I Believe

I still believe.

It’s over 40 years later, and I still believe in the magic of Christmas.

I was not raised believing in Santa Claus. From some recent comments I read online, apparently this should translate into me feeling I was deprived as a child, robbed of the magical spirit of Christmas and decrying my parents for their treachery in not allowing me this belief. And yet Christmas is my favourite holiday, and every year I feel the same sense of awe and wonder I did as a child.

And it has nothing to do with Santa.

My parents, being German-Canadian, celebrated Christmas on December 24. Christmas Eve was a night that began with a huge traditional family meal, followed by carols, the reading of the story of Jesus’ birth, the opening of gifts and then a trek to midnight mass, followed by yet another small meal (did I mention the German part?).

December 25 was a day spent with family and friends, eating, visiting, playing cards and games, reading books and enjoying the simple pleasures of the day. There were no reindeer hoofprints, no fat men in red suits, no chimneys, and on my part no sense of disappointment because for me Santa was just a lovely story.

And while my family was Catholic we were not what I would consider incredibly devout, so that wasn’t the reason for the absence of Santa. It had more to do with how my parents were raised, and their parents before them.

Christmas gifts came from the people around you, who may have scrimped and saved to deliver them. They likely agonized over the perfect gifts, and they were the ones who wrapped them and placed them under the tree. If anything, knowing this made them all the more special, because the gifts I received were directly from those I loved.

I guess there are those who think the magic of Christmas is only found for children within the magic of Santa, the excitement and the anticipation; and yet for me the magic was in my family.

  • The Christmas dinner my mother lovingly prepared, far more food than any family could ever consume in one sitting and leading to the necessity of two fridges in their home to hold leftovers alone.
  • The way my father would always find the homeliest, saddest and most misshapen tree on the Christmas tree lot and bring it home, introducing me to the concept of the Charlie Brown tree long before television did
  • How my dad would pull out his accordion, a massive black and silver beast that so very few people can master, and begin to play carols.
  • The sounds of my parents’ voices as they sung Silent Night, not in English but in their native German, the language that had both spoken until they went to school as children.
  • The bowls of mandarin oranges that would be passed around several times, leading to orange over-consumption and no interest in that particular fruit for the rest of the year.
  • The way my parents welcomed in “strays” – people who had nowhere to go for Christmas, far from friends and family of their own. This is actually how I learned about multicultural diversity, as our guests could be from anywhere in the world, but our home was their home at Christmas.
  • Doing the dishes – by hand! – after that massive meal before we could get to the presents, leading to everyone helping as it made the work go so much faster and the presents arrive sooner.
  • Midnight mass, the one time of year when going to church actually seemed beautiful to me and when it reflected the peace, joy and love of the season.

And yes, the presents.

As I reflected recently on those childhood Christmases I recalled the year I found a large box under the tree. I must have been around 7, and in that box was a toy that would entertain not only me but entire future generations of grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

My Fisher Price Play Family Castle was not from Santa. It was from my dad, with his rough and worn working hands, and my mom, who often was found with a bit of flour on her face from baking bread for her family. This gift and those Christmases burn brightly in my memory not because of Santa, and not because of a lack of magic, but because my parents were the true embodiment of the season: kindness, joy, peace, love and family.

The singing of Silent Night in German still makes me weep, especially since it has been almost a decade since either of my parents were alive to sing it.

Mandarin oranges still make me smile, and I can still eat a dozen in one sitting.

I have an inordinate fondness for real Christmas trees that are far from perfect specimens, and I still own my dad’s accordion, even though I cannot play it and just take it out once in a while to touch the smooth keys.

Sometimes, even though I am far from religious, I still go to midnight mass and let the feelings of peace wash over me.

And this year I went online and found a vintage 1974 Fisher Price Play Family Castle, which is now on its way to me as a reminder of all those Christmases so long ago.

It may seem an unusual nativity scene, and yet I know it is destined to become part of my Christmas decorating tradition, taking me back to my childhood and a time that lives on forever in my memory, but mostly in my heart.

Because that is where the magic truly is; deep in my heart and intertwined with memories of my mother, my father and Christmases long past.

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Own Every Second

It is an oddly familiar scene, reminiscent of a day not that long ago. As soon as I see the flag billowing in the wind, the fire trucks using their ladders to hold it aloft, I feel tears pricking the corners of my eyes, and the day has not yet even truly begun.

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I stand there for a moment, transfixed by the flag as soft fluffy snowflakes fall from a grey sky; it is undoubtedly the kind of sombre day when a community will say good bye to a hero.

There were hundreds of touching, compelling, soul-searing and heartbreaking moments during the memorial service for Bo Cooper. I am at an age now where, as my older sister quips, you go to more funerals than weddings, and for the most part the funerals are for those who have lived long lives; but a handful have been services for those who left us far too soon, and while memorials are always painful it is the ones for those who are too young to be gone that can shake you to the core.

What can one write about Bo Cooper that has not already been written or said? What can the lesson or meaning of this bright young life tragically cut short possibly be? We struggle to find meaning in such situations, where meaning seems elusive and the only thing one can find is a sense of finality and cruelty.

A reporter asked me recently why Bo Cooper captured the hearts of the residents of this community. I could not answer for everyone, but for myself I responded simply that Bo could have been my son, my nephew, my brother, my family; and in a sense he became all of our son as we watched his battle with a deadly foe. It took such courage to allow the rest of us into this fight, as these are deeply personal times, as I know well having been through them with my own family, but Bo and his family shared their fight with us, and we felt we became part of it, too. We fought for Bo and with Bo; we became his army.

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I will not write of the memorial service, as there are aspects too tender and fragile to put into words such as these. The only thing of which I will write are the words from Bo’s father, who thanked the community for raising the funds that bought Bo time – another year in his estimation, an additional 365 days to be with his wife and his parents and his family and his colleagues. The words from a bereaved father were both incredibly heartbreaking and compelling, and if there is any meaning to be found in this sad ending it may be this: the value of time.

The time we have on this earth is finite. Some of us are granted decades while others are granted just a fraction of that; and while we all want the decades what matters more than the amount of time we are granted is how we spend it.

I suspect if we saw time as the precious commodity it is we would treat it with more reverence; perhaps we would ensure we lived every day to the fullest and allow ourselves to savour every experience. The sad reality is that it is often only as our clocks tick away the final moments that we realize the value of time, and wish we had used our own allotment differently.

It is a cold truth that on occasion we need sad prompts to remind us of things we should inherently know. As I sit and watch snowflakes fall from the sky after the memorial service, I contemplate the minutes I have already been allotted in this life and how I intend to spend the remaining ones, no matter their number. I think about the legacy I hope to one day leave, and I think about how I intend to achieve it.

There are not enough words to express the feelings surrounding the loss of a young man who both lived and fought so very tenaciously. He lived a short life, far, far too short by any measure, but he lived it well and he lived it being loved by his wife, his parents, his friends, his colleagues and yes, his community. He has left a legacy through the kind acts he inspired, and through his father’s eulogy he has reminded us of the thing in our lives that may be the most truly precious: time.

However many moments you are granted – whether they are only brief or lengthy, make them good ones. And treasure even the bad moments, because you have been granted the opportunity to experience them, a chance others have been denied.

Own every second that this world can give.

When your time runs out, make sure you can say this:

“I swear I lived.”

Homecoming for a Hero

Although the news was sadly expected, my initial reaction was unanticipated.

Instead of the sorrow and grief I thought I would feel, there was another emotion in their place.

Rage.

White hot, blinding and seething rage.

Bo Cooper, the young firefighter who brought out the very best in our community, who fought as valiantly as one can fight, our very Unbreakable Bo, gone after his long war with cancer ended.

And my first response was rage.

Over the last few months I have been able to work through much of the anger I have experienced. Anger over the loss of two young adults during the evacuation; anger over the loss of so many homes; anger over an inanimate act of nature that took on a persona as it stole so much from my community.

But I had never gotten past the anger over one thing.

Earlier this spring when Bo’s cancer had gone into remission, plans began for a hero’s welcome, a homecoming befitting someone who had drawn an entire community together. We had become Bo’s Army, many of us tied to each other  by only two things: that we call this place home, and that we stood with Bo. We had watched every part of his fight, checking the Facebook page of his journey daily to see how he was doing, feeling relief when he was improving and worry when things were not going as well.

But when he left the hospital to return home, it was with a sense of triumph that the plans began. Bo had won the battle, although all knew the war was not over. Bo was coming home, and it was time for a moment in the sun when he could come together with his army, when they could welcome him home with open arms and he could see the strength of the army he had inspired.

The tentative date for this celebration, Bo’s welcome and homecoming?

May 4, 2016.

When I fled this community on May 3, 2016, many things weighed heavy on my mind; Bo’s triumphant homecoming being delayed was one of them. But I took courage in the belief that it would just be postponed for a day or so, certain we would be back home soon and could then celebrate with our hero.

It was not to be.

You see, my anger when I heard the news today was because this is not the way the story should have ended.

Bo should have had his hero’s welcome, and then he should have gone to his home with his wife to live a long and happy life, and none of our town should have been lost in a wildfire and life should have been simple and good.

But you don’t always get to write the ending.

I don’t know why some of us are granted longer on this earth than others. There is no sense of fair play at work here, no equality of being; some of us get lucky, and some of us get robbed.

Bo got robbed, of his life and of the happy ending he should have had. He got robbed of that homecoming and that moment in the sun.

There are people who change the world without even trying or knowing they are doing it. Bo Cooper is one of them, because what Bo inspired in this community was unlike anything I had ever really seem before. We rallied together for one person, one young man facing a tremendous battle; we felt deeply connected because of him alone.

Bo reminded us of what is best about each of us, and about each other. Perhaps, in some strange sense, the fight to save Bo prepared us for what came next, a life-altering event that demanded we be there for each other in ways we never had before. Maybe, just maybe, the lessons we learned as we became Bo’s Army were the ones we needed when we had to become an army of survivors.

Bo didn’t get his homecoming on May 4th. I will always feel anger over that, and of all the fire took, perhaps it is that one thing that will never be forgiven in my mind.

But perhaps there is a way we can still give Bo that homecoming. Perhaps it is as simple as engaging in acts of kindness for each other. It doesn’t need to be a huge gesture; something small is just as significant as something grand. Just acts of kindness, and when you commit these acts do one simple thing: tell yourself that this is because of Bo.

Let Bo’s triumphant homecoming be each and every one of us working to be kind to each other as we continue to fight our own battles in this community. Let the strength and courage we found  being part of his army become the strength and courage we need to keep moving forward.

Let Bo’s homecoming be us memorializing his life in our acts of kindness to each other.

Let us honour Bo Cooper, one young man who fought so long and so hard, by allowing his journey to turn us into better people, and a stronger community.

Let that be Unbreakable Bo’s legacy: a community forever changed by one man, and by the kindness he inspired in all of us.

My deepest sympathies to Bo’s wife, family, friends and colleagues.

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Plot Twist

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I take it back.

When it began to snow a few days ago, I cavalierly told a friend I doubted it would last, and that this was just a taste of the winter yet to come. After a weekend that can only be described as a fall snowpocalypse, I recognize winter has arrived and has no intention of departing.

It seems it is just the latest plot twist in what has been a Fort McMurray year filled with them.

It’s a bit surreal at times, like we are living in some made-for-television melodrama in which every episode includes an unexpected pivot of the story.

The examples are endless.

Plot twist: a community that had become so accustomed to forest fires that it had grown a bit complacent about them suddenly finds itself under one of the largest evacuation orders in Canadian history, and almost 90,000 people flee.

Plot twist: local hero firefighter beats cancer into remission, but just hours after returning home from extensive and exhausting treatments is driven from his home which is then lost to the flames – and then his cancer returns.

Plot twist: local canine superstar who rode to fame on the back of a motorcycle returns from another of his infamous trips with his owner and dies just days later of an undiagnosed tumour after being unable to secure emergency veterinary services.

Plot twist: a friend’s house survives the flames, only to be destroyed days later in an explosion that levels several homes.

Plot twist: the firefighters fighting the flames lose their own homes to the very same fire they are fighting, but bravely battle on.

Plot twist: the tens of thousands who evacuated come home almost a month later to a landscape and a community forever changed, realizing the crisis hasn’t ended but really only just begun.

Plot twist: the very same media that once dismissed a community as the home of crime and drug abuse and the last stronghold of a “Wild West” mentality suddenly tells stories of it’s fortitude, courage and resilience

Plot twist: the region becomes famous not for the “tar sands” industry (as those outside the region are prone to calling it as opposed to oil sands) but for a natural disaster virtually unprecedented in our nation.

It is, in a word, dizzying. Frankly, it is perhaps the least believable television series ever aired, the kind where viewers would throw things at their screens as the latest absurdity was revealed by scriptwriters who clearly think they can stretch the limits of credulity.

Except this is no television series, and these plot twists are our lives.

It has been an entire year of plot twists, and many of them have not been positive ones.

But there have been other plot twists, too.

The remarkable bravery shown on May 3rd and the following days. The way neighbours help each other in new ways and with renewed intensity. The way we all look at each other, knowing that we have shared something both tragic and unique and compelling and, in some very bizarre and terrible way, special.

The truth is that life is a series of plot twists. So many of our favourite adages, like the ones about our best laid plans, focus on the fact that life rarely, if ever, goes the way we think it will. Just like the quote in Jurassic Park, “life will find a way” – but in this case it will find a way to surprise us, enlighten us, teach us, floor us, amaze us and sometimes even bring us to our knees.

And that is life, filled with crazy plot twists and unusual characters and moments that are sad and funny and sometimes both at the same time. What a boring existence it would be without these plot twists, even though when they are occurring we likely wonder why we are being subjected to yet another one.

It can be hard at times to remember that nobody is writing this script. Unlike television, there is no crafting of especially dramatic moments just to thrill the viewer; this is simply how life unfolds sometimes. And what we take away from it?

Well, that is up to us.

Plot twists happen. What matters is how we respond to them, and whether we allow them to break us or make us.

And the next plot twist? Well, that is unknown, of course. All that is known is that there will be one.

Because there always is.

 

Winky’s Everlasting Ride

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The first time I saw them, I was pretty sure it was some sort of mirage, a trick conjured up by my mind. The second time, I acknowledged they were real.

The third time, I knew there was a story there just waiting to be written, and I knew I had to write it, because the goggle-wearing, motorcycle-riding German Shepherd and his human best friend were clearly the kind of tale that needed to be told.

And so I did, showcasing the dog – Winky, as he was called – and his best friend/owner Sandy in my column in Your McMurray Magazine.

Last night Winky, after a brief and as yet unexplained illness, passed away.

I read the news in utter shock and horror, because despite his age of ten years, Winky was a remarkably healthy canine and in excellent condition. But there was more to my sorrow than just that, because Winky was more than a dog.

Winky was one of those things that are best about Fort McMurray.

Winky and Sandy went on long adventures, Sandy piloting the motorcycle as they headed south and Winky wearing his goggles and grinning the entire time. Winky and Sandy made friends and fans across Canada and the United States, and their notoriety simply grew over time because there was no way one could ignore the two best friends who rode together in such harmony, despite being different species.

When I interviewed Sandy and Winky, I was bemused that not only Sandy but Winky seemed nervous, as people being interviewed often are. Winky, just like an anxious person, paced the room and seemed a wee bit edgy until all three of us settled into a nice chat. The truth is that Winky and Sandy were so tightly bonded that Winky knew Sandy was a little nervous about the interview, so Winky was too, and when Sandy relaxed and eased into it so did Winky, resting his soft furry head on my knee at several points and gazing into my eyes with his huge puppy dog ones.

It was one of the most remarkable interviews I have ever done, because it was the first. and perhaps only, time I have interviewed a dog. And the crazy thing was that the dog seemed to know he was being interviewed.

I watched with delight as Winky and Sandy attracted more attention, which drew even more people to their fundraising for the Fort McMurray SPCA. The dynamic duo raised thousands of dollars, doing so quite independently, and based on nothing more than the pure whimsy and charm of a motorcycle riding dog and his best friend.

Along with thousands of others, I followed their adventures, and I laughed at Winky’s antics. More than anything I marveled at the strength of their connection, and the beauty of the human-animal bond so clearly evident between them.

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And last night, I cried.

Winky was an ambassador for this region, the kind marketers and tourism companies dream about. He and Sandy traveled the continent showcasing the best of Wood Buffalo – compassion, friendship, generosity, innovation and a brave spirit.

Our community is facing a veterinary care crisis at the moment, as the wildfire in May and a recent building fire have left our three local veterinary clinics deeply impacted. Last night, Sandy was unable to secure the services of an on-call emergency veterinarian, and this simply compounded an already troubling tragedy. Since last night I have swung between tears of sorrow and anger, and the desire to lash out has been quite profound, but anger will not bring Winky back. I hope, however, the loss of Winky serves as a catalyst to ensure this issue is addressed immediately, because while we lost Fort McMurray’s most famous canine last night, I fear other pets – including my own – are at grave risk as long as this situation lasts. To do anything less than everything that can possibly be done to ensure emergency services are available would be a tremendous disservice to Winky, his memory and his legacy. As someone who managed veterinary clinics for a decade, I believe this is a critical moment for their professional reputation in our community – but for the moment that is all I will say about that, as I do not wish to sully the memory of Winky with anger.

And that’s because it was impossible to feel anger around Winky. When you saw him, one could only smile and laugh, because how could you feel anything but joy when seeing a dog wearing goggles and smiling, his tongue hanging out of his mouth, as he and his most loved friend zoomed down the highway?

And so that is the sentiment I choose to carry with me today. I honour Winky’s memory by remembering him in his trailer, goggles on and ears flapping gently in the wind. I remember the way he and Sandy spoke to each other without speaking, so deeply connected that they were quite clearly family, not pet and owner.

My deepest condolences go to Sandy, who has become a friend and for whom I would do pretty much anything, as he is one of the kindest and most genuine people I have ever met.

I would encourage those who wish to honour Winky to do two things: hug your pets, and donate to the Fort McMurray SPCA, the cause Sandy and Winky have been so devoted to.

And maybe a third thing.

Remember Winky. Remember a dog who loved to ride, who hopped into his trailer behind that motorcycle at every opportunity and who lived life with zest and joy and exuberance and like a giant puppy even when he was ten years old.

We can all learn something from that, I think.

If heaven is real, and there are motorcycles, I am betting there is now a trailer there with a resident goggle-wearing German Shepherd going for his everlasting ride.

Good night. sweet Winky.

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Go the Distance

It’s late in the evening at a dark and rather dingy pub. He sits on a bar stool at the front, tucked up close to the bar, but facing a small gathered audience of admirers. He’s just finished a rollicking good tale about his cousin and his uncle, and while the laughs are still quieting down someone calls out: “Whatever happened to your uncle and cousin?”

His eyes search the crowd, and then, in a southern drawl that is almost undoubtedly adopted just for the occasion given his Canadian heritage, he slowly says: “Son, I said I was telling a story about my uncle and my cousin. I never said it was true.”

There was a moment of silence and then more laughs, as he has truly had us all believing a rather fantastical familial tale.

Yesterday, at the age of 81, W.P. Kinsella, author of books like “Shoeless Joe”, which became the movie “Field of Dreams”, died at the age of 81. Reports say it was a physician-assisted death, and that sounds about right as the man I met both lived his life and wrote on his own terms.

I met Kinsella years ago in that bar, but I’d been an admirer long before. There are those who might be surprised at how I revere his work, given his tendency to write about topics like baseball and my general lack of knowledge of such things, but Kinsella didn’t write only about baseball. He wrote about life.

A few years ago when the Fort McMurray Public Library asked me to participate in their “Fort McMurray Reads” panel, the book I chose was “Shoeless Joe”. You see, I felt it wasn’t just the story of baseball or Iowa or a man who builds a baseball stadium in a cornfield; it was the story of the kind of plucky courage and tenacity that makes people believe they can achieve the impossible. I felt it was the perhaps the most compelling parallel I had ever found of the story of Fort McMurray and the people who live here. Fort McMurray was the kind of place where if we built it, they would come; and they have.

Yesterday we lost Canada’s Mark Twain, a storyteller like no other who had both the kindest smile and the most acerbic wit.  It is a loss indeed, and the world will be just a little bit quieter without that voice in it.

This morning I pulled a book off my shelves. I read the inscription and felt myself pulled back into the past, into a dingy pub and a late night chat with an author who had touched my soul.

“To Theresa,” it reads. “Go the distance. Bill Kinsella”

When he signed the book that night so many years ago, W.P. made me promise I would do what he wrote in the inscription. 

And so I have, and so I will.

Thank you, Bill. For everything.


Smoke Damage

I am in my shed, four months later. For the most part, my life has returned to normal; there are no scorch marks on my house, no melted shingles and no red flame retardant. I open a bin of seat cushions, one that has been unopened for a year, and out spills not only the contents but a sharp, acrid odour, one I have come to recognize well since my return to Fort McMurray on June 3rd.

Smoke damage.

It happens at the most unusual times and in the most unexpected places, a sudden quick reminder of a day that has ever so slowly begun to recede into my memory instead of appearing in my every day thoughts. The smell of smoke, not of campfires but the odour of burnt memories and homes, is quick to bring it all to the surface again and remind me of how much has happened since that fateful day in May.

I was lucky, so much luckier than so many others. My home escaped the flames, but I did not escape the fire, as in some way I too am smoke damaged, not burned perhaps but still altered by an experience outside of what I once considered to be possible.

I think in the aftermath of May 3rd I am both stronger and more fragile than ever before. The simple smell of a freshly mowed lawn can bring me to the brink of tears; a quick glimpse of kindness can make my heart feel filled to the brim with joy.

I don’t know how to describe this as anything other than some sort of growth, thrust upon me perhaps but growth nonetheless. But with this growth has come some pain. There is, undoubtedly, some residual smoke damage.

There was a point when I thought I would one day return to “normal” – you know, the person I was on May 2nd, 2016. It has taken four months for me to comprehend that this is never going to happen, and I will never be that person again, because what has happened to my community – to me – has altered me.

There are so many different experiences and different perspectives; they are as unique as we are, the intriguing collection of people who have chosen this northern community as our home. I know there are those who are struggling to get through every single day, and it breaks my heart to witness it; I know there are those who have returned to lives virtually untouched and who seem impermeable to the events of the past four months.

For myself, I have managed to go days without saying the word fire, and there have been times when it has been quite far from my thoughts, but the truth is that in some way it is omnipresent. I suspect to some degree it always will be, and accepting this has been both the hardest and simplest part of the entire experience.

I pull the bin of seat cushions out of my shed, and leave the contents outside in the cool air overnight. The next morning they are almost as good as new, covered with a soft sheen of fall dew, but with an ever so faint smell of smoke clinging to them. They are quite usable, and they will be good for many seasons to come, but they are also forever altered.

They are smoke damaged, just like I am and just like the city I have come to love with a ferocity that astonishes even me is. But it is the kind of damage that doesn’t mean the end; it’s the kind where a reminder of the past exists even as you move into the future. I fluffed up the pillows, placed them on my deck chairs and sat and listened to the birds while my neighbour mowed his lawn. As the sweet smell of green grass filled the air, the faint smell of smoke simply faded into the background; still there but not centre stage.

And maybe that, in all its simplicity, is all I truly need.