Monday, 18 September 2017

The Cancer Diaries: Road Trip

While the birds were flying south and folks were getting their last tans yesterday, I was taking a drive in the country with Jennette to one of her favorite spots - the funeral home and cemetery -- to visit her dad, mum and Roger.

Capital Gardens actually could be mistaken for a golf course, with its rolling greens; it's not until you get up close that you see all the benches and memorials topped by real and imitation shrubbery depending on which plan each resident picked for their final resting place.

It's a nice spot for a picnic, not at all creepy like the cemeteries of yore.

It's like a park that you're planted in.

We took this ride to finalize Jennette's funeral, which she actually started paying for after Roger died more than three years ago. She wanted to check her balance, and add on a few smaller details so that when her time eventually comes, she's off to the races.

I was with her way back when, meeting with Randy, the cemetery sales guy. He's become a friend to Jennette in recent years, and he's always up for a little coffee and TLC for one of his favorite clients.

Jennette is one of those frequent flyers at Capital Memorial. She buried her husband and her dad in rapid succession, in between bouts of mouth cancer. She's been there so many times, she can rhyme off the numbers on the pickle trays.

And she's a bit sweet on Randy, who is a teddy bear of a guy with a permanent tan from riding around on the golf cart he uses to squire widows back and forth to the resting places of their husbands.

We met him on the day after Roger took his final journey on Jennette's dime. Even though we loved Roger, in our way, we both were a little resentful that he had secretly pulled his pension when Jennette was posted to Washington for her job, and hadn't worked since Jesus was a glint in God's eye.

Even though we knew Roger was for the high jump, we were both a little shocked when he actually passed. Scott lost the bet that Roger would outlive Gordie, the Jurassic pug. And we were still reeling from the whole death at home scenario, with cops, coroners and the meat wagon.

Funerals are always weird and people do the weirdest things. During our meeting with the young funeral director, for example, I found it strange that Jennette asked her to check Roger's pocket because she thought he had a twenty. Nope! He'd spent it before he took his last supper of pate, crackers and opioids. A scallywag to the end.

We met Randy when Jennette decided to prepay her funeral a week or so after Roger's planting. She reasoned it made sense because she was now a widow with no children. As per usual, she didn't want to be a bother to anyone.

So for three years, she's been coughing up payments, and now she was getting ready to cash in.

Randy had no idea that Jennette's cancer had returned. It was only when he saw the bandage on her chin that he knew something was up. And so we spent one of the last glorious days of the season signing papers and deciding on flower arrangements.

She picked red carnations that she thought would go well with the urn she'd chosen, which has a lovely little hummingbird on it. She said she wanted an afternoon service, because she has never been a morning person.

"Really?" I said. "It's not like you're going to have to get up for it!"

But afternoon, it was. We also had Randy select a minister whom Jennette would meet. This was my suggestion because I've always hated those services conducted by ministers who have never met the deceased. At least I thought, the emcee could get the sense of her. Jennette got that.

"It's such a shame that I won't be there to enjoy it," she said as she nearly made us roadkill on the highway coming back. (She has a heavy foot, and is a very aggressive driver for a person who can barely see over the steering wheel.) "But I wanted to make sure that I got the funeral I wanted and now it's done."

I had suggested to her a Viking funeral up at Geri's cottage, which she declined. Randy said they had a nice pond out back but they might need to get a permit.

In the end, we decided we'd sprinkle a bit of her foot and head into her favorite waters at Lac O'Neil.

"Just make sure the dogs don't get them," she warned, then grinned.

It's nice having Jennette as my person.

Knowing her, when she finally meets the Grim Reaper, she'll ask for a second opinion.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

The Cancer Diaries: That Time We Met Ron James

A few weeks back, Jennette sat in the exam chair at the Ottawa Hospital, surrounded by the usual suspects, a group of hunky doctors with sad eyes.
They were there to deliver the bad news -- her mouth cancer had returned with a vengeance. The tumor, they told her, was now the size of a baby's foot and rested in the exact location where doctor's had cut out a chunk of her lower mouth two years ago.
It was news we had both been expecting, ever since she told me that the shape of her jaw was actually changing, and that she had developed a painful sore on the bottom of her chin. Still, it felt like the docs were serving her a warmed-over shit sandwich without even a pickle.
I took her out for coffee, and we talked around the subject. She was both shaken and stirred.
"Okay, so what's on your bucket list?" I asked her as I sipped an over-priced chai tea.
She shot me a look, the same one she used to give Roger when he'd eaten all the peanut butter cookies.
"What bucket list?"
It really was a ridiculous question.
I mean, what do you get for the woman who has everything: osteoporosis so bad she can break a bone crossing her legs? A hiatus hernia? Pain that reaches, on most days, a level eight? And now, a little entity living like an alien in her lower jaw?
A spa day is out of the question. She hates people touching her.
So is a trip to Little Italy unless they serve an outstanding veal broth.
And I'd already given her the best birthday present of all -- a vape that would allow her to smoke some pretty excellent pot. Before the doctor's appointment, we had spent a week at the cottage, and while I don't smoke, I did enjoy watching her get baked without benefit of sunlight. And it helps with the pain, truly it does.
But now, the choices for the bucket list are narrowing, as her quality of life is deteriorating faster than an organic avocado.
So we had to sit there, and think for a bit.
Suddenly, she perked up.
"I'd like to see Ron James!"
"The liquor barn guy?"
"Yeah, I love Ron James."
Those of you who are from away may never have heard of Ron James. But if you are Canadian, and don't get premium cable, you've had Ron in your living room at least twice a year, on an annual basis.
He's our version of Billy Connolly with a slightly thicker accent.
He truly is a national treasure.

So I set off in search of Ron James tickets. Couldn't find any.
He didn't appear to be playing Ottawa any time soon. And damn it, we missed him last February.
I thought of calling him, to ask him to fly in and give Jennette a comic's version of a one-night stand.
But I soon realized that he didn't take Canadian Tire money, so I gave up.
Instead, I tried to convince Jennette to see the Phantom of the Opera, but it was a no go. And K.D. Lang tickets at the NAC were a whopping $800 a piece, what tickets that were left.
"I'm not paying 800 buckets for anybody," said the notoriously cheap Jennette who like most seniors, pays for her lottery tickets out of a change purse and buys toilet paper on old people days.
And so I left it.

A few days later, I picked up the Ottawa Citizen, and there he was, staring me straight in the gob, the little feller from Cape Breton. His mug was right on the front page.
Ron James was playing the 55 Plus Lifestyle Show!
And we could see him for FREE, if I downloaded a coupon.
It was as if God said, ok, I know this cancer thing is crap so here's a toonie!

And so that is how Jennette got to meet Ron James.
At the EY Centre, free tickets, eight bucks for bloody parking.

I didn't know where the place was. I got lost and nearly ended up at the airport before asking for directions at a Halal meat place. Finally, we arrived, and we were greeted by every senior citizen from Hawksbury to Pembroke. The place was packed. We were told we might not get a seat.
Ah, but I am crafty.
I shoved Jennette head of me, with her walker, and gave stern looks to all the still-ambulatory elders in the front row. A couple gave up their seats.
(I have used this technique, the sympathy trick, to get great seats before, like the time I took my wee daughter to the Lilith Fair in a wheelchair. By the time Spooky Sarah took to the stage, I had convinced the bouncers to lift Marissa over everybody's head and place her in front of the stage. Or the time my panic disorder was acting up, and so the nice people at the Canadian Tire Centre moved us from the nose bleeds to the front row at an Eric Clapton concert.)
Ah, it takes me back.

Anyway, we weaseled our way into the front row, stage right, and got ready for a treat.
It was as if we'd arrived at Tim Horton's on Camp Day.
Ron took the stage, and left us laughing til we were crying.
It helped that I'd made sure to make Jennette part of the act.
When he made a joke about oldsters partaking in "big fat ones," I pointed to Jennette.
With all that white hair, and the walker, Jennette didn't exactly look like she'd invented Reefer Madness.
Didn't matter.
Ron had his mark for the performance.
Every substance abuse joke was made at her expense.
"Hope yer not drivin' darling!"

And the icing on the cake was our meet and greet with Ron.

"Is this your daughter?" he asked pointing to me. Flattery will get you everywhere, Ron!
"Hair dye," I assured Jennette later.
"No," I told him. "You're on her bucket list. And I am her Make a Wish fairy."
Ron was visibly moved, and got up off his chair to mug for the camera. Soon free DVDs were flying her way.
"I love taking a picture with somebody who's not taller than me," he twinkled.
He really made her feel special.
I wanted to cry.
I realized that the cancer verdict hadn't given her a death sentence.
It gave her a reason to live again.
I realized our adventure was about to begin.

If you have any ideas for Jennette's bucket list, I'd love to hear them. We have things to do, places to go, but realize, we only have Canadian Tire money!

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Charlottesville: The War Has Come to Us

I was looking at this little face yesterday, the face that always makes me smile and laugh, and I felt that the world has let her down.

Her great-grandfather and his brothers volunteered, more than 60 years ago, to go to war to protect the world from a hateful movement that sprang up an ocean away.

I wonder today if my kids would follow their grandfather's lead if needed? Or would they say: why should we get involved? It's not our battle.

As I watched CNN this morning, while she played quietly in the corner, and the horrifying images from Charlottesville kept repeating on a loop, I couldn't help but think that we haven't been paying attention. 

President 45 -- I will not write his name -- said it best.

"What you think our country is so innocent?"

My dad went to war to keep hate from spreading. But that effort was just a bandaid on a tumor that has just grown larger and larger under our watch. The cancer of hate has spread.

And our generation let it.

We were so busy playing with our phones, being distracted by shiny objects like so many magpies, that we have allowed hate to fester under our watch. 

Dad went to the war.

And now, the war has come to us. 


Don't say there's nothing we can do.

See these CEOs? The ones who still support President 45?

Hit 'em where it hurts. 

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Ashley Simpson: 16 Months Gone

It's been a devastating week for John Simpson's family.

He's still coping with the loss of his beloved daughter Ashley who has been missing for 16 months, and is presumed dead.

The family is trying to hold it together. John's wife, Cindy, is working on the boats in the Welland Canal. They continue to hold fundraisers to pay search efforts, and a few months back, John returned to Salmon Arm, where Ashley was last seen, to try to find her.

Despite all efforts by John, the amazing community, and a handful of drones, the search came up empty. It's as if Ashley vanished into thin air. No one has been charged, and police say there are no suspects.

In July, John returned to the Longhouse, in Huntsville, Ontario, where he works as a cook each summer. It's been a devastating time, financially, and John desperately needed "the scratch".  So John has counted on the Longhouse for a bit of stability.

What happened last week was right out of a Stephen King novel.

An horrific tornado blew through the property taking down large trees, shifting the base of the ancient main house, and terrifying John's grandkids who clung onto the doors to try to keep them from blowing off. (Tornados aren't exactly common here in Canada, so residents aren't prepared the way people  might be in the U.S. There are no great root cellars to crawl into.)

Thank goodness everybody was alright, but John lost his summer in Huntsville, and is now looking for work.

One of the pieces of good news is that B.C. Crime Stoppers has put out a video in hopes of finding someone, anyone, who might know something about Ashley's disappearance.

Here it is. As Cindy says, somebody, somewhere, knows something.

Please share!

Never give up.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

David Milliken: You were a helluva guy

This week, the world lost a magnificent human being, in the form of Dave Milliken, a man I used to know just as "Millie."

He was my first city editor when I was a student reporter at the Ottawa Journal and he taught me a lot about the visual nature of journalism. Millie could always make a dog story about a fishing derby pop off the page. He had an eye for layout that was unbelievable; he was a photographer's dream editor, and a reporter's best friend.

He was also incredibly hot back in the day with a head of curly hair, accented by ass-enhancing jeans, and torso hugging t-shirts. He could never really leave behind his previous life as an honest to God rock legend.

We little kids had no idea about his rock star past. After the night shift, about 3 a.m., Millie refused to touch a guitar or keyboard even when tempted by the sultry tones of Meg Leonard doing a spot-on imitation of Joni Mitchell.

You see, the thing about Millie was he closed doors. The Townsmen were over, and Mill was never one to cry over spilled milk.

When the Journal folded, or was it before? Millie moved to Toronto to become a big shot with Canada Newswire, and traded the tight jeans for sensible business togs. He got rid of the curls and became GQ, baby, all the way, and climbed the corporate ladder to become a leader in the public relations business.

What remained was the happy smile, the twinkling eyes, and the good-to-go attitude that we, who were fortunate enough to know the guy, knew he could never hide.

When Millie was in the room, the disco ball shone on him, until it dimmed today.

What will I remember about Millie?

The million dollar smile that made a girl feel like she was the only person in the room.

The kindness, the good humor, and that famous giggle.

He kept it all up, even when he was dealt that horrible blow, that cancer thing that make us all want to beat the shit out of cancer. He posted about his hospital visits, like a good reporter, detailing the good with the bad.

He took his diagnosis with verve. He played music. He spent time with his family at the cottage.

He frickin' lived. And that's what pisses cancer off the most -- that he chose life.

The other day, I saw a photo posted by his daughter Melissa from the cottage.

I knew the end was near.

I am sad for all of us, and especially for his wonderful family.

Godspeed, Millie.

Musician, editor, journalist, mentor, friend.

You were a helluva guy.

Dave's on the right.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Brian Linklater: A Kind and Gentle Soul

Some 25 years ago, I found myself rudderless, having sold my rather large pile of a house in Orleans after my husband left me with three little kids. At the time, Dan had offered to take the kids for the summer, and I agreed. I needed to spend the summer healing.

I bought myself a townhouse and sold most of my belongings to pay for the move. With the little cash I had left, I invested in some cheap Ikea furniture. Trouble was, I had no idea how to wield an Allan key. Let's just say, I had left all the heavy lifting and practical stuff to my husband, who was now in the wind.

One day, after dropping the kids off at our mid-point, where Dan's girlfriend picked them up, I decided to stroll over to the National Press Club. It was tough. I was still reeling, still grieving the death of my marriage, and hurting about passing off my three little kids to the woman who helped break up my marriage.

It was summer, with the Parliamentary recess on, and there was absolutely nobody around except for Dave the bartender, and a rather largish man whom I had seen many times, but whom I had never met. He was sitting in his usual place, in the tub chairs right off the bar, having a Scotch and reading a book.

He smiled at me, and waved me over. I sat there and told him about my sad life.

"My birthday is coming up," I told him. "My kids are gone, and I have all this Ikea furniture to put together. Guess that's how I'll be spending my birthday."

"Let me treat you to lunch," he said. "Next Friday. Downstairs."

I thanked him, grateful, like Blanche Dubois, for the kindness of a stranger.

The next week,  I showed up for lunch, and the kind man bought me wine and lunch, and then presented me with a gift -- a set of tools.

"I'll come over tomorrow and help you put that furniture together," he said, smiling.

And he did.

That was typical of Brian Linklater, who died last week in Ottawa. He was a kind man, thoughtful, sensitive, with a great sense of humor. Over the years, Brian did many a good deed for me. He helped me find work when I had none, introduced me to a vast number of interesting folk from the association community, and most importantly, listened.

He was really great at listening.

Over the years, at the club, Brian stopped reading his book and began to come out of his shell, holding court at his usual table at the side of the bar. He arrived precisely at 4 p.m. and would leave at precisely 5:50, in time for his wife, Jan, to pick him up. He liked his Scotch, and pipe, though he gave up the latter about ten years ago.

Most of all, Brian loved people.

This unassuming man had a great career in the association business. He rose through the ranks within the Canadian Society of Association Executives and even became the Chairman of the Ottawa Board of Trade. Many years ago, he left his executive position at the Canadian Printers Association to hang out his shingle as a consultant for a number of small associations. Like the salesman he was, Brian travelled around the country to trade shows and to the small offices of  tiny associations whose members sold tools, lumber, and gift and tableware.

 Brian helped save the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs from near extinction, taking on the job of executive director until its restructuring. He worked with the CAFC for many years, and even became an honorary fire chief. Of that award, he was most proud.

Brian worked into his 70s but found it difficult to ply his trade in the age of the Internet. Sadly, he gave up his company. His health was failing, and he finally admitted it was time to put himself out to pasture.

I haven't seen Brian for years now. I moved on, and found a new person to wield the Allan Key. While we continued to be friends, we began to drift, as people do.

We lost track of each other about five years ago. I'd heard he was ill, and only found out about his death yesterday.

In the old days, it would have been all the news at the National Press Club.

There would have been a wake where we would all get together to tell Brian stories.

Those days are gone.

And so I write this as my small remembrance of a remarkable man.

Good night, Mr. Linklater.

From the girl who still doesn't know how to use tools.

I dedicate the following song to Brian who liked to whistle a good tune. 

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Ashley Simpson: No More Stolen Sisters

In the town of Enderby, British Columbia, the community got together to create a moving mural entitled No More Stolen Sisters. The mural was painted over a skateboard installation to commemorate the three women who went murdered and missing from this community last year.

Deanna Wertz, Caitlin Potts, and my cousin Ashley Simpson all went missing from here, and from nearby Salmon Arm, within months of each other. These were not random disappearances, nor were they atypical in a province that is becoming known as much for its murdered women as it is for its breathtaking mountain scapes.

The epidemic of lost women, mostly indigenous women and girls, has left a black mark on this nation known more for hockey and poutine than for violence. It has also raised serious concerns about the endemic racism that exists in many communities where First Nations people and other Canadians live side-by-side, or co-exist within sprawling rural/urban communities. 

The alarm bells rang so loudly that the federal government established a commission to look into the matter eight months ago. So far, that commission has spent $6 million and shown little, if any, progress. Its "ineptitude" was recently laid bare by the CBC's Neil Macdonald who tried to contact the commission only to hit what he describes as a "bureaucratic" fortress. People within and outside the commission have pointed to the commission's "obsession with secrecy, officious incompetence, however well-intentioned." You can read Neil's excellent piece here. 

Meanwhile, even the father of Canada's Justice Minister, Bill Wilson, has condemned the commission. In a Facebook site, he calls it a "bloody farce." 

"It has done nothing but pay salary and expenses," he wrote in a posting. "When asked what they were doing (the commissioner) said they were busy working" making sure they had rooms in Whitehorse and arranging catering. They also decided to take the summer off. 

"You have failed miserably," said Wilson, who is a respected hereditary chief from B.C. 

One thing about Ottawa, I've learned after more than four decades of working here, when the government wants an issue to go away, it sets up a commission and throws a bundle of money at it. 

Action and Commission -- these are two words that have little to do with one another. 

Dirty little secret

The epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women is just one more dirty little secret that Canada likes to ignore. Like residential schools,  

It's not a sexy issue for voters. And it's thorny, and fraught with racism, sexism, and indifference at all levels. 

These women aren't, after all, our soccer queens going missing, right?

And it's not like they didn't, well, you know, drink, or "run off". 

It seems the only way to care about the missing and murdered is to know one, remember her laugh, or how her hair smelled, or what she was like as a little girl before the boogeyman got to her. 

In the case of my cousin Ashley, it took days for those who knew her to report her missing, even to her mother. And it took ten days before anybody even started looking for her. It's been over a year, and her father has been given no information, only that the police are "following the evidence".

Her family has lost its life savings trying to find her. Her dad is paying people, as we speak, to fly drones around the Salmon Arm area to look for the three women. 

And as an extra fish slap to the face, John lost his EI, the very EI he got because he is a father of a missing child, because he had to travel back to B.C. from his home in Niagara to look for her -- because everybody has stopped looking for her. Even the police. 

Before Ashley disappeared, I was among the ignorant. 

Like most Canadians, I had only vague knowledge about missing indigenous women,  What I did learn came from a smattering of salacious newspaper accounts about disappearing prostitutes found Robert Pickton's pig farm.

For that I feel ashamed.