On Loss

Laugh or cry

Rhino lays on his belly atop the comforter, leafing his way through, until he encounters a headline that brings the chuckle

Papa

he shares his favourites

Recently opened Empire State Building ‘Giant Ape-Proof’, Say Architects

Women Get Vote, Rest Rooms

Carter to Congress: What’s Your 20, Good Buddy?

It’s a fun stage when your kid starts to get the jokes.


My Auntie would share with me just how much my Uncle loved Our Dumb Century.

I hear him all the time, chuckling away down there, even when he’s in the bathroom

When I remember him, it’s the chuckling that stands out.

He and Captain Flyswatter would sit together, apart from the crowd and cocktail noise. Cracking wise at every opportunity, inevitably punctuated by a wheezy, extended guffaw.

Our very own Statler and Waldorf, peas in a pod, yukking it up.

They must have been in their 50s at the time

Wait

That’s where I’m at now

I loved that role, wanted to be like them. Finding humour in the absurdity of it all. So I tried it on, making bad jokes, throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what would stick. Cracking (not-so) wise.

And soon, it was my turn to cackle, together with him.

Nobody gets my jokes

But he did.

Satire, I think, just was a fit for my uncle.

How else does anyone make sense of a world that can bring so much joy, and so much pain

A world where hardship lands indiscriminately

disproportionally


Laugh or cry

Ask any parent

What’s the worst thing in the world?

And topping their list, without a doubt

losing my child

Well, Dear Reader.

He lost two.

He was circumspect and reflective at his elder son’s funeral, unafraid to call out injustice, trying to make sense of it all. His elder and (to that point) surviving son, a grown man, finally giving in to cancer after the bravest of fights.

How could this happen twice

I stood, graveside, listening to last rites, my own boy snuggled in against my chest. And perhaps because he was there too, lost myself to grief. Tears, without end.

Two funerals for lost sons is, ultimately

two too many


I’m not here to raise existential questions

Those ones generally raise themselves

Here is what I know.

There is suffering in this world. For some, more so than others. It is uneven, arbitrary.

And, also, thank the universe,

impermanent.

I don’t know whether this offers consolation.

I know that losing two sons, suffering with cancer, then struggling to digest a meal near the end of it all

is, uh, a lot to deal with.

I know there were still moments of joy. His resilient daughter-in-law and vibrant grandchildren carrying the family legacy, jaunts to Loreto bringing sunshine and warmth.

My aunt, his forever partner, his rock, a saint who endured so much more than any soul deserves.

If sainthood were a thing, she’d be first on the list.

Resilient

Exhausted

Determined, to the last.

She’s one of our heroes.

And, I miss him already.


Laugh or cry

His younger son’s funeral is foggier to me

But I do remember being caught in nervous energy

In the car, on the way to the cemetery, I was giggling uncontrollably, my cousin joining in the fun

I knew that somehow it wasn’t appropriate, didn’t befit the mood, but I just couldn’t reign it in.

What’s the right way to grieve?

And if we get extra practice does that make it any easier?


I wake up tonight with dreams so real that that they chase me.

I am home

There is a drawn out and tender hug

Peaches and Herb are there

Reunited and it feels so good

I hug them back.

And the dream, just like those who matter to me, holds me close

I wake sobbing, just a bit

Acutely aware of the tenderness of it all

Of how quickly it can pass


So,

Live.

Surround yourself with good humans

Leave the place better than you found it

And keep breathing.

It’s a privilege, not a right


As I listen to my boy, giggling as he gets the joke

I hear my uncle’s gentle, joyful, wheezy laughter sneaking up the stairs for my Auntie to savour

Laugh or cry

Dear Reader,

if you don’t mind

Today I’ll be doing a bit of both

Grounded

R

can you come up here and help me out

It was a tweet,

of all things.

Teaching me simple math.

Jolting me wide awake

Hammering home that time we spend – from here – facing forward

is too short

If you’re in the last 10% of time with someone you love, keep that in the front of your mind when you’re with them and treat that time as what it actually is

precious


We’re up top, on the balcony. Motorbikes flow down below, all staccato beep and hurry.

But here, it’s only R and me

and we are the ones that matter.

Papa

There’s a whole lot of ants

We work as a team to get this toppled plant back home, where it belongs. Avoiding the tiny critters who’ve made it their home, peeling back the fronds that aren’t quite well, flaking off the soil that just won’t fit.

Helping this poor lost soul to, once again, find its ground.

And I realize that I might not just be talking about a plant

You need to make sure the roots are not bound

This pot might be too small

Grab me the dustpan and broom

He moves with such purpose, surehanded, rich with intent.

Teaching me, yet again.

He’s getting so big

Growing up

Right before my eyes


There are two gifts, today.

One: a friend brings story to our classroom

that lands, harder than a tweet

She reads. And I can’t keep my fingers moving fast enough to capture all of it

When things get difficult, remember who you are.

Who am I

asked the boy

You are loved

said the horse


We spend our moments, hours into weeks, into decades.

And our time is so damn short.

Imagine how we would be if we were less afraid


The second gift, today

Comes from the wisest of friends

who reminds me

When we write, it gives us a sense of permanence

It stays with us

Helps us find our ground


And I stop, for a moment.

To think about why I’m here

why I write, and why I share

When the big things feel out of control, focus on what you love, right under your nose

And, in writing,

I see what is here

I do just that.

focus on what you love, right under your nose

So.

I look my son in the eye

And think of those I love

And those who love me

And I remember.

I don’t always get it right in this world

Who does, really

But when I do

This poor, lost soul, once again

finds its ground.

Presents

Write

Right.

Write now.

Write, right now.

Get something down on paper.

Here’s the thing, though. I don’t want to.

Some days the verses flow. The words are bursting forth. But not today.

I’m tired, it’s been a month, two, five, eight, or thirteen, I’m losing count. Too often, stress rears its noxious head.

But I know that this, at its heart, is an investment. Making me a better writing teacher, sure. It’s also a true and unwavering gift to future me, sitting reading this, grinning, and remembering.


And that’s no fib.

Pay Attention

Things have slowed down a bit near the lake

But there’s still plenty going on

I reach into the vinyl bag to pull out the shards of the shattered pot, but I’m distracted and not paying attention.

Ouch

That’s gonna bleed

The sharp edge catches my pinky and I quickly withdraw my arm.

Gotta be careful

I unload the dirt, leaves, and aforementioned pot at the mini grey dumpsters that make up our trash collection spot. The bins are full.

They’re always full, it seems.

There is a small army of collectors, mainly women, who patrol the streets. For a city of 9 million, the streets are (relatively) clean. Who knows where it all goes when it leaves the neighbourhood, though.

I tuck the now-empty bucket between the seat and the steering column, and ease the bike ahead a few metres to check out the lake. It’s a clear night, crisp, perfectly pleasant.

I notice the 3-foot long catfish staring me in the eye. Just sitting on the sidewalk, maybe awaiting a friend for a romantic lakeside rendezvous?

This is where all the young lovers meet

And I can see why. On a clear night, Tay Ho (West Lake) shimmers. Provides space in a city with too little. Truly a romantic spot, as long as you don’t think too closely about sewage runoff or what might be going on beneath the surface.

I’m doing my best not to when I see the fisherman, silent in the dark. He effortlessly extends his bamboo pole back into the street, arcing his cast towards the lake depths.

Is he angling for dinner?

He peeks over at me, perhaps wondering if I have intentions of making off with his catfish friend.

I do not.

The bats dart close, then away. Looping erratically and in search of dinner. Across the lake, colored lights snake their way up and down apartment complexes, a daily light show indicating that Hanoi is (perhaps trying too hard to signal that it’s) on the up and up, a cosmopolitan and modern city.

We’ve heard from a few new folks scheduled to arrive in Hanoi in July. They wonder about AQI, Moldy March, the gray of winter.

But there is colour here, and vibrance,

and life

Sometimes you just need to pay attention.

Steady, Now

The photo is simple.

Could be any old couple taking a stroll on the beach

But it’s not any couple.

It’s her folks.

Holding hands, all smiles. A puddle of joy drifting in an ocean of worry, and sickness, and fear.

He’s slightly hunched, betraying unsteadiness, but remains sturdy, cap and sunglasses, steadfast. She is firm, graying hair windswept. She steadies him in back, buoying him to stay strong.


The small group of swimmers in the background dip below the waves, callous and indifferent to the significance of this moment

What it means 

To us

To her

To him

I sit here, fresh out the sauna, core temperature right where I like it, thousands of kilometers across the sea, peering out at the bamboo, the silhouetted mountains, all misty, in behind

But when I shift my gaze to the photo

The floodgates open

And even though the random swimmers in the background have no clue what this moment means

On their behalf, I do.

They both smile.

And, through tears, so do I.

Because sorry cancer (you asshole),

today you’re taking the L.

Unlocked

Hanoi is not a city that sleeps

Rests, sure. Pauses, at times.

But sleeps? Nah.

And so

The streets today are jammed. Cyclists spin by, three abreast, punctuated by motorbikes shipping wares, most fully helmeted and many choosing not to care. Pedestrians, all masked, make their way along the lakeside. The air is muggy.

The heat is coming

Shops are opening up, the city is breathing new life.

I’m not an epidemiologist, I just play one on tv.

But it seems like we’re entering a new phase, one where we live with Covid, bring back a sense of what is normal.

Do we really know what’s normal?

And, in the midst of the rush, I’m taken back to being locked, and I

remember


I wander away from the tiny shop, an impossible four shelves by three aisles somehow stocked with anything you could ask

I am vexed by the lack

Of even a single motorbike

An exercising granny

A puppy on the prowl

But tonight, in these days of lockdown

I am alone

And I like it.

Hole in the Bucket

There’s an amazing moment in Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis that perfectly captures the feeling of being 6 and losing a tooth.

He describes the tongue pushing and pulling on the loose tooth until one day it suddenly, abruptly, just falls out. The nerve!

And then, well.

As a 6-year old “it shakes you up a whole lot more than grown folks think it does when perfectly good parts of your body commence to loosening up and falling off of you.”

Today, apparently, I am six.

I’ve poured myself a ginger and soda water and am nibbling a couple chips

The crispy sidelings play their way off my tongue

I don’t remember them being this salty

The saliva breaks these crispies up, and then down

When I get that 6-year-old feeling. I’ve got more than just chips in my mouth. I play my tongue over the side of my lip, then sneak it back towards the gum. And what previously felt like, well, tooth, is now just a gap, and a sharp edge. And this ‘more than just chips’ is a small, ridged edge of what feels like, plastic?

Where did that come from?

I maneuver the chip not chip out of my mouth and down to my fingers and hold it up.

It looks like a long fingernail, ridged and hard. I think it’s the cap that was added a couple years back. I strain to remember which dentist but it doesn’t matter now.

I have a moment of panic

Am I going to lose my tooth?

I picture myself an old man, dentures set aside, gumming my way through some oatmeal while my friends dine on corn on the cob, their immaculate chompers on brilliant display.

And there’s a hole in in my mouth, that I guess is better than a hole in my heart or a hole in my head. Slightly worse than a hole in my sock or a hole in the bucket, dear Liza my dear.

I make a call to the dentist and hold off on finishing the bag of chips.

Being 6 is tough.

Chaser

It’s unclear exactly what I’m chasing today.

My tail, perhaps?

I don’t know

What do you think

Should I go play football tonight?

Depends how you feel

I’m frankly a bit torn.

It’s been a slow if incremental recovery, and the lungs are still not up to snuff. I’m feeling human though, after a weeks-long Covid adventure. Breathing well, moving with energy.

But chasing a ball for 90?

That could be a stretch.

The afternoon is frenetic to say the least jumble through an English conference for our tenth grader an hour-long adventure of a meeting planning my workshop tomorrow finishing a blog post and responding to a parent query and dropping Elephant off at a sleepover and picking up the kindest offer of some jollof and oh yeah I’d better take a bloody shower before footie so as not to be that smelliest of smelly guys so then I may as well shave the hair down to the bone and trim the beard because look good play good and then it’s off to the pitch because I think it’ll be healthy for me but first gotta find the socks I thought were in my drawer and make sure Rhino doesn’t burn down the place because he’s preparing a marinade for the barbecue and does the bike still have a charge better grab my helmet let’s goooooooo

And, then.

There are mates.

And turf.

Two goals

And a ball

And, mercifully,

Play.

And I remember.

What it feels like to be in control. To dribble between defenders and nutmeg and dart and dash.

To be with teammates

And to strike, that sweetest feeling

Ball.

Off post, across the net behind the keeper, off the other post and into the back of the net.

That all-too-fleeting moment of brilliance, of beauty,

Of joy

And, sure,

sport is silly.

But there’s plenty enough struggle to go around

And so, today, a tiny taste of silly joy

Is exactly what I’ve been chasing.

Free Flow

Papa

Yeah buddy

Ms. K has this really cool book with graphs. They’re circular and show different totals. The human circles are like this big. But the beetles ones take up like two full pages.

He’s spitting, free flowing, a volcano of knowledge of the world about to blow

Squirrels sweat through their feet.

Hawaii has no seagulls.

I like to play the water is lava, except you have to avoid it by just moving backwards.

It’s not much, really. All I’ve done is given space, a container in which to share.

Not fixing, just sitting. Looking him in the eye.

Moments like these feel so easy when they happen, the challenge is to open up and create the space. To build presence, as a habit.

The scientific name for gorillas is gorilla gorilla.

That last one is the one that makes him giggle.

Re-interloper

Ok, so I think it’s going to be 6 groups.

Cool, can you explain how you got there?


You may ask yourself

How did I get here?


Whack!

I’m in the middle of a zoom, talking division with a student, when something hitting the ground outside the window draws my attention.

Is that a stick

The stick appears to be moving.

Curving across the grass.

Yep

Third snake in three days now. Apparently this yard is a Death Eater hot spot.

The first, a green and orange beaut who just wanted to get away.

The second, seen late at night just outside the window, muted colours, greys, greens, blues. A single black stripe the length of its body. This one was big. Like, ‘extend the length of the two-meter window’ big.

In a hurry though, so, quickly seen and quickly gone. I was okay to see it move along.

Some things are best not to ruminate on.

Does it have a home in the vacant green space on the other side of the fence? Does it have a family?

Are there more?

A lot more?

Three snakes in 3 days seems like a lot. But I’m new to the area, and the reactions of locals are encouraging.

I explain to the woman who tends the garden next door that there have been a couple snakes the past couple days.

She is unfazed.

It’ll go away

She points at the undergrowth and says, with her body

Don’t sweat it.

This encourages me.


There is something in these moments.

The ones we choose to notice.

And the moments that notice us.

We sleepwalk through life, so often.

How did I get here


Today, the magical snake flying through the sky and landing on the lawn has me wide awake, eyes wide open, and asking questions.

B, can you hold on a second? A snake just landed on the grass outside my window.

Cool!

We’re both excited. He reminds me that he asked his folks for a corn snake, without a yes, yet.

What color is it? Is it big?

Nice to have a herpetologist along for the ride.

I attempt to show him, strain to adjust my laptop to get the snake in frame. And as I do am struck by just how invisible this critter is. I’m looking right at it, and still struggle to parse it from grass.

Not to mention, my questions.

Like, where the heck did it come from?

It must have been up, somehow.

I squint into the sun. There’s no tree above where the snake landed. And no chance it could have been on the deck up top.

I am perplexed.

Can the snakes here fly?

Did it leap tall buildings in a single bound?

Tossed by a bird of prey? Dropped by a kite sailor?

The snake suddenly has David Byrne’s voice

You may ask yourself,

how did I get here?

And when you consider that a talking snake would literally be just a talking head

it now somehow seems to fit.