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Year End Message December 31, 2023 Ė Warning, This is a Very Long Essay

Two words:  humbling, sad. That is 2023 for me. This has to be the hardest year end message Iíve ever written.  Iíve been through a lot in my life but thereís nothing yet (and hopefully never again) that tops the horrible reality that was this year. 

It started off okay.  I had a couple of weeks vacation after an incredibly busy year of working long hours.

I remember I was watching tv on the night of Friday, January 13th, and as Iím a night owl I was still up in the middle of early morning hours of the 14th.  It was a typical Friday. Iíd returned that week from my vacation and was relaxing after being busy catching up.  One thing about it that stands out clearly is that as I was loading the dishwasher, something about a sudden death came on the tv and it reminded me of Russell.  I thought to myself, ďthe worst thing is when you lose someone suddenly, itís so hardĒ. It brought back memories about the time when my dear friend Russell died. Thatís what you do when you lose somebody, the pain comes back to you at odd times. The reality is, you never do get over losing someone, you just learn to live with it. When I was done the dishwasher, I put those thoughts aside and continued on with the rest of my evening.

When I woke up, I was told that my son and his father had died in a house fire.  My daughter saw a news posting about a fire at her dadís place. The police confirmed to her that her brother and father were gone when she called them. I am so very sorry she had to find this out first and call me. The police were on their way to tell me, so I ended the call and got dressed.  My mind was in a whirl, how was it possible?  It didnít make sense.

The police were kind, we talked a bit about the situation and I got a card for victimsí services. But really, I was in so much shock at this point that I was both thinking clearly and not quite grasping that this had indeed happened.  I looked at the news clip that was shown about it that day, read and re-read the articles that came out in the following days. Cold hard facts with pictures and idiotic comments from strangers underneath.  There were nice things said too, but itís hard not to focus on the things that hurt because youíre already hurting.  I wish that people nowadays still believed the adage that my mom used to say: ďif you canít say something nice, donít say anything at allĒ. My generation didnít always do that nor do the subsequent ones. Iím as guilty at that as anyone when somebody annoys me, though I wouldnít say nasty things on a comment section when thereís been a tragedy.  Iím not sure what kind of person gets off on that, but I sure wouldnít want to know them in real life.

So that has been my year.  I am in this liminal surreal place where Iím trying to understand how this could be and at the same time fully aware that it has indeed happened.  When you lose a loved one, especially suddenly and there is no time for emotional preparation, the whole of life becomes seemingly tenuous.  You feel fragile, like one more thing will be what totally breaks you. 

There is a physical component to it as well thatís hard to fathom. For two months every muscle in my body hurt; I had weird pains everywhere. It felt like for a while every brain cell had been blown out and I was functioning somewhat as an automaton.  My memory was gone Ė I had to write everything down; Iíd read and it wouldnít sink in. Waves of grief would hit me (still does occasionally) when something triggers it and all I wanted to do was curl up in bed and cry myself to sleep.  Then Iíd have nightmares of the fire, so that was a not very restful thing to do. Accidental death is a tragedy and for me it felt like a bomb blew up my world, the very fabric of the space-time continuum had been rendered. I wished I could turn back time so I could warn them. 

I can honestly say that the first few weeks are a blur of things we had to do; phone calls and paperwork, while holding closely to those who were with me on this dreadful journey. The fact that we are still dealing with the administrative side of things prolongs the healing, I think.  At nearly the one year mark, itís not done yet.

I was off work for two months, until I felt I could sort of function and was able to say a few sentences without choking up. My kind and generous coworkers sent me a card and a gift. My kitchen table was full of beautiful flowers.

I had a number of nice messages from people.  It was so difficult telling those who knew them about it before we published the obituaries. We tried not to blindside those who were close to them if they were to see it. I made sure a notice was posted in the Ottawa Citizen and the Toronto Star so that people there would know about it if they read the obits regularly. The people we knew from those days other than those we told, I donít know if they are aware or not; at least I tried.

I found it a little strange having to say, ďIím sorry to tell you this butÖĒ, when asked how my son was doing not too long ago. I have a feeling that will happen a few more times, and in an odd way I kind of hope it does.  I want people to remember him, to know that he was the kind of person people would ask about if they hadnít talked to one of us in a while. Sames goes for his father. He was two thirds of my life, a close friend and he blessed me with my children. There were people who didnít understand our relationship, tried to turn into some adversarial thing that it never was; it doesnít matter, we understood and thatís all that matters.

I want to know that there are people who think to ask after them.  I do. The saying that you exist so long as people remember you haunts me a little. Thatís sort of why Iím so curious about genealogy Ė these people are the reason I exist, I should know them, warts and all.

Itís strange how death is one of those things that either brings people closer or pushes them away.  Iíve never quite figured that out.  There are times that Iíve felt that my contacting people after something difficult happened to them would be one more thing for them to have to deal with, so Iíll send a message or a card instead.  This definitely is the type of thing that is hard for everyone to talk about. Anyway, thatís the people who know me.

So many kind words were posted at the funeral home site. I really appreciate that.  I spent hours trolling my sonís social media, reading all the things I stayed away from out of respect for his autonomy.  I wish I had known just how good a programmer he was and how involved he was in raku open source developing. He told me a few times about it but I had sort of let go of my computer programming when I moved to New Brunswick. I just didnít have the time or money to continue with my studies which is something I regret now; I would have liked to have finished that computer science degree. 

Regardless, I will look into raku to see all that he was involved in, and find out what exactly the raku program is for.  It must be worthwhile if he was so interested in it.  He always made me proud that he borrowed my computer science books to teach himself programming, though I could have done without the time he turned all my system fonts into wing dings right before a deadline I had on one of my courses Ė I couldnít read my screen and had to figure out how to turn it all back into regular system fonts again.  Still, I was glad he did that rather than having to spend hours at 5 a.m. in a cold rink like many mothers do; I donít think that would have been fun, Iím a night owl. So was he.

While it seemed to me at first like Iíd never be able to work again, I did go back. It was important to me to take time to focus on something else every day. I am doing okay but I am nowhere near whole and may never be again.  I put one foot in front of the other and hope. As time goes by, the good minutes have turned into good hours.  Iím still waiting for entirely good days.  I expect that will happen eventually.

My thick skin is a lot thinner though and people donít realize that things they say or do can set me back because, why should they? It can happen when I get a redirected piece of mail for my son.  It can be when I have to fill out a form about him or explain.  One person who was frustrated with how long something was taking said to me, ďBut you were gone for two months!Ē  I truly hope they didnít know why I was gone, but regardless, I was in tears for the rest of the afternoon and evening. It will be a while I think before I can just wince and carry on when thereís something said or done that opens this up unexpectedly.

Occasionally I feel like the elephant in the room when I try to mention that I donít quite have the stamina I did before then the subject gets changed quickly, or oddly, like when I first went back to work - some people wouldnít look me in the eye. Thatís how it is. Healing takes time and treating yourself gently. Until then, itís still a little raw.

My thought in all of this is if you canít say something nice or be kind, please just stay away. Being asked about it sometimes feels a bit like entertainment or curiosity instead of concern if I get prodded too much for details that I canít even comfortably say out loud yet. Or conversely, Iíll overshare stuff that really, who cares but me and Iíd rather not make people uncomfortable. Nobody needs to hear me bloviating about stuff when I should be talking about impersonal matters which is something that times of high emotion causes, so I gauge my going places carefully.

Whatís happening now though is that new people are entering my sphere who know nothing about this which brings its own set of challenges.  How do I answer how many children I have when my youngest has passed? I say I have two, because heíll never not be my son, no matter what plane of existence he happens to be on. I will always be his mother.

The business of death is remarkably heartless. Itís expensive and what I really didnít like was having to talk to people, fill in forms and drive in snow storms on dangerous highways to meet officials like the lawyer, the funeral director, and the police. One place we had to go to days after the fire was across the street from the house, which was still standing with police tape around it because it was considered a crime scene until that was ruled out.

I felt awful for my daughter who had way too much on her hands for the business of her father; as next of kin for my son we were able to split much of this but an adult with bills and accounts is much harder to deal with than a young man just beginning to start his lifepath. I gave her whatever information I could and she shared information sheíd learned from friends whoíd recently dealt with a loss.  You know youíve grown up when this kind of paperwork falls on your shoulders.

I donít know how many times Iíve had to say, ďI canít get that information/give you that/go through their papers, because everything burned in the fire.Ē Iím glad I wasnít on the receiving end of a statement like that, but I hate that I had to say it even once. Because really, this isnít how itís supposed to be, right? Things like this happen in the news. You never believe that itíll be you and yours who are the news.  You just donít.

Iíve learned a lot about grief over the years but this really is the advanced course. I know I need to speak to a therapist someday because when someone close to you dies there is always residual stuff that will remain unresolved.  You have to learn to come to peace with all those memories, and if youíre anything like me you endlessly flog yourself mentally over stupid things said or done that maybe they wouldnít have remembered anyway, but regardless, there is no resolution ever.  When the day comes that I can actually talk about this without choking up, that is the day I make the appointment.   

This summer we decided to rent a couple of cottages, one on the lake where the kids spent their summers growing up and one by the ocean. We went the week we chose to do the internment of the ashes.  It was a vacation of happy memories, tears and spending time in water which I think cleanses the soul. 

The internment was a very small, private event. We learned that if thereís no service many people wonít go, which is fine, I can see why it would be uncomfortable without one. Neither of them was religious at all and we were doing what was right for them. Something this painful was better off small, we didnít want strangers, curiosity seekers or people who might say something unkind; it simply wasnít the time or the place for such things. Our send off was the best we could do under the circumstances and I think it was perfect. All the right people were there.

We decided on a gravestone that suited them. I went to go see it and lay a wreath recently after it was installed.  It looks nice. The house is torn down and we put flowers there a couple of times.  The land will be sold. Three generations lived there, but now itís time for this one to put down roots where ever it feels right to do so, even if that place is the whole wide world.  As for me, Iím just trying to figure out what the point is of staying in a place with so many sad memories, but weíll see where I am when it all settles.  My family is so small I could go anywhere really. What does that look like? Who knows. Probably right where I am for now, itís expensive moving anywhere these days.

Other than that, in December I just had a day and half of no power after heavy rain and high winds knocked it out.  As I started to write this some places in this province still didnít have it back (it took 6 days to get them all). I was thankful for my woodstove, and the load of wood we got this fall.  I lost most of the food in the fridge but not all Ė the turkey roll was still frozen solid and the fresh vegetables were fine when the power came back on.  We did have a Christmas dinner, and I lived to tell about it.

This year Iím reminded of two things:  no one is immune to loss, and while I thought such an accident is rare, I see now that it isnít.  Tragedy is a part of living, the part where hopefully you escape it touching your life; we live with wishful thinking where everyone passes peacefully in their sleep of old age.

Fire it seems is such a part of the zeitgeist that nearly every movie and television program has reference to a house burning if they donít actually show it. I remember watching one show thinking, oh I should share it, itís so good, then thereís a scene where people are trying to crawl out of a burning house. So I didnít. I havenít stopped watching tv but I remind myself that fiction is fiction and watch those things cautiously. Iím not watching the news as much; I need to focus on more positive things.  I read about the current events in online newspapers instead to keep up to date.

Iím a creative person and while Iíve written a number of poems and a couple of essays about this, I have ideas I canít do yet.  It still hurts too much.  Iíll know Iím well on my way to being more myself again when I can tackle them.  One thing I did try was Nanowrimo, my annual foray into writing 50,000 words of a work in progress or new.  I was proud of myself for starting something but no, I didnít finish.  Once again, I chose a subject that was just hard to put to paper, like the fictional work Iíve been writing about a son who discovers his mother has dementia on an annual visit home. 

I started that one before my mom had dementia and then the whole thing became painfully more real because while Iíve been close to a few people with dementia, itís a different thing when itís your parent. Itís still not done but it nearly is, so someday soon, I hope.  This yearís attempt is a creative non-fiction book about grief. The different faces of it, my perspective because Iíd never want to speak for anyone else in this regard.  I do think that writing about this, like any of the other tough subjects Iíve tackled previously is worth saying. I am not alone in this as much as it feels that way sometimes. We all work through things differently but if I can show people that you know what, other people think these things, or do these things, or react this way, maybe itís a comfort, you know?

I talk a lot about projects that seem to never get finished but thatís not true, it just takes me longer than some people because Iíve got a lot on my plate still. I truly only get the time and the clear enough head to really make progress when Iím not working so thatís weekends and holidays if I donít have a million chores already planned. I did submit a chapbook of some of my short stories for consideration, and I still intend to finish putting together that second poetry book, the short story and the essay books.  I have more than enough material for these.

But enough of this navel gazing.  So much went on in the world this year. When the earthquake happened on February 6 in Turkey and Syria where entire families died, I thought: who am I to feel sad when half a world a way entire blocks of apartment buildings became rubble and generations of families were lost? Who am I to feel so hurt when the horror of war is happening all day every day in several places around the world? Itís silly, I know. 

So much happened this year around the world between weather events, wars, and politics gone crazy. Thereís way too much division and ďus and themĒ mentality, and I am deeply disturbed at human rights being rolled back because of people putting their own beliefs ahead of the welfare of others. People who look at trying to revive the good old days are forgetting an awful lot that was not so good about society in the past and so much has changed over time itís simply not possible to go back. 

Denying, hiding or erasing history wonít change the fact that certain events did happen. Avoiding tough subjects for fear of upsetting people is forgetting that life itself is hard, bad things happen, people fall ill and die. Sometimes people are homeless because there are no homes they can afford to live in, not because theyíre lazy. Just because someoneís opinions or beliefs arenít yours donít make them wrong. Making mundane things political is dangerous and divisive.  We need to support decisions with facts that are based on vetted research, recognizing that an opinion loudly spoken doesnít make it fact. It just doesnít.

I still have hope. We just need a little less extremism, a little more compassion.  While history may be ugly, thereís lessons that need to be remembered so that we donít repeat it. When we swing back from the extremes and settle in the middle, things will calm down.  So please, letís start the process now.  Letís make decisions from fact not emotion or rhetoric, take the time to research from places other than social media where algorithms are a feedback loop that highlights the negative. Being on the defensive is exhausting, how about us approaching people with neutrality instead? 

Most people just want to live their lives in peace.  To do so means we need to be peaceful.  Letís aim for that.  All it takes is a little compassion and a touch of empathy.  Forgiveness helps too.  That last part I admit Iím working on, starting with myself. I also want to remind people that whatever moral compass you live by, whatever religion you follow (or donít) doesnít mean that you must force others to live that way too. Letís try appreciating all the differences in people, the things that make society as a whole richer. 

Remember, while spirituality is an important part of what it means to be human, religions were created by men.  Literally.  That makes any religion fallible and open to interpretation.  Itís a good idea to examine the reasons why religions were created; there is an element of control and cultural mores that, while it was a consistent way of keeping people faithful to church and state, looking at how it fits into your life in this era is wise.  If it dictates that there is an element of keeping secrets, is causing you to turn away from family or shun them because they donít follow the rules, maybe itís not that good for you. 

There is no one ďright wayĒ, and if you are being told that this way is the only way, perhaps you should follow your heart and your own inner wisdom.  Ask yourself why they would be telling you this. So much atrocity over the centuries has come from tying religion into political aims when the two shouldnít be combined.  It simply isnít the right thing to do to force people to follow what you believe simply because you have the power to do so. If it encourages hate, how is that spiritual enlightenment? Letís listen to our intuition on this. A little bit of critical thinking if someone is encouraging blind faith couldnít hurt too.

I worry too when people take it so seriously that they are literally biding their time waiting for the reward when they pass on.  Thatís not living, itís existing, and I donít think we were put on this earth to bide our time waiting for what happens when you die. Life is meant for living.  We should do that as well and as much as we can, whatever form that takes.

My mother to me was the perfect example of spirituality. She was the kindest person Iíve ever known.  She loved her religion (Anglican), and loved to study religion itself and took religious classes at night at a local college when she retired. Her two degrees were for her career, these studies were her heart. She went to Chautauqua every year, and belonged to the Kingís Daughters.

My dad was Catholic and, in her words, they were a mixed marriage. That is what it was considered back in the 1950s.  She remained faithful to her religion while she was married, steadfastly not converting then and didnít for a very long while after they split up. But she was flexible in her approach to spirituality.

I went to public school, Catholic school, private school, finished grade 13 in night school and correspondence. Whatever worked best for the time was how it was. We sometimes went to Catholic church, mostly Anglican because she was in choir and itís where she was most at home. She learned that while Sunday school wasnít really my cup of tea, singing was.  We were in the choir together for years.  We also shared an interest in Edgar Cayce.  She was very understanding and lived her truth her way, never once trying to force me be anything other than open minded and I am very glad of that.  While I may have turned away from formal religion, mainly because of the hypocrisy that Iíve never been to reconcile, she always approached it from the spirituality of it, less so the rules. I wish that was how it was taught to everyone.  I really do.

To me, some solutions to the current problems are simple. Donít like the idea of trans people reading story books?  Donít go.  If you think abortions or same sex marriage or compassionate death is wrong, then donít do it. You think a book or a movie or some music or game is horrible and possibly evil and corrupting?  Donít read, watch, listen or play it. You know whatís right for you. However, if you want to try being inclusive and standing up for others, great. We need more people like that.  What we donít need is more banning or overturning hard won freedoms because others just donít agree with it.

The saying that you canít put the genie back in the bottle is true Ė we need to be very careful how decisions are made that affect people personally. Itís offensive to think that politics can take precedence over a medical decision between a person and their physician or specialist. It can start there, but where does it end?  Think about that, and if you agree, for the love of all thatís worthwhile Ė vote! 

I say this because extremists are always in line to vote and thatís how we wind up with parties and leaders who donít really reflect society as a whole Ė itís because the whole of society isnít showing up. It is so very important now that all people express themselves in the way that is constitutionally given to them.  Being able to vote it a gift.  One that as a woman, I always keep in mind that it wasnít all that long ago that women werenít able to. My mother started her career at a time when married women werenít allowed to stay in their job after they got married.  She didnít get married until she was 40. By that time, it wasnít common, but at least she could have a career and be a Mrs. Her older sister got a PhD and became university professor but she remained single.  

I remember when I got married in 1988, we went to set up a joint bank account. This was in Mississauga. The officer insisted that my husband had to sign whenever I wrote a cheque and I was furious. I told them no, Iíve been working for 10 years, Iím the one whoíll be writing most of the cheques and if this really is the rule, take my effing name off the account. Iíll keep using the account that I have.  It took escalating it and husbandís okay to allow me to sign cheques by myself.  Think about that for a minute.  It was because I was a woman.  No other reason.  This kind of thing is what some people are trying to do to women again.  Donít think it could happen?  Look at Afghanistan. It can and it does if people let it.

Most societal changes donít happen all at once but in tiny increments, like taking away the power of women and their doctors for her to make her own decisions about her medical care. I personally wouldnít want some person with no medical training to decide for me, would you? Well, itís happening in the US right now, a bastion of freedom.  No one is immune.

If youíve gotten this far in my message, thank you. I appreciate it.  And now I think I will let my missive end here.  I wish you all the best for 2024.

This year please be kind to one another, have respect, and remember the Golden Rule:  do unto others as you would have done unto you.

ņ la prochaine,


© Catherine M. Harris, 2023


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