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The Great Beyond

It was an ordinary Monday night. Although I suppose, not really. More people were probably watching ESPN football that Monday night for a couple of reasons: 1) unlike weekend football, it’s the only game in town and 2) it’s late in the season when teams are vying madly for playoff spots.

Consequently, an estimated 23 million sets of eyes witnessed Buffalo Bills’ safety Damar Hamlin’s shocking collapse in real time. He makes a routine tackle, rises, seems to adjust his helmet, then falls flat onto his back. It takes like two seconds. (I read somewhere once, probably in Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now, that “now” is roughly defined as three seconds. So, less than now.)

My set of eyes were alternately on purple and white granny squares – I was making a balaclava for one of my granddaughters – and the World Juniors’ Canada vs Slovakia quarter final. We were outshooting them like crazy; their goalie blocked the net like a friggin athletic titanium pretzel. Thankfully, Canadian phenom Connor Bedard deked him out in OT for the 4-3 win and we went on to win gold against Czechia. (This name was approved in 2016, but until watching the World Juniors this year, I still thought we still called it Czech Republic.)

After the game, the sportscasters on TSN mentioned the seriousness of the Damar Hamlin incident, that he’d gone into cardiac arrest, so I went on Twitter and saw the footage. I also saw many tweets about vaccines being to blame. And a few by parents saying this is exactly why they don’t let their kids play football.

We humans want reasons, don’t we? BLANK happened because of BLANK. We feel an overwhelming need to know why. It’s in our nature. I recently spent several hours with my three grandkids, ages 10, 9 and 6, and trust me. They never stop asking why.

While curiosity is a great trait, leading to incredible human achievement, there is also something to be said for accepting the fact that we’re just never gonna know it all.

“As a Buddhist practice,” says insightmeditationcenter.org, “not-knowing leads to more than an intimacy and open mind. It can be used as a sword to cut through all the ways that the mind clings. If we can wield this sword until the mind lets go of itself and finally knows ultimate freedom, then not-knowing has served its ultimate purpose.”

It’s true that football is hard on the body. The CBC Front Burner podcast had Washington Post sports columnist Jerry Brewer on and he pointed out that football isn’t a contact sport, it’s a collision sport. While changes in rules and equipment have helped guard against serious injuries like concussions, they’re still prevalent.

Personally, I find it amusing that a perceived increase in sudden unexplained deaths is due to Covid vaccines. Perhaps there was a time I might have even bought into it, but once you’ve been introduced to the harsh reality of sudden unexplained death? Well, suddenly it’s not so rare anymore and you hear about it all the time.

Almost two decades ago, well before Covid, it was an ordinary Monday night. Although, not really. On Monday night football, Green Bay Packers defeated St. Louis Rams 45-17. My husband Hugh wasn’t watching because he was ordering dinner at a steak house in Edmonton with business colleagues. He liked Green Bay, bet on them to win, but he died that night so the payout went to his son.

I watched Hamlin go down and my first thought was: OMG! This is how it happened! This is how Hugh died. He was ok, sipping beer, joking, ordering food, then two seconds later? He was down. 

Hugh did not get hit in the chest. No. So, it was not this commotio cordis (sudden arrhythmia caused by a low/mild chest wall impact) that has been mentioned as a possibility in Hamlin’s case. I have searched the web, high and low, for years trying to find a cause. Asking why, over and over. The best I’ve come up with is Brugada syndrome, “a rare but serious condition that affects the way electrical signals pass through the heart”.

Different cause, but same result: cardiac arrest. Abnormal heart rhythm. Boom. It’s so swift – less than now! – I credit witnesses to such events with keeping their heads on straight and taking action. In Hugh’s case, a first responder jumped on his chest with compressions and a nearby AED.

In Hamlin’s case, an unidentified man says on a recording, “I don’t like how he went down.” Says npr.org, “Many people are praising the medical personnel who treated him in the moments after he collapsed.” It seems their quick response, which kept blood flowing throughout Hamlin’s body, including the brain and lungs, has worked.

Reports are that he is “neurologically intact”. It would seem so, because his first question upon waking – in writing because at that time he had a breathing tube in – was, “Did we win?” His doctor responded, “Yes, Damar, you won. You’ve won the game of life.”

(It occurs to me, Hugh’s first question, had he returned from the great beyond, might have been, “Did Green Bay win?” Or, maybe, “Who ate my steak?”)

And the next day, via FaceTime after the breathing tube was removed, Hamlin told his team, “Love you boys.” They stood, clapped. Wow. Amazing.

If there was ever a good advertisement for knowing CPR? This is it.

But these stories – Hamlin’s, and Hugh’s as well – call to mind the Latin phrase “memento mori”. “Remember that you must die.” There seems no finer line between life and death than cardiac arrest. Two seconds.

One of my daughters gifted each of our family members – to bind us and remind us of the fleeting nature of life – with a beautiful gold pendant this Christmas. “Memento mori” is on the front, along with a skull, which may seem gruesome, but truly, we each have a skeletal system supporting us, yes? And on the back of the pendant? “You could leave life right now”. 

Better to spend your precious time living as opposed to pointing the finger and/or asking why over and over.

The Great Beyond 2023-01-10T13:50:36-05:00

In The Hood

I love my neighbourhood. It’s well-established, with incredibly wise trees and eclectic house designs. I say hi to the people I meet; I mostly know them by their dogs. 

There’s the guy who had one well-behaved red long-haired dog (he told me it was a Retriever and I was confused, being more familiar with short-haired Labs, but we’re talking Golden here) pre-pandemic, then decided to add another. The other? He’s a puller. It’s been two years, as you know, and that poor guy is now out-of-breath and dishevelled by “the other”, who seems incapable of mastering leash etiquette. 

It’s always a good day when I see Baxter the Boston Terrier. He reminds me so much of my adopted (from my daughter) Boston Terrier Boris, gone several years now. I pet Baxter, inquire about his health (which is up and down, they’re finicky little ones) and am comforted by his aloof temperament, which also matches Boris’s.

Then there’s Archie, the peppy wee white Scottish Terrier across the road, who is the complete opposite in size and temperament to my daughter’s dog, a doodle, of the same name.

There are people without dogs, of course, and I chat with some of them too. Walking to fitness class one recent morning, I finally discovered where this family I’ve been crossing paths with for a long time, originate from. They emerged from the grand entrance of the stately brown brick house on the corner. The mother, well-dressed and beautiful, has long dark hair which flows gracefully as she saunters along with her three children, presumably heading to the elementary school up the street. We nodded, said hi. For the last couple of years, she and I have had to choose our routes carefully as there’s been major watermain work in the neighbourhood. Some days, the sidewalks and streets were being peeled up in front of our feet.

Kev, a retired media (radio) guy who I know through my husband B, lives near this family. He’d just started up a car for his wife for work that day. I say “a car” because they never had children, so they spend their money on vehicles; there were four parked in the laneway that day. He threw his hands in the air, said, “I don’t know, but the battery died on Shelley’s hybrid and I can’t get into it. I’ve got the shop coming. Thank goodness we have a gasser that started right up.”

“I had a Mercedes that would lock up like Fort Knox when the battery died,” I told him. “Had to keep it on a trickle charger.”

I carried on, picking my way through the muddy construction zone. And I could see Dan up there, coming from his morning male confab at Tim Hortons, walking along in his black toque, black winter coat. (I was wearing a black toque, black winter coat. Neighbourhood uniform?) I wondered what he’d have to say.

I’ve been running into Dan a lot lately. The first time? He was like, “Oh, so-and-so, you know, that big guy? He’s still there at Tims. You should go say hi.”

I didn’t know “so-and-so” and I’d already told Dan I was heading to class at the Jewish Centre. The next time? When we were done talking, he squeezed my arm, said, “Why don’t you come to my place for coffee?” Wink, nudge.

A little backstory. Dan is also a retired media (newspaper) guy I know from B. Because the big venue B was swooping in from the US to run 20-plus years ago was a controversial project for the city, some people in the media were hellbent on finding fault with it. B and Dan had numerous “discussions” and Dan didn’t always paint B’s building in the best light. The building became a success and Dan got busy with other topics; the animosity fell away.

So much so that when B and I made the risky decision to go out to a pub in the hood on Friday, March 13, 2020, when Covid was rapidly shutting the world down, we sat at the bar with Dan and his girlfriend, chatting away like old friends. 

It’s a shame-inducing memory for a couple of reasons. One: Covid. B had been dealing with shut-down related issues at work for the previous couple of days. Recall that Wednesday night? Sure, there was the shocking suspension of travel between the US and Europe for 30 days, but I found it more shocking that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson had IT. Then? The NBA shut down. The NBA!

B came home that Friday, we looked at each other, shrugged. I said, “Well, there’s no cases in London.” B said, “Then let’s go out for dins.”

By Monday, when it felt like the entire planet was closed, I did feel unnecessarily exposed for having sat in that crowded bar for a couple of hours.

Reason two: Gossip. It’s so fun, isn’t it? But, it’s also wrong! (Although B shrugs, says he knows people probably talk about him, what can he do about it, it doesn’t bother him. He’s pretty darn comfortable in his skin. I don’t like to think what people say about me behind my back. Say it to my face. And make it not hurt.) We chatted away with Dan and his girlfriend, smushed in there at the bar. A couple that we knew in the hood had recently split. Dan had the goods.

“She switched teams,” he told us.

Such salacious news! It felt outrageous, but why? Did it even matter? Did we think this particular person just wouldn’t be gay, or bisexual? Why do we often have these preconceived notions about others? Why do we care? (When I thought longer on it I was somewhat relieved as this woman had reached out to B for lunches, seeking work advice, so perhaps I needn’t worry she was seeking more than work advice?)

But, hopefully you can cut us a little slack, because B and I are from a generation that did not discuss sexual orientation while grappling with the act of sex itself. And a topic like gender fluidity? Back in the day? Never heard of it. Luckily, we have younger people in our midst who educate us on all of this. A few years ago, when B’s kid said one of their roommates was non-binary? We were like, say what? There was some shy laughter. The explanation was: male, female, they don’t identify. Oh. And my kids say, well, I’m paraphrasing here, but if a person is happy, is not hurting anyone, then straight, gay, bi, male, female? Who cares? Welcome to the 21st century huh?

As we sat at the bar, eating, sipping, chatting, on that pandemic eve, the woman in question walked in with her new partner and we moved on to other topics.

Back to meeting Dan on the sidewalk at the entrance to the Jewish Centre, we chatted amicably for a bit, then he squeezed my arm, again, and this time said, “When are you and I going out for dinner?” Wink, nudge.

He must have read shock on my face because he followed that up with, “Well, you can bring your husband along.”

I shook my head, went to class. A couple of days later, when B got home from work, I said, “Oh that buddy of yours.” I was starting to dread running into Dan again. Perhaps I’d have to leave the house earlier? Reduce the chances? Or drive to class? I told B about the dinner invite. There was some guilt. Had I been behaving in a way that made Dan think I was available?

B said, “Does he even know I’m your husband? Maybe he forgot?”

Hmmm. I thought about that. I mean, I know perfectly well who I am, but I’ve run into other people and either not been able to place them . . . or! This has happened a couple times. Maybe for you too? They’ve got a doppelgänger! You think they’re someone else that you know, you ask dumb questions that out you. Tres embarrassing.

“But he has a girlfriend, doesn’t he?”

“She was from Toronto,” B said. “And that was over two years ago.”

I poured wine for dinner. And B said, “You know. You should be flattered. He goes for younger, really beautiful women.”

And that was when I remembered. Oh yeah! B and I have a mature relationship. We’ve talked about this. We’ve said to each other, hey, you get bored, you’re looking for something different, just say so. No need to cheat.

I sat down at the island to eat feeling pretty darn good about the skin I’m in. And the hood I’m in.

Website photo: A recent sunrise in the hood, no filter.

In The Hood 2022-12-19T15:17:08-05:00

Rinse and Repeat

Pre-Covid, I attended a weekly writers’ group. We’d take turns sharing our stories and being critiqued. One night, a fellow shared a fiction piece about a male protagonist. The scene felt cloying to me: a distraught grieving widower talking at length to his wife in the cemetery.

“That’s not what it’s like,” I insisted, when it was my turn to offer advice. “I lost my husband. I should know. I sure as hell don’t hang out at his tombstone having long chats with him.”

“Really?” the fellow said, eyes smarting, obviously stung. “I read this to my wife and she cried.”

Hmmm, I thought at the time. One can fantasize all one wants. I used to do it too. Until you’ve lost a spouse? You haven’t the foggiest notion how you’ll respond.

Well, I suppose I owe this guy an apology. I think he’s moved west, so I doubt I’ll get the chance.

Since then? I’ve watched many well-done examples of this type of scene on TV. I mean, unless you’re doing a voiceover, how else is the audience supposed hear what’s going on inside the griever’s head? True, the above example is on paper; the writer could just do the omniscient thing, right?

But, who am I, who was I, to think that just because I lost a spouse I have/had the monopoly on responses to it? Eighteen years ago? Had my husband died anywhere in the vicinity of myself? In the loosey-goosey (a term he loved; he’d get on a bent with words that felt good coming from his mouth – “alacrity” is another one – and he’d use them over and over and over) way he died? I’d have been suspect numero uno.

My response to his sudden passing? Blank. Nothing. Nada.

Perhaps it was the way in which I was told. His mom said, “He didn’t make it.” The brain loves a riddle, yes? For the rest of the night my brain tried, in vain, to work this out. Didn’t make what? What didn’t he make? 

This repeated, as I called our oldest to tell her her father was gone. Because he didn’t make something. As I watched our youngest, a son, just 17, still living at home, slouched forward in his bed, long arms, fingers, extending toward heaven. “You’re telling me my father died?” No. He just didn’t make this thing. As I tracked down our middle child to figure out how to get her home. She’d just returned to Whistler, where she was living at the time, from the Vancouver airport, having picked up her boyfriend who’d been home to London, Ontario, for the funeral of a friend killed in a car accident. It was the end of November; icy snow made it a treacherous drive.

There was this: how is it possible that her boyfriend just attended a funeral and her dad, seemingly healthy, just dropped dead? These two things can’t be true. And: how can she get herself safely back to the airport? And: how can she ride in a plane, alone, knowing her father didn’t make it? Didn’t make it.

The family members gathered overnight in my kitchen, watching me make coffee like a coffee-making expert – we’ve all gotta be good at something, right? – saw what probably seemed like a normal human and not a fresh widow. No screeching. No tears, even. No tearing out of hair. Rending of clothing. Definitely not a Hollywood-worthy response. So disappointing.

I feel tremendous guilt when I watch impressive scenes of loss. Now that right there: the catch in the voice, the pained squeal, the wet eyes. Rita! Could you not have offered up something?

He didn’t make it.

This time of year rolls around again and even after almost two decades the shock of that night returns. Maybe if there’d been a warning of impending doom the response would have been different? More outwardly expressive? Proper?

I go to the cemetery. This year I go alone, which is unusual. It looks like his sister has planted new tea roses and his still has one bloom, dried and pale pink. And also? I find a sweet bud. New life. Trying to come, so hopeful, despite winter’s approach.

I pull crispy maple leaves from around the tea roses in front of his tombstone, his parents’, his nephew’s. An omniscient eye watches tears fall. The eye must have ears too because it hears this, over and over and over, “I really miss you guys.” Sometimes the “really” is emphasized. Really.

Walking over to discard the bucket of dead leaves a humongous shiny black tombstone catches my eye. You can put pictures on tombstones now. Did you know that? There’s two pictures on this one, of a cousin of Hugh’s, in a tux, and also, driving a Standardbred horse. Wow. I check the dates. Phew. There’s only one. His DOB. He’s still alive.

I go back to hang with my late husband’s tombstone for a bit. Regard the beautifully engraved horse heads on either side, at the top. Regard the four letters below “beloved husband of”: R-I-T-A. No middle name, no DOB, as though in denial that half of her ashes – her life was split in two after all – will reside here someday. With the remains of a man who loved and helped define her so long ago, with horses, with children, with all the “Heart, Spirit and Inspiration” his name could offer up.

The omniscient eye with the ears hears this: “Why?!” Over and over and over. It does not hear an answer.

Rinse and Repeat 2022-11-30T16:00:05-05:00

The Past Lurking

The older I get, the more the cheap spiral-bound notebooks pile up. They fill one and a half shelves of a book case and could suffocate me. From the year 2000, I have solid proof of The Past: a (mostly) daily journal. 

Of course, it’s not a full accounting of what took place. But it’s enough of a taste. When I reread it, or transcribe it into a word document as I’m currently doing so readers unschooled in cursive might understand it, I come back to the present altered. Like I’ve time-travelled. And not always in a good way.

We have a negative bias, us humans, right? We’ve talked about this before; it’s there to save us in times of threat. It’s possible my negative bias runs on overdrive?

In my zoom art class the other day, we discussed keeping a journal. One of the ladies shared how she recorded swaths of her kids’ lives when they were young, with a focus on the positive. I try to record my kids’ and grandkids’ lives too, but a positive focus? I wish! Suffice it to say much of my journal is complaintive (just made that word up and spellcheck is NOT impressed) as opposed to contemplative. Whah-whah-whah. I come away wondering if I’ve always been this first-class Biotch, that one right there, staring back at me, in blue, or black, or pink ink – whatever coloured pen that happened to work. I go through them. Let me tell you, pens do NOT last like they used to!

With writing, I’m a student of many great writers, and lately the teacher has been Matthew Dicks. He wrote Storyworthy. My husband B heard him interviewed on a podcast and promptly ordered his book. The second B finished it and set it down, I promptly stole it and it now sits on my book case, above The Past. The subtitle is “Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life though the Power of Storytelling”.

Dicks has numerous tips and tricks for great storytelling and one of my favourites is a thing called “Homework for Life” in which you pay attention on all of your days and find one little snippet each day that is storyworthy. 

Usually these are moments that just happen inside your head. Like the other day, my 10-year-old granddaughter and I sat shoulder-to-shoulder and head-to-head on the front porch watching a YouTube video of a newborn giraffe learning to stand. We giggled at its awkwardness. As I glowed in the feeling of being so physically close to my granddaughter, I did the math in my head. I realized that I’m older, by three years, than my maternal grandmother was when I was 10. I never sat shoulder-to-shoulder and head-to-head with her. She seemed so old to me. Because she lived on the east coast and me in Ontario, I only saw her once a year, in the summer. She had a harsh accent (it’s from Newfoundland, I found it endearing in later life); I couldn’t always understand her. Old people seemed older back then, didn’t they? In dress and demeanour? As a kid, the people I spent most of my time with were all my parents’ ages or younger. It’s a terrible shame, but people I deemed old? They scared me.

Well, I could go on and on here, dredging up how my paternal grandmother would literally “whoop” it up in a back bedroom after being gently “medicated” with drink, or the time my cousin’s grandma with dementia got lost in the smallest of bathrooms and couldn’t find her way out. You get the picture; there’s definitely a story to uncover. But what I’m trying to get at is that Dicks and his sweet wife Elysha, on their podcast, insist that keeping track of The Past is a gift to your future self. A gift? Sometimes I find it a curse.

Perhaps I’m too ruled by emotion? The days I plan to transcribe my journals I have to steel myself, give myself a good talking to, say, “Rita, you’re going on a journey. Take the emotion out of it. You’re not that woman any longer. You’re an older, wiser version. You’ve learned from your mistakes.” 

I’m also a realist. I can reread my journal from yesterday, note all the mistakes I made. Did I learn from them? Am I a better human today? Hmmm.

I’m a slow learner. The first time I tried to write a story using Dicks’ suggestions? Of contrast, surprise, ending opposite to the beginning? Oh man, I was so excited. I could not wait to read it to B, have him pat me on the back, say, “Wow. Way to go. Nailed it!”

We were sitting at the island. With wine; it was date night. Candles lit. Some wonderful culinary sensation B had created was tingling our nostrils, awakening the hunger in our bellies. 

But when I finished reading? B just shook his head in disappointment. “No. That’s not it.”

We argued about it. B won.

I put it on the blog anyway and you guys liked it, so …

Dicks has some great suggestions and they’ve been helpful. Unfortunately, every time I come up with a story idea? I discover it’s a big ol’ circle. I end up right back where I started from. With The Past, lurking. All those words in all those cheap spiral-bound notebooks crushing those shelves with the musings of a gal that was, is, and always will be little ol’ imperfect me: aiming for wiser, mostly missing the mark.

The Past Lurking 2022-11-10T14:46:05-05:00

Pierced and Tatted

“Stop,” Hugh said, quietly, into my ear. I must have been gaping.

“But I can see – ” He shushed me, accepted the popcorn and we headed toward our movie theatre.

“I could see the popcorn machine through his ears!” I said, once we were out of earshot. 

He shrugged. Said, “Yeah, well.”

This was late 90s/early aughts. My late husband and I had left the seclusion of our country home for a date night in the big city. Rainbow Cinemas. While I’m certain there’s no LGBTQ+ connection to the name? I was oblivious to rainbow symbolism then, even though I now know it originated in 1978.

What I was not oblivious to? The colourful and radical sights of the young humans in the city. It started with the ticket crew downstairs. Spiked and wildly dyed hair, in shades of purple, pink and green. Tattoos on necks, arms. Piercings everywhere! Nose, lips, tongues. And then those crazy plugs on the guy running the snack counter. They open up the earlobes, like I’d seen in pictures of African Masai warriors in National Geographic as a kid. This is how young people are expressing themselves now?!

I thought back to when Hugh came to pick me up for our first date. I pulled my mom aside, said sternly, “Not one word about his hair.” That was the mid-70s. He just so happened to have extremely frizzy hair and Afros just so happened to be in style. He’d managed to grow his into an envious – for many of his male friends – foot in diameter. His super power at the time? Diving into a swimming pool, resurfacing, shaking his head and having that ‘fro bounce right back, completely dry, into its pre-dive round shape.

As teenagers, we were insistent on our Levis (although mine were Lees, could never seem to pull the budget together for Levis). And also platform shoes. Hugh’s had daisies on the toes. These personal statements – of hair, clothing – were not permanent though. Hair can (usually) grow back. Clothing is not even attached. You stretch out those earlobes? You can’t return them to that pre-stretched shape!

Shortly after the movie date, my two teenage girls started asking, “When can I get my belly button pierced?” At the time, they had conventional piercings – a wee one in each ear – which I’d happily taken them to get years prior.

As a parent, sometimes you need to take strong stances on things. “You can get anything pierced,” I told them, doling out some hope. I continued, “Go ahead. Get a bunch of tattoos too. As soon as you move out.”

Did they think I didn’t know? Hadn’t seen the staff at Rainbow Cinemas? Hadn’t heard the tale of my younger daughter’s friend, a beautiful and intelligent girl, who’d surprised (and seriously upset her parents) when she came home with a tongue piercing? A tongue piercing?!

The stalemate on this with my daughters lasted a year or so. A sister-in-law told me one day how she and her friends had gotten belly piercings, for their 40th birthdays. She showed me. It looked really pretty, really cool. Hmmm.

I thought, well, maybe I could change my stance on this? I know! I’ll surprise the girls one day, make appointments and we’ll have a girls’ day out.

A short while later, my oldest daughter came into the kitchen one weekend morning as I made breakfast. She reached up, to hang her jacket on the hook by the door. And there, gleaming in the rising sun? Above her jeans and below her T-shirt? A belly piercing!

“You bum!” I said.

“What?” she said, all wide-eyed innocence.

I had a better look at it. We have a history of bad skin in the family. Eczema, etc. It was a tad red at the upper site. Studying it, I realized it had to go through so much skin, I could never go for it. Besides, I still had some (still do!) baby-carrying fat to shed.

She didn’t get the chewing out I’m sure she expected, but I did let her feel bad that we didn’t have a girls’ day out.

In the years before they flew from the nest, the girls tried some other piercings – lip, nose – and my son pierced his ears. I overheard them talk about friends and acquaintances with ear plugs, how “cool” they looked. But they never tried it. 

Tattoos? I don’t know if they were ever on the wish list, but after their father died we discussed creating a memorial tattoo. We decided this was the most permanent way we could honour him and be united in our grief. What would it look like?

Since he’d loved horses, had owned, worked with and driven Standardbreds for years, we settled on a Pegasus. We put his initials on the wings. A design was drawn up that we all agreed on and my older daughter had the first appointment.

It did cross my mind, well, if it turns out bad I could bail. But, it was beautiful. I had mine etched onto the inside of my leg, just above my left ankle, below my heart.

Piercings and tattoos have only grown in popularity over the last couple of decades. My husband B and I chatted with a work colleague of his the other night and I did not even gape at his ear plugs. My son-in-law has numerous tattoos on his chest and arms. They tell a story; have much meaning for him. The body as canvas.

Like our homes, our bodies carry the dents and scratches of a life well-lived, don’t they? Heading into old age – B prefers to call it “eldership” – I have scars from stitches, pierced ears with holes slightly sagging, a tattoo, eczema fingers, abundant skin wrinkles, neck wattles and a belly that proves I once carried three babies to term.

Every generation finds a way to shock their elders, prove they’re unique, make a statement, leave an imprint. And while it may seem permanent? In the end? Well, I planned to say nothing is permanent, but guess what? I just discovered that, according to the Laws of Conservation of Mass and Energy,  science proves neither matter nor energy are created or destroyed. They’re merely transformed.

Pierced and Tatted 2022-09-30T11:06:09-04:00

Murder Your Thirst

Traveled lately? Paid for it? I’ve talked to many who have.

My husband B and I were still blissfully unaware of the cost, thank goodness, as he drove us back through the lush rolling hills of upstate New York. (We’d joked about Herschel Walker’s anti-tree gaffe on the way down. “Herschel’s right! There are enough trees!”) We were full to bursting with friendship, joy and music after attending a 3-day outdoor music festival on Martha’s Vineyard, where all our favourite bands had played. At a stop in Syracuse, we scarfed down the “godfather” pizza – caramelized onions, sausage and mildly spicy peppers – and listened to a young girl with an acoustic guitar. Her voice echoed Jewel-like in the new warehouse-style space. She even sang a Jason Isbell song, one he’d just sung to us, “Cover Me Up”:

So girl, leave your boots by the bed
We ain’t leaving this room
Til someone needs medical help
Or the magnolias bloom

Okay, assuming these are relatively healthy people and it’s not early spring? Is this not just about the sexiest thing ever written?!

B was in a slapdash hurry to get back to our room at the A-Loft, but not for the above reasons. And to be clear, I’d be leaving sandals by the bed, not boots. He filed his work report, due the following morning, and crawled into bed to sleep. I watched Serena win the first of her US Open singles matches.

The next day? B was clearing his throat, clearing his throat. But the sure sign something was amiss? He asked me to drive. He eased the seat back, slept. Of course, all the time he’d driven the weather had been clear, while for me? Buckets of rain gushed from the heavens, hindering visibility and frazzling my nerves.

As soon as we got home, B had the test kit out. It took the full 15 minutes, but there it was, the faint second line confirming he had Covid. I tested myself. Negative. I was tired; I put it off to traveling.

The next morning my throat was full to bursting with razor blades. I did another test. Negative. No matter. I was unwell.

After two and a half years of a raging pandemic, one can get complacent. Feel a tad superior, perhaps? I’d see headlines about it. Haven’t had Covid yet? We want to study you! I thought B and I were special somehow. We work out a lot, eat well, take immune-supporting supplements. But as it turns out, we’re just mere mortals, like everyone else on the planet, and completely vulnerable to the whims of this weird illness.

And I’ve talked to others about this too. The best position from which to endure Covid? Flat on one’s back, a super-comfy pillow under the head and a throw pulled up under the chin. That is: not moving.

What can you accomplish in this position? 

Doomscroll! My Twitter friends told me: Agent Orange still free, talking, blah-blah-blah. Dark Brandon still getting sh*t done. War in Ukraine still on (but, as you know, they are now kicking some serious Russian assets). The doomsday glacier still hanging on by fingertips I did not know it had.

Binge Netflix, AppleTV, Prime! I prefer nature docs when I’m feeling down, so I watched David Attenborough’s Prehistoric Planet. Did you know dinosaur birds walked around on elbows and feet? Did you know sauropods may have had bizarre inflatable sacs that popped out on their long necks for mating? I watched The Elephant Queen, because elephants are just so darn cute. Dung beetles too, if you can get over the fact that what they’re rolling into that perfect ball is, well, dung. At least you can’t smell it through the TV.

The days went by and the shows piled up: I recommend Wild Wild Country and The Last Days, but the “something for laughs” I started, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, is pretty darn silly.

I had to admit, it was efficient that B and I were both sick at the same time. He’s a great person to be sick with because he doesn’t complain and he remembers to smile from time to time, which I forget when I’m feeling miserable.

As you probably know from reading my blogs, B is the cook, but because we were both feeling lousy, we took turns. It went like this: B made chicken soup from scratch. I heated up a frozen pizza. B cooked a whole chicken. I slapped some peanut butter on bread. But, I did make the bread!

After the excruciating headache cleared I was able to read from that comforting supine position. Looking for Jane is an incredible debut novel by Heather Marshall. Set in Toronto, it’s an important and timely discussion about abortion rights. From Russia with Blood by Heidi Blake is a work of nonfiction which expertly delves into the “Kremlin’s ruthless assassination program” and reads like in a spy thriller.

After a few days, B and I took a walk around the smallest block. We came back so spaced out we had to sit and recuperate with hot lemon ginger tea with honey. After our first fully upright day? We spent a couple of days slothing around again.

I’d been warned the first 48 hours are the worst and that was true. I’d been warned it lingers and that was true.

And now, a couple of weeks post-Covid, I feel immense gratitude. That we didn’t get IT until this year, that we’ve had the opportunity for vaccines and a booster, that we have a mighty fine home in which to be sick, that the nearby grocery store delivers.

I’d feel grateful about getting the illness over with, but dang, you can get IT more than once. So, travel safely. Keep your boosters up to date. And if your throat is ever full to bursting with razor blades, murder that thirst with hot tea, cold ginger ale, or perhaps some cool Liquid Death as in the website photo. The organizers of Beach Road Weekend, the music festival we attended, served water in aluminum cans, not plastic. Not only does it feel badass to drink your water this way – it’s like drinking a tallboy – it’s the most ecological choice. Did you know that about 75% of all the aluminum ever made is still in use today?

Murder Your Thirst 2022-09-16T10:41:53-04:00

The Drop In

If her place wasn’t on my way home, or going somewhere, well it was just around the country corner. Why not drop in? I was always welcome. Greeted with a smile, fuchsia pink if her lipstick was on. The scents were earthy and homegrown: potatoes, juicy fat tomatoes, Dove soap.

If it was morning? She’d pour coffee, old style. Percolated. Black. Cream and sugar? No way. A woman did not need those extra calories. If I hadn’t eaten? I’d get breakfast too. Traditional: eggs, bacon, home fries, toast.

If it was late afternoon? She’d pour a rye and ginger. Perhaps dinner if I had no plans: a fresh salad from the garden, roasted meat and veg, boiled potatoes. With so many people always dropping by the farm, food was abundant in that house.

As was conversation. If it was just the two of us? She’d prod, want to know. What is going on?

Oh gee, I said. This guy at work is driving me nuts.

Well why?

Well the horse races are heating up, I told her. There’s more races than ever now. I’m having trouble keeping up. It’s hard. Getting all those details down, the press releases out in time.

Hmmm, she said. Sipped her coffee. You know, Rita. Here she looked me in the eye, to see my truth. You can do it. You’re a good writer. You can do better.

Hmmm, I thought. She’s right.

I went to work that day and did better. Because she believed in me, which made me believe in me. I have a tendency to overthink things, make them more complicated than necessary. And I sometimes, well oftentimes, bring too much emotion to situations. Our coffee talk helped me focus, simplify.

She was always teaching me. I thought she was teaching me to become the person she was. For my kids, their spouses, their kids. I mean, I had a big enough house, over there. Three kids, just like her. Who’s to say they won’t be dropping in on me one day, just like this, for coffee talk?

Things don’t always turn out the way you expect, though. First, her youngest son, my husband, died mid-sentence, mid-laugh, mid-life. Then, she was diagnosed with cancer. That disease attacked her quickly, without mercy. And being the person she was? She showed no weakness, to me anyway. Was strong, stoic. Kept as busy as she could, crocheting skeins of wool into afghans so fast it’s a wonder she didn’t set the house on fire.

Always teaching. Before the diagnosis? How to be a lady. I know I’m more than capable of opening my own car door, she once told me. But, if a man wants to do it for me? That feels so good, so special. Why not let him?

On a discussion about celebrities getting face lifts, tummy tucks, etc. What ever happened to growing old gracefully? she asked.

While she was graceful in aging, unfortunately she didn’t get to grow that old. Her final teachings to me: how to accept a grave diagnosis. How to die. Gracefully.

And the teachings expanded from her to him, her husband, who I’d always fiercely respected, but saw as more assertive than gentle. It’s an image that won’t go. A man, married 50 years to a woman, who was fading before us like a frail bird. There, there, he said, as he tenderly placed orange slices, plump and succulent, into her mouth.

For years after, he became the one I dropped in on. He poured me coffee from a Thermos in the warm room at the barn. We sat on over-turned plastic buckets, lamenting our losses. I don’t see any way around it, he told me. You’re just going to have to go on. I watched him; I tried it. Eventually got the hang of it.

After he left us, I sold the house, the big one, over there. Two of my three kids moved west. I met and married a man way more interested in spending time in the kitchen than me.

The other day, I dropped in at my daughter’s place around noon. Am I in time for lunch? I joked as their giant golden doodle, Archie, tried to knock me over at the front door. He loves when I visit. My daughter’s son, six, was smiling like a Cheshire cat over a set of kids’ golf clubs his dad had gotten from a co-worker. The girls, 10 and eight now, had just come inside from playing and were sprawled in the TV room watching a kids’ show on Netflix.

I sat at their huge island and my daughter made me a latte. (With the growth of coffee culture, I’ve discovered it tastes pretty yummy to froth up the coffee from time to time.) After filling plates for her kids she made us a salad and toasted bagels. We yakked away, about the Elvis movie (loved it!), the remarkable images from the James Webb Space Telescope, the price of cherries (her younger daughter explained it’s due to the pandemic and inflation), family gossip.

Driving home, with a full belly-heart-mind, it hit me. Perhaps the drop in skipped a generation! She’s it now. My daughter is the drop in!

Memories of that warm farmhouse and cool barn prevail. There are times, still, when I picture all of us – my late husband’s family and friends – sitting out in the family room on a Friday night with drinks and Tony’s pizza, yakking and laughing away. The images are so vivid sometimes, I feel that it’s a place I could actually get back to, drop in on again. But time, like us, must go on. The page turns. People and scenes get shuffled around, new memories get plunked atop the old.

The Drop In 2022-08-09T14:47:29-04:00

Yellow Brick Road

Back to the howling old owl in the woods
Hunting the horny back toad
Oh, I’ve finally decided my future lies
Beyond the yellow brick road
Elton John, Bernie Taupin

Google tells me the “horny back toad” only exists in the lyrics to this well-known 70s song “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, also the title of John’s “magnum opus” double LP that sold over 30 million copies. But the “horny toad” (lol)? Yep. North America has ‘em. Ever heard an owl howl? They hoot, right?

Of course, “howl” just sounds better, and also rhymes with “owl”. And “horny toad” would fail to deliver, unless you sung it like this: “horny-ah toad”. 

This is often the way of songs; I’ve sung along to favourites and not had a clue what I was singing about. Lyrics can be similar to koans, a Zen practice employed to provoke “great doubt”. Eg. two hands clapping creates a sound; what is the sound of one hand clapping? It’s meant to pluck you from slumber, accept the limited strength of reasoning by reflecting on an impossibility and point you in the direction of enlightenment.

While tending to gardens on either side of the “yellow brick road” that leads to my hot tub the other day, I belted out as many lyrics as I could recall – loud, proud and off-key. No neighbours around. Who cares? This song probably came to me because I was standing on a greyish stone walkway, I’d ditched my podcast-delivering headphones and was existing, in the moment, with nature.

I’ll admit, I’ve been addicted to podcasts since discovering them, but lately they’ve been failing to satisfy. Why? Sometimes, most times, events that I label “bad” – war, insurrection, climate change, inequality, gun (or any other type of) violence, the economy – feel so devastatingly overflowing with injustice and void of hope and solutions that I end up feeling too sad. Dang! Just remembered the pandemic is still kicking around with a new variant. Oh, and then there’s politics, which we can’t discuss because it gets more divisive by the day. I often turn to Trevor Noah and The Daily Show “Ears Edition” for a good laugh on the latest issues, but he must be on vaycay because there’s been no new episodes lately.

Working with a song in your head, or on your lips, or flowing through your lungs, well, it’s just so damn satisfying! I, too, can be like that robin that sang from the high peak of the roof the whole time I was in the hot tub: “tra-la-la-la, lah, la-la-la-la-laaah”. Does it even matter what is sung? What collection of words? Sometimes you just wanna shout: “Boom-chacka-lacka!” For no good reason. Don’t you?

So I puttered and mused. On the point of the yellow brick road. Is there a “beyond”, like in the song, and am I there? Or is it just a tempting, gleaming thing leading you right back to where you started, like in Oz? Flowing, but circular, like Earth, the sun, the moon, our heads (I figure that’s why we get stuck in loops from time to time), life. I mean, there I was, rapidly approaching 64 (there’s some meaningful lyrics: “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64” The Beatles), yet at the recollection of a beloved old song? Instantly a teenager again! 

It’s pretty elusive, isn’t it, hunting a thing that doesn’t exist, like the “horny back toad”? And who-who-who is doing the hunting? Bernie, Elton, or the “howling old owl”? Does it even matter? What matters? Who-who-who cares?

This did lead my brain back to a recent podcast I’d listened to, a most satisfying one,  Ideas by the CBC, “A Good Enough Life”. The argument is that we revere – and reward – greatness in a way that can be stifling for the majority of us who excel at mediocrity. Let’s face it, we all can’t be Elton, belting out in that falsetto – “Ro-oh-ohd, ah-ah-ah-ah-ah, ah-ah-ah, ahhh” – whilst fingers dance effortlessly and elegantly on ebony and ivory.

Acknowledging that world news will always be out there, the bulk of it depressing, we can just pull back, look around, find ways to contribute to our communities in meaningful ways. Host Nahlah Ayed shared a touching one about a community store in Toronto that became a vital hub during the pandemic.

No one knows what to do about the quandary of capitalism. It creates such disparity, but what is the solution? A controversial guy like Elon Musk becomes the richest man in the world (Tell me, who-who-who needs a billion dollars? Isn’t a few million enough to live on?) and yet this poor woman in her 50s I was reading about the other day, who lives in Toronto and is suffering from long Covid, has applied for assisted suicide. It seems mostly because she’ll be out of money in a few months; she doesn’t have the energy to return to her previous job as a chef. While she’s suffering, physically and mentally, she’s not completely opposed to continuing to live.

I belted out yet again, in my sub-par way: “So goodbye yellow brick road, where the dogs of society howl!” Elton’s fine voice, image, grace danced in my head as I pulled and clipped more Boston ivy, brushing dirt from my brow with the back of my wrist. I don’t begrudge him the fame, the money. Talent like that must be shared, yes? His AIDs charity does good work, yes? As I worked away, grateful for the shade, I recalled seeing him live about eight years ago, performing the album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road in its entirety. A mystical fog accompanied the opening notes of “Funeral for a Friend”. I drank in every precious moment of that 11-minute gem and was so impressed by his humble acceptance of the crowd’s response after.

Songs, old or new, can’t fix what I label “bad” out there, but they sure do alleviate the pressure, the pain. I guess that’s where the blues came from, huh? I’m gonna keep belting them out (you might not want to be within earshot) and I’m sure everything will make complete sense –  or absolutely none whatsoever! – down the (yellow brick) road. 

Yellow Brick Road 2022-07-14T14:58:38-04:00

Big Red Tomato

I see him there at the end of the bar. I think it’s him. Let’s call him Matt. He looks older, bigger. His goatee and what’s left of his hair? Greyer. He’s chatting away with two much younger women. Why? Does he think he has a chance with them? I mean, come on! And where is his wife?

I realize I know one of the women. I’ve seen her working behind the bar; she must be off tonight. It’s a Friday and my husband B and I are wolfing down fish and chips in an attempt to soak up beers and ciders just consumed on the patio next door while listening to live music.

On further eavesdropping, it seems the women might be a couple, so perhaps he’s just a friend, acquaintance? It’s a beach town after all; people chat at bars.

How well do I know Matt myself? And is it really him? It sure sounds like him. It’s really throwing me off that his wife isn’t with him.

I have to rewind my internal PVR several decades to recall our first brief meeting. He was my late husband’s first bank manager. Ah, a trustworthy type you’d figure, right? This was when we were just 18, not even married. Hugh was excited – and a tad nervous – to arrange his very first loan for a coveted 1976 Ford Econoline cargo van, three-in-the-tree. For those who don’t know, that means three gears shifted by a handle on the steering wheel. Fire engine red, it came to be known as the Big Red Tomato.

“I’ll probably have this loan the rest of my life,” Hugh joked after signing the papers in Matt’s office. “I’ll always need a vehicle. It’ll just get rolled into the next one.” As a bank manager’s daughter, raised allergic to debt, I was probably more nervous watching Hugh sign the papers. And as Hugh was a dollar-down-and-a-dollar-a-day-for-the-rest-of-my-life kinda guy? He was pretty much spot on about the longevity of that loan.

But Hugh trusted Matt. So years later, long after the Big Red Tomato had chugged its last kilometre (or mile) and when Hugh was making good coin selling roof trusses for the family business and needed to maximize his RRSP (the Canadian equivalent of a 401k) for tax purposes? Matt, still at that small town bank, became our investment guy.

When Matt left the bank for an investment company and the name of the investment – in mortgages, supposedly – sounded almost the same as the investment we were already in? We went with him, of course. A few years went by, the investments were doing well, but we had a financially demanding young family and house. A request was made to pull out $5k. A couple of weeks went by, phone messages went unanswered. One day, Hugh was on the road selling and heard on the radio that the CEO of said investment company had committed suicide. Well, that was shocking news! And a very ominous sign.

I recall a bloated moon shining through our bedroom window as sleep eluded me that night. I crafted a poem: “Full moon over London comfort me . . .”

It turned out the investments into mortgages had not been made. Perhaps funds were used to bolster office space and furnishings, in a fine upscale building downtown, with blue glass? Perhaps funds were used to bolster management salaries and bonuses?

Hugh went to a legal meeting to discuss a class action lawsuit. When he came home, he said, “Rita, we will recover from this. I know it was $22k, but we’re young, we’ll earn it back. There were people at that meeting, older people . . . they lost hundreds of thousands. This was their retirement.” That was really hard to reconcile. 

Hugh was right. We were fine. We built the RRSP money back up – and then some – over the years, while the class action lawsuit turtled along in the background, eventually surprising us with a cheque of about 25 cents on the dollar. We started our own successful truss plant in 1998 and built a cottage in Grand Bend in 2000.

And we’d be out, at night, having drinks, listening to live music, in the various bars in town, just as B and I were doing now. In would walk Matt – usually wearing a natty hat – and his wife. Hugh would stop mid-conversation to stare daggers at him until he left. After this had happened several times, I said to Hugh, “That has to stop. We’re doing good, right? We have a successful business. A cottage. It’s bad karma. We have to let it go.”

The next time Matt and his wife walked into a bar? I looked over and there was Hugh, buying them drinks, cheers-ing them. “That’s not quite what I meant,” I said into his ear when he got back to the group.

But that was Hugh. And he’s been gone so many years. B and I, together for several years now, have also run into Matt and his wife many times, once even sitting at the same table at an outdoor patio. For me, it was just a look and a nod. We never really talked.

The women are leaving and Matt is paying the bill. “Matt?” I say. “It’s me. Rita.”

“Oh, hi,” he says.

We get into a conversation and he shares that his wife was very sick, with cancer, died in the fall of 2020.

“Glioblastoma,” he says, “like what Gord Downie (of the Tragically Hip) had.”

“Oh sadly, that’s what my Wish child had,” I say. I’m surprised that Matt knows I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro for Make-A-Wish Foundation, in honour of Hugh. He was paying attention.

We chat for a while longer. He tells us about his three daughters. One committed suicide. He bought farms for the other two. Doesn’t really have a lot of money for himself, but he’s fine, he says. Choices. Wow, they linger.

He’s lived and lost. Money. More importantly people. Me too.

We rise to leave. I instinctively give him a big heartfelt hug. “I’m so sorry you lost your wife,” I say.

“Well, you know what it’s like,” he says.

Yes. I do.

Website photo: The Big Red Tomato hanging with a couple of friends.

Big Red Tomato 2022-06-14T15:31:14-04:00

Out of Line

They lie
When we ask, “Why
     do hundreds lie
     silent, while the detached angry arms that shredded them remain?”

They reply, condescendingly,
“You are out of line!
     Sir, Ma’am
          Out
               Of
                    Line!”

“Out of time!” we shout
“How many more must lie?
     Die?
          For a right?
               A far far right
Left long ago?”

Thoughts swirl, like varying cloud types in a chaotic sky
Praying-hands emojis point pointlessly heavenward

Flags fly: half-mast, false
Why not red?

“Arms are for hugging!” the children cry

The hearing? Impaired
The deaf? Self-proclaimed twisted victims in an expensive macabre game
                                                                                                                         They lie

Website Photo: NYT cover, Memorial Day weekend, listing mass shootings, weapon(s) purchased legally.

Out of Line 2022-05-31T12:54:05-04:00