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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.

Humor-Quote.png

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.

YellowBrickRoadFork

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.

skydiving

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.

 

 

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.

meg_ryan_tom_hanks

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.

melancholy-tracks

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

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 …

.

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

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).

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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.

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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.

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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

Do You Remember Your First Time?

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It was the first time I had seen a bloody, mangled body with my own eyes.

Not the first dead person mind you, but one so violently traumatized.

I was working in William’s Lake B.C. in the early 1980’s and the jarring ring of the phone in the middle of the night woke me from a deep sleep. Of course I was semi-comatose and incoherent when I mumbled hello into the phone… the woman’s voice on the other end of the call said I should come into the lab to cross-match blood for a victim in a Motor Vehicle Accident (MVA).

William’s Lake is a small, valley town in the interior of the province surrounded by enormous cattle ranches, fishing lakes, and the occasional mine site. The blended scent of earthy straw mixed with horse and cow manure is a simple rural joy to have wafting through your window on an early spring morning.

You would almost look out of place if you didn’t wear a cowboy hat and drive a pickup truck. Although I owned a cowboy hat, I only wore it occasionally (like once a year for the annual town rodeo), but I had purchased an old, green C10 Chev 1/2 ton pickup truck. I bought it used and it had a CB radio that I could call out to other cowboys and say “10-4 Big Buddy”. I fit right in.

Williams Lake Stampede

I got out of my pickup in the dark and entered the unlocked side door to Cariboo Memorial Hospital, in the days before security-above-all meant you locked doors to hospitals. The lab was just inside the entry to the right and the Emergency Department was directly opposite to the left. I could hear hurried scuffles of activity going on in the ER as I retrieved my lab coat and blood collection tray from inside the lab.

I traversed the linoleum hallway bridge between the lab and ER where the relative serenity of the hallway broke into a din of urgent voices and trundling stainless steel carts loaded with medical supplies and equipment. I strode to the main circular desk in the ER amid the bedlam and within seconds, multi-coloured paper lab requisitions were pushed across the counter at me by Linda, the head ER nurse. Normally jovial and friendly, she barely looked up. Mayhem was on the verge of breaking out. I scanned over the lab orders and then gathered up the forms.

Where will I find this guy Linda?

–He’s in the back utility room. He’s bleeding out fast. We might need the blood unmatched.

...it was a bit like this...

…it was a bit like this…

I hated cross-matching blood. Little errors could cost a patient’s life. Very simplistically, you mixed patient blood with donor blood and then looked under the microscope for little signs of agglutination (cells sticking together which indicated incompatibility). No stickies and the blood was good to go. But the differences could be so slight. I never slept well after doing cross-matches in the middle of the night. Dead patients with clotted up arteries and veins inhabited my fractured sleep.

All of the curtained areas in the main ER area were filled with MVA victims — the curtains swayed with views of nurse-pastel-uniform-coloured legs and linen-suit-doctor legs running about beneath.

I walked quickly towards the back room where supplies were stored, items cleaned, and occasionally, patients kept. There was a “Y” entry of two rooms once you entered. I could see figures on stretchers on both sides. A strong odour of chlorine antiseptic confronted me as I headed into the right side room of the Y.

Strange, no staff milling around this one. No sheets or blankets covering him to keep him warm.

As I moved closer, I began to sense why no one was paying care to this poor fellow.

He was solitary and quiet.

There was no movement, no sign of chest breathing. His skin tones were grey and uneven.

A black leather jacket was splayed and ripped open leaving much of his arms and torso easily visible. His hair was wetly matted in a flurry of directions around his head and face. There was a strange and unnerving juxtaposition of limbs heading off in unnatural directions. Heavily tattooed legs stuck off the edge of the gurney. A glistening leg bone stuck out of one lower leg like a tree stump that had been blown from the earth in a hurricane. I could see little red river trickles of dried and drying blood snaking down his multi-coloured forearms — multi-coloured by the large array of tattooes blending roughly with red and blue and black bruising from the trauma of being torn apart in a motorcycle crash. Soon there would be painful tears shed somewhere.

It was horrific and mesmerizing and fascinating.

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Police and emergency workers come across this sight all too often in their day-to-day jobs. Over time, they grow immune to the horrors of what can happen in high speed crashes. No one wants to feel numb, but how else to cope?

I’ve seen lots of blood too but it’s mainly contained in glass tubes and bags for transfusing. It has no real human connection, kind of like the few autopsies I’ve sat in on where there is no sense of a real person laying on the cold stainless-steel slab so long as the face is covered with a towel or sheet.

It’s like the distinction between a house and a home. When there’s no face visible, it’s just a lifeless, uninhabited “house” with no warmth or connection to anyone. But unveil the features of the human face and all of a sudden the house undergoes the transformation into a “home” where people live and share their smiles of joy and tears of sorrow.

This guy laying on the gurney was a HOME. I took in the vision of this former living being for no more than 10 or 15 seconds – after all, a barely living patient in the adjoining room needed replacement blood and fast. It all happened so quickly.

I didn’t know his name. I didn’t know his story. I didn’t know who loved him, or who hated him.

I only knew that it all ended here in this very surreal and still moment in this small-town hospital Emergency Room. The memory and sight of this trauma locked itself indelibly inside my head, unlike so many other scenes that have long melted away like burning candle wax in the cold of a William’s Lake night.

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Is that A Pimple or a Tumour?

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This is likely my last blog post as I’m sure I’ll be dead soon. MAYBE

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I grew up the youngest child in a family of fairly elder parents (Mom – 45 years at my birth, Dad – 50). During my childhood I passed through the disquieting front entry doors of funeral homes more often than might normally be the case for someone of my tender young age…uncles and aunts and then my Mom and Dad were taking turns stepping through the eternal revolving door of the Pearly Gates to the point where I began to enjoy the company of a beautiful cemetery.

My all-time favourite cemetery is a lush, pastoral country one called Huxley Cemetery in Hillsburgh, Ontario. This is where my maternal grandparents, William and Margaret, and many other relatives have been laid to rest over the past 100 years or so. The lush, green lawns; the big, graceful shade trees; the sweet blossom-perfumed air; the weather-worn headstones with their sometimes religious, sometimes personal inscriptions; and the trilling songbirds’ calls almost make one wish they could bring their life to an end sooner, just so they could spend more time in this peaceful garden.

There’s nothing quite like a quality cemetery.

Huxley Cemetery

In the past 20 years or so, I’ve entered periods of my life where it feels like every second person I know is dealing with cancer, which quite often means I’m attending another funeral and visiting another cemetery. I feel sad thinking that I’ve been a funeral pallbearer more times than I’ve been a wedding ringbearer.

Just as an observation of interest, the funerals I went to as a child were invariably the result of failing hearts or plugged-up arteries. But the memorial services I go to now are almost always cancer-related. You might wonder if this is significant –  I believe it is.

When you read my blog posts, I hope you occasionally find a golden nugget or two that draws you in and brings some personal meaning or recollection into your head. So it is that I attend funerals and find messages floating in the air, drifting downwards into my consciousness from above. Personal thoughts … eulogies … benedictions. How can anyone attend a funeral and not find themselves absorbed to some extent in what their own life and mortality means?

And a good part of these thoughts revolve around, “How can I avoid this fate for as long as humanly possible?” It’s only natural, we want to live. Not breathing and pumping good, red, oxygenated blood is just not an acceptable option.

And so the little voice inside, my own NASA computer, monitors every pain and itch and unknown glitch that befalls me.

It’s like the strange sounds we hear on airplanes that make us wonder if these are the final rumblings and creaks of a failing engine…just before we plummet to the ground in a fiery explosive ball of flames.

I know this sounds so neurotic, but I’m sure it’s a fairly common thought process. Is the bit of red on the toilet paper normal (-ish) blood or something more? Is the dull pain in my gut just a bit of standard indigestion or a swelling ball of malignancy? And that pimple-like growth that won’t go away?

And so some mornings begin like this: With a great ego flourish, I check myself out in the mirror…hmmm…more tummy than I want…a lot less head hair than I want…a few more wrinkles, damn…but what I really want to see is the state of my tumours. I have a few that I’m keeping an eye on to determine when the spots turn from black to blue and red…pencil size to dinner-plate size. Is this a basal cell carcinoma or a melanoma forming?

My skin is a spotty fright

and now it keeps me up at night

the moles and spots land like cormorants on the lake

will they be gone when I awake?  Unknown

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And so, about once every year or two I haltingly toddle off to the doctor’s office. Inside my head there’s that little bastard voice telling me that these are the last few moments where I’ll have the freedom and solace of not knowing the source of my impending doom. Five minutes in the medical suite and my life will be transformed forever by the news of a certain death sentence. I can hear the high blood-pressure sound of my own heartbeat in my ears.

Hmmm, what songs do I want played at my funeral?

Then, like most things we imagine and worry about in life, it turns out I have Seborrheic Keratoses or other “normal” growths that occur naturally and are not a worry. Phew, the Grim Reaper has been delayed once again. Good news and my anxiety attacks recede for another year.

But … one day, maybe next year, maybe 25 years from now, the news won’t be as positive. No amount of plastic surgery trickery will obstruct the inevitable.

TEMPUS FUGIT…time flies.

We all wander the halls of life. It is a narrow, one way passage. No one can decide in a moment to turn around and go back. Time doesn’t work that way. So, just as if we were in an airport, we continue to stroll forwards on the moving walkway. Even if we stop to observe the beauty of a moment, the walkway keeps advancing us slowly forward, unceasing. Something I’m learning too as I grow older is that the walkway picks up speed as we move further along. Minutes feel like seconds, years like days.

So I’m trying to celebrate the idea that there are many wonderful moments in this passage, mixed in with the inevitable sorrows. When I do reach the end of the hall, I can hopefully turn and look back and treasure the gold I unearthed in myself, in my friends and family, in the moments of quiet solitude and beauty, and in the moments where I’ve suffered pain or experienced jubilation.

     The sun, the rain, the sweet despair,

     Great tales of love and strife.

     And somewhere on your path to glory

     You will write your story of a life.

……………………………….Harry Chapin

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