A Natural Exit

When I drive into London from Belmont, I usually take the 401, our Southern Ontario freeway, which has a speed limit of 100 kph (about 60 mph).  After ten kilometres or so, I’m ready to take the Wellington Road exit.  The ramp goes straight for maybe a kilometre, and then around a slight bend is a 50 kph (30 mph) sign.

As I veer off onto the ramp, I lighten the pressure on my gas pedal and gradually decrease to the 50.  I sense I’m in a natural rhythm of blending with my environment.  It feels good, like I’m flowing from one chapter of my life to the next.

Other drivers disagree.  Usually I’m tailgated on the ramp and the crowd of cars behind sometimes reaches double digits.  Once a fellow swerved onto the paved shoulder to get by me.  At the 50 kph sign, a second lane appears, with traffic lights shortly thereafter.  If the light is red, a vehicle or two has time to blast by me on the left and then slam on their brakes.  If it’s green, a convoy flows past, with most of them then flashing into my lane, since lots of us are turning right at the next light.

I let myself feel the pressure of the tailgating, and my fear.  It’s definitely a part of life.  But it’s very sweet to maintain my flow in the midst of impatient drivers.  I’m the source of my actions, not them.  Overall, the whole thing is a meditation and I’m pleased that I choose to experience it regularly.

***

I ask myself if I’ll have the same grace as I leave this planet.  Will I let myself feel the body diminishing and the mind clouding?  Will I let the words of William Shakespeare linger?

Eyes, look your last!
Arms, take your last embrace!
And lips, O you the doors of breath
Seal with a righteous kiss
A dateless bargain to engrossing death

Or will I vote with Dylan Thomas?

Do not go gentle into that good night
Old age should burn and rave at close of day
Rage, rage against the dying of the light

The ramp awaits
Soon, or not soon, my turn signal goes on

Transom

This afternoon I sat in my meditation chair looking out the bedroom window, just as I’m doing now.  The window is composed of four five-foot-long panes of glass, three vertical and a horizontal one at the top.  I learned two years ago, as my condo was being built, that the top one was called a transom.

After an hour or so of meditation today, I opened my eyes.  A puffy cumulus cloud was drifting slowly across the transom window, left to right.  A bit of blue was on the left edge.  I decided to stare.  Mr. Cumulus was sure taking his time and I could feel its peace within me.  How about that?  No hurry at all.  “I hope you’re listening, Bruce.”

As I gazed at the sky, I thought of my life.  A couple of minutes later, the left edge of the cloud passed above the middle pane, and I reflected on my 30’s and 40’s.  They were good years.  Jody and I enjoyed each other.  I enjoyed my teaching.  I enjoyed the kids.  And the cloud keeps drifting.

Now it’s over the right panel and other kids paint my life, as I volunteer at the elementary school nearby.  I have a new home.  I’m in a worldwide community of folks who are exploring consciousness.  Life is good.  But now the transom is mostly blue, and the white travels on.  I try to hold onto it but it continues to float eastward, on a mission I guess.  “Don’t go.  Stay with me.”

And then … poof!  The cloud is gone and my world is brilliantly blue.  How peaceful are the endings.

I hope to live for many more years but “the future’s not ours to see.  Que sera, sera.”

What will be, will be

Bill

If ever there was a William who truly is a Bill, this is it.  Bill Gilbert, my neighbour and friend, died a few days ago.  He was, and is, an immense human being.  How many of us look every visitor in the eyes and send the wordless message “I’m glad you’re here.  Tell me all about your life”?  Precious few, I suspect, but this was thoroughly Bill.

I went to the great man’s funeral today.  Clearly, he was universally loved.  Bill’s daughter Stephanie had the courage to speak about her dad.  Or maybe it didn’t take courage – just a loving daughter revering a loving father, the fellow who held her tiny hand decades ago, who walked her down the aisle, who gratefully accepted her hand in the days before his death.

Throughout her life, Stephanie heard Dad say “You can do anything.”  Clearly, that included giving his eulogy.  It wasn’t “Dad did this … Dad did that.”  It was “Dad loved here … Dad loved there.”  I chuckled at what a committed environmentalist Bill was, years before it was popular, with multiple bins in the garage for all sorts of recyclables.  And how sweet that as he neared death, he wanted to make sure that the expired batteries from some device would be recycled.

As Stephanie said, she had a front row seat for the beauty and kindness of Bill Gilbert.  What a privilege.  And she gets to say to her kids, “You won’t see grandpa, but you will feel him.”  Yes.  Those young ones will become 30-somethings and then 60-somethings and they’ll still sense grandpa beside them, cheering them on.

As Stephanie spoke, her son Devon sat nearby, facing Bill’s family and friends.  He was clearly torn up at losing someone he deeply loves.  I was touched by his courage, with tears close by, and him fully visible to all.  Then he stood and recited beautifully a poem which I believe Stephanie created for her grandpa.  So perfect for honouring Bill.

Towards the end of the service, Pastor Art said something about Bill, or something about what’s important in life (I can’t remember!).  I nodded in agreement, and just as I did, the electric candelabras on either side of the sanctuary flickered.  They too were saying yes, to a fine human being, and to the rightness of loving and being loved.

Well done, Bill
Look what you’ve created
It shines in your family’s eyes

Am I Going To Die Right Here Right Now?

Okay, I realize this is a sensational headline, but I did have that thought yesterday.  Maybe there’s a future for me in the tabloid press.

I went walking in the Humber River valley in Toronto, to the tune of six miles or so.  The trail was snow-covered, with little ridges of ice, water on top at times, and wet feet.  In short … perfect!  I didn’t mind going slow.  The white world was there for me to discover.

Much of the river was open, and really roaring along.  At one point I stood on a pedestrian bridge and watched the ice floes.  Way upstream was a little postage stamp of ice, moving ever so gently towards me.  As it neared the bridge, however, it morphed into an eight-foot long berg, and roared beneath my eyes like a runaway train.  Was I ever wrong about the current placidity of nature (a thought that was proven so true an hour later).

I was testing out my new wool socks.  “They’ll keep your feet warm and dry even in a rainstorm.”  Well, sort of.  There wasn’t any rain but lots of gooshy snow.  The socks were wet but my feet were still pleasantly cool.

I sat on a few benches and contemplated life, plus how many steps I’d taken so far.  By day’s end, it turned out to be 28,000.  What an athlete!  Above the flatlands by the river were steep slopes, leading up to fancy homes, which were showing their huge windows through the bare trees.  So I’m in the middle of Toronto, not exactly a wilderness experience, but still fun to be surrounded by so much unimpeded whiteness.

I was advancing calmly along the shore, with the Humber on my right, when I came to a spot where the river had overflowed its banks.  Parks personnel had posted “Do Not Enter” signs, plus a chain across the trail.  I looked way to my left, and with my deep outdoorsman knowledge, saw an area of white snow that skirted the grey waterlogged surface.  No sweat.  I don’t need a direct path from A to B.  I’m out to explore the wilds of Toronto.

My new route took me into a grove of bushes and small trees.  “Just follow the white snow, Bruce.”  Oh, this was fun.  Soon, I was going where no man had gone before, judging by the absence of footprints.  The crust of snow was hard and happily supported my weight.  No more wetness or ridges of ice.  Piece of cake.

Thirty steps farther, something new.  My right foot went down to the snow and the mass vibrated.  Like a tiny trampoline.  Energy went outwards in all directions as I moved each foot.  Then my right one broke through, about a foot down, and the crust collapsed around it.  Same with my left one.  Oh well.  Just a slower passage to my glass of wine at the Old Mill Restaurant.

As I worked my way around bushes, holding on to branches, I saw that the greyness had invaded my path.  I turned further from the river to keep from getting soaked and a route became clear.  I even saw a picnic shelter in the distance.  “No problem, Bruce.  You’re in Toronto.”

And then, a step too far.  My right foot broke through and I sunk down to my knee.  Water flooded into my running shoe and those water-wicking wool socks had no chance.  For a few seconds, I thought I was stuck.  I pulled my leg up but nothing happened.  Then I rolled onto my side and yanked the foot from its watery abode.  Soon I was vertical again and ready to move forward.  Down went my left foot to the knee, and then my right one joined in again.

And that was when this post’s title hit home.  Up to my knees.  Both feet soaked and numbing.  Bushes to the left and right.  No one around.  So scared.  Is this where I call it a day?  It’s been a good life.  Bye.

And then I snapped out of it.  “It will continue to be a good life.  There’s a glass of wine waiting for you less than a mile away.  You have your cell phone.  If you can’t extricate yourself, the Toronto Fire Department will.” > “But hypothermia will get me first.” > “Shut up and move!”

Somehow onto my side again.  And somehow the crust didn’t break where my body rolled.  Onto my feet, and looking around.  I’d been avoiding the grey areas but could they be worse than my white breakthroughs?  I grabbed a branch and stepped onto a grey patch.  It held!  And then the next.  It held too.  From bush to bush, I followed the grey.  The grassy parkland was just ahead, under its white blanket.  The meadow was raised up a bit.  My feet were numb but my brain wasn’t.  “Slowly, Bruce.  Just reach for the next branch.”  The crust held, time and time again, and finally the firm meadow was under my feet.

Fancy lounge
Dark wood
Old guy staring at me from a painting
Glass of Gewurztraminer
Squishy shoes
Unfeelable feet
Most thankful soul

Ain’t life grand?

Death Around The Lunch Counter

The guys at the Belmont Diner usually talk about this, that and the other thing.  Yesterday it was end of life stories.

Exhibit A

Paramedics entered a semi-private room in a nursing home.  One of the women had stopped breathing.  She was put into a body bag and transported to a funeral parlour.  As staff were removing her from the bag, she stirred, breathing very shallowly.  Oblivious to the events around her, the lass was returned to her room, none the wiser.  Her roommate made the return trip to the funeral home.

Exhibit B

One of my fellow diners wanted to pay his respects to a neighbour.  He walked into the church and joined the reception line.  As he got closer to the family members, he wasn’t recognizing anybody.  Oh my … he was at the wrong funeral.  A sorrowing wife shook his hand.  “I’m sorry, I don’t know you.  Were you a friend of Bob’s from work?”  “No, I read about Bob in the paper.  We worked together many years ago.”  So said, he slunked to the back of the church, where he signed the guest book as “Fred Merkovicz” – totally fictional.

Exhibit C

One gentleman of the coffee persuasion mentioned his poverty of long ago.  Once a very unpopular man died in town.  His family couldn’t find anyone willing to be a pallbearer.  Our Dinerite finally agreed to help out.  Later the grateful relatives gave him some money.  Seeing the economic opportunity here, he had some business cards made up:  “Have funeral.  Will carry”.  Worked out fine.

Exhibit D

Amid all this hilarity came another perspective.  “I worked in India for a few years.  People died in the street.  A cart made regular rounds and picked up the bodies.  They were burned outside of town somewhere.  It was so sad.  Nobody loved them and they died alone.”

***

Just your regular twirl of words at the Diner.  Hello death.  We laugh and we cry.

Haida Gwaii … Whales

On a wilderness shore sits the remains of a whaling station which operated in the early 1900’s.  Our group landed at Rose Harbour in the Zodiac and explored the beach, including intertidal life.  Perched above us were two rusting boilers, huge sentries of the whaling industry.  I got to poke my head inside and imagine the carcasses dropped into the top hole, the oil that was saved at the side, and the bones which filled the floor.

I thought of the whales, fifty feet and more, who gave their lives to feed man’s desire for lamps and soap.  And I was sad.  But I also thought about the families on Haida Gwaii who depended on these animals for their livelihood.  Scratching out an existence so far from civilization must have been a monumental task.  So little in life seems to be black and white.

I saw the ancient ramp that served as the resting place for these beings, and the spot where their flesh was carved up in preparation for the boilers.  And I felt back in time … to the whales and human beings of a century ago.

Later that same day, Captain Greg told us about a whale who had died last October.  It was washed up on a beach and was decomposing there.  Did we want to go?  There would be a horrible stink to the place …  We all wanted to be there.

As we came ashore and walked towards the big brown shape, the wind at our backs meant the experience was just visual … so far.  But then we were ten feet away and I’ll never forget the smell.  Part of me wanted to run away but the bigger part wanted to be in the presence of death.

My late friend was probably eighty feet long.  Its flesh was falling off its bones and puddling in the hollows.  Huge vertebrae were bleaching in the sun.  And we were transfixed.  I moved closer.  I could have reached out and touched him or her.  It was a communion.

Some of us talked.  Many of us didn’t.  There was really nothing to say in the presence of such grandeur and sadness.

Hundreds of whales near Haida Gwaii remain free, lifting their tails high as they feed on herring.  May it ever be so.  And may we humans continue to receive the nourishment we need.

Jodiette Fifteen Months Later

My dear wife Jody died in November, 2014 and here we are in February, 2016.  How I still miss her.  I remember our walks, our talks and our cuddling.  I remember her wonderful smile.

I’m alone in our home now.  And I’m just getting comfortable with the words “my home”.   Every morning and every night, I stand in front of a photo of Jody that I took in Quebec City in 2008.  We’re in a restaurant and she’s looking at me with love.  Now I moisten the index finger of my right hand and press it to her lips.  “I love you, Jodiette.”  And the answer comes, “I love you, Bruce … very much.”

We still talk  every day and no doubt some people wonder when I tell them that.  It’s okay.  We all have our own perspective on what’s real.  “I’m here, husband.  I want you to be happy.  It’s time to find a new love.  I’m cheering you on.”  With my wife’s urging, I’ve signed up for the dating website Zoosk.  I’ve had one date with a happy woman and we’re going out to dinner next week.  Time will tell.

I don’t cry for Jody every day.  I’d say it’s about two out of three.  My eyes fill with tears when the moment beckons.  The timing is unpredictable.  Many times, instead of getting choked up, a little smile crosses my face as I think of my dear one.  We had our joys, we had our problems, and always we had our love.   Thank you, Jodiette, for staying with me, for continuing to love me.

New chapters will reveal themselves and Jody will journey through them with me.  I’ll be able to give myself fully to whomever emerges as my future love without Jody looming over the new relationship.  But my wife will be with me always.

I was in Wimpy’s Diner a couple of days ago for breakfast.  Kelly is a waitress there and we had a good talk.  I had given her a copy of Jody’s book.  She told me that her young daughter saw Jody’s picture on the cover.

“Mommy, her very beautiful.”

After Kelly told the girl our story, the wise one said, “Her more pretty now that her an angel.”

Thank you, little girl.  You’re so right.

 

 

Lying On The Bench

I wrote yesterday about Gabriela and her determination to finish the 1984 Olympic Marathon.  As I was typing, I didn’t think once about my own marathon experience.  How strange.

Sometime in the early 80’s, I ran the Calgary Marathon … well, part of it.  Around mile 21, I hit the legendary Wall.  My breathing was still good, but my leg muscles gave up.  They clamped down, harder and harder.  I slowed to a trot, then a shamble.  And then the vices tightened some more.  I stopped in the middle of the road.  When I tried to get going again, I couldn’t walk.  No Olympic heroics here – I was at a standstill, a thoroughly painful one.  And the sadness descended.  How I wanted to complete a marathon.  But it didn’t happen that day.

I trained hard in early 1985 in preparation for the Vancouver Marathon.  I took the bus from Lethbridge, Alberta and was ecstatic when I stepped onto the downtown streets.  I had lived in Vancouver twice and I was thrilled that part of the route followed the seawall in Stanley Park.

The night before the run, there was a carbohydrate loading meal for the runners … plates of spaghetti piled high.  I looked around at my fellow athletes, some of them elite and some just ordinary folks like me.  All those smiles, all that pent up energy, all those months of training now in the rear view mirror.  I was part of something big.  I was proud of myself.

The next day, probably at 8:00 am, hundreds of us were crammed into a downtown street.  Someone fired a pistol and we were off.  I made sure not to go out too fast and soon I was settled into a good rhythm.  People were cheering us from the sidewalks.  Volunteers reached toward me with full cups at the water stations (really Gatorade, as I remember).

Up ahead in my mind loomed mile 20 and the dreaded Wall.  Would my legs say no?  When I got there, they piped up with “Let’s keep going, Bruce.  This is fun.”  So I did.  The breathing was getting a bit laboured and the muscles were moderately tight.  As mile 20 yielded in favour of mile 21 … 22 … 23 … 24, I realized that I only had two more miles to go.  I also realized something else: my chest was hurting.

“Hey, Bruce.  It’s only an inconvenience.  It’s not like you’re having a heart attack.”  Well, I wasn’t so sure about that.  Oh, how I wanted to see that finish line, to accomplish something truly exceptional.

4:12.  As in four hours and twelve minutes.  My arms were up, the crowd was cheering, and I was done.  Actually, very much done.

I was a bit staggery but no big deal.  And no, I didn’t need a massage from one of the volunteers, nor a dip in the hot tub.  I went into some room, changed into my street clothes, hoisted my backpack and walked back out into the sunlight.  I don’t think anyone noticed my unsteady gait.  “Nothing wrong with you, Bruce.  You just finished a marathon!”

I still had three hours before my bus left for Lethbridge, so I decided to explore some of my favourite downtown streets.  In my earlier youth, I had loved strolling down Granville, Robson, Burrard.  Except on that late afternoon in May, 1985, there was no strolling to it.  My chest was banging, my breathing was so heavy, and I thought I was going to fall down.

Up ahead, somehow detected by my blurry eyes, was an empty bench.  I stumbled and flopped onto it.  I was lying on my back … dying, as far as I could tell.  Commuters rushed by and I knew it was true – death was near.  There was no replaying the 36 years of my life, just this great sadness amidst the heart pain.  I was saying goodbye to Jody (my then girlfriend), to other loved ones, and to my life.

***

Someone was leaning over me, asking if I was all right.  I said no.  “I’m taking you to the hospital,” said the cab driver.  Minutes later, I was on a stretcher in the Emergency Department of St. Paul’s Hospital.  That building was my home-away-from-home for the next two weeks.  As you can tell, I lived.  Turns out I had an inflammation of the walls of the heart called pericarditis.  A month later in Calgary, doctors sent a little camera through a vein, from my groin into my heart.  The verdict?  No permanent damage.

I am so blessed to be alive thirty years later, to have made a contribution to many people’s lives in the time between.  I do believe I’m on this planet for a purpose.  And may that become ever more clear to me.  Just no more running, please.

 

Loving Still

Jody and I still talk a lot, 14 months after her death.  A lot of love passes between us.

My dear wife tells me, “We will be together again in this physical life.”  And I sit open to this possibility, even when my rational brain is poo-pooing the idea.  I so much want to hold Jodiette again.

I heard Jane Lewis in concert a couple of nights ago.  She wrote a song called “Tend Me Like A Garden” and I’ve cried every time I’ve played it in the car.

Tend me, tend me like a garden
Love me, love me like the rain
I will give you all that you can harvest
‘Til the first frost steals me away

The coldness of death has indeed stolen my love away.  I’m lonely without my wife.  She loved me like the rain, and still does.

I will love you through all of the seasons
I’ll weather what the fall and summer bring
I may lay fallow in the winter
But I swear that I’ll remember you in spring

“Remember me, Jodiette, until we meet again.”

“I certainly will, Brucio … with great love.”

In The Next Room

Death is nothing at all.  It does not count.  I have only slipped away into the next room.  Nothing has happened.  Everything remains exactly as it was.  I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged.  Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.  Call me by the old familiar name.  Speak of me in the easy way which you always used.  Put no difference in your tone.  Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.  Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together.  Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.  Let my name be ever the household word that it always was.  Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it.  Life means all that it ever meant.  It is the same as it ever was.  There is absolute and unbroken continuity.  What is this death but a negligible accident?  Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?  I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner.  All is well.

Henry Scott Holland (1847-1918)

Kim Brundritt posted this quote on her Facebook page.  She’s the artist who created the sublime painting of a tree that graces the back cover of Jody’s book.  Her dad died two weeks ago.

Jodiette and I talk several times a day and I cry for her a lot.  All the trees out there in the world speak of her.  I’m so sad that I can’t touch her now, and hold her hand.  But we are together.  And Henry Holland helps me hold my darling wife close.  Jody is right next door, separated from my body by the thinnest of veils.  She was right there in Hugo (our Honda CRV) last night as I drove home from Toronto on the freeway.  I was pretty pooped and Jody protected me from harm.  And now, as I sit in my man chair typing, Jodiette has her arms around me.

“Oh, Bruce.  That’s silly,” I heard as I bantered with the waiter in Jack Astor’s yesterday, pretending I was talking to my mom on the phone after he handed me the Interac machine.  The thing is, Jody has seen me do that a hundred times.  She still enjoys it.  I know I’ve often embarrassed Jodiette with my antics, but as she says about any and all hurts I’ve caused, “I forgive you completely.”

“I am but waiting for you, for an interval.”  Yes, my dear.  We’ll hold our arms out wide to each other in reunion.  I love you.