Raging and gently, night and light

This year is the 10th anniversary of my friend’s death on December 22nd, 2003. A number of years ago my aunt’s sister died on Christmas morning. A friend’s father-in-law died this morning.

This isn’t terribly unusual. People die all the time. But it feels like it is. In this season of togetherness and celebration and relatives stressing you out, it feels like a sin of some kind for people to die, or come close to it. It seems more tragic. And then I feel disrespectful for everyone who gets sick or into accidents or dies around the other 50 or so weeks of the year.

And does that feeling of Yuletide tragedy get pushed back further every year like the retail-drive Christmas season does?

It’s vaguely like how I feel bad for anyone born between mid-December and mid-January. Well, your birthday’s going to suck. Like that’s the worst thing that could happen around your birth, or like there aren’t other “inconvenient” days to be born throughout the year.

It feels like we’ve done this to ourselves. And by “we” I mean those who celebrate Christmas. If you don’t celebrate anything in late December/early January, someone’s death doesn’t necessarily take on extra and somewhat manufactured weight. Though western culture has done its damnedest to infect everyone with the Christmas spirit. I mean really, can’t we just leave the Jews alone to enjoy their movies and Chinese food?

Perhaps there are also historical ties. In the day, when people died in the winter (and this still may be the case, depending where you’re at), they couldn’t be buried right away. They pretty much literally had to be kept on ice until spring thaw when the body could be interred. So you had however many weeks or months of being indoors more, with more darkness outside (until December 21st, at least), and possibly more aloneness, to grieve, to think, and kind of… wait. There was that bit of closure that wasn’t possible because when spring came you were going to have to go through it again to some degree, if you chose to.

If you go way back, you have Solstice taking place around the same time as Christmas (not a coincidence). So there are ideas of the shift of darkness and the return of light and new life. You don’t have to look very hard to find where Christianity got its metaphors… But winter cold and darkness and loneliness and other seasonal hazards are real, and there’s little question why not all elderly or isolated people “don’t make it” til spring.

Blessedly, I have not had that many friends die throughout the year. I don’t have enough of a basis of comparison for whether I dwell on it more this time of year, or it makes me more sad. I do know the season comes with more baggage than most times of the year β€” for me and many others. This is why I have friends who don’t celebrate at all. In fact, they’ve taken years to divest themselves of obligations on The Day, in favour of eating badly, drinking heartily, and enjoying geeky and/or trashy entertainments. I admit to a certain envy.

Ultimately, though, right after a death during the holidays, there’s one concrete thing that would make a death you’re close to harder. The administrative details. You’re supposed to be winding down at work and gearing up for baking and shopping and all manner of social occasions. And all of a sudden that has to come to a screeching halt, replaced by hospitals and funeral homes and decision after decision. Except that all the festive stuff doesn’t entirely go away. The people and the decorations and the food. And you don’t get any time to exhale, to start processing.

I’m sure funeral directors and the like can verify that death doesn’t take holidays, nor display any particularly religious or secular affiliation at this, or any other time of year. But I suspect there are some things different about managing the mortal coil departures lounge this time of year.

The point of these musings? Nothing, really, beyond a brain dump of things on my mind lately, having had both birth and death wander by in close proximity. (That makes it sound like I recently miscarried or something. I didn’t.)

It’s December 21st, the shortest day, and longest night, of the year. Thomas never did tell us what we’re supposed to do about the return of the light…

A taste of fall

grapes and apples

I have been thoroughly enjoying local produce since late spring, and while the colours at the markets this time of year are the best, it’s also a bit sad since the pumpkins and mums and such mean that the season is winding down into colder temperatures, darker days, and more root veggies (but hey, that means soup!)

This weekend I had my first grapes of the fall, a basket of Coronations from Herrles’ Market. This year has been amazing for produce, and the grapes were no exception. Firm, sweet, slightly tart. (And missing that shock of sourness you get at the centre of Concords, since Coronations are mostly seedless.) I inhaled the bowlful in short order.

And then with the taste lingering on my tongue I did a bit of time traveling. A nostalgic visit to 30-plus years ago to weekend mornings when my Dad would make me toast with peanut butter and grape jelly, which my parents had canned. I can still picture him cutting the paraffin sealing the jar in half to remove it upon opening a new jar.

Mom and Dad have been canning a LOT this year. I believe Mom said 190 jars so far, and they haven’t even done apple or grape juice yet. And their juice is delicious, but I can’t help but feel a tad sad that they won’t be making any grape jelly. Though I suppose I could… πŸ™‚

Behold! The power of cake!

Back in April, I wanted to pick up cupcakes for a friend’s birthday. Alas, or, perhaps, serendipitously, as it was Easter Monday, the Cake Box was closed, and I was forced to seek sugary goodness elsewhere.

The fine people of Twitter provided several recommendations, and we checked out Vincenzo’s, who did, indeed, have a selection of cupcakes from Tiny Cakes, of whom I’d never heard. They’re a bakery out of Galt. I picked up half a dozen, noting the name of one in particular: Knotty Pine Buttered Almond.

Wasn’t that a blast from the past.

Knotty Pine Buttered Almond CupcakeY’see, from birth to age four, my family lived in Preston, pretty much literally around the corner from the Knotty Pine restaurant, which was located where The Pines is now at Fountain and King. And my Mom loved their Buttered Almond cake. (Seriously, I remembered the name of a cake from when I was four. LOVE.)

So I checked out Tiny Cakes’ website, and sure enough: “based on the Knotty Pine recipe”. I mentioned it to Mom, and said I’d have to get her some cupcakes to test its accuracy, which I did this past weekend as the family was getting together for brunch. In the mean time, I’d also gone back to the website and noted that they did actual cakes, too. Eeeexcellent.

The verdict? They got it right. Mom said from the first taste of the icing it all came back to her. She also told me a story I hadn’t known. When my brother and I were really little, on Saturday evenings after we were in bed, she’d call the Knotty Pine and order two burgers and two pieces of cake, then during intermission of the hockey game, Dad would drive over and pick up the food, and they’d have a healthy, low calorie dinner while watching the rest of the game. πŸ™‚

She also said she put the rest of the cupcakes in the freezer to ration them. Except that wasn’t working out very well, since she said the other evening she didn’t even wait for the cupcake to thaw before she started to eat it. Heh.

Unsurprisingly, I got curious, so picked one up for myself today. It was, indeed, a damned tasty cupcake. And there was a certain familiarity to the flavour. As luck would have it, Mother’s Day is coming up on May 13th. Then my parents’ 45th anniversary is on May 20th. Then my birthday is June 11th…

Let them eat cake? Don’t mind if we do…

Next door

Many thanks to a number of friends who shared their experiences, thoughts, and insights, helping me round out this post and give me the sigh of relief that these reactions were not Just Me. Also, this post includes a variety of experiences based on relationships with a variety of people over time. Right now I am fine, and my people are doing alright. This generalizing is as much to protect individuals’ privacy as to try and make sense of dealing second-hand with mental illness.

Wednesday, February 8th was a day to talk about mental health. Why it was sponsored by Bell, I don’t know. Why it was February 8th, I don’t know. But hey, getting people talking about mental health and raising money isn’t a bad thing.

Unsurprisingly, it brought to mind my own experiences with mental illness. I consider myself fortunate β€” any depression I’ve dealt with has been situational, and temporary, and I always remained at least somewhat functional. Those who have helped me through it have my eternal gratitude and are immediately welcome to anything I can do for them when they need it.

But depression and I have been close, sometimes very close, off and on for a lot of years. I kinda… live next door. I’ve seen many strong voices online talk about their struggles with depression, which has helped a lot of people. I haven’t seen much, however, from the people around those who struggle. There are some good reasons for that. A lot of what you think and feel seems either utterly futile, or makes you think you must be a complete asshole.

Mostly I’ve been depression’s next door neighbour, but sometimes other neighbours show up: anxiety, mania, substance abuse… And you would think, after all these years, that I’d know how to be a good neighbour by now. I’d have figured out How To Help.

Nope. I suck.
Continue reading “Next door”

Unphotographable

This is a picture I did not take of two little girls holding open a birthday card that plays the Hamster Dance, spinning and bopping around the living room in perfect imitations of the original internet-based dancing hamsters, even though they’d never seen the website and it is much, much older than they are.

This is also a picture I did not take of my brother, walking down the yard towards the bush, in his left hand a .22 rifle, and on the right holding hands with his two-year-old daughter, in blonde pigtails and a pink sundress.

People of Walmart ain’t got nothin’ on us. πŸ™‚

It gets dark earlier

Like many people, I’ve always loved fall. The crisp air, the cooler temperatures, the smell of leaves, etc. Though I know people, like my friend Violet, who have serious issues with fall. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, it’s the season of death. (At the same time, though, the Jewish celebration of New Year in the fall has always made a great deal of sense to me.)

I seemed to be immune to this phenomenon until the last few years. I believe it started when, Sherry and I each had three deaths in the fall. (Two years ago? Three? I find I can no longer remember.) Mostly family, as I recall, and some more expected than others. I particularly remember how hot it was the day of my aunt’s funeral.

And then there was the former PostRank office. Typically I loved the fact that we were on the fifth floor, and the windows were big and wrapped around the building. I had a wonderful view of uptown Waterloo and various neighbourhoods, the trees as they changed with the seasons, and the landscape under snowfall.

What I also had was a front row seat to death. On Allen Street, behind the office, there are several churches, and directly across the street on King is a funeral home. So every time a member of one of those congregations died, I knew. Every time there was a visitation or funeral at Erb & Good, I was some weird kind of spectator. And more than once I crossed the street in my sensible heels and conservative attire to attend visitations of my own.

Same as it ever was, probably, but it gets to you, watching the rituals of the dead practically every day β€” sometimes more than once β€” from mid-fall until well into spring. You can’t help but ponder your own mortality and that of those you love.

One of the things I become ever more cognizant of as I get older is that not everyone dies old. Somehow it seems like we should be advanced enough medically and technologically to ensure longevity by now. And yet, among others, I know of the deaths of two pre-teen children this summer (accidental drowning and suicide β€” suicide).

The season has started. In the last little while I have learned of two terminal cancer diagnoses and the recent death of an acquaintance’s mother. It’s only September 20th. Beyond that, my Dad turns 70 next week, and Mom turns 65 in early November. Parents as seniors is a hard thing to process. I have found myself physically shaking my head to clear it when I have started doing mental calculations on how long my Dad can hope to live past this milestone.

But we keep breathing, keep moving. Smile at the pictures of my niece’s first day of school. Take part in as many social events as my comfort level can manage. Give and take hugs wherever they’re offered.

But sometimes you will be left alone in your own head, or what’s going on in your own head doesn’t matter, because someone else needs you. (And, in fact, helping and serving others is about the best thing for you sometimes.)

It does get dark earlier now, but not all year.

Use your words

A few weeks ago at my family birthday lunch, I observed my niece, who is two, having a fairly lengthy conversation. With the vacuum cleaner. (Since there were no people in her immediate vicinity, I specifically asked if that’s what she was talking to, and she confirmed it.)

This is interesting for a couple of reasons. Turning two a couple months prior to that seemed to flip a switch with her talking β€” before that she talked very little. More, I think, because she couldn’t be bothered than because she didn’t know how. And why should she? She did pretty well getting people to understand what she wanted from a handful of words, whines, and poking. The conversation with the vacuum cleaner, while not entirely composed of recognizable English words, was the longest chat I’d heard her have.

Which got me thinking.

Continue reading “Use your words”

Unphotographable

This is a picture I did not take of my brother and his friend sitting and reading children’s books about puppies and princesses to two little girls, while I sat sprawled out on the couch, drinking beer and watching UFC fights.

Breakfast in (North) America

My parents were down last evening for a family birthday party, and so stayed over at my place instead of a late drive home. As usual when they stay over, we went to the local Cora’s for breakfast (Mom really likes it).

Just before we left my apartment, I mentioned to Mom that it was my cousin’s husband’s 50th birthday today, and mused about whether The Significance Of The Date had faded somewhat in the last nine years. Then we got into a peripheral discussion, as we often do, of whose birthdays the the family fall when, and was Grandpa’s September 5th or 6th…?

As we were walking into the restaurant, a family of Middle Eastern extraction, and Muslim β€” father, mother, baby β€” were arriving just in front of us. The woman was wearing both a hijab and niqab.

While I’ve seen plenty of Muslim students around town over the years wearing the hijab, the number of women I’ve seen in town wearing more formal dress has certainly increased in the last couple of years. Not really surprising; we have a fair number of immigrants here.

I notice the attire, certainly, but I am also aware of the religious and cultural intent of it, and am probably more comfortable with the choice to cover up extensively than the choice to expose acres of flesh and/or extreme body modifications. My parents, on the other hand, have long lived in a rural area where multiculturalism is, to put it mildly, not pervasive. (They wouldn’t have dealt well with exposed flesh and body mods, either, for the record…)

My parents didn’t get it, and couldn’t understand why she was covered up like that, with only her eyes showing. How would she eat or drink? Did she take it off during breakfast? I said I was sure she was used to managing just fine, and no, she would not take the niqab off in public.

To be sure, my parents didn’t approve, though their reaction was at least quiet, and was less direct than Dad’s comments (blessedly sotto voce) last time we went for breakfast, when we saw two women pushing strollers, both swathed head to toe in black β€” jilbab, hijab, and niqab, again β€” only their eyes and hands visible.

While I was wondering how hot you’d get (it was a very bright summer day), Dad implied something along the lines of how wouldn’t you be scared of people like that. Can’t even see who’s under there. Really? Two young women pushing babies in strollers? I didn’t bother pointing out how they were out in public unaccompanied.

This morning over my coffee, I thought about our own family, and the many members of which who grow beards or wear head coverings and plain, full-length clothes (homemade!) Who have “unusual” culture, religion, and traditions and special government status due to their beliefs. Who eschew electric lighting and automobiles, speak a different language, manage their own finances and insurance, pay for medical treatment, and otherwise keep themselves separate from much of The World. Does it get noted if they buy large lots of fertilizer for their farms?

What are they thinking? How would you not be scared of people like that?