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The call comes as I’m drifting to sleep. “Mum.” My daughter’s voice, excited, urgent. I prop myself up on an elbow in the dark bedroom, my back curled to my sleeping husband.
“You remember – ,” she names the man who runs her university theatre studio, a man who’s been absent with AIDS most of the year. “He came in tonight. To say goodbye.”
For the past year, Kathleen’s been afraid he would die. “He talked for almost two hours. We all sat there, just listening.”
“What’d he say?”
“He told us, ‘It’s a big life. It might not be long, but it’s big.”
Over 5,000 kilometres away, his words silence me. How can I tell Kathleen that I know in my heart and my gut that these words are true, that if she holds them tight, they’ll help her in the very moments when they seem a cruel lie?
On a cool day in late spring, 1968, high in the mountains of southeastern British Columbia, I graduated from high school with the same 50 students I’d started Grade 1 with. We felt like we’d known each other forever.
We knew who thought he was brilliant and who really was, whose father smacked his son, whose mother refused to let her daughter go on a date because she’d only get pregnant.
In those pre-cellphone, pre-Facebook, pre-contraceptive days, news would arrive a day late in the form of the newspaper from Vancouver. TV was still a novelty.
In spite of our isolation, or maybe because of it, we felt ready for the world, even as we suspected the world could not possibly be ready for us.
Our graduation night, held in our school gym, was magic.
Most of the girls had sewn their own dresses (mine was a shiny aquamarine), and the boys had borrowed suits from fathers or older brothers.
There was no tuxedo rental, no limousine arriving to pick up 14 students, no champagne sendoffs. Instead, there was the gym, swaying with paper streamers we’d strung ourselves, white-papered tables, small bunches of flowers our mothers had stuffed into green glass vases.
The banquet was catered by the United Church ladies. Our parents sat beside us, and if a father or mother was missing, it was noted. Divorce was unheard of, though we had an inkling of the pretense of some marriages. We gave speeches and toasts, we laughed and cried. We knew this moment would never happen again.
Most of us would stay in our small town, the boys going to work “down the hill” at the smelter, the girls to secretarial school or to set up house, after marriage of course, to an older boy.
We stood together and toasted the Future. That night it was full of promise, shimmering in front of us.
So none of us knew how to handle what happened next: shattering phone calls at dawn, an interminable wait. There had been an accident. A crash. Somewhere near the lake. Four were dead. No, five. No, seven. A dump truck. The wrong side of the road. Black ice, even though it was late May. Not black ice. Booze. Just plain drunk. No one knew, so we waited.
Later that morning, we heard the names. Seven dead. Some from my graduating class, some younger. On the way home from an after-party at the lake, they’d crossed to the wrong side on a blind corner and met a fully loaded dump truck. The truck driver cried as he said there was nothing he could do.
The world that had seemed full of possibilities just hours earlier shrank to a small and mean place, our dreams smacked down hard. “How dare you,” the universe hissed, “think you could do anything, be anything?”
For years after, my stomach tightened into knots in late May. I’d hear the word graduation and a toxic mix of fear and anxiety would fill me.
When my children graduated from high school, I tried to keep quiet. I didn’t want to ruin their moment, though I knew I came close with my anxious face, my repeated questions about their whereabouts, and when, when would they be home.
Now, these words “It’s a big life” wallop me. For longer than I care to admit, I let the universe’s message from that night linger in the back of my mind, like a silent check on my dreams. Sometimes it abruptly vaulted forward, hissing again, “What makes you think you can do that?” No one said – I didn’t say – “It’s a big life.” It took me many years to find my way to those words on my own.
I realize this man who has struggled to stay alive while Kathleen has been in his studio has given her class an astounding gift.
Cradling the phone, my back still curled away from my sleeping husband, I want to say: “Yes, it is a big life. Even if you’re catapulted into a grown-up terror the very night you graduate. It’s as big as you want to make it. Don’t let anything make it small.”
“Mom,” Kathleen says. “What’s the matter? Are you having one of those moments?”
“Kind of,” I say. “I’ll tell you about it when I’m there next week. For your graduation.”
Judy McFarlane lives in Vancouver.
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