Day Seven: Roaming St. John’s

First, a bit about last night …

Riders, staff, family members and friends gathered at the Knights of Columbus Hall for the celebratory banquet. Cool stories of Canada travel were flying fast and furious. I kept asking questions such as “What did you like best about the Tour du Canada?” and “What impact do you think the ride will have on your life?” The answer to that one will no doubt take time to percolate through. The wife of one of the riders looked at me and said “You like asking deep stuff.” So true. The undeep is usually boring.

I spent a lot of time looking around the room, remembering conversations I’d had with each of the cyclists. Precious moments recalled. And I wondered what could have been if I’d stayed. I also thought about the goodbyes that were coming after these fine people had spent ten weeks together.

Several folks gave short speeches after dinner. Jim shocked me by talking about the impact I’d had on the group. (Gulp) I stood up and told the riders that they’d always be with me. And that’s true, whether or not we ever meet again. Paul also spoke about me, saying that I had inspired him, that I had tried so hard. (Accept it all with grace, Bruce)

I’m sad that I didn’t say goodbye to every cyclist. I was talking to Uli when a few of the folks left the hall. Fare thee well, friends. Afterwards, several of us went to a pub. Good old Newfoundland music competed with our conversations and I mostly couldn’t hear anyone at a distance. Across the table, Ken and Mary talked about the time they climbed France’s Mont Ventoux on their bicycles. The Tour de France riders go there! What an epic achievement. I hope it’s touched their lives deeply.

***

Now I’m writing about Saturday, even though it’s Sunday morning. Oh well. I like the slow pace.

Paul and his family invited me to join them for the day. That was so generous of them. Al came as well. We went to see the Terry Fox memorial on the waterfront. Terry lost his leg to cancer in the 1980’s and began running across Canada to raise money for research. He averaged a marathon a day (26 miles) until the cancer brought him to a halt halfway across Canada. Terry’s statue in St. John’s was slightly bigger than lifesize and I got to look right into his eyes. We connected. I think deep eye contact is one of the great gifts in life.

Paul’s daughters Hayley and Lindsay suggested we go on a five-kilometre hike around Signal Hill. Paul, Laurie, Al and I were up for it. Laurie drives so confidently, like she’s a Newfoundlander, and we were off.

My left ankle and right knee continue to be unfriendly and it soon became clear to me that the trail wasn’t a good idea. A few rocky downhill stretches and I knew I was in trouble. How humbling to be poised above a tiny slope, not knowing if my body will get the job done.

To say something or not? Well … clearly I needed to speak up. I told Paul and friends that I’d sprained my ankle recently and I needed to take the road up Signal Hill. They understood, and Paul and Al chose to accompany me.

One delicious and expensive hot chocolate later, we were atop the hill where 24 hours earlier 18 cyclists had completed their journey across Canada. The slope just below the parking lot was so steep and they would have been so tired. Chapeau, dear riders!

The family wanted to take the trail to Quidi Vidi, whatever that was. A St. John’s bus driver, leaning against her vehicle, mentioned that part of the trail was a bit rugged, but that her route would take me right there. I could feel my pride swallowing and voted for the bus.

Quidi Vidi is a rocky inlet, with a few of the old homes on stilts over the water. I came upon a wedding party, red dresses and black tuxedos, plus one special woman who got to wear a white dress. After all the photos, I went up to the bride and groom and said “Have a happy marriage.” She especially smiled.

I had a seat in the Quidi Vidi Brewing Company with my Iceberg beer. The fellow singing announced that the next song would separate the CFA’s from the Newfoundlanders. CFA means “Come from away” – anyone who’s not local.

I tried unsuccessfully to pick up the lyrics. Across the room, a woman in her 60’s was belting out the words and looking at me. I threw my arms into the air with my hands spread, letting her know that I was CFA. She smiled.

Then the whole crew arrived and we settled into a beer-laden table for six. As the singer sang and the room vibrated with conversation, I looked over to Paul. He was talking to his wife and two daughters, all of them sitting to his right. And the looks of love between him and them were marvelous. What a family.

Later I came upon a big circle of folks, singing and playing their instruments. For some unknown reason, I pulled out my MasterCard and flung it into the middle of them. Then I called out “2112”, which just happens to be my PIN. A few smiles came back, as well as one thumbs up. And a woman rushed over to return the card.

In the evening, we were on George Street, being screeched in at a bar called Christian’s. All six of us were sitting at the bar, watching drinks be poured and taking in the din of the place. Wow, was it loud! I was basically yelling at Hayley next door. Our host wore a newfie fisherman’s hat and regaled us with stories, Newfoundland lingo and an astonishing ability to remember the names of the 25 or so people who were being screeched.

The highlight of the day lasted several hours. Paul, Laurie, Lindsay and Hayley included Al and me. We were welcomed into the family, and how precious that was. Paul had been away from his kin for two-and-a-half months, and the family could have kept him to themselves yesterday. Happily for me, they didn’t. Thank you, folks.

Burwell

If it’s the Sunday of the long Civic Holiday weekend, it’s time for fireworks on the Port Burwell beach. Twilight is here and the pleasure boats are twinkling on Lake Erie. I’m surrounded by families on the sand – lots of bathing suits, sunburns and happy faces. Glow sticks are shining in their circular paths on necks, wrists and waists and the world is at peace. A great grandma jiggles a tiny boy, much to his delight.

Earlier I was in the beer garden, right up front, sporting the appropriate beverage. A duet played old folk songs, such as Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle”, she of 15 years and he of 70 or so. Avery was so nervous and kept looking out to her friends in the crowd for support. She did fine, and the tunes went down as sweetly as the beer. Seagulls soared over the stage. I sang along. And all was well.

Back to the moment of now and the darkness descends. Excited chatter all around. Kids straining to see their sand castle creations. Others asking what there is to eat. All of us eager for the explosions of light.

“Mom. When are the fireworks going to start?”

And then … poof! The first streamer and banger. Yay for the bright.

As the flowers opened above me, I looked out to the lake and saw the ripples shining. And between were silhouettes of human beings, heads tilted to the heavens. I do believe we were all in awe as the show went on and on. My favourite was a shimmering gold curtain filled in by at least six explosions. It lingered above our heads for so long, seeming to bless us.

Kids oohed and adults ahhed. Though we didn’t know each other, the crowd was family, enraptured with the bursts of white against a blanket of black. And I heard the message: “Wake up! There is so much to live in this world.” May we heed the call.

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

Senegal

I was sitting on a bench on the Alberta prairie in July, 2017, admiring the mountains to the west.  I was alone, and very much looking forward to the sunset.  Along come four hikers.  We smile.  We say hi.  They sit down.  Turns out that they’re all from Belgium and are revelling in the grandeur of the Rockies.  One couple says nearly nothing.  The other one enjoy chatting with this Canadian guy.

After awhile, the folks head on up the trail, showering me with friendly goodbyes.  A half hour later, I set off too, having immersed myself in oranges and pinks.  The trail enters some trees.  Soon I’m back in the wide open spaces.  I look ahead and there’s another bench in the distance.  Two people are sitting there.  After a bit, I can make out my talkative new friends.  “They’re waiting for me.”  And indeed they were.

Lydia and Jo welcomed me to the new bench and we start talking about life in all its beauty and disappointment.  They tell me that they have about 20 foster children … in Senegal.  Lydia whips out her phone and shows me smiling photos and videos.  Those kids are so alive, so real.  I’m loving this.

Maybe an hour later, Lydia has something to say:

“Bruce, we go every Christmas to see our kids for two weeks.  Would you like to join us sometime?”

Oh my.  Did she just say that?  My small mind goes off into small thoughts.  “But we just met.”  “I can’t afford that.”  “I like being home for Christmas.”

Happily, my big mind held sway.  “Yes, I’ll go with you to Africa to meet your children … in December, 2018.”

Too soon, we were saying goodbye.  Lance’s family and I were heading off in the morning.  I hugged Lydia and Jo and it felt right.

Back home in Ontario, I had lots of thinking to do.  “I said yes.  I really did.”  Well, not knowing how many years I have left on the planet, isn’t it about time that I stretch my wings?  Yes it is.  I wondered if my Belgian friends thought I’d really follow through.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to tell you that Jo and Lydia and I and a few other fine people are flying from Brussels to Dakar on December 23, returning to Belgium on January 4.  Although I haven’t arranged my flight to Brussels yet, I intend to spend a week visiting my friends and seeing the sights before we fly to the kids.

This is real
I’ve never been to Europe
I’ve never been to Africa
This is real

Look at me now, a world traveller.  Also a lover of humankind in all its diversity.  Belmont is so cool.  I’m sure the rest of the world is too.  As Cat Stevens was fond of saying:

Well I left my happy home
To see what I could find out
I left my folk and friends
With the aim to clear my mind out
Well I hit the rowdy road
And many kinds I met there
And many stories told me on the way to get there
So on and on I go, the seconds tick the time out
So much left to know, and I’m on the road to find out

Thank you, Mr. Cat

Ordinary and Imperfect

I saw the movie Fences tonight.  Apparently Viola Davis won the Best Supporting Actress award at the Oscars but I was oblivious to the world at the time.  At the end of the film, the credits rolled, the red curtain closed, and still I sat in my seat, stunned.

It was a marvelous depiction of human beings, with all their glows and warts showing.  If ever I had the thought that there are great human beings, so-so ones, and then the yucky types … all of that faded tonight.

The dad had been a star in the Negro League of baseball but never made it into the Major Leagues.  He has seen the ravages of prison and now works hard for his family from the back of a garbage truck.  His son wants to play football but dad creates massive roadblocks so the boy won’t go through the pain he did.  The younger question “Do you like me?” is met with the older response “I put a roof over your head and fed you.”

The wife has put her dreams away for eighteen years to love her man and her son.  Her husband finally admits to an ongoing affair and insists on continuing to see the woman.  The wife’s fury and agony pour out of her eyes and nose but later, when the mistress dies giving birth, she holds the child to her breast as her own.

Dad’s brother was injured in the war and is mentally long gone, but he is loved.  His disability payments are the main reason that the family has a home.

No fairy tale lives here.  Nobody’s blonde and cute, or ruggedly handsome.  Just folks … loving and hating and loving some more.

Thank you, Denzel Washington, for directing and acting in such a reminder of our fragile stay on this planet.

 

Skating In My Mind

I don’t know how to skate.  As a kid, my ankles just kept flopping over.  I was scared to fall.  I was scared to look stupid, which I guess I did.  Come to think of it, I was scared about most things.  But I turned out okay.

Last night was New Year’s Eve and I didn’t know what to do.  My massage therapist told me that there was some sort of family festival happening in the early evening in Aylmer so I decided to go.

It was a short drive to the East Elgin Community Complex and I was greeted by a packed parking lot.  Lots of folks were heading to the entrance with ice skates over their shoulder.  Somehow I forgot mine.

Inside, the lobby was overflowing with festive types young and old, with the pull of the crowd leading to the skating rink.  I got myself a coffee and climbed the stairs to the upper level.  Below me were a hundred skaters looping around the ice surface.  I looked … and I marvelled.

And there I was, in teenaged female form.  The young lady was walking unsurely on her skates, with none of that graceful pushing off motion to the sides.  She jerked when gravity threatened to take over.  The fear shot through her body.  For several laps, she skated  alone.  But then an older gent, perhaps her father, came alongside.  They talked and smiled.  And my unknown friend kept going, undeterred by the graceful forms flowing by her.  Good for you.

The music of Abba was flooding the scene:

Chiquitita, you and I know
How the heartaches come and they go and the scars they’re leaving
You’ll be dancing once again and the pain will end

And on the world glided.

***

A young mom pushed her son in a wheelchair.  He was laughing every time around

Two ten-year-old girls skated unsteadily together, holding hands and sharing the latest news

A six-year-old boy burst past the slow ones in a flurry of speed and skill

A teenaged fellow tried to look cool as he moseyed along, hands in his pockets

A girl practiced her figure skating, shifting suddenly from one foot to the other, and then took a lap moving backwards

Parents on the boards smiled at their kids and shared the video they’d just taken

And a guy sitting in the balcony took it all in

Friday The Thirteenth

In Southwestern Ontario, whenever that date shows up, it means thousands of bikers (as in motorcyclists) show up in the town of Port Dover on the north shore of Lake Erie.  Yesterday police estimated that 100,000 visitors were roaming the streets.

When I pulled into the parking lot of Wimpy’s Diner in St. Thomas, the place was crammed with bikes.  I felt myself contract.  My past experience, however, told me there was nothing to fear – I’d had many fine conversations with the leather-clad set.

Into Wimpy’s I strolled.  I paused at a table of eight.  They looked at me, probably wondering if I was a decent guy.  “Where are you folks riding today?”  One fellow smiled big.  “Some port,” he replied.  Lots of laughing and then I moved to my regular table.

The restaurant was packed with roadies, most dressed in leather jackets.  A guy in front of me was sporting a cool t-shirt …   Hmm.  Yesterday I memorized the words, expecting to write you about it.  Today the words are gone.  Phrases that included “biker” and “leather”.  I’m disappointed.  Where has my memory gone?  Oh well.

There was so much laughing at those tables, and it wasn’t gossiping.  Just a rollicking good time.  And it was great to see so many women.  So much for the stereotype of bikers being male, loud and violent.  I wanted to be included in their clan but unfortunately I have neither the wardrobe nor the steed.  That’s okay.

Driving various roads throughout the morning, I came upon many flows of motorcycles.  Zipping over the asphalt with their friends.  Good for them.  We all need family.  I’ll just have to create my own version of togetherness.

Pride and Prejudice

Renato is an Italian chef who’s living in my home while I travel here, there and down the street.  Last night, we sat down to watch a movie – Pride and Prejudice, starring Keira Knightley.  It was an immense love story.  Snapshots from the film stay with me:

1.  The country dance at the beginning.  Rows of happy people – smiling, laughing and clapping hands to the beat of the music.  Intoxicating.

2.  The severe Mr. Darcy referring to the beautiful young Lizzie as “tolerable” as she overhears the conversation.  A human being as a thing, a piece of meat.  How sad.

3.  Later in the evening, Lizzie throwing Mr. Darcy’s words back at him, swirling around and walking away.  The girl is afraid of nothing and no one.  Who cares about relative status, about being socially appropriate, when your heart and soul need to express?

4.  Mrs. Bennet running down the path after Lizzie when her daughter refused Mr. Darcy’s marriage proposal, in the spirit of “Come back here and marry him!” with dollar signs in her eyes.  Thank God my mom wasn’t anything like that.

5.  Mr. and Mrs. Bennet talking to Lizzie afterwards.  “I’ll never speak to you again if you don’t marry him!” shouts her mother.  Dad returns with “I’ll never speak to you again if you do.”  He knows that there’ll be war in the bedroom but it’s far more important that he speak the truth.

6.  Mr. Darcy’s barely visible Mona Lisa smile as he falls for Lizzie, such a contrast to the scowl he wore for the first part of the film.  Despite his power in society, he can’t yet share his true feelings.  As so we have the ache of love that most of us know well.

7.  The first touch of hands.  Mr. Darcy is helping Lizzie into the carriage and her wide-eyed wonder shines.  Is he the one?

8.  The final scene between Lady Catherine De Bourgh and Lizzie.  She’s Mr. Darcy’s aunt.

“Miss Bennet, I warn you.  I’m not to be trifled with.”

***

“Now tell me once and for all.  Are you engaged to him?”

“I am not.”  [with great sadness]

“And will you promise never to enter into such an engagement?”

“I will not and I certainly never shall.  You have insulted me in every possible way and can now have nothing further to say.  I must ask you to leave immediately … Goodnight.”

“I have never been thus treated in my entire life!”

***

Go, Lizzie!

Day Forty … Quiet Times

Just sitting around at home, or better said, my home away from home.  I feel accepted as a brother, without the “in-law” tacked on.  Also as an uncle, even though I’m 50 years older than the kids.  Several times during our trip, servers have identified me as “grandpa” and who am I to complain?  I like it.

If you look at a lifetime through the lens of a year, I wonder where I am?  It feels like October.  All those bright fall colours.  I don’t get that I’m buried in snow and cold, even though the white stuff is lovely when it glistens in the sun.  But I wonder what I’ll be feeling like on New Year’s Eve.

I was watching women’s golf on TV yesterday afternoon, trying to suppress my obsession with Canadian golfer Brooke Henderson.  I was comfy in a black leather chair.  I expect that Jace doesn’t like TV golf, but here he comes to snuggle up to me.  We watched several holes that way.  I felt like dad.

Later, Jaxon came over to me as I sat on the couch.  He leaned over and gave me a hug.  The boys and I hug to say goodnight but it was cool that he did it in the middle of the day.

I can feel that Jaxon, Jagger and Jace are sad that I’m leaving this morning.  Ember too.  Bruce too.  Family, you know.

We watched another episode of “Just For Laughs Gags” before bed.  Gosh, I love that show.  Here’s my favourite:

A woman walks down the street wearing a hat.  She tips her head back and the hat falls off.  She keeps walking.  A fellow behind reaches down to pick up the hat.  As he does so, the woman takes an identical hat that she’s been carrying and puts it on her head.  The man looks up and, astonished, sees that another hat is in place.  He comes up to her and extends the hat to her, to which she replies ” Oh, no thanks.  I’m already wearing one.”

Makes me happy.

In a couple of hours, I’m back on the road towards Weyburn, Saskatchewan, where I’ll be staying with Henry and Louise again.  I’m not going alone.  Lance, Nona, Jace, Jagger and Jaxon will be in the back seat.

Day Thirty-Seven … The Jagger, Jace and Jaxon Story

I just sat down in the camper and wondered what I was going to say about yesterday.  There was a 12-year-old hero sitting beside me, Jagger by name.  So the title came to me: “Day Thirty-Seven … The Jagger Story”.  The next thing I know, the young man (age 12) took over my laptop and wrote thusly:

“it’s all about this awesome boy who everyone cared about so much they give him respect over it.  And the person who is writing this is a goofy, crazy uncle.  An uncle of jagger himself I worship him .well everyone does like he’s a god he is so nice I wish I was him.”

“Even though I’m smarter and handsomer.When we sleep he wakes up and eats 100000000000000000000000000000000000 large bags of raisins and lisens to us breath he is weird even kookoo in the mind he is still my uncle and I love him and my cool family I love em all especially my uncle who reaminds me that I need to go to the washroom when I think of cheese.”

To which said uncle replied:

“Oh, give me a break!  I’m certainly not as goofy as Goofy.  And I only listen to you breathe when we’re all in the camper.  Plus what’s all this about cheese?  That was a pretty cheesy comment!”

Jagger continues:

“My uncle is a cool guy but not as cool as me.he’s not my only family member there is still Jaxon,Jace,Mom,Dad but still I’m cooler than all.  Again my uncle is a 80 year old raisin loving hat wearing cool machine.”

Uncle again:

“I’m not that cool.  Seems to me I’m a normal 98.6 degree human.  And, just so you know, Jagger, I hate raisins and I’m not too fond of hats either.  As well, you really should work on your Math.  Calling a 45-year-old man an 80-year-old is simply the wrong answer.”

And now, ladies and gentlemen, let’s hear from Jace (age 8):

“My uncle may be a bit crazy and weird but he still loves raisins he scarffs them down he has them for breakfast lunch and dinner also for chrismas I bought him a hat yay he’ll be so happy he’ll rush to the bathroom he so great but he scared me once by lifting up his shirt I was blinded I passed out I love him”

“so my uncle … this is secret last night I saw him with 53 bags of raisins he was chugging them he also whispered to the raisins he said my presious little things and sais he stole them from wal mart so im guessing he ran all the way there cause his car was still in the driveway when I heard him shut the door and ran. So my uncle loves raisins so much I see him with a box every second so ya”

Uncle Brucio:

“Well, Jace, I’m really not that scary when I lift up my shirt.  No one has ever fainted at the sight.  And Christmas with raisins would wreck my holiday mood.  The only thing I scarf down is chocolate peanut butter waffle cones.  So there!”

“They are not precious!  Good grief, what’s happened to the young people of today?  And I would never steal anything, especially raisins.”

Not to be outdone, another young man, known as Jaxon (age 14), approaches the keyboard:

“First of all Jagger is not cooler than me he is more like 5th coolest in the family but my Uncle Bruce is definitely 2nd he is great with making us and everyone he meets laugh. Which I could use some lessons on since usually I am really shy. Also another concept on my Uncle is that he loves RAISINS!!! He says he doesn’t but I can tell he is hiding his true feelings he secretly likes them I bet he sneaks them whenever we aren’t in the room. He also hates hats….but one time I put my skater hat on him and he wore it the whole time probably forgot it was on his head either he wore one before and hated it or never put one on before because he thinks it doesn’t work for him. So even though my uncle says he hates stuff that he really likes I still love him.”

“Hi guys I’m back and I’ve heard that Jagger thinks that he is the only person who is cool in the family but really all five of us Dad(Lance) , Mom(Nona) , Jace , me and Uncle Bruce are together the most coolest. I really enjoyed Uncle Bruce coming to visit us this summer he has made the past two weeks very fun either it was trying to make him eat Raisins or beating him in Laser Quest by 300 points it’s been a blast. But the one person who I really miss from all this fun was my Aunt Jody I was and still am sad that she was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer back in November 2013 we had so much fun together I remember coming to Waterton in 2011 and having such a blast. And she and Uncle Bruce camping with us in peter Lougheed and hiking many trails. I still love her very much.”

Uncleness responds:

“I’m happy to be second coolest.  There’s nothing wrong with being a runnerup.  I make a lot of people laugh but some people frown.  Both are okay.  As for raisins, why are we still talking about those horrid little creatures?  And hats make my head too hot!”

“Thank you, Jaxon for loving Aunt Jody so much.  Me too.  Jody made a huge difference in the lives of many, many people.”

***

So there you have it, folks
As you can tell
Day thirty-seven was pretty special