Zoo of Human Frailties

When I was young, my life was like a river, straight and true, like water running over stones, each one touching the other, each one big or small, smooth or rough, each one worn down by time. But now the river is dry. The stones are covered in dust. They’ve lost their luster. My memory fades.

On any other day, the images torment me. I have to push them away like an insect, they’re too quick to kill but too irritating to ignore. So I brush them to the fringe where they can’t touch me.

Yet now, as I search for them, they escape. Hidden away under years of earth nudged over by my own hand, a shallow but unmarked grave where I scramble to find them, bleeding from my fingertips, desperate to close this chapter of my life.

Learning to forgive.

Here at my table in my home at night, I grope my hands around in the black, hoping to find one – just one. And it evades me.

I lean forward to hold my head in my hands, wondering how I will be able to move on after such a loss.

And there it is.

The elusive stone uncovered.

Clearly now, I turn the stone over in my hands and see where my story begins.

I journey back to the winter of 1916.

Wilson had just been re-elected. Women marched in the streets protesting the election from which they were excluded. They were yelled at, spit on, beaten, arrested. All so that they could have the right to vote. So that I could have it too.

Countries outside of the United States were rocking on the edge of a precipice, this one assassinating that one, this one invading the other. Girls just like me in other places, raped, bleeding, dying, dead. Every day, I was reminded how lucky I was to live in this country, where I could worship every Sunday in whatever manner I chose.

The military had designed boats that didn’t float on the top of the water but swam underneath the surface like a snake, circling in the darkness, attacking boats with the bite of their torpedoes. Something called a U-boat. But back then, I thought it was spelled You-boat, that somehow, the boats belonged to all of us. The Sussex had been attacked in this manner earlier that year leaving a hole in the bridge large enough to pull the life out of all the passengers, their bodies bobbing up and down in the waves like corks.

Mexico was engaged in some kind of revolution. But Mexico always seemed to be in one war or another. I kept hearing about Zapata which I thought was the Mexican word for shoes but was really the name of a man, a peasant revolutionary.

Europe was a bubbling sea of hate. Stories came every day of people killed, towns ransacked. The Battle of the Somme left more than a million men dead. I couldn’t even conceive of a number that large. France, Russia, England, Italy. What made all these countries hate one another so much that they should leave the blood of a million men coloring the ground.

And my life had changed forever on that November night. Behind me was my home. And ahead was a vast wilderness of the unknown, a desert, a stone on which to expose my neck. Ahead of me was something I couldn’t picture, a shadowy beast, maybe waiting to pull me into its folds. The icy jaws opening to ensnare me. The pit. I floated there, pulled on waves I couldn’t control or understand, no longer sure if I was alive.

Night had fallen when we drove the long road from the train station to the asylum. A night so black I might have been travelling through the underside of the earth. Papa was next to me on the seat but his head was turned, looking out his window trying to see outside.

The driver whistled a song out of tune, repeating verses, stopping and starting until I wanted to smack his head to improve his performance. It was called “My Melancholy Baby.” Years later, while chaperoning a dance for youth in a church basement, I heard it again. It played over the radio. And I felt like I was being led to the pit of the brute once more. I had to leave the basement and go outside. Of course the other chaperones followed me, trying to comfort me, offering me water. They reached out their arms, concerned but I pushed them away. Too many people, too many hands, too many good intentions pulling me under until I felt like I would drown.

I walked by myself for some time before my breath slowed, before I believed I would not be taken to the end place. The place where people go when they have nothing left. The last stop.

“Sit still.” said Papa slapping his hand on the seat of the motor-car. These were the only two words he had spoken to me since we began our journey.

The world on the other side of the cracked windshield passed me by in shadows. From where I was sitting, there were only vague, grey shapes sitting on a sea of black. A gravestone? A dead body? And my breath froze onto the inside surface of the glass. even when I rubbed it away with my sleeve, the frost soon covered over the clean spot.

“Billy. How much further is it?” Papa leaned his body forward towards the driver. When his knee touched mine, he pulled it back.

“Oh, it’s a ways.”

“But how much longer exactly?”

Oh, a good while.”

Papa sat back and looked out his window at the nothing again.

“So, how do you feel about having a democrat for another four years?” Billy looked over his shoulder. He had pale hair, thin, the color of straw. And those eyes. One always pointing in a different direction than the other. But they were serene blue eyes, the same blue as the shallows. Like the edge of the sky before dawn.

Papa didn’t answer him but Billy didn’t worry himself about it. Instead, he talked to me.

“Almost there.” He reached his hand back and patted me on the leg. “It’s a real nice place Miss. We got most of the last floor cleaned up. It don’t even smell musty anymore.” He smiled. “Mice have been burrowing into the spare mattresses but not to worry, we’ll find somewhere to tuck you in.”

The engine whined as we came to a crest and there it was. Easily the largest building I had ever seen. All around was a glow of light. Rows upon rows of windows, beside one another, on top of one another, lining up stretching out to each side seemingly forever. This was the place, the coral where inconvenient people were housed. The final stopping ground for the insane. The home of the forgotten.

“Papa,” I said but he didn’t turn his head. He didn’t look at me.

“Papa.” I touched his arm and leaned towards him.

He brushed my hand away.

Billy brought the motor-car to a full stop at the front of the asylum. A row of stairs led up to the wooden doors sitting back from the edge of the porch.

“Here we are.” Billy nodded his head. “Home sweet home.”

I tugged my wool hat down over my ears and stepped out into the night.

Shivering, I pulled my shawl over my shoulders. Brisk air burned in my nostrils as I looked up at the endless windows above me. Were there people inside looking back? Could anyone see me from the windows?

At the bottom of those stairs, my mind began wandering through all the possibilities, dreading what I might find inside.

Papa got my case out of the back and closed the door. The sound of metal striking metal was crisp on the night air. I couldn’t help but think that if the door had stayed open, that if he hadn’t slammed it shut none of this would be real. The sound of the door closing made it real.

He placed my case on the ground and I caught his eye for a moment. Only for a moment. Then he turned away. I think it was the last time he ever looked at me.

Loose tangles of my hair blew around my face. I tucked them back under my wool hat, fingertips cold against my cheek. Blowing air onto my hands to warm them.

The wind smelled of pine, there in the land of the forgotten. Trees stood all around, an entire circle of them holding us in, trapping the living creatures at the center. They stretched up towards the coldness of the stars, rubbing on one another, creaking in the dark, so tall I could have disappeared under their wings, so scornful I could have cried.

“You know Papa, It wasn’t my…” My teeth were chattering. “It wasn’t on purpose.”

Somehow I still thought I could change his mind. Maybe none of it was real. Tomorrow morning I would wake up in my snug little bed in Idaho as if from a dream.

“Lovetta, these people are going to help you.”

I only saw the side of his face. He dug his hands into his pockets and stepped away. Just one step. Just one. And in the space of that one step, was a rift great enough to separate us forever. That one step was large enough to remove me from his life.

“Impressive isn’t it?” Billy picked up my case. He pushed me up all seventeen stairs to the large wooden doors at the top, his hand pressing on my back, his shoulder nuzzled into mine from behind. Papa stayed by the motor-car, his back turned. Already I was invisible to him.

“We got lots of things for pretty girls like yourself to do here. Like work in the kitchen or the laundry. And they’re all pretty safe. Hardly any injuries. Last year, only one girl lost a finger. Best record in the state.” He rested his hand on my lower back, turned his head to look down at my father, then back to me. “We do everything we can to make you girls comfortable. It’s going to be all right.”

His face was close to mine. It was a round face, pale, glowing like the moon in the dark, a healthy face, a beacon. A face that drew forth trust.

Just in front of us was a large set of double doors. Each one had a glass window that was covered in a spider web of frost. Light glowed from the inside like a lantern. On the left door was a brass sign that said “St. Isadora’s Asylum for the Deficient and Insane, State of Washington, Est. 1882.”

Zoo of Human Frailties is a study of family disintegration after the loss of one of its members as seen through the eyes of a young girl. The book opens as Lovetta’s father abandons her at an insane asylum in the years immediately preceding World War I. As we flashback to her experiences growing up on the farm, we learn what occurred in the family to cause her to be disposable. All of the things she lives through, abuse, archaic medication, primitive surgery, neglect, hunger, Spanish flu, all cause her to find the strength to escape and go to the only family she has left.

To continue reading, just download a copy of the book from kindle direct for $2.99 USD. https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B07YZ123DY

The Soccer Game

My mother was a hoarder. I couldn’t ignore that fact anymore. And I don’t think she meant to be, but that’s what she became all the same. So when she decided she was too incapable of caring for her home, I went to help her pack up her belongings. What I found was a tsunami of her life spilling out of every corner. After pulling box after disintegrating box out of her closets, I realized it was worse than I thought. But we had to start somewhere so I brought the boxes to her so she could make her decisions.

We started by making stacks. This stack was things to keep, this one was things to give away, this one was things to throw away. But the number of piles grew larger and larger. This pile was for the senior’s center in Morinville. This pile was for her friend Cheryl who sews. This pile was for the art society. She knew all kinds of people who might use fabric or bees wax or magazines or dried flowers or puzzles. I don’t know how many lists I was given with instructions where to drop them off. I finally gave up and started hauling everything to the dump. Only she thinks I delivered them faithfully.

Then there were the more personal items, mainly photos of each of us kids over the years. School photos where we smiled artificial smiles into cameras with other students. I was never so uncomfortable as on picture day. My clothes were not as pretty as all the other girls clothes. I didn’t like the way I looked while the others proudly combed their hair and smiled through their braces, simulated curls bouncing around their heads.

Mum made stacks and stacks of photos. Photos that I didn’t even know had been taken. Pictures of me with my chipped front tooth. Pictures of me with an uneven haircut. Pictures of me taken with my eyes half closed. Pictures of me taken while I was competitive swimming, almost like she was proud of me. These were all from a time when we had to load film into a camera and take the film in for developing, waiting a week or more for the finished product. Then we threw half of them away because they were out of focus or had a thumb covering part of the lens or caught a funny expression. It’s not like today when we can do 25 selfies in a row and discard the ones that are not flattering into the nothing that is the digital garbage. The pool of emptiness where all energy goes to die.

Mum made stacks for me and my brother and my sister. Our own personal photo history. Each of us possessing a unique brand of awkwardness. School photos, class photos, baby photos, photo albums started but never finished. Photos in cheap plastic frames.

I picked up one of my school photos from grade 5. There was the much younger me, off to the side with my burnt orange sateen shirt, bowl haircut freshly washed, smiling as I was told to, standing as though I were uncomfortable in my own body. They always put me on the left side of the class. I don’t know why. There, in the middle, was the boy who shared my first name. He was in every one of my classes from kindergarten to grade 9. It led to me being called Dale-Ann for the first ten years of my life.

“Look Mum. There’s Jeff Gruber.” I pointed him out. She adjusted her glasses and leaned into the light, squinted.

“Which one is he?”

“He was the one who always won the intramurals for soccer. And there’s Karla Kovak and Sandra Lopez and Dean Popescu.” I pointed to each one in turn.

“How can you remember them all?” My mother asked. I felt a tiny boost of esteem that I had impressed her with my recall.

“I guess because I was in the same class with them for so many years.”

I looked at my face in the photo and thought the girl smiling back looked happy, well adjusted. I would never have thought she was awkward, shy, self-loathing. She looked like a nice kid. But because I had spent so much time inside of her, I knew differently.

I remember those school days. We were poor so we had to wait for the first day of school to buy supplies. My mother took the list of school supplies to the welfare office where they gave her a check to cover the cost. She purchased the cheapest items to be stretched over four kids. So I sat there with nothing for the first two or three days of classes while everyone else looked over at the empty space on my desk. They wrinkled up their noses as if they were smelling something bad. What they were smelling was my poverty. I reeked of it. The rich kids came equipped with all the supplies they’d ever need right there on the first day when I had nothing. Binders with zippers and pockets and dividers, reams of paper, scented pencils, felt pens, highlighters, stickers. They weren’t rich really, maybe upper middle class but they seemed to have everything that I never had. They seemed to be rich from my position in the mud.

One girl in particular, always brought an apple for the teacher on the first day so she became one of the favorites. That was Carla. Not Karla Kovak, Carla Anders. Carla must have been a popular name the year they were born because there were two more Carlas in my class making four total. Carla Anders’s house was just a ranch style home facing the school field but to me, it seemed like a rich person’s house. I’ve driven past it a number of times as an adult and I see its banality, just a square home almost exactly the same as the homes on either side of it. It wasn’t a rich home at all but the home of a middle class, hard working couple trying to give their little girl a good start in life.

Carla was in every class of mine since kindergarten but we weren’t friends. I remember going on a skiing trip with the class in grade six and she had a perfectly fitted, matching ski outfit in two shades of pink. How could I have been her friend with my large brown snow pants and grubby, blue/green jacket with faux fur around the hood that was shedding. I mean how does faux fur shed anyway? I saw her lavish clothing and looked down at my own, the rip that had started on the right knee, threads of polyester floating around like spider silk. I saw my clothing and realized how far beneath her I was. How money means everything to the people who don’t have it.

She had all the pretty girls as friends. There was a trio of them Madeline and Carla and Stephanie and the other girls circulated around them like planets around a star. They were the center of attention and happy to receive it. They were the source of warmth and light only-they really weren’t. It’s funny how that happens, how we accept the idea that other people are better just because they think so, not because they are. Imagine being a frumpy girl named Dale around pretty girls like Madeline or Carla, girls who wore nail polish every day, sometimes with glitter. They had their ears pierced and wore jewelry with half hearts, the other half given to a sister or best friend. Madeline and Carla wore half hearts like that, each one enchanted with the other and not afraid to let the whole world know. I couldn’t compete with them in any area except one.

The only way I excelled was creatively. I was the class leader in drawing and writing in every grade. For a couple of weeks in grade five, the boys were drawing pictures of cars and putting them on the wall near the back, above where the pencil sharpener was fixed to the wall, back by the coatroom and the cubbies. The girls didn’t put any pictures there. The girls didn’t really care. But I saw the pictures and knew I could do better. The boys gathered around the pictures and talked about them, about the different types of cars and the styles of the rear wings or the hood. That’s something that started early, boys discussing things with other boys. And even though they didn’t really know what they were talking about, they sounded like they did, nodding their heads, companionably in the style of boys from the beginning of time.

I wasn’t part of the group of boys, of course, but I knew I could draw a car. So I drew one in secret one day. And as I suspected, my drawing was far superior to the others. Mine was in proper perspective and had flames down the side and an engine that sat on the front hood of the car. I went to the back of the room to sharpen my pencil and looked around. Everyone’s heads were bent over their work, no one paid attention to me. So I pinned my picture to the wall by the others and nobody saw me do it. For some reason, I signed it “Barracuda.” I’m not sure why. But it was fun to watch them talking about who had drawn the red car with the flames. “I don’t know. I thought it was you.” they spoke in low voices, not wanting to sound too impressed. But I heard them and smiled to myself. Someone, I suspect Carla, suggested that I drew it which was met with disbelief. It had to be a boy who drew the car, never a girl. But it was easy. Easy for me at least. I could always draw anything.

Only one boy was not included in the group of males. His name escapes me. Poor fellow, it probably escaped everyone. He was fat and pale, like ghostly bread dough filling his pants to overflowing. His expressions were dull, occasionally he drooled and as far as I knew, he never spoke. One day he threw a temper tantrum and started crying. Nobody could figure out why. He rocked himself under his desk while Mrs. Collins crouched down on the floor beside him trying to talk him into some form of sanity. I don’t think she had any clue what to do with him. I remember feeling supremely embarrassed about the incident. And now, after many years of living, I only feel empathy for the poor boy who had no social skills and probably wanted someone as a friend but had no one. He wasn’t very good at school work either, or art. As far as I could see, he wasn’t very good at anything. But in the classroom, you can keep your head down and be part of the crowd. In the classroom, you don’t have to feel singled out. You can lay low and say nothing and be ignored. And that was my goal in school, to not be noticed. I think invisibility was the goal of most of the students.

Gym class was the worst. We were always judged by our physical capabilities of course. Sports were difficult for me because I was easy to intimidate. But I was athletic in a way. I was an excellent swimmer. I’d been swimming so long that I couldn’t remember not being able to swim. I could dive into the pool on one side and swim underwater for the entire length and come out on the other side. But land sports were a different thing. In competitive swimming, you don’t have to face your opponent, you swim side by side. With sports, when people ran towards me, I was cowed by their confidence, avoiding the confrontation that their approach implied. But if I were given some space, I could excel. One time, during a particular soccer game, a ball came towards me. No one else was there so I kicked it high over the heads of the other players and back onto the offenders side. I heard Dean Popescu say “Whoa,” and his head followed the track of the ball as it went to the other side of the field. I felt the subtle compliment he implied.

We weren’t allowed to participate if we wore a skirt either. So this rule only applied to girls. My mother said it was ridiculous because she went to a school that had a uniform and wore a skirt every day and played all kinds of sports. She didn’t make it a priority to make sure I had pants. But sometimes I didn’t have a choice. I only had so many clothes. And if the mountain of dirty laundry in the basement was still piled high, I could only wear the clean ones. Sometimes I had to dig into the pile to find the clothes that were marginally clean. And sometimes I had to wear the skirt because it was the only thing left. Mrs. Collins made me sit at the edge of the field in my skirt to watch everyone. In retrospect, I should have worn a skirt every gym day. Then I would never have had to participate. But I didn’t think of that at the time, I wanted to be good, to have everyone like me, including Mrs. Collins.

Every sporting event started with picking teams. We all took turns being the team captain. Mrs. Collins picked two students as captains and she rotated us so everyone had a chance. The team selection always seemed to be an adult approved form of humiliation. No matter who got to be captain, the same kids always got picked first and the same kids always got picked last. Sometimes players were picked because of their popularity. The girls would pick Carla or Madeline. If I picked them first, maybe they’d let me hang on to the exterior of their world, like a pet. Or they’d pick the most athletically gifted first. A much better strategy of course. Pick the athletic kids to win an athletic game. If there were a game where we competed in the arts they would have picked me first because I would have won. But it was a game with physical prowess being the deciding factor so they picked the tall ones with broad shoulders. The quick ones who might be a little leaner. But there was a group, maybe about 8 or 10 kids who always got picked last. They had to play because everyone had to, but no one really wanted them. When we got to the last 8 kids, the captains looked them over, rolling their eyes and deciding which was the least inept. I was one of the ones picked in the middle. But some were always picked last and I felt so bad for them looking uncomfortably aware of their low place in our lives.

I wanted them, for one time, just one time, to be picked first. I was sick of the way we selected players. So sick of the whole demeaning process that made some kids feel shamed, and always the same ones. So I developed a plan. I knew I’d be captain soon. I’d be captain and I’d be in charge. I’d be the boss. And I’d do something different. I was going to pick the worst kids first. I was going to let them hear their names picked first. Just one time, I wanted them to hear their names first. I thought maybe they’d have a boost of confidence. Maybe they’d rise to the occasion and show everyone up.

So Dean Popescu and I were captains. All the other kids lined up facing our way, looking expectantly to see who we’d pick. The kids who often got picked first seemed unconcerned, knowing they’d get chosen. This was their arena. Dean Popescu picked first and he picked Jeff Gruber, the tall guy with the large lower jaw, the one with the straight back, the one I had a crush on my entire childhood. Jeff walked over to the opposite side and all eyes turned to me. Usually, this is where the captains got competitive. We’d battle for the best and the fastest. Because picking the best meant winning and nothing was as important as winning.

“Craig,” I said.

Dean Popescu looked surprised because Craig was a skinny kid with coke bottle glasses and he usually got picked last.

“Fatima,” he said and the slender hipped Lebanese girl, the fastest runner, did a slow jog over to Dean’s team.

“David,” I said, picking the pale boy with the badly repaired cleft lip.

Dean must have thought I was incredibly stupid. He seemed to realize I was going to pick the worst of the worst and he couldn’t believe his luck. Starting with the ones at the bottom, I moved my way up. He started at the top and moved his way down. We met in the middle.

So his team was made of the finest players, mine the worst. And my hope was they’d be bouyed by the novelty of being picked first and play like animals, like predators who finally found their teeth.

But that’s not what happened.

We were slaughtered. No goals at all. And a goalie with coke bottle glasses who was afraid of being hit by the ball. Offensive players who were consistently outrun. Defensive players who bent down to pick dandelions during the game. It was carnage. And I spent the entire game, disheartened because I wanted to prove to everyone that we could do better. But we didn’t. We only lived up to our reputations. I wanted them to feel wanted, to feel like somebody cared. I thought it would make them rise. But the truth is they were comfortable in their position on the lowest rung. It was the thing that was most familiar to them. They were used to their place and moving out of it distressed them until they performed even worse. I felt hopeless because when I saw they were unable to be better, I knew I could never be better myself. It made me feel like no one could ever surmount their circumstances. So I gave up trying. I accepted my place in the realm of the ignored, the ones who live on the fringes. I was just one of them and I had come to realize my place and know that I would never be anything else.

As an adult, looking back at the photo of all those innocent faces, I wondered what happened to them. I wondered if they remembered those days fondly or if they, like me, looked back, unsure how to feel. If they looked back to those days when we were small and had to find our way in a sometimes unkind world. I stood in my mother’s chaos and knew that she didn’t comprehend anything of my journey as a child. She was too preoccupied with the weight of four children who needed food and a home and clothes and doctors visits, forget about our need for love.

I look back and I wonder what has become of those faces in the photo. Some may be dead, some married, some successful, some not so. I wish I could still see what they’re up to in my quiet way, sitting back, hiding around a corner, listening to segments of conversations. I could watch them and hope they found happiness of a sort. And maybe they’re standing somewhere on the surface of our planet looking at the same photo and wondering what became of me.

I hope they’re all happy in their lives because so few are. We hold it apart from ourselves, happiness. We keep it at arms length, scared to let it graze against us. We worry about money, about faithfulness, about our weight, our prosperity, our place in the world. Worry about all these things keeps happiness distant. It shines on the horizon but rarely comes close enough to brush us with its colors. I hope they find it. I hope everyone does, Dean and Jeff and Fatima and all four Carlas. It’s never too late to open our arms and embrace it. Lets hope we all have the wisdom to do so.

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If you want to read some of my fiction, download my book, Zoo of Human Frailties, for $2.99 USD https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B07YZ123DY

The Last Birthday

I found my husband’s body on September 3rd, 2016. He was 47 years old when he died. And like anyone who has lost someone, I’ll never forget the particular circumstances surrounding the death.

There’s no nice way of saying it, but he was living in our basement so he didn’t have to be around me. Life was difficult it for me during those last years and I know I was hard to live with. He was unemployed, his memory was going, and he withdrew because he knew how rapidly I could turn from smiling to screaming.

A variety of things killed him. He was on a lot of medication, many of which I would find not taken at the end of the day. “I’m pretty sure I took them.” He’d say. But I knew how many pills he had and how many were taken and the math never added up. Other things contributed as well. His parents had both died. I crumpled him. I broke him. We shouldn’t have been together but he couldn’t take care of himself. We shouldn’t have been together but he had no where else to go. We shouldn’t have been together but I couldn’t send him away when I remembered the way he smiled at me. And I could never live with myself if he died alone.

I was walking down the stairs to the basement that last morning and I knew something was wrong. The theme song to the TV show Vikings was playing on a short loop as if it were left on the menu. And he wouldn’t have left it that way. So I knew before I opened the door that he was gone.

And then I opened it.

His pale feet stuck out from his recliner chair, the one he slept in. His head was cocked to the side, his eyes were open, and his skin was cold. I touched his wrist knowing that I wouldn’t find a pulse. Walking from one end of the room to the other, I wrung my hands and cried out loud. “Oh Dennis. Oh Dennis.” Over and over.

Even though I didn’t have the best relationship with my mother over the years, she was the first person I called, crying uncontrollably, hardly able to get the words out. She told me to call the police and wait. She told me the name of a funeral home to call the next day. She told me it would be OK.

I called work and told them I had found my husband dead and couldn’t come in for my scheduled shift. I still remember the poor girl who took that call. I tried to tell them the name of the nurse who often replaces me but I couldn’t, for some reason, remember her name even though we’d worked together for about 10 years.

After I called the police, I had to do the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I had to tell my youngest son who was playing video games innocently in his room, that his father had died.

We went down the stairs together. I was crying and he wasn’t. I ran my fingers through my husband’s hair which used to be so thick and curly. Lately, he had developed a love of yogurt and there it was, sitting on his lap, the last thing he ever ate. And I know his death was painless and quick because he was still sitting in his chair the way he always sat with his ankles crossed over each other. Death had crept over him so swiftly and silently that he didn’t have time to uncross his ankles.

My brother and sister who had considered him part of the family for 23 years, came to sit with me until the body was taken away. The police car and the ambulance sat out front of the house. The doors of the neighbors kept opening and closing. After the coroner told us the tests they wanted to run on his body, they took him away from me.

I called my son in Toronto and knew he’d have to bear the sorrow alone. Without any of the family to hold his hand or rub his back or hand him a tissue.

And for the next two days I didn’t sleep. I didn’t eat. I had the strange sensation of being small and transparent, like I was a wraith. Like I didn’t exist.

Dennis’s brother wanted a Catholic funeral which was laughable because Dennis never went to church during our marriage. I knew he wouldn’t care for a religious service. But I couldn’t imagine what type of funeral to have. Whenever I thought of funerals I pictured the church, the mourners in black, women with veils, people weeping.

“It’s too bad we couldn’t throw your Dad one more birthday party.” I told my youngest son.

“Why can’t we?” He said.

And we looked at one another and smiled. Because we could throw him a party. We could throw him one last birthday celebration. And that’s what we did.

So I sent out invitations for Dennis’s last birthday party, to be held on the day that would have been his 48th birthday. A birthday party with a rock and roll theme. His funeral would be fun and why not? We served pizza, soda, and a guitar shaped cake. The invitations were backstage passes. We made bowls out of records to hold the snacks. We asked everyone to come in their favorite rock and roll t shirt. And we made a slide show consisting of photos of his life with rock music playing in the background.

And I had to say the eulogy. I had never said one before. I’d never done any public speaking before. I wrote it and scribbled it out and wrote it again and erased and wrote in the margins. I had to have it perfect because I did really love him. Even if our love had taken a back seat to our bickering and our differences, I did love him. And I wanted people to know at the very last, the things I remembered about him throughout our marriage. The reasons I had to stay with him and the reasons I had to leave. I was so nervous about speaking. I read the eulogy out at work to the nurses. They listened and dabbed at their eyes with tissues so I knew it was right.

On the day that was his last birthday, I stood up under the strobe lights and disco balls. And I spoke out loud, looking at the crowd fearlessly because even if I failed him in life, I wasn’t going to fail him in death.

These are the words I spoke.

“I’d like to thank everyone for coming to Dennis’s 48th birthday. Dennis, as I’m sure you all know was born on December 3rd, 1969, the youngest of four children.  He moved to Athabasca from Southern California when his father, Archie retired.

That’s the part of Dennis’s history that you know. But I’m going to share with you some things that you don’t know. In March of this year, Dennis had his first heart attack. I think he knew he didn’t have much time left because he started talking about making a will and funeral arrangements. Specifically, he said he didn’t want anyone to mourn his passing but to celebrate his life. I think he wanted a party. And anyone who knew Dennis knows that he would have chosen laughter over tears any day. So thank you all for coming together to celebrate this wonderful man we all knew.

Dennis was a man who knew how to live. He loved good food, good music, travel. I never saw a man more comfortable walking into a room full of strangers and almost immediately finding a best friend. He loved concerts, especially the small venues he could wander around with a beer in his hand. If any of you ever went with him, you would have seen him walk a few steps this way and then stop. Walk a few steps that way and then stop again. He did this over and over until he found the auditory sweet spot, the place where the music was the most beautiful. Because for Dennis, it was all about the music.

When I met Dennis, he was living in an apartment on Bellamy Hill with his childhood friend, Roger. It was the stereotypical bachelor’s apartment. They had every sauce imaginable in the fridge but no actual food. They had five pizza cutters but no cutlery. They had milk crates to sit on but no chairs. And of course, the bubble gum machine full of condoms.

Dennis and I met in July of 1993 and in August of 1993 we were married after an engagement of twenty four hours on Salt Spring Island. This led to the ongoing joke in our marriage “I don’t usually go this far on a first date.” We didn’t have much time to plan the wedding of course and when it came time to pick the music, we had one CD, U2-The Joshua Tree. I realized as I was saying my vows, that the music playing in the background was “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.

We never wore wedding rings. With an engagement of twenty four hours, we didn’t have much time to shop for rings, so we picked them up at a second hand store for a very low price and before our first anniversary, they both broke. And we just never replaced them.

People get married for all kinds of reasons. I asked Dennis once why he married me and he said “You’re the only girl I ever knew who could sing all the words to “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” Because for Dennis, it was all about the music.

The first 8 months of our marriage, Dennis and I were separated because I was in my last year of art school in Vancouver. I spent a lot of time at the library and one day I picked up a random book of poetry and opened it to a random page and found one of the loveliest poems I’ve ever read. I sent a copy of it to Dennis and he loved it as well. He decided it was our poem. It’s called “At a Window,” by Carl Sandburg.

This is that poem:

Give me hunger

Oh you Gods that sit and give the world its orders

Give me hunger, pain and want

Shut me out with shame and failure

From your doors of gold and fame

Give me you shabbiest, weariest hunger

But leave me a little love

A voice to speak to me in the day end

A hand to touch me in the dark room

Breaking the long loneliness

In the dusk of day-shapes

Blurring the sunset

One little, wandering, western star

Thrust out from the changing shores of shadow

Let me go to the window

Watch there the day-shapes of dusk

And wait and know the coming

Of a little love

Years later, after visiting North Carolina, we inadvertently discovered Carl Sandburg’s historic home which was a nice connection.

Dennis always remembered our anniversary and I didn’t. Even the first anniversary, he called me from work apologizing because he had forgotten to say Happy Anniversary. I was a little confused, not knowing what anniversary he was talking about and, after he hung up, I realized he was talking about the anniversary of our wedding. We went into an insurance company a few years later and the agent asked us when our anniversary was. He was shocked when I couldn’t remember but Dennis could. He told us he always asks that question because he likes to watch the guy catch hell from his wife because he can’t remember. For the first time in his 17 year career, the woman couldn’t remember a wedding anniversary but the man could.

Over the years I’ve narrowed the date down to somewhere near the end of August but I still don’t remember the exact date. In August of this year, only a few days before he died, he called me at work again to wish me a happy anniversary because, once again, I had forgotten.

One thing that you might not know about Dennis is that he was an amateur midwife. Our second son Theo was born in our home with no midwife to attend the birth. And, though I like to take credit for the actual delivery, Dennis was my attendant. As soon as Theo was born, he cut the cord, and he and little Archie took the baby and climbed into the tub to wash him off. And so ended his career as a midwife.

We drove to Alberta a few times while we lived in the South. On one such trip, we stopped over in Wisconsin just in time for the Alien festival. Dennis asked a local woman what people do at an alien festival and she said “Oh, mostly drink.” And Dennis probably would have attended except there was no good music there. We continued on to Alberta the next day, a drive which took us 17 hours. And Dennis wanted to listen to Phish the entire way. I don’t think any jury would have convicted me of the murder I wanted to commit at the end of that trip. Dennis was as happy as a clam because for him, it was all about the music, but not so much for me.

This past summer, I spent some time cleaning out the boxes Dennis brought from Grampa Archie’s house. I had been meaning for some time to buy a new coffee maker but it kept slipping my mind. One day, I found a box from Grandpa Archie’s house that had a brand new, still packaged, never used coffee maker. I brought it to Dennis and demanded to know why he didn’t tell me it was there. Seeing my annoyance, he smiled and said “But Dale, I put the song Fat Bottomed Girls on your Christmas album.” And when this lighthearted joke at my expense didn’t work, he back peddled. “Um, um, um,” he said. “Um-Happy Anniversary.” And I had to admit defeat at this point because I couldn’t remember when our anniversary was.

I’m 46 years old now. And for half my life, I was married to Dennis. But how long is that really? How do we measure time? Do we measure it in days? If so, I was married to Dennis for 23 years and 57 days with 5.75 days added for leap years. I calculated I knew him for 8466 days. And that doesn’t sound like much, especially when you consider we spend 8 hours out of every day asleep.

But I think we measure our time differently. I think we measure it in moments. In those 8466 paltry days, Dennis and I lived in two countries, we lived on both sides of the continent of North America, we had two beautiful boys, we broke up, we got back together, we shared anger, compassion, joy. We lived as fully as we knew how, for every moment. So I asked myself if 8466 days is enough to make a life with someone and the answer is, of course, yes. It’s enough to learn the sometimes difficult lesson of choosing laughter over tears.

All the events in our life together can be traced backwards like a trail of stones. The bigger ones, the birth of a child, marriage, graduation, the death of a loved one, all cast shadows on the others. But the smaller ones are no less significant. Doing a crossword together, sipping a cup of coffee next to one another. Simple moments we all share with those we love.

Although we knew Dennis was a man who knew how to live, what none of us knew, is that Dennis was also a man who knew how to die. He died quickly, quietly, peacefully in his home, on his comfy easy chair, watching a movie, with a snack in his hand. Dennis died the way we all should die.

On September third of this year, Dennis had a date with eternity. He was called to attend a concert that will be held until the end of time. A concert where he will always have the best seat in the house, directly in the auditory sweet spot where the music is most beautiful.

As most people do after losing someone, I found myself in shock. As if, without my consent, I was tossed into a shallow pit. And I had to decide if I should stay in the safety of the shadows or ascend into the sun. If I were to stay, the fear was, I would have a shovel thrown down for me to dig my way out. And I’d try. I’d try only to discover I was making my prison deeper and deeper until the thin rays of the sun could no longer reach me. I would forget the loving embrace of its warmth and grow pale, like a ghost, spending the rest of my days concealed in stillness, neither hot nor cold, neither dark nor light, only silence, billowy and soft cradling my body, engulfing me in tranquility. It doesn’t help to sit at the bottom of a pit hiding from the sun. It doesn’t fix anything. It doesn’t alter the course of a life, but I did it all the same, hoping to stay the hand that moves the world along.

I clung for many days to the last remaining link to my marriage before life turned me in a different direction. The tenuous silver thread binding my body to his like a kite, tethering me to his ground.

I can make the choice to stay at the bottom of the pit without protest, to feel miserable every day, to spend the rest of my life under the blanket of joyless existence. It would be a dismal choice, dismal but easier than ascending.

Or I could rise.

But how can anyone continue from a depth of such emptiness. I realized that I can ascend because life is made of moments.

My last memory of Dennis was the morning of his death. A simple moment. A hug. A very nice hug. He kissed me and he told me he loved me. And later that day I found his breathless body.

Maybe everyone has a moment when they realize that we’re only in this life for a brief time before we blink into the next. I had my moment when I found him and under my fingers, his skin was cold, his face was blank, there was no sunshine in the hazel of his eyes. It was little consolation when I discovered that I no longer had to carry the onus of his pain and he no longer had to carry the onus of mine.

Imagine life at the bottom of that pit, when even in absolute darkness there is solace. But if someone brings a light, a small light, an affectionate light and then they leave. The darkness after they’re gone is an ocean of desolation. Dennis was my temporary light and his absence left me in despair. I didn’t know when I met him about the dry wilderness I would have to wander once he disappeared over the horizon.

I always thought the end of a life would arrive like a door slammed shut, the abrupt closing of one story before the opening of another. At once there would be life and then, in a sound as short as a clap, there would be nothing. But, though a heart may stop beating, it takes years for people to let go of the dead. Nothing ends in haste but we sigh out of this world in the longest of exhales. Once our bodies have gone over the edge, the people left behind cling to the cliffside looking for the fallen and forgetting, perhaps for years, that the living have to eat.

For as long as there have been people there have been debates over the concept of life after death. But these thoughts don’t interest me. Forget the great scales of right and wrong, of good and evil, of heaven or hell, forget it all, I only know that I want him back and I can’t have him. But the worst events in our lives, the ones that cause us the most pain can never be extinguished, they must be endured.

What could I have said to Dennis to put an end to my fury of sorrow? This affliction that harnesses me to the past? What words could I have uttered that would give me the freedom to move on without this great weight? Remembering that I’m the one who has to wake up every day, wearing my sadness, and wandering the world alone.

I would say three things to him:

  • I love you.
  • I took pleasure in the sound of your voice and the smell of your skin.
  • I lived every day hoping you would smile my way.

My greatest regret in my marriage is that we clung to our bitterness when we could have severed the noose. I didn’t approach him in life so he could understand the soothing balm of my forgiveness or so I could understand his.

I’m so very happy that my last moment with him was not filled with bitterness or anger. It could just as easily have been an argument over whose turn it was to clean the kitty litter. For the record, it was his turn. But my last memory of him was sweet. And in clinging to the sweetness of that last moment, I was able to climb out of the pit.

Dennis died the way we all should die when we embark on our own final journey, the last adventure we will ever attend, our own date with eternity, when the troubles of living overcome the troubles of dying and we welcome the cold fingers of eternal sleep. But today we can ask ourselves some questions. Not about death but about life. Have we enjoyed good food, good music, travel? Have we chosen laughter over tears? I say with full confidence that Dennis would have wanted that for all of us.”

Those were the last words I spoke for my husband save these. Good bye my love. I’m sorry I couldn’t be the wife you needed.

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If you want to read some of my fiction, download my book Zoo of Human Frailties for $2.99 on kindle https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B07YZ123DY