The Cure for Fear

Okay, I should be asleep. I need to be. I want to get up early. Things to do. May actually be getting something, (When am I not?) But I have this great opportunity, which I am going to lose tomorrow. I am uncertain and afraid. Tomorrow I will call my oncologist. If my appointment is moved forward to next week instead of the week after, I know the lump that we’ve detected needs further study.

Blake and I were sitting in Starbucks in the lobby of Toronto General, gazing back at the Art Deco facade of Princess Margaret Hospital from which we had just jaywalked.

“Even if I do get an immediate call-back it could still be A or B. That would have to be determined,” I say.

“Or it could be C,” Blake quips.

“Oh, it could very well be C,” and I have to laugh.

Yes, well,  we have just spent two hours waiting to hear Blake’s test results with regard to C. They weren’t bad, but then they weren’t good either. It’s the usual seesaw game of prostrate cancer. Knock down the PSA score and the testosterone with hormones. Ease off. Watch the PSA rise again. Today, it was decided that it was time to go back to the heavy ammunition. Not easy news for the manly Blake, but excellent news in that the drugs have improved since last time and he is line to get this extremely expensive medication for free.

Not many men in the clinic bring along their ex-wives probably, but Blake’s young second wife was carried off by cancer two years ago. So he and I are embarked on this mutual study of mortality.

Much else has been happening this week. My brother Rob underwent knee replacement in Brussels. My daughter and her husband declared bankruptcy and their home is about to be foreclosed on. True this “disaster” has opened up their lives and led them to a prospective mountain home. My grandson, Leo, who has to get his driver’s license or lose his job, has his own test redo to deal with. I had enough fear to go round.

So I kept up my mantra, “I love you and I trust you.” Initially, I just mouthed the words, but gradually I realized what they meant. Driving down to the hospital today, I found it had morphed into, “I love you. I know you are pure love. I trust love.”

Blake and I, out of nothing but pure love, created a home, two children and careers that supported us. An excellent foundation for this present project.

At home, afterward, I read Rumi’s poetry (Rumi: The Book of Love, trans. Coleman Barks). One section is called “Tavern Madness” and the poems in it are about the ‘drunkenness’ of the overwhelming contact with the divine. Dinners in our home were full of such non-alcoholic ‘drunken’ conversations, full of revelation and confidence in our vision of life.

Rumi says: I didn’t come here of my own accord
                  And I can’t leave that way.
                  Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.

I love the way, poetry lets you work things out for yourself. And I love the idea of surrender to the steady shoulder that is capable of supporting my staggering self.

In another poem, Rumi says, I am the clear consciousness core of your being,                                              The same in ecstasy
                                             As in self-hating fatigue.

And so, I came around to an open heart and fear dissolved.

The Fall: poem for Margaret



 Spring and Fall: to a young child

MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Gerard Manley Hopkins 1918

The Hungry Ghosts: Chinese All Souls Festival

As we approach the temple building in Chinatown, we can see smoke rising from the tiny courtyard, smell strong incense and feel a fine spray on our faces. Through the filagree of the metal fence we catch glimpses of red-robed figures and hear their chanting. My friend peels off at this point, allergic to such strong incense and smoke. Entering by a side gate, I come upon other chanters in light blue robes, coming down from the temple on the third floor.

Inside the tiny office area, I am pointed toward the English list. The Chinese list looks to be more sizeable. The man before me is busy adding a folded package containing a paper sports jacket, paper dress shoes and a paper cell phone to his bag of paper money. I know these customs having attended a Chinese funeral, although the deceased also received genuine Scotch whiskey to help her on her way. When it is my turn, I am greeted happily. “We didn’t know you would be here to burn your own!” But I eschew extras. I am sending only these ersatz silver and gold bars to my parents.

For weeks, we have been rolling this paper money at our tai chi club and sending it down here in huge green plastic bags. The money has been redistributed into the small parcels, such as the one I hold with my parents’ names and their memorial plaque number on the label.

“You know what to do?” asks the volunteer in charge of the English list and she proceeds to remind me, but I do know what to do. This is the sixth year that I have burned an offering.

“Why don’t you do it for Aunt Mae?” Georgia has asked me. Aunt Mae got us through our tough young lives.

“Aunt Mae doesn’t need any help,” I reply.

Perhaps our mother doesn’t either, for when she left, she never looked back. She went so completely and utterly that her leaving left me questioning my beliefs, questioning them all the way to a two-week hospital stay.

My father, on the other hand, hung around, offering, for example, financial advice: buy lottery tickets. Those who have read my memoir, Never Tell, will understand that he was the sort of parent, one is better off without.

I climb to the third floor, clutching my paper sack. Through the door to the temple I can see more blue-robed chanters moving about among what surely must be “graven images” of the Quan Yin and Confucius and other Buddist, Taoist and Confucian “saints” or holy beings. They are large and colourful and delight me, but today my business is in the anteroom where the memorial plaques are posted. Mine is #588 and easily found.

I stand gazing at this innocuous slip of yellow paper, bearing my parents’ names and the name of their native town -Hereford. How strange to see it here, amid these gaudy red and gold trappings, above this altar covered in dishes of food: fruit, pastries, rice, tea, pots with many sticks of incense, and beautiful flowers. Hereford of rolling green hills and low mountains, Hereford Hill that lies under slope-shouldered Hereford mountain and looks down over the Indian and Connecticut Rivers, a wooded place that is turning its back on cultivation now, turning back to dark and tangled forest.

I bow, the parcel tucked awkwardly under my arm. I choose a joss stick, light it on a candle, bow and stick it in the sand of an incense pot. I bow again. I don’t want to leave.

I am 76 years-old, but I am also 2 and 4 and 5. I am living through the Great New England hurricane and watching my parents build a load on the hay wagon and walking the dirt road with my mother and fishing the trout stream with my father.

If they were alive my mother would be 95. Her mother lived to that age. And my father, 98. But they have been gone for 44 and 24 years. Most of the family is profoundly grateful and it certainly has made life easier. No one else, Georgia or my visiting brother, wants to be here with me.

Downstairs, I am waved toward the back parking lot where a small iron burner stands ready. Two of my favourite instructors are there to feed the fire. They are my age, perhaps, although their wiry small bodies are in such good shape, it’s hard to tell and they are teaching another Chinese man how to do the tor yu as one of them pokes my bundle into flames.

I stand watching it burn, leaping up in bright gold and red flames, dying back to black ash and leaping into flame again. My eyes are watering. Must be the smokey wind.

I am feeding the hungry ghosts, my father who waited his whole life for a windfall, my mother who loved beautiful things -cranberry glass, cow pitchers (!), my father who sought some adrenaline high to fill the emptiness of his orphaned heart, my mother who sought solace, a gift to soothe her battered soul. And my own. My ghost is still more or less grounded here for the time being, but I know its tendency to wander, howling in the wilderness.

It’s all about me as usual.

Measured against the forests and the granite, the myriad lakes and waters, the un-reckonable ages, I am just a flame. These steadfastnesses support me, not I them. I can flicker and go out and reignite. I owe my life to Something greater.

When the fire has died down to black, I thank the men and walk through the back gate to my car, which still has a lot of time on the meter.