Grief is an oscillation between want and have, between need and want, between here and gone. It does strange things to a person. When my mother died I kept saying to my aunt, over and over, “this must be so hard for you”.
A Freudian might call it transference. My aunt finally broke and asked “why do you keep saying that?” And I bumbled around for a while, something about having had mum her whole life, and realising as I said it that I had had mum my whole life too…
My father walked through the house carrying copies of my mother’s will, gripping the thing that made the most sense to him. He told us, “take what you want that came from you; I don’t want it”, but he kept things that made no sense.
Grief is more profound than sadness; it’s a study in juxtaposition: hollow but full of emotions, quiet but unquiet, busy but desperately bereft of purpose. So as I wade through the remnants of my mother’s life that have been packed away in boxes in the corner of the master bedroom in my father’s house, I bear witness to my father’s grief undone, laid bare before me.
Her diplomas next to the ugly construction paper name plate from her hospice room. Newspaper clippings from her career tucked in beside newspaper clippings of her car accident (made the news because her car ended up upside down in the middle of a fairly busy street and nobody was injured). Her birth announcement, tattered and crumbling, with literal stacks of her funeral cards. Two sheets of bubble pack medication, every farewell from her retirement, and snapshots of every part of her life.
My father, no stranger to grief, packed it all away, but only sorta away, so that he saw the piles of it every time he went to bed. Perhaps unironically he prefers to sleep on the chesterfield.
I have come to his house to meet with a realtor. To sell my childhood home. Da will be moving to a retirement community next month and he would not be able to sort through these parts of his life, locked up and packed away, so here I am. This place is both a mausoleum and a comfort.
Stacked on the table are dozens of Readers Digest magazines, still in their plastic poly bags. They are new and unopened. They are addressed to my mother.
My mother has been dead for seventeen years, but this is the last thing that was in her name and he couldn’t bear to cancel the subscription. He doesn’t read them, but sometimes he opens them and stacks them in the bathroom above the wc. For the last couple of years he’s just been stacking them in the kitchen.
I put them in the recycling and cancelled the subscription. Perhaps it felt like another ending; perhaps it felt like nothing at all. That Da would hold on to this as the last thing of my mother’s is both maddening and heartachingly sweet.
His grief looks like this: stacks of magazines, photographs and mementoes packed away in giant plastic tubs, and empty, echoing rooms in this big, old house.
A friend had invited me to the ‘viewing’ of their first grandchild in a community centre, or maybe in the common room of a condo complex. The new baby was teensy, with a shock of bright red hair. We’re talking Beaker hair, here, and it was perfect. When I got there, the Aunties had placed new baby in older brother’s arms (as is the way of things, my friend’s first grandchild also had an older sibling. It’s best not to question these things when one is in the throes of The Dreaming). Older brother was perhaps four, with bright blue glasses and a shirt that said “ASK ME ABOUT MY GRAMMA” (which, for the record, when I have grandchildren, I demand they wear the same shirt).
I sat beside elder sibling and commented on how he was a superlative brother.
“Superlative means ‘the best’,” he said.
“That it does,” I said.
“Would you like to know my secret?” he asked.
“I would,” I said.
He leaned toward me, somewhat conspiratorially, and whispered, quite loudly, “well, if I got a puppy, I’d have to clean up its poop. My mom and dad clean up the baby’s poop. All I have to do is hold him sometimes and go to my room when he cries. I read a lot.”
And that, my friends, is the very best advice I have ever heard in my entire life.
The brother then plopped baby down, face first, on the seat of the chair he was extricating himself from.
“Oh,” I said, reaching for the baby.
“It’s okay,” the brother said, holding his hand out, palm facing me, with his little arm straight as an arrow. “He’s basically Jell-O right now. He might wiggle a bit, but that baby isn’t going anywhere. I’ll be right back.”
I’ll be damned if he wasn’t right on the money with that one. Jell-O baby cooed a little bit and drooled on the chair’s fabric, but didn’t go anywhere.
I got up to congratulate my friend, and there was a moment of weirdness where we weren’t sure if we should embrace or bow or air-high-five. It was a moment in my conscious mind when I recognised that the pandemic has had a profound effect on me, when even in my dreams, I’m reticent to hug people (especially in public). I remember conscious me telling dream me to just hug already because dream me was in a dream and you can’t catch COVID in a dream.
I mean. You *can’t* catch COVID in a dream, right?
/Takes a brief detour to check CDC and WHO websites./
Right. I’m *pretty sure* you can’t catch COVID in a dream. But I’m glad I checked.
Anyone who wants baby-rearing advice from the smartest four year old in the universe, send in your questions and I’ll submit them to that little gaffer.
I was cleaning the bed linens this morning, which always is accompanied by a spraying down of the mattress with hydrogen peroxide & essential oils (no, not lavender; I don’t especially like lavender). Into the “warsh”, as my great-step-grandmother would say, with the sheets and mattress cover. I love doing the bed linens in summer because there’s nothing better than clean, line-dried linens on a freshly sanitised mattress.
Keeeeeripes, I sound like an advert from 1898 Ladies’ Quarterly.
So anyway, the linens are still in the “warsh”, but I ran upstairs to get dressed and at the top of the stairs was slapped in the face by an instantaneous memory of summer mornings at my grandmother’s house. Grampa would have been up and gone for hours, out in the field summerfallowing or picking rocks. Left at home would be Nama, likely doing a crossword with her coffee and cigarettes, and me, allowed to sleep in because spoiled rotten.
In the summers, when the windows were left open all night, her house smelled like clover, sweetgrass, and wintergreen. Wintergreen because “old bones”, she said. I’ve always loved the smell of “the rheumatism rub”. She’d have been out in the garden already for hours, or would have fresh pies cooling on the counter by the time I crawled out of bed at 7:30.
So when I crested the stairs this morning and was accosted by the smell of wintergreen and sweet clover bed spray, I was all filled up with happy memories. Weirdly though because the memories hit me before I registered the scent. Must have been that primitive lizard brain giving me a little gift. Thanks, primitive lizard brain! That was cool!!
I was feeling pretty cruddy today; a kind of nonspecific languishing that makes no sense to me given it’s a perfect day in the perfect month of the perfect week. Everyone is relatively healthy, Child the Eldar is getting ready to strike out on his own, and generally I am extremely blessed. *EXTREMELY* blessed. So why, when I woke from a perfectly lovely dream (well, okay, actually there was a bit of stress dream in there; we weren’t sure if the newborn conjoined twins would be coming home with us or staying with their Manitoba family because of a miscommunication, and then we had to Tetris the ExMass tree, boxes full of books, sound board and mixing equipment, and all our luggage into what I think was a 70s era AMC Ambassador (baby poop green)), would I be needing to be a poopypants?
Things are weird, okay?
Many years ago, I mentioned to my friend David that I loved irises. They’re such a flamboyant flower, and at that time, I was living in a kind of a slum lord house with the kind of yard someone in their early 20s who’s more interested in studying, gaming, and reading has. He was a master gardener who had a lovely home with an amazing yard full of all kinds of flowers (his mother is also a master gardener whose yard and garden have been featured in MAGAZINES). He began to bring me irises from his garden every year on my birthday. According to David, his irises always waited to bloom until my birthday, and so he would bring me the first blooms.
One year, it had been too cold and dry, and his irises were tardy, so he, also a brilliant artist, drew me an eyeball and lovingly painted it in watercolours and dropped it in my mailbox. “Your birthday iris,” he wrote inside the half-folded card stock. “Blooms to follow in perhaps four days”. It is, to date, among my favourite gifts.
After David’s death, his mother offered me some of her irises (David’s had come from her garden originally); David had told her about my birthday flower, and I was deeply honoured to accept a number of corms. I was also terrified because I was not…good…at gardening and figured I’d kill them all. Yet, they overwintered in the garage, packed in newspaper inside five gallon pails, and come spring, His Nibs and I planted them in our yard. Our neighbour also gave me some of her irises when she split them, and they, living along the southeast wall of the house, always bloom early as the heat from the brick radiates them up and out in late May.
But only one of David’s irises has ever bloomed, a pale yellow bearded thing that would sigh and send out one flower every three years or so. They’d grow, but they weren’t happy. I was always pleased to see them anyway, and always thanked David for his mother’s gift. The winter before last, we had a number of weedy trees removed from our yard, and I was hoping the increased among of sunlight would encourage them to bloom, but it was not to be. This year, I’ve spent every spare moment in the garden, ripping out weeds and loosening up soil and planning and planting and tending and talking. I pulled up David’s irises in the south bed and set the corms shallower and a little bit more westerly from their previous place. I have plans to move the ones on the west side of the house also so they get more light.
This morning, as I was feeling mumbly, I went out to say good morning to the garden, and I saw buds on David’s irises in the south bed, which have only ever had that one pale yellow bloom. I smiled, thanked him, and turned to check out the vegetable garden when something caught my eye. Every single one of the irises in the south bed has blooms on it. Every one. I swear the buds weren’t there yesterday when I was weeding the beds. But this morning, *all of them*. Of course I burst into tears. Even though it’s been a few years since David died, I still think of him frequently, especially when I’m working in the garden.
I ran into the house, more than a little blubbery, and exclaimed to His Nibs that David’s irises are blooming for my birthday. Just when you don’t expect to feel better, you do, and that’s wonderful. I thought my day was made. But there’s another emotional rollercoaster on the horizon…
A few years ago as I was out in the yard likely attempting to eradicate the creeping bellflower from the beds (an ongoing Sisyphean task), I heard a Kerfluffle overhead. There, flying high above me near the roof of our house, was what looked like a duck. A duck with a cool hairstyle. A duck what had just landed on one of our chimneys. Our house has three chimneys. One is functional, one is purely decorative, and one is no longer functional but could be. “Wait,” I said to myself (out loud, because that’s just who I am), “a duck?”
Yes, a duck. That was the year that I learned some wood ducks and merganser ducks like to roost high up in trees. Or, as fate would have it, in chimneys. So we had our goofy chimney duck. Fit right in with the family, actually. It would sit up there, King Duck in Duck Tower; Lord High Purveyor of Duckville. I named him Hugh. I never saw Ms. Duck, but Hugh Duck was very pretty.
The following year, *a* duck returned to the chimney. Not knowing a lot about ducks, I just kind of assumed it was Hugh because I don’t know how duck communication works and whether ducks have N&Ns (the duck version of B&B – Nest and Nosh) or whether they sublet their nests or whether they come back to the same ones like a timeshare. Maybe they have newsletters. Maybe they have Duckslist. Because I do not speak Duck, I have no idea how these things work.
Nevertheless, ducks returned to our chimney. Duckville 2.0 had begun, and I was both confused (I had no idea there were ducks who nested anywhere other than beside lakes and rivers) and excited (come on; you know I’m a huge suck for most living critters. Except mosquitoes. Those jerks can must MOVE ALONG). So I excitedly sent out The Duck Report to everyone I’d ever met in my entire life since the history of time, and took to talking to the chimney ducks as I did yard chores.
So while I was pleased as punch to let this duck squat in our chimney (I mean, what am I going to do, climb up 50 feet to the top of my roof to shoo him away? I THINK NOT), I never really thought much more about him, or what family he may or may not have. We live close to a river, so I just figured that if Hugh (or Hugh 2) really liked it up there, the least he could do is keep some of the bats out of that particular chimney.
This year, I was saddened when I didn’t see Hugh return. I had grown to love our weird chimney ducks, and believe you me, if anyone in our town would have chimney ducks, it would be our weird family (proudly weird, I must say). I expressed to His Nibs that I was sore disappointed that the weird ducks weren’t back, but that I would console myself knowing that we are Friend to Crows (His Nibs saved a baby crow that had fallen out of its nest last year by offering it berries and water) and that the several birb nests in our porch beams seem to be teeming with little chirpers. (Not knowing anything about birbs, I think they’re some kind of sparrow? Or maybe chickadee? Robins have been in there before…)
Cue His Nibs excitedly running in the house after a grocery run a few weeks ago.
“The weirdest thing just happened,” he said. “I was coming in the house and I saw this duck flying low over the house, and then it just kind of …dove… into the chimney. Really all I saw was its butt.”
I was so excited. Our chimney duck was back! But. THERE IS A PLOT TWIST.
THIS duck did not roost in the cosmetic chimney. It went down into the old chimney that’s no longer used. Good lord. THEY’RE EVERYWHERE.
A few days or weeks later, he called me to the kitchen window. His Nibs did, not the duck. Well, the duck may have called me to the kitchen window, but seeing as how I do not speak duck, it would have been an instruction I’d have missed entirely. “Look out there,” His Nibs said. “What do you think that is?”
There was a broken eggshell under one of the chickadee/sparrow nests by the verandah.
“It’s a broken egg,” I said.
His Nibs sighed *meaningfully* and picked at his eyebrow. “I know it’s a broken egg. It looks too big to be out of these nests.”
We looked at each other. I whispered “it’s a duck egg.”
Oh no. Poor Hugh and Ms. Duck. We tidied up the smashed, bloody egg and tried to keep the dog away from the scene of the avicide. We expressed our condolences to the Ducks and hoped they would have better fortune next season. And we thanked them for choosing our chimneys for their NEST BUSINESS. Businest?
Today, as I was having my morning constitutional, I get a text from His Nibs. “Come here” it said, “Duck is on the loose.” I replied that I was at that exact moment unable to extricate myself from my regular bodily schedule, but then decided I’d done enough and could in fact wash up and run downstairs to see what was up. Or what was going down. He met me in the hall and showed me some blurry photos of what appeared to be – glory be – a brown duck butt WITH A LITTLE FLUFFBALL FOLLOWING BEHIND IT.
I went to the freezer to get corn and peas to set out for Ms. Duck and wee Rodduckrick, and of course, in my haste, I freaked them the fuck out, and she flushed herself out of some bushes while wee Rodduckrick peeped alarmedly and tried to run through the fence. I’m an idiot. But I put the corn and peas down and went back inside and hoped they’d be okay. A few minutes later I saw Rodduckrick trundling through the front yard, clearly still freaking out. I then heard jays and our favourite crow farting around in the side yard so I yelled at them out the window (apparently Mom voice works on corvids because they took off).
But then I saw the crow on the neighbour’s roof. It had something fluffy it was picking apart. I was crestfallen. Heartbroken. I’d murdered Rodduckrick. I told His Nibs my rash attempt to be nice to ducks had likely resulted in the death and dismemberment of the baby and I announced I’d be spending the rest of the day in bed. I took my tea and plodded up the stairs. At least I had the irises, right?
A few minutes later, another text from His Nibs: “The chick is ok. They are in your favourite corner.” I looked out the window. By God, there they were, waddling through the back yard. I’ve been watching them out the window of my home office upstairs ever since. Mum quacks, waddles by, and Rodduckrick peeps and follows behind. A few minutes ago I saw her walking in the middle of the street and I shouted at her to be careful (I think she’s trying to take Rodduckrick to the river), but as I’ve mentioned I don’t speak duck so she just kind of quacked at the cars and then came back into the yard.
Today might just be an okay day after all. Rock on, wee Rodduckrick! Good luck finding the river!
June is Pride month, a time when we recognise some of the glorious human diversity in the world. We celebrate being able to be openly who we are, and specifically, Pride is about remembering the riots in Stonewall in 1969, when LGBTQ+ folks fought police brutality against our community. There are great resources out there (at history.com, from Harvard Gazette, and from stonewall.co.uk, which is a great website) that talk about the history and legacy of the Stonewall Riots.
I’m going to post content throughout June related to Pride.
Today I want to talk about Dr. James Barry.
Dr. Barry was a pioneer and a bit of a maverick. He spearheaded a number of reforms in medical care that led to reductions in infections, faster healing times, better medical standards, and generally better patient care. He was one of Canada’s early inspectors general of military hospitals. He routinely got into trouble because of his short temper and unwillingness to play by “the rules” – the rules which, at least in his opinion, in many cases caused harm. He was opinionated, outspoken, downright rude, and more often than not, Dr. Barry was not a fan of bureaucracy.
He was clever, receiving his medical degree at the age of 22 (or thereabouts, since there were questions about when he was actually born) and rising relatively quickly through the ranks of military service. He knew how to make powerful friends; friends whose rank and status saves Barry’s bacon more than once. There were rumours abound about just how close some of those friendships were, and at a time when homosexuality was illegal throughout the Commonwealth.
The work that Dr. James Barry did revolutionised military medicine, especially in the areas of sanitation and improved living conditions for the underprivileged. This latter was what often got him in trouble with his superiors. He was not one to back down, and would just go and do the things he wanted to do, regardless of who told him he couldn’t do it.
In addition to his obvious intellectual prowess, medical skill and ability, and drive to improve living and working conditions for soldiers and civilians alike, Dr. Barry lived for most of his life with a secret. The secret was not that he was homosexual. The secret was that Dr. James Barry was denied an education and was not permitted to enter university at all under his birth name: Margaret Anne Bulkley.
There comes a point when a woman is labouring in childbirth when she says “I can’t do this”. Usually that’s a hallmark of what’s called transitional labour, and it usually means she absolutely can do it, and is likely about to do it with aplomb. Well-seasoned labour and delivery midwives have said when you hear her say those words, you’ll likely have a babby in your arms within the hour.
Likewise, when we labour through loss, we sometimes say “I can’t do this”. When I say it, what I mean is I can’t bear the enormous burden. It’s too big, too strong. Maybe the hurt will sweep me away, its powerful current leaving me battered and tangled. I know I *can* do it. I can grieve, damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead and all that. But also, knowing and experiencing are different beasts. Maybe what I really mean is “I can’t do this alone”.
Seven years ago, we welcomed two little dogs into our family; little dogs who were in need of new people. Teyah was nine when she came to us, her sister six, and immediately it was clear they had chosen the right family. I have this photograph of the kids in the back seat of the van, each with a dog in their lap and the biggest smiles on their faces. When we got home, His Nibs lay on the floor and one dog curled up on each side of him. They were home.
We knew we’d have to say goodbye.
We knew the time we are given to share with wee beasties is precious and short. I knew each of these dorky poodles would break my heart, and I jumped into that knowledge with both feet. The miracle of love is that it just keeps growing. When I pictured the dogs I would have some day (and toy poodles were not the ones I saw myself with), I didn’t know our girls would be exactly the dogs I needed.
Teyah arrived a little heartsore, a little nervous, and with an enormous personality. When she decided she was through with her walks, she would sit up on her haunches and paw at the air with her front feet, as if to say “that’s enough, now; I’m ready to be carried”. When we got home, she’d beeline for the dog treats (we keep them on top of the fridge) and sit there in anticipation, knowing I’m a huge softie. She almost always got a treat. She would actually sigh and…honestly it looked like she rolled her eyes when her sister barked too much or jumped around too much or basically did anything too much.
We are in the process of saying goodbye to the old girl. At sixteen, she’s started having difficulty walking; she’s lost a lot of weight and a significant amount of fur. She keeps getting these warts…she’s pretty deaf and I think recently has lost most of the sight in her right eye. She’s old. And we love her so much.
They love so selflessly, so perfectly. Their trust is without ego, without compromise. The labour of loss is enormous. Overwhelming.
Teyah has brought us seven years of singing the song of her people when she’s hungry, very smelly kisses, and just generally making our lives better in ways we could not have imagined. Although there will be a teensy poodle-sized hole in our family, we will never forget the joy and laughter and love she brought us. The labour of love is absolutely worthwhile.
I don’t know if animals or humans have souls, but if we do, the labours we work at here and now must cause ripples *out there*. There’s a great, big part of my heart that this little goof is taking with her. I know it will grow back. I will fall in love again and again and again, although none of it will be Teyah-shaped, and that’s okay. Love is not a finite thing, but right now, I don’t think I can do this.
I will miss you, little Bumblebutt. We all will. You are loved.
My father just called to remind me that it was 40 years ago today that his father, my Gramps, was killed in a farm accident.
Do you have a singular day that changed the trajectory of your life?
I remember that day with crystal clarity. It was a Wednesday. I was going to the sitter’s for lunch because I wasn’t old enough to be a latch-key kid.
I saw my dad’s truck in the driveway. A silver GMC. That was weird; he and mum were both teachers. Didn’t come home at noon.
I was excited to see Dad at lunch; started running to the door.
Mum came out onto the front step.
The energy was wrong. All wrong. I asked, “can I eat at home today?”
She reached out for me, put her hands on my shoulders, and said “there’s something we have to tell you”.
My Gramps, man.
He was full of joy, all the time. I still remember his laugh, which he had trouble controlling. He spoiled me. I used to read to him (he’d left school in the fifth grade to go to work, and reading wasn’t his strong suit). He was my hero, in a way my Da couldn’t be, because Gramps never had to say no to me.
He taught me to drive. To pound nails. To dance. To wash dishes. To sew.
He taught me to set gopher traps and how to let rabbits out of them. He took me for ice cream every night and always had time for me, even at harvest. We’d take meals to the field and he would eat, then take me on the tractor or the combine.
Just the previous Sunday, he’d helped Dad load up the piano that had been a wedding gift to my grandmother’s parents into the back of the truck (my grandmother never forgave him giving me the piano).
He gave me music.
I’d spied his work boots at the back door and said “Gramps, I don’t like your boots” (they were dirty and beaten up and hard; everything he wasn’t).
He laughed (he was always laughing) and said “I’m going to die with my boots on”.
Three days later, he did.
Mum took me into the living room where Da was sitting in the rocking chair in the middle of the room.
I remember my heart pounding. Blood thumping in my ears.
He said, “there’s been an accident,” and then he started to sob. I’d never known fear until then.
Mum took me out of the room, led me to my bedroom.
I could still hear my father sobbing.
Years later, Mum told me she watched me shut down. Said it was the scariest thing she’d ever seen. She said it was like watching storm clouds blocking out the sun.
She got down on her knees and told me “your Gramps is dead”.
The next few minutes stretched out for eternity, and still do, in my recollection. her words swam around in the air between us for a minute. I began to put it together : the truck in the driveway, Mum on the step, Dad in the rocking chair, still sobbing. Alone.
I remember her pulling me close to her, trying to hug me, to hold me, but I couldn’t move. I was stuck in that moment. Maybe a part of me always has been.
She asked “do you know what that means?”
I was insulted. “Of course I know what it means,” I said. After all, we’d all been there when Mr. Hooper died. But more than that, death isn’t a foreign concept to kids who grow up on a farm. “Why couldn’t it be J’s grandpa who died?” I asked.
“Don’t say that,” my mum chastised me. “We should never wish for someone’s death.”
But the growing hole inside me was getting too big. It was swallowing up everything around it. Everything I knew. If it could come for me why shouldn’t it come for my best friend? Maybe we could understand the excruciating ache together.
Mum told me I looked at her at that point and said “I’d like to be alone now,” stepped away from her, and closed my bedroom door.
I remember sitting on the edge of my bed, hearing my father crying…my father, who was stronger than anything, invincible, really, was crying. He needed me to be strong. I didn’t know then that tears are a sign of strength, and he had tears enough for the both of us.
For years, people thought I didn’t understand death, that I didn’t really get it. Because I never cried. I didn’t shed a tear that day, and I didn’t cry at his funeral. Not even when my grandmother told me the sheaves of wheat draped over the coffin were from the road allowance. Every year, Gramps let me sit on his lap when we harvested the road allowance wheat, and the money he got from selling it went into a saving account in my name.
“That’s your wheat there,” she said. She made me sit beside her. I didn’t want to. I didn’t even want to be there but figured Dad needed me to be there. I wanted to sit with him, but Grandmother wouldn’t let me.
I didn’t want the wheat. I didn’t want the money. I didn’t want my grandmother. I wanted my Gramps.
This day, 40 years ago, changed the trajectory of my life. Every time I felt like quitting piano or band, I’d think about my Gramps and my Dad carrying the steel-backed upright grand piano up the steep basement steps and into the bed of the silver truck. I’d think about my Gramps listening to me plonk away on those keys, not knowing what I was doing. I’d think about what he might say if he could hear me play now.
It would take years…decades really, before I felt anything again. It wouldn’t be until the death of my grandmother in 2012 that I truly grieved Gramps’ death. When we put his ashes to rest beside hers (she’d kept his ashes at the bottom of her closet the whole time), when I stood at the gravesite and looked out across the cold river hills at the farm that had taken him…
..when I found his well-worn wallet, shoved into the back of a drawer, still with everything in it that had been there the day he died: his driver’s license, his Co-op card, seventeen dollars, and photos of me. My heart broke again.
It’s Giftmas Sales Season (GSS) and I get to person the booth at the first big giftmas market of the year. You may think this is the Worst Thing Evar, but it’s not. Everyone is happy. Excited. Fulla beans.
There’s enough time for Humbuggery; today though I’m looking forward to hearing about grandkids, vacation plans, and planned gifts.
I do, however, want the people running this show to turn down the effing speakers. Not everywhere needs or benefits from piped-in music. Just let the din of people be the background noise.