There is a row of spruce trees at the back of the yard. The tallest was struck by lightning. I was two rooms deep into the house and the light that came in was the most incredible thing to see. There was a wash of the coldest white and blue. And though there were no shadows everything was eerily defined. The noise that followed was felt as much as it was heard. The tree still stands but almost four years on it hasn’t healed. The strike left a scar that runs down the length of the trunk to the ground. With every season the crack gets deeper.
I had a lovely thought last week. I was driving in the car and just out of the blue it came to me. It was a wonderful memory – well two sort of but they were connected. The memory was of my youngest nephew, Matthew, when he was small. We had rented a hockey rink for a birthday party and Matthew was so excited to come and get on the ice. He must have been around 4 maybe…I’m not sure… but I do remember how happy he was. The second part also had to do with an arena. My sister brought her boys to see my stepson play and as he came out of the dressing room he said hello to Matthew. Matthew’s whole face lit up because he’d been acknowledged by this older boy heading out to the ice to play. I honestly don’t think he could have been happier that day. He would have loved to play hockey. I’m sure of it. He never got the chance. He was born with an adorable sideways smile and a progressive neuromuscular disease.
Picture time as a hallway broken up by consecutive doors. Each door represents a unit of time. The doors are sheer enough to look back through but there are layers and layers of them. Each one takes you further away from where you have been and try though you may you can never bridge that space between now and then. No matter how much you may long for the “before”, just thin doors of time away, there is only what comes after. We say things like “I would give anything if I could have just one more day…one more hour” but the truth is one more hour or one more day wouldn’t be enough.
The night that Matthew died always comes back to me in sound bites and still pictures – the phone call – the car ride – standing on the porch as they return from the hospital – my sister opening the car door – her face as she tells me and it’s like that flash of lightning filling everything up with something alien and terrifying as I move in slow motion to take her into my arms. The rest of the night, the weeks, the months, the years, are marked by moments of awful clarity distinct as pale figures caught naked in the stark flickering of a strobe light.
Matthew lived 16 years. The brevity of his life along with much of what he endured and what has come to pass since he left us is beyond difficult to fully grasp. I am grateful for the things that offer a counter balance to the downright unfairness of it all. I need those things; like those days in the arena, or any moment I’m called to mind the good things that were a part of his life and what good things he brought to all of ours.
I like to watch the birds in the garden. I can see them as I gaze out the kitchen window. The blue jays scream and argue. The woodpeckers and nuthatches are a circus of acrobats as they negotiate the expanse of tree trunks. There are different kinds of sparrows, cardinal couples, and flocks of dark-eyed juncos. In the summer there’ll be hummingbirds and orioles. Several times a day the birds will suddenly scatter. I don’t know why. Perhaps there’s a noise, a movement, or a falling shadow that sets them off. Often it’s nothing and they quickly return. Sometimes though, that shadow will be a hunting hawk. Maybe a red tail but more likely a Cooper’s hawk. There will be a flash of darkness and then silence as a few stray feathers float to the ground.
The garden will be silent then, sometimes for hours. I watch to see if the birds return. And they do but I can never tell if they’re the same ones that were here before. At dawn and dusk there’s always the call of the mourning doves. A storm might blow in and I’ll watch as a curtain of rain sweeps across the fields before it engulfs the house.
I wonder how long it will be until the spruce tree finally falls.
Several years ago I sustained an eye injury that was rather life changing. I wrote “rather” because in a relative assessment of all possible life changing events it doesn’t alter the bell curve. Still as it is my event, it does seem fairly significant to me. Not earthquake, actual space aliens, win the lottery life changing but more mundane every day life changing. My event was an easily avoidable injury that was in fact totally my fault.
I was acting as manager for my son’s hockey team. I was taking pictures of a practice drill and got too close to the action. I didn’t realize how close as I happened to be looking down into the screen of a digital camera. The reason I was standing so close was also the reason my right eye wasn’t turned into mush. Because I was looking down I had no idea I was right behind the net and because I was looking down the edge of the puck caught me in the supraorbital foramen (which is a fancy name for the brow bone above the eye) rather than the soft jelly of my eyeball. The puck then tipped flat to compress the eye and cheek bone. The bones around the eye socket did what they were supposed to do which was to protect the eye as well as possible but it was a slap shot so I wasn’t getting away scot-free*.
At first I had no idea as to the severity of the injury. I just thought my eye was watering. It was the beginning of the season and that night the team was going to be voting for captain and assistant captain. We were also going to be handing out jerseys. I patiently explained this to my husband (who was coaching the team) and the other hockey mom who had gone with me to the bathroom (I don’t know why but for some reason my first thought after getting hit by a slap shot was that I needed to wash my hands). They both were equally insistent that I had to go to the hospital immediately. I hadn’t looked when I was in the bathroom so I had no idea how bad it was. It hadn’t even really started to hurt yet. I do have to commend that same mom who went to the bathroom with me for not missing a beat (I originally had written “batting an eye” here but I changed it because, well, hockey puck-eye, it seemed like too many eyes) when I asked her how it looked. The fact that she kept all expression from her face and calmly answered that it was probably for the best to have it looked at when she could actually see my skull gaping through the wound was admirable.
The hospital visit was quite an adventure but that’s a story all its own. I’ll save that for another time. The short version was they stitched up the wound and sent me home. I have a scar conveniently located in my eyebrow that you can only see if I point it out and I lost a portion of the vision in that eye. I have a small blind spot. It is in the centre of vision for my right eye so I can’t use that eye to do anything you need central vision for. Additionally the muscle that dilates the pupil was damaged so it doesn’t work properly. It’s been years since the injury occurred and I still experience sharp stabbing pains or a dull aching throb that spreads through the right side of my face. The optometrist says the pain is caused by nerve damage and it’s not going to go away. He showed me a picture of the scar caused by the injury on the back of my eyeball (it was seriously cool to see but obviously I’d trade the “cool” for not having been so careless). Sometimes the pupil is round and sometimes it is oval in shape and it doesn’t react well to strong light. I experience bright flashes of lights or dark spots that move across my vision. My depth perception has been affected so I’ve had to relearn certain skills and practices. I know I’m lucky I didn’t lose the eye. I am extremely thankful for that but now I have to think twice about things I never gave even one thought to before. Applying make-up or putting in my contacts, driving, reading or watching television have all required adjustments.
One of the most problematic things for me as an artist is that for some reason the eye injury has changed the way I perceive colour values. I received treatment for my injury at the Ivey Eye Institute (eyes are what they do there) but they weren’t sure about that one. Also they were confused as to why I would read eye charts from right to left for the first couple of months after my accident. Personally I think it was a concussion which would also explain the forgetfulness and random fits of crying but I’m not a doctor (my former family doctor at the time was not the most attentive guy so who knows?). Anyhow the reading thing worked itself out but the colour thing didn’t. To be clear I can tell different colours apart. I am not colour blind. But say if there are different values of black, or blue, or even white which are close together, I have issues. The painting I am currently working on has made this more than apparent. The composition has sky and clouds that gradate in values that are for the most part very close. I’ve been trying to build up thin layers working from dark to light. I wanted to work with thin layers because I’d never used them before to create depth and I thought the technique would provide a balance of power and delicacy. It’s been an exercise in patience.
There have been some other things that have factored in. I’m working with acrylic paint and gel medium along with a retarder so I have to be careful with the ratio of pigment to additives. The painting is part of a series based on a single image so I have to keep my tendency to explore different directions in check as the piece progresses. It’s a big canvas with a lot of area to cover and despite the fact that I really enjoy the process there are days when it is difficult to stay on task. Normally when I encounter any kind of road block I find that music can help with the process. I purposely pick something to listen to that I last listened to when my work was going smoothly. It helps to bring me back to a state of mind that is engaged in the process. I will put a CD or a song on repeat and listen to it for hours and hours. My latest “go to” is Mahalia Jackson’s “His Eye is on The Sparrow”. Today though I had a bit of a freak out and all the Mahalia Jackson was not going to move me forward. It wasn’t the technique or the materials that caused my little mini meltdown; it was the fact that I could not “see” my way through the resolution of the composition.
The more I worked on the sky the flatter (as in one-dimensional) everything became. Layer after layer, the light seemed to fade back into the middle tones and the more I strove for definition the less I found. When you get to that point it’s usually best to walk away for a bit but to be honest I’ve been working on this piece, on and off, for a couple of months now. I’ve been doing some other stuff but this canvas is dominating my small work space and frankly I’m ready to see it done. There was also the very undeniable fact that my “wonky” eye simply wouldn’t allow me to move forward with the realization in the manner I wanted to. So I abandoned the plan and painted over a portion of the sky I had built up layer by layer. As I was doing it I was actually telling myself not to, to just leave it alone, that I was covering up a ton of work and I was going to be sorry.
At first I was sorry. I stood back and looked at it. Then I took a picture of it and looked at that. The repainted area was stark and not particularly well articulated but looking at the image captured by the camera I could “see” that it accomplished more for creating depth than all my multiple layers. There’s still a lot more work that needs to be done and I still might regret my choice but then again nothing ventured, nothing gained.
I used to get angry with myself every time I had to make some kind of change or compromise because it was my own carelessness that had served to make my life more complicated. Granted on the old bell curve I mentioned in the first paragraph my injury doesn’t rate up there with things like death or divorce but for me it has had a very significant impact on everything I do. We have a tendency to overlook how little is actually required to change the playing field. Like most people I could name at least a handful of other events in my life that have been tragically heart breaking so I can’t help but think how odd it is that such a small slip should be the thing that touches all areas of my life. The things I took as a given changed in the blink of an eye (and yes I did use the phrase “blink of an eye” here on purpose).
The doctors told me there’s a pretty good chance I’m going to develop cataracts because of the injury but I’ll cross that bridge if or when I come to it. If the choice I made with the canvas was a mistake, well I’ll deal with that too. You could quite correctly say that the painting and a possible eye surgery are not even close to the same thing but for me they are in the end about actions and consequences. I think the important thing with any of it is to not get stuck and to not be afraid. If you can, you’ve got to roll with changes. Who knows how it all will turn out?
Songs for this post Mahalia Jackson His Eye is on the Sparrow. This isn’t the version I’ve been listening to but it’s pretty close. And because of the title of the blog entry- David Bowie Changes
Now if you want to see a picture of my eye or the painting I’ve referred to scroll past this little bit about “scot-free”. If I remember correctly the picture of my eye was taken about 10 days after I got hit so it was well on the way to healing but my whole face was still pretty swollen. Also the puck hit me so hard I ended up with a bit of a black eye on the other side as well. They shaved off part of my eyebrow, so they could stitch the wound, but it grew back just fine. I don’ t have a larger picture but I think you can still get the general idea even at a low resolution.
* I just looked up he meaning of “scot free” as I had no idea of the origin of the term.
‘Scot’ as a term for tax has been used since then in various forms – Church scot, Rome scot, Soul scot and so on. Whatever the tax, the phrase ‘getting off scot free’ simply refers to not paying one’s taxes.
No one likes paying tax and people have been getting off scot free since at least the 11th century. The first reference in print to ‘scot free’ is in the Writ of Edward the Confessor. We don’t have a precise date for the writ but Edward died in 1066, which is a long time before Dred Scott.
The use of the figurative version of the phrase, that is, one where no actual scot tax was paid but in which someone escapes custody, began in the 16th century, as in this example from John Maplet’s natural history Green Forest, 1567:
“Daniell scaped scotchfree by Gods prouidence.”
‘Scotchfree’ was a variant based on a mishearing. An example of the currently used form, that is, ‘scot free’, comes a few years later, in Robert Greene’s The Historie of Dorastus and Fawnia, 1588:
These and the like considerations something daunted Pandosto his courage, so that hee was content rather to put up a manifest injurie with peace, then hunt after revenge, dishonor and losse; determining since Egistus had escaped scot-free.
I’m pretty sure that if I had known all that was going to be involved I would never have said yes…but, when my son’s aunt called up and offered to pay I said sure, okay. She said that she would take care of the registration fee if I would agree to cover the cost of equipment. I was between pay cheques so I trundled off to the pawnshop to hock some jewelry. Actually when I returned to get it a week later the gentleman who owned the store didn’t even charge me a fee. I don’t know if he was a fan (as I had explained my need for quick cash) but given the circumstances it was a kindness that I certainly could appreciate. And just like that everything changed.
I had grown up in a single parent household and there had never been money for any type of organized sports. My brother could skate but he’d never actually played hockey that I knew of. There was no hockey night in Canada in my house. When I finally married years later my husband would be shocked and somewhat appalled that I had never even heard of the Canada-Russia series. I had a vague idea of who Wayne Gretzsky and Bobby Orr were (another something scandalous to my Bruins fanatic husband) but I couldn’t have told you that they were Canadian. Don Cherry was an unknown to me as were the terms “original 6”, “puck bunnies” and “hat trick”. So even though I’d been born in the great white north, I was not born into the culture of hockey.
Before I got married to my hockey crazy husband I too was a single parent as my mother before me. I was, as I have already said, blissfully unaware of the gaping hole in my knowledge of the national pastime. My son had not even been on skates before his first hockey practice. He was enthusiastic and so was I as we headed off to the arena. The place was teeming with what looked like hundreds of armored midgets. We found the change room and started to get ready. I wasn’t sure how everything went on but with a little help from one of the hockey dads we were set to go.
Thank God for all the padding, I think that my son spent more time lying on the ice than he did standing up. I was in the warm room watching the action on the ice through the large picture window when I heard two of the other mothers critiquing the 5 year olds who were on the ice.
” Look,” said the first one, “there are some kids who can’t even skate out there”.
The other mother, absolutely horrified, answered, ” You’ve got to be kidding”.
It was my child they were referring to of course. He couldn’t skate but he didn’t care, he was having a great time. This was my first taste of the elitism of the hockey rink.
This phenomenon, in case you don’t know, is a well known disease found around Canadian hockey rinks. The symptoms manifest themselves in an all consuming parental belief that it is only a matter of time until their little Johnny is noticed by a roaming scout and whisked off on a magical journey to the enchanted world of the NHL. I am fortunately immune to this particular disease. I actually have a malady that is characterized by the fervent hope that one’s child will someday become a successful dentist (yeah! free dental care). So ambition free I was able to enjoy my little tyke rolling around on the ice in his little red Timbits jersey. Lord knows I had no idea once again and after such an auspicious start that he would become a beautiful and graceful skater. Later we’d always tell him he should have gone into figure skating (that was before I learned how much that cost!). He’s been playing hockey for ten years now and he still doesn’t have much of a shot but that boy can skate.
But back to that day in 1995, that day, my son discovered his first love. He discovered the joy of being one of a company of men, little 2 1/2 foot men but men nonetheless. He learned that it is fun to sweat, stink, and spit and to be a little bit, not a lot, “bad” (moms don’t seem to encourage that type of thing). It was never any problem to get him out of bed as early as 6 or even 5 am to go off to the rink. He loved it and still does. He’s played house league and competitive (travel) hockey and I’ll tell you that he liked the house league better. He’s had winning seasons full of trophies and medals and he’s had losing seasons where even I got tired of listening to myself say ” Did you try your best? Then that’s all that matters”. Trust me when your team hasn’t won even one game in a season those words start to sound pretty empty. This past year was the first time he had the opportunity to skate around the ice carrying a championship banner. But even if his team hadn’t gone all the way he’d still have came back this year. It’s what he is and it’s what does. Football might distract him, he actually managed to get knocked unconscious last year and he loved that, or lacrosse or dirt biking but hockey remains his first love.
September is here and I’m digging through the old equipment trying to figure out what I can make “last one more year”. No amount of washing can remove the underlying stench of the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” (or should I say the smell of de’ feet). My son likes that smell. Halfway through hockey season I don’t even want to sit in the car with his bag and he actually can’t wait to put the malodorous contents on. Next Sunday will be his first time on the ice this season. Actually I’m sort of looking forward to it.
Don’t get me wrong I don’t enjoy the early mornings, arena coffee, occasional crazy parent, long road trips or cold weather and even colder arenas. What I’ll be watching for is that first step out onto the ice when skates kiss the cold hardness and my son slips into the rough embrace of the game. I know he doesn’t see it as a discipline, or a philosophy or as anything grandiose for that matter. To him it is what it is and that’s just fine. There is something to be said for the joy to be found in watching someone do something that they love with their whole being. When it all comes together, as sweaty and stinky and bruising as it is, for him it is his poetry, his life, his first and perhaps forever love.