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Stuck In The Middle With You…

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snowy pumpkin.jpg

I’m trying to laugh.

There’s snow and ice on the ground suddenly, just 3 days post Hallowe’en … and the ghouls of early November have laid havoc and challenge across the streets and life paths.

Cosmic jokes.

This morning, I studied a homeless woman crossing at a corner in downtown Penticton, doggedly pushing a shopping cart filled to the gunnels with who knows what.

Like a heavy lawnmower in thick grass, it was a difficult push for the poor lady dressed in an old Salvation Army coat, scarf and gloves. The small wheels on the cart were chattering like frigid teeth over crusted ice.

In a surreal juxtaposition, pea green leaves still clung to the large maple tree overhanging the street.

She may have been young, maybe older. With her head bowed, and layered up against the chill as if attired in a niqab, who knows?

Do I know this woman? – maybe she’s visited the soup kitchen on one of my volunteer days – but with her face totally covered, it’s impossible to say.

I try to envision how she finds respite and comfort somewhere in the gloomy rawness of the grey cloudy day ahead but I’m drawing blanks.

I’m trying to find some humour in her situation.

Isn’t there humour somewhere… somehow… to be found in every situation?

If she dressed like that in mid-summer, I could have a belly laugh at her comfortable eccentricity. Or… if she had a Canada Goose perched on top of her cart watching out as her navigator I could laugh.

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Bill, a man I’ve worked for, and with, for close to 30 years died suddenly this week.

He was a man who could find humour.

He’s dead and I hurt.

I hurt like when I see a wounded animal in agony. It makes my gut knot up and cry out. I hope he felt that his life was worthy… that he had done the best he could.

A rapid, candle-snuffing heart attack stung like an angry wasp as he hung Christmas decorations at home.

The irony (but not humour) I suppose is that he spent his career skillfully slicing into thousands of cold corpses, detecting and probing for clots and other sources of cursed invaders that initiate a final breath.

The thief that stole his last breath was a tenacious clot similar to innumerable ones he’d seen over the decades.

Bill and I weren’t fast, bosom buddies, but we were friends.

When together, we talked easily about our kids’ exploits, our travels, and frustrations with medical bureaucracy.

We laughed a lot and enjoyed each other’s company. Bill’s amiable smile unearthed nuggets of humour in most situations even when he was acting his curmudgeonly best.

Bill was like raconteur Stuart McLean in real life. Bill gifted me smiles.

I’ve attempted to locate some humour in his situation.

But Bill is gone from this world.

Bill is gone from his family’s world.

Bill is gone from my world.

Bill is a ghost now in the minds of those that cared.

So where’s the humour?

If he’d had a heart attack and survived, I could have sighed in relief, then found some laughs in the dietary and lifestyle changes that might have magically transformed this big teddy bear curmudgeon into a vegetarian fitness guru.

I can burst out in laughter at the mere thought of seeing Bill dressed in tight yoga wear.

yoga man

The shopping cart lady and Bill remind me of the “polar opposites” in life.

I don’t like this life deal where some of us live in warm, luxurious comfort while others exist in stiff and frosty discomfort.

I don’t like this life deal where the delight and joy of new birth is mirrored by the shock and pain of unanticipated death.

None of us has the choice of where we begin or…  where we end.

Life is about opposites.

Life is warm and cold.

Life is joyous and tragic.

Life is hello and goodbye.

Or perhaps as Susan Sontag said, “Life is a movie; death is a photograph.

Life is…

… a movie with your beginning, your middle, then your end.

The middle? The sweet middle is all about understanding and choice.

Let’s face it, your beginning is sheer luck and random chance.

Two unrelated amorous people make a carnal choice to build a person that is you. You don’t get a vote! Nope, none…

But there’s a nugget of beauty in this story.

The diamond gem is that you and I have the opportunity to write our own middle, and how the middle shapes the ending.

The “note to self” in the street lady pushing her cart and in Bill’s departure is the reminder to constantly remember that we make the middle, the funny and messy middle, we make the proactive choices every day that shape our world, for better and worse.

Every person’s “middle” is different, but a satisfying ending is written in that middle.

Little by little, I’m still learning. Little by little I’m still growing.

Little by little I’m paying attention and keeping my eyes and ears attuned to the small stuff that all adds up to the the BIG stuff that is life.

I’m trying to laugh today, but honestly, there are small tears tickling the corner of my mouth.

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How To Go Out At The Top While Growing A Pair …

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HAPPY SAD

I’m struggling to write this blog post this week.

Happy Sad Knees

 

You know that game we play with infants? Yeah, the one where we pull an open hand across our face – we start with a big smile and then … as our hand slowly passes over our face the smile turns magically into a sad sad frown.

That is the week that was.

Normally each week, I unearth a blog topic that intrigues me and the words begin flowing slowly and then the current of the river picks up in pace and rhythm. The muse kicks in and it just happens.

For me, this is a jumbled week of emotions, both positive and negative. It’s all about departures.

There are doors and windows flinging open and slamming shut for me in the windy maelstrom that is life.

As I write, someone close to me is edging silently, unstoppingly, towards the exit door of life. Cancer is having its way and it’s not pretty.

Do you have one of those people in your life that you can’t believe will ever die?

They’ve always seemed invincible, and like a 250 year-old majestic cedar in the rainforest, there is no wind or lightning storm that can cause them to topple.

Until they do, suddenly, tragically, mysteriously.

All that’s left after the fall is an ugly hole and a ragged scar in the earth until the ache slowly subsides and healing begins to take hold – eventually all returns to a new normal, a normal that never quite feels like the old normal.

Cut Cedar Stump

In the same week as this happens, my long – yes, 25 crazy years long – “planned retirement” has taken place. My co-workers happily razz me as I’ve threatened to retire since I was 30 years old.

Anyway, after 37 years as a medical lab technologist, I’ve chosen to push the employment door open and leap into the thin air … thin because there’s no longer a bi-weekly parachuting paycheque providing a security cloud to reassuredly float upon. Thin too, because it’s a major upheaval to the world I’ve always known.

I said in an earlier post that the only thing we have to do is die.

All we have to do is … die.

Everything else is optional, a choice, a decision that makes us think about where we want to be and where we want to go.

It sounds simple on the surface and utterly rational, but making choices is really one of life’s more difficult assignments.

I don’t want to expire in my office chair … either literally or figuratively. I’m not the drag-him-out-by-his-boots kind of guy.

Workwise, I’ve been expiring little-by-little as the IT role I fill loses the challenges it once held. A few years ago I woke up each morning with enthusiastic thoughts about the problems I would conquer and the great feelings associated with overcoming the blockages.

But the demanding obstructions grew fewer as I began to master the part (I guess I was approaching 10,000 hours of practice!). I slowly began to give off those fouls smells of stagnation – I still enjoyed going to the office, but now mainly for the social outlet of the wonderful people I worked with.

You and I have been conditioned from our earliest infant breaths to go to elementary school, high school, college/university, get a job, marry and settle down, have kids, grandkids, then … lie down on the sofa watching the 10 o’clock news and sucking in our last inhalation … The Story of A Life.

But it’s just one story and just one path.

Make it your story and not the one handed to you like it was the only card in the deck. I’m pulling another card from the deck. You’ll be hearing more about this in my blog posts as I stumble along.

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There are forks in the road, and the right decision is taking the fork that you want and not the want being pressed on you by those around you. This is harder than it looks and it’s subtle.

What does your heart say?

What does your stomach tell you?

If you wake up and don’t remember the last time you felt like skipping to work on Monday morning, then listen very carefully because the signs are whispering in your ear.

Sure, the fear is there too. But inside of your fear is a message. It’s a cry for change.

Hear the cry. Feel the tears.

Find a creative way to take a step beyond –  where you reach forward, as if stretching precariously out over the Grand Canyon and suck in the rarified air that so few have sampled.

If and when you accept the fear and move forward anyway despite the risks, you have the best junkie high ever.

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I’m starting my new life this coming week as I absorb the painful passing of someone I love.

The only thing I have to do is die.

And when the day comes that I’m lying in my deathbed, I want to know that I loved and feared and lived.

The emotions – the good, the bad, and the ugly – have all been accepted and embraced. I’m growing a pair.

For better. For worse…

… ’til death I depart.

 

 

8 People I’m Going to Miss When They’re Gone…

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broken heart

I miss all of my old girlfriends.

Every person I’ve formed a deeper attachment to has gifted me something special of themselves and left a little bit behind that lives on inside me. There are many nooks and crannies in the back eddies of my brain that harbour tender thoughts.

It doesn’t mean that we were meant to be together forever. I had my heart broken and gushed bloody sadness, and feel bad that I broke one or two hearts myself.

Obviously there were things about me or them that prevented the bond from growing deeper and more permanent. But I still appreciate that they were a part of my life if even for a short time, and treasure (and wonder!) that they found something about me that was lovable.

In a similar vein, many of us look back at those who have departed/died and lament the loss of their cherished contributions to our world, and sometimes just to our own little life.

Albert Einstein, Ludwig von Beethoven, Steve Jobs, Ernest Hemingway, Indira Ghandi, Sylvia Plath, Marilyn Monroe, Harry Chapin, Nora Ephron, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Will Shakespeare, Anne Frank are all names that linger and thrive beyond the grave and give us reason to reach higher than mere average mortals.

On my list …

On my list …

Not on my list...

Not on my list…

My list is huge and your list will be just as long and probably far different than mine.

So many figures from the past to admire.

So many incredible minds and abilities.

So much left behind to observe and wonder at for years, decades and centuries to follow.

………………

But … I have this peculiar tendency.

I find that I grieve prematurely the loss of those around me who are still sucking air, pumping blood, and producing marvellous things that I can admire and respect and hold dear.

It began in my early teen years when I worried and pondered the loss of my parents, most notably my mother.

I know … send in the psychiatrists, there is some deep shit to be worked through here. But, the tendency I have to lament losses before they occur has clung tenaciously to me.

When I see someone whose talents are otherwordly I develop a crush on their superpower. It’s not a jealousy, just an admiration, an envy of the time and devotion they have contributed to becoming what they are.

And because I appreciate their ability, I begin to grow nervous or edgy when it appears they are nearing the end of their career or life. I start to miss them even while they still live in their creative prime.

I lament the coming loss.

An example: I went to a Loretta Lynn concert last year, not because I was dying to hear her sing, but because I wanted to hear her sing before she was dying.

Grieving

Am I alone in this?

Following is a list of some of the Living World’s Wonders (in my mind) whom I’m dreading seeing the end and the loss of their capabilities, either through death or retirement:

  1. Stephen King – author with an unending capacity for creative ideas, not all great (I’m not a huge fan of his horror thrillers) but enough to leave me gasping in awe.
  2. Warren Buffett – a financial investing mind without a match. He’s earthy, he’s sensible and amazingly insightful into businesses and investments. My coming retirement is in no small part due to his wise words and teachings.
  3. Bobby Orr – a former Boston Bruin wizard with a hockey stick and skates that flew like the wind. Watching Bobby was like having a Bolshoi Ballet virtuoso running through a little tots’ first dance class.
  4. James Taylor/Carole King – two folk singers that find a way into my head with simple melodic messages that strike deeply. They have no idea who I am, but I feel like they’ve been my lifelong BFF’s.
  5. Aaron Sorkin – for my money, the best TV and movie screenwriter with the sharpest wit I’ve ever encountered. Verbal dialogue by Sorkin is a complex symphony – on the surface it sounds simple but is filled with layers and nuances that bring chuckles or a-ha’s to me hours and days later.
  6. Steven Spielberg – a conundrum of a filmmaker, he’s produced some marvels and some mutts, but anyone who can take me on the emotional ride that is Schindler’s List is a stunning mind. How can humans excavate such staggering ability?
  7. Steve Nash – a short (for basketball) Canadian NBA guard who kept me up late too many nights watching his playmaking abilities, enthusiasm, and creativity on the court. I’m not a huge basketball fan, but Steve has me almost convinced.
  8. Monty Python group – absurdist and brilliant comedy that found the underbelly of our society and made me laugh like I’d puke if they took it one millimetre further. Who else could fashion a huge Broadway production number with crowds of dancers and singers and children singing Every Sperm is Sacred?

Every Sperm is Sacred

AND a Special Bonus:

9. Beach Boys/Eagles/ Simon and Garfunkle – I love love love musical harmony and these are three of the greatest contributors of complex pop harmonies that make me wonder if there is a heaven, then it truly must be here on earth. Just close your eyes and absorb the sweetness of the blend.

……………….

So there you have it. Your and my lists will differ based on our beliefs, whether religious or sports or arts or politically inclined.

The great thing, of course, the truly amazing wonder is that there is always always a succession of trendsetters whose minds and abilities will continue to confound the mere mortals of us that breath the same air.

And in the meantime, I’ll just suffer the melancholy of knowing that those who have hallowed my life with their presence and talent will graciously sit themselves in the halls of greatness like storied old baseball players held forever in a cornfield within the Field of Dreams.

 

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The Saddest Cries of Music … My 10 Top Tear-Inducing Songs

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I don’t cry very often…

boy crying

Of course as a kid I cried all the time, how else would I get my Mom’s attention when my brother Gord was pounding on me. I learned at a tender age that childhood is all about manipulating the parents … sorry Gord.

But maybe half a dozen times in my adult life, have I felt the warm tingle of salty trickles on my cheeks. Strangely I don’t seem to have the gene that turns on the waterworks over life’s saddest moments: the death of a relative, the loss of a pet, a lover’s rejection. I feel the loss and the pain inside, but the sensation of welling tears just doesn’t happen. People probably think I’m weird … and probably, I agree.

It’s not because I’m some strong, hulking man of a man that thinks it’s sissy-like to cry. I hold no anti-tear grudges. And I’ve told you before that I prefer Chick Flicks over Action-Adventure movies. Tell me that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are putting out another movie, and I’ll be there in a flash.

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The occasions when I do feel the greatest swelling of emotion with a rising tide of tears come from the warmth and tenderness of music. A few minor notes on the piano, and the O-ring seals on my lacrimal glands begin to malfunction.

Genre? Doesn’t matter. Classical, Pop, Country. They all contain the seeds of sadness and desire and loss that pierce deeply.

Now that I’m trying to net a few drops from the same ocean of emotional depth in writing music of my own, I realize how difficult it is to capture and draw the pathos from the depths and bring the sadness to the surface of our souls.

There’s a mixture of items that contribute to the sadness we experience in listening to music — the music alone can do it; at times, the sorrow within the lyrics is the key; for the greatest wallop, a melancholy mixture of music and lyrics combined knocks it out of the teary-eyed ballpark.

The circumstances of our lives at the time that we listen to a song have a major impact too. The poetry of loss…

I’ve never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by
The moon just went behind a cloud
To hide it’s face and cry

… at the same moment we experience separation or divorce will drive the point home at double-strength.

The death of a parent or child coinciding with a song of grief…

Time can bring you down, time can bend your knees
Time can break your heart, have you begging please, begging please
Beyond the door there’s peace I’m sure
And I know there’ll be no more tears in heaven

…makes a huge impact.

I hear the swell of the violins in Theme from Anne of Green Gables, the halting notes on the piano from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, the swelling of Josh Groban’s voice in You Raise Me Up, and I feel the tightening in my throat and the moisture developing in my eyes.

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We all have our touchstones, the musical themes or cues that strike most deeply into our core. Songs that scratch the sadness itch –  no matter how painful – bring the comfort of knowing that someone else out there is experiencing the same pain that we feel in our heart. It’s paradoxical that a salve of musical sadness can be healing.

My 10 most tear-jerking, heart-tugging musical picks:

  1. Oh Daddy — Shari Ulrich
  2. You Raise Me Up — Josh Groban
  3. Theme from Anne of Green Gables — Hagood Hardy
  4. Theme from Summer of ’42  — Michel Legrand
  5. Fire and Rain — James Taylor
  6. At Seventeen — Janis Ian
  7. Rainy Day and Mondays — Carpenters
  8. Theme from Midnight Cowboy — Harry Nilsson
  9. Moonlight Sonata — Ludwig von Beethoven
  10. Hello It’s Me — Todd Rundgren
  11. Tears in Heaven — Eric Clapton
  12. Someone Like You — Adele
  13. Diary — Bread
  14. Canon in D Major — Johann Pachelbel

Tomorrow marks Remembrance Day in Canada. There are few human activities that bring sadness to so many as war. Let me add these few sorrowful tributes:

 

I guess sad songs are just like salt-crispy potato chips, it’s hard to stop at just a few. I couldn’t bring myself to a halt at just 10. I realize I could keep adding more and more but I’ll leave a bit of vacant space in your mind to add your own heartbreakers.

Care to share a few of those musical notes that plunge to the deepest part of your soul?

happiness-is-a-sad-song

My Blood Flows in Fredericksburg …

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Union soldier

.

Let us cross over the river,

and rest under the shade of the trees.”

……………………………………………..Last words — Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson

……………………………….

December 12, 1862 — Fredericksburg, Virginia.

The morning air is chill, but not freezing, thank God.

I’m wearing the standard blue woollen Union army uniform, my McClellan cap or kepi sitting low over my brow, a long-barrelled musket held tight in my nervously-sweaty hands. There’s a frighteningly long straight line of my Illinois friends and neighbours on either side of me, with whom I’ve marched through many dark, cold nights.

We are McClelland’s Dragoons, Company A, come from the farms just outside Chicago.

There were times on this march to Fredericksburg when freezing rain made the chill run so deep into my core that I shook and my teeth chattered in my misery. One of my neighbours just sat himself at the side of the road and quietly died. Two others died of typhoid on the march. I have a rotting tooth that is aching, and bleeding blisters on both feet that also have fungus itching between the toes that is driving me crazy.

Growing corn on my father’s farm was hard work, but nothing comes close to this wretchedness.

Back home — it seems like years ago now, but is actually only 7 months — I anxiously joined my friends enlisting for this exciting adventure to quash the rebel uprising, and to put those southerners in their place. They think they can take our jobs by using the free labour of niggers to make their fortunes. We need jobs for our families too.

And now, I have the glory of walking steadily forward into the smoke and cacophonous blasts of rifles fired from behind a stone wall by those damned grey-coated southerners. I have no armour to protect me, just this heavy woollen coat.

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And all I can think about right now is what my wife will do with our young children when it’s my turn to march towards that bloody wall of fire 300 yards away, and I’ve been ripped open by a blast to the chest of heavy 55 mm lead-shot and I lay on this pockmarked field, in a mound of mud and bodies and blood.

……………………………..

September 17, 2013

The Civil War Trail

The red clay in the  soil beneath my feet makes me think deeply of the huge rivers of blood that soaked into the earth here.

The blood of Union soldiers, the blood of Confederate infantrymen, the blood of countless horses, husbands, wives, brothers, women and children. The blood of warriors and innocents who stood in the line of fire of armies dedicated to destruction in the name of a cause they believed in.

Somehow, it doesn’t feel right that here I am, relaxed, with a warm sun stream coming from the left as I absorb the terrifying violence that tore families and loved ones apart.

A historic saga is running in the breeze through the grasses of Fredericksburg.

I can feel it as I stand on a partly-paved, partly-dirt road recessed behind a long fieldstone fence that rises about 4 feet high overlooking this small, peaceful town. The towering pines and maples and oaks have all grown back tall after they too fell in the maelstrom of the battle 150 years ago.

A few thousand Confederate soldiers crouched behind this fence and slaughtered and wounded 12,000 federal soldiers that approached them head on across a wide open landscape. Above the wall on the hill behind, Confederate cannons blew the walking walls of Union soldiers to bloody shreds with their shrapnel. It was a killing field for young men and boys that marched here from the farms and cities of Connecticut and Maryland and Illinois.

Today, Peter, a young park ranger, maybe 30 years old, walks us along the thick stone wall and tells us a wonderful story of a terrible event. He’s animated and interesting, and interested too not just in the battle, but how it affected the soldiers and their families. How the politics were as muddy as the fields the soldiers marched upon.

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Over the last 10 days, we’ve visited the Civil War battlefields of Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania in Virginia, Antietam in Maryland, and the granddaddy of them all, Gettysburg, in Pennsylvania.

I’ve stood on the spot in Chancellorsville where General “Stonewall” Jackson was shot in the dark by his own confused soldiers (he died 10 days later from pneumonia). Jackson, like so many Civil War Generals, while a brilliant warrior and strategist, screwed up royally and paid the price with his fatal mistake of reconnoitering at night.

I’ve looked over the rolling hills of Antietam from the vantage point of General Robert E. Lee, searching his mind for a stategy to beat Ulysses S. Grant and Abe Lincoln.

I’ve pondered the senselessness of war from the peaceful, grassy knoll in the cemetery overlooking the graves of thousands of Union soldiers where Lincoln delivered his short, but infamous Gettysburg Address.

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From my side, a grey-hair ponytailed fellow approaches with a smile. He begins to talk as if we’ve been friends for years, telling me that he’s a Civil War buff who knows just about everything there is to know about this tumultuous event. I heard him in the museum earlier, collaring others and telling them stories of the battles and strategies used by the generals.

He’s an intriguing guy from nearby Washington, DC. I don’t usually like to be latched onto by strangers, but he seems friendly and harmless, so I let him ramble for a few minutes. We share notes on what we’ve seen as the cool, late afternoon wind buffets and blows our hair a bit.

The sun is just about to set as we shake hands and part ways, cannons silhouetted alongside the paths we take to the vehicle lot and the end of the day.

……………………….

The monster-sized Civil War museum at Gettysburg contains a stunning cyclorama, something popular with the masses in the 1800’s.

Climbing 2 flights of stairs inside the museum after a movie presentation about the Battle of Gettysburg, we enter into a huge darkened theatre that’s like a planetarium in the round containing a cyclorama, a 360° cylindrical painting.

This version that hangs in Gettysburg, is a recent (2005) restoration of the version created for Boston in 1883. It’s huge,  27 feet (8.2 m) high and 359 feet (109 m) in circumference.

The painting was created by French artist Paul Philppoteaux and depicts Pickett’s Charge, the climactic Confederate attack on Union forces during the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.

The intended effect is to immerse the viewer in the scene being depicted, and includes the addition of foreground models and life-sized replicas of cannons and fences to enhance the illusion. The presentation comes to life with a narrated story, loud cannon booms and rifle fire while flashes of light behind the canvas give life to the cannon blasts.

It’s stunning to contemplate the number of artists and the creativity used to produce a painting of this size and complexity.

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A small segment of the cyclorama

……………………….

 

We’ve titled this road trip “The Country Music and Civil War Tour 2013

Travelling these middle-America roads, just like our other travels, has made me ponder many great matters, both important and trivial.

For instance — and you’ve probably asked yourself this question a thousand times …

Which is better, Pancake or Waffle?

Waffles or Pancakes

I throw myself firmly into the Pancake camp. None of those difficult nooks and crannies that catch too much peanut butter or syrup. Warm, tender, fragrant. It’s the perfect breakfast food for getting the day started.

However, the waffle is winning the hearts of those who stay in the hotels of America. The mid-range hotels with brand names like La Quinta, and Best Western all provide a breakfast to varying degrees as part of the package for spending the night between their sheets.

The breakfast, whether simple continental or sumptuous hot buffet, always has THE WAFFLE MAKER.

Nine nights on the road, sampling from a different hotel each morning, has made me the quintessential waffle connoisseur of North America.

Just pour the premade thick batter from a plastic cup onto the round griddle surface, close the lid, flip the whole thing over on a pin, and two and a half minutes later, out pops a golden-brown waffle. Perfect, every time … almost!

Never one to look too carefully, or read instructions (come on, I AM a man!), one morning, I scooped the mix sitting to the right of the waffle maker and poured it over the searing metal plate of the appliance. As I closed the lid, I could see a sign to the left labelled “waffle mix”.

Huh? What did I just ladle into the waffle maker? OHHHH, that would be the oatmeal porridge, just like the little sign said beneath its container.

So, did I panic? Not a chance. Quickly I poured some of the REAL waffle mix over the bubbling oatmeal frying in the maker and closed the lid with a little prayer. I waited with anticipation.

Two and a half minutes later, the beeper sounded indicating the waffle was finished cooking.

I lifted the lid, and there sat a PERFECT golden-toned waffle with extra oatmeal specks, steaming and smelling deliciously wonderful.

So please forgive me for being so glib, but BREAKFAST, like WAR, is HELL!

The first thing I'm going to do when this war ends is eat a pancake ...

The first thing I’m going to do when this war ends is eat a pancake …

The Heart of the Matter

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This existence of ours is as transient as autumn clouds. To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance. A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky, rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.” – The Buddha

heart-of-the-matter

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In 1989, Don Henley ( of the band EAGLES) and JD Souther wrote a beautifully bittersweet song called THE HEART OF THE MATTER (listen to it here)sometimes referred to as FORGIVENESS — adapted from the title of a 1948 book written by Graham Greene.grahamgreene

What is this “heart of the matter“?

Is it the meaning of life? Is it the loss of love? Is it plunging deep beyond the surface truths to the underlying core of reality in life and relationships?

Henley’s own heart of the matter calls to the surface the intense pain he feels when he learns that his former fiancé is now in love with someone new.

Author Greene sees the heart of the matter as referring to failure, as well as the price we all pay for our individualism and the impossibility of truly understanding another person.

We all have a Heart of the Matter meaning that is unique to our lives in one form or another.

My heart of the matter at one time seemed to be a matter of the heart, or so I thought.

In my mid-20’s I started having panic attacks. Of course I thought I was the only one to have this frightening experience, but I soon discovered that I wasn’t standing alone on the deck of that ship. At all.

Initially, the bouts came on in the workplace or social situations or even in anticipating social situations. My heart would start to race and thump like it was trying to explode out of my chest. I would feel the swelling wave of anxiety rise; the inside of my head would cloud in like it was filled with cotton batting. Before I knew it I was hyperventilating and certain I was having a heart attack. Classic panic attack.

As time passed, these surges of alarm would arise unprovoked, just lying in bed or whatever.

ANOTHER heart attack?

panic attack

I knew the likelihood was infinitesimally slight, but in the moment and amid the sensations, rational thought just wasn’t available to me. I ended up rushing to the ER a couple of times and after ECG’s and some blood tests, all was normal, except for the one damn Chilliwack ER doc who mistakenly thought I had a faulty heart valve … you think I had anxiety before?

Psychologically, I began preparing myself to die and through the process grew increasingly calm and accepting of whatever fate lay ahead. The strongest feelings for wanting to live on were in wanting to have children that could carry a small piece of my DNA forward.

It took about 2 tense years before a prescient Emerg GP ordered a simple thyroid test and I was found to have hypothyroidism. A couple of weeks of hormone replacement meds and I began to feel normal’ish once again, although the anxiety feelings took a while longer to subside. I had my life back thanks to a little pink pill that cost about 15 cents per day.

That doctor looked deeper than the surface symptoms and found my heart of the matter — even though it wasn’t my heart that mattered — and with some simple treatment, I was able to get back on track again.

A New  HEART of the MATTER

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The heart of the matter means something different to me these days. Now, it’s what I come to unexpectedly when I’m writing these blog posts.

Off the cuff, I’m not a solidly academic, well-thought out person. Verbally, I’m almost inept in terms of forming coherent thoughts in the moment. I’m so wholeheartedly jealous of those who can instantly formulate and express out loud their solid opinions and viewpoints in a smooth, flowing manner.

If I stand to give a toast or an impromptu speech of any sort, I’m a lost cause. I’ll do it, mind you,  just don’t expect the Gettysburg Address from these Lincoln-less lips. Desert sands whip and swirl and howl in my ears and wipe away or smother any fertile thoughts. This is where writing becomes my saviour … hallelujah!

Normally, each Monday morning I sit at my home computer, a steaming, sweet latte on my left, the sun just beginning to unleash a few loose strands of orange light through the window.

Latte Kitty

I (sometimes successfully) ward off the e-mail demons calling out to be read, and begin composing a blog post. It will begin with a germ of an idea, a small vision or a concept that intrigues me. It has to have a kernel of a universal message so that I’m not strictly navel-gazing.

Then I charge in with wild typing abandon not knowing where the road will lead.

I do this intentionally.

Sometimes, the idea courses a dry, lifeless riverbed but more frequently it develops and swells into a torrent. A new life is born on the screen and it just materializes out of the ether that is my subconscious. The heart of the matter surfaces almost unbidden.

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With every in-breath
you are adding to your life
and every out-breath you are releasing what is not contributing to your life.
Every breath is a re-birth.”
― Allan Rufus

Where does it all lead?

I’m seeking out change and renewal and intensity in every direction. I’m finding re-birth in a bouquet of thoughts and activities that I ignored previously.

It’s exciting to me, and when I feel a case of nerves arising, I remind myself that whenever I’ve jumped into something new and novel, the end result has always been worthwhile and satisfying, like chocolate sprinkles on a banana split.

My little ADHD mind grows impatient frequently, so the directions I pursue may not last forever; in fact, they probably won’t. I accept and allow myself room to change.

The key to my heart of the matter rests contentedly in my pocket, waiting to open whichever door I choose.

heart keys


Just Another Thursday? … The Day My Mother Died

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The sun rose that morning the same as every day before but at the end of the day it set on a totally different world than I had ever known.

Bird at sunrise

It was a lovely Thursday April morning, very springlike and mild. The sun struck the young ash tree just starting to leaf out, casting a long shadow across the grass at the front of our house.

Our small, brown-brick home looked across the street at the expansive grassy school yard and field that housed my three childhood educational homes: Glen Echo, Glen Brae, and Glendale schools – there sure wasn’t a lot of naming creativity at the school board in Hamilton’s 1950’s era.

I was 15 years old and in the last of the three schools, Glendale, nearing the end of my Grade 11 year. I was biting at the bit for three months to pass quickly when I would turn 16 and could get my beginner’s licence for driving a car. I couldn’t wait.

The morning routine went along as normal. My father had retired 8 months earlier at his 65th birthday, and my 5-years younger Mom was getting herself ready to go off to her clerical job at an “Office Overload” temp hiring office.

Dad had experienced a heart attack while shovelling heavy snow ten years earlier. As a result, the entire family had become laser-focused on the state of his health and even a decade later still worried about a reoccurrence. Mom was always making sure that none of us siblings said or did anything that might upset him.

I personally worried more about my Mom’s health. She was a smoker, she was moderately overweight, and when she climbed up the dozen or so stairs from the basement laundry room, she was often wheezing and completely out of breath.

My night dreams were regularly filled with dark visions of her lying peacefully in a casket.

Like my mother, I was a worrier. I would lie in my bed, tearing up before I nodded off, brooding about her and how losing her would affect me.

dying dream

The morning pattern that day was disturbed when I came into the kitchen to get some breakfast and Mom was bent over the kitchen sink, vomiting.

Mom was never sick. This was pretty surprising.

Are you OK?“, I asked.

She deflected my concerns in her calm motherly way.

I’m fine. I’ll feel better in a few.

A few minutes later she was being driven off to work by my father and I was heading across the road to my classes where I fully expected to get a red reward peg from Mr. Mason in French class for answering some minor question correctly. “Tres bien Larry“, he would say, but with a quirky look on his face. Mr. Mason was an eccentric.

The work/schoolday finished and we all returned to our place at home. Mom took a few minutes to make some filterless cigarettes.

She used a little rolling machine that made about 6 cigarettes at a time in one long cylinder. She would lick her finger over and over and smooth her saliva across the glue edge before the final turn of the knobs on the sides that would pop out the completed smoke tubes. After turning the machine over and setting the tobacco roll into the little mitre tray on the backside, she would then cut the long tube into individual cigarettes using a razor blade.

They were just like machine-made except they had no filter on the end. When she smoked one, little bits of tobacco would leak out the end into her mouth and she would have to fish them off the tip of her tongue using her thumb and forefinger like tweezers.

A classic home-grown cigarette-making machine…

Homemade cigarettes saved the family money, and the household budget was usually tight.

My family culture was to begin working from the moment you could walk. This meant taking on paper routes or magazine delivery jobs, or orchard fruit-picking from the start of elementary school onwards. I was the 5th and last in a 5-person lineup of siblings who delivered the Hamilton Spectator newspaper.

At 15, I was not just sick and tired of delivering newspapers but also feeling much too mature for such juvenile work, so I quit the “family” firm.

The idleness of being jobless at 15 was too much for my parents to understand or accept, so on her way out the door to go for dinner that evening with my Dad’s sister Nina and brother-in-law Dwight, Mom popped her head inside my bedroom door where I was laid out on my bed.

“Larry, you might want to drop by McDonalds and fill in an application form.”

Those were her last words to me. 

Not very exciting.

It sounded like a polite request, but I knew it was much closer to a General’s command.

I was scared silly at the thought of seeking out a “real” job. It was like going to the dentist. There were managers at the local McDonalds who extracted teeth without freezing when asked about job openings and I knew it. So when I said, “Yeah, I will soon Mom”, I really meant “Yeah, when Hell freezes over”.

McDonalds Stoney Creek

Hell DID Freeze Over! This McDonalds became my teenage work home for 4 years after my Mom died…

A few hours passed. I continued to laze around unproductively throughout the evening until I heard a sharp knocking and a muffled yelling voice coming from the front door.

What the hell?

Startled, I hurriedly opened the front door where my Aunt Nina stood, “Your mother has fainted in the driveway.”

I followed her to the side of the house, adrenalin already surging, heart pounding.

Coming around the corner in the twilight, just behind our Ford Meteor car, I spotted my mother laid out on her back on the asphalt surface of the driveway, eyes closed, skin ashen-toned, her dress askew from the sudden tumble.

I wanted so badly to believe that she had just fainted as Aunt Nina said, but my inner soul told me this was far more serious than a simple faint. This was death, or close to it, laying on the ground, and it was my Mom.

My Dad and aunt and uncle were too shocked to know what to do.

I didn’t know what to do either when I bent over her and could hear only a very slight, quiet gasping intake of breath. None of us knew the slightest about medical resuscitation, CPR or artifical respiration.

We were all in a state of denial, but I knew we needed outside help. I ran into the house and dialled 0 for an Operator (911? No such thing in 1973). The Operator patched me through to ambulance dispatch and even though I could scarcely breathe through my fear, I blurted out that my Mom had fainted or  – I finally admitted it out loud – had a heart attack.

The lady calmly asked for my address and said an ambulance would arrive shortly.

I returned outside and in the confusion and panic we picked my mother up by the shoulders and legs and carried her into the house and laid her on the living room couch. The same couch we had sat together on a couple of years earlier on a hot July night to watch Neil Armstrong step onto the moon for the first time.

Helplessly – hopefully –  we waited the 3 or 4 minutes before an ambulance backed into the driveway. The 2 male attendants came in and did a quick assessment and then strapped an oxygen mask to my mother’s face as they lifted her onto the wheeled stretcher.

The shallow, raspy breathing sounds I’d heard her making earlier had disappeared now.

Lifting her into the ambulance, they climbed aboard along with my father and headed off with sirens in full wailing song.

My aunt, uncle, and I jumped into our family car and drove in pursuit of the siren’s din towards the Hamilton General Hospital Emergency room. The siren’s sound faded and disappeared in the distance. We couldn’t race through red lights the way an ambulance in full flight could.

Hamilton General Hospital

It was dark, the air was still when we pulled into the hospital parking lot.  Hurriedly, we rushed past the now-familiar ambulance parked by the entrance to the ER and through the whoosh of the sliding glass doors. The small waiting room just inside and to our right was empty of anyone except for my Dad.

He stood when he saw us and walked the few feet to where we stopped.

His face was red with a desperate look of anguish.

He simply said, “She’s gone.”

She’s Gone …

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We like to think that each day is different and special, like little individual snowflakes wafting gently from the winter sky… unique.

In truth, most days just blend into the rest and we can’t remember what happened last Wednesday, much less October 19, 2002.

But the occasional day stands alone in our mind as memorable, and we remember the sun, the trees, the sweet, pungent smell of lilac in the air at the corner of our street.

Days like Tuesday, September 11, 2001 or Friday, November 22, 1963 or Thursday, September 28, 1972 (bonus points if you can name the events of these 3 dates!).

For me, Thursday, April 12, 1973 was a day like no other. The day my mother died.

It replays in my mind from time to time and the vision, the memory, becomes slightly more translucent as each year passes. But the emotions and heart-pounding I felt that day remain strong and intense.

I don’t want to lose them, as painful as they can be because they remind me of the special place my mother held in my life, my heart.

Her voice, her laughter, and her warmth live inside me.

Memories

TWO GUYS WALK INTO A BAR…

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I want to talk to you this week about insecurities, of which I have a few … but FIRST

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The local YELLOWKNIFER newspaper announced that “Mitzi”, the infamous stripper who could propel ping pong balls from her inner girly works was coming to town.

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I was a young, unattached guy and this was northern excitement at its finest; I would not be denied the thrill of a titillating lifetime.

The only stripper bar I’ve ever been inside in my entire life is in Canada’s Arctic in Yellowknife, NWT. Yellowknife is a small’ish (about 20,000 population today)  northern frontier town famously replete with mosquitoes, blackflies, gold mines (when I lived there in the late 1970’s) and diamond mines (today).

I wandered into the dark, shadowy barroom with an old friend and hospital work colleague Jim Collette.

It was the Gold Range bar, although in Yellowknife it was referred to as a tavern. A nauseatingly strong stench of stale beer and years of accumulated cigarette smoke saturated the walls and air surrounding the dark wooden tables, knife-etched with names and phone numbers of past inebriated patrons.

The_Gold_Range

The Gold Range, affectionately called The Strange Range, was a fusion place for aboriginals, sourdoughs and rough-hewn miners. You could see your life coming to an end at the point of a knife blade or the ragged edge of a broken beer bottle at a place like the Gold Range.

It had a reputation and it wasn’t a good one. It was stereotypical Wild West, or in this case, Wild North.

The people populating this place had names like Stinky Pete, or Dirty Dan. They had long, stringy hair; dirty, frayed baseball caps with names like Weaver & Devore Trading or Giant Mine emblazoned on the front; and multi-hued teeth that hadn’t seen a dentist’s chair in … well, maybe ever! I was feeling pretty jangled and nervous sitting there –  the only reason I stayed was because my horny libidinous heart was quixotically stronger than my frayed nerves or common sense.

The Gold Range was not the natural habitat for this soft, southern boy. Jim and I sat and ordered a Pilsner and Alta 3.9 beer and waited with anticipation for the show to start. When it did begin, it was pretty anti-climatic (sorry, bad pun!). The strippers were mostly a bit older and kind of saggy. It wasn’t the erotic “hit” I was expecting, and the shared experience with a bunch of others was just kind of demeaning to us all. Honestly, I don’t even remember the ping pong ball part of it, just the sordid seediness that left a sour taste.

This is what "Good Girls" do with ping pong balls...

This is what “Good Girls” do with ping pong balls…

OK, you’ve been patient so now I’ll come to the part about my insecurities.

Bars come in classes. I was probably too classy for the Gold Range but not really classy enough for the Horseshoe Lounge at the posh Explorer Hotel; my self-esteem wasn’t sufficiently high to stroll into the Horseshoe Lounge. I’m just a middle class mid-range bar kind of guy I suppose.

My friends and my favourite drinking hangout in Yellowknife was called The Gallery. I would consider it a mid-range bar. It was a wide open well-lit watering hole with a shuffleboard table and a jukebox. The Gallery had no art and no shooting other than the drinks that were fired back in large quantity. They served the best kielbasa in hot dog buns with mustard and relish.

I always hated to enter The Gallery alone. There were those few hesitant, uncomfortable moments where I feared I wouldn’t spot anyone I knew, and everyone else in the bar would know that I was a lonesome loser. I’d stroll in with my eyeglasses all fogged and frozen up from walking off the -40 C streets in January and then try to locate a familiar face either through ice-glazed glasses or furry myopic eyeballs.

Either way, the little voice in my head would be saying, “what are you doing here by yourself, everyone else is with a group and having fun … there must be something wrong with you.

It’s crappy when we’re young and insecure (or worse still, older and insecure) and we worry about every little thing that others might think about us. We want to meld into the mix of others, not stand out as different. Conform or die.

Insecurity doesn’t come from an objective view of our ability but an emotional interpretation. Two people with the same capabilities or attributes can have entirely different levels of insecurity.

Hollywood Insecurity...

Hollywood Insecurity…

I know I’m a capable person on a lot of levels and yet even still I have that worried voice in my head that tells me I could be better or different. Fortunately, the voice has grown far quieter as I grow older, but it still talks to me and tries to bring me down. Rationally I know it’s a liar and a deceiver, but it takes a determined ounce or two of positive counteracting thoughts to stuff it away sometimes.

But you can’t outrun insecurity. A sad matter about Yellowknife was that some people came there for their last stand against inner demons. They were lonely, miserable outcasts who thought that when they came to the Arctic somehow there would be a mystical transformation and everything would be different from their life in the south. They would magically fit in. Rarely happens.

Soon after I arrived to work in Yellowknife, a nice guy named Perry came to work in the housekeeping department at Stanton Yellowknife Hospital. He would stop by as he mopped floors and chat with me every morning about cars and guns and other things that interested him. Perry was about 21 years old and seemed pretty normal by all appearances. Perry was sad and miserable inside, only none of us knew it.

I liked Perry but I never asked him to join in with any of our “professional” group of lab techs, nurses, physiotherapists, in whatever Reindeer Games we were playing. You know, he might not have chosen to come along because he wouldn’t have enjoyed our company, but would it have hurt me to just ask him?

One dark, early winter morning I walked into the Microbiology lab section where I worked and ran into John, the senior housekeeper boss guy.

–Perry killed himself last night, John said.

–Put a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger. The RCMP found him in a ditch on the outskirts of town.

I had spoken with Perry in a normal fashion a day earlier and now his demons and insecurities had won the interior argument. Now he was dead, at his own hands. I was stunned. I was ignorant and stunned.

Insecurities come in different layers and different strengths. I try now to look for signs of insecurities in others, not to make myself feel better in comparison (another sign of insecurity), but so that I can understand their struggles with behaviours such as selfishness, arrogance, sulking, gossiping, over-competitiveness, defensiveness, excessive chatter, people-pleasing, excessive swearing. If there’s some small thing that I can do or say that will soothe someone’s negative inner voice, why not? It’s a Pay It Forward kind of thing, I suppose.

Insecurity wears a lot of different costumes.

Slack Alice’s, the local stripper bar in my area burned down about a year ago. And DAMN, I never saw the inside of it. I guess I was just too insecure to go inside on my own!

But I’m sure that every day there was a whole barroom full of strippers and patrons, nursing a beer or shot glass, and each, just like me, with their own beat-up lifetime suitcase filled with personal insecurities.

insecurity suitcase

It was a smooth funeral as these things go…

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The rear swing door of the black hearse sitting in the horseshoe-shaped driveway was already gaping open like a Domino’s pizza oven, impatiently waiting for the deceased’s delivery.

hearse door ajar

Sun rays were prying their way between the clouds, trying desperately to make this final day bright. Alone, I hesitated a second at the tall, heavy oak door of the generic staid but stolid funeral home – I pulled it open. Within seconds, a tall, dark-suited bespectacled man approached.

Did you know the deceased well?

He was dignified and compassionate in his well-honed professional approach to terminal matters.

Very, I said, grinning in a sheepish, modest sort of fashion.

In fact, I AM the deceased.

I spoke this in a breathy whisper, hoping he would pick up on the discretion I wanted for such an unusual occurrence. He barely blinked when I said it though…How often does this happen? This guy was a pro. He slide-stepped a quarter turn sideways and gestured with a sweep of his arm that I might like to enter the chapel.

I was worried that I would be noticed when I passed into the dimly-lit open hall so I sat down quickly on one of the empty long wooden pews at the back of the room.

Funeral chapel

Fortunately, in churches and funeral homes, people don’t turn around to look behind them. You only look left, right, or forwards. I think it’s some religious rule, maybe even a commandment–  that you don’t turn around unless they start to play “Here Comes The Bride“, and then it’s rude NOT to turn around.

Music … I love music. Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” was just ending and the distinctive guitar picking of James Taylor began softly echoing off the high wood-panelled ceiling of the chapel – “You’ve Got a Friend”… I closed my eyes and absorbed one of my favourite songs.

I was adjusting my pant leg when a woman’s voice coming from my right whispered, “Are you the dead fellow?

My eyes were just adapting to the low lights of the room. Surprised, I turned to see an elderly woman scrinching her way, sliding gently towards me on the bench. She looked familiar, but only in the way that any woman of her age might remind you of your grandmother. She was squinting at me through her thick eyeglasses.

How did you know that?

– Well, you might think its a bit strange, but I come to a funeral here every week. IF there’s a funeral on a Friday. I have bridge club on Thursday and my daughter comes to help me out on Wednesdays. The other days just don’t feel like funeral days to me. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’m Catholic. Fridays feel like a funeral day.

She slid her hands slowly over the knees of her dark dress to straighten the pleats that had been disrupted on her slide towards me.

– I never know the dead person, but I enjoy a good funeral. I get to see and hear the sum of a person’s life in about a half hour. I learn a lot about what’s important to different people. Sometimes it’s all just religious rigamarole – sandwich without a filling – almost like the dead person never existed. But sometimes, there’s a whole gourmet dinner laid out of a person’s soul. It makes me see my own life better somehow. I like those ones.

She fell quiet when she spotted the man in the dark suit, the same one that greeted me at the front door, approach the podium at the front of the room.

man speaking at funeral

He paused at the metal-faced lectern, looked down quietly at his notes, then slowly looked back up, and began:

One of the great benefits of living for a number of years, is that we absorb and observe and enjoy the things that make our time as humans on earth special and memorable. We experience the multitude of stages that constitute a life. Birth, childhood, teen years, first loves, fast cars and vehicles, first jobs, the stresses and great joys of family life and interacting with people that surround us. We see beauty, and pain, in so many forms, often those things that we glance past in early years become the treasures of our later lives.

-If Larry was with us here today, if he was sitting right here in this chapel at this moment…

He glanced with a small ironic smile towards the back of the room where I was sitting.

– if he was here, he would want us to reflect on the things that mattered greatly to him and at least take them into consideration in the living of our everyday lives. 

Hallelujah brother, I wanted to yell out.

But I didn’t want to distract the modest crowd of mourners and well-wishers who had broken away from their daily existences to say a final farewell to a small piece, a fragment really, for most of them, of their lives. Aside from close family, a funeral, at its most basic level isn’t really about the person who has passed. A funeral is about how each of us reacts in the moment, decides our own personal life course, and editorializes how we’re doing so far.

– Highly spiritual but not a typically religious man, Larry suggested in his final requests that I put in a good word about 5 things that stood out for him and that made his own existence special and noteworthy.

spiritual path

  • Love of creativity. Creativity surrounds and envelops us every day. Almost everything we touch from simple kitchen gadgets to fancy cars is there because another human conceived and made it. Our medicines, our clothes, chocolate bars. You name it, simple or complex, it needed creativity. Music, sculpture, yes even Fifty Shades of Grey…they all originated in the amazing mind. We need to observe and appreciate the good and great we’ve created and be mindful of the not so good. But more importantly, we need to be an active participant and create within our own sphere too. Create a garden, create a meal to be remembered, create a poem, create a pair of socks. Perform some idea sex and create something totally unexpected. Absorb others’ creations but take the time to make your own little masterpiece too.
  • Love of at least one other who loves you back. The warmth of another’s love and respect is what makes humans human. It grounds us, it gives us purpose. Giving love to someone else lifts up the poorest beggar to the richest monarch. It can’t be bought, it can’t be sold, but it’s more valuable than the Crown Jewels.
  • Love of health and activity. Our bodies are striated top to bottom with muscle. Bone and blood and muscle thrive on movement, active movement. Our mind muscles and our body muscles all feel better when they’re exercised and strengthened. An internal global sense of health and well-being starts with active movement.
  • Love of the unknown…fearlessness. Stepping to the edge of the metaphorical ledge makes our heart race and our soul sing. Horror movies are so popular because thay take us to the edge of our comfort zones, creating a sense of exhilaration, but pulling back and leaving us drained from a cathartic high. Taking ourselves to the limit or into an area that intrigues but intimidates us at the same time is a fantastic journey that puts LIFE into life. I’m told that Larry confided once that running marathons or learning another language in a strange, exotic locale filled him with fear. But, living and pushing forward into that fear is exhilaration exemplified.
  • Love of the senses. This is a world replete with sights, sounds, smells that can overfill our senses, and yet we often downplay or ignore them. We need to learn to slow our breathing and absorb the plethora of beauty in all its forms that surround us. The smoothness of pine needles, the scent of seafood in a crowded marketplace, the roar of a jet piercing the sky overhead, the glitter of the setting sun rays caressing the lake surface at sunset. Our lives can be so much richer when we take the time to appreciate the exquisiteness around us.

– So, Larry asked that we all retreat within ourselves today and reflect on those things we feel an affinity, a love, a respect, a passion for in our days and years living this amazing miracle that brought us to this place, this time, this world that evolved from no one yet knows what or where.

Oh, and one more thing. Larry wanted me to add –  eat some chocolate … always eat some chocolate!

Life can be as simple as that sometimes.

coffin crisp

The time felt right for me to leave.

The old lady next to me turned and nodded knowingly with a small smile. Leaning in slowly, she bussed her lips against my cheek and whispered, “Thank you for the lovely soulful meal you made for me today. I’m going to think about the things that were important to you. I’m glad we had this chance to meet.

I stood and took one last look over the group of my friends, my relatives, my life. Some were smiling, some were gently wiping beneath their eyes with white handkerchiefs. The ladies dressed in mixtures of short and long skirts, with sweet floral smells and red lips. Men in dark suits, some in clean blue jeans and open necked shirts, a disjointed harmony of style and generation that spoke of honour and fashion.

To my own surprise, I felt good. It was a bittersweet moment knowing that my own few eternal seconds had come and passed so quickly.

I turned and pushed my way through the door of the chapel. Instantly, a brilliant white light shone through the upper windows of the funeral home, the sun had won its skirmish with the clouds.

I wasn’t sure where the white light led but I felt a robust attraction to first one exit door on my left and then an equally strong pull towards an exit door on the right. On each door a sign was posted prominently on its surface. The one to the left stated:

Buddha awaits your reincarnation

The sign on the door to my right said:

Chocolate Eternity

I hesitated and thought deeply.

SERIOUSLY? All of life’s philosophies come down to this?

Maybe death can be as simple as that.

I paused for a moment longer then smiled a little smile and stepped confidently forward. I’d made my choice.

With all my strength I threw open the door.

2 more doors

Death of an Everyday Senior

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I’ve mused here before about how I might like to die.

Surely, since we don’t seem to have the choice over whether we die, we should be able to exercise the choice of how we might die … it’s only fair, right?

A truly loving God would acquiesce and give us that much. Merely munching an apple offered by a snivelling snake shouldn’t take away all rights and freedoms, should it?

APPLE _,SNAKE AND BEAUTY

And so in the spirit of my despair over lack of choice, the following is a true-to-life little black-humour tale of :

HOW I’D PREFER not TO DIE.

About 10 years ago, in the small’ish lab in which I work on the 3rd floor of a medical building in downtown Penticton, it was approaching 5 p.m. and near closing time for the day. I was putting the last samples of patient urine and stool onto agar-culture plates to incubate and grow bacteria overnight. Yes, somebody really does have to do this!

In the front patient-section of the lab, an elderly gentleman – we’ll call him Mr. Jones – was stretched out long on a thin mattress-covered table in a small private alcove. Liz, one of the lab assistants, was placing little sticky electrodes across his bared chest so she could perform an ECG (electrocardiogram).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Even dogs can have an ECG done…

Penticton sports a mild climate – by Canadian standards – and mixed with sun and beaches this means that the city is full of retirees. End result? The lab performs a lot of ECG’s to check on the ticker health of local seniors.

In a turn that no one anticipated, suddenly, unexpectedly, Mr. Jones gasped weakly and went limp and unresponsive … cardiac arrest. His skin tones dissolved into an ashen grey and his mouth sagged open … breathing came to a halt along with his heart.

All the stops were pulled out to resuscitate him.

Within minutes, the lab was jammed with firefighters, ambulance paramedics, police, doctors, and 5 or 6 of us lab folks.

The poor fellow was hoisted unceremoniously off the ECG bed like a limp Muppet and laid out in the middle of the lab floor. People in white coats and various other uniforms pumped and suctioned and intubated and shocked his poor spiritless body, doggedly determined to save this life and and AND…BUT…

… MR. JONES DIED.

ekg-flatline

The frenetic movements and loud voices of the medics gradually stilled and bit-by-bit a calm settled over the room.

It was over … Mr. Jones was over. Nothing more to be done. Just take the body away and everyone could go home.

And so the firefighters departed … and then the doctors … and since it was now well past closing time, all the lab staff melted away as I had volunteered to hang around and lock up once Mr. Jones was packaged up and taken away.

And THEN, the police and paramedics started to leave…HUH…

But, what about Mr. Jones?“, I inquired.

He was still placidly laid out on the floor with tubes sticking out everywhere… plasticy grey-skinned but otherwise quite peaceful looking. He seemed content.

Well“, said the paramedics, “we only transport living patients to the hospital, and since he’s deceased, our job is done here“.  Off they went….

Police??

Well… the doctor was here and declared it a normal death, no criminal concerns, so we’re out of here too. Try calling the coroner to see what she wants done with him“.

…BUT BUT BUT…

Suddenly, the lab door closes. All is deathly quiet and Mr. Jones and I looked at each other (metaphorically, of course) with puzzlement. He might have even grinned ironically at me, but I think my mind was perhaps playing little games on me at this point.

After a moment of absorbing the situation, I finally phoned the coroner. I explained the full story to her in great detail, and then she broke out laughing (it’s a morbid world I live in!). There was no foul play involved and so she too determined that it didn’t involve her.

laughing-woman

Me-“oh yeah, so what do I do now, just cart Mr. Jones home to meet the family?

She suggested I call the man’s family at home to see if there was a funeral home that they would like me to call and have Mr. Jones picked up. Kind of like calling 1-800-GOT-JUNK for a pickup.

GREAT…I get to break the news to Mrs. Jones that she can put that dinner plate back in the cupboard because Mr. Jones ain’t coming home for his supper. They didn’t teach us this stuff in lab school.

My heart was beating fast and hard when I dialled the Jones’ home number…a man’s voice answered…

Hello, is this the Jones’ residence?

Yes, this is Dr. Jim Striker, Mr. and Mrs. Jones’ family doctor.

Umm, I was just calling to tell Mrs. Jones about an unfortunate event concerning her husband-

Yes, I know…my brother Mark was the Doc that attempted to revive Mr. Jones at the scene…he called me to let me know that Mr. Jones had passed, so I came to the family home to break the news.

WHEW, my heart started pumping again! Didn’t have to tell the wife the bad news after all.

Dr. Striker conferred with the bereaved widow for a few moments and then gave me the name of a local funeral home that could pick up Mr. Jones.

This little tale ends a short while later with my poor old new friend Mr. Jones rolling out the door of the lab in a zippered shiny black bag.

Funeral home body

And so the curtain falls and the movie ends?

Yes and No.

When Mr. Jones woke up early that morning, he didn’t turn over, tenderly kiss his wife’s cheek and think to himself,

“This is the day I will die. I’m going to wait until I’m surrounded by strangers and then croak”.

He may have had an inkling that because he wasn’t feeling very well that time was running short, but nothing as dramatic as pegging out in a 3rd floor medical laboratory. This would never have been in his plans as he pulled the door closed to his house a final time.

It doesn’t really matter if I die like Mr. Jones. There are far worse ways to reach the end, but Mr. Jones’ death is just the start of a message I took away from this event. It reminds me that, short of suicide, we don’t have the choice of where and when we’ll expire. The day arrives and it … just happens.

I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

Woody Allen

What matters more than how or where we die, is how we live. We have the capacity, no matter our lot, to find fulfillment in our days. It comes down to choice.

It’s complicated and it’s messy… but it’s simple, really.

Hope Flower

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