Ashes

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Ashes

It’s been almost a year since a vet came to our home and put Maggie down.  She lay on the floor in our living room.  The painkillers, which had given us a few more months with her, no longer worked.

The morning she died, she walked into our bedroom.  A room she wasn’t allowed to be in.  Later, she nudged her way into my bathroom.  Also off limits.  She did it to be closer to me. 

Two unmistakable signs that the time had come.

I said my goodbyes on the living room floor.  My daughter, Molly, hugged Maggie.  Told her how much she’d miss her.  Molly was four, Maggie thirteen.  Molly had never known a world in which Maggie did not exist. 

This was pre-vaccine.  Only one of us was allowed to be with Maggie at the end.  I took Molly upstairs.  My wife, Sonja, stayed with Maggie.  They loved each other very much.  I’d had Maggie for years before I met Sonja.  But Maggie became her dog – Sonja spoiled her, spent her days with her, spoke gently to her, and not surprisingly became the primary recipient of that sweet and strangely morose golden retriever’s affection and loyalty.  I’m thankful Sonja was with Maggie at the end.

I carried Maggie’s body to the vet’s van parked in our driveway.  A neighbour, walking her own golden retriever, saw me carrying the white shroud and knew exactly what had just happened. 

A week later, Maggie came back to us.  Ashes in a cannister.

I didn’t know how to tell Molly about cremation.  I didn’t want to tell Molly about cremation.  So, I fudged the truth.  I told my daughter that the vet had used chemicals to transform Maggie’s fur into little white particles. 

Sonja loved Maggie, but not Maggie’s ashes.  So, Molly and I took that cannister, walked the trails near our home, and scattered some of Maggie’s ashes in a stream where my girls had spent countless hours playing.

It was a big cannister.  And there was another special place where Maggie needed to be, and where I needed to take her.  Victoria, and the ocean, along Dallas Road.  One of the most beautiful places in the world.  Maggie and I had lived in that area for years.  In different homes, at different stages of my life, she was my constant.  My faithful companion.  We’d walked hundreds of times along that stretch of beach.  I’d thrown thousands of stones for her.  She chased every one of them with abandon.  In my darkest hours she was my confidant.  When I felt alone, she was by my side, figuratively, and literally – on the beach and in the ocean, swimming near me as I threw one rock after another, she never gave up hope that just once, she’d catch the rock that splashed in the ocean, right in front of her.  Without Maggie, I wouldn’t have met Sonja.  My online dating profile picture was a photo of me and Maggie.  Maggie was indisputably and infinitely better looking than me.  I rode her coattails into Sonja’s life.

That’s why I wanted to spread the remainder of her ashes along Dallas Road.  But life intervened.  As it usually does.  So, for the better part of the last year, the remainder of Maggie’s “fur” remained in that cannister, in our garden shed.  Sadly, and honestly, a little forgotten.  I walked in there many times, grabbed a shovel, or the lawnmower, and never once thought about Maggie.

Last Sunday, on a sunny, summer’s day, we took Maggie back to Victoria.  Maggie’s remains accompanied us as Molly fed the ducks, ate French fries, and played in two different parks.  And then we headed to the ocean.

It was very windy.  I pictured Maggie’s ashes blowing back into my face, and hair, and covering my clothing.

Leave it to a five-year old to come up with the perfect solution.  While Sonja watched, Molly and I dug holes in the sand.  I poured Maggie’s fur into those holes.  We covered Maggie with sand, and then, covered the sand with stones. 

And then we walked away.   Before the tide came in.

I didn’t want to see it happen, but I knew that the ocean would wash over those stones, and take the rocks, and Maggie, back out into the water.

That had been our special place.  It always will be.  And I know that every time I return, I will look at the beach, and the water, and the mountains in the distance, and I will know that Maggie is a part of that splendor. 

Scattered Bones

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Evidence of a kill. 

At the end of a side trail, not heavily used.  I might have been the first person standing there in days, weeks – maybe even months or years.

Scattered bones – bleached white.  A deer ripped apart, the spinal cord severed, a piece of a jawbone, a smattering of teeth.

An awful death.  Perhaps, mercifully, a quick one. 

A vivid reminder that our forests and trails, so near to our homes, are a different world.

I’d hadn’t gone this deep into the woods for weeks.  Since I’d seen a bear just minutes from our home.  That was six weeks ago.  On a well used trail at the junction of two paths.  If I left my home right now, I could be there in five minutes.  Or less.  My bear encounter happened at midday.  A warm day.  The perfect day for a quick workout.  Hill repeats.  Up and down, up and down.  Strengthen the legs, stress the lungs, tune out the world.  Music blasting in my earbuds.  I stopped tuning out when, on the last downhill, I glanced to my right and saw a black bear ambling up towards me.  Maybe 30 or 40 feet away.  A scenario I’d imagined a thousand times. I stopped running, pivoted, walked backwards down the hill.  Slowly.   Yanked out my bear spray.  Pulled the cord on the noisemaker clipped to my chest.  Knew in my head that black bears rarely attacked people.  Feared in my gut that this one would.  Kept retreating.  Got to the bottom.  Saw the bear at the top.  It looked at me, curious and calm.  And kept on going, towards the woods, away from me.

A few days later, I ran again on the same hill.  Head on a swivel.  No music in my ears.  A little scared, but knowing the longer I waited to go back, the less likely I would be to do so.  Still, that was close to home.  Close meant comfort.  At the junction where I’d seen the bear, I could see dozens of houses and cars passing below.  It was practically my backyard.

The side trail with the dead deer was not my backyard.  I’d planned this run for days, and then talked myself out of it the night before.  Because I was scared.  Scared to venture far from home.  Far from houses and cars and a pretty subdivision.  Into the land of cougars and bears.  I talked myself into a safer run.  Along well traveled roads, to a public park filled with hikers and mountain bikers. 

Then I woke up.  And talked myself out of the talking out. 

Maybe it was because an article from a trail running magazine popped up on my Twitter feed with an article about the rarity of bear attacks and the effectiveness of bear spray.

Maybe because I thought of my daughter.  The fears of a five-year old can be overwhelming – unfamiliar situations, unexpected change, a bug on our trampoline – overwhelming and every bit as real and powerful as the primal fears of an adult.  When my daughter is scared, my wife and I encourage her to face those things that frighten her.  To gain strength, incrementally, by winning small battles against little terrors. 

Or maybe it was just because I love to run on hard packed dirt, baked dry by a month of heat, in the midst of towering, never-ending evergreens.

So, I went for that run.  I added a knife to my arsenal.  Razor sharp, encased in a multi-tool which I carried with me for the entire run.  The multi-tool in one hand, a rock in the other.  I banged them together frequently.  “Make noise,” the experts say.  Scare the bears off before they see you. 

I made noise all right.  No earbuds on this run.  Blue Rodeo blaring from my cell phone.  My rock smashing into my multi-tool whenever I approached a blind corner.

I made noise, and scared a lot of birds, who flew off as I approached. 

I don’t know if I scared any bears, or cougars.  I certainly didn’t see any.

But I smelled death.  The unmistakeable odour of decomposing flesh hit me hard.  Twice.  The rotting carcasses must have been just meters off the main path that took me further and further out. 

Further and further out to the side trail, which ended with scattered bones and an awful death.

An awful death and a necessary run.

A run that replaced fear with confidence.

A run that reminded me of why I was scared in the first place.

Striving for Mediocrity

We live in a beautiful subdivision.  West coast style homes on large lots.  Perfectly manicured lawns and gardens abound.  Last weekend I watched someone vacuum their rock garden. (I once went 8 months without vacuuming the carpet in the basement apartment I shared with my Golden Retriever. … In my defense I did clean the bathroom weekly). 

I love our neighbourhood – a perfect mix of young families and vibrant retirees.  The park, the trails, the front porches, are all conducive to building friendships and creating a community.

There are rules though.  We’re governed by bylaws.  A long list of ‘though shall’ and ‘though shall not’ commandments dictate how our yards must look: our grass, our fences, what we park in our driveway.  Breaking the rules is a roll of the dice.  Maybe no one notices or cares.  Or maybe someone writes a letter to the council.  And they investigate.  And issue a warning letter.   Or a fine.  Maybe things get ugly.  It’s happened before.

Our home and grounds will never be the most attractive.  Our lawn is not perfectly manicured.  There’s moss, and dead spots from dog pee.  But we try.  We plant flowers, and hang baskets.  We grow vegetables.  We’ve trucked in yards of soil and mulch and spent thousands of dollars on cedars and shrubs.  In part we do it because we enjoy it.  It is satisfying and rewarding to beautify our home and our neighbourhood.  But there isn’t enough money, and definitely not enough time.  We’re treading water in the battle against weeds, erosion and decay.  We’re striving for mediocrity.  Trying to fit in, and not stand out for the wrong reasons.

I’m learning to accept that striving for mediocrity is okay.  It’s not the mediocrity that matters.  It’s the striving.

Before work I often run at Summit Park in Victoria.  This time of year, the sun rises as I run intervals on a dirt path around a reservoir in this hidden jewel of a park that overlooks the city.  This week the sunrise reminded me that our sun, and the universe, are billions of years old.  They will continue for billions of years after we are gone. 

In the time scale of the cosmos, you and I, and everything we do, are utterly insignificant.  We could not matter less.  Which, paradoxically, makes you and I, and everything we do, infinitely important.  Because our lives are miracles, precious and rare.  Every second matters.  Everything we do counts.

We cannot and should not strive to be mediocre in all we do.  Mediocre doesn’t cut it when it comes to being a husband or a father.  Our careers matter too – we have a responsibility to do our best when we go to work.  We owe it to our colleagues.  We owe it to each other.  We’re privileged to live in this country.  We all play a role in keeping it working – whatever work we do.

But life is too short to define it by our careers.  The universe is too big and too old not to pursue our passions.  Last month I went bouldering for the first time.  I’m scared of heights and I wanted to face that fear.  I’ve been three times now.  I love it.  Being sixteen feet off the ground, knowing a fall might mean serious injury focuses my mind and body more than almost anything I’ve ever done.  Talk about living in, and appreciating, the moment.  It’s impossible to think about work while lunging from one hold to another while dangling in the air.

Two weeks ago I bought a guitar.  I’ve never played an instrument in my life.  I have zero innate musical talent.  I can’t read a note.  I can’t hold a tune.  I’m starting from rock bottom.  I’ve played that guitar every day since.  I’m awful, as my neighbours will attest, because sometimes, when I get home from work, I play on the front porch or back patio.  If there isn’t a noise bylaw in our neighbourhood there should be.  They have every right to complain about my botched chords and terrible twanging.

If someone does complain, I’ll plead guilty and pay the fine.  I’ll never become a good guitar player, or even an average one, if I don’t strive for mediocrity first.

… Now, out to the garden.

The Hard Miles

“The hardship of running somehow softens the hardship of life.  Running turns the madness into music.”

Those words, from the foreword to Phil Hewitt’s ‘Outrunning the Demons’ capture the essence of this book – Life is hard.  Running helps.  Hewitt himself was stabbed, beaten and left for dead alongside a South African highway.  He survived.  Running helped.

And inspired him to collect the stories of others who, in their darkest hours, found solace in running.  People shaken by grief, addiction, disease, injury, and mental illness – in the worst of their pain, running helped them survive.

As is often the case, I write this on the couch, my daughter beside me.  A mini-crisis has just passed.   Strawberry yogurt everywhere.  “Oh no, I got some on my pajamas,” she yelled.  A very big deal for her.  Less so for me.  I responded that if yogurt spilled all over the sofa, and covered her and painted the ceiling, it would be okay.  We would fix it.  We would survive a Yogurt Disaster

As the yogurt spill played out, I looked out our front window and saw a runner, in her bright yellow vest, racing along a path near our home.  I know her.  A little.  She runs every day.  I’ve seen her running in deep snow on days when I struggled for hours just to shovel our driveway.  In winter’s darkest days she is out there – in driving rain and howling winds.  I don’t know her story.  But I suspect she needs running.  Needs it just as much as food, and water and air. 

That’s how I feel too.

Not many years ago, someone very close to me was diagnosed with cancer.  I was terrified she would die.  It was a bad year.  Stress, worry, uncertainty and fear churned within.  So I ran.  Signed up for a marathon and trained for it not because I wanted to.  I had no time goal.  The distance was no great challenge.  I’d run marathons before.  I entered that marathon because I needed to.  A lot changed in my life that year.  But running was a constant that helped see me through the worst and emerge on the other side.   

The other side is a new life.  A life that might be very similar to yours.  A spouse, a child.  A career with constant stress, modulating daily, sometimes hourly, from moderate to severe.  Always present and always a roller-coaster ride. 

Yesterday was Easter.  My wife and I watched a day of joy unfold as our daughter hunted Easter eggs.  We watched as her grandparents and aunt showered her with love, and chocolate, and placed a pink Easter bonnet on her head.

And there was sadness too.  My parents are a long way away.  So is my youth.  I remembered Easter when I was a child.  Chocolate and church and sunshine.  Yesterday I wanted to hug my mom and dad and my brother and his family.  And be with them and tell them how much I love them.  And thank them for those wonderful memories.

One of those memories is music.  “Morning has Broken.”  A song for the ages.  A song that captures light and life and spring and sunshine.  An Easter song.  So yesterday, in the midst of it all, on a bright beautiful April day, I ran to the trails and listened to Cat Stevens sing that song.  I played it over and over again.  I found a valley and a lone daffodil.  Just the one, in a sea of grasses and weeds.  And I thought about it all.  And was thankful for everything.  Joy and youth, light and life, family and friends. Running and hard miles.

Every Second

“Travel is medicine.  It resensitizes.  It opens you up … It forces your childlike self back into action.”

… the opening lines of ‘To Shake the Sleeping Self’ by Jedidiah Jenkins   One paragraph in I knew I’d love the book.   I didn’t just read those lines.  I absorbed them. They shook me.  Reminded me of far away places and long-ago adventures.  Sunshine and excitement.  Relaxation and restoration.  One paragraph in, Jedidiah shook this sleeping reader.

Words that resonated, in part, because, for a year now, we have been unable to travel.  Robbed of the pleasure of planning that next trip.  Of exploring a part of the world we’ve never seen before.  Or returning somewhere meaningful and magical.  Somewhere guaranteed to restore the soul.

Yesterday we searched closer to home – driving four kilometers, instead of flying four thousand.  Low budget travel – a couple cookies, a thermos of coffee, and a bag of stale breads for the seagulls. 

We needed to be away from home, together.  Away from to-do lists that never ended.  Away from the television.  Away from minor tensions and an epic tantrum. 

We needed air and water and trees. 

We found them.  Along a shoreline so close to home we had taken it for granted for years.  Never stopped.  Never explored. 

Here’s something else Jedidiah Jenkins wrote: “When you are a kid, everything is new.  You don’t know what’s under each rock … So, you look.  You notice … Every second has value.”

The essence of mindfulness.  Finding value in every second.  That does not mean every moment is pleasant or welcome.  Every moment just is. 

Every day I struggle with being present in the moment. 

It’s worse than that.  Every moment I struggle with being present in the moment.  My mind races.  Five minutes ahead, five hours ahead, five years ago.

Five.  Our daughter is five.  Yesterday, at the beach, she found value in every second.  She didn’t just feed the seagulls.  She made seashell sandwiches, fan-shaped shells, filled with water and layers and layers of bread.  The seagulls swooped in – fighting, clamoring, the winner soaring away with every morsel in its beak.  The losers squawking for more.

We discovered secret passages – pathways through dense trees.  We scampered up rocks and across logs.  We saw a sad face carved in stone, and memorial plaques mounted on boulders.  Plaques that showed that this had been a special place to others.  They too had come here and valued every second.

I’m still reading Jedidiah’s book.  He’s in South America now, nearing the end of a bike trip that began in Oregon.  A pre-Covid trip.  I envy him – envy his travels, his insights and his talent.

Soon after I met my wife, she travelled to South America.  She flew in rickety planes, ate great food, and experienced people and places that I – that all of us – can only dream of now.

Places and trips that happened years ago.  Places and trips that might happen again, depending on vaccines and variants.

In the meantime, I’m thankful that Jedidiah and my daughter remind me that every second has value. 

More Things Matter Less

Two people I didn’t know died recently.

I learned about them, their lives, and their deaths, from grieving friends.

Their deaths were unexpected.  One from a chronic health problem that deteriorated rapidly.  The second also “natural,” but without warning.  Both had young children.  Both left grieving families, friends, and colleagues

Natural causes.  A phrase we’ve all heard thousands of times.  Two words that don’t convey the pain death leaves in its wake.

I began to think of death a little differently not that long ago.  It was something I heard on a show that has become a big part of my life.  The Rich Roll Podcast.  Rich is an ultra-endurance athlete, a vegan and an inspiration.  He challenges himself and his listeners to be their best selves.  His guests share their lives with Rich because he’s authentic, curious, and humble.  He radiates warmth and trust.  He’s become a fixture in my life.  Like a friend I’ve never met.  Although I did meet him once.  Travelled across the country to hear him speak and met him briefly afterward.  Bought a t-shirt which I still have.  Very worn, and very torn, I still wear it proudly.

A year or so ago, one of Rich’s guests spoke about aging, and longevity – with a focus on people around my age – forty and fifty.  Not old, but not young.

The guest said something like ‘Nature doesn’t need you anymore.’

Thought provoking words.  Not spiritual, not healing, not sugar-coated.  Evolutionary.  We are all animals.   Dying is wired into our DNA.  And by our forties and fifties, most of us have had children, and aren’t going to have any more.  Nature – cruel, merciless – doesn’t need us.

A lot of things don’t need us.

Work doesn’t need us.  If we are lucky, we have careers in which we are fortunate enough to make contributions – to our co-workers, to our organizations, to the world at large.  But, at work, each of us is completely replaceable, regardless of what we do.  You and I might be missed.  But we’re not necessary.  Not essential.  We’d be replaced and the machine would grind on.

Things don’t need us.  We surround ourselves with so much that is non-essential.  So much plastic, so much made overseas, so much packaging.  Inert crap, that adds little value to our lives.

The news cycle doesn’t need us.  It gorges, spits out, and moves on.  Trump today – gone tomorrow. 

The planet doesn’t need us – alive, we drain it, suck out its exhaustible resources.  Every second we breathe, we’re part of the problem.  Dead, we return to the earth.  Giving a little bit back after all we’ve taken.

But if a lot of things don’t need us – a lot of people do.

Our communities.  Our friends.  Our families.  Our children.

Not knowing that I’m writing this – never knowing anything that I write about – my five-year old daughter just started talking about death. She said to me “I bet you die right now.”  I reassured her and told her that wasn’t going to happen.

I did not tell her that nature doesn’t need her father anymore.  She’s five.  She still needs her dad.  Needs to cover my face in shaving cream like she did a couple of hours ago.  Needs to paint my nails pink and spray me with perfume like she did right after that.

And I need her.  For as long as I can hang on. 

Which is another reason Rich Roll has become a mentor and inspiration.  Nature is merciless.  Accidents happen.   Diseases ravage.  Aging never stops, and always takes a toll.  But there are things we can do that increase our chances – increase our chances to live longer, be healthier, and find contentment in whatever path or paths we choose along the way. 

More things matter less than ever to me now.  Things I used to be passionate about like baseball and politics.  Not that long ago they were central to my life, now they exist on the periphery.

But if many things matter less, then a few things matter more.  My family.  My friends.  Seeking rewarding work – not working for rewards.  Reading. Writing. Running.

And living a life with pink nails, and a shaving cream head.

Addiction.ca

I cannot remember the last Saturday morning when the first thing I did after pouring my coffee wasn’t looking at homes on Realtor.ca.

I like our house.

Sometimes I love it.

Our neighbourhood is fantastic – trails and a park – young families and retirees.  A genuine community.

And yet, Realtor.ca beckons.  Constantly.  Not just on Saturday mornings.  The app on my phone means constant checks throughout the week. 

Chasing the perfect home. An extra bathroom.  A magnificent view.  Something more walkable too – schools, stores, coffee-shops – ideally would be just a short stroll away.

The next best thing just around the corner.  Because the next home will make everything better.  Parenting, life, and work stress will disappear when we add another toilet.

It’s ridiculous of course.  Most of us grew up sharing bathrooms, in homes without walk-in closets and jacuzzi tubs.  We survived just fine.  We didn’t know any different.

I think of my grandparents.  Children of the First World War.  Young parents themselves during World War II.  They suffered.  Their infant daughter died soon after birth in the dark autumn of 1944 in occupied Holland.  War raged while they mourned and battled for survival, and struggled to raise their surviving daughter.  My mother.

Many decades later my grandparents retired to a small bungalow in very small-town Ontario.  One bedroom, one bathroom.  They took pride in that home.  My grandfather spent thousands of hours in his garden.  Sometimes I helped him.  Today, when I work in our backyard – a sun-drenched property with apple trees, pear trees, and garden boxes which overflow with tomatoes – I think of how much my grandfather would have loved this home.  I wish he was alive and bedside me.  And I feel guilty for ever thinking about leaving. 

Leaving a place my daughter loves, adding a hundred thousand dollars to our mortgage, and an hour a day to my commute, all for the sake of looking outside and seeing the ocean and the mountains.

The draw of that view is powerful.  The desire for an extra bathroom is real.  So is the reality that the things I want come at a cost. A cost that may not be worth paying. 

Still, it’s hard not to look. 

Addiction.ca

A Walk in the Cemetery

I had a few hours of free time this morning.  It’s rare for me to be alone, and away from home.

So I went to a cemetery.

A cemetery, near a forest by a church.  A beautiful church.  An old church. 

Smoke from the forest fires raging south of us obscured the sky. 

No one else was around.

It was like walking through a P.D. James novel.

Our world feels very obscured.  There is no clarity.

Cemeteries provide clarity.  Death provides clarity.  The on switch is flicked off.  1 becomes 0.  Light is dark.

The cemetery was quiet.  Peaceful. Tranquil.  Mostly grey with splashes of flowers.  Immense trees loomed overhead.  I saw an infant’s grave.  I saw many birth dates far to close to the birthdays of people I love who are still alive.  Loved ones I treasure beyond description.  The people I do not ever want to lose.

As I write this, our dog is hours away from being euthanized.  I’ve written about her in the past.  Not always glowingly.  But her absence will create a void in my life.  In my wife’s life.  In my daughter’s life. I will always remember the golden beauty who was with me when I was alone, and lonely, and a little bit scared of what the future held in store.  I’ll remember long walks along the beach, stones thrown into the ocean, and hot summer days laying by the water, a book in one hand, and my Maggie beside me.

I’ll remember this day.  Some glorious free time with something awful looming.  And yet I’m still enjoying myself.  A coffee in a café.  My laptop in front of me.  Nowhere I need to be for 90 whole minutes.

The where I need to be is my daughter’s pre-school.  To pick her up.  Earlier this week she was terrified before her first day.  My wife and I felt her fear.  Agonized over it.  Needlessly.  Because she came home and told us, “I love pre-school.”  She asked to go every day.  Kids grow up fast.

Today, when I dropped her off, she greeted her teacher with glee, overjoyed to tell her about the new doll her granny bought her.  Almost forgetting dad was beside her.  Maybe actually forgetting, because I had to ask for a hug and a kiss before she bounded into the classroom.  I was so proud of her.  And so conscious that my little girl is growing up. 

My days often feel very obscured.  The smoke of work, the smoke of stress, the smoke of life.  Who has time for clarity when life moves a million miles an hour, Covid keeps us from one another, and fires blacken the sky? 

Clarity might be unattainable.  Or maybe it is does exist, but it is precious because it is both fleeting and hazy.  Like a walk in a cemetery on a day filled with both life and death.

POSTCRIPT

Dad picked up his daughter and bought her a Happy Meal for lunch.

Maggie died peacefully, in her home, surrounded by love.