Rampant with Memory

Ha, Ha Death kills me!


Maybe you love airbnb. Let’s go ahead and assume you love airbnb. Would you sleep in one of these coffins?

I ask because tonight in Romania one lucky couple will fill each of these crannies. It is October 31st. They will be alive and possibly worn out from all night Halloweening. And they have won an airbnb contest to spend the night at ‘Dracula’s castle’ perched in the clouds above the village of Transylvania.

Death. Is. Funny. But why?

Death frightens, is why. The depth of grief attacks our equilibrium and washes away our rootedness in the normal. We forget how to eat, to sleep, to work or shop; we forget appointments that a day or a week earlier snapped us to attention and carried us into life. All gone.

It scares the hell out of us so we laugh instead and pretend we’ll never arrive to meet Charon, the ferryman to Hades. The old, Greek man has loped off to the pub for a sundowner and won’t return to take his place at the helm; that’s okay with us. We’ll stand with other cold, dead souls on the dock laughing at the foolish man.

We make Death funny by winning a contest and sleeping in coffins. It’s not a brave or foolish gesture–hey, it’s a lark! Our hearts and brains and muscles will limber-up with daybreak. No tears shed for us, oh no, but we’ll gather excellent stories for Christmas party banter.

A woman up the street from my house plastered her front yard with elaborate Halloween decorations weeks before the haunted hour then removed them last night. I asked her why.

“Because they will all be stolen,” she said.

Death is funny and so are bloody, protruding hands rising from dirt clutching at the R.I.P. tombstone shadowing them. Thrilling crap stolen by gravediggers the night before the little costumed children snack their way up the block, their faces smeared with chocolate and caramel; cheeks bulging and parents hurrying them along.

Death comes, they say, as a thief in the night. And silky coffins, they also say, make lovely holiday destinations.


Brotherly love and valour

Cedric Mah
Cedric Mah

Cedric Mah was a fearless Canadian-Chinese airman–rejected from the RCAF because of his race–who braved the Himalayas to support Chinese troops fighting in Japan. He was on a route dubbed “the graveyard of the skies.”

Mr. Mah died a few years ago in Edmonton. He was 88.

Cedric was 8th of 11 children. His love for his family expanded his world and proved his valour. For one thing, he convinced his younger brother, Alex, to rescue their 13-year-old sister from China by smuggling her through the Himalayas to the coast in a coffin.

Around the same time, Cedric spotted another sister walking along the road in a crush of refugees, wrapped in the Hudson’s Bay blanket that he had sent her from Canada couple of years before.

He escorted her to safety.

The entire Mah family were reunited in Canada at the end of World War Two.

In a late 20th century Ontario version here is my small story. Small, maybe, but it has thriven in my memory ever since that chilling night at that dock on Georgian Bay. Another tale of a brother’s love for his sister.

Tim, 6th in a family of 8 children, came out to Banff, Alberta to rescue me from a horrible job as a preyed-upon saloon waitress. He was 17 and I was 19.

We hitched-hiked home to Ontario and one night the temperature dropped to dangerous levels and we had no blanket. Tim climbed on top of me, as we lay on the beach that long night, warming me with his body. He likely saved my life.

That tidy teenage heat, that love, that critical creativity stuns me still. The night was long but longer still the gratitude.

We’re in our fifties now with quilts and comforters, slippers and cats and furnaces, dining in each other’s toasty home and chatting about our grown-up children.

Cedric Mah’s sisters, elderly women now, remain alive to miss him.




A key to limber fingers

N without the other keys
N without the other keys

“It sometimes seems as if all our lives we are trying to cope with loss—either the fear of it, or the memory of it, or its raw immediate presence.”

Maureen Oswin, Am I Allowed to Cry?

I will freely write on each statement: fear of loss; memory of loss; and its raw immediate presence. Less on the last because it is not immediate to me–at least not as a death. Death doesn’t knock about in my chest right now or swallow my words but instead it pulses like a life within me, just waiting.

Growing up as an anxious child, perhaps my strongest fear was the anticipated deaths of my mother, father, and grandmother. And now that I am in my mid-fifties family is being picked off one by one like painted ducks at the end of a toy rifle. Ah, but it’s as it should be of course, these deaths are due.

Grandmother gone two decades now. Father a year gone. Stark memories of loss. My mother–she is well, well and visited often by all her children, our partners, and our children. I still live with the fear of losing her.

After that long goodbye there will be absent friends, siblings, acquaintances, colleagues.

And my partner? And my child? I cannot conceive of the world without them so I don’t–ever–think about it. I simply refuse to cross into these imaginings. This cowardice stitches and holds me together.

Meanwhile, there is room for joy. In the face of death heapfuls of pleasure and I grab hold every day. Today, in the rain, seeing Heather climb the steps of the 501 Queen streetcar and find a seat at the back. Her relief at being able to rest while recovering from a energy draining cold.

Joy in watching my fingers limber-up and fly across the keyboard to frame my words, allowing this voice inside and my need to speak it now, the words laid to rest ready for your visitation.

The Scream


One thing I recently learned about death, through the loss of a sister and a father in less than a year, is that death-sorrow twists you up like the ropy bulk of a large intestine fire-bound to explode and smatter all those around you.

(Whew. Purple prose but dang that felt good.)

Another thing I learned about death, and wish to relay to you, is this: having friends attend the visitation helps. And so, if you love someone fresh with death I urge you to shove aside other nagging to-do’s and head out the door.

Climb into your car, onto a bus, into a pair of boots; grab your bike off the porch or slide onto a skateboard but please, please, if you love someone smacked hard by loss: make every effort to attend the visitation.

Very few of my friends showed up when my father died in November. I didn’t realize how much their absence hurt, the corollary being how the presence of the few who came comforted me, until this morning. Strange, isn’t it? These unpredictable permeations of grief shattering the calm.

Ten minutes ago I was peeling carrots in my kitchen when I dropped the peeler to burst apart again: a split seam of streaming tears and, oddly, sadness at what today feels like a friendless state just because too few friends attended the visitation.

Before I was hit by my own deaths, I too used to avoid visitations. I sent condolence cards, posted Facebook messages, maybe made a phone call, couriered fresh flowers, but I didn’t fold the mourner in my arms as they made their anguished way through that circle of hell. Toward the box containing who once was loved and spoken of in the present tense.

Still blurry, I just now climbed the stairs from the kitchen to my office and immediately spilled the contents of this Munch jigsaw puzzle onto my desk, clearing away papers and folders, pens and pencils stacked and waiting, to make room for these one thousand tiny screams.

Yellow and orange like the peelings left in my sink waiting for me to tidy away.


Death unpacks a suitcase and stays awhile



December was shot to hell, with death to thank. It was a race to finish Christmas and although that might not seem different from most years, it took on an altogether fresh flavour this season because my mother-in-law Doreen, the woman of previous posts, died in November and Heather and I are still freshly gobsmacked and stumbling on ice, outdoors and in. Ice, yes, but it also feels like slumming through sludge sometimes, reaching out to lend an elbow.

With Doreen’s death, I have made discoveries. First, a full disclosure: death has never come this close to me before. My parents and all my seven siblings, my son, my partner, my myriad of marvellous friends, are still alive and I rarely tell them how much I love them. (If any of you are reading these words: please know that I love you.)

I have discovered, for instance, that people move on, bless them. They are resilient and forward-thinking; hopes and dreams and commitments to life propel us all forward but some people arrive more quickly and effortlessly than others. We have not caught up with the rest of you. In plain language: people forget that we grieve. “How are things?” They ask, expecting us to stand straight, say “great” and tell entertaining holiday stories. But when we respond negatively, saying that we’re really struggling right now, they ask: “why?”

I don’t hate our friends for forgetting, I truly do not. In fact, I revel in that resilience and know I have uttered similar nonsense to grieving friends who were burdened with middle-class estate details like cancelling credit cards, changing the ownership of a car, or gutting a home lived in by an active, independent octogenarian.

Mary Tyler Moore re-runs get us through the night. Thanks-be-God and You Tube.

Heather and I lie in bed together and I curl against her belly-laugh at antics we watched as kids before death discovered us. But the laughs are richer and serve a more immediate purpose: Chuckles the clown: remember that episode? Mary breaks down uncontrollably at his funeral. Television’s most stellar performance, we think.

Release us, Mother Mary, from the rest of the day and endless lists, calls to make, and reminders of our great loss.

December slid off the page for us though and so have my blog posts. Incidental, of course, but it bothers me to realize this little negligence. Here is is January 8th and I slowly stumble forward with my words to you. My apologies and promise for more ahead.


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