A gentle fading

Sunset, sitting on the dock at my ex-stepgrandfather’s cottage, I dangled my feet into the still lake, watching the tiny waves ripple out. I’d gone down to the dock feeling a bit melancholy, trying to say goodbye. I scooped up a handful of water and tossed it into air. The water shifted into tiny spheres as they fell back to the water, splattering its surface with dozens of little bullseyes. But then something interesting happened: all the little bullseyes joined into a giant one, a target that radiated outward, then disappeared. There’s physics to explain this, said my smart sister, but I was astonished nonetheless: it felt like my own little discovery.

And that’s one thing cottages are for, surprising connections with the natural world that widen your eyes and narrow your focus to just one little thing.

Of course cottages were for other things too: sun and swims and sugary treats, dinner in damp bathing suits and after-supper boat rides, fields turned into baseball diamonds, fireworks and fireflies, a sky improbably full of stars. They’re for happy hour turned happy hours, card games and cleansing pints, the clinking of glasses and dominoes and dimes in Crown Royal bags, the gentle swing of a hammock and the wheeling arms of Heels Over. They’re for diving for golf balls, finding fish in pockets of shade, holding your breath as long as possible. For laughter and loon calls echoing across the lake, the tinny patter of rain on the roof. Hamburgers for breakfast, the Dairy for lunch, corn roasts and vegetable dinners, tea and cookies on the dock in the evening. For wild hair, calloused feet, and always a bit too much sun.

I’d been going to that cottage for 29 years. For a long time it was my favourite three weeks of every summer. It’s where I became part of a new family, embraced with open arms, though I was, I’m sure at least at first, the baggage that comes with marrying a divorcé, the awkward +1. I made new friends too, had crushes, got my first bikini, learned to back dive and play Chinese checkers and identify the fish I stalked in the shadows beneath the raft. I swam almost as much as the resident loons and was marginally lake-famous as the teenager who swam the length of the lake and back on a bet with her dad.

It was a place of so many beginnings, though on this recent visit I was there to help weed through old stuff, to prepare it for sale. Many years every bed was full, even the couch—the cottage was a cup spilling over. But now, so many were gone—died, divorced, moved away—and there was no one who could give it enough time to hold on.

We like to imagine things will go on forever, and perhaps that’s why goodbyes are so hard: we’re forced to face that they don’t. But it was a place that had already seen a series of goodbyes, and the evidence was all around us: we flipped through old photo albums, my grandfather dropping a finger on each face and announcing them dead, unearthed my late-nana’s wedding dress, now yellowed with age, packed up old lamps and crib liners that once seemed worth saving and now were destined for the dump. We drank gin and tonics every afternoon at 4:30 in honour of another departed grandmother. My dad, still alive but no longer a part of the family, lingered in photos, in the wood sign that once hung over the garage. Every time I’m there I feel his absence keenly: he is a great connector of people, and without him we sometimes seem like those water droplets, our ripples overlapping but not quite joining up.

The other thing about goodbyes is they’re hopelessly inadequate, of course: we expect them to be a period, a tidy cap on a long book of feelings and memories, people and landscapes and the tiniest details, like an ugly magnet or faded paperback. Really a goodbye is more like the periods in an ellipsis, the beginning of a gentle fading away . . .

I was reading an old New Yorker on a plane recently and stumbled into Kathryn Schultz’s wonderful meditation on loss, “When Things Go Missing.”  She starts by ruminating on misplaced objects (wallet, keys, etc.) but before long she’s talking about the loss of her father. “We will lose everything we love in the end. But why should that matter so much?” she writes. “By definition we do not live in the ends, we live all along the way.”

I struggled with the right way to say goodbye to the cottage, but as Schultz reminds us, that part is beside the point. Perhaps the best goodbye is being alive to the moment, savouring that moment of dockside astonishment, and not forgetting to take in the scenery as the car turns off the dirt road one last time.

Pet People

Last week my dad lost his 1.5-year-old puppy when a series of unfortunate events led to her being hit by a car. He called me from the veterinarian’s office, gasping, sobbing. I had to gently but firmly remind him to breathe. My dad has lost both of his parents in the last five years, and I had never seen this level of grief from him. It was sudden, it was shocking, she was so young, he thought it was his fault: all of these compounded the most basic, heartwrenching thing—losing an animal hurts so much more than we think it should. 

My dad’s dog-person conversion was a late-in-life surprise. All my life he scorned animals, and when his wife insisted on their first dog, he swore she’d be a ball and chain and he refused to care for her in any way. Their first dog is demure and well-behaved. She never barks, just looks at you with soulful eyes when she needs food or a walk. His hard stand-offishness didn’t stand a chance. Before long, he carried the little ball of fluff around in a backpack when he went snowshoeing, smuggled her into my grandfather’s nursing home, got kicked out of Rona many times for bringing a dog (and later two dogs) into the store. He talked to the dogs like babies, treated them that way too. My dad is already an affectionate person, but the dogs cracked open something new in him. 

 Because loving a pet is different than loving a human. It is uncomplicated and pure, with little expectation. A dog is a daily reminder of unconditional love. A cat is often more selective, but that makes their attention all the more special. Both are constant companions whose main responsibility is just to be there. To greet you when you get home, or rest a paw on your lap, or be a soft, heaving pillow when the world seems too hard. 

I’ve had my cat for seven years, and I appreciate him every day. I kiss him on the head, scratch his chin, tell him he’s a good boy. We’ve never left the honeymoon stage. No matter how low my mood, a nose kiss or a cuddle will make things slightly better. He is always a break in the clouds. 

I talk to him all the time, which may be the origin of that “crazy cat lady” stereotype, but I don’t care. I do it because I find it amusing or comforting or simply because he’s there. Also because I grew up in a household of people who weren’t ooey-gooey and didn’t talk much about emotions. Sometimes we didn’t talk much at all. But we did talk about our pets, joked about them, lavished them with more affection that we would ever show for each other. Even now, I’m more likely to text my mom and stepdad about my cat than about anything in my life. Our Love Language is animals. 

I’m glad my dad discovered this hidden corner of his heart, though now it hurts to see his grief. He didn’t know how of your heart can reside with a four-legged creature. He didn’t know that pets are, as my partner says, “heartbreak on layaway.”

But I’ll take the heartbreak. I proofread a vet’s memoir a few months ago, and he wisely notes that pets are special because they make us more human. But I think it’s even more than that. They’re also models for how we would all love each other in an ideal world: without conditions or complex histories, completely and unfailingly, day in and day out. 

Keepers of Stories

My partner and I watched the movie Coco the other weekend, and it was fun, and funny, and touching—up to the golden Pixar standard—but what I keep thinking about was the central idea that we live on only as long as someone remembers us. For someone who’s not a believer in the afterlife, I find this quite beautiful and quite reassuring. A story is not just a story, it’s a resurrection.

I find funerals challenging because, well, death, and also emoting publicly, and I’m not someone who needs to (or wants to) see a corpse for closure. But I’ve come to see the part that is so valuable is the telling of stories, of seeing the physical gathering of so many of the people a person touched.

I’m not the best at talking to strangers, so visitations can be hard. Mostly I’m just willing them to be over. Emotional stress smothers the social skills I’ve painstakingly developed. But after my grandfather’s visitation, I realized, that while I would rather do almost anything else, the stories that can come out of a visitation and funeral are priceless. It’s an incredible gift to have someone come to an unpleasant occasion, to be part of that remembrance. And what emerges is a fuller picture, so many threads knit together.

But these occasions aren’t just an opportunity to learn, but to affirm what you felt was true. When someone dies, it can almost feel like the whole thing was a dream. So it is good to hear that yes, he was good and generous and kind. But also to have someone remember that time he sang opera on the lake while people tried to fish. We are the witnesses to each other’s lives.

It also means our greatest chance at a sort of immortality is to touch as many people as possible. Which sounds calculating, but I don’t mean it that way at all. Being an introvert, I often don’t prioritize relationships, or social events, or even casual interactions. It can seem too draining a prospect. But when all this fades away, when we fade away, this is what remains. At least for a while.

I think that we’re here to make this world better than when we left it. To tend our garden, à la Voltaire. But now I’m realizing we’re also here to bear witness. To each other’s lives, to the world, so that we are not the tree falling in the proverbial forest with no one to hear it.

The biggest surprise of the funeral was the unexpected appearance of my childhood best friend. She tapped me on the shoulder, and when I turned and saw her, I burst into unstoppable tears. It meant so much that she showed up, this witness to my grandfather’s life, and also to an important chapter of mine. There’s a song I can’t find (despite furious Googling), with a lyric that talks about learning how we need the ones who knew us when we began. And it’s true. I’m so grateful to have many old friends, who knew a different me, a different time, a version not saved over as I’ve grown up, even if often that person was sometimes (often) awkward or awful. I’m happy to speak my friend’s name again, to think of her more, to update my family on her life. It’s a wonderful reminder that we’re the keepers of each other’s stories, and the best thing we can do is to keep telling them.

Grandpa

Last Wednesday, my grandfather died. It wast not completely unexpected, yet also sudden. In The Fault in Our Stars, John Green describes falling in love like falling asleep, something that happens “slowly, and then all at once.” I think death is like that too. Even when it’s merciful, even when it is a long time coming, it seems a life is extinguished so quickly. It’s a long entrance into the world, but such a swift exit.

I am not a believer in an afterlife—no comfy clouds or choirs of angels, as nice as that would be. And at times like this, that’s hard. If he lives on, he lives on in us.

More than anything, my grandpa was a builder. His life was the proof that you could learn anything, accomplish anything, build anything. He and my grandma emigrated to Canada from Germany when they were 21 and 18, respectively. They spoke no English and had nothing but $20 and a camera. (Or $5—it depends who you ask.) It was post World War II, and Germans were not the most popular group, though in time they would become fiercely proud Canadians. They were devoted to their new country before it was devoted to them.

My grandma cleaned houses, he tuned organs, often logging many miles behind the wheel to reach a broken instrument. They learned English from people at church who were kind to them, from my grandmother’s employer, from reading the dictionary. They had two sons, and slowly, they built a life.

In the decades that followed my grandfather learned carpentry, plumbing, electrical wiring: he built the house that was the heart of my childhood from the ground up. When, decades later, we moved them out of that home and into assisted care, we found the original blueprints and a wooden model, complete with a roof you could life off to view the rooms inside. (That can be life in trying times: suddenly, an aerial view.)  That house was singular: it had floor-to-ceiling murals, two pools, intercoms between rooms, an enormous bar for their many parties, and, my favourite, an underground passageway between my grandfather’s workshop to the detached garage. (I never asked them if this was a legacy of the war or a simple aversion to snow. There are too many things I didn’t ask.) He built me a one-room playhouse that would make tiny-house enthusiasts swoon. And then there was the dollhouse, which was the definition of love in the details: the rooms had their own wallpaper, flooring, and working lights. They were furnished with beautiful furniture, carved, painted, polished and upholstered by hand. I can still feel the tiny porch swing yield to my fingertip.

I, the first grandchild, was around my grandparents’ house a lot in the first seven years of my life. And so my grandpa learned to be a grandfather too. I think he was a fairly stern father (just ask my dad or uncle about “the stick”), but as a grandfather all his softness was revealed, like a fruit that had finally ripened. He shared his painting space, doled out pocket change to greedy young hands, served Ritz crackers and ginger ale in his office, and swirled little girls around swimming pools again and again and again. He learned a different way of loving, and I learned a different way of being loved, a feeling like floating in warm water, or being tucked tightly into bed. Next to losing him himself, which in reality happened years go, it’s that loss of that love that cuts the deepest.

His life was one of near-constant doing and tinkering, and he mastered so many other things: singing opera, playing the piano and accordion, painting, growing beautiful roses, golfing, playing tennis, and, that most Canadian of pastimes, curling.

He also built a successful tool-and-die company that would bear his name. (It started as a one-room building for his organ company—except people kept bringing him other things to fix.) Nobody in the family took over that company, and so when he retired, he insisted it be sold to his employees. The company is sadly gone now, and with only granddaughters in the family line, unless someone bucks convention, our name will disappear too.

But I hope he saw how his legacy lives on in less obvious ways. My father also sneezes after a meal, is an accomplished carpenter, loves to golf and watch TV outside. He brings people together like no one else (except maybe his father), and he’s always willing to lend a hand. He and I both love few things more than a project—we may be hardwired to build, in one way or another. Or maybe we’ve just seen that a life can be impossibly full, and that a legacy isn’t a monument made of stone, but a living thing, a tree with many branches. We think of our ancestors as the root, but I like to think of them as the centre that we encircle year by year. The tree changes, but the core remains the same.