My Sister’s Death

Today would have been her 63rd birthday. My baby sister.  Of all five children, I thought Caroline would be the last to go. Vibrant, healthy, active, a wife and mother.  Instead she is the first.

I looked after her so much when she was little. She felt like my child and this is all so wrong. I was supposed to die before her. She was my executor.

I find it hard to write her essence down in words. She was one of the most alive people I have ever known. Whatever she was doing, Caroline was there in the moment, absorbing it completely.

I won’t talk about all her accomplishments, of which there were many, but instead tell you three stories that give you a glimpse of her.

First, her courage:

Caroline was fearless when facing injustice or standing up for something she believed in. When she was in her twenties, she went to Sierra Leone to teach in very rough conditions. They had not yet fallen into the civil war that was to come but a lot of the critics of the regime were disappearing in the middle of the night. Authority of any kind was not to be questioned. Except perhaps by my sister. One of her students was a girl who was more than qualified to attend the university but they would not let her in simply because she was female. Caroline marched right into a meeting of the board at the university to take them on and told them exactly why they were wrong in great detail. I don’t remember the outcome of that fight only that she took it on and I have always admired her bravery in standing up to them when it was not safe to do so.

Second, the inquisitive scientist in her:

Caroline returned from Sierra Leone right before Christmas. There is an insect there called the Tumba Fly (also known as the Tumbu or Mango Fly). They are parasitic which means they burrow under the skin of mammals, including humans, and hatch their larvae there. Caroline brought one of these back embedded in her forearm. One easy (!) way to get them out is to cover the area with Vaseline. This shuts off their air supply so they come up through the Vaseline to breathe and you grab them with tweezers.  So explained my sister. She was so excited about having this creature in her arm and the process of getting it out. She decided to do this on Christmas Eve, enlisting our sister and I to watch. Caroline thought we would be as enthralled as she was. You could see movement under the skin of her arm. It was gross. She was fascinated with the whole thing. The Vaseline worked and she was able to grab the larvae. Her face was so alive and animated as she said “wasn’t that cool”. Not really Caroline.

Third, the silliness:

We used to have a number of Christmas albums growing up and one was Burl Ives’ Rudolph the Red- Nosed Reindeer. One of the songs is “We’re a Couple of Misfits”. One time (she was already a young woman) the song came on and I said “Hey Caroline. That’s us, a couple of misfits.” She leapt up and started jumping up and down and dancing around like a mad person (Yes, I joined her) and we sang the whole song like that. The image of her dancing like crazy will be one of the enduring memories of my sister.

Her life continued to be full as she went on to make many more memories with her own family. And then came the news that changed everything – she had a tumor on her liver.

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Out Of The Ashes

On Remembrance Day I have two fathers to thank for their sacrifices in World War II. The man who raised me and the one I called Dad, fought in the Canadian Army. He was wounded twice, once on the last day of the war. Gordon, my birth father, was in the RCAF and piloted a Lancaster Bomber on numerous missions. This is the story of how I found Gordon after 35 years of separation and how his memories of the war surfaced in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on New York City in 2001.

“This is Gordon and, yes, I am your father,” the voice on the other end of the line said in response to my letter in 1988. In one of the many amazing instances of synchronicity in my life, I had, after many years, finally found my birth father.

When I mailed the letter I had no idea what the outcome would be, nor even if it was the right man. Would he even want to meet me? I accepted that he might not want to do so.

Talking to him that day on the phone had seemed so natural and easy. It was as though we had just said goodbye the day before. In reality, I had not seen or spoken to him for 35 years. I had few conscious memories left of the man I last saw when I was four-years-old and, yet, I knew finding him was vital to my future. We talked and laughed for 45 minutes. I remember how excited he was and that I could actually feel the adrenalin running through the phone. A short two weeks later, I was driving down to New York State to meet my birth father.

When Gordon walked towards me in their kitchen and hugged me I knew I had finally come home. Not to a father or the siblings I was soon to meet, but to myself. I felt out of place my whole life because in my soul I had no tether. But I saw myself in Gordon and knew in that moment I had healed a large hole inside. Even if I never saw him again after the visit, I felt at peace, felt complete. Like me, he was supportive, caring, emotionally intuitive, interested in many facets of life and he had a slightly dark sense of humour. On the negative side, we both suffered from depression and had been through medical battles.

The next couple of years were good. We communicated often and he supported me as I finished writing a book that had taken six out of 11 years of my life to write, The Opening Act, Canadian Theatre History 1945-1953. The day I finished it he sent me a card and flowers.

We talked about healing the wounds of the past. He recognized my feelings of abandonment and understood he was responsible for those feelings. Mostly he nurtured me and I tried to help him heal some of his own pain.

I made the decision to move to the other end of Canada, ironically to the province of his birth. He encouraged the move even though he knew it meant we might never see each other again. We never did. Gordon’s withdrawn personality returned and he found his way back into his shell but for a space in time I gave him renewed energy and hope, “gave him back his life” he told me.

It was frustrating, though, to watch Gordon retreat emotionally. I was in Canada and he was in New York and it was hard to hold on to him.

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Talk At Dunbar Public Library

I am excited to tell you about an upcoming talk I am giving on my book The Opening Act, Canadian Theatre History 1945-1953. It will be at the Dunbar Public Library, 4515 Dunbar Street, Vancouver on October 18, 2017 at 6:15. I would really love to see you there and meet you afterwards.

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Wheels of Love Chapter One, Part Two

Chapter One, Part Two

After bidding farewell to their young Moroccan friend, the three travellers discovered the train to Narbonne had left. They had an hour to kill in the station until the next one and they were also going to have to go to Nice via Marseilles after all because the delayed connection did not allow them to go directly from Narbonne.

Their attention was quickly diverted to a commotion further down the platform on which they were standing. At the centre was a man flailing his arms about and screaming at anyone who approached him. A train station employee trying to talk to him was becoming increasingly agitated.Then he noticed the Canadian flags on the women’s knapsacks and walked over to them. He asked the three in French if they could  translate for him, to help find out what was bothering the man and making him crazy.

The bilingual Deb agreed, thinking the man might be from Canada. He wasn’t. Like a crazed animal, he was lashing out at everyone around him, almost foaming at the corners of his mouth. Instantly deciding he was unbalanced they, nevertheless, reluctantly moved towards him.

“Stay away no one come near me,” he spat out in a strong Scottish accent.

Other than long, bushy sideburns, he was clean-cut and on the younger side of thirty. Sitting on a bench for a split second and then up and pacing again, he was obviously terrified to stay still. Sue began talking to him very gently as she moved closer and closer and finally convinced him they were on his side, wherever that was! His name was Geordie. As he started telling them his strange tale, the three of them looked at each other wishing they were some¬where else, anywhere but on that platform in Cerbere. The story he told seemed impossible and yet Sue had this nagging suspicion in her head that he was telling the truth.

Travelling much as Sue and Deb were doing, Geordie and his friend had been staying in youth hostels and experiencing Europe.

“We saw something we shouldn’t have and they started chasing us”, he said swallowing more air than he was sending to his lungs. He was still darting around but in a shorter circumference.

“What did you see?” Sue said, asking the obvious question.

“It’s crazy, just plain crazy, don’t you understand. I don’t know what we saw. They caught us and we asked why and they said we knew what we’d seen. We didn’t, I swear. We were scared but were able to get away but they found us again and now they’ve killed my friend and they’re going to get me too”.

Geordie said all this without taking a breath but frequently wiping his sweating forehead with his shirtsleeve. He leaned over and tried to get some air into his lungs.

“Who’s after you?” Sue said, grabbing his arm in an effort to calm him down.

“The Mafia, the Mafia, now do you understand”.

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