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
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