Requiem: moving mountains #1

There were 4 of us, ages 11-13. I was eldest, there for the summer. The younger kids were my two uncles and my aunt. (I know – hill people.) We had climbed onto the roof of the wagon shed. The corrugated tin was hot under our feet. There had been a dance down at the hall the night before. It was too wonderful to let go, so we were putting on a show. We had sneaked out the potato masher and a wooden spoon for microphones. I was singing, “South of the border, down Mexico way’. Evelyn was backup because, honestly, she couldn’t carry a tune. Ted was on air guitar, twanging away and Percy was battering the roof with 2 sticks. I got to the sad part, “The mission bells told me that I could not stay.”

Hereford Mountain hunched over behind the corn field and the Old Place.

I was happy, really happy.

“Whaaat?” my grandmother screeched as she came around the corner. “Get down from there before you break your necks. And give me the masher. I need it. The men will be back for dinner.”

Mountains don’t move, not even for Mohammed. Hills don’t give up farming to find work in a steel mill. Hereford Mountain is still there, although it has a bike trail up from the East Hereford side. There’s a new vacation house out back of Bungee, snugged up under the mountain’s shoulder. The road to this dead-end has been improved. There is a pond.

But Hereford is gone.

The 10 farms that climbed up from river valley are turned into tree plantations or rental properties. The sunny hay fields are now mostly dark and foreboding, thick with tall spruce. Perhaps some dairy farmer out from the prosperous wide valley is still taking hay from the old Owen place.

Those hills were great for farming stone. They yielded an excellent crop every spring, but never more than one crop of hay. The top soil was thin having been scraped off and washed into the valley. The Owens who came to Plymouth on the Hopewell, 3 ships after the Mayflower, had too many surviving sons. My great great (about 1825) migrated north to these bony hills and set to work chopping down trees and hefting stones, starving and working themselves to death.

I joined them in 1936, arriving in a tiny backwoods house -out around the Horn- with no electricity, running water or telephone. No horse but shanks’ mare. A woodstove in the kitchen. The good news was that my father had worked at pulp logging all winter and saved up $18 for the doctor to deliver me. He brought ‘twilight sleep’ for my hysterical 19-year-old mother. My Aunt Mae, perfectly capable of delivering a baby and possibly more adept than the doctor and his bag, stood by. All she had by way of anesthetic was raspberry tea, laughter and Jesus.

The last time I went back was 8 years ago, a birthday treat for my younger sister, Georgia, on her 70th. We stayed at the Ayres Cliff Inn as if we were rich people. On the way home to Toronto, we realized we could not go back. One of us had a back spasm and both of us never wanted to get behind the wheel of a car again.

Last weekend, Georgia, thanks to DNA testing and Facebook found Julie, whose mother Rose grew up on the hill. Thus I learned that the only survivor of the people I knew is Rose’s 97-year-old father. One or two of my Aunt Mae’s grandsons may still be there, but I didn’t know them. All my mother’s 6 siblings are gone. Most had died in Ontario where she had, and of cancer as she had. They had all worked in steel or aluminum. Evelyn and Ted had crossed the border to work in the U.S. They had been born there in 1937 in a hospital because of the risk with twins. I had felt Ted was gone, but not Evelyn, yet she had in 2013. The last of the old people, the previous generation, Julie’s aunt, her husband and his brother, Ron, another Owen uncle, had died since 2019. These were the people I had last contacted. I had learned then that our favourite, Ron had dementia and was in a home.

I left there almost 80 years ago. Or rather, we escaped. Afterwards, we sometimes were hungry but never starved. I wish I could say we left the worst of hill life behind, but I can’t because we still had Dad. Hereford Hill breathed a sigh of relief that he was gone no doubt. Gradually uncles and other folk followed in our tracks and tried to create the good old days, plus readily available booze and the odd mob contract to supplement income.

So this week, as well as facing democracy’s destruction and rising Covid figures, I bade farewell to the beauty and joy and awfulness of hill life. Ave atque vale!

See also https://115journals.com/2018/03/01/hillbilly-elegy-a-personal-reflection/
https://115journals.com/2018/03/04/hillbilly-elegy-reflection-2/

Hair: Covid and 1968

She asks me why I’m such a hairy girl
I’m hairy noon and night, hair that’s a fright
I’m hairy high and low, don’t ask me why. Don’t know.
It’s not for lack of bread like the Grateful Dead.
***********
Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair,
Flow it, show it, as long as God can grow it, my hair

Hair, from the 1968 musical

Fifty two years and here we are again. I confess I enjoyed the musical immensely and I never nagged my husband or my son about their long hair,

For weeks now in 2020, the hair cutters were shut down and hair grew. Our Prime Minister Trudeau seems to have gone with flow and I love his curls. Some people, who lived with other people, ordered clippers on line and got hair cuts. For better or worse. Anderson Cooper’s was all right unless he turned his right side to the camera. Chris Cuomo not bad, but poor guy had been really sick. My Facebook friend, Jeanne, rushed gleefully out when our late opening city finally got to stage -whatever. My own sister got the first morning appointment and sat between plexiglass screens. At no risk. And why didn’t I go to her hairdresser as well? My sister still goes to a first class hairdresser. I had to down scale to First Cut, $21 with the senior discount. I object to paying $100, but even more I object to the unnecessary risk of infection every 6 weeks. (I am following the CDC advice to avoid routine dental care. as well, but, hey, I floss.)

It’s not even the price. My hair started growing as the quarantine went on and on, and I remembered it was curly. The mirror showed me an older, much older version of my young self. My hair is at present pewter colored, whereas it was once brown. But there were those same waves. Miracle of miracles!.

Waves are not to be envied. They are single-minded and defiant. Some days they sulk and droop or on others, stand on end like Medusa’s.

Every young woman, reporter, actress, congress woman has long straight hair. Persons like me with a flawed fusiform face area in their brain, can’t tell one from the other except by hair color. But there’s the age-old rule, passed down by grandmothers: older women should have short hair. My own grandmother wound her long white hair up in a chaste bun for many years and looked like a woman with a very short cut. And tell that to the women, who live in Pine Mountain Club in the California mountains. They proudly swing their long, grey locks over their canvases and pottery wheels. They clap on a straw sombrero or a cowboy hat to add to the effect.

When you decide to grow your hair out, it gets untidy, still too short for a pony tail or a twist, and prone to escaping in the front and low on the neck, especially when you wear a hat and a mask and glasses. How annoying to have this pointed out before you can get to a comb. Or this in the elevator: ‘But what are you going to do with it?’ (You can tie it in a knot. You can tie it in a bow. You can throw it o’er your shoulder, like a continental soldier..)

Look I’m bored out of my skin. I’m 84 years old. I go out to get groceries. Period. I read. I stream mysteries. I stare out at the sky from my 14th floor window. But I have found an engrossing activity: I watch my hair grow.

Let me be.

Or maybe I’ll shave my head down to a bristle like the ‘person’ in Millions. Or a Buddhist monk. They say it clears your mind.

A Hundred Days of Solitude: chpt 2

Pandemic Lock-down in Los Angeles

A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez tells the story of seven generations of the Buendia family, which founded the riverside town on Macondo in the jungle of Columbia. In the first generation the isolated town has no outside contact except for an annual visit from a Gypsy band. It is a place where the inexplicable can happen and ghosts are commonplace. Many misfortunes befall the Buedias, all of which it turns out have been predicted. It is a long book, perfect if you are still, like me, a coronavirus shut-in.

GOD BLESS THE CHILD THAT HAS HIS OWN

Momma has some/ papa has some/ But god bless the child/ that has his own.
Billie Holiday, Arthur Herzog Jr.

Day 5 – 7: Businesses close. People work at home unless they can’t. Many, many people find they are unemployed. Others find themselves on the front line even though they aren’t doctors, nurses or hospital workers. They are essential workers, stocking grocery shelves, sanitizing, doing checkout, driving buses and subway trains for the many who have to use public transport. At 7 p.m., people go outside and bang on pots to thank these warriors.  (8 p.m. in NYC. and in Brussels.) From time to time, my brother requires me to join him on his Bois Fort doorstep via Facetime to cheer on Belgium workers.

You noticed, didn’t you? There was steak on that list in my last post. If you are actually hungry at the moment, I apologize. For my sins, I’m a member of a dying breed. I have a pension, a teacher’s pension. It’s not extravagant, but I’ll be able to pay my rent this month. Management has taped a notice to the door of every apartment: here’s what to do, if you can’t pay your rent. Our building is owned by British Columbia’s teachers’ pension plan.

How I Got a Pension: As a graduate, I wanted to go into the theata, darling! On the other hand, I needed to have children. Somebody had to rectify my parents’ mistakes. And my Aunt Mae, who saw the future, told me I needed a steady income and a pension. It was the children waiting to be born that convinced me.

Every Day: Our young prime minister -whose wife has Covid and who is in quarantine with her and their children – briefs us on his doorstep about what funds are available to those suddenly unemployed, even gig workers. Small business owners have their own fund. By a miracle all of my ‘people’ will have an income. No scandals emerge about fat-cats getting this money.

WAITING FOR THE BULLET (c.f. David Downing’s Diary of a Dead Man on Leave)

News from Wuhan, China at first disgusts me. One child of my acquaintance says, “It happened because the Chinese eat too many bats.” Sorry bats. One of you flew too near my hair once. The unhygienic live market puts me off. I have studied t’ai chi and Taoism and worked in a Chinese herb pharmacy putting together formulas, I have tutored dozens of Hong Kong students, but I haven’t given China’s live-markets an A+ for hygiene. I do feel very bad for the people under lock-down, some apparently chained in by local authorities.

But then, instantly, it seems, Covid leaps to Italy. Thousands escaped Wuhan when the shut-down was announced. Two of them fly to Milan.

Day – 6: Italy closes down the north. We learn that the virus has tiny hooks (Corona/crown) that dig into tissue and layer over the lungs until they are like leather. One after another airline cancel flights to Italy.

Canada prohibits flights from China, then Italy and before long the flight path over my building is as silent and empty as the 4 lane Glen Erin Drive below my windows.

Gradually, the horror in Italy grows clearer. Old patients, especially from long-term care homes, are being rendered unconscious and placed on ventilators. If these patients recover they have no memory of the weeks that have passed. Mostly, they die. Alone except for a iPod or cell phone, unconscious or not, distraught loved ones saying farewell from an inconceivable distance. Hearses line up and haul the victims away to lie in storage in cathedrals or ice rinks to wait their turn for a solitary disposal. Italy begins to triage. Old patients are just sedated and left without life-saving treatment.

Certain that we are in for the same, I hand-write an addition to my will opting out of ventilator treatment. I want no time wasted on debate, no healthcare worker feeling bad about making the choice. I want someone younger to enjoy a long life. The front office  admits me – it is still 6 days before lock-down and I get my signature witnessed.

I am not certain this is an altruistic decision. I am sure that I am well and truly terrified.

I pay tax due for myself and my late, lamented ex-husband, even though we have a moratorium on payment. I write a list of final instructions for Blake’s estate and cue up his second choice executor to take over if necessary. I start secreting cash in a metal box to meet cremation costs and work diligently to pay down debt.

My Brother and I in front of his home in Brussels

Day 4: Catching a Bullet in Belgium

My younger brother lives in rue de l’hospice in Brussels, a reverse immigrant 50 years ago. Ambulances double hoot past all day, ferrying old folks from the long term care home for which the street is named. Most never return.

I can barely hear him on Facetime. He coughs so much. “Go to the doctor,” I shriek.

Not so easy. He gets a specific time. He waits on the pavement. The door is unlocked on the dot. He is handed a mask and swept into the exam room by his doctor, clad in full pandemic gear. Yes, his lungs are inflamed. Here are prescriptions for an inhaler, cough medicine and something else. Call if you get worse. And he is out on the street.

I monitor him closely. At first, he goes down hill. Then he begins to improve. Two weeks later, he calls his doctor for a checkup. “No, you can’t come in,” she cries. “Why not?” he asks. “Because you had it. And no, I can’t get you tested. Tests are not available.” “She’s usually so kind,” he tells me. He vows to continue living as if he could still catch it.

Okay, he survived.

But he’s only 73.

Day 14: What to Expect When You Catch the Bullet

You ride it out at home with the remedies you already have in your medicine cabinet. When you can’t breathe anymore, you call an ambulance. You get a bed in a hallway and wait for the DNR (do not resuscitate) order to kick in. Or you get better, like my brother, having eaten all your frozen soup.

On my first scuttling trip to the supermarket at 7 a.m., senior hour, I buy a whole chicken and make a huge batch of stock.

Days without number: Who is that Masked Man

I hasten to tell you that this started long before wearing a cloth covering over your mouth and nose was a political act or a moral act or a class divider or a sign you hate the poor Trump lad.

We are told not to use N95 masks because medical staff need them. My sister and my daughter are embarrassed to realize they have them already, but decide they might as well use them. You can’t buy any kind of mask anymore than you can buy toilet paper. I try to hand sew one out of a dish towel. It is beyond ugly and I trash it. I learn to make masks by folding a man’s handkerchief and cutting the tops off socks to act as ear loops.

I have over a dozen such handkerchiefs. Well, men don’t offer me immaculate hankies when I get the vapors and I am self-reliant.

Girls start sewing them up for friends. My sister gets a bunch. Slowly mask ads start popping up on Facebook. I order 3 from a veterinarian supply shop. It takes ages. The post office is down to 3 postal workers for our city. When the masks arrive, they are not as advertised – no way to shorten the ear loops. I knot them. The knots slip out. I sew  the knots. I see another ad in late June with devices to shorten the loops. I order 4. They come in a few days and they do actually shorten.

In case you are reading this in the future – and believe me I’m delighted there is a future even if I’m not in it – we didn’t take or send things back in these days. Going out once a week was enough. Being the only car on a usually busy road, one of three people in a very large store was freaky and once you got something, however unsatisfactory, you fell down on your knees in thanksgiving.

 

Day – Every Two Weeks for 17 Weeks So Far : Laundry

The laundry is on the first floor off the east corridor. It is open 24 hours a day. The first time I use it during lock-down, I find 3 other people and the cleaner going in and out. I very nearly jump on top of a front loader avoiding them. No distancing, no one but me masked and why would anybody stay to fold and smooth every item blocking passage to the machine that tops up your laundry card. Next time I wash at midnight. No problem, if you don’t call going to bed at 2 a.m. a problem. Finally, I settle for Tuesday at dinner time every two weeks. I find I no longer clench my entire body just as weekly trips to Whole Foods or Metro no longer traumatize me.

I know I’m a neurotic wuss, but you’re not 84. (If you are apologies and congratulations. You made it.)

Day 13: If You Can Make It There, You’ll Make It Anywhere

I used to love New York. Then the Twin Towers fell as I was having major cancer surgery. I went to Los Angeles to recover and saw a mural of the New York skyline in a bookstore. I was so stricken with grief I had to leave the store.

I pretend the city that came down with Covid is a different place. And It is. The streets are empty. The hospitals, crammed. The exhausted doctors and nurses are wearing large black plastic garbage bags as protection. This is the city where my grandson’s wife  interned at Mt. Sinai. Shamefully, I thank God they are living in Dallas now with their babies.

Refrigerated trucks parked outside hospitals hold the over-flow bodies, or just plain trucks until the neighbors identify the smell. I listen to Governor Cuomo at noon. Like Trudeau, he is rational and on the job, but folksier. And his brother Chris is broadcasting CNN’s Lets Get at It from his sick room in his home’s basement. Chris has Covid. The Cuomo boys feel like family. I need that. Day by day, I learn about the disease and how a city is handling it.

I follow Sandi Bachom on Twitter, a 75-yr-old photo journalist who lives in Manhattan. Like me, she initially expected to die, but found that if she does as Andrew Coumo advises she is relatively safe. She is devastated by the loss of friends to Covid. When the demonstrations start, she goes out in her mask with her camera. Eventually, she gets mistreated. Plus ce change, plus la meme chose.

 

 

 

Winter Solstice 2019

Saturday, December 21, 2019, 8:19 p.m. is the Winter Solstice -the shortest day of the year, about 9 1/2 hours of light and the longest night. Today the year turns and tomorrow will bring more light. The following poem was written in Venice Beach, California on the Winter Solstice in 1993, a long way from the mountains of my childhood in the Eastern Townships, Quebec, Canada, but not so far from these Kern County mountains where we expect snow again.

Winter Solstice

Such deep dark
so long sustained
should smell of balsam,
cedar, pine,
should have a canopy of icy stars,
of Northern lights,
shifting panes of white or green.

-A child under a buffalo robe
watching a sleigh runner
cut through blue
moon-shadowed snow
sees a rabbit track running off
into deep woods.-

Waking in the depth
of this longest night,
thirsty for sleep,I hear
the pounding surf,
an angry wordless shout
one floor below
and the reverberating slam
of a dumpster lid.
The sky at least is quiet:
a star hangs
above the flight path.

In my long sleep,
I have been following
that track back
into the woods
breathing spruce pitch
and resined pine,
lashed by boughs of evergreen,
until I have arrived at this
secret place
which only wild things know,
a place to shelter
while things end,
time unwinds,
the circle turns.

When we awaken,
shouting, homeless,
single and bereft,
we will go forth
into the growing light,
a light
we creatures of the dark
must yet endure.

This is the place,
now is the time
for the birth of the Child
in the cave of the heart.

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 in the Bardo

Blake as Child #2

Lincoln in the Bardo, a novel by George Saunders has popularized the bardo concept. Lincoln, having been shot to death, spends a single night -spirit-wise – in the graveyard where his son is buried, to the consternation of its ghostly residents.

Eastern religions believe that the soul sojourns in the bardo for 49 days before moving on.

Blake left his body in the middle of March. Initially, and even before his actual last breath, he traveled about a bit, principally to my sister’s home, his ex-sister-in-law’s, where he had attended family parties, including one for his 80th birthday. He always had an eye for my pretty younger sister. See https://115journals.com/2019/03/24/grieving-for-blake-a-ghostly-affair/ and https://115journals.com/2019/03/20/blake-no-more/

He has settled down since then. He doesn’t flit about alarming the living or causing them to throw pillows. He has even given up peering solemnly over my shoulder while I try to sort out his affairs. Possibly, this is because I curse him roundly for not filing a tax return since 2016 or paying Canada Revenue what he owed.

Or maybe he has slunk away because I now owe our mutual bank nearly $9000, borrowed to cover all the expenses that I am not permitted to pay for from the estate until it is settled. I am permitted to use estate money to pay for insurance, the interest on Blake’s line of credit -to the same, rule-making bank, and Ford Credit. I plan to outfox the latter by buying out the contract. More dollars I do not have, but – hey, I’m a great credit risk.

So while I trudge from office to office -bank, real estate, lawyer, post office – clasping his death certificate, his notarized will and my ID, Blake seems to be settling down to bardo instruction. His mentors appear to be small children, mostly boys. Blake was evacuated from England to Canada at the age of 5 to get him out of the way of Hitler’s bombers. His ship was in a convoy, protected by Corvettes, a cargo of British gold at his ship’s secret centre. An earlier shipload of such children had been torpedoed with great loss of young lives. My sister Georgia believes that it is these children who are teaching Blake. I opt, as well, for children who traveled with Blake and survived as he did, but have now passed on. I include my colleague Michael who hung himself one July morning when he was supposed to be doing a group presentation with me at the Ontario College of Education.

These children were orphans of the war, despite the tender care of their Canadian foster parents.

So, Blake sits with the children. In his heart, he was always five years old, always longing to be back on the water, in the water, under the water, always unable to trust his family.

He’s still got a good few days to spend in the bardo, at least until my birthday in early May.

I can’t speak of him in the past tense yet.

But alas, we do speak of him in anger.

First, there was the problem of Alice. I defied the heirs by not pitching her out of the house at once, saying it was too cruel to show up with two cops and a locksmith and tell her to go. (TO HER OWN APARTMENT WHICH BLAKE HAD PAID TO STAND EMPTY FOR 6 YEARS) Of course, I did end up on the front porch with two cops and a locksmith after a decent interval, coaxing her to at least give us access to his papers. Surely, she wanted our co-operation and, for example, his ashes. “I don’t want his ashes,” she snarled. Heads whipped back. Sympathies changed. Documents were handed through a tiny opening between the steel door and the frame. She promised to leave by Sunday midnight. On Monday, with the same patient locksmith, we entered to an impossibly dirty, foul smelling house, but one that no longer looked like a hoarder’s paradise.

Eventually, I collected Blake’s ashes – very heavy, that boy, in spite of how skeletal he had become. Eventually, I passed his earthly remains – in a roundabout way – to Alice. He loved Alice. I tried to honour that.

I thought I was too old at 83 to lift and sort and get soaked to the skin ferrying stuff to Value Village, to battle Toronto rush hour traffic to his downtown house. So, you could say that Blake has taught me that I’m stronger and smarter that I thought I was.

We work in the house without heat – to save money. I wear a winter jacket that used to be off-while. “Is that all from Blake’s house?” asks our son Daniel. “No, I reply, sarcastically. I like wearing filthy clothes.” And I stick my head back in the beautiful fridge, bought on the hottest day last summer, and absolutely never wiped out since. There are swaths of red, sugary spills and orange spills and crusty clear ones. It looks as if they opened the fridge door, stood back several paces and flung uncovered liquid concoctions in for storage.

“Why are you doing this?” Georgia yells, as she wrestles the shelves and crispers out.

“Because….” I yell back. I am kneeling on ceramic tile. My knees are crying. My back is crying. Because, I think, I cannot let the world know what my Blake had sunk to.

He was ill. He was depressed. He was afraid. He had found a perfect woman, one who couldn’t bear to be touched, one who was young and ill-informed and opinionated, -“Are the Beatles dead?” she once inquired. – one who argued and railed and shouted and shut us out of his life for years, who abused us as we tried to clean his room before his grandsons came to say farewell.

But he loved her.

Oh, Bardo Boys….

 

 

 

Grieving for Blake: a ghostly affair

Persistent readers know that I have been documenting the demise of my ex-husband Blake here at 115journals. I’ve told of his remarkable 8-year survival with stage 4 prostate cancer, and lately his decline as he began to lose his grip on his perch. He passed away last Monday.

We have been divorced for forty years. We were married for only nineteen. We had two children, who are themselves middle-aged now. To protect their interests, I agreed to act as his executor. I knew it was a bad idea, but I wasn’t aware that I would be chief mourner and ghost-whisperer as well.

When it comes to Kubler-Ross’s  seven stages of grief, I’m a rapid cycler.

Saturday, I set up a little altar in the loving spirit of letting him go, or to be precise, getting him to go. He had turned up in Georgia’s bedroom at 5:20 a.m. in his hospital gown, trailing his blue hospital blanket, confused but vividly Blake. A few days later, Georgia’s daughter jumped off the floor and screamed as something brushed past her in a doorway. Admonitions to go to the light, to go find Leyla, his second wife, fell on deaf protoplasm, as did a final plea to go find his pet Sheba Inu.

In my place, his presence was more diffuse and business-like. He has left me to file several years of income tax, as well as deal with Alice, his resident gold-digger. On Saturday, that seemed charmingly chivalrous, so I set up an auxiliary shrine on the dining room table. As a Taoist, I keep a family shrine with pictures of my people, past and present, Kwan Yin, the Mother, Buddha and candles. I put a picture of 23-year-old Blake in his graduation gown, his obit, a book of Rumi poetry, a dozen tea-coloured roses, incense, Kwan Yin, Buddha and lit bees wax candles. It was the Saturday after his passing, the day we would have had his funeral if he hadn’t opted out of such ritual. I read him Tennyson:

Sunset and evening star
and one clear call for me
May there be no moaning of the bar
When I put out to sea.

Then I got on with my own taxes.

In the evening, I sat down to finish watching The Girl on the Train on Netflix. I had read the book some time ago, and, although I had forgotten it mostly, I knew I hated all three neurotic women and especially the drunken protagonist, who just wouldn’t let up on her ex’s new wife and may have killed her neighbour. About an hour later, my mood had swung from loving a farewell to dear Blake, to get back here: I’ll kill you myself. For my lovely Blake was every bit as good at gas-lighting as Tom, the husband in the story. We – ex-wife, daughter and step-daughter – had compared notes at dinner one February night when the family had travelled from near and far to say goodbye to papa. And he wasn’t beyond blackening each of our names to the others. Then, of course, there was the question of Alice, his latest triumph, 45-years younger, who wouldn’t let us in to see him without a hissy fit, and who had been helping him work his way through the home equity line of credit at a good fast clip.

I repurposed the altar in the name of love and told Blake to get lost.

So here I am, middle of the night, suddenly awake and sobbing with grief. I knew him longer than anyone still extant. I may have loved him best. I certainly hated him best.

He’s gone. I can’t call him up to lament about one ‘child’ or the other. I can’t depend on his caring as much as me. And no, I can’t tell Blake – whatever – anymore.

He believed death was the absolute end. There was nothing after.

In that case, settle down, Boy.

 

Comedy is Easy. Dying is Hard.

We were bird people as a family. Too many allergies for furry creatures. There were usually two budgies in a large cage, with names like Pip and Midjbill. And God help the unlucky child who pulled off the cover to find that one of these beauties had fallen off its perch.

As constant readers know, my ex-husband Blake is about to fall off his perch. https://115journals.com/2019/01/26/go-gentle-or-rage-two-ways-of-saying-g

https://115journals.com/2019/02/08/place-your-phone-in-your-shoe-and-move-forward/

https://115journals.com/2019/02/23/blake-there-on-his-sad-height/

He has had an ample allotment of borrowed time. He was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer nearly nine years ago, at the same time as his much younger second wife, and has outlived her by eight. Now that time is running out.

I know about living on borrowed time. I am mostly grateful to have had so much of it myself. Mostly, I am grateful, but possibly, like him, I will not consider it ample when the time comes.

Meanwhile, I have a bit part in Blake’s last great adventure. The experience veers between tragedy and farce. There are heart-rending moments, followed by down-the-rabbit-hole moments, involving, for example, shoe phones.

Stories of families gathering before or in the wake of a patriarch’s death have a common theme. Revelation. Family #1 meets family #2 and all is revealed.

We did that on such a brutal winter night that we were the only people in Milestone’s dining room. All three children were beautiful and bright, mine considerably older than the step-daughter and daughter-in-law. Once they got going, trading stories, I had to put my hand up to get a word in. Blake had changed settings, but not much else. “He did that to you too?” was a common refrain.

Since we were all now having to beg permission from his latest live-in lady to visit him we had started out a little testy. Since we had also spent a week trying to clean up the squalor of their home, we were seriously aggrieved. We didn’t want him to spend his last days like that. On the other hand, we didn’t like being screamed at to leave now, nor to contend with Blake’s desperate cries that we didn’t understand.

At least, I concluded from the family revelations that Blake had risked his step-daughter’s life less often than ours as he sailed Sirocco, the red hulled Northern 39. And anyway, we were willing participants in those cross-lake races through 20-ft waves. Or willing to risk our lives for Blake’s approval at any rate.

For a week, a kind of peace descended as Blake’s grandsons sat with him in his third floor sort of clean room.

Then they were gone. Our son Daniel and I found ourselves beside Blake’s hospital bed with his companion Alice, trying to understand proposed treatment and to inject logic into choices. Pretty much to no avail. Blake intended to go back up to his third floor. It would not be possible to equip it with a hospital bed because of the same narrow stairs that had prevented the paramedics from stretchering him down. He had had to walk down with 10/10 pain. But once his hydro-morphone dose was right, he would go back there and if he chose to, he would drive his car. This last decision led to hard feelings. Daniel and I did not agree that persons on opiates with a weakened back bone should drive.

As a result, Blake and Alice slipped out of the hospital last Saturday and ubered home. (Sans driver’s license, which the doctor had had withdrawn.) She watched him climb back up to his eerie. She reckoned he could have a few more weeks there in the company of his cats, warming his creamed soup up in his microwave and snacking on smoothies from his little fridge.

Until. Until the pain got up to 10 again on Sunday and what should she do. And he wouldn’t get off his wet bed so she could change the sheets. And he was cursing the doctors for not getting the pain meds right.

And I was saying, “Call 911!”

I was trying to shop for groceries. It was the second time in 10 days that I had tried to buy groceries while Alice shouted in my ear buds that she couldn’t handle things.

For the next 2 hours, I fielded phone calls -Alice, Daniel, Julia, our California daughter, Georgia, my sister – all of them several times, each call interrupting another. Texts dinging in as we talked. Daniel was about to go over to Blake’s home and call 911 himself when the palliative care nurse arrived at the house. The last I heard, Blake was allowed 2 more short term hydro-morphone when necessary. He hadn’t taken them. He was sitting up, his pain was 0, and the bed was only a little damp under the clean sheets.

The comic who says, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” hasn’t died recently.

 

 

 

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