I got back from Walter’s memorial and opened my emails. There was an essay by the Franciscan writer Richard Rohr. He quotes Matthew 5:4: Blessed are those who mourn: they shall be comforted. In this part of the world, where cowboys suck up the pain and carry on, the place to find comfort in grief is often the funeral and in halls and church basements after the service.
Rohr writes: “The Greek and Latin Fathers tended to filter the Gospel through the head; the Syrian Fathers’ theology was much more localized in the body. They actually proposed that tears be a sacrament in the Church. Saint Ephrem went so far as to say until you have cried you don’t know God….Tears are therapeutic and healing, both emotionally and physically. Crying helps the body shed stress hormones and stimulates endorphins. We can spend the better part of our lives attempting to construct the perfect personal environment, a kind of bubble that will insulate us against everything that is unpleasant. But sorrow is woven into the very texture of life. Pain, disappointment, depression, illness, bereavement, a sense of inadequacy in our work or our relationships . . . the list could go on and on. . . . Grief is often the turning point toward a man’s initiation. Men finally discover that so much of what they thought was anger was actually sadness, loss, and grief.”
There were three of us from Val Marie at Walter’s service in Piapot. We joined others to both mourn and celebrate. I was there for Walter’s wife, my friend Heather, whose straight up stories always make me laugh at my pettiness. ( Even in her grief she quipped about getting the mourners back to the rental place on time. “They’re on loan”, she informed me. ) Neighbours Larry and Sherry Grant came with their grand-kids, one stood patiently in line at the buffet, where sat a roasted and ham and a side of beef and buttered buns with all kinds of homemade relishes, sauerkraut, pickles and onions to pile on top. The homemade squares and sweets filled two bingo tables. The boy returned with a paper plate in which a large chocolate-covered doughnut sat ringed by broccoli heads. Did he take the broccoli to please his grandmother, hoping to appease her and sway her from commenting on the doughnut? I wondered.
I arrived in time for the slide show, set to country tunes, including Alan Jackson singing ‘Remember When?’ And we watched Heather and Walter grow older before our eyes. The song asked us to remember when we were kids, then just married, then parents. On the screen was Walter and Heather waving goodbye to grown up children, then waving hello to grand kids at Christmas. Then the song asked us to remember the promises, the quarrels, the patch ups. We watched seedlings grow to giant evergreens before our eyes. Fashions in gardens, haircuts, pant legs, hemlines, hair colours and glasses changed in rapidity. We watched as bodies stretched, then hunched and hairs turned gray. There were several of Walter standing before his equipment and a newly graded road.
I felt a sudden heart-stab: I will never have that. That arc of a life unravelling before my familes eyes: not like that. I will never look at hubby grown older and reflect on a marriage, the early days, the birth of a baby, the empty nest. There are no grandchildren, no flesh of my flesh, no blood of my blood. It can’t be helped, the hurt, on these days of reckoning and summing up.
I’ve never stopped being curious about everything; everything has appealed to me, including, but not exclusively: having a soulmate for life, the experience of pregnancy, birth and raising a child, knowing that the love of a child goes beyond any other kind of love on earth. But I was drawn to the life of the road and the solitary, seeking mendicant poet. I accept how my life turned out and do not doubt it had to be this way. I don’t believe I ‘failed’. And so I sink into the slideshow, the images so rich, each with their own story.
Watching the images I realize how much life on a farm provides a kind of consistency that few of us have today. We move around the country, following the jobs. Or, if we haven’t married, following our friends, lovers, siblings, emotional attachments. Old equipment is replaced with machines and modern technologies over the decades: heat, air-conditioning, radio. But the territory remains the same. In an unhinged, fluctuating, erratic world the land is still recognizable- that dip in the road, that curve, that line of of poles, those hawks perched, piercing us with their steady gaze, dropping feathers, lifting off, spying prey, silhouetted like raw angels against the sun and the dying day.
So much happens between the ages of one and twenty. Those years hold enough stories to last us for the rest of our lives. We grow taller, we move away from our innocent world to skeptical adulthood. We absorb or reject wholesale what people think of us. We toughen up. We have no idea what’s ahead; the phrase “oh not this again” has yet to become part of our vocabulary. We don’t believe there is nothing new under the sun, because it’s all new. And then, you find out there’s no Santa and you might as well say there’s no God.
And we have no idea how to work this thing, this life. Ordinary growing pains are extraordinary. When very young we are curious about everything; it’s all interesting. Until school, quickly and successfully, instead of teaching us how to think, tells us what to think. We get pushed into a career path so that, for many, life’s journey, with its circuitous detours, unnerves us, and vocations get truncated.
At fourteen suddenly, dad, the one who answered every question, just ‘doesn’t get it’. And mother, who gave you life, should just ‘stay out of it’. But clueless dad is willing to loan you the money for a car. And shunned mom keeps listens to your moaning about the man who broke your heart. She knows enough not to say ‘you’ll get over it’ or ‘you’re better off without him’, but instead tells you about her her first love of her life who died young in a hunting accident.
And then, not to forget, the crazy zigzag, back and forth, up and down of those years is fueled by hormones. But you don’t know this because it never happened before. Still, you have your whole life ahead of you. You will make people look. You will make your mark in the world. At twenty you are immortal.
“Coming of age” stories refer to that time between one and twenty, when life is tumultuous and ever-changing. When you go from dependent to independent in terms of mobility, accommodation, physical prowess, work and thought. And, of course, you begin to mate. But what about the last twenty years of our lives? After the next round of hormone changes, after the body has been spent, not to mention the money? After the hours have been logged? After mistakes have been made, over and over, but also after successes have been celebrated and songs sung at weddings, funerals, in bars, around pianos? After kids and pets have been rescued from impending disasters? What about drives home, miles logged, fires extinguished, bones broken, band-aids applied, jokes told to successfully break tense moments, reducing a room to laughter until everything’s alright again and as it should be? What about THAT coming of age?
Now that we’ve paid our dues, where are the rewards? Why don’t the youth seek our council? If only we lived in a world where what we said mattered. If only we said things that mattered, worthy of the ears of youth. If only we spoke from a place of age, from wisdom and not from an urge to hang on to our own youth. If only we realized we have come to the inevitable, we have come of age; we could be elders.
This is the true coming of age, where the next phase is as mysterious to us as birth to a baby about to be released from a mother’s body. When we have more of our lives behind than ahead of us. The truth is: your back aches all the time because you’re walking around with one foot in the grave. You laugh heartily because you are the joke and the joker. You have arrived. Everything you’ve dragged along with you this far can just stay on the curbside. Let some college kid or the coyotes rummage through it. You don’t need any of it. You’re traveling light.
From the ages of twenty to forty you worried about what others thought about you. From forty to sixty you couldn’t care less what people thought about you. But from sixty onward you finally got it: nobody’s thinking about you! Everybody’s just thinking about themselves. And the thought frees you. It cheers you up immensely.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie home