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The Transience Of Life

4 May

I am participating in the 2012 Wordcount Blogathon, which means one post every day for the month of May.

As I write this, I am sitting on the subway (having miraculously gotten a seat with enough room to type) on my way to the memorial service for my friend Margaret, who died last week.

Her passing was a big shock to me and my husband. We knew that she had been sick, but we had no idea that her illness was life-threatening. We did not know that she had cancer.

As I prepare to honour Margaret’s memory and offer condolences to her husband, I am still reeling from the very unexpected death of my aunt just three months ago. I find it hard to believe that so recently, I was jetting to the other side of the world to comfort my mom and help scatter the ashes of a woman who had been like a second mother to me.

These events – the deaths of my aunt and my friend – have led me to think almost obsessively about the transience of life. I am very aware that at some point over the next few years, I will lose my mom, who is now the last surviving sibling in her family. In all likelihood, because I am ten years younger than my husband, someday I will be widowed – hopefully a long time from now.

And I think about how I am getting along with everyone in my life, how much they all mean to me, and how much it would devastate me if any of them were to suddenly not be here anymore. I worry about whether I am a good enough mother, wife, sister, daughter, and friend.

I find myself feeling permanently shaken by the idea that at any moment, someone I love could simply and suddenly be gone forever. Arguments and disagreements upset me a great deal more than they used to, because what if I never get a chance to make it up with the other person? What if I never get to say sorry?

Earlier today, I gave one of my best friends a directive that she is not allowed to die. Ever. Not understanding the depth of how I feel about all of this these days, she asked why.

Well, it’s because I value her friendship and although our only communication is via email and Facebook, she is an integral part of my life. And I want her and my other loved ones to be there forever.

I know it’s a simplistic wish – for people to never die – but whenever I lose someone close to me, I feel like a part of me dies with them.

The only bright part of this is that when they die, a part of them stays alive with me – a part of them that I carry with me always, no matter where I go.

My point in all of this is that life is short. There is no time for meaningless disagreements that really don’t matter, and there is no time for people to treat their loved ones in a way that makes them feel unhappy, unwanted, or unworthy.

We need to embrace the people we have, while we still have them.

And when arguments happen, as they invariably do with us humans, there is no better time to patch things up than the present.

(Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mikebaird/3036430387/. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)

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The Final Rose

14 Mar

I am at the top of the hill with the humans. The rain that threatened earlier has held off and the sun has come out. I can feel the warmth touching me lightly. The humans cannot see me, but it’s not their fault. They feel my presence, but they do not realize that I still have a physical form, albeit one that has almost faded completely. If they were looking intently through one of the shafts of sunlight, they might just be able to make me out. But even if they could, they might not realize it was me.

I was a human myself until very recently, although my memory of that time is fading fast. I know that this place, and these people, were somehow important to me, but I do not know what my name was or how I left my human form.

One of the humans is talking while the others listen. Some kind of water is leaking out of their eyes. I detect a great deal of sadness in the group and I somehow feel that it has something to do with me. I wish I could comfort them, but I instinctively know that they must find their comfort from one another.

Now the humans are taking turns to take a gray powdery substance out of a little wooden box and scatter it to the winds. I feel a very strong connection with that substance, as strong as the connection I felt a couple of days ago when I saw the body I used to inhabit. Two of the humans are climbing out onto a ledge holding the box. One of them pours the rest of the gray powder under a tree, and the other reverently places the box beside a rock.

What a strange ritual. My memory has dissipated too much for me to understand it, but even though I cannot be seen, I feel as if I am a central element in what is happening.

The humans are starting to make their way down the hill, some more quickly than others. Unseen, I flit between them and among them, catching snippets of conversation as I go. They are taking care of each other, the humans are, making sure everyone gets down the hill safely. I see a woman taking off her hat and tenderly placing it onto the head of an older woman to shield her from the hot sun. I sense a lot of distance among this group. Some of the humans have come from far, far away. Some of them have not seen each other for a long time. Even though my sense of who they are is so vague, I feel unsurpassable happiness at the sight of them together, leaning on one another, supporting one another.

With me in tow, the humans reach a house, and a jolt of crystal-clear memory pierces me. This was my home when I was a human. I lived here for a long, long time. As I look at the woman who had received the hat coming down the hill, the word “sister” floats into my consciousness, along with a sense that we spent a lot of time together in this house. A sense of loss emanates from all of the humans, but none so much as this woman who was my sister. I hope she will be OK. I think she will. Everyone seems to be rallying around her.

The woman who had given my sister the hat wanders off into the garden. I decide to go with her. She walks slowly, stopping now and then to smell a flower or look around her. She cannot see me, but I feel that she knows I am there. I float along beside her for a while, looking at her face that seems to be lined with sadness and her shoulders that slump under the weight of regret. Regret for what, I don’t know.

I feel that I have to give her something, some kind of comfort, but since I left my human form, I have been unable to communicate with the humans. I drift away, in search of some way to leave a message.

I find myself standing among some rose bushes. All of the flowers on them are dead, and for some reason that makes me very sad. These roses must have meant something to me.

All of a sudden, I know what I have to do.

I embrace one of the dead roses, enveloping every part of it with my being. I infuse it with my energy, and I become one with the flower as the petals start to fill with colour.

When the human comes around the corner moments later, she stops as she sees a single red rose in the rose garden. She approaches me and gently touches one of my petals. She inhales deeply as the sweet scent of the flower fills the air.

She knows it’s me. I can tell from the way she stands looking at me for a long time, and from the way she lovingly says goodbye before she turns and walks away.

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, kgwaite challenged me with “Write a story from the perspective of someone just entering or just about to leave earth (or life).” and I challenged Eric Limer with “Write a story in which social media is the main driving force.”

Journey–Part 1

22 Feb

This time two weeks ago I was sitting at Heathrow Airport waiting for my connecting flight to Johannesburg. I was bored out of my skull, having spent seven hours drifting aimlessly around the Internet and walking around the duty free shops looking at stuff I didn’t want and couldn’t afford to buy.

Eventually my flight left, and I arrived in South Africa early the following morning. The next ten days or so were a whirlwind of activity. I spent time with my mom and my brother, went out with people I haven’t seen for an inordinately long time, and said goodbye to my aunt as we laid her ashes to rest.

It is worth recording what I did during this trip, because I am not getting any younger and I do not want these memories to get lost in the busy-ness and noise of my regular day-to-day life.

2012-02-08 22.57.18

Thursday: I arrive in South Africa. My brother picks me up and feeds me non-airline food. It feels odd to drink a cup of coffee without air turbulence making it splash all over my face. I absently wonder whether pilots plan to hit turbulence right around the time coffee is being served. My mom picks me up from my brother’s place and takes me to the house that was home to me for many years. I meet the current instalment of dogs and cats, and have a glass of wine with my mom before going to bed and failing to sleep.

Friday: Today is a sad day. My mom and I go to the funeral home where we meet up with my aunt Mary and my cousins Alison and Ivan. We go in to pay respects to my aunt. Little do I know that the image of her bruised and damaged face will come to haunt me after a few days. She was so beautiful in life, and that is how I want to remember her. In the evening, my brother comes for dinner. He is working too hard, and he looks too stressed. We all relax together for the evening, the three of us. I feel the absence of my dad. I feel like he should be there with us. Maybe he is.

Saturday: My brother takes Mom and I out for the best cappuccino in town, and then Mom and I head back home because we’re expecting a visitor, Pieter. I have known him since I was about ten, when his late wife Tanya became friends with Mom. In the afternoon, my brother picks me up and we go out for a movie. After the movie we go to a rooftop bar to have a drink and chat. We have a great time. It has been far too long since we went out, just the two of us.

2012-02-12 07.16.16Sunday: I go for a trail run by the river. The altitude makes it tough, but I love the sunshine and the beauty, and I deem the run to be a success. When I get back, I go out for breakfast with Mom and my cousin Alison. Later in the day, my friend Wayne picks me up and we go for lunch. It is great to see him. I met him when I went to Israel twenty years ago and we have been firm friends ever since.

Monday: My birth father Ron takes me out for brunch. I saw him seven years ago at my dad’s funeral, but I have not had much contact with him since. We have a good time and a lovely chat. In the afternoon, two of Mom’s friends come over for tea. One of them I have known all my life; the other I am meeting for the first time. A good time is had by all.

Tuesday: I have a day with Mom today. The plan is to go to her hairdresser salon – run by her long-time friends Willie and Martinus – and then to go shopping. I am delighted to see them. They have been true friends to my mom for many years, and Willie cut my hair last time I was here seven years ago. Willie takes one look at me, and telling me that I’m far too young to be walking around with grey hair (God bless him), he makes an executive decision to colour my hair for me. Mom and I end up spending most of the afternoon there, talking, laughing, and getting our hair done. There is no time for shopping at the end of it, but we do stop on the way home to make sure we have wine. It’s all about priorities.

Continued on Friday…

Moments

15 Feb

A life can change in the blink of an eye. A missed subway train, time spent looking for car keys, spending ninety seconds to finish the chapter of a book. A fifteen second delay, a chance look at a piece of garbage, a single step in a particular direction. You never know what your “thing” will be – that seemingly insignificant event that ends up changing, taking, or saving your life.

One day just before Christmas, my husband was delayed by about fifteen seconds when leaving a coffee shop. Those fifteen seconds saved his life. Because if he had left on schedule, he would have been right in the path of a car that unexpectedly lost control on the highway.

Many years ago, when my life was in tatters, I accidentally glanced at a piece of scrap paper before tossing it into the garbage can. The advertisement on the piece of paper ultimately led to me travelling to Israel in a trip that changed the course of my life.

Two weeks ago, my aunt took her dogs for a walk. It was a warm sunny day, and she was happy. When she saw a car approaching, she took a single step to avoid it. If she had stepped in one direction, who knows what would have happened? But she stepped in the other direction, and within seconds she was dead.

Life takes us in very unexpected directions. We find that things don’t always happen according to plan. We realize that fate or coincidence – depending on your beliefs – has given us a reprieve, a second shot at life. We suddenly find ourselves winging our way from this world to the next.

We cannot prepare for everything that life throws at us. We can plan for old age, but there’s no guarantee that we will get there, or that our plans will work out if we do. We can resolve to make amends with someone “tomorrow”, only to discover that tomorrow did not come for that person.

There is a message in all of this:

Live your life to be happy because you don’t know how much of it you have.

Love your friends and family hard because things could change at any instant.

Don’t let the sun set on an argument. For some people, it will not rise again.

Take a chance now and then. Don’t grow old regretting opportunities that were missed.

Live for the moment – this moment – because you don’t know what will happen in the next.

Seeing Her For The Last Time

10 Feb

Today I saw my aunt Ann for the first time in seven years. Last time I saw her, she cooked lunch at her house. She was always a bit of a marvel in the kitchen, and the meal was delicious. We ate good food, drank good wine, and shared tears and laughter as we reminisced about my Dad, whose funeral had been held two days previously.

Today, I stood in a funeral home looking down at Ann, lying in her casket. She looked bruised and swollen, and the injuries from the accident that took her life were very much in evidence. It was hard, so hard, to see her.

After we left the funeral home, we went to Ann’s house to have tea and cake, and to talk and find comfort in being together – me, my Mom, my aunt Mary (the wife of my late Uncle Philip who was Ann and my Mom’s brother) and two of my cousins. It was strange to be in Ann’s home without Ann.

I am still not sure what it will be like, trying to adjust to a world without Ann in it. I am not sure what thoughts will be going through my mind next week when we all gather to scatter Ann’s ashes.

The only thing I am sure of is this: even though Ann’s body looks bruised and broken, she will always be beautiful to me.

May she rest in peace.

Goodbye To A Lady

2 Feb

To my beautiful Aunt Ann,

For months, I have been telling myself that I would write you a letter. The Internet never made its way to the charming old farmhouse that has been home to you for your whole life. Since I moved to Canada eleven years ago, we have kept up with each other’s lives through my Mom, the occasional phone call, my two visits home, and the odd piece of snail mail.

When I got married last year, you painted me a picture. A bright, beautiful picture of flowers. It brightens up my mantle and I think of you every time I look at it. And although I sent you a card to say thank you, I promised myself that I would write you a proper letter, full of news and anecdotes. Maybe I would put in some pictures of my boys, the great-nephews who filled you with joy even though you never met them.

Now you are gone, tragically taken from us while the letter in my head remains forever unwritten.

When Mom called in the early hours of this morning to give me the news, I could not believe it. You have always been such a big, influential part of my life, and I cannot help wondering if my world will ever be able to adjust to your absence.

You were, to me, the epitome of a lady. Stylish and elegant, you were utterly beautiful inside and out. The many wonderful qualities about you will never be forgotten: your warmth and kindness, your generosity, your patience, and of course, your second-to-none baking skills.

Memories of you are playing in my head like a slideshow.

…the countless times you helped me prepare for my piano exams, showing me with infinite patience where I was going wrong and applauding what I was doing right.

…the times I walked around your large property with you and your dogs, helping you feed the pigeons.

…the times I played checkers with Granny when she was still alive, while you tried out a sewing experiment at the other end of the table.

…the way I admired the garden that you put so much love and care into.

…the lazy summer days I whiled away on the hammock in your front yard while you happily pruned roses nearby.

…the times I ate the shortbread that only you could make just right, that you dipped into melted chocolate.

…the little “Happy Birthday” music box you had, that you would play over the phone to whoever was celebrating a birthday.

…the time you took me and two of my cousins to the lion park.

…the time you tried to firmly but lovingly talk sense into me when I made a stupid decision that would have far-reaching effects.

…your home renovation escapades that made the rest of the family alternately despair and laugh.

…the way you folded me in your warm, loving embrace when my Dad died, comforting me even while you grieved the loss of one of your best friends.

…the day, shortly after Dad’s funeral, when you and I broke the corkscrew while it was still in the cork and we ended up having to strain the wine, and we agreed that Dad was messing with us.

…your absolute delight when we welcomed my firstborn child into the world the day before your birthday.

At the beginning of this week, I was gripped with inexplicable intense anxiety that wouldn’t go away. For three days I was living with the iron first of dread, and I didn’t know why. Little did I know that my universe was bracing itself for your sudden departure.

It is surreal to think that you left your house expecting to be gone for a short time – just long enough to walk your dogs down the road and back. You probably thought you would return home, have a cup of tea and maybe a sandwich for your lunch, and spend the rest of the day relaxing in your garden with your dogs.

I wonder if you had any sense of what was to come as the car approached, starting off the chain of events that would lead to your death. I hope you went quickly, without feeling any pain.

I love you, and I always have. I am going to miss you more than words can possibly express. And I am grateful that I had the honour of being your niece, that you were such a big part of my life, and that you helped shape me into the person I am today.

I know that you will be worrying about Mom. She is devastated. You were her best friend and she will miss you so much. But we will take care of her. We will make sure she is OK.

Rest in peace, beautiful lady. Someday, I’ll see you on the other side.

Kirsten

KCJ0001

The Man On The Train

26 Jan

By the time I got onto the train I was exhausted. I’d been up until almost midnight finishing my packing, and when I’d woken up I’d forgotten where I’d packed my passport. The cab had been late and there had been an accident on the highway. I had made it to the train station with seconds to spare.

I  was so tired it hurt. As the train started pulling out of the station I relaxed gratefully into my seat and closed my eyes. I was almost asleep when I became aware of movement near me. I opened my eyes to see an old man sitting down opposite me. He was tall and skinny with long white hair and the bluest eyes I had ever seen. As I said good morning to him, he stared at me in a disconcerting way. I closed my eyes again.

A couple of minutes later I opened my eyes to see the old man still staring at me.

“Can I help you?” I asked, feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

He kept staring at me in silence – the kind of silence that gets louder and louder with each passing second.

All of a sudden, he spoke in a deep Southern accent that I really had concentrate on to understand him. What he said took me completely by surprise.

“My maw was making gravy for the chicken when my paw died.”

“Oh,” I said hesitantly. Then, because I felt that I had to, I asked, “What happened?”

“Well,” he said, in his peculiar gravelly voice. “I was just a boy then. I just come in from the fields with Paw. The chicken and the potatoes and all was already done, and Maw had the gravy in this jug, beatin’ it with a wooden spoon like she was trying to punish it.

“All’s a sudden, the dog barks outside, right outside the window. Maw gets a fright and drops the jug. The jug bounces on the counter, and gravy goes everywhere. Some of it splatters on the cat that’s sittin’ on top of the ’fridgerator. The cat gets a fright and jumps right onto Paw’s back. And Paw is spinning round and around, tryin’ to get the cat off his back. He loses his footin’, topples over and hits his head on the corner of the stove – one of them old cast-iron stoves. By the time he hit the floor he was a goner.”

As he finished the story, the old man buried his face in his hands. I felt a stab of compassion for him. What a terrible thing for a young boy to witness. But then the old man looked up again and I realized he was laughing.

“It was the most ridic’lous sight,” he said, slapping his knee with mirth. “My old man, drunk as a lord, spinning around with a cat on his back. Butt-ugly cat it was too!”

The old man was laughing so hard that he was choking and wheezing, and tears were streaming from his bright blue eyes.

“Wow,” I said, genuinely taken with the story. And then, because I’d been watching Murder Mysteries while packing the previous night, I asked, “What did the police say when they came? Did they believe you and your Mom when you told them what happened?”

“Well now,” the old man whispered conspiratorially as he leaned forward. “We never actually called the ’thorities. We couldn’t, you see. Far as everyone in town was concerned, Paw had already been dead for years.

“You see, he had one of them fancy life insurance things. So when we was down on our luck one year, he burned out his tractor and Maw reported him missing. Last seen drivin’ off in the tractor, that’s what she told the sheriff. They didn’t have no fancy ways to prove nothin’ back then, so they just assumed he was dead. Maw got a pile of cash and Paw just stayed hidden. No-one ever came to see us, so as long as Paw was in the house or on his fields, we was OK.”

“So when he died, what did you do with – um – you know, him?” I asked. This story was unreal.

“Down past the apple trees, there was a big clump of dogwood trees, belonging to the neighbours. There was all kinds of bushes and plants growing under the trees. The bush was so thick under there, it was like a jungle. When I needed someplace to hide as a boy, I’d go there. No grown person could get in through all of those bushes and trees and stuff.

“We waited until nightfall, then Maw helped me put Paw on the wheelbarrow. He kept fallin’ off, but finally we got him to that clump of bushes and trees. We got Paw off that wheelbarrow, and I climbed in under them bushes.  Maw pushed, I pulled, and we got him in there. No-one would ever find him there.”

The old man paused. He seemed to be immensely proud of his story. Clearly, his conscience was not bothered by things like insurance fraud and the concealment of human remains.

“But what if your neighbours decided to cut down the trees?” I blurted out, suddenly worried on behalf of the small boy from long ago.

“Why would they do that?” asked the old man, incredulously. “If they cut down all the dogwood trees, where will the raptors live?”

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, pamela challenged me with "If they cut down all the dogwood trees, where will the raptors live?" and I challenged Seeking Elevation with "In the Canadian city of Toronto, it is illegal to drag a dead horse down the street before midnight. Tell a story – real or fictional – about how this law came to be."