In those days, that was rather scandalous, and my mom didn’t know how to tell her parents that I had arrived.
By now, we lived in the Okanagan Mission, across from the lake, a few miles from the centre of small-town Kelowna. Mom’s younger brother, Don, came for a visit, followed by her younger sister Audrey. It was Audrey who paved the way for reconciliation, telling my grandparents about me. They soon followed for a visit and loved Kelowna so much they moved there, to the house on Christleton Avenue that was the cornerstone of my childhood, and the nucleus of our many family gatherings.
It was on that porch that the family home movies were made, in that house where my childhood security resided, and in that house that I watched the fissure alcohol wedged between my aunts and uncles and my Grandma who “hated the drink”, a fissure that extended to the next generation until family satellites were flung far and wide, chasms death bridged before any of us were able to mend the rifts.
But their lives through those years had a glamour the grandkids’ lives lacked, like the Hollywood films of the era, a combined sophistication, innocence and hopefulness lived on a level far distant from our childish lives and concerns.
Our subsequent liaisons seemed merely tawdry in comparison, lacking both romance and imagination, rather the same difference I find in the songs of today compared to the music of my mother’s age. Or was it the knowledge that life could be better that we lacked, given our early introduction to the bewildering world of grownups?
Whatever it is, when we run the home movies, or play the music from those years, it is the whole era’s disappearance that we mourn, along with all the smiling faces that now are gone. There was a scent to the lake-fresh morning air, a certain comfort in the sound of the hose hitting canvas awnings, the smell of pinks and sweet peas, a quality to the summer afternoons just before a thunderstorm that cannot be replicated, only remembered, like a country once visited that can never be returned to, except in reverie.
I am the age my grandmother was in those long-gone days, when she seemed as old as God. Her life was circumscribed by housedresses, tea parties, Church on Sunday and her flower garden, while mine is still unfolding, at the same time it is flying past more swiftly than the speed of sound.
My children are now the ages of those glamorous aunts and uncles who seemed so elusively out of reach and adult then, and they seem too young to me now, too young to be raising children of their own. I see young moms out pushing prams who don’t look old enough to babysit, and then I know I’m growing old.
Looking back, with age and memory, at those old home movies, I start to put it all together: the love story that was my mother’s, whatever it seemed like to me; the distant dreams that shone in those hopeful faces made more poignant by my knowledge of how it all turned out. With a clutch at my heart, I surreptitiously wipe my tears away as the film sputters, winds down, and the screen goes white: all gone, those bright faces from the long ago, the 40’s, the swing music, the love, the pain that I overheard from my bedroom doorway in the wee small hours of the morning.
I remember the last time my mother watched, and how hard she cried, those years forever gone, with nothing nearly good enough to take their place. Now she’s gone too, one more face missing from the film of all those gilt-edged years, she and my dad resting side by side under a picture of them in their glory days, with the words “Together Forever” on the headstone.
I find myself more and more often listening to the tunes she danced to when she was young, the music of her long ago youth so much more romantic than mine, and I think of her as I sing along:
“I just smile and say, when a lovely flame dies, smoke gets in your eyes…..”
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
Music is part of my heritage. It’s in my genes. I was conceived, marinated and raised in music, and from the time I was small, I wanted to be a star. My father had begun as a classical violinist, but had then fallen in love with jazz. Still in his youth, he switched to alto sax and clarinet and joined a band, to the dismay of his parents. Ever after, they rued the day they bought him his first saxophone, blaming the music scene for his alcoholism, and the downward turning of his life, which had begun so full of promise.
My dad was hugely talented, and he bitterly watched lesser musicians, with whom he had played as a young man, bypass him and rise to some measure of success and fame. He never made the connection between his drinking and his inability to hold a job for long, in the music field or out of it. He had a hard time with the emergence of rock and roll and would sit snorting with disgust at the television. “That’s not music!” When in his cups, he’d stick out his tongue at the set and make a blowing noise: “Phhhhhht!” But he was too transfixed with outrage to change the channel.
Because of him, and because all the other kids loved them and I wanted to be different, I didn’t immediately swoon over Elvis or the Beatles. The music of the 40’s serenaded my life: Pennies From Heaven, I’ll Get By, Stardust, As Time Goes By. They still have the power to take me back to my parents’ lives in Kelowna. It is the love songs of their era, not mine, that I remember best.
My mother liked to tell about how my dad taught me, at age fifteen months, to do the musician’s backwards hand-clap, on the knee, to the beat: “choo-whish-te-choo, whish-te-choo”, and how I had the tempo down pat. Nights when the party atmosphere had not yet degenerated into shouting and the crashing of falling bodies in the living room, sometimes they would get me out of bed, in my ratty plaid dressing gown, to perform for the company. I’d wail winsomely “Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe”, do a little self-taught soft shoe with a big grin, and go back to bed, feeling like a star. It was only a matter of time until I’d be discovered.
I longed to play an instrument. I would stand beside friends as they played piano, aching with longing, tears in my eyes, so badly did I want to be able to sit down and play, express all the music I felt inside me. I asked my mother for piano lessons. But we were poor; she said she didn’t want to waste the money.
All I had was my voice and my battered little box record player. I would close my door, turn it on, leave the world of pain and confusion behind, and enter a new one, filled with music, hope and the dfream of a better life.
Briefly, my mother did allow me to take singing lessons when I was eleven. I was sent to an aged old nun, who sat at the keyboard resignedly plunking out the notes, bored and disinterested, as I sang “There Was a Little Green Elf” without conviction. I was even entered into a singing competition and somehow managed to get through it without disgracing myself. Nor did I stun those assembled with an electrifying performance. I just couldn’t get too worked up over a little green elf. My mother and father sat in the audience, the only time I remember them attending an event of mine. The judges, bored, noted down my mark without enthusiasm. It was clear that this was not going to be my fast track to fame. I stopped going to lessons and returned to my preferred music, about love and pain.
Also briefly, my mother enrolled me in ballroom dancing, to help me with the awkward passage from twelve to teen. There was one shining evening when I performed at the Stanley Park Tea Room, and stole the show from a room full of adults. Somewhere there’s a photograph of me, glowing and laughing into the camera, the instructor beaming down at me as we did the Swing.
But it was with my records, in the privacy of my room, that I unleashed my real voice, the voice of my longing, that no one but my long-suffering family ever heard.
There was high excitement when my dad came home with new LP’s. In those days, they were 33 and 1/3’s. One time he bought five, then got drunk and sat on them, smashing them before he’d even played them all.
I was twelve when I bought my first 45, with my babysitting money. It was “Twilight Time”. My dad hovered anxiously as I put it on the turntable. As its slow notes and pure tones sounded, he relaxed. “I guess I don’t have to worry about your taste in music” he approved. High praise!
I was in my grandma’s back porch listening to the radio when I first heard Brenda Lee and stood stalk still with a shock of recognition. She was singing “I’m Sorry” and her vocal range was exactly like mine. I could sing like her! I had to get her records. She was only thirteen, like me: a little bitty girl with a great big voice, and she was already a star.
Brenda Lee saw me through my teens. My mother called what I did up in my room “coon shouting”, as I balefully sang with all the dramatic anguish of adolescence. I thought a coon was an animal, and vaguely pictured some farmer out in the bush calling for raccoons. Only now do I recognize it as a racial slur, intended to diminish that heartfelt singing that expressed all the things I could not say, all those bright dreams that one day I would spread my wings and fly far beyond this life of pain and limitation. As long as I could sing like this in my room, the possibility existed that one day I might sing before an audience and they would like it. They would like me. One day I would shine.
It didn’t happen. My stronger need was to provide myself with the kind of home and family I had not yet experienced, the storybook life promised me by all the movies and books that fed my dreams. Marriage, babies and heartbreak claimed the next two decades of my life.
I didn’t sing at all during my marriage. But, after it, music once again claimed my soul and rode along with me. My children remember me singing with Abba, with Joan Baez, with Stevie Nicks, with The Bells. In my little house full of children, I sang for the joy of living, for the morning breaking, for the dream of a love that had not yet come. I sang for happiness and hope. I sang the song that was mine.
I became a great appreciater of musicians. “Go for it!” I tell them. “You’re terrific! Shine on!” Part of my encouragement is vicarious; they might do what I did not, might live that part of the dream for me, that road untaken, due to the circumstances that shaped my early world.
For a few years, I worked in a coffeehouse, and was the most rapt of listeners, the music inside me still aching for release, but this time flying along on the fingers and voices of others. The musicians always said they didn’t need an audience, as long as they had me to listen to them.
Music is still a passion, and I still can’t play a single instrument, still too inhibited even to leap about at dances and release the beat pounding within me, much as I long to set it free. I stopped singing some years back. It is enough, now, to listen, to applaud others in their golden moments, to join my being, with all its inner music, to the great All There Is, the all-encompassing song of life.
Acceptance finally comes that it is too late to be a young star rising; too late to be the youngest published author in Canada; too late to be the person I once dreamed that I would be.
But it isn’t too late, it is never too late, to shine.
***** ***** ***** *****
BROCK AND FRIENDSA MEMBER OF THE TRIBE
Just as it is in my life, the synonyms for ordinary fall flat, so unaccustomed am I to the state of being ordinary, while I resonate with almost every possible antonym. So: common, everyday, normal, routine, leave me ho-humming and tapping my pen on the desk, while: peculiar, unconventional, bizarre, far-out, queer, weird, wild, eccentric, oddball, offbeat – now there are some good words!
There have been so many times in my life I could use to illustrate my not-fitting-in. My whole story has been like that and, while now I embrace and am GLAD for my unusual life (what would I write about??!!), there were years when I felt very apart from the rest of the world, years when I felt like I walked through the world inside a glass egg, looking out, disconnected from everything except my children, my little cottage and my huge garden.
There are wounds that leave no scars, and I am sure there isn’t a person living on the planet who doesn’t carry a fair share of them. My psyche bears the imprint of my beginnings, in a violent, alcoholic household. It took years for scar tissue to form around my numb and frightened heart, decades more to scrape away the layers and rediscover its beating presence within.
My childhood was inevitably followed by a soul-crushing marriage, and then an affair with a man who time revealed to be an alcoholic con-man. After him, I was alone. For years I lived only for and with my four children. I felt safe only with them, beating a path between the library, grocery store, thrift store and home. We did everything together. We hiked up Knox Mountain to fly kites on the grassy slopes, we went to the lake, or for bike rides, me leading the way on my big bike, the kids trailing along behind on their smaller ones like a brood of ducklings. My entertainment was their all-night sleepovers, when they danced and played and had popcorn fights, and I was their audience.
A couple poked their heads over my fence one day and told me that the nature spirits must love me, because my garden was so amazing. We chatted, became friends, and soon they looked at each other and said, almost in unison, “We have to take her to Brock and Friends!”
When I walked in the door of Brock and Friends coffeehouse in Kelowna in 1980, there was a frozen Siberian wasteland living in my chest. I looked at the world through frightened eyes. But something drew me through that door – something that wanted me to live.
I was shy, self-conscious almost to the point of muteness. But when I stepped through that door, something deep within knew I had found home. Here was the other side of life I had been searching for, here were dreamers and seekers, people who lived gently on the earth and with each other. Here one was accepted as they were: people gave freely, unconditionally, unafraid. Here, people who didn’t fit in anywhere else, fit in. I watched people come in the door to be greeted warmly, by name. I thought there could never come a day when I would be one of those people.
In this little old house, full of stained glass and plants and live music, my life turned down another pathway. Out of their abiding kindness, they offered me acceptance and safety and space just to be. My life as I now know it could never have been, had I not walked through that door.
The coffeehouse was run by volunteers, so I pushed through my shyness and put my name down for some shifts. Local musicians signed up for evening performances and, irresistibly, the music drew me forth.
At first, I was afraid to come out of the kitchen. I prepared the food, served it, then scuttled back to wipe the counters over and over. People were kind to me; they never pushed. They were the same to me whether I was happy or sad, mute or awkward. Brock often said “Come out and enjoy the music, Sherry. You don’t have to stay in the kitchen.”
In time, I began to creep as far as the doorway, to watch and listen. Finally, I leaned up against an old treadle sewing machine just inside the door, and let the music take me away. I listened with an ache that was physical. All my life, I had longed to play music. My father was a talented professional musician but we were always too poor for music lessons. So I sang, in my bedroom, by the hour, dreaming of doing so in public. But my self-conscious, “not-good-enough” inner self held me back. Once, at the coffeehouse, thinking I was alone, I was singing along with the taoe deck as I chopped vegetables in the kitchen. Brock came out of his office and said, “Sherry, you should be singing here with the others. You have such a beautiful voice.”
Too shy. Too self-conscious. One part of me trying to break free and fly, the other (the "not-good-enough" part) holding me to the earth.
Magical evenings happened in that coffeehouse. Once after a public concert, some of the musicians from a symphony orchestra came and jammed with the local musicians. One of our favourite songs, written by one of our musicians, was called “Gentle Jonathan”, about his brother who had committed suicide. They took that melody and improvised a ten-minute riff on it that was pure magic.
At the end of the evening, as we were closing up, Brock came to me and, for the first time, gave me a hug. “What a magical evening!” we agreed.
I walked home under the stars with an awakening heart. Other than my children, this was the first hug anyone had given me in years. I woke up the next morning in tears. I was coming alive, and it was painful.
I called Brock. “It hurts to feel! It was easier to be frozen!”
“Don’t ever say that,” he told me. It is always better to feel, to be alive! If you don’t feel the pain, you won’t feel the joy either.”
One day Brock and I were chopping vegetables side by side, giggling and joking, and I realized that I trusted him. I had never trusted a man before. But Brock was as safe as a brother. He had given me space and acceptance and appreciation, and time to heal from the traumas of the past. Thus, unforced, the bud of my being slowly began to unfurl.
I realized I was giving of myself, and getting back something I had not had, the sunshine of others’ joy, and a reflection of myself I had never seen before, in all my friends’ eyes. What I gained in those years was so much more than I gave. I gained back my life there, the life I was meant to live as the person I was meant to be. No small gift.
Here, I had found a true home, and family.
Now, when I walked in the door, other faces lit up and called happily to me. One day, while I was cleaning the toilet, down on my knees scrubbing away, feeling satisfied that I was tending those I loved so caringly, the realization hit me: “THIS is the love I’ve been seeking all my life!” I had thought I longed for a partner, to love me and fill up the empty places that had lived in me unfilled my whole life. Instead, it was in giving love, that I was filled. It was a revelation.
I began to write again, to flower, and my shyness fell away. The coffeehouse marked a turning point in my life: not just acceptance of being outside the fold of conventional life, but pride at having found a truer (for me), alternative. These gentle folk set me on a kinder path than the walkways I had traveled, pointed me in the direction of my dreams. From that time on, I was on my own journey. I was on my way.
One day Brock told me, “You know you’re a healer, Sherry, don’t you?” I did not know. I only knew I was happiest in giving. I took home and housed one or another of the young girls who passed through the coffeehouse, until they could find a space of their own. As we prepared food in the coffeehouse kitchen, there was so much laughter. So much joy in being alive.
One memorable summer night we had an outdoor musicfest in a grassy field out in the country. As a Celtic band called Mullingar began to play, people spontaneously began to dance and leap all over the field in a glorious circle, against the setting sun. A moment that will live in memory forever.
I longed to join them, envied their joy and abandon, remained stalk-still at the edge of the field, still too encumbered to be that free. I imprinted the sight on my retina and can see it now, that joyous dancing against the setting sun.
By the time the coffeehouse closed, a few years later, I stood on the stage and told 800 people what the coffeehouse had meant to me, and of my gratitude for the years we had shared. One of the women came up to me after and said “Your power and your beauty made me cry.”
Brock and Friends healed the inner wounds and gave me wings to fly. With music and kindness and time and gentleness, they raveled a warm cloak of love around me that I carried with me forever after. I tip my hat to the universe for those golden years, when I burst out of my shell and emerged into the land of the living, assisted by the kind folk at Brock and Friends, my family for all time.
My time there had been all about following one’s heart, so the next move was a big, trusting leap to Tofino, the land of my dreams. Tofino was like one big coffeehouse, full of the alternative lifestyle folk with whom I am at home. I came out of myself even more, but still sang and danced only when I was alone.
In Tofino, at every musical event, the entire crowd became a palpitating, writing mass of ecstatic gyration. I was far more open, now, much braver. But still not able to get out of my seat and gyrate with the crowd. I thrummed with the beat of the drums all through my being, but could not leave my chair.
All this lifetime, one part of me has longed to be Out There while the other held me fast. I could reflect on so many wasted chances to fully participate in life, many missed opportunities to fully savor joy – and yet, still, all those times, inside my heart, I danced.
******* ********* **********
******* ********* **********
[Note: Roger Sparks is now Matthew Smith, but as I wrote this when he was Rog, I have left it as it is.]
There is a story I keep coming across, about how humankind once lived in tribes that spread across the earth, and every tribe had its magic person. Now, across the eons, we sometimes meet someone we recognize as a member of our tribe, at just the right moment in time to assist us in the unfolding of our journey. When we do, the trick is to know them all our lives.
The universe has gifted me with a few special and very precious friendships during my lifetime. I have been sent some magic people I have recognized as kindred spirits and they have helped me in my unfolding in ways beyond words and beyond measure.
Roger is one of those. I met him at Brock and Friends coffeehouse in 1980. The first time we spoke, I shared a poem I had written and Rog turned it into a song. He sang it sometimes, on coffeehouse evenings full of love and magic, during years when my heart felt like a wilted daisy whose stem was just about gone from lack of nourishment, that was beginning to respond to the love, kindness and acceptance of this new place it had been planted. Fearful, afraid to trust, barely able to hope, almost against its will it was faintly beginning to turn its head up towards the sunlight.
I admired Rog from afar in those days, but it was Brock and Rog and I who loved the coffeehouse the most. Through the years the three of us bonded over keeping it going and sharing those very special times. Once Rog told me, “you’re like a bud, Sherry, that is just beginning to open up and bloom in the sunlight.”
One night that was especially wonderful, Brock gave me a hug for the first time, saying what a magical evening it had been. The next morning I woke up in tears, my heart unaccustomed to what it was feeling. Was this love? Love had always equalled pain before, and these feelings were warm and happy. I called Brock and told him it was easier not to feel because with feeling, I felt unbalanced, vulnerable, open to pain again. He admonished, “Never say that! It is always better to feel. If you don’t feel the pain, you won’t feel the joy either.” He was right.
In the coffeehouse, I found many people on the path, living gently on the earth. I found dreamers and seekers there, and they showed me the way to listen to my heart, and to follow my dreams. From the moment I first walked through the door, I knew I was home. This was the place and these were the people I had been seeking all my life. There I began my journey home to myself, to the person I was meant to be. I know I was led by divine grace to that place. It was a turning point, the most significant one of my life.
Rog played and sang often at the coffeehouse. He was special with a charismatic glow about him, an unhurried, easy, centered way of speaking and smiling. In those days, I stayed hidden in the kitchen, creeping out now and then as far as the doorway, to lean against an old treadle sewing machine, and drink in the music, trying to be invisible. But I could not resist the music, and it drew me forth. Music speaks directly to my soul, to the deepest part of me. It sets free feelings and longings I can keep at bay the rest of the time, but music is the sound of love to me. And so it called me out of the kitchen and back into life. My eyes spoke gratitude to the musicians for setting me free. Sometimes only a few people were there but the musicians said I was all the audience they needed, because I appreciated them so much.
Rog sang “Gentle Jonathan”, a song about his brother who had committed suicide; “Inch By Inch”, about growing a garden, which I was doing in those years, at the same time I was growing myself, inch by inch, and row by row. He sang “Flying Kites” and my heart danced. He sang “It’s In Every One of Us”, and I tried to believe. I knew it was in everyone around me. It was harder to believe it was in me, too, the light and love, the ease and grace these beautiful people achieved so effortlessly.
Yet I began to wonder. They accepted me. They saw something in me that I couldn’t see in myself. Couldn’t they see how lacking I was? Slowly, the thought formed……..if they could see something in me, maybe there was something there to be found. Through those years I began to open; in the safety my trust grew, and finally my heart took wing….and flew!
Brock wanted to travel but he stayed one year extra for me until I was ready to let him go. He knew what the coffeehouse meant to me. But by the time he was ready for Brock and Friends to close its doors, I was ready, too. When I hugged him goodbye, it was with tears, but the certain knowledge I could make it on my own.
What I owe Brock is, basically, my life as I now live it. I know the universe connected me with the exact place and people I needed for my soul to learn the lessons it needed to learn. There are no accidents in the world I live in. Brock started me on my journey, and Roger took me through the next decade of growth.
The coffeehouse made me brave enough to take the next leap: over to the wild west coast where I had so long wanted to be. It gave me the courage to make the biggest dream of my life come true. In the coffeehouse years, I grew the wings I needed to fly away home, landing on this beautiful shore.
My friendship with Rog had been beginning to deepen just before I left Kelowna. Brock had come away from his travels to put on an evening’s presentation. At the end of the evening, I was standing in the doorway looking out when Rog came and put his arm around me.
Hugging him back, I replied, “Like old times. I wish I had been as open then as I am now, so I could have participated more fully.”
He said “You were just the way you were meant to be at that moment in time. It’s all a part of the plan.”
Rog dropped by often after that evening, and it was Rog I called first when the offer came to live and work on the west coast. He said what I knew he’d say, what I most needed to hear: “This is your dream calling you. You’ll always regret it if you don’t go.”
So I went and, once again the questing voice inside of me was stilled. I knew I was in the right place, right on time. Once again, I had come home.
One day a letter came from Brock and Rog. They had been talking about coffeehouse days and decided to write me a letter together. I was touched. For a moment, the three of us were back in the coffeehouse together, with all the wood and hanging plants and stained glass, the smell of thyme and basil, and the melodic notes of a gentle guitar picking out a tune that fell on my heart like sunlight.
Rog and I began to correspond frequently, in more depth, and he began to visit me at the shore. There, he found the beauty and wilderness he loved. Our visits were dynamic. Our creative natures sparked each other. We encouraged each other’s personal best to grow and flourish. We walked old growth trails, stalked the beach with cameras at sunset, silent and solitary in the splendor, our eyes meeting appreciatively as we came back together, not needing to put into words our gratitude, our gratitude.
We returned home for wonderful fish dinners. And then Rog would put on a concert just for me, all the songs I loved.
Sometimes his lady came with him and we three hiked and paddled and explored. But more often, he came along, in retreat from the city. Our talk was of writing, music, creating, nature, and the way we aspired to journey on the earth. Our friendship centered on spirit and growth. And always our love of music drew us close.
When Rog sang to me, my heart opened with a painful wrench I did not fully attempt to interpret, other than that it showed me my solitude. He embodied for me the finest of what is possible in humankind. He achieved a level of grace that I admired, and fell far short of.
And when he played me his songs, I saw everything I love and admire in one person, and it made me yearn. I found myself thinking: it’s rare enough to find one person in a lifetime like this. It is not possible to find another like him. And that left me with a loneliness I only acknowledged at those times, when the music opened my heart wide enough to feel that particular pain.
Another friend, Peter, told me I already have the relationship I have been seeking: with Rog. The fact it was platonic was irrelevant. (Now I know this to be true.) The gift was the communion of the heart and spirit that we shared. I was blessed to have Rog in my life, and am forever grateful.
I am privileged to have Rog and Brock and Jeane as members of my tribe.
Rog and I talked often about spirit, and life and death, which we both viewed as the next stage of the journey, a continuation and expansion of spirit. We weren’t in any hurry; we both loved life. But neither were we afraid.
Both of us intuited our lives may be shorter than the fourscore and ten, and spoke of it, especially as we aged and our health began to fail.
His call to tell me a scan revealed tumours across the upper half of his lungs was not a total surprise to me. We had anticipated there might be trouble with his heart, or arteriosclerosis, the condition that had stricken his father at a young age. This is why I had fretted over Rog’s feelings of being trapped in the city, and was sad at the lines in his song about “doing time in the city”, of looking up between two skyscrapers to see a lone eagle circling in the sky.
It was his choice, he explained, the price he paid for his relationship. But he repeated, also, his doctor’s remark, that sarcoidosis appears to stem, as one of its components, from a condition of yearning, of the feeling one is not in the right place. And neither of us needed to comment.
“You are an anchor for me,” he told me. “You are my biggest fan. Your place is a sanctuary. I love it here. It is my second home.”
His lady told me, “You give Rog something I can’t. I am always afraid, when he comes here, that he won’t come back.”
Because of our connection, perhaps I felt I need not seek another relationship, so truly did our friendship in those days fulfil my need for connection. The fact it was platonic meant it would never end in pain or disillusion. In this way, it has been one of the golden relationships of my life. It has never tarnished.
Our friendship is now 36 years old. Never once has he disappointed me, never once let me down, never shown me anything but grace, great inner beauty – a beautiful spirit striving ever towards the light. I have never seen him in a moment that caused me to think less of him. This is an amazement in a world of flawed and broken people, that I continue to see him whole and shining, as golden now as he was at the beginning.
An amazement that he continues to see in me a far better person than I see in myself.
So my response, of course, was to be there for him as fully as he has been there for me through the years. We were able to openly discuss the path ahead – treatment options, the fact these tumours are usually benign and often go into remission. He did visualizations, that his “little nodule friends” were deflating. He handled the situation with his usual grace.
It is inconceivable to me that there might be a time when Rog is no longer here, at the other end of the phone. He has more songs to write and sing, more mountains to climb, more sunsets to photograph. And lots more love to share.
He told me “Even before this diagnosis, I was thinking about what I have contributed to this planet, in return for my lovely stay, and it is my songs and my music, my writings and my journals. In my will, I have left them all to you.”
In my heart rose a river of feelings: all the love and admiration I feel for this beautiful person, our connection over so many years of journeying: to each other, to the coffeehouse, to the cosmos, to the universal all-that-is, that makes me know that whatever realm Rog is in, in loving friendship our spirits will always been connected.
We are reaching the stage of our lives where partings lie ahead of us. Partings made in love instead of sorrow. Goodbye for a while instead forever. Lacking the pain and anguish, the anger and bitterness that have been a part of other endings. We are seeing our friends – the members of our tribe – through the transitions of our lives, and they are seeing us through ours. This news of Rog reminds me: the Beyond lies ahead. Which makes each present moment precious beyond measure. What this year is telling me is it is time to savor life down to the very last grain of sand, the faintest whiff of springtime air, every song of the frog at eventide, the call of the birds each morn. Time to stop struggling, start flowing. To work less, walk beaches more. To tell my children, my grandchildren, my sister, my friends , my special people, how beautiful they are, how much I love them.
To make my prayers prayers of gratitude, not longing. There is nothing left to long for. My heart is full with all I have been given: the beauty of this magical place all around me, this village oif friendly folk I live in, and those special people I am privileged to call themembers of my tribe, sent to help me through the passages that are slowly leading me home.
“If I go first,” I tell Rog, “leave your journals on your bedside table and I’ll swoop by for a peek.” And if Rog goes first, he’ll forever walk with me on evening rambles at the shore. I’ll always see him, hunched over his tripod, getting just the right shot of yet another spectacular sunset going down.
Update: I still lived in Tofino, when I wrote this, in the late 90’s. It is 2016 now. Rog left the relationship that kept him in the city some years ago, and moved to a more natural setting on the ocean amid the trees. Roger Sparks became Matthew Smith, and he had found his home village.
After some time, he met a wonderful woman and married her. At his wedding, his new wife sang a song: what is it that causes someone to choose one person over another? And a sudden onslaught of grief arose in me, that I am always – always! – the one going home alone, in this life, for reasons I do not understand. I struggled to get my emotions under control. As always, the music had unleashed my deepest feelings.
Our connection grew more distant since the wedding as, appropriately, it should have. He had a wife now. I was immersed in the world of online blogging, involved in two international poetry sites. We stayed in touch, but much less frequently.
The hard news came last week. After a year of severe weight loss and poor health, they have detected a tumorous mass in his colon that has been there from three to five years. He is calm with the news, but says his weakness frightens him a little. I know time is short.
I can’t imagine the day when he will not be there, on the other side of the screen, where he has been for 38 years. I wrote this for him in the fall of 2015.
STALKING THE SUNSET
We walk the fine edge,
between this world and the next,
trying to heal our pain, recover from our illnesses,
adjusting to the decline of the body
that has transported us so far.
You have fought a long battle, old pal of mine.
I am sensing your grasp on life slowly slipping away.
Your eyes are on the eagle, flying free of his fetters.
You are communing with deer in your garden.
The orcas pass by, your mind engraving
the vision and the joy.
Your heart is loving and mourning this beautiful earth
you are slowly leaving.
We are never ready to let go
of the beauty we have loved so well.
For 35 years, you have always been there:
at the other end of the telephone,
through my joys and sorrows,
on the other side of my screen,
sharing all I was learning.
We have witnessed, encouraged and supported
each other's journey,
collaborated on songs,
shared our love of the wild,
You have been my friend, my mentor,
my guide, my guru.
You have shown me the way,
walking your pilgrim's path of the soul,
listening to your inner guides.
You can never really be gone from me.
On the other side, for you,
there will be a radiance:
your face shining as it did in coffeehouse days,
when candles flickered on you smiling in the glow,
singing Gentle Jonathan and Forever Young.
I will see you forever
strumming your guitar, singing your songs
of trees and rivers and eagles in flight.
On the other side: Manders, curled,
purring on your chest -
and no more tumors, shortness of breath,
fatigue and diminishing health.
Just an expansion of the soul
which has grown too large
for your chest to contain,
and needs more room in which to grow.
In memory, you will always be
on stage at Brock and Friends,
or, later, stalking the sunset,
camera in hand, at Chestermans Beach.
It is in sunsets I will forever see you,
old friend of mine.
on the other side of sunset
comes the dawn.
That is where I'll find you,
once you're gone.
THE DAY MY FATHER DIED
On the day my father died, it was a sultry, parched, midsummer afternoon. I had just turned thirteen. I was walking home from my aunt’s, where I had been babysitting, planning to change my clothes and go to my friend’s house.
As I approached the corner of our street, I saw my grandfather’s brown and white Ford pull up to the stop sign. My grandmother was in the front seat and, in the back, sat my mother and four year old sister.
Grandpa leaned out the window. “Get in the car, Sherry.”
“Get in!” he barked grimly, and I silently climbed in.
My grandma turned to face me. “Sherry, your dad has been taken to hospital. He passed away.”
“Dad’s dead?” My voice rose several decibels, and my mother began to cry. My grandma instantly shushed me. “Think of your mother, think of your mother.” I subsided, my brain racing. What would happen? What would happen?
“Dad’s dead?” My voice rose several decibels, and my mother began to cry. My grandma instantly shushed me. “Think of your mother, think of your mother.” I subsided, my brain racing. What would happen? What would happen?
We went to my grandma’s house. The grownups were very busy, talking in hushed tones. No one talked to me or my sister. Our mother was distraught, crying and in shock. At suppertime, as we pulled up to the table to eat, she broke down, and had to leave the table.
She told me later she went home then, back to the four-room rental in which we lived, where my father had died. She said she felt his presence in the little house, knew he was there when she walked in the door. She took his hat and, holding it, walked up and down the creek out back, crying, for hours.
He had had a heart attack. He was fifty years old. I don’t remember being told what had happened until much later. He had been there, then he was gone.
While I was at my aunt’s that morning, he and my mother and sister had gone for a drive out in the country. On their way home, on KLO Road, the sky blue Chrysler broke down. Dad managed to roll it into the closest gas station, and sent my mom and sister home with someone from the gas station. But the car had to be left there and, instead of calling someone for a ride, or taking a taxi, my dad walked all the way home in the broiling heat.
My mother was lying on the couch when he got home.
“I’m either going to lose ten pounds or have a heart attack,” he joked, then he went into the bathroom, and splashed cold water on his face. As he entered the bedroom, my mom heard him collapse and crash to the floor. She screamed for help, tried to give him mouth to mouth. The ambulance arrived, but too late. He was gone.
When I was grown, with children of my own, my mother told me that she thought my father had known his time was short. After his death, she contacted the doctor he saw a year before he died, who had told him he had heart disease, that he needed to drastically change his lifestyle if he were to survive. He needed to lose weight and stop smoking and drinking. He joked he’d rather die than stop drinking, and that is what happened.
He had come to my mother a few weeks before he died, and caressed her. “You’ve been a good wife,” he told her. “If anything happens to me, take care of the girls.”
His death was the line in the sand that marked everything Before and After. My mother was devastated with grief. “He’s the only man I ever loved,” she told us all her life.
I couldn’t admit it, but I felt some relief, though I was sorry for the pain my mother was in. I had withdrawn from my father in the years before his death, judging him harshly for beating my mother. I retreated into silence in his presence. Now the drinking, the violence, the fear I had lived through had ended.
My mother had to get right back on her feet and keep working. We rented a different place, on the same street as my grandparents and, for me, life became more normal and dependable. My mother, I know now, was very lonely and struggling financially, trying to keep us together. But there were no more knock-down drag-outs, no more thumps and crashes in the night.
Outside the church door, at my father’s funeral, I stood beside my mother. She put her arm around me, one of the few times I remember her doing so. From her strength, she smiled at me. “We have a long row to hoe now,” she said, and I nodded, ready to be right there to help.
I went back to school after that summer changed. It was the first year of junior high, in a brand new school, fresh pages opening up all over. One other student in my class had lost his father that summer too. We looked at each other and exchanged unsmiling glances when it was announced. The other students sat in respectful and appalled silence, imagining the worst thing that could happen, the death of a parent.
Then we took out our books and started the first day of high school, and of the rest of our lives.
It was a few weeks or months later, when I went up to the Capri mall after school, into Long’s Drug Store. I was standing looking at items on the shelves when I felt someone staring at me. I looked over to the lunch counter that ran the length of the building at the back. I went there sometimes after school to have a butterhorn. Standing behind the counter, where the waitresses worked, was someone who looked exactly like my father. He was staring at me and smiling. At the time, I thought it very strange that there was a waiter there who looked exactly like my father, though I had never seen him before, and never saw him after. Now I know it was him, checking in to see if I was okay. I wasn’t, but I didn’t know that then. I had painful years ahead as I worked through all I had already lived through.
I can see him today as clearly as I saw him then, gazing at me, smiling, wishing me well. Saying goodbye.
AS SHE LAY DYING
My sister called me in the middle of an ordinary workday morning.
“I’m taking Mom to the hospital. The ambulance is coming right now.”
“She tried to get up this morning, and her legs wouldn’t work. She fell beside the bed. I got her back onto the bed but she isn’t ab;e to use her legs at all.
“It sounds like she’s had a stroke. That’s what happened to Grandma.”
“oh, maybe. The ambulance is here now. Can you come?”
At the hospital, my mother had been admitted. My sister was sitting by her bed. My mother’s eyes were fearful, darting. They were taking her upstairs for tests, so I walked alongside the stretcher. While we waited for the elevator to come, she whispered to me, with a plain and significant glance, “Once you get in these places, you either come out again….or you don’t.”
In the last few months, she had weakened considerably. She was in so much pain from her arthritis that we now think she didn’t drink enough fluids, to avoid having to make the painful trek from bed to bathroom. She needed fluid to counteract the anti-inflammatories, which may have created problems with her stomach. In one phone call, she told me she had vomited up something black.
“That sounds to me like dried blood,” I told her, concerned. She called me later to tell me the pharmacist had told her the same thing.
She had amassed a great deal of medication. We were not sure if she was taking it at the prescribed times, or taking too much of it. I now suspect she was stockpiling them, as her calls to me during the last months gave me clues I didn’t want to understand.
“When a person’s quality of life is gone and you can’t enjoy life any more, don’t you think it’s okay to end it? She’d ask. I’d brush her off uncomfortably, making some hopeful remark about how things would get better. Now I think she was contemplating ending her life. In her last months she told me clearly and repeatedly, at least half a dozen times, the last time not seven days before she collapsed, “I don’t want to be kept alive on machines. If it comes to that, please pull the plug and let me go.” She made me promise.
That first night, we pulled up chairs beside her bed. Late in the evening, we brought her little black dog, Ollie, to see her. She smiled, and patted his head. He was afraid, flattened himself on the bed, head down, ears flat. He knew.
After an hour or so, my mother seemed to float into a dimension halfway between this world and the next. She was having her life review; she began to ramble through memory, recalling her life. “There came Brick, holus-bolus, down the railway platform to meet me,” she smiled. “The only man I ever loved. I had it all.” This was the last time my mother spoke, or was able to speak; the last time she was still present as herself, and not as a body that was moving through the process of shutting down.
I felt her death was near. But as our mother lay dying, my sister and I had a completely opposite comprehension of what was happening and what needed to be done.
Next morning, after he received the test results, the doctor came in to see her. But he didn’t seem to know what was happening. He had no answers. While he was standing beside her bed, my mother suddenly vomited up a huge amount of a charcoal-like substance. Her eyes held mine as I crossed the room to her. While the doctor rang the buzzer for the nurse, I covered the vomit with a towel, walked out into the hallway, turned left to the windowed cubicle and totally fell apart.
My sister came to get me. “We have to arrange an air transfer to take Mom to Victoria. They aren’t helping her here.”
“But she won’t want to go, it will be so hard on her,” I protested. “And what if she dies on the helicopter with no one with her?”
“In Victoria, they can find out what’s wrong and get her better. I’m ordering a helicopter,” my sister said, and she was gone down the hall.
The doctor called us into a side room, explained she was being taken to Victoria, And asked for input from those of us present.
I had to speak up. “My mom told me half a dozen times, the last time seven days ago, that she didn’t want any extraordinary measures taken if it got to this point.”
The doctor agreed. “She told me that, too. More than once.”
A friend of the family stepped forward. “She told me the same thing. She doesn’t want it.”
“So I’ll put a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ order on the forms,” the doctor said.
When my sister told my mother she was being moved, my mother’s eyes got wild, she shook her heads from side to side. “No…..No……” she protested, but they were already wheeling her down the hall. I watched the helicopter take off. My sister drove to Victoria to be with her, and I went home to wait by the phone. I couldn’t forget my mother’s eyes as her life went into others’ control.
My sister called me late that night. “They finally saw Mom just now. She has been writhing in terrible pain for hours, thrashing back and forth. But she kept getting bumped down the list by emergencies. They looked at the x-rays the Alberni hospital took and saw right away Mom has a ruptured bowel. They didn’t see it in Port Alberni, but the doctor here saw it right away. They are going to operate, and then they’ll put her on something just temporarily to get her through this hurdle.”
“Not any machines though, right? She was so clear she didn’t want that.”
“Well, yes, she’ll be on life support. But it’s just temporary. Once she gets stabilized, she’ll be taken off it.”
“Oh.” I was stunned. “But what about the Do Not Resuscitate order?”
“I used my Power of Attorney to rescind it. It’s just temporary, to get her past this hump.”
I went to see my mother the next day. She was sleeping and did not look at all like herself. She was bloated and swollen, and a machine was pumping loud breaths for her. When she woke up, she looked wildly at the machines, in terror. Her worst nightmare had come true.
“Mom, you’re in hospital. They’re helping you. You’re going to be all right,” my sister kept repeating loudly.
My mother’s eyes found mine, standing at the foot of her bed. I was silent before her unspoken reproach. She thought I had not kept my promise. I could not tell her; I looked away.
My mother suffered for seventeen days on the machines. She had had a colostomy which, had she been aware of it, would have horrified her. She had tubes everywhere and was in terrible pain. Her entire system had broken down. They would address one problem, and another would pop up.
We sat beside her, standing guard; we slept in chairs at her bedside. Sometimes we prayed. Sometimes we remembered and laughed softly. Mostly, we were just there, waiting for what would happen next.
I tried a few times to say what I felt to my sister, but she would not, could not, hear. She could not bear the thought of our mother dying; she had to do everything she could to save her. I understood that. But I did not agree.
One final lunch time, I tried again. “I think we’re asking her to suffer too much,” I suggested gently.
“What’s the alternative?”
“Well, had she died naturally, that’s one thing. But now she’s on machines. Who’s going to make the decision to pull the plug? I can’t make that decision. And what about her quality of life? She kept saying if she didn’t have a good quality of life, she didn’t want to be here. Even when she was still at home, before this happened. I think the best she can hope for is extended care, and I know she would hate that.”
“But she’ll get better, she’ll get off the machines and come home.” She can have years yet.”
“The trouble is, I just don’t believe that will happen,” I said. We looked at each other across a great divide.
“She wrote something on her slate today,” my sister said. “She waved her hand at all the tubes and machines and wrote ‘goodbye’ on the slate. She let me know she wants this over.”
But then she continued, “You’re not going to like this. But they want to do a tracheotomy. They rolled her over to see a little old lady who had a trach, and asked her ‘This is quite comfortable, isn’t it?’ and the little old lady shook her head: ‘nooooo, it isn’t.’”
I had to leave the table, the hospital, the city. I had to get out of there. It felt like they were carving her up like a Christmas turkey. I could no longer take part in something I felt was so wrong.
Before I left, I spoke to the specialist. “How long does this go on before we know if it is working or not? I am having a problem with how my mother is suffering. She made me promise over and over, we would never put her on machines, never make her go through this.”
“I wondered why the Do Not Resuscitate order was reversed,” he said.
“My sister has power of attorney and she….she wants my mom to get well and come home, of course. But I don’t think she will ever be well enough to come home.”
“We don’t let anyone suffer too long,” he reassured me. “If things don’t turn around in two weeks, then we have to make a decision. For now, we will continue as things are and see what happens.”
Before I left, I stood beside my mother. I couldn’t stop the tears. She turned her head to me in surprise, questioning.
“I tried to tell them your wishes, Mom,” I told her. It was all I could say. I couldn’t explain why all of this had happened, but I needed to let her know I had at least tried to speak for her.
I went home, went back to work for a few days. On the seventeenth day of my mother’s ordeal, during which she must have burnt off enough karma for several lifetimes, my sister phoned. It was ten o’clock at night. “Mom is bleeding internally, and they want to take her off the machines and take the tubes out. Can you come?”
“On my way.”
I drove through the dark, winding mountain pass, but there was no moon to light my way. I was listening to a tape about death, about letting go of the past, of all anger or unfinished business, and simply being with the soul, in love and forgiveness, as it made its transition. As I drove through the night, I did let go: of all the ways we had misunderstood and miscommunicated, of the triangle that was my mother, my sister and myself, where I was odd man out. I knew she had done the best she could, and was grateful for the help and support she had given me as I raised my kids as a single mother. I would support her and my sister open-heartedly through this passage. I would be strong and get everybody through.
When I got there, my mother was awake. I sat beside her. She reached out and touched my cheek, an uncharacteristically affectionate gesture.
“I love you,” I said.
“Love you, too,” she mouthed.
There wasn’t much to say. I knew that soon she would understand everything, that all questions would be answered, all misunderstandings be made right. She would know my heart; her own would be transfigured. She would transition to the next world, where she believed she would see my father again. She would fly free.
They pulled out the tubes, disconnected the machines. Her strong heart kept beating and beating. My sister and I drifted off to sleep. Then I heard my sister say, “Sherry, Mom’s awake.” She was awake and looking at us with a strangely piercing look. We stood up. A line of blood trickled out of the corner of her mouth and she expired. My sister fell upon her chest and cried, “Oh, Mom, poor Mom, suffering right to the very end.”
I put my arm around her. “We have to be strong now. Mom would want us to be close.”
When we left the hospital that night, it felt like a different world, a world without our mother in it, a strangeness we were not prepared for. I knew I had done all I could to honour my mother’s wishes, and that my sister had done all she could to save our mother’s life. It was over. I handled it by accepting it as it was. There was nothing else that would bring peace.
*** *** *** ***
A few weeks later, I was driving to Port Alberni, to my mother’s house. I was thinking of my mother, my sister, myself. Of how strange it was to now be the family matriarch instead of the daughter, my feet not ready to fill those shoes. No buffer between myself and the next world. As I looked in reverie through the windshield, I saw – in slow motion – a grey owl fly right across the road in front of me, low down to I could see her clearly, every feather, her beak, her eyes. She was staring in the window at me, our eyes meeting and fixed, as if she was trying to send me a message, as if she had something she wanted me to know. The car must have kept moving, but those moments seemed strangely suspended as she slowly crossed my vision and entered the forest, our eyes locked the whole time.
In First Nations culture, it is believed that the dead visit us soon after their passing in the form of an animal. This is what it felt like to me: I could see my mother, her wisdom, her wish to relay a message, in that grey owl.
What was she trying to tell me?
*** *** *** ***
AN OWL IS THE DOORWAY INTO THE UNKNOWN
I sit beside my mother’s bed
as she lies dying.
Our eyes meet: all the words
we cannot say,
all the misconceptions,
In this lifetime, it has always been
I release the ways
we never got it right;
forgive, no need to hold the anger tight.
Just “I love you”,
and her spirit flies away,
out of the room
into the starry night.
Weeks later, I am driving
towards her home
when, in slow motion,
across my windshield flies,
a grey owl,
as she passes looking
Time is suspended
on this point
Somehow I feel
a message has been
and, somewhere, my spirit sore,
I know all is understood
and I believe.
Owl, swooping sideways,
into the forest green,
bird between two worlds,
all that we know
and the unseen,
harbinger of change,
of mysteries beautiful and strange,
as our eyes meet,
I know an Oracle
Wise watcher in the night,
friend of the moon,
fly after she
who left my world
of my belated transformation,
and give my love to my mother
in the Spirit Nation.
*** *** ***
A LAND OF MILK-FACED FOOLS
Marcel was a short, slight, eye-glassed, fair-haired boy in high school. He had a plain face, long nose and rather pouty lips. His rather effeminate manner made him the butt of endless teasing by his teenage classmates, macho boys who were all mouth and muscle. His demeanor was quiet, watchful, withdrawn, often rather sullen. But when the kids taunted him beyond what he could bear, he would sometimes flare up, quoting Shakespeare at them in fgrothing, red-faced tirades that reduced them to fits of laughter, and left him seething with frustration.
“Begone, thou milk-faced fools!” he’d rant, face red and eyes tearing. He’d follow with a whole section of quotation, verbatim, while they all roared heartlessly.
In the Old Ways, Marcel would have been called “two-spirited”. He would have been honoured in some cultures for carrying the two sides of human nature, the male and female, within him, thus being doubly blessed. In high school, in small town Kelowna in the 60’s, he was tormented, for simply being himself, one apart from the herd.
I ran with the popular crowd, but I, too, felt different. My ready laughter, my bouncy personality, hid a secret: a home life marked by poverty and alcoholism. I was either cresting a peak of hilarity, or plunging into profound despair. I pretended not to see the raised eyebrows, the dismissive, superior shakes of the head from the “normal” kids, who seemed to ingest balance with their morning vitamins. My popularity felt a fragile thing, should the other kids discover who I really was.
I hated how the boys bullied Marcel, though I was not brave enough to stand up to them on his behalf. I’d say “Hi” to him in passing, a greeting he would quietly acknowledge. That was all it took to make him my devoted friend.
He began to shadow my footsteps, meeting me on the way to school in the mornings. From down the street, I’d see him trudging towards me, head down, arms full of books, shoulders hunched protectively in his shabby tan corduroy jacket.
I remember those dark winter mornings, walking to school with an emptiness inside me as big as the sky. At the corner of Richter and Elliott, Marcel would fall in beside me, our boots crunching over the frozen ground, our frozen hearts marching like brave soldiers with no choices towards the brightly lit school. At the lockers we’d part; I’d merge into the crowd and he would make his solitary way through the rest of the day, till we were released like prisoners by the three o’clock bell.
We didn’t talk about out struggles, his persecution, my unhappiness. He fell in beside me again and we walked much in silence, turning off at our respective corners. The trials that drew us together remained unaddressed between us. But I now think Marcel may have been the only person in my life, back then, who recognized I was in emotional depths in need of help that did not come.
There were times when my heart sank at his persistent presence. Once a boy I liked offered to walk me home, after the three of us had been decorating the gym for a dance. Marcel, flushed and happy from the unaccustomed feeling of being included, chirped, “I’ll come, too!” Later it hurt to remember that he caught and understood the glance that flashed between me and the boy, and how he turned off at the first side street and made his lonely way through the falling dusk.
But mostly, I was kind, and he was my loyal ally, a quiet and steady supporter.
Kelowna was a church-going “respectable” community, about ten years behind the times in the early 1960’s. We attended a Catholic school, which one might have thought would not tolerate bullying among the students. It was a time of strict mores, and following the norm. “What the neighbours will think” was highly important, and neither Marcel nor I filled the bill, he because he did not act enough like a boy, and me because I acted too much like a girl. My dating, my flamboyant façade, kept me at risk of being considered “fast”, though in truth I was a babe in the woods, and a virgin when I married, due to Early Trauma By Nuns. I was constantly at Mass praying, since I was always in a state of “sin” for thoughts, feelings, dreams, over which I had little control. The nuns assured us these were occasions of sin that would send us straight to hell, should we die in the night. But it was worse for boys – it was whispered if they committed sin by touching, they could actually “go crazy” – their lives would become unmanageable.
It is a wonder any of us managed to eventually procreate at all.
Discipline was so strict at Immaculata that once, during choir practice, Sister fell off her stool and onto the floor and not one of us broke ranks or made a peep, beyond one single collective gasp. In silent disbelief, we looked down upon her, lying on the floor, a source of angry power reduced to crumpled human proportions. We felt as horrified as if Jesus had fallen off His cross. Sister rose up, with ruffled dignity, climbed back up on her stool, wimple crooked, expression fierce, and we shakily carried on with the next verse.
I spent Saturday nights necking in the back of ’64 Chevies, and Sunday mornings singing in the choir, my confused eyes looking out from under the brim of my brushed tan sailor hat, my soul at a point equidistant from hell and heaven. My white gloves, though, were immaculate, primly drawn to the wrist, one hand modestly folded into the other.
I alternated between wanting to be a nun and wanting to be the mother of six. A faceless husband figured only in the periphery in this dream, once the beautiful wedding was over. Life was waiting up ahead, in glorious Technicolor, once I reached the magic status of adulthood, when I would finally know what to do. A picket fence, milk bottles on the porch, (they still did that in those days), and babies in high chairs would make it all come right. It would be perfect.
Meanwhile, Eyes watched everywhere from behind lace curtains. My heart sank at grave admonitions from Grandma, because Mrs. Long or Miss Hicks or the Bennett sisters had seen me laughing too loudly on the street, or, worse, Riding with some Boy in a Car.
Through high school, those unseen eyes were my judges, and the feeling I never measured up I hid behind the jokes and the “I don’t care” attitude.
Times when I was hurting most, Marcel would quietly fall in beside me, walking home.
“How’s it goin’?”
We never talked about out pain, but his silent presence was a comfort to me. Only much later in life did I realize the sensitivity he displayed, understand that he must have watched me, had seen the feelings I thought I was hiding. Never would either of us have spoken unkindly to the other. We were adrift together on an unfriendly sea, and our boat was leaking faster than we could bail.
I was on student council, involved in everything, and Marcel came along on my coattails, grabbing whatever crumbs of inclusion he could from the edge of the crowd. The kids teased that he “follows Sherry around like a puppy dog”. I thought I was being kind to him, befriending someone so socially uncool, by tolerating his constant presence. Only when I was older would I understand the gift he gave me, standing by in silent loyalty, through those painful years, steadfast, asking for nothing in return.
None of us understood, in those years, that Marcel was years ahead of us in terms of his own inner development. Because he lacked social connection, he was forced onto his own resources. He was a scholar, reading Shakespeare for pleasure. He listened to classical music, wrote, dreamed, thought about life, planned for his future, while the rest of us used up megatons of energy having crushes and getting our hearts broken, turning into, as the principal disparagingly commented, “a two-headed monster with googly eyes” in the front seats of cars.
Marcel shone when, for a school project called My Dream House, he produced full architectural plans, down to the last specific detail. The rest of us cut out pictures from magazines and glued them on poster board at the last minute. It was obvious he had put in hours into his project, time the rest of us were unwilling to spend.
Once I went to his house and he showed me a photograph of himself when he was small. He was sitting on a bench, one foot up and tucked under his other leg. He had long blonde ringlets and a dress. I felt he was trying to tell me something but I didn’t know what. I thought since his parents were European, it might have been their custom to dress small boys that way.
There was no judgment in me. Perhaps because I felt its sting so often, but even more because, if anyone felt unworthy, in any human equation, in those years, it was me.
I hated living in a small town, yearning for the anonymity of the city, where I fled right after graduation. I rejected school and the emotional torture kids inflicted on other kids that made me hate school. So I refused a scholarship to college (that would have changed my life) and blended happily into the sea of nameless faces taking the bus to work every day.
Marcel was in the city too, attending university. Once I visited his small apartment. I was impressed at how well he knew himself, and expressed his individuality in his surroundings. He had shelves of great books, he had a wonderful classical music collection, he had a stereo, art on his walls, and a mosaic-topped coffee table he had made himself. He lived like an adult, I marveled. How had he learned this?
My apartment, and my heart, were still a girl’s. I had frilly curtains and stuffed animals. With my first paycheque I bought a stuffed dog. My first piece of “art” was a black velvet painting of a puppy with tears in his eyes.
Marcel was happier in his own skin these days. He was among other intellectuals; in university he fit in. Individuality, mocked by the pack mentality of teenagers, was now encouraged. The rules had changed; being who you were was everything. Marcel found friends who were like himself, and his life seemed full. He had grown beyond me.
When I moved away, our letters crossed back and forth for a time. In one of them, Marcel wrote that he was homosexual and he hoped telling me would not affect our friendship. It didn’t. It was simply a fact that I noted. He wrote me a story, on a long scroll, in which a princess disparagingly called out, “Marry me, marry me, before I become a spinster,” which made me laugh, but also aptly described my mindset at the time.
After I was married, he sent baby gifts, a silver cup for Jon, and a little pair of moccasins “to chase the boys in” for Lisa.
When my husband and I moved back to Vancouver, he asked if he and his lover could come for a visit.
“Of course!” I said. “Great!”
When the guests arrived, the men all sat in the living room, while I made tea in the kitchen. As I was carrying it in, I noticed a terribly tense silence had fallen over the living room. My husband sat scowling, arms crossed, beard bristling, refusing to speak. I made some forced remarks, tried to smile and draw Marcel and his partner out, but conversation was stilted and very soon they left, Marcel giving me a sad and wondering look as they went down the steps.
“You were not very friendly to our company,” I said to my husband, as I closed the door.
“What do you expect, when a man comes calling on my wife?” he snarled.
I was speechless, then enraged. “Marcel is my friend! He has never been a boyfriend. Besides, he’s gay!”
“He still has the equipment,” my husband muttered darkly.
When I was older, long divorced and finally at home in my own being, I understood that homophobia and paranoia exist, and that people of gentle hearts constantly have to bang our heads against it in order to simply live our lives. Love is such a private and tender thing between two people. Behind closed doors, we act out our love and pain, and why should it matter to anyone else with whom we share our deepest selves, or how we choose to do it?
I also, by then, knew that Marcel was three hundred times the man my ex-husband was. He knew and accepted who he was – and who I was! – in a way that was simply not available to my ex-husband. But all my life I will remember Marcel’s sad look as he left my house that day, and think of what their conversation must have been , as they made their way back to their own world. I didn’t hear from him again for three decades.
*** *** ***
In 2000, I was living on Vancouver Island, and tracked Marcel down through an on-line high school classmate search. He still lived in Vancouver. With joy, we resumed our friendship via email.
“I am overjoyed to hear from my old high school heart throb,” he wrote.
“I was your heart throb? Marcel, I’m touched.”
“That was before I realized I was gay. I thought I was just a late bloomer. However, if I am a late bloomer, I am somewhere between the last of the chrysanthemums and the last Christmas rose. I live by myself, with a furball called Paprikas – he arrived in front of the building a bag of bones, so I took him in. He got his name because he is the colour of paprika. Am I happy, you ask? Sometimes, when the sun shines. Most of the time, I am concerned about my future. Ill health is no joy.”
Marcel had severe health issues and could not work. He had been battling an insurance company for disability payments. Insurance companies being what they are, it could withstand the battle longer than he could. Marcel felt his integrity was being attacked, when he was not believed.
I was going through a bad break-up – my last – at the time. Sometimes the email would come from Paprikas, saying his master requested that I write about something other than a whiney woman mourning a lost love. When I sent along a missive on another topic, Marcel returned to my inbox, acerbically remarking “Perhaps you can still write, after all.”
Around that time, Marcel was gay-bashed, his hand broken, by a bus driver in downtown Vancouver. With typical lack of complaint, he continued to painfully tap out emails to me.
He identified his attacker, but no charges were brought “because it is my word against his”. Marcel was outraged. He encountered the man on two other occasions and the man behaved menacingly to him. He felt threatened.
He grew quiet. Sometimes a short email would come from Paprikas saying he was worried about his master, he never smiled any more. I was distracted, still shocked and grieving what had happened to me, and didn’t grasp the significance of the message. Somehow I thought Marcel would always be on the other end of my emails. We had only just reconnected. We had so much catching up to do.
In the fall of 2001, after a definitive “claim declined”: from the insurance company, Marcel planned carefully over three months’ time. In early 2002, he held a lavish and perfect dinner for visiting relatives, during which he seemed light-hearted and charming. They said he laughed a lot, reminisced. He almost glowed. Later that night, after they had returned to their hotel, he swallowed most of a bottle of antidepressants and, with finality, departed from this life.
He left a letter saying he felt terrible deserting his mother, but simply could not go on.
“I am tired of the struggle, of injustice, and of the rage that makes me feel. I cannot work, and I will not beg. Please find Paprikas a good home. Don’t put him through the trauma of going to the SPCA. Please.” It was his only wish.
He left instructions that I be called. I was devastated; we had not even begun to finish our conversation. I had only just gotten him back. I also felt guilty. I had been given a second chance to be the kind of friend to him that he had always been to me and, preoccupied with my own drama, felt like I had let him down a second time.
He left a letter for me. “By now you will know that I have left this world. I could not handle life any more. When my claim was denied, I knew this would be my end,” the letter said. “I just didn’t have the strength to go on. I am sending you a little owl to give you wisdom, a Chinese gentleman to give you tranquillity, and a piece of Inuit sculture to give you a happy family. Thank you for this too brief renewal of our friendship. All my love, Marcel.”
I went to the city to attend his memorial, held in his ninety year old mother’s apartment. She had buried her husband years earlier, has lost her other son who died in childhood, and had now outlived her only other son. When the door to her apartment opened, the rooms were filled with relatives and friends. Did he know how many people loved him? In their midst, I saw a teensy, diminutive woman, under five feet tall, her shoulders bent with age and sorrow. I went over and put my arms around her. She felt like a little bird, her arms folded in like wings.
I had written a poem to Marcel when I learned of his death. Crying all the way through, I managed to read it during the memorial. I read it right to him, his ashes resting in an urn on the coffee table, a photograph of him in happier days beside it. I was telling him he meant more to me than I had even known.
The family had had only 24 hours to empty Marcel’s apartment. There was no time, they said. Paprikas was taken to the SPCA. Marcel’s worst fear. Poor Paprikas.
I returned home. I unearthed the graduation photos of me and Marcel at seventeen, and hung them on my wall, along with the photo of himself holding his beloved Paprikas, with one of the saddest faces I have ever seen. He had had his friend take it just days before his death. His eyes sent me a message of farewell from beyond the veil.
I grieved for a long time. I knew he was, at last, at peace, free of intolerance, phobia and prejudice, free also of the private demons that had plagued his earthly journey. I was grieving my own failure to do better by him this second time around. I needed to believe he was still nearby, was still my guardian angel.
Can you still hear me, Marcel? I miss you more than I can say. But you have finally been released from this painful, obtuse land of milk-faced fools.
*** *** *** ***
on the corner
of Elliot and Richter
in the snow
all those dark sub-zero
bitter weekday mornings
in the crystal dead of winter
under crisply winking stars
fall in beside me,
our steps crunching
across the frozen snow
towards the lighted school
where you would play
towards the lighted school
where I would play
We need not speak;
you were just there
to guide me
you supported me
and loyally you cared
through all those years
silent, beside me
so full of all the words
I could not speak
so left unsaid,
brittle with so many
I knew not
how to shed.
along the deep abyss
that I was skirting
was a comfort
you, the only one
to see that I was hurting
you, the only one to see
who I was
really meant to be
hiding behind the gay bravado,
the laughing eyes,
you saw me shining then
and ever after
all my life long,
you've always been
Perhaps your presence
kept me from
my pain hid deep
you knew I needed
and up that hill of pain
You were so loyal,
you asked for nothing
but it is true
that in those years
that burned us deep
I was your defender, too
When other boys taunted you
beyond your years,
so sage, so wise,
till angry tears stood,
in your outraged eyes,
frustration at living in a world
I would fall in beside you
as we walked away
from yet another day
survived in school
I lost you for a long and lonely time,
went looking for you many years ago
you, the one who always made me laugh,
you, the only one from those sad years
who "knew me when"
and who was still my friend
I needed to thank you
be your friend
than I could be
when you watched me
breaking my heart
over silly boys
who decried me
while all the time
someone who cared
stood right beside me
One day your name was there
on my computer screen
it was so good to finally
make up the lost years
But, Marcel, you left too soon
This time I thought
that there would always be
more time to tell you
all you mean to me
kind you are
how clear you see,
we still had so much
as if the years
had never intervened,
there you were
behind my winking screen
making me laugh as I did you
all too ludicrous
because laughter after pain
is what we always knew
I took for granted
this time you would
at the other end
of an email
never lost again
We never had the chance
to meet again
If we did
I knew your face
would be the same
because your heart was
throughout all the years
We did not metamorphose;
from those young ghosts
our spirits rose
and we became
who we are:
two solitary souls
I still had a hug
to give you
in this lifetime,
wanted one more time
to look into your eyes
You left too soon
but this I surely
be a friend
I have to believe
that one day
I'll be crossing
a clear and frozen
until I reach the
far and distant
just past the morning star
where you are
to fall into step
in that moment
not denied me,
to support me through
that last stretch of the journey
I will be
back when you loved me then
I'll bet you never dreamed
that it would end up
me and you.
*** *** *** ***
MY ODYSSEY TO THE SEA
Fall. I’m heading to the west coast to see the whales, something I have wanted to do for years. I hope this will help me through another winter in Kelowna, a place where I no longer want to be, doing a job I don’t want to do.
I decided to stay here one more year, so Jeff can finish school. Another year of cleaning toilets, washing floors and simply surviving, the years speeding past faster and faster, and I still haven’t even begun living the life I want to live.
Off to see my whales! As I enter Vancouver, it is pouring rain, grey and dingy. Depressing looking. Too big, too busy, no one has any space. I long more and more for contact with – immersion in – nature, to be living near trees, in close touch with the earth. Even Kelowna is too big now, and I have long ago run out of excitement with the scenery. Not rugged or wild enough. Too tame.
Can’t get out of the city fast enough, pass right through and feel better as soon as I am on the ferry. The mountains are beautiful, clouds hovering near their tops, as I walk the deck and take photos.
Lori and Doug pick me up in Nanaimo. She looks so happy. She is living on the Island in Mom’s house in Qualicum, which is wonderful of course, acreage with trees and trails running through them, a glimpse of ocean from the upstairs window. The house itself is rustic and roomy.
Early next morning Lori and I head for Tofino. I relish every inch of the drive. It is wonderful. Cathedral Grove feels like being in Church. Trees so huge and eternal you speak in hushed and reverent tones, not to disturb the ancient beings who have survived for centuries.
Through the mountains towards the sea, clouds drifting across mountaintops, breathtaking vistas around every corner. This is my country, where I would live if I could choose. Will I ever get to choose?
Tofino is tiny and we don’t see much, as we arrive just in time to go out on the tour. We are on the last trip of the season, a special four hour trip, the girl at the Whale Centre tells us. A government man from the Department of Tourism is aboard and wants to see the effects of logging on the area, and the repercussions to tourism. I am engaged, say little, but take it all in. This girl is my kind of people, an actove environmentalist. Listening to her passionately denouncing the clearcutting of the hillsides, she is speaking my language. I am too shy and impressed to indicate I am equally passionate, but she has my respect.
I am a little nervous about going out on a zodiac. Fear of the water runs in the family, since Grandma’s moher lost a five year old son to drowning when she was carrying my Grandma. However I have missed the ocean so much for so long and want to see the whales so badly, I consider this an adventure and throw myself into it whole-heartedly.
Zipping myself into the survival suit, I feel like I am donning a different life. And we’re off.
I am ecstatic. The water is dotted with little islands. Blue heron, eagles, puffins, seals that make growling sounds - nature abounds. We investigate little inlets, see waterfalls. Shari gives a running commentary on the area which has been savaged by logging. What remains oif old growth is under attack. The whole ecosystem is threatened. Not many intact watersheds left; the majority have been damaged by logging right down to the creekbeds, which get clogged with debris, threatening the salmon migration.
We see a mountainside that is utterly bare. They took everything, left nothing but dirt and rubble; nothing can grow there for a very long time. When the winter rains come, Shari explains, slides will take more of the slopes down into the waterways.
Reforestation is apparently a pipe dream. Nothing can gain a foothold on a slippery sliding slope. The ugly bald patch stares balefully outward, a huge slash on the face of the hill. My heart aches. The trees must feel the touch of doom coming closer. They stand patient as aeons, yet must feel fear at the chain saws come ever closer. I am sickened and saddened. I feel their pain, the pain of a planet that is being plundered.
On the way here, we passed many clearcut slopes. Beautiful B.C.
Shari points to a beautiful island slated to be logged. I can see how people here become radicalized.
She says B.C. is the only place left where this type of logging is still allowed. And all the lumber gets shipped out of the country. We are destroying our ecology and not benefitting (other than the lumber companies.) They say even the loggers, apart from making good money in the short term, will pay for the over cutting by job loss when the trees run out. The corporations don’t care – they move on. Their bottom line is dollars. Our old growth goes to make phone books for L.A., or gets shipped to Japan.
She says the government is actually subsidizing logging, since it is not financially viable any more; plus the big companies expect paybacks for the areas to be preserved. Selling our children’s future. Will they stop when they realize our oxygen supply is in question? Will they EVER stop?
Shari was one of those who stood on the blockades at Meares Island, with First Nations, resulting in Meares being protected. My admiration grows. She is doing something for what she believes in. How I wish I could live what I believe too, not just think it.
We see some loggers on a devastated hillside and the driver pulls the boat in close.
“What’s happening?” Shari calls out.
The man does not answer, acts intimidated, seems to know who she is.
It turns out he is planting grass seed, throwing handfuls of it over top of the sliding dirt, debris, rocks, fallen logs and rubble. Keeping B.C. green. We erupt in laughter and putt away.
I am in heaven. I hang on for dear life as the boat slaps the waves, but I am ecstatic. This affinity between me and the ocean has gone on most of my life. I have lived on the ocean only nine months of that lifetime. Not enough.
Some of the people on the boat are local. Right beside me is a woman in her 50’s who lives in Tofino. She radiates peace and contentment.
“Open sea coming up. Let’s go see the whales!” Shari calls.
We are surrounded by open sea and we are lucky. Yesterday was heavy rain; today is sunny and perfect. The universe is gifting me, after all the slogging that came before this one perfect day.
We stop at a small rock island where hundreds of sea lions are basking. When we cut the motor, we can hear a strange growly noise. It’s the sea lions and I am enchanted. They are everywhere, young ones diving; the largest must be a thousand pounds!
Then we are on to the bay where the whales are hanging out. We cut the motor and drift. Shari says her priority is to respect the whale’s space, not crowd them, not come too close. Appreciating them, but allowing them to be. It is up to the whale to decide if it wants to come closer.
At this time of year, September, the whales have been in the feeding grounds for several months and are by now well used to boats full of people. They also are intuitive and can perceive the energy of those on board. Some whales become what is called “friendlies”, and come up to a boat sometimes, allow people to pat and stroke them.
(This did not happen to our boat that trip but, one year later, a whale whooshed and dove right beside a boat I was on and thrilled me down to my toes.)
We sit quietly, listening to waves lapping gently. Shari says the whales know we’re here, they can hear the vibration of our voices under the water; they heard our engine from far off. In fact, the sound of the motor hurts their ears. (One can imagine the accumulated sound of many boats, and of larger vessels.)
Suddenly the surface is broken with a great whooshing sound, and we see a huge knobby back. My first grey whale! It spouts and slowly, slowly, slowly, dives, the length of its body rippling, its tail slowly rising straight up. Shari says it will go to the bottom and feed for four or five minutes, about a minute for each time it blows while on the surface. She says it has a sort of comb, called the baleen, on the side of its mouth. It feeds by sweeping up great mouthfuls from the ocean floor and sifting it through its comb, spitting out the mud, keeping the small krill as its food.
They feed here all summer, then in late fall go back down to Baja, where the baby whales are born. Then, come next March, they begin the migration back up the coast, skinny and hungry, their babies by their sides.
The first months, they are traveling and feeding but by late fall, as it is now, they become more social and play more. Many of them who come back every year become accustomed to human visitors and every season there is at least one “friendly”. This blows my mind.
There are several whales in this bay and we enjoy their spouting and whooshing and diving all around us. Most are a fair distance away, but one surfaces suddenly very close alongside us, to our delight.
This is the best day of my life!
Someone asks if the whales ever come too close and Shari replies they seem to know where the boats are and have learned these humans are peaceful and non-threatening. They are not aggressive or inclined to attack or harm anyone. One day though, she says, one did come very close to the boat. She was a little nervous, unsure what it was up to, but was not really scared. I know she trusts them, and they must know it too. When it surfaced, it came right alongside the boat, and looked in at her with its big, soft, ancient, intelligent eye. She said she was mush for days afterward.
We enjoy the whales for a satisfyingly long time, but it is growing dusk, getting cooler. I am freezing and ready when the driver says “Let’s go home!” I only wish “home” for me was right here with these people. They are my people. I don’t want to be a tourist, I want to stay here, go with them to their homes, work with them to protect the forest and the whales, help them to save what is left.
I don’t feel like a tourist. I belong here. Home is not home any more and I know now it hasn’t been for a long time.
I say little and, dutifully, I go. We have no time to stop at Long Beach as dark is falling and the road is twisty.
I loved this day.
*** *** *** ***
When I get home I end up getting sick with bronchitis, and my illness keeps me off work for a month. One rainy day when I am already depressed, I watch I Heard The Owl Call My Name, filmed on the West Coast, and I am sunk. A cold Okanagan winter stretches before me, a landscape as bleak as my heart feels here, where there is not enough nourishment for it, where it feels it is struggling for air, going down, down, down for the third time.
I write Shari a letter. During the trip she had said there is so much she needs to do, but so far she has been unable to find anyone who can run the Whale Centre as well as she can. I write how lucky she is to be living her dream, how I feel about the forests, the whales, Mother Nature. How it might be presumptuous of me, but I’d like to work for her, that I wonder if I might be the person she has been looking for. I don’t believe anything will come of it, but I have to write it.
My friend keeps after me. Why am I not sending applications out? If I want to get out of Kelowna, why don’t I take action. But something stops me. Anywhere other than Tofino would be a compromise and I have spent most of my living living out compromises, in the interests of other people. I have no more time for half measures. My life is going by. My spirit will die if it stays here for the sake of a paycheque.
I spend the winter wondering. I hear nothing from Tofino. I decide that was a dream. If she had replied, I would have been scared anyway. I have always been afraid of risk, needing some illusion of security. Life as a single mom was precarious enough. Survival was a 24 hour job. I couldn’t just go off tilting at windmills.
Tofino is wild and small. Perfect for me, maybe, but for my adult life, I have had to consider the kids first. Twenty-two years so far, with ten years more ahead. By then I’ll be old. It will be too late for me. I am not brave enough to go there without something or someone to go to.
I always told myself if I won the lottery, I’d build on the beach. Is it possible I am considering going there with holes in my sneakers and one or two hungry kids? I could never survive.
But the fact is, people do survive there. Somehow.
I have just been promoted. I am a supervisor, for the first time making decent money. As the universe has a sense of humour, this is when the letter comes from Shari, in Tofino. She offers me a job but can only offer part time at six dollars an hour. Housing is a problem. There is none. But do I want to come?
Yes! Who would give up a good paying full time job for seasonal part time low-paid work? No security, right up against my how-will-I-survive panic. But underneath the panic is the deep recognition that the universe is offering me my dream, my chance. If I turn it down, it means giving up my dream. And how can I live without a dream?
My inner voice knows what I have to do: I have no choice. A huge leap of faith is required of me, a trust in the universe so profound my life will never be the same again. I am being asked to listen to my heart, to live the life of my dreams.
And so I do.
*** *** *** ***
LOVE SONG TO CLAYOQUOT SOUND
LOVE SONG TO CLAYOQUOT SOUND
The wild shores of Clayoquot Sound sang a siren song to me for years before I journeyed there, before I ever saw the perfection of its beauty. This song captured my imagination, my heart and my spirit, drawing me to it as surely as a murrelet is drawn to its nest, a migrant whale to its feeding ground.
And now, years after my glorious decade in that place, the home of my spirit, I still hear its call. Always the wild shores of the Sound pull at me, echo through my heart, here in my home-away-from-home, where I'm remembering, remembering. It's a song of the clean and pungent air, the salt spray, the sea foam, whitecaps lined up and galloping into shore like wild white horses, manes a-flying. A song of the wild waves, roiling and crashing over black volcanic rock, swirling the maelstrom of The Cauldron at the base of the cliffs on Frank's Island. It sings through the forest floor, through the tops of giant cedar, in the lift of the eagle's wing, seabirds wheeling free above shining waters. Its song sings inside me still. It always will.
Half a lifetime ago, at thirty, I discovered I was an ocean person, a displaced ocean person, cast up like a beached whale on the shores of Okanagan Lake. The peaceful lake with its lapping ripples, fragrant bullrushes and weeping willows, were pretty and desirable to many. But it was the wrong scenery, the wrong place, the wrong "energy" for me. If I ever won the lottery, if Mr. Right appeared and swept me away, Tofino is where I wanted to be swept to. But it would be another decade before I finally arrived.
I don't just love nature - I have a spiritual and physical need to live immersed in it. When I am not, I am homesick, heartsick. When that most essential component of my well-being is lacking, when it is citified, tamed or domesticated, I must make do, and am always aware that I am making do. In a perfect world, I would carve myself a dwelling inside a huge old tree, on the edge of the sea, with only the wild in sight, no human footprint visible but mine.
By 42, I had been longing for the ocean for so many years, I began to feel my soul was dying. I had waited as my three older children completed high school. Now, with my youngest leaving elementary and about to enter high school herself, I knew it was now or never. I could not face four more years of marking time, as my years and energy slipped away. I grew plaintive about it. I keened; I yearned.
Not brave enough to make the leap myself, I waited for the universe to make the change for me. And, in its way, it did. My sister stacked the deck. For my birthday that year she took me to Tofino on a zodiac expedition to see the whales.
It was as perfect an experience as it could possibly be. The sea was serene, there were whales everywhere, the day was sunny and sharply etched and, when we turned off the motor, we were drifting on the same level as the whales. They were so unconcerned with our presence that one whooshed up right beside the boat, thrilling me to my toes. Its ancient eye looked upon us; we gazed back in silent awe, the whoosh of its every exhalation sounding like the very breath of God.
We passed rocks covered with sea lions, who barked imperiously at our passage. Beneath a huge nest in a scrag we sat, staring at the resident eagle, who stared diffidently back. Little orange-beaked puffins bobbed diligently atop the waves. We investigated little inlets, discovered hidden waterfalls. And as we headed back to shore, sunset spread its palette of color before us. It was a dream of perfection.
The tour guides were environmentalists; their talk was of saving Clayoquot Sound's forests, then heavily under siege by the multinationals. They informed us this one remaining pristine ecosystem, this last stand of old-growth, astoundingly was being cut and exported as raw logs, to be pulped and made into phone books for California. Logging was spreading towards the few remaining untouched watersheds. It was time for those who cared to take a stand. My heart took fire. Everything I loved, longed for and believed in was here, and I wondered: why am I not here too?
I did not want to go home. I did not want to be a tourist, who had to leave. I wanted to go home with them: the guides, the environmentalists, the ones who got to live here. I wanted to sit by their fires, join in their talk, be one of them. With every fibre in me, I knew that I belonged here.
I went back to the Okanagan, to my hated job, and to a persistent depression as winter closed in. I wrote a letter, after a few weeks, to the woman tour boat owner who had guided our excursion. I told her how lucky she was to be living her dream, and how long the west coast had been my dream. On our excursion, she had spoken about her difficulty finding anyone who could handle her business as well as she did, so she could take some time off. In my letter, I ventured to wonder if I might be that person, if there might be a place for me there.
There was no reply, the winter went on. The walls closed in and I felt trapped: by the need, as a single mother of four, to earn a living, to support the kids, by my aloneness and the seemingly endless struggle. I felt like I existed only to bring brown paper bags of groceries in the front door. An aware employer recognized my spirit was faltering. She encouraged me to take supervisory training and apply for the position of supervisor in another department, out of the job I hated, away from shift work, into management. I passed the training, won the position and for the first time was earning enough money to pay the bills.
The universe, having a sense of humor, chose that moment to offer me, in the form of a letter from Tofino, the choice it has always presented: continued "security", (a huge issue for a single mother accustomed to poverty), in the job I presently held, or the life of my dreams, and utter insecurity: part time work at six dollars an hour, but in Tofino where I longed to be.
I wrestled with the hugeness of the choice, with its uncertainties and all of its unknowns, but there was little doubt: though needing assurances that simply were not there, I knew this was a choice about following my heart, or giving up my dream and staying where my spirit was dying, for financial security. And I knew I couldn't live without a dream.
Had I known the difficulties that choice entailed I might never have found the courage to make the leap. It is good I did not know. It was the biggest trusting I have ever had to do, and it repaid me with ten years of unparalleled joy.
What I did know is that, from the moment I first set foot on the beach, that questing, longing, seeking voice inside of me was stilled. I was at home, the home of my spirit, the one place on the planet where I belonged. No matter how difficult it was to find housing (a merry-go-round repeated every several months), or how many part-time jobs it took to pay the rent, (two or three at a time), whatever it took, I would do, to feel this rightness, this boundless joy, this sense of being exactly where I was meant to be. Home.
The night I rounded the corner at Long Beach in the rented Budget truck, a gigantic ball of fiery scarlet was going down behind the hills, the sky a Gaugin canvas. Taking a moment from unloading boxes into my winter cabin, I saw a whale in the bay - a whale in my front yard! It was like the universe was on over-drive: one dream come true, served up brilliantly.
I arrived in Tofino with holes in the toes of my sneakers. ("I see you didn't win the lottery," dryly commented one crone I told my story to), and a grin from ear to ear. For the next ten years, I ecstatically walked through some of the most spectacularly beautiful landscape on the planet, with daily joy and gratitude at the beauty my eyes were feasting upon, and a fullness in my heart that meant more than any amount of money. Happiness abounded there, free for the taking, for anyone who had the eyes to see.
That first winter, I lived in a cabin on Chestermans Beach, Frank's Island across the sandbar out my kitchen window. Every morning as I plugged in my teakettle, I caught my breath in wonder, looking out on white-topped waves, a scene of perfect and unimagined beauty, mine to look upon: mine!
My eyes loved everything they fell upon: treetops poking out of the early morning fog; beckoning miles of white sand stretching to infinity; herons picky-toeing along the pebbled mudflats; orcas vaulting by, half a dozen at a time, in the harbour, to our ecstatic and vocal appreciation. Lone Cone blushing deep rose at sunset, little boats all heading in to port through the dancing waves; interestingly attired alternative lifestyle folk, my kin, drifting serenely past on bicycles, sometimes singing; the cute little village center, its appearance unchanged even now, after twenty years of a hundred million tourists clambering over it like ants on an unruly anthill.
The sights of home sang a constant love song inside me: rain-slickered, gum-booted locals, heads bent against the wind, making their way laboriously to the post office under the lashing rains of winter.
Radar Hill on an early springtime morning, the perfect beauty of the natural world for 360 degrees, as far as I could see, coupled with my awareness, in that same moment, of human-created misery playing itself out down below. Pain the other side of the coin from joy, awareness a two-edged sword.
There was the Tall Tree Trail on Meares Island, more spiritual than any cathedral, where one could visit the Hanging Garden Tree, an opulence of ferns and smaller trees cascading from it, and the Stairway to Heaven tree, a giant fallen uphill, so you could walk up it, like a ladder to the stars.
I had only to step out onto the beach to achieve a meditative state, all worries falling from thought like weathered shakes from a tinder-dry frame. Every day I chose a different beach, an undiscovered trail. I explored every beloved inch of my new home.
My eyes sang a love song to that place for ten years. It sings inside me still. It always will.
***** ***** ***** *****
And then there were the sounds of home that played through my days and nights in that beautiful place, that will echo within me always: rain pelting, pelting through the mountain passes against the windshield, and the swish-swish-swish of the windshield wipers: going home, going home! Enya on the car stereo while wind lashes the tall gnarled pines at the highway's edge, the sudden shock of a rock flung upwards -crack! - and you slow right down, heart beating fast. The joy of heading home - Home! The very word a triumphant smile inside. Loving every inch of the highway that took me there.
It's the sound of waves coming in like jet planes at South Beach in winter storm, walking a deserted shore, the only human visible for miles, feeling like an outtake from Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the film that began my odyssey to the sea so long ago. The piercing shriek of an eagle's cry, the raucous keening of the seagulls massing on the sandbar at Combers, before a storm, the bossy caw of the town crows, begging for scraps on the common. It's the locals dressed as crows, cawing a "happy solstice" to a crow-loving friend, on their knees around her, cawing upwards at her laughing face, lit by candle glow. It's the scold of a bright blue jay on the rough-planked deck, as Mozart wafts through the open window. It's the midnight storm lashing the creaky cabin, waves in full fury against the dunes out front, tall branches whipping the cabin wall, I snug in bed and listening.
It's the comforting whoosh of the fire crackling to life in the woodstove, the putt-putt-putt of boat engines pulling up to the government dock, the bell tinkling on the door of the Common Loaf bakery as you go in out of the rain, faces all upturned to greet you, wet rain gear sloughed off and steaming. It's the mooing of the foghorn at Lennard's Light, sounding all night long through the eerie, drifting fog. And, in the morning, it's the complete silence, that lets you know the power is out, no humming appliances to muffle the sound of Perfect Peace.
It is the sound of my beloved waves, forever advancing and retreating in my heart.
***** ***** ***** *****
When I moved to Tofino in 1989, the environmental movement was gathering steam. This was reflected in the graffiti painted on the concrete abutments rimming the sharp corners and steep drop-offs along the mountainous Pacific Rim Highway.
We village folk traveled the highway frequently, for shopping, visiting the Big Smoke, appointments with specialists. Heading out, we might read: Hug a Tree, in huge black letters crooked against the concrete. Coming home, on the neighboring abutment, in even bigger letters, we'd see: Hug a Logger. You'll Never Go Back to Trees!
Cars got into the act. My little blue Honda had barely visible bumpers under bright yellow stickers proclaiming: Money is a Drug - Heal the Spirit, and Money Rules - the Spirit Liberates!
As the environmentalists grew more numerous, vocal and visible, the Share B.C. movement rose in response. Yellow ribbons hung from loggers' car antennas. You could paint Ucluelet yellow, Tofino green. "Share B.C." said the pins on the lapels of the purse-lipped ladies at the Post Office, who were married to loggers. "Share the Stumps!" cheerfully responded the greens. "Logging Feeds My Family" proclaimed the high-up bumpers of the monster trucks. "No Jobs on a Dead Planet" said the signs at the blockades.
Then came 1993, and the Peace Camp - and everything came to a head. Arrests, placards, banners across the highway ("No More Token Groves" at Cathedral Grove) - everything was hotting up and no one was backing down. Those early mornings on the blockades were some of the most meaningful of my life. This was my cause, and I stood there with my whole heart bursting.
I had to work and couldnt be there as often as I wanted. But I was there some mornings, notably the Women's Blockade. Proud, joyous, strong, we sang and spiral danced around the roadway, feeling our power, sharing smiles. That night my son phoned: "Mom, I saw you on the news, dancing on the road with a bunch of hippies."
Yup. That was me.
And now, always will I remember: the gentle sleepy beat of the tom-toms in the early morning half-light, as we gathered around the campfire; the fear and determination as the big trucks rolled in, as the official read out the injunction to move off the road, and the RCMP moved in to make the arrests, people carried off by arms and legs, to our supportive cheers and tears - the most profoundly passionate hours and days of my life.
That summer, I longed to live at the Peace Camp, set up in the Black Hole, an eyesore of a clearcut alongside the highway. I envied those who had the freedom to devote that summer to the blockades. I still had a child to support and, by then, a small mortgage to pay. I wanted to stand on the road, for the trees, for the planet, for us all and for the future. I had to work. But I was there when I could be, hours I will never forget.
I was there the night they closed the Peace Camp down. I sat listening to Dana Lyons singing "Magic", watching hippies dancing in a clearcut, followed by a fifteen-minute group hug and am "OMMMMMMMMMMMMM" that seemed as if it would never end, blissful smiles amid the stumps, smiled down on by a full, round Grandmother Moon.
I had just missed the hippy movement of the 60's. Much as my spirit recognized its affinity to those gentle beings and their unfettered lives, I was shackled, back then, by a bad marriage, and had three small children. I lived one block - and a whole other reality - away from their liberated lives. Now I had this: the best of all. I had come full circle. Home.
***** ***** ***** *****
More than the beauty, it was the community I belonged to there that filled me. They told me ley lines intersect near Tofino in a way that makes it one of the power spots on the planet, that it draws certain people to it, as I had been drawn. There I was enveloped by the most highly original, individualistic, creative, intelligent, authentic, interesting and fully alive people I had ever met, each with a unique gift to share. My writing was appreciated and supported there as it had been no where else.
And the gatherings! A wealth of events through the years, at which you'd overhear snippets of amazing conversation, marvelling anew at the folk you were surrounded by. At the Common Loaf I once heard a tourist observe wonderingly: "They're like refugees from the 60's." We were, and that is what I most loved.
During my first weeks there, I attended a gathering on Vargas Island where, for the first time in my life, there was no light other than from the campfire or a flashlight, and an astounding panoply, a universe, of stars. I knew the uncertainty of being utterly cut off from civilization. I was on "Tofino Time" now, everything up in the air, unfolding however it unfolded. What if the boat didnt come? But it came, at midnight, and I waded out to it in my shoes, having my left leg impossibly high to gain purchase over the side of the boat, my other still planted in the water. Muttering to myself, "It's hard to be a hippy after 40!" I somehow hauled myself up and over. On that midnight ride, for the first time I saw bioluminescence in the boat's wake, all magical, as brand-new as creation, cleaving my past from my present like another life.
***** ***** ***** *****
There appeared to be no barriers of age there. At gatherings, all ages were present, and accepted. At International Women's Day we'd arrive, bearing plates of food: lush young women at the peak of their flowering, demure young girls just on the threshold, decorous-enough-looking crones with gray hair - until the drums began, at which time we were all transported into a spiral-dancing, writhing, joyously beaming mass of primal womanhood and rocked the roof off. A beloved and feisty septuagenarian got up to do a boogy-shimmy, to the raucous delight of the watchers; a young woman read a poem about menstruation that had the room in hysterics; a belly dance was performed with the knowing eyes and awesome sensuality of a lush, full-figured woman at home in her body, followed by a slender First Nations girl draped in white wolf fur, who danced for the animals.
In the old dusty theatre I witnessed the best performances I have ever seen. Local playwrights offered gems about life and love; we watched child performers grow up on stage from year to year; we laughed and cried and witnessed moments that will live in my heart forever. And the audience was as entertaining and involved as the performers!
The best musical concerts ever were in this place, where the small local audience was so receptive they rose as a single entity and danced and writhed frenetically to the music. No polite pat-pat-patting for applause - but an uproarious frenzy of appreciative pleasure!
I was at home among my people there. These days, I am not. Now the town inhabits me as I once inhabited the town. But all of these precious memories still live, within the chambers of my heart - they live.
***** ***** ***** *****
After 1993, the tourists began to come in the millions to see this beautiful spot that had gained so much attention on the nightly news. The tourist dollars pouring in changed some of the feeling and the flavor of our little village.In terms of quality of life for the locals, development decisions began to be a lot more about money than many would prefer, especially we low-income "many".
Everything started getting tuned up to welcome the money in. Graffitti was no longer tolerated; abutments remained pristine. The environmentalists directed their focus, rightly, to the multinationals- the real rapers and pillagers, with their bottom line: profit. Even the loggers, now unemployed, began to understand their livelihoods were being phased out by the practice of clearcutting, right along with the trees.
The banners got folded up and put away, and my little blue Honda got traded in for a Toyota and life in Port Alberni. My current bumper sticker says "I Love Tofino". I am nothing, if not faithful.
Housing in Tofino has always been dicey. Year round rentals are scarce. Every spring, locals (who work the low-wage jobs that serve the tourist industry) are asked to vacate any rooms or small suites available in winter, so they can be used at top dollar to house tourists. I found the stress of trying to find winter and then summer accommodation too stressful to endure well, and eventually I managed to purchase a collapsing wreck of a trailer, which I had to rebuild from the ground up, simply in order to have a fixed address.
For ten years I maintained that dance of survival, the precarious yet deeply joyous clinging of the impoverished, like a marsupial to the underside of a storm-tossed branch. But I wager I was richer in happiness there than many of the wealthiest residents of the monster houses along the beach I walked twice daily.
I came away with the satisfaction that, alone, with enormous trust, I took the risk and made my dream come true all by myself. I learned along the way that there is no security other than that which we carry within.
I worked myself into collapse the years I lived there, and that collapse eventually cost me my place there. No choice but to sell my hard-won trailer, my tiny foothold on that place so dear. I left Tofino suddenly, by ambulance, no time for a painful goodbye. I woke up in a different place, Port Alberni, the antechamber of Paradise, as unlikely a follow-up as one might imagine.
I had to learn to be happy in yet another landscape foreign to my spirit. The universe set me the task, once again, of losing what I most loved, of learning to bloom in the least likely setting I could imagine for myself, and I have.
Is it better to find home and then lose it, than never to have found it? Yes, definitely. How many lives can boast ten years of joy on a daily basis? I was in the august ecstatic company of Rumi and Hafiz. My soul sang with one constant refrain: this place is so beautiful, so beautiful......I am so happy to be here.....and I did it myself....with generous assists from all the gods and angels, who assist me still.
I miss it every day, the dream of returning a beacon I fasten my hope to.I want to end my life there, where I belong, among the loved and venerable crones in that eccentric-friendly place. I want my bones to rest in the cemetery under the wind-whipped pines, where the winter gales howl through.
There, I replenished my stores of peace, the peace I had sought for so many years and struggled so hard to win: by letting the sursurration of the waves wash through me, through my ears, my brain, my skin, my being, until I was as calm as the lull between waves, as strong and silent as the smooth stones scattered along the ocean's shore, as patient as the sand dollar that spins its house from the sand and grit around it and carries it within.
Love for that place never stops singing inside me. I carry those ten years within me like a gleaming treasure, like a song of love.
I have made a home-away-from-home here. I walk the forest trails, spindly pine forests draped with verdant moss and old man's beard, not old-growth. I find water: joyously rushing green rivers, burbling creeks, sleepy lagoons and lakes, and not the pounding sea.
I found a big rock by the lake the other day. It spoke to me. So I rolled it to my car, heaving it up and onto the floorboards. On this rock I will paint the word: Peace. I will roll it across the yard and plant it under the rose bush, water it well and watch it grow in this unaccustomed soil.
In Tofino, sunset is an event, as in, "Are you going to the sunset?" or "Catch you later, at the sunset!" All up and down the beach, people wander down with their after-dinner cups of tea, to attentively witness the going down of the sun.
There are no sunsets here. Sometimes some color behind the mountains to the west throws us leftovers from the spectacular sunsets one knows are occurring at the beach. I yearn; I long.
Today I will spend outdoors. Today, the world is burnished gold, fading soft to starshine. As the colored remnants streak across the evening sky, I will look to the mountaintops. Behind them, glorious West Coast sunsets are unfolding, these richly colored evenings. On tiptoe, I can almost see them shining.
When I first moved to Tofino, there were two things that I most hoped to find along the beach: a glass float from Japan and an eagle feather. I spent the first winter in a cabin on Chesterman’s Beach. I combed the beach daily, eyes trained on the ground, searching for whatever the tide brought in, always hoping for a find.
One morning, early, when it had stormed all night, I was sitting at the table writing. The storm had lashed the cabin all night long, and I had heard the waves pounding as close as the bottom of the dunes out front. I was thinking “After a storm there is the greatest chance of finding a glass ball. I should go out there and look.” But the morning chill, the crackling heat from the woodstove, my cup of tea, conspired to give such comfort, I was loathe to go outside. “Later,” I decided, and kept on writing.
I did go out, an hour later, but found nothing. However, in the Co Op later that morning, my neighbour on the right hand side, Marilyn Buckle, who had lived on Chestermans for twenty years, came up to report, “Guess what I found this morning, right at the bottom of your dune?”
“A glass ball. A big one, too!”
“Ohhhhhhhh! I knew I should go out and look, but it was so cold.”
“Right after a storm is the time. In fact, some people go out in the storm. Their flashlights glint on the glass; it makes it easy to find them in the dark.”
I was chagrined. The universe had brought me my glass ball, had rolled it right to the foot of my dune. It had urged me to go outside and gather it, and I had not listened.
I kept looking. When eagles flew along the beach, I stumbled through the driftwood, close up by the bush-line, as residents told me eagles often dropped a feather there, underneath the trees they perched on.
On a weekend when two friends from the city were visiting, we were walking along Lynn Road, heading back to the cabin after a beach walk. I was telling them about the glass ball, and about looking for eagle feathers.
“I have let go of finding a feather,” I told them. “I have come to believe you can’t just get an eagle feather. The universe gifts you with one, when it feels you are worthy.”
At that very moment, the three of us simultaneously became aware of an eagle feather lying on the road about fifteen feet ahead of us.
“I believe this is for me,” I said, bending to pick it up.
“I believe it is,” one of the women said, looking at me in awe.
The three of us stared at each other, thunderstruck.
The universe brought me another gift a couple of springs later, a wild little wolf-pup to companion my days.
One day I had moved the stereo and was busy reconnecting all the cables. I heard the puppy crunching on something behind me. I knew I should check on him, but was too preoccupied. “Isn’t that cute,” I thought. “He’s eating his pig ear.”
When I finally turned to look, my eagle feather had been consumed, all but the spine.
Gifts given, gifts taken away.
One learns to just be grateful for it all.
THE PRINCE OF COMPASSION
The night my son collapsed with schizophrenia, I went to the shore. My heart was aching; the familiar, resigned stoicism with which I had endured so many crises was creeping over me again. I was bracing myself for certain heartbreak, clinging with all my strength to the comfort I found in the sound of the ocean rolling in, wave on endless wave, upon the sand.
Pacing up and down the water's edge, nervous and shaking, I thought of my gentle, happy-natured son as he had been when he was little. Jeff was my third child and he was born laughing. His disposition had always been sunny. In our noisy house of four children, he was my quiet, sensitive one, the one I felt was most like me.
Jeff is an Old Soul, one who lives gently and kindly on the planet. He seems to have brought wisdom with him from wherever he was before he came to me. Now that laughing, tender little boy was a lean, fragile six-footer, seventeen years old and in the psych ward.
I had just moved to Tofino, and was working to get us re-established. Apparently, he had run out of my mother's house in Vancouver, where he was staying for the summer, and raced through the darkened night-time city streets to the hospital, where he had checked himself in.
He was psychotic, suicidal. They needed me to sign the consent forms, they could not begin treatment until I came.
*** *** *** ***
I didn’t know what to expect when I got to the hospital that first time. In the modern front lobby, I was directed to a separate ancient-looking building across the alley in the rear. The psych ward was old and dreary, its nicked walls needing paint. I walked up the scuffed and shabby stairwell. It felt like the abandoned ones lived here. At the nurses' station, asking for Jeff, I felt them sizing me up, with my frizzy hair, thrift store clothes and natural temerity. My seventeen year old son had broken down, was in desperate shape. What had I done to cause it?
I signed the forms. I asked to speak to the doctor. He would be in this morning, they told me, pointing me down the hall to Jeff's room.
Peeking into the darkened room, I saw the usual evidence of Jeff's occupation: clothes and belongings strewn all over the floor, blankets ripped off the bed, dirty and clean clothes and wet towels all together in a tangled heap.
On a bare mattress, wrapped, head and all, in a blanket, was my son.
"Jeff," I called softly, and his shaggy head burrowed out from underneath the blanket, long tangled reddish-brown curls in disarray. He smiled, the same big smile, our eyes met, his same blue eyes. He got to his feet, tall and thin and tousled, and we hugged. I felt relief. This was still Jeff.
We went down the hall to an alcove, where two chairs sat by a window.
"What happened?" I asked.
"I couldn’t take it any more. I needed help."
"I am so glad you did this, that you came for help. That was a really smart thing to do."
"What do you want them to do for you?"
"I want them to make it stop."
"Make what stop?"
"It's like a bad trip that hasnt stopped. I've been scared all the time, it's like living in a nightmare, like being in hell. There are voices, clamoring and shouting. It's scary."
His eyes turned on me once more. When he was little, he had the round untroubled blue eyes of an angel. Now they were haunted by the visions of his waking dream.
"Is it from the drugs?" Jeff had taken LSD fifteen times the previous winter, but I hadnt found out until he was already in trouble.
"I don’t know. I haven’t done drugs for six months, but the last bad trip never stopped."
"Well, you're in the right place." He nodded. "They'll be able to help you. We'll get through this."
I felt a difference happening, the beginning of real communication between us, in the midst of a crisis, a breakdown. The son I thought I had known was now a son who was openly suffering. All the hidden demons lay revealed. My response was to roll up my sleeves and muster all my strength to help him. We would talk our way through the next twenty years, but we didn’t know that then.
For now, my son was tired and retreated back to bed, pulling the blanket up and over his head. While he slept, I paced the hospital halls that smelled of urine, stuffy unaired rooms overlayed with sweetish disinfectant, and waited for the doctor.
I saw people in various stages of depression, locked within their lonely worlds of pain. People of all ages were making their solitary treks through the labyrinths of their own minds. My son now inhabited this landscape. It brought very close to home the fragility and, at the same time, the incredible resilience of humans, that in a nanosecond, any one of us might topple over into that land of rain-speckled windows, tears and no more hope.
My son, brilliant, talented, a writer, a mystic, a dreamer, a musician, a lover of life, with all of the suffering soul and sensitivity of the creative artist, had walked the fine line between daybreak and hellfire, and had fallen. He now paced these drab corridors, his hours marked out in paper pill-cups, naps and hospital trays. Where would his beauty ever find a place to land, in halls so bleak and bare? How would his tender heart find its way home from this land so strange and new? And where was home, now that I had packed it up and taken it away?
How had I helped to bring him here? And what could I do now to lead him safely out?
*** *** *** ***
Dr. P. came rushing in, white hospital coat flying, and raced down the hall. I lurked around the nurses' station while he ran in and out of rooms, conferred briefly with nurses, pored over medical files, barked short commands. I hovered, saw the nurse telling him I was Jeff's mother. He glanced over, sizing me up. Once more I felt my general inadequacy, both as a parent of a boy who had fallen apart and the responsible adult who somehow had to deal with the situation.
Finally, he called me into a small office. The doctor peered at me, shuffled some papers, then began.
"Jeff is suffering from psychosis, a psychotic break. This may or may not be drug-induced. It may have happened even had he not done drugs. Jeff is going to need medical help, his medication has to be monitored. First we have to get him stabilized. There is the possibility that it may be schizophrenia. In any case, the treatment is the same. We will try him on anti-psychotic medication and will try to stabilize him."
"I hope this is drug-induced then." I said. Schizophrenia was an illness of intense suffering. The thought of my gentle son suffering for months, perhaps years, was too starkly terrifying to consider. I wanted the magic pill that would restore my son to himself, so we could all go home and get on with our lives.
It is good we did not know, then, the long road that lay ahead of us. Life is merciful that way.
I still had questions but suddenly the doctor leaped up, rushed down the hall and was gone.
I left some money at the nurses' station for Jeff, then tiptoed back into the room where he lay sleeping. On his bedside table was a scrap of paper, with a few lines written in Jeff's distinctive, quirky script, a sort of spikey printing with jagged downstrokes. I read what he had written and my heart turned icy with fear.
"I am Cloud.
Someone blow me away."
I walked out of the room, down the grey hall, the grey, drab stairs, out into the noisy brightness of the city street. Life roiled around me, normal and noisy, while my son lay in the psych ward, his life hanging in the balance.
I couldnt get the words out of my head and still recall them frequently, two decades later.
"I am Cloud.
Someone blow me away."
*** *** *** ***
Next day and many, many times after that, I went back to the hospital, to the city, to Jeff's side. I remember walking down the rain-washed dark city streets beside my tall, guant, suffering son in his long black trench coat, as he cried.
"It will get better," I'd say.
"I'm afraid it never will."
"It will." It had to. "I couldn’t handle it if anything bad happened to you."
"I know. That's why I'm still here."
*** *** *** ***
Jeff writes some of the most beautiful poetry I have ever read. He composes beautiful classical musical fragments; one wishes he were able to complete the entire opus.
All of his beauty and loneliness is evident in his music, all the sensitivity, the genius that somehow got its wires crossed, his youth which should be flowering, on hold, as he sits alone at his keyboard and sings into empty rooms where no one hears him.
He phones me every day or two, sometimes in tears, from the psychiatric group home where he has now lived for a dozen years. We talk, we say 'I love you', we hang up. I picture him, drifting back to his room, his messy sanctuary, lying down on his bare mattress, bedraggled blankets strewn all over the floor. Awash on his boat of pain, steering his solitary course towards a horizon he can’t see, no route markers, no compass, no hope, no dreams, no one to hold him and tell him it will be all right. Truly, he is the loneliest person on the planet.
He is as in-the-moment as a small child, and as lonely as a coyote howling at the moon. He calls himself Jeff Siddhartha Crazy Horse Marr. He has the gift of appreciating the little things. I recall buying him a little ninety-nine cent violet and how tenderly he carried it home. Peeking into the bag, he whispered, " Come home with me." And when we got there, he made it a little altar with a soft piece of cloth, so its protruding roots would not be hurt.
Though Jeff is one of the poorest of the poor, his generosity is legendary. He gifts his brother and sister-in-law on their wedding day with his favorite Neil Young cd. "My gift will be my ambassador," he smiles.
When I visit, I shake my head with mixed chagrin and pride as we walk down Granville Mall together. Jeff, in his raggedy clothing, impoverished, cannot pass a homeless person without emptying his pockets - those pockets I have just filled with hard-to-come-by cash. The Prince of Compassion, freely sharing his largesse.
"How're you doin', man?" he asks, dispensing coins and cigarettes. "Take care."
ENCOUNTERS WITH WILDLIFE
My life has been a journey in search of the wild places. My father’s dream – and mine – was to live completely in wilderness, no man-made structure anywhere in sight, just water, trees and the denizens of the wild.
When I was twelve, my parents bought an untamed two acres in East Kelowna for a song, that is likely now worth a million dollars an acre, so crazy has this world become. It was rough, stubby land, ideal for back-to-the-landers like us. My mon gardened intensively there. We drove out frequently on weekends and in the evenings, to tend the garden. She hoed long trenches alongside the plants and my dad carried bucket after bucket of water from the creek, and sent the water tunneling down the furrows to water the thirsty roots.
Somewhere there is an old video of my small sister and I walking through the tall rows of corn, and sitting bareback atop a neighbor’s work horse, that pastured on our land in the summertime. The neighbour also let his herd of cows roam free there. At one point, my dad built a rough pen and we kept a pig captive. Dad got tired, hauling water up from the creek. I remember him beating the pig one day for overturning his water bucket, and how my sister and I cried in outrage, our sympathies with the pig.
I loved walking in the hills above that acreage, breathing deeply of the pine-scented air, the pine cones, the dusty earth, the hot summertime smell of the land. I dunked my head into the raised tin conduits built upon wooden trestles, that carried water down to vineyards below.
Sometimes I rode my bike out from town, to spend time there, which we lost the following year, no dollars to make the small loan payments. I’d leave my bike at the gate, and walk up and down the hills, singing. One day the herd of cows watched me with great interest as I came up over the hill singing. They fell into step behind me as I circled back down, lumbering behind me, slipping on the slope. I kept singing, but moved a little faster, afraid they’d overtake me, with their huge girth and enormous hooves.
My uncle, then a dashing young man, sold bread for McGavins in those days. He drove a zooty white and orange convertible. During one trip through Rogers Pass, top down and back seat piled with bread and aromatic sweet buns, traffic backed up and came to a standstill. A bear was attracted to the smell of the sweet buns and came right up to the car, sniffing. My uncle tossed him bun after bun to keep him happy and outside the car, as he nervously waited for traffic to resume, hoping the buns would hold out. Cars started moving just as he was nearing the end of his supply.
In Tofino, my hippy friend, Paul, lived in a yurt perched on top of a cliff. From his dront deck, we could sit and look across the top of the forest and right out to sea. One day he told me about a hike he had taken.
“Don’t you come across bears on your hikes?” I asked.
“I did once,” he said. “I came around a corner, and there was a bear standing right on the path ahead of me.”
“What did you do?”
He looked sideways at me, assessing my possible reaction, then smile sheepishly.
“I…..I sang to the bear.”
I was delighted. “Oh, that’s so cool! What did he do?”
“Well, I acted humble, and told him I meant him no harm, and began to sing. I’d sing a bit, and he’d move a ways, I’d sing some more, he’d move a bit more…..eventually, in this way, he finally left the path and walked off through the bush and I went on my way.”
My daughter and I were sitting in the old Wickaninnish parking lot one afternoon, just getting ready to let the dogs out of the car for a run on the beach. Someone came past and told us to stay inside. There was a bear nearby. As we sat there, the dogs barking hysterically, a bear came out of the bushes and walked alongside our car, passing us by, given all the noise, and wandering along the line of cars.
At the end of the parking lot was a small white compact car. There must have been food inside, as the bear stood up on its hind legs, and began rocking the car vigorously with his front paws. Suddenly a side window smashed under the pressure and the bear hopped right inside the car. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I imagined the relaxed diner inside, watching the waves come and go, serenely enjoying his meal, while out here a bear had taken possession of his car. We left before the wildlife officer arrived. I wish now we had stayed to see how they managed to extricate the bear. I imagine the expression on the ICBC clerk’s face, as she read the claim.
My favourite wildlife encounter was with my grandchildren when they were small. My daughter at that time lived in the Lower Mainland. On the way to visit me, they had stopped at Stanley Park, where they had seen the whales and seals, the bears and the monkeys.
In Tofino, their big adventure was a boat ride out to see the whales and the sea lions. After the tour, we took them all to the beach, where they played happily for a time. As we walked up the path to the parking lot, my son-in-law was ahead of us with the two older kids. Suddenly, people came rushing down, telling us there was a mother bear with two cubs on the path ahead of us. We returned to the beach and Len and the kids soon joined us. They had seen the bears.
After a time, someone told us the bears had moved off, and the path was clear.
As we climbed into our van, I noticed five year old Tyler was looking very thoughtful. I thought he may have been frightened by being so close to the bears. He obviously was reviewing the day……whales, sea lions, bears…….
“It has been a big day, hasn’t it, Tyler?”
He nodded, gravely. “Now can we go see the monkeys” he asked, and we all cracked up. Stanley Park, Tofino-style.
My favourite wild creature is my eleven year old big black wolf-dog, Pup. When I worked at Kakawis Family Development Centre, on Meares Island, one March in the midst of the winter rains, the maintenance men found him, nearly dead, lying at the edge of the garbage dump. He had likely followed the big dogs over the trail from Opitsaht and had gotten left behind. He had been scavenging. But by the time they brought him to the office, his body was cold and he was nearly dead. I picked him up and that was it. I had to bring him home.
I tracked down the owner and asked permission to keep him. They told me he was part-wolf, as dogs mated with wolves often on the island. Pup, short for his puppy name Goofypup, flourished, growing so fast it looked like someone was inflating him with a pump. His huge puppy paws promised he would be big.
He has always been very Alpha, and maintains a lordly air. The old wolf living inside him vocalizes importantly, chest puffed out, guarding all movement on the street. He is resistant to command: “I’ll Do It My Way”. He is highly intelligent. When he was a puppy, he wanted to bury the opig ears I gave him. He remembered hunger, always wanted to save something for later. Indoors, the only possible place was the largest houseplant container. The first two times I came home to dirt scooped out onto my brand new cream coloured carpet, I scolded him. So when I arrived home the third night to no dirt on the rug, I praised him lavishly. Such a smart puppy! Till I looked behind the planter, where he had carefully scooped the dirt down against the wall where it was less visible, hoping I wouldn't see it, in order to bury his treasure. Way too smart!
He hated me leaving for work. I would run him on the beach early in the morning, then bring him home and offer him a treat as I left. He would sit in the hall looking at me reproachfully, and disdainfully spit the treat on the floor. The neighbour said he howled like a wolf every morning as I drove away. When I got home, he’d happily eat his treat, and then we’d head back to the beach.
He ran the wild beaches at least twice a day all year round, all through his puppy years, accompanying me down every forest trail. He was the companion of my wild wilderness heart through the happiest years of my life.
Moving away from the beach and into Port Alberni was a huge adjustment for us both, especially Pup. We walked all the trails in Port, and still do, just not as often now as we would like, both being hobbled by age and mobility. He is eleven now, with a grizzled snout and severe arthritis. On the last wild ramble we had through MacLeans Mill, he ran so hard his legs collapsed on him and he couldn’t move for 24 hours. Amazingly and thankfully, he managed to get back up on his feet, but that was a warning to me that this last pathway we are walking together is inevitably leading to a very sad parting.
His happiest times now are when we go to Stamp Falls. He plunges in the river, feeling the wilderness around him once again. When I point the nose of our car towards the wild beaches, he grins from ear to ear and paces excitedly in the car, leaping from front seat to back, to front, whapping my face with his tail with every leap.
He has been my most troublesome and badly behaved dog, and the one I love the most, and whose death I will find the hardest to bear.
For now, I treasure every day with my wild wolf. We have shared so much that has been glorious, and mourned together the wilderness we lost. I am saving a quote from “The Housedog’s Grave”, by Robinson Jeffer, that will honour Pup when he has moved onto wild beaches on a more distant shore, where he can once again run freely and joyously, unhampered by pain:
“I am not lonely.
I am not afraid.
I am still yours.”
THE HARDEST GOODBYE
Pup ~ March 1997 ~ January 15, 2011
In my lifetime, I never found the partner I was seeking, but I did find my soul-mate. An unlikely one, but one who gave me the unconditional love and devotion, the steadfastness, the intuition, the laughter and companionship I waited a lifetime for.
This is Pup, my wolfish companion for fourteen years. He was my buddy, loping along miles and miles of sandy beaches that stretched ahead of us forever, the years we lived in Tofino. He accompanied me down every forest trail, tail up and ears alert for critters in the bush. He was the companion of my wild wilderness heart through the happiest years of my - and his - life. His spirit, like mine, found its home on the wild shores of Clayoquot Sound.
He was, my sister said, "an unprepossessing little puppy", a little black fellow with ears too big for his head, off the reserve in Opitsat. He must have followed the big dogs over the trail to Kakawis, where I worked, and got left behind. The maintenance men found him, more dead than alive, in the March rains. He had been living off the dump. When they brought him to me in the office, his skin was already cold. Another hour would have been too late. I gathered him into my arms, and I was sunk.
He might have had a life more to his liking if I had left him on the island, to be a Kakawis dog, free to roam the island's trails and ocean shore. But somehow he needed me and I needed him. The staff told me he was from the Chief's dog's litter, and was part wolf. I got permission from the Chief to keep him.
Then life got very comical.
He has been the most hilarious dog. When he was little, I sometimes called him Goofypup, which got shortened to Pup, a name difficult for calling over vast distances, and I was always calling him over vast distances! Sometimes, when he was older, he was Mr. Dog. But mostly he was Pup.
He adapted willingly to living with me but, being in large measure wolf, he remained very Alpha. I, in a word, am not. So there was little doubt who was soon running the show.
I lured him with treats to do my bidding, but he got very smart. I'd throw a treat into the car to get him to jump in. But soon he'd refuse to enter, if I didn't throw the treat. Argh. When we started disputing who was going to sit in the driver's seat, I knew I needed to get a grip!
He was highly intelligent. Had I put in the time training him, he would have learned fast. But he was so funny and cracked me up so often, I let him be himself. I didn't want to curb that free wild creature living inside him. It was compromise enough expecting him to live within four walls, when his spirit so inhabited the wild.
He hated my going to work. In those days I was beginning the disability process and working part time. On the days I worked, I woke really early to take him to the beach for a run. Even mornings when the winter storms raged and the rain poured down like a fire hose, he had his run every morning. As I got ready to leave, he'd sit balefully in the hallway staring at me reproachfully. I would offer him a treat. He would accept it, then spit it disdainfully onto the carpet. He would not be appeased.
The neighbor told me that after I pulled out of the driveway each morning, he would howl mournfully like a wolf. Poor Pup. I returned at the end of the day to a riotous and joyous welcome. The treat would still be lying there, and would now be eaten. Then off we'd go for our second, more leisurely lollop along the beach - morning and night, twice a day on the beach, pure heaven for me and my pal.
He grew so fast, it was like someone was inflating him with a pump. He was little for such a short time.
Then, I had an eighty-pound half-wild animal at the end of the leash, in a huge hurry to get to freedom. He hauled me along, heels skidding, for years, calling after him (to absolutely no effect), "Don't pull me!" Once we went downhill past the gas station, where some young men were gathered. Pup whipped me around so fast, in his rush to greet them, that I actually twirled in a circle, the leash wrapping around me. The guys cracked up. "Never saw that before!" one said.
He hoarded the pig ears I gave him. He remembered hunger, and always saved something for later. One night I came home from work to see he had buried his pig ear in the hugest plant pot, a great big tub with a fig tree in it. A mound of black earth sat on my brand new cream-colored carpet. "No! No! NO! NO pig ears in the planter. BAD!" A second night: "NO PIG EARS! No,no, no!" Pup looked nonplussed: but where else can I bury it in here?
The third night: no dirt on the carpet. "WHAT a smart puppy! What a GOOD BOY!" Until I saw.......he had craftily scooped dirt from the BACK of the planter, down along the wall, burying his pig ear behind the tree, where I couldn't see it as easily.
Waaaaaay too smart!
He led me a merry chase - literally. He'd run around and around bushes, dodging back and forth, grinning mightily, like the bad-ass he was, as I huffed and puffed after him, demanding he Come Here NOW! Passers-by would comment, "That dog is having way too much fun!"
He would run far away from me along the beach. I worried about other dogs, about him getting lost....until I began to realize that, no matter how far ahead, he always knew exactly where I was. He would come back - when he was done.
Once when I was away, my sister took him for a walk in the forest with her dogs. At one point, Pup disappeared. She was worried. I'd come home and she would have lost my dog. She spent an hour retracing her steps, calling and calling. When she finally gave up, there he was, sitting beside the car, waiting for her - "where've ya been?"
There were two things I coveted when I moved to Tofino: a glass ball and an eagle feather. The glass ball got delivered one early morning after a winter storm. I was thinking, "I should go look for glass balls," but decided to have my tea first. Later, at the Co-Op, my neighbor told me how she had plucked my glass ball from the base of the dune right in front of my house. Argh.
I was walking along Lynn Road one afternoon with two visiting friends, explaining that I wanted an eagle feather but how you couldn't just "get" one. "It has to be gifted to you, by the universe, when it decides you are worthy." As I was speaking, our six eyes were fastened on something lying on the road directly in my path. It was....an eagle feather. "I believe this is for me," I said, picking it up.
A few months after Pup had come into my life, I was moving furniture around, and was busy hooking the stereo back up when I heard crunching right behind me. I figured Pup was eating a pig ear. How cute.
When I finished hooking the equipment up, I turned around and - you guessed it - he had eaten my eagle feather, all but the spine. I could only laugh. The universe gives, and the universe takes away.
He was always very bossy in the car. We could never get to the wilderness fast enough. The grandsons remember him barking relentlessly in the car, bark, bark, bark. Once Lisa and the kids were driving behind Pup and I, on the way to the beach. They said it was really funny, watching from behind, him sitting beside me in the front seat; they could see his head turned towards me and his mouth going, bark, bark, bark, me turning my head every now and then, my mouth moving, obviously telling him stop barking!
One fellow I dated, had one comment after riding with him: "Dog needs a muzzle!"
I never would do it now, but in desperation, I did actually try a muzzle once. Because an hour and a half of barking each way to the beach gave me headaches. He spent a few intense minutes, flipping himself around the back of the car, clawing at his nose. Then he - somehow - simply ENLARGED his snout until the muzzle ripped and he was free. I resigned myself to the barking. Fourteen years of it:)
He has been a handful - the most badly behaved dog I ever had, and the one I loved the most. He needed a firmer hand than mine and I loved him way too much. I so loved his irrepressible spirit, and always remembered that he was part wolf. I didn't really want to tame him, had it even been possible, though it would have made my life easier. He also was a chauvinist. He would listen to men, but not to women. That always burned me up!
Once I took Pup and the grandkids to the lake for a picnic........he disappeared to the other side of the beach, where there was a family setting out their picnic. When I looked over, there was Pup, hulking across the sand with a long trail of weiners hanging from his mouth. By the time I reached him, it was too late to save them. I was so embarrassed.
Another time he and Ali ran ahead of me onto the beach. I heard a kafuffle and went to see. There was Pup, dragging a hysterically laughing and on-the-ground eight year old Ali along the sand by her sleeve
He was born of the wilderness and the ocean tides. Like me, his spirit was woven into that place, and was meant for no other. When we had to move away, we both grieved the wild beauty and freedom we were leaving.
But I was ill, and the insurance company declined my claim. While I had no income, couldn't work, and was living on line of credit, the debt mounted. I felt rising panic. I couldn't afford to wait it out, and didn't think things through. I should have held on. But I sold my trailer, my toehold on life in that beloved place. There is hardly any year-round housing in Tofino. One finds place after place to rent for a few months at a time, if they are lucky. I was too ill for that kind of stress. And too poor to pay the high rents for anything one did find. And I had a big black badly behaved dog.
We decided to spend the winter up north with my sister while I decided what to do. Steph drove Pup and I to the airport. The vet had given me some sedatives and told me not to exceed five, that I should only need two or three. Ha! Two....nothing....three......not at all sleepy. He REFUSED to be put in the kennel. He made his body heavy like cement. He could not be budged. We got up to giving the fifth pill. I hesitated, but gave it to him. Finally it was down to minutes. He HAD to get in the kennel or we were going to miss our plane. A man saw the two of us struggling to push this big, resistant, feet-planted dog into the kennel and came to help. The three of us got him in, slammed the door, and I made the plane. But when we changed planes in Vancouver, I saw his kennel on the tarmac. There was Pup, STILL sitting upright, ears alert, watching everything. He would not relinquish control for one moment.
He was very stoned when we arrived up North.
Pup loved the north, loved the cold, the snow, the wild scents on the air. Loved the freedom of running loose. He never wanted to come in at night. I'd pace up and down the freezing streets in my pajamas, calling, while he eluded capture. "Let him freeze, he'll come in when he's ready," my sister would say. But I couldn't rest inside with him out there in the cold.
When we headed home in the spring, we were both ecstatic. By now, I was receiving monthly benefits. I was going to try to find somewhere to live in Tofino. When we got off the ferry up-Island, I pulled the car off the road right away, and opened the car door. He was off, joyously pelting along the beach like a newly released prisoner.
We found temporary digs in the basement of a family in Port Albion, outside of Ucluelet, beside a pond, where Pup ran free, barking at bears and every passing truck, playing with their dog, Shima, and generally behaving like the bad-ass he was.
But I couldn't find a place to live in Tofino, especially with a big black dog. And I was simply not up to the uncertainty of temporary housing and the stress of always searching for the next place to live.
We were going to have to leave our beloved beach. Unthinkable.
I made the difficult decision to move to Port Alberni. My daughter and the grandkids had just moved there, housing was cheap, and it was one and a half hours from the beach - the closest I could afford to live. These would be my grandma years. The Tofino years were mine. All of the other years of my life have been for family.
So Pup and I found ourselves on a city street, cheek by jowl with other houses - and neighbors who did not relish a loud barking dog next door. There was no fence. He had to be tied up. A wolf on the end of a chain. It killed me. And it made him even louder.
I took him every day to a different trail, to the river, to the lake. He lived for those hours off-leash, when he could run free and be the wild creature he was born to be. The other hours, he endured.
He would sit looking out at the city streets. He was remembering the wild beaches, the days of freedom, the forest trails, the pond where he and Shima used to play, just like I was. He needed the wild, like I did, to be happy. It was part of his soul, his spirit, as it is mine.
We were both depressed that winter. Shortly after we moved, I had a car accident and wound up in intensive care. I had a broken collarbone and knew it would be a month before I would be able to manage Pup on a leash. I arranged for our former landlady in Port Albion to take him for a month. I was in bed at home and Pup was sitting by my bed. I knew Sandy would arrive soon, and asked, "Do you want to go and run and play with Shima?"
He practically sobbed his response: "Bark! Bark! Bark!" There was a shrill edge to his bark, nearly hysterical with longing. ":Yes! Yes! Yes!"
He didn't look back when she came. He leaped out the door and into the van as fast as he could. Poor boy. He missed Home as much as I did.
Now we were really sunk. I had totalled the car. We were stuck in the city and I could take Pup only as far as I could walk, which wasn't far. I was ill. We sought out every wild undeveloped corner in our area. But soon I had to have another car to escape the confines of the city. Neither of us could stand not having a daily dose of the wilderness.
Once we had wheels again, our rambles resumed. But it was when I pointed the nose of the car towards Sutton Pass and he knew we were going home that he would blaze with joy. In his excitement, he'd "pace" inside the car, leaping from back seat to front, front seat to back. Each time, his big thick tail would "whap!" me across the face and I would laugh. Such joy!
After two years uneasily in town, feeling alien, I bought a little trailer out Beaver Creek, right across the street from my sister. It was a rural area, and I had a huge green sweep of land and big old trees around me, a ravine out back and a little creek. Our spirits expanded. We had space and greeness again. Now we could manage.
At first we didn't have a fence and he had to be on a run. But he had a huge front yard from which he monitored all movement on the street. He had the scent of nature in his nostrils once again. We still went for our rambles. Life got better.
The sight of green and trees all around eased our spirits. While we were not in our true home, we made a home with what we had.
When my brother-in-law built a fence, and I finally could unsnap Pup's chain and tell him "you're free", he ran around in ecstatic circles, so grateful to have what he should have had all along. But, in order to be with me, he accepted every change we made, in our fourteen years together. He was my comfort in losses that broke my heart. He kept me from loneliness, always there to welcome me home, to lounge by my computer while I wrote, or in the living room while I watched a movie. To walk by my side through tame forests, while we remembered the old growth, and the wilderness that coursed through our souls.
He had a way of giving me affection: he would come up to me, smiling, bend his head down, pressing the top of his head against my legs, and stand there a bit, tail softly waving. It was his way of giving me a hug. Beautiful boy.
When we went for car rides, out to the river or the lake, he remained all excitement, even the last few times, when it was nearly impossible for him to get back in the car. Once he had had his portly, slow, old gentleman's swim, and we were driving home, he'd sit behind my shoulder. This is what any kid in the car loved best.
I always had treats in my pocket. He'd softly nudge my cheek with his nose, like gentle kisses. His eyes would be focussed intently on my pocket, his head tilted, especially if my hand went in that direction. "Awwwwwwww," I'd say, "little kisses!" thinking how terribly endearing he was being. The kid in the passenger seat would be saying "look, he's making his cute face!" His nose would nudge again, more forcefully. And if I took much longer, he'd take his snout and WHACK me across the cheek! I'd collapse into giggles.
Cesar Milan would be horrified. But I could never have mustered the severity required to undo all the bad traits I had enabled. At some point, we recognized our failings, just agreed we were in this soup together, and muddled our way through, with much affection and laughter. My boy.
Yes, I have been known to suffer indignities upon my wolf-dog, which offended his wolfish sensibilities deeply. In his dotage, I recognized the deep embarrassment in his eyes, and stopped doing it. I never should have. I do not include the shameful antler photos, out of respect.
Because of his puppy days out in the March rains, his body was riddled with arthritis for years. His front paw was lame from the age of seven. Then his hind end began to give out. The last few times he overdid it, he collapsed. Each time I was afraid he'd never get up again. Each time, somehow, he did.
I curtailed his walking to a slow, stately hobble down our street a little ways. He lay on his side all day long now, and avoided getting to his feet. His legs thrashed when he slept, his whole body jerking, and when I placed my hand on his head, I sometimes felt a sort of current, like little seizures. His hind end was barely there. Just crossing the porch, it would give way on him and he'd collapse to the floor, then get back up.
He loved his last snowfall, rolling over in the snow and gyrating luxuriously, like a young pup.
Even in these last weeks, he asserted his Alpha nature. When I went out to run errands, he agitated to be outside. He liked to be on guard when I was away. But in bad weather I made him stay indoors. He didn’t like feeling confined. I think he worried something might happen and would have preferred being outdoors, old wolf that he was.
I blocked the furniture to keep the dogs off it. They were both big dogs and a lot of the outdoors came back indoors with them. With Jasmine, simply putting pillows across the top of the couch seemed like an obstacle to her and she stayed off. When I came home a couple of times recently, I noted the pillows had been TAKEN OFF the couch and tossed onto the floor and Himself was up on the couch, grand as you please! I had to laugh.
I somehow enjoyed how difficult he was. He was a wild creature. He agreed to live with me. But he did not surrender his spirit. I would never have wanted him to.
But things were getting worse. I was watching for a sign, to know when it was Time. But I started to worry that, if I waited too long, he might go into distress, and have to be put to sleep during a crisis. I heard of a dog who went into seizures and howled for the last few hours of his life. I could not bear one moment of that for Pup. I would spare him that.
I took him to the vet. I joked with her that "it took him fourteen years to mellow". It was the truth. She told me it was the End Time. She said the "euthanasia" word and gave him some anti-inflammatories to get him through Christmas. They perked him up and he enjoyed seeing everyone. One by one, he made the rounds to all his people, gently butting his head against their knees, tail waving softly. A hug, to say he had missed them.
"Is it Pup's last Christmas, Mom?" asked Jon. I looked over. Pup looked sad.
"Yes. I don’t say things like that in front of him, because he's so smart."
But it was. Pup's last Christmas. With such a sinking in my heart, it was.
I began grieving Pup's loss about three years ago. I knew it was going to be the hardest goodbye of my life. The mere thought of it brought me to tears. I have experienced no love purer or more devoted than his. He was my once in a lifetime dog for certain.
I began reading books about dogs, and of course in every book about a great dog, the dog dies, reducing me to rivers of tears. I was trying to prepare myself for this passage we all navigate, when we love someone or some creature - or some place - and have to give it up when we most want to keep it forever. I can believe the words that each soul has its journey, the path is the path, the love we had is never gone. But to not have this big black wolf-dog physically here ? When he has been the biggest part of my life for so long? I can't philosophize that one away. There was no way to prepare for such an absence. I knew the hardest goodbye of my life was almost here.
One night, towards the end, I told him that when I die, I want him to be the one to come and meet me. He listened hard, as if he understood it was important. He noted all my tears the last weeks, when he asked for and received all the treats he wanted, when I put extra special fish or chicken or buffalo on top of his kibble, told him I loved him so many extra times.
One just has to remember that the only way out is through. In time, it will get easier, as have all the other heartbreaks, all the other losses. The one thing we have in abundance in life is loss.
My other losses have taught me well and I will never say goodbye to my boy. I'll carry him within me, like the wind and the rain and the ocean's roar, like the shores we roamed together all those happy years.
Yesterday in late afternoon, he barked to go out. Luckily, I had the gate across and the porch closed off, because as he stepped onto the porch, his hind end began collapsing, first to the left, back up, then to the right, back up, several times dizzily around the porch. I called my sister, then the vet. It was Time. Pup had made the decision.
The vet was wonderful. Pup, of course, resisted sedation to the end, she had to give him more. But finally, finally his big head relaxed, and she administered the final shot and he was gone.
I had a struggle over cremation. I couldnt bear the thought of him burning. I thought I should let him return to the natural world he so loved, become one with the wind and the rain and the earth and the trees and the sky - that ineffable spaciousness his soul needs, as does mine, that we have both so sorely missed these past years. But I couldnt bear the thought of putting him in the cold wet ground which is all running with mud right now either. And I wanted him with me in a way I could see and feel. If I moved away, I didnt want to have to leave him behind.
So I walked away with his collar and leash but without my boy. His remains will come home this coming week.
I will never love another creature on this earth the way I love him. The house is silent now with his absence, and empty. Jasmine feels it too. I am grieving, and shaky. But it was good that Pup was the one to make the decision. There was no wondering, no ambiguity. His body could not get back up again. It could not keep walking. His spirit, though ~ that was right there to the very last second.
We shared so much that was glorious, those golden years we spent along the shores of our hearts' home, the most glorious years of my - and his - life. And he was by my side as I weathered the pain and losses that followed. He accepted all the changes, all the hardship, just to be with me. We shared the utter devotion of two hearts, each of whom was all in all to the other. We had time, fourteen years of it, to be together.
He had a good life. He would have wanted no other.
And now he has gone on to run wild beaches on a farther shore.
This is where we will leave my poor old boy, once more beside his beloved beach. I hope to dream of him, young and joyous and running once more along the water's edge. As soon as the roads are clear, I will be heading there, to walk there on my own. If I can bear to, I will scatter just a small handful of his ashes there, where his spirit - and mine - belongs.
I know all dogs go to Heaven. And I believe that God is kind. So I'm counting on seeing Pup when I cross over. He'll lead the way, because he always has, along a forest trail that winds down to a long, long beach, with Forever in the distance. And we'll begin the next leg of that journey, together once again, with the sound of the sea in our ears, and the fresh wind hitting our faces, as we're heading Home together.
Good night, Sweet Boy. But never -never- Goodbye.
[Note: It is now over five years since Pup’s death, and I still mourn. I am still brought to tears whenever I read something I wrote for him, or when I think of him and the hole he left in my world with his passing. I have never grieved any being so deeply or so long. Along with Pup, all of my losses seemed to hop aboard the grieving train, not least the loss of my wilderness home in Tofino. How I miss it, and my wild boy, and those glorious years we spent in our hearts’ home.]
She had spent many years looking outward for answers. Friends, trying to help, told her, "It isn't in books, it's in you." In her twenties, she heard the words, but did not understand.
She remembers walking down Granville Street when she was twenty-seven, looking out with sad eyes from her painful inner prison, and a man passing by in the street smiling at her, saying, "You just have to get over that mountain. Just get over that mountain." His look was so kind, so understanding, she still remembered him all these years later. Even books said, "It isn’t in books, it's in you." She had read many books, hundreds, about the spiritual journey. In her bed late at night, she trekked the Himalayas, completed the pilgrimage along The Camino, followed the path with heart. Life is our greatest teacher, so eventually it all began to make sense.
She had always been on this journey, but now she knew she was on the journey. She began to trust herself and the universe, to follow her heart and her inner voice, take the scary leap into the unknown, trusting "either there would be ground to stand upon, or she would be given wings to fly." Her forties were a healing decade, when she stopped running from and came home to herself. Then finally, finally, she flew.
It was the biggest trusting she had ever done. But her inner voice told her it was now or never. Her dream was to live on the wild west coast. If she didn’t go now, she never would, she would have to give up her dream. And she knew she couldn’t live without a dream. She left behind a hard-earned promotion, good salary and long-awaited "security", to move to Tofino, for twenty years her dream; she now, finally, brave enough to make the terrifying leap, the biggest trusting she had ever done. It was here she learned the only true security is what we carry within, here she released her fear of tomorrow in order to more truly savor the goodness of today.
Here where she found her home, the home of her spirit, within the forest and along the ocean's shore.
All her life she had sought peace and now it came to live inside her, spreading out in that vast interior silence where there were no words, no thoughts, no worries. It lay beneath the daily ups and downs of those around her, so she sailed serenely past, compassionate and caring, but holding fast to her hard-won inner sanctuary, to her peace, to her joy.
She had always been a lover of the sky, the forest, the wild places. And here, surrounded by beauty, she was so consciously grateful for it all. Her life was one long "Thank You", that ran through her days, a counterpoint to the distracted busy world around her. Thank You for the sky, for the brilliance of sunshine on fresh green leaves, for the eagle's flight, for the tiniest intricate bouncy patch of moss upon the forest's floor.
Joy was her companion as she walked along the beach, the susurration of waves washing over her spirit as balm, smoothing away any concerns that had been trying to hitch a ride.
Her eyes feasted ecstatically upon islands, herons, old-growth forest, frothing white caps crashing over rocks, the dip of the eagle's wing. Lone Cone staunchly guarded the friendly harbour, blushing a deep rose all along the ample bosom of Meares Island, as the sun fell upon it at the close of day. She lived in contented self-sufficient silence for ten glorious years, needing, wanting nothing more than nature's bounty, splendiferous around her, so rich and various, free for the taking, whether human eye was there to appreciate it or not. So much life!
She watched others chattering, talking, sparking ideas off each other, laughing raucously, needing to mark their presence with sound, and she smiled, needing no words, content to simply Be, to look about feeling a deep-seated harmony, a kinship with all beings dwelling in this power spot, her spirit come home at last to its right place.
There were times she recognized that she had created a sometimes lonely exile; times she longed for what others had, a partner to share the wonder of the journey. At the end of ten years of self-imposed exile, she opened herself to the universe once more, ready to accept the change that she felt coming.
The change was illness, inability to work, and she was forced to leave her h0me, her place in the world, to move to a more affordable town inland, away from the smell and sound of the sea that she needed, she needed, to be happy.
The universe set her the task of losing what she most loved. She rolled up her sleeves. She made a home and a life, once again; she learned to be happy where she was. But her heart longed every moment for the sea and there wasn’t a day she didn’t miss it.
Then she thought she had found the love she had sought forever. Her formerly withheld heart blossomed, opening farther than it ever had before. The white knight turned out to be play-acting; the romance she had believed was real turned out to be a farce. When it ended, she knew her heart was finally whole. She had been brave enough to risk, had loved and lost, once again emerging strong and whole and ready to move on. The worst had happened, and she had made it through. Traveler, there is no path. The Way is the path.
Now here she is, poet, star dreamer, inner voyager, moving through her days one by one, opening each like a Christmas package all unknown, under the shiny wrapping a wealth of smiles and unexpected tears, of shining moments of sudden grace, strung like winking stars across a canopy of midnight sky.
She knows all about 'the silence from which all music comes.' It is her dearest friend. Out of that vast silence, that knowingness, has grown the full authenticity of who she is, at home within the universe and her Self. Through it, the beautiful symphony of life plays like a mellow clarinet on a summer afternoon, warm and golden, counterpoint to the full brass band of daily experience, all inter-woven and living mellifluously together in her heart.
A SENSE OF WONDER
The blue sky has gotten me through a lot of hard times in my life. I remember my mother asking how I could handle it, right after Stephanie's father burned down my store on the ocean, taking off once he found out there was no insurance money. ("I took you for everything you had," he told me, departing.) "You've just lost everything you had in the world," Mom said. And I replied, "But we're still all alive, and there's still sunshine and trees and blue sky. All the things that mean the most to me are free."
I have started over from scratch many times in my life. It almost feels like each decade was a completely separate lifetime. Except for the sense of wonder that accompanied me through each decade.
I remember sitting with my grandmother at the end of her life, when she was mourning all that was no longer in her life. Looking up at the dark trees, breathing in the scent of the forest, I felt a grateful connection with earth and sky. Grandma watched me wistfully, then said, "You have great joy in being alive, don’t you?"
It is with a sense of wonder that I have walked through my life, and this has been one of life's great gifts to me: that even in the most painful moments, my heart has still lifted at the sight of trees poking through wisps of fog on mountainsides, at the way clouds look against a backdrop of blue sky.
It all seems such an incredible gift, that the earth should be so beautiful. That there are canyons of red clay, towering blue peaks topped with white, forests full of magical peace, and always the murmuring sursurration of the sea.
It was to the shore I went the night my son was diagnosed with schizophrenia. (More about him soon. He is the one now battling cancer - life is not very fair.) The rhythmic sound of the waves calmed me, reminded me of trust, spoke to me of his and my connection to something much greater than our little lives, reminding me that, even in times of difficulty, just being alive is a gift. In the tidepools at my feet, in small universes full of life, tiny critters were as intent upon fulfilling their destinies as I was mine.
Life brings us pain, but it also teaches us that whatever life sends us, we can handle. (Do we have any choice? Only in how we respond to challenges.) Especially if we believe something larger than what seems to be happening is really going on. "There is a larger landscape than the one we see." (author unknown). Along with the pain, life brings us so many moments of wonder, so many minor miracles.
When overwhelmed with grief, one's instinct is to shut down from pain that feels too intense to be borne. But in protecting ourselves from pain, we prevent ourselves from also fully experiencing joy.
It is in opening up to the whole of life: the joy and the pain, the difficulty and the wonder, that we live and grow. I finally learned that, when pain comes, I must push my way through it and out the other side, trusting it is part of the process, part of going forward, meeting life with the best one can muster. My work now is to be as perfectly present as I can be, to open myself to whatever work the universe has yet in store for me. J.C. Lucas, our West Coast First Nations medicine man, once told me, "Your greatest pain is your strongest medicine," and it is true. When we say yes to the whole of life, we begin to see a myriad of miracles strewn along our everyday path.
It seems as deeply as we sometimes sink in sorrow, just as high may we also rise in wonder. When we learn to trust the universe, and ourselves, to know something a lot bigger than ourselves is in charge, to surrender, to let go and to flow, our eyes open to the little gifts: herons picky-toeing along the mudflats, eagles perching regally atop scraggy branches, friendly ancient tree trunks breathing peace through layers of moss, crimson sunrises, and always always the sky like a backdrop, a protective cover, a canvas across which cloud shapes more perfect than paintings roll serenely by. In the midst of pain and struggle, hardship and difficulty, moments of grace lift the heart, connect us with all that is, remind us to raise our perspective to encompass the big picture, and to merge with the whole grand scheme of things, rejoicing that we are alive in this moment in time, able to breathe and fully savor the wonder of opening our eyes one more morning to the beauty of a brand new day.
Life is a journey fraught with many tears, but the reward for it all is wonder: when I stood on Radar Hill one early springtime morning, I could see heartbreaking beauty for 360 degrees around me, the perfect and utter beauty of the natural world. I thought of all that was going on below: humans creating havoc for other humans and for the planet. My heart aches for humankind, even while it lifts at the sight of sunlight consecrating trees, and birds wheeling freely over shining waters.
Once I learned to trust, to listen and to really see, life became such a magical journey that I now believe, whatever pain still comes, my solace and support and joy will always be nearby, in the natural world that brings gifts each day to those who know how to receive them, and in connection to the spirit world, that is as equally all around us and within us.
I walk each day in gratitude for the gift of being alive, in acceptance and in peace, because I trust there is something leading me the way I'm supposed to go. My heart is humbly grateful to have reached this part of the journey, so open to the wonder, the incredible beauty and blessings I am surrounded by every day.
I feel my spirit rising to meet life, all of it, the joy and the pain, human frailty and heroism, peoples' hearts reaching out, hungry for simple kindness and goodness. I find myself wanting to applaud the courage of those who keep on striving to find their way, as I did, through the darkness and closer to the light. I want to tell them: "you're almost there - the other side of that coin of pain is incredible joy. It is waiting for you, up ahead."
My prayers are almost all prayers of gratitude now, for having come this far in finding peace. I love the fresh hopefulness of each new day breaking, all fresh-smelling. I cant see over the mountain range that separates me from the wild shores I love, but in my memory I see crimson dawn rising over the inlet, love the sight of windswept sandy beaches which each morning bear different patterns from the waves of the night before. I remember my feet fairly dancing as I stepped out onto them to walk to the rhythm of the waves.
It is enough and more than enough to fill my heart to the brim, riches beyond measure, free for the taking. And I feel myself, not falling, but rising in love.
*** *** ***
[This is a fictionalized account of true events I read about some years ago, about two people who met at a grief group, and wound up falling in love and getting married. And the toast made at the end is true as well. That is the bare bones of it. I invented the story around that situation. But way cool to think this stuff really happens!]
At 3:17 on a snowy Thursday afternoon in November, Keith Govnell fell over his desk, dead of cardiac arrest at thirty-eight. Life as his loving wife and two small children knew it was appreciably over at that moment.
When they came to tell her, Karen reeled with shock and incomprehension. How could this be? Keith had hugged her goodbye that morning, smelling cleanly of toothpaste and his morning shower; they had shared a casual, distracted smile over the heads of seven year old Jared and six year old Samantha, who were noisily slurping their cornflakes and arguing over toast, and he was out the door. Not long after, his wife shepherded their children out to the car, dropped them off at school and proceeded with her normally busy day.
That night, after the police, the hospital corridors, the watchful nurses, the weeping friends and relatives, after all of that horribly unreal day was over, she stopped short at the door of their bedroom, staring at their marriage bed. It now was an alien and unthinkable country, and she retreated, closing the door quietly.
For months, she would sleep on the lumpy couch with a fuzzy blanket clutched around her. She wondered if she would ever be able to sleep in a bed again. She was certain she would never again know the joy of being loved, of being held, of sharing the comfortable darkness and the coming of a new day with a lover and companion, her soul-mate. It was cruel enough that Keith was dead at thirty-eight, that they had had only eight short years together. It was harder to be her, to be left, knowing her one shot at love, at happiness, had been and gone. It was for the children that she remained; for the children that she got up every morning, to make breakfast, to start them through their days, the days that yawned emptily before her to infinity, the days she would somehow have to live through, breathe through, move through until her useless stump of a body finally withered and she could be with Keith again.
A huge weariness moved in, once the initial raging grief subsided, and it took up residence in her sluggish limbs, her hopeless heart. It looked out through her tired, unseeking eyes and the absent smiles and abstracted murmurings with which she tended her children. Sometimes she'd give herself a shake; the childrens' grief and loss was terrible too. They needed her, desperately. Then she'd clutch them to her, almost too tightly. Sometimes their hot tears mingled together and after, as she dried their faces and wiped their noses, she'd promise them - and herself - that they would make it through. But how were they supposed to do it, without Keith?
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
At 9:54 on an icy Sunday morning in December, on a country road not twenty-five miles outside that same small city, not far from the farmhouse she shared with her husband Peter and three year old daughter Ariel, Amy Fraser felt the icy road under her tires suddenly fall away. In an instant, it had turned into a glassy skating rink. It felt like the wheels were toboggans that lifted, lifted her off the lip of a mountainside, then spilled and spilled her back to earth again, landing in a pillowy soft cloud of snow, brilliant with sunlight, where she could feel and hear nothing at all but peace.
Afterwards, as people repeated what had happened, how fast it had all occurred, they hoped the velocity of the crash had spun her safely beyond the physical realm on impact, sparing her any pain.
Pain was what was left behind for her loving, grieving husband and baby daughter. Peter lost, in that instant, his wife, his companion, his best friend and childhood sweetheart - his soul mate.
Bewilderedly clutching his uncomprehending little daughter, rocking her back and forth in the nursery chair Amy had used nightly to rock Ariel safely into the land of dreams, Peter's broken heart spilled out of his eyes and ran down his cheeks. The house, once so alive, was suddenly big and dead around him. It was so still, he could hear the whispery breath of his sleeping child, the eeriness of the wind outside, every creaking stair and dripping tap and ticking clock. So silent he could hear icicles cracking under the eaves. As he stared emptily and unseeingly into the dark night, he wondered how on earth they were going to make it, Ariel and he, without Amy, who had been the laughter and sunshine of their days, the light of both their lives.
***** ***** ***** *****
Hovering close by, concerned, Amy's radiance was tinged with a hue of sorrow. She now understood life and death were simply other sides of the same reality. But her heart ached for her sorrowing husband, her innocent and unaware baby daughter, for the depth of her husband's grief and for all her child had lost.
Wistfully, she held back from her journey beyond. She could not quite let them go, could not move forward, until she knew that they would be all right. Through the days afterward, through the dark nights of the soul when Peter's tears soaked Amy's pillow, clutched tightly against him in the suddenly cold and too-large bed, beside him as he walked gravely up the aisle at the funeral, (the same aisle they had walked, so radiantly in love, at their wedding), and in the evenings after, when Peter had put his child to bed and sat staring into the lonely dark, Amy was never far. She longed to comfort him, to help him understand that her love, her presence, was still there, that this was all part of the plan, the divine mystery whose meaning is only revealed at the end of life.
Another had made the crossing with her; a young husband and father had suddenly found himself on the other side. He, too, was worried about his wife, his children. Because both had left so suddenly, so abruptly, in the time of their lives when they thought their married lives lay long before them, there was unfinished business keeping them attached to the earth plane. There was no way to say goodbye, with their loved ones in such pain. These two remained close behind the veil that separates the living from beyond, and in moments whispered hints of their loved ones' presence comforted Peter and Karen, in a way neither could fully understand, yet neither would deny.
***** ***** ***** *****
At first Karen wanted only to be home, hidden from others' eyes, from the rushing, bustling noisy world that was an affront to her, whose life had stopped that snowy afternoon. She drew the children close to her; the winter evenings found them all sharing the firelight, talking quietly, eating popcorn, watching television.
But by spring, she saw her children responding to the natural life cycle that was happening outdoors. And she knew she needed to get some help to pry her out of her armchair, out of her reverie. She would never get over Keith, never. But she had so many years ahead of her. She needed someone to help her, to tell her how she was supposed to manage to live out the rest of her life.
She was quiet and shy for the first while at the grief group. There was a vast tiredness on her face and living inside her body, the certain knowledge that her last chance at love had been and gone, too soon, and somehow she had to make something survivable out of the years ahead. One night she finally found her voice and spoke.
"Help me," she asked simply. "Help me to know how to keep going."
And somewhere, not very far away, her husband smiled.
***** ***** ***** *****
Peter resisted friends' suggestions that he turn to the local grief group. No use talking about it; that wouldnt make the pain go away. His tendency was to withdraw, to not talk. That certainly was easier than baring your grief in front of strangers.
But in the months that followed, there was no one he knew that he could relate to any more. His family, his friends were sympathetic and tender, concerned. But they didnt understand, how could they? How could they know that simply coming across Amy's scarf unexpectedly plunged a knife of agony into his innermost being. She had always been there; now she was gone. And how was he ever - ever! - going to get over that? How could life - that glorious taken-for-granted happy ease of daily life - ever get back to normal again?
Finally one night he opened the door of the church basement meeting room, and peered inside at the circle of people. They made him feel welcome, they gave him coffee, they didnt expect him to speak and so, of course, in time he did.
"One thing I know for certain: Amy would want me to go on. She was so alive, so vibrant. But the only trouble is, I'm having trouble figuring out how to do it."
Beyond the shadows, two spirits smiled at each other, and linked hands.
***** ***** *****
For six months, Peter and Karen related particularly to each other, as they shared their journeys of love and loss and tried to find their way back to life in the support of the circle. Their situations were so uncannily similar, their losses so recent. They were feeling so many of the same feelings. And they both feared they would never love again.
Then Karen found herself one day thinking, idly, "He's cute!" and, stunned, a moment later: "If I think he's cute, then I must be alive!"
Peter saw the great weariness in Karen's face and told himself, if it had to be, he preferred being the one to be left. He would not have wanted his wife to go through what Karen was going through. He began to feel protective and supportive, wanted to help ease her burden.
By the time the first year anniversaries of the deaths rolled around, they had begun to meet for coffee to talk more privately, to share their common experiences more deeply than they cared to in the group. They began to phone at odd hours, when the nighttime lasted too long and was too empty; each knew the other would understand as no one else possibly could.
After a while, they dropped in at each other's homes, made friends with each other's children, began going out on joint outings. Out of the broken pieces of their lives, they began to find a way to pick up some of the pieces and move forward.
It was in the second year that they knew that they would marry, would make a home for the most precious legacies their mates had left behind: their children.
It was a wedding of joy and tears. Each of them remembered other faces coming towards them down the aisle; each of them loved the new face in a way that somehow included the beloved former partner's face and encompassed all the pain they had passed through together. It was like the four of them somehow united on this day, all soul-mates.
When Peter rose to thank family and friends for their support through these hard years, he told how their coming together brought he and Karen the companionship and strength they both needed and wanted, and brought Jared and Samantha the father and Ariel the mother the children so badly needed.
As he raised his glass in a toast to his bride, the tears came and his voice caught in a sob, as he added, "I raise my glass also.....to Amy and to Keith.......for gifting us with three beautiful children and making us a family. To Life: L'Chaim!"
"L'Chaim!" everyone echoed, clinking lifted glasses, wiping away tears.
Somewhere, not too far, two spirits glided ever so softly away.
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
WAKING FROM THE DREAM
[Waking from the dream........and holding the vision of change: my relief at the election of Barak Obama 2008. I am referring in this piece to my frustration with George W. Bush's presidency, not to the United States as a whole, or its wonderful people, so many of whom are striving to do great work in the world. And to my relief and joy when a new era was ushered in, one that inspired my hopefulness to reawaken. I cried with joy the night Obama was elected. This piece was written in the days just preceding voting day.]
It is November 1963. Our grade twelve class is facing a TV at the front of the room. There is not a sound, not a rustle, as we watch the horse and cart carrying John F. Kennedy's casket clip-clop past his wife and two small children. Jacquie is wearing a black veil, her beautiful face stricken yet composed, bearing her loss with dignity and a controlled grace. Caroline stands on her right, face heart-shaped and bereft. On Jacquie's left, John-John, three years old, in his little overcoat and short pants, raises his hand in a final salute to his father, a gesture that rips out the hearts of the nation.
In the 60's, we are the generation that thinks we will change the world. And we almost do, until, one by one, all of our leaders and visionaries are assassinated. Our generation rises up against the status quo and challenges it all: the capitalistic ethos, the war in Viet Nam, the "do as we say, not as we do" code we've been raised by. We have some visionaries capable of painting on a bigger canvas, dreaming a bigger dream than the world has dared to dream thus far.
Gandhi preceded us, standing against an entire nation to free the shackles of his people. One small man, armed with a walking stick and wearing a loin cloth, faced down the might of the British Empire, insisting that they let his people go. His assassination in 1948 is the first shot heard around the world, the first of all those that will follow, extinguishing our luminaries one by one, till it seems that a blanket of darkness and greed has covered the planet.
Before JFK's assassination, it is Camelot. Girls wear flouncy dresses; young men in sports coats slick back their hair and act debonair. There is a young charismatic leader in the White House, we still have some innocence, and everything is possible. Till the unthinkable happens, he is slain before our eyes on television screens across the land, and Camelot comes to a crashing end.
April 4, 1968. Martin Luther King has a dream. His words the night before he is assassinated reveal a prescience that he will be killed. "Like everyone, I would like to live a long life. But I'm not concerned with that. For I have been to the mountain top and I have seen the Promised Land." One more shot rings out in the early hours of the morning. One more leader with a golden tongue, far-reaching vision, and a thirst for justice slain.
The late 60's, the early 70's: in San Francisco in Haight-Ashbury, in Vancouver along Fourth Avenue, the young throw over the traces and are exploring everything: counter-culture, drugs, rock 'n roll, Eastern philosophy. Peaceful long-haired smiling beings in unbelievably interesting clothing stroll up and down the streets: "Peace 'n Love, baby, Peace 'n Love." There are anti-war protests during which the Law of the Land clubs, beats and even shoots young college students for saying the war in Viet Nam is wrong. (A fact borne out indisputably some years down the road. We apparently learn nothing from this.)
Then along comes Bobby. With him as President, the world WILL change. Until a morning in June, 1968. I am a young wife then, in Alert Bay. I am standing in my living room, stunned by the words coming from the radio. It cant be true, but it is. My husband has just come home from work. He looks at me. Disbelievingly, I tell him, "They've shot Bobby." By now, the dream is dying. We are hearing its death rattle. Everyone who dares to dream is shot, gotten out of the way, by those who cling to power and corruption and wealth literally to the death.
But John Lennon's voice can be heard above the despair, trying to light the way of the broken-hearted: "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one."
The music of John Lennon, Elton John, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Carly Simon, Simon and Garfunkle, is the backdrop of our days in the 70's. We know the world is out of whack, but we have been soundly trounced, our voices silenced with clubs and guns. We are just living now. The world has taken a turning down a darker path, with LBJ and "Tricky Dick". Conspiracy theories abound, and personal survival replaces changing a world that refuses to change. We pour our angst into music and poetry and bad love affairs, sullen soldiers marching to a beat we have not chosen. Still trying to believe.
Then on December 8, 1980 a final shot rings out: a crazy man has shot John Lennon. Thousands pour into Central Park in disbelief, standing vigil, holding candles aloft, tears pouring down their faces, as they sway back and forth to "All We Need Is Love."
It is too much. Our heroes, our visionaries are all dead and we are left with Darwin's nightmare, a system gone awry. [Darwin's Nightmare is the title of a documentary about the fishing industry harvesting perch in the Nile. The predatory fish, which has wiped out the native species, is sold in European markets, while the local natives starve.]
"The dream is over, what can I say?" mourns John's voice from beyond the grave. Our dreams all got derailed somewhere along the way.
But the more gunfire tries to silence those voices, the more powerful they become. Years later, all of those fallen heroes still live, their voices ringing out from television and computer screens, and across the airwaves. There is a catch at my heart and tears close by, every time I hear the words and music of those long-gone dreaming days when we lost our round-eyed innocence. Just this way are their dreams still alive, in the hearts of aging baby boomers looking out at a world gone mad, where profit is everything, even at the potential cost of humanity's survival.
It is 2008: now we are looking back at horrible wars fought for highly selective political or financial purpose: Operation Desert Storm, Operation "Enduring Freedom". [This piece is about the political will to wage war, not about the brave men and women who are sent to do the fighting. May they all come home.] War is everywhere, on-going troubles in Ireland, Kosovo, Georgia/Russia, the Middle East, Africa. Tibet has been suffering, ignored, for decades. No enduring freedom for them. The USA administration, so quick to leap aggressively into areas where oil or political might is at stake, and even the United Nations, supposed upholder of international rights and freedoms, responds with indifference when genocide and starvation are wiping out the peoples of Rwanda or Darfur. Then the towers fall on 9/11, a wake-up call if ever there was one.
"Could it be," asks Arundhati Roy in The Algebra of Infinite Justice, "that the stygian anger that led to the [9/11] attacks has its taproot not in American freedom and democracy, but in the US government's record of commitment and support to.....military and economic terrorism, insurgency, military dictatorship, religious bigotry and unimaginable genocide (outside America)? Terrorism is the symptom, not the disease......If it is to be contained, the first step is for America to at least acknowledge that it shares the planet with other nations, with other human beings....." This is the best explanation of 9/11 that I have read. Someone in Oprah's audience, a woman of colour, said, "Everyone acts like one white death is more tragic than the death of a person of colour, those who are dying in the millions, ignored by the world". And it is true.
John Lennon's assassination marked the death of an era. The interval since has been one of corporate greed and pillage, and military intrusion. [Again, political decisions, with the young men and women of the nation sent to pay the price.] The world's image of the US has changed from the cool conquering heroes and fly-boys who arrived during World War II as liberators, to a bully whose presumption is "might makes right."
In the 70's, we were like rebellious adolescents. We got slapped down, went underground for a time, and learned some things. We are much older now, and wiser. We can dream a farther-reaching dream and take the steps to get there. Dream, all crones and creaky-jointed crooners, of a global community working and aligning itself in harmony with Mother Nature, harnessing the power of wind and water, sharing the resources of the earth among ALL its peoples, and bringing us into a kinder, gentler dawn. It's time to dust off those broken dreams, put on our granny glasses, and conjure up the thousand years of peace that has been prophesied and whose time has come. These turbulent times are the birth pangs of a new age trying to be born. I remember the words of a song sung by three gentle B'hai musicians back in coffeehouse days:
"It is time to turn swords
to till the hearts of all men...."
There is a struggle between dark and light forces all over the earth right now. But I remain stubbornly hopeful. After a long time without heroes, a young man of the people has risen up once again with a vision of Change. And we are so ready for Change! In Barak Obama, I feel a hope I havent felt since Bobby Kennedy was shot. But I fear for him. In my experience, every time a man of the people has risen up, he has been felled and silenced. I dont even want to put that thought out into the universe, but I pray for his protection.
The last election was a stolen one; this time the groundroots swell of the common man backing Obama tells me we've had enough of political corruption and war-mongering. It is the dawn of a new epoch: we must turn towards the light; we cannot continue in the darkness. Each one of us can add our small flicker to the growing light of conscious choice we are being called upon to make. We are beaten down, but it is not yet too late to redeem the dulling of our bright beginnings, of what we owe to our fallen heroes, who were the voices of our youth.
We need more than a dream now. We need a shift in human consciousness across the planet so far-reaching that every peasant in a hillside cave in Afghanistan, every suffering monk in Tibet, and every starving orphaned child in Darfur can feel it. This planet is battered, distressed and storm-tossed. Mother Earth is expressing her displeasure, and we are reaping the whirlwind. But my heart refuses to give up hope that there will be a turning in the tide of human consciousness. It may take a series of disasters so stark that humans have no choice but to return to more modest and sustainable living. What will it take to make the warring factions all over the world put down their guns and feed their people? Einstein said he was certain of one thing: "If World War Three is fought with nuclear weapons, World War Four will be fought with rocks and clubs."
But "Love is the intuitive knowledge of our hearts," says Marianne Williamson in The Age of Miracles. And I believe. "As we look, not back nor forward, but deep within, we see a light that is greater than the darkness of the world, a hope that surpasses the understanding of the world, and a love that is greater than all the hatred in the world....we shall follow that light........toward humanity's rebirth."
As I sit on my porch swing, exhausted by the life I have lived and the losses I have weathered - that we all as a species have weathered collectively - I add my small push to shift, shift! the tide of universal consciousness out of the darkness, into the light of a brand new day. It is happening now, consciousness is rising across the planet so strongly we can feel it! Each of us can add our own little nudge, to tip it over the edge into a vast global awakening. We can dream a kinder, fairer world into existence, we can speak it, we can pray it, we can march for it, we can vote with our feet and our pocketbooks for it. With enough of us holding the vision, it isn't too late yet to change the world.
[2016: Barak Obama has come to the end of his eight year term, during which his hair turned grey, the Republicans fought against every single thing he tried to do, racists were forced to endure an African American Presidency. Even against such determined opposition, Barak achieved a great deal and never for one moment lost his integrity. He was the best President ever seen. But the recent election of his successor has horrified us all. The narcissistic racist fascist Donald Trump will succeed him, and has said he will swiftly undo everything Obama has done. He promised to drain the swamp - he is doing so by appointing racists and scary men with hard dead eyes, setting loose the swamp monsters on the halls of power. Times are going to be very bad. Looking at his soulless eyes, I wonder if he is the 666 who was prophesied. A battle of Dark and Light for supremacy is upon us. I do believe love and light live in more hearts than does darkness. But darkness is in control now, and it is going to have itself a field day. My best hope is that they don't press the buttons to blow the world up. It is horrifying, having watched the slow struggle of the civil rights movement, to see us set back seventy years with this election. Dark days ahead. I take my candle to the cave within, to ride out the storm.]
ALL THE CHRISTMASES THAT WERE
There were all their faces, alight with laughter. Kids playing, mugging for the camera, on jungle gyms, kids grinning out through tire-hole climbing structures, one face atop another, Baby Steph's at the bottom. (Steph's favorite saying in those years, "I'm NODDA Baby!") Lisa and Jeff, hanging upside down by one leg each from the metal bar. Jeff and Steph, upside down, butts to the camera, grinning at me through their legs. Jon with his first rocket, his new bike. Jeff and Steph, arms wrapped around each other, beaming. Jeff and Steph dancing, faces aglow with gaiety too great to contain. Lisa leaping into the air, her mouth square, shrieking her joy at getting the new clogs she wanted so badly. Jon fishing, hiking in the hills. Jon on a roughly made raft, poling up the lake in the dead of winter. Lisa cuddling a furry little pet under her chin, looking out at me with the same tender softness I see in her eyes now, cuddling her children and her kittens.
Jeff and Jon, plastic swords over their shoulders, marching to the Tolkien-like music we liked during the winters when my boys read Lord of the Rings over and over. Jeff, tongue hanging out comically, his head inside the mouth of the concrete Ogopogo statue in City Park, pretending he was being eaten by the monster.
All of us, up Knox Mountain, flying kites. All of us strung out in a row on bikes. All of us, having a winter picnic at Gyro Park, on ground white and frozen, grinning around our sandwiches.
And there were all the Christmases, when somehow, against all financial reality, magic happened in our living room, and the wee hours of Christmas morning resounded with happy shrieks and an orgy of gift-opening. Now, I dont know how I did it, but I remember my determination that, on that one day of the year, my kids would have everything they wanted. I was trying to make up for the daily reality of never enough money, never quite enough food, and all the times they wanted things in silence that they never asked for, because they knew our lack of money by the contents of our fridge.
That Christmas magic lasted until my children hit their teens, when our family hit rough waters for a time, as my children, like so many others in our culture, explored drugs, alcohol and paths that took them away from me and any magic I might have available. As I looked at their shining pre-teen faces in their childhood photos, my throat closed over a massive lump. Back then I could still afford some slight protection, or so I thought. I had not yet learned the most perilous years lay in wait, full of dangers far scarier than my childrens' worst childhood nightmares. We entered those years all unaware and unprepared, and none of us came out unchanged.
What the photographs don't show is the other side of Christmas, in the years when my heart was aching for my children, when I valiantly traveled from place to place among them, bright smiles and cheerful wrap belying the hidden pain, the unspoken words one or the other of us was not yet able to say. Christmas lost its magic for me in the years when one, then another child was away from home. And in the years when Jeff, who had been so sunny a youngster, made his lonely trek through the valley of despair.
I remember the Christmas concert just after one daughter left home too soon, and the depth of sadness in my heart as I watched the two children who were still with me, up on the stage, the sweet sound of children singing piercing me through like a lance. Another year, another Christmas, and Jeff, wan and pale, fragile and shaky, singing, "If I were a swan, I'd be gone," me encouraging his talent and brilliance, at the same time trying to anchor him to this earth he had such a fragile hold upon.
Some Christmases we spent scattered, me traveling among my children. Some we spent together, with inner distances between us we didn't mention, our smiling faces turned to the camera, our secret pain and memories within.
There are no photographs of the fractured Christmases, when one or another of my children was either physically or emotionally distant from me. No photographs mark the passage of those years of family unraveling and reweaving. Years when I learned to stay steady, cling firmly to my life and carry on, believing in the power of a mother's patient, steadfast and unconditional love - and the healing powers of the passage of time - for my children to make their inner journeys away from and back to me.
Back and forth among my children, as the years passed, I traveled, a little shorter, a lot tireder, a little more frazzled with every year. Encouraging, supporting, trying to instil my belief that life holds goodness and wonder, once we are ready to let go of all the pain and anger. For a time, I thought the Christmases we once had only came with small children, and were forever gone.
For years, I could not bear to look at the photos of those young faces, knowing the pain we all had gone through since. There were years I took photos mainly of scenery and tried to heal myself from all the pain and struggle. This year, I could look. This year was the right time to give my kids back some of those happy childhood memories, remind them there were many more good times, much more laughter, than there were times of trouble. My children are on their own journeys now, have made peace with the past, embracing the present. They have become spiritual warriors on the path, and I watch with amazement as they grow in strength and wisdom and awareness.
And I am traveling too, to the season of my life when time becomes more finite, when there is a lot of looking-back and summing-up, and a wish to pass on all the love and gifts and wisdom one possesses while one still can.
While my children were growing, I was growing too, willy-nilly. I did some growing whole, some seizing of the reins of the galloping wild horses that were my children in those years. There were times when I felt utterly unable to cope, knowing I had no choice but to cope with what felt like too heavy a load. When my children were floundering in treacherous waters, somehow I had to encourage them from shore, throw life preservers, guide them through. Sometimes I felt like I was hanging onto the tail of a lashing dragon, that was wagging me.
Those years have been past a long time now. My children are no longer children. Some time back they assumed the reins and tamed their own wild horses.
Grandparents' faces are now missing around the table; I find myself the matriarch and wonder how it all happened so fast. But my children have been coming home for Christmas most every year, and some of the magic has been creeping back into that day.
This year was like the Christmases of old, kids disappearing under a sea of wrap, their heads poking out above the surface. Jon, giving me the best gift he could possibly give, in gifting his brother with a ghetto blaster to play his music. Jeff, more himself than he has been for years, hovering protectively over freshly caught fish Jon was cleaning, like a young priest, telling them "It will be okay." Lisa filling with new strength and awareness of her worth and rights as a human on this earth. Strong enough to hold her head up bravely under judgment of those who do not know, in order to live her truth. Gifting me with the honesty of her communication. And Steph, who for so long sought family outside of our family, now finding it with her brothers and sister, as the family mends and re-weaves itself, growing strong at the broken places.
My friend had a similar Christmas with her children, her son giving her the verbal gift of forgiveness first thing Christmas morning, reducing her to tears. As we remark on the growth we are seeing in our children and the richness of our new relationships with the adults they have become, she remarks, "Our Christmases will be different from now on. Consciousness is growing in our children." And she is right.
I feel less lonely on my path, now that my children are so strongly embarked on theirs. Our conversations have new depth and recognition. I feel proud of the journeys they are making: journeys of the heart, of finding and living their own truth, pride in their heart and courage and honesty.
This year, once again, we took the Christmas photo. This year I have been privileged to see deeper into who my kids really are. We are now a mutual cheering section for each other, comparing notes on the journey. My health is faltering, exhausted from decades of pain and struggle, wanting only rest. But my childrens' light is outshining the darkness, and it is an awesome sight, brighter than any yuletide tree. Sometimes I feel it is by my sheer determination that we all made it safely through.
If I had one gift I could give them, it would be the incredible gratitude and reverence I have always felt for life, just life. I made it through my dark times because there was always blue sky and sunshine and trees, filling my heart with thankfulness, to keep me looking up. I wish that heart-lift for my children, that gift of seeing past the pain to all the beauty that is available when we are ready to reach out for it.
Sometimes I worry about what might yet lie ahead, knowing I dont have the strength for much more. I feel the deep tiredness of someone who has been paddling hard for a very long time, whose arms are growing weaker. My mother's heart is always braced against the possibility of unbearable pain should anything happen to any one of my children.
This year the difference was, my children were helping me and easing things for me, instead of me helping them. And it felt really good, like we're all in this together, so maybe I dont have to be so strong any more.
As I lose strength, my children are gaining it. With what pride I survey my life's work: four very special young people who emerged from some very perilous passages with the mark of the wayfarer on their faces, and knowledge, compassion, caring and strength shining from their eyes. We are now journeying together, and can recognize and applaud each other's progress as, by different paths, we find and live our truths. The cycle of life is turning, turning, and my children are leading me Home.
NO GREATER WORK
[written in 1963, when I was 17.
This story won me the opportunity to study to be a missionary
at Gonzaga University, but I was too scared to go that far from home. Sigh]
To the sailors who panted and grunted under heavy loads of tobacco and flour between the ship deck and the dock, Paul was just another dark-skinned youngster in another of the small , identical ports lining Africa's coast.
It was a necessary chore to tolerate the villagers' silent curiosity as they deposited the heavy bags and hastened departure from the dusty, broiling shanty towns. If any of the swarthy shipmates gave a passing thought to the emotions behind the blank, staring little faces, it was brief wonderment at how man could live in such neglect, with even the forces of nature in apparent opposition to comfort.
But for the most part, the "darkies" were soulless in the minds of the sweating men who hastened to feel the cool breezes of the sea on their faces, after suffering land's merciless African heat. They were just faces; too many of them after years of entering and departing port after port, each with its row of dark, thin faces.
Once in a while one of the younger men might notice something beyond idle curiosity spark in the eyes of one of the poorest of the children. The youngster stared at the ship and the men from another world with an indefinable expression which set him apart from the others. That was Paul, though no white sailor ever learned his name. Perhaps he would receive a passing smile from one of the red-cheeked young men, or maybe a British copper, and he would treasure the memory and rush home to share it with his mother. The too-infrequent coin would immediately be spent on maize, such a welcome relief from the long weeks of boiled greens, interspersed with the tough meat of an occasional bush rabbit.
Paul was one of Father Meyer's brightest pupils. Father had been teaching the unfortunate victims of western Africa's poverty for twenty-three years. Upon arrival, he had had to remind himself sternly that every man possessed potential. The lethargy of the community's people was the result of generations of impoverished hopelessness. Little by little, attacking its spirit through its youth, Father Meyer managed to enkindle a slow-starting interest in development, which eventually became an effort to meet the struggle for survival with something akin to hope. For the most part, the villagers were still slow to begin projects but, once underway, they carried them through with methodical doggedness.
But once in a while the accustomed pattern was broken by a flash of greatness glowing in the heart of one of his people. It was this too-infrequent promise of better things for the village that made the long aching struggle worthwhile, Father told himself.
There was Paul. The boy was like a gentle, misting rain after a long drought in the soul of the priest. In his teens, even now he was revealing an inner fire that lifted him above the plane of his classmates and predicted a higher path for him.
When the priest first noticed him as more than one of a crowd of parishioners, Paul was about seven, all knees and elbows in his small garments. A stumbling discoverer of education, he was enthralled by the knowledge of God, and grasped readily the history of Christ. He loved to pray. Though his speech was halting, and his heart raced ahead of him faster than speech could ever hope to follow, he always prayed aloud. He used to sit under the trees in the schoolyard and mumble them in his groping fashion.
One day a few of the older boys approached him and derided him for "acting so holy". Paul was no longer uncertain. Remembering his teacher's description of God's love and understanding, he stood up to them and talked away their jeering smiles. When one of the boys told Father in confession, the priest knew that Paul must someday do something great.
He began to take special interest in the boy, and there formed between the two a close friendship. Paul was eager to learn, and his teacher unfolded visions of the world beyond the dusty port. Given the use of Father Meyer's library, Paul displayed an aptitude for reading which amazed the priest, who began to send overseas for more of the slim volumes.
As the boy's knowledge grew, a dream formed in the heart of the older of the two: one day Paul might become a priest and fill those he taught with inspiration that comes to few in a lifetime.
He never spoke of it to Paul. The boy must find his own way. He hoped it would not be away from Port Luwali. There was much to do within he village, and he would dearly love to have an assistant until such time as he could hand over his duties completely in his old age. The world needed Paul, but perhaps his peoples' need was greater. And Paul had so much to give.
Father Meyer sometimes wondered if he was thinking as much of the villagers as he was succumbing to to fear that the world might break Paul's fire. He was so sensitively balanced. Yet the boy displayed an extra strength that others seemed to lack.
Paul lived with his widowed mother in one of the row of huts lining the road between the village centre and the church and schoolhouse. They lived in stark simplicity, but the boy seemed unaware of the lack of possessions. As he grew older, he came an uncannily capable hunter, and often a small forest animal balanced their scant menu. They worked a few dry feet of garden which produced limp, drying vegetables, and a few pecking chickens, deriving existence by their own means, were traded regularly for staples at the market place. For the rest, they depended on the generosity of others. Often Father Meyer sent basket from the rectory. Perhaps an unexpected windfall would come to them and they would be presented with a small gift of maize or wheat. Their meals were seldom satisfying, but they never failed to ask God's blessing on their scanty meals, and thank Him that they had food for their table.
The priest was relaxing in his swivel chair at his desk in the rectory office, on one of the warmest days of a lingering African spring. He supposed he was getting old. Far too melancholy for his own good, he told himself. He remembered another spring when Paul was a young lad, first showing gleams of promise. But Paul was almost seventeen now, and would soon be choosing a profession. The village had never looked lovelier than it did now, peering through its fringe of new green foliage........
"Oh, Paul. You caught me daydreaming. Have you finished your book already?"
"Father, I've been thinking of something for a long time and couldn't decide. But yesterday....."
"Whoa! My mind is old and lazy, Paul. How about starting at the beginning?"
The boy's face was very grave and the priest had a sudden premonition of what was coming.
"Father, I want to be a priest."
"I had hoped and prayed that you would find it in your heart to be a priest, Paul. Only you can make that decision. You seem well fitted to the life."
"For a long time, Father, I have felt the vocation was right for me, but other things distracted me. There were doubts...."
"There always are. Take it easy, fellow. Straighten out your thoughts........"
"You want to tell me something and you don't know how. Why not just say what you're thinking and we'll try to make some sense out of it?"
The boy's look was shrew. He was apparently making a quick analysis of the priest's disposition, attempting to anticipate the forthcoming reaction to his words.
"Father, yesterday I went down to the river's edge. I felt tired, so I lay down and was listening to the river. I heard a rushing noise, that first sounded like the river, then became greater, and I knew it was something more. I felt a silver light around my eyes and couldn't open them, and...."
"Go ahead, Paul."
"A Voice said, 'Paul, you will be my priest.' Then it seemed to me I woke from a deep sleep, but it was so real I knew it could not have been a dream."
The priest massaged his chin, looking thoughtfully at the few littered papers in his letter box.
"Well, if it was a dream, it contained an important message," he finally said slowly. "Do you believe you had a vision, Paul?"
"I don't know, Father. It felt like I was asleep, and I was tired when I lay down.....But if it was only a dream, would that make its meaning less important?"
He's looking so desperately for the answer to his big question, the old man thought.
"God uses strange ways to tell a person what He wants them to do," he said. Help me to say the right thing, he thought swiftly. "Saint Paul was struck from his horse and blinded when God called him. He could have sent you this dream. Do you feel He answered your question about a vocation? Are there any doubts left? Or could it be you thought about it so much you brought the dream on yourself? You must be very careful now."
"I am sure God answered me, because just before I lay down I asked Him to help me to know somehow. I was so confused, my thoughts didn't make sense even to myself. I know now that no other life would satisfy me.
"Then I am very happy for you. If you are sure, then I can tell you from the beginning that I have been hoping it for you. You have been given a lot, and I am glad to see you wanting to give back."
A sudden change came over the boy's face, and a frown puckered his features.
"There is a problem we haven't touched..."
"I know what you're thinking, but I wanted to get one question figured out before we tackled another."
"There is a seminary in Kuwana Kara."
"Father, I....I want to go to Canada."
"You have told me so much about the training there. I feel it is the place where I am supposed to go. I can't say why; it's just a feeling."
"Well, actually the only difference in cost would be the passage. If we can somehow raise the seminary fee, I will pay your way there as a gift."
"Father, you are too generous!"
"I wish I could do more to show you how much I believe in you.. But the parish is poor. Our people are barely existing. I am afraid that the fee will have to be raised by yourself. It will be hard, but the reward is great. You will make a fine priest, son."
Paul was loathe to leave his mother alone but when he told her, she wept for joy and told him to do what his heart told him and that would be the greatest blessing she knew. She would make her way alone.
"We will always be together in spirit, my son. You have always been the joy of my life. I only wish now that I could help you somehow. How will you get the money?
"Today I applied for a job in the mines at Tawana. I need three hundred dollars. In two years...."
"The mines, Paul! Not the mines! The danger! The women of the village say their men get a sickness from the dust and cough and cough into the morning hours. Find another way, Paul."
"Mother, this is the only way. There are not enough jobs for even the men with families. A boy just finished school can hope for nothing more. I will go to the mines for God, so I can be his priest. I know He will help me."
"I will pray always that He will help you, my son, and keep you well and safe."
Paul was given a job in the mines. Day after day he climbed down the shaft with a last lingering look flashing to the sky before the ground swallowed him. With the other men, he grew accustomed to the thin film of grey dust which daily settled over skin and clothes with a ghostly shine. He established a slow methodical rhythm in the swinging of his pick, pausing only to take a damp, grimy handkerchief from a pocket, to wipe away the rivulets of perspiration which streamed down his face, and kept his palms perpetually clammy. At night, he left the mine's dampness and entered the gentler blackness of night.
He walked slowly, enjoying the cool breezes, his eyes always on the stars, pin-pricks of glitter against black velvet. His body grew accustomed to the weariness which settled over him like a cloak when work ended for the day. He felt it, but put the thought of it away from him.
Life became grim routine. There was nothing in the world but the endless flat black stone, and the sound of chipping and scraping. While he worked, he thought little about the reason behind his efforts; it was in his solitary night-time hours that he thought ahead to the future, and dreamed his dreams of cassocks and rosaries. And his heart would soar towards Heaven as he watched the months near a year. Soon he could go home for a brief visit!
Sometimes, as he worked, a great hope and a sort of stilled joy filled his heart, and he began a slow hymn, keeping time to its beat with his pick on the rough stone. His fellow workers would look at each other and shake their heads in passing wonder. Oftener than not, though still with mirthless amusement, one or two of the older men would join the chant, until soon the black pit would echo with the melancholy strains.
In the offices above, the sound came faintly to the supervisors. Halted in their duties, something akin to pain clutched their hearts, and they exchanged grave looks, before silently turning from the poignancy. There was work to be done. Someone had to do it.
It was during that first winter that Paul contracted the bronchial cough. Soon his cough joined the others during working hours. His nights were restless with sleeplessness brought on by ceaseless coughing. In time, a mild fever accompanied the cough. His eyes became ringed with fatigue, which accented their burning directness. Always gaunt, he now looked alarmingly angular. Feeling the need of haste, he cut down on meals to add to his savings. There was no one to advise him. His friends were his fellow miners, as skeleton-like as himself, and as plagued by the wracking cough. His landlady tried to admonish him; often it was the plate of buns or bowl of hot soup he brought to his room when she saw he had little else that kept him from starvation.
He had no outer interests, just one engulfing aim. He lived his days in the mine, then went home to scratch together an inadequate meal, then fall into bed, aching from exhaustion. Daily he prayed that this time might hasten to an end. Sometimes he cried from sheer longing to have it over but, mostly, he was too tired.
After a year he went for a visit. He noticed deep lines around his mother's eyes and mouth. Her hands were gnarled and wrinkled. She had an alert air, as though she listened constantly, and her eyes were forever seeking out something beyond her vision.
She fell to her knees before the crucifix and cried, when she saw her son coming down the road. When he arrived, she was at the door with a welcoming kiss for him; she carefully avoided mentioning her perception of how he had altered.
Father Meyer was arranging the altar for Benediction when Paul entered the back of the Church. The boy knelt briefly in the back pew. Turning to reach for an altar cloth, the priest noticed a dark shape in the shadows but paid no particular heed. It wasn't until the youth rose and started down the aisle that he gave the young man sharp look. It couldn't be......
"Paul! You're so....How are you, my boy? You look tired. Working hard will do that, all right! Into the sacristy, where we can talk. Bless you, Paul. You're home!"
Smiling, he put his arm around the boy's shoulders and suppressed the sudden exclamation that rose to his lips at their sharpness. The priest tuned Paul to him, placing a hand on each shoulder and admitting to himself a sudden gripping fear as he looked at the hollowness of the face before him.
They were both fighting emotion. Their closeness was such that the reunion caused hot tears to lurk behind their eyes, and a strangled sound prefaced their first words.
"Do you have to go back, Paul?"
"I have one hundred and fifty dollars, Father. I'll go back for one more year."
"Very brave, son. You will be better for this experience. Sit down and tell me how you've passed the year. Your letters were infrequent, but I know you were busy."
Too busy, he thought. Yes, this is making a man of you. Just don't let it kill your fire.........
Father Meyer placed the money Paul gave him into a carefully locked safe in the rectory. He told the boy he would try to add to it.
"I'll turn the parish inside out, Paul. Surely, in some corner people have an extra penny for a good cause. I'm going to try to get you away from the mines before another year passes."
As he saw the faint smile his plan brought to Paul;'s face, he admitted to himself he was terribly afraid. He never betrayed anything to Paul but his complete faith and hope. The day after Paul's visit, he mounted his bicycle and went to see Dr. Luke.
He had already seen Paul.
"The boy's mother was worried. It wasn't hard to bump into him in the village. There is indeed reason for haste. Is he quite determined to go back to the mines?"
"Quite determined. I want to shorten the time, but the parish is so poor. There is so little I can do....."
"If he goes back, we shall have to watch him die. He is too sensitively constituted to take the constant strain and fatigue. It is only his extraordinary selflessness that keeps him going. But even that cannot preserve health. I fear this is serious."
"I was hoping it was only fatigue, that time and rest would cure him. If I kept him here for a few months...."
"I must examine him first, before I can say, but I am fairly certain this is an illness that cannot be arrested at this late date. He has suffered too much damage in a year."
Paul saw Dr. Luke. The priest's worst fears were realized. Paul had the dreaded mine sickness, so far advanced that it could not be reversed. Father Meyer took Paul back to the rectory.
"Sit down, son."
Nervously, he rattled a few papers on his desk and then sat down himself. Jerking his hand impatiently, he rose again and walked to the window. Looking out at the sunny meadow, he attained a measure of calm, and finally asked, "What do we do now, Paul?"
Strange, Paul thought. I should be asking him that.
"Father, the doctor says the illness will eventually wear away all my strength. It is too late to cure me, is that right?"
"We can postpone it by complete rest, Paul. I don't want you to despair."
"Father, it will eventually get to me. What good would I be to anyone if I just sat down and waited for the end?"
"I want to go back to the mines. Don't protest! That way I could add to my seminary fund. I cannot sit out the rest of my days waiting for something to happen. I can't let my first year go for nothing. And if something does happen....perhaps another boy could use my money to realize his vocation. At any rate, God will have his priest."
"God forgive me, Paul. You know courage, but I don't. You'll never taste defeat."
"My one hope has been defeated, Father. It was the inspiration of my life. But there is a reward. I can still serve God, if not as His priest, then as a servant who sacrificed all for his Master."
Once again, Paul's footsteps turned towards Tawana and the mines. This time when his mother kissed him goodbye, he tasted the salt of tears on her face. Some inner feeling warned her that she might not see her son again, and the ache left a hollow feeling where her heart used to be. She watched his bent back shaking frequently with the hacking cough, until he reached the bend in the road, and turned to wave back at her. The tears coursed down her face as she responded. He blew her a kiss with his fingertips, then turned away. She watched him out of sight. "May God go with you into the black mine, my brave son, and guard you from all pain."
Eight months later, a messenger brought the letter to Father Meyer. It was written with a shaky hand, with the firmness of the penstrokes dwindling, becoming at the close a childish scrawl.
The doctor here tells me I haven't much time left. I held out as long as I could, and can't yet believe I didn't make it. I prefer to believe this is just a setback. Only fifty dollars more.......I enclose my pay so far. Put it with the rest. Four more months and I will be home again. Perhaps a year of rest, and I will make Canada after all. I want my cassock so badly! Father, if this doctor is right, then you will remember my plan for the fund. I promised God a priest. I must keep that promise.
Tell my mother she has all my love. I feel too tired to write more. Bless you for all you have done for me.
It was signed illegibly. Father immediately locked the church and set out for Tawana. When he arrived, the landlady was just leaving Paul's room. She burst into unrestrained weeping as she saw the priest, and managed to tell him the boy had died that morning.
"His last thoughts were of you and his mother. He asked God to bless the miners, then he called your name, and his mother's. He was smiling...."
He brushed past her and closed the door on her sobbing. The boy's face was exalted, and peace had finally conquered the jerking cough and stilled the aching chest.
Poor fellow, you never gave up, did you? Paul....no need for the Last Sacraments. Bless you, son.
Then, groping for his vestments through his tears, Father Meyer began the recital for the Last Annointing, and laid to rest all of his brightest dreams as he looked for a last time at the lined young face, for so many years the promise of his inner greatness. For the first time in his life, he felt old.