Like many artists, I paint to put some order into a chaotic world. To reach into the turmoil and bring my hand back torn and bloody, dripping with the entrails of the human experience. I paint to climb a little higher on the shoulders of those who went before me, the colorful giants whose voices are silenced by death. The greater balance of time and love that teeters beneath us, swaying under every thought, every voice. "Don't play small," they would say if their lips could speak. "Don't waste time," they would say. I paint to honor the quiet whispers from below, the timeless urgings that rumble beneath the surface of my own skin.
One beautiful autumn day, with the golden sun shining through red leaves that waved their way across the sky, I found my husband dead. He was sitting in his favorite recliner: his skin was cold and pale. He passed with such peacefulness, that when death came to take him away, he didn’t have time to uncross his legs.
I won’t go into the tumultuous nature of our relationship, the anger, the bitterness, the resentment. These things were present on both sides during our life together. These are the things I remember because when his life passed, I spent much of my time holding onto the heavy weight of my own regret. What if I could have one more conversation with him? What if I didn’t argue with him the night before? What if we had allowed ourselves the ability to start again, each in our own way in our own lives? I nearly drove myself crazy with the “what ifs.”
For a long time after he died, I felt like I was standing in a shallow pit with the cool ground under my heels inviting me to sit down, to lie down, to sleep. I stayed there in bewilderment as if I had been coerced into that emptiness but I had entered voluntarily. And I knew there was a chance I’d never leave it.
“Stay here,” the darkness beckoned. “It’s safe here.” But I didn’t want to believe the gentle prod of those words.
I tried digging my way out only to discover I was making my prison deeper and deeper until finally, the thin rays of the sun could no longer reach me and I was afraid I would forget the loving embrace of its warmth.
I could have stayed there in that familiar shade. It takes courage to climb out of self-imposed confinement. Many of us, so, so many of us would rather stay imprisoned than travel to the foreign shores of freedom. But everywhere I went, that dark chasm followed me and I didn’t know what to do.
“Sit in silence.” A voice said to me. It was a quiet voice. Quieter than the bitterness of my thoughts and I almost didn’t hear it. And it only spoke once.
I didn’t listen at first. How could I be forgiven for all I had done? But one difficult day, with my soul still sitting in that dark pit, I decided to follow that advice.
“Sit in silence.”
I drove to a park near my house and found a place to sit in my car with the window cracked so I could smell the fresh air.
“Sit in silence.”
I crossed my hands over my heart and breathed. I had never meditated before and I didn’t really know how so I just sat in stillness like the voice said and closed my eyes. Every time a thought came into my head, I imagined a great hand brushing that thought away. I brushed many thoughts away until my mind was as clear and still as a mountain lake and I felt a little better.
And then I went home.
I did this every day for a number of months until I found myself pulling back the claws that held onto my husband’s ghost. I meditated in a place where I could watch the small birds line up on a branch and fluff out their feathers during a snowstorm. I meditated as the rains fell and the geese came back from southern shores. I meditated as the ducklings waddled behind their mother and the squirrels stole sunflower seeds from the bird feeder, filling their cheeks. I meditated without knowing if I was doing it correctly. But I kept going because, during my meditation I found peace from my self-condemnation.
I found my way out of that pit with silence, allowing the emotion to course its way through me, weeping into the quiet corners of my mind until it became a trickle because the only way to get to the other side of an emotion is through it. And through it, I was finally able to leave my husband in that shallow grave so I could escape my prison.
Once I stepped out of the darkness, I stepped out as a different person than I was when I stepped in. Once I shed the shame that kept me from facing the glow of the sky, I saw that the sun was the same, the clouds were the same, the earth was the same, but I was different; I had awakened.
One day, at that same park with the same birds and squirrels, I sat in my car and closed my eyes. I asked my husband to give me a sign that he was near, that he was happy, that he’d forgiven me. I sat in my truck with the window cracked about an inch. I sat there with the palms of my hands facing up and quieted my mind. I heard birds singing and the wind in the trees. Children were playing at a nearby playground.
Something landed in my upturned palm. I jumped a little when I felt it. I thought a large insect had made its way into the car and landed on my hand. But when I looked, it was a seed pod.
Since there were no trees near the vehicle, it took me some time to see where it came from. It had blown from a tree that was across the street and down the road. And somehow, the wind had taken one small pod and flown it directly into my hand. I held it up and saw the tiniest, paper-thin capsule. At the center was a darkened area, just the size of a raindrop holding all the information it needed to make an entire tree.
There in my hand, I held infinity, the limitless energy that never stops in its quest to live another day.
“Sit in silence.”
Three small words that saved my life. I still have that seedpod because it reminds me that there’s always hope for tomorrow and that there’s always forgiveness.
My mother was a hoarder. I couldn’t ignore that fact anymore. And I don’t think she meant to be, but that’s what she became all the same. So when she decided she was too incapable of caring for her home, I went to help her pack up her belongings. What I found was a tsunami of her life spilling out of every corner. After pulling box after disintegrating box out of her closets, I realized it was worse than I thought. But we had to start somewhere so I brought the boxes to her so she could make her decisions.
We started by making stacks. This stack was things to keep, this one was things to give away, this one was things to throw away. But the number of piles grew larger and larger. This pile was for the senior’s center in Morinville. This pile was for her friend Cheryl who sews. This pile was for the art society. She knew all kinds of people who might use fabric or bees wax or magazines or dried flowers or puzzles. I don’t know how many lists I was given with instructions where to drop them off. I finally gave up and started hauling everything to the dump. Only she thinks I delivered them faithfully.
Then there were the more personal items, mainly photos of each of us kids over the years. School photos where we smiled artificial smiles into cameras with other students. I was never so uncomfortable as on picture day. My clothes were not as pretty as all the other girls clothes. I didn’t like the way I looked while the others proudly combed their hair and smiled through their braces, simulated curls bouncing around their heads.
Mum made stacks and stacks of photos. Photos that I didn’t even know had been taken. Pictures of me with my chipped front tooth. Pictures of me with an uneven haircut. Pictures of me taken with my eyes half closed. Pictures of me taken while I was competitive swimming, almost like she was proud of me. These were all from a time when we had to load film into a camera and take the film in for developing, waiting a week or more for the finished product. Then we threw half of them away because they were out of focus or had a thumb covering part of the lens or caught a funny expression. It’s not like today when we can do 25 selfies in a row and discard the ones that are not flattering into the nothing that is the digital garbage. The pool of emptiness where all energy goes to die.
Mum made stacks for me and my brother and my sister. Our own personal photo history. Each of us possessing a unique brand of awkwardness. School photos, class photos, baby photos, photo albums started but never finished. Photos in cheap plastic frames.
I picked up one of my school photos from grade 5. There was the much younger me, off to the side with my burnt orange sateen shirt, bowl haircut freshly washed, smiling as I was told to, standing as though I were uncomfortable in my own body. They always put me on the left side of the class. I don’t know why. There, in the middle, was the boy who shared my first name. He was in every one of my classes from kindergarten to grade 9. It led to me being called Dale-Ann for the first ten years of my life.
“Look Mum. There’s Jeff Gruber.” I pointed him out. She adjusted her glasses and leaned into the light, squinted.
“Which one is he?”
“He was the one who always won the intramurals for soccer. And there’s Karla Kovak and Sandra Lopez and Dean Popescu.” I pointed to each one in turn.
“How can you remember them all?” My mother asked. I felt a tiny boost of esteem that I had impressed her with my recall.
“I guess because I was in the same class with them for so many years.”
I looked at my face in the photo and thought the girl smiling back looked happy, well adjusted. I would never have thought she was awkward, shy, self-loathing. She looked like a nice kid. But because I had spent so much time inside of her, I knew differently.
I remember those school days. We were poor so we had to wait for the first day of school to buy supplies. My mother took the list of school supplies to the welfare office where they gave her a check to cover the cost. She purchased the cheapest items to be stretched over four kids. So I sat there with nothing for the first two or three days of classes while everyone else looked over at the empty space on my desk. They wrinkled up their noses as if they were smelling something bad. What they were smelling was my poverty. I reeked of it. The rich kids came equipped with all the supplies they’d ever need right there on the first day when I had nothing. Binders with zippers and pockets and dividers, reams of paper, scented pencils, felt pens, highlighters, stickers. They weren’t rich really, maybe upper middle class but they seemed to have everything that I never had. They seemed to be rich from my position in the mud.
One girl in particular, always brought an apple for the teacher on the first day so she became one of the favorites. That was Carla. Not Karla Kovak, Carla Anders. Carla must have been a popular name the year they were born because there were two more Carlas in my class making four total. Carla Anders’s house was just a ranch style home facing the school field but to me, it seemed like a rich person’s house. I’ve driven past it a number of times as an adult and I see its banality, just a square home almost exactly the same as the homes on either side of it. It wasn’t a rich home at all but the home of a middle class, hard working couple trying to give their little girl a good start in life.
Carla was in every class of mine since kindergarten but we weren’t friends. I remember going on a skiing trip with the class in grade six and she had a perfectly fitted, matching ski outfit in two shades of pink. How could I have been her friend with my large brown snow pants and grubby, blue/green jacket with faux fur around the hood that was shedding. I mean how does faux fur shed anyway? I saw her lavish clothing and looked down at my own, the rip that had started on the right knee, threads of polyester floating around like spider silk. I saw my clothing and realized how far beneath her I was. How money means everything to the people who don’t have it.
She had all the pretty girls as friends. There was a trio of them Madeline and Carla and Stephanie and the other girls circulated around them like planets around a star. They were the center of attention and happy to receive it. They were the source of warmth and light only-they really weren’t. It’s funny how that happens, how we accept the idea that other people are better just because they think so, not because they are. Imagine being a frumpy girl named Dale around pretty girls like Madeline or Carla, girls who wore nail polish every day, sometimes with glitter. They had their ears pierced and wore jewelry with half hearts, the other half given to a sister or best friend. Madeline and Carla wore half hearts like that, each one enchanted with the other and not afraid to let the whole world know. I couldn’t compete with them in any area except one.
The only way I excelled was creatively. I was the class leader in drawing and writing in every grade. For a couple of weeks in grade five, the boys were drawing pictures of cars and putting them on the wall near the back, above where the pencil sharpener was fixed to the wall, back by the coatroom and the cubbies. The girls didn’t put any pictures there. The girls didn’t really care. But I saw the pictures and knew I could do better. The boys gathered around the pictures and talked about them, about the different types of cars and the styles of the rear wings or the hood. That’s something that started early, boys discussing things with other boys. And even though they didn’t really know what they were talking about, they sounded like they did, nodding their heads, companionably in the style of boys from the beginning of time.
I wasn’t part of the group of boys, of course, but I knew I could draw a car. So I drew one in secret one day. And as I suspected, my drawing was far superior to the others. Mine was in proper perspective and had flames down the side and an engine that sat on the front hood of the car. I went to the back of the room to sharpen my pencil and looked around. Everyone’s heads were bent over their work, no one paid attention to me. So I pinned my picture to the wall by the others and nobody saw me do it. For some reason, I signed it “Barracuda.” I’m not sure why. But it was fun to watch them talking about who had drawn the red car with the flames. “I don’t know. I thought it was you.” they spoke in low voices, not wanting to sound too impressed. But I heard them and smiled to myself. Someone, I suspect Carla, suggested that I drew it which was met with disbelief. It had to be a boy who drew the car, never a girl. But it was easy. Easy for me at least. I could always draw anything.
Only one boy was not included in the group of males. His name escapes me. Poor fellow, it probably escaped everyone. He was fat and pale, like ghostly bread dough filling his pants to overflowing. His expressions were dull, occasionally he drooled and as far as I knew, he never spoke. One day he threw a temper tantrum and started crying. Nobody could figure out why. He rocked himself under his desk while Mrs. Collins crouched down on the floor beside him trying to talk him into some form of sanity. I don’t think she had any clue what to do with him. I remember feeling supremely embarrassed about the incident. And now, after many years of living, I only feel empathy for the poor boy who had no social skills and probably wanted someone as a friend but had no one. He wasn’t very good at school work either, or art. As far as I could see, he wasn’t very good at anything. But in the classroom, you can keep your head down and be part of the crowd. In the classroom, you don’t have to feel singled out. You can lay low and say nothing and be ignored. And that was my goal in school, to not be noticed. I think invisibility was the goal of most of the students.
Gym class was the worst. We were always judged by our physical capabilities of course. Sports were difficult for me because I was easy to intimidate. But I was athletic in a way. I was an excellent swimmer. I’d been swimming so long that I couldn’t remember not being able to swim. I could dive into the pool on one side and swim underwater for the entire length and come out on the other side. But land sports were a different thing. In competitive swimming, you don’t have to face your opponent, you swim side by side. With sports, when people ran towards me, I was cowed by their confidence, avoiding the confrontation that their approach implied. But if I were given some space, I could excel. One time, during a particular soccer game, a ball came towards me. No one else was there so I kicked it high over the heads of the other players and back onto the offenders side. I heard Dean Popescu say “Whoa,” and his head followed the track of the ball as it went to the other side of the field. I felt the subtle compliment he implied.
We weren’t allowed to participate if we wore a skirt either. So this rule only applied to girls. My mother said it was ridiculous because she went to a school that had a uniform and wore a skirt every day and played all kinds of sports. She didn’t make it a priority to make sure I had pants. But sometimes I didn’t have a choice. I only had so many clothes. And if the mountain of dirty laundry in the basement was still piled high, I could only wear the clean ones. Sometimes I had to dig into the pile to find the clothes that were marginally clean. And sometimes I had to wear the skirt because it was the only thing left. Mrs. Collins made me sit at the edge of the field in my skirt to watch everyone. In retrospect, I should have worn a skirt every gym day. Then I would never have had to participate. But I didn’t think of that at the time, I wanted to be good, to have everyone like me, including Mrs. Collins.
Every sporting event started with picking teams. We all took turns being the team captain. Mrs. Collins picked two students as captains and she rotated us so everyone had a chance. The team selection always seemed to be an adult approved form of humiliation. No matter who got to be captain, the same kids always got picked first and the same kids always got picked last. Sometimes players were picked because of their popularity. The girls would pick Carla or Madeline. If I picked them first, maybe they’d let me hang on to the exterior of their world, like a pet. Or they’d pick the most athletically gifted first. A much better strategy of course. Pick the athletic kids to win an athletic game. If there were a game where we competed in the arts they would have picked me first because I would have won. But it was a game with physical prowess being the deciding factor so they picked the tall ones with broad shoulders. The quick ones who might be a little leaner. But there was a group, maybe about 8 or 10 kids who always got picked last. They had to play because everyone had to, but no one really wanted them. When we got to the last 8 kids, the captains looked them over, rolling their eyes and deciding which was the least inept. I was one of the ones picked in the middle. But some were always picked last and I felt so bad for them looking uncomfortably aware of their low place in our lives.
I wanted them, for one time, just one time, to be picked first. I was sick of the way we selected players. So sick of the whole demeaning process that made some kids feel shamed, and always the same ones. So I developed a plan. I knew I’d be captain soon. I’d be captain and I’d be in charge. I’d be the boss. And I’d do something different. I was going to pick the worst kids first. I was going to let them hear their names picked first. Just one time, I wanted them to hear their names first. I thought maybe they’d have a boost of confidence. Maybe they’d rise to the occasion and show everyone up.
So Dean Popescu and I were captains. All the other kids lined up facing our way, looking expectantly to see who we’d pick. The kids who often got picked first seemed unconcerned, knowing they’d get chosen. This was their arena. Dean Popescu picked first and he picked Jeff Gruber, the tall guy with the large lower jaw, the one with the straight back, the one I had a crush on my entire childhood. Jeff walked over to the opposite side and all eyes turned to me. Usually, this is where the captains got competitive. We’d battle for the best and the fastest. Because picking the best meant winning and nothing was as important as winning.
“Craig,” I said.
Dean Popescu looked surprised because Craig was a skinny kid with coke bottle glasses and he usually got picked last.
“Fatima,” he said and the slender hipped Lebanese girl, the fastest runner, did a slow jog over to Dean’s team.
“David,” I said, picking the pale boy with the badly repaired cleft lip.
Dean must have thought I was incredibly stupid. He seemed to realize I was going to pick the worst of the worst and he couldn’t believe his luck. Starting with the ones at the bottom, I moved my way up. He started at the top and moved his way down. We met in the middle.
So his team was made of the finest players, mine the worst. And my hope was they’d be bouyed by the novelty of being picked first and play like animals, like predators who finally found their teeth.
But that’s not what happened.
We were slaughtered. No goals at all. And a goalie with coke bottle glasses who was afraid of being hit by the ball. Offensive players who were consistently outrun. Defensive players who bent down to pick dandelions during the game. It was carnage. And I spent the entire game, disheartened because I wanted to prove to everyone that we could do better. But we didn’t. We only lived up to our reputations. I wanted them to feel wanted, to feel like somebody cared. I thought it would make them rise. But the truth is they were comfortable in their position on the lowest rung. It was the thing that was most familiar to them. They were used to their place and moving out of it distressed them until they performed even worse. I felt hopeless because when I saw they were unable to be better, I knew I could never be better myself. It made me feel like no one could ever surmount their circumstances. So I gave up trying. I accepted my place in the realm of the ignored, the ones who live on the fringes. I was just one of them and I had come to realize my place and know that I would never be anything else.
As an adult, looking back at the photo of all those innocent faces, I wondered what happened to them. I wondered if they remembered those days fondly or if they, like me, looked back, unsure how to feel. If they looked back to those days when we were small and had to find our way in a sometimes unkind world. I stood in my mother’s chaos and knew that she didn’t comprehend anything of my journey as a child. She was too preoccupied with the weight of four children who needed food and a home and clothes and doctors visits, forget about our need for love.
I look back and I wonder what has become of those faces in the photo. Some may be dead, some married, some successful, some not so. I wish I could still see what they’re up to in my quiet way, sitting back, hiding around a corner, listening to segments of conversations. I could watch them and hope they found happiness of a sort. And maybe they’re standing somewhere on the surface of our planet looking at the same photo and wondering what became of me.
I hope they’re all happy in their lives because so few are. We hold it apart from ourselves, happiness. We keep it at arms length, scared to let it graze against us. We worry about money, about faithfulness, about our weight, our prosperity, our place in the world. Worry about all these things keeps happiness distant. It shines on the horizon but rarely comes close enough to brush us with its colors. I hope they find it. I hope everyone does, Dean and Jeff and Fatima and all four Carlas. It’s never too late to open our arms and embrace it. Lets hope we all have the wisdom to do so.
I found my husband’s body on September 3rd, 2016. He was 47 years old when he died. And like anyone who has lost someone, I’ll never forget the particular circumstances surrounding the death.
There’s no nice way of saying it, but he was living in our basement so he didn’t have to be around me. Life was difficult it for me during those last years and I know I was hard to live with. He was unemployed, his memory was going, and he withdrew because he knew how rapidly I could turn from smiling to screaming.
A variety of things killed him. He was on a lot of medication, many of which I would find not taken at the end of the day. “I’m pretty sure I took them.” He’d say. But I knew how many pills he had and how many were taken and the math never added up. Other things contributed as well. His parents had both died. I crumpled him. I broke him. We shouldn’t have been together but he couldn’t take care of himself. We shouldn’t have been together but he had no where else to go. We shouldn’t have been together but I couldn’t send him away when I remembered the way he smiled at me. And I could never live with myself if he died alone.
I was walking down the stairs to the basement that last morning and I knew something was wrong. The theme song to the TV show Vikings was playing on a short loop as if it were left on the menu. And he wouldn’t have left it that way. So I knew before I opened the door that he was gone.
And then I opened it.
His pale feet stuck out from his recliner chair, the one he slept in. His head was cocked to the side, his eyes were open, and his skin was cold. I touched his wrist knowing that I wouldn’t find a pulse. Walking from one end of the room to the other, I wrung my hands and cried out loud. “Oh Dennis. Oh Dennis.” Over and over.
Even though I didn’t have the best relationship with my mother over the years, she was the first person I called, crying uncontrollably, hardly able to get the words out. She told me to call the police and wait. She told me the name of a funeral home to call the next day. She told me it would be OK.
I called work and told them I had found my husband dead and couldn’t come in for my scheduled shift. I still remember the poor girl who took that call. I tried to tell them the name of the nurse who often replaces me but I couldn’t, for some reason, remember her name even though we’d worked together for about 10 years.
After I called the police, I had to do the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I had to tell my youngest son who was playing video games innocently in his room, that his father had died.
We went down the stairs together. I was crying and he wasn’t. I ran my fingers through my husband’s hair which used to be so thick and curly. Lately, he had developed a love of yogurt and there it was, sitting on his lap, the last thing he ever ate. And I know his death was painless and quick because he was still sitting in his chair the way he always sat with his ankles crossed over each other. Death had crept over him so swiftly and silently that he didn’t have time to uncross his ankles.
My brother and sister who had considered him part of the family for 23 years, came to sit with me until the body was taken away. The police car and the ambulance sat out front of the house. The doors of the neighbors kept opening and closing. After the coroner told us the tests they wanted to run on his body, they took him away from me.
I called my son in Toronto and knew he’d have to bear the sorrow alone. Without any of the family to hold his hand or rub his back or hand him a tissue.
And for the next two days I didn’t sleep. I didn’t eat. I had the strange sensation of being small and transparent, like I was a wraith. Like I didn’t exist.
Dennis’s brother wanted a Catholic funeral which was laughable because Dennis never went to church during our marriage. I knew he wouldn’t care for a religious service. But I couldn’t imagine what type of funeral to have. Whenever I thought of funerals I pictured the church, the mourners in black, women with veils, people weeping.
“It’s too bad we couldn’t throw your Dad one more birthday party.” I told my youngest son.
“Why can’t we?” He said.
And we looked at one another and smiled. Because we could throw him a party. We could throw him one last birthday celebration. And that’s what we did.
So I sent out invitations for Dennis’s last birthday party, to be held on the day that would have been his 48th birthday. A birthday party with a rock and roll theme. His funeral would be fun and why not? We served pizza, soda, and a guitar shaped cake. The invitations were backstage passes. We made bowls out of records to hold the snacks. We asked everyone to come in their favorite rock and roll t shirt. And we made a slide show consisting of photos of his life with rock music playing in the background.
And I had to say the eulogy. I had never said one before. I’d never done any public speaking before. I wrote it and scribbled it out and wrote it again and erased and wrote in the margins. I had to have it perfect because I did really love him. Even if our love had taken a back seat to our bickering and our differences, I did love him. And I wanted people to know at the very last, the things I remembered about him throughout our marriage. The reasons I had to stay with him and the reasons I had to leave. I was so nervous about speaking. I read the eulogy out at work to the nurses. They listened and dabbed at their eyes with tissues so I knew it was right.
On the day that was his last birthday, I stood up under the strobe lights and disco balls. And I spoke out loud, looking at the crowd fearlessly because even if I failed him in life, I wasn’t going to fail him in death.
These are the words I spoke.
“I’d like to thank everyone for coming to Dennis’s 48th birthday. Dennis, as I’m sure you all know was born on December 3rd, 1969, the youngest of four children. He moved to Athabasca from Southern California when his father, Archie retired.
That’s the part of Dennis’s history that you know. But I’m going to share with you some things that you don’t know. In March of this year, Dennis had his first heart attack. I think he knew he didn’t have much time left because he started talking about making a will and funeral arrangements. Specifically, he said he didn’t want anyone to mourn his passing but to celebrate his life. I think he wanted a party. And anyone who knew Dennis knows that he would have chosen laughter over tears any day. So thank you all for coming together to celebrate this wonderful man we all knew.
Dennis was a man who knew how to live. He loved good food, good music, travel. I never saw a man more comfortable walking into a room full of strangers and almost immediately finding a best friend. He loved concerts, especially the small venues he could wander around with a beer in his hand. If any of you ever went with him, you would have seen him walk a few steps this way and then stop. Walk a few steps that way and then stop again. He did this over and over until he found the auditory sweet spot, the place where the music was the most beautiful. Because for Dennis, it was all about the music.
When I met Dennis, he was living in an apartment on Bellamy Hill with his childhood friend, Roger. It was the stereotypical bachelor’s apartment. They had every sauce imaginable in the fridge but no actual food. They had five pizza cutters but no cutlery. They had milk crates to sit on but no chairs. And of course, the bubble gum machine full of condoms.
Dennis and I met in July of 1993 and in August of 1993 we were married after an engagement of twenty four hours on Salt Spring Island. This led to the ongoing joke in our marriage “I don’t usually go this far on a first date.” We didn’t have much time to plan the wedding of course and when it came time to pick the music, we had one CD, U2-The Joshua Tree. I realized as I was saying my vows, that the music playing in the background was “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
We never wore wedding rings. With an engagement of twenty four hours, we didn’t have much time to shop for rings, so we picked them up at a second hand store for a very low price and before our first anniversary, they both broke. And we just never replaced them.
People get married for all kinds of reasons. I asked Dennis once why he married me and he said “You’re the only girl I ever knew who could sing all the words to “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” Because for Dennis, it was all about the music.
The first 8 months of our marriage, Dennis and I were separated because I was in my last year of art school in Vancouver. I spent a lot of time at the library and one day I picked up a random book of poetry and opened it to a random page and found one of the loveliest poems I’ve ever read. I sent a copy of it to Dennis and he loved it as well. He decided it was our poem. It’s called “At a Window,” by Carl Sandburg.
This is that poem:
Give me hunger
Oh you Gods that sit and give the world its orders
Give me hunger, pain and want
Shut me out with shame and failure
From your doors of gold and fame
Give me you shabbiest, weariest hunger
But leave me a little love
A voice to speak to me in the day end
A hand to touch me in the dark room
Breaking the long loneliness
In the dusk of day-shapes
Blurring the sunset
One little, wandering, western star
Thrust out from the changing shores of shadow
Let me go to the window
Watch there the day-shapes of dusk
And wait and know the coming
Of a little love
Years later, after visiting North Carolina, we inadvertently discovered Carl Sandburg’s historic home which was a nice connection.
Dennis always remembered our anniversary and I didn’t. Even the first anniversary, he called me from work apologizing because he had forgotten to say Happy Anniversary. I was a little confused, not knowing what anniversary he was talking about and, after he hung up, I realized he was talking about the anniversary of our wedding. We went into an insurance company a few years later and the agent asked us when our anniversary was. He was shocked when I couldn’t remember but Dennis could. He told us he always asks that question because he likes to watch the guy catch hell from his wife because he can’t remember. For the first time in his 17 year career, the woman couldn’t remember a wedding anniversary but the man could.
Over the years I’ve narrowed the date down to somewhere near the end of August but I still don’t remember the exact date. In August of this year, only a few days before he died, he called me at work again to wish me a happy anniversary because, once again, I had forgotten.
One thing that you might not know about Dennis is that he was an amateur midwife. Our second son Theo was born in our home with no midwife to attend the birth. And, though I like to take credit for the actual delivery, Dennis was my attendant. As soon as Theo was born, he cut the cord, and he and little Archie took the baby and climbed into the tub to wash him off. And so ended his career as a midwife.
We drove to Alberta a few times while we lived in the South. On one such trip, we stopped over in Wisconsin just in time for the Alien festival. Dennis asked a local woman what people do at an alien festival and she said “Oh, mostly drink.” And Dennis probably would have attended except there was no good music there. We continued on to Alberta the next day, a drive which took us 17 hours. And Dennis wanted to listen to Phish the entire way. I don’t think any jury would have convicted me of the murder I wanted to commit at the end of that trip. Dennis was as happy as a clam because for him, it was all about the music, but not so much for me.
This past summer, I spent some time cleaning out the boxes Dennis brought from Grampa Archie’s house. I had been meaning for some time to buy a new coffee maker but it kept slipping my mind. One day, I found a box from Grandpa Archie’s house that had a brand new, still packaged, never used coffee maker. I brought it to Dennis and demanded to know why he didn’t tell me it was there. Seeing my annoyance, he smiled and said “But Dale, I put the song Fat Bottomed Girls on your Christmas album.” And when this lighthearted joke at my expense didn’t work, he back peddled. “Um, um, um,” he said. “Um-Happy Anniversary.” And I had to admit defeat at this point because I couldn’t remember when our anniversary was.
I’m 46 years old now. And for half my life, I was married to Dennis. But how long is that really? How do we measure time? Do we measure it in days? If so, I was married to Dennis for 23 years and 57 days with 5.75 days added for leap years. I calculated I knew him for 8466 days. And that doesn’t sound like much, especially when you consider we spend 8 hours out of every day asleep.
But I think we measure our time differently. I think we measure it in moments. In those 8466 paltry days, Dennis and I lived in two countries, we lived on both sides of the continent of North America, we had two beautiful boys, we broke up, we got back together, we shared anger, compassion, joy. We lived as fully as we knew how, for every moment. So I asked myself if 8466 days is enough to make a life with someone and the answer is, of course, yes. It’s enough to learn the sometimes difficult lesson of choosing laughter over tears.
All the events in our life together can be traced backwards like a trail of stones. The bigger ones, the birth of a child, marriage, graduation, the death of a loved one, all cast shadows on the others. But the smaller ones are no less significant. Doing a crossword together, sipping a cup of coffee next to one another. Simple moments we all share with those we love.
Although we knew Dennis was a man who knew how to live, what none of us knew, is that Dennis was also a man who knew how to die. He died quickly, quietly, peacefully in his home, on his comfy easy chair, watching a movie, with a snack in his hand. Dennis died the way we all should die.
On September third of this year, Dennis had a date with eternity. He was called to attend a concert that will be held until the end of time. A concert where he will always have the best seat in the house, directly in the auditory sweet spot where the music is most beautiful.
As most people do after losing someone, I found myself in shock. As if, without my consent, I was tossed into a shallow pit. And I had to decide if I should stay in the safety of the shadows or ascend into the sun. If I were to stay, the fear was, I would have a shovel thrown down for me to dig my way out. And I’d try. I’d try only to discover I was making my prison deeper and deeper until the thin rays of the sun could no longer reach me. I would forget the loving embrace of its warmth and grow pale, like a ghost, spending the rest of my days concealed in stillness, neither hot nor cold, neither dark nor light, only silence, billowy and soft cradling my body, engulfing me in tranquility. It doesn’t help to sit at the bottom of a pit hiding from the sun. It doesn’t fix anything. It doesn’t alter the course of a life, but I did it all the same, hoping to stay the hand that moves the world along.
I clung for many days to the last remaining link to my marriage before life turned me in a different direction. The tenuous silver thread binding my body to his like a kite, tethering me to his ground.
I can make the choice to stay at the bottom of the pit without protest, to feel miserable every day, to spend the rest of my life under the blanket of joyless existence. It would be a dismal choice, dismal but easier than ascending.
Or I could rise.
But how can anyone continue from a depth of such emptiness. I realized that I can ascend because life is made of moments.
My last memory of Dennis was the morning of his death. A simple moment. A hug. A very nice hug. He kissed me and he told me he loved me. And later that day I found his breathless body.
Maybe everyone has a moment when they realize that we’re only in this life for a brief time before we blink into the next. I had my moment when I found him and under my fingers, his skin was cold, his face was blank, there was no sunshine in the hazel of his eyes. It was little consolation when I discovered that I no longer had to carry the onus of his pain and he no longer had to carry the onus of mine.
Imagine life at the bottom of that pit, when even in absolute darkness there is solace. But if someone brings a light, a small light, an affectionate light and then they leave. The darkness after they’re gone is an ocean of desolation. Dennis was my temporary light and his absence left me in despair. I didn’t know when I met him about the dry wilderness I would have to wander once he disappeared over the horizon.
I always thought the end of a life would arrive like a door slammed shut, the abrupt closing of one story before the opening of another. At once there would be life and then, in a sound as short as a clap, there would be nothing. But, though a heart may stop beating, it takes years for people to let go of the dead. Nothing ends in haste but we sigh out of this world in the longest of exhales. Once our bodies have gone over the edge, the people left behind cling to the cliffside looking for the fallen and forgetting, perhaps for years, that the living have to eat.
For as long as there have been people there have been debates over the concept of life after death. But these thoughts don’t interest me. Forget the great scales of right and wrong, of good and evil, of heaven or hell, forget it all, I only know that I want him back and I can’t have him. But the worst events in our lives, the ones that cause us the most pain can never be extinguished, they must be endured.
What could I have said to Dennis to put an end to my fury of sorrow? This affliction that harnesses me to the past? What words could I have uttered that would give me the freedom to move on without this great weight? Remembering that I’m the one who has to wake up every day, wearing my sadness, and wandering the world alone.
I would say three things to him:
took pleasure in the sound of your voice and the smell of your skin.
lived every day hoping you would smile my way.
My greatest regret in my marriage is that we clung to our bitterness when we could have severed the noose. I didn’t approach him in life so he could understand the soothing balm of my forgiveness or so I could understand his.
I’m so very happy that my last moment with him was not filled with bitterness or anger. It could just as easily have been an argument over whose turn it was to clean the kitty litter. For the record, it was his turn. But my last memory of him was sweet. And in clinging to the sweetness of that last moment, I was able to climb out of the pit.
Dennis died the way we all should die when we embark on our own final journey, the last adventure we will ever attend, our own date with eternity, when the troubles of living overcome the troubles of dying and we welcome the cold fingers of eternal sleep. But today we can ask ourselves some questions. Not about death but about life. Have we enjoyed good food, good music, travel? Have we chosen laughter over tears? I say with full confidence that Dennis would have wanted that for all of us.”
Those were the last words I spoke for my husband save these. Good bye my love. I’m sorry I couldn’t be the wife you needed.
Imagine being fast asleep and abruptly pulled out of bed by an angry woman who is crying and shouting. “I’m sick of this. I’m sick of this.”
She smacks your rear and pushes you to the ground. “Now clean it up.” She shouts through tears.
Imagine being the reason your mother hates her life.
This didn’t happen often but often enough that my brother and sisters gave the episodes a name. We called them the midnight raids. And I don’t know why they happened at night but they did. Hateful and vindictive, my mother became another person, a predator who waited until we were at our most vulnerable to strike.
Our house was squeezed into a row of homes all connected by thin walls. A village built of desperation, a small fortress of despair. She tried to make our home more appealing, pretending for a short time that we didn’t live on government money. She planted sweet peas one summer and they grew along strings she tied up the side of the house. She played gospel music and sang along in her falsetto voice. She baked bread, sewed clothes for us, cut our hair into uneven bowl shapes, and she made jokes. If I called for her, she’d shout back. “I can’t come right now, I have a bone in my leg.” Or they way she told us she was 99 years old whenever we asked. She’d poke her finger into my arm and when I protested she’d say “I’m not poking you, I’m just resting my finger.” And that time we cut open a pineapple but it smelled like wine and tasted like syrup. It made us a little tipsy but she let us eat it anyway until we were giggling clowns. We had food three times a day and presents every Christmas. Poverty in Canada is different than other countries but it’s still poverty. We still felt the sting of what others had and what we didn’t. We felt the wall between us and all that we wanted as a barrier too high to surmount.
I think most times, my mother was neutral about her life. Most times she did what she had to for our care. But rarely, maybe once every couple of months, our destitution became too much for her and she burst like a blood clot dislodged and malignant searching for a place to burrow.
As children, small and lacking in understanding, we did what we could during the midnight raids. We crawled around on the floor gathering toys, avoiding eye contact, not really sure what she wanted. Not really sure what we could do to make her happy. Just certain that we were the center of all her regrets, the very reason she gave up happiness the day we slipped into the world. Silently, we crawled around picking up broken toys and clothing to show that we were doing something but we didn’t really know what she wanted. Sorry for causing such pain but not knowing how to help. We crawled aimlessly on the floor until her door slammed shut and we heard her weeping from her room.
And the next morning, it was like nothing happened.
As adults, my siblings refuse to acknowledge the presence of the midnight raids in our childhood. Only one sister talks about them and she usually shouts the information to my elderly mother over the phone at two in the morning, swear words mixed with accusations. She makes midnight raids of her own, violations designed to attack when our mother is at her most vulnerable. I understand her desire to make my mother responsible for what she did. But three decades has passed since we suffered and how long can she wait to forgive a desperate woman who found herself lacking?
There are four of us. My older brother who never had a long term relationship with any woman. He suffers from depression and anxiety and anger issues and has to be medicated. There’s me who stayed in an unhappy marriage for 23 years even when I should have left, desperate to prove to the world that I’m loved by someone. Then my sister, sickly all her life and still is. During her illness, she had her only positive attention from our mother so she got sick-a lot. Then there’s the baby. My youngest sister who says she doesn’t remember the midnight raids although she was part of them. I can picture her crawling over the floor in silent bewilderment just like I did. But she’s also 200 pounds overweight. She turned to food, eating her unhappiness, eating her own self destruction. Part of her must be a remnant of those frightening nights where we were made to feel like the culprits for everything, the broad end of my mother’s dissatisfaction, the sharp side of her resentment.
I remember those nights even if I hated her for them at the time. How angry can I stay at a woman who is kind to my own children though she wasn’t kind to me?
She’s older now, my mother, and she smiles all the time. Age has given her happiness that she never had as a young woman. She still lives in her deluded world, the world where she’s right all the time and everyone else is wrong. Where she’s better than everyone else even if she had bastard children raised on welfare and couldn’t live with the man she loved without violence.
When I look at her now, I see a woman crippled in body as much as she was crippled in spirit. As if she became the physical equivalent of her own unfulfilled desires. And though I understand her angry moments, I vowed never to become her. But with a flourish of poetic irony, I did just that. I became my mother and I see now how it happened. I see the years of worry and hard living and being unappreciated and forgotten. I see how it happened with the arms pulling on me, the love gone awry, the husband with a bottle, the smell of vomit and the taste of time gone bad. Aspirations rotting in the sun, underbellies exposed to the ravages of time.
This is the reality of who we are. Each day slipping away from us like beads off a string and falling away into nothing. We try and hold on so we can find the truth of the truth and the why of the why. We carry baggage that should be left behind. We storm when we should float. We push away when we should embrace. And we hold onto things that hurt only ourselves. Why do we spend so much of our precious time with our arms wrapped so tightly around dissatisfaction? And why is it that children wear the skin of their parents unhappiness?
The story opens with a little girl about 9 years old running out of her house to play hide and seek. The little girl was me, of course. Of all the memories I have in my collection, I keep the cherished ones in a jewel encrusted, hand carved wooden box that sits just up and to the left of my heart. My children’s birth, my marriage, my Father’s death. All of these are contained within that small box. I only open it on special occasions to shake off layers of dust and admire again, the brightness of remembered love.
This is one of those memories.
Playing hide and seek may sound a little mundane but it wasn’t. All together, there were about 50 kids who ran around the subsidized housing complex that summer. And we all played the game. During the day we kept to our own small group of friends. But when night fell, we returned to our roots, crawling out of the primordial soup on wobbly legs, learning to walk, splitting into species, gaining the power of thought, dancing raucously around a fire, eating roast beast, painting our bodies, and running around naked under the stars. Well, maybe not that so much, but we did play hide and seek.
It was curious that we all played together at night when we didn’t during the day. After nightfall, any child was welcome to the game. The big kids, big enough to smoke cigarettes and steal from their parent’s liquor cabinet. And young kids, young enough to need someone to hold their hands when they crossed the street. A truce fell over the legions of the young on those nights. Youthful energy came together in a frenzy when darkness wrapped its wings over the sky.
And I was a master of the game. Somehow, I knew instinctively that if I turned my eyes away from my captor, they wouldn’t see me. I knew that looking at them would draw their eyes to me so I kept my eyes trained at the ground and froze my body like I was fixed in death. Stillness came to me out of some glimmer of innate knowledge that I didn’t understand. Most nights, I was the last one hiding. The big kids didn’t know my name but they called me “that girl.” As in “Did you see where that girl went?” And I might be only a few feet away from them but they couldn’t find me. I was a ninja in a child’s game, a game that did nothing to further the cause of humanity but brought us all together under the stars.
One memorable night, a night that I keep in that little wooden box next to my heart, I saw those glorious northern lights. I was crouched beside a wooden fence, the one that separated Mrs. Lee’s house from the strip mall parking lot. And I happened to look up and notice the lights. Anyone who has ever seen them will never will never forget their splendor. Looking up, sky black as coal, colors streaming across the heavens like the fine silk hair of a Goddess draped over the cosmos and crackling like twigs on a fire.
I sat by the fence and noticed that the shouting of the game had stopped.
Around the side of the house, I saw everyone abandoning their hiding places. We stood in the street with our heads held back, looking up at the sky. We watched the lights streak across the stars. The hide and seek game was finished for the night and we all knew it, and none of us cared.
“Mum. Mum. Come see the lights.” I shouted to her when the northern lights were so brilliant that even the most boorish of the bullies had to stop and admire them.
“I’ve seen northern lights before.” Her voice tired, annoyed. But we’re from the Yukon so I imagine that was true. I had probably seen them as well though I didn’t remember.
“No Mum, come see.” I insisted.
She came to the door, warm light glowing from the inside like a lantern. She walked outside without looking down, her eyes trained on the sky like mine. She let go of the door absently and it squealed shut. And I saw the look of astonishment on her face and I smiled. She wasn’t a cheerful woman when we were young, often tired, often angry, often bitter. But on that night she shared something with me that was only communicated with a look. We smiled at each other and I felt like I gave her the most precious of gifts. Like I had magicked up the lights just for her, just to give her a break in her narrow life.
I remember thinking it was odd on those summer nights that my mother let us play so late into the night. And I’m surprised to realize, with adult clarity, that it was a moment of kindness. I can imagine the ghost of my mother wandering to the door to call us in on a warm July night. But when she saw us playing with all the kids in the neighborhood, she let us continue. Sometimes the games went on until past midnight. And she was happy to let us play. I wasn’t grateful then, but I look back now and see that I should have been.
I took this memory of my youth and many others and slipped them into that box near my heart as if I knew, even as a child, that I would need them. I collected them as people collect salt and pepper shakers or commemorative spoons. I carry my collection inside of me because one day I will no longer be here. And I don’t want to feel like my journey will disappear into the air like smoke although that’s exactly what will happen.
That night with the lights, I belonged to everyone else as much as they belonged to me. All of us, tiny dots on the surface of a rock flying through the chasm of space, an almost invisible streak over the black that means nothing to any force in the universe save us. At that moment, we were one. We were happy to be insignificant, to be the small ants on an anthill together. All the tiny ways we try to best one another, try to exert our independence, argue, bicker, fighting our way to the top to some unknown end. This all disappeared under the lights. We weren’t adversaries anymore. We were all just creatures standing together and it lasted as long as the lights glowed. And it lasted the span of my life. The next day the bullies would be bullies again, the fraidy-cats would be fraidy-cats. We would all resume our place on the totem pole of child seniority. My mother would once again be a tired, angry woman with four ungrateful children. But on that summer night, we each wore one another’s skin and felt the warm trickle of companionship that takes away our differences.
My earliest memory is of my father. But I’m not sure the event is genuine or if it was manufactured in the lonely mind of a girl who wishes she could remember him.
The memory is both simple and complex. I remember being a fat baby and sitting on the floor of our subsidized home in Dickensfield. The close quartered row housing with the thin walls. The home of our poverty, the home of our grief, of loss, of loneliness, the home in which we became wards of the state, dependent on hand outs, sitting at the bottom, filtered to the lowest level, waiting for life to begin or end. This is a simple beginning but it becomes more complex when I realize that it might not have occurred that way. I don’t doubt that it happened but I recognize now that I wasn’t a baby in that house. I was three years old when we lived there. So maybe the memory I have is manufactured from the limited knowledge of my own life and the desire to have a memory of him. The thought of not having that memory is akin to being a bad daughter.
I am sitting on the floor of this home and I look up to see a person walk to the door. This person has no face. He is standing with his back to the sun, a sun that shines so brightly that it washes out all his features and blurs his outline. This, I’m sure, is an erasure of time but not of intention. I’ve lived this moment over so many times that the reliving has knocked off the edges of all the images and deleted essential elements. Because how would I know it was my father standing there unless I recognized his face at one time, even if I don’t see it now?
I have the distinct feeling of joy as I look up and see that it’s him. I reach my arms up. He opens the screen door and embraces me. And that’s my only recollection of him. That one small moment when I felt perfectly safe and wanted to be no where else. Part of me says this didn’t happen because he was never at that house. My mother left him and took us to our new life in Edmonton, leaving him alone in Whitehorse. And we never saw him again. And he never walked through the door of that house. Another part of me says that the details are unimportant, that I filled them in with things that I knew. Like taking a piece of a puzzle and putting it in the earliest house of my memory where it almost fits but not quite. I need to believe in its truth because, other than half a dozen photos, I have nothing left of him, only my reflection in the mirror, the olive skin on my face and the shape of my eyebrows.
I don’t even remember being told that he died. I just remember always knowing. One time, my older brother asked my mother “Dad’s dead right?” and my mother answers yes. “He was hit by a car right?” and she nods. “Didn’t he see the car coming?” and she says “I guess not.” I perked up when I heard this confirmation of something we already knew. We just accepted it as part of our lives. She must have told us what happened but this piece of the puzzle has been lost to time.
Funny, he died two weeks before my little sister was born and I remember that event. I remember being brought to our Godparents house because Mum was having the baby. My creepy Godfather always called me his girlfriend when I was only three years old. I squirmed to get away from him while he held me firmly on his lap and everyone seemed to think it was a great joke that I was his prisoner. But I don’t remember my father dying even though I remember all of this.
As an adult I think how difficult it must have been for my mother, who just lost her husband, to explain death to us, even if her marriage was colored with discord and I feel certain it was. How hard it must have been to speak to her fatherless children who had to learn of death in the most unerring way possible.
Years later, I contacted my father’s brother, my Uncle David, and I learned the truth. He told me how sad my father been, how lost he’d been without us, how much he wanted us back, all the things I wanted to be true. And they were true. He confirmed the suicide I had suspected. In Prince George, there was an old highway where people used to go to kill themselves. The road came around a sharp bend and pointed downhill. So on a dark night, a tired driver might hit a person who threw themselves in front of the vehicle. And if the vehicle were large enough, the human remains would not be salvageable. There were many deaths along this stretch of road. It was called “Suicide Corner.” And that’s where he went when he was too sad to deal with losing us, when he knew he didn’t want to live without us. Was it a truck? A car? A semi? I would have chosen a semi. Did he live long enough to regret his decision or was he killed instantly? I want to know the answers to these questions even if it gives me pain. Because there is also pain in not knowing.
My mother might know the answers to some of these questions but I can’t bring myself to torture a 77 year old woman with that recall. And I have come to understand that there are more questions than answers in this life. What I need to do, is take this memory and bed it down, and cover it over with soil so I can make room for some new experiences that don’t include the sad end of his life. It’s become too convenient to hide behind it, blindly clinging to the darkness of his image. I need to do what he could not do. I need to find the courage to stop living in the shadows and put my face in the sun.
“Art is a line around your thoughts.” Gustav Klimt
I love diners almost as much as I love churches. They smell of lard and pancake syrup. And there’s the constant sound of sizzling, the lick of bacon grease hitting the heat, the cook shouting from the back “order up.” And let’s not forget the fact that they serve breakfast all day. I could eat breakfast foods any time. I’m not sure why other foods exist. Sausage, bacon, pancakes, Belgium waffles, syrup, butter, eggs over easy, eggs sunny side up, eggs scrambled. All of them hot with salt and pepper. Fried potatoes with ketchup. Buttered toast with peanut butter or jam or sometimes both.
I haven’t eaten in a while.
Anyway, this drawing was sketched at a diner in Cardston, Alberta. I ate there with my little sister once, and the waitress stayed with us talking as if she were really interested in our lives. We left her a good tip. She was just a local girl with a quick smile and a friendly nature. She probably grew up on a farm, one of a million small town girls who make the world a nicer place to live in but have no idea that they do.
I’ve eaten at a lot of breakfast places. Years ago, my husband and I made it our mission to find the best breakfast diners. When we started the search, the breakfasts were $2.99 or $3.99. You can’t find deals like that anymore. My older son was just a baby when we started the search and we sat him in a high chair and handed him pieces of potato and bacon as he drooled. We could never decide which restaurant was the best. We preferred the privately owned diners with torn upholstery and chipped table linoleum. Maybe some photo displays of staff and their families. Maybe cow shaped creamers. It didn’t matter where we went, they were all good.
I haven’t eaten at many of those places since I lost him. And on those few occasions, I would sit alone at a table and watch as his ghost came to visit. He’d smile a ghostly smile and laugh his big laugh which I couldn’t quite hear. I always loved the sound of his laugh. So I pretended he was really with me. I wanted to people watch with him or make up conversations for the other customers like we used to, but of course, I couldn’t. Now, I just sit quietly in my chair and look at the place where his face used to be and I can almost hear his soft voice. And I can almost smell his aftershave and run my finger along his jawline. He’s quiet in death, the way he never was in life. And I pretend to take his last piece of toast or bacon when he’s not looking just to see the look of shock on his face.
Even after he got sick he still went with me to a few diners although he lost all interest in food. He went with me because he loved me. But he could only sit with strangers for so long and the greasy food made him sick so he just picked at it. His vision was almost gone so we couldn’t watch the other customers. And for some reason, when I made jokes, he just didn’t seem to understand my humor anymore. But he pretended he did because he loved me.
I tried to keep going with the breakfast search but it was too sad for me. Every time, I went I would see my young, healthy husband arrive and watch him deteriorate to the blind old man with bad kidneys and a bad heart. I would spend the rest of the day fighting back tears and swimming through a quagmire of regrets. So I had to stop. I still eat breakfast foods though, who wouldn’t? But I can’t go to the diner’s anymore. I look at them longingly whenever I pass. And I wonder if there’s bacon in heaven.
“Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.” George Bernard Shaw
I drew this church years ago, sitting on the edge of the North Saskatchewan River overlooking the water and the valley. It’s dwarfed now by the city that has grown up around it. Many of the buildings tower over the small structure. But I imagine when people first saw it, they looked to it as one of the largest buildings in the area. I’m sure they were as enchanted as I was the first time I saw it. It’s a marvel really. Every line and angle perfect. Eight sided domes. How does a person even make eight sided domes?
I imagine what it was like when it was built alone on the grass a hundred years ago. I imagine the pride they had fitting the fragments together, each like a puzzle piece nestled next to the other perfectly, colored windows arriving from the east by train. Shy women gathering, bellies big with children, small hands clutching their skirts, colored cotton washed and ironed for the day. They gathered together to be with other women like them and feel less alone.
The prairie was a lovely place. And it still is. But it was dreary in the early days of our country, especially for the women who stayed at home with no distraction. Imagine the darkness of the dugout home made with patches of prairie sod, no windows, staying inside for months at a time under two feet of snow with only the wind to whisper its insanity to your ears.
Then the church was built and brought with it a weekly reprieve. They woke up early on Sunday, pulling on their clothes and running a brush through their hair. They climbed out of the small hollow of their home and set out on the cold, bright prairie towards the congregation. Hearing the church bells must have been like hearing the voices of angels.
Every building whispers the hints of its past, people who have touched its walls, men and women who have felt both pain and pleasure, their short lives peppered with dead babies, hunger, diphtheria, measles, cooking for 20, pregnancies after 40. All of these women came together to be with others, looking for the strength to work hard for something better.
A hundred years before that, women might have met on the same land. Brown women wearing leather, cooking deer meat, tanning hides. They stood on the same spot breathing the fresh air, listening to the rustling leaves and singing birds and moving water. People who never recovered from their swift and brutal disenfranchisement.
I like to think that the people who built this church could hear the whispers of others who are long gone, their voices saying “this is a good place,” “this is where people belong.” And they breathed the air warm from the ground smelling of leaves and mud and sage and love and bitterness all mixed up into the fragrance that fills our lungs. They gathered every Sunday at this church to feel a part of something larger than themselves. All the people, in all times past, most recently, brightly colored immigrants with broken English, and earlier, darker women, quiet as whispers, standing still as death. Each of them held their children as women have done from every time until now. They found strength in one another, sustenance in community. This church is on the bluff above the water calling people to it, sitting on earth as stable as any stone.
“While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die.” Leonardo da Vinci
OK, so I didn’t really die in this field. I took the title from an old X-Files episode where Mulder meets a woman he knew in a former life. She remembers how he died and where and it’s a pretty good episode. It’s also a fascinating subject matter. Like most people, I find myself wondering what happens beyond this life. Reincarnation is a little like being immortal, to become someone else and become someone else over and over until the end of time. To be united once again to our senses. To make love again, to breath air, to feel water running over skin, hear whispered moans, see colors. To live again this painful, joyful, journey of physical existence. Maybe we all have this choice after death. It’s an interesting thought.
So I didn’t die in this field but I had planned on killing myself there. At first, the place I died didn’t seem important, just somewhere my boys wouldn’t find my body. Initially, this field was convenient. Later, I found that it became a friend, a warm companion who would embrace me for one last time on earth. I grew fond of this field with its barn and outbuildings all leaning crookedly against one another, the plowed field, the clouds sitting low in the sky. I came to love this field but, as I say, I didn’t die there.
In my 35th year, I entered the dark shadow of my soul, taking on the failings of others as a cloak that blocked out the sun. Asking myself why I wasn’t enough. Asking why he strayed, why he left, why he came back and finding no answers. I looked up at the world from the bottom of a deep pit, my hands reaching towards the light. I wanted someone’s strong arms to lift me out. But no one came.
I heard of people who attempted suicide but didn’t quite make it. The woman who jumped off a bridge and woke up in ICU with a tube down her throat, ribs wired together, fractures to her face, arms, legs, back. She never walked again. There was also a man who overdosed on medication. He passed out, vomited, and was rescued only to discover he had destroyed his liver and needed a transplant. So I knew if I attempted suicide, I didn’t want to come back. It had to be absolute. There was no plan B.
But as it happens, I didn’t need to depart this world. I found my way out of the pit on my own. I don’t remember specifically what changed my mind, what turn of events made me look in a different direction. But I found after time that happiness occupied more moments than misery. I’d like to say that some specific incident occurred so I could offer help to other people in the same position. But I have no wisdom to convey. I only remember feeling better after a while and thinking how lucky I was to have this life, as flawed and glorious as it can be. I remember sitting near that field and being grateful that I didn’t take my last breath there. I looked to it as a gravestone, marking the time when I could have let my sadness destroy me but I didn’t.
And one of the things that helped feed me during the dark days of my soul was my art. I saw things when I drew them that I didn’t see otherwise. Drawing them helped me see. And in that seeing, I found a fundamental truth of our existence. We are all one. We are all the same. We all suffer the same emotions. And it’s in our shared emotions that we belong to one another. I could see the sadness of other people and I realized I was not the only one who had such thoughts. I was not the only one who was stuck, backed into a corner, attacking anyone who came near like a kicked dog. I found, by looking at others, that we are more similar than different and it’s in our similarities that we can find peace.
“The Artist sees what others only catch a glimpse of.” Leodardo Da Vinci
I spent much of my youth wanting a different family. Maybe everyone does, I don’t really know. But I wanted something different. All around me I could see happy families, families with both a mother and a father and smiling children. They’d play games together, and sing songs and help each other with homework. They always had clean clothes and clean homes and every toy they could imagine lined up neatly on their shelves. Not like our house with the mountain of smelly laundry on the concrete basement floor of our subsidized home, our welfare palace, our monument to poverty. Dirty faces, once weekly baths, home grown haircuts and hand me down clothes that had to last through four children. And a mother who was too tired from facing the world to see that our unhappiness was the same as hers.
So I created a dream family. We lived on a farm. And that’s where I wanted to be. A green place where I could listen to the quiet, rather than hearing the bedlam of the inner city. I wanted to be Laura Ingalls Wilder, to live in the country with animals and great, broad expanses of prairie around me. I should have been born years ago on the rim of the great frontier, a pioneer full of strength and heartiness. Just like Laura Ingalls.
My greatest wish was to own all of her books. My mother couldn’t buy them for me but at the end of every school year there was a book fair. And if I got good grades, she let me buy one book. So I made it my focus in life to get them all. And through hard work, I got my yearly reward. I had already read them. I spent most of my time in the library. But I wanted a set of books for myself so I could read them whenever I wanted and not have to return them.
I remember playing at a friend’s house and up on a shelf by the door, I noticed a full set of the Laura Ingalls books. They were still in the original plastic. I pointed at them. “Wow, nice.” I said “Oh yeah.” She shrugged. “I got them last Christmas but I don’t really like reading.” And I placed a hand over my heart. How could you get such a wonderful gift and not read it? How could you not love Laura Ingalls? I did eventually achieve my goal. Seven long years and I finally had all the books. By the time I bought the last book in the series, the first book was tattered from so many readings.
Dissatisfaction with life is a difficult habit to break. It followed me into adulthood. So when I got married, I wanted to make things right. I clutched the opportunity to start a new life with my husband. We were going to be the perfect family I had always wanted. I tumbled into the promise of a wonderful future with arms open wide. My children would have all the books and toys they could dream of. We’d eat dinner every night around the table and the house would be clean and there would be enough for everyone so we wouldn’t have to fight over scraps. And when we moved to John D’or Prairie that was when my wonderful new life would begin. I couldn’t believe my luck that we were moving to the country. My life was going to be perfect. At least that’s what I thought in my sweet, optimistic, naive heart.
We moved with our baby son to a place that seemed like the end of the earth. No paved roads, miles from any town, living with strangers in a place flavored with generations of bitterness. And watching eyes wherever we went. No, people, but the feeling of eyes followed us everywhere.
My only solace during that time on the reserve was my art. Artwork puts me into a place of serenity. And that’s where my drawings live. And that’s where I go when I see them. When I make my art, I can feel the bottom. I can touch the source of all that we are, all that makes us the same, all that connects us with each other. I see art and I see infinity. On the reserve, my drawing took my mind away from my loneliness, and made me feel the warm wetness of life all around me.
I had to sketch this John D’or Prairie home. As soon as I saw it, I had to. The satellite dish sat right next to the outhouse. And much like all the other homes on the reserve, it was an interesting mix of modern and ancient.
We didn’t spend much time at John D’or Prairie. Four months or so. Long enough to understand that moving to new surroundings doesn’t change much of anything but our surroundings. If you’re running away from sadness, you don’t leave that sadness behind, you take it with you, the heaviest of baggage.
I’ve come home now, after many years away. Enough time has passed to put lines on my face and streaks in my hair. I’ve returned to the place I wanted to escape as a child, waiting in the starting blocks for the gun to go off so I could run away from it as fast as I could. I returned to this place and the place is the same but I am not. And the thing I discovered is that we are what we love, not what we fear. But here is the unique miracle of our existence. Of all the creatures that have ever risen and fallen on this tiny round stone travelling through nothing-we are able to choose. Imagine an alligator deciding one day to be a vegetarian. It can’t happen. Alligators don’t have the capacity to choose. But we do. We can choose. We can wake up every day and choose. So what do we choose? Some choose anger, some bitterness, some loneliness. But some, far too few, choose peace and happiness and love. And every day we all have the same day, the same now, the same choice. No matter what our outer circumstances, we can choose how we regulate the inner world where we live. And today I choose here. And I choose now. And I choose love.