Thursday, December 29, 2011

Come Fly With Me

"Everytime I try to fly, I fall
Without my wings, I feel so small
I guess I need you, baby
And everytime I see you in my dreams
I see your face, it's haunting me
I guess I need you, baby"
(Everytime, Britney Spears, 2004)

           Once Doug was buried and gone, it seemed the only thing I had left was not knowing what we could have been, what should have been. I really believed I had nothing left to hold on to. As the drive to join him faded into yesterday, I had to discover just how to live again for today. It was not a matter of learning how to exist, but wanting to. It was hard to find reason to move on when my entire world was lost to those few moments when he decided to abandon it all. I had already been through so many changes in my life, but his suicide, that one leap, took what was left of my life as well.
            For months, everytime I tried to spread my wings and soar past the pain, I was instantly reminded  that I could not fly. I didn't even want to. I had abandoned God years before, claiming to hate and loathe the mere idea of a merciful Saviour, but this one act castrated any joy or hope left within me. It didn't help to make believe that Doug was sitting next to me, or right behind me, whispering that everything would be okay. I felt nothing would ever be okay again.
            I was sure this was punishment; pure and unadulterated consequence from a decade of rejecting everything I had come to know about Grace and this greater Love. I still needed Doug, so I let him haunt me. His face was in every mirror, his voice sent with the wind. When the flames of once was turned to dust in my mind, I knew I had to find a way to carry on. I had to find a way to live for the promise I had made to my parents and to try to hang on. I had to find a way to make purpose from all this death. I knew I had to find a way for me to survive, to go on once again despite still needing him. When all good things come to an end, you have a choice. You either get on with living or you get on with dying. Either way, time will look after you regardless.
            While throwing myself at the feet of Jesus seemed to do nothing but confirm he had abandoned me, as well, I was determined to find a way through all this. Once I took a few steps towards this living again, I wanted so badly to turn what was such a negative experience into something much more positive than how it had been. It was obvious that Doug was not able to aviate through his misery, his lack of feathers condemning him to a fall into darkness. I was bound to make things better. The only way I could ever soar was to take to flight in the hope of rising above.
            I started to read, to study in hopes of understanding. I studied Durkheim, in an attempt to comprehend the reasons why Doug did what he did. I threw myself into Scripture, hunting for the God I believed was hiding within the pages of books and good news. Anything that spoke to me of God, Jesus or spiritual tranquility became my focus. I watched all the television shows on these topics I could get my hands on. I read it all, I studied even more, talking and listening and learning more than I ever could have imagined. The way through became my way, a sense of living that has never faded for me. At the age of 30, I began life all over again.
            That first summer alone, I spent sticking myself with pricks, and not the kind most gay men would imagine. The Morphine and Demerol became my quick friends, then, with autumn, blew away as if fallen leaves. I tried to kill the homosexual demon within me through chemical warfare, instructed that God would make me acceptable if I asked for it bad enough. My repentance was true, but the demon remained in spite of all my fury against it. Still, I paid attention and started to realize that, to fly, you need wings. Most wings are like those worn by Icarus, melting in the sun. To truly find this flight into freedom, I would have to stop just studying and start experiencing.
            Adam was 38 when, in 1989, he was infected with HIV during a casual sexual encounter. While the drugs of the time, like AZT, helped prolong his life, they did not hold a candle to the current cocktails which allow those infected to live a normal lifespan with little complication from AIDS. Unfortunately for Adam, he did not benefit from our modern medicine. By the time I met him, in October 1995, Kaposi's sarcoma, wasting disease and a destroyed immune system had taken everything from him but his last breath. You could tell from the condition of him that he was not long for this world.
            I had volunteered with the AIDS Committee of London in an attempt to help those most affected by an uncaring God. I suppose, in some way, I wanted to reveal that God was better than what His "flock" claimed for Him. For years, good, loving Christians had delivered a message of God's unconditional love with cute, little sayings, such as "God hates fags" or "AIDS is God's punishment for homosexuals". This complete ignorance redefined the Christian faith for me and helped me see past the ridiculously sublime character of many who claim to follow Him.
            I realized, for the first time, that if God was handing out punishment for how each one of us behaved, there would be endless lineups at the morgue. After all, it is the Christian claim that ALL fall short, not just those with some sin that we pick and choose to condemn. When it all comes down, maybe God is for everyone. When you look into the eyes of the dead, you see nothing but an empty place where life used to be. When you look in the eyes of the dying, you see fear and confusion and a need for hope, for something to bring comfort and something to soar on. Adam needed a way through, he needed wings to fly.
            I spent the next few weeks learning how Adam coped with his end stage. I had witnessed death before, just a few months previous to this time when my grandfather died in July. I had seen death before, in February, as Doug lay frozen on that cold metal slab. Witnessing my new friend wither into nothing was one of the hardest things in the world for me to watch, yet it was revealing beyond compare. The process of death has so many faces. Some, like my mother, fade quickly into the light. Others linger, drawn out like a bad cartoon to which we all know the last scene. All the pain, all the suffering, and yet still I could not find a God of mercy.
            On Friday, October 20th of 1995, I showed up at Adam's place mid-morning. I completed my tasks about his apartment, cleaning and straightening the little amount of clutter he managed to make. I helped him into his bath and read to him from Dickens' Great Expectations. Too weak to dry himself off, I carefully applied a towel. His epidermis was grey translucent. You could almost see under it.  There was no substance to him whatsoever, he was, literally, all skin and bone. The thick hair I had seen in his pictures was ragged and thinning or missing. He had large welts all over his head and body, not pustules, but more like large misshaped moles, randomly spreading like some web of veins, all about and around his torso.  There was no beauty in his manner.
            He was weak, weak and exhausted. With each visit, he had grown worse than the one before. It was as if he was a distant sunset fading forever out of being, the light still here but melting into no more. In truth, he looked more like a Jewish Concentration Camp prisoner than a gay man in his early 40s. I guess I got used to his state of being, never fearing for my safety despite all the ignorant thinking of the time. Adam went from a method in my learning to live again, to a friend and role model I have never forgotten. He presented me with a lesson, not so much in how to live, but rather, in how to die. He was so fragile, in a physical sense, but so strong within himself.
            Outside his apartment, this fall day brought sunshine and enough wind to scatter red and yellow across the canvas past his window. We sat and talked about this day and what this day could offer him. We discussed living in the moment even while dying at that moment. As the afternoon began to fade into evening, I left him with our novel at that window. He loved to sit in the twilight, watching children play in the park and old ladies walking their dogs. I went to the kitchen and I made some Earl Grey for the both of us. He sat quietly, for the longest time. He was in such pain, constantly drawn towards his own doom. He sat so still that I had to check that he wasn't still. There was nothing his medication, my presence, or, apparently, God could do for him now.
            I never saw Adam again. The ravages of full-blown AIDS kept most coffins sealed back then. An open casket was just not a good idea. He died on Sunday, October 22nd, 1995 at approximately 11 a.m. It was a small funeral, scattered faces fixed with names I had never heard. The cremation was completed the next day and his ashes scattered in the park across from his home. I was told he died in his chair, sitting watching the world go by. I know he was waiting to fly.
            When I went to leave the memorial, his mother, Carol, handed me a small envelope left by Adam on Saturday. I wasn't sure if I wanted to open it, so I headed back towards my life, tucking it in my coat pocket. I read it later.
"What a beautiful day" was all he wrote.

"What if we fly? What if we fly?
And dive off the edge of the end of the world as we know it
What if we fly?
Have faith enough to think fate might just know where we're going
What if the arms of the wind carry us to the place
We never could find?
Yes we might fall
But what if we fly?
I know we might fall
But what if we fly?"
(What If We Fly, Chely Wright, 2001)

Be mercy.


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Little Dead Things

"To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven." (Ecclesiastes 3:1, KJV)

             There is only one guarantee in this life. Most certainly, everything will pass away. Everything that once lived will one day die. This is the price we pay for living. The earth commands this cycle of life and death; there is nothing which can escape this portion. From the tree to plankton, from each animal to each human being, death is part of living. It is the only constant in all of this existence. No matter how we strive to escape it or attempt to change the inevitable, it continues to haunt us until it takes possession.

We are all, literally, screwed from the get go.         
            When a human being dies, those closest to them mourn and weep in such sorrow. Sometimes the whole world cries tears for just one lost soul. Sometimes a stranger simply closes our box or turns on the oven. From our mother to our lovers, from our family to our friends, we grieve and we toil to find some purpose in it all. Once the act is done, it is only with resolve that we bury the dead and try to move on. We plant these remains in the soil, or in jars, with the hope that they stay with us until our own mortality makes its claim. How true that old adage, "Life's a bitch, then you die."
            By the time it is our time to go, we often know more dead people than those living. We accumulate, collecting cherished remains like memories, each one a touchstone to how it was and how it should have been. It is really all we have left in the long run; the greatest testament to their life so lived. With no pause, the sweetest sorrow becomes the saddest fate.
            The God that men worship is responsible for all this doom. I guess in a way He built into us a mechanism for destruction and the only way to get to Him is through our mortal destiny. Although I am not conventional when it comes to ideas regarding God, the inclination that we should take this manifesto as something personal, some punishment for Original Sin, lacks substance when measured against Mercy and Grace. For me, I believe that He knows what He is doing. I trust that there can be no other way or it wouldn't be this way. Still, our fate is sealed.
            Along the path that each one of us travels, we accumulate other creatures bound by the same curse of life. It appears human beings have a greater capacity than to simply love one another. Just as many broken hearts have found arrest at the loss of an animal, as with any human being. From the squirrel we feed in the backyard to our cherished family pet, the animal kingdom gives as much, if not more, comfort and joy to people than other human beings do. So too, with shorter time, their coin turns and their passing, for many, brings great pain and hurt.
            It is more than obvious some people just don't care. Considering their inability to treat other people properly, it is no surprise the disregard they have for animals. I find it strange, this disregard. Although hitting a bird with your windshield at 120 km may not mandate you slam on your brakes on a busy thoroughfare to hold a funeral procession, flushing your favourite gerbil or tossing the family dog in a plastic bag, for pickup on Tuesday, strikes me as archaic and void of compassion. They may be dead and gone, but what about the love?
            I don’t know what I would have done without my pets. Their comfort was greater than most of the comfort I have received from man. I believe, with all my heart, that each one was a mechanism of joy, gifts of tender mercy sent from somewhere up above. Such simple pleasure, these beasts. Unfortunately, like with people, we do not measure their worth until they are gone. Most times, we see no treasure at all. We accumulate happiness through things, cold and lifeless, like money or jewels or art, and we forget to embrace the wonderful gifts we have been given in these little things.

All little things become little dead things.

            Just up the hill, past the gardens and the big pine tree, somewhere in the maze of the Lily of the Valley lies a secret place. On the other side of the pond, just set past the railways ties, there is a collection of stones, monuments and memories that some would call a pet cemetery. Truth be told, that is exactly what it is. Since 1980, every pet I have had, every pet my immediate family has had, was laid to rest in this sandy soil. Without hesitation I could find any of my friends, buried beneath the surface in boxes, containers and pretty things. I don't even have to look for them.
            Pets, and the like, have always been important to me. Although Charlotte, my first pet, left us years before we relocated out of Toronto, that tiny little white mouse is still with me. All my pets are. Each one lives through the lesson their time with me gave and their memory holds. When I found my first little lady, in her box, curled up from meeting Eternity, I first touched death. I believe this was the first time I grieved for something outside of  myself. Great and heavy was this weight upon my 5 year old soul. I wish she was up on the hill with the other life lessons such critters seem to bring with them.  
            One day my current cats will, God willing, find sleep in the safety of this place. Fritz and Shadow will join the ranks with Muff, Misty, Felix, Gizmo, Opus and, of course, Mister B. Without a doubt, my sister's dog Phydo will share a bed with Nugget, Skippy and Comet. All three were the most wonderful dogs. On Thanksgiving of this year, my dinner was disrupted by the discovery of my rodent, Copper, paws straight up and still warm to my touch. She now lies under a bush with all the other tiniest of pets. I am not a praying man, but I implore this place remain, at least until I join all the other questions tossed to the wind.

Every fish, every bird, every beast, so burdened, come lay your weary head and rest.

            I don't believe I would be the person I am had the animals of my life been left in the forest. I learnt more, loved more and grieved more for most of my pets than most of the people who have come into my life. There is significance in the effect of each one, a silent whisper left to linger in my head. I can hear them in who I am and would not be so without them. People can think me weird all they want, but I prefer animals to most of the humans I have met. A pet does not betray you, and pets do not hate you, and with the exception of my cat Muffy, pets don't check out and leave you all alone. Let's be real here, pets are quite often the only thing we can rely on. For some, pets are the only contact they have with a living being for weeks at a time.

Tender mercy indeed.

            Just weeks after my first partner died, as I starved myself from grief, and while trying to get into heaven, I went to all the things still unpacked in my former bedroom. I had relocated quickly back to my parents' after Doug died, and for the longest time "we" remained stuffed into boxes, bags and drawers. As I fumbled through this and that, I heard a meow at my feet. Thinking it must be Felix or Gizmo, I reached down to pet my pet. There, on the floor, in the room where he lived most of his life, was Muffy. He rubbed against a chair leg and was gone before we could touch.
            I've been told that lack of sustenance can cause hallucination, and that grief can manifest in many ways, but I never bought into these convenient dismissals. I heard that meow clear as day, and in both ears, not just one as is associated with psychosis. This moment was defining for me. My first cat was somehow here, even but for a minute.
If a simple animal, gone for 5 years, can continue to be, how much more is there a chance that Doug was okay? I know it sounds silly, grasping for straws, but that single moment carried me further back into life than any of the therapy I sat through at the time.
            While visions of pussy very rarely dance through my head, I cling to that moment when I fear for the safety of those gone before me or those about to leave. I find it ironic that a cat, long gone and now dust, can still set me back on my course. All my pets seem to have this sway. Each one sounds from the other side of things, reminding me that everything matters, nothing is useless. Pets have purpose too. We can love things all we want, but it is the consequence of this love that determines who we are and how we got here, now.
            When I think of Mister B., I see the horror in death. When I imagine Skip, here, now, I recognize the futility of life despite all the love in the world. All my little friends who did nothing to deserve their fate, cuddled up together on that hill waiting to be remembered. I can't imagine that something which can give so much of love and loyalty would be left by God to dust. It just wouldn't seem fair after everything they do for us.

"If I were you
My prized possessions
Would be the ones I'd hold so close
'Cause when you lose your love
You lose what means the most
If I were you
I'd hold affection
Higher than any star in sight
Take this to heart
And you'll never part
These are the things that I would do
If I were you"
(If I Were You, Celine Dion, 1992)


October 2011

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Mourning

             Christmas has always carried great meaning for me. On Christmas Eve, in my teens and twenties, I would stand alone in the Yuletide glow, pining for Jesus and praying for peace. On Christmas Day, as a child, the Spirit of the season would find me among the gifts and treasures brought by Saint Nick and placed with care beneath the Christmas Tree. My entire life, Christmas celebration and festivities met my attention as early as July. They still do. When I was a boy, Christmas was all about the toys and the infant King, but now, as a man, Christmas holds out greater meaning and symbolizes so much more than presents, reindeer or even a baby in a manger, come to free all men..
            Although the days of me believing God and Jesus are one and the same have now passed into history, like with my love for those biblical stories of old, I still have much reverence for this day. Although I may not believe as I did when I was younger, Christmas has come to represent so much more to me. Christianity has left me now, but the message it contains still beats within. The promise that love has come, resonates despite my rejection of myth and magic and those rituals the original meaning of this day may nurture. Never has a wiser message been conveyed than that found in the story of the birth, life and sacrifice of God here on earth.
            No longer do I stand each Christmas Eve near the Christmas Tree, looking for a reason in all this Season. Christmas is more about memory now, not gifts wrapped beneath the tree or angels we can hear on high. The Promise of Peace, for all, thrives within me as truth for everyone, not just those who believe a certain way. Christmas is an essence for me. It is a reflection of the Spirit manifest in everything around me. It is home for me and a taste of heaven. It is the memory of a mother, the life of a father and the remnants of a love I once knew.   

Whatever Happened to Santa Claus?

"I believe in Santa Claus
Like I believe in love
I believe in Santa Claus
And everything he does
There's no question in my mind
That he does exist
Just like love I know he's there
Waiting to be missed"
(I Believe in Santa Claus, A Year Without a Santa Claus, 1974)

            I hadn't believed in Santa Claus for years, but now there was no question. As my Mom wandered to and from her bedroom, toys piled in her arms, she would disappear downstairs, then return empty-handed. It did not take a swift kick for me to figure out what was going on. As I laid in the top bunk, my brother Alan snoring underneath me, I spied, wondering to myself what had happened to Santa Claus.
            I had been sent off to bed with the threat of Santa passing by if I didn’t find rest, immediately, but this did little but to provoke my curiosity even further than the approaching day already had. I don't believe it is unusual for a 9 year old boy to have figured out the truth about Santa, but it was the details that remained unanswered. I was 7 when I discovered the giant doll, wrapped in a blanket and stashed deep in my parents' closet. I was dumbfounded when she appeared a week later, as a gift to my sister from Santa, wrapped in silver and gold decorations and waiting silently beneath our Christmas Tree. After this revelation, I tried to gather as much information about the process as I possibly could. Unfortunately, I fell asleep on Christmas Eve when I was 8, unable to gather further, and any sensitive, information  about the parental connection and St. Nick. Around 11 p.m. on Tuesday December 24th, 1974, the Santa I had known, and believed in, as a child, was lost to me for once and for all.
            I had not abandoned my childhood ways, I had merely discovered the truth about reality. It is not always as it appears to be. In hindsight, it was my love for comic books and action figures that cemented the notion of myth and fable for me. Spider-Man and the Hulk were once as real in my mind as any jolly old elf, but I was not stupid and learned quickly to differentiate between fantasy and the world I existed in. As an adult, the very same questioning that drove me to look for answers about Santa Claus drove me to  question religion and all the stories associated with it.
            For most people, Santa Claus is disposable. We learn he does not exist as children, so by the time we fully grow up, he is merely a symbol, a graven image declared into existence but only for the Season. Like with all fable and rumour, there is always a little piece of truth contained within most folklore. Just as there was once a Jesus of Nazareth, so too was there once a Saint Nickolas, a 4th-century Saint and the origin of Santa Claus. 
            As I got older, I paid attention to the hows and whys of Christmas. While I never saw the body, it was clear that the real physical shell of Santa was long gone. Was the keeper of Christmas just a costume now, a pagan imitation of the true Spirit meant to get us all through December? Was he something more? Why did it matter to me what he was and why did I keep asking myself whatever happened to Santa Claus?
            More often than not, we overlook the answers we seek, even when they are right in front of our noses. Year after year, it was always with me, but I failed to see. It was about the house, in the traditions and the decorations. It was with us on Christmas morning, amidst the pretty papers and coloured boxes. It lived in all of us, even though we often failed in giving it room to breathe. Santa Claus is a Spirit, an ever-accessible fountain of all that is good and right with mankind. He is the epitome of the greatest commandment, to love one another. He is as right and holy as any Wiseman or Shepherd. He can live in us, but only when we bid him enter.
            My mother was Santa Claus. She made sure the presents were ready, the turkey all golden. She tied the bows, warmed the cider and loved her children with such magic that one still cannot escape its lure. She was Christmas and everything it brought to us. She welcomed in the Christmas Season, having carried it with her throughout the year. For her, Christmas wasn't about perfection or good standing. Christmas was an expression of her love for the people in her life. No matter what, every Christmas she released it as if by exorcism. Christmas, and Santa Claus, dwelt within her.
            This year is the second Christmas without my mother, but the Spirit which once possessed her now flourishes within this humble sinner. I am sure it always did. Christmas will never be the same with her gone, but the Spirit she once tapped into thrives throughout the year in me. I am reborn by notions of peace on earth, Glory to God and joy to this world. I see it everywhere and in everyone. I cannot help it, it has consumed me.
            As all those years without a Santa Claus flew by me, I failed to grasp that he never really left at all. It is because of my mother that he is recognized again. Like touches of frost on the window in spring, the Season fades quicker every year. I would have imagined that with her death, two years ago, that Spirit of Christmas would be lost once more to time, sorrow and human blindness. It is from her passing, however, that I have realized where he hides. He is in all of us, a mortal remnant of Divine Love. There is testimony to this in the life of my Mom. Santa isn't dead, he lives for always. You may think he enters down through your chimney, but he really enters through your heart and your mind and with Spirit. To answer the question, that's whatever happened to Santa Claus.

Hunting for Christmas

(Clark) "We're kicking off our fun old-fashioned family Christmas by heading out into the country in the old front-wheel drive sleigh to embrace the frosty majesty of the winter landscape and select that most important of Christmas symbols."
(Audrey) "We're not coming all the way out here just to get one of those stupid ties with Santa Clauses on it, are we?"
(Clark) "No, I have one of those at home. What we're looking for today is the "Griswold family Christmas tree."

            Dad got out of the van like a spitfire. It was obvious to all of us just how badly he had to go. He knocked, almost frantically, on the hunter green door until Grandma Bessie answered. He sped past her as the rest of us unloaded. My Mom, my brother Christopher, and my sister Tracey all "jumped" with me from dry into winter, squishing and slipping all the way to indoors. Our feet, and wheels, were much coated with the promise of a white Christmas Day. Grandma smiled, hugging each of us with genuine warmth, as she welcomed our clan into the farmhouse and the cozy heat of a blazing wood stove. Grandpa Fred sat where he normally did, back to the door, table before him. It was Saturday November 30th, 1974 and we had all come hunting for Christmas.
            My grandparents' farm is still located just outside of Wingham, Ontario. Built on an outcropping, just above the Maitland River, this day the farm and surrounding land glistened with mounds of shovelled snow and ice. The hill that led to the river was ripe for my toboggan, but we had been forbidden to bring them with us. The house smelled like wood and coal, a cumulative fragrance from that old stove and the wood heater, which sat fastened to the living room floor and illuminated the area around it with tiny incandescent bits of ash. The room was filled by the soft glow of the pyre within it.
            We had left Toronto earlier that morning, destination the hills surrounding my Dad's hometown. Between the years 1970 - 1975, my father and mother, and the kids,  headed to this small Ontario town on each first weekend of December. We brought presents, goodies and tidings of comfort and much joy. Although I was a little afraid of Grandpa, his stern exterior always intimidating, it was Grandma and the farmhouse that stroked my fancy. As a child, I always felt welcome here. Unlike with my maternal grandparents, my Dad's folks were less intrusive and controlling. The time I spent with both is as fond a memory as anything I can recall. I miss them.
            My older brothers decided not to come with us this visit. They exchanged memories with family for girlfriends and popularity. Needless to say, we came without them. I wonder if they realize now all the special moments of life they missed when they excluded themselves? I know that, for me, I would trade everything for even one lingering thought from these days. Cherished memories are the only real comfort this life can offer.
              When the visit had dragged on, Dad gathered all us children together. Mom bundled us in layers of sweater, scarf and coat, then set us ready for our adventure. She had come with us once before on a hunt, but this time she remained at the farm with my grandparents. The sleigh we used was old and rickety, but strong enough each year to pull the load. Christopher was strapped into place upon it and we all headed out into the snow. We followed the hill down to the river then cut along it until we hit Ed Walker's old place.  Just before Gibbons Line, where Highway 86 crosses the river, at the long gone Zetlin Bridge, we started our pursuit.
            Long before it ever came back in fashion, my family always cut down our very own Christmas tree. Before anyone had used a tree farm, we hunted for a perfect tree of our own. Out into the snow we would travel, looking for the very best. It was wonderful, and cold, walking alongside that sled with my sister. I watched my Dad trudge, all the time balancing my brother on the sleigh. Like the Griswolds' tree from National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, when we found it, it seemed to shimmer with holy light. This year I carried the handsaw, then handing it to my father once we all had agreed that this was the one. In but a moment, it was finished.
            The spruce tree was 8-plus feet tall, full and round without any noticeable flaw. Dad shook the branches, sending snow and needles about the ground so white. He took his saw and began a ritual that I myself have continued when cutting my own tree down. Laying on his belly, he stroked through the trunk until it crackled. It must be one clean cut, straight through, or the base would fracture. Once the deed was done, he would flip the tree into the air, then drop it onto the ground, base up. He then gave it a mighty shake. He cut off any dead branches, leaving the excess bows attached until we got home. With one mighty heave, he then lifted the tree into the air and somehow placed it carefully onto the sled. He then called for Tracey.
            My sister handed him the string of rope she had carried with her since the farm. Dad secured the tree from trunk to tip, leaving only room for Chris, all tucked up in the needles. Gratified in our choice, Dad turned back towards home. We walked and sang Christmas carols, all the while basking in victory from our hunt. The trek back always seemed longer, and colder, then the trek forward, but in good time we found ourselves huddled in front of a fire, drinking hot chocolate and dreaming of Christmas Day.     
            My strongest childhood memories of my father are from our trips to Wingham. Whether to camp in summer shine on the front lawn of the farm or to fish in the dead of winter, I have a lifetime of him to cling to. Since the death of my mother, he has trouble finding his way on occasion. I can only imagine how lonely his travels must now seem. Regardless of time passing, I know he still searches. I suppose in his own way now he is hunting once again. He is hunting for hope, hunting for her and hunting for Christmas.

(Todd Chester) "Hey Griswold. Where do you think you're gonna put a tree that big?"
(Clark) "Bend over and I'll show you."
(Todd Chester) "You've got a lot of nerve talking to me like that Griswold."
(Clark) [looking at Todd's wife, Margo] "I wasn't talking to you."

Christmas Without You

"Christmas without you
White Christmas and I'm blue
Like fireworks with no fuse
Christmas without you
The fireplace keeps burning and my thoughts keep turning
The pages of memories of time spent with you
Old Christmas songs we knew and used to make love to
Make it hard to get used to
Christmas without you"
(Christmas Without You, Dolly Parton, 1984)

            Christmas Eve always held such wonder for me as a child. The anticipation of all those gifts and treats was often more than I could stand. By the time the big day arrived, any religious undertones were mostly lost on me. I revered the good news told in scripture but I was just a kid, so the arrival of Santa and his sleigh got most of my attention. When the true meaning of the Season found a place within me as an adult, I would spend my time in worship and deep reflection. While I still lived at home, as my parents would get ready for midnight services, I would always take myself away from the hustle and bustle of preparation to stand before the Christmas tree. I would bask in the Spirit and contemplate the profound message given to mankind on this most Holy of nights. Up until my 30th Christmas, it had been this way for me.
            When my first partner Doug died in February of 1995, I fell into deep despair. By the time Christmas came around again, I was still very much in grief and sorrow. With the worst year of my life almost behind me, I began the solemn custom I have maintained ever since. My mother seemed to understand my newfound reality, much more than most of the other people in my life. Just before Christmas, that same year, she gave me a wooden Christmas tree to place in the snow and ice before Doug's tombstone. This symbol represented her love for both of us and is a mainstay in what would become my updated Christmas Eve tradition.           
            Just before sunset on December 24th, 1995, I left Strathroy and headed for Doug. The rain and drizzle of the afternoon had changed into flurries by my arrival that evening. The roads were wet and slick as I headed up Highway 7 towards Stratford. The radio station proclaimed it was -4 degrees Celsius, which explained why Jack Frost was dancing across my rear windshield.  Once I hit town, I turned northwest and quickly slowed my pace due to ice and traffic and a rather bumpy railway crossing. West Gore Street is always a little treacherous in the winter. Past the railway, then a quick right onto St. Vincent Street South, and I found myself turning onto Redford Crescent, the street where Doug grew up and the location of his parents Warren and Pauline. I parked beside a snow bank, shivered at the thought and proceeded through the car port, back to the side door and softly knocked.   
            Warren passed away in 2000, but Pauline and I remain very close. Every Christmas Eve, just before my pilgrimage into Avondale Cemetery, I stop by for a festive visit. We exchange small gifts and cards, drink tea and catch up on another year without Doug. She and I have a bond now. I could never have imagined us becoming friends, and most certainly, Doug would never in a million years have guessed the relationship we formed in his absence. I still have every empty box of Rheo Thompson Chocolates, a Stratford tradition, that Pauline has given me for Christmas over the years. Like her, they are a piece of my past that I treasure, and a part of my present I hold to.
            It is always difficult for me to leave Pauline. I want so much to comfort her pain and ease her burden. I can only imagine what losing two people I love, within 5 years of each other, would be like. For over a decade, she has known Christmas without them both. In light of my mother's recent death, I empathize with the heavy weight of her grief, even after all these years. Doug would be happy we have become such good friends. As my time ran out, and once Christmas greetings were exchanged, I scooted out to my car, waved goodbye, and headed for the cemetery.
            When Redford Crescent connects back onto St. Vincent, you turn left, then left again onto Cambria Street. Just past the Stratford Hospital, on your right-hand side, Cambria meets John Street. Darkness was approaching, and it started to get colder as I manoeuvred down a steep hill, over the bridge and past the cast iron gates that bid enter to all who come weary or weak. I turned off my radio in respect, ditched my cigarette and slowly started up the hill inside the entrance.
           The huge cemetery is pretty much divided into three parts. At the John St. entrance, and up the hill, sit the older, more historical stones. At the hilltop, the War Memorial and limestone markers pay tribute to the sacrifice of local veterans long gone.  Turn of the century monuments and Catholic signatures blend with multi-layers of granite, marble and sandstone as the newer area begins. The back end of this resting place stretched out into the country, piggy backed by corn fields and wooded lots.  At the north tip, just off the last road, his headstone sat almost alone.
            The cemetery has greatly increased in the 17 years since Doug's death. I suppose in that there is a testament to life. Memorial walls and more roads reach further into the space than when I first came here. You can see the new Christian School through what used to be a heavily wooded lot. What once was an open space, now bends shadow and light against modern headstones and carved images. It is strange to see the face of the dead, eternalized into place through the wonders of science. In the whisper of twilight time, I found my way and then stopped on the roadside.       
            I trudged through drifts of snow which every year find safe harbour against each cold stone face. I stumbled in mounds of white, almost falling into nothing, all the while my wooden tree and Christmas Card pressed against my chest for safety. The little plaque I made the day before, sat framed in my pocket, the only appropriate gift I could give. On this first Christmas without him, I walked those 50 feet, one leg after another, carrying me on into blue.  
            Once I had patted down the snow around his stone, I placed the Christmas Card behind the heart-shaped rock that I had left here during October. It was now frozen into spot but for a small gap near the top. I cleaned the stone's face, and base, and placed my tiny message on the ledge beneath his name. The Christmas Tree sat pretty, grounded by ice and snow. For a moment I almost felt Christmas. I said my piece and knelt, kissing the brand new monument. I rose and wandered back, step for step, to the car and my life without him.
            I still go to Stratford every Christmas Eve. I still see Pauline first and I still eat those chocolates on my way back home. I still use the wooden tree, that's what it is for, and I still leave a card to mark that I was there. Every year, I unpack that little plaque and place it with care among the other decorations and heirlooms of Christmas. For all the time and distance, this is something that I must do.
            This year, I have purchased a candle and hook, a lantern to carry a brightness into the dark. I intend to plant both Christmas Eve, leaving them to light the way for lost souls and Christmas angels. Although I have journeyed far since that first Christmas Eve alone, I know I will always be connected to that town and that cemetery. Though I have moved past what happened and found new love and new hope, there will always be a part of me that wishes things had been different. Like I whisper to his headstone every Christmas Eve, "It's just not Christmas without you."

"Until one feels the spirit of Christmas, there is no Christmas.
All else is outward display - so much tinsel and decorations.
For it isn't the holly, it isn't the snow.
It isn't the tree, not the firelight's glow.
It's the warmth that comes to the hearts of men
When the Christmas spirit returns again." (Anonymous)


Internet Movie Database
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, 1989

The Old Farmer's Almanac
December 24th, 1995 (Stratford)


Wednesday, December 21, 2011


            My sexuality has always been such a complicated matter for me. From childhood antics to playing Jaws in the pool at 12 with a friend, the homosexual drive has always been with me, a part of me since I can remember. I cannot say the same for the heterosexual drive. It is as foreign to my way of thinking, and instinct, as murder, pedophilia and necromancy. This explains why I get so pissed off with those who declare that my sexual inclinations are a choice I consciously make for myself. As if I decided to be this way. I am not sure what planet these people are from, but on this planet, who the hell would choose such a thing?
            The first girl I ever kissed, outside of family, was Judy Wardell. I really had no interest in her, but she was very useful to me. At 13, my hormones raged and I chased gratification like a rabid hound.  When I found satisfaction, Judy was an easy go-to for alibi and cover. I suppose what I did to her was more than a little manipulative, but at the time I was trying to survive, at any cost. I was driven, but I was also hidden. Hell, I didn’t even know what gay was and 1978 was of little use in educating me.
            I explored this predisposition from a very young age. In Grade 1, I used to pay Greg Cody a dollar to show me his goods. Unfortunately, even then I wouldn't have called them good. In fact, all through my schooling, it was this instinct and compulsion which dictated my "unnatural" actions. In Grade 3, Danny Tomlinson and I broke into the Fenside Arena and ran naked around the rink. It was, of course, all my idea. Although I knew next to nothing of sex or sexual orientation, I constantly gave in to, then battled, the beast within me, always searching for a way to be free. Even Jesus refused to take away my burden, as if the Bible had told Him so.
            I don’t remember why I thought it was bad, or how it was bad, but I knew what I was feeling and thinking and doing was frowned upon by most people, and especially by God. This did little to hinder my clandestine pursuit. It was like, no matter what I did, or prayed, it stayed in me. It refused to leave. When I was young, I didn’t even know what to call it. The more time passed, and the more experiences I had, the stronger it grew. I do not believe this was like some annual growth, with necessary planting each season. This was rooted like the Lily of the Valley, always there beneath the soil. No matter my intentions or how much I cursed them, it always returned, freshened and ready. It took over and strangled me senseless, pushing me to do things I had been instructed were wrong and unacceptable before God.
            In high school, things went from bad to worse. The drive became increasingly uncontrollable, pushing me to reach into dangerous waters. I am aware that the early onset of Bipolar Disorder may have contributed to my heightened libido, but most male teenagers seem to have a predisposition for manic-like sexual impulses anyway. It is built into their nature, after all. Despite having many encounters with classmates, and even strangers, I sought out disguise, using girls I knew to help cover my lifelong proclivity.
            From Judy to her friend Lisa Cillis, I mastered the art of remaining aloof. I even forced myself, with moral restraint, upon Lisa, hoping she would inform those she knew of my begging and pleading. It was all pure bullshit. Roberta Todd and Sherrie Anderton were but mirrors I used to deflect my true reflection. Roberta and I were on a date roller-skating the night we made out in a corner at Wizard's Roller-Rink in London, Ontario. I guess I always had a thing for arenas, carp however has never been my favourite fish. Sherrie was a side note, used to tame Lisa's concerns of me not moving on from her. When I used Jesus as an excuse not to put out, she mocked me among my classmates.
            One of my closest friends in high school was Kathy Sharp. Kathy was a wonderful companion and we danced together long before one was required to do so with a star. I loved her like a sister and our closeness showed on the dance floor. It was the perfect relationship for me, having a girl to dance with, and party with, who wanted nothing from me but my company. We were close friends and moved from dance to dance with skill, a little grace and thrusting moves implying fornication. Kathy and I met through Seekers, a mature youth group hosted by the United Church we both attended. We hit it off immediately, drawn together by our love for great music and dancing dirty. It was the least we could do to entertain. I lost this friend when I defensively told Brian Gregory that Kathy and I "had done it." He spoke to Kathy and she confronted me in private, after which our camaraderie slowly faded into nothing but a few hellos and smiles as we passed each other in the halls of our school. The way I treated Kathy remains a regret for me; I believe we could still be friends had I not thrown her under the bus driven by my denial. She is one of my most favourite things about my high school days and I wish her well. No matter, she spun me right round, baby, right round.   
            My face gets itchy thinking about Sharon Drager. I can still feel the razor burn. I have come to the conclusion that despite our dating for most of my senior year at Strathroy Collegiate Institute, we never should have considered marriage. I'm not sure, but I think, technically, I was engaged for well over that year. I actually thought God liked me again when, after graduation, she started class at Fanshawe College in the city. When she later took a position in Toronto for an apprenticeship, I thought I had been welcomed back into heaven. Off she went to the city, and off I went to the bars.
            It did not take long for Sharon to meet someone else in the Mega-City, and it took less time for him to confront me about my sexuality. In light of little consequence, I came clean. While dining out together along the concourse beneath downtown TO, the confrontation turned into confession. Sharon was shocked and obviously hurt by this revelation. I will admit that, in hindsight, she may have been a little Cleopatra, the queen of denial. Regardless, as I walked away from that restaurant booth that day, I also walked away from someone I cared for deeply. I never saw Sharon again and I am not sure I would want to. I may be sorry for the lies and all the hurt, but it was never my intention to cause harm or foul, regardless of what she may think.
            I came to know Sharlet Mailer during my tenure at Calvary Pentecostal. I was almost 18 the first time we met. Sharlet married young and had two boys at the time. She seemed happy with her lot in life and I became fast friends with her and her husband. I got along well with her boys and Sharlet's family, as well. As our relationship grew, Sharlet and I developed "inappropriate" feelings for each other. My intentions were merely emotional, nothing ever happened. That does not mean she did not try for more, with adulterous intent and complete failure. Still, if any woman on this planet was "the one" for me, I would have to say it would have been Sharlet.
            When she left her husband and showed up at the small apartment I rented in downtown Strathroy, I let her sleep over, in spite of much reservation on my part. By the time the night was over, I had outed myself, lost a friend and laid the foundation for my removal from the evangelical youth group and the Pentecostal Church. With high school long behind me and a good job until university, this too held little consequence. The one thing I wish had been different was me. It is not that I think I could have handled it any better than I did, it was not a tough decision to make.  It was the obvious fracture in our relationship and my inability to give her the happiness she deserved.
            Although we remained in contact for many years, it was never really the same again. I used to drop by to see her at work, we went for coffee, and we even made plans to get together sometimes. She was there when my first partner died, although in a limited capacity. I guess, eventually, any true regard we felt for each other was lost to time and her second marriage. When she gave birth to a little girl, it was pretty much over. I haven't heard from her since.
            Joanne Circelli knew I was gay from the first day we met at the coffee shop near where I worked in London. I told her without hesitation. She was a hairdresser around the corner from Victoria Hospital, where I was employed at the time. I worked on the campus at St. Luke's Chapel as a daycare worker. Needless to say, 1986 was a very strange year.
            Joe was a large Italian girl with a warm heart and big ass. It was kismet, her and I. When I knew her, I had started to explore my sexuality in a more mature capacity, leaving arenas and dark parks behind me. Through her, I discovered the joy that can be found when meeting strangers, strangers who could have cared less what I was. Joanne accepted me without question, and over the months of our time together, we became the best of friends. In fact, we started telling people we were dating just to get them off our backs. Our Italian connection proved greater than mere ethnicity, as the pressure to marry and procreate grew in each of our lives. My parents never, ever confined me to a gender role, but I most certainly confined myself. Joe was less lucky, restricted in almost everything by her controlling parents, at least until she wed.
            When she asked me to marry her so she could get her trust fund, the promise of a new car sealed the deal. She tangled herself quite nicely into my life. My family loved her. She was great with everyone. Like with all great pseudo-loves, someone always stirs the pot. For Joanne, it was her future husband. I was shocked at how disposable I became once he entered the picture. I was shocked, but not really surprised. I had witnessed such casual disregard by my own hand, so condemning her for that which I had done myself seemed repugnant.
            You have to give me credit. The entire time I was exploring my homosexuality, I kept on trying to be what God, and everyone else apparently, wanted me to be. During my friendship with Joanne, I even convinced my cousin Lisa I was a breeder through and through. The recipe was hot, hot and hotter! If you take one part drunken fool, mix it with two parts (if you know what I mean) blond mutual friend, and a twist of a 1980s dance bar, you get one undercover muther. I have never kissed anyone like I kissed Wendy that night. After this lip session, there was never any question were I stood. Or what part of me did not. As if there was ever any doubt.
            After she married, Joanne moved out east, or so I was told. She popped out a few kids like good Italian girls do. Her blond friend disappeared when Joe did. I went on denying, hiding and manipulating. When I started the Radio Broadcasting program at Fanshawe College in the fall of 1987, I began the final phase of my identity crisis. When Katherine entered the picture, I knew I had a problem. Ms. Barr was a casual friend for the longest time, but when my "masculinity" fell into poor repute, old habits had not died hard. Once again, I used someone in an attempt to hide who I really was. I know how deeply she cared for me, and I know how hurt she was when I met my first partner Doug. I dumped her later in the same week. I would have said I was sorry, but I guess love had a mind of its own.
            Once Doug was in the picture, my relationships with women changed. Although I did not come out to my family or friends until after his death, when I was almost 30, I never used a woman as a cover for my sexuality again. Not outside pure jest, at any rate. Still, it wasn't easy for me to come out, ever. After all those years, and all my secret men, I still wished I had been born "normal". Doug and I worked so well together because we both wished the same thing for each other. We both despised being gay and cursed the affliction for the entire time we were partners. It is ironic that the camouflage I had used to hide behind for all those years with women, was now out in the open, clearly visible and whiskered all over his face.
            You can make sweeping claims about sexuality, pigeonholing God and genetics into tools for your own purpose, but you can never disregard the similar experiences that most gay people have throughout their entire lives. The first time I saw a penis was a costly thing. The dollar I paid out for gratification when I was 6 was my allowance for the whole week. I was driven by my curiosity and nature, not by the devil or because of a choice made in my young mind. This is why being gay isn't who I am, it is what I am. It is what I have always been. People who claim homosexuality is that choice, need to examine the lives of almost every gay, lesbian and transgendered person on this planet. While Pride and a shift in society have almost eliminated the need to hide, homosexuality is still a difficult, and often, crippling identity. Who would choose to be treated like shit their entire life?
            It is easy for someone outside these experiences to claim we make them up or were taught to be so. We do not choose this hard path. When it comes right down to it, it would be easier if everyone, or at least me, was straight. This just is not so. Sorry girls, I'm gay.
"Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind." (Dr. Seuss, American cartoonist)


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Waiting for God

"The gods conceal from men the happiness of death, that they may endure life." (Lucan, Roman Poet, c. 39 - 65 CE)

             I had been trying to get the fuck off this planet since I was 17 years old. It is clear to me now that this was something at which I did not excel. Originally, my intention was always cessation of life, but as the years passed, I stopped trying to leave and instead sit waiting to go. Don't get me wrong, I love being alive. I am more than happy to remain here, at this point anyway. It doesn't hurt that I have a good life, a reason to remain so I can face all the bullshit that comes with living. I am resolved that my time will one day come, soon enough, so I am no longer in a rush to cross into eternity.
            After everything I have been through, you can bet I take the time to stop and smell the roses. Each day is a wonder for me now. I could never have imagined that I would one day feel this way. Still, it is beyond me as to why and how wanting to exit turned into choosing to stay. Perhaps it is because I have been to the Light, a second chance given, that I only needed one warning. Perhaps it is because I see the world differently, only a glimmer of what is to come, that I appreciate what this reality can offer me now.
            While the more things have changed, the more they seem to have stayed the same, sort of. Despite no longer trying my best to escape, there is this part of me that longs for my final solution. I am not afraid, not that I ever was. All the people who have gone before me seem to indicate, through dream, that it's okay for me to feel this way. They call to me in silence, ever assuring me that they wait in His brightness and that peace is for all. I guess I need to hold on, a little while longer. This has done little to quench the yearning I feel deep inside me to move towards the mystery in the Light.
            Gone are the days when I was young and free, a future I could not see. Gone are the days of recklessness, a disposable me. They are what I relied on and leaned on. It's an unexplainable thing for me to bear witness that it can be like this; standing in my place, more than willing to remain and glad for it. Life, apparently, is worth the living.
            It's not just that I miss the many who have gone before me. I realize all reunions will eventually come with time. With all due respect, I could care less if I see Jesus and get to bow at His throne. It has never occurred to me, up to now at any rate, that I will spend eternity with the likes of Mozart, Newton and even Princess Diana. I cannot explain it as it truly stands, but I have a hunger and longing within that surpasses my survival instinct to stay. I am drawn in more and more. I want to know. It sucks that dying is the only way.
            Sometimes I wonder if it's the pills that brought me to this place. My special friends, that have taken away the confusion, may be the reason I no longer self-destruct as I once did. Perhaps I just got tired of trying to die and started living. The rest seems to have followed in kind.

'I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand -
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep - while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?'
(Dream With A Dream, Edgar Allen Poe)

            I was methodical in my intent. My plan was simple. I went to the liquor store the day before and bought that intent with some pocket change and a smile. I stored it back behind the flour mill that he jumped from just weeks before. On the outside, Sunday March 12th, 1995 may have been a cold and sunny afternoon, but inside, one month to the day was enough for me. I figured if I drank enough tequila, I could muster myself up the side of that silo and fall into completion for once and for all.
            I sat on at the abandoned railway hut, kicking wood and stones and thinking. I wanted things to cease, so clearly, but something inside me told me no. I had no treatment, no pharmaceutical solution to lead me away into safety. As I stared at the monolith, trying to convince myself to finally end it all, I cracked open the bottle and started my anticipated descent. 
            The first few gulps went down like fire, burning the back of my throat and sending rapid shivers to my system. The rest was smooth and seemed to find its pose among the sadness and abandon which had brought me to this place. The drink made me dizzy and I stumbled to my feet when it had crossed the finished line. I have always had a glass stomach when it came to fiends such as this, so it was of little surprise when I projected my helper out onto the steel rails and broken ties. Regardless, the buzz did what it was supposed to do and I walked towards my point of entry. 
            The pile of snow he had used to jump the fence was blackened and smaller, a victim of an early spring and warmer season. I could not mimic his entrance, after all. I walked about looking for a discreet way inside, trying to hide in plain site. I felt like a demon, trying to fly like an angel. I was standing in the darkness while crying out for light. The light did not come.
            All about the dead zone I wandered, aimless and bewildered to the point of forsaking my purpose in all this. I wanted so badly to end it all, but the voices of all those people I loved called out to me, not in vain. I couldn't just do what he had done. I could not do this to my mother or my father or even my cats. As much as I was ready, I just couldn't. I felt like a failure, unable to rely on myself to act when I needed it the most.
            In my inebriation, I fumbled about all the way home. I went inside, down to my room and I threw myself onto my bed. When the crying stopped, when the liquor lessened, I laid there trying to catch my breath. I realized that my only way out would require waiting for God to do it. It seemed my only option. I just couldn’t live with myself knowing I had just killed myself.

"Live or die, but don't poison everything.”
 (Anne Sexton, American Poet)

            You learn to eat the pain. You end up taking each day for what is and hoping for a better tomorrow. You want to let go of it even while you hold on. Slowly but surely, you begin to breathe again. Although nothing can compare to the want and the need, both are lost to hope and to all this trying to get on with it. The part of you that was before you got here becomes the part of you that ends up helping you stay. Damn the reasons and damn the rhyme, one day you wake up and the world is good again.
            You may not be able to forget what it meant to stand on the ledge, but you no longer want to jump. Instead of waiting to die, you go on waiting for God to come and get you. You know He will someday and that ends up being enough to hold on to. You begin to face all of your tomorrows, even when you have lost yesterday. Eventually, you stop waiting to escape and the part of you that craved reunion starts taking the world for what it is. The life within you, that has always been with you, could never flourish through the botheration and pain, but now, it blooms for all to see. The way things were no longer seem real, so foreign to what you have become.
            It's like when you wake up from a dream, yet the way you felt within the dream lingers. Rest assured, this too will fade. Suddenly, all the time in the world has passed you by and you can’t help but wonder where it all went. You remember how it meant nothing once, but now it means more than you could ever express. Instead of waiting, you start living, more and more, further past the past from your journey. The part of you that always was thrives again, better for the hurt, better for the anger and better for the chance. You become who you were meant to be, that still, small voice that has always been with you leading the way.
            One day, it finally hits you and you find yourself wanting to live. In spite of yourself, you stop trying and you start doing. You stop regretting and you start learning. Waiting for God changes into God waiting for you.  

"After your death you will be what you were before your birth.”
(Arthur Schopenhauer, German philosopher)


Thursday, December 8, 2011

Loose Change

            My first partner Douglas joined the 27 Club on February 12th, 1995. Unlike Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin or even Amy Winehouse, Doug's death was met with no fanfare, limited tribute and little recognition by comparison. Like Kurt and Janis and Amy, Doug died for little reason, leaving many unanswered questions and much speculation. From the long list of lost souls who died at this age, one would imagine there must be some meaning, something tangible we can hold onto which may help us understand. Perhaps crossing the bridge from reckless youth into adulthood, during the 27th year of life, proves too much for some and marks destiny for others. Either way, it's all just such a waste.
            It has been a long time since I last saw Doug alive. He was sleeping soundly on our bed, immune to my preparation; then I kissed him goodbye and left for Toronto. He had that entire weekend alone to plan the deed. The very last time I saw him, I witnessed what effect nature can have on a human being. His attempt to defy a no fly zone stands alone as a demonstration to the law of gravity. Once he landed, his form forever froze from the winter night which bid him much ado about nothing.     
            Almost 17 years later, already, and the effect of such an action still lingers about me. I do not mean to suggest that I object to the memory of my first romantic love or even the circumstance by which he left me. The entire chapter is a huge part of my life. Through it, I am constantly reminded of the hopelessness this life can bring. Doug is representational for me; an endless footnote on pages from the book of my life. He will always stand for the consequence of giving up, an admonishment that it only takes one jump to put you over, but it only takes one leap to end it all. His lesson is my lesson and I am better for having known him, both in life and after his death.
            It matters little the amount of time that passes. You can spend much effort trying to forget and go on, to no avail. While I have moved past what happened, I have never forgotten. I am constantly aware of my responsibilities to Doug, and through Doug, to others. It is my duty to share his story, and mine, in the hope that even one tortured spirit would consider life instead of oblivion. Some people change the world, some people change themselves, and some people provoke a change in others, even through proxy.
            When what is became what was, I just about went out of my mind. Getting used to the death of a loved one is no easy feat. After Doug was buried, I made every attempt to get to the cemetery on a daily basis. As weeks became months, I made the 100-plus kilometre journey from Strathroy to Stratford weekly. As months turned to years and years to a decade, I never let him go. As the passing of a second decade looms in the not so distant future, I still pilgrimage to his stone on a monthly basis. Nothing, not even death, has been able to keep me from him.      
            Memories of old love can haunt you. I have faithfully cared for his tombstone, and the gardens I built above him, since day one. Some may believe it's easier when you shut pain out and turn from it, but I could not walk away. Each visit is my way of saying I remember, that I still think of him and wish he was here. I may have found new love and lost others dear to me since then, but Doug's place in my heart will always remain strong. I suppose I am loyal even after the true death.
             You pick yourself up, with the help of time, and you choose to carry on. You really only have one other choice. In spite of my suicide attempt after his funeral, I did just that. I did not continue to give in to the reckless abandon that so many surrender to after such a crisis. I would be lying if I did not plead guilty to false hopes and tender promises. Like with the death of my mother, I strive to continue our relationship regardless of the one-sided limitation. I estimate that one day I will stand before all those who went before me, accountable for the way I regarded them and the way I represented them. It has been my honour in helping them live again, even if only in the words of a fool or a song from my soul.
            It is not difficult to turn yourself off from the lessons your life has forced upon you. I imagine it may even be easier to deny, disregard and ditch the pain altogether. After all these years, this lifetime that has passed, and I still feel him. He is in my memory, in my hopes and part of my being. I may put on a strong face, but I'm dying inside and it's all I can do to just hold my breath.

"It only hurts when I'm breathing
My heart only breaks when it's beating
My dreams only die when I'm dreaming
So, I hold my breath - to forget
It only hurts when I breathe"
(It Only Hurts When I'm Breathing, Shania Twain, 2002)

            The first time I walked into Avondale Cemetery was on December 31st, 1989. With less than 15 minutes before the New Year, I stood with Doug near the Avondale St. entrance, looking for his dead. We had started our evening at Woody's, a popular bar in downtown Stratford. Despite partying with friends and relations, we managed to end up knee-deep in snow, searching for anyone Doug may have known throughout his life.
            We moved from marker to marker as he pointed out his relationship with each of the deceased. Luckily for my toes, we did not need to walk about all of the enormous cemetery, located adjacent to the Stratford Hospital. The night was crisp and clear and darkened the already gloomy place of rest. A quick blast of frost skipped billows of white across the snow-packed roadway, covering the ground with a new blanket of ice and snow, so beautiful in the moonlit night. As we journeyed to and fro among the granite and marble blocks, I couldn’t help but wonder how he could remember, in such detail, all these people and all their stories. It was wonderful to watch his shadow move among such a thing, a tatterdemalion, shifting into twilight and torn by the wind.
            At the time, I had been exposed to death in a limited capacity, but in no way had I experienced it on they same level as it appeared Doug had. Each story he told, each person he reflected upon seemed alive in his telling. I had no idea how or why he seemed energetic in his sharing, but the experience revealed his true capacity for compassion and empathy. As we travelled down his memory lane, he touched on family and friends and casual acquaintances. It was as if he was a testament to each one, a lingering channel for their lives and their expression. It was the strangest yet most poignant New Year's Eve I have ever experienced.
            They next time I stood in that graveyard was on the day of his burial, February 18th, 1995. I had lost my great-grandfather as a child, and my paternal grandfather a few years earlier, and knew a few people who had passed away, but I had never had death hit so close to home. Standing there in my only suit, the wind whipping against me, I felt true defeat. I did not know where I was going and had only my instincts to carry me through. I stood surrounded by both our families, and many of our friends, but I might as well have been all alone; mere steps away from everyone yet separate in my grief. With his coffin only a few inches from me and the remnants of his life, so lived, circling as faces from a crowd, all I could think of was the last time I graced this cemetery. Although fate managed to keep us away from this spot on that New Year's Eve, I couldn't help but think on the manner with which he held those long gone in such regard. All those people, lost to nature, now welcoming him home and thanking him for his efforts.
            I had asked him several times after our previous visit, in the hope of understanding, why he collected all the dead like baseball cards or comic books. At the time, this was such a foreign behaviour to me. In the darkness of that cold, crisp night he answered quite clearly. "Dead people are like loose change," he said. "They sit in your pocket and you forget all about them while we live out our lives. Sometimes they jingle, reminding us that they are always with us and there for us to cash in on."
            Doug was right. Our dead are a personal collection, with much value; their lives a lesson we must testify to. My mother, Doug, my maternal great-grandfather, my maternal great-grandmother, both sets of grandparents, my aunt Joyce, her son Randy, my brother Phillip's first wife Lorraine, my cousin Lisa's husband Darren, Doug's paternal grandfather, Doug's father, our longtime family friend Woody Hall, Aunt Elise, Uncle Stew and Edna Grey, all these, and more, dangle in my pocket, clinking louder as I go. It has gotten so that my accumulation requires a second storage area, a separate pocket to even out all the weight.
            Only 22 years after that late December night, and my assemblage far outweighs Doug's. I figure by the time I meet my maker, I'll wear my pants around my ankles from all the heavy. Perhaps there is a purpose in all this weight, a blessing in disguise. At least when I cross over, I won't be there alone, and if there is a toll to get into heaven, it’s a good thing I'll have plenty of loose change.


Avondale Cemetery
Stratford Ontario