Tuesday, 9 October 2012

On Being Brother (Part I)

      It's fall, and my neighbour's daughter, heading to university, packs 17 years of her life into the trunk of her dad’s van . Her efforts have jogged old, tender memories of a similar day in 1975.

     I was leaving home at last. Life away from mom and dad and homemade rules and responsibilities. I couldn't wait for the late nights, the untidy bedrooms, the weekend romps, and the independence. Cutting the proverbial apron strings wouldn’t pose too much of a problem for me, and to say that I was itching to go would be an understatement.

As it turned out, my brother, Chris, and I were departing for University in the same year. He would be attending Guelph while I made Carleton my home and it had been decided that we would travel south together. After wading through mom's tears, we headed down the highway in "the Ghost", our old, bent-and-beaten green Chevrolet Biscayne station wagon. As we drove, I exuberantly lectured my brother on the new life to which we would soon be living, not being receptive to the nuances within his silence. I just presumed that he was too excited to say anything.

When I look back, I can't particularly remember Chris saying much on the trip, but I must have believed or, perhaps, deluded myself into thinking that he was just being himself; a little more introverted than Mark and me and a little less likely to share his feelings. Maybe my enthusiasm was a bit overwhelming, and maybe, in retrospect, I should have been more sensitive and provided him with an opening to share his thoughts.

     When we arrived at Guelph University late that night, we found his accommodations fairly easily, and we bunked down for the evening. I was starting my new life in the morning. When we awoke, I stuck around while Chris registered – a long process for those who have been through it – and was about ready to leave. Only one task remained: to find the Bank of Nova Scotia where Chris would settle his financial matters.

     I remember walking with Chris into the University Centre where the bank was housed. We were greeted with a cold welcome in an immense, impersonal hall. I think it was then that I first became aware of something that had escaped me early. For the first time, I saw a sadness in his eyes that betrayed his true feelings. I realized that my baby brother was afraid.

     All my life, Chris had been there - in the same bedroom, in the classroom next door, serving on the altar at Sacred Heart Church - and now, things were changing. We were, truly, becoming adults. And yet, childhood yearnings tethered our hearts pulling us back to those things that were comfortable and known. I knew that this wasn’t going to be as easy for Chris as it had been for Mark and me, and yet, I was at a loss for what to do.

     I looked at him and every protective instinct I ever held for Chris welled up within me, and I wanted to reach over, put my arm around him, and tell him that everything would be all right – but, of course, I didn't.

     Instead, I said that it was time that I left. I departed with a few light, hearty comments intended to temporarily appease his loneliness and to hide my own emotions. He looked up at me, embraced me, and bid me farewell. No other words were shared, and yet, in that fleeting moment of physical contact, I felt, as Morley Callaghan put it, “…all the years of [his] life…” and, to that point in my life, the most difficult thing that I had ever done, I did then - I let go of him.

     I walked to the doors leading out of the building and turned to look at Chris. There he stood, outside of the bank, small in the halls immensity, shoulders lowered, scared and alone - and I felt helpless in my capacity to make it better for him.

     Of course, Chris was successful at accommodating himself to his new world, and, of course, it was just the first in a series of adversities that we all face in life. And, of course he has been utterly successful since.

     But the scars of those few moments at Guelph University remain with me to this day. They are scars that carry with them a certain pain in their remembrance, but they are also scars that remind me of how much I really love my brother. And I wouldn't change the agony of those moments for all the treasures on earth.

     And I continue to watch my neighbour's daughter sort through all those years.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

On High School Reunions

I was standing in the hallway of the new TH&VS early on Friday morning preparing for the inevitable traffic of excited "reunionists" when a gentleman came up to me and asked if he was too early to register. I said, "Of course not," and moving to the registration desk, asked his last name. He said "Ward. John Ward."

Well, I looked at him, and I said, "John? It's me. Paul Toffanello," to which he replied "Tuffy! How are you?" We hugged.

There is a moment early in the recognition process where your brain happily seeks out information and clues in a game-like process to identify features and voice signals that serves the memory to satisfaction. I swear, it is an exciting process, because there is a joy in the recognition that brings true meaning to the concept of "reunion." A joy that one can only experience in the trepid moments of meeting people who you are afraid you won't recognize. As with me and John Ward.

In our brief reunion, we tried to share the 40 years in between our last encounter - an encounter as friends in high school. Accomplishments. Children. Careers. Location. Successes. Dreams realized and otherwise. So much in such a short time frame, but I realized then that we hold these kinds of memories in treasured confidence, and in the first moments of "reunion" it all just seems to come out like an unexpected geyser, one shared treasured memory after another.

Reunions let you celebrate the connection between those who have been part of your life - no matter how small a part - and reflect on the significance of these relationships. John and I were never best friends, and we didn't hang around a lot together, but we had a strong connection nonetheless - one that celebrated friendship, kinship, trust, respect, and, most importantly, shared memories of a brief time of engagement in our lives. It was a time of growing up, a time of transitioning from teenagers to young adults, a time of pulling away from our parents and home and dreaming of a future that would hold nothing but success and prosperity.

Of course, we all know what happens next. Life. In its best form, it provides us with experiences of joy and sorrow, defeat and success, celebration and tragedy. On balance, none of us escapes life's offerings. But a reunion seems to offer a brief respite from all of that; a moment in time where, despite the challenges of being human, we can appreciate one another for who we are, who we have become and how very important we are to one another.

At the last reunion in 2000, I had the opportunity to address a longstanding regret with someone who was a very important person in my life; a regret that lingered for more than 25 years. The reunion offered me that moment in time to be with this person, to apologize for the hurt that I had brought to the relationship, and to ask forgiveness - which was generously and magnanimously given. I continue to hold this person close to my heart, and would like to believe that we are friends, undisturbed now by grief.

In reflection of the weekend, I'd like to address the Social Media Generation, the majority of those absent from the reunion. It was said over and over again how social media - facebook, twitter, youtube, email, etc. - was likely the cause for so many alumni from the 1990's to present day to be missing from the ranks of the celebrants this past weekend. Whether we were all looking  to defend them, or, perhaps, looking to excuse them (because so many of them are, of course, our children), I have only one thing to say:

You can't possibly know what you missed this past weekend and how valuable an occasion it was!

By not engaging in the physical presence offered through a reunion, you miss the voice, the touch, the raised eyebrow, the laughter, the hugs, the sharing - all of the things that Facebook can't deliver in its unaffected silence. It is human contact at its very best. It is reaching out in a way that can only occur in reunion with one another, and it is a rare occasion to reflect on who your are, how far you've come and, perhaps, where you may be going in the months and years ahead.

I urge you, new generation, to connect  beyond the screen in front of you - the one that allows you to read this blog. Connect with those with whom you had shared a very short, yet significant time in high school - even those with whom you may not have had a relationship. These are the people who are, in large part, a measure of who you are today.

And to all those who participated in both the 2000 and 2012 TH&VS reunions, I say: Thank You! I miss you already. Stay in touch!

"Don't be dismayed at good-byes. A farewell is necessary before you can meet again. And meeting again, after moments or lifetimes, is certain for those who are friends."
Richard Bach

Monday, 28 November 2011

On Gifts of Purest Love

I was driving home from a weekend in Toronto the other morning - very early - under steel grey skies that pressed in like prison walls. The cold, wet rain made it feel like the whole earth was grieving something, and even the music I was playing from a CD (Magic Carpet Ride) that Hannah had put together for "Dad's Trips" couldn't snap me out of the melancholy I was feeling.

Sadness is an embracing emotion, and the melancholy that accompanies it shapes the moments with crystal clear images and memories. No matter what makes you sad, it has the propensity for bringing us closer to the people and places that we love than do some of the good memories we enjoy. Think about the last time you were truly sad, and consider the details in the circumstance, and you will know of what I speak.

As I drove through North Bay, I decided to try to cheer myself up with some light Christmas music by James Taylor - an album that I have loved over the years. And as it happens often, this one particular song came on that reminded me of Noah, and considering the mood I was in and the unrelenting greyness that surrounded me, I just burst into tears that matched the size and quantity of those wicked raindrops hitting my windshield. Unbidden and uncontrolled, they just fell for about ten minutes, and when it was over - both the song and the tears - I felt as though something had been lifted. As if I had purged myself (again) of lingering remnants of grief from losing Noah some 16 years ago.

Or was it grief?

I wondered about this moment, and the ones in the past when I have been reminded of that tragedy and loss, and of how often I lose myself in it. I wondered if, indeed, it is grief that I am experiencing after all of these years, or if it is a reminder - an intimate, loving, private reminder of a life that was not lived, but one that had such profound meaning. I tell the few with whom I share that I remember every part of that little guy - his face so beautiful, pretty lips and long eyelashes, his fingers like that of a piano player, so solid in his skin. Fine, fine hair covered his newly born body, and he looked like he was sleeping. And for the few precious moments that we had together, we were one.

Him, naked against my chest, no heartbeat, but a rhythm between us, nonetheless; my heart beating for him. Oh, we were one that Christmas morning.

Love is such a burden, isn't it? A complicated, perplexing, necessary burden. In Noah's death, how could I ever have known then what I know now...

...that he was a gift of purest love.

"Who comes this night, this wintry night
As to a lowly manger...
Who sends this song upon the air
to ease the soul that's aching
to still the cry of deep despair
and heal that heart that's breaking..."
James Taylor: Who Comes This Night


Sunday, 18 September 2011

On Heather, Religion and the Afterlife

So, my daughter, Heather, and I have these long discussions about life in general (my wife calls them arguments) and we always come to a place where we agree to disagree; in other words, I don't respect her opinions and she doesn't respect mine. Well, maybe a little bit of respect; frankly, I think I am right all of the time.

Notwithstanding, she does compel me to return to my lifelong engagement and pursuit of understanding myself (and others, I suppose) in this world. Heather's irritation with formal religion as a framework within which to pursue these answers is palatable, and as much as it bugs her, it more often incites in me a desire to defend Catholicism. In this, I try to urge her back to the comfort of its framework and the goodness of those parts of the system that honours sacramental commitment, 10 simple commandments, and the ritual of a community of believers who, on their unique journeys and varying states of mind, prevail as committed to the simple truth that is God.

In our deliberations (which may be loud, but are very enjoyable), I seem to always move to that fundamental challenge posed to me by a friend and colleague from Mexico who stated to a roomful of Superintendent-wannabes that, as North Americans, we all need "to get in touch with our deaths."

It is in this simple challenge where I realize that I am constantly trying to find purpose and meaning in my life and not view Catholicism as a social construct (which, arguably, it could be deemed) but as a way - or a path - or a guide - that I must embrace; as, within its framework, it allows me the opportunity, if I continue to search, to transcend the religion and realize a truth that can only come from being in touch with my death. I won't get into this in a blog...so much. I think I'd rather talk it out with Mike, Chris, Mark, Danny and Brian. Philosophers, every one.

I watch as a good friend battles with a brain tumour, another with a diagnosis of lukemia, and yet another, a best friend, who just passed away from heart failure - at the to early age of 55. And I realize what a privilege it is to just be able to engage like this, with my daughter, without the realization of a date-with-death other than the distant notion that, someday, I won't be here.

So, what about our differences of opinion? What about me and Heather? Well, all is good. Healthy. Lively. Engaging. And I have the privilege of being with her on her journey of understanding herself and the world around her - a world that she embraces so differently than most others - one that withstands any and all judgment, because, like you, and me, and all of us...she'll come to terms with her own death, too.

In her own way. In her own time. And it may be entirely something that I won't understand. But that okay.

It is what we all share. We are all going somewhere. So best to just love and respect each other on our journeys.

"listen: there’s a hell 
of a good universe next door; let’s go" 
- e.e. cummings -


Saturday, 23 July 2011

On Burning Bridges

If you've read/seen Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead you will no doubt remember the famous line that reads:

"We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, 
with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, 
and a presumption that, once, our eyes watered."

The burning of bridges is a thing we all do well. Disconnecting. Leaving things behind us, things undone and unfinished. And the further away from these burned bridges we get, the more faint our "memory of the smell of smoke" becomes to a point of "presumption that our eyes watered."

And, interestingly enough, it is disconnecting with one another that we all fear the most. It is the thing that often prevents us from sharing our deepest, darkest secrets of things which we'd rather have others remain unaware. With all due respect, my inlaws and many of their generation and ilk were very much like this. It was a practiced decorum of sorts - a way of always showing your best side - and rarely, or never, revealing that which lay behind the curtain. It was deemed to be, I suppose, a credible way of maintaining civility at a societal level, but what was kept hidden in so many cases was dark and dangerous and in no way could be justified under this "best face forward" attitude.

In my work with men who have suffered sexual abuse by other men or women, particularly when they were young, I have come to understand that their greatest difficulty in opening up to talk about these atrocities is in their fear of disconnection; that is, if they utter the ugly words, share the brutal story, or admit that they had been sexually abused - then they feel that others would want nothing to do with them. This is the epitome of the fear of disconnection.

Disconnection. Fear of being disconnected. Who among us hasn't experienced this feeling at some point in our lives. You'll remember it when you think about a time when you lacked the courage to speak the truth - when you argued and defended something in which you did not believe - or when someone needed your help, but you were too afraid of public scrutiny to lend a necessary hand. There are other examples, of course, but you get the idea.

I think about significant decisions that I have made in the past and have no regrets in any of them; in fact, if I had to do it all over again, I'd likely make the same decision. And yet, memories resurface occasionally of bridges I have burned, and it compels me to remember the smell and sting of the smoke that made my eyes water at that time. It is necessary to be honest, because if I don't, then I dismiss all that connects me to all of you.

It is in the line "...and nothing to show for our progress..." from the play that is the most profound.We are all responsible to one another, and in our relationships with others, we forget that we are connected to such an extent that our actions, words, and decisions have the propensity to cause disconnection. We must always remember that the essence of who we are as humans lies deeply within our connectedness, and by burning bridges, we disconnect from one another. In this, there is "nothing to show for our progress." We can not only presume that "our eyes watered." We must remember - feel the tears - smell the smoke - and then recognize in the memory how it is that we may have disconnected - and then reconnect.

Think of a fading memory of the smell of smoke in your life.



Monday, 18 July 2011

On Hope and Eternal Things...

So, I watched my wife pull away with her mother and the dogs heading to the cottage for a few days, and it got me thinking about "absence."

In and of itself, absence is, by dictionary definition, "the state of being away" or "the time or duration of a person being away": in any of these circumstances, the direct implication is that of "not being", and really, this can only be applied if there is someone other than the person who is "absent" thinking about the person who is not present; so then, one cannot be absent if another does not think about the one who is presumably absent, n'est ce pas? And what about the person who is absent? Does he/she think of him/herself as absent? Probably not in the same way as the person/people who they left behind.

God. Semantics and logic.

Just made me think of that worn out cliche: Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

In the case of someone's death, I think it ought to read: Absence makes the heart feel hopeless, because, in the grief process, isn't that what it truly feels like? I know when we lost Noah, it was the hopelessness of the circumstance that weighed the heaviest on us - the knowledge that we had lost a son - a living, breathing human being in the first moments of his life - who we knew could never return to us. And in no way, could we see the hope in it.

I feel and sense this same hopelessness in the people with whom I work in the counseling field and with close friends and families who have lost loved ones. The hopelessness abides in those darkest of moments, and continues to prevail well beyond the time when most others have wished you would just get over it and move on. Grief and healing have no set timeline and healing, I have discovered ironically, is conditional on our understanding of hope.

And so, came the time when we met Hannah. She was, perhaps, the most confounding (and welcome) little thing to ever have happened to us. Not that Haley and Heather weren't as precious in their arrival, but Hannah's birth yielded the most perplexing questions and forced us to consider an unerring truth; that if we hadn't lost Noah, we never would have met Hannah. It boggles the mind and wrenches the heart.

But what it does demonstrate is clear: hope prevails. It is hope upon which all human beings hinge their present and future; hope for ourselves, for our family, friends and others. And despite the most dire of circumstances, we must all look to find hope in all things. So easy to suggest, but, like the act of forgiveness, this is so very difficult to do. But I am convinced that it is hope that we must all seek, no matter what our situation. Each of us needs to find a path to hope when we feel such utter despair.

And when I wheel back to the earlier notion of absence, I can only think of Noah this way: that he may be "away", but that he has left us something so very precious in his leaving -  a daughter and a sister - and a clear, unmitigated understanding that we will all be together again - soon.

Noah is absent, but not gone. So, too, are your loved ones "away", but hope will lead you back to them.

Below: a gift that I have only shared with a few - until today.




When I think of him in my arms,
solid in his skin
and quiet,
like in sleep,
undisturbed by
I think that he lives some place
where Time sits on gossamer threads,
diaphanous and unrestraining,
and he visits me, unnoticed,
and smiles at my grief, curious.

And he sits on my shoulders
at suppertime and looks at his
sisters, and hugs them with his eyes,
loving their pretty faces, seeing himself;
And when they cry in their sleep,
he marvels at the glistening tears,
they shed for him, like diamonds,
and he kisses them, inquisitively.

And he presses himself to his mother's breast
feeling her agony, knowing the empty womb
from which he was born.
And I know these he never questions;
and he attends to her,
and caresses her heart,
and speaks to her soul,
and whispers secrets that need only be shared
between a mother...

and her lost son.

Paul Toffanello

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

On Death & Dying

No ghosts this time. Not real ones, anyway. I've been thinking about Paul Byck and another old acquaintance who both passed away a year ago this month.

I think there is a curse that abides in grief that many of us don't recognize. It is the curse of attempting to intellectualize the experience - to try to understand that which we have absolutely no capacity to understand. How could it possibly be that Paul does not exist in this world anymore? Where is Noah? What happened to Henry? What could Billy possibly be doing at this moment?

It speaks to the issue of trust, then; that is, a need to go as deeply as possible into ourselves and see that we do, in fact, understand at a very fundamental level - at an instinctual level - in the heart, perhaps. It is all right in front of us. We are all members of life, and regardless of death - in fact, in spite of it - we are part of something that connects us all - that is so much bigger than we can appreciate - and it inevitably leads us to trusting that there is more to all of this thing we call life than just being in the moment.

What we must do is remember when we lose loved ones. See them in our daily lives: in our values, our commitments, our children, our surroundings, in all the people whom we have loved and who are not with us in the moment. Most importantly, we need to recognize them as fellow members of life who have just moved on to a different place - one which we have no hope of understanding, but one in which they live, breathe, flourish... and wait to join us when our time comes.

And...our time will come. It is the one thing that reminds us of how we are connected and how it is that we are a part of it all. Before. During. After.

Think about someone you've lost today, and remember that they are, indeed, still alive.