Thursday, 12 April 2012

DEATHBED CONFECTIONS

I'm still not sure what happened to the lamb.

It's one of my earliest non-memories. My brother and I must have been about three years old, living on an acreage outside a small town in rural Alberta. The difference between an acreage and a farm is that on a farm, there are usually lots of different crops and animals that need a lot of work, which is kind of fun at first, but then isn't. There are strange machines that they call "combines", big buildings, intriguing smells, placentas lying around for farm dogs to chew, abandoned cars with protruding gas tanks to pee and poop in, and magpies to shoot with devastatingly powerful .22s. There are cow pies to avoid or to poke, depending on one's current capricious state of mind. There are Tonka trucks and chives in a garden plot. On an acreage, there is dirt, grass, a barrel to burn the garbage in, and but a few gophers to take pot shots at with measly little air pellet guns. The farm has more going on, but the acreage is pretty chill. The acreage is simple; no messy placentas/excrements/dead animals to contend with.

Until Mum and Dad brought the lamb home. It must have been from a farm. That's where animals come from. I was frightened by the off-white, seemingly misshapen, bleating beast billeted in a makeshift bedstead in the living room. My father was trying to feed it milk from a bottle.

"It's sick," said Dad, as if that explained the presence of the unusual, ailing mammal cradled in his arms.

That's all I remember of the lamb. The next day, it wasn't in the living room anymore . In fact, it wasn't anywhere in the house or on the safe acreage. I didn't know enough to even ask where it had gone. It's not that I instinctively knew, "It was here yesterday, now it's not...it must have gone somewhere else." I mean, come on, I was barely potty trained for Christ's sake; existentialism wasn't in my frame of reference. Suffice to say, I hardly noticed the lamb's disappearance or gave it another moment's thought. I must have moved on with my busy life, playing with my brother, getting fed, having baths, reading stories. Hmmm...things haven't much changed in 30 years.

My dad's dad must have passed away around that time. I never met grand-pere; he lived in France. Apparently we spoke on the phone, but I have no recollection of what we discussed. Probably not the rugby. When he died, my brother and I tried to comfort our father. That's what papa says, anyway. He didn't go to his departed dad's funeral. He had to take care of his family. It was lung cancer that took grand-pere. He'd been retired barely six months before he died. My dad swore never to do the same: he would work to provide for us, but he would live his life, too. Why slave away for years and years just to croak within mere weeks of calling it quits? Some of that rubbed off on me. Seize the day and all that. Carpe diem, not carpe dime.

Anyway, between the lamb and grand-père, you could say I was pretty oblivious to my first experiences with death.

Despite my early insouciance and naiveté about the transient nature of material essence, death started to worry me. At some point, I must have gleaned at least a basic understanding of that mystical event/process, because the knowledge that death meant that someone you loved could be gone forever saddened me. More than that: it tormented me. One day, no more than four years after the lamb abruptly entered and exited my life--like a spectral visitor popping in just to deliver an occult message--I was drawing my father's tombstone and writing epitaphs for it, inconsolably wailing at the unfairness of it all. Dad tried his best to laugh it off and thereby reassure me, which made it worse. Why wasn't he taking it seriously? Didn't he realize how bloody awful this was? HE WAS GOING TO DIE!!

My brother and I decided before the age of 10 that when Mum and Dad passed away, we would kill ourselves. We didn't want to live without them. We told Mum, and she good-naturedly scolded us. "I want you to live a happy life," she assuaged and gently implored us. I think we've decided against carrying out our suicide pact now. At least I have...I suppose I'd better tell my brother. I think I read in a magazine somewhere that if you make a suicide pact with someone, then change your mind without telling them, then that's a dick move and you should have to eat raw sea cucumbers for supper every night for a month while watching "The Real Housewives of Lloydminster" or whatever.

As time has gone on, my frantic, fearful, and frenzied preoccupation with death seems to have lessened. Part of it has to do with actually losing friends and family over the years and life going on in spite of the tragedy. In Grade 9, we got a phone call from a friend saying one of our classmates had hanged himself. It wasn't much of a shock. I don't mean it was expected; I just mean I wasn't angry, upset, or forlorn. I wasn't numb, either, like some people say they are after someone they know dies. To be honest, I didn't really like that kid. I wasn't glad he was gone. I just didn't really care. We decided not to go to his funeral.

Grand-mère followed in grand-père's footsteps around that time. Dad didn't go to her funeral, either. He still had to take care of his family. She'd had colon cancer.

Another not-so-close friend of mine killed himself when we were 18. He didn't leave a note; he had driven out close to the mountains and died of carbon monoxide poisoning. His parents couldn't accept that it was suicide; they thought it must've been some kind of accident. We went to his funeral. There weren't very many people. My brother cried. He's sensitive and kind. Life still went on, even if no tidy, affirming answers were to be had, no facile solace.

My great-grandmother died a few years ago at the tender age of 103. My brother and I visited her in the home she was in a couple of weeks before she passed away. She'd stopped eating, drinking, conversing. She'd been shipshape until she needed to go to hospital a few weeks prior, but took a turn for the worse after that. We were amazed by her strength of will. It was her choice to go out the way she did. She'd had a good, long life, and it was time for the big sleep. We admired the fact it was on her terms. I don't remember going to her funeral.

One of my most cherished friends died of a drug overdose in January 2009. I'd known about his struggles with drugs and alcohol and seen him get clean and get a second chance at his vocational calling. He had a work placement in Newfoundland and was cut off from his supports. He must've taken up drugs again out there to cope, and they took him up, too. I didn't find out about his death until after the funeral. I'd last heard from him the day of my wedding. I let him slip through my fingers. Seize the day, hold on to the ones you care about. Do whatever makes you happy (except for dangerous illicit drugs, ideally). James Bond may get to live twice, but the rest of us have to make do with just one shot. Except for the accursed Buddhists, of course, may God smite them and their boundless magnanimity.

My curiosity about the whole "mortality" issue persists. I'm more fatalistic about things nowadays; death, especially of my loved ones, doesn't haunt my every waking moment as it used to. I can't say I'm one of those morbid nihilists who cynically declare things like, "I don't fear death. It's living that scares the crap out of me," or what-have-you. I'm more with Woody Allen on this one: "I'm not afraid of death; I just don't want to be there when it happens." Having had the benefit of a Catholic upbringing, I believe that there's more to life than the sum of our perceptions and cogitations. I believe in a soul, in redemption and salvation. I'm practical, too; I can live with the possibility that after we die, we feel nothing, see nothing, are nothing. Until that day, though, I'll do my best to live like my father has: savouring every day like it's a 24-hour Gobstopper, changing colour and flavour as you experience it; trying not to hurriedly chomp it but rather cradle it delicately with one's tongue so as not to fracture it into unsalvageable fragments; and hoping it doesn't dissolve before one's had the chance to enjoy it and be grateful for it. 'Cause damn, those things are priceless.

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