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.Hauntings

In Richard Wagamese’s novel, Ragged Company, he presents his characters who are aware of the dead, passed spirits who are somehow present- by the side of the road, or even present at movie theatres. The four protagonists in the story accept them , acknowledging them without a second thought.
How do we feel about things or places imbued by those we once knew but who no longer inhabit this earthly realm? Yesterday as I walked out in the rare sunshine we’ve had this summer, for a second or so, I thought I recognized a few people on the street, but upon reflection, realized theyhad passed away. When someone dies, these spottings happen frequently, as a certain gait, the flutter of a scarf or even a body shape seems familiar and makes us want to rush over and greet them, grab their arm and say hi. Suddenly we are caught up by the realization that it’s not the person we thought it was, someone different and we feel kind of silly, but also duped or tricked by our maginations.
One friend engulfed by a storm of butterflies and another continually visited by a cloud of blue Jays insisted it was their dead husbands who wanted their presence felt. My  daughter reminisced  of a storm of hummingbirds that surrounded the casket of an adolescent whom she had treated, an ingenue too soon gone, but whose devotion to these tiny birds was well known.

Sometimes I wish I could feel my mother’s presence, encounter her on the street or have her come to me in a dream. I fear she harboured feelings of resentment before she died because I would not, could not remove her from the hospital at the end of her life. There was her suppressed rage, her seething anger and truly, I did not know how to handle it. I turned cold and she, she too was a separate frigid island, so different to the person who had guided and ensured my growing up . In deed my lingering memories are of her refusing to talk to me, more upsetting as we  had shared a warm and loving relationship throughout her entire life, she my constant support and later, my treasured friend. When she died , I felt as if the final words of companionship had not been uttered, her blaze of indignity and my helplessness in the situation unresolved.
In contrast, my sister was there when a passing rabbi entered her room to blow the shofar the eve of Rosh Hashana and I believe they experienced the warmth of the moment together. Later Wendy fed her spoonfuls of chicken soup. Then she was gone, vanished forever. As all must. Her words for me missing, caught somewhere, hanging, never released in the warmth of a smile, a touch I knew so well.
If I believed in an afterlife, I would have called out in the forty days, some say where the spirit circles, sending a caress  to her cheek or apologizing for my own standoffish manner in those final days. Perhaps because a hospital domain is my sister’s habitat, she knew how to ease her patient’s pain, make her comfortable, assuage her wants. But like my mother who dreaded and avoided hospitals at all costs, I withdrew. She had often recalled being an immigrant child coldly examined by indifferent doctors like some migrant specimen, and then with my father’s confinement at Riverdale when he had polio, she would lament that she had had “ her belly full of doctors”, their misdiagnoses, their pronouncements, their callousness, their unfeelingness to her emotional angst. With my cereal, I ingested her attitude, fear and resentment of the profession, myself demonstrating the “ white coat syndrome” of ridiculously high blood pressure when having to be seen, even by the kindest docs. Interestingly my sister embraced and not surprisingly, I retreated from doctors.
If I knew she hovered above, or wherever the dead persist, if they do, in deed, I would have entreated her to intercede in one particular family issue, but then, maybe the dead are only observers, witnesses to how life folds and unfolds from the unseen domaine of the spirits. But why should I harbour illusions of their power? From the tales of my friends and daughter, I want to believe they can turn themselves into a clump of butterflies or leave me a message in my dreams, but in the three years she has been gone, I have not experienced either.
Wagamese in Ragged Company suggests they are voices in our heads and maybe this is true, and rather than a ruminating superego who constantly warns us against crossing the street against the lights or running with scissors, they like Casper the Friendly Ghost provide safeguards for us. He, an Ojibway writer, reflects the world of his ancestors. I’m unsure what the Polish shtetl had to bequeath about the dead.  The year my mother and Jordan, early graduated from high school, were to share a grandmother- grandson trip to Las Vegas, she was hit by a car crossing the road near the corner of her apartment. She swore my father had instructed her to pull in her legs- or they would have been crushed. A concussion, blackened eyes, badly  bruised, she never traveled after that incident, another event we would hear her relate.
Wagamese through his protagonist the homeless tender Amelia One Sky also explains that when something sad happens in some place with some people, we leave a part of ourselves there, apart that wanted or needed hints to come out differently, a part that got separated from itself, a shadow of ourselves. Likely, I hunger for a resolution at my mother’s bedside, awaiting a final word of blessing or love, something that would crystallize decades of caring and constant love between us.

 

Says Amelia or her street name, One for the Dead, “If we never get right with it and we’re asked to move to the spirit world , that shadow stays here, revisiting those places and those people, hoping maybe that it can reclaim the part that got lost. By watching us learn to deal with our hurt, our losses, and reach out to life again. It tells them we’re okay. That they don’t need to patrol, revisit, or haunt those places anymore.”( p.213)

For me, I suppose I have not reconciled those final days, smiting myself for not finding some softness within to draw her to me and exterminate her anger. How ironic that in my father’s passing, she facilitated a last meeting where my father softened and was able to express love for me as I rubbed his feet, and yet there was no final resolution here at her bedside.
Mindfulness teaches to forgive ourselves past experiences, to permit an acknowledgement that we did the best we could at the time- and move on.

Were it so easy, I would. 

But as yet, I am trapped in a place where there are no butterflies or blue Jays, just empty space and the whiff of chicken soup.

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The American Landscape and Canada

I have often stated that I want- at this point- in my life beautiful. San Diego is that. However, arriving in LA for an event, I am confronted with everything I dislike about America. The buildings resemble 14th Century Gothic churches that eventually collapsed because of the competitive desire of the builders to touch the sky,pushing them higher and higher. Hotels here not content to be solo versions of rest and repose combine as the JW Marriott and Ritzcarlton have done here: the second a looming appendage to the first. The Weston sprawls for an entire block. Even restaurants are overly encroaching octopi, presiding over almost entire blocks.

The resurrection of Downtown LA reminds me that in spite of the line of overly heaped bundle buggies toppled here and there that the U.S. desires to be the biggest, and most imposing, stretching upwards to the stars and sideways wide to encompass numerous freeways and acreage. How appropriately had Betsy Ross envisioned their flag in 1776 to have created the symbol that flutters in the breeze!

As a girl in the 60’s who came to LA to visit her cool cousins, I had no sense of America’s expansionism- even though our history classes focused on the Monroe Doctrine or the Manifest Destiny or the Purchase of Louisiana. My cousins’ friends asked if I drove a dogsled to school and if l occupied a teepee. I merely giggled and guffawed at their lack of knowledge of Canadian history. I devoured my first big Mac in California and luxuriated in being away from home, alone, for the first time. I sped through traffic on the back of a motorcycle en route to beaches named Hermosa, lazing all day in the scorching sun. I was driven about in cars, even rising before my aunt and uncle, to trudge up some hill to watch the sun glisten through the smog.

Back then I cared little for politics ( although I still maintain that the play in politics is about power only using the issues as excuses for self-aggrandizement, cynic I may be ). If I was considered an oddity as a homegrown product of Canada as a visitor to the US back then, so be it. It played smally into my hedonistic teenage romp. Only later, did I realize that love for Canada is in deed bred in the bone. Much much later, when I noted that turning on a tap in a faraway place yielded beautiful drinkable water did I pause to consider that Canada was truly spectacular in many ways. And its vistas humbling.

Just last weeks at a Blue Jay game, I watched as a family struggled to contain a large man in a wheel chair. It was obvious that he was impaired, likely from a debilitating disease that had robbed him from not just standing unaided, but even keeping his head from bobbing this way and that, his glasses attached by a thick elastic to the back of his head. When our National Anthem played, he immediately leapt from his seat, terrifying his family that in his attempt to “stand on guard for thee” he might just topple over the glass barrier. How deeply does our passion for our country reach- and even when we cannot control our limbs, that we somehow jump to attention to demonstrate our feeling for this country.

Canada is my home. I applauded John Chretien’s refusal to align itself with the US, demanding real proof that were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq . We stood alone. Our health care system demonized by US is still a thing of beauty, equalizing both rich and poor. We like to pride ourselves on being different from the Americans, that we hold different values. Sadly, however and over the ages, we too have looked the other way, on issues of immigration our statesmen touting none is too many or some such nonsense to crises of real life and death matters, opening and closing borders, separating serious practical concerns from theoretical ones. And in terms of our environment, while 181 of 193 countries in the United Nations recognize their citizens’ right to a healthy environment, we have not enshrined it in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, even pulling out of the Kyoto Accord, demurring that the price of enforcing it would bankrupt us.

Yet, we accepted same sex marriages, allowed women and their doctors to determine necessary abortions, promoted cannabis for the very ill, and are working towards operationalizing euthanasia. I reflect that no country is perfect and we ride on a tide of politicians who drive our boat into uncharted or fearful waters.

Yet here back in LA, it is the display of these ridiculously high and monstrously wide buildings that flash silver and reflect the sun right into my eyes that gives me cause for complaint. At the same time, I love the new Disney concert hall designed by our own Canadian Frank Gehry with its unbelievable shapes and curve. Just today I read that his fascination of the curvilinear was likely engendered by the fish kept alive by his grandmother for their Sabbath dinner. In Toronto.

I laud the Getty museum with its staggering art collection as a tribute to the good of some Americans. Yet I am uncomfortable with the showiness, the lack of humility and the bravado of the Towers of Babel that symbolize the presence, the riches of a country where at the bases of these edifices homeless people sleep in their dank hoodies curled like the tendrils of ferns. In my head is the ignorance of a Donald Trump insulting, bold, brash and so embarrassing allowed to compete for the highest position in the land. And the right to bear guns, well, that is an unbearable story.

It all confuses me: the display of power, who grabs more, who displays better?.

Later as we anticipated the event for which we had come to LA, I admired the dashing hubub of people in tuxes and black lace. We were beginning to worry we would not arrive on time at the Biltmore, lusciously tiled and gilted as the first home to the Oscars. My husband suggested we call Uber and before we knew it, a grey car burst through the entwined mess of traffic permanently stalled in the driveway of the Marriott. The driver who was cordial and accommodating managed to detangle his car and we were off for the short blocks that separated us from the celebration.

Chatting about the rise of Uber, our driver, a dark and handsome young man explained he worked for Uber only part time because he was studying to improve his speech which was very good I, a former English teacher, thought. Carefully and haltingly he responded to our questions, revealing he had no family in LA, that he had come from Syria only on year ago. Reluctant when we continued to question, he said only his flight from his home could be a book: he had swam from Turkey to Greece and the United Nations had allowed him to stay.

Always wanting to accept and believe, but sure there is a story behind the tantalizing tidbit, we respected his privacy and did not press. He was grateful to be in the country, hoping once his English had improved to follow his dream- of all things- into marketing. This revelation drew me back to a night at the Saigon hotel at the Rooftop Bar overlooking Louis Vuitton and Juicy Couture where I considered the irony of a disastrous war fought for values that were in not in sync with the economy or desires of people.

I’m not sure of how to think about Syria. I want it black and white and people allowed to live and thrive in democracies so their lives are about good choices. I pondered how this Uber driver had afforded his car which he proudly proclaimed he owned. I wondered if he would meet some sympathetic beautiful Valley girl who would support his American Dream.

My thoughts on America are always tied to the Gatsby story and the image of the green light bouncing off the water. As well I carry with me Philip Roth’s American Pastoral with scenes of rotten decay that twisted the dream. Yet here in the flesh was not just a dreamer but a young man who through dint of determination was wrestling a new future for himself, fulfilling the dream.

Of course I cannot say to what lengths he had gone : had he bribed? lied? Or merely kissed his parents goodbye as they urged him to leave in the dead of the night? My imagination emboldened by my knowledge of the Holocaust and the fiction of heroic movies set my mind racing. Yet in the front seat, neat and quiet spoken was a person who like Tennyson’s Ulysses had striven…not to fail.

Impressive.

Almost a year later, the newspapers present us with the child washed ashore, an unsuccessful attempt for him and his family to achieve a safe harbor, his dreams dashed, and Canada at a pivotal point .

Hurdles, Art Books and the Handicapped

Last night The Jays lost 8-0 to Tampa Bay ( remember I write several months ahead and then edit later), but we left before the end of the game. As I huffed my way up the stairs to the exit, I thought of my father. Not that he was a sports enthusiast although he enjoyed watching an odd golf game or even awkwardly dropping a ball to bowl occasionally. But the impossibility he would have had mounting those stairs caused me pause.

My father was a victim of polio, his legs forever destroyed so for the rest of his life from age 28, he required braces and crutches to keep him upright. When he left Riverdale Hospital in 1949, he was fully braced in something that would conjure a Hannibal Lector cage of straps and bars. Later he relied on half braces and wooden sticks much like Itzak Perlman’s to balance his body as he swung his legs. Eventually some design fool had decided that a plastic substitute should replace the rubber tips at the bottom of the crutches so that sliding on wet surfaces became another obstacle to overcome when moving from place to place.

As I puffed up the stairs at the ACC, I reflected on how many venues are inaccessible to the handicapped. Although my father had been forced to navigate before “ Handicapped” signs were designated for special parking privileges and broken down curbs or ramps were even a cloud in a city planner’s mind, he and others had somehow travelled the city.

Once he had brought me an art book from Queen Street and only years later did I ponder, how could he have parked his car, gotten into the store on that busy street, and carried that over-sized book back home? I was so amazed and overwhelmed by the act at the time, that thanking him for his feat did not even pass over my consciousness, so consumed was I by my prize.

When we chose as our first home, an apartment with two flights of stairs, there had been no thought of the effort required to hoist his 180 pound body to our door for dinner. I recall as well when I continued to demand he wear madras shorts and he finally retorted that he had no desire to expose his braces.

Now I reflect or rationalize with embarrassment that perhaps it was a need to believe that one’s parents are forever strong and invincible, like all other able bodies parents, or truthfully and more honestly, it is a lack of empathy, particularly when we, ourselves, are strong, bold and young, unmindful of the ravages that a disease or age can impose: in weighing down the body with limps, shakes, gasps or pain.

At more than 60 now, I regret such brazen insensitivity.

And now that my father is gone, I can never express to him that I am so sorry and so unmindful of how difficult his life was. Yet, he would have scorned my pity., brushing away my comments, perhaps not wanting to even discuss such matters.

As I struggled with my grandson’s carriage at Starbuck’s this summer, no person my age or much younger, jumped up to open the door as I fought to push the stroller through. Even directly meeting their eyes which did not flinch from my questioning gaze to suggest that they momentarily leave their frothy cappuccinos to aid diverted the course of events. Similarly on a bus or subway ride, it is not the young who rise to offer a seat, so ensconced are they by their earplugs. My friend Anne said a woman her own age offered a seat. Anne smiled but refused.

So when no one offers you a seat, or even deigns to open a door: you do it yourself.

That was what my father did. When even his and my mother’s family did not leave him a parking place in the dead of cold slippery winters, he somehow dragged himself through the ice, set on putting one foot in front of the other and not falling.

Year later, as a society we do pretend that we care and have put in place some support- or so we say. Perhaps it has to do with boomer aging as we find the stairs a bit more challenging or lose our balance so much easier than when we twirled effortlessly on ice skates. I often say that the boomers never believed that would lose the golden haze of youth and perhaps that is part of the everlasting Mic Jagger or Bon Jovi tours. We gaze at the wizening faces but applaud the flexibility in their limbs.

My mother used to use” you never know…” and it is true, you never do know until you experience the reality of a situation yourself.

Sorry dad!

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