Monday, August 21, 2006
Addressing The Black Puppies
Churchill's “black dogs of despair” introduced themselves to me this summer, albeit as puppies. I'm not exactly debilitated by their little shadows, but you can see I'm not quite “inspired”, either. So I'm cautiously taking a page from Searchie's terrible and beautiful imperative, in the hope that my muse and my unbidden canine companions can work something out.
To be honest, it's really been a very pleasant summer for us. We witnessed the most spectacular thunderstorm just days before our vacation. Then we climbed into the car and skipped town just as the worst heat wave in decades settled in. We took the North Superior route through Ontario to Manitoba, driving through the southern mass of the Canadian Shield. All those rocks and trees that inspired The Group of Seven provoke similar reveries in me. I've lost track of how many times I've taken this path by car, bus or train. The mode of travel doesn't matter: so long as the seat I'm in is comfy, the austere beauty of it all clears my head and prompts me toward loftier thoughts.
It's a long drive for two little girls, though, particularly when you have to exercise some discretion about which beaches are best for cooling their feet and legs: the first time we stopped at Wawa for a cool-off break, we emerged from the bracing cold water of Lake Erie and witnessed a brilliant rash take hold of our skin. Apparently the water is still recovering from the decomissioned scintering plant.
We decided our best course of action was to drive one long, killer day from Toronto to Thunder Bay, and make the second day easier on the system. Midway through day two, my wife proposed we find a beach and take a break. I knew just the place: West Hawk Lake
West Hawk was formed from meteor impact. The lake is located in the apron-fringe of the Shield, and is very deep and cold. Some mining and logging has been done around West Hawk, but the lake proper is a delicious resort for people of any class. When I was a kid, my family vacationed there in tents or trailers, and there were usually one or two parishioners in either of my father's congregations who owned swanky cottages overlooking the lake.
We pulled off the highway, and parked next to the long, sandy beach. I made a point of buying the girls ice cream at the lake's convenience store – a place where I purchased my most memorable comics when I was a kid. Then we dressed down, and descended to the beach.
Right off the hop, something seemed amiss. While our daughters played, I went through my internal checklist: sun and sand, and plenty of cool, fresh water to frolic in (check); an abundance of young, athletic flesh, lightly oiled and not-so-primly ribboned with nylon spandex (check); my beautiful wife, happy and similarly clothed (check); my gradually improving mood, moving steadily toward unmistakable friskiness (...um, bad news, boss....).
I stood and glowered at the crowd around me. For the first time in my life I was conscious of a clear, dividing line at work: at one end of the spectrum were the tanned and muscular, unselfconscious in both poise and motion; at the other end, clothed in a billowing pair of trunks, skin pasty-white and offset by dark thatches of bodyhair, awkwardly aware of this mortal coil (and the fact that he could stand to drop a few pounds prior to his shedding it altogether) was ... me.
Feh – the vagaries of the bourgeois, mid-life male in North America. The blue-collar Joes I associate with in town don't worry about body-image; neither, I suspect, do the very rich. What about Europeans? Do they give a toss about the fading physique? The answer is important to me, because (yet another bourgeois affectation) I've generally strained to put on the European mindset, which I would loosely define as: embracing adulthood is infinitely preferable to holding onto one's youth.
But I had once been young on this very beach, and I knew exactly where the current crop of yoots were coming from. I was no longer there, and this garnered a sensibility that reached deeper than “Good grief – I'm putting on a spread, and I've eaten too much ice cream to care!” I'm talking about that one stuck note on the circus pipe organ: the Big D Minor. Certainly, Death is no stranger to me. But this one-way argument I've had with Death is changing. I've had family and acquaintances die, representatives from of every stage of life. The ones who died young were invariably aberrations: accidents, stupidity, despair or just plain freakish turns in health. A person can witness this and remain in vibrant denial about the imminent presence of Death.
Not so, the 40s. I caught up with a childhood friend in Winnipeg, and we went through the ritual list of people we knew. The roll-call has its usual traumas, divorce and remarriage being a fairly common element. But death is getting more frequent mention. I was told of a mate from university – recently remarried, recently a father of two – newly diagnosed with cancer and given one month to live. I thought of how I'd spotted him at the Folk Festival last year, with his two golden-haired sprats keeping him tethered to the children's tent. It had been so good to see him get a second crack at happiness, but, Jesus – now this?!
He's still an aberration, but in some unfortunately unremarkable ways: he's male, and his odds are worse than most. It's different for women. Two summers ago, a neighbor was diagnosed with breast cancer. She has two young children, and a shell-shocked husband. They seem to have come through it – watching her with her family is a near-delirious treat. But we returned from vacation to see two other women pushing strollers and wearing do-rags over their shiny heads, while another passed away quite suddenly. It's just so fucking wrong.
Just before I left, my friend gave me two CDs: Johnny Cash's posthumous album, and Bruce Cockburn's latest, Life Short, Call Now, both of which remain in heavy rotation. I thanked him, then quipped, “I guess they were sold out of Oh My God: I'm Gonna DIE!!”
What has been sinking in, however, is this: the spectre of my own death pales next to the possibility of enduring the deaths of those I love. Unthinkable. You do what you can to avoid this fate, but in the end it's just not up to you.
You can't prep yourself for any of it – it's said that worry does nothing to rob tomorrow of its sorrows, but does a great job of robbing today of its strength. Or, in the words of this book, Ya Can't Let Cancer Ruin Your Day. The title alone pretty much delivers the full emotional package of these terribly limited lives of ours.
The present, and my present company, are all I have. It is a gift. It is enough.