A dog is not just a dog.

I like the approach of winter, although to be honest, did it not involve pretty colours and the reasonable expectation of a sunny day here and there, summer’s end would be harder to take. The dog, on the other hand, is unequivocal, and is a big reason why last winter’s extended stretches of negative double-digit temperatures were bearable.   He loves the chill and you can’t help but share his pleasure, especially when snow is thick on the ground. He reverts to frenzied, loopy puppyhood, cavorting through fresh powder as if he’d never seen the stuff before; my joke—apparently now lamely old-school, terminologically speaking—is that snow is his drug of choice.

He’s getting old. Big dogs don’t last that long, and he’s seen nine winters now. His hips are  too loose and his rear paws drag when he’s tired, but he’s always game for a walk. We’re not sure how much pain he’s in; dogs in general tend to be stoics, and Malamutes are relatively expressionless by nature, so it’s hard to tell what he feels.

A couple of years more, at best. You know this from the start, and you’re philosophical about it, but imagining the day when the animal you love is gone isn’t easier for the fact that you know it’ll happen. Expectation of loss is built into your relationship, and the attendant melancholy only serves to make you appreciate it more.

This dog and his master—my son Mike—are the canine/human version of each other in many ways: Long-limbed and imposing, introverted, self-contained (except in snow, where the man also finds some thrills) and stubborn, in a nice way. An idea is only good if they thought of it themselves, and should you suggest a route to pursue or a behaviour to adopt, you’d better make it worth their while. Letting go entirely is generally the best approach.

A Malamute was chosen—not by me, in fact the very idea of a dog was vigorously discouraged by me—for reasons of the breed’s psychological characteristics. Chill, self-possessed and disinterested in other living things—cats, squirrels and jackrabbits excepted—a Mal is at the opposite end of the behavioural scale from, say, a Labrador, for whom anything that moves is a potential BFF.  Neither does the breed have even a tenth of the nervous energy and demanding nature of a Border Collie. In short, a low-needs dog whose personality and size, as it turned out, almost perfectly matches that of his primary person.

He fills the back of my Yaris to capacity, leaning against the seat with his head turned awkwardly to the rear, nose resting on the headrest. I worry about getting rear-ended by a driver distracted by the stare-down of an enormous dog who looks like bit like a panda in negative. I worry that he doesn’t wear a seat belt. I worry that his drool will permanently stain the headrest. And a few weeks ago, I thought he might explode and die there, on the back seat.

Two-and-a-half pounds of raw bread dough were missing from the countertop when my husband and I got home late from an impromptu dinner out. In fact, we didn’t even notice it was gone until the empty bowl was found on the floor behind the kitchen island, and a quick calculation suggested ingestion had taken place about two hours prior.   Never mind why it was left on the counter, or why the dog was inside when we weren’t at home—there are reasonable explanations for both. He’d stolen fresh loaves before, but I never imagined he’d go for the raw stuff.

He whined to be let out. This is not a dog who ever whines or says much of anything, so it was clear he was feeling a little off. I took him onto the front lawn and reamed him out.  Goddamn dog. Now there won’t be bread for breakfast. Goddamn you. There would be sloppy poops to deal with, although none were immediately forthcoming. Bloody hell. The neighbour appeared in a dressing gown at her front door, wanting to know what was up. She had a story about the turkey dinner her dog had gobbled up, and its apocalyptic aftermath, and sympathized with both of us. Just then my upstairs tenant burst through the door with her cell phone screen aimed at me. “I just googled ‘dogs and bread dough’ and look what I got,” she said, breathlessly. “It can be FATAL!”

The last time I’d made a midnight run to the vet clinic, after it became alarmingly obvious that the dog was way too thirsty, he’d spent a day hooked up to an IV and had a battery of pricey tests that showed his kidneys close to giving up. The source of the problem was never established, although antifreeze was suspected. He recovered and was not allowed in the garage again.

Bread has been his favourite thing ever since somebody forgot a sandwich loaf  on the counter when he was two. Since then he’s had his fair share of sourdough and artisanal boules, waiting patiently until the kitchen is all his and then sneaking away to his favourite consumption site, the living room carpet. Until recently the shelf high above the counter was out of his reach, but despite his arthritic hips and advanced age he managed to retrieve one of two loaves cooling there. Bread has never done him any harm, other than make it tricky for whoever has to scoop up the result the next day.

But a massive blob of sticky dough damming up his intestines was an urgent matter. I raced to the nearest animal hospital, only to be told the vet wasn’t in a position to deal with an emergency. Back in the car, speeding across town to what I later learned was the most expensive clinic in the city, I feared he was in silent agony, and ran a red light. My son met me there, grim-faced.

Uncooked yeast can have a similar effect as alcohol poisoning, said the vet. And the neurological damage is permanent, by way of changes to temperament and behaviour. He ticked off a bunch of other unfortunate side effects, including severe stomach distention and intestinal obstruction. In the latter case, surgery would be necessary to save his life.

Meanwhile, an injection to try to induce vomiting, X-rays, blood tests and an IV just because. Close observation, of course. The clinic manager would come and talk to us about fees.

It was approaching one in the morning. The manager, a slip of a thing in her mid-twenties, twirled into the consulting room, charts in hand. Facing her were two worried and dispirited people—one of whom felt crushingly responsible—who both loved a very sick dog, but there was no sign she thought the occasion was anything but happy. I felt she would have been better employed at a spa, or maybe a bridal shop.

She chirped her way through a daunting list of tests and procedures, with a recommendation that Noa be left in their care for the next 48 hours. That would make it $2500 (CAD), payable in advance. Nope, said my son. I don’t have that kind of money.

Oh that’s no problem at all, she trilled. I’ll just make up another invoice for a 24-hour stay. That’ll bring it down to about $1500, OK? She might even have winked. And what colour would you like for your toenails?  The only thing holding me back from excoriating her was the presence of my child, for whom I will never stop trying to set a good example. Also, I didn’t want to make it any harder for him to maintain his stoicism.

We went into the examining room to say our awkward goodbyes to the dog, pretending it was only ‘good night’. Mike camped out in the parking lot, bracing himself for the call signalling the end was near. I went home and cried.

But Noa was still alive the next morning, and the vet tech reported that he’d had a short walk and a small poop. They were giving him ice cubes to try to kill the yeast, which seemed like magical thinking to me. It would be best, they said, if we left him under observation for another day.

Mike figured he could handle feeding his dog ice cubes and keeping an eye on him for a lot less money. We checked him out around the 12-hour mark, and to my surprise, the clinic refunded half the fee.  He was quiet on the way home and immediately upon exiting the car, spurted brown goop on the neighbour’s lawn.  By the third day, he seemed pretty OK, normal on all counts.

On day six, while on a stroll along a trendy avenue lined with restaurants— drawing the usual attention for his appealing combination of adorable but wolfish—he  let go, right there on the sidewalk in front of a patio packed with diners, with an epic bout of diarrhea. Truly phenomenal. It perked him right up.

I’m relieved he survived. My guilt over setting up an opportunity for him to eat his way into doggie heaven was already heavy, but his demise would have put an end to my bread-baking future, the association just too awful.

There is now a designated empty shelf in the pantry for rising dough, and as long as I remember to shut the door, we’re all going to be OK.

Snow Noa

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It’s probably too late

A few days ago we waved goodbye to a Canadian couple we had hosted for a week. I did not jump up and down with glee as they drove out of sight, and I also made an effort not to  mention too often my relief at having the place to ourselves again, although my inner conversations weren’t so disciplined.

They were perfectly nice people. Considerate guests and independent explorers, they chipped in for groceries and offered to make a meal. They didn’t stay up late or get up too early, and complimented me on my cooking, always in superlatives. (Enough to make one doubt their sincerity).

There were two problems, one being that we barely knew them, and the other was, well, that we barely knew them.

Impulsively, I had asked Mr Guest many months ago if he would be interested in coming to the South of France to give lessons to our small group of pickleball players. He is a very capable instructor, and trading coaching for accommodation seemed like a win-win. He came across as an amenable fellow and after a quick mental run-through of  the potential visit, I couldn’t imagine a downside. We invited him and his wife for dinner and  didn’t get any red flags.

How easily I forget that I’m an introvert. I don’t like sharing my private space, unless with people I know well whose company I enjoy (yes, that’s you I’m talking about). To have asked virtual strangers to come and stay for a week or more was totally outside my comfort zone, but I was blithe. The benefits would far outweigh any possible discomfort.

And that was true. The players, including the two of us, got some excellent instruction and I’m now optimistic about doing better in tournaments, with a bit (a lot) of practice of the skills he taught us.

But what was really disappointing was to find that, even at my apparent level of maturity, I’m incapable to remaking myself as a someone who’s tolerant and accepting of other people’s foibles. (A foible, I see, is also the weak point of a sword blade, between the centre and the tip. So says the Free Dictionary).

After-dinner conversations were gold-medal tedium, one-way exposés of bargains found and mishaps avoided. And the humour was, to put it gently, unsophisticated. That may have been the worst, actually. When somebody is genuinely funny, laughter glosses over other potential annoyances, but when the jokes are in themselves irritating, there’s no hope. Moreso when the teller unfailingly points out that s/he has just made a joke.

I have no excuse for having to make an unnatural effort to remain warm and inclusive, other than not knowing how long they intended to stay. In addition to not fully considering the invitation in the first place, this was a big mistake. At about day four, I was in an agony of indecision as to how to diplomatically approach the issue of their departure date. Fortunately, Mr Guest dove in first, and bluntly asked if I had any complaints about their behaviour. Of course I did not, but it gave me the opening to say it would be good to know how long they would like to stay.

Either he got the message pronto, or he had already planned to leave after a week. We don’t know for sure, and squirm a bit at the thought that maybe we upended their travel budget. In any case, they went off to drive around the region. I stayed nice until the very, very end, although frankly,  anybody with a modicum of insight might have noticed my clenched teeth.

Every time I start to feel that a guest is a stone in my shoe, I vow to react differently the next time.  I will just relax, laugh it off, remind myself that I too have considerable potential to irritate, and get over it. I will not be  territorial about the kitchen (where I feel I have some control) and will not spring up from the table immediately after dinner to load the dishwasher. (This is downright dismissive and something a member of my family does frequently. I get it: neither of us can stand aimless chit-chat, but it’s rude and a teeny bit hurtful).

At this point in my life, my host-testiness is not likely to morph into something kinder. Once again I’ve learned a lesson, but don’t know that there’s any point to it unless I can put it into practice.

But my new pickleball skills? Now there’s some hope for lasting change.

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Much) Better than some

It’s been a wonderful day.

Went back to bed after breakfast to finish the last of the 806 pages of A Little Life (Hanya Yanagihara), messaging my success to the youngest son, who had pushed me to buy the book 10 days ago and ‘read it as quickly as you can, please, so we can discuss it.’

I stayed up late and woke up early to read, abandoned Netflix, read at breakfast, read in the bathroom, read in the middle of the day. The middle of the day!!

Did I like it? Hate it? Bit of both? I couldn’t say which. What I did like was being completely pulled in to the story of Jude, Willem, Malcolm and JB, even if substantial parts of the book were harrowing to read, and the foreshadowing made me afraid to continue. You should take it on if you dare.

A ding announced a message: my daughter has received a solid offer for a job she thought she had, then feared she wouldn’t get. Now she’ll move to another city, not too far, but far enough that there won’t be Sunday morning pancakes together. I admire her resolve, her willingness to do what it takes to learn new things, build a reputation in her field. At least it’s not Australia, or France, or Sweden this time..

Then lunch at a little Japanese place with a good, good friend. Two hours of conversation about things that mattered, and some that didn’t. Emerging into a blast of sunlight, I walked back to the car, hopping awkwardly over rivulets of snowmelt turned to sly ice in the shadows.

Downtown to drop off a necklace for repair at a goldsmith’s shop. His atelier, on the second floor of a heritage building, smells of old wood and history, every surface covered with tools, drawers full of gemstones. He is an artist, a creator of beauty, but he seems not to mind such a simple job as the one I’ve brought him: the necklace my husband brought me when I woke up from cardiac surgery has lost its tiny blue heart and I feel naked without it. A heart for a heart, says the goldsmith.

I walk past a homeless guy slumped in the subway (in my town, a subway is a passage under the railway tracks) and felt shitty, as usual, for avoiding the misery of a person who hasn’t had my luck. Tired of feeling shitty, I go to MacDonald’s and order a takeout meal.

He is about the age of my oldest son, mid-thirties at most. Dirty, cold, and not very with it. Drugged, probably, but able to rouse himself enough to say he could do with something to eat. Then he reaches up, opening his arms for an embrace. My first instinct is No!, but my second, better one is to lean down and hug him for a long moment.

Came home, got Noa, the giant dog. Took him up on the hill (his favourite place) to run giddy and panting with a pack of neighbourly dogs, among them Norman, a tall, elegant thing who never gets over his wonderment that there exists a dog bigger than he. Norman’s mistress, a wickedly funny professor of American history, invited us back to her house for a glass of wine with her husband, a wickedly funny professor of American history, whereupon Noa seized on the dog toys and quietly, ruthlessly, shredded a number of them while we drank our rouge.

In the chill aftermath of sunset, we galloped back home. I imagined people seeing us from their kitchen windows, tittering at a middle-aged woman flying down the street, helpless to rein in a dog hell-bent on his dinner. It was my fault entirely: I urged him on with that single word.

We ate companionably: me leftovers, he a raw egg drizzled over his kibble, the better to make his meds palatable. He eyed my plate, but for nothing: I never feed him from the table.

Then there was noise at the front door, the sound of big shoes dropped to the floor: the oldest son, come by for a quick ‘hi’ and oh, some leftovers. Things got interesting, and he stayed on for an hour and a half. While he talked, I searched his face, trying to find in his strong, handsome features the three-year-old who had thrown himself into the arms of a stranger, yelling ‘”Cuddle!” Oh, it goes by so fast, a life.

Now the house is quiet. The dog sleeps, paws twitching as he dreams.

And I will have to find a new book to read.

Three Small Stories

Just after Christmas I was handed a fat red envelope.

The giver was a doctor friend of my daughter, who had come back to Calgary after embarking on a world tour by 4X4. He’d spent the first six months of an intended eighteen travelling from Australia to India, China, Tibet and, regrettably, Kazakhstan (“absolutely nothing to recommend about the place”) where an accident forced him to abandon his truck, most of his belongings and all of his plans.

But I didn’t know a thing about that last bit. I’d been following his trip on Instagram, and had wondered why he was suddenly in London, then off to Chios, Greece to volunteer at a refugee camp, then Amsterdam, then Ireland. Maybe he was just taking a little break from all that driving.

Then he turned up in Calgary, and my daughter said I was on his list of people to see.  That’s nice, I thought. But weird.

I turned the mystery envelope over a few times. Why would a university chum of hers give me a Christmas card, and why bother doing it in person? Even more puzzling, it was weighty enough to suggest more than just a card. Was he an aspiring writer and wanted my nod? Was he going to declare something? He and my daughter were just good friends, so it couldn’t be that, surely. They sat on the couch in her tiny living room, snickering at my confusion.

I opened the flap. It was a letter all right, written on heavy vellum. Withdrawing the folded sheets, it hit me; only one person I knew had such elegant handwriting. “What the hell…?” I stared at the salutation, then at the doctor friend. “This is nuts! How—where—on earth did you get this?”

After his European fling he’d ended up in Dublin visiting a girl he’d met a few years earlier while trekking in Nepal. She took him out to her parents’ house for dinner and in the get-to-know-you chitchat, her mother asked where his home was. Calgary! She had an old friend who lived there, but had lost her address and hadn’t been in touch for years. Did he think he could track down the friend with just a name?

Our adventurer had some convincing to do before his Irish friend’s mom would believe that the name she had given him was none other than mine, the mother of his old university pal. Despite the unusual surname, she wanted proof. Had I once lived in France? Who were my other children?

Satisfied, she dashed off a letter and just after Christmas, I was handed a fat red envelope.

****

Always too cheap to jump on the latest tech trend, I finally decided to replace an iPhone so far behind the times that it was labelled ‘vintage’.  Twenty pages of phones for sale on Kijiji yielded the one I was looking for, and at a very fair price. Almost too fair, which made me slightly suspicious.

After a few emails back and forth, the seller agreed to meet me at an Apple store, which meant dragging her husband and two little kids to the mall on a bitterly cold day from her sub-sub-sub-urban home.

She—bravely clad in a cold-shoulder top— was young and bubbly, the kind of person you’d love to have as a next-door neighbour. With a thumbs-up from Apple, we traded phone for cash and congratulated each other on a successful transaction.

Except that there’s never an upgrade without the ripple effect, and naturally, my  old SIM card wouldn’t fit the new phone. Off to the phone store to get another one, where another bubbly young woman said I’d have to pay for the card, at a price vastly disproportionate to its nano size. Just as upsetting was the fact that she was required to see my picture ID.

My drivers licence photo is a likeness of me, yes, but I deeply regret that it was taken after I had spent most of that day in the bathroom with a paint roller. It was my birthday, the last day for renewal, and it was only at 3:30 in the afternoon that I remembered the registry office closed at 4.

While it would take a magnifying glass to spot the paint splatters on my face, everything else about my features is starkly exposed. My hair is scraped into a ponytail, and the angle of the shot is such that what remains visible of my hair (disingenuously indicated as ‘blond’) is blends seamlessly into the grey-scale background.

I passed the licence across the counter and pretended interest in a display of phone  accessories.

And then, “Oh! What a GREAT picture!”

I flinched.

“I LOVE your no-hair look!” she exclaimed.

She couldn’t just stop there. She bubbled on to say how fabulous I looked and how she wished she could wear her hair like that and I realized finally that she thought I had no hair at all in the picture and was being sympathetic because obviously I went directly to the photo shoot from a chemotherapy session.

Her effusion, remarkably genuine, meant that I let myself be convinced to buy a case for the new phone, although I drew the line at a $50 screen protector.

 ****

Once, in Grade 7, I put my hand up in class.

This was sufficiently startling that Wayne P yelled at the teacher “Pick her! Pick Sebbydoodle!!! She knows the answer!”

Until that moment I’d mostly escaped notice from my classmates except for the occasional ‘Sudul-Sudul-rhymes-with-noodle’ chant. The new nickname was a step up, not unkind, almost affectionate given the right tone. It stayed in use until the end of Grade 9 but in high school it was forgotten as I was swallowed up by the crowd, on nobody’s radar. The name was resurrected by my youngest when he first heard the story and subsequently proved to be handy as a username. (What? Someone else is using DebS??)

On impulse a few months back I sent Wayne a Facebook message. It said: If you’re the same Wayne P who was the class clown at Parkdale School, I just want to say that the nickname you gave me way back when has endured, and how are you, anyway?

He replied right away (eek! What had I started?) and promised to get in touch when he came to the city. Months went by and I almost forgot about him; when he finally called to ask if we could meet up at a Tim Horton’s I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go.

How very wrong-headed.

As I came through the doors of the café he leapt to his feet and pulled me into a big hug, exclaiming, “You’re so pretty!” To be honest, I doubted him, but then again, my face was paint-free and the ponytail had been ditched in favour of flow.

Wayne was the nice guy I remembered him as, still funny, and way more interesting than his younger self. His life as a Mountie had been unconventional and adventurous, and he had some good stories to tell. It was great to catch up with him, and to discover that neither of us had liked high school and had kept in touch with almost no one.

Midway through a refill, he got serious.

“There’s something I need to apologize for,” he confessed. “I said something awful to you years ago.”

“You what? I have no clue what you’re talking about.”

“God. Maybe I shouldn’t have brought it up.” He rubbed his face and grimaced. “Well,…oh jeez…OK, well, sometime in junior high—I don’t remember exactly—you called the teacher over and told her that I had called you a bitch.”

I choked on my double-double. “Really? No kidding. And then what happened?”

“She told you that it just meant ‘a female dog’.” He shook his head.

“Good pick, ” I said. “Though I might have just been asking her for a definition.” (It was about the same time that I first heard the word ‘masturbate’ and had to look it up in the Oxford, which unhelpfully offered ‘self-abuse’.)

Wayne looked like my dog after stealing bread off the counter. “I was too ashamed and embarrassed to do the right thing back then, and it’s bothered me ever since.” He sighed. “I’m sorry, and I’m sorry that it took so long to say it.”

I squinted. I could almost see Wayne at his desk, watching the teacher and me, aghast at what he’d done. It felt like something long-lost was re-surfacing and I really wanted to remember it just so his angst hadn’t been for nothing. But the camera angle was all wrong; the memory was fake.

I forgave him. We laughed and hugged again and when it was time to go, he kissed me on the cheek. At home I told my husband everything, not leaving out the ‘pretty’ part. Wayne messaged later to say how much fun he’d had and how he couldn’t believe he’d kissed Debi Sudul, as if I’d once been the girl of his dreams.

 

****

There goes another one.

With two words, I have just ended a friendship of six years, give or take a few months. They—those words, best left to your imagination—have been waiting in the wings for a while; the other night I looked hard at them for about thirty seconds and then gave the nod. This is unfortunate for several reasons, the first being that email was involved, the second because it’s never a cause for celebration when you’ve had enough of someone whose company you used to like.

The world is full of advice on how to navigate relationships, whether familial, marital, amicable or commercial, and what to do with the ones that don’t work. We—and by ‘we’ I mean women, since men don’t seem to have the same issues—are often encouraged to free ourselves from the confines of judgemental relationships and one-way connections, to detoxify our lives, to cull the people who don’t fulfil us.

I don’t entirely disagree, but that kind of counsel seems lacking in nuance. Why toss people out instead of recycling/repurposing them? Could I have tried harder to understand her? Will I have regrets? Will she? And was I fair? The answer to that last question—which niggles at me most—is ‘probably not’, given my unavoidably subjective view of her behaviour, which I interpreted as critical, controlling and wholly lacking in self-awareness.

I have previously lamented the loss of a long-time friend who purposefully went radio silent without any warning, or at least none that I picked up on. It took me years to stop wondering what had gone wrong, and only then because I ran into her and asked for an explanation (there wasn’t one). I did, however, feel better for having been able to say, matter-of-factly, how much it had hurt to lose her.

Then there were other friendships that simply ran out of gas. Lack of communality, proximity or plain disinterest rather than a disagreement are, I would guess, the way many of us don’t bother to put energy into s long as both parties are lukewarm, it’s an understandable, unlamented outcome. We are enriched by situational and temporary relationships, but there’s no rule that says they all have to last a lifetime.

Last summer, after spending a week together on a boat, a friend of twenty years suggested we call it quits. Yes, it’s true that close quarters and stressful situations can make or break a bond, and in this case, the trip served to highlight things we didn’t appreciate about the other. Rather than opting out of future holidays together, my friend figured we’d be better off with an amicable divorce. Without enough love to counterbalance the dislike, it was a reasonable thing to do, although months later she second-guessed that decision. We are currently in a sort of DMZ, trying to figure out if there’s enough left to give it another go.

Nobody really likes confrontation. Some engage in it willingly enough, but I’m pretty sure that, deep down, they don’t enjoy it. Deliberately and openly ending a friendship—especially while pissed off—without getting into that superheated territory, however, requires a level of skill and control that I do not possess. In this most recent parting my irritation morphed into anger and, best buds with adrenalin that it is, overwhelmed any diplomacy I might have had.

In the days since, I’ve had to remind myself of the long lead-up to that moment and rationalized the positive aspect of being unambiguous. My friend and I would have drifted apart at some near-future point, of that I’m sure, but the whole thing feels like having to put the cat down—you know the end is inevitable, but it feels crappy to do it.

My youngest son, an astute observer of human behaviour, is perplexed by this sort of thing. He sees no point to drawing lines in the sand and thinks that friends should be appreciated for their good points without dwelling on their shortcomings. Guys don’t dump guys for the kind of behaviours that bother women, he says, and unscientific study of men I am acquainted with would suggest that he’s right.

On the other hand, when men do let a friendship go, they tend to get past it and not agonize over the decision. Maybe they’re on to something.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Will we have to get used to the dark?

In June of 1944 my mother crossed the Atlantic in a convoy of ships;  a hopeful war bride with a newborn on her way to join my father in England. My parents had  met in Calgary, where the British government had sent my father and thousands of other young recruits to learn to fly in airspace safely beyond the range of enemy aircraft. After completing his training, he was transferred to a base in Ontario where he and my mother married and lived for a year before he was assigned to a bomber squadron in England.

The voyage was a thrilling adventure for a twenty-year-old—one who could reasonably be described as wilful—traveling outside her country for the first time.  Ignoring the warnings of the crew, she spent much of her time on deck with my six-week-old brother clutched in her arms, seeking respite in the wind and salt-spray from the sea-sickened misery of the other, mostly female, passengers.  The convoys that regularly plied the north Atlantic were made up of merchant ships carrying supplies to Britain, troopships, passenger vessels and their naval escorts. She knew about the German U-boats that prowled beneath, but likely had no idea of the magnitude of the threat they represented. Over the course of the North Atlantic battle, some 3,500 Allied ships were lost.

If she was initially charmed by the picturesque setting of her new home, she soon found out what it meant to be living in a country at war. A few weeks after she arrived at my grandparents’ house, thirteen miles from London, Germany began to bombard the capital  with V-1 rockets—buzz bombs, so named for their noisy flight. Launched from the French and Dutch coasts at a rate of more than a hundred per day, the radio-guided missiles were intended to wreak both physical damage and psychological trauma, and were notoriously inaccurate.

My grandfather was the village air raid warden, responsible for getting people to the shelters when the air raid sirens sounded. My mother hated the dank and crowded bunkers and after a time, refused to go back. My grandparents were appalled; she took the chance that the bombs wouldn’t fall short of their target, and that it one did, she’d know by its sudden silence to take cover.

It seems odd to me now that she never revealed whether she had been afraid. If she told her stories with some  pride in her youthful bravado, it was only because she had survived, along with everyone else in the family. My grandparents, having already lived through the nightmare of World War I and the Blitz of 1940-41, were probably far more fearful of the toll the war might take.

Hearing about my mother’s wartime experiences—my quiet father said far less about what he had seen and done—was like being read a book with thrilling bits where the heroine is up against darkness, but armed with resourcefulness, luck and courage, she prevails. My mother’s real-life adventures became entwined with what I learned in school about the war, and my child’s conclusion was that everyone had learned a crucial lesson and would never make that mistake again. War would never threaten my world.

Although the list of regional, non-Western conflicts since 1945 is a very long one, my assumption wasn’t so naive. It was supported by reality: former enemies signed peace treaties, then trade agreements. Government ministers conferred with their foreign counterparts. Borders opened. Belgian students basked on the beaches of Eastern Bloc countries. The Common Market became the European Union; the League of Nations expanded to become the United Nations. Apologies were made, even if they were slow to come. The Berlin wall fell to human hands and hope. Gorbachev threw open the Iron Curtain.

Peace wasn’t a dream; it was a living thing. Cooperation allowed disparate peoples to travel, exchange, discuss, encourage, educate, benefit, assist, harmonize, understand. It’s hard to pick the single most significant word in that incomplete list.

In Europe, where I have twice lived for the better part of seventeen years, the opportunities were legion. They still are, for now, but doors across the continent are beginning to close. With Brexit looming, the rise of the nationalist right in France, Holland, Hungary and Austria—among others—and the terrifying news that the world’s most powerful country has elected an authoritarian demagogue who will sit at the head of the table with Putin at the other end, we may well be in for it.

Whatever the eventual sources of frustration and disappointment in the bureaucratic workings and decisions of the European Union —and they are numerous— its member countries signed on purposefully as partners in solidarity, joining a real-life experiment in economic and social cohesion. If, like a slo-mo images of an imploding building, the underpinnings of the EU begin to fail with the desertion of its member states, then a war in the West will no longer be unthinkable. Goodwill is not enough; nations need to be obliged to work together in mutually advantageous ways, to commit to the idea that they are stronger together in all ways, not just economic ones.

Inclusive and outward-looking foreign policy can temper tribalism—the source of one of our greatest comforts and some of our worst behaviour—but if populist movements halt or reverse the progress made towards international co-operation, then conflict between Western nations who’ve been doing their best to play nice since the Second World War will not long be unthinkable.

I have always believed that humankind was moving—and wanted to move—towards  breaking down barriers in all things. We were able to point to the evidence that ways had been found to accommodate and respect differences, that we preferred partnership over conflict and that the lessons of history continued to remind us of what could happen if we went off course.

Since the American election, I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother and wondering how long it took her to get her head around the fact that she lived in an unsafe world. Months? A week? An instant? Perhaps she did what I have been doing since November 8—uselessly returning in my mind to the day before the lights dimmed.

I never imagined that I would be afraid for the generations to come. My life, like that of much of my boomer cohort, was better in significant ways than my parents’ had been. I was confident that we would continue that course, and make the effort to equalize our society. Instead, our children and grandchildren face not only potentially catastrophic ecological problems, but social and economic ones that raise the possibility of conflict on a large scale.

My mother crossed the Atlantic again seven years later, returning permanently to Canada with my father and my two brothers. She was hopeful about the future, looking forward to its possibilities and promise, and I’m certain she wasn’t disappointed. Did the fact that she had known a global war in her lifetime make her more or less optimistic about the chances of it happening again?

Her stories were a link to a time that we all need to remember, and I can only hope that the memory-keepers among us will help keep the lights on.

 

 

 

When You Least Expect It

I had the advantage, in that I saw her first.  Fifteen seconds, in which I could digest the fact that the woman at the desk was the one who had haunted me for years. She was concentrating on some paperwork, while I waited for her to lift her head to ask,  presumably, how she could be of assistance.

Instead, she stared up at me, stunned. It must be fate, I said. Her face stiffened into, what? A kind of wary defensiveness, perhaps. Why would you say that? Without waiting for an answer, she said, almost angrily, What are you doing back here?

But I never really left, I said. I was sure you knew that.

We looked at each other for a long moment. Are you well? I asked.

Her expression softened. Yes, yes I am. She leaned forward, cupped her hand to her mouth and whispered, confidingly, I’m never going to retire. They don’t know how old I am, and you’d better not tell them!

My heart relaxed. If she could talk to me like this, then perhaps there was a chance we could find our way back, even briefly. The telephone rang. I have to answer this, she said apologetically. The call was brief; she put the handset down and leaned back, smiling. I have two beautiful granddaughters now.

I probably shouldn’t have said that I knew. She recoiled, her mouth forming a soundless How? I’m friends with K on Facebook, I said.  .

I don’t like Facebook, she spat. Have no use for it. She was clearly shocked by the fact that her daughter was in contact with me, even if from a distance. I hoped there would be no repercussions for the younger woman, while understanding that my former friend was hurt. I couldn’t blame her, although a part of me thought You see? You might have discarded me, but she had her own loyalties.    

I didn’t know where the conversation was going to go now, but was more intrigued than apprehensive. I felt like a clinical observer, watching the sea changes of my subject.

To my surprise, she began to talk about how the experience of having grandchildren had changed her, and how different was the connection with them than with her own children.  I realized then what I had forgotten about her over the last ten years – how lyrically she could express herself. Our shared pleasure in the beauty of language had been something so special that, as I was now reminded, the loss of it flooded through me.

I’ve missed you, I said. I used to dream about you so often, that we were friends again.

I dreamt about you, too, about a month ago.

Why did you disappear?

I had longed to ask the question for most of those years and now it came quietly, without emotion.  She cocked her head, looked past me. I don’t know. You know, I’d have to think about that.

I assume you got my letter, I said. The one I wrote about six years ago. She nodded, said nothing.

It hurt, that you never replied.  She was clearly uncomfortable. This isn’t the place to talk about it, she said.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to make a scene – I just tried to understand why you withdrew like that without ever saying anything. I imagined all kinds of possibilities: that I had offended you, that you disapproved of my choices at the time, that…well, I had no idea. Perhaps you were just tired of the friendship.

She jumped on that. Yes, that’s probably it. I think we were just done, she said,

So there it was. As simple, as enigmatic as that.

I didn’t want to let go just yet. I asked about her husband, a guy I had liked a lot.   And what about M? At the mention of her son’s name, she sighed deeply. You know, if you’d asked me about him a month ago, I would have burst into tears. He’s gone through so much, a lot of self-discovery, had to figure out what he really wants. But amazingly, now he seems to have done it, and he’s in a really good place.

She talked on about him, this boy I had known since he was born, had seen grow into a person of immense talent and spectacular intelligence. She confided in me as though we were back in those days when we’d have a regular date to eat Italian, staying late over endless cups of coffee, talking, talking, talking. Feeling through our fingertips – literally! – the electric charge of connection. Marvelling at how close we were.

She stopped abruptly.  What are you here for, actually?

I explained. I had been advised to borrow a CD on meditation from this, the hospital library, in preparation for heart surgery. Her eyes widened but she didn’t comment. Asked nothing about me, nor the kids whom she’d known so well. She pulled a form from a drawer.

Just write your name and address here. You know, it’s just like when you were in elementary and you checked out a book.  She laughed.  No need to sign it. Did you ever sign a library card at school? No. Not here either. She handed me the CD and said I could keep it for 3 weeks.

We had reached the end. I knew it. But even though I had been dispassionately assessing her behaviour and odd reactions, unable to avoid the conclusion that this was not someone I could be friends with again, I still wanted to draw something from her unexpected confidences and uneven warmth. It was a few minutes before noon.

Any chance we could do lunch?

She shied from the question, startled and uncomfortable. I ’d seen this reaction before in her, this instinctive aversion to unpleasantness. Maybe some other time, she said.

No, you don’t mean that. And you still can’t say it. I shook my head and walked away.

It had taken a long time to get over losing my best friend, although her daughter’s bewilderment over her mother’s refusal to explain my absence helped me to accept that I wasn’t likely to get any answers, either. I understood that it would have been very difficult for her to say, flat out, that it was over, but I never really forgave her for what felt like cruelty.

Until yesterday that is, when, in an unlikely coincidence, I was handed the chance to ask the question that had bothered me for so long.   And more than that, to let her know that it had been hard to lose her. Is it vindication? Maybe. Or maybe it’s because I believe it’s fair to face the consequences of our acts.

I’m free of my old hurt, while feeling some sympathy for her. Unexpected and unwelcome as it was, our conversation would have been unsettling for her, I think. In any case, the story has finally come to an end, and if I didn’t know better, I’d think the universe had conspired to make it happen.