Tag Archive: death


shutter

Photo Credit: James F. Cline III; Licence: Public Domain

Photo Credit: James F. Cline III; Licence: Public Domain

National Geographic today released the results of their 2013 World Photo Press Contest, which awards news photographers for astounding work completed in the previous year.  It’s well worth a gander.

I was so struck by some of the photographs that I knew instantly I had to write something about it.  If you’re a writer — and by “writer,” I don’t mean that you have something published, or that you’re recognized for your writing, but simply that, when you are moved by something, you know that you will be restless until you can write about it — you will know that sometimes there is an irrepressible imperative to share your thoughts with the world by writing them.  My first thought looking at the photographs was that they made me feel grateful for many things.  My second thought was that I’ve written about all of those things in other posts, so it would be cheating to say I’m thankful for them again (even though I am continually grateful for them).

Some of the feelings of gratitude the photographs elicited?

Let’s start with the first photograph in the series, taken by Paul Hansen, and which won First Prize.  Moving in a most breathtakingly devastating way, it depicts family members carrying two Palestinian children to their funeral after they were killed when an Israeli missile struck their home.

Nothing but nothing makes me feel more helpless than when children die.  Nothing but nothing makes me more furious than when children are the victims of violence.  But I also feel gratitude.  I am chilled at the thought of losing my child to something so senseless, and I am so profoundly thankful that I live somewhere that is not war-ravaged.  This isn’t to delude myself into a false sense of security.  Who knows what the future holds?  The parents of the children who attended Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut thought their kids were safe too.  But, still: it stands to reason that, when missiles are flying around your ears, people are going to get hurt, and eventually those people are going to be children.

But I’ve already talked about my appreciation for my safety and the safety of my family.

Let’s look next at Second Prize winner in the News Single category.  This photograph, snapped by a very brave Emin Özmen, depicts a man being tortured by Syrian Opposition Fighters by, I gather, having his feet whipped, for being a suspected government informant.  I can’t fathom the searing pain he must have experienced.  I am so grateful that I live in a country where torture is illegal, and where it is not so commonplace that torturers seem to have no problem with being photographed doing it.

But I’ve already written about my gratitude for the country in which I live and the basic human rights which that country protects.

I’m moved too by the First Prize winner in the Contemporary Issues Single category.  Photographed by Micah Albert, the picture shows a Kenyan woman taking a break from her labour picking through trash at a dump near the slums where she lives.  She’s sitting, reading through a book she found at the dump.  I live in such a wasteful culture, and we dissociate ourselves from the waste so easily because we’ve worked out this great system where we ship it off and hide it in giant landfills.  The concept of someone making a living from picking through garbage is a pure testament to so much of what is wrong with the world.

But I’ve already mentioned by thankfulness for having a meaningful job, and my gratefulness for having so many luxuries and amenities in life.  I’ve even expressed gratitude for books.

I think the most astounding of all of the photographs in the series is one by Fausto Podavini which claimed First Prize in the Daily Life Stories category.  It shows Mirella, a 71-year-old Italian woman, assisting her husband Luigi — who has dementia — drying off after a shower.  I am so thankful that I have the full capacity of my mind, and thankful too for the ones who love us and take care of us even when we have lost so much of who we are.

But I’ve already discussed my gratitude for family and those who stick with us through thick and thin.  I’ve expressed thankfulness for my health.

I find the photographic talent represented by this series of award winners to be mesmerizing.  They haven’t just snapped a picture: they’ve captured a moment.  It is their work that has helped me revisit and remember so many of the things that make me a lucky person each day.

And so, although it seems inadequate or trivial given the content of the photographs I’ve shared, today I am thankful for photography and photographers.  I would have such little insight into what goes on in the world — both the heinous and the beautiful — if it weren’t for the fact that those things have been brought to my doorstep through the efforts of others in capturing those realities and bringing them to my doorstep.

gracefully

elderly couple in Bellagio, Italy

Photo Credit: Daderot; Licence: Public Domain

For most of my life, I’ve had the goal of aging gracefully. Even at my still reasonably youthful age of 31, it hasn’t been easy. To start, my hair started receding when I was in high school. There’s nothing that feels particularly graceful about someone guessing you’re 30 when you’re 18. Especially since people usually guess low.

“It’s just the way you carry yourself. You seem older.”

Sure it is.

There’s also nothing particularly graceful about your future in-laws telling your future wife to check your ID to make sure you’re not some geezer going after a younger woman. Okay, in fairness, I was singing Geoff Stephen’s Winchester Cathedral with my wife’s grandfather at the time, and I did know all the words. And they didn’t actually use the word “geezer.”

In university, I liked to chase caesars with margaritas. Now I just chase them with antacids.

Then a male friend told me the other day — swearing me to secrecy — that he feels like he’s getting wimpier with age. I told him I felt the same. Little things that wouldn’t have caused me to flinch before are now excruciating.

A milestone was reached the other day when I went to the dentist to pick up my new night guard. Not that it has anything to do with age because I’ve evidently had a very slight misalignment of my jaws as long as I’ve had adult teeth, but as I’m sitting there lisping to the hygienist through the apparatus, I couldn’t help feeling a little self-conscious. I kept reminding myself that Christian Bale wore a night guard in American Psycho, and he was the very picture of youth. Or, at least, I hope he wore a night guard. Don’t tell me if he didn’t; I don’t want to know.

When you find yourself trying to extract comfort from drawing comparisons between yourself and a fictional psychopath, you know you have problems.

Mark Twain’s witty remark to Edward Dimmit that “the first half of life consists of the capacity to enjoy without the chance; the last half consists of the chance without the capacity” now haunts me like a warning instead of  joke.

I know that aging gracefully is supposed to be about taking care of ourselves, accepting — even embracing — the changes that come with life, and not resigning ourselves to stagnancy.  I’m trying to follow my own tenet but, heck, maybe I won’t have to resign myself to stagnancy: maybe stagnancy doesn’t give a damn whether I resign myself.  Resistance Is Futile.

One time I got stuck on the dementia floor of a long-term care facility.  I had gotten into the elevator, but the elevator was called to a different floor, and I got out without realizing.  When I turned around to call the elevator again, the buttons were locked behind a Plexiglas cover.  Stairwells were locked behind doors which would trip an alarm if opened.  I started to wander through the halls filled with people with somewhat vacant expressions, searching for a staff person to let me out, my mild amusement at my mistake of getting off on the wrong floor rising rapidly to panic.  My brain goes ludicrous places when I panic.  I started thinking: what if they think I’m a resident here? How am I going to prove I’m not?  What if they never let me leave?

When I eventually found a staff person and told her that I couldn’t get off this floor, she joked without missing a beat, “me neither: I’ve been here since 1994.”  If you spend your days face-to-face with dementia, I suppose it’s healthy to develop a sense of humour about these things.

Then today, while waiting in line at the bank, an elderly woman said to her granddaughter — with genuine fear evident in her voice and in the expression on her face — “I’m just so worried about falling on the ice out there.”  Ice can be treacherous, but it never occurred to me to be terrified of going out when ice is on the ground.  But it makes sense.  A fall that, to me, would result maybe in a pulled muscle or minor strain can mean broken bones that never heal to person whose bones have brittled with age.

My point is: it’s easy to preach the virtues of aging gracefully when you picture yourself aging well, doing all the things you used to be able to do.  It’s easy to say “accept change” when you’re assuming the changes are going to be positive.

Taking care of ourselves is vital, but sometimes we’re a ticking time bomb no matter what we do.  My uncle has taken extremely good care of himself his whole life.  Or, leastways, my aunt has taken extremely good care of him.  An active lifestyle, regular exercise, healthy eating — all the good stuff.  Several years ago, he was diagnosed with diabetes.  Bang.  Quality of life diminished.  Resistance Is Futile.  Sure, he manages his health well, but let’s not pretend that everything’s “same as usual.”

On the other hand, there’s my friend Keith.  75 years old.  Drinks whiskey like I drink water.  Smoked since he was 14.  Broken every bone in his body, some more than once.  This is not a man who decided to navigate Life carefully.  But he’s one of the most active people I know.  This man just might outlive us all.

Or Patrick Stewart?  Let’s all stop pretending that man hasn’t tapped into some Elven elixir of life.  Yes, he’s aging but he looks better and better every year.

I think what I’ve learned is that we don’t know what the future holds.  Maybe I’ll live to 100 and still have use of all my faculties.  Maybe I’ll develop early onset dementia (some days, a case could be made that it’s already started).  Maybe I’ll die tomorrow.

None of these are new observations or thoughts: existentialist musings have been crystalized in history.  But for me, it emphasizes not just the old adages on seizing the day and living life to its fullest, but also the pure blessing of life.

Today, I am thankful for every molecule of breath in my lungs, for every beat in my heart.  If they’re my last, so be it.  If it gets harder to suck in that breath, or pump out that beat, too bad.  Right now, I Live, I Sing, I Dance, I Laugh.  Right now, I’m surrounded by people I love and who love me.  I’m golden.

remember

remembrance march

Photo Credit: big-tom-84; Licence: Public Domain

We visited a cemetery today to pay respects.  Although we had no family members buried there, we located a soldier’s grave and placed on it poppy wreaths the boys had made.  The man buried beneath the headstone had been 20 when he died.  In a quiet moment with my eldest, I recited In Flanders Fields… and explained what it meant.  He’s 9 and I suppose he understands it all about as well as I did at that age, when the overwhelming beauty of a person sacrificing their lives for the values we as a country hold sacred is still a pretty abstruse concept.  But this is why we remember on Remembrance Day.  It’s not that we shouldn’t remember every single day we draw breath, but having one day devoted to remembrance helps instill our children — and re-instill us — with an understanding and appreciation.  Maybe they don’t “get it” at first, but eventually they will.  This is how we pass “the torch” and “hold it high.”

Every day, thousands of men and women risk their lives to protect us, keep us safe, and guard our freedom, and there are hundreds of thousands before them who have risked — and, far too often, lost — their lives in service of our country with the same noble objectives.  Some of those who have died have been almost children, the incandescent glow of youth still visible on their skin.  Those who have fought have been separated from their families, subjected to grueling conditions.  They have witnessed horrors most of us could never imagine.

Today, I am thankful for them.  Today, I remember.

alive

baby

Photo Credit: Carin Araujo; Used with Permission

Shortly after I turned 1, my mother was holding me in her arms while I burned through a fever.  Suddenly, my eyes rolled back, and my body began moving rhythmically. I was having a seizure. While my father held me, my mother ran frantically to the house of a neighbour, who was a registered nurse.  My father has told me that, while he held me, I stopped breathing.  My mother returned with the neighbour, Vedra, who took control of the situation and, before long, I began breathing again and recovered.

A few months later, I had another seizure.  It was my brother’s birthday, and my family was planning to go out for dinner, but I had a fever and my mother suggested that my father and brother go out without us.  I began having the seizure and, again, Vedra came to the house and I recovered.

It was the last seizure I had.  I do not have epilepsy and the seizures were febrile, meaning that they were caused by a high fever.  It’s not an uncommon thing to happen to young children, who sometimes lag in developing the nervous system mechanisms to effectively control body temperature.

When my son was born, I was a worried that the problem might be genetic.  Every time he had a fever, I was terrified that it would happen to him.  What would I do?  During my first seizure, I stopped breathing.  Without a combination of several factors, I very likely would not have started breathing again, and what if my son wasn’t so lucky?

Today, I am thankful for a lot of things.  First, I am thankful for timing.  I had the seizures while I was being held by a parent and both my parents were present. My second seizure happened just as my father was about to leave the house. A few minutes later and my mom might have been alone, and I might not have fared so well, because it would be hard for one person both to respond to my needs in the moment and also seek help.  When my son had his fevers, I kept thinking: what if he has a seizure while he’s in bed?  He could stop breathing and I would never even know.

Second, I am thankful that my parents had the sense to run for help.  I think my mother rebukes herself for not really knowing what to do (I always say that perpetual guilt about one’s children is a sign of a good parent) but, really, which of us thinks straight when we perceive our children are in danger?  Once, while camping with Gregory (my eldest) and my friend Sarah, I asked Gregory several times not to walk along the seat of the picnic table, because I had the Coleman stove running, boiling water, and I was worried he might fall and either knock the pot of boiling water on himself, or set himself on fire.  Moments later, while he started walking along the bench again, he fell, with his arm hitting the stove.  That was when I made a complete departure from sense, which is a nice way of saying I went nuts.  I started alternating between screaming at him about needing to listen, and hugging him and asking him if he was alright.  He was perfectly fine, but in my mind, I had already decided he had burned himself, and I was panicking.  In the case of my seizures, I think that having the good sense to run to a neighbour who could handle the situation was the best anyone could expect.

Third, I am thankful that a registered nurse lived nearby, and that Vedra was able to help.  She is one of those every day heroes I like to talk about in this blog.

Without all of these things, I don’t know that I would be alive today, and that is certainly cause for gratitude.

the gang

Today, I am thankful for family.  This is important because I don’t think I feel nearly as grateful for family as I should.  There are times when having a break from my family is necessary for my sanity and, altogether, having young children, I don’t feel that I have enough solitude.  But, as I have mentioned before (kidcationsolitude), one of the reasons I enjoy the moments of solitude I do get from time to time is because they help me appreciate my family more.

The Gang

Photo Credit: (c) J. Matthew Lake

Alright, maybe one of the reasons I like having family is selfishly motivated.  It’s nice, after a difficult day at work, to be able to come home and have someone to hear my gripes.  And, no matter what mistakes I make — even after one of my cataclysmic screw-ups — I’m still loved.

Joe: But Allison loves you?

Quince: [nods, sobbing]

Joe: How do you know?

Quince: Because she knows the worst thing about me… and it’s okay.

— Meet Joe Black (1998)

I also feel that good moments are made more memorable when there is someone with whom to share them.  Not only the fun and special moments, but even the simple moments when I do something which has value to me, but which would be too insignificant to bother mentioning to someone else.  In turn, I have the chance to be a witness to my family’s lives too: their dreams and hopes; their falls and the things they overcome.  And not just a witness; a participant.

We need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet… I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things… all of it, all of the time, every day. You’re saying ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness’.” 

Susan Sarandon, Shall We Dance (2004)

When my life ends, I will have had the privilege of having spent my life with not just any people, but these specific people: my “peeps,” my gang.  That makes me feel fortunate.

ageless

Today’s post is a short one; it’s simplicity demands no elaboration.  While in Ottawa earlier this week, we stopped in to visit my aunt and uncle, two septuagenarians whose lifestyle would convince you they are in their twenties.  My aunt, Carolyn, learned several months ago that she had cancer.  Her oncologist didn’t think her chances were great.  A few months later, after a bout of chemotherapy treatment and an operation, she attended for a medical appointment and was told she was in complete remission.  The oncologist reported he had never seen a case of such radical recovery.

Both my aunt and uncle have been extremely active all their lives.  They have travelled all over the world, including visiting exotic locales most would never dream of visiting.  They have canoed, ridden bikes, walked, run, danced.  They have their tiny share of health problems, mostly genetic, but you would be hard-pressed to find a healthier pair of people in their 70s.  While we were visiting, my aunt was talking about how they had gone for a long bike ride the week before, and then for a swim in the St. Lawrence River.  She is also teaching a folk dancing class each week, and they have a trip to Germany booked in October.  It was a bit inspiring for me when I’ve known people in their 60s who already seemed like they had given up on life.

elderly couple in Bellagio, Italy

Photo Credit: Daderot; Licence: Public Domain

Today, I am thankful that we have — to a large degree — control over our bodies.  If we take care of them, then age really does become a state of mind.  Yes, no matter what we do, our bodies will break down.  That is inevitable.  But I am grateful that there are changes and choices we can make that will stave that off for a little while: it’s the greatest tool we have to fight the ravages of time.

newshound

Journalists are a nasty bunch of wraiths who will bully, deceive, cheat, and sell their souls to get a scoop on a good story.  And if they can’t get a good story, they’ll manipulate the truth until it’s something that will sell.

Leastways, that’s what popular media has always led me to believe.

I am perhaps a lonely one among the masses in that I have a great deal of respect for the noble industry of journalism. If you ever read, watch, or listen to the news, you should too.  Let me tell you why.

Continue reading

forgive

I recently stumbled across a website for The Forgiveness Project, a collection of personal and true stories of forgiveness. I encourage you to visit the site and read some of the accounts recorded there. In a world filled with violence and hate, forgiveness must at times seem a fantasy. And yet the human capacity for forgiveness is strong. One story — that of Kelly Connor, which she has also detailed in a book — is a good example of the difficulty of forgiving others for perceived wrongs, but also the sometimes greater struggle in forgiving ourselves.

daffodils

Daffodils, a symbol of forgiveness. Photo Credit: Yana Ray. Licence: Public Domain.

At age 17, while driving to work, Kelly was keeping her eye on another driver to ensure she could respond quickly in case he pulled out in front of her. Unfortunately, she was too late to notice the elderly woman who had started crossing at a pedestrian walkway.  The woman, Margaret Healy, later died in hospital.  Two weeks later, Kelly came home to find Margaret’s brother talking with her parents.  His message was one of forgiveness: neither he nor his family blamed Kelly for what had happened.

In situations of loss, it is a common and understandable response to be angry at the person whom the bereaved perceives to have been responsible for the loss. I’ve heard of stories of anger and bitterness directed towards emergency room doctors who tried in earnest to save someone’s life but did not succeed.  It’s an irrational but natural way of dealing with grief too great to bear.  For Margaret’s brother to make the trip to attempt to set at ease the mind of the person who was directly — though unintentionally — responsible for his sister’s death demonstrates an incomparable generosity of spirit.

Kelly was not as able to forgive herself, and the impact on her family was profound. She feels that it led directly to her her parents’ marriage and her own marriage falling apart. She kept the accident a secret from friends and loved ones for years until she disclosed it to her 14-year-old daughter, whose acceptance was a message that Kelly needed to begin working on forgiving herself. She has made progress but notes that it is a constant challenge. In her own words: “What I forgive myself for today, I don’t know will apply tomorrow.”

Today, I am thankful for the human capacity for forgiveness and, conversely, for the challenges we face in forgiving ourselves. Cripping though guilt might be, that people feel it is proof that humanity is not quite so in the gutter as I am inclined from time to time to believe. And that we can come out at the other end of guilt and anger and forgive restores my faith in humanity even further.

Do you have a personal story of forgiveness? Please share it with me in the Comments.

system

Some of you might be aware of a tragedy that occurred recently in Elliot Lake, a small rural town in northern Ontario. On June 23rd, a section of the rooftop parking deck of the Algo Centre Mall (Eastwood Mall) collapsed, killing two people and injuring several others. It was a tragedy not only in the sense that all deaths and disasters are tragic, but an even greater tragedy in that it was — in my opinion — completely preventable.

When a natural disaster wreaks havoc, we feel the immense loss and sadess of it all, but there is also a certain amount of acceptance that these things do happen and are part of the natural order of things. But when a building is neglected year after year and a tragedy results, it is difficult to derive any meaning from the experience, and the extreme anger felt by the community is very valid and justified.

A criminal investigation into this incident has been launched and a provincial probe is planned.  Until the findings are released, there is little judgment I can pass on any specific person or entity, but I have seen photographs that were taken in the months leading up to the tragedy and I can say that, even to a layperson, they spell danger.  I wasn’t surprised that the roof had collapsed; I was surprised it hadn’t happened sooner.

News reports have revealed that a structural assessment was conducted as recently as April, but obviously either no action was taken by the owner in response to deficiencies identified, or the engineering firm conducting the assessment failed miserably at what they were contracted to do.

Elliot Lake is not a wealthy city (that is even more true now that the roof collapse has thrown a bunch of people out of work).  In 2006, census results listed mean household income at $36,366, 45% less than the mean provincial household income at $66,600.  A good friend, who grew up in Elliot Lake, commented after the incident that people in the town have known for years that the mall was falling apart and that something like this was going to happen sooner or later.  She told me that complaints have been lodged but, because people who live in the town are “poor,” they will put up with it and still patronize the mall because they have no alternative.  There is probably at least a grain of truth to that, and it is appalling thought.  Economic forces might be at work that prevent the owner from keeping the building looking modern and updated, but if people or companies are unable or unwilling to take responsibility for the basic safety of the building they own, then it’s time to get out of the business, and there should be stiff punishments for those who don’t — stiff punishments pinned to the offender before the owner’s dereliction results in injury or death.

Readers familiar with the theme of this blog are no doubt wondering how and when I plan to extract gratitude from this situation.  I work as a property administrator and, when I am working with contractors to bring a project to fruition, I am often frustrated by all of the hoops through which we have to jump.  I have joked with contractors, “you need a permit to wipe your butt, nowadays.”  But, as frustrated as I am by the process, I am thankful that the process exists, because all of those safety regulations and standards are what keep disasters like the Eastwood Mall collapse from happening more often than they do.

This tragedy never should have happened, but I am glad that there are systems in place to try to prevent this exact sort of thing from happening.  Today, I am thankful for when those systems do work.

life

I read the news each day.  I try to stick to humour or lifestyle columns but it’s difficult to force my eyes away from the distraction of the death and corruption splashed across the headlines of the top news stories.  As time progresses, I am more affected by the stories I read. I suppose that’s reassuring: becoming desensitized over time would be a disturbing thought. Stories of travesties against children anger me and upset me the most; reports of senseless deaths give me the greatest sense of emptiness.

As I write that term — “senseless deaths” — I am struck at how strange that sounds, as if death is ever sensible.  But when a life is erased because of an isolated moment of carelessness or over something trivial, it has the power to thrust me into a state of existential despair.  Death after a full life feels different.

Not too long ago, my wife’s great-grandmother passed away at the age of 103. You’ll think I’m a sociopath for saying it but, as fond as I was of the woman, I couldn’t help but feel a bit happy at her funeral.  Here was a woman who had gone through two world wars and lived to hold her great-great-grandchildren in her arms.  She enjoyed her wine when it was made available to her, and she had a good sense of humour, and an endearing sense of morality.  Once, as she held our infant son in her arms and I confirmed that he was her great-granddaughter’s child and that I was the father, she cast me first a disapproving look, and then one of  disbelief as I reassured her she had been at our wedding and that the child had not been born out of wedlock.  Dementia was eroding her memory and, as the end approached, I saw the appearance of anxiety and fear as she tried to navigate a world which was starting to become confusing and overwhelming to her.  When she died peacefully, it felt wrong to feel sadness.  She had consumed life and sucked the marrow from the bone.  Her funeral was an opportunity to celebrate a life well-lived.

Those of you familiar with Tom Waits might remember his song “Time” with its simple chorus of:

And it’s Time, Time, Time

And it’s Time, Time, Time

And it’s Time, Time, Time

That you love

And it’s Time, Time, Time.

Life is time. Time to spend doing the things that make my life meaningful. Today, I am thankful for life; for the air that enters my lungs; for the reliable beating of my heart.  It can be snuffed out at any second, and that makes it all the more precious.

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