What We Want

What we want is to feel alive. To have an appetite. To have muscle. To move. To feel things, smell them, touch them, see them, taste them, hear them. To know safety and comfort. To have clarity and purpose. To know love, beauty. To feel empowered. To have hope.

There is, by the way, no such thing as false hope. Hope always goes against odds, and is exactly that—believing in and focussing on possibility.

My chemo this week threw me for more of a loop than I’d planned on, so — unbearably self-pitying and bored with the living room this morning — I ventured out. The melting snow and bright sun felt mocking, not soothing. This is the part we’re loathe to admit, or write about when we find ourselves in the crucibles of life: we despair. We do our yoga and our meditation to maintain resilience and optimism, and tap into an unexpected well of rage instead.

So out I went, into the bright sun, not knowing where to, thinking perhaps I might capture some beauty with my camera, or take a peek at January sales. Strike, and strike.

I drove by the long line-up at Edmonton’s Bissell Centre and was reminded of this fundamental truth: no matter what our station in life, we want to improve it. Mittens, a hot drink, a jacket.

My fatigue won out. I turned the car into the local grocery store and picked up some sushi, fresh raspberries, and the carrot muffins I’d been craving. (Yes, I still have an appetite, sort of at least, thankfully.) I looked at the fresh flowers and toyed with indulging myself, but they turned out to be too much to carry.

It wasn’t exactly what I wanted, my outing, but neither was it in vain. I remembered that I’m not alone, that bad times pass. I remembered the angels that minister to my physical and emotional health. I remembered to tell them thank you. I remembered my friend, in her own current hell, and sent her my love via the wavelengths of life that connect us all. I remembered the love of my parents, my husband, my children. And as I left the parking lot, I received a text from one of them. Medicine for my spirit. Their love and joy are baptismal waters for me, always.

connie child 5

(Yup, that’s me, back in the age of innocence. There was a little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead…. I’m trying to remember the feeling.)

Rocky Terrain and Chemo-brain

hanaI woke too early today, too much on my mind, envious of my sleeping husband. I read an article on the health and cancer-treatment benefits of intermittent fasting, thought about it for a little while, and found myself responding contrarily. When isn’t intermittent fasting an unavoidable, built-in, and unpleasant feature of cancer treatment? Besides, endorphins and pleasure, essential to healing, can be hard to come by when you’re in cancer treatment, and food has always been a reliable stand-by for me on that front, so I doubt I’ll be voluntarily restricting intake anytime soon.

So I make myself a piece of toast with butter and soft mild Gouda, and feel a little less contrary. But you’ll forgive me if this post is all over the place? Attribute it to the rocky terrain I’m on, or chemo-brain? To chipping a tooth yesterday, on a piece of toast of all things? To noticing I’m losing my very, very short hair yet again?

It’s Day Four of this round, going better than last, and the one before. Fresh morning air is coming in through the open door. I feel a moment of gratitude. One can be contrary and thankful in the same breath, right?

I got out on a bike ride on the weekend, and out to eat, and to the Heritage Amphitheatre at Hawrelak Park for the Father John Misty show, thanks to my sister for the last minute nudge. Got a very warm welcome from friends, another endorphin rush. I felt good, very, very pleasantly surprised, almost normal.

I’m not normal anymore though, and I never really forget. Even when I think I have, even when I’m having a great week.

I really did have the loveliest birthday week. Family and friends were beyond generous and kind. I even had all three kids here with me, including the far-away California one, which was a lovely, lovely birthday gift. But here’s the thing—treatment is difficult even when it’s going as well as it is for me this time around. And what happened back in February—when treatment definitely did not go well—has lodged itself in deeply in some part of my brain, from where it occasionally rears its roaring head, as it did the day before my most recent chemo last week.

I’d calmly headed out for my usual pre-treatment blood work and consultation at the Cross Cancer Institute, seeing no clouds of any sort on the horizon. This is routine and straightforward. But what should have been a brief and uneventful visit stretched to three hours, and submerged memory, like an angry volcano, had time to erupt.

The lab took five minutes. A consultation with a new resident took six. The consultation with my oncologist took another six. Ninety-five percent of my morning was spent waiting, seeing so many sick people come and go. This, if you need help imagining the problem, is a lot of time to absorb the treatment fatigue in the air, the oceans of grief and fear in worn-out bodies and fear-filled faces waiting with me, waiting, waiting.

I’m finally finished, leave, and see immediately that I planned poorly. I need to talk to someone, vent a little tension, but it’s a workday, and nobody is available on short notice. One dear friend is enduring her own Cross Misery at this moment. Nothing is wrong, but everything is. I can feel the surge of a powerful wave of regret and need. Today may well have been my last chance for a couple weeks to milk feeling well, to eat out, to have fun, and it’s quickly slipping away. And I need to put into words all the hope, courage, fear, grief, denial—and in some cases, relief and joy—carried in the halls of the Cross.

No problem, I tell myself, I’m an adult. I’m hungry, I’ll lunch alone and run some errands, and talk later. I do this, but did not anticipate lunch would feed the powerful wave of emotion that had hit me. It did. The house was empty when I returned, and when my husband eventually did get home from his meeting, I no longer trusted myself to talk much. I filled in the broad strokes, but they were slate gray and brown and not terribly pretty.

I get on my new birthday bike, which has been the best gift ever. I won’t go hard, I promise my sore muscles. But I do go hard, and further than I planned. On the way home I stop at the grocery store and fill my pack. I think I have my bearings. I get home and remember—chemo tomorrow. And the wave crests. The limbic part of my brain now fully trumps the logical. I wanted today to be a party. I want not to be on the sidelines most of the time when others get to enjoy wine and a bounce in their step and easy untroubled nights. I’m teary and angry and self-pitying.

My husband was patient, and alongside my fear and anger, I felt much empathy for his listening ears. And in the night, his arm around me, I know that though my experience is mine alone, I’m not at all alone.

I finally step back a little from the ambush and see a bigger picture again. It’s been a lovely, lovely ten days, no chemo, so many moments of joy. At my mom’s sunny dining table, I’d eaten my first big plate of food in five days, and it was so good. I left with a satisfied tummy and a giant bag filled with leftover goulash and mashed potatoes, mashed yams, homemade apple sauce, bread, broth, oatmeal cookies and honey cheesecake (for my bones, I tell myself). Have I mentioned that my mother is 80?

A wide river of birthday pleasures is where I was camped for ten days. We ordered in giant platters of amazing Greek food on my daughter’s birthday. And on a perfect, velvety summer evening the night before my own birthday, in the backyard of some very gracious friends, we all ate mountains of divine BBQ’d chicken and couscous, and the most decadent chocolate caramel cheesecake ever. I was high on love and a giant glass of Sangria, last week’s chemo finally taking a proper back seat to my life. On Sunday we enjoyed another made-to-order evening in my sister’s backyard, complete with yet another luscious homemade cake—this one a creamy nutty layer one that is my mom’s signature cake. Birthday kindnesses and lovely, lovely words—words like drops of sweet cream—kept falling on me. A yellow rose and a box of chocolates, a cream-coloured rose from a roommate from 40 years ago, a giant bouquet of chrysanthemums. I felt ridiculously spoiled.

Then I say a bittersweet good-bye to my son, and with it comes an acute awareness that my children have quietly slipped by me in the passing lane. They are smarter, stronger, braver, more honest, and more talented and accomplished than I will ever be. This brings me great pleasure.

I wake early on the day of my treatment. I take care of appointment scheduling puzzles and housekeeping details and pay some bills, and I steel myself. I’m greeted by yet another nurse, who hooks up a juicy deep vein, and, after grimacing for a second, I smile and thank her, and settle in to watch and wait: A slow, clear, silently toxic drip that will beat up my cancer. I focus my mind. Allow the drug to do its work, exhale unwanted effects, and resolve to tolerate what I must with grace.

We finish, and pay today’s slightly smaller but sill giant parking fee. (Do they really have to charge cancer patients these rates?) We leave the dark parking lot and drive into skies turned very dark over the last hour. Hard, hard rain and hail fall, and then, just as suddenly, the sky is blue again, the air fresh. At home, on the balcony, the sun on my legs is warm and soothing. I fall asleep instantly. I sleep again after a little supper, and then most of the night.

Clear Skies, Cancer, Boxes of Chocolates

rain

I want it to rain. Rain, rain, rain, steady hard rain with the power to wash the hot, smoke-filled air and put a damper on the hungry forest fires raging out of control all around.

But then, I often want a lot that is beyond my control.

Just a few short months ago my doctor told me things were looking so good that I didn’t need to worry about resuming chemo until the fall. And just as I’d written my enthusiasm and joy about this amazing news, we learned that our niece had died of her cancer, and that our good friend’s cancer had gone on a massive offensive, progressing to where it had not been in many years, and later, that another friend who lives with chronic debilitating pain was suffering a turn for the worse.

I never did publish that post. It seemed gloating, self-absorbed. But then a short five or six weeks later, I got my own bit of bitter news—some suspicious pain, a reminder that I never did finish treatment back in March, some worrying test results, and an all-new treatment schedule of my own, one that was definitely going to interfere with my enthusiastic summer plans. No big surprise, but still, my husband and I sat down at the kitchen table and wept.

The good news was that we were going with a different drug, one that carried no risk of the horrible neuropathy and systemic pain I experienced in February, one that was going to be “virtually impossible to have a severe allergic reaction to.” This was calming, hopeful, gratitude-producing information.

Still, it is a chemotherapy, medicine on a mission to kill cells both problematic and essential. I tend to be both optimistic and anxious, sometimes in equal parts, sometimes in swings of extremes, but I set out for my first treatment relatively tilted toward optimism. It went well. Until two days later, when I again found myself weeping and cursing both the universe and our not-very-progressive state of cancer treatments. I spent nearly the entire time between my first and second treatment feeling miserable in old familiar and entirely news ways. And tonight, at 4AM two days into this most recent cycle, I’m insomniac (thanks to side-effect medications), and waiting desperately for rain.

Life, eventually for most of us, turns out not to be the proverbial box of chocolates Forest Gump’s mother promised after all. It has far too many bitter, not-at-all chocolate pieces, bad-tasting surprises covered in very bitter-tasting chocolate look-alike.

Still, through the heat this past week, I found sweetness alongside bitterness again too. My daughter has been wanting to accompany me to treatment for a long time now, and had the day off this time. She’s just finishing a move, and carrying sorrow and struggle of her own, but she put her curly hair up, and put on a bright yellow dress, and looking like the original blossom of beauty, drew smiles by the dozen walking through the halls of the cancer clinic with me. She held my hand as they started the drip, and we chatted, and I felt loved. The treatment was the most stream-lined ever, record-breaking for me. Not a hitch, in and out in an hour.

Another dear friend, highly skilled with tiny strategically-placed needles, offered instant nausea and pain relief and an amazing endorphin bath for my tears the next day. I felt loved. Another friend, by way of the music she makes, offered her version of prayer. I felt loved. Another offered steaks for the boys and birthday cake for two of us. I felt loved. Another yet is planning an intimate potluck birthday get-together to include a few other friends and our now-grown children. I feel loved. My sister, dropping in with a lovely plate of cooling watermelon in bite-sized juicy delights, had set a picture of me as her phone wallpaper. “I was having a moment,” she told me. I felt loved. My mom called to see what goodies she could cook up for us: Baked ribs for my husband, sugar-free apple-crisp for me, and who knows what else she’ll whip up. I felt loved. She’s 80, which is how long I plan to stick around in spite of the odds against me. Others texted and called, offering to come visit, or chat by phone, which I will joyfully accept with every significant return of energy I experience, I promise.

My youngest son, in excruciating back pain over the past month, picked me up from my needling friend’s place yesterday, and elicited the same enthusiastic looks and smiles as had my daughter’s sunflower-yellow dress the day before. No, it wasn’t a yellow dress, though it may have been as much his shorts and shirt as his charming grin. My son from California, the one who will be wearing his outstanding laugh and energy and medical mind, is coming for a visit, and will be here for his sister’s party, and mine, and his grandma’s, and just hang out with all of us.

I feel loved.

I have new and better chemo side-effect management pills this round, so should be much better by today’s end. Better yet, I get this week off treatment entirely. I’ll get to go to my daughter’s birthday party, and I’ll get to go to my own, and I’ll get to hang out with the kids. Love, like light on a horizon, or stars in a dark desert sky, beckons.

It may not be exactly the summer I planned, but I’m going to be hopeful the treatment schedule will accommodate at least one traditional highlight for me: Four days of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, for which we always go to great lengths to get tickets for. Many favorites coming this year: Angus and Julia Stone, Brandi Carlile, Danny Michel, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Harry Manx, Sinead O’Conner.

So alongside the box of imitation-chocolate covered bitter misery, there have been genuine chocolate surprises. And, from the weather experts yesterday, a promise of rain, lots of rain, cooler clearer air. I’m counting on them.

Sunnier Days Ahead

I’m too excited about my breakfast and newly recovered fondness for food to stay in bed any longer. What I would sketch right now, if I were an artist, to give you a thousand words at a glance, is this.

My husband is in his robe, wearing the bed-head that makes me smile, his feet up on an ottoman, breakfast smoothie and iPad in hand. I’m at the dining table right behind him, my stout little black laptop (“It’s a BlackBook!”, they excitedly once informed at the Genius Bar), my organic golden-yolk egg-and-parsley breakfast sandwich, my mango smoothie, and my tea next to me, trying (somewhat successfully), to respect the morning quiet he prefers. My senses of taste and smell have stirred to life, and the numbing neuropathy and vibrating, face-plant-inducing weakness have receded enough to permit small adventures in the kitchen. My brain is chatty, animated, in high gear.

I realize that nobody cares all that much about what I’m eating or what it looks like in here this morning. But that’s not at all what this is about. They tell me that those who write or in some other way communicate and document their traumatic experiences as they emerge from them recover more quickly, particularly when they sense somebody is paying attention, so stay with me if you have a moment. And because key elements of it are already logged here, it’s primarily the roller-coaster euphoria that sometimes now emerges that I want to share today, my first steps coming out of the many-week-long, frightening, miserably painful stupor.

Also on the table next to me, I have a large bag of fresh parsley, which I’m stripping from its stalks to zip up into a little bag and refrigerate for convenience. (If you’re not a fan of parsley, Google its medicinal properties; you may quickly become one.) And invisible nor easily represented in a sketch, but equally real in my mind, are vibrant images of this meal making its way into my calves and thighs, ones that curve and move and function again, to carry me beyond the end of my building hallway and up a flight of stairs.

This post is about having turned a bend on a very narrow, hair-pin-turn-riddled, steep road scratched into the dark edge of a craggy mountain, and seeing fresh green in the valley ahead. It’s about feeling like a human being again. It’s about the million tiny things we take for granted every day until we lose them—waking up without wondering if it’s sandpaper you’ve slept on instead of soft cotton sheets. Waking up knowing you can go get your own medication instead of waking your partner to do it. Waking up hungry. Being conscious that your skin and bone marrow are no longer on fire. It’s about a feeling of confidence that I will not forever be prisoner to a poisoned and near-paralyzed body. It’s about a shopping trip for spring clothes with a friend who, like me, freed from an office cubicle by day, happens to be an outstanding and patient wheelchair navigator. It’s about waking up with a million want-to-do things in mind, things like a series of dinners to cook for the lovely human beings who have faithfully brought fresh-squeezed juices and home-made soups and smoothies and bowls of rice, or, for my husband, homemade chocolate chip cookies, beef stew and other heartier fare. Those who now, with my return to hunger, are happy to provide made-to-request roast chicken and mashed potatoes (thanks Mom!). My kitchen needs re-baptizing, and I’m eager to follow through just as soon as my legs will hold me solidly enough.

These words are an attempt to roughly translate images forever imprinted in my mind into language I can return to in the future.

An aside: it is, as always, a happy little hour I’m having with my lovely outdated little BlackBook. I’m currently reading Nahlah Ayed’s A Thousand Farewells, and it was a lovely little moment of kinship I felt with her the other day watching a YouTube clip of a speech she delivered a few years ago. She was using not a paper-weight sleek new MacBook, but rather a BlackBook identical to mine.

I miss writing, and working. The idea of getting back to it in the months to come is a lovely thought. I miss being busy, efficient, independent, creative, free, moving quickly to accomplish what it is I’ve set out to accomplish. I have, however, also resolved to slow down—there is immense value in the quiet spaces.

One more recent image for the record: I’m reclining in my usual spot on the giant jet-like sofa-turned-daybed in our living room. We have just returned from the airport with my adult son, who is in town for a two-and-a-half day visit, a couple of nearly unbroken days with his mom, his siblings, and his stepdad. I am on the couch though, not running around prepping food, serving wine, all of us busy and free to come and go at will. This time, however temporarily, the roles are somewhat reversed from the usual parent-child roles. We are together to support and cheer each other on. To add to the intensity of the setting, I am wheelchair-bound beyond our suite, and we discover that the building elevators are down. We won’t be getting out to dinner as planned. Will the kids survive this kind of compressed family time within these four walls? (And please, no fire alarms!)

Hearing my son’s hearty laugh though, I’m suddenly moved out of the heartbreak I’ve been conscious of in recent months. Pure, unadulterated pleasure reigns. He suggests we order take-out Indian food, for its glorious richness, as a remedy for wobbly, emaciated legs. I suddenly have an intense appetite, and it is so, so much fun. It is one of many such hours on this most rare and precious of weekends. We talk about cancer. We talk about their pets, their busy lives, their futures—my daughter’s business, my son’s and his partner’s corporate grind, my other son’s work as a Resident at Stanford. I’m so proud of them. Grandparents drop in for a visit. We view childhood movies my husband has put together for us, both technologically updated (credit to my brother) Super 8 clips from my childhood many years ago, and newer ones of my own still-young family in the 80s and 90s. We get to know each other in ways we hadn’t known, or had forgotten. We sing the crazy songs of that era, and marvel at the adolescent ability to remember foolish Boy Band and Spice Girl lyrics, dance moves, and movie sound tracks. We mourn and soothe each other, but we also laugh ourselves silly. I immerse myself in love and laughter; endorphins reign.

Follow Me

This is a good news story. (Just in case you respond adversely to my next sentence and want to turn away.)

My cancer is back. It’s still a good news story though, so stay with me.

For efficiency’s sake, and because I’m not up for a ton of face-to face visiting right now, a quick timeline.

I received an all-clear from my oncologist in early fall, and was still climbing river-valley stairs easily. But by late fall, I wasn’t feeling well. Not the symptoms I had when I was first diagnosed with cancer four years ago; just more of the same post-treatment stuff that has haunted me for the past four years, only becoming ever more intense.

First call: My oncologist. CT scan scheduled. Then a few other investigations by various doctors, which yielded a few semi-helpful things, one of which included lab panels “typical for someone who’d been administered six rounds of your particular chemo cocktail four years ago.”

We addressed a few things; I still didn’t feel well.

And I still desperately needed a new family doctor to replace the one who left town on me; the interim ones weren’t working out, not one bit.

I did, thankfully, secure help to control my symptoms. I also significantly intensified my long-unsuccessful search for a new doctor. No success.

Then, with Christmas a few weeks away, an awesome and eagerly anticipated Christmas Eve party with the kids on the horizon, my focus mostly elsewhere, beginning to fear the C-word just a little, I bumped my CT scan by three weeks.

Guilty of Magical Thinking? No. Seeing a potential Tsunami on the horizon, however unconsciously, is worthy of a few weeks emotional processing time.

One week into 2015: the rescheduled CT scan. A week later, the news. No advanced invasive cancer, just some cells forgetting to die off and move their butts out of the way. Still: shock, tears, anger, all of it.

Me right now, literally: sitting in the prettiest living room I’ve ever lived in, sun- and color-drenched at the moment, relieved, optimistic, eager to start treatment.

Also me right now, equally literally: surrounded by brightly glowing concentric circles of breathing, generous, present, human love—perhaps the greatest miracle of the universe, holy and sacred.

Beyond those circles, perhaps less visible to some eyes, but equally real, an endless throng of deeply seasoned, indefatigable, infinitely strong and free, deeply wise, electrically charged, ready to be leaned into: mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, reaching back right outside of time.

It’s time to dance—definitely not a waltz though, more a kick-box kind of dance.

Yes, the coveted five-year mark of remission would have been outstanding. But this is still good news. My overstaying and multiplying guests have been too busy partying to send down roots into the fertile ground beneath them. They’ve been happy just hanging out on their lawn chairs.

I’ve never been very patient with guests who overstay their welcome. I should stop throwing such good parties really, but in the meantime, I’m coming in with a stiff arsenic-laced broom. And I’m going to get outstandingly good at managing guests who overstay their welcome.

Also—and this is enormous—they did me a beautiful favour and waited until the four-year mark to start making too much noise to ignore, which, it turns out, is pure awesomeness: It’s been four years exactly since my first go-around with the cocktail that worked so well last time, and it just so happens that a repeat of this cocktail—the kindest of my options—is prohibited prior to the four-year mark. Anything sooner would’ve involved a much less kind, more misery-inducing ingredient.

In case there’s any doubt, this isn’t bright-siding or a veneer of positive thinking or anything of that sort. I know a little about ovarian cancer stats. I despise not feeling well as much as anyone. I love being free to work and play. I know how frightening the news has been to my adult children, husband, parents.

Making the phone-calls was brutal, and—I’m not proud of this, but I tend toward honesty—ended with me throwing a few little safe-ish items around my living room that evening, leaving my husband a tad paralyzed and asking me to please, please, please pass him my cell phone to spare its life. (I managed to put it down unharmed.)

My friend, who got cancer-spreading news two days before I did, and whose partner had heart surgery the day I got my news, came over that night after being at the hospital with him all day. We embraced, and let the intensity of it all flow through us. An enormous and potent gift. Same night: my daughter, looking utterly ragged and devastated, came too. A gift just to be together. And then again. And then again, she looking stronger and less ragged with each visit. A visit with my busy son and his partner. My husband’s tears. My parents’, sister’s, friends. Beautiful gifts.

I also now have, finally—truly a miracle where I live—found a new female physician, with whom I believe I’ve fallen instantly in love with. No rhyme or reason here either, just a random gift. She watched her mother live with my same cancer, and knows it up close and inside out. This is enormously comforting to me. And—equally vital—she knows the difference between pity and empathy. She knows that the moment of shock or grief is not the time to offer platitudes, that gratitude for silver linings can’t be force-fed or premature. Demolition needs to be complete and cleared away before any kind of solid rebuilding can occur.

Last week, seated on a couch in a small, warm room surrounded by women with whom I have for the past two years been exploring the inescapable human fear of mortality and illness, and just how we might successfully live and die well in spite of this fear, I experienced, again, deep changes at the level of my innately intelligent cell membranes.

At one point these deeply open and wise women got up to stand behind me and in front of me, all of us physically connected. We breathed and stayed that way for some time. It infused me with a hefty dose of potent ancestral strength, the kind that bends and sways but never breaks—I could almost feel my Vagus nerve and Amygdala align themselves to a new level of healthy stress regulation.

I’m ready to dance. Come along if you feel like it, just remember to follow my lead.

 

Night Skies, Fires, Songs, Remissions

fire“We must sit at the fire and think about which song we will use to sing over the bones, which creation hymn, which re-creation hymn,” writes Clarissa Pinkola Estés in Women Who Run With the Wolves. “These are some good questions to ask till one decides on the song, one’s true song: …What are the buried bones of my life? In what condition is my relationship to the instinctual Self? When was the last time I ran free? …The old woman sings over the bones, and as she sings, the bones flesh out.”

This sitting by the fire takes time, and ideally, includes the warmth of fellow travellers. And it isn’t something that needs doing only once in life, or twice, not unless you’re infinitely luckier than most.

I am so thankful. For the many, many good things in my life, yes, for remission status confirmed again, yes, yes, yes! But perhaps even more so for the bright stars and warmth so often around the fire with me. For those who understand that the waiting period preceding the verdict on my remission status is a time of (to use Victor Frankl’s term) provisional existence—a time for sitting by the fire. (Thanks to my friend Ike for the reminder.)

This sitting by the fire is never easy, not for anyone, no matter the reason for it. Not when it’s our own new song we’re searching for and learning to sing, nor when we are present to another trying to find and learn theirs. And I sometimes have to be reminded that not everyone is comfortable with sitting by the fire. It is however, in my view, a wonderfully rich experience, at least as wondrous as it is to be present for the light of day that follows night, the joyous times that come in the wake of discovering even the first few lines of the new song with which we’ll begin to sing flesh back onto our stripped-bare bones.

There are, if we keep our eyes open, always others ready and willing to sit by the fire with us as we search for new songs. The humility and patience and emotional vulnerability, the generosity and grace and courage and compassion of these bright stars make them the most miraculous of human beings to me, the kind whose very presence is healing. My night sky has often been brilliantly lit, and kept the fires of gratitude stoked. I hope I am this kind of star for you too—now, tomorrow, whenever.

Dad

dad baby carriage

“I have to get my pacemaker replaced,” my father told me the other night on the phone, “the battery only lasts so long.” I, being strongly averse to needles and knives breaking my skin, immediately murmured an empathetic “oh no, I’m so sorry,” to which he responded with, “Oh it’s not a big deal, just a local anesthetic, and I can watch the whole thing on a TV screen. It’s more fun than going to the dentist or watching a football game.”

I laughed, and decided that his perspective may have a little something to do with things like having lived on potato scraps from the garbage cans of the elite when food was nearly impossible to come by in Germany all those years ago. Or with his beginnings here in Canada: a menial job, an utterly foreign language, dinner out of a can placed directly on the heat source.

He graduated to a better job, got married, and took out a loan to build his growing family a home, which he spent his evenings building, and which he paid off entirely in eleven years. He rode his bike to work in southern Alberta hurricane-strength winds and frigid temperatures. (Now, at almost 85, he still rides his bike around town.) He’d known deep, deep hunger, and, determined that none of his children ever would, he planted a garden big enough to feed an entire village. He taught us the joys of simple things: a sun-warmed fresh ripe tomato off the vine for a snack, sweet peas, crisp cucumber, corn-on-the cob.

On holiday Mondays, he and my mother took us all hiking at Waterton National Park, and, on hot summer weekends, on picnic suppers and to go swimming in the local pond to cool down. When I was ten, he bought me a bike, which I adored. In winter, he pulled us to church on a sled. Eventually he bought a Valiant, in which we went camping every summer after that, all seven of us piling in, alongside an orange canvas tent the size of a hotel and everything else we’d need for two weeks. We were sardines in the back seat, wedged in on top of sleeping bags that filled all available foot space, but we loved our time at the lake.

After he’d taught me how to drive that Valiant with its moody clutch, he once forgave me for parking it on a hill without putting it in gear or engaging the parking brake, landing it squarely in the branches of a tree while I was in City Hall taking care of something I now have no memory of.

He taught me to love pickled herring, dark heavy bread (which my mother baked weekly), potatoes drizzled with oil or butter, fresh garden vegetables. Together with my mother, he taught me the value of community and faith, of visiting the sick and the imprisoned. He taught me the value of hard work, of honesty and integrity. (For as far back as I can remember, he’d refuse a glass of wine based on principle: for his insurance rate or something of that nature, he’d said he didn’t drink, so he never did, the only exception being the tiniest sip of communion wine at church.) He taught me the beauty of books, classical music, hymns sung in glorious four-part harmony. He taught me that there is a story beyond our own, and showed me what it looks like for a man to love a woman unfailingly and deeply.

For this, and much more, thank-you Dad; I love you and happy Father’s Day.