Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Of Weddings, Funerals, and New Beginnings


A piece of paper fluttered in the wind above my balcony as I opened my email. I clicked on my latest letter and read it quickly. I shook my head.

“Do I remember you?” I muttered. “Of course I remember you.”

It had been a difficult week. One of my great heroes had passed away a few days earlier and I’d been asked to speak at his upcoming funeral. The previous Saturday I’d gone to a wedding alone for the first time in over decade.

My life had been dramatically altered six months earlier. It hadn’t been pleasant. I’d spent most of my time surviving and was only now starting to find something akin to peace again.

But as I re-read the email, I felt a quickening. Felt my stomach dance. It was something I hadn’t experienced in a long time.

I took a deep breath, my fingers hovering over the keyboard. She’d asked me if I remembered her. Of course I had. Her email had caused my mind to overload on images. Pictures from a long time ago, when we were both teenagers. Pictures that made me smile. Would she consider meeting me for a coffee? The email hadn’t suggested anything like that, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask. I hesitated only briefly and began to type.

ONE WEEK EARLIER

Dust swirled in the parking lot as I pulled up to the Luna Gardens. It was hot, and sweat rolled down my face. The drive had taken longer than I’d expected, but I’d made it. I leaned over and pulled my suit jacket from the hangar and stepped out of the car. My “little sister,” my dear young friend who I’d known for nearly twenty years, was getting married. As excited as I was for her, it felt strange to move along the stone walkway to the grassy area where they’d set up the chairs and find a seat by myself.

I found one in the back. Couples surrounded me. I looked to the “altar,” where water splayed off the beach cliffs just beyond the minister. Sun glinted from a perfect blue sky. I checked the chair beside me. It was empty.

When the music began to play and the bridesmaids began the long walk to the wooden arch, I felt an ache form between my shoulder blades. I listened as my friend and her groom delivered earnest vows to one another, their love unmistakable. It was in every movement, every shift of their bodies. Tears rimmed my eyes. I’d never seen my little sister so happy.

When the wedding finished, I followed the crowd to the lounge. Dinner would be served in an hour. I chatted with the family, delighted to see them, but not recognizing anyone else, I took a beer into the parking lot to reflect.

As happy as I was for my friend, I found myself filled with emotion. I’d said those same words, those same vows, and yet the chair next to me was empty. I’d had time to process things this past year, but I still did not understand. Why me? Why was I alone? Why had my vows produced an empty chair?
A while later I wandered back into the crowd of strangers. It wasn’t easy, but it was good to be surrounded by happiness. And sitting amidst the revelry of new love, I smiled at the hope and laughter and love around me. These were the good moments, I thought. Life could be cruel, but it could also be incredibly kind.

This was a kind moment.

It wasn’t to last.

FIVE DAYS LATER

I sat in the second row with my parents, clutching my papers nervously. The funeral home buzzed with conversation. One of my great heroes had passed, and his son, a lifelong friend, had asked me to speak. Though I knew the contents of my speech, I was unsure whether I could deliver it without faltering. Mr. Lesco had been such an important figure in my life. A man of towering intellect and even greater compassion, he deserved the best. I’d practiced my delivery numerous times in my apartment. I’d broken down each time.

The faces at the funeral were familiar but not. Old teachers who’d become old. Old friends who’d become middle aged. Old memories that seemed fresher than they were. We were no longer young. I was no longer young. But we were there for a reason. When the MC called my name, I steadied my breathing and strode to the podium.

When it was over, I said good bye to my parents and retreated to my car. I opened the window, the sun hot on my arm. They’d said I’d done a good job. That I’d represented him well. That he would have been proud of me, (the greatest of compliments) his son had assured me.

Tears slid down my cheeks. I’d held strong through my speech and the funeral, but I could no longer contain them. Mr. Lesco was gone, and no words – no matter how pretty or sincere or well delivered – would bring him back.

I watched the wind swirl dust from the parking lot. I understood the cycle of life. Understood that people did not live forever and that death was not the end. Understood the cruelty and kindness of life.

It did not lessen the pain. Perhaps in time it would. But not now. Not tonight.

Mr. Lesco had suffered from chronic arthritis, a crippling and painful disease. Despite that, he had forged a life of love and compassion and empathy. I thought about what that meant. About what that meant to his colleagues and friends. About what that meant to me.

I thought about the email I’d received the other night, the one that had caused my stomach to dance. She had agreed to a coffee. Two decades had passed since I’d last seen her, but I’d felt a pull I hadn’t expected. I rubbed my cheeks. Not tonight. As much as I wanted to see her, I needed to grieve my hero. I pulled out my phone and reluctantly cancelled our meeting.

In the past week, I’d been to a wedding and a funeral. I’d gone to both alone. I knew that I was being taught something, but what it was I had no idea. Was I supposed to simply accept that life worked in cycles? That while things had gone badly for me the past year, others were experiencing different moments of the same cycle?

That seemed trite to me.

Yes, people existed in different stages, but why did we have to deal with such madness anyway? Why couldn’t we just live in a world that didn’t fluctuate so damned much? Why did everything have to be so unpredictable?

Unless, of course, you were in a kind stage. And if I was honest, I’d lived the greater portion of my life in those stages. As one of my old pastors used to say in regards to suffering, “this too will pass.” He was right, because I remembered other times in my life where the pain had felt like forever. It had passed. And even if I remained a bit scarred, hadn’t my old coach and mentor set the ultimate example for me? I put the car into gear, my tires crunching over the gravel at the edge of the parking lot.


…Nelson greeted me at the door when I finally returned home from my parents. I picked him up and rubbed his belly. His purrs reassured me that I was home. That I wasn’t alone. I put him down and strolled out onto the balcony. Traffic roared below me. A gust of wind snapped open my paperback on the small table beside the two deck chairs.

The hours on the road had given me the time I needed to grieve and reflect, enough to turn my thoughts back to the email. I thought about the twist in my stomach when I’d replied, the memories that had returned like they’d happened yesterday.

She’d told me not to worry about cancelling at such short notice. Told me that she understood. That it didn’t matter.

Maybe she was right. Maybe it was just a chance encounter, a throwaway email from an old friend kind enough to say some nice things about my writing. Maybe it was just a missed coffee with someone that had once meant a lot to me.

I smiled and picked up my cell.

Maybe not.





Friday, July 29, 2016

Don Lesco: When Heroes Played


I hunch forward, keeping my heavy first baseman’s mitt low to the ground. Overhead, the sun beats down through a cloudless sky.
“C’mon, Greg!”
“Throw it in there, pal!”
“He’s got nothing!”
The chatter picks up around the infield. Our shortstop takes a step to his left, his eye on the runner dancing off second base. I tug on my cap. I am a catcher, but as a coach’s son, I’ve learned to fill it at other positions. I've just turned thirteen, and I am one of the youngest players on the team. Our shortstop is eighteen. So is our third baseman.
Greg winds up and drills a strike on the inside corner.
“Atta boy, Gregger!”
“You got this guy!”
I join in the patter and glance over at our bench. My dad, tall and lanky in his uniform, is talking to our head coach, Mr. Lesco. They are bent over in conversation. Mr. Lesco is leaning on his stool, propped up by his crutches, his face a mask of concentration. As I will learn over the next decade, he takes everything he does seriously. Whether it is teaching English or coaching or his work as a guidance counselor.  Everything is precise and planned and well considered. And what he demands of himself, he demands of others.
I shift my focus back to the batter as Greg leans into his wind up. The ball blazes towards the outside corner, but this time the hitter is not fooled. He pulled his hands in, and smashes it on a line to my right. I move without thinking and dive…

…I cleared my throat and waited in line with the rest of my Grade 12 English classmates. Mr. Lesco had just given us back our most recent paper, and I had a question about my grade. When it was my turn, I showed it to him.
“Sir, I don’t understand why you gave me a ‘D+’. I worked on it for two hours last night.”
“You didn’t do what I asked, Steve.”
“But, Sir, I worked hard on this.”
He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter how hard you work or how long you spend doing it, you need to do what’s asked.”
He looked at me steadily through his glasses, his face betraying no emotion except expectation. He’d been my coach for years and his son, Josh, was my best friend. He was also friends with my father. But that had no impact on his sense of fairness. He was my teacher, and he held to his expectations regardless of relationship.
“Yes, Sir.”
I was upset, but he’d taught something I’d never forget. A lesson about time and work and expectations that would never leave me.
I wasn’t the only one who learned from him. Indeed, his would be legacy to not only his family, but to hundreds of students and friends along the way.
I was one of the lucky ones.
I still am…

…Clouds push overhead. Traffic roars twenty stories below my balcony where I sit, my laptop propped on my lap. Much like “love,” we throw around the words “heroes” and “role models” quite a bit these days. Perhaps that’s because we think of heroics in terms of grand gestures from famous people, or certain professionals like cops and firefighters doing extraordinary things, like saving someone from a burning building. We forget about the people who aren’t on TV. We forget about the ones who don’t have famous last names and don’t wear a gun.
We forget about people like Mr. Lesco.
I sip my coffee and watch the people on the street. From this height, they look small and insignificant. When I think about my old teacher and coach, I think about someone who lived heroically. Despite the chronic pain of his arthritis and the effort it took for him to simply get from one place to another, not only did he never complain, he accepted what he’d been given and spent his life passing on his knowledge to others. He was, without question, the best teacher I ever had. To be around him was to learn. 
When I was fifteen, he asked me if I wanted to manage the Senior Girls basketball team for him. I jumped at the opportunity. I still remember the smile on his face the day he led them to their third consecutive championship.
“That’s three for three, Stevie.”
The summer I turned sixteen, I helped Josh roof their house. Mr. Lesco's reward? Two basketball books. In one of them he wrote, “To Steve, the biggest sports nut I know.”
I still have those books.
I take a deep breath and put down my lap top. I am flooded by memories. All of them good. They are accompanied by a dull ache. When someone passes from our life, the human tendency is to talk about the good things – the good moments – of their life. Usually we exaggerate a little. For Mr. Lesco, there is no exaggeration. Instead, I am forced to pick through so many good things.
I remember the time my dad and I went to see Field of Dreams with him and Josh. I was seventeen. Mr. Lesco knew that I'd studied the history of the game, and when Shoeless Joe Jackson (played by Ray Liotta), settled into the right-handed batter’s box, he leaned over and whispered to me.
“What’s wrong with this scene?”
“Shoeless Joe was a left-handed hitter,” I said.
When he smiled at my answer, it was like getting a medal.
And when I sent him a copy of my debut novel last year and he emailed me back, telling me how proud he was of my accomplishment, I again felt the familiar thrill of having done something great.
I think, above all, that was his legacy. Mr. Lesco made others better. He expected more because he gave more. He expected effort because his life was filled with effort. He expected you to work through your pain because he worked through his. 
And we are all better for it.
I am better for it.
I pick up my laptop. I feel his loss deeply, but I need to write. I need to write about him. He would be self-deprecating about such a thing, but if I needed to write it, if I needed to do anything, he would expect me to get it done. And so I will…

…the ball flashes in the sun. I throw up my glove. Feel the smack into the webbing. I roll over and stare at my glove in amazement. It's the greatest catch of my young career.
“Way to go, Burnsy!”
“Nice grab!”
I trot off the field with the rest of my teammates, accepting their congratulations.
My dad gives me a thunderous pat on the shoulder. “Way to go, Son!”
I pause beside Mr. Lesco. He smiles at me, that small smile that says so much, that smile that always said so much.
“Hey, Stevie.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Mattingly wouldn’t have looked at his glove.” His smile widens.
I nod and return it.
I never looked at my glove again.
 








 



Saturday, July 16, 2016

Displaced

The courtyard outside the North York Civic Centre is busy. People sit around the picnic tables scattered under the trees or on the metal benches that line the fountain in the middle of the square. Unlike the suburb where I spent the past three years, or the quiet street where I grew up, Yonge and Shepherd is a constant swarm of activity and noise and traffic. The relentless nature of it is overwhelming.

Today, however, it does not bother me. I am sitting on one of the benches, sipping my morning coffee. It is my first day off in a week. I have done my best to keep busy, but the truth is, I like my job. Working with special needs students -- be it in a group home or residence or camp -- is always rewarding. My clients remind me that it is in the simple things where we find the greatest portions of joy. And while I'm with them, for a while at least, I don't have to think about home.

But today I am not working. And I am home.

If only I knew what that meant.

I can tell you my physical address, can take you there and point to the room where I sleep. But I might as well be pointing to a bed on a stage. My condo represents my house. But it isn't my home.

A small brown and white puppy bounces in behind its owner, tail wagging, excited by its morning walk. His owner, a tiny woman in her mid-thirties, leans down to rub its face before continuing. I smile as the puppy twists the leash around her legs in excitement, and it is some time before the owner untangles them. My gaze drifts. Beyond the puppy, a ripped Wendy's wrapper twists and swirls in the wind.

I am still not sure how I got here. All displacement is hard, and all of us will deal with it a few times in our lives. Moving. Changing jobs. Deaths in our family. It is part of being human to see change and see it suddenly, so much so that the movement of "there to here" feels like a chasm.

In my case, the chasm is not only moving to a new location, but doing so without the one I thought was my life partner. And it is that part with which I struggle on a daily basis. The one that deals with home.

Before I moved here, the building never mattered. Neither did the address.

She was my home.

The wrapper flutters in the wind and sticks against the side of a garbage can. I stare at it for a while, hoping it will shake itself loose.

I take a deep breath and slowly get to my feet. An elderly woman walking a medium sized Pointer stops and lets me pet him.

Time is a wonderful healer, but it moves slow for me these days. I try not to think about her and what she's doing or what we could be doing together. I try not to think about home.

Sometimes I am successful.

And yet, I am lucky. I have friends who take the time to wade through this painful transition, friends who are helping me face the chasm behind me and pushing towards the future. Not everyone has this. I think of the homeless man that I spoke with the other night. He claimed to be a professor from Columbia. He spoke of how much he missed his family. I have no idea if what he was saying was true, but it was clear that he was lonely. Clear that he had no house. Clear he had no home.

What I face, and what so many of us face, is not unusual. It is painful and awful and isolating, but it is normative. At some point in our lives, we will all feel this loss. I have worked with many children who grew up without a home. Too many. And so while my days are long and filled with questions, I remind myself that I have been given insight into the hurt of others, an insight I do not take lightly.

I slowly head back to my building. I notice a man sitting alone on one of the benches. His pants are pulled up high, his face unshaven. He is muttering to himself. He rises suddenly and sits again, still muttering. It looks like he hasn't showered in some time.

Where is his home? Who takes care of him? Is he alone?

I walk the final two blocks to my building. A torn piece of newspaper swirls in front of me before sticking against the window of the convenience store. I think about the puppy, so excited at his new world. And I think about the garbage, abandoned and left to the wind.

I put the torn newspaper in the garbage bin.

Everything has a place.


















Wednesday, July 06, 2016

New

Below me, the roar of traffic is constant. It is unlike any place I've ever lived. Twenty stories above the street and it feels like I am on a ship on the ocean. Although where it is going, I am uncertain. The only certainty of my home is the newness of it all.

A new journey.

A new life.

A new direction.

This worries me less than I thought it would. Displacement is difficult because change is difficult, which is what makes moving so traumatic. And in my case, it isn't the only significant change.

There are people who love change, embrace it, seek it out even. But they are rare, and I am not one of them. I much prefer status quo, with perhaps the odd "challenge."

This is not that.

For most of us, change of this magnitude creates fear. What will happen? How will I get through this? How did I get here? The list of questions is as endless as the sea, because the inevitable impact of change is just that: questions. Self examination. World examination. Life examination. Everything we have ever believed is under scrutiny, and it is here where change becomes extremely valuable. It gives us a chance to re-examine everything, because the world not only seems different, it is entirely unrecognizable. And in this strange new place we have the opportunity to see ourselves with new eyes. Is it challenging? Yes. But it can also be rewarding, if only we have the courage to see ourselves through a different looking glass.

WHERE AM I?

I have, for the past few months, desperately tried to figure out how my life went from "there" to "here." I am still without answers. Oh, I could detail what happened, but I still don't understand it. Not fully. Listening to the roar of traffic still makes me feel like I am drifting out to sea. And so I wonder. Where am I headed? Am I moving in the right direction? Am I open to the inner work that needs to be done?


I pause and glance up at the sky. Clouds have moved in. The balcony faces east, and so even on the brightest of days, the sun is gone by mid-morning. On this day, a typically hot summer Toronto afternoon, I am grateful for the relief. It is still odd to write with so much movement and noise below me, with the continual awareness of so many people heading in so many directions. I try to reassure myself: I, too, am headed somewhere. Even if my steps are a bit slower than they once were.

But I am still overwhelmed. That much is clear. Every day I add a piece or two to the puzzle that is now my life, and slowly, achingly so at times, I am beginning to see a new portrait. It is difficult not to rush things. To throw the pieces together however they fit and force them together.

It doesn't work that way.

It's not supposed to work that way.

As much as I do not like to wait, times like this -- and we all go through them -- are necessary to create the lives we want to lead going forward. It gives us a chance to breathe, to remember our dreams, to remember the things that excited us about the future.

It can be difficult to accept, but that future is still there. Even in the midst of turmoil, it breathes inside of us, waiting for a chance to speak, waiting for a chance to remind us why we're here and the joys of life yet available to us.

I do not write those words in a vacuum. I can tell you what it means to be in pain. I can tell you what it means to feel trapped in a joyless existence. I can tell you what it means to live your life based on the next thirty minutes.

I can tell you that, but there comes a time when explanation is redundant.

We do not need comprehension.

What we need is hope.

Two years ago I saw the ocean on the sandy shores on the East Coast. It was winter, the beach abandoned, the water cold. I thought it would just be another body of water. It was not. I was shocked to find myself experiencing something entirely different.

The waves were gentle enough, but there was a distinct sound to them, an endlessness that was difficult for me to fathom. I remember thinking, 'this is not a lake. This is nothing like a lake.'

On the edge of the ocean, my mind was drawn to many things. Its power. Its endlessness. Its eternal nature. And for those moments, I felt small in a way that I'd never known.

Not belittled.

Not less.

Just small.

As if I finally realized what it meant to be human.

ETERNAL

We are all shaped by vast sources that we can hardly fathom. Regardless of our life, or the dramatic changes within it, we are a speck next to the ocean. We are human. Part of something much greater than ourselves. An important part, to be sure, but just a part. What seem like mountains to us are nothing within the scope of those parameters. And when we overestimate the size and complexity of our lives, we lose perspective on how easily we can find happiness again.

We are not mountains. Or glaciers. Or oceans.

We are human. And we exist to create change in the ones around us by changing ourselves. By accepting all that happens in our life as a by-product of living. And by understanding how and why we these changes have occurred and what we can do to create an even larger impact on the world around us.

Change makes us vulnerable. It asks us to stand in front of the ocean and acknowledge that we are are mortal. It teaches us that we know much less than realize.

I look down at the traffic below me. Can I do that? Can I look at myself through the ocean's mirror and see what needs to be done? Can I raise my sail and trust that I will move in the right direction, even if I do not understand all that is happening? Can I lay aside my need for control, my need for an inflated sense of importance, to do what needs to be done?

These are the questions we need to answer. The ones I need to answer.

I do not know how I am going to respond. But I'm listening.