Life: Unpredictable. Changeable. Impermanent. When I gaze at my reflection in a mirror, the image I see is very different from the one I saw ten or thirty or forty years ago. From month to month, year to year, and decade to decade, what I bear witness to, not only in the mirror, but in my head, heart, and on the roller coaster ride we call life, is always changing. Thoughts come and go as do feelings. Impermanence is a fact of life and a good reason not to take things for granted. From the moment we are born until the moment we take our last breath life is always in flux. With that in mind I’d like to share a page from my life, a page taken from when I was thirteen years old:
You can get polio from garbage. That’s what my parents told me when I was younger. I look at the debris scarring the hill before me: the familiar red and white colors of the empty Campbell’s soup tin, its jagged-edged lid hanging on by only a thread; a flattened Alpha Bits cereal box; moldy coffee grounds; a moving white mound, maggots enjoying an early afternoon meal of rotting cherries. I try to imagine some invisible menace lurking there. It still seems as unreal as back then. Before the vaccine.
“You may play baseball there, but stay away from the side of the hill.” I can still hear them with their stories of iron lungs and crippled people and death.
“Aw Sandy, get out of there,” I say, suddenly jolted back to the present. Sandy ignores me. He pushes his snout under the decaying meat-covered bones into the dirt. Dogs can be so disgusting sometimes.
“Sandy. Out.” I wear my best angry face. Sandy picks up on my tone and looks up at me with black encrusted snout. Dogs are also easy to fool.
I look away from him and sprint across the grass toward the crumbling old flour mill at the other end of the hill. I smile as he flies past and disappears over the rise. It works every time. Sandy loves to race around when we go on these treks through the fields behind my house.
Arriving at the crest of the hill, I glance at the mill nestled amidst the trees just across the road at the base of the embankment, turn right, scramble down the slope, and start across a second field. The sun beats down. I slow to a walk. As I look ahead I can see Sandy in the distance at the end of the grassy expanse.
I scan for rocks as I go. Whenever I reach one I stop, pry it loose at one end, and carefully raise it a little. I only find one snake this time. A big two foot one though. A garter snake. Usually I manage to find two or three grass snakes by the time I make my way across the field, hardly ever a garter snake. They seem to like the woods better. Once I find a snake, I return the rock to its original position, and continue on to the next rock. It’s fun just to find them. I like the way when you look across the field it appears as though all there is is grass, but really it’s home to all sorts of creatures. I like to pretend that I am the only one who knows about this secret that the field hides. It’s just me and them.
I meander along this way for about half an hour, alternately checking under rocks and keeping an eye on Sandy.
Eventually I arrive at a spot about halfway across the field overlooking a dirt road and the woods beyond. I sit down with my back to the road.
I have my writing pad with me. I love spending an afternoon like this, surrounded by nothing but green. Just me, Sandy, and my poetry.
I started writing poetry after I studied Shakespeare in my grade nine class last term. When I was in grade eight, all the older kids warned me about Shakespeare: You’ll hate it. It’s boring. It doesn’t make any sense.
They were wrong. After reading Romeo and Juliet I fell in love with Shakespeare. I am still in awe of how he can turn ordinary language into such beautiful natural sounding verse.
Soon I am immersed in my writing. I am working on a poem about death. I write about everything, but today it’s death:
It hovered near, steadfast, foreboding
Like a cloud of the cumulus sort,
Never wavering, to darken all within range.
Suddenly the heavens opened…
My grandmother took a long time to die. I can still see her with her bright intelligent eyes, looking down at me from her hospital bed, comprehending everything and able to say nothing. Somehow I knew that the grandma who used to give me Taveners Fruit Drops and let me watch her clean the budgie cage was still there, trapped behind the warmth in her eyes. I felt so sad for her. I loved my grandmother. She loved me too; I could see it as she spoke to me through her eyes.
I used to love it when dad took me to visit her. It was a time when everything seemed larger than life: the hospital with its huge entranceway, the long halls with the nurses rushing along to places I was sure were scary and not places that little girls would want to be, even my grandmother’s pale green room with its high ceiling and window ledge that barely reached the top of my head.
I look up from the page and smile as I catch sight of the streak of gold to my left. Sandy is chasing a rabbit. I watch as the rabbit bounds and Sandy scrambles. No use yelling. He’ll never hear me. I hope the rabbit gets away.
We had a pet rabbit once. The two of them loved to play chase. Thumper would wait till Sandy was asleep, then creep up to him and thump him with his large hind feet before taking off through the house. They would race through the rooms until Sandy caught him. Thumper would go limp; Sandy would release him, and they would start the game all over again. I really don’t know what Sandy will do if he actually catches the wild rabbit he is currently chasing.
I watch Sandy for a moment longer, then look past him until my gaze comes to rest at the top of a small hill where the road disappears as it works it way toward the houses at the far end of my street. I trace the ribbon of brown with my eyes as it winds its way down the hill and around the bend toward me, finally reaching the foot of the embankment just a few yards behind and below where I am sitting. Hardly anyone ever drives down this way because the road comes to an abrupt halt just on the other side of the woods at the edge of the river. I like it that way. Occasionally I’m disturbed by a car, fishing poles visible in the back seat or poking out of the trunk, but outside of that, I pretty much have this place to myself.
Returning my attention to Sandy, I scan the field. The rabbit has disappeared. With the rabbit safe, I resume my writing. I love poetry. It makes me think about things in a different way. I often find that there is something strangely beautiful, or refreshingly novel, in the way some poets write about the everyday world.
“Sandy, you silly old thing,” I say affectionately as the cocker spaniel bounds up to me, stops, and proceeds to push his head against my arm. Putting my notebook down and grabbing him by the scruff of the neck, I pull him toward me, give him a big squeeze, and then bury my face in his fur. I sit there holding him, breathing in his scent. Sometimes I just can’t get enough of him: his doggy smell, his warmth, the smooth tension under his fur.
Hearing the sound of a motor, I look up just long enough to see an older-looking black car come into view from the top of the hill on my left. Releasing Sandy, I turn around and face the road. Pulling up to the foot of the embankment directly below me, the car comes to a gradual halt. I can see two clean-cut young men sitting in the front seat of the car looking at me, smiling. Smiling back at them, I wait as the driver lowers the window. It won’t be the first time I’ve given directions to a couple of fishermen. You really can’t see the river from this vantage point. It is pretty well obscured by the woods.
I suddenly freeze, the color draining from my cheeks. In front of the still friendly face smiling up at me, I look down into the black barrel of a gun. I can’t believe what I am seeing. This can’t be real. It has to be a joke.
“I’m going to kill you,” says the man, looking directly at me, the smile no longer friendly.
My every instinct screams at me to run, but I sit glued to the ground, my stomach lead. I sit helplessly as the scene playing itself out in front of me is replaced by a series of slow moving pictures of myself getting up, turning around, and running across the field away from the man, a gun going off, and my body dropping to the ground. No, I want to scream. Not now. Not me. I’m not ready to die. I remain quiet. I look once again into the nose of the revolver pointed directly at me, and then at the now unsmiling face of its owner. This is really it, I think, as nausea threatens to overcome me.
Suddenly I’m furious. No. Way. You are not taking this from me.
That’s when my whole world changes forever. I feel a tranquility descend upon me, envelop me, alter me. It’s unlike anything that I have ever known. I have never felt such peace. Not ever. My fear gone, I now know with every fiber of my being that dying is no more important than living. They’re the same. With the blanket of calm also comes the knowledge that I will not turn and run. If this guy is for real, this will be my death. I can’t stop him from shooting me, and there is no way he’s going to miss. If this is to be my last moment on earth, I want to experience it fully. Dying is as much a part of life as being born.This is my life and my death.
I try to imagine the moment of being shot, of seeing myself being hit, and seeing myself die. I’m fascinated. Excited. And so very curious. I’m going to experience something that every human being must go through and I’m going to be alert as it happens. I just wish that I could live to remember what I’ll feel when I die. Maybe I will know with whatever comes after. I wonder what does come after. Somehow that doesn’t matter. As long as I don’t miss this part of my life. Calm now, and utterly at peace, I raise my eyes to meet the gaze of my killer as he shoots me.
I sit there, motionless. The peals of laughter coming from the front seat of the car pierce through me like a knife.
“Just kidding,” says the man with the gun, looking straight at me and grinning.
I watch in stunned silence as the men look at me and laugh uproariously. Before I can even react, the driver, still grinning, wishes me a nice day, rolls up the window, and speeds off.
It was a blank. There is no bullet.
I shiver in the warmth of the late afternoon sun. I clutch at my stomach, trying to control the wave of nausea that again threatens to overcome me. A little way down the embankment a snake sits sunning itself on a rock. The song of a lone bullfrog in the distance cuts through the stillness like a canoe through a glass lake.
I stand up. The snake is gone. The song has become a chorus. I turn, whistle for Sandy, and head across the field toward home.