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first person

Illustration by Adam De Souza

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

In a quiet corner of my doctor’s office, I think about two things. One is the irony of waiting the painful wait my own patients usually endure. The other, the last time I experienced live music.

The microphone’s snap and crackle, the glistening sweat on the musician’s foreheads, the rumble of the floorboards from the stomping feet. There, in a small fishing village on the western edge of Cape Breton, N.S., I unknowingly became part of a cèilidh.

After stocking up on camping supplies, most visitors don’t give Chéticamp more than a sideways glance. My sights, I remember, weren’t set on its generous people, clapboard homes or dirt-covered roads. Rather, they were squarely on the ribbons of the Cabot Trail once my partner and I made camp on the grassy tongue of a cliff. The sun – the first I’d seen of it in weeks – in a cloudless sky had transformed the Gulf of St. Lawrence into a giant pool of liquid gold; a scene so lurid with colour, it looked like the stuff of a cheap postcard. I thought I was standing in a dream.

A few hours later, I would be standing in a pub.

When night fell, my partner’s phone buzzed with a message. An urgent e-mail needed her attention. “I think we have to drive into town,” she said, hanging by the thread of a single bar of cell reception. I was a sheltered urbanite who never ventured much beyond city limits, and was still getting used to the natural darkness, a black so dense it swallowed all forms of light. The glow of a full moon and a sky stippled with more stars than I ever knew existed lit our way as we stepped into my car and inched carefully toward a pub we had passed earlier in the day.

We ended up driving past it. Twice.

We faced the doors like a pair of frontier-beaten interlopers who’d travelled long and hard to get to the watering hole of a town they had little business in, and then pushed through them with an anxious sense of triumph. A number of stares met us, thick and curious. The place wasn’t full. It wasn’t empty, either. We eyed a table far off in the corner, and I took not one step forward before a hand flashed in front of me.

“It’ll be $5,” said a faint voice in a French lilt. I threw back my head in disbelief.

“Each? On a Wednesday?”

A woman emerged from behind the palm, her look matter-of-fact. “It’s Talent Night,” she replied, and then seeing my expression, added, “For the steak dinner you might win tonight!” Forking over a crumpled $10, the last money in my pocket, she tore two raffle tickets and handed one to each of us, which we took to our seats in the cool angle of a shadow.

The trio on stage formed a motley crew. The oldest, a thin, sage-like man, had wisps of coarse white hair that encircled his head, similar to the lattice of a bird’s nest. He bowed a fiddle. The other two were younger, ruddier and stockier and seemed, perhaps, a little less sacred. Strumming guitars, half-empty beer bottles stood beside their stools and cigarettes were pinched behind their ears. They sang in English, and they sang in French. While we struggled to work the Wi-Fi, every now and then they cajoled one of the regulars clustered by the stage to join them.

“Claude!” they shouted. “Come, come sing one for us!”

Claude initially balked at their demands. But hands around him pushed him forward. Despite appearing so shy, he could really belt them out. In his deep sandpaper voice, the traditional songs that left his lips were haunting and elegiac at one turn, and alive and spry on the next. In front of him, denim-clad hips twisted and turned and plaid-covered shoulders dropped and swayed. Even I found myself spelled by their power, like siren songs to a wary soul.

Hands clapped, and the room around me swelled with hope and love and laughter. What I didn’t know then was that I needed these feelings. For at the time, my heart was filled with fear.

Weeks earlier I made the discovery no one wishes to make. There were three lumps in my neck. Several smaller ones, I’ve found since. I knew what they could be. As a resident physician, I spoke them into being, into remission, into recurrence, every day with my patients: their balding heads, steroid-swollen faces and plastic ports bulging beneath their skin. I was afraid. But I kept all this locked up inside me. Life was barrelling forward, and there, on the world’s edge in Cape Breton, I dug in my heels to keep it from going over.

So what then, if I told you, that I happened upon a peace that transcended all others? It was a peace beyond naked woods and the monastic quiet and isolation of nature. It was beyond the cracks of twigs, the roll of rocks and the give of wet soil under my footfalls; it was beyond the sound of flowing streams that plunged into cold crystal pools and the fires that licked flames into the heavens.

In a modest wood-panelled room, my spirit was both let loose and held close by the music. I felt vulnerable and protected. I was no longer retreating from a world I knew, but, instead, forming connections with a world I didn’t.

Music tends to move us. It brings us toward the faces we miss, the times we long for and the places we’d rather be. But live music is different. It is absolute in its inertia. It slows us down. It makes real no reality but the one we’re in, no company but the people we’re with.

Cèilidhs have offered a reprieve from the hard knock life in these remote corners of Nova Scotia for centuries; these gatherings for socializing, singing, dancing and storytelling are a way of living, of surviving. That night, those hardened islanders showed me that to feel cast off alone is to not be lost. The life we choose to live is only as rich as the life we choose to share. Trawling the pub’s website, with “Talent Night” put on hold, now, like all of our own lives, I can only imagine that some part of theirs is missing, too.

That night, my partner held out her hand. I took it. Peering out onto the moonlit water stretching to infinity from the pub’s window, the scene filled me with promise and possibility, as well as with sadness and doubt. This life we cut neatly into pieces, calculated and predictable, can be turned over in an instant. But our existence in that moment, all that flesh and bone, seeming so utterly insignificant, was conferred a blessed meaning.

Arjun V.K. Sharma lives in Toronto.

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.