We were giants…in our own minds anyway.

Posted by bernicky - September 28th, 2015

Once upon a time there was a city in western Quebec called Hull. It doesn’t exist anymore. It’s called Gatineau now and more’s the pity if you ask me, but no one ever does.

Once upon a time Amber Cloutier and I were within walking distance of each other, she working at a brasserie on Promenade du Portage, me living on Hotel de Ville within walking distance of the old Heritage Campus on Rue Champlain which was itself a stone’s throw from Le Trou du Diable where more was done that is forgotten than remembered.

Once upon a time my roommate Wade and I would go dumpster diving at the Steinberg at Promenade du Portage. This was decades before dumpster diving was cool, but it helped us put food on the table. Most of the restaurants and the bakery in Promenade du Portage at the time were family owned and it was possible to mooch a bite to eat here and there too. Steinberg eventually got wise to the dumpster diving and locked the dumpsters overnight. The security guard apologized for it. Steinberg doesn’t exist anymore, I do.

Once upon a time of a Friday or Saturday night the roomie and I would have people over and guitars would be brought and we would tell lies, sing songs and drink more than was strictly healthy.

Once upon a time there was Michael Cormier, Gerry Girouard, Orin Schwartz and myself and we called ourselves The Hull Group content in the knowledge that we would become lions of the arts. We were great, we were giants astride in the National Capitol Region and we were anonymous.

We loved Michael, or maybe only I did and just remember the others loving him too. He was everything I wanted to be, he was confident, tall, handsome, had the gift of the gab and most of all he was a talented poet.

Gerry was the best of us. He was smarter, but didn’t talk as quick. He thought out his answers which sometimes made it seems like he was miles behind the conversation because we at the surface were more concerned with the splash than how deep the river was running. He was/is a better writer than any of us were or are.

Orin was a good guitar player, had an encyclopedic memory for songs and could write a good story. He was always curious about what other people were doing, why people were doing the things they were doing and had a level of empathy that he hid under bravado laid on so thick only a young man would accept it at face value.

Gerry changed his name, writes for a living and I’ve “run in to” him on LinkedIn. I’ve no idea where Michael and Orin are. I heard Orin did some reporting for a while then became a bus driver – I’m sure there is a story in there somewhere. Michael I’ve lost all track of, but once in a while I remember a line from one of his poems and it always brings a smile to my face

“As sea is all of the wave and the wave is all of the sea
So I am part of the earth and the earth is part of me.” – Michael Cormier

I think he wrote that in 1982 or there about.

In the end we did what most people did in the old days before the Internet. We got on with our lives and disappeared in to the relative anonymity of daily life. There’s a beauty and grace to that and somewhere out there, there are new giants astride the earth and I hope they will remember their group as fondly as I remember mine.

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Fear of success

Posted by bernicky - March 10th, 2015

This post has a different ring to it because I wrote it for a different audience then changed my mind about running it. So here it is, the way I write when I’m a little less cosy and comfortable.

“He will find success,
In the lost art of failure, so he says
To the flawless girl framed in the mirror’s tarnish.”
— Derek Walcott, The Chelsea

A little over three years ago Lynn succumbed to an eight year battle with breast cancer. She died in her sleep at West Island Palliative Care, four days after Christmas, two days before our nineteenth anniversary. Even when you expect it to happen it still comes as a shock.

What can only be described as two years of stunned silence followed as I kept our small family afloat by burning through what little savings we had and taking whatever overtime I could find. Even through grief’s haze it became apparent that things were not sustainable. Our son was starting college and our daughter was heading into the last year of high school and then to college after that. I needed to earn more. I needed to retrain.

I started distance education studying Power Engineering at NAIT. The course of study was precipitated by two things. My brother-in-law worked in the oil patch most of his career and said that if he had to start over from scratch he’d start with a Class 4. The new woman in my life, Donna, has a successful career in Alberta and did most of her education there. She’s smarter than me, always a plus, and recommended NAIT as a good place to study.

At the same time as I started studying I started writing again. Once upon a time I had ambitions to be John Boy Walton; I still do. A short story I wrote did well on iTunes and Amazon. I still remember my surprise when I opened my first small royalty cheque. I enjoy writing so I keep at it. Writing is a slow process for me. The stories do not come easy and I take great care to write as true as I can. Not long ago I finished my third story.It is the best short story I’ve ever written so naturally I chose to submit it to the best literary publication in North America – Tin House Magazine.

Tin House and NAIT have a lot in common in my mind. I fear success on both fronts a fact that was brought home to me by the submission to Tin House.

There are only two ways a submission can break. Either you are rejected or accepted. Rejection is the most common and expected response for many writers. Rejection is easy to accept when you know that even your idols were rejected once upon a time. Acceptance is rare. How would I deal with that? If the best story I ever wrote (other than the one I am working on now) is accepted by the best literary magazine I know of… Where do I go from there?

I am nearing the completion of Part 4B in Power Engineering and have my steam time scheduled for May and June of this year. Successful completion is nigh. I would have to screw up in a monumental way at this point to not succeed. What then?

The beauty of failure is that it is a known. It is the most common outcome for the majority of us for most of our lives. It is why we love the underdog, why we look for heroes to have feet of clay.

With success come the unknowns. A world of possibilities springs forth and it scares me more than just a little. I’m scared that my best won’t be good enough in writing, work and the personal.

I have come to accept that I am afraid of success. Afraid that it will forever change what I know and am comfortable with. Knowing that I am afraid is laying the groundwork for moving forward as surely as training in a new skill, taking artistic risks and falling in love again. They say fear is a powerful motivator but I wonder how often I’ve been motivated in the wrong direction. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. I’m here now and moving forward. That could be the best any of us can say.

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Too many dead people

Posted by bernicky - March 12th, 2014

I know too many dead people.

My mother and father died before I hit the age of five, my grand parents were gone before the end of elementary school save my adoptive father’s mother who hung on through Alzheimer’s into her late eighties. I was in high school when she died one afternoon after I returned home from school. I found her in her bed seemingly asleep. As it often is when something like this happens I knew something was wrong. Holding the back of my hand to her mouth confirmed that she had passed utterly from this earth.

My adoptive father died in March of 1997. The word adoptive is used only as a clarification of legal relationship he was my father in every sense of the word. He was a good man which is something I have only recently truly begun to grasp. Fathers and sons! My adoptive mother died last year on the tenth of March three days shy of her ninetieth birthday. She was an amazing woman who inspires me even today.

Lynn has been gone a little over two years now and despite what they say it does not get any easier. “It” just becomes something to which you grow accustom. The two statements have nothing to do with each other.

There have been friends and other family members who have shuffled off this mortal coil and every last one came as a surprise.

We either join them or endure. On some anniversaries there just seems to be too many people to remember and we know that we have forgotten some essence, some facet, some great beauty about one of them that will never be recalled. They all die again in those tiny drifts of memory worn smooth by time, beautiful, clean and ever diminishing until we become someone else’s memory.

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Posted by bernicky - February 26th, 2014

Mike Sides scared the shit out of me when I was a teen. It wasn’t his fault I was afraid of almost everyone all the time. Even now I’m not certain why that is. It could be any number of things. Separation anxiety caused by the death of my mother when I was two or my father three short years later. The forcible breaking up of what was left of our family as we were dispersed to foster homes. Growing up in an isolated part of town where I was my own company for years. It could just be that Mike had it right when he said: you’re an asshole.

That particular conversation stands out in memory because it was the first time I wasn’t afraid of him and it was the first time that I understood me from someone else’s perspective. He wasn’t being mean, in fact he was being quite gentle and it showed in his demeanour. We were riding in the back of Bernie Sides’ pickup truck in route from the Discus store Bernie was building to the wood shop where the parts of the store were being made. How the actual conversation got started is lost to the fog of time and memory but I do remember Mike had a harmonica and played it well. Suffice to say that the topic came up and he said: you’re an asshole. In my memory he grimaced a little when he said it and then patiently and clearly going out of his way to try not to give offence he explained what he meant. An asshole isn’t just an asshole – it is someone who you know is probably an okay guy but he just doesn’t know how to talk to or relate to other people. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, just that you don’t understand how to be with other people. He took no joy in telling me this and I did not thank him: I thank him now.

Whether or not he remembers that conversation, or even riding in the back of that truck playing harmonica, is without meaning. What matters is that, in that brief conversation, he explained to me in terms which I could understand my frustrations and fear when it came to just living day to day in the company of others.The conversation bettered my life. Knowing the impact words have keeps me mindful of how I use them now with others.

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Still needed…perhaps wanted.

Posted by bernicky - April 17th, 2013

Fifteen hour shifts are not a pleasure but overtime is the occasional necessity for single parents. That our children are 15 and 19 respectively makes it less difficult but not easy. Last week three days were fifteen hour shifts. This week I will be working five, fifteen hour shifts. There will be two more fifteen hour shifts next week and then it will all be done with.

We don’t not talk but we are not talkers. It is not as if when we are home together that there is a non stop chatter amongst us. In truth all of us are quiet in private we don’t talk much. We do things together but talk is not a frequent thing.

Absence can frequently make the awareness of a the need or desire for something. Such seems to be the case with being absent from home so much of late. Our son texted me that he needed to talk but that it wasn’t that important which only begged the question: if it wasn’t that important why did you text me? Our daughter and I normally sit together when she is having supper and we go through a process akin to teeth pulling to get the details of her day and how school and life are going.

Last night upon arriving home our son was still up and explained that he wanted to change his course in CEGEP (something like 1st year College in America) from Communications to Theatre Arts. He seemed a little guarded about the request which was funny since his mother and great grandparents were all theatre people and there was no way that I would say no or otherwise castigate him for making the choice. He wants to do theatre so he can hone his stagecraft for his standup comedy. What Lynn and I always hoped for was happy children and if it will lead to his happiness then so be it. He will be on stage again tonight at the Comedy Nest honing his routine. Not a lot of eighteen year olds doing standup anywhere in the world which makes it all the more impressive to me that he is so committed now to pursuing this course.

After sorting things out with our son I went into my bedroom. The white note paper on my single, unmade bed stood out sharply on the purple sheets. It was a note from our daughter and it is perhaps the sweetest thing she has ever done for me. Here it is.

I hope work wasn’t too stressful today. Lisa and I had fun at Wal Mart and I bought a new game. James and Malcolm hung out and I made them some Pogos (corndogs) and fishsticks for dinner.

I got 71% on my science test which is better than I thought and I got 90% on my math test which I didn’t like -_-

We (me & Sam) finished our sit prob today and I think it was ok (maybe). Sam was kinda upset the teacher was correcting mine not hers which was kind of funny. I’m probably going to forget some of this so I wrote it.

Love you,
goodnight x

Oh yeah, the stairway light stopped working I think

It was true, the bulb in the stairwell leading up to her and her brother’s rooms had burned out and was replaced before I turned in for the night. The note simply made my day and perhaps my year. A simple thing showing that perhaps the simple act of being there is far more important than we may imagine.

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Posted by bernicky - January 4th, 2012

Today was the funeral. For those who could not attend it was a beautiful service. Lynn would have been pleased as the church was packed from front to back – or as I put it “she would have been happy with a full house for a matinee.” What follows is a copy of the eulogy. There were some variations in the text when I was speaking but for the life of me I cannot remember what they were.

Lynn was born in Ottawa but baptized in Otterburn Park. We always thought that detail interesting since I grew up in Otterburn Park but we would not meet for almost three decades. When we did meet it was perhaps inevitable that it was almost like a Hollywood script – we disagreed about how to frame a picture. I didn’t see Lynn again for almost a year and the second time we met we disagreed about the acting prowess of Kathleen Turner though she did agree that we could go on a date and we never left each others side after that first date.

Aside from our family Lynn had many other families. There was of course her mother Ena, her father James, her brothers Michael, Jamie and John. The almost legendary, in our house anyway, Beebs – Sue, Susy, Lisa, Heather and Cathy. Her godson Michael and his mother Lynda. Then there was The Centaur Theatre. Maurice, Aleksandra, Catherine, Jinny, Chuck, Terry, Gord, Quincy, Eric, Maggie, Ray, Sue the list could go on because the turn over in the theatre is high and Lynn worked there for twenty three years. The Brook clan – David, Bryna, Shawna, Steve, Tara and Katie. Then there were her team families. Lynn adored her bench mates on the West Island Dragons breast cancer survivor dragon boat team and had some of her most memorable trips and a great deal of fun with the women on that team. She had a great time on the Jump for Hope team learning to do show jumping on a Newfoundland pony named Sailor. Lynn also helped raise money for research into neurofibromatosis as part of the Order of St. Scully the Enigmatic, Scully marathon. These were the people of whom she was most fond and about whom she most frequently spoke.

There is much that is left behind when someone dies. When Lynn died she left behind a legacy of love, friends and family and a scrap of paper in an old notebook that was likely long forgotten. It was just a scribble really and from the other notes on the page looks to have been written in a doctor’s waiting room. It is short but worth sharing, these are her words:

I had a fine life. My parents loved me. My brothers fought with me but always cared in the end. I met and married my soulmate. I had two wonderful children that I adored – they often drove me crazy. I had many different friends that helped me enjoy so many… And there it ends. We can only imagine what the rest of her thoughts may have been.

Over the past few days a lot of messages of condolence have found their way to us and there has been a common denominator in many of the messages and shared memories of Lynn – sense of humour. I would hasten to add: planner.

Our son was named after James Taylor.

Our daughter was named after Katharine Hepburn.

Lynn planned for that long before we had even met. It was written in stone that her children would be so named.

The hymns here today were planned by Lynn and if you come to the reception the music played there was also planned by Lynn.

Our first vacation together was two summers before we married. It was Canada Day weekend and Lynn decided we were going to go to Vermont for the long weekend. No sooner had decision been made than Lynn came home with all her research material from CAA. An itinerary was created and we set out for the trip with a plan. With Lynn there was always a plan. Sometimes it was painted in broad strokes and sometimes it was fine detail but nothing happened without a plan. The highlight of the planned trip was a visit to the Hope Cemetery, also known as the stonecutters cemetery in Barry Vermont. We spent a few hours just walking around and marvelling at the amazing stone work in the cemetery. Lynn’s favourite monument was a large, life size relief of a husband and wife sitting in bed holding hands. Lynn believed that love conquers all.

When we first started down this road we were doubtful of having another five years together. Lynn defied the odds and with her often dark sense of humour Lynn also poked fun at her situation. The night before her first brain surgery while filling out forms in the hospital Lynn came across one line that simply read: Autopsy followed by a question mark. Instead of answering yes or no to the question Lynn filled out the blank with an instruction to the pathologist to start with a Y incision.

Knowing time was short Lynn planned to spend as much time together as we possibly could. What do you do after chemotherapy, a radical mastectomy and twelve weeks of radiotherapy? You go to Disney World! The family also visited the maritimes, and New York City and in 2007 Lynn and I went on a second honeymoon and renewed our vows in Las Vegas on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Everything our family ever did that was of any value was planned by Lynn. Those special family moments, birthdays, vacations, Christmas, Valentines day, Grey Cup, St. Patrick’s Day parade whatever it was if we were together as a family it had been planned and organized by Lynn. To do this she had to have a sense of humour because she had to wrangle myself and two children into cooperating – we were not always cooperative.

Lynn’s sense of humour was inexhaustible. Her sense of humour was absolutely invaluable over the last two years when things became more difficult than we had ever expected. She found the humour in just about every situation you can imagine. It was that sense of humour and her independent streak that took her from being bed ridden to manoeuvring around the hospital in her wheelchair with only one working leg and arm. With limited speech she still enjoyed talking and listening and playing a new kind of charades to get across what she was trying to say. It was during this time that so many people who Lynn had touched reached out to help her – the West Island Dragons, Jump for Hope team, The Phoenix Run Club, The Beebs, Terry, Deirdre, Amy, Mary, Aleksandra, Mitch, Laura, Richard and even some anonymous people all made special efforts to help Lynn.

It didn’t matter where she went Lynn made friends. At the Montreal Neuro the nurses, orderlies and doctors were openly attached to her and it showed in their care for her. At the Montreal Rehab the staff once again became quickly endeared to Lynn. It happened once again when she had to take up residence at the West Island Palliative Care – barely able to speak that spark of gentle grace shone through and once again conquered the staff.

Lynn’s life was itself a work of art crafted from friends, family and memory. It was one where she met every event with aplomb and an unshakable faith that all is as it should be and will work out for the best. All our lives are a little richer for having known and loved her.

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Posted by bernicky - December 3rd, 2009

Tomorrow is the day.
Tomorrow we report to the Montreal Neurological Institute for six thirty in the morning.
Tomorrow all that we fear and all that we hope for will meet at once in an operating room in the hands of people we do not know but in whom we have faith.
Tomorrow will be the start of new tomorrows without fear.
Let tomorrow come.

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It is what it is.

Posted by bernicky - November 5th, 2009

I’m going to tell you a secret: It comes down to one.

It isn’t part of a plan, it just kind of happens. Slowly, inexorably, the tasks that make up a day all those little tiny 10-minute or 15-minute tasks end up in the hands of one person in the family when cancer works its magic. That’s just the way it is.

I will tell you another secret. When people look at the person that everything has filtered down to they often say complimentary things; don’t do that. Please. It isn’t obvious. Compliments are just one more thing to bear or try to live up to. Being the one is also being one step away from just screaming in frustration. There is nothing to be done about the situation except go forward so there is nothing admirable or of particular merit in being the one it is as it is.

We often speak about the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. It seems strange to think of something as airy as a straw breaking a camel’s back but, when you get to that point, the straw is the one straw that you most fear.

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Posted by bernicky - October 10th, 2009

To see someone you love being slowly chipped away at by a disease redefines words such as strength, hope and endurance.

While my wife is strong most days there are days too when the strength is not there and when all the darkness of thought that can gather balls itself up into the perfect storm and rolls in to wreak havoc. There are many metaphors for strength we use the words iron, steel and mountain and these are all good words but in our case the most accurate word would be reed. Once iron, steel or even a mountain is bent they cannot unbend.

Hope takes on strange parameters too in this world of magnetic resonance imaging, neurosurgeons and gamma knives. From original diagnosis with all the gusto and fight that can be imagined to multiple surgeries radical mastectomy, oophorectomy, craniotomy, a code blue, stereotactic radiosurgery and onward to massive seizures, increasing paralysis and the promise of another craniotomy hope transforms from a vague sense that things will be alright to an desperate need to just make it through the next step. When words leave us we understand that some things are not defined by us. Hope is the tune without words.

While at work or doing something unpleasant we think of endurance as a special trait that is somehow nurtured over time. The reality is that it is neither special nor can it be nurtured. When called upon we all have endurance. The amount of endurance we have is determined by how well we would greet the alternative  what is the alternative to not enduring?

In every oncology department, every CT or MRI scan waiting room, every dragon boat festival and everyday without knowing it we meet people who are living variations of the same story. It is the world at its most mundane and its most exceptional at the same time.

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The Canadian Health Care System

Posted by bernicky - August 4th, 2009

I originally posted this on Facebook but wanted to make it available to more people since it seemed to generate some interest on Facebook.

The health care debate in the United States is turning into a Canada bashing festival with orchestrated attacks from the insurance companies, HMO’s and the independently wealthy. The odd Canadian has also been solicited to make damning statements about the Canadian system. Personally I don’t care one way or the other if Americans get universal health care coverage. That Australia, England, Germany, France, Canada, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Spain, Portugal, Ukraine, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Ireland, Iceland, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Cuba, Nicaragua, Greece, Oman, Switzerland all have universal health care coverage should be an indication that it is not a recipe for social disaster. In fact the US subsidizes universal health care in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of their approach to smoothing the transition to democracy.

I can only speak from my own experience and will offer this and wonder how an American family in the same situation would have fared.

Our family income is well south of the Canadian average. We own a small home, have a mortgage but no car payments. My wife works in the arts and I work in the public school system which means being laid off with no salary for 6 weeks every year. We have two school aged children. We will leave off the table for a moment my children’s health and my own health and deal just with that of my wife.

In the summer of 2003 my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer (stage 3A), had a radical mastectomy with reconstruction, chemotherapy and radiation therapy plus recovery. Cost wise it would have looked roughly like this:

50 doctors visit
150 mammogram
12000 Radical mastectomy with reconstruction
18700 Radiation therapy
15500 Chemotheraphy
8580 Neupogen injections
4280 Recovery in hospital after surgery

So 58560 dollars later my wife could have come home only we don’t actually have that kind of scratch. At the time the Neupogen was an experimental drug and the government did not cover the cost which drained our bank account but in the end Amgen the manufacturer came through heavily subsidizing the cost for us yes I went begging. All the numbers (other than for the Neupogen) are ball parked  don’t quote me on them.

That was then. Four years later my wife had a seizure at work and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Whoops  not quite free and clear. This time out there was no chemo though which was a good thing. The costs would have also been lower.

2100 Multiple CT scans
1700 Multiple MRI
4800 2x PET/CT
16000 Crainiotomy
3852 Recovery in hospital
9600 Stereotactic radio surgery

The actual number of CT and MRIs I have lost track of over time but roughly speaking to get over the little bit of nastiness at the end of 2007 and beginning of 2008 we would have been hit with a bill of a little over $38000. This doesn’t even begin to cover the bank of medications that she now has to take and the myriad of emergency room visits and doctors visits in recent months. In simple terms I cannot imagine having to deal with medical bills totaling in excess of 90K in a period of 5 years. We either would have been living on the street or hoping that things got better without medical involvement.

More to the point though is that my wife received all of her treatment in a timely manner. We never had any complaints about care or treatment. The horror stories that I hear in the US media do not reflect our families experience in the least. It is easy to complain when everything comes to you with ease because the least little roadblock will suddenly look insurmountable but realistically speaking we have it very good here regardless of what those trying to manufacture discontent in the US have to say about it.

Addendum: Canadian medicine is not socialized medicine it is single user pay medicine. Users have a right to choose their physician, to shop around, get second opinions and the government pays. Also there is not a single Canadian system but rather 14 systems with each province and territory overseeing their own medical care system not a single central federal bureaucracy managing everything from afar.

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