|The triptych Calista gave her mother Christmas 2011. The clear message was "Time is Running Out"|
The three photos hang in our living room today; the sands of time are purple.
"Like sands though the hourglass, so are the days of our lives" opens every single viewing of the longest running soap-opera of all time, "Days of Our Lives". Roni watched that classic American daytime drama nearly every day since she was a young teen-ager. I used to heartlessly make fun of the silly show; I would make the most tasteless, crude comments about the characters and their endless outrageous and intricate affairs and she would pretend to be offended. The last time she watched "Days of Our Lives" was probably May 17th; she used to record the daily episode and watch it as she put herself together for the day ahead. Roni stopped watching "Days" when Calista's hourglass ran out. I asked her about her sudden change of habits just once, around the time of Calista's memorial service in June; she bluntly told me that she had enough drama in her life without suffering through Hollywood's incipient plastic version.
|It remains one of my favourite pictures of Roni. I was seated across|
the lawn from her with a telephoto lens on my venerable Canon 35mm.
She didn't know I was shooting; she would have run inside if she had known.
Roni and I have reacted so differently to Calista's death. Roni has mourned our girl in what I guess would be called the "traditional" path: holding tightly on to the memory of our girl and cocooning inside our house as much as she can without completely abandoning me and the clinic. On the other hand, I have immersed myself in this journal and, as far as I can see, have managed to deny completely the reality of my life. I seem to have convinced myself if I record enough memories of Calista, publicise her art widely and put enough money toward her memorial scholarship fund I can "make" her live once again. In truth, I am just desperately trying to stave off her second death; the death that occurs when her name is finally said for that last time and the world forgets her forever.
|Calista was still pre-school and Roni was unemployed.|
They never wasted a day though.
Unfortunately, it is becoming progressively more obvious that the truth will rear its ugly head no matter how hard one tries to turn away. The truth taps quietly in the back of your mind, then drums on your forehead as you ignore it's insistent prodding, finally hammering at your very core until you have to give way and admit reality. For me, the hammering has come in the form of my failing health; one problem after the other has chipped away at me and finally, I have to admit that my own mortality is on the horizon. As I sit here, my leg draped over the cane I need to walk more than a few paces, I know that Calista is indeed gone and one day, probably sooner than later, I will be too. I am a shadow of the man I once was. This journal entry is a cautionary tale for everyone that faces great loss; allow yourself time to mourn properly because, if you don't, your body will force you to take the time. And the end result won't be pretty.
Throughout my teens I was all about swimming. I was pretty good, but realistically I was never a champion. My last coach, Paul Savage, had it right when he called me, bluntly, a "wannabe that gets lucky once in a while". I was never going to make it to any of the big championships much less the Olympics; I am too short, have poor lungs and tend more toward blubber rather than muscle. My only saving grace is that I am stubborn and I periodically rise to the occasion. When I finally came to my senses and quit swimming, it probably came as a huge relief to both my coach and my team-mates, but I missed the routine desperately.
After swimming I dallied with body-building; I actually spent about five or more years trying to mold my body into an artificially enhanced mass of muscle and sinew. Most people have the absolute wrong opinion of body-builders; they are not the self-centred narcissists they are typically portrayed as. Most of the body-builders I met (myself included) had severe body image issues and were trying to literally recreate themselves completely. It is a sport of youth; most body-builders understand they are cutting many years off their lifespan in exchange for pathologically exploring the edge of their physical envelope. I now regret those years pumping iron; body-building was never my sport (I did mention that I tend towards fat like an old Labrador Retriever, didn't I?) and the time I spent doing that could have been spent doing my one great love: martial arts.
I came to martial arts in a round-about route. Typical of all my life stories, there was a woman involved. This woman was named Susan, about ten years my senior, who was particularly taken with me and was quite attentive for many months. She was involved in Tai Chi Chuan and convinced me that I should be interested in Tai Chi Chuan too. So I started training with the university Tai Chi club every week. I'm not sure how I learnt anything because throughout each session I only had eyes for Susan. To this day I am not sure who the head instructor was. Steve or Ken or Dave or Mike...or some name like that.
I must have absorbed something from those sessions because I eventually became quite proficient at the Yang Family Long Form of Tai Chi Chuan. I still perform that long exercise nearly every day (when I don't need my cane or my back isn't sending me to the hospital) and I actually considered teaching Tai Chi through my old karate club at one point. Unfortunately I never stuck with the Tai Chi club after Susan quit and returned to Ohio or Nebraska or wherever she was from. (Ok, I never bothered learning where she was from or even her last name; I was 21. What do you expect from a 21 year old man?) There are all sorts of forms of Tai Chi Chuan and yet I only know that one twenty-minute routine. I just know it really well.
Tai Chi Chuan is basically a choreographed martial-arts exercise program. Properly done, the forms should be one flowing action from the beginning to the end without pause. Its about maintaining a focused mind-body connection. When you are first learning the "form" ("kata" in Japanese) it really helps to have a good memory. Once you have the basic pattern memorised you can start learning to flow through the exercise, eventually being able to perform the routine in a state the Japanese refer to as "mushin" or "no mind". The goal is to allow the physical action to become automatic so the performer can apply his mind to the "why" of the action rather than the "how". While the West has embraced Tai Chi Chuan as some form of new-age fitness regime with mystical properties, in the orient it remains a serious martial art. Certainly, the version I was taught was all about combat rather than developing mystical "chi" powers.
|Old style "Single Whip"|
Few modern stylists have a
stance that long anymore.
|One of the original Yang Family.|
Note how uniform the style should be.
|Tai Chi Chuan: "Snake creeps down"|
The white hair is about right for me, but my
knees and back are never going to do that again.
I played around with Tai Chi Chuan while still deluding myself that I could still be a body-builder, so it was not until I was 28 that I found Shotokan Karate. This was actually such a pity, because in karate I found a hobby that involved everything I wanted out of my pass-times. Karate engages the mind completely while giving the body a demanding, hard-driving physical work-out. It was everything an ageing "jock" needed to fulfil his "Peter Pan" Complex. From the moment I started karate I knew I had finally found my sport; unfortunately I was over ten years past my prime for sports. Certainly anybody can start karate anytime in their life, but the people that are truly proficient in the art started no later than adolescence and stick with it into adulthood. I did eventually earn my black belt, but I was never going to go much beyond that point and I certainly was never going to be an instructor of any repute. I was just too late to become a natural at karate.
|I know this looks impressive, but I can see several glaring errors.|
I was performing the kata "Gankaku". Pure hubris for a 45
year old man to perform a kata of this difficulty at his first
and only national championship.
Throughout all our years in Regina I trained down at Midwest Karate, a well established dojo that occupies the entire third floor of the venerable old Fur Building at 1100 Broad. While I was never going to be a "head instructor" (that would be just ridiculous for a guy who had only attended three tournaments in his life and had never won even a pat on the back at any of them), I eventually ended up teaching almost half the adult classes. I was a perfect example of "those that can't do, teach" and I believe I was a pretty good instructor. I know that I eventually developed a very loyal bunch of students, though I never did get much respect from any of the experienced tournament karateka. The senior belts knew a "poser" when they saw one. In karate the term is a "paper tiger". On the other hand, I did my typical "total immersion training system" and I doubt that anyone, anywhere could question the depth of my knowledge about karate. If I studied art with dedication, I studied karate with a pathological obsession. I collected books fanatically, cultured connections with leading instructors all over the globe and actually became recognised as a knowledgeable aficionado despite my relatively low ranking.
As Calista grew up my involvement in karate transitioned from a dedicated club-member to a nearly professional instructor. Through one two year period I was down at the dojo four nights a week for up to three hours each night. It was during this same period that I discovered swimming again. I was frequently rising at 4:30 am to get Calista to swim work-out and swimming up to 5000 meters myself while she trained, working all day and then turning around and teaching karate until 9 pm at night. During this period I was as fit as I had ever been in my life. My weight plummeted from a robust 220 pounds down to a cadaverous 179 lbs; friends started enquiring about my health at that weight. By the time I was 46 I was sporting a classic "six-pack" for the first time in my life and I was swimming work-outs that even the age-group competitive swimmers found impressive. As far as I could see, I was forever young. I felt great, had boundless energy and could physically dominate practically anyone brave enough to challenge me.
|For the first time in my life I was actually proud to doff my |
shirt in public. I was lean and it was the summer of my life.
And she was with me.
In 2010 I had an opportunity to publish a series of karate articles in my favourite magazine of the moment "Shotokan Karate Magazine", known as simply "SKM" within the close-knit karate culture. The only burr in the blanket before the editor would publish my articles was that I needed to produce some photographs to accompany the articles. I needed a good professional photographer with a good camera; I drafted a great amateur with a great camera. Calista became the official photographer to Bryce Fleming DVM, internationally published writer.
I didn't have to tell anyone that we were not getting paid for the articles and I had to practically beg John Cheetham, the publisher, to include the short essays on training. I realise now that I probably ruffled more than a few feathers within my little community by having the audacity to publish anything while many instructors far senior to me satisfied themselves with short letters in the provincial newsletter.
My articles were certainly nothing to phone home about; they were basically some pretty pedestrian technical essays detailing a series of training drills for sparring. On the other hand, the combination of the clearly written technical articles and the candid action photographs set a new standard for the magazine. Prior to my articles few writers had submitted any publishable technical articles (lots of history, interviews and philosophy though) and practically everybody tended to submit rigidly posed photographs devoid of any imperfections of form or action. Calista's photographs were extremely well received because they caught all the action of the sparring drills and, of course, many personal idiosyncrasies of my own technique. The editor loved the "reality" of the photographs after years of sifting though artificial, posed photos.
|I found this in her "portfolio"file.|
she must have liked something about it.
Maybe it was because I was taking a
pretty hard hit right at that moment.
|But payback is always fun.|
|There is a mistake here. I was coming up|
in my stance. It's bad, but we published it
anyways because it was real.
I am extremely proud to say that my daughter, Calista Jasmine Fleming, has been published in an internationally circulated magazine. Maybe she was never paid and maybe SKM is not all that widely circulated, but that magazine remains the only magazine on Earth solely dedicated to the art of Shotokan Karate. Copies of the five issues to which Calista contributed have a place of honour both on my book shelf and in a corner of her bed-room. She might of not have taken the assignment too seriously at the time, but I do notice that those magazine issues were stored away in pristine condition in her room.
|Lean, fit and focused. I cannot remember ever having that|
much intensity, but here is proof that I once did.
Here we are almost three years later. I knew when I left Regina I was likely going to have to change my rigid fitness routine dramatically; you cannot run a successful business and expect to dedicate up to four hours each day to physical endeavours. Swimming was a challenge since access to the local pool is really quite limited and karate was going to be almost impossible since there were no "Shotokan" clubs in the local area. On the other hand, I can be quite creative when faced with a challenge and I managed to maintain a reasonable level of fitness while juggling the demands of being a business owner. And then came May 17th. How the world can turn on you.
When Calista first died it was obviously a brutal shock to both Roni and I. Certainly our world came apart, but we endured, we survived. We understood that there was a long road ahead of us, but we assumed that we had already come through the very worst of it. We thought we had passed through the Valley of Death and had seen the evil it held. It must have been the shock we were in that allowed us to delude ourselves; the evil was not over. Like every ancient military siege, the fall of the city was just the beginning of the pillaging and raping.
About a week after Calista died, I received a phone call from a very special person. Mel Zajac Sr., who established the "Mel Jr. and Marty Zajac Foundation", a worldwide organization dedicated to helping special-needs children and seniors called me on my cell phone as I returned to Powell River from the ghastly task of collecting my Calista's possessions from the RCMP evidence locker. He had established his foundation after surviving the horrific loss of both of his wonderful sons in separate tragic incidents. He gave me the first and best advice I have garnered over this last eight months. I would love to call these "Mel's Survival Rules", but he wasn't really that insistent. I doubt Mel is that kind of guy.
|The miracle of Mel's call to me was that I have never met the man.|
I barely knew his son Mel Jr.: he was a friend and team-mate to my
brother Ivor but I was just the kid-brother back in those days.
The first thing Mel told me is that the first year was going to be the worst. The reality of your child's death is going to consume your every moment. Only when you are completely focused on a difficult task are you free of the horror, but you will pay for it later with guilt over those few moments of forgetfulness. Mel warned me that the second year and every year after will be slightly better, but you can expect to get caught by grief and remorse suddenly, completely out of left-field. He warned me that I was going to have to learn forgiveness because people were never going to understand unless they had lost one of their own children. Friends and Family, well meaning people, are going to say and do terribly insensitive things that will hurt you in ways they cannot imagine (because they have never walked in the shoes of a parent that has lost a child). Mel warned me that the grief of losing Calista was going to hurt me in ways I could not imagine.
I am beginning to imagine the power of grief. It has touched every aspect of my life. While Roni has been far more visibly crushed by Calista's death, she has managed to maintain a healthier, more balanced outlook than I have. Thank goodness, otherwise there would have been nobody around to drive me to the hospital and stop me from completely coming off the rails. The value of a level-headed, strong wife cannot be over-estimated.
Physically I am essentially a cripple. I have been battling chronic anaemia for over a year, predating Calista's loss, but my lack of energy and ambition goes well beyond simple anaemia. Less than four years ago I was truly "a man in motion", while now an ambitious day amounts to leaving the couch to walk fifteen paces to the bathroom. I have tried to keep a fitness regime up, but much of the time the entire point of the effort flies over my head; the maintenance of fitness would suggest I want to live a long and fulfilling life. In truth, my goal for this life is to fill that scholarship fund up and then get the whole mess of living over with. Living seems so exhausting these days and no matter what future plans I make, nothing I do will survive much past my death. Without a child, there can never be any grand-children and thus it all seems so pointless. This lack of ambition is really showing up in all aspects of my routine.
Whereas I once wrote extensively on karate, corresponding with experts all over the globe on a daily basis, I have not written much more than "how are you" notes to any of my numerous contacts since Calista died. I have dispersed my entire book collection, keeping only a few books that were gifts or written by friends. The rest of the hundreds of books and articles, some of them quite rare and expensive, were disposed of by package post or dropped off at various homes, stuffed in banker's boxes or recycled Amazon mailers. Researching, writing about and debating karate seems like such a mundane, useless chore now I find it hard to believe I wasted 25 years of my life on the topic. I feel like some crazed comic-book collector that finally realized he was fifty,not fifteen, and has to grow up and leave his mother's basement.
All those hours over all those years wasted in the dojo; that was time that could have been spent being a better dad. Time that I can only wish I could get back now.
|It might be sold soon. Too expensive to drive and really,|
too nice to be wasted on a depressed old man.
My treasured cherry-red drop-top Mustang is parked most of the time. The car is too expensive to drive as transportation and, really, if you are not going to enjoy the ride anyway, you might as well commute in the more utilitarian VW Beatle. I might keep the pony car as long as next summer to see if the joy of cruising in a convertible returns, but if the world remains grey and overcast even on the sunny days, the scholarship fund will get another large donation. One issue there is that the Mustang has become the only car I can actually comfortably drive for more than a few minutes. Both of the other cars just kill my back. My stress always appears in my back.
In early November my lower back started to give me a little heck; nothing too horrible, just a little twinging in my right hip flexors and spinal erectors. Enough to make tying my own shoes moderately uncomfortable, but nothing worth going to the doctor over. Roni and I took Calista's little Smart Car down to Nanaimo for servicing in mid-November, around the time of Calista's birthday. I found the two hour drive challenging and generally suffered the entire way. I was starting to think I might have to visit a doctor over the issue, but felt no immediate urgency. Unfortunately, the drive back to Powell River became a tour-de-force as we had to re-route due to ferry issues and drive home the long way, up through the Sechelt peninsula. The drive resulted in nearly 12 hours stuck in the Smart Car cruising over winding roads at night during a pouring deluge. By the time I got home to Powell River I was practically crawling. Roni rushed me to hospital in the middle of the night 36 hours later when I woke screaming in pain due to overwhelming lower back spasm. We ended up trapped in emerge for over twelve hours, me hooked up on a IV fluids with my blood pressure bottoming out from pain induced shock and completely unable to stand much less walk. Finally after a day filled with tests and more tests, the final conclusion was that I was only suffering from severe muscle spasm and just needed pain relief. That was how I found out I was allergic to many, if not most, standard pain relievers.
Twenty four hours later I was back in hospital with a blistering rash over much of my body. The emerge doctor's most intelligent comment of the day was "Oh my!". The visit was pretty much a waste of time; the drug reaction did not respond to the intravenous anti-histamines and, to really complicate matters, the doctor decided to give me a second dose of intravenous pain relief. I guess the rather spectacular reaction from the first dose was just not good enough, the clinician thought he should really get the ball rolling by doubling up. By the time I was discharged the very roots of my hair were burning and itching and the blistering was spreading up my back. Over the next month I sloughed the superficial layer of skin from everywhere on my body; I looked like one of the zombie undead from the hit show "The Walking Dead" (but unfortunately, Hollywood never called). On a positive note; by the time I could go out in public without being covered in something akin to a burkha my back had healed enough that I no longer needed a cane to get around.
|If you think that is ugly, use your imagination to picture an entire body peeling|
like that all at one time. Roni never lost me in our home; she merely needed
to follow the trail of "snake skin" dropping off me constantly for three weeks.
In those few weeks after my little emergency visit my wife's doctor decided to take me on as a patient; that is a small miracle in the province of BC. He pinned down the massive skin reaction as a Stevens-Johnson reaction. I thought that was great until he told me that we had to start tracking my kidney and liver enzymes; there was every likelihood that the pain reliever injections had put a little dent in their functions. Wonderful. In the end I got lucky: kidneys made it through unscathed, mostly due to the aggressive use of intravenous fluids while I was in the emergency ward. The liver was not so lucky. If I had been planning on drowning my sorrows in a bottle, that path is now a pretty quick road to liver failure since the doctors have already put me half-way there. On the other hand, my new doctor did diagnose the back issue and got me headed down the right track to getting it fixed.
|Typical of me, I ignored the numb|
tingling radiating down my legs for
months. The pain: only a zombie
could ignore that little joy.
|And everyone thought that the word "ass" referred|
only to my personality.
I have something they call "piriformis complex". I guess the underlying problem is that the piriformis muscle that surrounds my sciatic nerve is in spasm, swollen and putting the squeeze on the nerve. It was the underlying cause of all my pain. The good doctor put me in touch with an excellent physiotherapist who is slowly fixing the issue, one long needle at a time. To tell you the truth, I think there might be a very fine line between "physiotherapy" and "S and M": those needles have all the essence of sadism and none of the pleasure of masochism. I am actually terrified to tell either the doctor or the physiotherapist that, now that my back is feeling a bit better, both my knees are swollen and burning like they have acid in them. So far I have been able to keep it covered up, but it is going to be hard to hide my cane on my next visit to either. I shiver to think how those two will cure my aching knees. (I will just defend myself from the needles with my trusty cane since karate is out of the question. I will look like an eighty-year old pensioner but likely will be less mobile and less effective.)
Professionally I remain focused. The veterinary work allows me to escape my reality with justification for nearly 10 hours each day. I immersed myself in the medicine and surgery and try to remain excited about my career. Unfortunately the constant pain of the various health issues tends to distract me, especially during surgery where the required immobility for long periods exacerbates the back spams and lock-up the knees in ways only a torturer from the Spanish Inquisition could appreciate. On the other hand, my empathy for some clients has all but disappeared while my appreciation for others has multiplied. Many of my clients have been superb; they have been sensitive while showing their clear concern for the welfare of Roni and me. A very memorable few have ignored Calista's death altogether and one or two somehow felt the loss of their pet was somehow comparable to the loss of my child. I must admit, I try to understand, but I just cannot get by the fact that a twenty year old pet is exceptionally old while a twenty year old daughter is still just a child. There is no comparison. I like to believe those few mistaken souls are sent my way to teach me Mel's forgiveness. They have not walked in my shoes and I hope they never will.
|The Roni I remember, at her proudest moment:|
Calista's High-School graduation 2009
Roni and I are as close as we ever were, but our marriage has changed. There is an understandable sense of pointless drifting; we just keep living because we continue to wake up every morning. We go to work because it's there, we eat because it's dinner time, we sleep because that's what you are supposed to do after a certain time at night. Roni forces me to go to the doctor but neither of us really care what the results of the examination and tests might be. Of course I dread getting any really bad results back from the doctors, but only because a chronic, debilitating disease would interfere with my ability to earn money to support the scholarship fund. Our conversations lack much variation or animation these days; we can discuss work, the weather or how much we miss Calista. With the exception of the last topic, nothing much holds our interest anymore. It's like we are living in a dreamworld where things are happening all around us but we are just third party observers. It's pretty hard to care when you understand that nothing you do really matters because when you finally die, there will be nothing left behind.
I know lots of people would like to read how Roni is holding up, and I really hate the fact that this journal entry is really all about me. The problem is that I really don't know how Roni is doing. Grief is such a personal issue and there is such thing as being too open and too candid about your feelings. Roni has never been verbally communicative about her feelings; I have always had to read her body language to gauge her moods on any subject. One thing I have noticed is that her appetite remains spotty at best, her weight continues to hover somewhere between skinny and skeletal. She is far more reactive to the little stresses of life than she ever was and she is far less tolerant of my numerous little quirks. We don't argue or bicker much (we never really did), but we also don't bother with the harmless, friendly teasing and banter that used to be part of our typical routine. That sort of thing would require interest and energy, and that's something we really don't have anymore. Roni is not thrilled over my relentless marketing of Calista; every piece of art and memorabilia needs to be checked, turned over, and inspected for a long time before she can let anything go. Her grief is a very private affair and I respect that; we have a lifetime to find our compromise position.
While this weeks journal entry does seem, even to me, to be quite "Bryce" centred, it really was just meant to be a caution to anyone that does lose a love of their life. Like Charon, the ferryman at the River Styx, grief demands a toll of the living before they can move on. Neither Roni nor I are willing to move on yet, but I am paying the toll regardless.
And, as if I had not enjoyed the emergency enough, I enjoyed two days in the Powell River Emerge just yesterday and today. Kidney stones. Those define pain; and they have not passed yet.
|Calista's title for this was "Poison"|
Grief is a form of poison; the stress unmasks all your little health
problems one after the other. Enjoy!!