Easy Lake

 

A memoir written in the style of Sarah De Leeuw, whose book Unmarked is based on short descriptions of personal experiences in various towns along Highway 16 in Northern British Columbia. Her style is descriptive, location-based, and first person narratives; full of run on sentences, commas galore, and the not-infrequent use of alliteration.

Written as an English course assignment in the fall of 2015.
I’m still not sure how I feel about the whole thing.
____________

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One of the last remaining placer gold mines in the province of BC is located at Easy Lake. If you trace your finger along the map North, you will see the highway veins stretch out through endless miles of trees and isolation, a whole day’s journey from the family farm I knew to be home. The journey started each year in the spring when we knew the ice to be off the lake; so at four in the morning while the day is still dark and kids are heavy in slumber, they are hauled from beds to be buckled in car seats and placed back seat of a faithful pickup; Fourwheeler on fifth-wheel trailer, fifteen Rubbermaid bins filled with everything from pampers to pickles to hipwaders lego lifejackets propane oatmeal and novels enough to last a summer all packed carefully among the cargo.

If you trace your finger up the highway and find the finger-like lake, you’ll see Easy Creek two miles more, still following North. The creek cuts the lake in two, spilling out an ice cold sluice in a wide delta of soft sand. It is this point the moose swim to, land jutting out just enough to make a difference in the distance across the lake. In the late night mist the massive forms of these long-legged beasts look not much more than dark shadow-shapes paddling towards the shore. Charcoal outlines, bold heads bob with each thrust of hoof underwater, heading steadily for delta. It is us – the little bodies of my brother and I snug in lifejackets, tucked on the tin boat floor, parents in warm hats and windbreakers, seeking out the shore in foggy night – it is us who are the trespassers here.

This is the North. A wilderness of spruce pine and poplar, the smell of juniper and cranberries, rushing water and ancient graves left by the Tahltan people and outcasts of gold rushes before. A decrepit cabin tucked in the bush, rotting, roof fallen in, a police outpost of a century earlier. The name of Begbie murmured, Chinese coins, ancient nails, found in dirt. These are the remnants of the people-history here, evidence of souls come before.

My five-year old imagination is active and I am caught often looking over my shoulder, watching for faces peering out of the woods. I am sure they are there – the rugged characters of the gold rush, outlaws hiding in the bush. I see the dancing shadows, softened by plush moss that grows deep underfoot and the whispers of poplar leaves in the wind, white limbs extended high and exalting, embracing the sun. The birds stay silent but the trees still whisper. Moose rubs and porcupine chews are the signs of life now, yet juxtaposed with the ever-present growl of the excavator and persistent hummm clank of the washer, as scoop after giant scoop of gravel is sifted in search of that luxury mineral – gold.

Yet it is not this gold that remains in my memory. Easy lake is the place of treasure and lore, but apart from the search for iron pyrite in the gravel-spread path to the rickety outhouse set back in the trees, past the shrub that catches shadows in the corner of your eye to look exactly like a black bear ambling among the mossberries – apart from this collection of fools’ gold selected by grubby five-year old fingers and hoarded in an empty mayonnaise jar, there is no eminence placed on the gold. There were flakes found, yes, and some nuggets too, but the precious stones are no match for those moments of soggy raincoats and gumboots, squatting by cesspools to carefully swish the silt and brown water from a gold pan, child and pan cradled between the knees of the man who was my father. Big hands, chaffed from the rain and spray from the washer, burly in coveralls vest logger hat to keep warm, and me. Petite and scrawny, garbed in plastic blue rainpants pigtails kitty shirt and rainjacket too big, sleeves falling past little fists, then rolled up for panning.

“I don’t want to wait until I’m sixty and retired to do what I want to do.” he told my mother the year before I was one. The year they first looked at the claim. “Why wait?”

“We could do this.” he said.

And so they did.

They packed up each spring and left family, comfort, warmth, electricity. Three kids and a dog crammed among spare parts, a sluice box, and powdered milk packed to avoid the sky-high northern prices. We were isolated, but warm. Together, tucked away in the vast wilderness in a cabin that smelled of fresh bread and pine smoke, where we fell asleep to my mother’s voice reading out loud by candlelight. Our days were measured not by events such as birthday parties or ballet recitals, but by the time the wolverine was stuck in the tree, the day the generator broke or we visited the delta, the Thursday the grizzly circled too close. It was not adventure. It was a way of life.

The summers before I was six, spent where the only lines on the map are a highway and some rivers crisscrossing the mountains. The map free from dots of cities and towns and markers of civilization. Clean. Sparse. Vast. Yet teeming with detailed life and abundance. The years free from cities and towns and hospitals, before the scent of machine oil and fresh bread turned to disinfectant and Vancouver streets, the lingo of bush kids turning from F150s and sluicing to oncology, radiation, lymphoma. Those were the golden years, shining like fools’ gold among the gravel.

“Would you go back?” they inquire. Would I chase that highway north, park by the gravel pit and cross the boat in the mist, shivering in a lifejacket once again? I would go, I say. I would go to smell the juniper, say hello to the neighbours, catch up, feel the jade, take off my shoes and walk in verdant moss. But I would go no further than the police detachment, that rotting slump of logs, overgrown but still vivid in memory. I always was suspicious of that place, convinced that if I peered through the crusted window the carcass of some long-forgotten convict would still be inside. But more than that, I would be always looking over my shoulder, feeling watched, waiting for a small face to peer back at me out of the woods, pigtails high, curious, with a grubby jar of fools’ gold held tightly in her hand.

 

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Amid the Dark and Ugly; Part 2

Part 2
on When Hard Things Happen

I said yesterday that  I can’t compare when speaking of tragic circumstances – but I will admit, I do. I remember sitting in class and relating situations as I watched my science teacher’s young family.

A boy, a girl, a boy. Each under 8.

“That was my family. That’s how old my dad was when he died.” I thought.

I see young Rylee, the daughter of the friend with stomach cancer; the one given the number. She’s in grade 10. A year older than me with my mom’s diagnosis. Older than the day I was pulled from math class to the Intensive Care Unit to watch my friend say good-bye.

But my mom wasn’t given a number. And Rylee isn’t so young anymore. Or was I really that young too?

Maybe it has less to do with comparison and more to do with perspective. I don’t know; I’m still learning. As ICU and a mom’s bald head are part of my history, this number is a part of Rylee’s.

I think of my mom’s words, too, the spring of Grade 12:

“You will go to that funeral.”

She was referring to a family at our school whose dad passed away. (Incidentally, to the same type of cancer as my dad.) We didn’t really know him, but my youngest brother was friends with their middle son. My parents  would be out of town that weekend but us kids had strict instructions to go.

“You know funerals aren’t for the dead – they’re for the living. You go for the family; the ones who are left. You go to show support. You go to show they are not alone.

And this time, you three represent more:

YOU are a reminder that there are those who get it, who have been there before. Those who have made it and that life does go on. You are a reminder that God hears prayers. You go for those boys’ mom. 

You represent hope, whether you know it or like it or not.”

And so I’ve come back from Mongolia, but the mission field is not behind me. Maybe nobody died while I was there, but it is a time of mourning now. Maybe that was just the beginning, the prologue to this chapter, this chunk.

It’s interesting I’m not in the middle of the yucky, dizzying circles this time. This time it’s in arms’ reach, and I see I have a choice. God knows just how long my arms are, so maybe I’m back to reach out a little. I’m not in the centre – and I don’t have to be –

But I can reach.

Maybe I’m here to listen.

Maybe I sat on cold concrete on windy days in UlaanBaatar because I needed to practice for listening with tea in my hands at kitchen tables and living room couches and standing in doorways.

Maybe I’m still a sucky comforter and maybe I don’t often have the words to say, but sometimes your presence is enough.

And maybe I’m back now
because amid the dark and ugly,

I can show hope.

And that’s a way better four-letter word, in my opinion.

Some Four-letter Words: The Dark and Ugly

I remember coming back from Mongolia and being glad nobody died while I was away. Before I left my mom did frequently bring up the question of what to do if I died  – sorry – “passed away” over there; and I may be the youngest person I know to have a list of pallbearers ready.

Odd thoughts? Perhaps.

Sometimes I think I’m warped.
My mom just says “Experienced.”

Anyways, I came back from Mongolia. And nobody had died.

Now, however…

Now it’s a different story. Another season. Another chapter, another chunk. A season that will be darkly coloured in several lives I know.

However, this time circumstances are not mine. It’s other families, in outer circles. A few steps away but not out of reach. You may have heard about Kris, and that’s not been the only event since I got back.

I don’t believe in tragedy lists, for life and death is not a competition. Therefore, I’m not listing the hard stories I’ve observed since getting back. Let’s just say there’s been a few. If life hasn’t been fair to me, it hasn’t been fair to anyone else either. Our lists may look different and our pain comes at different times and different pictures and I cannot judge, sneer, or compare.

Nobody knows what’s going on inside a life for not all battles come with chemo and a bald head, or take place at the ICU. If you know my family, you’ll know that some of my family’s hard things have just happened to be a little more public than others’.

That aside, I will tell you that I’m listening to Tenth Avenue North’s  song “Worn” tonight. It’s one of those nights. One where you’re looking at hurt. Hard. Maybe looking at some pain too, I don’t know.

A friend was given a number, you see. The number of months expected to live.

That’s ugly.

And yet, I’m okay. I don’t know if it’s because it’s not in my family and I’m awful for even considering that for why I’m not in shock (or maybe I am), or maybe I’m in denial and shutting it out to avoid the hurt that news like this brings. or if I’m just too tired to allow the familiar feelings of grief wash over me. I am reminded that grief is exhausting.

I always thought my Mom coined the term ‘Pre Grieving’, but a quick google tells me it really is a ‘thing’. Of course it is; I have a smart mama!

And I think that’s where I’m at. I am subtly grieving as I listen to this song and absorb it all, rather realistically. Looking at the hard news from a few steps away, deciding where I stand on this one. Half way between processing and shutting it out. Halfway between hurting and ignoring.

I’m half way between calloused heart and empathetic neighbour,
because I know what grief is, and that means something.

It is far enough removed that I could very well block it out and choose not to go there, not to touch it, the dark and ugly.

 But I get it.

I don’t want to, but I do. I could think of what’s next for this family, but I don’t want to. Not so much denial as resistance through apathy. I don’t want to be involved. I’m screaming between “Yup. That’s life and it sucks. See y’all in heaven.” and wondering how they’re doing. Wondering if anyone has gone to drop off chocolate milk for the kids…

Chocolate Milk and a Night of Slush: Lessons on Life, Death, and What to Do

 The Superstore parking lot was slush. Disgusting. Wet.

And snow coming down. Hard.

Big flakes that got down your neck, reflected in the streetlights and melting immediately, making you squint and hope not to drop your mittens in the wet.

Puddles, ice, and nastiness. The weather was gruesome. Uncomfortable. A fitting experience for the night.

Mom and I had spent a longer time than expected in Superstore that night. We came out with bags of assorted foods – foods we didn’t necessarily see in our cupboards regularly:

Tea. Crackers. Chocolate. Cranberry juice. A lovely basket. Fruit. Grapes. Cereal. Chocolate milk. (It goes down easier than food when there’s a lump in your throat, you see.)

2 Staples in life: Tea & Kleenex

2 Staples in life: Tea & Kleenex

Because when family comes for a funeral it’s nice to have easy-access food. People drop in. They snack. And kleenex wads pile up so let’s throw some garbage bags in too. You eat at weird times.  Or run on coffee. Honestly, you only want to look at meat-and-cheese platters and miniature sandwiches with the crusts cut of for so long! And it’s nice to have a cup of tea in your hands.

My mom knows this.

And this is how we came to superstore on a random, atrociously wet Thursday night.

A coworker lost her dad. And that’s what you do. You show up. 

My mom did more than buy chocolate milk that night. This was more than the giving of her many minutes, or the amount the grocery bill came to. Those weren’t things to feel good about, a rank or accomplishment to pin to our chest like a ribbon and walk away, feeling a duty accomplished.

It was a lesson in community. Bravery. Generosity. In compassion and legacy. 

She took her 18 year old daughter along, but age didn’t matter. She would take an 8 year old. She would tell them the truth – that it hurts, but there is hope. That mourning is real and that in a culture where the protocol with death has been lost, this is something you can do.

You show up, even if it’s awkward and  you don’t know them well. You don’t have to stay long or even take off your shoes. Grief is uncomfortable, but it means more to show up.

Our society has lost our protocol of grief. We don’t know how to deal with death, we don’t remember how to grieve. So here’s what you do when you know someone is hurting and you don’t know what to do.

You take care of people. You give. Cheerfully, not chintzily.

Driving home through the onslaught of snowflakes you might expect me to say my heart was warmed, looking at these inspiring lessons, knowing I would carry this experience on for the rest of my life.

Nope. I shivered. Because it was snowing.

And that’s what you do, in reality. You shiver and drive and just do life (the day to day AND the not-so-day-to-day). There is no feel-good music like the movies. I know this. But it was good, regardless.

It was food for thought that night, those crackers and milk in the basket.  There were lessons in that night, and a memory to hold to for many nights to come. The example was powerful.

And if nothing else – please do know
that if you don’t know what to do and someone might be grieving

you really can’t go wrong with a big ol’ bottle of chocolate milk.