Thursday, November 28, 2013

When I Was Forty Five, It Was A Bittersweet Year

 Last summer we trekked up to Goulais. Last summer my father turned eighty. Last summer my parents celebrated fifty years of marriage.

 At Goulais we ate and drank and laughed as we McLeans do. We surprised Mom and Dad with train tickets to see the colours in Agawa and a dinner on the river and I gave a little speech and in my speech I proclaimed us lucky, for a little while yet, the previous two years having seen Mom laid low by a disease which put her in a wheelchair never to walk again the doctors said, a cousin with breast cancer, an uncle with a severe heart attack, another uncle with esophageal cancer. And here we were, all of us. Mom walking, my cousin ready to go back to work, my uncles laughing and dancing. Bullets dodged, especially for my Uncle Roy, the finest man, the youngest of the brothers and sister from Franz, diagnosed the previous fall, suddenly, his oldest son, Spencer, a surgical resident, telling me that the odds were not good, not good at all, my old man and his brother and sister making the trek west before the surgery, the surgery touch and go but better than the alternative, not saying what they all knew, that this was a trip to maybe say goodbye.

 And here in Goulais, a mile from the old family homestead at the mouth of the river, my uncle dancing like there might be no tomorrow to the bluegrass stylings of the Goulais River Rats or Shovel Band or whatever they were called, they play at every McLean reunion, every reunion a different name for the same group of oldtimers, most of them related to us by marriage for certain, Goulais River is a small place and the names remain the same as a century ago.

 Bullets dodged for a little while, a year of peace and good health and we raised our glasses and cheered.

  And then this spring the news came fast and it was bad news again and again. My wife's best friend with breast cancer now. My cousin Darwin with cancer, the prognosis poor. And then the hardest blow, most unbelievable, an email from my Uncle Roy, stunned, disbelieving, cancer in the family again, not him this time but Spencer, weeks from getting his papers and going to California to do his fellowship.

 I told Jenn the news and the diagnosis and she said that's not good at all and sure enough a week later another email and the cancer advancing rapidly, an aggressive bastard, such a fucking bastard.

 I called Spencer a week or so later and we chatted for an hour, laughing and joking. He was the best of the best, you would have loved him, the type of man who was a bright light, the brightest of lights really. He told me he knew he was in tough but that he was going to fight it, it was all he could do. He was a Canucks' fan and I kidded him about how the Cup final (at this time it was pretty clear that it was going to be Chicago and Boston) must be his worst nightmare. We laughed and then he told me he was a bit tired and I said so long.

 It was the last time we spoke. He had lied to me, I think, I pieced it together later when I went out west to say goodbye to my dear brother, that he knew he was a goner when we spoke but he never let on. It was just over two weeks later, Bickell and Bolland had just shocked the Bruins and the Hawks were parading the Cup around the Garden when the email came. He was gone. My wife came home to find me leaking silently, staring at the teevee.

 A week later I helped carry him out of the Church. It broke my heart. He's gone. Spencer is gone forever.


 That's life though right? I've talked about it here before, I know it, you probably know it. One day your number is up. If you're lucky you're like my Mom, survivor of two bouts with cancer and a virus that took away her legs, on our way up north this summer Jenn said your Mom is as tough as an ox but God don't tell her I said that laughing, she turned eighty this year and we spent our summer trip up at camp as always and in September she went up for a couple of weeks, just her and a friend, enjoying the quiet and the beauty.

 My cousin Darwin survived his own bout of cancer, thank goodness, and he and his wife have been travelling and enjoying life and Jenn's friend Joanne is finishing her treatment and things look good there too and so it could have been worse of course it can always get worse that's the terrifying thing that will keep you up at night if you dwell on it.

 And so what do you do? Well this summer I thought about this a lot and I talked about it a lot and a good friend of mine in Sudbury, just retired, said to me as we drank cold beer on his back deck in the sun that you can't live your life like you might drop dead tomorrow but with that said it doesn't hurt to have some of your decisions informed by this very real fact. He's a smart guy.

 And so I do what I can to be the best father I can. I always have but I have become more patient, more careful with my words, more huggy, more kissy. I'm a great dad, I always have been but I've taken my game to another level lol, its the most important thing I will ever do and so it has to be done right. I take in my time with them and I enjoy each moment. My oldest is ten now and her Christmas list doesn't have toys on it, it has clothes and giftcards and money and that's fine, its the way it is but sooner than I know she will be making her own way in the world and then her brother and sister will follow and when that day comes it will be bittersweet as well for as a parent you work towards teaching your children to be strong and independent, the very characteristics that will carry them away from you one day.

 We went to Paris this October and it was everything we could hope for. I had originally planned the trip for next year when Jenn turns forty but even before Spencer took ill I had decided that this year we would do it, why not, who knows what tomorrow would bring, right? And so we took three children across the Atlantic, the first trip to the continent for any of us, Jenn and I had been to Ireland and England and Scotland only. Paris was a dream.We all fell in love with it and so we joked that whatever happens we will always have Paris, eating confit de canard at a cafe on Rue Cler, 'our' bakery where the kids had pain chocolat each morning, the cafe across the street where I had 'deux espressos to go', wandering Ile De La Cite, crepes in the Marais, the Republican Guard exercising their horses in the alley right outside our flat's kitchen window, picnics in the park, the market at the Bastille, Shakespeare and Company, the Eiffel Tower at night and cruising the Seine and the carrousels and sailing a boat in Jardin Du Luxembourg and the meals and the wine and on and on, too many good memories to recount, a lovely time, a time we will always remember.

 And of course that is what its all about, we don't like to think about the darkness that may lurk around the corner for us but at the same time we tend to get caught up in the grind and forget about what makes it all worthwhile and of course its all worthwhile no matter the pain that we suffer as part of the journey. Spencer McLean knew this, I have known no man who enjoyed life as much as he did, and I, for my part, have always known this too and I have done my best to live in that manner.

 I'm getting older, not a lot older of course, but old enough that a Saturday night game lasts in my knees and back for a few days now and there's a lot of gray in my beard and hair coming out of my ears and nose and what the hell, when did this start happening? I would tell you but the mind isn't what it used to be either haha. I'm not dwelling on it, getting older, but with that said, well, I'm getting older.

 Enjoy the holidays, the season is upon us. Eat drink and be merry my friends. Eat drink and be merry and lets hope that the next year is a better one still.


rubbertrout said...

Have an egg nog for me Pat and enjoy your family that much more.

hey are even better with bourbon (applies equally to family and eggnog)

@eastcoastoilfan said...

Great article Pat. Have had some similar experiences the past few years. You're right about you never know what tomorrow may bring. That feeling of youth and invincibility definitely drifts away over time. I have been trying to make a habit of being less negative/woe-is-me. Big picture, life is good here in the middle-class of Canada, and need to take time to enjoy and appreciate it. With that, I raise a cold one.



Black Dog said...

Thanks rt will do!

Thanks Matt. Yeah its shitty getting old(er) but what can you do? Just have to enjoy it and remember that big picture as you say. Have a good weekend!

Murat said...

It's my birthday tomorrow and a lot has changed in my life in the last 18 months or so. We all get reflective on birthdays (or at least I think we do) but this one I've been a little bit more so. All to say: your perspective is so well timed, Pat.

And it breaks my heart about your Spencer. My sister started her fellowship in MTL this year and if she were gone tomorrow I don't know what I would do.

It's funny, the other day here in Winnipeg we had our first really good snowstorm of the year, people were taking 2 hours to get home from their 30 minute trip to work. The commuters exploded with rage but when I got home, I went for a walk and marveled at the snow. If I were gone tomorrow, I would remember the snow in the streetlight from that day and that's it. We're lucky to have it, I'd say, and I'd bet you'd agree with that line of thought.

The best to you.

Black Dog said...

The best to you too my friend. And Happy Birthday!

Great comment, I appreciate it.