The Kindness of Strangers

 

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Eight and a half years ago my mother died in a rehab facility in Toronto. She was recovering from a broken hip and as with many in her predicament had passed away shortly after, perhaps because of a weak heart, or the shock to her ninety-one year old body.

I had come into Toronto to spend the day with her, sharing photos of my dog with her, laughing, watching old movies, telling her she looked like Doris Day, her insisting I see Billy Elliot since I was in Toronto. That levity collapsed after her first physio session, as I rubbed her leg to give some comfort to the intense pain. But death was definitely not on our minds. That night, the night she died, I was staying at a nearby friend’s house.

I remember the early morning phone call, and running to the rehab, passing laughing kids on their way to school, dodging street cars and traffic, choking back tears with a sense of nightmarish disbelief. My legs numb.

I arrived gasping, and out of breath as I entered her room, where, behind a curtain and still in bed, her quiet body lay as if asleep. I had a sense of peace and light and incredible calm. The head nurse told me that I could spend some time with her, until they had to move her.

Over those next few hours, I sat, head bowed, most of the time crying and sometimes just quietly sitting, empty, sad and tired. Nurses looked in on me, and a couple who had attended on my mother over the previous days asked if they could come into the curtained off area to spend time with me, where they stood at the end of the bed with their heads down, hands clasped, occasionally with a kind comment, “your mother was a classy lady,” said one, which I thought was very observant and right on. We smiled at that. Their company was kind, nonintrusive and much appreciated. They may have suffered their own losses, I thought, obviously being far away from their land of birth.

When my mother’s body was moved to the facility morgue to await transport back to Ottawa, I sat with my brother-in-law for many more hours.

In the late afternoon I finally left for my train back home, assured that she would be moved.

Union station was a sea of rush-hour commuters and I was with the flow in one moment and against it the next. I was confused, light headed and relieved that I would soon be with my own family.

When I got to my seat, the last vacant one in the car, I was sitting, elbows to ribs, beside, across from, and facing businessmen. My eyes were raw, I was soaked with sweat, from the rush to get to the right train.

It was then I felt the panic; I could not endure two hours of trying not to cry while stone faced suits looked on. I rose, climbed across my seatmate’s lap and brief case and found a porter. She told me to talk to the head porter on the platform, which I did. “My mother just died,” I said. I remember my heart pounding and lack of breath. “I can’t sit there. It’s too crowded. I’ll pay extra for first class (not sure how). I can’t sit there.”

The woman took my hand and guided me to the first-class car where many seats were vacant, the lighting dim, and a quiet cool calm prevailed unlike the crowded car I had come from. She showed me to a seat by the window with only a few seated nearby and told me to eat and drink and not to worry about it. But the most I could do during that ride, was look out the window and cry and sniff as quietly as possible.

When we got to my stop, the same porter was on the platform helping people find their car. I approached her, her arms opened and I received a huge generous hard hug. She told me to take care of myself. We might have said more but people were waiting, the train was about to leave. She had saved my short life on that train ride.

I have told this story about the kind porter to my friends many times.

On my most recent train trip into Toronto for dinner with my brother and sister, when I got my train home I thought I recognized that same porter, moving along the aisle from car to car. As fate or luck would have it my seat was the second row from the end of the car, and as we picked up speed and headed east, I saw she was seated behind me, going through her paperwork. It was her.

I could have distracted myself with futile social media check-ins and email follow-ups, but I decided to say something. I spoke through the crack between the seats. “Excuse me, did you work for VIA eight years ago?”

“I’ve worked for them for twenty five years.”

“Eight years ago my mother died and you were so kind to me, you found me a seat in first class and I’ll never forget that. I have told so many people how much it meant to me.”

From where I sat I can say that it seemed she melted. Her eyes widened and then softened. She said it is always nice to hear that you have made some difference. She thanked me again. She told me her father had died since then and then asked me if I was okay. It’s strange how the unimaginable becomes something that is such a part of us. Both of us, now, seemed to share an understanding.

I was so glad I hadn’t let that moment slip by. It had been my turn to return a kindness, however small. When I stepped down from the train, we hugged again. I felt like I had completed a circle or opened a door, one or the other.

Orange and Purple

Initially we came across this lovely Monarch with his wings open and I was caught for a moment at the brilliance of orange against a purple backdrop. We had startled each other so he didn’t hang around for a photo, but once we had both collected our wits, he returned again to land where I had first seen him.

There is always that desire to have the perfect photo however much it takes us away from experiencing the magic of the moment. At times I resolve to commit the natural wonders I come across to memory. I commit to soaking up the visual, recording the audio with my ears and my spirit.

Last night the sound was silence as I sat in the cool autumn evening. In fact the silence was striking. I tried to bring some portable music onto the scene but weak connections and too much fuss, got in the way of the simplicity of the moment. I eventually surrendered.

I write this now sitting in a cafe, where a man many feet away can be heard. He has one of those voices which would be gold in the theatre, vibrating at a resounding and low frequency, but the heavy laborious droning and monotonous lack of inflection is killing me. I have plugged my earbuds into my head — I bought them for the gym, but they seem to fall out at the most intense moments of muscle contraction and they prevent me from the light hearted banter with my other gym colleagues. They are much appreciated right now at this moment, almost blocking the basso profundity of the cafe guy.

If I can imprint the intense orange of the Monarch and let the silence of last evening permeate my spirit in those moments, I can access that memory when I most need to, in a place where colours may be few or sounds may pollute my peace. I will have to put down the camera sometimes, tuck away the sound systems and remind myself of what it means to be in the moment.

Toasting the Micro

IMG-2683I was sitting out enjoying a glass of wine this evening, pre-dinner, all of the busy-ness of the day behind me. Some writing done, the poodle pooped from a game of fetch in the lake, the makings of dinner–roasting garlic and cauliflower for a yummy soup–in the oven. Time to relax.

I try not to let the untended garden bother me too much as I attempt to marvel at what is making an appearance, some small roses, persevering year after year, phlox from God knows when or who. I do some emergency watering but the weeding has gone by the wayside. We live in semi-arid savanna and I know this yet I am forever optimistic that something will grow and flourish, other than scotch thistle which is, even now, wilting. I think cactus may be my next modus operandi. In fact there are the remnants of a cactus farm just south of here.

What struck me though, in all of this glorious growth was the activity. There were bees all over the late season raspberry bush, and a beautiful emerald dragonfly came to rest on my ankle for a moment. There was a spider, you can see in the picture if you squint who was busy building a web as if he were playing a giant base fiddle, up and down the strings. The were other things too, flying and crawling.

I was in Toronto earlier this week to have dinner with my brother and sister and regardless of constant traffic, buildings seeming to go up in an instant, and the constant streams of pedestrians everywhere, the level of activity was nothing compared to what was happening right before my eyes. This country living is a hive of activity. I noticed it when we first moved here. Everyone or everything or every being is quite occupied. There is a family of birds–no idea what–living above one of the screen doors (which we are not using until they spread their wings), an ermine or two under the deck, and the usual bunnies (stepped on a nest of them in the raised bed where the berries weren’t doing so well, so hey, why not grow a bunch of bunnies instead) chipmunks and squirrels.

But it is this microscopic life that hums along as well, supporting things and systems of which I have no idea, pollinating berries I suppose, and performing the most fundamental tasks to keep things working on a macro level so that I can drink my wine and roast my cauliflower and garlic.

The Gardening Weekend

Last week I committed to an at home writing retreat, in which I promised myself no gardening and no baking. Well I got a great bit of writing done, not vast amounts but good insights into a large project I have been working on. I did break my promise to myself and picked rhubarb (gardening) and made a rhubarb pie (baking).

This weekend the sun has been blazing and we are promised a ton of rain on Monday, and have been getting loads of rain and cool weather over the past month. This hasn’t been great for the farmers or my own little amount of edible crops but it has kept the flowers in sort of a slow development. The lilacs have lasted longer it seems, and I now think that many of my flowers are going to all bloom at once, peonies with poppies etc.

I’m not sure what gardening does to the soul. I could say something poetic and philosophical. Come to think of it, it is a bit like writing. Today I did a first draft on part of the property, “editing” unwanted stuff growing beneath other stuff and crowding out things I had planted. I am content to leave things as they are for the moment, and go back for the next edit or draft to bring things closer in line with my vision. The whole place is looking a little ratty right now, like a first draft, rough edges, piles of discarded flotsam and flora and freshly planted annuals wondering where the hell to look and how the heck did they land in my garden.

I have a feeling that after the rain tomorrow things will look and feel a little more fitting, a little more as if they belonged.

Anyway what I love about this ain’t philosophical: Right now my shins and arms are torn to shreds — the dog won’t stop licking my wounds — from thorns and wild raspberries, and before I had a shower I was positively filthy, leaves and cedar things clinging to my hair, my feet black, even in my gardening shoes — fingernails and toenails caked with soil, my back was covered in sweat to which more wood like things and debris had adhered.

So this brings us to the absolute joy which is the pleasure and luxury of running a cool shower and scrubbing it all away the best of both worlds, the woodland wild faun, as I fancy myself, and the shaved guy who has to go out into the world on a rainy Monday morning, dreaming of his weekend wrestling with Junipers, Hawthornes, the shears, the lawn mower, gas, extensions cords and a bit of sunburn.

The Gift in a Moment

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Well an afternoon like the one you see in the picture is a little bit like unwrapping a really fabulous present. We have warnings of harsh weather yet to come, somewhere way over there beyond that western horizon, beneath the setting sun, but the warm and brilliance are like a mini vacation, the kind where you don’t dream of being anywhere else.

Somewhere below the surface of the snow there is network of life, voles, moles, mice and rabbits. Well, the rabbits are under the deck and the mice are somewhere in our ceiling. I found a field mouse frozen in one of my plastic garden storage containers that I’d left outside. The evidence surrounding him suggested he was cold and trying to build a shelter before freezing to death. He had gathered a large leaf from the Korean ninebark and then a bit of dried brown grass, but the task was too overwhelming and when I found him he had his little paws clutched to his chest. The sight of something so small and vulnerable can break your heart in a second.

There is so little difference in what the bunnies under the bird feeder or the birds at the bird feeder for that matter, or the mice want from what it is we all want — basic food and shelter, sustenance, and from what I can tell, company.  For some strange reason we have parked ourselves at the top of the “foodchain,” and have never looked back. It is not easy, at all, to watch the circle of life, as a participant, but participate we must with our fauna-colleagues. To stay safely and dispassionately on the sidelines might work for a while, but at some point you may surprise yourself by recognizing the sad shape of defeat against a harsh winter, the content demeanor of a well-fed stomach, or the exuberance and surprise expressed by a leaping deer, or the gait of happy dogs on a warm spring day.

To Do with Time

I had meant to take a picture of this tree just last week when it was fully ablaze with autumn colour. I planted it about five years ago, only ever expecting that it might live one season to the next, but it is growing to an admirable height for a dwarf tree, and it is truly eye catching with its intense orange surrounded by browns and greens and dark purples.

I could describe it and it might be just as well, it would force me to use words instead of pictures. When I drove through a little collection of homes this weekend, smaller than even a village, one of the properties was coated in bright yellow as if someone had sprayed-painted the whole place; the trees were still covered and now the grass and even parts of the old brick house were plastered with yellow leaves. It was magnificent.

A new friend who I had meant to see and spend time with, enjoying talking about gardening and weather and various other topics we have in common, now lies, ill and, from what I understand, barely able to converse. I thought of her the moment I saw my lingering leaves.

Her husband, another new friend, had passed away in the spring, and I had told my self to give his wife some time and space before seeing her. Likely the last thing a bereaved person wants is time and space. “I had meant to,” amounts to nothing when we don’t get a second chance.

For now I have wonderful memories of the time I shared with both of them. Her husband planting ideas in my head about how I should plan for my future, and her, sharing her plantings, her extremely dry and too clever wit, her honesty, and all the things that there never seem to be enough of in my life.

Looking back, I have a collection of might-have-beens, that remind me that I was once loved by those whose passing was far to soon. And for my part I was busy moving from city to city, never settled enough to spend time. Even now, I am finally taking the time to say enough is enough. It is time to stop, savour, take the picture and yes, smell the damn flowers, touch their papery petals, be grazed by their thorns infused by their colour and light.

And If I could take that particular garden of their love with me from day to day, I know there would never be a reason to feel sad, alone or lonely.

Dad’s Eulogy

Read at his celebration of life: Saturday September 29th, 2018

I want to start by acknowledging and thanking my sisters Martha and Georgie for taking such good care of Dad for the past year. It’s easy to say thank you but much harder to appreciate the day to day routine of simply making sure that another person is comfortable, engaged and happy, whether you are in the same room with them, or away on an appointment. That has to be something that has occupied a major part of their mental and emotional life for the past year if not longer. I will never be able to thank you enough, or know the wonderful moments shared at Crown Point and in Toronto that made it a pleasure and that much more painful recently.

Most of us remember Dad’s friend Benny Proulx and the last place he lived, by Billings Bridge, before he passed away. He referred to it as God’s waiting room. Well Dad’s space at Martha’s was really a corner of heaven, with his books, music and a fantastic view of a city where he had made so many memories with us. I felt such comfort this year knowing Dad was in such a warm place.

And also Mary Jane and Pam did a wonderful job of indulging my dad before that with great social activity here in Ottawa –– hockey games, movies, Mad Men evenings and dinners with a ton of laughs and stories, and as Dad would say a lot of lies.

I know all of us are hurting right now, and many feel like we are more part of a bad dream than a sad reality.

But the good news is the wonderful tapestry of love that has become the backdrop to our lives as you look around the room. I am blessed with amazing nieces and nephews all because of Dad.

Dad was unconventional. I think we can agree on that. One of my earlier memories of Dad is on a car trip to the cottage, and a field we would pass regularly in the evening after seeing a drive-in movie. In the field were tall antennae, each with a red light on the top. We’d ask why the lights were there. To which he would reply so the planes don’t fly into the poles. But why are the poles there, Charlie or Georgie would ask, and he’d reply, to keep the lights on top. This conversation would go around in circles for many trips.

And more recently when words became superfluous he could tell you everything with a wink or a frown.

I will never float in another body of tropical water without thinking of Dad and our first trip to Barbados and how happy he was, surrounded by his kids as we got tossed around in the surf at Sand Acres. I remember us returning to Canada from one such trip, laden with way too many clinking bottles (Charlie literally had a suitcase of rum) and wearing all kinds of stuff that we’d bought, and the customs officer asked Dad if there was anything the family would like to declare. Dad was bright red from 5 hours of the drink trolley and looked at the customs agent stone face and said, “No.” To which the agent replied “you mean your whole family spent two weeks in Barbados and you didn’t buy anything?” “No,” Dad said. The customs officer rolled his eyes and let us all through. There were other trips too, like twenty-one times to Expo ‘67, a drive out to Prince Edward Island, a drive to Florida where Dad smoked an entire humongous dollar-store cigar I’d given him, on New Years Eve, and then frequent drives to Canton New York for Sunday lunch after church! Why not it’s just over there.

You can’t mention Dad without mentioning his love for music: We all have different memories of the music Dad brought to our lives, I remember Mendelssohn’s violin concerto and Bruch’s Scottish fantasy that lulled me to sleep in the basement.

Decades later when Dad and I went to the NAC, one of many times there, we listened to Barber’s Adagio for strings –– if you don’t know it listen to it, you’ll recognize it. I watched Dad, with his eyes closed, and knew even then, that it was a special moment and that I would treasure long after Dad was gone.

And Dad has probably witnessed more bad and good theatre than anyone in the English speaking world. He sat through numerous school concerts, ballet recitals, hockey games and ice shows. Dad was there with Mom and he would give out his characteristic single cough just as the curtain rose or the puck dropped, to let you know exactly where he was sitting.

And no, he never taught me how to throw a ball or throw a punch for that matter. Dad wasn’t exactly adept or coordinated, when it came to using tools. In fact as a toddler from watching dad smash his hand more than once, I thought a hammer was called a Jesus Christ. But he tirelessly drove me and Martha to swimming practice, Georgie to Ballet, Charlie to hockey, and on occasion he’d remember to pick us up. Not a word of complaint at 5:30 on minus 30 degree mornings. We’d all ski with him at Mont Ste. Marie on Sundays, and sail with him on the Ottawa River.

I have a couple of airplane stories. Many kids have memories of plane-watching with their dads. I never did this. Instead Dad took me to Toronto at a very young age in an Air Canada Viscount. Kids would have eaten at Fran’s, but I ate at the Bombay Bicycle Club, with grown ups and other lawyers. Not bad for a ten year old.

For my seventeenth birthday Dad had one of his friends take us up in a small piper Cherokee, we flew over the Gatineau and up towards the Laurentians. Dad sat in the back and watched while I shared the controls with his friend.

Now, we all know Dad could be forgetful or had trouble with less important details. A couple of years after the flight over Quebec, while I was working at Binks and Chilcott, I took up flying lessons. I told Dad and asked him not to tell Mom or she’d worry. She found out anyway when the instructor had to reschedule a lesson and phoned our place. I remember finding her crying in her office, upset that I hadn’t told her. Then I told her that Dad knew. Not a good idea. Off I went for my lesson and when I returned that night she was laughing so hard she couldn’t speak. She had confronted my dad about the secret, but he had no idea that I had told him I was taking flying lessons.

I know we all have our best memories of time spent with Dad and one in my mental file is an afternoon at the cottage, a few decades ago. Dad was standing in the water and I was sitting on the dock –– one of those classic still, hot, and sunny Ottawa River afternoons, and we were drinking those great unibroue beers from Quebec and talking about simple things. I remember this because I said to dad “maybe this is as good as it gets,” which wasn’t such a bad thing, in fact it was a gift to have time stop like that and just enjoy the stillness of the afternoon with Dad.

And when we weren’t being silent Dad had great stories from his challenging childhood in Ottawa, to his attempts to enlist, to backing our rental car into a ditch as Martha, Mom, Dad and I were about to board the ferry to the Isle of Skye, or the time Gerogie called him silly old jolly old daddy running around the kitchen like an egg, or the time Charlie—I can’t tell that story in this crowd. It wasn’t as much the story as the way his face lit up when he told them.

As you’ll see in family pictures, Dad loved our dog Julie from the first time that she untied his shoelaces as a pup. He’d take her with him on his Saturday errands, to the office, and various chores. When they got home at the end of the day they both smelled like they’d been smoking cigars. He loved her dearly and devotedly. When she finally became ill after her long life, the day before she died, Dad got down on the living floor with her and wept.

Dad protected us by chasing bats around the cottage porch with a broom, and really protected us by providing a warm home, and filling in the blank spaces in the background, doing things like walking Julie after everyone had gone to bed, or sleeping in my bed when thunder storms or bad dreams forced me to wedge myself between him and mom. One winter night on the 401 heading to Toronto we were marveling at all the cars in the ditch, soon realizing we were driving on sheer ice. As the car swerved 180 degrees side to side and we stared up into the face of a transport truck driver, dad put his hand on my arm. “We’re okay,” he said. And I knew we were.

I remember rendezvousing with him at the train station in Bordeaux and there we were on the upper mezzanine, and he pointed out mom on the main floor sitting with their bags, she looked up and waved and Dad and I waved and then we looked at each other and smiled. Didn’t need to say a word.

I know we all wish it could go on forever, and Dad would get up and down that hill to the Ottawa river and have one more swim before dinner with Martha’s gang, one more trip out to Vancouver to see Charlie and the west coast gang, maybe we’d all circumnavigate north America in a camper, one more nuit blanches with Georgie’s bunch, one more trip down south to bob in the surf with all of us, one more dinner and show at the NAC with Mary Jane. I hoped someday to take him on a scotch tasting trip across Scotland. It was Dad who said “life goes on,” and I know that his life will go on. I will learn more about him from Martha, Charlie, Georgie and you, and it will fill out the picture, make it that much clearer, sweeter and easier. His gift to us was his nature, that is what he taught us, just a gentle nature that set an example of how one should live one’s life, what should and shouldn’t be taken seriously, how to treat people, and how precious a gift life is, and how good a story remembered can be.