Navigating the river of grief

Russell Wangersky
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I suspect my dad was never really fond of the green canoe. I know he found it hard to get into; that, with his weight and poor eyesight, he found balancing difficult.

Some people are nimble in what they do — able to negotiate narrow paths or find their way into boats.

Dad was not. He was nimble in his mind — sharp and quick to pick up the thread of an argument or a joke, and perhaps that’s why he agreed that they should buy the canoe in the first place.

I think my mother needed it, and I think my father realized that hers was a legitimate, 17-foot-long need.

The canoe is one of those particularly beautiful things where form and function dovetail together, built by hand by one man in Nova Scotia in the early 1970s, and now a still-used museum piece. (I’ve actually seen one built by the same man, Harold Gates, hanging in Nova Scotia’s Maritime Museum.)

It used to hold our whole family, almost always with my mother in the stern, because she was adept in a canoe — she’d taught canoeing, had done it for years and could turn that green monster on a dime in a crosswind with a lop as high as the gunwales.

You could see she was in her element, just as easily as you could see that Dad wasn’t. But they stretched the family budget beyond its limits and bought the canoe anyway.

More to the story

So, what’s 17 feet of canvas-covered ash and cedar got to do with anything else in the world?

Well, the canoe’s still around, but my parents aren’t. They died sooner than they should have, and suddenly, I’m of an age where more and more friends are experiencing the death — or radical health decline — of one or both of their parents.

The thing is, you see those people staggering around in something close to a daze, trying to make sense out of why it is that a parent had to get so sick, so quickly. On the other side of it, the only thing you really learn is that it doesn’t make sense, and that there’s no way that you can make sense of it, no matter how hard you try.

It won’t stop you from trying to find that sense. And it won’t stop just because you feel like you can’t take it for even one more minute.

It’s like being brand new members of a particularly tragic fraternity — and every time you turn around, there are new and unexpected rules.

I want to tell them, “There are things you need to know — you need to know that you will want to pick up the phone for months, maybe years, and every now and then you will, and then you’ll realize the number might still be there, but there’s no one there to call.”

You’ll hear something that you want to share, because it would make them laugh — and you might even get the phone in your hand.

It’s almost as hard as when, for a fleeting, absent-minded second or two, you find yourself thinking it’s been awhile, and you should just call and see how they’re doing.

Then, you remember.

But telling people that is really no help at all. No one wants to know that grief doesn’t have time limitations, or that the punched-in-the-guts solidity of it is measured in years of sideways, unexpected jars, like upwellings brought on by unexpected memory turbulence. Fasten your seatbelts, and put your life in the upright and locked position — get ready to see your mother’s smile when she was paddling, or your Dad’s right hand smoothing his beard.

Lost in space

Truth is, though, that explaining it is probably like talking to teenagers — they hear the words, but the sounds are heavy and make no sense, because no matter how urgently you remember your experience, to a teenager you belong to another world where everything is necessarily different. You might think you were 16 yesterday, but teens think you’re a refugee from Planet Ancient, and nothing you can say will ever apply to them.

Same thing for the bereaved — I expect they hear the words, but don’t appreciate the universal content of the sentences. So welcome to a process that most of us will go through — welcome to the fact that you’re blissfully unprepared.

I expect that the thing is, you either know exactly what I’m talking about already, or you can’t even imagine it yet.

When the water warms up, I’ll get a chance to slide the big green canoe into the water and feel the way it slips along the surface like it belongs — it is truly the most perfect of boats, a craft as elemental as a cat’s paw of wind scudding the surface of an otherwise glass-flat pond.

And I’ll sit where Mom sat and maybe my kids will wonder at my paddling skills, even though I really only have a rudimentary ability to make that sweet beast take its head and go where I want it to.

That would make both my parents laugh — Mom at the paddling, and Dad, because he always got the joke.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: Maritime Museum

Geographic location: Nova Scotia

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Recent comments

  • Eileen
    April 23, 2011 - 21:34

    I can relate exactly to what you are saying, right down to the 17 foot green canoe; except that was my father’s domain. My youngest brother inherited and cherishes the canoe and he shares it with the rest of us each summer. I was fortunate to have five siblings with whom to share the grief and the incredible memories. But I would still love to be able to dial their number and have a chat.

  • Herb Morrison
    April 23, 2011 - 12:55

    One sure indication that I am getting older is the reality that I find myself making more and more trips to funeral homes and Churches, to pay final respects to tfriends and relatives who have passed on. If we are to beable to carry on with our lives, we should need to come to terms with greif not get over it. occasionally we will remember those close to us who have died, and we will grieve again for them, if only for a breif period of time. Finally, greif is an emotion which is felt. Greif defies description. Thanks, Russel for sharing something so obviously up close and personal

  • Ursula Dowler
    April 23, 2011 - 10:44

    An ancient Chinese ruler instructed the monk to write a poem celebrating his son's birthday . The poem goes as such , First the grandfather dies , then the father dies , then the son dies . The ruler was aghast and demanded an explanation . The monk replied that this the NATURAL ORDER of things and what could be better than that . Nothing is more difficult for parents than to have their children die before they do .

    • June Hickey Mollan
      April 23, 2011 - 18:03

      Russell, while I don't always agree with your columns, I understand your parental grief. I lost both parents who were in their late 90's but managed to fly home before their passing. Never the less the grieving stays with a grown kid, they were great parents and I'll miss them to my dying day. My father the Townie married the sweet, loving baygirl. How fortunate for us 7 kids but we still weep for them, it's how it is. It gets better but alas, those wonderful memories give us fodder for sharing when we're all together on Spencer St. Thanks for your sharing today, it's appreciated.