The Last Stand

“Has it been three years since Lorraine?” asks one man to another at table 9.

“Three years in November,” he replies, “Three long years.”

Dad and I are at his 65th high school reunion at the UVic University Club.

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“This is my sister’s husband,” says Bernice introducing me to her date, “She died in 2001.”

Bernice’s brother-in-law is the one she calls when she gets snowed in. He brought her a pail of strawberries he had picked when he arrived at her door to drive her to the reunion tonight.

We eat salad, halibut or roast beef, and strawberry shortcake.

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“Sixty-five years ago, I was drunk,” says one man at our table, “I didn’t get home until seven in the morning.”

They laugh about the bonfire that night and other stories about lost friends and good old days.

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“We share three things in common,” says the classmate giving a speech after dinner, “our birth, our time at Vic High, and ultimately our death.”

The flowers by the door are dedicated to the classmate most recently passed away. He had RSVP’d to the reunion but had died since.

“There probably won’t be a 70th,” says a woman at the podium, “but there will be another luncheon in October.”

She lists the names of the women that organized this event as well as the more casual the bi-annual luncheons throughout the year. The room claps in gratitude. Without these women, old friends would have lost touch.

“Other years don’t get together like we do,” says Bernice. “And our class only started after our 40th reunion.”

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“Does anyone else want to say something before we all go home?” asks the woman laughing with the room. It’s eight o’clock.

With what my father calls ‘gumption’, which I must have inherited from him, I make a request at the podium.

“Would you please sing your class victory song?”

The surviving members of Victoria High’s Class of 1949 rise from their chairs, standing with their bad hips, canes and shaky glasses, and together before me they sing and hum, as well as they can remember, their victory song.

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“So, how was the reunion last night?” asks Mum as she and Dad drive me back to the ferry the following day.

“Good,” Dad says, “I think Katie’s going to dye her hair grey so she can join the group.”

We laugh.

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“They’re all good, positive people, aren’t they?” says Dad.

“Yes, they sure are,” I reply.

 

 

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Scottish Reform

“We r having a Scottish dance on Friday night. Please will u & Dad come!?”

reads a text from Mum.

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Friday night at the Brentwood Bay Senior Centre, it’s a big night out, especially for Dad. He’s been dressed up for it all day.

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Mum’s waiting at the door when we arrive. We throw down our money and head to the dance hall, sitting Dad down by the windows in the only chair with arm rests, aka get up again assisting devices. He sits wide-eyed with his hands on his cane between his legs, and his pants pulled high enough to reveal his socks and little old man legs.

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“It’s a change from the TV at least,” says Mum.

I nod and remind myself to cut his eyebrows.

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It’s time to dance.

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“Just to warn you, I may collapse,” says one man, “Bad hip.”

In lines of men facing women, or due to the gender disparity, women in men’s scarves facing women, our teacher prepares us for the upcoming dance. Hold hands, move forward, move back, skip here and there, in a circle with your right hand here, skip sideways through this pair, make a figure eight through that pair, grab hands with everyone and shuffle sideways in a circle this way and back the other way, but remember it’s only this way on the very last time. Got it?

Let the music play!

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“Scottish dancing is easy,” said Dad before we left the house, “Skip that one and this one, and that one and this one,” as he pretends to skip cow pads in a Scottish field.

Not quite my experience, I disgrace my Scottish heritage as I skip and turn with panicked eyes seeking aid from the partners around me, but their eyes offer no assistance as they are as terrified as my own. Our group is so full of first timers that the teacher comes running to keep the dance afloat, grabbing the arms of little old people as she drags them running in circles trying to catch up with musical time.

By the third dance, I am calling on my 77 year old mother to replace me in line, while I head psychologically exhausted to sit beside Dad. Together we watch in amazement as men and women all the way into their eighties with humped backs, stiff necks and swollen ankles dance as though their very lives depend on it.

“It’s good exercise and good for the old noggen too,” says one beautiful old woman, “that’s why I do it.”

Use or lose it.

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An evening of dance and laughter with my divorced parents, it was a night to remember. These are precious days.

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“Dance me to the end of love,”

sings Leonard.

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Disaster has struck!

“Disaster has struck!” says Mum in all her British-accented glory when I answer the phone.

Dad wants to call the police because he thinks Nicol is stealing the silverware.

He’s not.

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But, change is in the air and with change comes uncertainty and uncertainty inspires anxiety, which experience has taught me can lead to conspiracy theories. Mental illness or dementia only adds to the creativity of those possibilities.

I take the week off work, catch the ferry to the island and spend it watching Murdock Mysteries beside Dad, hoping my presence will reassure him. Throughout the days, he turns to me and asks,

“What’s happening with the grandchildren?”

“Seth, Delean and Taeja are going treeplanting,” I say, “And Kai has moved into John’s place in town with Seth.”

“Oh, that’s right,” he says petting Nigel on his lap and turning back to the TV.

The chicks have flown the coop.

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Back on the mainland, I get word that Dad called the man who pocketed a cheque for $20,000 while I was at work and is subsequently banned from the farm, to come over to fix a leak in the kitchen sink. A friend doing a favour, he charged Dad more than a certified plumber would have. Apparently, the 20 grand didn’t cover it.

“But Dad, don’t you see that inviting Ken over when I’ve told him he’s no longer welcome here puts us in conflict? He’s my Roy Err, Dad, my Judas.”

Dad goes silent before he explodes and hangs up on me. The silence is the moment he understands my point of view. The explosion is his apology, and the hang up is a promise not to call Ken for maintenance help again. At least, that’s how I interpret it.

Feeling guilty for upsetting Dad, I warn Nicol to keep an eye on him.

“Your dad is fine. I know how sensitive you are about those things. Your dad knows that you are always doing what you feel is best for him – even when he disagrees with it. He has told me this often. He loves you deeply and appreciates what you do for him. I believe your dad is very happy with his life at the moment, and it’s primarily because of what you have done for him.”

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“What else is exciting?” Dad asks me every few minutes the next time I’m in town. He’s full of jokes to make me laugh because jokes make everything better.

“I bought a new dishwasher,” I tell him, running out of exciting things to say. The other one is old and broken, so he agrees with my decision. But then, he turns to me with terror in his eyes.

“I better be careful about what I say about what to do with things when they get old!” His hands cover his mouth.

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“Have you thought about putting him in a nursing home?” asks another friend.

It’s not that I’m against nursing homes that I keep Dad at home. In fact, without a biological child to burden with my own old age, I hope to be able to afford such a place for myself, somewhere that doesn’t remind me of the smell of urine or the memory of wheeling Granny into a closet of a room and lighting her a cigarette with a plastic bib hanging around her neck. I’m hoping for comfy couches and singalongs of all my favourite songs, a clean, private room with a window, a cat and a view, and where the caregivers are kind to my fear, gentle to my embarrassment and ever ready and quick to laugh in spite of my pain.

Dad is different though. He’s happy and confident in the home he built when he was young and strong, where he walks down the hill to get his paper and falls asleep to his favourite records each night with three dogs and a cat snoring on the bed. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think he’d live long if we were to move him now.

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“The first one comes anytime, but after that, it takes nine months,” says Dad, making jokes about illegitimate babies.

After every ending comes a new beginning.

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“That’s it! She’s staying here with us,” says Dad on the first weekend Lynn and my honeymoon baby, a Mexican rescue, came to spend at the farm. Already up on his bed with the other dogs and cat, Dad can think of nothing better than adding another dog to his pack.

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“The Goat Lady’s here,” says Dad, nicknaming our new tenant who moved in with two dogs and cats and five goats on the farm.

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John died a year ago, and now two of Kristin’s children live in his house, the beginning of a new era. The farm has shifted too and is now home to a whole world of new: new tenants, new love, a newborn baby, and six new baby-goat kids (yes, eleven goats in all).

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Change often feels like disaster, and death an ending without reward, but when disaster hits, I must try to remember that every ending brings a new beginning.

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And due to my morbid nature, I can’t help but think about the ending of my own life’s song. May my life leave behind it a fertile soil for a new story for someone else to tell.

Remembering John

 

 

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Maple Syrple, A Cold War

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Still floating from my honeymoon, I come home to an urgent message from Dad’s tax accountant and a carbon copy of an email exchange between Nicol and Mum.

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Hi Joan,

The bottle of syrup you bought Sandy 4 days ago is gone, and the 4 litres of ice cream is almost finished.

Joan, while money is involved in the cost of the maple syrup, I don’t really think it’s the critical consideration.

One of the things I try to do is have Sandy on as much balanced a diet as possible. This is difficult because he loves large amounts of sugar everyday – maple syrup, honey in his tea, sometimes four or five bowls of ice cream in a day. I buy him Tunnocks caramel wafers, cookies, chocolate, ju jubes and assorted candy, halva, as well as his sugared ginger.

Personally, I think he consumes too much sugar, and it could be a health risk because he is sedentary and doesn’t burn it off. My recommendation for health reasons would be to control it a little.

Then, again, I am not a dietitian…just my two cents worth.

Nicol

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Some scientific studies link sugar to Alzheimer’s.

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Hi Nicol,

I absolutely agree with you, the sugar is not good for him, but, he is 84 and I think he should have whatever makes him happy. When I think of the amount of alcohol he used to drink, the sugar is a great improvement and he is quite ready to die. I am a great believer in dying happy! The food you give him is wonderful, and he is so lucky to have you to take care of him, but he seems to have no control over his need for the sugary stuff. I guess it is what he craves instead of the booze. Strange change of taste.

I know you are right Nicol, but I want him to be happy.

Joan

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My father is a very lucky man.

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Until Death Do Us Part

“I appreciate that dear,” said Dad when I told him we were getting married at St. Stephen’s, down the road from the farm where I was baptized and my brother is buried.

It was a small wedding, sixteen people all told: our parents, Lynn’s children, my sister and her children, and the Oatmeal Savage, our stand-in photographer.

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“This has never happened before,” laughed the vicar when we asked to start the ceremony twenty minutes early.

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The sun set, the candles lit, it was a pantomime wedding; we each played a part.

It began with Lynn’s family standing in a half circle at the front of the church. My eldest nephew, Seth, began the procession down the candlelit aisle past the empty benches strumming his guitar with my sister and his siblings behind him. Arm in arm with my parents, my father with his cane, we made our way down the aisle until we formed a circle with Lynn’s family, where my sister and her children sang back up harmonies while I sang my love song to Lynn.

Watch here: Be My Valentine

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Our mothers lit the unity candles and everyone but Lynn and I sat down, my family on the right and Lynn’s on the left. The vicar read his opening statements and Lynn and I sang our duet. I played guitar and he harmonica.

Watch here: Still Falling

“Now, for the actual wedding,” laughed the vicar.

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We said our vows and prayers. Lynn’s son, Joel, gave us the rings we put on our fingers. His daughter, Zoe, read from Corinthian’s, his eldest daughter, Anya and her fiancé, Brad, signed as our witnesses, and his father ended the ceremony with a prayer.

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“I pronounce you man and wife and that’ll be 2 dollars,” said Dad, leaning in to whisper in my ear.

With candles in hand, Lynn and I led our family out of the church and down into the cemetery to my brother’s grave, more candles in the grass lighting our way. There, we cracked champagne, drank from silver goblets and lit sparklers to celebrate in the night. My sister’s toast as much a long awaited eulogy to John as a wedding toast to us. Goblets tipped bubbly with laughter onto the grass surrounding his grave.

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“My testicles are in my throat,” said Dad in the beautifully clear but bitterly cold night.

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Dinner took place at a nearby family restaurant on the local reserve, the owner I knew from high school. A private room in the back, we all held hands as Dad started his prayer, but he forgot the words halfway through.

Shaking his head and instead, he sang the song he brought us all up to sing, and sing loud we did.

Johnny Appleseed wasn’t the only song he led that night. Twice, he spontaneously sang Lord, I’m coming home, once at the church and again at the restaurant. We sang with him both times.

Amongst the cocktails, poached pear and Cambozola salad, butter chicken and more wine, speeches were given and bonds were declared.

“We’re real cousins now,” said a niece to a stepchild.

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My speech was in the form of a song, predictable I know.

The Proudest

Don’t mind me while I get personal, always been this way

I learned life can be unusual and I like it that way

Because you’re the most beautiful, kind and generous

Gentle, crazy, wild and shy

And you make me the proudest stepmum in the sky

You were born with bonds of loyalty, torn apart in a home at war

So in your eyes I was Lucifer invading your front door

I can’t say that I’ve raised you, I wouldn’t call me your Mom

But we are family and I love you, and I’ll protect you from harm

Because you’re the most beautiful, kind and generous

Gentle, crazy, strong and wise

You make me the proudest stepmum in the skies

So if your golden heart breaks, lost love or inexplicable aches

Or if you strive for first place but pretty knees buckle and you fall on your face

Or if you turn 74 and your muscles crack and your bones are sore

Or if we’re long gone and dead, remember the words in this song I said

You make me the proudest stepmum in the land

So honey, please take a stand

And then there was cake. My mother-in-law is an artist, painter, muralist, art therapist. She flew to BC from Ontario and baked and painted the most beautiful cake ever made. Icelandic love and marriage poetry circling the base of the top layer and other symbols of our life and ancestry scattered around the bottom: a lion for England, a springbok for South Africa, a candelabra for Judaism, and a Coast Salish whale for the west coast. It hurt to cut.

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By the time cake was eaten and coffee was poured, the busy dinner rush had passed; the restaurant, then empty, made room for a dance floor that was all ours.

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And then the wedding ended just as it should, with the bride on her back with her kitten heels in the air of the trunk of a hatchback taxi and the groom squished into the front seat with his future son-in-law.

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It couldn’t have been more perfect.

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“What’s happening now?” asked Dad when he saw me on Monday morning after the Friday night rehearsal dinner, the Saturday wedding, and the Sunday brunch.

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Sunday Brunch

It’s over and done. The ceremony is complete. We’re married.

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Though there are many dear friends and family that I would have loved to have invited to our wedding, I do not regret our choice. Blended families are complicated and this weekend was not only the marriage of a couple, it was the marriage of two families. We needed this time for us.

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Thank you dear ones: Sandy, Joan, Peter, Marillyn, Anya, Brad, Zoe, Joel, Kristin, Delean, Seth, Taeja, Kai and Nicol.

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Bridezilla

“What’s exciting?” asks Dad.

On February 8th, Lynn and I are getting married. We’ve been together for seven years and have decided not to wait any longer. It’s a private family ceremony, a weekend event that my sister is flying in for from Japan.

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“Oh right. You’re getting ready for all that nonsense,” says Dad, “What else is exciting?”

Where Mum is all about my wedding and me, Dad never really cares about things that don’t involve him directly. A factor in why he’s so terribly difficult to impress.

“Isn’t your daughter beautiful?” said a kind woman at church the day I spoke at Uncle Mike’s funeral.

“I have four beautiful daughters!” replied Dad, referring to Kristin and Barbara’s two girls.

“Well,” she said disconcerted, “but isn’t she talented?”

“I have four talented daughters!” he replied, as though singling me out for a compliment would be some kind of betrayal to the others, even in their absence.

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“Is your mother going to be there?” he asks, “She’ll have to fly fast on her broom to get here on time.”

“She’s back from Mexico,” I say, “She’ll be walking me down the aisle with you.”

He grumbles.

“Unless I’ve got three dogs on leashes, I won’t do it!” he replies.

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I tell him I’m wearing a black dress for the ceremony.

“You are getting married in the church, right?” he asks with his chin down looking up at me.

“Yes, Dad,” I say, “Not in the graveyard.”

“So who’s invited?” he asks.

“Just immediate family,” I reply.

He grumbles.

“I may have invited some people,” he says, “Word gets around. I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole congregation’s there.”

I laugh.

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“What happens if I say no?” he asks.

“You already said yes,” I say.

“I’ll drop dead two days before the wedding,” he says.

“You bloody well better not!” I say.

“Well, Rita and I have decided to get married the next day at St. Elizabeth’s,” he says.

“I thought it was going to be at St. Mary’s?” I say.

“We changed our minds,” he says.

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At my late-to-wed age, I’m not bothered about the wedding going according to any preconceived expectations of a childhood Disney fantasy. The black cocktail dress over the puffy white gown is an economic choice with a promising frequent use practicality, but I admit vulnerability to Bridezilla’s disappointment in one way.

“Why can’t we all just love each other?” Mum used to cry out in her British accent when we were kids and not getting along.

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My pre-wedding anxiety isn’t about flowers and cake, but rather a fear of someone I love getting hurt, sick, dead or melting down into a family crisis of drama. My wedding dream is a weekend of laughter, joy and love with the people I care most about in the world.

I pray it comes true and that even if it doesn’t, that I will cherish the moments, no matter how they unfold. This ceremony is a lifelong commitment to Lynn, his family and my own. With rings, vows and songs, promising to accept all the good and the bad that goes with it, we are coming together to form a new family, a family of our own.

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A New Day

Boxing Day, Dad sits down beside me on the couch in front of the fire.

“Well, Christmas dinner was a great success,” I say, making conversation.

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Delean cooked the turkey. Mum made the trifle. Taeja brought baked goods from our favourite local bakery. And Seth brought his beautiful daughter, Alyssa.

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We opened gifts, drank wine, ate way too much and played four rounds of Apples to Apples.

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Dad came and went between the kitchen with us and his chair with the TV and dogs. Lynn showed him his hand from time to time to include him in the game.

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Have I mentioned I won three out of the four games?

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And at quarter to eleven, Mum was the last resident home to her senior’s building that night.

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It was a wonderful night.

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“Christmas? When was that?” Dad asks.

“Last night,” I say.

Jesus.

I guess every day is a new day.

Happy New Year!

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