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….

 

 

 

Blake No More

Blake 2 days before he fell off his perch

Sunset and evening star
And one clear call for me
Let there be no moaning off the bar
When I set out to sea.

Tennyson

Blake’s last day was devoted to breathing. Three, sometimes four, of us sat beside his bed listening to his breath. We told Blake stories. We laughed quietly. How amazingly, infuriatingly complicated this man had been. How persistent he was even now in spite of agonizing pain that fentanyl and morphine could not entirely subdue, in spite of his failing mind and his inability to communicate.

The nurses came often to keep him comfortable. The doctor came to talk to us. The Salvation Army Chaplain stood quietly with us. We took turns going out to eat. We told more stories.

Blake’s breathing changed. There were long pauses when we thought the worst – or the best depending on your point of view. As the light began to fade over Bloor and Church, there was one last breath. We waited. We nodded to each other. We put comforting hands on his body. We wept silently. After a while one of us went for the nurse.

6:45, Monday, March 19, 2019

There was a glorious red sunset as I rode westward home.

Other posts about Blake and his relentless efforts not to fall off his perch are available at 115journals.com

 

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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Go Gentle or Rage: two ways of saying good night

And you, my father, there on that sad height
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray
Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas

Many people visit this blog –115journals.com – for one reason to get some help understanding Eleanor Catton’s enigmatic novel, The Luminairies. Ms. Catton has not expressed an opinion on my interpretation, and if she decided to do so now, I would probably not get it, just as I can no longer answer questions about the book itself. https://115journals.com/2018/09/08/what-i-once-knew-anglo-saxon-algebra-and-the-luminaries/

Others of the 300 followers catch more recent posts in their Reader or by email. Some have become familiar with my family and its ups and downs. The cast of characters include my sister Georgia here in the western suburb of Toronto and her tribe of children, my Brussels’ brother, my California daughter – she of the differential diagnosis, https://115journals.com/2018/11/08/all-is-well-differential-diagnosis/ and, of course, Blake, my ex-husband. https://115journals.com/2018/09/07/good-eggs-john-burt-and-me/

The bottom line is that Blake’s losing his grip on his perch.

Blake still perching

Returning from my recent sojourn in the Kern County Mountains of Southern California, I found him mostly confined to his third floor bedroom in downtown Toronto. It had come on him suddenly, he confided. He hadn’t had time to see to things, do that Swedish death-cleaning thing, for example.

It’s a religion to me, constantly weeding my possessions, my unworn clothes, books I no longer read, geegaws that never see the light of day, papers. I spent a morning shredding as I tried to get oriented back into my life here in Mississauga.

Blake mentioned this because he is going to leave me, his executor, to deal with a house crammed full of stuff.

I refrained from pointing out that he had had stage 4 cancer since 2010. On the other hand, he had been sailing and cruising and zip-lining through jungles and zooming down water slides until this last summer. And he has always expressed the desire to live forever. He has that optimistic turn of mind.

It appalls me. But then I have grown old in spite of that. https://115journals.com/2018/12/27/when-i-get-older-the-hundred-year-old-man-who-climbed-out/

Turns out, he’s been so busy and then so suddenly sick that he now needs a small army of relatives to clear enough space and clean enough space for him to enjoy what’s left of his time on his perch. The troops are rallying. Just don’t suggest cleaning crews. It’s more piecemeal and personal. “What is this pile?” is the current question. Could be important. Could be wash.

Then there’s the pup, a sheba inu. “Say goodbye to her,” Blake advised, implying she might be gone next time.. I thought to myself, “I said hello and  got no sign of life.” I bent down to bid the pup farewell.

Today we got the vacuum working and took up the worst of the animal hair and the autumn leaves and pet food around the bedroom. (Yes, there is a balcony.) We changed the sheets. Do many people store their sheets in tightly wound balls in linen cupboards?

Our son Daniel has pledged to install a grab rail over the tub/shower and hand rails on the steep, narrow stairs.

Our daughter and our younger grandson plan to fly out of LAX as soon as his expedited passport comes through.

Blake’s step-daughter beat us all by getting there last week and pledges to carry her weight.

Blake is very grateful to me and happy when my brother Facetimes from Belgium, but he is grumpy with his companion. He was only moderately pleased when the U.S shutdown ended today. He would be happy if only he could outlive Trump’s reign, which he sees as a threat to the world order established by the Second War, his war, the war he was refugee-ed out of at the age of 5, without parents.

In our 25 years together we were intellectual snobs. Orphaned and outsiders, we said, “Living well was the best revenge.” Then after Europe and the energy crisis, “Eating well is the best revenge.” In the 40 years since we parted, our paths diverged apparently.

I said earlier in the week, you’re going to get to go home. You haven’t been home for a long time. No, he didn’t believe that. Dead was dead. “And you a physicist!” I said. “A physicist who believes that all this loving energy can be destroyed?” “Well,” he allowed, “it is an unbelievable miracle that the human race evolved out of nothing.” “I always thought that about our children,” I said. “They came out of nothing but love.”

They are still coming, fourth generation beings who will carry us into 2100.

All Is Well: another contradiction to despair

Sirroco,

“All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”
Hildegard of Bingem

“No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”
The Desiderata

Faithful followers have already met my sister Georgia. Not as funny as my Brussels brother, but then she doesn’t smoke pot.* Georgia’s more into the wisdom market and she lives closer, just up the street here in westernmost TO.

I was weeping to her on the phone this morning and she started quoting Aunt Mae. I hate that. She said that Aunt Mae predicted I would be very unhappy for a long time, but that it would lead to ….enlightenment. At least I think she said ‘enlightenment’. By then I had my fingers in my ears and I was yelling, “Yabba dabba dabba dabba”. She’s such a good sister that she didn’t hang up.

I was crying because
-someone I love has realized there should be no more chemo
-a sailboat I love should, therefore, go to the scrap yard
-a sweet boy, who came to swim in my pool in 1975, and who has spent 25 years in solitary confinement for two murders and 14 rapes, is back in the news because he is applying for parole and I want him never to get out
-Donald Trump mocked Dr. Blasey Ford
-Brett Kavanaugh is going to be a Supreme Court Judge.

Now Georgia and I learned long ago that, despite what seemed like gross deficiencies, and even though one of us did not entirely accept it, that our lives were perfect. They were exactly what they needed to be.

Reasoning that out could be diverting but also unbearable. Better to retreat behind the ‘mystery of God’ or personal destiny. It’s just too hard debating the role of ‘evil’: how could there be a Jesus if there wasn’t a Judas. No one wants to go down the road to Hitler’s positive contribution to spiritual development.

Earth is a planet of pain. There must be others that aren’t.

It’s been a while since I could take comfort in God the Father. Not sure Georgia ever did. But I do believe very profoundly in Supreme Goodness, a divinity that we all embody, whether we let it shine or not. Even if we are drunken, 17-yr-old sex abusers. Even if we are sweet boys that turn into rapists and murderers. Even if we seem to have no redeeming quality.

And I believe, as does Georgia, that she and I chose this path we’re on, one we are stubbornly sticking to into old age. Why is a bit of a muddle, but not much. It’s about love.

In other news, my new glasses finally came and things are clearer.

* Georgia’s deadpan one-line stingers don’t hit you until long after you could have made a come-back.

 

 

 

Good Eggs: John, Burt and Me

Blake, on his perch

It was a medium white Omega 3 egg with a best by date of August 26/18. When I cracked it open on Sept. 7th, it had an enlarged air pocket, characteristic of an older egg, but it smelled fine. I made pancakes with it.

Dear Divine Pancake Maker, please consider I may still be useful, if only for hard boiling and decoration.

I’m seriously concerned. John McCain and Burt Reynolds have been called home in the past few days and we were all born in the same year, 1936. It’s usually tough being 82, but right now it feels downright perilous. Hands up if you are 82 and feel that way.

My good friend/ex-husband, Blake, who has had stage 4 cancer for eight years, is generally well and aiming to match Roberta McCain, John McCain’s mother, and live to be 106. I have no such ambition. Yes, I want to go home sooner than that, just not yet.

Another friend, whom I used as model for Clara in my mystery Hour of the Hawk  https://www.joycehowe.com has reached the august age of 89. She lives alone in her own house and some chores are getting to be too much for her. (She is still an excellent sleuth of course.) Fortunately, she has a handy daughter-in-law who is happy to pitch in.

I myself have a handy cleaning woman, daughter-in-law being neither handy nor happy.

You see Divine Pancake Maker, I’m valuable for snark alone. (Oh, you don’t do snark!)

So here we are, we 82-year-olds who remember the Second World War, who were taught to read by Dick and Jane, who had to do long division by hand and memorize hundreds of lines of poetry, some of which we can still recite. (This was important in case we got trapped for days deep in a coal mine.) Not all of you have been as lucky as me. My first car ride was in a Model A Ford. But most of you can remember when 5 wire coat hangers could hold your entire wardrobe. I hesitate to say we are a dying breed.

Imagine, you young’uns, what a miracle it is for us to fly across the continent in half a day, to share thoughts instantly with others and, not only, talk to them but see them as we talk – my brother going out the dutch door of his house to sit on the bench in Bois Fort (Brussels) to smoke.

Brother et moi on a bench in Bois Fort

Were you born in 1936 or do you love someone who was, please comment, say something to keep us 1936ers hanging on to our perch.

Blake still perching

On Turning 82

This was my thirtieth year to heaven, Dylan Thomas wrote in 1944 in his lyrical and joyful way. I was 30 when I fell in love with that line. That was a good year for me, 1967. It was the year we moved our young family to the house under the hill, where pheasants called in the copse above, where we planted rock gardens and shrub gardens and put up a martin house and built a dry stone wall around a pool. It was the year I got a job as assistant English head at the school down the street, where my husband was head of math. It was the year Canada turned 100. Everything was going to be fine.

Of course I knew that the poet had one last – joyful, I hope – alcoholic binge one November day in 1954 and never got to write This is my fortieth year to heaven, I also knew that he had admonished us not to go gentle into that good night, but to rage against the dying of the light. It seems as if Thomas had an ambivalent attitude to death. Or life. Like many of us.

This is my eighty second year to heaven. Too late to scan. I should have written this two years ago.

I want to say I never expected to live this long and then impress you with all the reasons why: murderous parents, malignancy, suicidal inclination, but it is truer to say I never intended to live this long. At least, the conscious part of me, presumably the part that writes, did not intend to.

I intended to get my siblings to live into adulthood. Then having recklessly brought two more souls into the world, I wanted to do the same for them. So forty two?

That brought me to 1978 and a dark time when I bought only the smallest quantities of pain killers and never looked at bridge abutments on the highway. The next thing I knew a persistent vision of a grandchild called me back. Another generation to get through childhood.

Would you believe that now there is yet another? I’m not in the front line any more, of course, and this little girl is a merry soul who faces no immediate threat.

Except the world as we know it.

My belief is that the real me always intended to grow old, She kept it a secret from me because I couldn’t deal with longevity. She was right.

This week, I did the driver retest mandated for the elderly here in my jurisdiction. It involved sitting in a room of mostly little, old people who found drawing a clock showing ten after eleven a challenge. The instructor pleaded with us to make a list of alternatives to driving which we would shortly have to use. As I merged into rush hour traffic at 100 k. an hour on the busiest highway in North America without breaking a sweat, I thought perhaps the rumor of my decline was premature.

Here’s what I loved: babies, apple orchards, cherry trees in blossom, the full moon over the Tioga Pass, the beach on the Gulf of Corinth, a bunch of pre-schoolers crazy playing by themselves, a teen-aged boy of a Raleigh Racer, his older self in a racing green MGB, the bridge on the Seine near Notre Dame, mountains, pine trees, blue birds, coming about on a sailboat in a good wind, a feather bed, a kite straining at its leash high above Myrtle Beach, mockingbirds, the trade wind through an open window at 2 p.m. on Maui, orange blossoms scented from high on a wall in Morocco, Venus seen from a farmhouse veranda, a brook running with thaw melt, bells rung for victory, the Warsaw Concerto, a big, old Gardenia tree, an enormous date palm, a bench in Bois Fort, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, sterling silver, barn owls, swallows, hawks. I have to stop here. There’s a party.

 

 

Sailing in Shangri-la

bear claw bakeryRegular readers of this blog will know that circumstances have led me to spend my summer in a remote mountain village without media. Oh, media is here, via satellite dish but not that I can access easily. Deprived of my usual sources of information (except old National Geographics -1985!!), my conversation has fallen back on old timey tales. This morning four of sat outside the Bear Claw bakery toasting in the 8 a.m. sun, eating the best croissants outside France and telling such tales.

There had been a terrible lightning strike at Venice Beach the previous Sunday. One of us had been near the beach that day, but not actually at it and had witnessed the brief violent storm.

Julia piped up and said that when you are near ground zero, the flash is a sheet of light. She recounted being in the family room of our house under the hill in Scarborough when lightning hit the flag pole above.

I didn’t remember.

I have amnesia about lightning mostly. When I was a toddler and sleeping upstairs, a ball of lightning came in one window, streaked over my crib and out the other. I leaped out of my crib and hit the stairs running. Just as the horrible thunder crashed, I slipped in my pajama feet and soared into space. I fell –into the waiting arms of my Uncle John – infinitely slow John Cunnington who had heard me, sprung up from the table, flung open the stairway door and caught me.

That was it for me – memory wise. The file marked lightning was full.

But Julia had other memories from her sailing childhood.

When she was 14, her father, Blake and I bought a Northern 29, a sailboat designed to sail in the narrow North Sea, where the waves come close together. It has a lead keel, which renders it very stable, indeed capable of righting itself should it turn over. It was a good choice for Lake Ontario which is also narrow and prone to similar waves. It has a steel mast that is set in the lead keel. This means that lightening strikes should go down into the lead and disperse over the water. The fourth member of the crew was her 13 year-old brother, Daniel.

Julia thinks that it was Blake’s wartime experience that made him want to sail. He was evacuated with many other children on the ship, Antonia, to Canada. At least one such ship, The City of Benares had been torpedoed with the loss of 77 children.There were two other ships carrying children in Convoy Z in which Antonia sailed, a total of 1000 kids. There were 6 destroyers protecting the convoy and the Battle ship Revenge, which as it turns out was carrying Britain’s gold reserve £10 million  to safety in Canada. Blake was 5 at the time. He was 10 when he made the relatively safe return after V.E. Day.

For whatever the reason, we found ourselves press-ganged into the crew of the red sailboat, Sirocco.

Mostly we were self-taught sailors, although Blake took a night course to qualify as skipper, learning such things as right of way rules, how to understand lights and buoys and so on. He had also read avidly. But the first time we flew the spinnaker, none of this helped. The spinnaker is that balloon-like, colorful sail that flies out ahead of the boat when it is sailing downwind (the wind is behind). Ours was colored like a rainbow. It is attached the mast near the bottom and then pulled up by a pulley until it is secured at the top. Meanwhile, two lines (ropes) are threaded through winches so that the crew can trim it according to the wind. The object is to get it ballooning out in front. Blake had the sail up and Julia was on the foredeck holding one of the thick rope lines not yet secured through its winch. Suddenly the halyard at the top let go and the wind carried the huge sail straight out ahead of the boat. Julia hung onto the line as it ripped through her palms at high speed. She was screaming in pain but determined not to lose our most expensive sail.

“Let it! Let it go!” he father shouted.

She did. The sail puffed once and sank through the air into the water. I ran to Julia. Blake ran to the bow. Daniel grabbed the boat hook. Julia’s hands were raw and beginning to bleed. Daniel and Blake were leaning so far out that it looked as if they would join the sail in the water, but a minute later they were back up pulling in the bedraggled mass of the sail. Glorious in flight, sodden and unlovely as a swimmer.

Sirocco was about 2 years old when we bought her and the sails were still reliable, but by the second summer, the main sail was showing wear. There is a saying that owning a sailboat is like standing in a cold shower tearing up money, so we hadn’t got around to ordering a new main sail. Typically, we would study the weather report that summer and learn that here was a chance of an afternoon storm. Since the storm hadn’t materialized for at least a week, we went sailing. Sure enough, it arrived.

Blake had shortened sail by putting up the smaller jib instead of the bigger genoa. We sail trimmers were working attentively keeping just the right amount of air in it. From time to time, Blake leaned over from the tiller and adjusted the main on its track along the boom. The wind began to pummel us in great gusts. A huge boom like thunder right above us rent the air. We looked up to see the main sail loudly flapping. It had blown out into two pieces.

Just sailing wasn’t enough. We raced Sirocco. Not only did we race it around the yacht club bay, we raced it across Lake Ontario, sometimes in two day races. Thus we were treated to a close study of lightning.

One day during such a storm, three of us were in the cockpit steering and trimming the sails. Daniel was having a break down in the cabin, probably reading. He was sitting on the banquette beside the table. Our budgie’s cage was fastened with a bungie cord to the ceiling and the floor. They were both inches from that steel mast. As those of us up-top tried to keep the boat from swamping, water crashed over the gunwales. It is reported that I shouted, “I wish you’d tell that guy who’s throwing buckets of water in our faces to stop.” Suddenly, Daniel called up, “What does it mean when the mast glows blue?” “Don’t touch it!” three of us yelled in unison. Silence fell. He was alive. What about the bird? Then we heard a very clear chirp.

One day on the St. Lawrence River, Blake nonchalantly wondered why there was a large, orange bleach bottle floating in the water. A second later, with a crash like thunder, Sirocco hit a rock. Everything flew forward and bounced back, including hapless humans. “Is there a hole? Is there a hole?” we shouted. Daniel, who had once again been below, had to dig himself out of the cabin debris and crawl into the fore-cabin. “No hole,” he shouted back. Shaking so hard I could barely stand, I joined Julia and her father on the aft rail, about 4 inches wide and we began the time-honored rocking back and forth employed when you are hard aground. Daniel crawled out and joined us. The boat didn’t budge. But what is that crazy motor-boater doing. He is driving around us, faster and faster in tight circles, each circle building a higher wake. Finally, one big one lifted Sirocco and we floated clear. Our rescuer waved and raced away. I served juice. Eventually, we all stopped shaking.

Daniel was not always below. He was the one who leaped onto the dock as we came to tie Sirocco up. (Blake invariably sailed in rather than using the motor.) One night at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Daniel missed the dock and fell between it and the boat. There was a mad rush to fend off so that he wouldn’t be crushed between the ton and a half boat and the dockside.

The waters of the Niagara River come rushing down over Niagara Falls and down the rapids and roil out into Lake Ontario. On a stormy day, the waves of the lake collide with the rush of the river and create a sort of vortex of water. On one such day, I had my personal safety line hooked onto the boat’s safety lines. So did Daniel, but he got tangled up as we worked on the fore-deck trying to take in the jib. Impatiently, he unhooked it. He had both arms full, struggling to control the canvas. He stuffed it down the hatch and stood erect. A crosscut wave hit us. Daniel fell backwards as the boat leaned. His body was entirely over water. I grasped both his wrists, braced myself and hung on, staring into his face. Suddenly, the boat heeled again and he fell into my arms.

Clara, who was listening to these stories, said after each one, “And then you quit sailing.” Of course we didn’t. Were we addicted to the adrenal rush or the tranquility of a flat sea at evening? Blake sailed for the love of sailing. Perhaps we sailed for the love of Blake.

Sirroco, taken on a previous voyage

Sirocco, taken on a later voyage

Septuagenarians at Sea: #2

Rick at tiller '12(I’m categorizing this post as humour but don’t get your hopes up.)

So I set off late to meet Blake and go sailing, but since Blake is unlikely to care about punctuality, I’m not worried. What I am apparently is absentminded. I sit at the “punishment” light at the bottom of my street, daydreaming. Four minutes later I wheel left and then right up the ramp to the Gardiner Expressway. No traffic. Great! Soon I am flying by the last exit to the Lakeshore which runs parallel and, oddly enough, along the lake shore. The Gardiner is about to achieve elevation. I realize I should have taken that exit. That last exit! I realize I should, in fact, have turned right at the punishment light and taken Lakeshore Blvd. I am on the wrong road altogether!

Okay, now I’m worried. Surely if I take the Spadina exit, I can turn right, go south and double back on the Lakeshore. I sail down the exit. Absolutely no right turn. Because the Lakeshore eastbound lanes are where the turn should be.The westbound lanes are no where to be seen.  Darn.

I turn left, avoid the first left turn as unpromising, carry on up over the railway tracks and slide into the left turn lane for Front St. Oh good, we have an advanced green. Not so good, we have a driver who is waiting for something better. That’s what my horn is for, tinny though it is. At Bathurst, I catch another punishment light. An orange and green taxi and my red Yaris, wait and wait and wait. Then we are released to turn left and re-cross the railway tracks. Left or right? Left or right, Joyce? Make up your mind. Okay I pick right.

Alas. While it is the right direction- I can see the Tip Top Tailor sign on the top of  a building, I can’t get there- I am on Fleet St, which parallels Lakeshore W, but never the twain shall meet. I have to keep driving west, on the other side of the dedicated streetcar line, well-protected by concrete barriers. I steam on in the direction of the Exhibition, our seasonal adventure in frivolity. Okay finally, an available left hand turn onto Strachan. With an advanced green and a mere 7 cars waiting. The light changes. We’ve got it. Guys! Guys! I am 7 cars back but the only one willing to tell those stupid tourists at the front how to turn on an advanced green.

Since there is a T intersection at the Lakeshore, I make the left turn easily for once. And at last I am back where I should have been 20 minutes ago.

Blake is sitting in the club dining room, over the remains of his late (very late) breakfast, unperturbed, and he orders me a glass of pinot noir to calm me down.

By the time we collect his little dog and take the water taxi out to where Sirroco is moored it is mid-afternoon. Not that it matters. Sailing proceeds on slow time. The bugs have to be swept up. Well, some of them, anyway. The mainsail cover has to be removed and shaken. We have to decide which genoa to use. The wind isn’t quite as gentle as Blake led me to believe, so I vote for the #2. Astonishingly, he agrees. As usual, the main gets caught as he pulls it up.

Rick rigging sailHe starts the motor and hands me the tiller.

Excuse me. Hasn’t there been some mistake? Apparently not for he is off up onto the bow to pull up the gennie. “Just aim for that buoy,” he calls back. “It doesn’t really matter but it makes a good reference point.”

There are two things about steering a sailboat with a tiller. It’s like driving from the back seat of a car and once the sails are up, visibility gets worse. Then there is the fact that if you want to go starboard (right to you landlubbers) you push the tiller left and vice versa. Oh my goodness! There is a motor launch bearing down on us portside and downwind a smaller sailboat. The southwest wind has freshened and there is a nasty little chop. Panic! Panic! Then suddenly, my almost 40 year-old body-memory takes over and I discover, not only that I can steer, but I know who to avoid and who has to avoid us. Once the sails are up, I find it easy to keep them full by nudging the tiller gently. It’s like playing a huge kite high in the air. I am part of the boat.

We sail west to Humber Bay and come about. By now the dog has given up her post as a living figurehead jutting out from the prow and has come back to the cockpit. She is wearing a dog life jacket with a convenient carrying handle on her back. A long line is attached to it. She has on occasion fallen or jumped in, swum about and been pulled back aboard. Never at speed. I once learned a physics lesson while trying to fill a pail with water at 6 knots. I bore the stigmata on my palms for some time.

“Do you want to sail around the island?” Blake asks.

‘Twas ever thus. It sounds like such a good idea.

“Will you get too tired?” he asks.

“I don’t know,” I reply. I seem to have spent my life agreeing to such good ideas. And living to see it was not wise. I imagine that I will be very very tired if we sail around the island, but it is such a good idea. So we do. In my defense, I can only say that we skip jumping off for a swim.

Now that we are going downwind, we seem to be standing still. Only the trees move in relation to the CN Tower. Perspective seems distorted. The people walking on the island seem like ants, but I know we are not that far away. Kayakers and paddlers on boards, miniscule. The freighter at the wharf, not so much. Like Alice in Wonderland, I resort to nibbling – on a cheese tray and handing large chunks to skipper Blake on the knife blade. We forgot the crackers.

The dog has been sitting on me so long that both of us need to stretch. A good time to come about again. But the southwest wind isn’t as strong as it was. Perhaps it is evening coming on or the city moderating its influence.

city from boatBlake decides to put the motor on and take down the sails, handing me the tiller just as we are about to pass in front of the ferry dock. Which is fully loaded, two car ferries straining at the bit. While it is true that we have the right of way over large motorized vessels, it is not a point I want to press. But, hey, I take my ease. I make my own decisions and they turn out to be the right ones. I do draw the line at getting the boat through the gap and hooking the mooring line up over the cleat.

It has been only 5 hours, but 5 hours of the most beautiful water and sky. Five hours of peace that passes understanding. It feels as if I have had a week’s holiday.

And it will only be 2 days before this septuagenarian body gets rested.

Sirroco, taken on a previous voyage

Sirroco, taken on a previous voyage

Las Vegas: a non gambler’s perspective

palms #2

I’m not a gambler. That’s because my father was. Even a little bit of his meagre income squandered on the ponies had a significant impact on that week’s meals and the one time he won more than a week’s wages did not make up for that.

I was once the owner of sailboat, which, they say is like standing in a cold shower tearing up hundred dollar bills. The difference between that and gambling, in my mind, is that with gambling, you skip the shower.

And yet I find myself in Las Vegas from time to time, staying in a hotel. On Christmas Eve it was the Palms. We had chosen the Palms because one of us had stayed there last Christmas and reported that with wood panelled rooms it had a warm vibe . Besides the rooms were going cheap. How surprised we were to find there had been a total renovation. Now the tigerlike eyes of a woman, framed by palm fronds gazed down over every bed. The bathtubs had been removed and replaced by showers big enough to accommodate a small crowd behind transparent plexiglass. The coffee makers had gone the way of the bathtubs. This meant that whenever I wanted tea, I had to travel down to the cafe to get hot water. On Christmas morning at 5 a.m., I made my way there to discover that the usually crowded casino had only three diehards, eyes glued to their slot machines.

For as you may know, the casino in any Las Vegas hotel is unavoidable. You enter through it. You cross it to get to the front desk. You recross it to get to the elevator and every time you want to buy a bottle of water or get a meal or go out to visit a relative. Initially, the noise drove me crazy, but I have found that it’s like traffic when you’re driving. Pay attention only to what’s relevant.

The Las Vegas that I know is not party central. It is a more suburban experience where neat Spanish-style bungalows line curving streets. Twice we have rented houses big enough to accommodate the extended family gathered from across the continent. The first one could have slept about 20, but it had a few disadvantages. One of the toilets roared when flushed and on the wedding day, the city turned off the water for non-payment. The other was smaller although it still had room for 10 and a pool where you could escape the summer heat. You could escape it in the house as well, but the air conditioning was so fierce that you risked frostbite. Some of us devised a strategy: we stayed inside until we got chilled, then we sat outside until we got fried even with pool breaks. The kids of course just stayed in the water until about 10 p.m. Party central, yes, but….

We did stay at the Monte Carlo on the strip one year and I was bowled over by the Babylonian opulence of it all. I sat waiting for kids to get off the rides in New York, New York. The fountains at the Bellagio alone were worth the trip, not to mention the buffet despite the line-up.

Ah, the buffet! Las Vegas has cheap buffets, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Like the reasonably priced drinks you can get at the casino bars, the food and even the room is just a ploy to keep the gambler feeding the machines money. Meanwhile feast your eyes on a glass pyramid, an Eiffel Tower and other bizarre edifices that delight a playful heart, never more than when the lights come on at night.

We go there for weddings and funerals and, sometimes, for Christmas. Thanks to the bold imagination of 2 family members who upped stakes and moved there in their retirement and who never played more than the nickle machines, Las Vegas has a homey feel.