I’m laying on a bed watching my newborn nephew squirm and stare like a little shrimp with wide inky eyes, not yet quite part of this world, a tiny fish plucked from the water. We’re in the home I grew up in and helped build, in the room where my father spent his last days just over eight years ago. Today would have been his 60th birthday, so we’re baking a cake – angel food, obviously.
Here I am again, listening intently for another’s breath and heartbeat. This one is so small yet strong. He is his grandfather’s namesake, David, born on his father’s 30th birthday – a breath of life and joy in a family that’s seen too much loss and sorrow in the past 10 years.
I am reminded, bitterly, of the days and weeks spent in this room, slipping in and out of sleep as I watched my father die from cancer. I remember the endless episodes of Law and Order, reading him the Lee Valley tools catalogue, massaging his swollen feet and the ever-present soundtrack of CBC radio.
I remember sitting vigil for days when he first slipped out of consciousness. I dozed off and awoke to find him gone – literally, not there. The bed was empty. Confusion and panic ensued. His slippers were also gone. Could someone barely 100-lbs, on intravenous morphine, who hadn’t spoken or woke for three days just get up and take off? Apparently, yes.
Dad had an abrupt second wind and seeing me asleep took advantage of his chance to escape. It was Saturday, you see, perhaps his last. This meant it might be his last chance ever to hit a garage sale. We found him trucking down our street, coming from the multi-family, cul-de-sac yard sale a block away, with a ‘90s Casio keyboard and various trinkets in tow. I have no idea where he got cash. He was eccentric, defiant and amusing to the end.
I am reminded of the labour of death. The waiting, the pain, the love, the unabashed humour about bodily functions and frailties. The fear and taking over of inevitable physical change. The departure. The arrival. Is the labour of death not so different from the labour of birth?
Change of any kind is laborious, especially when the focus is on the endings – of a life, a love, a career, a path.
Cultural mythologist Joseph Campbell said. “We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
He also said, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”
This is why change is so hard – it breaks us. When, and if, we’re able to put ourselves together do we become “stronger in our broken places,” as Hemingway suggests?
Leonard Cohen sings: “There is a crack in everything/That’s where the light gets in.”
And if it doesn’t get in do we remain broken, static in our shadowy traumas, surges of fear lashing in our bellies like live wires?
This is the journey, the individual adventure.
The decision to take a one-year sabbatical from my job as a newspaper reporter stemmed equally from opportunity and physical exhaustion. I’ve sometimes compared Island life to Calypso’s Isle in Ulysses, a sensual womb of comforts and support at its best and a stagnating time warp at its worst. As hard as it is to leave, even for a short while, it can only be best.
This year is as much for professional development as it is personal. Courses, conferences and fellowships are being considered. But a more experiential form of learning calls first. This stems from an interest in how people receive and share information that matters most and what new forms of storytelling emerge.
After only a week back in my hometown Sechelt, I’m reminded of the intriguing travel of news in small communities. Stories break with “Did you hear?” at the mall, the hardware store, in grocery parking lots. A few graphs in the local rag or even the big-city dailies can’t compare to the build and unraveling of personal connections, detail and emotional responses to tragedies or hot issues.
It’s good to immerse yourself in new communities every now and then – especially for a journalist. We spend our working lives gathering intimate details about others in short intense exchanges to invite interest, dialogue and change – yet we strive to maintain an emotional distance to be objective, to get the job done.
When the distancing seeps into your personal life is when it’s time to change, to challenge perspective.
Tomorrow, I’ll leave for Amsterdam to meet a dear friend from journalism school. One week later, I’ll leave for India – I’m not sure for how long or what exactly will unfold. I am fortunate to arrive in Mumbai and spend time with a Victoria friend, Kane Ryan, his parents, and the Dirty Wall Project – a charity supporting one of the many slum communities with the mantra “See a need and fill it.” For the past year I’ve followed Kane’s blog, http://dirtywallproject.com/blog/, a frank, earnest and visually stunning portrayal of his work, colleagues and community.
I plan to connect with a certain newspaper night security guard, who works two jobs to support his family in Victoria and a rural school in Northern India, as well as a high school friend of my father’s who left Canada to become a Hari Krishna in the ‘70s and work with inner city kids in Bangalore.
One of the most-difficult items to leave will be my laptop, which I’m trading for a moleskine notebook – where poems and drawings will replace tweets and third-person status updates…. Until an internet café calls – which I’m sure it will often.