Somehow Australia no longer seems so far away. I have seen the landscape, I have talked with folks who live there, moved among the eucalyptus trees, been wakened by the kookaburra in the wee hours,… More
Life is full of miracles. I don’t mean the inexplicable things that are impossible and then truly happen, those things that saints have to do to earn sainthood. I mean the ordinary things that happen regularly in life but seem miraculous. Like spring.
Right now it seems to me that spring will be a miracle. For those of us who live north of the forty ninth, the joy of winter is wearing off. My pre winter mantra is “the more snow, the better”. Well, I’m completely over that now. Enough with the snow. And this relentless chill is making me crazy. I want to go out the door without layering up. I want to hear the drip of the downspout, the bird reunion in the evergreens, I want to smell the earth. I want to feel light again, and warm. I am claustrophobic with silent white and icy air.
So many of life’s moments are miracles. All of those blurred years of child raising and the result: three young adult children who function in the world, kind and loving and generous. This is miraculous to both Paul and I. How did this happen, particularly when the two of us still feel we are waiting for our own grown up selves to appear. It is a miracle, trivial but astonishing to me, every time a meal gets placed on the table for guests, without a serious explosion or some of it ending up thrown at the wall in desperation. Is not every single birth a miracle? Waiting those months while a child grows inside the womb and then, the waiting over, the miracle appears. Does the waiting make it more miraculous?
Four years ago we met Jawad. We waited with him until he was granted refugee status here in Canada. One year later he found his younger brother, Naqib, which was a miracle in itself. Now we wait for Naqib, his arrival in Canada and a grand reunion. We are in limbo. The more we wait, the more it seems that it may take a miracle to actually get Naqib to Canada. He has had the interview, he is only waiting for the visa and the ticket “home”. Everyday is another day to add to the months and months of waiting. Sometimes his existence in our lives seems like a dream we once had. Perhaps it is not real, maybe we have made this whole thing up. Is it possible that we have invested so much of ourselves in a story? But how do you explain the conversations we have every single morning across the ocean with this young man. These hopeful, positive, trust filled talks about what he has done during the day that has just passed in Turkey and what we will do during the day that is just beginning for us here in Canada. These are real conversations that always end with encouragement and hope. We have read so many books together out loud, through an online app, each of us using our own tablet, unseen by the other. Isn’t it time for him to be here, to hold a paper book across the table from us as we learn? Isn’t it time for the light to come back, for the cold to go, for the ground under our feet to dry out and be solid? We trust in the promise of a future we can’t quite see the details of. We wait for miracles, for the miraculous. We wait.
Cooper is gone. He is, we can imagine, cavorting among the fields with his dog friends in heaven, rolling and playing and running and nipping and barking to his heart’s content. He has found the endless river and the perfect jumping rock and is leaping from it with complete abandon and utter joy, into the cold water, forever chasing the perfect stick. He is pain free and clear minded and happy. He gets to eat cheese for every meal.
Wherever his soul resides, this picture of him in heaven is one that I love when I think of him now. It comforts me and I will stick to it. And now we are left with so many sweet memories of him over the 11 and a half years that he graced our lives with unbounded, unconditional love and loyalty and companionship.
Cooper, the ski dog, barrelling ahead, snowplowing his nose into the drifts with abandon, so loving the cold and the freedom of winter. It was winter ski trips that tore both of his ACL’s in recent different years.
Cooper, the running companion, every morning watching carefully which piece of clothing I reached for first thing in the dark, hoping fiercely that it was running clothes and that together we would welcome the morning with a good run.
Cooper the swimming dog, who would jump off of anything into any kind of water – glacial lakes, roaring waves, rushing river. If a stick was thrown he was going to get it and he was overjoyed.
Cooper the barking beast – not his best quality, but one we will remember every time we look out the front window at someone walking by and hear no announcement.
Cooper the untrustworthy neighbor – he needed careful watching and some serious training as a middle aged, territorial and somewhat grumpy, growly dog.
Cooper the opportunistic foodie – he would eat anything from anywhere and would employ great stealth to this end. I think that much of his mind was occupied with plans for food nabbing. He would wait until we walked away and take whatever was on the kitchen counter. He would politely ask to go outside, having assessed – I’m sure – that we were busy, that there was unwatched food in the garage and that the garage door was open. He once ate a whole potato from somewhere outside that almost cost him his life and us our children’s inheritance. Many things ended up in his stomach that should have done him in and would nearly empty our bank account.
Most of all, Cooper the companion – what he wanted, at least close second to food, was to be with us. He loved road trips, he loved coming along on walks and hikes and skis. He loved our attention, he loved each of us, he loved his life with us.
Dogs are sometimes only important to their owners. The mystery of our love for our dog is often hard for some to understand. And yet, if you know someone who is loved by a dog, you know that this love fills them up and shows them every day how worthy they are, how needed they are and what it is to know unconditional love. Thank you Cooper. We shall love you always as you have loved us.
A little light isn’t a bad thing
I had a significant encounter with a chair the other night.
In life, I put a great deal of value on independence – being able to do things by myself, figuring out how to solve the problem without help, adapting. This seems to include doing things in the dark when it is the time for darkness. I slip down the stairs to get coffee at 6 a.m. in the winter morning, darkness still over our part of the earth. I refuse to turn on a light. Turning on a light would be harsh and unnatural. I pretend that I don’t have to give in to the darkness. And so far I have not fallen to my demise on the stairs. I know, however, that this is not something I should feel proud of, only extremely lucky.
Back to my fight with the chair and the small but significant bright red scab on the bridge of my nose. In one last bit of clean up after a dinner party, reaching down to pick up something on the floor, at the edge of the pitch black dining room, I encountered the back of a very stationary chair at a fairly high rate of speed. It hurt a lot.
And it made me think that perhaps a little light isn’t a bad thing. Darkness will not be conquered by stealth or by strength of character. It can only be banished by light, and often just a small bit of light. Light helps us see the obstacles in our way and navigate around them. Shedding a little light on a conversation, through honesty or patience or just outright real facts or feelings, usually brings better understanding between people. Bringing a smile with you to the seniors home or the meeting at the school or along your way in the mall is like shining a little bit of light. It’s a good beginning. Light brings people together. And perhaps turning on a light as I start down the stairs in the dark morning, or reach for something in the dark room, is not giving in to the dark but rather saving myself from a lonely, scratched up existence.
A little light is a good thing.
There isn’t much I know of that isn’t made better by wine or coffee. Mostly coffee. Just the thought makes me forget my troubles and go to a happy place. I think it comes from my grandmother. She drank copious amounts of it, strong and black, black as tar but not thick. Black as night, but hot. Black as liquorice, but not sweet, never with sugar. Just coffee, right out of the pot, all day long. And she seemed to grin, knowingly most of the time. She always expected someone to come over. Like my mother, she always had home baking on the counter. Not having homemade goods was not an option. In life you never went out without clothes on, you relieved yourself in a toilet and washed your hands afterwards, and you had home baked goods on the counter. Or, at the very least, in the freezer. She was not a busy body. She was not desperate or lost. She was calm, solid, welcoming, expectant and in charge. When I stayed overnight, I would crawl out of a hospital-cornered bed, hear the kitchen radio and smell coffee in the pot. Both would be on all morning long. Latte was a foreign word. It wasn’t even a thing. Milk? What for? When my brother Paul and his wife Val come to visit they rise earlier than I. Much earlier. When I come downstairs they have already downed a 10 cup coffee pot (which is really more like 5 mugs of coffee) and read a book or two. And discussed some intimate and important details of their lives or the lives of some long dead theologians. This is part of grandma’s legacy. Even my bastardized cup that is half 2% milk and half strong coffee is, perhaps, a habit I could not have avoided no matter how late in life it came to me. It was inevitable that I love coffee. I am Scandinavian. I am Sartison. Also Stolson, Moe and Olsen. I bet they all drink it still. It is as natural as thinking.
Walking in the dark morning, along the Elbow River, has become one of the greatest pleasures of my day. The highway drivers pass by in the distance, a breeze sometimes accompanies us, the dogs and I, the sky lightening as we move. I picture the wildlife watching us from the woods on the river side. A skunk shlepping through the grass, about to enter the berm, is stopped short by our passing presence. Deer raise their heads from slumber or munching, watching us pass in their silence. A big mountain cat observes our presence from a tree or a knoll. This vision in my head brings some fear. But rarely do we encounter or even see these neighbors in the woods.
I do not fear them. I am glad to share my morning with them. The big cat, the cougar, worries me sometimes, or the bear when the season is right. But we seem to live together well, the animals and I. I know, also, that it is my very own delusional self that believes this. This could change in an instant, an instant of claw or fang or pounce, a low, rumbling, unmistakable growl nearby would replace my sunny self with pure adrenaline terror. Even a lift of a white striped tail toward my sniffing pup would make me doubt these morning strolls. I could know fear as easily as I know confidence.
Lucky me, I still have the choice. I choose confidence over fear. Perhaps it is ignorance, but I choose. I choose to love the morning, the dark morning. I choose the fresh air and the seeping light of the sun. I choose to go forward, to walk, to share the woods and the berm. There is nothing better, at that very moment, than the sound of the gravel under my runners, the knowledge that I and my dogs are equally happy on this long stretch of pathway, cool air on our faces.
It is the day after the election south of our border. Although I can barely think about the result without anger, I know that it is fear that breeds anger and I will not obey. I will not be delusional, but I will not give in to fear, to anger, to hate. My son, Zack, posted a quote from dear fictional Yoda in response to this event and I thought about it every step of my Elbow River walk today. I do not choose fear. Lucky me, I still have the choice.
To be in my daughter’s head as she stepped off the bus at the station
in Guayaquil, in Ecuador,
where all whom she’d met had cautioned her never to be alone,
not sure of how to proceed,
and how to respond to the men coaxing her backpack,
in Spanish, from her,
assuring her that they could take her where she wanted to go,
that she should give them her money,
much more of it than she knew she needed to pay for another bus,
that theirs was the bus, that theirs was the taxi she needed;
near panic, in the dark, stinking, crowded bus station
just about unable to make a thoughtful decision,
just about to lose her pack, her money, her reason
when a small, strong hand took her elbow and she saw Jesus
in an older woman,
a little younger than a grandmother,
leading her away,
in broken English
to take her to her home to be safe for the night.
“Tonight, mom, I met Miriam’s angel.” Her facebook message that third day away was welcome and short. Reassuring, for what could it be but good if it was a second Miriam.
I remember Miriam clear as day. Our own angel. She cared for my daughter every day in her warm house full of toys and love and children, brought her up from her sixth month until she was six. Miriam, our friend, found by serendipitous connections and by God. Miriam, small, soft, olive skinned, wide smiling, Spanish second mother. My daughters first words included agua and besito – water and a kiss. A refugee in our country with her family, she provided a refuge for our three children all their young lives as we learned to parent and provide. Being in Miriam’s home was like being in her country… always a degree warmer than necessary, always food, always lush and comfortable, music and laughter, and the language of her Salvadoran people, beautiful and lilting, everywhere.
Now, in Equador, this small, strong hand that guided my daughter away from the crowd in the bus station, away from the noise, told her that this place was not safe for her. Did she want help finding the proper bus or would she like to come to home with her and find a better bus, a more direct bus in the morning? Aviva, relieved, accepted the offer of this stranger that looked so like her own Miriam.
She awoke the next morning, light streaming into a tiny window, the breaking waves just within earshot over the houses between beach and street. Her angel had arranged food on their breakfast table, her husband in his chair to one side. It became clear he spoke no English and chose to speak very little at all, even of his native language. He and Aviva established an immediate bond of nods and grins over yogurt and fruit. She followed them on their morning ritual, watched them stand on the beach in swimsuits, complete a series of stretches and then a dip into the water.
The town was called Salinas. They first went to a large cliff, the most salient point on the Peninsula of Santa Elena where the north and south moving currents collide. It is known as La Chocolatera, choco meaning to collide and la tera meaning ground. The water near the broiling shore is brown, like cocoa, as it collides and curls the sand around itself. A deadly place from which to jump, visitors now need to sign in and out in order to wander the rocks on this point. What happens when the count does not match at the end of the day.
They visited the fish market, gruesome and loud and smelly, full of life and real work. They had lunch of liver and fish soup. At the bus station, Aviva was given warm hugs, double cheek kisses, and reassurances that she could stay or return whenever she wanted to. And perhaps one day, they said, she would like to come back with her mother.
When Aviva was a baby, she would not tolerate the cradle of arms that wanted to hold her close. She squirmed until she faced out toward the world, until the arms that held her became only a chair and a bar to keep her from falling to the ground and she could view the world around her. Only then would she settle and watch. She wanted to see.
And yet if she was let go in the world, toward the kindergarten door, for example, she was terrified. With quivering bottom lip and tears on her cheeks, she took the hand of the teacher she didn’t know and stepped forward in fear. At swimming lessons she sat on the side of the pool, shivering and frowning, wet and cold. She flailed in the water dipping in and gasping out, convinced that she was drowning until a young swimming teacher took her hand, in a private lesson, and guided her through to comfort and ease in water. She kept looking forward, watching, observing, terrified, reluctantly taking the safe hand provided.
Years later, we drove together across two provinces toward her chosen university on the ocean at the edge of the country. She never doubted that this was what she wanted. She had, despite her early water fears and despite growing up on the prairies, become an ocean girl. She was connected with the sun and the water. She was equally terrified and relieved to be leaving home, forging her own way at her chosen university on the ocean. Many times, as the kilometers counted down, she suggested we turn back. As we drove, she arranged a new phone number, with a new area code that reflected her soon to be new city. We listened to music, we talked and laughed. As we waited for our turn on the ferry, she looked at all the other student types around us with suspicion and apprehension. She was sure of what she was doing and yet she did not quite trust her ability to move forward into this unknown territory. Still she put one foot in front of the other, as she had learned to do, and moved toward the campus, saying goodbye, both of us having given in to tears long ago.
And now, this very week, she has taken a step down under, in maybe the biggest adventure yet. She has left winter in Canada to meet summer in Melbourne. She has moved toward another love. She has learned to trust herself and she is courageous and confident. She cancelled phone and insurance, she made final appointments, she calculated every detail, she stepped bravely forward, hugging us with strength and gratefulness. She has wings. My daughter has wings. Still wishing to face outward, with much less trepidation, she has flown again. She will come back, for some reason, at some time. We are family, forged forever. And I no longer wish to be in her head, knowing that I will be ever in her heart in the place that is there for mom.
Winter comes. Darkness drifts in. It is this that signals winter to me, this that I dread. Waking with nothing to signal day but the voice from the radio that is our alarm, eyes opening to the same heavy dark that was there when I woke in the middle of the night, middle age’s welcome. Morning and night the same dim hue. The dread of the darkening circle of time is more difficult to bear that the actual days to come. Living in winter is less oppressive than living in the dread of it, the darkening. And now, it seems, it is here. There has not yet been a snowflake. The leaves are still golden on the trees and crunching under my feet, Thanksgiving weekend in the distance. And of course, pumpkins and stringy white fluff between branches, meant to be spooky spider web, are beginning to appear in the yards of those who anticipate that ridiculous end day of October, still weeks away. Witches are bashing headfirst into trees already, skeletal hands are reaching for the sky from their graves. Perhaps they died watching for light, waiting for warmth, worried for the waning day. This is where I am: worried for the waning day. The dark closes in, making daylight an ever smaller circle and we settle into it for months. Winter is the late dark morning and the early dimming of afternoon. Winter has come. I suck in my breath, furrow my brow, squint into the shadows and march on through the crunching leaves and the chill, watching for the light.