Waiting for the Bullet: Diary of a Dead Man on Leave

David Downing takes the title of his latest spy novel, Diary of a Dead Man on Leave from a Comintern expression roughly equivalent to the American saying “dead man walking”, which describes a prisoner condemned to death. Spies for the Soviet Union expected to be eliminated eventually, often by their own side.

Josef, the narrator of the diary is a German national, returned from South America to Hamm, Germany to foment revolution there. He has seen the inside of prison in his previous assignment, but in Hitler’s Germany in 1938, prison is the least of his worries. Any Germans with communist ideas have learned to keep their head down or even to espouse the ideals of the fascist German Social Democracy party, which Hitler heads.

It seemed appropriate that my library hold on this ebook should come through in the first week of March 2020, given the news.

In this winter of my 84th year I have been battling chronic pain in the first place and the side effects of the medication that alleviated it in the second. Briefly, the meds worked brilliantly, except they made me seasick. I staggered about, trying not to throw up, but reluctant to quit them because of their good effect.

At the same time, news of the novel corona virus came at me from every direction. I live in Toronto, where SARs made itself at home in 2002-3 and I knew people affected. The good news being touted was that Covid-19 was not as deadly as SARs. The other good news was that it could be mild, didn’t seem to affect children and most of the people who died were elderly.

Just a minute – that’s me.

The average age of those who have died at this date is 80. Those over 80 have over a 20.5% chance of dying from it, according to WHO’s February figures. I tried to put that in perspective. Twenty of one hundred 80-year-olds who caught it died. The other one presumably became a zombie. No, no, stupid, you have to think in terms of 200. Forty one of them died. Okay. Got it.

Well, should I even bother hoarding toilet paper. The average age of those hospitalized was 60. I’d be carted out of here snappish at that rate. No problem. My apartment door is opposite the elevators. No troublesome narrow staircase.

So that’s settled. Someone else can raid my pantry in their desperation to survive the quarantine.

Like Josef, all I can do is wait for the bullet, comforted by the fact that if it’s my bullet, someone else will be spared.

I had a brief flirtation with Communist ideology in my youth, mostly to annoy Joe McCarthy, the U.S. senator who was persecuting liberal Americans. Never mind that I was Canadian. I cheered when Castro ‘liberated’ Cuba, the day that I was married. Got over that pretty fast, certainly by the fall of 1962 when the Soviets seemed bent on blowing up my babies.

Spy-wise, Josef’s return to Germany, is not a success.The first sign is that he decides to keep a diary: spies should never commit anything to paper. He has found a room in a boarding house run by a widow, Anna, who has a 12-year-old son, Walter. Walter is trying to navigate his way through school assignments, which require him to support Nazi ideas and policies and he turns to Josef for help. It is this unexpected human need that prompts Josef to start his journal.

At that time -the summer and fall of 1938 – Hitler is laying the groundwork for the annexation of Sudetenland, the “Germanic” part of Czechoslovakia. It looks as if he will gobble up the whole country. Probably he delays because, despite the armament he has built, his railway infrastructure is not yet up to the job. Josef knows this because he works on scheduling trains. Czechoslovakia will be annexed entirely in March 1939, but it will take the invasion of Poland for the Allies to declare war. The main narrative of the diary ends before that.

There are four boarders in Anna’s house, avid followers of the news. One of them Rushay delightedly recites newspaper accounts of  the latest Nazi  ‘achievements’ at the breakfast table. He is not the only boarder who is in love with Anna, but he is the most persistent.

Reading these scenes is like watching CNN today, leadership indulging in half-truths, self aggrandizement, unapologetic disregard for facts and downright lies.

David Downing lives in England with his American wife. And yes, they do get CNN across the pond. My Belgian brother gets a head start on us because he gets up six hours earlier and sometimes wakes me up with outrages I don’t yet know about. I have explained to him that my medication is supposed to be calming my nerves, which are otherwise set on maximum alert, that I don’t watch the news anymore.

Addicts lie, but you knew that.

Diary of a Dead Man on Leave alludes to the ever worsening persecution of the Jews and concentration camps, but it dramatizes the persecution of Walter’s African-German school friend, Marco, who gets called a Rhineland bastard. He was conceived there at the end of WW I and his father, who loved his mother, was shipped home, not knowing about the conception.

Josef lives in expectation of recall to Moscow and the bullet that will probably await him. He is not sure he will answer the summons when it comes and meanwhile, Anna’s family needs him more and more.

He has always put his ideals before individual needs. The good of the whole and all that. How much of conscience should be sacrificed for pragmatic personal reasons?

Like many others, I would be better off today if I had been more pragmatic and morally flexible, but I chose to defy that logic. The same defiance that brought me here leads me to say the Covid-19 bullet is not for me.

If I am wrong, it doesn’t matter.

Ah Josef, this life is a school after all.

 

 

Motherless six-year-old looks at the World in 2020

The 13th century poet, Rumi asked, “Who looks out with my eyes?” Lately, it has been my 6-year-old self.

When I was 6, a bad thing happened and I nearly died. I was hurt bad physically, but much more deeply in my heart and my soul. For a while, I was drifting away until the loving care of my Aunt Mae pulled me back and healed me up with nothing more than a few herbs, a tin bath tub and raspberry pie.

By the time, I returned home, I had no memory of what had happened. Mae had taught me to put the pain away in the inner-most doll of a series of Russian dolls. And under her care, I learned to read the whole of the first Dick and Jane book and add numbers all the way to 10. I had missed almost the entire month of September, but I was way ahead of the other kids. On the December report card, I came first.

I didn’t work my way down to that innermost Russian doll for 60 years. Only then did I learn her story.

For over twenty years now I have had to return to that child and try to address her despair and depression. It hasn’t worked very well. There are dolls around my house and teddy bears, a child’s rocking chair and certainly, I have catered to her love of reading. One of my best friends is my younger sister, whose newborn croup figured significantly in the ‘bad thing’. But the 6-year-old, let’s call her Jo as her maternal grandfather did, has been subject to what is best explained by the old spiritual, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child/ a long way from home, dear Lord/ a long way from home”. (See my memoir Never Tell  at joycehowe.com

Naturally, she has sought to attach herself to substitute mothers, and to feel equally abandoned when these people didn’t do the job. One of these has recently pointed out that I have within me the power to deal with Jo and her insatiable needs myself. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse – not that I didn’t want to.

So I began the tearful task of confronting Jo’s feelings head-on. (I have described this process.)    https://115journals.com/?s=the+cure+for+pain

I thought twice a day meditations on the trauma would fix things pretty quick. On the 4th day, I felt sufficiently together to go to the grocery store. Rude awakening. Jo was so depressed I could barely concentrate. I weighed a bag of mushrooms at the self-check-out and put in the code for whole wheat dinner rolls. I tried to walk out without paying for 2 gallon jugs of spring water. The friendly helper finally decided I was just dotty not larcenous. I unloaded my groceries into the car’s trunk and sat in the driver’s seat getting a grip.

At home, I decided that little Jo needed more conversation, so I started to talk to her – in my head, I hasten to say.

Now Jo belongs to an earlier time, September 1942 to be precise – when things weren’t going well in the war. It was not at all clear that Hitler wouldn’t win and send his bad men knocking on our door even in the province of Quebec in Canada. Children knew as much about the war as the CBC was permitted to tell us while we ate our dinner at noon and we understood how dire things were because we eavesdropped on adults in the time- honoured childhood way. That’s not to mention the school propaganda campaign that had us dragging in carts of glass bottles, tin cans, newspaper and stinky leftover fat to win the war.

Moreover, we were not only poor, we were rationed. Butter, eggs, lard, sugar and even molasses, the stalwart nutrients of any poor family were hard to come by.

As a result of this background Jo burst onto the scene full of -not grief – but wonder and curiosity. I spent a whole evening explaining – in my head. Her daddy had told her about the fact that after the war, radio would have pictures. She hadn’t believed him, but seeing it was not surprising. She had seen a refrigerator in the house across the street, but could I make ice cream like our neighbour. It was an exciting evening. Jo just would not calm down. In between these lessons, I reminded her that I was a big person now and I was her mommy. I didn’t choose to watch anything scary on television, but I did have to sing three verses of Amazing Grace. She was disappointed that my voice had got old, but it improved on the third rendition.

Today, she is quieter, but I know she isn’t going to let me bury her back inside that Russian doll and I can feel her looking out of my eyes.

Who Says Words with My Mouth

Who looks out with my eyes? What is
the soul? I cannot stop asking.

If I could taste one sip of an answer,
I could break out of this prison for drunks.

I didn’t come here of my own accord,
and I can’t leave that way.

Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.

Rumi trans. Coleman Barks. The Book of Love p. 57

 

Victoria and Abdul: on the eve of destruction

As Queen Victoria lay dying, her friend and Munshi (teacher) Abdul Karim had a few minutes alone with her. Abdul was a Muslim from Agra, India, a prison clerk, who had been selected to present a medal to Victoria, Empress of India, primarily because he was tall. Victoria subsequently became fond of him, made him an important part of her household and announced she would knight him. Meanwhile, he taught her Urdo and some of the wisdom of the East.

As he leaned over her death bed, she whispered that she was afraid. He replied, “Let go, Little Drop, you will join the great ocean.” These, he added, are the words of Rumi, but it is Allah who is the teacher, implying that neither he nor Rumi deserve such credit.

As they talked, Bertie, her son and the future king and her grandson, Germany’s Kaiser, waited outside along with the other high-ranking members of the royal household.They were not best-pleased. They had tried to stop her from making Abdul a knight by threatening to have her declared insane. She replied by listing her manifold shortcomings – rheumatism, greediness, morbid obesity, dullness, etc., but declared she was not insane. She had ruled the British Empire 61 years and 234 days and she was not about to step aside. (In fact she ruled, in the end, 63 years, 7 months and 2 days, surpassing even George III. Since then, of course, another queen has beat her record.) Judi Dench portrayed Victoria’s repudiation of her court’s rebellion by announcing she would dub no knights that year, but she would make Abdul a member of the Victorian Order of Merit.

The story is based on fact – mostly – including Abdul’s journal, which managed to escape Edward VII’s (Bertie’s) pillaging of Abdul’s effects once his mother was dead.

Judi Dench is old enough to depict the physical decline of Victoria in her 80s. There is a scene where she sits in her night clothes at her dressing table, her long, straight hair hanging down, her ravaged face registering her disappointment that Abdul has misled her about the Muslim role in the Indian Mutiny. (It was the Muslim, not the Hindu, soldiers in the British army that threw down their arms: they had heard their guns were greased with pig fat. Wholesale slaughter ensued.) Watching that scene is particularly affecting for an older woman like me even though “she doesn’t look her age”. It set me up nicely for the death scene. I had to keep hitting pause in order to wipe my glasses.

Rumi’s poetry, translated by Coleman Barks, has been a great comfort to me, especially his Book of Love. I read Blake his poem called The Gazing House just before he passed. Blake was apparently unconscious but I knew he could hear.

On the night when you cross the street
from your shop and your house to the cemetery,

you’ll hear me hailing you from inside
the open grave, and you’ll realize
how we’ve always been together.

I am the clear consciousness core
of your being, the same in ecstasy
as in self-hating fatigue

……
And don’t look for me in human shape!
I am inside your looking. No room for form
with love this strong.

Rumi the Book of Love trans. Coleman Barks p.178

Victoria and Abdul had that kind of love despite the 60 years and class and race that lay between them. His last words to her are “You are going to a safer place.”

Meanwhile, we must be patient.

 

A Hero’s Return: as a package on West Jet

I am become a name:
For always roaming with a hungry heart

Tennyson’s Ulysses

What did Tennyson know about old age anyway? He was only 25 when he imagined the aging Ulysses, restless on Ithaca, after his return from the Trojan War and the odyssey of his 20-year voyage home.

Personally, I find I am become a package.

It began well, my return from Los Angeles on December 30th, 2019. I had stayed the night in a comfortable room at the Hyatt Regency next door to LAX. I had had a hot shower to loosen up my 83 1/2-year-old body and treated myself to an outrageously expensive and extremely delicious breakfast buffet.

Which was fortunate, as it turned out. In the next 12 hours, I managed to consume 5 pieces of indifferent cheese, 3 corn and 8 tiny non-gluten crackers. And a Kind bar, which I was finally able to dig out of my carry-on at mid point in my journey.

Lash me to the mast. Sail me between Scylla and Charybdis. Let those sirens lure me onto rocks. Take me to Lotus Land and ruin my moral fibre. But never, never again let me book an Air Miles flight with Delta, which is operated by West Jet. Especially not as a package!

For I am become a package. For always roaming with a hungry heart.

We were all packages once, carried about by our parents or other responsible adults – our 11-year-old sisters, for example.  (I saw a few of these little angel packages during my odyssey, one of them about 5-days-old.) Then 80-years later, when the endless miles of airport walkways threaten to finish us off, we reluctantly opt for wheelchair assistance.

But first there was a shuttle bus. The driver winged by terminal 2 and the West Jet sign, despite my protests and deposited me and my heavy suitcase at terminal 3. “International flights,” he said, as he palmed my tip.

If only.

Turned out I had to check my bag at the West Jet counter in …. terminal 2. “It’s only a 5-minute walk,” said the kindly Delta agent who walked this old girl back out. I stared down the curving sidewalk. “Do you think I’ll make it?” I asked. “Oh, yes, you have plenty of time,” and she was gone. No, no, that’s not what I meant.

Okay. Chin up. I placed both hands on my $6 U.S. luggage cart and began. Stop whining, I told myself. No point. Buck up. You can walk. It’s standing in line and marathons you can’t do. I walked and pushed and walked and pushed. Was terminal 2 actually receding? Okay, stop now. Get your heart rate down. Have a drink of water. Ignore all the people walking the other way. Why are all these people walking the other way?

Reader, I made it. I stood in a short line. I ignored, “Please put your bag on the scale” as usual, until someone did it for me. I checked my heavy bag. I sojourned to the seats with wheelchair logos. Eventually, I was loaded into an actual wheelchair and a young woman wheeled me out the door onto the sidewalk and turned me back to … terminal 3. She had made this same trip 10 times already. It was 10 a.m. Inside Bradley Terminal, she pushed me an equal distance until she arrived still complaining at the security check.

Just a tip: here in Canada, you don’t have to remove your iPad as well as your laptop, but in LA you do. If you don’t, they send your tray back to the beginning as you stand there in your sock feet.

There were twice as many people as chairs near gates 30 to 35, but they were civil and had left the chair with the wheelchair logo for late arriving gimps like me. They even left it empty while I bought a bottle of water.

I could have bought a sandwich but I was clueless. Short-haul flights like the one to Vancouver sell only snacks. My flight left at lunch-time.

I knew what to expect of the 737-600. I had flown down on a 737. Thin seats with minimal contour comfort, 2 extremely tiny washrooms, 1 of which we cheap-seat types were encouraged not to use. Didn’t 737’s used to be luxurious? West Jet’s seemed like tin cans, so poorly insulated that the sound of braking made death seem imminent.

All right. Easy-peasy. Three hours straight up the coast. Then 2-hours before the next flight from Vancouver to Toronto.

But…

There was a headwind. We arrived 40-minutes late. I got wheeled up the ramp.

“I’ll be right back,” said the young man pushing my chair, and he vanished back down the ramp.

There had been a genuinely non-walking woman on the flight. Boarding, it had taken three people to move her from her wheelchair to a smaller airplane-going model and a long time. I waited all alone in a curving corridor, gazing at the glass heights of the terminal. And I waited. Boarding for the Toronto flight was due to start at 4:20. 4:20 came and went.

Suddenly the young man was back and we were off. I had to clear customs. At an electronic kiosk. No problem. I had nothing to declare and I was pretty fast at touch screen. We were off again.

The rest of the 3-mile (I swear it must have been) trip is a blur. It involved elevators, golf carts, more wheelchairs, 3 other West Jet wheelchair wranglers, clearing security, having my tiny remaining water wrestled from my hands – I could barely speak my mouth was so dry. It involved, I kid you not, leaping up and running a good long city block, attendant by my side dragging my carry-on and seeking assurance that I wasn’t about to collapse. We passed West Jet outriders who kept calling ahead to alert the flight I was on my way and we arrived at another golf cart. (Why, why, couldn’t it have met me back there where I started my sprint?)

“Don’t worry, Joyce,” said my kindly attendant. (I was crying of course.) “By law, they can’t close the door until 10 minutes before take-off.”

Yes, but pretty sure we’ve passed that deadline.

We made it, 3 minutes to go. Kindly attendant walked me to my seat. Gave me a hug. Spoke kindly. Got the flight attendant, Heather, to bring me water. Heather hugged me. And I have to say, passengers from three rows away would have done so as well if they weren’t already strapped in.

Another passenger, a woman, cool as a cucumber, arrived after me. We took off at 5. I, the uncool package, read on my iPad. Food service had been postponed due to turbulence until we crossed the Rockies. Thank God I remembered the protein bar.

Four and a half hours later, we landed in Toronto. Last flight of the day. And wheelchair people wait to disembark last.

Mo – short for Mohammed – wheeled me through deserted YYZ terminal. He had just graduated from an International Business course and was working his way up to an executive position. Learning the West Jet business from the ground up. He called me Joyce and chatted cheerfully as he wheeled me another three miles. West Jet’s responsibility for the package that was me ended at baggage claim, but he claimed my bag and walked me to the taxi stand, ready to catch me should I falter.

Lucky old Ulysses said, “There lies the port/The vessel puffs her sails”. His crew was ready to sail again out beyond the sunset’ perhaps to touch the Happy Isles and to see the great Achilles. To strive, to seek, to find and not to fail.

Right on! And let’s face it, my crew did their best. And for a package, so did I.

 

 

 

 

Dreams: Ian, Mae and Harold Arlen

I woke up to Ian Tyson singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Siri had slipped her leash and shuffled from White Noise on repeat.

I don’t need to tell you, dear constant reader, that that song is from a famous movie

The first real movie I ever saw was The Wizard of Oz. I was probably 8-years-old. That was 1944. In the province of Quebec, children were not permitted to go to movies, ostensibly because of a terrible fire in a theatre that had killed children, but, more likely, the Catholic Church deemed movies corrupting. The Catholic Church ruled in the mostly French province.

I had seen films, made by the National Film Board of Canada in class, quite a few of them. I think the projectionist made a circuit of the schools, English schools in my case, and we got to see whatever he brought whether it related to the curriculum or not. So I was already enraptured by flickering motion pictures in a darkened room, but the moment when Oz burst into colour sealed my fate.

Quite simply I had to go there.

True my life did not include tornadoes, but it did contain World War II, which I initially thought was right next door. Uncles were overseas, German prisoners kept escaping from the POW camp in Sherbrook and my friend’s uncle got shot down and died. Plus there was the on-going war at home, not just the struggle to live on little money and rationing, but the very real possibility that my father would eventually succeed in killing one of us.

So I dreamed.

Eventually, I realized Oz didn’t exist and I would have to make do with Hollywood. My Aunt Mae could tell the future and she said that yes, I would go there. I wasn’t clear why she was laughing as she hugged me close.

I kept scrap books of movie stars and pursued an acting career. I had a few gigs at Christmas concerts and variety shows. I did Burlington Bertie from Bow, like I saw once in a movie. I got the lead roles in half a dozen high school and university plays. The only movie role I was ever offered got cancelled before shooting started. But I did go to Hollywood. Over seventy times and I plan to return in a few weeks.

Spoiler alert: I produced a daughter who went there to live and she produced two sons. I starred as grandma. Daddy #2 introduced me to a movie star at whose Malibu beach house I stayed. Her present husband took me to Warner Bros and we ate in the commissary. I didn’t get to go to the Emmys with him, but who can complain.

So thank you Aunt Mae. You kept hope alive and you didn’t exactly lie.

I woke up thinking about dreams, the kind of dreams you have about your future and which I am informed are essential to a happy life.

Shall we count them up?

I dreamed I would have 5 children and live in a ranch house. I had 2 and lived in split levels. I dreamed I would go to university. I went to McMaster University in Hamilton Ontario and lived for 2 years in a beautiful residence called Wallingford Hall. (I won’t mention the Quoncet hut  I lived in in first year.) I learned a great deal about English literature and philosophy, and continued to do so at the University of Toronto, almost dreaming spires. So check and check.

I dreamed of going to Europe and seeing Paris and the Greek ruins and the remains of ancient Rome. It helped than my younger brother escaped there and stayed, so I was able to spend long summers there and to return several times.

As it turned out, I got caught up in someone else’s dreams that included a swimming pool and a sail boat. Okay, that seems like fun. I can only say I survived.

I dreamed of a summer home in the low mountains and hills of the Eastern Townships where I was born. Not happening. No one was going to sell to my father’s daughter. But as second prize, I found a vacation home in the much higher mountains of Kern County, California where the wooded slopes breathed pine resin and sighed in the wind.

I am not the sort who dreams of having successful children. Mine succeeded by existing, but, in spite of that, they and my grandsons have achieved excellence in diverse ways.

So what are my dreams now in the winter light of my 83rd year?

Well, I dream that I will someday wrap up the executor work for the estate of that other dreamer (of sail boats and swimming pools), and I am pleased to report that I have only 3 tasks left to complete. One of them, the release of a modest bank account, which money has to be paid to a group of people I have never met, is typical of the frustratingly slow process of executing an estate. (Come back here, Boy, and I’ll give you such a slap upside the head.)

Where would he come back from? Hummm. Well, his after-life seems to be some heavenly school room where he is studying advanced physics with a side of human relations. (Can I refrain from saying ‘which he could use’?)

I’m not sure what mine will be. It will probably be a few millennia before I can stop myself from leaning back toward incarnation to make sure things are going well, not that they ever do. But, I suppose, that’s the whole point. We long and hope, yet the real lesson comes from the unfulfilled dreams, the suffering that polishes us up and fills us with light.

And those little blue birds that flew over the rainbow. My father used to see them as a child. Then they vanished. I found them again one morning as I walked along the golf course fence in Pine Mountain Club. They were singing.

 

 

 

Winter Came: aging in a cold climate

From The Double Game by Dan Fesperman

He (Bruzek) handed it back. Then, with a grimace and a groan, he worked himself into a more upright position.

“Please help me to stand. I would feel much more comfortable speaking to you from behind my desk.”

I took his arm and helped him across the room to a ladder-back chair behind a huge mahogany desk. Behind it was a wall of bookshelves, stuffed full and leaning slightly, as if they might fall at any moment.
p 313 in my overdrive program on my ipad.

I had to recline as Vlacek Bruzek was doing when Bill Cage wound his way up through the antiquarian book store in Prague to ask him questions about spy couriers during the cold war.

I had to recline and pick up Fesperman’s book because I was exhausted. It was 11 a.m. and I was exhausted because the superintendent had called to tell me to move my car for the snow plow. The older woman -only in her late 60s next to my car – was trying in vain to defrost her windows and clear the 8 inches of snow. Fortunately, I had done that the day before and had by now recovered from that exertion.

It’s worth noting that I am so old this woman is solicitous of me.

Twenty minutes later, I had to put on my boots, my furry aviator’s hat and my -30C hooded coat and go back down to relocate my Corolla. (Full disclosure the windchill was only -15, but old bodies are cold bodies.)

That was it. I was barely able to make Masala chai before I had to rest.

I never expected to grow old. Too many close calls and a mother who passed at 58. But here I am, not yet old old. Yes, it’s a thing. In less than 2 more years I will be 85 and old old. My grandmother lived to be 96, so I guess I have to follow a new paradigm.

I suppose I should remind you that if you are lucky, you too will get there. If you’re already there, you know the truth that Leonard Cohen said, ‘You can’t reveal to the innocent youth.’ Part of that truth seems to be that for every half hour of effort it is necessary to rest 30 minutes. I mean I had to go down 13 floors in an elevator, walk 50 yards, get into my car and drive it to Visitors’ parking. How can that be exhausting?

Our bodies all age differently, of course, so perhaps yours is/will be different. If your mind can’t accept that resting routine, you have to numb it down with – preferably -‘stupid’ TV. HGTV works for me, but recently my Bell TV service has been down more than up, so I turned to Fesperson’s books. These are smart books by the way. Whereas I can’t use CNN to rest with, I can use complicated books with good mysteries.

I don’t have many old friends.One, my ex-husband, Blake, passed last March as I have documented in previous blogs. https://115journals.com/2019/03/20/blake-no-more/ My sister Georgia is 6-years younger and just beginning to feel the effort/rest effect. Another friend who is 91 has recently changed dramatically, developing an edge. She was always able to keep me believing she was charming and sweet and cared deeply for me and my loved ones. Then in one single angry outburst laid waste to that idea. Blake had also become irascible in his last days, We all forgave him as we sat beside his bed of pain. Until we had to deal with the twenty years of neglect of home and finances he left behind.

Apparently, we should all assume that our brains are de-myolinating as we age and expect dementia. I’ve got Lion’s Mane mushrooms in capsule on order. fungi.com

An older real estate collapse you don’t even remember in 1995 bumped me out of home ownership. Three years ago, my landlord sold the triplex where I lived on the ground floor in a Toronto neighbourhood I had come to love. Rent increases made it necessary for me to get out of town and at my sister’s encouragement I moved to an apartment in Mississauga. It is warm – often equatorial, even in winter, well-maintained -although the elevators can be chancey, and safe – interlopers are scared of our Shanti in the front office. First responders will be able to stretcher me out and down.

At Blake’s three-story townhouse in Cabbagetown, they had to carry him bodily down the twisty, narrow stairs. He never did get set up with a hospital bed and a potty on the first floor.

So that’s been dealt with. The fact that I really am not a suburb lover can’t matter now. Anyway I am learning to love the sky in all its moods and the distant glimpse of Lake Ontario and the Niagara Escarpment where the clouds are different.

According to my mandatory driver assessments, I am able to drive. That could change or it could gradually dawn on me that spending over $500 a month on a car is too much what with the pressure of rent increases and Bell increases. Grocery delivery, Uber and patience may win out.

It’s new territory and Tennyson’s Ulysses has advised me to “To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45392/ulysses

 

Closing Time: farewell Blake, it’s time to go

Tomorrow I go to sign the papers that close the sale of Blake’s house in Toronto’s Cabbage Town. The lawyer’s office is near there on Parliament St., but I think I will not go back to the place itself. I am told that it smells like any closed up house, which is good news because I spent several thousand dollars getting it not to smell like dying dog and master and incontinent cats and hoarder/not housekeeper girl friend.

The only trouble is by signing those papers, I am killing him all over again. Prostate cancer took him out, long, slow and painful, but there have been steps along the way that made him deader. The day the house was finally emptied of all the detritus of twenty years of living and never throwing anything away or cleaning anything for that matter. The day we got the unconditional offer for the asking price. The day that I could no longer feel him there beyond the veil. He had walked away. Gone on to higher education. Oblivious to the weeks of juggling figures, filing late tax returns, paying utility bills, house insurance, all that day-to-day stuff that I still had to do.

For years, when I glimpsed the blue of Lake Ontario from my 14-floor window, I thought Blake’s lake, Sirocco is down there waiting him to climb on board, his house is down there. Now it is not Blake’s lake.

Blake was my great love. Explaining that is like explaining sex to a child, impossible.The only one who expressed it was Leonard Cohen in Hallelujujah.

Blake betrayed me. The only one who apologized was Leonard Cohen. I understood from him that Blake had tried in his way to be free.

Blake knew though what Cohen had said about “children waiting to be born.”, although he wouldn’t have put it in those words. Apparently, he and I had a contract to produce and nurture two children, He fulfilled it.  They are greater than we ever imagined

Why he forsook us for those who seemed to care less for him than we did, we can only surmise. It was his life.

He left me a dragon’s trail of slime. Little by little his son and his step-daughter and my sister and my niece have helped me clear the material dross, and I have wrestled the numbers into some semblance of order. Our daughter lent me courage from afar.

I know you’re busy, Blake, learning some advanced other worldly physics, but, just saying, I miss you, Love.

 

Craig Mazin’s Chernobyl: a personal response

Reactor 4, Chernobyl, under its protective sarcophagus

“With every lie we tell, we incur a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt will be paid.”

These lines are spoken by Valery Legasov, in Craig Mazin’s five-part series Chernobyl. Legasov was the nuclear scientist, who was instrumental in saving the world from the nuclear holocaust that the meltdown of reactor 4 on April 26, 1986 could have been. In doing so, he exposed himself to doses of radiation that would have eventually proven fatal if he had not killed himself on the second anniversary of the disaster. He left behind an oral account, which circulated among scientists and revealed the lies that caused the explosion and the ensuing coverup.

As it turned out penny-pinching, ambition and fear of humiliation were the root causes, but none of these would have endangered Europe or cost so many lives – as many as 100,000 – if not for the lies.

We are living in an age of lies. As of the end of April 2019, Trump is reported to have lied over 10,000 times . His staunch supporters don’t care. Even now, that Fox News is beginning to admit the fact, they don’t care. This week, he has denied knowing E. Jean Carroll, who writes that he sexually assaulted her in a dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman, even though a picture has been published showing them talking together.

Hitler followed Joseph Goebbel’s advice that if you told a big enough lie often enough, everyone would believe it. Thus he was able to resettle six million Jews.

I remember. But that may be because I am so old that I was alive while he was doing it. A friend of mine, who is even older, on the other hand, does not. Or only partly. She voted for Trump, but may be having slight second thoughts now, at least about his sexually morality. Still, what does sexual morality have to do with GDP?

I also remember learning from George Orwell’s 1984 that it is possible to hold two contradictory ideas to be true at the same time. This he called doublethink, a key principle of government in Oceana.

I was glad to discover there was a name for that kind of thinking. Doublethink was the default mode of the Family. My family – lower case – belonged to the Family. In the great tradition of other arch Families like the Mafia, we were more or less owned by the Family and stepped out of line at our peril. And no, we didn’t live in a walled off commune, we lived where everybody else did. We were indistinguishable. We didn’t wear red robes – except at night, but only if we were high up on the hierarchy. Initially, the goals of the Family were quite admirable. Or at least, some of its members, most of them women, believed in a higher purpose and even eventual enlightenment. Unfortunately, others believed that children were sexual beings and that kidnapping and murder were justifiable instruments of order.

Our father, who had been nurtured in the bosom of this cult, turned out to be a sociopath of considerable stature, who helped himself to cult power for status and extra cash. His alliance with the actual Mafia was helpful in both regards. He was a dab hand at body disposal and much worse criminal mayhem, seemingly unhindered by empathy. He was considerably ahead of the CIA or even the KGB when it came to torture techniques and he practiced on his children and grandchildren.

So why did I keep returning to the family home for family celebrations, thus enabling such abuse.

In my day to day life, I carried around the idea of my family as respectable, hardworking and honest. A little raucous, noisy, prone to shouting matches, but fundamentally good, even God-fearing. We didn’t even speed or run red lights. We became teachers. We served the community.

And because…

My father had threatened the life of one of my children and offered convincing evidence that it was no idle threat. And, of course, he had violently abused me to the point of near-death.

Terror initiates trauma, a feeling of helplessness -“There’s nothing I can do. I’m done for.” The connections in the brain get ‘messed up’. Adrenaline and cortisol release into the body. Adrenaline helps to formulate memories, but cortisol prevents the integration of them because the hippocampus  responds to cortisol by shutting down. And the hippocampus is the part of the brain that links ‘separated areas of implicit memory” and integrates experience. The wires are down between the the conscious and the unconscious. (Quotes from NICABM “Treating Trauma Master Series, session 1, The Neurobiology of Trauma.)

Traumatic memory gets locked there as Dr. Ford said at Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court hearing: “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter”.

After my father died, flashes of memory and dreams began to release these bits, along with the original terror. My sister and I both had to stop teaching for several months. I shook visibly, which wasn’t a good look at the front of a classroom. We went to lawyers, psychologists and the police. We learned that it was not a crime to witness a crime. We learned that none of our allegations could be proved. We learned that telling the truth could cost financially and socially. We learned that our family was split into truth-tellers and deniers.

And that was that.

But no. As time went on, other hippocampuses flashed information into higher brains and other people, who had stood aside from our truth, found themselves dragged into it by their own dysfunctioning minds, their own despair and rage.

We had a rule. Don’t tell until the other person remembers. But after a certain number of close calls, we broke even that rule. It turned out to be a good thing.

If you can ever say that letting a person understand the hidden horror in her past is a good thing. It’s not as if we can replace the graphite tips of the control rods in the brain or replace the AZ 5 emergency shutdown device. The Soviets eventually did both.

So that is what I’ve learned about the truth. I can’t even swear to its exact nature. I know only that it cannot be denied. It catches up to you and its interest rates are astronomical.

On the other hand, partial though it may be, it heals like love.

 

 

Aftermath: executing Blake’s Estate

This is Blake’s house. Still Blake’s house, although you can’t see him sitting on his third floor balcony, reading the Toronto Star and drinking coffee.

To be precise, it is the house of the estate of Blake Durant, one good reason why you can’t see him sitting in his lounge chair with his coffee near at hand, cursing Donald Trump and angrily refolding his paper

It is, in fact, the house that I have just sold. For the full asking price, modest enough when you consider it is on a Cabbagetown street full of million dollar houses, but large enough to make my eyes bug out. From it, you could walk to work in Toronto’s financial district. You could park one car in the attached garage and another in the driveway. You could enjoy a private backyard deck with lovely small trees.

First, you would want to spend another $150,000 redoing the floors, installing HVAC, including duct work and upgrade the two four piece bathrooms. You might want to redo the windows and the kitchen. But the people who bought Blake’s house have that handled. The family just bought and reno’ed the almost identical house attached to the south.

I got just under $900,000. Blake and I had owned two houses as a married couple and we struggled to get $180,000 for the last one in 1979, the one under the hill, with the pool and the big family room, the gardens, the dry stone wall, the den, and the finished basement, on a cul de sac in leafy Scarborough. An ideal place for children to grow and a brisk walk to a commuter train downtown. You get the picture – our dream home, rendered mausoleum by divorce and teenagers who pissed off in its wake.

And yes, I am both ex-wife and executor. I even volunteered. Frankly, I didn’t trust Blake to protect our children’s interests and he didn’t have any friends that I trusted either. The other thing is that I loved Blake, indeed I love Blake.

That’s a problem.

Having sold the house, I feel as if he’s died all over again. When the deal closes at the end of August, I suppose I’m in for a third Blake death.

A few weeks before he passed, he confided that he was leaving me a terrible mess. He cried. He was in bad shape then, wasting away, wracked with pain and on heavy meds, but Blake always cried easily. He wasn’t exaggerating either. The mess both physical and financial was spectacular.

Five of us set about clearing things up, six if you count Alice who took herself bag and baggage back to the apartment Blake had been paying for for years. With our encouragement. After she left, the place was somewhat less like a hoarder’s paradise. It took six weeks. Waste Management sites in Toronto and Mississauga saw a lot of us, as well as Value Village. Much furniture changed hands at the curb. Some valuables on Kijiji. From time to time, one of the other of us lost hope and had to be invalided out for a few days.

“That place sucks the joy out of you!” one of us declared.

Plus it smelled of pee. It smelled badly of pee. There had been cats. There had been a very old dog. And there had been an incontinent patient. It took a professional, an industrial cleaner, an ozone machine and $3000, not to mention 11 Febreze units to get the air to the point where we could be there without every window and door wide open.

The garage was a horror show all on its own. Got Junk wanted thousands to take its disordered contents away. The only male member of our quintet threw himself at it with all his pent up rage at his father. Weekend after weekend, he dragged stuff out and off-loaded it. One guy, much to his wife’s chagrin, became the new owner of 8 bookcases and a teak table with four chairs. The childhood train set – Blake’s really – fetched $200. The last thing to go was the Bhau Haus sofa which Habitat for Humanity insisted would never go out the door – although it had come in there 25 years before. Blake’s son got it out. Like his father, he understood leverage and angles. He towed it to the curb and it went away.

Afterwards when there was nothing left to do, he found himself grieving.

Grief is a bitch. It ambushes you. Just when you think you’ve got it handled, it smashes you back down. Just when you think you’re too annoyed and overwhelmed by Blake’s lack of responsibility to care that he’s gone, you discover that your heart feels different.

 

 

Blake’s Progress

That night, when you escape the fear of snakebite
And all the irritation with the ants, you’ll hear
my familiar voice, see the candle being lit,
smell the incense and the surprise meal fixed
by the lover inside all your other lovers.

Rumi trans. by Coleman Barks (Rumi, the Book of Love p.178)

This is the 39th day after Blake’s passing, 39 days during which he has moved through the bardo. He still has 10 to go. But now, his spirit visits us only for the briefest pinpricks of time, although he has found his way from Toronto to the Kern County mountain where his daughter lives, if only momentarily.

He is no longer bothered by the snakebite of Canada Revenue nor the ants of tax installments. He has left all that to me.

When I give way to tears, I say, “You’ve gone and left me here.” You, whom I could count on for comfort, even if you couldn’t remember Paris.

Several of us -far-seers or freaks – see him walking away as he de-materializes. I catch a glimpse of his back foot, a bit of sock above his size 10 shoe as he pushes off his toe. He is almost gone. (But does he have a cell phone in that shoe? 115journals.com/2019/02/08/place-your-phone-in-your-shoe-and-move-forward/ )

You’ve left me with all this trouble, I whine. All the traumatic past, all the chaos of the present. Doesn’t matter. Apart from generalized kindness, you were never any real help, never a fighter, vague, absentminded, not really present, tight with your money – mostly, although you did all right by Alice according to your line of credit.

You thought I was your crazy wife, but you outdid yourself choosing ever crazier partners and left me with the fallout.

So, go on boy, find your home. Maybe it will look like Yorkshire before the war, and you can go on rambles across the moor or spend a sunny day at the shore. Even England can be sunny in heaven.

Even a lost English boy can go home.

See 115journals.com for the series on Blake’s last illness and his passing.