The Immense Heart and Mr Death

rumi quoteBlake turned 80, the first one in the family to do so, so Rob, who was visiting from Brussels and Georgia threw a small dinner party. The food was amazing – baked breaded shrimp with mango and chutney, salmon Provençal en croute, lobster ravioli, champagne – rose, for a change- lots of white wine and chocolate cake.  It was a laugh fest from beginning to end. Blake, an only child and war refugee, found himself teased by my siblings and knew he was family.

Then we said goodbye.

Rob, who was going home the next day, followed Blake and I out the door in his sock feet, despite the cold. He gave me a last hug and turned away. He might as well have spoken out loud. I heard his thought. We might not meet again.

For a while, his fear was based on the fact that I am 11 years older and had had cancer twice. Now that I have been cancer free for 13 years, he himself has melanoma. His doctor was not happy that he postponed treatment of an excised patch to come to see us. Meanwhile Blake is perking alone nicely with the latest prostate cancer drugs, free as it turns out, part of a study. He had just returned from a Caribbean cruise and was happier than he had ever been.

Grandpa Munn routinely bade us goodbye by declaring mournfully that he would probably be gone by the time we made the long trip back. Eventually, many years later, this turned out to be true.

My mother died after a 7-year bout with ovarian cancer, a few years afterwards. She had been horribly ill and deserved a break from it and her psychotic husband. I expected her spirit would show up in my house the way my other dead people did, even my father-in-law. When she didn’t do so, I fell into a deep depression and suffered what I call an existential breakdown, complete with hospitalization. I recovered, but for many years, I saw death as the grim reaper and my advancing age as his harbinger. Either there was no life after death or my mother didn’t love me.

This fear was so great that I tended to drop friendships with older people. Unfortunately, my son, Daniel, seems to have caught it. The older people he has dropped are his father, Blake, and me.

Eventually, after Blake and I divorced, I had a run-in with suicidal ideation. It wasn’t really about death, just a deep desire to stop hurting. A momentary vision of the future where I would be needed, the Suicide Help Line and the Salvation Army pulled me through.

Getting cancer settled the question once and for all. I definitely did not want to stop living in my body, no matter what.

This spring, I walked into my daughter’s new home in the Sierra Mountains and clearly heard my mother say, “This is nice.” So she shows up now, 38 years later. What the….?

She hung around, apparently swooping over the pines in the company of her 43 year-old grandson who had just passed on. He seemed to be 3 now, the age at which she first knew him, and quite happy to be flying loop-de-loops with her.

I was going to write this post anyway, but then Rob called me in tears this morning at 5 a.m. He had returned to Brussels to discover that his young friend, Julian, had died of an asthma attack.

I wrote last December about Julian, whom Rob was coaching in life skills, like controlling his temper and wearing his teeth. Julian had been left to institutional care, pretty much abandoned by his parents. He did his wash at Rob’s house, carried up wood for the fireplace, helped decorate the Christmas tree and showed up at awkward times. Rob had taken back a sweat shirt for him with “Toronto Alumna” written on it. My niece’s really but new and we figured Julian wouldn’t get that it was a girl’s. What was he to do with it, Rob asked me.

I am bowled over by how we four siblings, children of an extremely abusive home, all of whom nearly died at one point from that abuse, turned out to be so concerned with the welfare of others. We learn to give what we need, apparently, and Rob was a good “father” to Julian.

I don’t think of passing on in terms of Mr. Death, anymore. (Well, not for the moment anyway. Get me in a hospital room, I may revert.)

At present, it seems more like an approaching holiday, like Christmas feels ten days before, something glorious approaching. A very old priest I knew told me he felt like an excited kid about to start school. The old pictures of heaven are totally irrelevant to me. “Heaven” is just dwelling in love and being without a physical body will mean no opposition by space and time, more opportunity to look after loved ones. Sure growth happens in the body, but we can take our achievement with us.

I got over the angst of farewell by sitting down to begin writing a book I had in mind. We are keeping busy. Death will have to interrupt us.

As a family, we are scattered across two continents. Some of us don’t even speak. Yet we found each other across time and space. We have a long history with each other. We came together because of our long term love for those two outrageously dysfunctional people who were our parents. I think we saved them from what the church would call damnation. Not everyone agrees with me, but I feel my father’s help these days.

No force, not even that guy in the black top hat and tails is powerful enough to overcome love. It holds the stars in place.

MrDEath

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The Great Loneliness

Churchill called it the Black Dog

Churchill called it the Black Dog

The great loneliness fell upon me without warning.

True it was Saturday night, the loneliest night of the week, according to Sammy Cahn. True I had just watched Piper’s boyfriend break up with her on the phone, after dissing many of her fellow inmates on NPR and telling her who actually turned her in. True Jamie Fraser,s cousin, Simon, had just died of a musket wound, but Jamie had gone to the British lines under a flag of truce to bid him goodbye in Gaelic. Still it was very sad. I hadn’t spoken to another human being all day. I had phoned but everyone was out. The sky had been heavily overcast when I opened the curtains at 8:30, there was ten minutes of sunshine around noon, but at 3 p.m., I closed them against the gloom.

I shut off the iPad and An Echo in the Bone. I disappeared the TV and sat down on the couch. Winter loomed, months of lost light and cold, days of being shut in by ice and snow. I didn’t even get to my impending mortality before one of the women upstairs broke down, crying “it’s not funny”. I got up to get a glass of water and dropped one of my favourite glasses onto a pyrex bake dish soaking in the sink, smashing it into seven sharp pieces. As I put the wrapped shards into the garbage, the other upstairs resident drove away.

Right, you can feel the great loneliness even if you have a spouse. I knew that. I had felt that lonely before my husband left.

You can feel it in the midst of your family. When I first found myself suddenly on Pine Mountain, I would sit in bed with the curtains open, watching the steep wooded slope, the moon waning above. I was longing for home and the familiar, my no-view first floor flat. If I had known that the family emergency would keep me on the mountain for five months… I didn’t and I fell asleep before the loneliness got well established.

Usually, the year end holidays keep it at bay at least until mid January. You can armour yourself against it even then. I can usually con myself that winter is manageable until a month later, at which time I begin to snivel and consider throwing myself down in a tantrum, but unobserved tantrums are over-rated.

This particular bout of great loneliness follows upon the great good fellowship of family achievement. Four of us together handled a serious illness and a traumatic change in an elder’s life. Elder even than me, which is very elder indeed. In the last five weeks, we broke through to a relaxed and healing companionship. We were going to live after all.

Then I had to come home. Not only did I need to come home. They needed me to. Marriages go better without mother and elders need to feel self-sufficient.

My brother rushed from Brussels to help me make the transition from sunlight and altitude to gloom and sea level. He took one look at me, declared I was not destroyed by my ordeal as he expected. He didn’t actually have to save my life this time. If I had gone to Brussels, as I did last Christmas, I would have been his chief concern, feted by his many friends and his family. Here he has to be shared. This weekend is someone else’s turn.

I used to think I could fight the great loneliness by sheer willpower, by talk therapy, journaling, acupuncture and long walks, identify the aberrant mental attitude and contradict it. Stick up post-its with affirmations on the bathroom mirror. It was exhausting. Now I take psychotropic drugs.

But it’s a long game. I am old enough to know just how long.

Sure, I need to feel needed, as Orange is the New Black has just assured me and for the present, I am not. I wasn’t needed for years, but I’m glad I persisted until I was. Lives depended on it. So here I am again, under-needed and sulking about it.

In fact, old bodies need to rest at this time of year, so home needs to turn into a cave for long sleeps. It is a time to turn away from the outer darkness to the light within.

Having said that I see that the moon is full.

full moonmtn

 

Welcome to Bangor: Thanksgiving 2014

Bangor International Airport without snow

Bangor International Airport without snow

“We won’t get home for Thanksgiving,” said the woman beside him.

“It’s not Thanksgiving,” said Rob.

“You’re Canadian,” she guessed. “It’s Thanksgiving here.” They were sitting in an unheated room in a hangar at the Bangor airport. Their empty plane sat in the runway, its chute deployed. She had studied the group and sized my truck driving brother as the likeliest.

“Let’s rent a car,” she said. “We can drive me to Ithaca and you can go on to Toronto.”

He paused. “It’s getting dark. It’s snowing. I don’t know you and besides, I’ve seen that movie.” Which of course reduced him to laughter.

He withdrew to a quiet corner and called me on his Belgian mobile phone. “First, they said we were running out of fuel,” he told me, “but as we landed the whole plane started shaking. “I knew I was going to die. I thought I should hold the hand of the woman across the aisle, but she was too ugly. Then I thought, I’m here at the bulk head next to business class. I’m likely the only who will survive. Shoot, I thought.” They hit the ground. “Now,” he said to himself. Then they hit again and with a terrible whining, grinding and howling came to a stop.

The chute deployed.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please keep your seats.” People were struggling desperately to get up and out. They had been told the plane was out of fuel. “There is a problem with the door,” the captain admitted.

Mayhem erupted.”I could have died,” was the universal cry. “I almost died.”

Me too, thought Rob. You’re not the only one here. You didn’t die. We didn’t fall out over the Atlantic. We are on a lucky flight!

Turned out once the door was opened that there was a problem getting the steps up to meet it, but that had been resolved and now Rob sat on a cold cement floor, his winter coat and boots safe in his checked luggage, catching laryngitis and talking to me.

Four hours later,  little had changed, except he had gone out for a smoke and set off all manner of alarms on his way back from the hardware in his joints. He was patted down, wand-ed and dog-sniffed, a hair raising experience given what he had smoked the night before. The promised plane from Philly had not arrived, would arrive despite the snow in half an hour, would not arrive if it snowed six more inches. But snow plows ground up and down the single runway, keeping it open. Finally, snow in Philly would prevent the plane’s departure from that city.

By now, he had called me four times and I was at Georgia’s place which is nearer the airport. “They’re sending us to a hotel,” he said.

“Yes, I can see it right next to the airport,” I said. I could also see the U.S. Airways flight status on another screen. The path led from Brussels to Philly, but the little plane was stuck in Bangor, Maine. “Don’t forget your meds,” I said.

“Oh, thank you, thank you,”he said.

“You put your meds in your checked luggage?” Oh he was rattled.”It’s okay, Rob. You’re safe now. You’re going to stay in a cozy snow-bound hotel.” Family history tends to send us off the deep end in urgent situations.

He made out all right of course. He spent the evening in the bar ordering rounds of drinks for everyone there and talking.

Two younger women told him of the way, troops are welcomed back at the airport. They are never greeted by “Welcome home” or “Welcome to the United States” that way lies emotional breakdown and mass chaos. They are greeted simply, “”Welcome to Bangor.”

At closing, his credit card wouldn’t swipe. No chip readers there. So the wealthy Belgian couple paid his bill and refused compensation next day, “Are you trying to insult me?”

I woke up in the guest bedroom to hear my phone ringing. The plane from Philly would arrive in Bangor, momentarily, read an hour and a half. His flight back north would be at 4:30 on Air Canada and he would arrive in YYZ at 6:06.”Wherever that is,” he said.

Then there was silence for 4 hours. I understood that. No worries. At 3:45, just as I was about to call him, he called me. The flight was delayed until 5:30 and he was going back to Brussels.

“Have you eaten lately?” I demanded.

Well no.

“Go. Eat. Have a drink. Relax. You’re almost here.”

“Okay,” he said. I was his big sister after all.

At 7:30 Georgia and I were on the road to YYZ, Pearson International Airport, trying to catch the right lane in the dark and snow. She insisted on driving her new car.

“Am I going to have to put you in the back seat?” she demanded.

I could have driven, but I was too tense to be driven.

“The car is dark blue,” I tell him on my cell phone.

“I don’t care what colour it is, just so long as it picks me up. I’m waiting at P,” he says.

There is no P of course, so I duck out of the car at C and run him down. He’s still clad in just a cotton sweater. We run for the car, half hugging. Georgia springs out to load the big bag, even though we are blocking a thru lane.

Our celebration dinner is smoked salmon pasta, thrice-cooked of necessity by niece/daughter. There are 5 of us, together at last.

“You are here,” I say in wonder, “And my daughter is still alive.”

(This apparent non-sequitor is explained in previous posts.)

Saving a Life: losing a friend

jim and IMon Frère et moi en Bruxelle

I feel like Dante after his epic journey through hell, purgatory and paradise. True I got to see the face of Grace and then to return home. But I’ve been spoiled. The paradise bit was full of light and love and joy. Once I got there, I was able to lift my eyes and love the pine-clad mountains and the pure light and air again. Home in TO sees a couple of hours daylight under gloomy skies. Something is always falling from the sky and the streets are slick with decaying leaves.

That’s not the worst of it. Two of the people I had counted on to welcome me home, to rejoice in our triumph and to console me for our ordeal are no-shows.

One is my son, whose sister’s life was just saved and who is on her way to being able to live a reasonably good life, if not to being cured. What we accomplished, in spite of MediCal and general incompetence, was a miracle, something to be celebrated. But this half of the family in Toronto is hived off into individual units. It begrudgingly pulls itself together for a funeral, if the relative is close enough, not apparently, for a good, boozy party of celebration.

The other is my friend, Sophie. Sophie is given to observing that she is glad she had cats instead of children, particularly since mine are so troublesome. What can anyone say to that? A cat can’t be Shakespeare. No, but listen, those children are unique and beautiful creations. They have made themselves who they are over decades. They have made many people’s lives better for knowing them. I don’t say any of that to her. I sympathize when an elderly cat has to be put down, as if it were an actual person. I inquire about the surviving feline, which drags its hind quarters.

In the midst of the worst or hellish part, Sophie suggested on the phone that it would be better for our patient if we let her go. A slip of the tongue I thought. But then she discovered that I had taken psychotropic drugs to survive the ordeal. “I wouldn’t speak to you, if I’d known,” she said. I’m still taking them of course. She has read a stupid book that maintains they don’t actually work and, despite her education, she believes it.

So she hasn’t called me back and that makes me sad.

Tomorrow, my brother, Rob, arrives from Brussels. “I thought I needed to come and cheer  you up and help you get back to your life,” he told me on the phone. I will pick him up at terminal 3 and take him to Georgia’s, where we will all have a sleep-over, along with two of my nieces. He will call me his little sister, even though I am older and make me laugh. The two of us have a reputation in Brussels for our comic routine. All we have to do is be in the same room and we’re off.

On Thursday, back on the mountain in Kern County, California, my son-in-law will turn chef again and make Thanksgiving dinner. Besides his recovering wife, my erstwhile house-mate Clara, my grandson Leo, his father -that would be an ex- and a friend will be there to raise a glass in glad thanksgiving that she lived, that she is thriving, that some doctors really are brilliant, that faith and dogged persistence and the odd temper tantrum can save a life.

PMC

 

Septuagenarian Hobbit -another adventure

cinco de mayoAs a septuagenarian hobbit (a stay-at-home 70-something), I board a plane the way I get into an Athens taxi: I accept my death. After that I can relax.

I leave the pseudo-leather folder containing my will and insurance policies out on my desk. Clearly labelled.

When I was a mere 50-something hobbit, I actually flew to the other place. Very instructive. https://115journals.com/2012/07/20/i-dream-of-etherica-life-changing-dream-2/

My eastern medical adviser says this idea results from liver heat. General Liver is trying to help my weak, damp digestion by going into battle. The fire rises to my head and produces scarey images.

My western medical adviser prescribes Lorazepam. Which I carry on my body in case I have to slid down the escape exit without my purse.

I have given up wine with airline breakfast. Too dehydrating.

Last time this hobbit went on an adventure it was Christmas season and I flew to Belgium. See https://115journals.com/2013/11/28/the-septuagenarian-hobbit/ and posts following. There I contended with the confusion of three languages and found myself embraced by mon frère and his many friends. Turned out I was so Europianized by my three week stay that I found it hard to adjust back. https://115journals.com/2014/01/05/the-septuagenarian-hobbit-gets-a-parking-lesson/

This time there will be no language problem. Well almost none, although Los Angeles is near the top of the list of large Spanish-speaking cities.

I am due to arrive on Cinco de Mayo, a day of celebration. So nice of people to party on my birthday. For indeed it is. After this, I’ll have only one more septuagenarian birthday. Figure it out.

So what to do? Shall we immediately set out for the mountain fastness where Julia now lives. Not a chance. Let’s round up a little party of our own, hit that place in Culver City and crash at someone’s house when we are partied out.

I don’t travel for the love of travel. I travel for love.

 

Living in 3 Time Zones: a matriarch’s tale

There were stars overhead. A long-legged eight year-old had plunked himself down in the bed beside me. We could hear the revelers downstairs, but youngest and oldest, we craved rest. The stars on the ceiling glowed in the dark and I remembered sleeping under just such stars 20 years ago in Venice Beach, California, an ocean and a continent away. This is how far my family has spread. This is how far I have had to spread my arms to keep them – what? – not safe, for that is impossible. Let us just say “to keep them”.

Technology has made the job easier in the last 15 or 20 years. E-mail was a great help, so much faster that snail mail. Answering machines and FAX machines appeared. Then long distance rates started to fall, the mobile phone came along, and texting became possible. Distances were easier to bridge.

In Brussels last week, I watched the last episode of the BBC’s David Copperfield in which the Micawbers embarked on a sailing ship for a new life in Australia. Something had finally come up, as Mr Micawber so optimistically kept on saying it would, throughout his disastrous life. The villain of the story, Uriah Heep, was also on his way there, barefoot, chained to other prisoners, to pay for his crimes. His mother cried out, “My poor boy. I’ll never see him again.” Australia was just too far then, even supposing Heep lived to get released. Letters might be exchanged, but probably only two or three a year, given the time the voyage took.

In 1945 when my father moved us from the Eastern Townships of Quebec to Hamilton Ontario, my nine year-old self seriously doubted that I would ever get back to the mountains and the family I loved. Letters were posted and received weekly, but we had no phone. In the event of something momentous like a new baby brother, we could borrow the neighbour’s phone and pay the exorbitant long distance cost. In fact, we did return the summer after my brother Rob was born, in 1947.

Rob was the first family emigrant, hying himself off with a backpack at the age of 19 to explore the world. Our mother cashed in his life insurance policy to finance his getaway. By then it was a tossup whether our father would murder Rob or Rob would murder our father. All of the three older girls in the family harboured the same homicidal urge, but were not as capable of the deed.

Rob stayed safely out of reach of familial harm in Afghanistan, India, and Turkey, where various strangers had a go at him. Finally, he settled in Belgium. Where he had a phone which I could now afford to call to tell him our mother had been given only weeks to live. He thought it was a trick, and indeed, our mother survived against all odds for another 6 years. She had that ace in her pocket though -imminent death- and he came back for a visit – 3 years after he had left. He invited us to visit him and  2 years later I did, with my young family. We formed a friendship then that had not been possible before. So I began the process of long distance living. What time is it here? What time is it in Belgium or Italy or Sweden, wherever his career as a film gaffer took him?

Just when I got the knack of that, my daughter Julia took off for New York City. No problem, same time zone. But -what’s this? She’s off to the west coast. She’s getting married in Las Vegas. And so I began living in 3 -count’em – 3 time zones.

It’s quite dizzying. Whenever I want to talk to Rob, he’s already asleep. Initially, after I returned from Brussels last week, I woke up at 4 a.m., Eastern Standard Time, thinking it was already 10 a.m., and called him then. My daughter up on her west coast mountain would be snoozing away in her 1 a.m. world. As I acclimatized to Toronto time, I kept missing windows of communication. I ended up texting Rob while he slept and getting his reply when I woke up. Julia is beyond the reach of cell phone texts at present, but I catch her at odd moments as she builds the fire in early morning.

As I lay there on Christmas Eve, looking up at the stars, I thought about all the grandparents who travel great distances to be with their far-flung families and sleep as like me in children’s bedrooms. I thought about older women alone in their cars on lonely highways and on long distance flights. Like me, they may well count over 50 such trips and see the results in maturing children who know they are part of something bigger.

That something is family. I can’t help it. I have to communicate, to be there. Someone needs to hold the family together and time has made me the matriarch.

The Septuagenarian Hobbit Returns: New Year’s

(This is one of a series of posts in which I have explored my hobbit-like reluctance to travel.)

The arrival of 2014 was confusing for me. My body-clock registered it at Brussels time and took me to bed shortly afterwards, but not before I received a text from my brother Rob, who had probably just set off fireworks in Bois Fort: Where are you? I have looked all over the house.

I can’t imagine how confused my fellow travellers must be. I joined their flight at the Brussels airport, half way through their journey from Delhi – mothers, fathers, grandmothers, children, babies and one grandfather. Shortly after take-off at 10:15 a.m., the lights were turned down and  most of them went to sleep. I joined them.

Even as I was swept south on Highway 427 from YYZ, otherwise known as Pearson International Airport, I felt as if some essential part of me had still not landed.

It is after 3 a.m. eastern standard time. My neighbours have just come in from partying and gone to bed. I went to bed at 6 p.m., so here I am.

I postponed the return to my home by stopping to eat. I was ready for dinner. Blake, who had picked me up, wanted brunch. Easy to get dinner at noon, but brunch on a weekday, New Year’s Eve or not, took some convincing.

Finally, I got home. The lights were on. I had carefully set the timer to put them on at sunset, but the ice storm cut the power, so the timer clock thought it was dark already. Warily, I approached the refrigerator. Four days without electricity! Nothing. No dreadful smell. My landlord had come in, I knew, and all the frozen meat was gone, but all the glass containers of stock, soup and stew were still there. For a brief moment, I thought there was a reason, but of course, there wasn’t. Refrozen they sat patiently waiting to give me ptomaine. For the third time in a year, I had lost everything in the freezer. (But global warming is a myth and all this crazy weather is just part of a natural cycle!!!!!!!)

The news showed me poor people in long lines waiting -many in vain – for food vouchers. They had lost their Christmas food and very likely had spent the holiday freezing in the dark.

I had gone with Rob to the fish market in Brussels to pick up a huge iced platter of oysters, sea snails and shrimp, destined to join turkey as our Christmas Eve feast. (The snails were particularly delicious.) I had been warm and cozy throughout. Evidently, there are advantages to travel.

(I will post one more blog in this series, in which I will explore the surprising fact that my Brussels family, whose language I can barely follow, has so much in common with my Canadian family and my Southern Californian family.)

Happy New Year.

The Septuagenarian Hobbit: honored guest

(Fifth in a series in which I explore reluctance to travel)

The 13th century poet Rumi said “You are the honored guest/ Don’t go begging for bits of bread. (Trans. Coleman Barks) I have been learning what he meant by that during this Christmas trip to Brussels.

In part I am honored here because my brother Rob introduces me everywhere as “ma soeur” with great affection and any sister of Rob is instantly honored by his vast number of friends. They are constantly in and out of his house here in Bois Fort. A remarkable number of them seem to have keys and the rest ring the bell at all hours.True two of them are his grown up daughters. Others have found refuge here until they could get on their feet. Still others drop by to see how his recovery from surgery is going or to borrow his sander or soy sauce, just to chat or on the off chance there is dinner.

Christmas Day, Rob interrupted my nap. He sat on the edge of the bed and presented the problem. He had invited 4 people for lunch, intending to serve Christmas Eve leftovers. (Christmas Eve is the main event here in Brussels.) One had cancelled. In his mind, lunch was cancelled. Now the other 3 had arrived.  No leftovers had been left. What to do? In 5 minutes, we devised a menu of smoked salmon, quiche from the freezer, Polish blueberry-stuffed pasta, his famous green salad and cheese. In half an hour it was on the table. Each guest specialized. One made a meal of salmon, another of cheese and salad, etc. Only the exotic pasta got short shrift. And of course there was wine. He had sent me down to the wine cellar, being hampered himself by his “changed knee”. Absent-minded he may be, but he honors guests.

In turn, these friends invite us for dinner. At home in the west end of Toronto, I lead a quiet life. The door bell never rings. Dinner out is, at most, a monthly event. Cozy it may be and introspective, but not dinner out every other night. And, to my embarrassment Christmas gifts for me. I protest to Rob that I have no gifts in return. “You are the gift,” he assures me. I contemplate tying a red ribbon around my neck. “You came so far,” he says. A lifetime of self- criticism stands in my way. How is it possible to feel worthy of this outpouring?

But that is the point Rumi was making. We don’t earn this honor. It is a given. We show up. We are the honored guest and the bounty of life is ours.

Septuagenarian Hobbit: Brussels con.

( the 4th in a series in which I examine my Hobbit-like reluctance to travel)

The street in Bois Fort, a district of Brussels, is narrow and lined with attached houses, many of which were once businesses. My brother Rob’s house used to be a bakery for example. The ovens used to be in a building in back, separated from the kitchen and store front by a small yard. The two buildings are now one and the ovens have been replaced by a fireplace. You can still see where the counter stood on the tiles in the living room and there is a tin sign hanging on a wall on which the prices of the various loaves could be written in in chalk.

As always people drop in. They don’t call first or even text. They just show up. If there is a meal on offer, they share it. They may even bring their wash.

I live in an “old” suburb of Toronto. The only people who ring my doorbell are from the Jehovah Witness program. I don’t even, anymore, get those annoying people who demand to see your utility bill because they can save you money. The rare visitor gives me fair warning of impending arrival.

I remember that open door policy here in Bois Fort even on my last visit 20 years ago. Whether it is actually a neighborhood phenomenon or my brother’s influence I can’t say. I remember that as a young teenager, he more or less lived with a neighbour, so communal living may come readily to him.

Across the street live two octogenarians that he calls his little old ladies. Their cottage sits four feet below the street on which it once sat level. It is freshly painted and has an indoor toilet now because of Rob. They protest that they don’t need these fancy new gadgets like water heaters, but they seem glad of his visits and the roast chicken he buys for them at the Sunday market. Sundays they get no meals on wheels, another thing he arranged for them. They are Bruxellois and although they speak French, their actual dialect is a language peculiar to that group.

They are not the only marginalized people Rob has adopted. He is mentoring a young man with mental challenges, teaching him the value of wearing his teeth and underwear, for example. The lame and the halt find sympathy here. He has a firm belief that we owe it to the world to make it a better place, no matter how annoying the process can be.

Why? We four siblings had every opportunity to become homeless addicts. While it is true our parents were hard workers who professed to love us, we lived in fear for our lives, constantly vigilant. At any moment, our father might take it into his head to beat us or our mother might try to drown us in the bathtub. Mental health issues! Ya think? In fact, three of us ended up in the teaching/preaching game and Rob, who was in a more creative line, took that vow to make life better for others. And did it laughing. Mostly. But if that kid doesn’t wear his teeth….

What’s not to like? Monastic me with the silent doorbell, practically imploded the other night as the table and then the family room filled up with laughing people. Long bouts of French too fast for me to follow made me go off line. Mostly translations followed so that stories got laughed at twice and that was, if anything, more overwhelming.

I have to do a certain amount of self-mentoring. I am in no danger of leaving my teeth out, but I have to tell me to relax. There is no danger here. These people actually like each other. My brother has gathered them around him, baggage and all. Despite illness and  grave prospects, there is a pocket of hope on this cobbled, narrow street.

The Septuagenarian Hobbit: part 3 -Brussels

Hobbits are notorious stay-at-homes. It takes a wizard to pry them away from their hearths, and urgent need. Bilbo in one generation and Frodo in the next took their place in the front lines of the war between good and evil, light and darkness.

I have turned into a Hobbit in my old age. I left my home with serious misgivings (see https://115journals.com/2013/11/28/the-septuagenarian-hobbit/) and the journey proved not to be an unmitigated pleasure (see https://115journals.com/2013/12/14/septugenarian-hobbit-part-2/). After three months of apprehensive planning, I find myself back in my brother Rob’s house in the Bois Fort district of Brussels. I was last here 20 years ago and before that 20 years earlier than that. We are, truth to tell, a little concerned about the next trip.

I am here at Rob’s invitation. As soon as he knew he had to have his knee “changed” -his English has grown creative in his 45 years here- he called to ask me over. Not right after the surgery but two weeks later when he would be better. Oh, foolish hope.

I owed Rob. He flew the other way in September 2001 at short notice to help me pull out of a steep decline following surgery. It took him one day to get me to eat, two to get me out of bed to eat and three to get me out to eat. To my credit, I have already inspired him to get behind the wheel of his van, clutch and all. It is his left knee that was changed. And today, we have done 16 leg lifts about an inch off the mat. It hurt one of us terribly.

I had two concerns when I set out. First of all, my brother is a force of nature. His ex-wives and girl friends, all of whom drop in on a regular basis attest to that. He is funny and charming and generous and kind and spontaneous and outrageous and alarming. You never know what he will come up with next, He claimed that a broken leg would slow him down to my speed for a change. Not a chance! He jumps out of the little white van and I have to go rushing after him waving his crutch.

The other concern I had was dealing with the language. He speaks French with, apparently, an odd accent. Some of his friends speak English. Some don’t. I can sort of follow along, recognizing enough words to guess at the meaning and he often translates. What I didn’t reckon with is Flemish. It looks as if it’s an Anglo Saxon language, but just when I need the French translation, there isn’t one.

For example, there are 2 washers and dryers in this house. At a certain point, I had all implements engaged and while I could get clothes clean, I couldn’t get them dry. I chose “Kast droog” I chose “Extra droog”. At a certain point, I realized there was a button which said “Laag” or “Faible”. I disengaged it. An hour later the clothes were still wet. Then I saw a little drawer on the left above the door. I opened it and found a  rectangular tray, 5 inches deep brimming over with water and a notation – in 5 languages, including English- commanding me to empty the tray after every load. My brother limped downstairs. He emptied the tray down the floor drain. And low and behold, there was one in the other dryer as well. The “woman” didn’t know about them, he opined. “I never do the washing,” I heard him say as he started up the stairs. Just now I went down to check them. They were full again after one load. I’m pretty sure the woman knows.

To be continued (Sorry my fingers got away from me again. I wanted to save not publish. See you in the morning.)