Rampant with Memory

A sixties story told by a man just turned sixty

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Here is a story curiously told to me a few days ago from the lips of my brother, Sean.

A man, a woman; a father, a mother. And a friend who whisks us away because the father and mother said yes, you may take them. Please take them. That is the story but vague in the details. Why Sean and I alone? Where did we go and who was this man who took us?

Sean said we sat up front with him, this man, and Sean was in the middle; I imagine him in the middle, whether memory or not. If memory, it floats down like glass splinters but I’ll tell it anyway.

Sean beside the driver who was called Jack. Not to us, of course, because that would be rude: to call an adult by his or her first name. He was Mr. White—right? Was his name White?

Sean between us. I, against the door where if I wanted I could flee but no, because my big brother was beside me. We wore no seatbelts; it was many years ago now stretched into several decades and there were no seatbelts then and the stories live on.

I remember that I held Sean’s hand, a bit later, because he reached for it. Crossing a bridge, sister and brother, both tiny, walking toward the other side and maybe away from someone. Or toward someone. Toward a car? Another person?

I was comforted by his hand and carried on crossing the bridge; there was water beneath and tall grasses all around, enough for a child to hide in. Clouds, blue, wind light, and there was almost-fear.

Sean told me this man vanished us to see horses, far away, and that he was drunk.

“You must have done something to piss him off,” he said. “Because he slapped you in the face.”

I was four, we decided, because Sean was eight.

We drove toward home and the drunk named Jack veered into the oncoming traffic. Straight into it, said Sean, but at the last second he threw the wheel away and crashed into a gas station, after crossing a couple lanes of traffic.

“He smashed into two gas pumps then drove through the window of the store.”

Sean remembers, before the police and ambulance came, this man stashed a bottle of whiskey deep beneath the front seat.

Mom and Dad arrived, he said, and we were both in shock and loaded into the ambulance. I remember nothing of any of this. Mom yelled at her friend Jack and  threw a box of sweets he had bought for her–perhaps Black Magic dipped chocolates–into his face.

And then he disappeared from our lives. Until yesterday.

 

 

 

 

 

What makes a family?

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My brother suggested something to me yesterday that is now clamped around my heart.

It is about potential loss and the possibility of holding on. We all have the choice to deviate from–well, from family. Specifically from sisters and brothers.

People drift away, he said. Caught up by death while remaining alive.

We become orphans once our parents die and this rupture stabs us with with a measure of grief. Isn’t it something we dread in an infantile way?

In my instance I ask: who will bandage my scrapes? Applaud at my graduation? Cry when I move far away?

Freshly comes another challenge: how to continue family? I mean blood family, not the family many of us choose out of a basic desire to be loved.

The loss of original family has been experienced by many of us. Sometimes it comes crashing down and we react by creating alternative families among our lovers and friends.

I think of gay men during the ugliest of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 80s who were cast aside by “family” and sought companionship and love elsewhere in their community. Attending funerals where no one else would come.

I think of how my partner and I don’t trust holding hands in public even though we can marry and raise children together. We seek family elsewhere, a safer where, with others who share, or sympathize, with our fears.

I think of refugees to Canada forced to leave people behind to endure poverty, torture, and death; people left behind who lose their lustre, without love, and often their lives.

And the new Canadians hope for a welcome here.

But it is the potential loss of blood-family that bludgeons me now. My brother’s prescient words and the whiff of a possible reality. Once our parents are gone–will we survive? Does it matter?

I am not sure whether we will survive but yes, it matters.

Meanwhile, my partner, our son, and my friends are the ones whom I believe truly love me.

Meanwhile, I’ll bank on them.

 

 

 

 

The disappearance

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Maybe it’s easier to disappear than we’d like to believe, or possibly could believe, when we are still living. He was my second cousin, this man named John, a dull name now dust. He died a couple days ago, according to his obituary, a few sentences posted into this morning’s newspaper and I read it over fruity cereal, trying to recall this John. Not possible.

This man died, I don’t know how, only that at 63 he was too young. The notice was posted and paid for by his four siblings and included fleeting references to the woman who birthed him, Mary, and also his father, an earlier version of  John.

Why am I writing it about this no-body with the dull name? Because it recalls to me the ease we think we have when young, the disappearing act they call “estrangement”–usually from those very birth-partners who “fuck you up” (thanks to Phillip Larkin), our parents. And perhaps to the siblings who don’t care enough or have enough strength.

This second cousin of mine was absent from his family almost his entire life, that’s what I remember, something about how he didn’t get along with his father. So he fled and probably it was for the best but now he is dead and I don’t know why.

I am a seeker of stories, a teller of tales, a weaver of truths sometimes glued together with guess work.

I cannot tell this John’s story other than to repeat what I was told by my Uncle Jack (a third John!) this morning, a few hours after reading the obit, when I called to say: “Who was he?”

My uncle only recalled his absence and that nobody spoke about him.

“Was he mentally ill?” (such a question wouldn’t have come those decades ago)

“I don’t know,” he said, “I was always afraid to ask and nobody ever mentioned him. He just left home.”

Was the slammed door never again opened? Were any letters exchanged? Intoxicated telephone calls in a rusty night?

What bits of a life did his two brothers and sister find to construct their own story of this, the eldest, and now the first to die? What remained beneath his fingertips?

“He never married,” said my uncle.

Was he gay? I wanted to ask. Was that the fight so long ago?

This man’s death recalls all the times I wanted to disappear and nearly did. The long, frantic dash away from an argument, peeling off the hurt–away from the dangers of those who love. Family, is who I mean, that first family but still, the disappearance is almost always a myth until we die and are discovered by those we thought were lost.

 

Death and the birth of little kindnesses

 

Halloween Doreen

Sometimes you bounce along just like that, voila.

And then you erupt. Kaboom. And who are you now?

Esoteric questions but not really; probably not unusual at all to those of you who have abruptly and unwilling shifted into the wicked territory of death where, ironically, you are, not to flog an exhausted cliche, awakened. As I was awakened on November 5th with the death of my mother-in-law.

We were an intimate triumvirate: Doreen, Heather, and myself. In many ways, I was closer to this woman, whom I have only know for thirteen years, than I am to my mother. Not in love but in time-spent and the intricacies of details-shared. And yet Doreen was more like a friend.

Also intimate in the sense of supporting Heather, who always, always supported Doreen. Many times extending my  elbow to this woman as she slid from the car, hoisting that ubiquitous weighty black purse Heather and I always cursed. Or guiding her onto the treacherous shopping mall elevator; or up the steps to wherever.

Sometime I loved Doreen. Her face so soft to kiss so lightly. “I wasn’t hugged very much as a child by my mother,” she reminded us, now and then, abandoning her own childhood and education at sixteen to chug along in the unpredictable working life, on the line at Dunlop Tire in Toronto’s east end, a factory that is now a city park near our Leslieville home, shadowed by the CN Tower. Or in a knitting mill on the Esplanade when Lake Ontario nearly tickled her toes while on a break, years before landfill became the Gardiner Expressway.

Heather and I toast her now, each time we lift a glass of Chardonnay, we toast to Doreen who enjoyed her glass or two at the end of each day, settling in to  watch the CBC news with Lucky–her black cat who is less so, now. Heather often stopped by after work to deliver the latest stash of meds and just to check-in. Then home to me to tell how her mother was doing.

Yes, I sometimes loved her and loved her especially because I love her daughter beyond measure and that is what I now wish to describe: this latter immensity of love. And how death, this death, awakens me to the gift that is she; the gift that is Heather.

Tiny kindnesses matter, said the American writer Jeffrey Eugenides in a short story I just finished reading in this week’s New Yorker. I shall quote it in a moment but now I want to emphasize the importance of these little kindnesses—opportunities that  I once slid  past unwisely or roughly shoved aside because…because I was selfish. Because I worried about the wrong things. Because too foolishly I didn’t quite believe life could really end (and me, an obituary writer!)

Guiding Doreen’s elbow: a little kindness.

Toasting Doreen with Heather: a little kindness.

[The attached photograph was taken on Halloween night. Such remarkable dignity.]

And now: Jeffrey Eugenides.

There’s a thing they’ve figured out about love. Scientifically. They’ve done studies to find out what keeps couples together. Do you know what it is? It isn’t getting along. Isn’t about having money, or children, or a similar outlook on life.

It’s just checking in with each other. Doing little kindnesses for each other. At breakfast, you pass the jam. Or, on a trip to New York City, you hold hands for a second in a smelly subway elevator. You ask: “How was your day,” and you care. Stuff like that really works.

Sounds pretty easy, right? Except most people can’t keep it up. In addition to finding the bad guy in every argument, couples do this thing called the Protest Polka. That’s a dance where one partner seeks reassurance about the relationship and approaches the other, but because that person usually does this by complaining or being angry, the other partner wants to get the hell away, and so retreats.

For most people this complicated manoeuvre is easier than asking: “How are your sinuses today, dear? Still stuffed? I’m sorry. Let me get you some saline.”

 

Imponderable priorities while life ticks away

Next week is my birthday. I will be 53.

Fifty-three years ago, this woman–Marion Kathleen–let some doctor slice her open and pluck me out. As the story goes, seven weeks before her due date something critical happened and the professionals were certain my mother was carrying around a dead fetus. They rushed her on a stretcher through emergency.

At the last minute, according to my father, the doctor shouted: “Oh my god! This baby is still alive!”

Nice drama to begin a life. No wonder I’m a writer. But enough about me, let’s talk about Marion.

She looked so healthy, so vibrant and beautiful yesterday when I visited that I immediately snapped her picture then emailed it to my seven siblings. Oh Marion–seven live births and three miscarriages? How could you do it? You, who weighs less than 90 pounds and reached 82 on your last birthday.

I had to see my mother yesterday, because I love her so much, and because a friend wrote to me early in the morning to say that her mother had passed away during the night. This woman was also a much-loved mother and news of her death startled me awake; I quickly shifted my day’s priorities.

“Mom,” I said on the phone a few minutes later, “Can I come visit you today?”

It’s rough being 82, I’m sure it’s rough, but so too is being 53 and knowing what’s up ahead: a forced and absolute execution of childhood.

I’ve been steadily growing, slips and slides, agonies and ecstasies, since that July morning in 1959 but when I lose my mother, and my father (he’s 84 and still a mighty force; the two of them drive back and forth from Florida each year), I will truly be all grown up.

My mother was my first love and she has remained my steady love.

Today, I’m wearing this button on my t-shirt as a reminder to pay attention…shift, shift, shift away those damned imponderable priorities that mock us.

An infant daughter’s death sentence

My two elder sisters: Kathleen and Dierdre

My sister Deirdre turns 60 this month. She wasn’t expected to live longer than five years. Born in 1952, she was the second daughter held by my 21-year old mother, with six children to follow. Right from the start, Dierdre failed to meet the milestones and she looked oddly different, swollen and unfocused. She wasn’t after love.

Off slap-dash to a series of doctors.

And then the truth was revealed.

Mom, Dad, Nana, Kathleen (who was a little over a year old), and Dierdre gathered in the living room of their Anglesy home to absorb the news: Dierdre has severe Down syndrome. “Luck of the draw,” was suggested by these doctors but hopefully not voiced. And then there was the next day, my young mother curled around a non-responsive infant fresh with a haunting diagnosis.

Five years, they told my parents, and then your daughter will die. Maybe earlier, so make your plans and for God’s sake have more babies. But suddenly Dierdre was seven years old and sputtering around the kitchen while our mother prepared to slip the pasta into the pot, angling herself across a regatta of high chairs, tiny limbs reaching toward her from the newest three babies birthed since Dierdre’s news.

Dinner time in a house of small children: pots and pacifiers and squeals beneath crucified Jesus, slanting down from his wooden post above the door frame. My father was due home on the 5:45 commuter train in 20 minutes.

Dierdre pulled the bubbling pot off the burner and onto her small, unsteady self.

Third degree burns spread on her chest, her face, her neck. She still lived.

Dierdre turns 60. Old, old, they say, for a person with Downs. She can no longer walk. Probably can’t see. She has never been able to speak, so language isn’t lost it’s just still absent. She lives in a nursing home with old women who have forgotten their lives and stare vacantly at pictures of people they are said to know.

“Is this my husband,” one woman asks. “He looks like a nice man,” I tell her, twitching a new tune on her radio and returning to my sister.

We live with our memories of each other, our memories of Dierdre and her 21-year old mother and 22-year old father who bore the unfathomable news of their second child’s impending death at five.

When Dierdre dies, I’d like to write her obituary but it will be a fantasy, a series of guesses as to how she lived, what she achieved, whom she loved.  Her three brothers, four sisters, and both her parents are still alive–full lives with travel, work, families of our own, meals in nice restaurants, night school courses, and celebrations.

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