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I don’t like goodbyes; the long, last look, the final handshake, the slow wave that means never more; that final tap on the shoulder. I’d rather live in eternal overtures with my entire cast of characters than wrap up in finales, no matter how grand and rapturous. The autumnal disappearance of the geese, the riderless horse, boots placed backward in the stirrups, the unquiet sight of a lone ghost bike and the mournful lilt of Auld Lang Syne fill me with sadness. Palpably. The credits role, the curtain closes, the bell tolls somewhere. When my son left for the beauty of Vancouver, I curled up in his bed and slept surrounded by his stuffies; Robert Munsch’s book, Love You Forever, a blur on the carpet. I can still see his last wave as he rounded the corner, heading west.
Cherished neighbours move on, but one more toast. The light goes out in the eyes of a loved pet, but one more kiss. Students depart to follow their dreams, but one more hug. A species grips the edge. The grand old poplar by the side of the road… gone. Damn. At no time have I ever understood Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me.” What? Keep moving Pale One. There’s nothing for you here.
In literature, I try to skim the farewells, go around the place of tears. Old Yeller? Junior high was emotional enough without making that book required reading. Appointment in Samarra; sure, if you like feeling trapped and hopeless. But sometimes I can’t. In Grade 2, I always read Charlotte’s Web. Chapter 21 was inevitable; Charlotte dies alone. To this day, my students tell me it was their favourite story. When I retired last year, it was doubly poignant; an endearing and enduring moment. My last reading of a loved story. A final farewell to Chapter 21. To this day I cannot harm a single spider.
Even candles have been problematic for me. A room filled with freshly lit candles emanates warmth and welcome; the beginning of a lovely evening. If only it could go on forever. But there is something desolate about a candle flame, flickering and struggling, extinguished with a puff of breath; white wisps scattering, bereft. Where possible, once lit, I leave them in peace. If not, I make a quick sign of the cross. No, I am not Catholic, but maybe superstitious.
Remember B.J. Hunnicutt’s message to Hawkeye in the final episode of M*A*S*H. One word. The word he just couldn’t say. That word. Goodbye; built out of rocks against the brown hillside. Unlike Hawkeye, I did not smile wistfully. I hated it. I was out the door the minute the music began. Or the last scene of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, when she takes that proverbial last look, turns off the lights and closes the door. Triple kill. We were left staring at ...nothing.
It may sound as though I’ve had a traumatic life. Not really. But there is one early memory that continues to jitter through my neurons.
When I was growing up in Toronto, my mother had a friend in the Junction who loved books and art. Since they spoke German these visits would have been tedious had it not been for the piles of books and magazines, and the intriguing paintings on the walls; reproductions of the European masters. One painting, in particular, drew me near each time and filled my belly with woe and caterpillars. It was one of those “slice of life” creations, Dutch maybe, where everyone was visiting and making merry. A carefree summer’s morning, perhaps. And then, my eyes would be pulled inexorably to the bottom left corner where Death, in the form of a smiling skeleton, looked out at me. Directly at me. As the adults laughed and chatted, sipping tea and passing around plates of cookies, I would continually look around the room, wondering where “he” was. Even today, during moments of good fun and camaraderie I feel the impermanence of the moment and wonder around which corner “he” is lounging. Treasure each moment.
When my mother died, I was in Vancouver spending a few days with my son discussing her move into a nursing home. The choice had been a difficult one but we were hopeful. We had just settled down to enjoy our supper with a beautiful view of English Bay when our phones rang almost simultaneously. I flew home in the pouring rain to begin the funeral arrangements. A friend of mine sought to console me, bless her. “She knew you couldn’t say goodbye. This was her way to protect you; her last gift.” I was haunted by that for months. Perhaps I still am. While clearing out her home, a neighbour came to express her condolences. She held both my hands as she confided, “You know, Violet, we had a robin coming by a while back just singing and singing on the top branch. Your mother said that was her Dad calling her home.” I love robins, but if I had known I would have told Opa to mind his own business.
In the spring, we will scatter her ashes on a hill overlooking water. I have heard choruses of robins there each year.
A few years back, I went home to Toronto. As I near my seventh decade, the places of my childhood call out to me. Toronto is where I took shape and on my first day, I was looking for two words as I walked down Bloor Street: Honest Ed’s. I found them along with two other words; permanently closed. The sight flattened me. With those 2 words something of the “me” who had walked those tilted floors and stairs also permanently closed. That would become the first of many disquieting alterations. I felt as though I were disappearing along with my childhood landmarks. Toronto was still my city, but not mine, forever.
I love my life; my son, my friends, my job, my travels and independence; even robins (well, maybe not that one). Each year blesses me with challenges, opportunities, far away pleasures and well-loved sights. But the sight of life’s terminal station? I’m in no hurry.
Violetta St. Clair lives in Edmonton, Alta.