May 14, 2013 / 5:00 am
The doctor’s office is a sardine can of suffering humanity stacked side-by-side in pinched discomfort. I am waiting for the receptionist. Her head is an auburn porcupine slung with a device that curls along her cheek and stops suddenly at her mouth. With practiced courtesy she spills instructions to the soul on the other side of the wire, concludes her conversation and hands me a clipboard, without the welcome of her eyes. There is nowhere to sit so I stand aside, complete the form and wait for a seat.
We who wait here do not talk with one another; we recede into private worlds. We numb ourselves with the analgesic of glossy magazines, and await our turn like automobiles halted by highway construction. The eldest among us twitches when his name is called and rises with help from his white-haired mate. He shuffles down the L-shaped corridor and disappears at the bend. I take his seat, and wait for the mention of my name.
A big-boned nurse emerges from an inner office with a file which she deposits in a black tray. In my imagination I see an earth-woman, milk-filled, spilling over with hugs n’ kisses for her children. She commiserates with a lady tucked in a coat of cobalt blue, buttoned to the throat as if protecting from a wind that only she can feel. Like I, she is one among the multitudes who have gathered here to beat back the hound of encroaching mortality.
The screen above her releases bursts of high-definition intensity: black vehicles cruise past the Paris Opera; vibrant women, coiffed and painted to perfection, fill the evening with cascading laughter; sleek, sun-bathed bodies, flaunt displays of health and vigour. Above the splash of cobalt, photonic images swim about in a rectangle of electrons. They are goldfish in a bowl, insouciant denizens of a world where youth, power and pleasure are worshipped; a world where disease and old age are obscenities.
An assistant recalls me from my daydream; she is amiable, she screens me and the doctor declares: take-this-do-that, avoid the obvious and all will be well. The clinic recedes in my rear-view mirror, and at home the evening is soured by the hypnotic violence of television news. Glutted, I turn off this herald of a nervous world and walk upstairs.
I check my e-mail, and review photos made a few days past: a lovely woman in red lipstick looks directly at me from a placard; it is inscribed with a brief conversation between passersby. One stranger says, “Are you really alive?” Scrawled in red reply, the second says, “Yes, but it’s painful. A Facebook bloop announces another post. One, recalling a conversation overheard at a restaurant, catches me like a fish: “brains…” it says, “leaking…out…of…ears.” It is another dialogue in the litany of daily misery. I turn off the computer and go to bed.
Apr 16, 2013 / 5:00 am
Dr. Oakley's baggy eyes looked directly at me as he searched my chest with the cold, round instrument. Rubber hoses flowed from each end into his hairy ears. And I looked back in fear; wondering if he was going to give me an injection. At seven years of age I was terrified of needles, and when my father escorted him to my bedroom the surrounding comfort of comic books, electric train and other toys could not ease the anxiety neatly hidden within me.
The ritual was always the same: If he dropped the cold thing into his black leather bag, I would not be pierced; but if he placed it on my bed, then...oh then. I watched him withdraw the probe from my ribbed cage and saw the jowls above sharing his assessment with my fretful mother: the pneumonia had receded.
As was their habit, my mother and father invited him to stay a moment to share a glass of home-made wine. I could hear them from the bedroom, expressing in broken English their appreciation for his efforts. And before he left for his next home visit my parents would insist, despite his best to decline, that he receive a gallon of ruby appreciation.
He was not a stranger to our kitchen-parties where immigrants in faded suits – card-playing, wine-drinking, hearty eaters – burst into songs from the old country; where strong working-men cried at Christmas, so far from home; and where smotherly hens clucked at children raised on home-made bread and generous hugs and kisses. In those days, everyone was equal in their poverty and Dr. Oakley’s presence affirmed us.
But some time in my teens we moved to a larger city, and when my father called our new physician, a young fellow from the South, he refused to come, saying he did not make home visits. This unfamiliar, cooler way of healing ran alongside the changes of a world in convulsion, where transformations would insinuate themselves into the fabric of our lives and change us forever.
In high-school I learned that Dr. Oakley died of a heart attack. Despite my memories of his black bag and needles, I missed him and the laughter he shared with my parents. The age of Oakley is ended. And I wonder whether we have lost more than we have gained in our trade of soul for the cold reassurance of science and technology. The age of kitchen-parties, as I knew them, are ended too; discarded like faded suits, for Armani and stainless steel appliances.
Mar 19, 2013 / 5:00 am
Sister Mary Albert was a tall black bird with a white throat. Her habit floated behind her gaunt exterior like a little black tail as she clicked down the school corridors on bird-feet. Children were afraid of this nun and whenever I saw her approaching I held my breath.
When she spied a troublemaker – someone running in the hall or wearing shoes instead of slippers – her scowl would tower over him while she fingered the dark brown rosary beads that hung from her narrow waist. It is her mottled, stiletto fingers which I most remember from the fifth grade. While scolding me, her thumb and forefinger would pinch my scrawny arm like a spider’s kiss.
She wasn’t always severe, this bride of Christ; sometimes she would smile and for a moment I could almost trust her. The menacing clouds would retreat, the sun would shine and I would be tempted to remove my storm gear. On one occasion she beamed when I spontaneously donated ten cents to the mission for poor children. But in those days the little professor within me could not trust the interplay of cloud and sun in this love-starved woman.
She was the Sister Superior, the principal, a martinet who let nothing slide by her, and in the sixth grade fate scheduled me into her classroom. When her glowering form entered the room all were expected to rise as one and proclaim, “Good morning, Sister Mary Albert!” No one sat down until she did. Everyone was expected to have his dictionary lying on the left hand side of his desk – not the right side. When you were spoken to you rose, then sat when she nodded. And when she exited, all stood whether it was the end of class or not.
There was a host of rules to be followed, like the red ink decree. It was simple: you could not write in red ink; only she could because it was the colour of correction; blue was mandatory for everything but math, for which only pencil was to be used. One day, when she surprised us with a quiz my pen was out of ink. Fearing a zero, I risked using a red ball-point.
My felony was quickly discovered. She confronted me before the class and had me follow her to a back room where my hands shared ten swats with the grey belt we called the Beaver Tail. And when I began to cry she offered a hug which I righteously pushed away. I was later mollified by the knowledge that my classmates had been plotting to leave the room in protest.
That summer our family moved to another city. The years passed, I graduated, and one day as a junior in university, I saw her standing alone at the entrance to a mall: still a bird whose hollow bones were vacuum packed in skin. Old and compressed, she no longer seemed to be the great heron with the bladed beak…more a vigilant sparrow with little eyes surveying the terrain around her. She recognized me, we shared pleasantries, but there wasn’t much to say; so I parted and let her slide back into the humus of memory.
Forty-four years have elapsed since that mall encounter. And as I write, I feel a surprising tenderness for her, kindled by the memory of sunny moments that occasionally darted from behind her storm. Who was Sister Mary Albert? Was she born with the black’n’white pinions of the sisterhood? Or had she once been a giggly young sixth-grader with a honey-blonde ponytail? As a young woman had she ever fallen in love? Or was it love betrayed that made her so bitter? Perhaps she was reflexively passing something on when her spider’s touch kissed my skinny arms. Perhaps she too had been kissed, by spiders much greater than she.
Mar 5, 2013 / 5:00 am
Angelo's Roman nose is a monument on an otherwise slim, narrow face. In the third grade he defends it against the taunts I hurl by pushing me and running away. Reflexively I throw a rock, but am alarmed when it strikes the back of his head. Concerned and repentant, I follow his tears home where I subject myself to his parents' reproach, and to their threat to tell my mom and dad. Soon after, he and I – impelled by the mysterious logic of childhood – become friends and together navigate the shoals and reefs of Catholic school.
Angelino is his baptismal name but the neighbourhood just calls him Ange. We are skinny Italian kids, whom no amount of pasta or homemade bread can fatten. With calories burned in the forests of our adopted country, we are always dirty, curious and gloriously alive.
Ange comes to all of my birthday parties where he plays his accordion while the rest of us goof around like puppies. We are innocents who have not yet awakened to the snake in the garden - and in the third grade it bites Ange hard. We cringe in Miss Night's class where we learn to write cursive letters from the MacLean Method of Handwriting. She prowls the aisles between the wooden desks, identifies a malefactor and holds up his sheet of foolscap, publicly mocking his attempt at writing.
She then walks directly to Ange, takes him sternly by the arm and makes him sit on a high-stool, facing a corner. She pins his offence to the back of his grey knit shirt and invites everyone to look at his transgression. When I think it is safe I park behind Ange but cannot identify the source of Miss Night's mean spirit. I hear him crying silently. His thin suspenders trace the stoop of his shoulders, and his fingers try to staunch the drip from his noble nose.
When I see him the next day we do not talk about what happened because we are not mature enough to understand the necessity of grieving. We just carry on - even when Miss Night, in the fourth grade, commands a troublemaker to her desk and slaps his face fiercely with the belting that was supposed to be used only for hands and buttocks. We just carried on - trading comics, building forts and playing Cops and Robbers - our fear growing, like a serpent in the belly.
When my parents move to another city, Ange and I lose track of one another. But years later a chance meeting with a boyhood friend informs me that Ange still lives in our hometown, and that his great mark of distinction has become a vacuum for cocaine. He has lost his business, has undergone therapy and has been struggling. When a family vacation brings me back, Ange is out of town so I visit his parents. And in their kitchen it all comes back: the rock blindly thrown, Ange in the corner, his accordion, our romps in the wilderness – and Miss Night.
On my return trip, my young son plays in the back seat while images of straps, belts, pointers and chalk missiles parade themselves in memory. I feel a stirring in my belly and wonder if Ange has calmed his with coke. In the rear view mirror my eight year old quietly reads comics, and I ask myself, “What in God's name did Miss Night, and the others like her, think they were doing!”
Read more Finding Kelowna articles
- A pettiness to expiate Feb 19
- In praise of older women Feb 5
- Fonzie Jan 22
- On the road to find out Jan 8
- In the age of tattooed women Dec 11
- Kelowna Right to Life: Part 3 of 3 Nov 6
- Kelowna Right to Life: Part 2 of 3 Nov 4
- Kelowna Right to Life: Part 1 of 3 Oct 30
- On the banks of the creek Oct 16
- Summer's last act Sep 18
- At the Centre of Gravity Sep 4
- Dancing in the park! Aug 21
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