Friday, 19 October 2012

Five Months, Two Days: The Unread Poem

I have taken a little hiatus from writing these last two weeks.  Writing comes easily to me normally, but I find my head has to be in the right space. There is a certain spirit that needs to be with me when I compose these journal entries and that spirit has just abandoned me.  Maybe Calista, my muse, is off whispering to somebody else just now. Somebody with greater need or perhaps more deserving of her inspiration.

Watching her with a telephoto in Waterton

I have tried to keep things on the upside lately; tales of her youth and perhaps some amusing stories of my well meaning but sometimes bumbling efforts at parenthood. It's tough though; I might be giving people the impression that Roni and I are well on our way to healing. We're not. We are just returning to our daily lives because we have no other choice.  Clients still need my help, payday still falls every fifteen days, bills still come in the mail every single day.  The world continues to turn and Roni and I remain attached to it, regardless of our wishes.

Roni cries for long periods every single day, but the tears are a little different than they were first off. The sorrow has taken on a certain sense of permanence now. Gone are the breathless. exhausting crying jags that leave her empty and nauseated lying on our bed. These waves have been replaced by a subtle, red-eyed tearing that can be maintained with only short breaks while she visits with friends, staff or clients. On the other hand, I still get caught with waves of sorrow periodically, but really I am for the most part just one angry, old man left without any foreseeable personal future.  I see either conspiracy or apathy at every turn when, truthfully, I know what I am really seeing is life moving on for everybody else.  As I really hope it will for everyone Calista's death has scarred.

Outside my grandfather's home in Vancouver. Not sure who lives
there now. It was just her and me coming home that year.

Years ago I enjoyed a movie called "Interview With a Vampire", one of the few Hollywood efforts that surpassed the mediocre novel upon which it was based. Brad Pitt plays a young vampire damned by his own existence, lost in sorrow at the dual loss of his young family and his own humanity. The antagonist/ villain of the story is the Vampire Lestat who "turns" his young victim simply to regain some sense of his own, long lost mortality.  He wants a bridge to the  ever-changing modern world.

The term "bridge" is used by our grief counsellor for things that help Roni and I find some link to our dead daughter. Her pictures, her car, her room and it's myriad of possessions, and our tenuous relationship with her friends both near and distant. The "undead" vampire needed a bridge to the living while we, the living, need a bridge to the dead. One bridge was just fiction while our bridge is completely unrealistic.  We can cross all the bridges we want and Roni and I will never find Calista waiting  for us at the far end.  The sad thing is that we basically understand that...but we keep on trying anyways.

The heroic Dalton who took point home in Regina
when she died. At barely 19 he had to break the
news to all her old friends. That's maturity.They
were in costume for a play about the Holocaust.

The "unread poem", of which the only first stanza is reproduced above, remains my stumbling block. I just cannot read beyond that very first stanza. For the sake of this journal entry, I actually covered over the rest of the poem with a sheet of foolscap whilst I scanned the document into my computer. It's very sad; the person that sent Roni and I that poem was a wonderful friend and only meant to support us in our loss, but that little poem is a bridge too far for me. Thankfully, Roni loves the poem and it has taken a place of honour in her memorial box where she keeps the cards and letters sent to us over the last five horrid months. The box itself is a work of art; my brother designed, built and decorated the box himself. He finished the unique piece by writing a long, rambling letter to my broken wife on the inside walls of the box. The box itself is a letter surrounding cards and letters.  Typical of my brother (and, I guess, myself) he felt a need to create beauty in the face of ugly loss.

That poem touches me where it hurts the most. Calista, as we all must, passed into great void beyond alone, unguided, without Roni and I to stand beside or, even better, in front of her as we always have. We spent her entire lifetime going point for her, protecting her, gathering her up into our arms when she faltered, wiping her tears when they fell.  On May 17th, the one time she really needed us, we weren't there. We didn't even know she was gone until hours after her death. There was no prescient inkling, no dark cloud over our head or cold chill up our backs; May 17th was just a beautiful sunny spring day filled with potential. How could our daughter die without us having some suspicion that the one person we absolutely treasured in this world had died without so much as a nod and a wave goodbye? 

Friends: treasure every single one: you may need all of them


I'm not a religious man, though I appreciate the prayer for my girl. It's the imagery of the word "bewildered" that cuts me; Calista standing alone, lost in the great unknown without me there to back her up.  That was always the understanding we had: Dad would always be there and in her corner no matter what.  Certainly there were times that she and I butted heads, but by mutual agreement we followed the military code: always praise in public and criticise in private. In the public eye, regardless of what Calista might have done, Roni and I were always her champions. And the devil take anyone that crossed us.

Just like her, I am just fooling around here. It has nothing to
do with the journal entry. It's just for fun
My stalwart defence of Calista started before she was born actually. In Whitehorse the selection for doctors was always pretty slim; you could choose between the hippy-dude wearing leather sandals and wrinkled grey woolly socks or the hippy-dudette wearing  leather sandals and wrinkled black socks. The doctors would remove the socks if the temperature outside was anything above freezing, but the worn neutral-colour cargo pants were a standard part of the uniform. Our regular GP was an agreeable older man who had an easy, comfortable relationship with my Roni, but he did not do obstetrics, so the moment Roni was diagnosed as pregnant, he referred us to one of the younger female practitioners that seem to cycle through Whitehorse on a semi-annual basis. It was not a good fit to say the least. Putting those two women in a small exam room together was just asking for a fight, and, unfortunately, I had to attend most of the pre-natal check-ups. Which put me in the middle of the war-zone.

The turning point of the relationship between Roni and Ms. Doctor came over circumcision, of all the stupid things.  Those two argued for a full ten minutes over "to circumcise" or "not to circumcise" (kind of like Hamlet discussing a Bris) with  no discernible compromise appearing whatsoever.  Ms. Doctor was firmly against, but had some of the most daft arguments any woman could come up with.  The best moment came when she started telling me that boys that are circumcised are made fun of in the showers after phys-ed class.  By this point I was laughing more than a little (not endearing myself to the doctor at all) and I finally, between chuckles, had to tell the poor woman that boys do not under any circumstances comment on another boy's equipment while standing together naked in the shower. In my day that was not something you did safely and I doubt things have changed much now. Anyway, my humour about the situation seemed to just inflame the antagonism between Roni and the doctor and the argument started to get out of control.  I finally lost my temper and finished the combat for both of them by slapping my hand on the table and pointing out to them that none of us had any idea if the baby was a girl or a boy, so we hardly needed to make any decisions about circumcision that day. We had over 4 months to get details like that ironed out. Silence followed my outburst and things were glorious for a moment or two.  And then we started the discussion about breast feeding.  A new set of war trenches were excavated and grenades started flying immediately.  Thank goodness time ran out for the pre-natal examination.

JT, soon to be a famous dancer, and her, immortalized in Rome

A cease-fire eventually was called between the two combatants, at least until the day Calista was born. Anywhere else in the world the good doctor would have referred us to someone else just to be shut of my wife, but this was Whitehorse and, as I said, the pickings for MD's were pretty slim.

Roni has proved herself far tougher than she appears over and over again. In this case, Roni managed to sleep through the majority of her labour and then waited until the contractions were coming every three or four minutes before waking me up at 5:30 am. Typical of me, I told her to go back to sleep because it was too early both in gestation and time of day (I like my sleep).  According to the good doctor we had nearly a month to go before that baby was to grace us with its presence. Roni begged to differ and forced me to get her to the hospital right now.  I grumbled about having to be at work by 7:30 and how it had to be all a mistake.  That was pretty much the doctor's take on things too when we called her from the hospital (and woke her up at 7:30 am). Thank goodness for firm and forceful maternity nurses.

Our doctor, sure that my pretty and pampered wife was just being a drama-queen, arrived in a whirlwind of dissatisfaction. She performed one of the briefest, superficial examinations in the history of obstetrics and was prepared to discharge my petite wife without further ado (and please don't let the door hit your ass on the way out!!). It was only the solidly built nurse standing in the doorway insisting on a full pelvic examination that stopped our rapid retreat from the obstetrics ward. The doctor sighed, grumbled and shrugged, obviously put out that the nurse was slowing up her trip to the cafeteria for breakfast, but then gave in and acquiesced to the nurse's demands. Ms. Doctor came away from that exam with a look of wonder on her face and new respect for Roni; my wife had managed to sleep through almost all of her labour and was actually nearly fully dilated by 8 am. If we had left the hospital I would have been able to deliver my own daughter, probably on the floor of the veterinary clinic. It might have served me better in the end.

Again, caught through the long-lens from the parking lot
I was always nearby.
I have all the respect in the world for the pain tolerance of women; they can withstand things that a normal man would soil his pants over. On the other hand, there are limits to toughness and a full episiotomy with a pair of large Mayo scissors and no anaesthetic is about ten steps beyond what Roni can tolerate. I was sitting dutifully next to her bed alternating holding her hand with first my left and then my right as her steely grip crushed the circulation out of my fingers.  I had been told to just keep my mouth shut after I had told her that it was "a little late for second thoughts" earlier in the process, so holding hands silently was my safest option. I wish the doctor had given us some warning about what she was about to do; I think my pinkie finger on my right hand sustained a green stick fracture as the doctor performed the episiotomy. Personally, I still believe the major reason Roni and I never had any other children is the grudge Roni holds to this day over that unannounced surgical procedure.  I still think the doctor was just in a hurry to get her morning cup of java and wanted to be shut of this young, outspoken woman.

I would love to say we were finally finished with Ms. Doctor, but life is never quite that simple, is it? Roni and Calista were discharged from the hospital about eight hours later and neither of us had a faint clue about raising children. I had never had any interest in babies and had managed to avoid everything to do with them up to that point. Roni had done a wee bit of babysitting, but there is a world of difference between babysitting toddlers and caring for newborns. Calista, quite frankly, is lucky to have survived the first 24 hours with us. Her first feeding at home she managed to snort a mouthful of milk up her nose, spraying it out into her mother's face and then crying like a banshee at the resulting nasal irritation. Who would think that simple baby's milk could be so inflammatory? Her nose was instantaneously stuffed shut and she was miserable immediately.

Roni and I had to take turns with a crying newborn all night. She couldn't breath through her nose, she couldn't feed and breath through her mouth at the same time, and feeding then, as always, was a priority for Calista. By 5 am Roni was an exhausted, teary-eyed mess, sure she had killed her baby on the first day, and I was beyond tired and ready to chew the ass off the first person who crossed me. Unfortunately that person happened to be our old friend Ms. Doctor.  We called emergency and told them our problem; the nurse on the phone told us just to flush her nose with some isotonic saline.  That seemed a little rough to us; our baby was already having nose issues and they thought I should just shoot some more crap up her little nasal passages.  I finally decided to take control of the situation; I told the nurse we were on our way in with a newborn and I didn't really care what time in the morning it was.

Ten minutes later, at minus 40 degrees Celsius outside and with a really hungry and angry baby Calista,  the entire Yukon branch of the Fleming family arrived at Whitehorse emergency.  I'm not sure what the emergency is like now, but back then it was a series of open cubicles with such limited privacy that by the end of my visit that day I both knew how to treat alcoholics suffering from detox seizures and the opinion of the duty nurse of said absolute detail.  It was hard to respect that nurse ever again when she visited my clinic with any of her pets.  Thankfully we were taken under the wing of another quieter and more professional nurse who tried to help us with some timely advice and a small nasal suction unit.  Unfortunately by that time I had lost all sense of reasonable public behaviour for a young professional and I started firmly demanding that the doctor be called down.  I was told that there was no need for a doctor, that we had a fairly common problem that a simple squirt of saline and some suction would solve. The nurse defended the doctor saying how hard she worked and how challenging the weekly night on-call was for these young residents.

Poised but posed on the top of Mt. Washington
Crying about the agony of emergency on-call to a veterinarian is kind of like telling a fireman that flames might burn him.  I was not particularly sympathetic. In fact I think I said something about what might happen if a doctor did not examine my newborn baby within the next five minutes. Roni, by this time, had become quite silent, realising that I was about to go volcanic and only the timely appearance of a doctor was going to avoid the eruption.  Sure enough, a very short phone call to the doctor's suite up on the top floor brought down the resident on-call. It was our good friend Ms. Dr., properly arrayed in hideous green hospital scrubs and the obligatory sox with sandals.  She was not happy in the least; in fact she was really quite upset at being rousted out of bed at 5:30 am. She tried to give me a hard time about it, but within the first minute of her lecture to me, she realised that her best strategy was to speak quickly, fix the darn baby and get the hell out of the emergency ward before things got really ugly.  That pretty much set the standard for the rest of Calista's life: cross my daughter for any reason and you are walking on thin, rotting Spring-ice that is ready to crack and dump you in the foul early run-off.  Anyone crossing my girl very quickly became "unforgiven" and the target of my most vile verbal abuse.

Calista came home that day and spent the next month sleeping in a laundry basket next to my side of the bed. It was not that I did not trust Roni (believe me, you would be mistaken if you ever suggested Roni was not 100% mommy at all times), it's that I am a very light sleeper. The faintest whisper will awaken me; it's a side effect of years of packing a damn pager. That month of responding to Calista's every midnight whim bonded us for life. I never could ignore that girl.

Roni and I discussed philosophy last night. Actually, to be more exact, I discussed while she cried. We were out at our favourite restaurant because the cupboards and fridge at home were once again barren (that happens a lot these days since we only shop for ourselves now and we really don't care much about eating). We just fell into our old habit of the last 20 years; we talked about our daughter.  Of course there was a few laughs and a sprinkle of tears, but nothing too personal to be done in public. Then my mind started wondering about life, death and life after death.  I have been reading again.

Surrounded by friends. Hopefully she will find new friends
wherever she is now. None of her old friends should join her for
at least 60 years...understood?
Roni asked me to read this little paperback called "Heaven Is For Real", which is a autobiography of a Midwest Baptist pastor and his experience with his young son's near death experience (NDE). The book is very heavily flavoured by his Christian ideals and is more of a call to join his church than it is a testament to his son's experience.  In the book his son comes close to dying due to a ruptured appendix and during those few moments where the boy walked that thin grey line between this world and the next he experienced what can be described as a "typical" near death experience. And yes, there are such things as "typical" NDEs.

NDEs are relatively common and actually well documented. While each survivor of an NDE has their own interpretation of what they saw, heard and felt while walking in that near-death limbo, there is are some common elements to nearly all the testaments. The victim of a NDE usually starts his trip with an out-of-body experience where their "soul" hovers above their body, seeing and hearing everything that is going on around them. Their "soul" may overhear real conversations they could not be privy to, they may even leave the immediate area and observe activity in adjacent rooms. Blind people see, deaf people hear and wheel-chair bound paralytics can walk again. Inexplicable, yes, but still reported on a routine basis.

If the NDE extends longer, the victims describe being drawn through a dark place or tunnel toward a bright beautiful light. They typically are filled with a sense of peace and overwhelming, unconditional love.  Once the NDE survivor enters the "bright light" they may be greeted by dead relatives and apparently Divine spirits. They may hear beautiful music and see wondrous colours. In fact, the typical NDE experience really does sound like the standard Christian description of heaven; one has to wonder if the original biblical descriptions of heaven did not originate with some ancient NDE survivor. Of course, you could turn this around and suggest that the heavenly interpretation of the NDE experience is just the survivor interpreting his experience through his own cultural and religious beliefs.

The young boy discussed in "Heaven Is For Real" pretty much goes through all the above stages before he is pulled back to his hospital bed by timely and excellent medical care. He describes seeing his parents crying and praying, he describes seeing the doctor sweating over his prone body on the surgical table and then he goes on to describe a truly heavenly experience. He meets his long dead grandfather and sits on the lap of Jesus Christ, he meets a series of angels, all sporting wings and white robes and he tells how everyone has halos in a land of bright colours and lights.  His father, the author, just cannot imagine where these images spring from unless they are the absolute truth: heaven is all about clouds, colours and music and everyone has wings, robes and halos.  Of course, the author ignores the fact that his son was raised in an evangelist Christian household and was entertained from illustrated bible primers since he was in the cradle. The boy's imagery of heaven could be pulled directly out of any of the bible-story books I was exposed to back when my mother was still sure I could "be saved", including a Caucasian Jesus surrounded by Northern European angels. 

My point, whether you believe NDEs are real or are just the random ignitions of a dying brain, is that everyone has their own version of "the afterlife". Christians may believe in a massive toga party where everyone flaps their wings to the beat of a angelic jazz band. Re-incarnationists might just see more of this Earth, but better or worse depending on how you conducted your present life, while the Muslims dream of a heavenly garden with geometric water channels.  Personally, I think they are all wrong and I think we all need to change our approach to both this world and the next if we want to be happy with our own lives.

Just a little Mom n' Pop clinic with
my girl working the desk.

My heaven is last year. My heaven includes my quiet little Mom n' Pop business where my wife does the books and my beautiful daughter works at the desk.  In my heaven I will have a meaningful job and my family will work with me, exchanging playful teasing and generally just enjoying each others company. My daughter will be planning an exciting career with her own adventures that she will share with us on frequent trips home. There will be future trips to the big city and my wife and daughter will have a real budget that will challenge them to find good deals (and enjoy getting those bargains). There will be holidays and rewarding work days, progress and accomplishment, plans for the future and memories of the past. In fact, my heaven is pretty much what I had last year...and I did not appreciate what I had. So very few of us appreciate and treasure what we have now until we lose it.  We are so busy having an ambitious future that we fail to appreciate our wonderful present.

I would trade a hundred years of ambitious futures for just a few more years exactly like last year. I would give anything to have my Roni and Calista, living in my little bungalow on the big hill, commuting to my small family business in the quiet little village on the edge of the deep, dark forest.  You can keep your heaven, whatever your vision of heaven may be; I just want my past.

A colleague said to me last night that none of us need fear hell because "this is hell", as in this existence, this world.  I heard what she was saying, but I don't agree. This world, our present world, is whatever we make of it. It can be both heaven or hell, depending on how you approach life. If you don't like how things are turning out, then change them until you find your heaven on Earth. And here is the most important point: learn to recognise when you have found that heaven and appreciate your treasures when you have them. I had everything a man could ever dream of and I squandered that time.

My mouth ran away on me at the restaurant and from Roni quiet tears had turned to quaking sobs.  I realised I had crossed a bridge too far for her and we needed to go home and nurse our wounds in private. I know that imagery in words is powerful; my unread poem reminds me of that every time I try to read it.  I just forgot for a short time as my mind wandered. As my mind is prone to do these days.

I paid the bill and took my wife back to the small, empty bungalow on the big hill at the edge of the deep, dark forest and hoped that my hugs were some replacement for the person she really wanted to embrace.


  1. Although no philosophies could diminish your pain at this moment, would like to share a paper from The Journal of Cosmology which brushes this topic and might interest you. It's "Consciousness In the Universe: Neuroscience, Quantum Space-Time Geometry and ORCH OR Theory" by Drs. Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff. (((hugs)))

  2. Also, two DVDs "Through the Wormhole" by Morgan Freeman (speaker) also touches of consciousness after death.