The Bus

How many times did I wave good-bye to her as the bus drove away?

I sit in my office and ponder the answer; over the 18 years of her life I have lost track of the school trips, ski trips, sport trips…all the times I watched as the bus rolled away.

And that’s when the tears that had been hovering in my eyes since first hearing the news finally began to fall.

15 lives lost, several of them young men not much older than my own child. A strip of road in a province I know well, the province of my birth and still in possession of a large piece of my heart. A tragic accident that every parent fears and which we all know could have happened to us, as in this vast country travelling by bus for school or work or play is a simple factor of life.

I spent a good part of the weekend wondering if I would learn that one of those lost was somehow related; that’s how Saskatchewan is, you know, deeply interwoven and the smallest big province you’ve ever seen.

But in the end them being related by blood didn’t matter, as when I heard the news of the misidentification of one of the victims, that cruel final twist of the knife, all I could think was how it must feel to be the parents of hope found; and the parents of all hope lost.

I kept thinking back to an accident that occurred over thirty years ago, in another small Saskatchewan town where I was friends with many of the students in the Grade 12 class. A late Saturday night, some alcohol, no helmets, two dirt bikes; two dead on impact when the bikes collided, one lingering in a coma for months before life support was removed, one with devastating injuries.

That town was never the same, and the impact of that crash rippled far beyond town limits, changing the lives of every person it touched.

It changed me, as death entered my life when I was seventeen, and it altered the way I saw the world forever.

I think about the survivors from the accident this weekend, and how they too will be forever changed. I think of all that lies ahead for them, and how what lies behind them will never seem the same, either.

Because one single moment in time can change absolutely everything.

All those times I put her on a bus.

It could have been her.

All the times I was that kid on the bus.

It could have been me.

Perhaps that is why this touches us so deeply; we know it could be any of us, at any time, and the tragic reality that it was fifteen of them at one single time is almost unfathomable.

Unbearable.

As I sit in my office and allow the tears to fall, I reflect on the fragile and fleeting nature of life. I think about how someone close to me once said I was far too sensitive to these things, how they didn’t understand how I could feel so deeply about tragedies that aren’t my own. And I remember questioning what the point of life was if you couldn’t feel these things; and knowing that for me being able to feel these things is the very point.

I have experienced personal sorrow and sadness; and I have experienced the kind of sorrow and sadness you feel deep in your heart and head when it has moved into the realm of almost unbelievable.

On Friday, twenty nine people boarded a bus. For fifteen of them, it would be their final act.

How many times did I put her on a bus? I try to remember, but it is all too far away in memory and to be frank it is too hard to think about just now.

I put on my coat and head out the door. I will call her, I think, and tell her that I love her.

Live life, I will tell her. Laugh more than you cry, praise more than you criticize, celebrate more than you despair and live every single fucking day like it could be your – or their – last. Never take it for granted.

And I will remind her of all the times I watched the bus roll away.

 

My heart is with a hockey team,

a small prairie town,

the families and friends of those who have been lost,

the survivors who continue to fight for recovery,

and an entire country in mourning.

 

AP CANADA HOCKEY BUS CRASH I CAN SK

(Liam Richards/The Canadian Press via AP)

The Accidental Kitten

He says he will go for treatment but he’s worried about trouble, she texts.

“I couldn’t figure out what he meant about trouble until he sent a picture”, says the next text.

It seems Trouble comes in the form of a small kitten.

I sit for a moment at my office cubicle contemplating. There are already three cats at home. Plus one dog, three ferrets and a hedgehog.

Affectionately I refer to them as the triple MMM zoo, because they are quite the menagerie.

It is a moment of pure impulse undoubtedly. She asks if a shelter might take a kitten for a indeterminate period of time; I say I think it’s possible but that it’s not necessary because I will take Trouble.

There’s room at the inn, I text, and my daughter is home right now on spring break from University.

Trouble can come to stay for as long as he likes, I text, fingers flying across the iPhone keyboard even faster than I can think.

I realize I have agreed to take a kitten I’ve never seen. He could be any colour, any personality and he could have myriad health problems. I have no idea but I’ve agreed to take him.

And then she texts a picture of Trouble – a small orange and white tabby curled up asleep, and the synchronicity of the of the universe strikes me.

I text the photo to my daughter and say “this is Trouble, he’s going to come live with us for a while”.

She texts back: “What do you mean – I thought we talked about getting a kitten this summer when I’m home for longer?”

I respond that I know we had but that sometimes the universe makes other arrangements. The funny part is she and I HAD talked about getting a kitten and I had expressed my preference – an orange male tabby. How unusual it was for suddenly an orange male tabby kitten to drop into our laps.

When Trouble arrived, he came in a soft sided carrier and you could hear the noise before it was even open. The noise was a loud kitten purr.

While my daughter and I quickly came to see how his name was Trouble, as he is a rambunctious kitten, we decided to rename him after one of her favorite podcasts: Nightvale.

And so Cecil Gershwin Palmer, or Cecil for short, has joined the zoo.

Cecil is a remarkable cat. Even though my other cats don’t always get along and two in particular become quite fractious with each other, Cecil has integrated completely and did so within a matter of hours.

He is friendly with all the cats.

He seems to enjoy the dog, coming nose to nose with her, her tail wagging and his little orange and white frame vibrating with purrs.

In fact it hasn’t taken long for Cecil to become a fixture in our household and in some ways a bit of an inspiration. He is the kind of cat who trots around the house purring at top volume. He’s the kind of cat who is curious about everything, pre-judges nothing and seems to love everyone.

He is the most cheerful little character I’ve ever met.

He’s been in my home for just over a month now and he greets me whenever I arrive no matter how long I’ve been gone. His rough little tongue licks my face and he purrs every single time.

My daughter went back to university after spring break but we FaceTime regularly and I text her pictures of the cats including little Cecil. And Cecil is growing both in physical form and personality.

We call him the accidental kitten. I hadn’t planned to get a kitten that day and there is a chance that one day Cecil’s owner will reclaim him. But for the period of time that he resides with us, whether for months or a lifetime, we will enjoy this cheerful little character and celebrate the accidental nature of life. That his time with us may be impermanent is a reminder to enjoy every moment of wonderful you have in life, because none of us know how long they will last. And you never know when something remarkable will simply drop into your lap, as if the universe has planned it.

And sometimes that bit of wonderful and remarkable will come in the form of a tiny orange and white accidental kitten.

Dear Science Guy

Dear Bill Nye, Science Guy,

I debated for a very long time about whether to write about the comments you made recently. You see, you were in discussion with the prime minister of my country and you referred to my community. And your comments didn’t make me angry; they simply made me feel weary, but despite my weariness I felt I had to comment.

What you said is that Fort McMurray is the most amazing place in the most troubling way.

I would have expected that someone who calls themselves the “science guy” would’ve been more careful with the semantics of this phrase. Because you see Fort McMurray is more than that to which you refer, because I suspect you are referring to the oil sands, our major industry.

But that’s not what you said. What you said is Fort McMurray – the place I call home, the place where I raised my child, and the place that appears on my mailing address.

Mr. Nye, Fort McMurray is more than oil sands. It is the home of tens of thousands of people, and it is the hometown of people like my daughter, who is currently studying to become a mechanical engineer (the same degree I believe you hold, incidentally).

When you say that Fort McMurray is the most amazing place in the most troubling way what you have done is condemned an entire community, not an industry. While the oil sands are our major industry, they are not all that we are.

I have become so weary of trying to explain this. To those from outside perhaps it seems that Fort McMurray is synonymous with the oil sands. But the truth is we are so much more and anyone who spends any period of time here should know that.

Perhaps you would argue that the semantics don’t matter; I would argue that they do. You’ve taken a dialogue that should’ve been about fossil fuels, energy and our future and changed it into one about my community.

And in doing so you’ve made the same mistake others have made before, like when Neil Young visited and compared Fort McMurray to Hiroshima.

And just as I did then I’m going to share some photos of my Fort McMurray; not of the oilsands but of my home.

It might interest you to know that my daughter, who grew up here, has no interest in working in the oil and gas industry. She understands that our future likely rests on finding alternatives to fossil fuels. But she also knows and acknowledges their current importance in our world.

So here Mr. Nye are some photos of my Fort McMurray. I’ve chosen to hashtag them #troublingFortMcMurray in the most tongue-in-cheek way, because I know that my Fort McMurray is anything but troubling. It is the place I have chosen to call home for the last 18 years, the place where I have found larger hearts and brighter spirits than anywhere else I have ever known, and the place where we give more than we take. You were right when you called it amazing; you were wrong when you called it troubling.

I would encourage you to come back someday Mr. Nye. My daughter, who grew up watching your television show, would undoubtedly be delighted to take you on a tour of her Fort McMurray, a place where the boreal forest grows, the rivers flow and the northern lights dance.

I hope in future you will consider your words more carefully. Whatever you think of the oil sands, perhaps you could keep in mind that Fort McMurray is the name of a community not the name of an industry; and a community that has endured a considerable degree of ass-kicking in recent years. And perhaps you could ensure your comments reflect this in the future.

Thanks for visiting Mr. Nye. I’m truly sorry that you didn’t get to see Fort McMurray, the community, but only saw the oil sands, the industry. I hope someday you’ll consider recognizing the difference.

Sincerely, Theresa

My #troublingFortMcMurray

Games Time

The kids looked absolutely exhausted.

They sat on the floor of the field house at MacDonald Island Park for the closing ceremonies, and it was clear that they were both tired and delighted. What was the most thrilling to me was seeing kids from different zones – meaning different areas of our province – sitting together, having connected or reconnected at the 2018 Wood Buffalo Alberta Winter Games.

The closing ceremonies of the games were the culmination not only of several days of athletic competition but of months and years of work on the part of the organizing committee. It was my genuine pleasure to play a very small role as the media and publicity chair for the event. It was a very busy weekend, not only for the athletes, the organizers and the volunteers, but also for the families who descended on our region to watch their children compete.

During the competition (or at least the two days that I was able to be on site having been felled by the flu on the first day of the games), I had the opportunity to speak with people from across the province who were visiting our region for the first time.

The most common things I heard were: “Your facilities are amazing”, “This isn’t what I heard about Fort McMurray”, and finally “it’s really great here”.

It was nice to hear these affirmations from visitors to our region; after all we know how wonderful Wood Buffalo is but the external world has not always been kind to us. As the games volunteer working with media it was also a delight to welcome external media to the region. Our media guests, some who had never been here before, had the opportunity to see our region in a different light than oil sands or wildfires, but rather that of a sporting competition.

The ensuing media coverage was almost completely positive. Stories of the games were told but they also reflected stories of our region; our places, our people and our tremendous spirit as displayed by the 1900 volunteers who gave of their time to make the games happen.

For me, it was a genuine pleasure. It is always a delight for me to work with people who are not only professionally committed but who bring passion and enthusiasm to what they do. Working with the games staff and members of the games committee showed me their genuine dedication to the end result, which was not only the delivery of the games but delivery of an unforgettable experience for the athletes involved.

One of the comments often heard at the games was that some of these young adults could be the next Olympians. And while that is true what I kept thinking is that for some of these young adults this may be their only big competition; the only time they have an opportunity to compete at this level and in games of this nature. And so it was so important that the experience be a positive one for them; one they would remember for years to come no matter what their athletic future holds.

When I looked around that field house as the closing ceremonies unfolded, I saw young adults who were not only tired but happy. Whether they had won medals or not, they had had the opportunity to participate in a sporting event with their peers.

Some of the kids sitting on that field house floor might well be the next Olympians. Whether they are future Olympians or not, they are our future – the future of our province, and what a tremendous honour it was to host them in our community.

And what an honour it was to host the officials, the coaches, the parents and the media as we celebrated not only sport but our youth and future. From the opening ceremonies and the bright young smiling faces to the last moments before they boarded the buses to head home, it was simply a joy to have these young adults in our community.

We sent some of these young adults home with medals, but more importantly we sent all of them and the adults around them home as ambassadors for the Wood Buffalo region. They saw our facilities and our schools, stayed in our hotels, ate in our restaurants, and met our remarkable people who volunteered for these games. I believe there is a value in that that cannot be measured in economic terms.

I have had the very good fortune, both through my professional work and volunteerism, to participate in many of these events and work with other members of this community to deliver them. I am so very proud to have worked on the 2018 Wood Buffalo Alberta Winter Games, and it is a memory I will carry with me just as I do with all the other events I have had the great pleasure to participate in.

Who were the real winners at the Alberta Winter Games? Was it the young athletes who came to compete, but also made new friends and had an exciting new experience? Was it the organizing committee comprised mostly of volunteers who had the opportunity to feel such pride in delivering this event? Or perhaps it was all of us and our entire region as we had the opportunity to once again welcome the province into our home? We have seen so many challenges in our region; from the economic downturn to the wildfire, we have braved some very difficult times. How truly remarkable is it that despite all of that we remain hospitable hosts, avid volunteers and community enthusiasts?

What I saw during the Alberta Winter Games in our region was a community that has come together despite the challenges to ensure the successful delivery of an event. We wanted to ensure our visitors went home with good memories and a positive experience of their time Wood Buffalo.

And when I looked around that field house during the closing ceremonies and saw all those smiling, tired faces about to head home on their buses, I knew that we had found success.

Games time is now over; but the memories will live on, both for the people who were part of delivering it and for the young adults who visited our region, many for the very first time, finding a beautiful place where the northern lights dance, the rivers flow and the boreal forest grows.

Empty

I have asked her where she wants to go on our next vacation; back to Disney World and a cruise, perhaps, or maybe Ireland this time?

When she texts back a few days later I am both bemused and perplexed, as it shows what a complicated creature my child truly is.

“Chernobyl,” she texts. “I think we should go to Chernobyl.”

Chernobyl? The site of a massive nuclear accident, a name forever etched in my brain as I recall watching the coverage on television as the dire fears of a nuclear meltdown were realized and thousands fled their homes due to the radioactivity they could not see but that was truly lethal in the most horrific of ways.

Yes, that Chernobyl.

She is in first year Engineering now, and has discovered a fascination with nuclear science. She is in fact considering a trajectory change, switching her focus from mechanical to nuclear and I suspect this has spurred the sudden interest in visiting the scene of a nuclear plant gone terribly wrong.

She sends text after text showing that it is now safe, at least for small segments of time, using terms like millisieverts and other words beyond my simple comprehension. And while she does so, I begin to browse Chernobyl on the internet, quickly finding photos of the perhaps-forgotten part of the disaster: the city of Pripyat, evacuated in the first 48 hours following the disaster and uninhabited since.

Here is the merry-go-round in the amusement park, forever stilled. Here are the houses, the schools, the hospitals, the playgrounds, gradually decaying into dust and nature (of the sort that has been left behind after being irradiated) beginning to take over.

An entire city of 50,000 people gone in two days, never to return.

And as I view the photos I find myself beginning to feel ever so slightly ill, as this seems eerily familiar to me, far too similar to a city emptied of over 80,000 people in a matter of hours just under two years ago.

“You can tour the hospital,” she texts. They do guided tours through the city, and you can see where the firefighters who initially responded to the crisis eventually dropped their heavily irradiated fire equipment before finally fleeing (but not likely before they acquired a massive dose of radiation, and the ensuing health consequences). You can tour the streets and the school, look inside the houses and see an entire community that was abandoned.

It sets me into a long train of thought, as fundamentally it feels like this is a sort of “disaster tourism”, although in this case one heavily endorsed and promoted by the country in which it occurred. The tours are perfectly legal and popular; there are entire packages available.

For me, though, there is another layer of complexity as it feels so close to what we experienced in my community in May of 2016. When we fled we had no idea if we would be able to return; were it not for the fact that our water treatment plant, hospital and other basic infrastructure were spared, we may have found ourselves the residents of an abandoned city to which we would never return.

Both my head and my heart hurt as I ponder it.

“You could write about it,” she texts.

And in that she is right, there is no doubt there are powerful things to be written about Chernobyl and Pripyat, and even about the similarities to my own experience in a community that was ravaged not by radiation but wildfire. There is a lure in that, but there is something else that tips the scales.

There is the desire to feel myself challenged, to bring myself to that pit of sadness and back out again, to immerse myself in that abandoned city and realize that for the people who were forced to abandon it life went on, even if it was very different and very likely very difficult.

Just as life would have gone on had I never been able to return to my own city if a wildfire had not just singed it, but destroyed it entirely.

Chernobyl and Pripyat are perhaps examples of human error, maybe even hubris. But so too they are examples of resiliency, like turning this site of disaster into a way to generate revenue in a country desperate for it.

“Okay,” I text. “Maybe not this year, but yes. Chernobyl.”

And so I will one day stand in an empty city and reflect on their experience and ours. There will be a mix of emotions I am sure, some of them relating to the fact that I was able to return home to my community after a disaster while they had not; but  I also know I will feel there what I feel here in Fort McMurray: a sense of  the courage, resiliency and indomitable nature of the human spirit, even when the worst happens.

Even in the midst of an empty city.

Hometown

Sam at 10 in Abasand, Fort McMurray

“When I tell people at university that I’m from Fort Mac it’s amazing how many of them are, too,” says my daughter as we drive home from the airport.

What catches me isn’t that other kids at her school are from Fort McMurray; it’s that she says she is from Fort McMurray.

I pause and say: “You tell them you’re from here? Not from Calgary?”

You see, she spent the final two years of high school living in Calgary, choosing to leave Fort McMurray for a variety of reasons; and when she did I somehow assumed that when it came time for her to claim her hometown, she would claim our larger and admittedly likely more-exciting-for-a-teenager neighbour to the south.

She looks at me with that expression kids reserve for their parents when it is clear they are a bit senile or perhaps just dumb; “of course I say I am from here, this is my hometown”. And she gazes out the window as we drive home, watching the snow drift and the valley of downtown Fort McMurray come into view.

And I smile, because this is truly something I have always wanted: for my daughter to one day proudly say she is from Fort McMurray, Alberta.

This year marks the longest continuous stretch I have lived in one place, including as a child. Fort McMurray has now been my home for longer than anywhere else, and I know that while I have deep and abiding affection for Toronto and Saskatoon, the other contenders for my heart, that Fort Mac (and yes, I call it that with love) will always be where I consider home. It is the place where I have found people who inspire me, thrill me, love me, encourage me, compel me and on occasion drive me completely fucking crazy; who could ask for anything more than that?

My daughter came here as a child, of course, and had little choice in where to grow up. But the truth is she grew up here, in this place of opportunity and challenge, this quirky northern Alberta city-that-is-not-a-city and that is marked by an incredible vibrancy and energy (and one that has nothing to do with oil).

That she has chosen to claim it as her home town, eschewing her other home of late, makes me even more determined and committed to ensuring this community continues to be the place where children like her are proud to call home.

Communities don’t just happen; they are built by the people within them, and if the people who reside in them so choose, communities can falter and fail. Just as with brick and mortar buildings, communities need maintenance and tending, investment and loving care. And just as with buildings, with neglect comes consequences.

And to be very frank, just as with buildings when the exterior conditions become more harsh, that maintenance becomes more critical. When cold winds blow and hard rains pound a building, the necessity of shoring up the walls and roof becomes very clear; and in our region in the past few years we have seen the cold winds of economic change and the hard rain of blow after blow, including a devastating wildfire that threatened to topple us entirely.

And yet here we are, tending to our home. And why do we do it?

For me, it’s all about the kids, ones like my daughter who will undoubtedly leave one day and venture far away, but who can carry with them the strength, courage, tenacity and pride they found right here in their hometown.

As the car rolls on, I glance at her as she gazes out the window, seeing her hometown roll by. And I smile, as I am filled with pride; in her, in us, and in our hometown.

This Uncurated Life

It was with interest that I listened to a young woman explain her Instagram feed to me. She explained how she always uses the same filters, the same focus on her lens, the same point of view to create a consistent feel for her photos.

She called it her curated life.

I found this both intriguing and troubling, because one of the things I have come to recognize over the last five decades is that life is both uncuratable and truly at its best when it is messy.

My Instagram feed looks like nothing like a curated collection. It is a collection of real moments from my life, from suede shoes with bits of cat fur clinging to them to odd angles, bad lighting and brief glimpses of all the imperfections. And if I am honest these are the type of Instagram feeds I am drawn to, because instead of trying to create some image of perfection they instead reflect the reality of other’s lives.

Have you ever seen an Instagram feed or a Facebook profile that seems to display a perfect life? These always make me suspicious because the truth is life is not perfect.

If I had had the option to curate my life I would’ve curated out so many things; the painful death of my father from lung cancer; my mother’s sudden-death from an aneurysm; the loss of vision in my left eye due to disease; the demise of a 24 year marriage and so much more. But in the same way I would’ve wished to curate these things out of my life, they are what has made my life what it is.

I wonder about those who strive for a curated life; I suspect that one day life will surprise them as it surprises all of us, with unexpected happenings both good and bad. It is unlikely these things will fit into their curation, and yet these are the things that give life true beauty.

I am not saying that terrible things are beautiful; please don’t misunderstand. But I think if life were nothing but perfect, we would not appreciate it because we would not understand there are two sides to living.

They say that we only appreciate light because we can see the dark and warmth because we experience being cold. I think this is true of life as well. Perhaps those who curate their lives have not yet experienced the loss of a loved one, the end of a relationship, significant illness or any of the other life traumas that eventually we will all face. Or perhaps they have endured these things and have instead chosen to focus on a beautiful, “perfect” life.

And I do not judge them for this; I simply do not believe that life can be curated and nor should it be. Life is messy, difficult, occasionally painful and yet incredibly beautiful.

The loss of my parents made me understand how much I treasured them; the end of my marriage led me to explore my own need for independence; the loss of vision in one eye made me appreciate being able to see. To curate these things out of my life would be to deny that they are part of it and part of the journey of my existence.

I not only accept but also celebrate my time on this planet, with moments of both joy and anguish, as I wander through this uncurated life.