Years ago, I used to watch my father sit in his tall chair in a corner of the living room, reading the paper. He always lingered a bit on the obituaries, a page that didn’t interest me. I asked him about it, and he answered with his usual dry humour: “When you get to be my age, you like to see what your old friends are up to. Or down under.”
I tell you this because I was on the narrow two-lane highway between Liverpool and Annapolis Royal, N.S. last week. Nova Scotia Route 8. It’s the kind of secondary road that leaves you at the mercy of other drivers — hemmed in by big trees close in to the shoulder — and it passes through Caledonia and near Harmony Mills. Passing lanes are sudden and short, and if you get bottled up behind a slow vehicle, you either trundle along at the same speed or take your chances that now is not when a stampeding double-load log truck is about to appear around the nearing corner.
Pretty close to the middle of that Route 8 crossing of the spine of Nova Scotia, you come to Kejimkujik National Park. It hides well, a huge park that barely touches the highway near Maitland Bridge. If you’re not looking, it’s easy to miss: just a dark-green sign and a Canadian flag, the wonderful understatedness of our national park system.
I can remember wilderness camping there with my mother and two brothers, taking our big green freight canoe full of camping gear to a campsite that was nothing more than a tent pad and a fire pit, and having Mom in the stern call out to us with a gleam in her eye, that, “You can’t go canoeing if you can’t get wet.”
Then, within sight of the campsite, she rolled the canoe over. Some things floated; we dove for the forks and knives.
When I think of Dad, I think of that armchair. When I think of Mom, I think of her sense of adventure, her willingness to prod Dad and the rest of us onto the highway on trips she labelled “expeditions” and for which we dutifully kept track of time and miles in a glove-compartment logbook.
The chair and the canoe might seem unconnected.
But there is a straight line here.
I think that because my parents were older when they had kids, that meant they passed away earlier than the parents of many of my friends. I was unprepared for the afterwards of my parents’ deaths; few people I knew had unlocked that sad code at that point.
Now, those friends are catching up to an experience I’m well familiar with.
And they’re learning what it’s like to have a sudden hole in their world.
I was unprepared for the afterwards of my parents’ deaths; few people I knew had unlocked that sad code at that point.
I have bad news for them, bad news that I don’t completely share. (A little part of me trills, “They just don’t know,” and I think better of saying anything.)
The hole does not change. Sure, it softens a bit; the reminders aren’t as constant. But when they do come, they are keening.
Months later, years later, a decade later, you’ll think of something you want to tell them, and you’ll reach for the phone, and then feel things come to a halt like someone hauling the reins on a horse.
My son told me a joke I know my Dad would have loved, an awful joke: “Why do Nordic nations put bar codes on their warships? Because when they come back to port, they can Scandinavian.” (Say it out loud — it’ll come to you.)
Later on that same trip across Nova Scotia, I crossed a decrepit railway bridge, its crossties rotten despite their fading creosote coating, at Allains River, just outside Annapolis Royal, and would have loved to tease my mother about the risks I always used to pretend to her that I was taking in my life — except I know she would have been out in front of me, skipping tie-to-tie, her mouth pursed in concentration because, like always, she intended to win the race.
What am I saying?
If you don’t recognize those experiences now, I’m sad to say that you will.
Long road. No turns. Same eventual destination. Hold tight.
Their stories keep them here.
Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 39 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @wangersky.
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