There are few things more humbling than time with a 2-year-old. I am one of the lucky ones who is privileged to be able to do so every day when my dear wife and I pick her up from daycare and then tend her and her older sister until Mom arrives home from work. We even enjoy occasional evenings. Some times are challenging but all are special and many, many moments are diamonds. The bright, cheerful, and sweet little girl is the most profound teacher I know.
Food is not merely something that sustains us but a pleasure to be experienced. Sometimes that means dispensing with utensils and digging fingers deeply into our meal. Manners matter and please and thank you are necessary, of course, but the visceral joy of some meals must involve all the senses with gratitude measured by the colour of one’s cheeks. The rituals we adults attach to food are reduced to silly, cultural affectations.
Walks offer startling moments of discovery. The spectacle of the sight and sound of breeze through the fresh, green leaves of a spring maple is something to stop and contemplate. “The tree is dancing!” “Yes, yes, it is.” The soft marvel of moss on forest rocks deserves a furrowed brow, gentle touch, and quiet contemplation. The fallen tree is a detective’s challenge. There is nothing better to awaken the soul than to have one’s eyes opened to sparkling detail.
Rain is great because rain brings puddles. There is nothing in the world like marching with knees high and giggling with glee as puddles explode. Big, long ones demand several marches with each better than the last. Imagine if we could all relax and get over ourselves sufficiently to derive such unrestrained joy from such tiny pleasures.
Nothing beats hiding. If I can’t see you, of course, means that you can’t see me, so I vanish if covered by a blanket on the couch. Even covering one’s eyes will do. It never gets old. It is kind of like avoiding eye contact at meetings when a volunteer is being sought.
Sometimes words won’t do. There are some situations where only a foot-stomping, arm-waving, tear-pouring, high-decibel meltdown is equal to the rage of a prize denied, the unfair barrier, slight, or unmet goal. Each red-hot episode is followed by a period of reflection and contemplation, a settling of the soul, a hug, and the realization that life goes on. How many of us face similar situations of frustration and unfairness that leave us raging in silence, swallowing mind and body ripping stress, and longing for the hug.
Bath time is fun. Stripping down, getting soapy and blowing bubbles while surrounded by colourful toys that float, toot, and sing is great. And there is nothing like the security of a big warm blanket and clean pyjamas. Imagine if every day ended with a long, hot bath.
Books are adventures. The world comes alive with possibilities as animals talk, kids explore, nature is kind, adults are safe, fun happens, and even in the face of danger and heartache, the ending is always happy. What a pleasure to watch cynicism on vacation.
Sleep when tired. Awake when refreshed. How simple. Routine but no schedule. And the last thing you hear before heavy eyes whisk you to dreams, whether for a mid-day nap or ten hours at night, is “I love you.” May we all be so blessed.
The best hoax adults perpetrate on children is that we have it all figured out and know what we’re doing. Far from it. We are doing the best we can, making it up as we go along, and we are always learning. The best teachers I have in my life-long quest for wisdom are nine and two years old. There is nothing like the often gentle and sometimes stark and sudden lessons of a two-year-old to stand you up, cock your head, and remind you of how much is left to be learned.
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This is a confession. I have become Statler and Waldorf. Those of a certain age will recall that Statler and Waldorf were Muppets. Watching the show on stage from their private box in the Muppet theatre, they were constantly critical, harumphing and grumping away. I felt like that last Saturday, but with a twist. My band was playing a gig and I was channelling my Muppet friends, an old fart observing, but this time from the stage watching the audience. I’d seen it before, of course, as we all have, but this time, right in the middle of singing and playing Peaceful Easy Feeling, and with only half my brain on the lyrics, melody, and guitar lines, it struck me.
You see, the crowd was good and with a line up at the door. Everyone looked like they were enjoying a good time. The band sounded tight and, like usual, we were having more fun than should be legal for grown men in public. The Canoe and Paddle pub is a gift to our community, run by great folks; it’s a gathering place for neighbours and friends and those who soon will be. But then, near the end of the first set, I noticed it.
At one table were two couples and all four were staring into phones, swiping the screens. I scanned the room. There was another young couple ignoring each other and the fun of the room, tip-tapping away. At a table with six obvious male and female friends, four were staring at phones. I counted four other people ignoring friends or spouses, intently concentrating on Steve Jobs’ gift to us all.
Are we information addicts? Is it not interesting that we can be out with friends or family, with good food and drink before us and engulfed in music and laughter, and yet be distracted by a vibration, buzz, or ding? When we tap the button to investigate are we not saying, “I have no idea who or what this is, perhaps a friend who just posted a picture of her dinner, or maybe a bomb blew up in Caraccas, but whoever or whatever it is, and I have no idea, I already find it more interesting than you and so I am going to ignore you now and check this out.” It seems to me that unless there is a babysitter back home or teenage children on the town, what can possibly be more important than the people with whom you have chosen to share this sliver of time?
Are we public diarists? Diaries used to have locks. Now they have megaphones. Psychologists often recommend that people keep diaries, or journals, to slow the pace and allow the rich rewards of reflection. Facebook, Instagram, and the rest, on the other hand, invite us to reflect by reflecting a mirror on our lives outward. We post what used to be private to the whole world. We then keep track of how many noticed and liked our latest entry and, indirectly, how many people like us. Psychologists agree that those who regularly post and read Facebook are more likely to experience angst and depression for they compare the ordinary of their lives with highlights of others. And there at the pub on Saturday were all those good folks more concerned with recording and sharing what was happening rather than truly immersing themselves in what was happening.
Do we need a witness? American soldiers moving through Italy and Europe often stopped to paint a crude cartoon of a man peering over a fence and wrote, “Kilroy Was Here”. A drive just north of our community takes you through the stunning Canadian Shield with tremendous sheered rock faces. It is tough to drive long without seeing that someone has spray painted their name, usually along with that of their true love. When our life ends, we have our name more permanently recorded, this time carved in stone. All three practices seem to be about the same thing: we have a need to let others know we are here. Our phones allow us to instantly summon witnesses to our existence without fighting a war, climbing a cliff, or dying. All those people on their phones last Saturday, while I was singing an Eagles song, were like the Whos on the clover held aloft by Horton the elephant yelling, “We are here! We are here! We are here!”
The song ended. Lots of fine folks applauded. I said thank you and glanced at those on phones. Three had put them down and were smiling and laughing with others. Good. But I noticed three new victims of our times ignoring the now. The now is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present. I may be a Statler and Waldorf grump from the wrong generation but it seems to me that the present is something that won’t last and so it’s worth savouring, for just a moment, without distraction.
The village was grumpy. Everyone seemed to be complaining about something. Marriages and friendships were fraying, folks were miserable with each other at work, children were grouchy at school and teachers were frowning too much. Old men met for coffee and biscuits each morning to gripe that things were better before. But the Queen was wise.
She gathered everyone for a meeting on the grand lawn of the village square. She announced an edict. Everyone, even the kids, was to take from the great, long table a black marker and a clear plastic bag that contained five white balls. The Queen said that everyone was to find a spot on the square to be alone, sit down, and contemplate their five biggest problems. They were then to write them on the five balls, put the balls back in the bag, retie it with the gold ribbon, and bring it back to the circle.
The people were quizzical. There were harrumphs from a few and a couple of teenagers threatened to leave. Soon, though, everyone was on their own, pondering, and writing. It took a while, but finally, everyone was back in the large circle with inscribed balls in the bag before them. The long, gold ribbons gleamed in the sun.
The Queen then instructed that at the count of three they were to toss their bag high in the air and into the centre of the circle. And for a moment, it was magical. All the bags were aloft at once, all the problems of all the people floated, weightless, for just a second, beneath the cloudless blue sky. Kids laughed as the bags landed and bounced and settled in chaotic heaps. The Queen then said something startling.
“No one’s life,” she said, “is without challenges. Everyone has troubles, regrets, and things they wish were different. Everyone has said and done things they wish they hadn’t and didn’t say or do things they wish they had. But I have good news. All of your problems are now over. You just threw them away. Now, please, wander the green, take your time, and read the balls within the bags. Then, choose any bag you wish and return to the circle.”
The people were stunned.
“Really?” asked an 8-year old girl, glancing at the mean girl who had been teasing her lately.
“It will never work.” grumbled the fat old doctor whose foot ached with gout.
“I promise,” said the Queen, “choose whatever bag you wish in exchange for your own.”
The people moved slowly, gingerly, at first. Soon though, they were walking about the square lifting bags, reading carefully, dropping them, and moving to another. There were a few gasps. The librarian began to cry at one point and needed to rest for a bit. It took a while, but finally, everyone was back in the large circle with a bag at their feet.
“Now,” said the Queen, “Take up your bag of chosen problems, return to your homes, contemplate what just happened here, and choose to be happy.”
There were broad smiles around the circle. There were more than a few hugs and even a tear or two. They all knew, as did the Queen, that after having been offered the choice, everyone, every last one of them, had chosen their own bag of problems. They all walked home, many hand-in-hand.
And they all chose to be happy.
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The village was hot, dusty, dirty, and smelled a lot like the scrawny cow that lay in the empty lot, nonchalant in its holiness. I was in northwest Nepal. Our little group was on the second day of a bone-rattling journey in an ancient Tata bus from Katmandu to the Karnali River. We had stopped for lunch in a place maps forgot. Our restaurant was a collection of ramshackle old picnic tables, six feet off the road, with black, rusty oil drums converted to smoke-belching outdoor ovens. I was swatting flies, and swallowing a mashed rice and vegetable concoction, mixed with a scorching brown sauce. It was all great. Then, a young woman I would never meet made it even better.
She was about twenty-five or thirty years old, wearing a simple dress and flip flops and walking slowly along the road with her daughter, who looked about two. The little girl fell. She wailed. Mom knelt. She rubbed the knee. She kissed it. There was a hug. The crying stopped. And off they went. The universal happened. How many parents, I thought, on that very day, perhaps at that very moment, had done exactly the same thing?
We pride ourselves on our individuality. We plot our lives and careers and make our way but the universe has a way of smiling when we do. I think of a group of friends I’ve been lucky enough to have and love since university. At the beginning, our conversations were mostly about girls. Then it was about getting married and we attended each other’s weddings. Then we talked mostly about jobs and kids. Now we discuss when we’ll retire and our latest aches and pains. We have lived different lives, in different cities, and been cheered by different celebrations and rocked by different tragedies but fundamentally, we’ve been on the same journey and handled much the same things in much the same ways.
Abraham Maslow understood. He was a psychologist who, rather than studying mentally ill people, examined apparently healthy, well-adjusted, college-educated folks who appeared to be happy and doing well. He determined that we all need the same things. We need the basics of food, shelter, and safety, and then a feeling of being loved and belonging to a group. We all want our lives to have a witness. With all that in place we can make a positive difference to someone else and that, he said, is happiness. Everything else, everything, is by the by.
Maslow took years to come up with his notion of a hierarchy of needs and spent more years explaining it. The young woman in Nepal taught her lesson in thirty seconds. We need to get over ourselves. We need to watch and listen. The universe is trying to teach us about the universal; those truths that transcend.
If allowed to do so, the universal can inform our thoughts about what our government should be doing and not doing. The universal can help us when cringing at a newscast showing people being bombed by terrorists or by planes seeking to stop the terrorists. It can shape our reaction to seeing climate change and corruption starve children in one part of the world and a greedy few allowing the poisoning and starving of more children in another. The universal can affect our opinion of folks approaching from outside our gates, wanting only to step upon the first rungs of Maslow’s ladder.
A year after I left Nepal, its government collapsed. Maoist rebels took control. Corrupt leaders had tried to maintain power with power; they had bought and used more guns. The Maoists had won the support of the people by living among them. Their greatest tactic in winning hearts was to dig wells and build latrines and schools in little villages like the one at which I had stopped. They understood Maslow. They understood the universal. They knew that our happiness is based not on the size of our wallets but the content of our hearts. They understood that the universal is found not in the palaces of the kings or the ones we choose to sometimes gather around ourselves to hide within, but rather, in places where Moms kiss skinned knees and make it all better.
The universal is all around us. I swear, it’s right there. If we pause for just a moment from busily making our apparently unique way in our apparently unique lives, we’ll see it. And if we really see it, we’ll be humbled, and changed.
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I don’t know about you, but I always just skim a book’s acknowledgments. They are usually akin to a bad Oscar speech: a list of names of people I don’t know. My latest book, Sir John’s Echo: The Voice for a Stronger Canada, was released last weekend. It’s my seventh book and this time I tried something a little different for my acknowledgments. I thanked some folks, of course, but also tried to consider what really inspired me to write. Let me know what you think.
Acknowledgments: Sir John’s Echo
Dividing and defining our Village is a river that, as Lakefield resident Margaret Laurence once observed, runs both ways. It does, you know. It really does. It is on long, slow runs along the river that I wrote this book. Oh, certainly I typed it in my office but the genuine work, the tumbling and juggling of ideas, the real stuff of writing, came accompanied by the falling of footsteps and washing of water.
And so, odd as it may seem, I would like to acknowledge and thank the river for its uncaring but profound inspiration. It reminded me that somewhere beneath its gently flowing surface, at the heart of its magic, hides the metaphor for our country. The truth and what truly matters lay not in the surface sparkles, gleaming as diamonds in the sun, but with the rocks and roots and weeds below that roil all above, offering resistance and form.
The river urged me to take a broader view, to consider more expansive ideas, deeper concepts, and to think not of passing fads and fancies that capture clicks and headlines but what really matters. Power. The power to shape, inspire, speed up or slow down, to move while lifting or, sometimes, pulling below.
That’s what this book is all about. Power. It’s the power of perpetual motion, of rugged beauty and gentle grace lying comfortably with the awful potential to direct or destroy. That is the river’s power. That is Canada’s power. That is the power we owe ourselves to contemplate; relentless power that moves even when we don’t notice, while we sleep, flexed and expressed and occasionally challenged, and while appearing to be heading in one direction in a natural, linear fashion, sometimes, flows both ways. I thank the river for encouraging my contemplation so that I might invite yours.
And what of Margaret Laurence? I thank her for being among those who taught me a love of words and a respect for the power of ideas powerfully expressed. There were others: Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, John Lennon, Kurt Vonnegut, John Ralston Saul, John Prine, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Shelby Foote, Gwynne Dyer, Paul Simon, and John W. Boyko, Sr. I thank them all.
This book began with a conversation between Patrick Boyer, Steve Paikin, and me – three men insatiably entranced by books, politics, ideas, and Canada. Patrick invited me to contribute a book to Dundurn’s Point of View series as part of the commemoration of Canada’s 150th birthday. Make it controversial, Patrick urged, stir readers’ passions and propose notions to spark debate. Thank you, Patrick, for inviting and trusting me to write and for your valuable suggestions on an early draft. I hope I have not let you down.
Thank you to the Dundurn team who embraced me so thoughtfully and supported me so professionally. I am grateful for the vision of president and publisher Kirk Howard, and for the editorial skills of Dominic Farrell, Cheryl Hawley, and Michael Carroll. I thank the talented Lawrence Martin for his constructive suggestions and fine forward.
This is my seventh book and I have lost count of the number of editorials, articles, and blog posts I have written. My dear wife Sue has read and edited every word. She brings to all I do an unparalleled editorial precision and skill and sense of when something is going on a little too long or needs to be fleshed out. She knows what it is about my work that works, and doesn’t. Her kindness, care, tenderness, wit, and love, makes all I do better, possible, and worthwhile.
I am grateful to Craig Pyette and Ann Collins of Penguin Random House Knopf who lent me to Dundurn for this project and to my literary agent Daphne Hart who encouraged me.
Being a father is one thing but being a grandfather is something else altogether. Grandchildren teach you to love all over again. Without trying, my two sweet granddaughters remind me of all that truly matters, including the country in which they will be making their lives. Canada was not inevitable and is not immutable. All that is great about it, from its stunning physical beauty to the strength and marvel of its complexity, must be not just celebrated but protected. You won’t protect what you don’t love and can’t protect what you don’t understand. Without understanding, we can sing about standing on guard but not really do the deed. It is the future of my grandchildren, and yours, even if you don’t yet know them, that renders the striving to understand, in order to protect what is worth protecting, worth the effort. I thank my grandchildren for inspiring my contemplation of the home they deserve.
Thank you for reading my thank yous. Please share them with others if you wish. I am now on the road promoting Sir John’s Echo, doing TV, radio, and print interviews, as well as speeches. It is the business part of the book business. I’m also hard at work on my 8th book. Writing is fun.
Is every child my child? Does ideology end at the bedside of a sick child? I ponder those questions every day when I watch the bravest person I know – my granddaughter. Consider this:
A healthy, happy little boy was suddenly insatiably thirsty. He began urinating a lot and often and feeling increasingly tired. His skin became thin and dry. No matter how much he ate, he continued to lose weight. A few months later he was weak, gray, and skeletal. His eyesight weakened and then his retinas detached rendering him blind. Within nine months, the now bedridden child gasped for air. Less than a year after falling sick, he slipped into a coma and, mercifully, died.
The sad part to this tragic tale is that it was not rare. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Chinese, and Indians saw children and adults die in this horrible, mysterious fashion. A first-century Greek researcher, Arataeus of Cappadocia, described the disease as “the melting down of flesh and limbs into urine.” He used the Greek word for “passing through” or “siphon” to name it: diabetes.
For hundreds of years, researchers were stymied. It was suggested that diabetics eat things that the body would have to fight to turn to urine such as almonds and broken bits of coral. It didn’t work. Seventeenth-century Scottish researchers developed a diet treatment in which patients ate nothing but blood puddings, fat, and rancid meat. It didn’t work. In the 1800s, doctors bled diabetics; every day for a week or so, a vein would be opened and pints of supposedly bad blood was drained. It didn’t work. In the early 1900s, diabetic children were hospitalized and fed only 450 calories a day. They were starved to death. German scientists found that eating carbohydrates was linked to symptoms and so they locked up diabetic children and force fed them oatmeal. Nothing worked.
An import step came when German researchers used autopsy studies to link diabetes to the pancreas. The pancreas is a small seahorse-shaped gland that lies between the stomach and spine. You can locate it by pressing your right thumb and little finger together, keeping your other fingers straight and together, and then placing your thumb at the centre of your stomach, even with your lowest rib. Your three extended fingers now approximate the location and size of your pancreas.
German researcher Paul Langerhans advanced learning by postulating that the pancreas produces two types of cells. One is secreted into the small intestine and aids with digestion. He called them external cells. The other is secreted into the bloodstream to regulate glucose levels. He dubbed them internal (later the islets of Langerhans). It was postulated that without the internal clusters of cells, sugars could not be metabolized from food and so suger entered the blood stream and gathered in increasingly high levels as the body could no longer clean and flush it out. Then the awful symptoms began.
It was a breakthrough but for decades afterward, researchers tried but failed to find a way to utilize the new understanding by artificially doing what a dead pancreas could not – extracting cells from a healthy a pancreas and injecting them into a diabetic patient. People continued to die.
Photo: Queen’s University
Frederick Banting grew up on a small Ontario farm. He undertook medical training at the University of Toronto. After service as part of Canada’s First World War Army Medical Corps, and becoming both wounded and decorated, he became a surgeon in Toronto. He later opened a small practice in London, Ontario. The 29-year-old was barely eking out a living.
In the middle of a sleepless night, he was reading a medical journal about diabetes research when he experienced a eureka moment. It appeared clear to him that when extracting secretions from the pancreas, researchers were missing the possibility that external secretions were damaging the internal secretions. The two had to be separated, he thought, and then a serum could be developed using only the internal secretions.
The next weekend, he arrived without an appointment at the office of the University of Toronto’s professor of physiology, J. J. R. Macleod, who was famous for his work on the metabolism of carbohydrates. McLeod listened patiently but was unimpressed by the young man with little knowledge of current diabetes research, without a Ph.D., and with no clinical research experience. After several more visits, Banting was about to give up when he saw the professor lean back and close his eyes. But then, McLeod leaned forward, smiled, and said the idea just might work.
In April 1921, Banting arrived at McLeod’s small lab. He met fourth-year student Charles Best who would assist. They used dogs. Banting removed the pancreas of some to induce diabetes. He removed part of the panaceas from others and then, with blood vessels still in place, sewed the severed portion just below the skin of the abdomen. He then tied off, ligated, the grafted portion and waited for the external cells to die. Internal cell clusters were then extracted, purified and processed using water at first and, as they learned more, alcohol. They then injected the extraction into depancreatized dogs. Some showed slightly positive reactions but most didn’t. Many died. The determined Banting and Best slaved away in the smelly, sweltering lab, painstakingly honing the process of removing impurities from the extracts.
In July, after a number of revisions and failed experiments, they injected a depancreatized white terrier with duct-ligated extract. Blood sugar levels dropped from dangerous highs to near normal levels. With their extract in its body, the dog was metabolizing sugar as if its pancreas was still there. Unable to estimate the amount of extract necessary, the dog died. They learned. They injected another dog that had fallen into a diabetic coma with new extract and marveled as the dog awoke, wobbled to its feet, and then walked about the room. Banting and Best were ecstatic. They called their extract Isletin.
A month later, shortly after MacLeod’s return from an extended absence overseas, Banting stormed into the professor’s office with a list of demands including a salary, more assistance, and changes to the lab. A young man was hired to tend to the dogs, biochemistry professor James Bertram Collip joined the research team, a bigger lab was found, back pay for Banting and Best was paid, and a university lecturing job was found for Banting who at that point was just a few dollars from destitution.
Research moved more quickly when Banting began using the pancreas of unborn calves that he procured from local abattoirs. The diabetic dogs began responding better and living longer. Finally, it was time
His name was Leonard Thompson. He was 14 years old. He was from a poor family and so was a public ward patient at the Toronto General Hospital. His diabetes had been diagnosed nearly two years before. He was emaciated and near death. He weighed only 65 pounds. His skin was gray, he could no longer walk, and had trouble focussing and even staying conscious. Banting explained the extract trial to Thompson’s father who quickly consented.
On January 11, 1922, two doses of isletin extract were injected into young Thompson’s backside. Thompson was too ill to even flinch. The sugar in his blood and urine dropped by 25%. It was good but not great. The disappointing results were deemed the result of impurities in the extract and so they went back to work with Collip whipping up batches like a chef trying new recipes.
Two weeks later they walked back across the street to Toronto General Hospital’s H Ward. Leonard’s condition had worsened. He was now fading in and out of a coma. The boy was given two injections that afternoon and one the next morning. It worked. Miraculously, he sat up. He smiled. The fog that had haunted his eyes for so long suddenly cleared. He asked for food. Leonard was Lazareth.
Banting opposed patenting what they were now calling insulin. He insisted that medical advances belonged to all and were for the good of mankind. A patent was eventually applied for in the names of Best and Collip and with the direction that it would be assigned to the University of Toronto. It was written so anyone could use their process to manufacture insulin but that no one else could patent the process. It thereby deprived anyone from stopping anyone else from manufacturing insulin. American legalities later led to Banting’s name being added to the patent.
True to Banting’s principles, the Indiana-based Eli Lilly and Company was afforded an exclusive deal to manufacture insulin in the United States but for the first year it had to be distributed free of charge. Toronto’s Connaught Laboratories manufactured and distributed free insulin in Canada. It was also agreed that the university would happily send the formula to any researcher in the world for free, in return for a promise that insulin would not be produced for sale.
By the end of 1923, diabetes patients in Canada, the United States, and parts of Europe were receiving insulin injections. Each represented an inspiring and heartrending story of recovery as they stepped back from death’s door. The 1923 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Banting and McLeod. McLeod shared his prize money with Collip and Banting shared his with Best.
Among the millions of lives that have been saved by the work of Banting and his Toronto colleagues, and those upon whose shoulders they stood, is my granddaughter. She’s eight years old. For three years now she has pricked her thumb to draw then test blood six to ten times a day. It hurts every time. Trust me, I’ve done it, and it hurts. She now injects herself with insulin six or more times a day. She watches what she eats and her Mom counts every carbohydrate consumed to adjust insulin dosages. It’s an awful disease but it doesn’t define her. Before the work of Banting, Best, and the others, though, it would have killed her.
We know now that type two diabetes is mostly contracted by adults and mostly due to lifestyle choices. But type one attacks children. No one knows why. For some reason, a virus that gives some kids a cold kills the pancreas of others. Today, over 420 million people around the world and about 10% of Canadians have diabetes. Most have type two. About 26,000 Canadian children have type one.
And so we are back to our initial question. God bless the determined researchers who are working in labs every day, uncelebrated, and often underfunded and underpaid. And God bless those who support the idea that our circle of community involves devoting charitable giving and a sliver of our tax money for research. We are helping people we’ll never meet. We are making all children ours. We are saying where ideological arguments should die so that fewer children will; at the bedside of a sick child.
Someday the cure for type one diabetes will be found. Banting and Best will be remembered. And on that day, I will stand with my granddaughter, and we will cheer.
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The most powerful word I know is no. I have determined to embrace its elegance to urge the bright and positive from its deceptive negative.
No to My Phone
My phone is a tool that has too often made me act like one. I shake my head at couples in restaurants tapping phones while ignoring each other and at teenagers huddled as pet shop puppies but engaged with others elsewhere that they probably don’t even know. But then I feel that drip of dopamine when the thing dings. No more.
When in a restaurant it will remain in the car. When with friends and family it will remain in my room. When in a meeting it will remain in my office. I will still use it to read news in the morning and tweet things I find funny, interesting, or infuriating, to bank, and, like now, check Facebook once every other day or so. But I will stage my coup d’état and conquer my phone by saying no to its addictive lure.
No to Coffee and Wine
This one hurts. I sing in a little pop band and about a year ago I noticed that some notes were getting harder to sustain and some actually hurt. I was dreadfully hoarse the day after rehearsals and gigs. I felt like there was always something in the back of my throat. The doctor said, as doctors often do, that it could be nothing or it could be cancer. Great. Three months later (living with those options made days interesting) a specialist said that I had laryngopharyngeal reflux. Great again. I’ll live but can’t pronounce my ailment.
It means that stomach acid has been heading up the esophagus and, without causing the usual heartburn, damaging tissue by my vocal chords. After a discussion of my lifestyle and habits, he recommended that I continue running (that’s good), cut songs at the top of my range (rats), and say no to things that cause the acid reflux (good God!).
For four weeks now I have said no to snacks after 7:00 pm, no to red wine, and no to coffee. The snacks and wine were easy. Cold turkey on coffee rewarded me with three days of booming headaches. I had been an addict. Every morning I still have a dreadful yearning for that old jolt which is, I guess, like an alcoholic passing a bar. But I’m proud of my no.
No to Stuff
Last summer my brothers and I emptied my Dad’s house. He had lived there for over 40 years and we had been children there. It was hard. Most fascinating was the four of us transitioning from smiles over sentimental keepsakes to throwing junk in the dumpster. We gave a lot to a committee supporting two Syrian refugee families and more to charity. We took a few things and sold others but most went into the big steel box in the driveway.
I have always believed, as minimalists do, that you should love people and use stuff and not the other way around. The summer experience reinforced that notion and led me to attack the relatively small amount of stuff I have. There were trips to the dump and to the charity drop off. Old records, dozens of books, old clothes, and much more went out the door. Dumping stuff was made easier by my wondering what was in the back of my throat.
Last summer reminded me of time’s ruthlessness, life’s frailty, and what truly matters in the end. It confirmed the belief that the last thing I ever want anyone to say about me when I’m gone is that the guy sure had a lot of nice stuff.
No to Negative
The Enlightenment tricked us into thinking that progress is linear and things will always get better. Last year reminded us that time moves not in lines but circles. Recall that Germany gave us Beethoven and then the Holocaust. Trump and Brexit and those now selling the same anger, fear, and misinformation and flat out lies remain distressing. But all tyrannies, whether of people or ideas, all of them, fall. Always. Think about that. Always.
It is better to celebrate the best of us than despair the worst of us. I will say no to impugning motives and being enraged by the dopy and dangerous incuriosity of others. I will do it secure in the belief that the pendulum will swing as it always does. Darkness, after all, is defenseless against light.
No to Gremlins
We all have them. They are the negative thoughts that haunt us; the little voices in our heads that remind us of mistakes and say we’re just lucky or not good enough. I have another book coming out in April. The gremlins will be shouting. Like every author I have read good reviews that make the gremlins laugh in disbelief and bad reviews that have them waggle their crooked little “I told you so” fingers. When I hear them whispering about my book and other aspects of my life I will steal their power by saying no. I will do so by acknowledging their existence and then telling them to bugger off.
So, I’m off for another trip around the sun in a year I will need to play by ear. I’ll travel confident that the power of no will bring the rewards of yes to the happiness I seek for myself and those I love.
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Summer is easy. What’s not to love about you in summer? Character, however, is only built and revealed in adversity. So anyone wanting to know you, anyone wanting to know us, has to know winter.
The leaves and temperature fall and everyone knows it’s on its way. Summer stuff gets stored, the outside water is shut off, and the sky goes purple-gray and silent as the last of the cowardly birds betray us and go. And then comes the day, snow’s first day, when we stand at the window and watch with a child’s eyes; as if for the first time. We marvel as snow too white to be real sparkles diamonds in the sun. It blankets leafless trees standing defiantly brittle amid sagging spruce and pines. And the yard becomes art.
Winter slows us down. There is no such thing as rushing out when having to first don boots and coat and hat and scarf and mitts. Thank goodness for Velcro, but a child’s snow suit still demands patience and time and then more of both when disassembled for the pee that is somehow, again, forgotten. And then there is the path to be shoveled to the car that then needs to be unburied, de-iced, and warmed.
Speed limits are for summer. All but main roads are snow-packed for months and the occasional melts turn them to pock-marked Passchendaele. Streets scoff at the oceans of salt and Sierras of sand so we bounce and creep, especially around corners with their paint-smeared telephone poles reminding us to be patient. The days shrivel. We make our way to and from work in inky darkness smudged with ghostly plumes of exhaust. Snowflakes that would be pretty if we were home with a fire and a glass of hearty red are instead headlight-engorged rockets that fire mercilessly into windshields inducing a hideous hypnosis.
Things do not speed up upon arrival. Three feet inside every public doorway stands a momentary community with their fogged-up glasses all exchanging knowing, blurry glances. Then it’s the slow, walking strip-tease, because everywhere inside in winter is warmer than outside in summer. Work places resemble used shoe stores with wet boots on soppy mats. Everyone’s hair is the shape of their hats. We approach door knobs with dread and sometimes actually see sparks. After a while, every place smells the same – wet wool and cough drops. It isn’t exactly bad and it doesn’t really matter because with the cold we’ve all been fighting for weeks it’s hard to smell anything anyway.
Winter can sometimes stop you altogether. What is more glorious than a snow day? We hear it on the radio and we’re suddenly all children. The radio also brings reports from the city’s “Thank God it’s Monday” crowd who slide and smash into one another to get to the vertical ice cube trays where they are apparently indispensable; unaware that no one’s keeping score. The wind howls hurricanes down concrete canyons that are empty of all of but the intrepid as the city-below-the-city bustles in its high-heeled obliviousness. Just a few miles away it’s all quite different.
My yard, last snow day
Township and county plows tend to the main roads but it’s always a long while before they get to most streets, so there’s time for another coffee. Kids who usually fight to stay under covers burst outside with wide smiles and bright eyes and without a screen in sight. Folks are soon in driveways, leaning on shovels and speaking with neighbours who lean on theirs. Why not? Everyone knows the game. We scrape and shovel and throw it high onto piles that seem taller than last year. The plow waits until it senses we’re done and then, only then, it thunders by with three feet of plowcrete. The shoveling army mobilizes again; there’s nothing like a good minus-ten-degree sweat.
Climate change’s thaws and freezes have euchred all but the most dedicated backyard rink masters, but the little bay still goes stiff. Nothing’s ever organized but somehow it always gets scraped and there is skating for all. Windswept days between snowfalls sometimes provide the magic of pick-up hockey with nets a ridiculous distance apart. It seems fittingly patriotic to finish a hundred yard breakaway on a frigid sunny afternoon in the world’s only country with a hockey player on its Bill of Rights.
Gravity games rule. What’s not to love about skiing, tobogganing, and sledding. Kids love the snow-mountains that grow beside the school parking lot. Look up every big or little hill and see somebody in a primary-coloured snowsuit sliding down. Evening walks offer the joy of the crisp boot-fall crunch and the smell of woodstoves that stir a deep and primal yearning that’s lovely in its mystery. The stars seem closer and clearer. Lungs burn, breath freezes, cheeks redden, and there is nothing more romantic than holding hands through down-filled mitts.
Muddy April is marvelous but brings fixing and raking and cleaning. The gifts left by months-worth of wandering dogs present themselves along with the recycle stuff that cycloned from blue boxes Tuesday after Tuesday. Purple crocuses pierce the last bits of crystalline snow. The magical, riotous tulips remind us that the world is not black and white after all. There is always that one last storm with snow as pretty as the first but we damn it this time and steal its power by steadfastly refusing to shovel it; there, that will teach it. We convince ourselves that it will melt soon enough, and sure enough, it does. And then there is green, oh green, glorious green.
Winter defines. Winter slows, and winter stops. Winter reminds us that we are not the boss. It ignites a humble admiration for the power and majestic beauty of the true boss. It invites community. Winter says that work can wait and time with family is the only wealth, recognition, or reward we need; everything else is by the by. Winter reminds us that, like those dark nights with gently falling snow or those bold, defiant tulips, nothing lasts forever – nothing. But it’s all good right now, and right now, that’s good enough.
My father is a good Dad. Every winter he created the world’s best backyard hockey rink. Well, it was the best rink in my nine-year-old world and that’s all that really mattered. It filled our large yard. It had boards and nets and benches and even lights for night games.
One frigid night my Dad was out on the rink waving the hose with that long, slow sweep that I liked to watch from my bedroom window, when suddenly, he experienced an epiphany. He went to the basement and dug out the lawn sprinkler. He carefully placed it and delicately adjusted the direction and volume of the spray. With a smile, he went in and to bed and slept with the satisfaction that by morning the rink would thicker and smoother than ever before.
I awoke the next morning to an odd banging. I stood in my pajamas with my Mom and brothers, gazing out our kitchen window with wide-eyed amazement. It was like nothing we’d ever seen. You know, it’s the little things that always get you in the end. It’s the tiny overlooked detail. It’s the ordinary and usual that you have just stopped noticing. It’s like the clothesline that had been there forever and stretched the length of the yard, diagonally across the rink. It was the clothesline that with each cascading spray, all night long, relentlessly, had dripped and dripped and froze along its twenty-foot length and then dripped and froze some more.
My Dad had woken up and turned the water off downstairs, walked up the basement steps, and stopped dead. Reflecting the dawn’s brilliant sun was a wall of ice, eight inches thick, seven feet tall, and twenty feet long. It was beautiful. It was horrible.
My brothers and I begged to go outside but my Mom was wise and held us close. We watched as my Dad wielded a shovel. At first tentatively, and then more aggressively, he whacked the wall’s base. He banged and chipped and chopped until with a mighty swing intended to crumble the thing he smacked its centre.
It started slowly at first; almost majestically. The entire wall swung up and then back and as it swung again he gave it a mighty smack. With that it all became magical. It slowly swung up and then over and then up and over again. The whole magnificent wall swung clockwise over the top and then around. Long ice shards began rocketing off in every direction. Not knowing whether it was funny or terrifying we watched my Dad throw the shovel, cover his head, and run with ice missiles soaring over and around him as the wall swung, a little quicker now, three complete times over the top and around.
It took a long while to cut up and remove the wall and even longer to get the rink back into shape. But that very night, to his ever-lasting credit, my Dad was back out there braving the cold and waving the hose with that long, slow sweep. We agreed that despite everything, the sprinkler had been a sound idea. But it stayed in the basement until spring.
Even better, though, was the idea that when he could have been warm inside, he instead devoted hours alone in the frigid dark, night after night, trading his time and toil for his kid’s fun. That’s the difference between a father and a Dad.
My Dad is 80 now and doing the best that he can. I’ve heard Alzheimer’s called a slow goodbye but I never really understood it until now. He’s fading but he’s still him. As I take care of the man who took care of me I find myself remembering the fun and funny times. The difference between a father and a Dad has never meant more.
The author, a Gordie Howe fan, on his rink.
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Last fall, after recalling some obscure lyric, I said to my friend Chris, “I’ll miss my memory when it’s gone.” Chris is a witty guy. He said, “No you won’t.” Sadly, he was right. This week has led to my considering memory over and over again and it’s left me humbled.
My little band was performing its once a month gig at the local pub, the Canoe and Paddle. As I began to count in a song I realized that I didn’t have a clue as to its first line. I have cheat sheets for some songs but not for this one and, suddenly, Billy Joel’s Still Rock n Roll to Me was gone.
I began playing the thumping guitar part, moved a bit and smiled as if my playing it so long was just part of the show, and then, in a flash, the first line appeared as if in skywriting. If I can get the first line then everything else – the lyrics, chords, guitar parts, arrangement – all click into place. And it happened. But how did it happen? And what happens, I thought, when one day it fails to happen?
It occurred again with a speech I delivered this week about my new book. Like always, I never want to bore an audience with reading so I had no notes. I was fighting a cold and was feeling awful. During the introduction I shivered with sudden chills and then felt drips of sweat. As I stood, I felt dizzy and had to concentrate on smiling and not falling. No part of me was thinking of what to say as I placed a hand firmly on the table that, thank goodness, was close by. Then, from out of nowhere, came the stories, jokes, names, dates, and everything I needed for the 30-minute talk. Where is this nowhere? Again, what happens the first time that it fails to produce?
Like every week, I enjoyed time with my one-year-old granddaughter. She is a beautiful marvel, but what else would you expect me to say? Her walking and talking is akin to a hopelessly charming drunken sailor. Her smiles, peak-a-boo and ball-rolling games, and warm cuddles send my heart soaring. But while crunching my knees on the hardwood and melting with her giggles I considered how much of all this she’ll remember – nothing.
My great grandparents’ Port Dover farm had a bench that encircled a big tree. The corn stalks across the road were as tall as mountains and the chickens in the dark, old barn were scarier than the wicked witch’s flying monkeys. And then there was the big kitchen, and my great grandfather’s stubble, and the big red swing. The farm was sold when I was six but the shards of memories remain. But for things that happened when I was one – nothing. I know things that happened before I can recall them affected and helped shape me as things are now shaping my granddaughter but my actual memories are, and with her will be, an empty well.
Like every week, I also spent time with my father, seventy-nine-years older than my granddaughter. We discussed the impending doctor’s appointment and what might have to happen. Then it did. He has all the coping mechanisms in place with a day timer always in his pocket, a wall calendar, and numbers written by the phone. The scaffolding is there with people cleaning the house and shovelling the snow. But this was one more blow, a devastating blow. Taking cabs from now on is not the end of the world but it is certainly another step in a journey that is proceeding far too quickly. He’s always been a good man and still is. But one important person in my life is growing toward her memory while another is growing out of his.
Scientists define memory as electrical brain impulses that encode, file, and retrieve information. Poets write and sing of misty places beyond the bounds of time and where people and places and smells and smiles are clearest when our minds are calmest. Who is right rests upon who we are, the machines or the ghosts within them. The scientists and poets are both right and both wrong.
This week I was forced to consider how much of what I love is dependent upon memory. I was forced to consider how much of who I love is dependent upon memory. I will never forget this week, but then again.
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If warp speed is real, then we hit it. A thousand freezing needles stung our cheeks as tears swamped our eyes. The screams grew louder until we realized it was us. When finally crunching to a sudden stop on the sand-strewn rubber mat we sat frozen in place for a second or so until I groaned, rolled, and pulled myself to my knees. I wiped my face and stretched to realign tingling vertebrae. She, on the other hand, bounded up, leapt before me, and with wide-eyed, adrenaline fuelled, fist-clenched, unbridled joy squealed, “Let’s go again!”
“Sure,” I said. What else could I say? Quebec City’s toboggan slide, on the boardwalk – the Dufferin Terrace – adjacent to the majestic Château Frontenac, has been thrilling riders for over 100 years. Speeds have been reportedly clocked at over 70 miles an hour. I believe it.
She flopped atop the 10-foot solid-as-a-rock wooden toboggan with the thin red padding and we began the long haul back to the top. At the wooden ascending ramp, she moved in front and we trudged up and up and up. With the toboggan’s red rope around my waist, I measured each footfall on the cross pieces that resembled hockey sticks and presented no guarantee of a Wile E. Coyote slip and tumble back to the bottom, taking all those behind with me.
The summit offered a 10-by-10 wooden platform and spectacular view. The gigantic sky was cloudless and brilliantly blue and yet the St. Lawrence so far below morphed the sight to black and white. Only the Lévis ferry, gleaming white in the bright sun, broke the grey, pulsating river choked with chunks of gliding ice floes all disappearing at the horizon’s vanishing point.
The blissful moment ended with a French instruction grunted and tickets taken. We assembled ourselves on the long toboggan in the narrow centre lane. A thin metal bar blocked the bow while I adjusted my legs to flank hers, propped my boots upfront, and settled my arms over her shoulders to hold her in place. There would be no flopping about with possible injury on rough barriers that demarked the lanes, nearly touched us, and would soon be whirring by. A word in French, a dropped bar, and we were off. Warp speed.
Canadian winters are not for the meek. Quebec City winters are especially harsh with mountains of snow and biting winds that whistle relentlessly up the river valley. Rather than deny winter, however, long ago the good folks of the fine city decided to welcome its challenge and revel in its glory. Observed every few years since 1894 but annually since 1955, the Quebec Winter Carnival is a three-week marvel.
A multi-room ice castle is built across the street from the magnificent, gothic National Assembly building. Nearby, the Plains of Abraham, where in 1759 the British defeated the French in a battle that still shapes Canada, hosts a festival of activities. What is best of all is that except for one crazy ride and a Ferris wheel, nothing is passive. There is no sitting down or strapping in and no watching others or screens. Instead, there is human foosball that had us playing, kicking, and cheering, dog sledding that had me leaning into turns behind the scurrying, yelping team, and hills where we dragged inner tubes and sleds back to the top to slide down again.
Forget other cities with subterranean sidewalks and malls and the hatless, silly-shod fashionable but freezing. Quebec City lives life outside with big boots, bigger coats, and even bigger toques. Forget delicate lunches in elegant settings. There are crepes, poutine, tourtiere, and stew, and then a line of maple syrup poured on a snow wall to be twirled around a tongue depressor for the sweetest and most Canadian of snacks. This is a place for practical people, enjoying unpretentious fare, and active, participatory fun. In Quebec City, low temperatures spark high spirits.
Our travelling companion was our energetic, witty, and always in the moment granddaughter who enabled us to see it all through the eyes and at the pace of a seven-year-old. Beyond the gift of her company and warm certainty of memories being forged and bonds being strengthened, she reminded us of the beauty of wonder. Her grade two French immersion allowed her to befriend a little girl in the hotel pool in a meeting of gentle sincerity. Absent were the false dichotomies of region, language, and religion, and in their place the essence of innocence.
The casual but intrepid way in which she tested her blood sugar level several times a day and accepted the insulin needle in restaurants, the hotel, and other places around town including a big police vehicle that an officer kindly offered, reminded us of her quiet courage. Type One diabetes is part of who she is. It does not and will never define her.
And then there is Bonhomme. The 7-foot tall snowman is not a mascot but an ambassador. He moves throughout the city in his traditional red hat and voyageur arrow sash welcoming guests and attracting crowds who swarm for pictures. Seldom is anyone alone with Bonhomme. Our granddaughter, however, watched, figured it out, devised a plan, and at just the right second, slid quickly from behind. His red-coated handler bellowed laughter at her cleverness and temerity. The snowman and 7-year-old exchanged a few thoughts in French and posed, just the two of them.
And at that special moment, a second in time, there was the symbol of the Quebec Winter Carnival: traditional and corny, fun and funny, retro-cool and cold, and as Canadian as you can get. And smiling with him, the little girl who remains our most profound teacher, reminding us to be in the moment, accept difference without judgement, be courageous in adversity, remember what matters, to seek fun, love goofiness, eat when hungry, sleep when tired, and to unconditionally love and be loved.
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We lie to our children. The biggest lie, of course, is that we adults know what we’re doing. Right up there with our major league whoppers is Santa Claus.
We know that Santa began as a 3rd century Turkish monk named St. Nicholas who gave his inherited wealth to the poor. The Dutch perpetuated the legend but called him Sinter Klaas. We also know that in 1823 American Professor of Oriental and Greek Literature Clement Clark Moore wrote a poem for his daughters that invented the notion of a fat man, chimneys, sleighs, and reindeer. Only much later was it entitled “T’was the Night Before Christmas.” In 1881, Harper’s Weekly political cartoonist Thomas Nast gave pictures to the poem and Santa got his red suit. We also know that in 1931, the Coca Cola Company hired illustrator Haddon Sundblom who, stealing from Moore and Nast, initiated a decades-long ad campaign based on Santa as a jolly, wholesome, kid-loving, and Coke-drinking Christmas mainstay. Cue the malls and parades.
The Nast Santa
We know all that. But we lie anyway. And maybe that’s OK. Santa is the flimsy link between the magic of Christmas and parenthood’s delicate dance. He is among the gifts we offer our children to balance our warnings about holding hands crossing the street, not talking to strangers, secret code words, and practicing fire drills at home and lock downs at school. We scare the hell out of them to keep them safe so maybe it’s alright if we temper fear with fun through a few years of Santa, the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, and our invincibility.
Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is now enrapturing the country and many others around the world with his sunny disposition and deft ability to humanize the office that seems designed to suck the humanity from any who enter. Good on him. Canadians have known him from his birth – on Christmas day by the way – because his father was Prime Minister from the late ‘60s to early ‘80s. Canadians were reintroduced to Justin on September 28, 2000, when he delivered a touching eulogy at his father’s funeral. Consider a story he told:
“I was about six years old when I went on my first official trip. I was going with my father and my grandpa Sinclair up to the North Pole. It was a very glamorous destination. But the best thing about it is that I was going to be spending lots of time with my dad because in Ottawa he just worked so hard. One day, we were in Alert, Canada’s northernmost point, a scientific military installation that seemed to consist entirely of low shed-like buildings and warehouses.
Let’s be honest. I was six. There were no brothers around to play with and I was getting a little bored because dad still somehow had a lot of work to do. I remember a frozen, windswept Arctic afternoon when I was bundled up into a Jeep and hustled out on a special top-secret mission. I figured I was finally going to be let in on the reason of this high-security Arctic base. I was exactly right.
We drove slowly through and past the buildings, all of them very grey and windy. We rounded a corner and came upon a red one. We stopped. I got out of the Jeep and started to crunch across towards the front door. I was told, no, to the window.
So I clamboured over the snow bank, was boosted up to the window, rubbed my sleeve against the frosty glass to see inside and as my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I saw a figure, hunched over one of many worktables that seemed very cluttered. He was wearing a red suit with furry white trim.
And that’s when I understood just how powerful and wonderful my father was.”
Justin and his Dad (Ottawa Citizen Photo)
Let our leader be our guide. While we can, let’s enjoy the lie. This Friday my granddaughter will open presents that came all the way from the North Pole. Her eyes will sparkle. And that’s just fine.
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A Cherokee legend has a grandfather telling his troubled grandson that there are two wolves fighting within him. One wolf is pride, sorrow, regret, anger, self-pity, and ego. The other is humility, serenity, acceptance, generosity, empathy, and compassion. The boy asks, “Which wolf will win the fight?” The grandfather replies, “The one you feed.”
I know the wolves.
For a long while now, a place I love has been in trouble. It continues to do exceptional work for its clients. But while details and some of the people change from time to time the problem persists. It is existential. The place is trying to remember who and what it is. A number of good people have become the extended period of angst’s victims, others its apologists, while too many are now hiding to avoid becoming either. It’s sad on too many levels. But it is recoverable if those with good hearts and sound wisdom speak to the right people, hear the right things, and then, in turn, are heard.
I still love the place and continue to work hard for its success and redemption. But sometimes, usually deep into long runs, despite conscious efforts, I find myself replaying conversations and situations. It is then I feel the wolves. Their fight is vicious.
Two people I love are fighting disease. There is no cure for either. The only weapons available are their knowledge that they are loved and the depths of their characters. They are doing the best they can. They are fighters. The only option for those around them is to offer support, love, and good cheer.
I know all that. But it’s just not fair. Sometimes, and it’s usually when three in the morning shadows wash across my ceiling and haunt a sleepless night that I feel the wolves. I can almost hear them.
The wolf fight rages within me as it does in different ways and to different degrees in us all. The legend is wise. The advice is sound. May I someday garner the sagacity and strength to live its lesson and starve the beast.
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Movie lines sometimes contain more truth than a philosophy tome. Consider my favourite line from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. A mother is patiently explaining to her adult daughter that Dad is indeed the head of the family. However, she adds, “I am the neck.” I love that. I might add that women are also often the glue.
I learned this truth by unconsciously absorbing my paternal grandmother’s lessons. She was the eldest of three strong sisters, the second generation of Ukrainian immigrants escaping turn of the century pre-revolutionary violence. Her mother provided Ukrainian language lessons to other immigrant kids in Hamilton’s hardscrabble east end. One day, the skinny 15 year-old was bored and waiting for her Mom to finish when a shy pupil not much older than her approached. He whispered that she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen, and that someday he would like to marry her. That was my grandfather. They were married for 63 years.
Her father was one of the first men hired at Hamilton, Ontario’s brand new Dominion Foundry and Steel (Dofasco). He arranged a job for his son-in-law where he worked for 42 years. Later, the Second World War saw North American women doing what many women and most men said could not be done; they fought the war on factory floors. My grandmother worked 8-hour shifts in heavy overalls and beneath a thick kerchief. She lifted, turned, and processed steel sheets. She was, in the vernacular of the day, Rosie the Riveter.
An old Dofasco newsletter shows her and other women smiling broadly and doing their bit with a patriotic passion and rugged determination to make a deeper point. There was celebration when the guns fell silent and the afternoon shift was let out early. Amid the cheers, all the women were given small paper packets containing a tiny bonus and a pink slip. She told me how that she would have liked to have kept working and, like many others, felt used and cheated.
(The three sisters and their parents, my grandmother is standing on right)
When her mother was failing, my grandmother made a promise. She would keep the family together and carry on the tradition of the large gatherings like those at the old Port Dover farm. The basement of her modest Burlington home was refashioned into a party room. Every big occasion, and certainly every Christmas, the room sang with my large and loud extended Ukrainian family. My grandmother met everyone at the door with a smile, kiss, and hug. She was a big woman and when you got hugged, you stayed hugged.
Long tables sagged under more food than even our army of a family could consume and then everything was packed away for my cousin’s band and the dancing. The adults got to drink a little too much and the kids got to stay up past bedtime as the old stories and jokes were told through Export A smoke, smiles, and laughter.
The last time I saw her was in a hospital bed. As I was saying goodbye she put her hands on my cheeks and squeezed them together and pulled me close as if I was a six-year-old again. Perhaps, in her eyes, I was. She said, “I hope you know how much I love you.” I said, “I do. And I hope you know how much I love you.” They were our last words.
She told the doctor that she wanted to go home and he said only when she could walk the hallway and was completely off morphine. He didn’t know her very well. She did both the next day. She arrived home and within 45 minutes she was gone. This last act said everything you need to know about her strength.
That Christmas, there was no party. Everyone was too sad. She wasn’t there to push us through our grief. There was never another party. First the extended family and then some even closer drifted further. The glue was gone.
No family is perfect. Scratch the surface of any family and amongst the litter of love and happy days glowing like Facebook postings, you’ll find scars and unhealed wounds. Despite this fact, family, no matter how defined, constructed, or shifting, is sanctuary. Family is what reminds us of who we are when we sink too low or fly too high. Family is what affords us the courage to carry on when we’d rather quit and the reason and confidence to venture forth in the first place.
Every family has one person that acts as glue and holds it all together when so much seems determined to tear it asunder. Because most men, like me, are dullards about such things and too often too self-absorbed, the job usually falls to women. They are the miraculous caregivers who become the bond between people and generations. They love without judgement. Their lives and the values that guide them become their silent advice. They kiss your cheek or kick your ass or just sit and listen, and then listen some more.
They are the women who only those with enough love can see for who they truly are. Bless these women. They, like my grandmother, are the angels among us now and forever.
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