Saturday, August 9, 2014

Seven Months: Dreams

I have been silent on this blog for a couple of months now. The shock of my father’s brush with death seemed to leave me incapable of writing about my other sorrows. Then I was hurled into a new job which demanded much mental and emotional energy in July.

But that does not mean that, all of a sudden, grief over the loss of K.B. dissipated. There were the dreams, for instance, dreams in which K.B. never spoke. One night I had a powerfully realistic dream of being present in a room where K.B. and Chris were talking normally. I was astonished that she was alive. I went up and grasped her arm to see if she was really flesh and blood. It was so, and I spoke to her joyously and excitedly, exclaiming, “K.B.! You’re alive!” She smiled, but there was no conversation, and there the dream ended.

Around that time I talked with an elderly lady of my acquaintance about dreams of the dead. She said that she had heard somewhere that everyone has one lucid dream of each deceased loved one in which that person talks to them. She told me that she had such dreams of her parents and of her brother, and in both cases they spoke words of consolation to her. What they said was very meaningful and helpful to her, and she had no more lucid dreams of them.

I was intrigued by what she told me, but envious, too. I do not share her belief that we are all granted one last opportunity, even while asleep, to actually communicate with those we love who have passed away, but I could see the comfort that belief brought her, and I wished more than anything that in one of my dreams of K.B., she would speak to me.

For me, I would take any such conversation as something my subconscious was producing, drawing on memories of all the times we reveled in the opportunity to share thoughts, feelings, and cooking tips. I would not see it as a kind of communication from the realm of the deceased, as my elderly friend would, but rather as…as what? A pleasant illusion, akin to the replaying of a scene from a much-loved movie? Or the chance to feel, even for a short while, as if the unthinkable had not happened and life was as it was seven months and one day ago?

I can only think that the uncharacteristically silent K.B. of my dreams represents my deep sadness at the suddenness and finality of her death. I had no opportunity to say goodbye, to tell her how much her friendship meant to me, and I will never, in this life, hear the lilt of her cheerful voice again. Unless I dream it, and that seems to elude me.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Third Chance

A week ago my father nearly died. In the middle of the night he had a severe diabetic low. By the time the paramedics got here, he had slipped into unconsciousness. He was as close to death as I have ever seen someone.

But the IV glucose infusion given to him by the paramedics did the trick, and ultimately he regained consciousness. Six days in the hospital stabilized his counts and enabled him to return home in as good a condition as one could expect of a man who is 80 and has multiple health issues.

This is his third chance at life (or maybe fourth, as he had a serious fall from a cliff as a child). Almost twelve years ago he had a heart attack and then quadruple bypass surgery. Since then, rigorous monitoring of his health, an exercise program of daily power walks, and a diet of low-fat, low-salt food prepared by my mother have helped him beat the odds.

A week ago in the middle of the night, as I was desperately trying to feel for his pulse and not finding it—although I suppose it must have been there, faintly, as he was still breathing—I thought, “This could well be it. This could be when my father dies.” I began to think of when the funeral might be, how long it would take my siblings and B. to get here. I considered how my mother’s reality would change and whether she could live in this house alone.

But in about half an hour, he had moved far enough back from the line separating life and death to be able to speak. And within a few hours of being in the ER at the nearest hospital, he was able to give me instructions about an e-mail that needed to go to a friend.

He had dodged the bullet. He had a third chance at life.

Why some people get third or fourth or fifth chances and others don’t even get a second, is of course an imponderable. One can say it is simply down to luck: he was fortunate enough to share a bed with my mother, who noticed something was wrong. If he had lived alone, he would be dead now. On the other hand, those who believe that God has a plan for each one of us would say that this was clearly not yet my father’s time.

I don’t know what I think on this score. I recoil from the idea that a loving God would have “planned” that K.B. be taken from us at such a young age and at such a time in her life. And yet it was to God in the dark hours of last Friday that I prayed for my father.

I didn’t know what exactly to pray. To ask for more years of life for him, especially since he had already survived longer than anyone might have expected twelve years ago, seemed almost greedy.

So I merely prayed, “God, help him.”

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Forty Years...and Not Even One

A year ago today it was a beautiful, warm, sunny day. This seemed a particular gift, given the record-setting amount of snow we had gotten in the winter of 2012-2013, snow which had not completely disappeared by the beginning of May. And then it started to rain. The days leading up to May 25th, 2013, were grey and rainy in our city. It seemed too much to hope for that K.B. and Chris would be blessed with a perfect spring day on which to be married, and yet, it was so.

B. and I drove down to the church hall where we had had our own wedding reception not three years previously. We parked there and then got out to stroll in the sunshine to another church, quite near, in which the wedding was to take place.

I have mentioned before the huge smile illuminating K.B.’s face as she walked down the aisle and as she and Chris exchanged vows. I have never before seen a bride who was so much the embodiment of pure joy. She had been through so much in her life: losing her brother and mother at heart-breakingly young ages, experiencing the breakdown of her first marriage, raising two small children to young adulthood on limited resources. But as Chris said at her funeral, her orientation towards happiness helped her cope with life’s challenges. When she and Chris married a year ago today, all those who loved K.B. felt that yes, now things were turning out right: she had finally met the man who was able to truly appreciate her, and with whom she was able to create a love that would enrich not just their own lives, but the lives of their new blended family and of their large circle of friends, too.

Those of us in the church that day beamed with her, too, knowing that they would be embarking on an exciting journey together, one in which they would delight in the achievements of their children, wait on tenterhooks for the news of the births of grandchildren, walk on beaches around the world, and support each other in new endeavours, such as K.B.’s desire to become a published author. And then January 9th, 2014, happened…

A strange coincidence for B. and me is that today is also the 40th anniversary of his uncle and aunt. All weekend there has been a family reunion to celebrate this milestone, and today there was a combination church blessing of the long-married couple and baptism of their youngest grandchild. At the community centre where we dined and danced last night and then gathered again today to have lunch, there was a photo album with pictures of the shower and of every moment of the wedding itself. B.’s uncle wore the outfit he was wearing as a groom 40 years ago, and B.’s sister wore her bridesmaid’s dress.

As I looked around today at the huge number of people gathered to mark this important anniversary, I reflected on the ties that are created when two people exchange vows. From the commitment of the aunt and uncle in 1974, their family grew from two people in a couple to 24 people, including children, grandchildren, step-grandchildren, as well as the spouses and partners of their children. On the back of the church bulletin was the text of one of the hymns we sang, and one of the lines was “May through their union other lives be blest.” And that made me think of K.B. and Chris.

They may not have had a full year of married life together, but in the months they had, they acted as models for how to open one’s heart fully, with joy and generosity, to another person. They also established new connections between the members of their own families and between their new family unit and their friends. Of course it is tremendously difficult not to be mired in grief at the loss of the life we all hoped and expected they would live together. But the life they did live together has left a legacy: those vows they made, and the love they shared, will echo down the generations.

Through their union, our lives were, and will ever be, blessed.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Joy of Tea

Fairly regularly I find myself using the search function of my e-mail program to read over some of the hundreds of e-mails K.B. and I exchanged. This makes me feel as if her voice is still with me, and I do miss both her writing voice and her actual voice, very much. It reminds me, too, of the delight we took in sharing silly, bizarre, intriguing, or baffling tales of human behaviour, including our own. And then there are the many, many e-mails in which either she or I asked, “Are you free for tea soon?”

For most of my adult life I had been an inveterate coffee drinker. I looked down at tea drinkers for their choice of beverage, which I saw as a thin, insubstantial sort of drink. It was as if they couldn’t handle a true caffeine kick and so settled for something less demanding.

My coffee snobbery suffered a body blow around the same time that K.B. and I started becoming close friends. I’d like to think that this was because her influence was leading me to become more enlightened, but it had more to do with the fact that I was starting to have heart palpitations. Various tests showed that nothing was wrong. The cardiologist asked me if I drank coffee, which I admitted I did (although only ever one or two cups a day!). He suggested that I might be getting more sensitive to the caffeine in coffee, something that happens to some people as they age. Another one of the joys of getting older!

So I started having a half-decaf/half-regular cup of coffee in the morning. That still bothered me, so I switched to all-decaf (the horror! I had previously ranked decaf drinkers even lower than tea-drinkers). Finally it became apparent that coffee drinking could only ever be an occasional part of my life, and I grieved the loss of what I had thought had been a core part of my identity. I’m not keen on labels, but coffee-drinker had been one I’d proudly worn.

Oddly, however, the caffeine in green, black, and white tea did not seem to bother me. It seemed fortuitous that just as I was starting my tentative steps into tea appreciation that K.B. and I started spending more time together. K.B. was an aficionado of tea: she had an impressive collection of teapots (eight in her office alone), and she was particularly interested in single-estate teas. One time when I was back in St. John’s and in a new tea store there I texted her to see if there was anything she wanted, but since they didn’t have any single-estate teas, the answer was no. She was particularly fond of a tea from an estate called Needwood, which her teenage daughter thought was infinitely hilarious.

In 2009, a married couple—who were actually the parents of one of K.B.’s daughter’s schoolmates—opened up a combination tea shop and imported British foods store. As soon as K.B. found out about this place, it became a regular stop for us on our Saturday outings. Not only did the tea shop serve tea in proper china teacups and teapots with silver strainers, but they made all their own baked goods, too. While I tried a different dessert each time, K.B. was always faithful to their teacake, which she deemed perfect.

So this time a year ago, when K.B.’s future sister-in-law, J., and I were hosting her wedding shower, it made sense that the theme would be afternoon tea. K.B.’s female friends and soon-to-be in-laws gathered at my house where we sipped tea from my collection of old teacups and nibbled dainty treats. The place was decorated with teacups filled with rose buds, arranged by J.

The last time K.B. and I saw each other on a social occasion (as opposed to the last time I saw her, when she dropped off the jar of lemon curd before Christmas) was on November 30th, 2013. She had suggested that I and another friend and her mother-in-law and sister-in-law go to the special Christmas tea at the tea shop.

I knew it would be an insanely busy day for me, as there was a work-related event just before we were to meet. As I was madly peeling down the streets of our fair city, trying to get from one end of town to the other in an expeditious manner so as not to keep everyone waiting, I thought for a moment, “This is too much! I should have said I wouldn’t be able to meet them!”

But once I was there, it was, of course, just a delightful occasion. K.B. had urged us to wear hats, but only she was wearing one. At one point her sister-in-law took a photo of K.B. and I with our friend Y. That is the last photo of us together, and I treasure it. It makes sense that it would have been taken in a place we visited so often, engaged in the ritual of tea drinking which had not been part of my life before K.B. had entered it.

I have not been back to the tea shop since she died. It’s one of those things which still feels too hard. But last Saturday I had three friends over who had been here for K.B.’s shower a year ago, and together we drank tea and ate dainties in her honour.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

A Recipe from K.B.: Hudson Baked Beans

I feel that this blog has not been living up to its promise of providing occasional culinary digressions. So today I will provide a recipe created by K.B.

K.B. was always on a quest of some sort related to food. Whether it was attempting to find a rare ingredient in an obscure recipe, or whether it was trying to find the best possible way to create a particular dish, she was intrepid. In late 2011 she blogged about her mission to create baked beans just like those from a can:

“I’ve read about people who obsess over things. I’ve met them. I’m one of them. Now, I’m not talking obsessive compulsive disorder. I mean obsessing about getting something just right, down to the smallest detail. Even if you’re only doing it because…then you can say you did it. 

People who make miniature models, for instance. Or recreate historic clothing, dying wool they spun themselves, weaving it or knitting it into something using only tools that someone would have had access to in whatever era they are imitating. 

I tend to spend large amounts of time trying to get certain eatables just right. Baked beans kept me busy for years. I happen to like – but due to allergies can’t eat – tinned beans. It took me ages, but I can now make home made baked beans taste like Libby’s canned beans. Backwards, I know. It would be better to spend time (assuming I worked at Campbells or something) making tinned food taste home made. But there you have it. Three years, obsessing over beans.”

I was fascinated by this particular quest (which went so far that K.B. once brought a slow cooker filled with the beans into work). I weirdly love the taste of plain canned beans in tomato sauce, too (no pork for me, as I’m vegetarian). To me they summon up memories of one of my comfort meals as a child, canned beans on toast made from white bread.

When I read that K.B. felt she had created a recipe that duplicated this taste, I asked her for the recipe. Here is a vegetarianized version of it; I assume that the original version contained a half-pound of salt pork rather than the veggie bacon.

“Hudson Baked Beans*

2 cups navy beans
8 cups cold water (I use bottled, but only in Saskatchewan because of its hard water)
1 tsp salt
1 cup diced onions
½ pound veggie bacon, fried up
½ cup brown sugar (I’ve used light and dark. This recipe was light.)
1-3 tsps Keen’s Mustard Powder (Yup, always Keen’s.)
¼ tsp pepper
1 tsp salt
1 tin tomato paste
½ to ¾ cup molasses, table or blackstrap (If I use 3 tsps of the mustard, I use the full ¾ cup of molasses)
2 glugs of ketchup

Soak beans in cold water, overnight or at least six hours. Add tsp of salt and bring to a boil. Simmer gently 1-2 hours. At the 1.5 hour mark, get some beans in a spoon and blow on them. If the skins split, they’re ready. If they don’t, or only a few do, keep simmering.

Drain the beans but KEEP the water.

Mix 2 cups of the water with all the ingredients listed after the veggie bacon. (Keep any liquid over the two cups, you might need it later.)

Put half of the beans in a bean pot. Sprinkle the onions on top. Put the veggie bacon on the onions, then cover with remaining beans. Pour the liquid over everything. Bake in a 250F oven for 6-7 hours. At the three-hour mark, take the pot out and stir everything together. If they seem a little too saucy, add some of the remaining bean liquid, or water if you only had two cups of the bean water. Sometimes I take taste test at the six-hour mark.”

*Named after K.B.’s hometown of Hudson, Quebec.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Laughing and Crying

Last weekend B. and I went with Chris and a couple of other friends of K.B.’s to a burlesque show at a local theatre. K.B. loved dancing of all varieties: Scottish country dancing, belly dancing, ballroom dancing, and, most recently, burlesque. She had started taking classes about a year and a half before she passed away.

She had had the chance to perform in several shows during her time with the troupe. For some reason I hadn’t managed to catch any of these (I know one she had to bow out of at the last minute because of a migraine). The only time I did see her dance in this style was at her wedding reception, when she and the rest of the women from the group showed off some of their moves. I joined them on the dance floor at one point and they urged me to “shake what my momma gave me.” It was so much fun. I asked K.B. about learning burlesque, too; in the fall we were trying to arrange private lessons for the two of us plus two more friends, but the timing didn’t work out. We were hoping to make another attempt to set up lessons for the four of us this winter.

So this was my first opportunity to see the women who danced with K.B. in costume doing their full routines. They were wonderful: funny, sexy in a coy, teasing way, and clearly enjoying themselves immensely. There were women ranging in age from their 20s to (probably) their early 60s and in body type from the very thin to the heavy-set. I envied them their self-confidence, their ability to revel in the beauty of their bodies. The audience could not have been more supportive: they hooted and cheered and at the end gave the performers a standing ovation.

I was so glad we were there so that I could see the full glory of a burlesque performance. I laughed so much; many of the women were talented comedians. But it was painful to be there, too, and not just because they paid tribute to K.B. in words, pictures, and dance. It was also because I felt that by watching the women of K.B.’s troupe perform in a way that K.B. loved, that I was learning about an aspect of her life which I had only partially understood previously. The joie de vivre, the sense of humour, the delight in one’s own womanliness: it was as if the spirit of K.B. was with us.

One would think that I would simply be able to enjoy that feeling, but no: it brought back the agony of missing her. Interspersed with the times when I was laughing with the dancers and admiring them were the moments when I felt that I was going to burst into tears again. I so wanted K.B. to stride on stage with that huge smile on her face, shaking what her momma gave her.

I kept it together until we got home and went to bed. And then I cried and cried.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Three Months

April 9th

Three months since she went to the hospital that day. It was in the depths of winter; now melting is finally starting to take place, the scent of damp earth is in the air, and the cats are warming themselves in the sunbeams streaming in through the French doors. The season in which she died is itself passing away.

Three months: should it not be time for the rawness of the pain to have eased? Some days it feels that way; other days, not. Yesterday and today have been days when it has been as difficult as ever. Last night I had a long conversation with one of my dear friends whom I have known since childhood; we had been in touch through social media since K.B. died, but had not actually spoken. 

Just “catching up” and explaining to her what the last three months have been like for me plunged me back into that aching despair. The tears kept flowing for an hour, to the point that it was almost difficult to talk. Even after the tears abated, my head pounded and my eyes ached from the physical effort of crying.

As emotionally and physically difficult as it was, though, talking to this friend was therapeutic. She has been through tragedy in her life, too, and she was able to share her experiences of grief in a way that made sense to me. She confirmed that all the first milestone dates are hell, so having a virtual breakdown on my birthday was perfectly normal. Her ability to empathize, and her tender concern, warmed my heart for an hour when my face was slick with tears.

The sadness led to another difficult night and a strange morning. It was announced today at my workplace that I was to receive a new position with more responsibility. Congratulations poured in. I was humbled to know that my colleagues respected me enough to be pleased at this development. I informed friends and family of the news, and they responded with even more kind words. But in the moments in between the kind e-mails and social media comments and office visits and phone calls, when there was time for quietness, thoughts of K.B. and what happened three months ago reasserted themselves.