personal reflections on human rights...and other stuff

30 stories in 30 days






Day 30: Dear Somewhat Younger Me
Dear Somewhat Younger Me,

There’s no easy way to say this, but your mother is going to die next week. Not that the news is much of a surprise. For the past six weeks, she’s gone from diagnosis to her deathbed and there hasn’t been a damn thing anyone could do. You’ve been to the hospital every day with your brother – if your mother were aware of what was going on, she’d be happy. The three of you haven’t been this close to each other since you each left home all those years ago. Too bad it’s a shitty time.

There are two things you need to remember, even though you’re not in the mood to listen to anyone.  The first thing you need to remember is that, however weird this sounds right now, you are one lucky bastard. Sure dying sucks, especially when it’s happening to the last parent hanging around. You knew she was going to die, you knew it was her last Christmas, you knew there’d be no more bringing her coffee and donuts on a Saturday morning only to hear her say “Oh my! You shouldn’t have. But let me try just one donut.” At least you had the time to say goodbye. Tell me that’s better than getting a phone call with the person on the other end saying, “She’s gone,” and that’s it game over call the funeral home.

Your head is a mess right now, with a desperate attempt to mine long ago memories of the things your mother said, her mannerisms, pride, and unswerving tenacity in knowing what’s right and proper as fiercely as what’s unjust and wrong. For some reason, you keep playing in your head all the times you asked to borrow her 1989 Acura Integra RS Special Edition Coupe and she replied, without hesitation, “Over my dead body.” So the only other thing I want to tell you is, despite all that you’ve got going on in your head, let go. Don’t hold the pain in, it’s not worth it. Next week, as you step out of the elevator on the fourth floor of the hospital for the last time and sit by your mother’s bedside, the nurse will ask you if you’re feeling OK. For once, you say No. No more I’ll be all right or Not bad or It’s OK. No is at last an honest answer. It’s enough for the nurse to suggest you call your brother. He shows up, all three of you are quiet, and well, you can guess what happens next. You needed to tell someone that this crap isn’t cool and things just plain suck right now. Letting go is the best thing you can do. Doing that will make sure the three of you are together in the end, together as you were all those years ago.

Afterward – you’ve probably stopped listening to me by now so I’ll keep it short – things get better. I’m not saying right away, but you’ll learn to laugh again. And your mother’s laugh is still one of the sweetest memories. It’ll never fade.

See you,
Me



Day 29: We only opened a year ago
[A follow-up to Day 2.]
Once we dumped our gear at the KKK Guest House, dinner was our priority. The long day cycling had built up our appetites. We walked into a room labelled Restaurant. It was poorly lit with a freezer in one corner, one wooden table, a few old chairs, and a wall of Carlsberg crates. It felt like we were in a shed.

Finally a young man walked in the room. He asked me if I wanted a drink. I ordered a Carlsberg Green. Same for my friends. When he came back, he was ready to take our orders.

"What do you have for food?" Gary asked him.

The young man showed us a handwritten menu. The choice was essentially between meat and chicken. Gary pointed to the chicken and rice. "Can I have this? The chicken and rice?"

Fine dining, Malawi style
"No, sir," the young man told him. "We don't have chicken."

All right. "How about the meat?" Gary asked.

"Yes."

"Can we order meat and rice?"

His eyes darted away for a moment then returned. "Yes."

"What kind of meat? Is it beef or lamb?"

A pause. "Yes."

Uh-oh. Too many questions. Ken piped in. "So you're telling us you have meat and rice?"

"Yes," he nodded. Then, "No. We don't have food here."

I was reluctant to point out the obvious. "But it says 'restaurant' out front."

"Excuse." He was off.

He came back with the manager. "Sorry, sorry, sorry, sirs!" He clasped his hands and bowed gracefully. Smiling, he said, "We've just opened a year ago, so we don't have food yet. But you see, we get the food from another restaurant. So if you order, we will be most happy to get the food for you. Anything you want."

"How about meat and rice?"

"Yes, yes! Of course! What type of meat, beef or lamb?"

"Beef's good,” we all agreed. “Zikomo." He said something to his waiter-in-training and they both left. We were left alone again with the sounds of Paul Banda on the loudspeakers. Broke out the deck of cards and started playing Hearts. When the meal finally came, two beers later, the waiter placed three plates of rubbery chicken and rice on the table. The manager told us there was no beef.



Day 28: Dear Much Younger Me (Part II)
Dear Much Younger Me,

Three things you have to know. Let’s see…you’re 13, so by now you’ve been beaten up once by those two jerks in Grade 11, bullied a few times, kicked in the nuts by that loser Étienne, insulted more than a few times because you had an English name in a French school (“Hé Anglais, veux-tu que j’te crache dein cheveux?”), and shoved around every now and then. You were also insulted quite a few times because you were smart, but we’ll forget those times – they were hurtful yet indirect compliments.

But I digress. The first thing you need to know is, you never did anything wrong. You just went about being you. The fact that mean kids picked on you is their own damn fault. It never had anything to do with you. Your future wife would be kind enough to say that these children have problems and need help; if you show them friendship, you may be surprised at what you get in return. Your brother would call them stupid assholes. I won’t weigh in on where I stand, but it’s safe to say I choose a middle ground.

Regardless of how I see things, there’s a second point I have to tell you about: Violence is never, ever the answer. You might feel the need to punch a bully in the face, but that doesn’t make you any better than him. I have to tell you now that next year, you will beat the crap out of a kid in high school. I’m not proud of it, but it happened (or will happen, in your case). And while it’s true he will never bug me – I mean you – again, it’s not the solution I would have opted for nowadays. Don’t raise a fist. Defend yourself, obviously, but don’t ever see violence as a solution. In a couple of years from now you’ll read a series of books by an author who will quickly become your favourite science fiction author as a teenager. In one of his books, one character says to another: “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” You never forgot those words.

The third and most important thing I need to tell you is that you are not alone. It may seem that way sometimes, but you’ve got friends who are going through the same thing as you right now, and they need your help just as much as you need theirs. When someone bullies you, seek out those who can help, whether it be your friends, your brother or mother, a teacher, or a neighbour. Sometimes people don’t even realize when someone is being bullied. Speak out, reach out, and find help.

It may sound meaningless to you now, but you have to know that the people closest to you love you, and because they do, you’re always going to be all right.

Stay cool,
The Older You



Day 27: Canada, then and now, as perceived by complete strangers in faraway countries
Then
Man it’s hot in this country. “Are you American?” the stranger asks me.

I shake my head. “No, Canadian,” I reply.

His eyebrows arch up slightly. “Oh, so sorry, I did not mean to offend.”

“You didn’t.”

“I love Canada. Such a beautiful country. The people are so nice. Do you know John?”

Oh to hell with it. “He’s my brother.”

Now
The stranger looks at me. It’s hot out here, but not intolerable. “Where are you from?” he asks me.

“Canada.”

“What's wrong with you people?”

I have no sensible answer.



Day 26: Let me try that again
[It's best if you read Day 25 before this story.]
“We can set up our tents over there,” I suggested, pointing to an area close to the shore. My friend and his girlfriend came equipped with his crappy 69$ Canadian Tire 3-man tent. I hoped for his sake there wouldn’t be a slight breeze or his tent would collapse. Just check into a hotel if the rain starts.

I had my own tent, along with the rest of the equipment. Stove, gas tank, pots and pans, utensils, chairs, hammocks, bug spray, axe. We grabbed the beer and food out of the trunk. Took the rest of the stuff out. Lastly…there it was. My tent. At least I remembered it this time.

My friend set up his toy-tent as his girlfriend watched. I would have loved to come here with Liz, but that story was over. Never mind. Fresh air was just what I needed.

Unzip the bag, pull out the tent. The metal pegs fall out and fall to the ground. All that was left was – “GODDAMMIT! GODDAMMIT! GODDAMMIT!”

“What’s wrong?” asked my friend, instantly horrified.

“I forgot my goddam tent poles.”




Day 25: The perfect camping trip
This is it. Finally. Trunk’s packed with all the gear. Only a few minutes away from the campground. I’ll be alone with her for the first time. No friends, no family, no work. Just the two of us. Perfect. It’s finally going to happen.

“We’re almost there,” I tell her. This is her first time camping. She offers me a smile from the passenger seat.

I turn off the highway, drive up to the campground. “Hi Connie,” I say to the ranger greeting us. Connie hasn’t changed in years. Screams at you if you throw a tin can in the fire pit. Hunts you down if you snap a twig off a tree for firewood. Even if she doesn’t find a reason to yell at campers, she’ll give them a good stare down just to frighten them. I register and we drive to our site. Secluded, neighbouring lots empty. Even more perfect.

The anticipation is almost unbearable. All I want to do is set up the tent, make dinner, get a fire going, and for once have an evening that doesn’t end with the words “Not yet.”

Everything is perfect. Even the weather. I pop the trunk, pull out the cooler, sleeping bags, beer, backpacks, flashlight, and holy shit oh no this isn’t possible shit shit shit.

“Is everything all right?” she asks, sitting at the picnic table. She must have heard me mumble at least one shit.

No way of avoiding this one. “I think I forgot the tent.” Not so perfect.





Day 24: This is me

Dear Much Younger Me,

Be cool.
Tomorrow morning you’re going to wear your favourite shirt. Well, it’s your favourite shirt for now, anyway. Your mother took you to the t-shirt shop at the Miracle Mart Mall and you chose the design you wanted ironed on your new, white t-shirt. It took you a long time to choose, and in the end you couldn’t have been happier. There he was, all decked out in red, blue, and yellow, with an instantly recognizable S emblazoned on his chest: Christopher Reeve as Superman. Some swirly star pattern behind him. Wearing the Superman shirt was just as exciting as going to the movie with your brother during Christmas holidays.

Tomorrow will be your big day. You’ve decided to wear it at school. You can’t wait to take off your coat and proudly show it to your friends. You will be the envy of every DC Comics fan around (the Marvel fans will be just as jealous, but they’ll never admit to it). Not only the kids in Grade 3, but all the kids will take note. He’s got a Superman shirt. Un-hunh.

Tomorrow, as you sit in class, second row from the door and five seats back, you’ll hope for Nathalie to turn her head and finally take notice of you. For months you’ve been trying, desperate for her to even acknowledge your presence. You don’t want her to see you as the kid who’s nerdy and good in math. You are a Superman fan; you are cool!

Tomorrow, as she turns around and your heart begins to race, I want you to remember that there are a lot of things that are important in this world, and in the end, her reaction won’t be one of them. She’ll look into your eyes, look down at your shirt, point and laugh at you, then turn around, hair swinging around her shoulders. I don't want you to feel sad, I don't want you to feel hurt. I want you to remember that you are a kid who loves Superman and that’s way cool; always has been, always will be. I want you to remember that when someone laughs at you, they’re really laughing at themselves. They’re mean for a reason, and you have to learn to ignore those who want to put you down. Be yourself, be proud of who you are, and wear that shirt until it doesn’t fit anymore. When you outgrow it, get another one and keep telling the world, This is me.

Tomorrow, be yourself. Be a happy kid with wearing a Superman shirt.



Day 23: Always on my mind
“That’s all you think about.”

“Not true.”

“All the time.”

“False.”

“Admit it.”

“Even if it were true, what’s wrong with thinking about it all the time?”

“So you admit it?”

“I didn’t’ say that. I might think about it a few times a day. Nothing wrong with that. I’m sure lots of guys do.”

“It’s just weird, that’s all.”

“Logical.”

“See? There you go again? I can’t have a normal conversation with you without mentioning Star Trek!”

“You said it, not me.”

“Get a life.”


Day 22: Lost
The thicket gets harder to climb through. They haven’t seen anyone for hours. After four hours hiking off the trail, each friend knows they’re completely lost. Being men, they will never admit this.

“I think the path is that way,” says one of them.

“I don’t think so,” replies the other one. “That’s in the direction of the pack of wild dogs we encountered earlier.” Not good.

The sun is no more than an hour from setting. They planned for a day hike up the plateau. They have no food, no water, and a dwindling hope that they’ll reach home tonight.

“Let’s keep going this way,” suggests one. They cut through the prickly bushes, each one swearing under his breath every time a thorn scrapes his skin.

“Wait a minute! I see something!” yells the one up front. They hike up a few more metres. Something is definitely there, something white, and too straight to be anything but –

“I think we’re going to be all right,” says the first one. He looks at the white patio furniture sitting on a well-manicured lawn. “We just walked into someone’s backyard.”




Day 21: Mud pies
“Wanna make mud pies?” the girl asks over the phone.

“Sure,” the boy says and hangs up. The boy finds her in her backyard. Her grandfather’s sitting in his favourite chair, soaking up the summer rays next to the mud pie oven.

Dirt passes hands between the children. “You still wanna be a fireman when you’re older?” she asks her friend. A shrug is her answer.

“Can you pass me the water?” she then says. He stops his mud pie-making for a moment and passes her a small bucket half-filled with water.

“I’m going to marry you someday!” she says casually.

Ick, comes his first thought. The boy looks at the old man sitting in the chair, hoping for an interruption or at least some guidance. Only his eyes say, Not my problem, kid.

“We’re going to be happy and live together right here!” Double ick.

“I think your mud pie’s done,” he points to the one sitting in the oven. “Can I put mine in now?”

“Sure,” she complies. “How many children do you want?” Triple ick.



Day 20: Gorilla Man
“What’s all the excitement about?” he asks his fellow teacher. They’re both standing at the back of the assembly hall. Four hundred twenty students – all girls – are screaming and laughing so loudly that the louvered windows on the building’s walls are rattling.

She yells to be heard. “Apparently there’s some kind of entertainment tonight,” she responds. This is big news. Stuck at a boarding school run by nuns in a country with one radio station, no TV station, a school library with the most recent additions being geography textbooks from the mid-1980s, and one pay phone for all the students, any form of entertainment was a treat.

“Any idea what it’ll be?” he asks.

“Apparently,” says his colleague over the noise, “it’s someone who goes by the name of Gorilla Man.”

The other teacher’s response is drowned out by a sharp rise in the shrieking. A shirtless man in his mid-forties, barefoot with torn trousers, bursts into the assembly hall and mock-frightens his audience. He roars an impressive Arrrrrouuuh! as half the girls practically fall to their feet from excitement tinged with self-induced fear. The rest of the girls yelp incessantly. The more they shout, the more Gorilla Man demonstrates his bravado by running up to them and flexing his muscles with a tremendous roar.

The teachers keep a safe distance from the commotion. “Do you think he’ll do anything else?” one asks. As if in response, Gorilla Man leaps onto the stage and calls upon a few brave girls to join him. Five of them, mostly from the older grades, cautiously walk up the steps. Gorilla Man tells them to line up on one side of the stage. Gorilla Man walks to the middle of the stage and lies down. Gorilla Man tells the girls to run up and jump on his chest, one at a time. The first girl, no doubt realizing this will be more fun than any math class she’s ever taken, lunges towards him and pounces on him with a massive thud and leaps off. The audience goes berserk. Gorilla Man grunts to show he’s still alive. And so the girls take turns, and more come on stage. Gorilla Man is amazing.

“Do you have any beer in your fridge?” one teacher asks the other.

She nods. “Let’s go.”


Day 19: The milky way
I watch my three year-old drink his milk. “You know where milk comes from, don’t you?” I ask him.

His eyebrows collapse as his face contorts. The expression says: That’s a dumb question. What he says is: “From the fridge.”

“No no,” I respond. “I meant before that.”

Now the expression says: My idiot father. “The STORE.” As with most children, an emphasizing “-uh” is added at the end of the final word of any sentence: The STORE-uh.

“No. Before that.”

Finally, the expression says: I can’t believe I have to explain this to my father. “COWS-uh.”


Day 18: It's relative
“I’m sorry for your loss,” he says to me. Four months have gone by, and it’s still hard to talk about my mother’s death. “Thank you,” I say, eager for the conversation to move on to something different. He expresses himself in Arabic with our mutual friend translating our conversation. I ask him how he’s been since we last saw each other.

Our translated conversation suffers from awkward delayed reactions. As he speaks, I have no idea what he’s saying; his expression is neutral. I occasionally nod as he’s talking. Our friend translates.

“In the past year he’s lost his father, brother-in-law, nephew, and best friend to the fighting.”

After that, there is nothing that can be said. I simply stare at him. He shrugs his shoulders as if to say, That’s the way it is in Iraq. My own pain, however raw it had been, begins to fade a little faster.


Day 17: What you cannot see...
He looks at his eight year-old son sitting in front of him. As usual, the conversation is free-flowing. At this point in time, topics range from the train they are currently taking, to farts, snowmen, and aliens. On this last topic, the father quizzes his son.

"Do you believe in aliens?" he asks him.

"Sure, like E.T.," replies his son.

"That was a movie. I mean real aliens," his father prods.

A short pause. "No I don't." Shakes his head.

"Why not?"

"Because I've never seen one," comes the reply.

His father nods. "Do you believe in God?"

"Of course I do," says the son.

"Have you ever seen him?"

A longer pause. "You know what, Daddy? I believe in aliens!"


Day 16: Ommetaphobia in the workplace 
His boss introduces himself as Mr. Seert. Reluctantly extends a hand. “It’s ‘trees’ spelled backwards,” he explains. He’s probably said this most of his life whenever he meets someone, either as a reaction to quizzical looks from people who’ve never heard such a name or as a limp attempt at humour. The handshake is the closest he’ll ever come to physical contact. As for even looking at someone else, forget it. He glances up for a moment to make sure the person he’s talking to is there, then sinks his head back into his shoulder and talks to the floor, eyes half squinting. Walking shoeless around the office in an aged, ill-fitting suit and red-striped polyester tie completes his look.

After the introductions, the new employee approaches someone who’s worked there for a while. “Is he always like this?” he asks her.

“You’re lucky he held his head up for that long,” she replies.

The sad reality of spending the next few months in a dilapidated office building with drab orange partitions dating from the 70s slowly sinks in. This was life as a government employee. Quiet and uneventful, unhurried and drab, led by an ommetaphobic shoeless boss.

“How the hell does he drive a car?” The new employee whispers.

“He doesn’t,” came the reply.

The new employee overhears his cubicle neighbour speaking on the phone. “”My name’s Girlung. That’s Girl as in girl, u-n-g.” The workdays would be very long indeed.



Day 15: Two stories, New Year's Eve, then and now 
Story Then
“Let’s go to New York City tonight,” suggests JR to his friend on the phone.

“It’s freezing rain outside. That’s a stupid idea,” comes the reply.

“I know. Ha!” That’s all the convincing JR’s friend needs. His other friend Peter declines, stating simply, “People get shot in New York City.”

The journey takes eleven hours. The two friends end up lost in the city. On a quiet street, one hour before the New Year, JR steps out of the car and asks for directions. The couple on the sidewalk tell him the best way to get to Times Square. As he hops back in the car, the sound of a bullet pierces the air, and one of the car windows smashes.

Peter’s wisdom was prescient; stuck in the back seat, he would have been in the line of fire. His two friends arrive safely in Times Square, three minutes before the ball drops. In retrospect, the joy of bringing in the New Year was nothing compared to the ka-bang that blew a hole in JR’s car.


Story Now
“What time is it?”

Looks at the clock. 8:34 PM.

“Wanna watch TV?”

“Ok.”

Later. “What time is it?”

Looks at the clock. 9:45 PM. Yawns.

“Do you want to…?” A small glint in the eye.

“Maybe tomorrow morning.”

“Happy New Year.”



Day 14: The unavoidable awkward silence after a tale of torture 
The guests thank their host for his unexpected hospitality. Tea and biscuits upon their arrival. Six years since they’ve seen each other makes for an initial conversation that is at least two cups of tea long. The host has their entire day planned, from a trip to the temple, the botanical gardens, a rest period, and a visit through town.

After a brief tour of the host’s church, time to sit down for lunch. The host points to the young man bringing the food on white plastic plates and metal bowls decorated with pink and yellow flowers. “He has cooked all the food for us,” the host explains factually and without pride. “He came to us after being tortured by the police for days.” The young man puts the food down on the table; he does so with extreme care, but the plates and bowls still tilt and wobble slightly.

The host continues. “The police left him hanging by his thumbs for hours at a time. He has permanent damage to the nerves in his arms.” The guests look at the young man, whose head remains bowed; they don’t know what to say, only to offer a look that conveys sorrow and sympathy, horror and shock.

The host offers an exit to the awkward silence. “He is now studying to work in the hotel business.” The food is plentiful and delicious, and the guests are thankful for more than they realize.


Day 13: When a child asks 
She speaks to her five year-old son, sitting quietly in his car seat in the back. “I have to drop you off at your aunt’s now and I’ll be back in about an hour.”

The son asks, “Where are you going?”

“Our school caretaker died last week. I have to go to his wake today.” As she says the words, she knows what’s coming.

“What’s a wake?”

“When somebody dies, people get together to remember that person and pay their respects.” No wait, he probably won’t get pay their respects. She adds, “I’m going there to say I’m sorry.”

A pause. From the back seat: “Why? Did you kill him?”


Day 12: When a child dies
The man passes his neighbour as the sun sets, waves and says hello. His neighbour waves back, offers a hint of a smile. He is sitting in front of the store that is also his home, quietly playing checkers with a friend. His wife is minding the store as usual; today she might have sold one box of laundry detergent, maybe a package of crackers. Two of their three children are busy sweeping the dirt in front of their home/shop. The man does not see their third child, a little girl of three suffering from Down’s Syndrome. The man misses her; she would always wave as he passed by.

The man walks into his home. The place is unchanged after being away for two days.

It’s only a day later he finds out the little girl died over the weekend. Sick Friday, dead Saturday, buried Sunday. The shock of the tragedy grabs his heart and drags him into a state of sorrow and incomprehension.

His neighbour continues to play checkers, his wife minds the store, their children clean the yard. No, the man thinks, his neighbours are not horribly insensitive; they are stronger than he ever imagined.



Day 11: The evil librarian
The young girl walks down the four steps to the lower floor of the library. She glances at the librarian sorting the Maeve Binchy books on the bottom shelf. The girl’s so frightened she brings her friend just in case.

The librarian turns around. The permanent scowl on her aged face comes from too many decades of chastising patrons with a SHHHHHHHHHH-ush! followed by a piercingly accusatory look.

The girl looks up at the librarian, then puts her head down as she speaks. “Can I use the toilet please?” she asks the librarian.

A pause. “What’s your last name?” The librarian barks.

The girl nudges closer to her friend for protection. “Robertson.”

Another pause, this one longer. “Your parents didn’t pay their library fee this year. Go across the street and use the toilet in the town hall.” And she goes back to sorting Maeve Binchy.

The girl, head still down, turns away and walks up the steps with her friend.



Day 10: The eyes have it
“You must be very happy with the conference you led,” the man offers by way of dinnertime conversation.

“Oh certainly,” the second man beams with pride. “It was wonderful to see people from all different faiths together. You know, our discussions can be so rich if we focus on the things we commonly value. The religious strife you see elsewhere is non-existent here.”

“So there’s no discrimination either,” the first man says.

“No, none at all.” The second man bites down on his bread.

“What about gay rights?” the first man asks.

A fractional hesitation as the second man puts his fork down. “We don’t talk about that,” he replies curtly.

“But if you don’t discriminate against anyone, that includes the rights of gays and lesbians,” the first man persisted. The eyes implored, I want you to be honest.

“It’s not something that is addressed.” His sentence meant, Stop talking about this. His eyes said, They disgust me. He adjusted his collar.

“I see, Father,” replied the first man. His sentence did not mean, I understand. His eyes said, You aren’t being honest. “Lovely sunset this time of year.”

“Yes indeed.”


Day 9: Being Santa
The high school play comes to a close. I stand with my friend Scott on stage, the audience makes its way towards the exits. We congratulate each other and he walks backstage to join the others. I'm eager to get out of my Santa Claus outfit. The pillow is annoying and the beard is starting to scratch the hell out of me.

Not your father's Santa.
A woman from the audience walks in the opposite direction of the exiting crowd. She's holding the hand of - what? - a little kid? Why did she bring a boy that small to a high school Christmas play? I guess she didn't know the Santa in this play said shit and got into a fight (and lost) against his arch enemy, Raoul le Terrible et Laid.

"Bonsoir monsieur le Père Noël," she says to me as she walks up the four steps on the side of the stage.   She continues in French, "My son didn't have the chance to see Santa Claus at the mall the other day, and so he wanted to talk to you."

If there is one defining moment in my life when I realize I have no choice but to slowly, grudgingly move towards being an adult, it's this one. Up until that point, I never had to take myself seriously. Now this kid actually thinks I am Santa. The burden of being somehow responsible, or at least giving the appearance of being that way, is unexpected.

"Uh," I began. Not good. The kid's a third my height. I have to bend down. "Have you been a good boy this year?" I think that's what you're supposed to say. His gaze stays downward, nods in affirmation. OK, what next. "What would you like for Christmas?" Pretty standard question.

I can't remember the answer a quarter century later. But I do remember the tremendous pressure of being Santa. I hope the kid got what I told him he might get.


Day 8: The last Christmas
She looked at the tattered photograph in the album. Do you remember him? I ask her, pointing to her grandfather. She hesitates and mumbles a name: her brother. And look, this is you on your wedding day. Nothing.

The unspoken pain, Why are you leaving us? is heavier with each passing day, every time I look at her.

Few can know when they will have their last Christmas with their parents. For those who do, the last memories of a parent once so strong, a parent so unselfishly loving, are bitter and comforting. I force these moments of nothingness into memories, thankful for a fleeting half-smile or a twinkle of recognition in her eyes, anything that says I’m still here.


Day 7: Why the Kandodo baker is happy
The baker stood there in his yellow hat, yellow shirt, yellow apron. He told me the bread was almost ready. I’d made the trip to town to buy my groceries, and I could not pass up the chance at getting a fresh loaf of Kandodo’s bread. With the loaf in my bag I would race home and devour half of it; it always shmushed to half its size as my knife cut slice after slice.

“It’s leady soon, sah,” the baker repeated. Like some Malawians, he had a tendency to interchange his l and r.

“No problem, zikomo,” I replied. It was impossible not to be drawn to the yellowness of his outfit. He wore the same colour as the United Democratic Front, or UDF. It was the main political party in the south, and its logo was yellow with a raised fist. It was safe to assume the baker would be voting UDF in the first multiparty elections the country had seen since independence thirty years earlier.

“I see you are wearing your UDF colours,” I remarked.

“Yes!” His faced beamed a fantastic smile.

“You must be happy to vote for the first time,” I said. The elections were two weeks away.

“Oh yes,” he answered. “”I’m very happy this is my filst erection.”

“I’m so happy for you.” Ding! The bread was ready, not a moment too soon.


Day 6: A Christmas story in 3 parts
Xmas Eve, afternoon
I was exhausted. The map indicated 20 km to our destination; it was closer to 60, much of it uphill and on rocky unpaved roads. By midnight the day before I threw my bike down on the road in exasperation. I’d had enough. But there was nowhere to go but along the path. It was a national park; we were surrounded by hills, a few zebras, and not much else. Lions too, if you believed the rumours.
"Happy, happy Kissmas!"

We arrived in the small village to silence. Everyone was at home with their families. All the small shops were closed, we had no food left, no place to stay.

Xmas Eve, evening
Strangers gave us food to ease out hunger from all the cycling. We found a hostel, but it had burned down a few months ago. The man who used to be the hostel’s cook showed up out of nowhere and offered to cook the rice the strangers had given us. He lit the fire in the kitchen and started cooking. The kitchen’s roof was gone, so we ate by starlight. Only one building still had its roof intact; we set up for the night.

Xmas Day, morning
The sun wakes up everybody in Malawi, its radiance is inescapable. The first sounds from outside come from children running up to the hostel, barely 6 AM. They chant, “Happy, happy Kissmas!” the r in Christmas drowned out. They’re dancing all around us. I found Christmas, far, far from home.


Day 5: The bike path
The bike path is only a few hundred metres from home, but getting there is a major accomplishment for both of us. I slow my pace down to a crawl, barely pedaling and turning my head incessantly to make sure my son doesn’t lose his balance and kiss the pavement. He’s a bundle of excitement mixed with caution, every push of the pedal a journey into unknown territory. Look at how long the path is! It must seem like an interminable journey from his perspective.

The path up ahead is clear, unencumbered by fellow cyclists, joggers, baby strollers and walkers; behind us, equally clear. I run the risk of slowing down to an even more precarious pace than before, the laws of physics barely cooperating. I wobble to the left and cycle next to my son for a moment. His head bobs from the pavement directly below his wheels to the unexplored path ahead. As he steadies himself he asks a question: “Do they have bicycle paths in Africa, Daddy?”

The simplicity and profundity of the question leaves me confounded. What to answer a four year-old, how to describe the endless dirt trails that are bicycle/foot/motorbike/anything-that-moves paths that crisscrossed the places where I lived, a similar geography probably rampant across the continent? How to explain that most paths in Africa were not the kind you’d see here, with biking enthusiasts decked out in fancy shorts, gloves, clip-on shoes and Death-Star-like helmets? How to explain the difference between a path of necessity and one for amusement or fitness?

“I don’t think they have many like this one,” I answer. “But that’s a really good question.”


Day 4: The F-word?
Our son came home from kindergarten. He’d been taking the bus for a few months now. The moment we dreaded as parents was upon us: he’d lost his innocence.

“Mommy, Daddy, I know the F-word,” he said to us as we sat down in the living room. Blast the other children in the school bus! The schoolyard, the classroom – anywhere our protective parental grasp can no longer reach!

“Oh no!” exclaimed my wife. Instinctively, her head spun towards our younger son. He stood behind us, not paying attention but still within earshot. He should not have to hear such things! “Quickly,” she told our older one, “whisper it in my ear so your brother doesn’t hear.”

He took a step towards her, leaned over and whispered, “Shit.” Innocence preserved.



Day 3: Good looking conversations
The driver’s English suffered from the typical quirks that befall someone who is at ease conversing, but is not fluent, in five languages. Especially when English is the third of fourth language internalized. The English he learned in school long ago now relatively useless for real conversations. He will rarely find an opportunity to say, “The boy is wearing a red shirt,” or “that typewriter is white.”

A good looking beach
He keeps repeating the same mistakes. Endearing at first, they’re the kind of mistakes a listener either grows weary of or accepts as innocently and unintentionally normal. He points to an airplane crossing the cloudless sky: “Ah, see the plane upstairs!” When passing near a beautiful vista of jagged mountains, he’ll point to them and say, “Its good looking, right?”

A stranger only a day before, he now walks side by side with me along the beach. It’s the end of the first day, and for the next four days he will drive me around the country to make sure I see it all. There is more silence than conversation. The safe questions around the weather, rich tourists, bad drivers, spectacular beaches, and seasonal fruits have all been asked and answered (for the most part, with relative brevity). After a long pause he tells me that earlier in the month he remembered the fifth anniversary of his wife’s death. That was the moment where the necessary-but-sometimes-uninteresting-and-often-encumbering-and-stiffling dialogue between two people new to each other shifted, deepened, to put it simply: became real. Thats a point worth reaching.  


Day 2: The non-omelet
Road trip, 1994.
We stopped in Liwonde. Gary, Kevin and I had been cycling for about 4 hours. The road that morning from Zomba to Balaka was quiet, the weather perfect. Rarely a need to listen to the weather forecast in Malawi. It was either “Today it will be hot,” or “Today it will be hot to very hot.” We were ready for our cross-country bike trek. Too bad only one of us actually made it to Nyika National Park by cycling the entire journey. I cheated and took a bus partway while Kevin was hit by a truck. As usual, he laughed it off, although his Tasmanian Devil t-shirt was bloodied beyond hope.

The restaurant we chose in Liwonde had a typical menu: one handwritten page, plasticized and handled often enough to be crumpled and faded. Gary and Kevin went for beef and rice. I wanted something lighter. “I’ll have the tomato and cheese omelet,” I told the waiter. He looked at me quizzically. “Sir?” I repeated my order. He hesitated, scribbled something down, and left. Twenty minutes later my friends’ lunches arrived. Mine a couple minutes after that.

Nice bed of rice, a sliced tomato on the side, with melted cheese on it. No bloody omelet. It took us a few minutes to figure out the waiter understood my order as “Tomato and cheese on it,” instead of “Tomato and cheese omelet.” It remains the best sliced tomato I’ve ever had.


Day 1: My oldest Christmas present
I woke up that morning - was it Christmas day? 1973 was too long ago. We were staying in a hut, or at least that's what my brother and I called it. I'd spent the first days of our family vacation running along the beach. Chasing tiny crabs into their holes in the sand with a young girl my age I'd become friends with. Can't remember her name. We were practically inseparable during the day. I'd walk back to the hut as night was falling, systematically trip in front of the reception desk every time. Thankfully the hotel staff had a decent supply of Band-Aids.

A fond Christmas memory
There were two or three steps to get to our hut's door. That morning, Christmas or close enough, there was a small figurine on the top step. A tiny man, fat nose, white beard, dressed in red, hauling what appeared to be firewood on his back. I must have mistaken the firewood for a bag at the time, my mind wanting to force the association with Santa Claus and his sack of toys. I needed a familiar Christmas sight among the palm trees and beach. And there he was. Was it my crab-chasing friend who left it for me? I never found out; I never saw her again.

And here he is, 38 years later. The nose broke off a number of years ago. But he's still with me, and will forever remind me of Christmas.


2 comments :

Bernat said...

Good and Valuable of human life.
Thanks Paul
Bernat.

Paul McAdams said...

Thanks Bernat! Always nice to hear from you.