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Archive for December, 2008

border-21On July 20, 1999, I am reminded to count my blessings.

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A LIFE BEYOND PERFECT

In four short days, I have learned of five deaths, most unrelated but all with the bitter taste of needless loss. They were young, distanced from the reality of their own mortality. I find myself dwelling on the loved ones left behind, and the agony they are forced to endure, because I have lived their pain. I am jarringly reminded that in the end, there is only birth and death that matter, that the charmed, happily-ever-after lives we so achingly strive for are just insignificant backdrop when death beckons.

The first death was the son of a beloved president whose public assassination shocked the world. I close my eyes, and see John F. Kennedy Jr., just three years old and the epitome of innocence, saluting as his father’s funeral motorcade drives by. I remember my mother’s words “God only gives you what you can handle” and “suffering makes you stronger.” I wonder why this family has been chosen for such sorrow, and I am sick that once again they’ve been broadsided by senseless tragedy. I tell myself that life is not a game in which moves are strategically planned by a master player, that there is no logic or fairness in the roll of the dice. I try to let go of the subconscious hope I have unknowingly held for years: that this son of a slain president, who had seen so much tragedy in his short life, would rise and carry on the reign of a slain and beloved king; that “Camelot” would be restored. I have been holding on to a fairytale, like so many others, waiting for a hero prince to return from exile.

His death is not solitary. With him are two beautiful sisters, one living a Cinderella dream in her marriage to John Kennedy Jr., the other’s life barely lived. I sense the pain their parents must feel, the cruelty of charmed lives cut short.

A day later, the eight-year-old son of a vice-president at my husband’s company wakes up with a headache. By mid-afternoon he lies in a coma. He dies a few short days later, never waking. They are strangers, these parents, living hundreds of miles away, but I think daily of their anguish. I am sick with the realization that they had no warning, no way to prevent or prepare. I dwell on how perfect their lives must seem to outsiders. They are young, affluent, successful. Without ever meeting them, I know they would relinquish everything for the return of their child.

This weekend, a young man, just twenty, dies in an automobile accident. Up too late at a party, he waits until completely sober to drive home, then falls asleep at the wheel. I recall the chubby, red-faced twelve year-old struggling to save goals on my son’s soccer team; his parents at every game, their precious Yorkies tucked inside their jackets.  I remember my envy of his mother, the founder of her own private school, an accomplishments teachers like myself can respect. Her son grows into a handsome young man, polite and full of promise. Her pride in her career pales in comparison to her joy in her son. It is a drop of water compared to the ocean of heartbreak she now faces.

It is near noon as I contemplate these sad losses. I have driven my eldest son to work and my youngest son of twenty still sleeps. The careless signs of their presence in our home often upset me. Today, my car holds empty pop cans, a pizza box, candy wrappers, and less gas. As I enter our home, my gaze wanders to the unswept grass clippings in the driveway, the shoes left scattered, yesterday’s opened mail on their placemats.

I walk down the stairs to the family room that is their favourite space. Dishes arae left on the coffee table, the unscraped food hardened. Video game’s controls are stretched across the floor, and clothes, once left folded on the billiard table for them to put away, are now askew, beds for our many cats.

Tentatively, I walk down the hall, ready to see the unkempt rooms that make me despair, but today, I feel different. There is no anger as I see the unmade bed of my eldest, or the disorganization of his pat-rack existence; and as I watch the still-sleeping form of my youngest son, I don’t feel my usual frustration. I glance at the evidence of what I have often considered an irresponsible life: the late nights after his restaurant shift, the clothes in disarray, a carpet that needs to be vacuumed. All I feel is relief, because this morning I realize how lucky I am to still have my sons. A sense of peace fills my heart as I quietly close his door, and turn to walk away.

In our country home, with two parents, two sons, and four cats, we do not lead charmed lives when seen under the daily microscope. But I have known loss, and this week has reminded me that sloppy rooms matter nothing when viewed next to the harsh reality of a child’s mortality. Today, my life is beyond perfect.

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PB170397 bigger another

I visit this space two or three times a day, drawn by an overwhelming urge to write. With one arm in a cast, it’s just not going to be that easy. Five minutes of trying and my one good hand is stiff and sore and wanting to slap me. While I “not-so-patiently” wait to heal, I thought it might be a good time for this old piece, written about my father five years ago. Since so much of my life right now revolves around his health and rehab, it seemed an appropriate time to share a little more about him.

 

WITH  MY DAD, IT’S ONE STORY AFTER ANOTHER

 

Recently it was my father’s seventy-seventh birthday, and as always, his family gathered together to toast his longevity. The truth is, though, that we celebrate much more than that, because his wit and zest for life are contagious, and without him our lives just wouldn’t be the same.

 

Dad defies the calendar – he seems to grow younger by the year. In fact, last summer, he traded his older, staid Cadillac for a Grand Am. He joked that he also intended to grow his hair long, get an earring, wear his pants lower and use his new, sportier car to attract women!
 
He lives in the moment. There is a wonderful quote that he may never have heard, but he lives it nonetheless:
 
Life is not a ride to an end, with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body. Skid broadside to the grave, used up, worn-out and loudly proclaiming “Wow – What a ride!”
 
Yes, he views life as an adventure, and as a result, he’s had more than his share of “misadventures,” from which his funniest stories are born. It started in his youth. As the second oldest in a family of nine, opportunities for practical jokes were abundant. His stories of their mischievous pranks and foolhardy play are endless.

 

As a child, one of my earliest memories is seeing him swing between crutches, only to lose his balance and re-break a foot. Even then, he loved to make us laugh. I can close my eyes and still see him performing his bicycle trick: the handlebars of a bike turned around and Dad sitting on them, faced backwards and blindly trying to navigate figure eights between the trees of our backyard, while we squealed in a mixture of delight and alarm.

 

He’s a widower, so nowadays he’s by himself when most calamities occur. I suspect he uses the time between our visits to rehearse his “delivery” of his latest comical escapade. Between the speed of his “Maritimer” speech and his laughter as he relives the experience, it takes all of our concentration to figure out what he’s telling us.
 
His tales are legendary, and many have occurred while on his many road trips. One incident happened years ago while camping. A freak windstorm suddenly began to uproot one side of his tent. The gales caught his air mattress and began to carry it across the fields. Dad was already well into middle age, but he chased it, hopping fence after fence. The mattress remained just out of reach, until finally, in desperation, he threw himself on top of it. There he stayed through the entire storm, spread-eagled to keep the mattress down, until it was safe to stand up again. He carried it back to the campsite, only to see his tent was gone. He eyes scanned the surrounding ground and saw no trace of it but then he looked up, and there was the tent, snarled high in the branches of a nearby tree.
 
On a more recent journey, he stopped to eat his boxed lunch at a picnic area adjacent to a truck stop. When he was done, he tidied up, tossed his garbage into the bin and resumed his journey. One hundred miles later, he realized his mouth felt mysteriously empty. For some reason, he’d taken out his dentures, then inadvertently tossed them away with the garbage! He turned around and high-tailed it back to the picnic area, only to discover the garbage truck had just done its pick up.
 
This week, he almost met his maker while coming out of a Canadian Tire store. He was carrying a heavy bag of ice salt, and chose the ramp rather than the stairs to get to his car. Turned out to be solid ice. He managed to stay on his feet, but went straight down in one slide. Said he figured the weight of the salt had given him extra momentum. Problem was, he couldn’t stop. Not to worry, though, because he got some assistance. Body-slammed straight into a shed at the bottom of the ramp. Never did drop the salt, though, he bragged.
 
Staying sedentary for too long makes him antsy, so he’s always willing to take on a new handy man challenge. Educators would tactfully call him a creative problem solver. He adds a whole new dimension to the word “resourceful.” Just last month, he installed my sister’s dishwasher, made even more challenging by having to improvise with an old hose. He later explained, in minute detail and with some pleasure, how the exploding hot water actually blew the cupboard doors open. And this summer, he managed to single-handedly put up his backyard patio canopy, a job for three people. Of course, not before having the whole thing collapse on top of him, then having to crawl out sheepishly, eyes peeking furtively from under to be sure no one had seen him.
 
He’s just not your average senior.
 
Not that he thinks of himself as one, either. Just this past summer, he was out bicycling, and came up behind an elderly lady out for a stroll. Said she was a “senior” and may get startled easily, so he didn’t signal with his bell. Instead, he maneuvered to go around her. Big mistake. The wheel of his bike got caught between the sidewalk and the grass, catapulting him over his handlebars and onto the ground in front of her. To hear him say it, it was uproariously funny, even though he’d banged and scraped his forehead and his knee badly. His biggest concern was that he’d nearly given “the little old lady” a heart attack.

 But thankfully, he has learned to take care of himself in other ways. Says he takes that “ecca stuff” to ward off colds and swears by Vitamin C and garlic. And he’s learned to be careful in the sun. Uses sunblock before he goes outside to garden now. He just has to be a little more conscientious about reading labels

The last bottle of sunscreen he generously smeared all over his face got awfully tight after about twenty minutes outside. Said he tried to wipe it off with a tissue from his pocket but it got stuck in shreds all over his face.

Turned out he’d used Elmer’s Glue.

If you wonder, as we often do, how he’s doing after living through all of these misadventures, this is what he told callers whenever the phone rang on his birthday.

He picked up the receiver, and instead of saying hello, simply said “Seventy-seven and still mobile.”

You’ve got to love him.

 

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Epilogue: At the age of eighty, he traded the Grand Am for a newer car, a turbo-charged Grand Prix.

 

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OUT FOR REPAIR

broken4I have loads to say about my father’s leg amputation last week. My emotions have been all over the place and hours in hospital waiting rooms inspire all sorts of writing ideas. Unfortunately, some of it will have to wait for a bit while I nurse a broken left wrist. Alas, I am but a cliche. I slipped in the tub, and life has just taken a definite change of course.

Typing with one hand isn’t easy, particularly if you’re groggy from pain medication. But trust me, the words are going to find a way out, even if I have to use my voice recognition software.

There are stories to be told – not to mention angst-loaded essays on the Ontario health system.

Watch this space.

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