The king of Vegas rockabilly, Elvis Presley, once sang this refrain, “we’ll have a blue, blue, blue, blue Christmas.” He was one of a number of artists to sing it. I mention it because it is a song of unrequited love, specifically at Christmas time.
If ever there were an emotionally heavy-handed time of year it is Christmas. As early as September we begin to see the familiar commodified images of sleek, effeminate reindeer, suspiciously rosy-cheeked Santas, Hallmark this ‘n that, and the tsunami of stuff we’re meant to buy to help us feel how we’re meant to feel.
It’s a construct and we know it. Well, at least the shiny baubles, taut packages ‘n bows part. But, lest I find myself on the receiving end of Scrooge-comments, let me say that I’ve loved this time of year my entire life, in spite of working outrageous hours as a church music director. I love the ambience. Sometimes I don’t even mind its rom-com, syrupy-saccarine motif falsely imaged and poured over us like a jolly-happy goo.
The whole thing smacks of an out of control Norman Rockwell painting, replete with the expectations that we all play along with the happy themes. We’re supposed to be joyful, full of gratitude and happy family times, with family-dog-stealing-roast-beef-off-the-counter type fun. Why wouldn’t we, right?
Quite often, it’s not that simple. For those who have lost a loved one, a parent, a friend, a pet, heaven forbid, a child – this can be an especially difficult time indeed. The ache of loss still fresh in their mind pinches their guts and narrows their emotional field of vision. It can almost feel like an insult. All these happy faces everywhere and not a hint of respite from their pain on the horizon.
Tonight, our congregation chose to remember these people, to bring a light into dark places this Advent-Christmas. More metaphor than Elvis, we called it, quite simply, Blue Christmas.
Rather than barrel through the weekly lighting of Advent candles, special readings and prayers and favourite songs we thought it best to stop. Stop, to remember those faces no longer in our crowds. The missing pictures on our mantelpieces. Our family gathering a little less Rockwell and a little more Orwell. We spent silent time memorializing them, lighting a candle in their honour. Maybe crying just a little.
Wherever you are in your journey, maybe spend a few moments this season just quietly remembering those no longer there to taste your grandma’s apple pie or mom’s Yorkshire Pudding.
Such a sad irony given the need to remember when I recall so little so much of the time But, I remember as much as I need to for right here. Right now.
I remember all that I’ve been given – and I smile.
I remember that I get to sleep with someone who loves to be with me, who chooses to share my life, even the dark places – and I smile.
I remember, through that same love, two babies, now young men, came into the world if for no other reason than to taunt my lesser joy with a still greater one – and I smile.
I remember the man I call brother, the woman I call sister, the man now dead we call father, the woman upon whose shoulders and within whose heart we all dwell, we call mother – and I smile.
I remember that I’ve been entrusted with notes, lines, hands, and voice, and then charged and blessed to engage in it, both as a living and as hobby – and I smile.
I remember the sight of candles burning, a dark and peaceful sanctuary full of singing voices, and the strains of “Silent Night” – and I smile.
I remember that I am given poetry and words to share with the weary world, much of it published, and fulfilling whatever destiny for which it has been prescribed – and I smile.
I remember the incredible home we call our own, poised handsome and stoic on a proud hillside where it stands year after year, waiting for the valley to breathe in and out each new season – and I smile.
I remember that, as a man of fifty-four, I am healthy enough to run miles in double digits – and I smile.
I remember the touch of cold hands in mine as she congratulates my choice of hymns, the hearty back slap as he celebrates “this young man” – and I smile.
I remember the ache of loss for faces of those once bright and full, now gone and buried, the sound of tears, the taste of mourning, the honour of sharing it – and I smile.
I remember the seraphic sound of my choir as they collude together in happy voice to mirror the world’s unreasonable beauty – and I smile.
I remember the one God of One in Three; eternal, but who once had an address, now forever bearing the scars of his coming, who is my friend – and I smile.
And, though I never knew their names, I remember their sacrifice, caught in whirlwinds not of their choosing. Sometimes they were sent by selfish kings to do the bidding of empire. They went anyway. Sometimes, they were thrust out to defend the lack lustre and apathetic against the threat of unknown horrors. They went anyway. Mostly, they went because they believed it to be their best legacy. This I remember – and I smile.
This is a little story about the value of time. Or, perhaps the timing of value. Either way, here goes.
The numerous eccentricities that sequin this life of mine would not, to the uneducated stranger, seem to include punctuality. Spend just a few minutes with me and you’ll wonder how I manage to dress myself every morning, let alone have a driver’s license, or be allowed to procreate. But, in contradistinction to everything else one might know of me, I’m a stickler for being on time. To everything. Always. It is a point of pride. More so, it’s an exercise in lessening anxiety.
Friday, November 3rd. The Highland Dancing competition that provides the opportunity for this little sojourn takes place in Portland, Oregon, a mere three and a half hours south of us. It offers one of the most stunning drives one could ask for. And today is that day.
A leisurely drive over Satus Pass, stopping at my favourite monastery (like I have so many) for their legendary coffee and spanakopita. The Orthodox nuns who run the joint do so with friendly smiles and winsome personalities. And, they run a pretty tight ship. They’re a credit to their tradition.
Once over the pass, I descend the golden hillsides of Eastern Washington and cross the Columbia River Bridge. Then, it’s through the green, rain-soaked, monolithic tunnel o’ rock otherwise known as the Columbia Gorge. It snakes along Interstate 84, hugging one of the world’s biggest rivers. To my right, the Columbia, deep and slow and deceptively dangerous. To my left, the tufted ancient rock formations thrust up over millions of years that now frame this idyllic little meander.
A pain-free, largely traffic-free, Google-guided route to one of those perfectly perfect Portland neighbourhoods, more trees than people. Just as it should be. I park without difficulty right outside the B ‘n B where I’m to be staying. Then, in an effort toward appropriate courtesy, I stand for some time outside the door, searching my email history for the owner’s phone number. To call first means avoiding that uncomfortable walk onto someone else’s deck or anywhere a family might not want such interruption.
It was an unnecessary concern since another occupant opened the door just as I reached for the buzzer. Australian guy I think. The home owner – let’s call him Roger – greets me at the kitchen door with a look of confused amusement on his face. Confusement? Amusion? He is already scrolling through his Air BnB phone records looking to secure what, to him, is apparently a surprise.
“Um, it seems there is a bit of a mix-up here,” he says, face super-glued to his cell phone screen. His thumb scrolls over face after face. It suggests a tidy little business he’s got here. But, none of them appear to be mine. He gives one more healthy swipe of the thumb and up pops my profile Gravatar, making its embarrassing appearance.
Now, as I’ve mentioned, punctuality is a point of pride for me. But this was precedent setting, even by my exacting standards. Roger is a cheerful enough chap, professional and gregarious. He probes a little further.
“Well, this is a rather unique situation,” he offers. “It appears you’re booked for next Friday evening.”
My dumb numbness, framed by my gawking, is matched only by his look of pity. He can afford it. He has a place to sleep tonight! I squint my eyes in disbelief at the reality staring at me from his phone. Sure enough. I’m booked for the following week.
I could have feigned a look of personal incredulity. But, alas, this is not exactly precedent setting for me and I’d be anything but convincing. The best I can manage, “well, shit.” This however acts also as my admission of guilt in this matter. It effectively relieves him of any wrongdoing.
He thus forges ahead. “No matter. Obviously, you need a bed for the night, and finding anything on a Friday night at 5:00pm won’t be fun.” Pause. “I’ll need to check with my wife. You know, whether she’d feel comfortable with this…”
Great setup I thought, for the kind but awkward punchline that followed.
“We actually have another room upstairs we don’t normally rent since it’s right next to our bedroom.”
My gut clenches a little as I consider all the uncomfortable scenarios that might make this not such a great idea. Two adult males, mentally circle, both grasping for enough manhood not to appear either retarded or lacking control of the situation. Mercifully, he steps outside to begin the negotiations with his wife.
No use trying to “man-up” with this mix-up. Instead (and instinctively I might add) I do what I normally do and call my wife. She knows these calls. Really well. She’s had lots of them and is well practiced in the art of the de-pickle, quite like the one in which I presently find myself.
I agree with her immediate assessment. “You need to let me make your reservations from now on.” Normally, such statements would seem an affront to my masculinity (a bit shaky right now), hinting at an inability to tie my own shoes. Given the circumstances, and how good she is at these correctives, I hand it over to her capable contrivance.
Within seconds I had cancelled my hastily-made reservation and she’d booked me a hotel room nearby. This was a huge sigh of relief since Roger was still nervously pacing back and forth outside in obvious negotiations with his wife. I smile. I know those conversations. I bid farewell and made a hasty exit, allowing him respite from whatever deliberations were underway. Roger, you’re welcome.
The moral of this little tale?
Who cares. Life isn’t merely a collection of “teachable moments.” But, since we’re on the subject.
More often than not life is, quite simply, about life. We live it, trip over it, and usually love it. It comes to us as is, unadorned, but real, unpredictable. And, all the better for it.
Failure is a promise (to some more than others). Embrace it. I’m getting pretty good at it. Well, really good if you must know.
Independence is not a biblical principle. Dependence is (God). Interdependence is (each other).
God is good. Theology lesson over.
I’m well rested (albeit at a financial loss).
Roger is once again snuggled safely in his world none the worse for wear.
My wife, as much an expert in unexpected chaos as I, once more proves her worth as booking agent, social convener, and non-judgmental partner.
It’s a playground bully, unsatisfied unless fists are drawn and blood flows. The drunken uncle whose continuous taunts to pull his finger are more about his self-satisfied laughter than ours. It’s the immature dink in the office who is incomplete until he gets the final word, no matter how pernicious or insecure.
Trust me, it’s much more subtle than that. It’s the trickster fox, practiced at setting up a ruse to capture his prey. It’s the wild west gambler, poker faced, eyeing his opponents, cards held close, planning his next move. It’s the chameleon – deathly still, changing, adaptable, morphing effortlessly into its surroundings in self-preservation.
Writing about my first sober-wagon experiencebrought unassailable freedom. Alongside it came personal power, relief, even fluffy-headed joy. The first few months were characterized by a pink cloud of giddiness.
I told my story to whomever would listen. Upon closer inspection, cornering them at the entrance to the gas station toilets probably was inadvisable. It’s hard to tell a good story when someone keeps hopping around with forced grin, wide-eyed in panic.
I rode that cloud for awhile, yippee ki-yaying in sober delight over the bronc now under my sway. Skies were bluer, food tasted better, sitting at a desk seemed less toilsome, assholes were less ass-holier. The world in general was a happier place and I was a part of it.
I returned to my passion for running, and by ‘returned’ I mean completely embedded myself in it. Three months later and almost sixty pounds lighter and some didn’t even recognize me. I ran almost every day, rain or shine.
Mostly rain. It was Oregon after all.
I was out and proud (no, not that one) and wanted the world to know.
But (come on, you knew this was coming), most recently, a closet door, busting at the seams, alcohol demons whining lustily behind it, finally split wide open. Out they spilled, like eavesdroppers pressed against the honeymooners’ door. They piled out with impunity, bent on destruction.
Thankfully, it was short-lived.
Demons, once out of their cells, tend to lose their bluster. Their muscles aren’t as impressive in daylight. They’re just naughty little boys good at hoodwinking, lying, and swindling us into places we’d rather not go. They’re mythic monsters only when we turn to give eye contact.
Fair enough. But, why were they still there in the first place? Hadn’t they been scolded and sent packing years ago? Here’s my discovery.
I fell prey to what is sometimes called Post Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS), or simply “dry drunk syndrome.” The problem has been recognized. The booze is gone. New habits are forming. But, at the inside of this Oreo isn’t yummy cream filling. It’s the allure of the addict quick-fix to all of life’s problems. When left unchecked, it will soon prove itself more powerful than ever.
“This term [dry drunk] is obviously an oxymoron as it implies that a person is drunk without ingesting alcohol.
Dry Drunk Syndrome is a condition where an alcoholic retains mental and behavioral traits associated with drunkenness even when he or she is not drinking alcohol.
Surely, one would think that the “dry” state is a critical objective for alcoholism treatment regimen. Unfortunately, the presence of this syndrome is actually an indication that an individual is in danger of alcohol relapse. He or she remains emotionally disturbed, mentally unstable and spiritually skewed despite quitting alcohol.
Thus, as an alcoholic, nothing significant has been achieved under a dry drunk condition aside from stopping the habit of drinking alcohol. In fact, the manifestation of typical signs of dry drunk syndrome is a red flag that should concern a recovering alcoholic.”
It appears that I may not have been as sober as I’d imagined. Not drinking? Sure. But, sober in the textbook sense? Perhaps not.
As any A.A. veteran will tell you, unless you’re actively pursuing a program of sobriety, you will not outpace the disease. It is still pursuing you. Relentlessly. You may not be drinking, but you can be damn sure it is still doing you, quietly biding its time until walls go down, the dam bursts, and you drown in a pressure-mounted swell of issues left untended.
How did I get here? What happened to almost fourteen years of sobriety? What was my brain telling the rest of me? Put another way, what the hell was I thinking?
In a nutshell, I stopped telling my story. And, when we stop telling our stories, we simply stop – growing, learning, being.
Our stories are equally descriptive and prescriptive of us. They help put shape to the varied experiences with which we struggle to find meaning. In a way, they are the foundation to a high-rise. They illustrate to the world what tickles our fancies, pokes our ribs, and gets our goats.
They can be our fairytales, falsities, nightmares, whitewashed witticisms, personae donned or doffed, big jokes, still bigger lies, the sob-stories – they all count. They are all bits and bobs of our total picture.
But, told often and well, our stories are prescriptive, too. They form buttresses, act as protective sheaths, and even offer advice. Who am I? Who am I not? What are my fears and how do I overcome them? How far will I go but no further? Who should I ignore (kidding…kinda)? To tell one’s story is to be reminded of one’s personhood, of what matters.
The twelve-steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are revealing on many levels. The hardest steps are the early ones – admit our powerlessness over alcohol and believe that something/one greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.Many never make it. I did make it, but then, over time, forgot that I’d made it, and had to make it there all over again.
Recent events reveal that any previous sense of empowerment wasn’t ever going to be enough. In fact, anything at all other than constant awareness of the disease in humble surrender to a Higher Power, is an accident waiting to happen (demons in the closet, remember?).
So then, how exactly does a dry drunk dry out? The same way every other alcoholic does: Don’t drink.
But, just as central to this via negativa is the positive power of story-telling, even when that story doesn’t glimmer around the edges. My story, like any other, has a “once upon a time.” But, if I would see a “happily ever after” I must keep telling this tale to whomever will listen.
Recently, I was reintroduced to the wonder that is Alberta.
I spent some quality time with Mom and friends, albeit under rather sad circumstances, camped atop Alberta’s green waistline near Camrose. Life is slower here, although bearing the weight of a daily regimen of tasks that would shame a comfy city dweller like myself. Folks are simple, genuine; their politics bespeak as much. I need these types in my life to remind me of life before the city, before we traded green for grey, heart for hurry.
Calgary, that sprawling spray of suburbanism, welcomed me back into her bosom. It is the visual race-for-more set deceivingly in the beauty of rolling foothills climbing their way upward into the Rocky Mountains to the west. She eyed me closely however, untrusting of the broader perspective, gleaned from years of life elsewhere.
The bare shoulder that is Cochrane, held aloft against the Rocky Mountains to the west, provided some jogging (more slogging really) at nearly a mile above sea-level. It was backdrop to a spacious visit with my sister and her husband.
Okotoks. A once-proud cowboy town among the lemon-lime valleys south of Calgary, now Boho-wannabe with more yoga pants and boutiques than boots and hankies. She played host to the auspicious (suspicious?) occasion of my wife’s 35th High School Reunion. As much as an event aimed at aging 50-somethings could be described as ‘epic,’ I’m willing to give us the benefit of the doubt.
The unattainable majesty of Lake Louise, made impenetrable by the ant colony of one-eyed, phone-clicking tourists. Paradise through a view screen.
I’m surprised, even shocked, at my close and immediate affinity with the place. There is much more of me here than I ever suspected. My guts tighten a little whenever my senses get re-assaulted with the pungency of rape seed and peas. My eyes widen at the foothills, frolicking, green with spruce, poplar, birch and aspen, or the salutary pomposity of the Rocky Mountains. My ears still cringe a little at the old crone call of the magpie. My heart swells with memories clamouring for space.
There is a regal order, a persistent danger to this place, in equal measure to its complete lack of pretention. It sits in your lap, comfortable and familiar, like an old farm dog. But, treat her with due respect or she’ll reveal her strength.
It’s easy to forget the relative wealth of the place. Alberta practically drowns in money, choking at times on oil vomited from her broad, black belly. It has made her insanely rich and her people a little myopic with respect to the rest of the world. The furious pace of new construction and the larger-than-life cars, hardly suggests the unforgivable economic downturn so bewailed by her inhabitants. But, lest I come across as ungrateful, that same controversial landscape made for an upbringing much of the world would crave. I am as thankful as I am uncomfortable. It’s an uneasy tension I live with to this day.
The folks here are as big-hearted as the landscape – expansive and verdant – looking for something to grow. But decades of oil and gas revenues have created a monster that lives below, quietly snoring, biding her time. Have the best steak and potatoes of your life one day – cigars, laughter, and foot-stomping music in tow – and all is well. Dance to the beat of the oil drum and they’ll give you their shirts and a layer of skin to boot (cowboy style, that is). But, reveal yourself, even casually, as someone uncomfortable with fossil-fuel damage, global warming, and the need for alternatives and you throw in your lot with the cattle headed to be your own supper. They are a strong and proud folk, duly protective of their fossil-fed way of life.
So, conversations stay safest where family starts. They wander in and out of the calf-pens holding the warm and grazing words of easy strangers who feel like friends. These are those whose unadorned view of the world around them makes them quick to laugh, quicker still to pray for rain. Their hopes are found tucked in saddle bags and blue jean pockets or Esso attachés, and slumbering in the subterranean black. Their hands, farmer’s tans, truck culture, and souls are of a piece; indistinguishable parts of a whole.
It’s me through a macro-lens. It may not meld perfectly with the bio-me, but it is the stuff of who I am nonetheless. Born and raised an Alberta boy, now with complicated Celtic-progressive overlay, I can’t deny it any more than run from it. Who I am today, even this very moment, is still the product of wheat and soil, mountains and laughter, horses and magpies, oil and prairie tornadoes.
Today, we laid a good man to rest. And we did it just how papa Sam would have wanted – with belts ‘n boots, hats ‘n hoots, songs ‘n roots. Today, we celebrated him even as he celebrated us.
Friends (to Sam that was pretty much everyone), family (to whom he gave himself unreservedly), and lovers of music (Sam was a magnet to these types) all gathered in the heat and humidity of an Alberta-in-July afternoon to remember. Not just remember, but tell stories, maybe a joke or two, and sing songs – often at the same time.
I was honoured to act as host to an event rightly called “A Celebration of Life.” There are those who would be aghast at the idea of such revelry at an event generally reserved for more sombre fare. “Funerals are for closure,” they tell us. Unless we can see the cross and communion table, and sing In the Garden, it’s just not right.
“They’re welcome to it,” says Sam. “I prefer to have all my friends a-cross from the picnic table, communing together in God’s garden. For me, it’s just right.”
I acted as host, as I often do at these things. Beaming like high-beam headlights, Mom introduced us all as her family, as Moms do. This was to be a day for all of us, anyone even remotely related to Sam. It was an open door party. There were few expectations. Perhaps a love for tapping toes, sharing a humid afternoon with horseflies, and a belt with enough holes to allow for a belly full of pulled pork and potato salad.
Small price to pay for a heavenly hootenanny. And this affair was that, a gathering of fellow sojourners with happy hearts and hungry guts. This was Sam’s world, where the two always go together. And this celebration was designed to satisfy both.
To know this man was to celebrate in general. If Sam was in the vicinity, a gathering would soon follow. He attracted musicians like Alberta mosquitoes. Just more welcoming. It was best if you knew a song or two. Play an instrument? Not to worry, you were always welcome. If so, that much better.
All those gathered here in this place did both. Very well. And, their voices held the weight of grief borne of cheer-filled music and laughter. The Willows would be our home for the day – nestled in a little aspen grove carved out of the broad, Alberta landscape.
Sam Young. Papa Sam. He was a man of surprising talent, energy, industry, kindness, and complexity. Mom might have called it chaos. She’s gonna miss the bugger, as are we all.
This little man of a big heart kept her in the happies for over twenty years. In fact, I have observed a pre and post-Sam woman. The former was much more anxious, uncertain, ambivalent. The latter, engaged, hopeful, courageous, a risk-taker; a woman fully alive.
Sam never lived life from the periphery. The edges were much too flimsy, too safely suburban to support his wild west spirit.
No, Sam was a deep-sea diver, plunging off the bow head first, wrestling sharks and singing them songs all the way down. It’s likely why he never drowned. Life was his rodeo. Saddle up, cinch up, shut up, and giddy up. He sang songs to soothe the ornery beast that tossed him to and fro.
But, mostly, for Sam, life was a campfire – a gathering around a welcome heat and light for friend and stranger alike. He’d kickstart countless singalongs and jam sessions, enough to cheer us all and then some.
A single hour with Sam at the ranch promised at least two things:evidence of the trade in every corner of the house. It would be easy to step on musical instruments, strewn about from stem to stern. He was always boasting some new guitar, mandolin, banjo, or other.
But, the second thing one encountered at papa Sam’s was jovial conversation. Lots of it.
Lots and lots of it.
Get Sam going on a topic and he was a wind-up doll. Best to just let him run with it. Otherwise, you would only encourage another pull of the string and off he’d go again. Short visits were rare.
But they were good. Very good. At least a song or two found its way into every one of those visits. Or, perhaps some new insights on resetting a fiddle bridge, restringing a mandolin, or shimming a bone saddle. He had taught himself the luthier’s trade. I wish we’d spent more riding that horse together.
I generally consider myself to be reasonably conversant in the physics of stringed instruments. That is until any visit with Sam. Then, I discovered just how little I actually knew. Much of what I called know-how was often just a lot of pretentious bullshit.
But, regardless of poorly veiled lack of insight into the topic, the time spent was always worth the time spent. I value every moment and, whenever it is I go to join him, we can pick up where we left off. Besides, Jesus will need a break from Sam talking his ear off.
“Good, you’re finally here…can you take over for awhile?”
“Lord, isn’t patience a virtue?”
“Of course. But, the Baptists ran out of potato salad, the Pentecostals are squabbling over something, and I need to break up the Presbyterians – they’re starting another sub-committee.”
“No worries. I got this. We’ve got more songs to write anyway.”
“Thanks. While I’m gone, I’ll ask Pop where my fiddle is.”
“Perfect. When you find it, meet us back here, we’ll be singing ‘Back to the Mountain’ with Peter, Gabe and the boys at the campfire.”
“Just don’t encourage Barnabas. He thinks he’s being funny when he sings ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ Oh, by the way, Peter’s on probation. He’s been hitting on the female angels.”
“He won’t be a problem. I’ll just tell papa Sam that he loves stringed instruments. That’ll keep ‘im busy for awhile. But, hey, we’ve got nothin’ but time on our hands…”
My gut tells me he’s already broken up a squabble and tricked the Presbyterians into singing “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain.” If nothing else, with Sam pluckin’ and singin’, heaven won’t be stuffy, and eternity will seem like half an hour.
Recently, I spent words lamenting my egregious fall from grace. It was egregious in the sense that I had all the tools at my disposal for such a thing not to happen. And it still did. Fall because I ended up face first in my own stink. Grace, not in the heavenly sense, but in the way a person views his or her personhood held up to the light.
In this instance, it didn’t look as shiny anymore. In fact, the worst part of any alcoholic’s misery is the glowing reality that self-respect has left the building. And when one lose’s self-respect they lose the ability to adequately respect others as well.
And so the question remains, what now? What steps lie ahead for this newly sober, recovering alcoholic?
The first part of that is the convergence of two things: my vacation and, more importantly, some of that vacation spent at my Mom’s. I’m here in part helping plan papa Sam, her husband’s, celebration of life service. Hence, I begin with words penned among the whispery poplar and birch that stand guard around their mini-ranch in central Alberta.
* * *
It would be easy to lose all track of time up here. Imagine a place so quiet that the ticking of the wall clock becomes almost intrusive. I can hear the blood race through my veins. Even the creaks of my aging bones become deafening in a place almost averse to sounds other than the rustling trees and the occasional lowing of happy cattle.
Such is life on a central Alberta ranch, or so it seems to a late middle-aged, suburban white guy on vacation. A guy could get used to this pace. Well, so says the man unaccustomed to the accompanying rigours and harshness of Canadian prairie life.
One’s vacation experience of a place is usually quite different from those doing the heavy lifting to help produce that experience. So, I suppose I should, more rightly, consider myself a prairie homestead consumer. A few days spent at Golden Spur Ranchetta being waited on hand and foot by my own mother. Home cooking, and the full package, magazine-ready, prairie experience. To be fair, I washed the dishes last night. That counts for something, right?
It would be perfection indeed if it wasn’t also the context in which I’m helping Mom lay her best friend to rest. It tends to bring some shadow to an otherwise sun-bright living room where I pen these words.
This is Mom’s place. It has her touch at every turn. Like stepping back in time, there are, everywhere, reminders of my own childhood. But this is also Sam’s place. A house that boasts numerous guitars, banjos, fiddles, mandolins, amps, gear, and tools of the luthier’s trade. He loved his old-time cowboy music and did the tradition proud with his devotion both to the music and the lifestyle it portrays.
Most of all, this is their place. Sam and Doris. Mom and “Papa Sam.” Here is a life woven lovingly together with strands of two in a single tapestry. It boasts the simplicity and industry expected of prairie home companions. A picture, painted not by Thomas Kincaid’s dishonesty or Norman Rockwell’s wishful thinking, but by two hardy souls better suited to the task.
Golden Spur is a paint by number where God does the math. Two souls plus one hope plus one God’s watchful presence, now one less.
One less. But somehow, none the less for it. Sam’s spirit lives on here. In Mom. In the legacy of his hard work.
The quiet hours spent here among the poplar and birch give me ample room to stretch my rumpled, but healing, soul. I am faced head on with the unwelcome task of returning to normal life with a lot of relational work to do.
Addicts of any kind are profoundly self-serving. We need to be in order to keep and nurture our dirty little secret. Maintaining addiction comes at a high price. Our lust for euphoria takes prisoners. There is a desperation afoot that causes us to do things we otherwise wouldn’t do. We hurt those closest to us in ways we can’t imagine, and usually can’t even remember.
Certainly for me, I become a man I do not know. Someone I do not like. I’m forced to live in a dark corner of my head that lacks judgement, wisdom, compassion, or boundaries. I latch onto whomever happens to be in the way and, like a rottweiler on a kitten, drag them under the water with me. It forces everyone into codependency, slaves with me to a burden not theirs to bear.
Then, morning after regret. The addict looks back over a smouldering wreckage with their name on it. Reputations, relationships, respect, sometimes even families, all lie in ruins – taken captive by someone blissfully unaware of the carnage that ensues through his inebriated wizardry.
Now, before this begins to sound like little more than addiction to self-pity, let me put on the brakes and reveal what is emerging in me. And, this time spent at Mom’s provides perfect respite for doing just that. In this gift of silence I have seen that the truest me, despite having lost its lustre, remains unblemished. Kicked around and battered a little, but largely intact.
For reasons known only to my Higher Power I have been continually surrounded by those who love me. They’ve stayed, even through my worst days. Few truths are more life-changing than to awake from addiction and see, through the smoke and chaos, the faces most precious, best known, eyes cast down and hurt, but still present.
Their faithfulness lends new life to one whose heavy lifting now is a daily return to sobriety with tools ready to rebuild wherever possible. Earning trust and respect, even if from scratch. So be it.
Mom, I wish I could be here under circumstances different than these. Nevertheless, I take these days, each and every one, as pure gift. In them I reconsider a life. My life. My one and only life. This great, albeit fragile, life in which I live, move, and have my being.
So, what now?
I lift up my head, newly clear and seeing far, and say in a loud voice: “Hi, I’m Rob, and I’m an alcoholic.” Better still, I’m a man beloved and embraced.
Perhaps the most unwelcome passage through which all ships must pass is that of death. To be the impotent observer at the bedside of someone in the throes of death can seem the greatest of all insults. One must fight the battle between a desire to see wellness return with the growing awareness that such a return might not be either possible or in the person’s best interests. It is as poignant as it is horrifying.
“I’m afraid there’s nothing more we can do.” Lonelier words were never spoken.
I too have faced this burden of human experience with grandparents and my own father who died from complications to his cancer treatment. Most recently, on Saturday morning, April 22nd at 3:00am, my step-father drifted into eternity. The lasso keeping him tethered to the dusty ground released him into much bigger pasture. One without fences.
Papa Sam was a cowboy, Métis (may-tee)* to be exact. Born Samuel Maurice Young in the austere, rambling flatlands around Birch Hills, Saskatchewan he was quick to adapt to the rough and tumble ways of the Canadian prairies. The youngest of three boys with a younger sister, they were the bluegrass version of the von Trapps. His brother Stan on fiddle, another brother, Gordon, on banjo, together with Sam on guitar would join their Dad or uncle, both fiddle players, to fill the house on prairie nights with the music of the farm.
A young farm hand, Sam, at the green age of 10, played his first dance with his Dad, promptly returning his earnings of a quarter to the Red Cross. A similar largesse would follow him for his next 72+ years.
Sam was inseparable from the cowboy fare he loved. A cowboy action shooter for many years, he collected guns and formed an indissoluble connection to the frontier life of the wild West. Old-time country dance music, played the old-time way on old-time instruments characterized the spirit of this small, big-hearted man. Numerous dance bands, including his own, The Calgary Playboys (fitting, given his rep as a ladies’ man), made the rounds in the Calgary scene for over 30 years. It would provide the context in which he would first meet Doris, his beloved wife – my mother.
Her life had not exactly been characterized by rose petals and wine. She lost her husband, my father, in September of 1985 when he was merely 55 years old; her senior of 13 years.
Mom was a widow at 42.
She played the role of dutiful wife and mother well, shuttling us hither, thither, and yon with tireless dedication and far too little gratitude. She shouldered the biting loneliness of a stolid, unflinchingly reserved man in my dad while acting as umpire to our numerous family squabbles, many of which revolved around my own self-centered peccadillos.
Dad’s passing kicked her feet out from under her. Even for one as strong and independent as she, the shock of being alone in the world was overwhelming. Nights full of angry tears eventually settled into steely resolution to reintegrate and reenergize by doing what she loved best, serving.
Much of the time, that meant some part to play in the Royal Canadian Legion, an organization to which our entire family had been attached for many years. One such role was in working as president of the senior’s dances at Ogden Legion in southeast Calgary. She helped plan the weekly dances and hired the bands for these events. Sam’s band was one of those.
It was 1997.
A major surgery pulled Mom out of commission for a while. Sam was quick to notice her absence and asked about her regularly. He’d call her just to talk and to check on her well-being. Upon her return to the Legion, she was the lucky recipient of a big hug and rather public kiss. His charm, cowboy swagger, and crooning country voice ultimately proved too much to resist and Mom and Sam moved in together.
For the next 3 years, they lived happily side by side in my childhood home in Calgary. But the draw to the country proved too urgent to ignore. In October 2000, they sold the house and moved into their idyllic new digs near the hamlet of Kelsey, Alberta. Golden Spur Ranchetta, as they named it, became their new home and, together, they made the dream of Canadian frontier life their reality.
Long days spent clearing land, pulling out wayward trees, retooling outbuildings, dealing with renters in an adjoining house, nurturing horses, cattle, cats, and dogs, was their daily lot. It fit them like a hand in a glove. I had never seen my mother so alive, so full of vigorous determination, so…happy.
In October 2005, they were returning from Calgary, along Highway 21. Sam turned to her, saying rather baldly, “I think we should. I think it’s time.” In as matter of fact and unpretentious a manner as one can expect from a Canadian prairie cowboy, he had just asked my mother to marry him. This they did in a small ceremony held in Forestburg, Alberta on New Year’s Eve, 2005. For the first time since she had become a Rife over 40 years earlier, my mother had a different name.
Together, Mom and Sam weathered well the uncertainties of ranch life in an often-harsh central Alberta landscape. They made many new friends, most of them musicians of one kind or another. Like a loose belt, their lives spread out amid country music jams, reenactment wild West gun shootouts, mosquito-laden summers, and fireside nights under the vast Alberta stars. I watched my mom transform from an anxiety-laden, late-middle-age housewife into a buoyant, self-confident woman. It was delightfully disconcerting.
Ten years later, in December 2015, I was blessed to offer a renewal of vows service at Yakima Covenant Church. I had never done such a thing before and was proud that this event, of all things, was my first.
In May of last year, a combination of doctor’s visits, followed by unwelcome phone calls sharing even less welcome news became their lot. The ‘C’ word had taken root as infidel in Sam’s lungs. It would ultimately have the last word.
But the final notes were always his to sing. He lives on in memory and song. His CD, Back to the Mountain, released when he was 80, reminds us that music never grows old. It pulls us along our dusty trails on wooden wheels of hope. It is a small part of a big legacy, served up fresh, and ever new.
Now, Papa Sam sings harmony with his ancestors, leaning up against heaven’s gate – rough-sawn, split pine, and barbed wire in his case – playing his favourite guitar. The Great Spirit (Jesus to me) sits nearby in plaid shirt, jeans and a ball cap, playing spoons and a washboard. A gentle country waltz fills the perfect air, and bristles with the high-stepping joy of heaven’s jamboree.
Farewell, cowboy. Farewell.
*Métis originally referred to Francophone and Cree-speaking descendants of the French-Catholic Red River Métis in Manitoba. They are one of three recognized aboriginal peoples of Canada, descendants of marriages of Cree, Ojibwa, Saulteaux, and Menominee aboriginal people with French-Canadians, Scots, and English settlers.