Excerpt From No Man Is An Island

It was my friend, Denise Dufour who told me that there was no Santa. It was Christmas day and we were in front of my house building a snow fort when she said, “Did you notice that Santa was Mr. Simoneau. I knew it was him,” she said, “because of his crossed eyes.”

Mr. Simoneau worked for my father at his restaurant and he had hired him to play Santa at my house and also at Denise’s house. Denise’s father was Roger, my father’s best friend.

I had been more excited about the miracle of Santa appearing at my house and the presents he brought than to notice his crossed eyes. And even if I had, I don’t think I would have made the connection. I was much too enchanted by the fantasy to notice that behind the Santa beard and the Santa suit there was a real man. A Mr. Simoneau. And so when Denise reveled to me this truth I was crushed and I at once lost all interest in fort building or being with Denise. In my child like mind I wondered if I could still be her friend.

I stomped home and flung my red rubber boots unto the kitchen floor not caring if I dirtied it. My father was sitting having a cup of coffee. It was rare that I saw him at home, especially in the middle of the afternoon. But this was Christmas day and his restaurant was closed.

“You lied to me,” I shouted. “There’s no Santa.” I told him about Mr. Simoneau’a eyes and began to cry. Continue reading

Excerpt From Retirement and Cocaine

For the last few weeks I’ve been having a desire for champagne. And yet, I’ve nothing to celebrate. My sister died just two months ago. Why should I want champagne?

And then it strikes me. Yesterday, I taught my last class. That’s something to celebrate. It’s odd how desire comes before logic. Strange how the unconscious mind can work.

I am retiring. How can that be? Retirement is for mature people. Not me. I have too many fears about my retirement. It’s normal friends and colleagues who’ve been through it tell me. The problem, I answer, is I have never been comfortable in the normal mold.
They attempt at reassuring me by telling me that I’ll have lots of time to travel. Envy spreads across their faces. I thank them for their kindness. Try to sound up-beat but all I can think about is how foreign cities can make you feel so lonely.

Retirement is for people who know who they are and who have specific goals for their golden future. Not me again. I am still consumed with questions I asked myself when I was twenty. What will I do when I grow up? Continue reading

Excerpt From The Beginnings

My parents tried to integrate us into a Polish community. I was eight or nine then and my brother, Donny three years younger. Every Saturday morning we would trudge to Mrs. Olyshinski’s house where the children from the Polish community gathered to play. Mrs Olyshinski wore a Polish flag colored apron.
Her blonde hair was curled tightly around her pretty, soft face. If I close my eyes now and think of her an image of Robert Doisneau’s famous kiss by the hotel de ville comes into mind.

I don’t know why this is so. I never saw Mrs. Olyshinski’s husband and less her in a passionate kiss but that’s how I remember her. A Polish war bride. Mrs. Olyshinski was both beautiful and kind. She offered me cookies and gently encouraged me to mingle with the other children.

Except for a vague memory of my jumping I remember nothing of the games played. All the children spoke Polish and I didn’t understand a word. That I didn’t speak nor understand Polish made me even shy-er than I already was. I must have complained enough that my parents finally decided that I didn’t have to go there anymore although that brief experience of travelling through foreign territory changed me. It was the beginning of my lifelong search to belong.

Excerpt from The Commemorative

It has been a year now since Diana died. Tomorrow I will be having my family over for a commemorative lunch. I look forward to this, in some ways like I might look forward to a party that I am hosting and I must remind myself that this is not a party. Or is it? I think of the stages of grief and how the last stage is to celebrate what having the person in your life has given you.

I think about what Gail Caldwell wrote after she delivered a poem at her friend,
Caroline’s funeral: “For two days after the service, I carried the meter of the poem in my head, a sweet interior background to the walks I took, the laps I swam, the last thoughts before sleep. It was as though some ancient choir had taken up residence inside me, giving me this exquisite chant, a measure of my own movement and accompaniment to an otherwise unspeakable sorrow”.

As I write this I play Cat Steven’s Morning Has Broken on YouTube. Tears flow and I am not certain what exactly it is that I am crying about. The tears are a cocktail of hope mixed with sorrow; the light of beginnings with the darkness of endings; words that went unspoken with feelings that reach beyond and make me believe that we can still communicate. With more power than we ever did.

I play practically every video on YouTube with this song and read some of the comments people have written. One in particular strikes me: brought me back to why we worship God.

My mind connects to another song. This one by Alanis Morissette’s Thank U. Thank you frailty, thank you consequence, thank you disillusionment…How about not equating death with stopping.
Again Caldwell. “…What if death…weren’t a bad thing?”

This week I have felt my sister’s presence in my home. Some of her little grandchildren will come over tomorrow. I talk to Diana out loud. You can use my body as a vessel tomorrow to communicate with them, I tell her. Use my body to communicate with whomever you want to. At yoga practice the teacher always begins by asking us to have an intention. Yesterday, my intention was to be filled with Diana’s qualities of kindness and generosity and gentleness and my own of joy and calmness. This is how I want to be.

What if death weren’t so bad? How do we know? How does anybody know? We can only hope and in itself is enough to carry us through the sorrow of grief.

Excerpt From Comfort Me With Memories

And finally there is pumpkin soup. This is a recent addition to my comfort food.
Ursula brought over a pumpkin at my sister’s commemorative and I left it out on the front balcony until the frost warning.

The week before Catherine, my daughter, invited me to her friend’s parents in the Eastern Townships for dinner. Their house has the kind of distance from Mountain Road that you associate with estates. I immediately loved its outside. Grey and white. Inside it was full of art from their travels: a wooden giraffe from Africa; Some outstandingly colorful silk hangings over their bedroom that took my breath away; Shelves and shelves of jars and jugs collected from different continents. Louisette, made a fabulously delicious lamb dish which she served with fresh Brussels sprouts and barley. And when we left she gave me a recipe for pumpkin soup.

Preparation time: 15 minutes.

It took me almost two hours of preparation. I cut up the pumpkin on my balcony. (The recipe did not indicate to factor in time for clean up of your balcony after emptying the pumpkin). Nevertheless, after frying a large onion in butter and adding chicken stock along with the diced pumpkin and then putting the whole thing through the blender before stirring in some milk and freshly grated nutmeg and then topping it with sharp cheddar cheese, the soup was well worth the time and effort. Pumpkin has a mild taste and the contrast of the sharp cheddar melded well with it. I froze half of it and the rest I shared with some friends, who all loved it.

Excerpt From Regrets I’ve Had A Few

Frank Sinatra’s lyric’s to “I Did it my Way” described my father perfectly and so that was the song we chose to play at the end of the church service for his funeral. I think he would have liked our choice for he liked Sinatra and he considered himself, indeed a man of his own making.

He left his native farm town of Rama, Saskatchewan when he was seventeen, hitching rides on the top of train boxes making his way to Sudbury, Ontario. There he found himself a job in the mines and because of his hard working spirit he quickly became a boss and the stories I later heard from him about the mines were how under his supervision his team always were the best miners.

He left the mines because of he fell in love with my mother and I never once heard him talk about how he regretted leaving that opportunity behind. Perhaps it was because he found better opportunities in Sherbrooke, Quebec, where he set up his French Fry truck which, in the years that followed, he had three fast food restaurants. Louis’ Luncheonette. Everybody knew him in town. His fries were the best.

I can’t imagine my father being anything else but his own boss. He was never the kind of man to take orders from anyone. He set his rules for himself and for his children. With me he found his adversary. I think the reason I loved him so much, admired him so was that we were so alike. Yet, my relationship with him was full of renegadoes. As much as he was opinionated about Blacks or Jews or lawyers I counter-attacked with the same force defending them.

I remember once bringing home a black man. I knew darn well what I was doing. I was throwing it in his face and I knew that he would be livid. Yet, in spite of our ongoing father-daughter war I never once doubted that he loved me and because of this I came to know the borderless of love and that the heroes who you end up having are not perfect. I disliked my father for his prejudices and it wasn’t until I understood the history of his generation and that prejudices are bred and not borne that I began to give him some slack.

My father had regrets, I am certain. As we all do. Mine these days revolve around my sister. Now that it has been a year since she died I regret the most not having talked to her about her death. In this way I feel that I let her down. My own fears of losing her were so strong that they overpowered her experience and had the capacity to mask the reality staring in front of me.

I think about this moment over and over with regret. Regret for not talking about death to her. About her fears. About whatever is going through her mind. I think that if I had spoken to her about my own fears I might have prevented her death. I think about my weaknesses, my failure and how I let her down.

Excerpt From When Did She Know

Jean-Louis sees the difficulty Diana is having breathing and he begins to panic. I have never seen him like this before. He yells at the nurses to do something, can’t they see that she is having trouble breathing. Why aren’t they taking her to ICU?

Finally, the people from ICU arrive and Jean-Louis and I are alone in her room, packing her belongings: her books, her slippers, her night-gown, toiletries. Everyday belongings of a person alive.

“Why don’t you just bring them home for now,” I tell him. “She won’t be needing them in ICU.”

A nurse comes in and I ask her if she wants the flowers I had brought her.

“We’ll have to throw them away,” she says. “We don’t know if they are infected.” I forget to pick up the watermelon in the pretty blue container and later regret it. It is only a plastic container but it is as if I left behind part of my sister in that gesture, in that room, part of myself.

In ICU a very kind nurse sits with my brother-in-law and myself to explain what being admitted to intensive care means. Every once in awhile the gentle nurse drops words such as critical, very, very sick and those words stand out for me like warning signs on a highway. I process them and know that my sister is in a life threatening situation for why would a nurse spend more than half an hour with us? Why would she hand me this booklet entitled Intensive Care Unit – Information for Family and Friends as well as a business card telling me and my brother-in-law that we could call anytime. Anytime.

On my drive home I keep repeating, like a mantra, what the doctors from ICU said. If you are not better in seven days what do you want us to do? Seven days. Seven days. I miss the next two days at work. How can I concentrate. I go around in circles in my home. I do not know what to do with myself and I visit my sister. When I do go back to work I go into my coordinator’s office and break down. “It’s my sister. She’s in intensive care. She’s in critical condition.” I will need to say these words over and over to my colleagues and friends.

As I sit by Diana’s bedside I can’t help but know that if she saw herself she would want out. Her lungs have been invaded by nocardia, a common bacteria found in the earth and the more invasive aspergillums fungus. On the ventilator her condition is not getting worse but it is not getting better either.

Her partner and children have posted photos of her grandchildren on the wall facing her. She has six of them ranging from one and a half to seven. They are all healthy. All adorable.

They are her greatest joy, along with her three daughters. These are the light of her life. Now though, when her partner asks her to make an effort for her grandchildren, she shakes her head.

“She is giving up,” he tells me and cries.

There is water in and around her lungs. Recently, I heard from two different people that to be on a ventilator is similar to the sensation of drowning. When she was six or seven my father jumped into a river with his trousers and shirt on to save her from drowning. Of course this is not so remarkable because any parent should do that but what was remarkable was that my father didn’t know how to swim.

In that way of putting others she loves before herself Diana was much like my father. It is one of her characteristics. But this is not what preoccupies me at this moment as I’m sitting by her hospital bedside. Now, I think she is drowning once again and I do not know how to swim in this ocean of life support systems.

Excerpt From The Beginnings of Grief

The day my sister dies I clean the windows of my front door. My neighbor, Suzanne, is coming back from her shift at the hospital and I say, “My sister died today and all I can think of doing is washing windows.”

She comes up to me and I cry in her arms. What else do you do when you lose a sister?
You get drunk. That’s what else. A day before my sister’s funeral I get drunk at supper time. I have neither courage nor energy to make myself even the simplest of meals. In spite of being lubricated with alcohol my mind is amazingly able to remember a new café which I noticed the other day on my way back from yoga. With the false reassurance of a drunk I head out. I observe myself stumbling a few times. Concentrate on your walking, I tell myself. With determined focus I make it to the café. But for a couple sitting at the far end of the restaurant it is empty. I choose to sit on a stool at the bar and order a bowl of soup. I am careful to speak slowly, not to slur but I suspect that the waiter is up to my camouflage. My face likely shows the drunkenness which comes from sorrow.

I am beginning my grief and it feels like a cave I have been thrown into without a map. I do not know how to navigate this loss.

Mourning Has Broken

Last week I went to see Julie, who is a Reiki practitioner and I asked her about my sister, Diana. “Where is she?” I asked.

Julie took out her metal prongs and it wasn’t long after she had begun her ritual that the prongs sprung wide open. “She’s on the other side,” Julie said. “You’ll be able to feel her presence at the commemorative lunch.” Julie rubbed her arm. “I can feel the energy so strongly.”

I’m having my family over this Saturday to mark the one year anniversary of my sister’s death. These essays on grief are a tribute to her. A year of mourning.

“Ask your sister to give you a sign. Not just an ordinary sign but one that will make you know.”

Electrical impulses. I remember after her death, we all sat in the hallway waiting for the nurse to prepare her for the last visiting. None of us knew what to say. Then, suddenly, the fluorescent lights above us went out. The only ones among rows and rows of other lighting the hallway.

“I remember once reading that the dead communicate through electricity. I don’t know if others felt it but I felt my sister’s essence flash above us. She had left her body but there was something else.

Continue reading

Excerpt From Ne Me Quitte Pas

A few months before my sister died she invited my brother and I to her time share in Neuvo Vallarta, Mexico. Now, to go there without her was not something I was looking forward to. But I did it for my brother-in-law and thought it would be fun to golf and just hang out with Don, as it always is.

 Every evening I would pull up a lounge chair on the beach and watch the sun set over the pacific. One of my colleagues from work had given me the book The Why Café and I saved it to read just before the sunset as one would savor a very fine French wine. Each sunset was different yet equally spectacular and as I watched it sink into the ocean I would ponder over some wise thought from The Why Café such as: good things happen to people who are doing what they are meant to do in life or that people do whatever they have to do in order to fulfill their life’s purpose. 

Here I was almost sixty and still asking myself that existential question: why am I here? What is my purpose in life? Although I had asked myself this question over and over again from one decade to the next, I would get only fleeting answers. Nothing that was permanent.

The author, John P. Strelecky also asks the question: are you afraid of death and through his character, Casey, a waitress in the café states that those who are afraid of dying are those who feel that they have not had the chance to do what they wanted to do in life. Casey goes on to say How can you be afraid of not having the time or chance to do what you want to do when you’ve already done it?   

I watch the sun sink between two pieces of drift wood and wondered if my sister had done what she had wanted to do by the time she died. 

I sat sensing her absence in the chair next to mine. There was so much that went unsaid between her and I, especially in the last days of her life. There were no more words. Only our energy fields and mine frightened me.  

 Here’s Sting singing Jacques Brel’s great Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don’t leave Me).