Sunday, November 27, 2011

Jordan's Gift

Friday I received my first Christmas card of the season, one that has a very interesting and poignant history. The only time I connect with its givers is at Christmas and they always include a little letter telling of their latest family doings. This sounds very ordinary, but it has a far from ordinary beginning.

About ten years ago I was working in the emergency department one summer when late in the afternoon an eleven year old boy was brought in lifeless, the victim of a drowning. Heroic measures were attempted for well over an hour, but despite this, the boy died. As his heartbroken parents gathered his body into their arms, they told me their story in broken sobs. Jordan was their only child. After a number of childless years they had adopted him as a newborn infant. He was the joy and light of their existence. They were very cautious parents and had only just started allowing him a little more freedom. Jordan and his friend were rowing a rubber dingy in the lake when it capsized. For some inexplicable reason he had taken off his life jacket. His friend made it to shore. Jordan did not.

I spent several hours with Jordan and his parents after his death. When his mother cried and asked for blankets to warm his cold body, I brought them to her. When his father asked "why?" over and over again, I gave whatever poor comfort I could. When they asked that I wait until friends brought Jordan's favourite stuffed dog to accompany him to the morgue, I told them I'd wait as long his parents needed. Mostly, I just listened, helpless in the whyfors of such undeserved suffering.

I didn't cry until I was at home, the images of the past evening flowing through my mind endlessly. I thought of that beautiful child, so unmarred and peaceful looking. I thought of how his dark tendrils of damp hair had gradually dried. I thought of his parents' anguish and grief, of his mother's begging, keening wail, "Please tell me this hasn't happened!" I thought of all they must now go through.

Two summers later, I went into work one gorgeous blue and golden morning. I was working in the O.R. and as I looked at my slate list, one name seemed vaguely familiar; a woman to be prepped for a Caesarian section. As I pulled the curtains aside, her eyes met mine. The smile froze on my face. The last time I had seen those eyes was that sorrowing day in the E.R. wracked in anguish over the body of her little boy. She recognized me immediately. Instinctively, she held out her arms to me, and we hugged.

As she was prepped, with her husband now gowned by her side, she told me about their miracle. After twenty-one years of marriage, at the age of forty-four, she was about to give birth to her first biological child. She told me about how difficult it been after Jordan's death, how there had been times when they had felt they couldn't go on, that life had seemed hopeless and over for them. They saw this new baby not only as a promise of a new beginning but also as a precious cosmic gift from Jordan. Their excitement stretched like a tent over a framework of hope.

"Do you know what day it is today?", she asked with tears in her eyes. "It's exactly two years ago to the day since Jordan died." Then she added, softly, "It is only fitting that you are here today. It was meant to be."

I was immeasurably moved, and I stood with a very full heart as the surgery commenced. By now all the staff working the room that day had heard the story, and the hope and good wishes of everyone was palpable. A healthy, beautiful baby boy was born to collective sighs of relief and joy.

At the end of my shift I made a quick visit to the maternity ward. Baby Matthew's mother cradled him in her arms, her eyes shining with happiness. One of his tiny hands was clasped around his father's finger. Both parents faces were alight with love and the amazement of discovery. On the bedside table next to them rested a framed photograph of a dark haired, smiling boy; the big brother that Matthew will only ever know through stories and pictures.

Since that time, once a year, at Christmas, I receive a card from Jordan's family. Matthew is now nine years old, a wonderful, loving child, full of life and normal boyhood joys.

Life can indeed be mysterious. I had only worked in the Emergency Department for a short time choosing to return to my previous position in the Operating Room after only a month. The day of Matthew's birth, I had originally been assigned to another room but a colleague had asked if I would switch with her.

Through the loss of one child and the birth of another, I am enfolded in the love of a family who have been both scarred and graced. Jordan's gift is one of hope.

(Giovani Battista Salvi Sassoferrato, 1685. Madonna and Child.)

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Tante Adrie

(A is delighted to find that Tante Adrie has the exact same initials and last name as her own.)

Gem's Tante Adrie is the only surviving member of his father's birth family, his father's 'baby' sister. At nearly 90, she lives on her own in a little apartment in Haarlem, a beautiful old city about forty minutes by train from Amsterdam. We arranged a Monday afternoon visit for coffee. The logistics involved several calls to iron out the details, as her English is limited and Gem's Dutch only somewhat better.

The day before our visit, our cell phone rang. It was Tante Adrie. Our conversation went something like this:

"Yah, you come coffee (Dutch words). Appel coek. More Dutch words."

"Danku (thank you; one of the few Dutch words I am sure of), Tante Adrie. I'll get Gem for you."

Gem reassures her several times that, yes, we will be there at about 2 P.M.

The next morning the phone rings again. 'Are we coming? I am worried you will get lost." More soothing words from Gem.

We arrive, Gem, A and I, about ten minutes late. Tante Adrie is standing on her tiny flower laden balcony eagerly watching for us. She is tall, big boned, smiling, her brown eyes sparkle with humour. Each of us in turn is engulfed in an enormous hug accompanied by the usual Dutch greeting of a kiss on each cheek. Her words flow in a kindly torrent. Gem picks out about one in four, but is able to make out the gist of what she says, and interprets for me. "We are to leave our shoes outside. We are to sit down. Gem looks so much like his late father, it makes her cry. How old is our beautiful granddaughter? Don't mind the dog."

The apartment sparkles with cleanliness. Elaborate doilies edged with scalloped lace, curtains and tablecloth, all snowy white, contrast with the dark, gleaming wood. Numerous thriving house plants in blue and red china pots vie for space with even more numerous knicks-knacks. A is particularly enamoured of a china figurine of a lady in a pink china evening gown with roses in her china golden hair.

Tante Adrie won't allow any help, and we sit a little awkwardly as she ushers in cups of coffee, plates and forks. A plump apple cake sits in the middle of the coffee table next to a bowl of whipped cream. Orange juice is brought for A. We are just about to tuck in when Tante Adrie folds her hands, closes her eyes and begins to pray. Our names are mentioned in the prayer.

The cake, served with lashings of cream, is delicious. The coffee is dark and luscious. A second helping of each doesn't take much urging. The dog, a fat puggish little creature, named Bepo, waddles over to Tante Adrie, who feeds him bits of cake. A is soon giggling delightedly as he licks crumbs from her fingers, too.

Later Tante Adrie brings out old photos of Gem's father, and of other now deceased siblings, of her late husband, her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, most now residing in Australia. Snippets of stories are told, some understood, some not, but the love and warmth of them, their soul and essence, nourish without precise meaning. The tears and laughter of old forgotten joys and sorrows fill the room. A reads her book for a time, and then wanders around the room delicately caressing various objects with the tips of her fingers.

Before we leave we give her our gift of a box of maple-cream cookies from Canada, and we take pictures. My husband, a big man and 6 ft, 5 ins, lovingly referred to by friends as 'the gentle giant', dwarfs most people but Tante Adrie holds her own next to him.

Last hugs, last kisses ... and last good-byes, for Gem and I both know that this is the last time we will see Tante Adrie. It is a final earthly farewell. I reach over and squeeze Gem's hand for I know his heart is very full. Having lost both his parents, he is once again dancing with the part of himself that holds all the love and sweetnesses of his childhood.

(Tante Adrie and my Gem. I love this photo!)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Playing Dress-up

In this day of digital games and virtual reality, it is a joy to see my niece, H, (named after her auntie) engaged in hours long games of dress-up and imaginative play. In turns she is attired as a highlander in a Scotch kilt and cap with a large red tin as a drum; a lady trailing a green velvet skirt, long black gloves and a paper fan; a little red riding hood clad in a red shawl clutching a basket filled with apples and little treasures.

Today she is a Queen clothed in a froth of pink tulle, dripping jewels and a sparkly tiara, the royal mistress of a unicorn tethered to the couch with a silken purple ribbon. We've spent the past hour making little paper crowns for the unicorn and its retinue of ponies. H provides the voice for all. "You may kiss my hoof, Oh Queen," she says, bowing the unicorn to her own majestic presence.

She is a swoop of movement in the way only a child can be. Twirling around me in a lovely curve, chattering pell-mell.

"You are the nicest lady I've ever known in my whole life", she tells me, with the wisdom of five whole years of living. "Except for my Mummy", she adds, matter-of-factly.
"Of course." I say.
"Don't go home. I want you to stay here forever", she begs, her hands entwined in mine.
"My house would miss me," I tell her. "It would be so lonely. "
"Just think if your house started to cry and you went home and everything was soaking wet", says H, this image taking flight in her big blue eyes.

We wave at each other until my last craning glimpse of a little girl perched on the back of the couch, lips kissed to the window, is pressed into memory.

Monday, November 14, 2011

All Aboard ... for 'Toyland Express'....

Recently, I was asked by Scholastic to write a review of Walter Wick's new book, 'Can You See What I See? Toyland Express.'

This delightful book provides the kind of interaction between child and reading that is an integral leap of physical and emotional joy. Having no grandchildren living close enough to share it with, the four year old son of a neighbour filled the spot admirably. Connor's shouts of glee at finding the hidden treasures of each page were spontaneous and catching. He needed my guidance for some of the items but was able to find many on his own, an act which thrilled him from the top of his red curly head to the tip of his cowboy boot slippers.

Connor's least favourite page was the Toy Maker's Workshop which shows the train in its wooden skin before its painted glory. He rapidly wanted to skip to the next page. His favourite page was the Store Window with its bounty of colourful toys. Personally, I loved "At The Circus' the best. I could almost hear the whirligig music and smell the buttery scent of popcorn.

It seems to me that when it comes to books, children often want a very similar involvement to people of all ages and generations; participation in a wider experience that is not yourself, while at the same time, seeking and sharing the security of the known. Walter Wick's Toyland Express does this wonderfully. Its unique interaction brings a degree of autonomy for the child, as well triggering imagination and creativity.

To learn more about this delightful book, please go to the Scholastic website, here.

(The author, Walter Wick, poses with the circus scene from his newest book.)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Chimes of Westerkirk

(A and I by Bloemgracht Canal.)

This past August Gem and I had a wonderful holiday in the Netherlands. Gem immigrated to Canada with his parents and two older sisters when he was nine years old. He had never been back to Holland since, so for him it was a pilgrimage of sorts, to his roots. We brought our lovely eight year old granddaughter, A, with us, and her presence added a beauty, a light, and a perspective we wouldn't otherwise have had. I plan over the next months to write the little stories about our time there. This is the first one.

Instead of staying in a hotel, for the first week we rented an apartment in a 17th century row house along the Bloemgracht (Flower canal) in Amsterdam. The house boasted twenty foot ceilings, wide windows overlooking the canal, gleaming black shutters, crisp white scalloped curtains and a wood floor worn beautifully smooth and uneven with the years. The street breathed romance, like old songs and old books.

Our apartment was located so close to Anne Frank house that we could hear the chiming of the nearby Westerkirk every fifteen minutes, just as she had. In the diary she kept while in hiding, Anne wrote about finding the sound so very comforting and reassuring, and how it made her want to both cry and sing.

(Westerkirk, Amsterdam, built in 1620.)

The evening before we visited Anne Frank house, I told A, Anne's story. She was very interested and asked many questions. The next day, as we waited for our turn to view the house, a woman near us reached over and gently touched A's hair, "You know, I think you look a little like Anne", she said.

Once, this canal house on 263 Prinsengracht was the office of Otto Frank, Anne's father, for his spice business. Entering, I’m immediatly struck by the subdued atmosphere. Voices are low. It is very quiet, very solemn. I begin to imagine what it must have been like, living in this eternal dusk ... day in, day out; in constant fear of discovery. Poignant excerpts from Anne’s diary are written on the walls:

(Anne's actual diary, which she received for her 13th birthday.)

11 June 1942

"We will have to whisper and tread lightly during the day; otherwise the people in the warehouse might hear us."

19 November 1942

"I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn."

21 August 1943

"In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death."

In Anne's room we gaze silently at pictures and newspaper cuttings she had pasted on the wall almost seventy years ago: the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, Ginger Rogers, Sonia Henie, Greta Garbo in Ninotchka. Nearby are the pencil marks on the wall, drawn by her father, noting her growth during her years in hiding. A stands very still. I see tears start to trace her cheeks. I place my arms around her, draw her close to me. "It just wasn't fair, Nana. It just wasn't fair", she whispers.

Later that evening after tucking A into bed with her prayers, I lay down beside her for a while. The silvery melodic bells of Westerkirk start to ring in the summer darkness. As the tones die out, A says in a tender voice, "When I hear those bells, it's like Anne is speaking to me because she could hear them, too." I will never forget the hush and holiness of that moment.

(A 8, beside the statue of Anne Frank outside the house where she wrote her diary, while hidden with her family for two and half years, 1942 - 1944.)

Monday, November 7, 2011

Moore's Symphony

Hear the wind blowing through the trees.
It dances scarlet graves of leaves.
Spectral orchestra, communes under direction
Of the equal conductor, section by section.

The slabs and headstones all in place
Perched, high and low, named, face to face.
Each one solos its finite story
Long, short or middling inventory.

The symphony plays its stony dirge,
And bone sounds carry and converge,
As blades of grass in supplication
listen to Moore's ghostly ovation.

(Magpie Tales #90)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

My Love

Gem cleared the patio of its bounty of leaves today. Before he did so, I took photographs; A carpet of winged red maple. My angels peeping from gold and scarlet dreams.

He wore his old tweedy, leathery jacket, the one he basically now only wears for gardening and puttering around outside on frosty, nippy days. Occasionally I like to press my face against its scratchy folds as it hangs in the closet. There is something immensely comforting to me about the feel and scent of that jacket. It contains the essence of Gem's strength and manliness, his gentleness and his love. It is chock full of love. Love bursts through its seams in an accumulation; his silly little sayings, his uncomplaining toil, his long arms stretched out for the rake or mugs of coffee. Love, that I have sometimes in my conceit, taken lightly, as my due.

As a leaf raker may pray by raking, a lover may pray by intimate conversation with an old worn jacket.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Fred Dances

(Dancing sculpture, titled 'Joy' by Bruce Garner, in Ottawa.)

A few evenings ago I attended a local Kamloops Blazers hockey game with Gem and three of our friends. To be honest, I did not really closely follow the action on the ice, preferring to enjoy myself in my own absurd way. I was more interested in observing the other attendees around me. Near me was a mentally challenged man. He was about my age, stooped, very thin, bald, with an oddly elongated head. His jacket bore the name 'Fred' in white scripted letters. Fred clutched a large cup of coffee in one hand and in the other held a noise-maker. The young man seated beside him, obviously his caregiver, frequently reached over and dabbed dribbles of coffee from his chin.

Fred plied his noise-maker enthusiastically and appropriately throughout the game. Occasionally he'd look over and smile at me, nodding and smacking his lips. During the first intermission, Fred opened a small backpack that has been lying near his feet. One by one he removed the contents, lifting each up and showing me the item; a large bar of chocolate, a pen, a pair of gloves, a knitted hat, and a small battered stuffed mouse. I smiled and made a thumbs-up sign, and then rummaged in my purse and showed him the apple I had secreted there. Fred grinned and then pretended to feed the bar of chocolate to the mouse, as his caregiver smiled indulgently.

During the second intermission, the presenter announced a giveaway called 'Dance for your dinner', during which people could stand up in the aisle, dance to the music, and the winner would be given a $50 gift certificate to a local restaurant. As several young people began to dance, Fred observing them, stood up, removed his jacket and shuffled to the aisle a few seats away. As the music blared, this small, elfin figure lifted his arms and began to dance, unabashedly and unashamedly. Then he looked over at me and gestured for me to join him. I smiled and shook my head, but this didn't deter him. He waved at me again, using a broader, more expansive movement. Twenty seconds later, there we were, Fred and I dancing in the aisle together. Beaming at me, he echoed the sign I had made at him earlier, raising his hand in a prolonged thumbs up. My small embarrassment disappeared completely and I just gave myself in to the moment.

Neither of us won the prize, but I am humbled to have been a tiny part of the heart, instinct and courage I witnessed that night. Joy, indeed.