FAMILY

Dedicated New Year

Birth and death are ugly things. Often, usually, there is blood, tears, great travail and prolonged suffering. It’s not pretty.

Oh sure, we humans being meaning-makers, somehow we often manage to find beauty in both of these events. Perhaps we do so out of gratitude, or more like relief. Maybe it’s hope which drives our meanings.

You might know the story of your beginning by now. Maybe it’s part of your family lore. You may have been lucky enough to have sat down with your mother or father at some point while they regaled you with the tale of your arrival.

It may have been right there and then during that little talk when you realized how special you were.  You arrived, and there were people really excited about you, just you and your new place in their lives.

One of my sisters told her now adult child she came from a “sparkle in your mama’s eye.” I gave that one top marks for the imagery alone. Who wouldn’t want to come from a sparkle in someone’s eye? It’s like magic.

 

Since you are all here, and it’s the first day of the New Year, I’d like to mention the second part of our passage through life.

For many of us, having lived life on too much processed foods, sugar, booze, grains and cigarettes while not getting enough sleep, losing our mind is what awaits us long before death.

This is my father. Three years since his wife of 62 years passed away of cancer after a three day vigil in the family home. He has been sliding since. One of my sisters is dribbling water into his mouth to quench his thirst because he couldn’t at that moment suck on a straw.

Another sister found him in the morning a couple of days ago face down on the floor of a room in his house. She and her husband live downstairs so he can stay at home. He missed the bathroom in the middle of the night and got a little lost.

Soiled, cold, pissed off and in pain, he punched my brother in law–four or five upper cuts to the jaw–when he tried to help him by picking him up. My brother-in-law is a mountain of a man. Not much an eighty-eight year old guy can do to him but hurt his pride a bit. He’s OK.

Four of my father’s five sons were on hand last night to reassure him since he’s now been hit by my father, he’s truly one of us. Welcome brother.

A third sister made the call to hospitalize my dad. We hope he’ll gather his strength and come home for another while. I bring my children there every Saturday and at just four years old, Little Howie is pretty devoted to his Grandpa Howie.

But this is the end which awaits more of us, most of us even.

For me, it’s a good reminder: there is no tomorrow; there is only today. I must live the best way I know how. We know so much about nutrition, exercise, stress and my pet subject, sleep, that there are no more compromises allowed.

And there is no banking time either. Life goes by in a flash.

No. There is nothing like death staring you straight in the face to bring home the message loud and clear.

 

My father has pneumonia and a bladder infection. He’ll probably pull through this time. After all, he has the best medical care and a half dozen adult children standing guard for him in rotation.

Someone told me in the last few days pneumonia is the saviour of many an old person with dementia. It allows them to die rather than to linger. At home, my father gets up from his bed, goes to his bathroom and to his recliner in the living room and back to bed.

Occasionally, in summer he may venture outside to say goodbye, stooped over, shuffling, enamored as my children, his grandchildren scamper about; their vitality tiring him out. He told me recently the kids come over and raise hell for a while, but once they leave, it’s rather lonesome.

Today, at the hospital I conversed with him for an hour, politely answering questions and pausing for his responses. Only, the conversation made no sense at all. He knows who I am, it’s just his mind is scattered, his dreams a part of his living reality. This is common with vascular dementia, the circumstances trigger more confusion.

 

I don’t say all this to depress you. Neither do I need to signal in some way. Nor do I need sympathy. No. I’m alright with my father’s eventual death. I’ve reconciled that while he is still alive. He’s been too big an influence on me to go anywhere; assuredly, he’ll live on in me and my children like an echo down through time.

My dear mother taught me to read when I was five years old. But I wouldn’t be writing this to you unless my father taught me to write when I was around fifty.

One day, living in another city, I responded at length to a letter he’d written me. He never quite trusted email. Anyhow, my letter came back a couple of weeks later. My father had taken his red editing pen and marked up my copy with corrections and suggestions. Intrigued, we did it again, with me incorporating his lessons, and once more he sent it back.

This continued on for a while, and soon I was ordered to send stuff double spaced so he could do his thing. I obliged.

Much later, I had gained enough confidence and enthusiasm to write and send an essay called The Striped Cat. It was a childhood tale involving a time three of his boys had run away from home. It was a true story, situated in the old neighbourhood. This got his attention. It was real writing now, not just about relating the family news. He loved it. Can you imagine?

I have all of his corrections and remarks in a file in my cabinet. A few years ago, I sent an essay and while visiting him in Ottawa for some occasion, he handed it back to me when I arrived uncorrected. He said there wasn’t anything glaring he could tell me about it that would help.

I remember that day like it was yesterday. For me, it was better than graduation.

This is a man who has spent his whole life around words. First as a cub reporter in Halifax and then as an information officer in Her Majesty’s Navy, retiring as Editor In Chief of the forces magazine of the day, The Sentinel.

A couple of months ago I wrote something and showed it to him. I’ve been toying with copywriting try and appeal to a larger audience, and it’s not my usual style of writing.

Here was my father, speed reading those pages like he was gulping water on a hot day, and peering over his glasses he asked me pointedly why I was dumbing down my sentences.  No fooling the old editor. I had some explaining to do.

I wrote a story of how my son was rescued by a soldier who cut a seatbelt from around his neck while the missus was pulled over in distress and he told me “Good writing and a story well told.” He offered no suggestions or criticisms. I relaxed.

Can I say this? He’s my biggest fan. Of course, I can tell you this.

I grew up with books on every wall of the house. There was a bookcase in the kitchen for a while. Not only do I like to read, it’s as if I must. And now, thanks to my father, I have sort of caught the writing bug. My family generously named me their Clan Bard and Poet in Battle, mostly in encouragement. But still… it’s pretty cool.

This is the year I will honour my father and write more.  In all the years that follow, should I be lucky enough to live them, I write for my pops.

Though just recently, he’s unable to read anymore. You can imagine what that might be like if you’re a reader. He’s got more than 80 years of reading under his belt—thousands of books—and he’s hanging up the glasses. He read at a blistering pace of a book per week for most of his life.

And now, surrounded by books; not a word to be read. I suspected he wasn’t reading the Saturday Edition of the National Post I’d bring over. Finally, a few weeks ago he admitted he couldn’t see the words correctly. They were all jumbled he remarked, without a hint of complaint.

I declare this year is dedicated to writing essays I can read to my father.

I’ll write one per month to the best of my ability. These I will recite to him until he can hear me no more. That’s because he’s going deaf too. But I think just knowing I’m there reading to him something I wrote would be more important to him than the words themselves.

I wonder what will spark your imagination in this coming year?

Whatever it may be, here’s wishing you find inspiration and perseverance in 2018. May your lives be joyous and grateful, disciplined and without loneliness.

Most of all: may you waste no days and be filled with love all year long.

Happy New Year

Christopher K Wallace

© 2018 all rights reserved
ckwallace.com

 

WOW. I just turned 60 years old.

 

I want to thank everyone for wishing me a happy birthday. It’s very kind of you to take time from your day to send good wishes.

So what’s a guy do on his 60th? Well, here’s how my day went.

First thing in the morning I slapped my woman’s ass. Now before you get too excited, know it is part of my morning ritual most days. Yesterday was no different. I want her to know the man she chose is still just as interested in her as the day I first got to slap her ass a dozen years ago. To me, she’s not so much a mother and wife; she is my woman first.

I made the bed and opened the window curtain to look at the scenery and said, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

What I really mean by “Lord” is “universe” but I don’t sweat the semantics. Lord is just easier to say.

I’ve done this for 30+ years. It reminds me that I got to wake up breathing; whereas, I know so many others did not. That sets my tone for my entire day.

 

Once I was done that little ritual, I shuffled off downstairs, attracted by the noise coming from my 4 and 6 year old kids… and the smell of percolated coffee.

Is there a better way to drink coffee? I’m not so sure. Adding to the glorious aroma is that I know by drinking a little coffee every day, I will likely prolong my life. I’m playing the odds and, as a lifelong tea-drinker, thank the missus for the chance to share another morning ritual with her.

On my birthday, I got little presents from my daughter, cards and scribbles. It’s funny how she continues to teach me about love, something my gal pals said would happen. Meanwhile, my four year old boy ignored me.

 

Then, I changed a Facebook group to Powerful Men’s Group—Physical, Spirit, People and Business. These are four facets of a man’s existence I think are needed to find balance. Neglecting one area causes problems in the others. I may be Advisor to Men but I’m also Counselor at Large. Guys are invited to join by finding us on Facebook groups. https://www.facebook.com/groups/powerfulmen/

During my morning appointments, I got to meet with a butcher who has been in business for decades in the Ottawa area. He took the time to show me his complete operation, the adjoining coffee shop, proudly naming off the varieties of fish he carries, and how strategic he was about the layout of his building and its parking lots.

He told me about how his father sensed trouble back home when Joe was a little boy and moved his family out of the home for safety one night. Returning the next day, the home was trashed, victimized by a rival faction as sectarian violence overtook the country. Dad decided then and there the family was leaving Lebanon. Canada took them in as it does so many.

It’s hardly surprising the Lebanese are described as descendants of the Phoenicians, the great Mediterranean trading empire a millennium before Christ.

And their people have adapted to their new home, assimilating seamlessly into Canadian life. Even one of my brothers married a young gal of Lebanese descent. I call her FSIL, for favourite-sister-in-law. Don’t tell the others.

Conversations are a big part of my life. When I was a younger man and struggling with my demons, I didn’t take the time to get to know and appreciate the people around me. I do now. Canada has 20% of her population born elsewhere. An opportunity to visit the world without ever leaving the country.

After leaving the butcher shop/grocery, I stopped by a Tim Horton’s. I stood in line next to big guy in work clothes, maybe early twenties, when a man of about 40 shuffled in and went past us and ordered. I looked a little puzzled at the fellow beside me and said, “I guess he really needed a coffee.” He answered with a shrug, “Its Christmas, let him go ahead.”

I thought that was a nice way to think and told him so. We had a conversation about giving right there on the spot.

I told him about having a very rough day once and ordering a coffee from a drive-through after finally getting off the highway. When I came to pay, the teller told me the guy in front had already paid. I looked up to see the guy pulling away with a wave out his driver window.  I’ve never forgot that random act of kindness, telling the young man how he set a good example of tolerance.

Since it was my birthday, I ducked into one of those Anytime Fitness places to exercise. Recovering from a double hernia operation last month, I’ve become a little flabby around the belly and so, on my sixtieth, I snapped a picture as a way to hold myself accountable.

Any workout day is a payday of sorts. How nice is that?

Learner is my number one strength. If you are a learner, you must also teach. So mid-afternoon I did one of my regular overseas advisor calls. It is gratifying to work with people and see them improve over weeks and months. My clients teach me as much as I teach them. We are here to learn from each other.

Then it was off to gather the children and missus to go buy her a car.

Missus is good with money, bless her heart. I’d never entered a Walmart until we met. So we went to a Hyundai dealership to pick up an Elantra. She picked the colour. Says with my red truck and her blue car, we have both sides of the heart covered. It was deep stuff from missus; she’s our heart.

She’s thrilled about the heated seats and steering wheel. I think the back-up camera with in-dash display sold her.  The dealership wouldn’t give her much for her old car so, on her own, she got online and sold it to a guy who needed the motor. When we delivered it, I made him give her the money.

As I was about to leave the dealership, the GM came by and thanked me, before the team started grilling me about my card, Advisor to Men.

With a little prompting, I gave them a pep talk, leaving them empowered, standing taller and more assured about returning home to their wives and families.  It’s one of my favourite things to do.

By the time missus got home with the car, she’d figured out we could save $300 per month on fuel if I used it for business. It’s a good match this marriage thing. I may end up driving it more than she will.

She cooked me a steak and we had a cake. I blew out six candles with the kids. Howie refused the cake as he said it wasn’t his birthday. I think his last one really made an impression. Charlotte stood by at the light switch, all giddy until ma got the candles lit.

Of course, every year I get a pair of slippers. I like wearing slippers at home. One reason is I don’t like socks with holes in them. Slippers cut down on the wear and tear. Seems to me socks are already on the endangered list through the travails of ordinary laundry without adding to the misery by wearing holes in them unnecessarily.

Missus thinks if socks are going to go missing anyway, you might as well wear the hell out of them while you can. There’s a certain strength to that logic I can’t quite counter.

I decreed a couple of birthdays ago that everyone gets a present at birthdays. I’m doing my part for socialism, by appealing to the collective good in people. I want my kids to know “we are all in this together.” I have lived the “law of the jungle” both inside and outside of prison. Not interested.

Find it early or find it late, we must all find love.

Howie got elf slippers, Charlotte slippers shaped like bunnies. Missus and I got sheepskin looking things. We took turns showing off our new footwear to each other. Both kids got to wear them at school today for pajama day.

Turning 60 has me thinking about my future. I’m in OK shape and mentally, I’m at the top of my game. However, it’s at this stage of life when the clichés start to really sink in. Suddenly I find myself wondering about things I’d never considered before.  Read bullshit stuff like, “is this my destiny?”

It’s that Rumi guy, I suppose, talking about a precious red ruby inside me and all that. Then he writes “Forget safety. Live where you fear to live. Destroy your reputation. Be notorious.” Man, I’ve spent 30 years restoring my reputation, not always successfully. I think I get what he means though.

But he goes on to say “when you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.” Indeed, I do. I get that. I have been in my zone many times.

It’s how I feel when I am writing sometimes. I confess I’ve never had writer’s block. I often erase whole pages of writing and just write more. It’s also how I feel when I have the honour of teaching about something I know to someone in need. It’s how I feel around my family.

It was my mother who taught me to read at age five, but my father who taught me to write at age 50. I have practiced for ten years then. It’s time to put Scrivener back on this machine and write more.

I’ve also subscribed to Hyatt’s Focus Planner system for 2018. I don’t know about you but the most productive years of my life I used a day planner to manage my time. I’ve tried the digital formats and it’s just not clicking. I have been drowning in inefficiencies and I’m throwing in the towel. Analog is me.

After 14 years in newspaper sales, I should have known better. Print is still king over here. There’s a geographical quality to letters on paper not available as easily in digital.

As of a couple of months ago, after an absence of two years or so, I even get the National Post delivered to my home. Dad often gets my Saturday edition when I bring the kids to visit him and feed him lunch. There’s a certain comfort to sitting in my office and rummaging through the daily paper, though it’s yesterday’s news.

So that’s it. Turning 60 isn’t so bad. It’s been a great experience because I’m honoured to slowly morph into a version of an elder in my community. It’s a job no one asks for but each of us must do graciously. Most of all, this milestone for me is a great reminder to put into practice lessons learned over a lifetime.

To that end, I’m back into my stock trading account in the New Year, searching for good companies to invest in long term. I very much admire Phil Town and the way he freely teaches thousands how to invest according the same Benjamin Graham principles followed by Buffett and others. I met Phil a couple of times years ago and I appreciate his dedication to helping others secure their futures.

But this weekend, I’m tempted to take a little of that cash I have lying around in my digital account and buy Bitcoin. Perhaps I’m just following Rumi again, by being ready to “sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.”

After all, Rumi also says “there are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the earth.”

Kiss the earth indeed. Big manly hugs and kisses to you all.

Christopher K Wallace

©2017 ckwallace.com

WHO IS SHANE CHAFE?

 

Where have all the real men gone? That’s a question that comes up often lately.

Not just from women. No. I worked hedging farm energy costs all last winter and met a lot of real men. Tough and grizzled career dairy farmers who knew precisely their role lamenting the same thing: where are all the “real men?”

Out east of Ottawa, all the way to the Quebec border the French farmers call our feminized men “les hommes rose.” Pink Men.

I get this query about good men from women practically every day. Just last week I did business with a formidable lady at an iconic city establishment. A divorcee, we got to talking: she’d be a catch, a real tour de force. “I’m not giving up” she says. “There’s a real man out there for me.”

And there is. I’ll keep my eye out for her.

It’s a confusing time to be male. First we went from an agrarian society to an industrialized one. Then the vote was expanded so all men got a say in how government is run. Reward for the privilege of dying for your people I suppose, which men have been doing forever.

After the Second World War, women’s enrollment in universities rose each year, to where there are now more female graduates than male. Laws were rightfully changed so that inequalities in the workplace were addressed.

Only now, it’s gone bananas. Men can’t open their mouths without risking offending someone and being sent off to sensitivity training. Or worse….

Men have been stifled like no other time in history. The very culture men created has turned on them and is now biting them in the ass.

Qualities in men revered for all time are obscured by a system devouring itself from within. It’s counterproductive.

Where are the Brave? The Courageous? The Decisive? The Protectors?

I’ll tell you where they are: hidden among us. Perhaps a little subdued of late, but every once in a while a crisis occurs and some exceptional man reminds us of the ideal.

Today missus was returning from a shopping excursion with two kids strapped into car seats in the second bench of our Honda Pilot. Behind the passenger seat sat our little girl Charlotte, behind missus was our boy Howie. All children are little miracles but in Howie’s case, maybe a little more so.

Having spent his first six months at Sick Kids, he’s been in and out since. He’s doing better now. If scrambled eggs, mashed squash, pieces of pork fat and the odd cheese and skinned apple are considered, then half his diet is solid foods.

My father had five sons. He had no namesake among his grandchildren until that little boy came along. I tease dad it’s because he was a drinker as a young man and it’s taken this long to forgive him. Dad can take a joke; he’s been a teetotaler for over a half century.

I know the Kurdish will name a child after a relation but only once deceased. However, while flirting with our family’s genealogy, I discovered it’s a Catholic tradition to name a son after his grandfather. I chose to honour my father.

Now aged eighty-eight, dad loves that little boy.

Mother Nature makes more boys than girls outside of times of famine for good reason. Boys die in childhood at a far greater rate. If they survive birth, the risk of death by misadventure or accident is a sad corollary to a boy’s existence.

When my first son reached age 25, I breathed a big sigh of relief.

In addition to Howie’s medical challenges, at one time he’s also been surrounded by a dozen specialists at a hospital trying to dislodge something he swallowed. His throat is very narrow, about as wide as a good sized pen. Not much room for choking mistakes.

He’s fallen off a swing and moved his bottom front teeth back. Another time he actually got stuck in a toilet toddler seat, bent in two, wedged in tighter and tighter as time went by, and had to be rescued by fireman.

 

Of course, I wasn’t there at the time. The pictures tell the story.

As a man, I realize I cannot be around all the time. There are long days when I’m away from my wife and kids working where they must fend for themselves. All I can do is provide for them as best as I can, making sure they are safe when I’m at home, holding them close to my heart when I am near.

But today we almost lost him. While his mom kept her eyes on the road travelling at speed down the highway, the boy grabbed the unused seat belt from the middle spot, twirled it around and around somehow until the full length of it was unfurled from its spring-loaded mechanism. Then placed it over his head.

It locked down tight. The more he moved, the tighter it became. There was no slack with which to back it off. It wasn’t a matter of unwinding it from his head because he’d twisted it over and over first, the way you tighten a tourniquet, and then inexplicably put it over his head while his mother drove down the road.

His thin neck and airway were encircled, being crushed as if in the grip of a snake.

Luckily, just as his big sister Charlotte alerted her mother, missus glanced in the mirror and immediately noticed his colour.  In her horror, she barely registered her daughter’s words for what she saw struck her like a bolt of cold fear.

Her boy was gray, on his way to blue. She saw the belt wrapped around his neck.

At three, whimpering sounds emanating from his mouth, he couldn’t countenance the gravity of his predicament.

 

Missus pulls over and springs into action. Yet, for all her efforts, she can’t get that belt off him. It won’t back off because it’s fully extended. By some unlucky fluke, he’s wound it around his neck in just such a way his every movement or any attempt to loosen it only made it tighten.

The belt had turned into a python refusing to relinquish its prey.

Mel knew the only way out was to cut the strap. She searched frantically for scissors or something in her console. Finally, with the boy fading, in a panic she jumped from the car and attempted to wave down passing cars.

The first ones going by waved back.

Just then she realized 911 help would never arrive in time; moreover, she was overwhelmed with crushing defeat considering that little Howie could come to this: a self-imposed death choke on the side of the road.

She was trapped helplessly trying to hold off some of the pressure from the kid’s neck, unable to release for an instant to call for help, a situation made worse because her phone was out of reach in the front seat.

 

However, someone had spotted her wild gesticulations from way down the road.

A lone driver pulled in behind her.

A young soldier in combats emerged from his vehicle.

And like all young men who live their lives ready for action, he came prepared.

One look at the boy and a tug on the belt to assess the severity of the locking choke and out came his weapon: a hunting knife used to “cut up tires at work.”

A couple of efficient slashes at the belt and the tightened noose released its fatal grip on little Howie’s neck.

The frightened toddler returned to his distraught mother’s arms.

Of course, she was a mess by this time.

Contemplating the death of her child, one she’d nursed and kept from the grave for nigh on four years,  a veritable soldier for motherhood herself, the next few minutes passed in a blur. She’s unsure if she even blubbered inadequate thanks to the mystery man.

She took some time to compose herself while sitting in her driver’s seat, no doubt glancing behind her to look at her children for reassurance.

When she finally dried her tears to see well enough to drive, pulling away she noticed the rescuer had stayed there too. He waited patiently in his car parked behind her as she gathered herself, as if still on duty, gallantly ensuring he was the last to leave the scene.

She hadn’t even asked him his name.

Well I found out his name is Shane Chafe. A heavy duty equipment mechanic from Newfoundland newly posted to Ottawa in service of our nation at National Defence Headquarters.

My mother was born in St John’s, Newfoundland.

The island’s history and culture have been part of our clan’s fondest remembrances of her. She had 10 pregnancies in 12 years, bearing nine healthy children. Her entire lifetime was spent singly devoted to her family.

She knew our little boy before she passed away a couple of years ago. It was at home, surrounded by all her adult children and husband of sixty-two years. She had supported us in so many ways in Howie’s first few months of life, seeing him through his roughest patch.

Unfaltering throughout her life in the practice of her Catholic faith, my mother sent us an angel today.

Not a pink cherub with a glorious set of wings floating on a cloud looking sweet and pure and full of God’s grace. No.

She sent us a man.

Charlotte calls him a warrior. “Daddy a warrior came and rescued Howie” she told me excitedly from the upstairs window of our house almost as soon as I pulled into the driveway this evening.

It’s not often that one gets the opportunity to thank someone for saving your boy’s life. I’ve had to do it before. There is no limit to the depth of gratitude I feel for this young man and his exemplary actions.

What are the chances the universe would put this exact person with these skills in this place at this critical time of need? This was divine intervention if there ever was such a thing.

While others drove on by, sedated, unaware of the life and death drama at hand, this man acted like men do.

He had the courage to stop, to bravely assess the situation while panic ruled, and then acted decisively to protect this little boy’s life.

And his words to me later?

“I’m just glad the boy’s fine and it worked out,” he said. “I’d want someone to stop for my gal if she was in trouble and I wasn’t around.”

You betcha soldier.

Mr. Shane Chafe good sir, I owe you one.  You deserve a medal.

You’re this family’s hero and we’d like everyone to know it.

Corporal Shane Chafe: Hero

© CKWallace 2017

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Toasting a nephew’s 18th

Dearest Brother Gavin.

I appear before you and your Ottawa clan with only love and wisdom, here on your 18th birthday.

Regardless of whether you can buy beer in Quebec or Alberta, and not in Georgia, when a man is old enough to don a uniform to fight and perhaps die for his country, he is undoubtedly a man.

And think for a moment of all of your experiences to date, everything that has brought you this far. All your trials and missteps, lessons learned along the way.  These are behind you now.

And think a bit about what you know; adding the sum of your knowledge to date and you will probably immediately realize you have much to learn. It’s something you will say to yourself again at 30, 40, 50 and each decade beyond.

And think about your parents. Think about your father.

Realize now how all of us inherit the temperaments of our fathers and our father’s fathers. You will have a great deal of Barnaby in you, and in turn, some Howard Carew Wallace, some Howard Vincent Wallace, some Thomas Patrick Wallace, some John Wallace and even some of his father, our founding immigrant Thomas Wallace.

Each of these men will echo endlessly down through time in you, as well as other men and cherished women who have come before you and contributed to your being. One day you will echo endlessly in others.

You are the culmination of two centuries of improvement, of 200 years of refinements in the search for freedom.

For that is what each man lives for: for freedom.

That is the past. You have the future to look to. Your growth will be based on how well you negotiate and improve on the temperaments of the male predecessors from which you came.

Never to be rejected, only assimilated and improved upon. You are a Wallace.

This is a journey each man must take alone. Oh, you will always have your clan by your side, and if not physically, at least in spirit. But your travels in spirit and wisdom are yours alone. It’s as if you are lost in the forest and no one is coming for you; by your own wits you must now find your way home, to freedom.

I have no earth shattering advice for you. Well, actually, I have plenty.

The first is to watch for key decisions. You will know when these occur because of their difficulty. These are the moments upon which a life turns. Make a good one and advance, a poor one and retreat.

It is these times when you must take your time and consult widely amongst your trusted circle, family and clan, uncles and siblings, advisors and trusted individuals.

To do that you must keep these people close to your heart. Attachment to others is our greatest need. “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man a piece of the continent, a part of the main,” said John Donne in Devotions.

Connection to others can mean your life or your death; you must choose wisely outside of your clan for who these people will be.

When you make such decisions, have a goal in mind and work it backwards from there to the moment you are deciding your direction.

Other than that, realize that everything in life worth having will come from doing that which is good for you, for those around you and for your society at large. You will find service to the greater good to be the fastest way to fulfillment.

And you must develop your personal power. For men, it is through their careful cultivation of power over their lives and power wielded for good that brings them freedom. Your life will be a series of battles, with some defeats and many victories; each a death and a rebirth, each another step to freedom.

Power will also get you the attention of females. Women are hopelessly attracted to men of power and confidence. To know this is to know the secret to unlocking the doors of love.

Which brings me to this book:  it’s called The Way of the Superior Man. It is used, slightly dog-eared as the best books often are. If you have the balls to read it at your age, it will answer many of your questions. I can answer the rest. Seriously. Or ask Uncle Matt. He knows a thing or two.

It is the book I would have written. When I read it, its eloquence was so precise that I bowed to the author in respect. I will one day write a sequel.

It will teach you many things if you dare read it.  Among them: how to handle premature ejaculation using an ancient eastern breathing technique.

And if you find the notion of becoming a Superior Man daunting, I’d ask you to consider not fear as fear; instead… think of fear as excitement. Fear is but a call for action. Action is the only thing the universe recognizes.

So with much love and affection, hope and goodwill I say:

 

Go forth my young nephew. Be bold.

 

True and Free.

PARENTING SIMPLIFIED

Kids need to orient towards a parent. It is how nature made us.

If that orientation is broken or weak, your children will orient elsewhere.

It’s just like a parent-less baby duck or goose bonds with a human, or a doll or a cat or a dog, imprinting and following them around as if they were its mother. You don’t want that.

Video games, drugs, risky behaviours, poor choices in friends and an over-reliance on peer groups are some of the ways a teen will make up for a lack of connection with a parent or parents or family.

What the heck do peers know? In general: not much. It’s scary how little.

Orientation is often the issue when kids go off the rails. And, after age 14, it becomes more difficult to maintain parental orientation as time goes by. Can you reclaim orientation? Yes, indeed you can. Why? Because teens want desperately to be rescued from themselves. Desperately.

So the heart of parenting is connection. It’s worth repeating. It keeps it simple. The key question to ask your self is this: Is what I’m doing going to increase connection… or weaken it?

If it increases connection, you are probably doing what nature intended. If it weakens or severs connection, that is wholly unnatural. Unnatural, I say. It goes against the natural order of things.

Ask yourself this question often; make it part of your approach.

So to me, it’s ALL about connection. Focus on connection right from the start. When parents realize it’s really this simple, many aha! moments ensue from its simplicity. Connection is surface simple but vast and deep in practice.

To connect, you need time. Not “quality time” so much as just time spent in connection. Safe, secure, predictable. The need to belong is universal. It’s largely what drives us in life.

From connection, the child will feel “valued.” Feeling like you matter to someone or a group of people is at the heart of attachment–our primary psychological need.

Connection’s opposite is loneliness. We do a lot of messed up things out of loneliness. How many of us have been in a group of people in our lives… and felt lonely? It sucks.

Imagine a child or teen feeling lonely while in your house? As part of your family? Happens all the time.

From connection and time and a sense of value, you can coach a child or teen to anything. What you want to teach them is self-discipline.

I don’t mean bootcamp discipline. Rather, the ability to delay gratification. It is the single best predictor of a successful life.

Intelligence helps a person live well but the advantage stops at just above average.

No. It’s self-discipline that counts.

Know any intelligent losers? Of course you do. We all know plenty.

Know any self-disciplined losers? Doesn’t happen. In fact, the two are opposites.

We could talk about how feminism is ruining the cultures of the western world. Dare me.

Or how the banking system uses interest to create scarcity and competition; its unrelenting need for growth forcing more parents into work to earn for their families. Double dare me.

But in the end, it misses what’s important. It’ll be the rare person who gets to 80 and says they wished they worked more or took up yet another cause.

Very few get a diagnosis of terminal cancer with months to live and wished they had a Ferrari.

No. Time and again, in the end people wish they’d spent more time with their friends and families, especially their children. Connecting with loved ones folks.

So just focus on connection. If you get that right, most of everything else takes care of itself. By putting connection first, everything seems to fall into place. It’s nature’s way.

Here’s a pithy quote:

“As long as we feel safely held in the hearts and minds of the people who love us, we will climb mountains and cross deserts and stay up all night to finish projects. Children and adults will do anything for people they trust and whose opinion they value.” Bessel Van der Kolk.

Find it early, find it late, you must find love. We must all find love, and it starts with the family of origin. Ideally, it’s where we learn how to love and be loved. This must be part of your legacy to your children.

Connection is your key.

© CKWallace, 2017

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Father’s Day, 2017

 

Howard Carew Wallace, my Chief

It’s Happening to Me

 

I have to admit, it’s happening to me,

It was something I could not foresee.

Decidedly, I’ll just let it be.

 

Oh, I may have dreamed it long ago,

But being so young, I did not know

Of all that was to follow.

 

Despite it all, for the life of me,

And my attempts to live contrarily

Now resigned, eerily,

 

For the truth is, I’d no longer rather

By this living eulogy you’ll gather

I’m turning into my father.

ckwallace, 2016

 

18 June, 2017

 

Today is Father’s Day. Dad has had more than sixty, each one earned.

 

Like many boys, my father is my hero. Though there came upon our relationship a darkness that lasted a decade. Even during this estrangement, there were lessons unfolding for both us, perhaps, more so for me. Though, it’s hard to tell.

 

It was my father who inadvertently gave me my animal totem when he told me at the age of fifteen there wasn’t room for two roosters under the same roof, and since it was his roof… What a great gift.

 

Regardless, eventually we got over it and I metaphorically became a cockerel (three children too!). Not so bad when you consider that the bird stands for pride, honesty, courage, vigilance, arrogance, strength, watchfulness and flamboyance, all traits I share with my father.

 

On top of that we are descendants of Celtic tribes, who considered the rooster a creature of the underworld, serving as a messenger of the hereafter, screeching out warnings of danger and calling out to the souls of those fallen on the battlefield. Perhaps my father knew I’d be an envoy from darkness, sent to share light.

 

Forgiveness is one of life’s greatest tests of virtue. It was my father who taught me this. His father was a troubled man, a WWI veteran with an impatient irascibility about him that bordered on meanness at times. War does that to people.

 

Dad was a dutiful son to his father right to the end. My father wrote a short account of his father’s passing for our family site at trueandfree.ca. Reading about how he sneaked in to hold his father’s hand at the very end of Gimpy’s life, until his father’s hand returned the faintest of signal and then, before him, was no more, serves as a beacon, a triumph of kindness over anger, of putting love first despite all else. It’s an image I continue to hold dear.

 

Of course, my father also taught me patience… using golf as his instrument. Hitting that damned little white ball all over Eastern Ontario with passion and commitment required enormous patience. He set an example, we followed.

 

My father’s invitation that we golf with him meant that along the way, I also learned behaviourism. Intermittent reinforcement being the strongest reinforcer is plain to see in the game: you hit close to a hundred shots in a typical round, most of which are going to be not so good. But there will be one that’s absolutely amazing. One shot that makes all the pain of the rest of the shots dissolve away like salt in warm water.

 

In fact, I won the family’s last golf tournament with a perfect seven iron on a par three that bounced once just before the pin and almost went in, landing a foot and a half away from the hole. The rest of that day’s game? Less memorable. I could curse him or thank him for the gift of golf, depends on the day. But I keep coming back. Patience indeed.

 

I learned to accept homosexuals from my father. While still just a single digit in age, I spied a sister cuddling her younger sibling while watching TV, and called them lesbians.

 

I was invited for a chat in the inner sanctum of my parent’s room. There my father asked if I knew what a lesbian was. Of course, I really had no idea. He explained that it was a woman who loved another woman. He added that it was just how they were made and that, in the end, they were just looking for love like anyone else. With that understood, I was dismissed. It was the 1960s.

 

Once through the homophobic peer pressure of my teen years, I returned to that wisdom. With maturity, I gained a greater sense of justice. Those words came back to serve me: “just looking for love like anyone else.” It was all the justification needed for tolerance and understanding. Simple, effective, and just.

 

Later, at some occasion the subject came up again, this time with some of my adult siblings around. In one of dad’s famous quips, he said: “Sometimes, you just have to brush your teeth, close your eyes and keep an open mind.” I’m sure that ended the conversation. I’ve never had the nerve to ask him about it either. Some things are better left unsaid.

 

My mother taught me to read but it was my father who made books available. We had bookcases all over the house. Even now, when I imagine a room, I see a bookcase there. Dad made it perfectly normal to sit and read, all day if necessary. Learning is my top strength and dad’s influence is never far.  I’m mostly a non-fiction type and I have some of his old books. The pages are yellowed and delicate like rice paper; each one a treasure. Like my father, I have a book habit. Not so bad an addiction at all.

 

When I began to scribble words of my own, it was my father who helped me along, patiently correcting my stuff with his editor’s pencil. I still look over the notes he put on texts I sent him.

 

He also taught me to be frugal about using swear words in my writing, despite dropping F-bombs most of his life. In one of his juiciest lessons, as a kid he told me swearing was “good old fashioned Anglo-Saxon expressions of emotion.” I was allowed to swear, just not at him or at ma. He wisely figured that as we grew socially we’d soon learn from the reactions of people around us and temper our language accordingly. How very true…

 

Dad taught me to be honest. As a younger man, I didn’t know anyone who was, so it mattered not as much. Over many years of conversations with my father, I’ve watched as he found just the right words to describe a subject.

 

He’d go to lengths for precision’s sake, keeping reference books nearby to look up a fact or a definition. What emerged for me from the way he did this was the need to search for truth. There was truth, there was lesser truth, and there was falsehood. Often the lines between them are blurred and hard to discern; but truth is there, every time. It just takes a little effort to find.

 

Watching my father meant learning to dig a little deeper, to broaden the scope, to see a larger or more refined view. And in this way, he taught me that intent mattered. By filling in the history of a subject, a population, or a place, we learn something of the motivations of people, even nations. We do not exist alone. Having seen more than fifty countries during his navy service, I have visited the world through my father.

 

As a young man in Ottawa growing up during the seventies and eighties, I went to practically every large rock concert and saw many smaller bands that came to town. I had an extensive collection of vinyl music from the heyday of rock and roll. Later, my tastes grew from rock to blues to funk and jazz. All of these genres form the basis of my musical identity, so can anyone explain why it is that I now listen almost exclusively to the CBC?

 

As I write this, a collection of opera is playing on a second laptop nearby, someone’s favourites uploaded to a YouTube channel. I think it started when I put a radio in my garage.

There, puttering around, doing something handy, I found opera and the classics to keep me company.

 

As a young boy, watching my father at his workbench, with old tools, each one a place to return to after use, is one of my best memories. Opera still plays Saturday afternoons at one, perhaps just like it did back in the day on my father’s little radio. The smell of wood, the sounds of sawing and hammering, and the possibility of fabricating something out of raw materials left an indelible impression on me. Perhaps the radio keeps me close to dad when I’m away. After all, the CBC teaches, just like my father does.

 

My father taught me about love by way of his example with my mother for the sixty two years they were married before she passed away. Theirs is a love for the ages, and no mention of my father’s teachings is complete without also mentioning ma. I heard his sweet reassurances to her in her final hours. It was essential attachment, a juxtaposed tragedy and triumph of human love.

 

Though, for the record I’d best explain that it was probably more my mother’s patience and virtue that lay at the foundation of their longevity as a couple. What a beautiful gift that was. It meant that you could be as faulted as my dad, even as annoying at times, and still be loved. There is hope for us all is what it says.

 

I could write much more about my father and his impact on me. It’s easy to get carried away with this kind of thing, writing words in ways he taught me, listening to music he influenced me to hear, searching for truths the way I learned them at his knee.

 

Like the time he told me it takes a hundred years for an immigrant group to acclimatize to Canada, several generations—something I still hold as my benchmark of understanding. After all, we are all immigrants here.

 

Or when I was worried about being a father for the first time: He, with nine children of his own, said to me: “Babies are like little miracles, son, they don’t take up much room, they really don’t cost much, and somehow, all of us find a way to move over a little bit to make room and welcome them into this world. You’ll do fine as a father.”

 

I’ve used those exact words countless times with new fathers and each time they have reassured as much as I was over three decades ago.

 

I believe attachment to each other is our most fundamental need. My father told me of the people from where I came. By widening my understanding of our family’s history, I got a sense of my place in time, and how I live at the crux between the many who have come before me and those after. If we exist within each other as endless loops reverberating down through the ages, knowing your ancestry means you are never alone. My father is part of me, and I continue to pass along his fine lessons to those who follow.

 

Rather than reluctance at becoming like my father, glimpses of him that show up in my life are hints of a re-discovered familiarity, and it gives me strength. My father is who he is, unapologetic, unafraid, and unique: good personal aspirations for any man. I welcome the part within me that is him, like an old friend sent to keep me company, as an elder looking in on my life with love and compassion.

 

I’m very proud to call myself his son. So happy Father’s Day my dearest Dad, may you live to a hundred.

 

 

 

© Christopher K. Wallace 2017

 

Father’s Supper

 

I remember my sister-in-law brought her co-worker, a Mexican national, to my house one day. While we chatted, he told me how his father came home everyday to his family back in his village. Tired, hungry, done with the day’s challenges, home was his father’s refuge.

Father would sit at the table while mother would feed the man of the house traditional Mexican food: tortilla, taco, enchilada, etc. While he ate, his children would take turns sitting on their father, so happy were they to see him. Mother would stand dutifully by and see to it he had his fill. If he wanted more, at his signal she would place extra food on his plate.

The man told me his father never objected to his children literally climbing all over him like they did. I think there were at least several of them. He just went about eating his meal, often sharing part of it with the kids. Father never refused one child his attention, acting as if this was how it was supposed to be. He wouldn’t flinch when one of them climbed over his shoulders, onto his head even, put a hand in his face, or hung off his back or neck while he ate.

When he was done, his mother would take away father’s plate and the children would stay to play and talk with their father.

This young man’s name happened to be Angel and what he told me has been my guide at meal-times since. He has no idea how easy it made things: To let go and just allow it, embracing the disorder to find connection underneath.

I’ll never forget that story. It’s now part my own…

ckwallace © 2017 all rights reserved

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GOODBYE GODFATHER

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Gilles Chenier passed away this week from cancer at age eighty-eight.

He lived two doors away from my parents on Falcon Avenue in Ottawa for more than six decades. He had a pool table in his house when I was a kid. This was the height of cool in this youngster’s mind in the 60s. Imagine that? A table in the basement…

I remember coming back from my first communion where Gilles and his first wife Marie had become my godparents. I was just sort of hustled through the ritual, not really getting it. The idea of having godparents didn’t register either. I saw it as a plot to foist me on another family where I would be barely tolerated or even ostracized. I was often in trouble for one thing or another in those days and our house was a little crowded. I remember my mother and Marie talking about things that day, though I couldn’t tell if they were discussing how I was dressed and the ceremony… or when the hand-off would occur.

Someone baked a large cake shaped like a lamb—for the Lamb of God. I’m pretty sure my new godmother had either arranged it or baked it herself. I was so impressed; there was something in all this for me after all. It was covered in white icing and a lot of coconut. I thought this was inspired decorating. It was a decadent treat for a boy who came from a family of nine kids. I can’t resist coconut to this day.

Our families were connected more so because my mother and Marie were pals. Through the years, it was understood that the Chenier kids were an extension of our clan. In an era that saw sixty kids living on our small block, Gilles’ two sons and daughter from two doors over were like one of us. The house between us was occupied by Gilles’ father, whom we called Grandpa Chenier. He roughed in the basement rooms in our house for my father. He also grew a large back yard garden each summer and had a quiet and patient side to him with us kids.

Tragedy struck my godfather at the very height of his powers as a husband and father. He and his wife were backing out of a driveway after music lessons for his beloved daughter when they were struck by a drunk driver who had crossed the center lane, killing his little girl. This broke her mother’s heart, her survivor guilt drowned in a secret alcohol habit for many years. When the family finally discovered what was going on and intervened, she was days away from death from cancer. She had kept this information from everyone. They had scant time to say goodbye.

I moved on from my parent’s neighbourhood and saw my godfather only here and there over the decades. Recently, I returned to my hometown to be near my aging father. On occasion this summer, I’d see Gilles out on his porch taking in some fresh air. I took these opportunities to go and rekindle our relationship. He was accepting and grateful for the company. He had terminal lung cancer and was sent home to die. Drink and smoke whatever you like, he was told. Several times the missus and I with our two children in tow sat on his porch and steps with him and his dog and talked about life. Once my father ambled over with me to sit and visit for a while.

He’d remarried and outlived his second wife, Simone, her leaving him a little pug named Simon. My children delighted in visiting with Gilles and his little dog. They were surprisingly well behaved and Gilles was patient and kind and sweet. He was grandfatherly.

He was too old and too experienced and too short on time to mess around with polite and safe small talk. Open and forthright, he cut right to the chase on every subject we discussed. What a great lesson it was to witness and be a part of: all of us should speak and act as if we have little time left. By way of his example, this was part of his gift.

I talked to him about how people who die don’t really leave us. I explained how I thought the idea that we live in our own bodies and minds—separately from those around us—was an inadequate way to describe human reality. I said it is more likely that a part of us resides in others just as a part of them remains in you. That we exist in each other is a more appropriate description. And that people continue to echo endlessly on down through time in those who have known and loved them. Though the part of me that might reside in you becomes uncertain after you pass; the part of you that resides in me unquestionably remains.

I had taken a risk telling him this. Who did I think I was? But his answer surprised me.

At the time, the traumatic event in Nice, France had just occurred. Gilles told me that he’d been thinking of his second wife Simone and how they had walked the streets of Nice on a trip, the very streets that were shown on the news. He said he could picture himself there as if reliving those moments all over again; like she was still with him. It felt so real he said, and it happened often, he added. He said he believed me. He said, “You know, Christopher, I think that’s true.” I was relieved and happy for him at the same time.

He was an interesting man who only ever worked for one family: the Ottawa Greenbergs. He mentioned when he was a teen he took an evening course in bookkeeping at an academy on Dalhousie Street in Ottawa’s Lower town, a stone’s throw from Parliament Hill. In those days, the area was an enclave for poor Jewish, Irish and French Canadian families.

One day on his way home, the family matriarch, buxom Mrs. Greenberg, leaned out an upstairs window as he walked by and asked him to confirm what she’d heard, that he was taking a course in bookkeeping. After answering yes, he was invited by her to join the family business. He told me he didn’t know much about bookkeeping because he had just started his course but the auditors who did the company books got him set up and working.

Minto Developments went on to build much of the nation’s capital residential and commercial developments over the following decades. Gilles Chenier worked there his whole career, retiring as vice-president 40 years later.

Another interesting anecdote was the matter of a pension. Gilles recounted that once he caught Mr. Greenberg in a good mood, he could be approached about anything. Since Gilles was one of the top company numbers men, he picked his moment to bring up pensions for Minto employees. The answer was as baffling as it is amazing. Mr. Greenberg told Gilles it was a really good idea. But, any man who devoted his life to working for the Greenberg family would never have to worry about a pension. And that was the end of the discussion.

At age eighty-eight, Gilles was still receiving his weekly salary from Minto Developments though he’d been retired for over thirty years. On top of it, he still got his Christmas bonus every year too, just like any other employee still on the books. And all this was done on a handshake. It was a time of high work ethic and loyalty long gone. If Gilles hadn’t told me these things himself this summer, I might not have believed them possible.

He also lived in an era that saw the deep sacrifices of The Great Depression mold people’s attitude so that they were ready for the great post-war boom of the 50s, 60s and 70s. Besides courage, perseverance and grit, he also had character and charm; a handsome man with a booming voice. He appreciated a pretty girl.

My father and I sat with him on his porch this summer, reminiscing over the six decades they had known each other on this street. My sister saw us and came by to say hello. After warm kisses on both cheeks, Gilles got a big welcoming hug. Unbeknownst to her, and while she was still in his embrace, he stuck his tongue out at my father as if to say, “I’m having my way with your daughter.” We nearly pissed ourselves laughing.

And that was another lesson from Gilles. His body racked with tumours and growing weaker by the day, he chose to laugh. Resigned to his fate, he could have moaned and been consumed by self-pity. No. That was not his style. Instead, he looked forward to one last fishing trip with his sons, laughing every chance he got.

He was an inspiration, and for what it means, it was an honour to call myself his godson.

Goodbye sweet godfather. You are not gone at all.

 

gilles-chenier-3

 

CKWallace,

© 2016, all rights reserved

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KITTEN CHRONICLES

 

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Though we had a cat in the house as I was growing up, I’ve used TG fear to ward off cats ever since. By knowing just enough about Toxoplasmosis Gondii to sound convincing, over the years I’ve talked my partners into backing off kittens… for all our sake. You look up the actual term if you need to. It’s enough to say it’s a kind of germ warfare that tricks mice into liking cats. Yes, you read that right; and it seems potently unnatural to me.

Of course, having a dog is a whole other story. I lost that battle. Well, I may have sort of lost the battle…but I sort of won it too. You can read about it here: Debating Dogs.

Anyways, back to cats… sort of. My friend and former roommate Mariko often said that I needed to have a daughter. It barely registered that these were moments when my sensitivity to a woman’s plight was perhaps lacking. I would agree, as usual, with the odds of what she was saying. I would say, “That may very well be true…,” before carrying on. Her words come back to haunt me regularly. You see, I have a little girl now. I think of Mariko often.

The point is that little girls like kittens. And there’s no way TG matters to her.

So from the time she could speak the word cat, my little girl has been angling for a kitty. Add to that, wouldn’t you know it her mother also happens to be female. Confounding things, she was also a little girl once too. And furthermore, she remembers what it’s like to be a little girl with a desire for a cat of her own.

All this to say there has been an active campaign at my house for a number of years on the kitty front. Of course, we had a dog. Unfortunately, I had to put her down before my daughter’s recall began in earnest. I suppose for most people memory’s start is somewhere around three or four  years old, when a great consolidation of neurons gives way more or less to permanent pathways of remembrances.  My girl came out of this period with kitten on her mind.

It was a bit risky to even show her old pictures, lest we’d come across one with our dog Maggie May in the background. Charlie would point and ask, “Who’s that?” I’d offer what meagre explanation I could, but all that did was set the stage for the next part of her gambit: we had a pet once; we could have a pet once again.  Iron-clad logic.

Children are like that, especially in those early years: marvels of perseverance.
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So this is how it was when we found ourselves recently relocated on 200 acres of land just south of the nation’s capital. We left our pretty little spot In Cobourg, pop. 18,504; and just off the main provincial highway between Montreal and Toronto. Our property faced the expanse of Lake Ontario; our lives having settled into a comfortable groove, surrounded by the very best people and that small town feel. Missus wanted a yard for the kids. It was an argument no morning sunrise could counter.

We arrived to this acreage without domesticated animals. Though, after an uninhibited summer in fields of grasses as tall as they are; with ample frogs and snakes to capture and examine; with dragon flies and darners buzzing all around; with spiders to wonder at by day and fireflies to marvel at by night; with birds nesting and feeding within reach; with bats out from the attic zig-zagging around at dusk; with deer and rabbits and fishers and foxes and turkeys walking about the yard, and mice and vole burrowing and scampering all over, it’s more like a certain wildness influenced my children at ages five and almost three. We had animals-a-plenty, was my thinking.

Howie teetered while standing when we arrived in May. By the time he had his third birthday at summer’s end, his once spindly legs are newly muscled from all the running through open space, climbing over everything in front of them in great adventures with his sister, played out daily in full force at the forest’s edge. He’s eating better than ever, and he’s become notably wilder, in a good way: in a way that blends.

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And Charlotte, by early August, after careful training by her mother, having learned just when the vegetables were ripe and where to step and where not to step, took me out to the garden and showed me how to pick fresh parsley. “This is how you do it daddy; this is enough for what she wants.” All I could do was defer to her expertise with thanks.

That time, after her explanation about parsley, she stopped after first motioning towards a small clearing not a hundred yards from the house and declared, then asked a question, then declared again.

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“When I grow up… no wait… when I grow up, will you still be alive?” she questioned, looking at me uncertainly for a moment.

Charlotte is practical about these things after losing her grandmother almost two years ago. We’ve had many talks about death and life, ours and others. With as much wonder as respect, I learn a little something from her each time. Perhaps I reassure her in return. I often do this while envisioning Mariko standing silently by, perhaps in approval, unseen, reminded once again.

I thought for a moment and said, “Yes, that’s in about 20 years so I should still be here.”

To this she said, “Well then, when I grow up, you better call the workers in and build a house for me right over there,” pointing to the spot, “and I’m going to stay near you so you can visit every day. I’m going to become a farm-girl.”

I don’t want to sound melodramatic but somewhere deep inside just a little piece of my heart warmed to melting when she said that. I wondered if others get this kind of thing said to them… ever in a lifetime. I may have even shook my head and looked up, wondering how the heavens could have blessed me with this kind of devotion.

She continued, “And we’ll move all your guns and weapons into my new house so I’ll be safe.”

“But, daddy doesn’t have any guns, Charlotte,”

She says, “What about the coyotes?” Ah, I think to myself, that’s where this comes from.

“Oh you’ll scare them off when you’re bigger Charlie; they’re afraid of us mostly. It’s only when you’re small like you and Howie that we have to be careful about them; that’s why daddy doesn’t let you go into the forest alone. But when you’re bigger, they’ll run away from you. Plus, I’ll always be near.”

She considered my answer and seemed satisfied.

A little while later, she came into the garage wearing coverall jeans; showing me how she’ll dress when she’s a farm girl. She asked for my advice about boots, remarking that farmers don’t have bare feet. Soon, she was walking around with her flowered rubber boots and her mother’s gardening gloves on, ostensibly to help me pull up a patch of bull thistle but really she spent her time exploring for bugs. That day she found a beautiful black and yellow spider.

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So, you can see that’s what I was up against on the cat front. A little girl who unbeknownst to her has my heart held captive. Her reinforcement, a mother, my missus, a gal who ended up providing me with fresh vegetables all summer long while gardening in a dress and who can start her own gas-powered tiller.

Oh, and she gave me not one but two kids, neither to be ashamed of.

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I could feel my resolve weakening as each summer day in the century old house wore on. The place needs a lot of work so no chickens this year, but the whole question of adding a menagerie of critters to our lives seems natural. Or maybe it was just that I am learning to relax and let the seasons of my life evolve as they might.

You see, it’s a full complement type place. They tell me, if you’re going to garden you’ll need animals on the land to replenish the soil. A couple of cows or cattle should do it. The chickens will spread manure around nicely. And since the forest encroaches from all sides, sending out saplings like scouts to colonize open space, we could use a few goats to keep it at bay. If we’re going to have cows and goats and chickens, a few pigs might as well be in the mix, and turkeys and ducks. The idea really: what animal could you legitimately say no to?

Once fences go up, any beast could live here. Wait a minute; perhaps I’m ahead of myself.

 

It was about 10 at night when the missus shrieked, “A mouse!”

Standing in the kitchen she swore one zoomed past her. We searched and sure enough, a mouse hole was uncovered high up the baseboard under the kitchen cupboards. How was that missed by the renovators? The place was built piece-meal early in the last century, and had been left empty for a year or two before a hasty remodel. Why wouldn’t it have mice? That’s probably a better question.

Off I went the next day to fetch mousetraps. Sure enough, the following morning after that, there for all to see, a good sized mouse, crushed and dead in the trap, right along the wall between the bathroom door and the door to the basement, peanut butter smeared on its face.

It traveled along the wall, I noticed. Typical for rodents… unaffected by toxoplasmosis…

Missus pipes up, non-stop: “We’ll need to get a cat! My girlfriend keeps cats on her acreage and they never come into the house… but they keep the mice problem down! She hardly feeds them… just enough to keep them around… and no mice! They’re farm cats; they make their own way and do their job. If one dies or is eaten by a coyote, there are plenty more where that one came from! We’re in the country now!” All this said in one breath.

I was a little surprised at this. Since my missus can barely kill a spider and won’t lift a swatter to swat a fly, this sudden pioneer-woman attitude was refreshing. I may have rolled film in my mind, picturing her next year slaughtering chickens, blood splatters on her dress and entrails on the floor, going about doing what is necessary for our survival. It was all so… primal.

Charlotte pipes up: “Yes daddy, let’s get a kitten. I’ll look after it and the cat can eat the mice and we can play with it.”

“You’re suggesting an outdoor cat?” I mumbled in reply, before leaving for work.

“Yes, an outdoor cat,” was the consensus reply.

Look, I’m busy. I don’t have a lot of time to spend on this stuff. I went off and forgot about it.

In the evening, my sweet woman announced that a lady just around the corner was giving away cats. She’s like that, my missus is. She finds more free stuff online than anyone I’ve ever known. Sells a fair bit of old stuff too, or gives it away. She’s a trader at heart.

So it was that while I was out to work the following day, missus and children were at the vets spending $145 on de-worming meds and whatever. Mel had a picture of the kitten and a naming contest on Facebook which I followed between appointments in the city. Her friends joined in. Creative bunch they are.

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Of course, I opened my big mouth and offered up a name combination to include most of the best suggestions. And it’s my compromise that wins the day. She’d be called Miss Molly Fuzzy Patches; Miss Molly for short. I’m getting a nagging sense by then, not sure what, just an unsure feeling buried by my distractions at work, only later realizing it was a clear case of déjà vu.

So the outdoor cat comes home and the women in the house are pleased as punch.

The first evening, with the cat now an official member of the family, I suddenly realized that the mouse in my kitchen wasn’t outside. No. it had been scampering across my floor.

It dawned on me, what good was an outside cat if the mouse was inside? Inside the very house the cat was supposed to be protecting. I imagined inside mice lining up at the windows in the still of night and taunting the misplaced feline outside about the absurdity of the situation. Outside cat, inside mouse; what was I thinking?

So Miss Molly began her life here… inside.

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Charlie carried her all over, and the cat mostly slept with my daughter. Missus thought it was “adorable,” and the rest of it. Turns out, Molly purrs as loudly as my wife snores. I swear, it’s like a John Deere tractor idling. Where? You guessed it, at the end of my bed!

Not satisfied with my daughter’s company, the darn thing first tried to sleep up beside me at times, actually sharing my pillow. Instead of being out roaming the halls looking for vermin, pussycat’s in my bed waking me up like it had some right to the best comfort we could offer. It was like it knew who was running things… and did not consider me a threat in the least.

The first few weeks did not go well from my point of view. Add to that, Miss Molly had to practice hunting. Sitting on a window sill and killing a house fly stuck buzzing around and eating it is a small start but one I appreciated. That the fly weighed nothing and was about a ten- thousandth of Miss Molly’s size also dawned on me. Nevertheless, I saw this as progress and was prepared to cut her some slack.

But the nighttime habits of cats don’t mesh with my sleep. It was about the second week in that missus mentioned she thought they might be nocturnal; something I could see would be useful in the rodent control department. Presumably killing time before killing mice, in the dead of night Molly would knock around and chase whatever plastic toy was left on the floor, of which there is no shortage in my house.

I’m already bi-phasic—getting up in the middle of the night to spend a cycle reading or whatever. And I generally sleep well but lightly, as if one hemisphere of my brain is left on alert while the other side rests, dolphin-like if you can imagine.

Add to this, my youngest often wakes up for no reason, or gets up a 4-5 am and refuses to go back to sleep. “Go back to sleep Howie,” I’ll hear the missus hiss. A few moments of silence will pass, and then “No!” said firmly and matter-of-factly.

This cat was becoming a sleep deficit tipping point. Add to that, all it caught its first two months was a tiny little mouse, looked like a baby to me. Nevertheless, this was cause for celebration all around. After torturing it under the porch for what seemed like an inordinately long time, Miss Molly finally ate it down. OK. Good sign. And you want to sleep on my pillow right? Ah…no.

So it was that I had occasion to visit a dairy farm down the road a bit. This turned out to be a serendipitous stop. Looking for a way in, I happened upon the missus of the farm feeding calves in the nursery. Instead of asking her about my reason for being there, I exclaimed, “This place is awesome. Can I bring my kids to see it?”

Five hundred cows were busy lining up on their own for a turn on the milking machines. The whole place was organized into herd groups and running efficiently. She answered with a big friendly smile, “Sure, anytime. We milk twice a day, 4:30 am and again at 4:30 in the afternoon”. I said I’d be back with the family later in the week. After a pleasant conversation, I left her to her charges and went to search for her husband to talk business.

That Friday, I was back, her confessing she never expected me to return. There I was with Howie on my shoulders, Mel and Charlotte on foot. The place was humming by 5:00 o’clock. The larger herds were being milked by her sister in law—another gal with a great smile and an unmistakable efficiency about her. Meanwhile, Susanna oversaw the feeding of the new calves, as well as the cow equivalent of an ICU—where a half-dozen cows were on watch because their production was low. They got her full attention.

She was being assisted in the calf nursery by a coterie of kids, the ones belonging to the scattering of bikes we saw strewn about the path outside the barns as we arrived by truck. The ten and twelve year olds went about feeding and laying fresh hay down for the 30 odd new cows. Younger kids showed up, presumably siblings. It was these kids that got Charlotte’s attention, for each of them held a cat.

There were cats everywhere. We saw at least a half dozen in our immediate surroundings, maybe more, in three different sizes. As Susanna offered to let Charlotte try milking a cow, the Holstein beside it dropped at least a full bucket full of sloppy manure from its rear-end at a five foot height to splat all over the concrete floor. Charlie was splashed and froze in place as the excrement hit her face and clothes. A quick wipe and reassurance from Susanna failed to convince her that getting close to these critters from the back end was a smart thing to do. After all, they were twice her height too.

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Mel took a turn at the cow’s teat while Charlotte returned her attention to the kittens.

It was then that Susanna suggested we take one home. There are ten here she said, we can spare one easily. After quickly conferring with sister, she re-confirmed her offer, saying, “Take a cat home, please… or take two. “

The negotiations began, but not with the adult doyennes of the milking barns. No. it was with their kids. One of the young boys, maybe six or seven, suggested we find a cat elsewhere. Yeah that’s him in all his cocky countenance in the picture up above. I countered that we already had a cat—establishing a stronger frame—like we didn’t really need your cat.  He countered by asking where we got it. I told him my wife had picked it up from a lady nearby our house. He suggested we return and get another cat from her. Nice counter, I thought. I knew I was in thick; this was to be no lay-down sale.

And so on it went. His negotiation skills were considerable. It felt nothing short of weird to find myself advocating for cat ownership with this cadre of kids. He held the high ground: these were his cats and his place and he had possession. But there I was, against cats in general, shooting down this kid’s objections and re-closing as I went. I was fighting for Charlotte now, maybe a part of me making Mariko proud.

I appealed to the group, befriending each of them. I converted most of them, ending up with allies. Most of the kids were for Charlotte taking home a cat. Of the six kids there, two held out—the little boy and his cohort little sister. Try as I might, there was just no convincing them. I respect loyalty to cause.

But Decision Maker Susanna was with Charlotte. Sorry kid, I don’t need you now, I thought. She was concerned little boy’s defense was impolite. I had to let her know that I was not offended in the least by a little feistiness. In fact, I admired him I said, throwing him a bone of victory in what was really a defeat. I hadn’t convinced him. In another situation, he would have had my backing. But with my little girl involved, the balance tipped against him in sacrifice.

Some of the cats had six toes, suspected interbreeding, she said. Here’s where my missus stepped in, examining the candidates and a choosing black and white male with five toes. The kids had named him Sketch. He’s pure barn cat; milk and mice his diet.

 

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All the way home, the idea of two cats in the house dawned on me. I think I was caught up in the moment back at the barn, one of those occasions where I relented against my better judgment. Or perhaps it was just the universe speaking to me again, through the voice of women as usual. I’m not sure which, but two cats in the house was out of the question. Missus suggested I build a cathouse.

The faster I can build an outdoor cathouse, the better, I thought. So I had a version from scrap wood built in hours and placed it just so against my shop. It has a back door out which the cats could escape down an old gopher tunnel under the garage in case a predator attacks in the middle of the night. Fishers are a mean lot when hungry and we’ve seen them in the yard.

 

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Perhaps I was just being hopeful. Not about the predator, but that the cats would actually use the cat-shack and live outdoors. At this point, all I knew was to not stand in the way; to be helpful in the directions things were going, towards outdoor cats, without seeming to be cruel by insisting on it. Both the cats took to their new abode like they knew it was for them. I was relieved, knowing there’d be trouble if those cats stayed in the house. I had to walk a fine line here.
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We compromised: instead of living outside all the time, the cats overnighted at first in our mud room. We let them in for visits and the kids scurried after them for a time mornings and evenings. Then, they are gathered up and put out in their night time accommodations. The two cats didn’t get along but after a couple of cooler nights, they’re snuggling like old pals. At first renaming the new cat Fuzzy, Charlotte decided to keep the name Sketch. I’m not sure why, but perhaps she realized it was more fitting.

We’re thinking we might build something in the basement so they can come and go in winter. It was from there I figure the mice came from anyhow. It’s empty, moist and had flooded while the house sat empty and the power to the sump pump was shut off. Now tidied up but still old and dirty, it’s a perfect place for cats and mice.

As for their mouse catching prowess, it’s coming along nicely. Within a week, Sketch had caught one right next to the house that seemed as big as his head. I think he’s teaching Miss Molly too. Or it’s just that she’s taking longer to take on the larger ones. Truth is, they quickly adapted and couldn’t wait to be let outside in the morning. A couple of quick calls at dark and they’ll appear out of the shadows.  Sketch comes to my little girl; Molly comes to the missus.

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Unbelievably, the missus and daughter are now alright leaving the cats outside all night. They don’t even come into the mud room, having abandoned it completely after a week or so. And their fur has become thicker, more luxurious. These cats are looking great.

The missus has been guided in her care and control of these animals by her friend. She was brought up a farm-girl. Her father used to let her take his pick-up truck to high school, as long as she kept the horse trailer attached. She can shoot and skin and make the kind of hard decisions that need to be made living amongst critters, wild and tame.

The missus and her often send each other pictures of each other’s kids at play. The internet is great for connecting isolated rural moms. Spying a cat indoors in the background of one of these routine pictures brought the missus an immediate rebuke. “Why is your cat in your house?” her friend demanded to know.

 

You know what else is pretty cool about cats, at least outdoor cats? They’ll walk with you.

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When I gather my little troupe and romp down the trails surrounding the house, hundreds of acres to explore, those two cats follow like scouts, each taking up a side in our mutual exploration. Miss Molly and Sketch use this opportunity to go a bit further afield. We may not even realize they’re with us because they’ll disappear into the bush. Here and there they emerge, as if checking on our progress.

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And back home, entering the back yard I’m inclined to find them lounging on top of their cat-shack. They watch, sitting like sentinels, spying, stalking and pouncing on all manner of rodents who dare to show. Missus is pretty happy to find the cats working the inside caged area of her garden, keeping nibblers at bay.

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These are now working cats. Just like she said they would be. How nice is that?

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At her girlfriend’s suggestion, missus got a few bales of hay from one of the local farms and stacked them all around the cat-shack for insulation. When Auntie Sharon visited a couple of weeks ago, she knitted some cat mattresses now carefully placed inside. Those cats love it in there, and don’t even try to come in the house much anymore.

This is turning out way better than I could ever have imagined. Way better. Before winter’s cold, I’ll build a cat-door to the basement they can access. It’s there the most likely ingress of rodents will occur. This way, we’ll keep the cats on their meat diet, and alive, and accessible.

I’ll also look like I care; because I really do. In the end, that’s all that really matters. In deference to all the women who continue to teach me so much, I’m paying attention. I’m also humbled to be someone’s hero.

In which case, what’s a little toxoplasmosis?
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©CKWallace, October, 2016, all rights reserved

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DEBATING DOGS

 

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Pets: I’m not for them at all. In fact, I’m completely against dog and cat ownership. I want nothing to do with either. I’ll tell you why.

The thing about pets that we forget is that they die. Oh, I know. You’re not supposed to talk about that bit. But, it’s true. The little critters worm their way into our hearts and lives and then we outlast them. Of course, along the way, all manner of itsy bitsy life lessons can be learned from cats and dogs, and other little creatures, but saying goodbye is always hard.

My father is 87 years old. We never had a dog during the time I lived there as part of a family of eleven, but we had a cat called Brindle Shit Brown. Of course, my father named that one. It was born high up in an apartment building and the mother cat had dropped the baby cats off the balcony one by one, presumably inviting them to live elsewhere other than in those over-crowded conditions. My father continued to have a cat in the house long after I Ieft home.

Dad says that it so crushed him to see his cat pass away a few years ago that he’s not interested in ever getting another. Too hard, he says. His last little pet used to come out mostly when no one else was around and sit on his lap while he read in his big chair. If ma was in the room, then it would sit between my mother and father, keeping an exact space within an inch of the halfway mark of each of them. It was as if it was intentionally reassuring them, showing no favouritism, both having earned its love, or whatever it is that cats offer us.

I’ve had a few pets myself over the years. I used to keep a couple of Afghan Hounds around when I was in my late teens or so. Of course, this was back before municipal laws made it mandatory to pick up your dog shit. Those fenced in school yards in the evenings made for a perfect place to let the hounds out.

Later I learned a pretty neat trick for avoiding responsibility for the care and maintenance of a dog. I’ve had three major relationships in my life. And each of these women wanted to get a “puppy” to fulfill some kind of maternal need. Of course, to a young man, a dog is better than a baby. It’s hands down a better option.

Truth is, it was my experience with the hounds early in my twenties that made me realize a few things about pets in general. They become part of your little “family” and can no more be abandoned than a sibling or child. You have to look after the suckers. That means if you want to go somewhere, they either have to come too, or you are not going. Not everyone appreciates you bringing your oversized semi-guard dog to their homes.

I suppose it’s kind of like a farmer with horses or a milking cow. That horse has to be walked or ridden daily. Twice a day, that darn cow has to be milked come hell or high water. Dogs are a bit like that with the whole walking bit, aren’t they? Only now you have to pick up the dog shit too.

There’s something about being trained by a dog to wait behind it with a little bag until it is done its business, then feeling its soft poop through the thin walls of the plastic as you gather its offering. It stinks too. Fresh excrement is like that. And while you do it, the dog either looks at you puzzled or just goes off to the next bush or clean patch of lawn to repeat itself. I remember feeling taken for granted on the odd occasion where I’ve had to do this. Conformity costs.

Afterwards, you follow the dog home while carrying a bag of shit. Even today, driving down the road, sometimes I spot a big dog with their owner following. The misnamed master carries the required bag and it reminds me of the bull balls ornament you see some guys tie to their trailer hitch on the back of their pick-up trucks. There’s no nice image that justifies this or makes it any better. You’re still carrying a bag of shit while your dog frolics along. The owners never look happy to me. If you look at them too long, they stare back defiantly.

Over the years I learned to give in to the various gals I was with when the puppy call came. I’d first act reluctant, making it was known that I was not interested in pets. They were all the pet I needed, I’d tease. Been there, done that, I might say.
Once my position was clear, predictably we’d move to the next phase.

This is where persuasion comes in. Of course, I’m no match for a determined woman in that circumstance so it was to my advantage to realize that I was arguing a foregone conclusion. If I was losing the battle anyway, getting the best possible terms while the getting was good was my drop back position. It was a pattern oft-repeated during my years with dogs.

Oh, we’d get the dog alright. But not until it was understood and agreed to that I was not its owner, would not walk it, would not feed it, would not bathe it and certainly would not be picking up shit after it like some feminized male walking a poodle for his dame.

Now you might have a poodle, or you might be happy to walk your gal’s poodle and pick up after it on her behalf. I wasn’t. It’s just me, no reflection on you. And it was under this clear understanding that in all three of my major cohabitating relationships, we got dogs. But not big dogs, mind you, small dogs.

I once knew a fella who was a notorious gangster in what’s known as the Irish Mob here in Canada. He had a small dog too. Despite this apparent incongruence in his otherwise outward appearance and reputation as a tough and masculine male, I think it was a Shih Tzu or similar sized dog he preferred. I once asked him, “George, why the small dog?” To which he answered, “Little dogs need protection too.” Of course, in that moment the answer struck me as obvious: a dog wasn’t going to protect George; he was going to protect the dog.

After my experiences with the Afghan Hounds, I realized that large dogs as actual guards have limited value. Once I gave my second dog to a friend who didn’t have one. His place was broken into and the thieves simply piped the dog over the head and proceeded to empty him out. It left him with a large vet bill and a dog with one prominent canine tooth cracked in half and missing. Champion Kanishka of Douglas didn’t look much like a champion after that.

No. A dog around the house as protection is not a sure thing. But a dog’s hearing is so good that if you’re looking for an early warning system to give you advanced notice burglars are stalking your place, a dog is the thing. They’re also good about warning you to people innocently walking by minding their own business. And squirrels, they tell you about squirrels on your property, or scampering across hydro lines in sight of the windows. Dogs watch over their domain, like a sentry standing guard against all interlopers at the top of the castle’s walls.

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So it was that most of my adult life a dog has lived in my home. One other rule I observed: each new relationship, a new breed of dog. Seems only fair, right? What kind of sick guy would manipulate three gals in succession to all get the same darn dogs? It’s deceitful. It’s the kind of thing that happens when someone has three marriages going in three different cities. Eventually, three different widows show up to the funeral. Sooner or later, you’re found out.

No. It would be a picture in an old album that would give me away; or, more likely social media currently. I knew this so it was important for me to keep things on the straight and narrow by ensuring each one of my great loves get a different breed. Luckily, fate never challenged me to the point where one had a preference another had already. It wasn’t like I could suddenly blurt out, “No. That one’s taken!” and not look like a complete idiot. After all, I wanted nothing to do with the whole thing, right? I have to say, I got lucky.

We went from Pekingese to Lhasa Apso to Havanese. All three breeds are similar and reflected their owners to a great extent. I suppose this also reflected my taste in women. The first two gals were blondes and so were their dogs—blond hair, black mask to be more precise. The last one, the Havanese, was all black. Change was due. I suppose. Read into it whatever you like but they were three small dogs bought from certified breeders at full price.

Well, except for the last one, the Havanese. Maggie May. Mel was so grateful we were getting a dog she let me name it. Somewhere, vaguely inside me, I was troubled by this: had I reached the pinnacle of my manipulation? Or was I just fooling myself? Anyway, Maggie was bought from an alternative breeder (read not Canadian Kennel Club) and I talked the lady down from $1500 to $800. Maybe not full price but not chump-change either. It was the exception.

All of them were superb pets and provided my gals with endless enjoyment, grooming, feeding, walking and cuddling them to great satisfaction. Each of them allowed me to rise to the odd occasion and walk a dog on her behalf. Say on a cold wintry night, minus temperatures and snow swirling about. That’s when I’d step up and do the right thing: joint and lighter tucked into my jacket pocket, and walk her dog for her.

The Pekes, as they are known to their owners, snort and snuffle as their pug faces take in air. They walk around with heavy chest pushed out like a diminutive bulldog. It’s pretty hard to not find them endearing. And just as our Pekes were characters, so was their owner. It takes a special person to find the beauty in the ugly. Pekes have it both. All that breeding to achieve their distinctive look takes a toll on the cardiovascular system. Their hearts give out. They die young. I went through two Pekes in that relationship

The Lhasa Apso is a good breed: Smart and loyal little pooches and not at all demanding. They are highly versatile and when their coats are allowed to grow out, a fantastic looking animal. It takes an owner who can dedicate time and effort to grooming to do the dog justice. Luckily, this breed was suited to my wife at the time because she always looked good. I’m pretty sure we had at least two, maybe even three of these dogs during our long relationship.

The Havanese is a Cuban version of a Bichon Frise. The Bichon Frise is normally white and found in the Mediterranean area of France. But in Cuba, it comes in all colours—much like the Cubans themselves. The Havanese is good for herding chickens I’m told. Of the three breeds, this was easily the smartest. It could roll over and play dead. It fetched a toy and laid it at my feet in seconds the very first time I tossed it. You could pretend to shoot it and it would die… for food.

Here’s a question: What’s with the idea that a dog has to sleep at the end of the bed? Can’t you just say no? I have to be honest here, that’s one drawback to my system. If you sleep with someone and they want their dog at the end of the bed, they will simply say, “It will sleep on MY side.” Of course, I have answers to that. Things like: “The dog wakes me up,” or “It hogs my blankets worse than you do.” In the case of the Peke, “The damn thing snores and I’m a light sleeper.”

In my experience, these are good reasons for not having a dog sleep at the end of the bed. Each of them was accepted with sensitivity by my partner, leaving me feeling validated and heard. But even so, the dogs all slept at the end of the bed, interfering with my sleep for decades. The reason for that was the dog just waited until we were asleep, left its own bed, jumped up onto ours and settled in. I know because it woke me up each time. My gal would offer me sympathy when I complained. But no remedy. It was their conspiracy.

But for all its challenges, having a small dog in the house is a joy compared to what happens when we lose one. It’s heartbreaking. Not so much for me, but I feel for my gal each time. In some dark recess of my selfishness, a dog’s death signals release. A good night’s sleep, accidents, barking and vet bills are all welcome benefits of a pet’s demise. A partner’s sadness is not. So I understand a bit about what my father was speaking about. It’s tough stuff.

Our last dog, the smartest one by far and the one I got to name, cost me ten grand in vet bills. I say that as an aside because the real challenge was when I was tasked with putting her down myself. It was something my wife asked me to do while she was at Ronald McDonald House attending to my boy’s life as he spent his first few months at Sick Kids. There she was up every two hours all day and night feeding or pumping breast milk to give our son enough of his mother’s nourishment to survive. It was the least I could do for her.

It is a funny thing how our dogs are so much like their owners. In turn, in my case, it’s a funny thing is about how our wives are often so much like our mothers.

All during the past three years as Mel has dealt with my boy’s health issues, she’s never complained. All the emergency visits to hospital; being awakened almost nightly to attend to him for one reason or another; his eating difficulties so bad that he vomited up almost everything she tried to give him for two years straight, the odd time all over her; and the uncertainty of not knowing if he’d live or die. She was stalwart. She was like my mother.

My mother had ten pregnancies in twelve years, raised nine children, cooking thirty-three meals a day for decades while keeping a house and every one on task following her marching orders. And as soon as she could she went back to her work full-time, putting her nursing background to use first as a medical secretary and later in government for the hydrographic section of Environment Canada. When cancer claimed her finally at age 86, she died on a Friday afternoon surrounded by her nine adult children and husband of sixty-two years by her side holding her hand. My father told me she apologized to him for dying.

Maggie was bleeding out of her ass and could barely walk ten feet.

A lot like her mistress, my missus, and my mother, Mel’s mother in law, the little dog who could do so many tricks never complained. She just tried to carry on, right to the end. She would look at me through her curly black hair and those dark eyes and wait for my signal, at the ready like a good little soldier. She was so accepting of my authority as her pack mate, her alpha and protector.

I can’t say this delicately: the vets offices I called for help in putting her down were assholes. They were condescending, patronizing, contemptuous of my wife’s decision (which I was tasked with carrying out), and disrespectfully obstructionists. I ended up doing it and burying that little dog myself. I fed her steak before she went.

For the last few dogs, I’ve written eulogies. Each has been moving to me and others, cathartic expressions of a cherished being’s impact on all of us. Dogs really are a man’s best friend. I’m a bigger believer now.

This might seem inconsistent of me given I accept little responsibility for the pet’s existence in the first place. Call it maturity perhaps. Or, call it an abatement of testosterone. Maybe it’s just a greater connection to my environment and allowing the bigger picture to speak to me more directly, or through me.

It’s remarkable how often messages from the universe arrive to me in the form of a woman’s voice. I’m not sure I want to understand how that works, though I do. But watching how pained my loved ones are at the demise of a beloved pet provokes in me whatever semblance of poetic licence I can muster to try my best to do some kind of justice to their cause.

My women all loved their pets and I seek to honour their loyalty—especially as the person responsible for providing the animal in the first place. Pets are like family, and no restricted involvement rules set at the outset protects one from this eventuality. If I was a reluctant owner, the dogs made me their alpha because they recognize a deeper natural order that exists far beyond my self-interest.

Recently I moved to a 200 acre spread a few miles outside town, 20 minutes from my father’s place. Not everyone gets to be near their parents as they fade so I feel very grateful to be here. It’s also a great place to grow kids.

It’s mostly bush, very little land is cleared for agricultural use. That means the forest is steps from our back door. There are plenty of coyotes around, and we’ve seen fishers and foxes. Add to that my wife wants chickens. This is what happens you see: you give a gal a couple of kids and they want chickens. Can you imagine poultry in such circumstances without a dog to stand guard over the flock? Seems to me that is almost obligatory conditions for dog-ownership.

I imagine any day now I’ll be writing to announce how my wife and two kids have a new dog. It could happen.

Meanwhile, next time I’ll tell you how we now have not one, but two cats.

Yeah, you read that right. Not winning here. Not winning at all.

 

charlie and sketch

 

miss molly

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

©ckwallace September, 2016. all rights reserved.

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Clan Chief’s Birthday: a living eulogy

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I have to admit, it’s happening to me,
It was something I could not foresee.

Decidedly, I’ll just let it be.

Oh, I may have dreamed it long ago,
But being so young, I did not I know

Of all that was to follow.

Despite it all, for the life of me,
And my attempts to live contrarily

Now resigned, eerily,

For the truth is, I no longer rather
By this living eulogy you’ll gather

I’m turning into my father.

Today is dad’s birthday. He’s 87 years old. Each one of those years was earned.

Like most boys, my father is my hero. Though there came upon our relationship a darkness that lasted a decade. Even during this estrangement, there were lessons unfolding for both us, perhaps, more so for me. Though, it’s hard to tell.

It was my father who inadvertently gave me my animal totem when he told me at the age of fifteen that there wasn’t room for two roosters under the same roof, and since it was his roof… Regardless, eventually we got over it and I metaphorically became a cockerel (three children too!). Not so bad when you consider that the bird stands for pride, honesty, courage, vigilance, arrogance, strength, watchfulness and flamboyance, all traits I share with my father.

On top of that we are descendants of Celtic tribes, who considered the rooster a creature of the underworld, serving as a messenger of the hereafter, screeching out warnings of danger and calling out to the souls of those fallen on the battlefield. Perhaps my father knew I’d be an envoy from darkness, sent to share light.

Forgiveness is one of life’s greatest tests of virtue. It was my father who taught me this. His father was a troubled man, a WWI veteran with an impatient irascibility about him that bordered on meanness at times. War does that to people. Dad was a dutiful son to his father right to the end. (You can find his short account of Grandpa Gimpy’s death in Dad’s book about our family at trueandfree.ca). Reading about how he sneaked in to hold his father’s hand at the very end of Gimpy’s life serves as a beacon, a triumph of kindness over anger, of putting love first despite all else. It’s an image I continue to hold dear.

Of course, my father also taught me patience… using golf as his instrument. Hitting that damn little white ball all over Eastern Ontario with passion and commitment required enormous patience. He set an example, we followed. My father’s invitation that we golf with him meant that along the way, I also learned behaviourism. Intermittent reinforcement being the strongest reinforcer is plain to see in the game: you hit close to a hundred shots in a typical round, most of which are going to be not so good. But there will be one that’s absolutely amazing. One shot that makes all the pain of the rest of the shots dissolve away like salt in warm water.

In fact, I won the family’s golf tournament last summer with a perfect seven iron on a par three that bounced once just before the pin and almost went in, landing a foot and a half away from the hole. The rest of that day’s game? Ah… not so good. I could curse him or thank him for the gift of golf, depends on the day. But I keep coming back. Patience.

I learned to accept homosexuals from my father. While still just a single digit in age, I spied a sister cuddling her younger sibling while watching TV, and called them lesbians. I was invited for a chat in the inner sanctum of my parent’s room. There my father asked if I knew what a lesbian was. Of course, I really had no idea. He explained that it was a woman who loved another woman. He added that it was just how they were made and that, in the end, they were just looking for love, like anyone else. With that understood, I was dismissed. It was the 1960s.

Once through the homophobic peer pressure of my teen years, it was that wisdom I returned to. With maturity, I gained a greater sense of justice. Those words came back to serve me: “just looking for love, like anyone else.” It was all the justification needed for tolerance and understanding. Simple, effective, and just.

Later, at some occasion the subject came up again, this time with some of my adult siblings around. In one of dad’s famous quips, he said: “Sometimes, you just have to brush your teeth, close your eyes and keep an open mind.” I’m sure that ended the conversation. I’ve never had the balls to ask him about it either. Some things are better left unsaid.

My mother taught me to read but it was my father who made books available. We had bookcases all over the house. Even now, when I imagine a room, I see a bookcase there. Dad made it perfectly normal to sit and read, all day if necessary. Learning is my top strength and dad’s influence is never far.  I’m mostly a non-fiction type and I have some of his old books. The pages are yellowed and delicate like rice paper; each one a treasure. Like my father, I have a book habit. Not so bad at all.

When I began to scribble words of my own, it was my father who helped me along, patiently correcting my stuff with his editor’s pencil. I still look over the notes he put on texts I sent him. He also taught me to be frugal about using swear words in my writing, despite being an f-bomb dropping mofo most of his life. In one of his juiciest lessons, as a kid he told me swearing was “good old fashioned expression of emotion.” I was allowed to swear, just not at him or at ma. He wisely figured that as we grew socially we’d soon learn from the reactions of people around us and temper our language accordingly. How very true…

Dad taught me to be honest. As a younger man, I didn’t know anyone who was, so it mattered not as much. Over many years of conversations with my father, I’ve watched as he found just the right words to describe a subject. He’d go to lengths for precision’s sake, keeping reference books nearby to look up a fact or a definition. What emerged for me from the way he did this was the need to search for truth. There was truth, there was lesser truth, and there was falsehood. Often the lines between them are blurred and hard to discern; but truth is there, every time. It just takes a little effort.

Watching my father meant learning to dig a little deeper, to broaden the scope, to see a larger or more refined view. And in this way, he taught me that intent mattered. By filling in the history of a subject, a population, or a place, we learn something of the motivations of people, even nations. We do not exist alone. Having seen more than fifty countries during his navy service, I have visited the world through my father.

As a young man in Ottawa growing up during the seventies and eighties, I went to practically every large rock concert and saw many smaller bands that came to town. I had an extensive collection of vinyl music from the heyday of rock and roll. Later, my tastes grew from rock to blues to funk and jazz. All of these genres form the basis of my musical identity, so can anyone explain why it is that I now listen almost exclusively to the CBC?

As I write this, a collection of opera is playing on a second laptop nearby, someone’s favourites uploaded to a YouTube channel. I think it started when I put a radio in my garage. There, puttering around, doing something handy, I found opera and the classics to keep me company. As a young boy, watching my father at his workbench, with those old tools, each one with its place to return to after use, is one of my best memories. Opera still plays Saturday afternoons at one, perhaps just like it did back in the day on my father’s little radio. The smell of wood, the sounds of sawing and hammering, and the possibility of fabricating something out of raw materials left an indelible impression on me. Perhaps the radio keeps me close to dad when I’m away. After all, the CBC teaches, just like my father does.

My father taught me about love by way of his example with my mother for the sixty two years they were married before she passed away. Theirs is a love for the ages, and no mention of my father’s teachings is complete without also mentioning ma. I heard his sweet reassurances to her in her final hours. Though, for the record I’d best explain that it was probably more my mother’s patience and virtue that lay at the foundation of their longevity as a couple. What a beautiful gift that was. It meant that you could be as faulted as my dad, even as annoying, and still be loved. There is hope for us all.

I could write much more about my father and his impact on me. It’s easy to get carried away with this kind of thing, writing words in ways he taught me, listening to music he influenced me to hear, searching for truths the way I learned them at his knee. Like the time he told me it takes a hundred years for an immigrant group to acclimatize to Canada, several generations—something I still hold as my benchmark of understanding. After all, we are all immigrants here.

Or when I was worried about being a father for the first time. He, with nine children of his own, said to me: “Babies are like little miracles, son, they don’t take up much room, they really don’t cost much, and somehow, all of us find a way to move over a little bit to make room and welcome them into this world. You’ll do fine as a father.” I’ve used those exact words countless times with others and each time they have reassured as I was well over three decades ago.

I believe attachment to each other is our most fundamental need. My father told me of the people from where I came. By widening my understanding of our family’s history, I got a sense of my place in time, and how I live at the crux between the many who have come before me and those after. If we exist within each other as endless loops reverberating down through the ages, knowing from where you came means you are never alone. My father is part of me, and I continue to pass along his fine lessons to those who follow.

Rather than reluctance at becoming like my father, each glimpse of him that shows up in my life are hints of a re-discovered familiarity, and it gives me strength. My father is who he is, unapologetic, unafraid, and unique; good personal aspirations for any man. I welcome the part within me that is him, like an old friend sent to keep me company, as an Elder looking in on my life with love and compassion.

I’m very proud to call myself his son.

So happy birthday my dearest Dad, may you live to a hundred.

cofident dad close up
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© Christopher K. Wallace 2016 @ ckwallace.com, all rights reserved

Connection Forever

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It’s hard to say who suffers more during the adolescent years: parent or child. It’s a time of great change, often for both.

When considering those times, I operate on the understanding that the drive for attachment is our greatest need. Long ago, our very existence as part of an identifiable group was a life or death question, so it’s important to not take personally someone else’s striving for connection. And we know the teen brain is an incomplete entity; heck, many adult brains never seem to get past this stage. But our need to belong and the uncertainty of the teen years carries with it heightened vulnerability, an understatement most people can relate to.

The transition from family to peers during adolescence also has allies, characteristics like uniformity and magical thinking. Uniformity is striving to be like other kids to fit in. Magical thinking is the notion, “It won’t happen to me.” Teens are susceptible to these forces, especially during the whole incomplete brain thing. Knowing they have a tendency to take risks without necessarily having the intuition to apply filters to their thinking and brakes on their behaviour is something that scares the heck out of most parents.

It’s not enough to expect our kids to behave as we think we might, no more than we’d expect a four year old to make dinner. During the teen years, connection and education are your default approaches to retain waning influence. So that’s connection and education on one side; uniformity and magical thinking on the other.

Education without connection is weak. In that case, your imparted wisdom can go unheard, or be dismissed outright. Connection is an imperfect measure of parental effectiveness but represents your best shot at influence. Human beings are made to attach to each other. You either make it easy to attach to you, or people will find others to connect with.

That’s true at any age.

In his book, Hold On To Your Kids, Dr. Gordon Neufeld talks about how children can orient towards their parents or towards their peers, but not both at the same time. It’s one or the other. Neufeld and co-author Gabor Mate talk about how easy it is to lose connection with a child and see them orient towards peers, TV, video games and all manner of other influences. Using a compass metaphor, they advise imagining attachment direction in the same way you would see the needle on a compass orienting towards magnetic north.

Kids can only have one north.

But the truth is, by the time our kids are teens, we want them to make good and safe connections outside the home while maintaining their primary attachments with us as parents. We hope we’ve taught them enough to do that. The alternatives are painful, even dangerous.

As that conflict of loyalties plays out, backtalk, condescension, avoidance and outright contempt can develop in a teen’s attitude towards adults. Looking back at those years with my now adult son, I remember the fear and dread I felt at the notion of losing him. I saw the dangers; I knew the pitfalls. I was out of the house early, the result of a breakdown between me and my dad. Noticing these forces at play in my beloved little boy now grown to adult size, I was damned if history was going to repeat itself.

I used an approach that reassured him, and modestly addressed uniformity and magical thinking.

Every kid likes to hear about themselves as a child, so I sat him down and told him some favourite anecdotes. I made sure he knew he was loved and appreciated, that we felt blessed to have him in our life, but I did this by way of examples, not just by using well-meaning words that were empty of realism. I gave him things he could hang on to. If a memory was triggered and his view differed significantly from mine, I strove to understand why that was. I sought to see things from the viewpoint of his recall, taking the opportunity to find common ground between us, even apologizing for being a shitty parent at times.

“Remember when I came to the end of the school year thing where parents got to play ball with the kids. Maybe it was grade two or three?”

“I remember that,” he answered.

“We used a kind of big volleyball instead of a regular ball. I remember I was playing third base and you were at bat, you hit the ball my way. Do you remember trying to steal an extra base and me firing a laser shot from third and beaning you right in the head on the line between first and second, knocking you on your ass? You were pretty shook up for a minute. Remember the teachers consoling you while I told you to tough it out? Do you remember the looks they gave me?? Hahaha, great times son…hey, sorry about that.”

He laughed quietly at the memory. He knew stealing that base was risky.

I told him that kids who don’t get along with their parents happen in “other” families, not ours. I showed him that we’ve always been good to each other, that we took the time to understand things, and that when we had a conflict, we sat down and resolved it. I gave him examples. I reminded him of the closeness of our relationship, and the many times I backed him up. That he was part of a larger Wallace Clan with many aunts and uncles who ask about him regularly. His grandparents send gifts and cards at Christmas and on his birthday. “People in this family care about you. We are not like other families,” I said.

I also used anecdotes like this one:

“Remember your grade four teacher, tough guy martial artist Mr. Black? Remember when he blamed you for leaving the tap on in the portable and it overflowed? But you told me it wasn’t you; it was that other kid in your class. Remember how you complained that he threatened to throw you through the window? Do you remember how I told your principal that your uncle Duncan (fifth Dan black belt) and I were happy to have a word with Mr. Black about him threatening my boy? That if he wanted to throw someone through a window, he could try me first. And do you remember the principal getting rid of Mr. Black and replacing him with Madame Rose, and how well that worked out for you?”

We spoke about how he happily did all the rest of his grade school at that school. How he stayed in the French Immersion program at Norwood Park in Hamilton, just as I had attended French school as a boy. Because of this, I could speak French fluently and he could understand me. And did he remember going to the big sports day at the end of his last year before we moved to BC, where he met that young girl? “I’m pretty sure she was the first girl you kissed.” He smiled.

“Son, one of my best memories is when I got to watch you bat the winning run in and your team won your Little League Championship. Remember that?” Oh, how he remembered…

I ran a door to door sales team in the evenings at the time but I’d driven back from territory to watch his game. I caught a lot of them that way. We did some batting practice that season, especially on Tuesday evenings, the day he got to come to work with me every week. I was an outfielder and decent hitter in little league; he was even better.

“Remember in high school when you were getting harassed because you owed someone at school ten bucks? Remember how I handled that for you? Yeah, turned it right around. You see son, in this family, we have each other’s backs.” He was listening.

“I need you to know the difference between your family and your friends. I know you feel a strong pull towards your buddies right now, and that’s perfectly natural, but you need to remember where your base comes from. It’s your parents who brought you into the world and who will always be there for you. I’ll tell you why: shit happens.

What do I mean by that? Well we always think stuff won’t happen to us, but it’s just that the universe has randomness to it and we just never know when shit is going to hit the fan.” (I may have given him local or news examples of randomness–tornadoes, floods, robberies, etc.).

I told him, “No one can predict where lightening will strike next, son. God forbid, but what would happen to you if you were ever in an accident? You’re going to learn to drive soon. Think it doesn’t happen? Happens all the time. People get seriously hurt. And all those people thought the same thing: how could this happen to me?”

“Worse: what if you wound up in a wheelchair?” I said, reaching over and symbolically touching wood. “Let me tell you what would happen. If you lived long enough, you might make it home. Oh, and your buddies from school would definitely come around once you were in your chair, maybe they’d even take you for a spin through the mall, so they could look good being kind to the paraplegic. But soon enough, despite their best intentions, visits would come less and less. After a while, they might not visit at all anymore. They’d get on with their lives.”

“I mean, could you blame them, son?”

“No, I guess not,” he answered solemnly.

“But do you know who would be there? Me and your mom,” I said, answering my own question.

“It would be your mom who would care for you, change you out of your soiled clothes and empty your piss-bag a few times a day. I’d lift you in and out of the tub so your mom could wash you, and I’d build ramps and stuff so you could get around. I’d move if we needed to, buy a different car with hand controls, and get you what you needed to survive. Do you understand me here, son?”

He was quiet. Then, I went for it:

“Or what would happen if you were ever falsely accused of something in your life? Where you were totally innocent but were being used as a scapegoat. Think it doesn’t happen? It happens to both men and women. Look at that nurse in Toronto who was accused of killing babies during the time we lived in Hamilton. Killing babies, son! They went after Susan Nelles for years until she was cleared. Turns out it was all bullshit—the drugs found in the babies were a natural consequence of the autopsy process. You can look it up.”

I continued, quieter, more seriously, “And what about people who get accused of crimes they never did? Just like when Mr Black accused you as a kid. This shit happens for real. You are never immune. None of us are.”

He stared at me silently…dumbfounded. I had his complete attention.

I continued: “Look at cases even here in Canada. What about David Milgard? He was accused of raping a nurse in Saskatchewan and spent twenty-three years in prison! Rape son! And, twenty-three fucking years he did! Completely innocent! Can you imagine? And where were all his buddies? In fact, if I remember, at least one of them testified against him, saying he’d gone out that morning and came back looking suspicious. Turned on him! He was pressured by detectives looking to nail someone for the crime.”

I continued: “Everyone abandoned this guy, and he proclaimed his innocence the whole time. He wouldn’t admit it so they wouldn’t let him out. No one would listen. NO ONE!”

“Can you imagine everyone abandoning him, son?” I don’t remember if he answered.

“Except for one person: his mother, Gail”.

“She never, ever gave up on him. She worked tirelessly behind the scenes to free her son. She would protest on parliament hill, accost justice ministers. She linked up with US organizations that helped the falsely accused. This was back when there was no Internet to gather information. There was no regular DNA testing to exonerate people. Gail Milgard worked year after year, never, giving up and finally… was able to bring his case into the public spotlight. She never wavered, she knew her boy. I remember seeing her on the news at the time, and she was relentless. FEARLESS! No one cared about David Milgard or that he might be innocent. He had no one… but his mother. And what a force! After 23 years… she got him out! You can look it up.”

He sat there, spellbound.

“That’s the kind of thing that parents do for their kids. It’s how Mother Nature made them. You mean everything to me. You will feel the same way about your own kids one day.”

Then, I reminded him that he was representing himself out there in the world, but also his family of origin. That he ought to feel a lot of pride, and even an extra dose of confidence to have parents like us in his corner. That we were not perfect but did what we thought was best. We were behind him.

Also, that no matter where he went, or who he had as friends, or how many wives and kids he had, or jobs he went to, or where he lived, that here, we would always have a home for him. Here, he would always be known and accepted. Here, he could count on being loved in a way not possible anywhere else.

My boy is in his thirties now. During his life, all I did was focus on connection. After that talk, the issue was never in doubt again. And I never worried about spending quality time with him; I just spent time, any kind of time. I kept the contact between us at all cost.

He now lives 3000 miles away. He is even contemplating moving across the Atlantic Ocean to Ireland for love later this year. No matter where he is, each time I step off a curb, every time I walk across a busy parking lot, I can still feel his little hand in mine.

Connection forever.

©CKWallace 2016, all rights reserved
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