150

Hey everybody! I’ve been going down a rabbit hole of memories these past few posts, and you’d think that writing that one about my high school reunion would have purged all the brown water ghosts and left the tap available for nice cool clear water musings, BUT YOU WOULD BE WRONG because I think I’ve got one more in me.

U2 is wrapping up the first leg of their “Joshua Tree 30th Anniversary Tour” tonight in Cleveland. (And you might think that this blog post would have turned into a little meditation on U2 and The Joshua Tree album and what it meant to me, but I think I’ve talked enough about U2 on here.) I was lucky enough to catch the opening night of this tour in Vancouver over a month ago, and here is my mini-review. It was a bit weird and boring to hear the band play The Joshua Tree album completely in order, and yet it meant hearing songs played live that I’ve never heard played live before, and hey: it’s U2 and I’m delighted to see them in concert no matter what but I am also looking forward to a new album and new tour and this band is always best when it is looking forward, not backwards. There, that’s my review. Also: I couldn’t get a t-shirt so I ordered one online and that turned out to be a terrible idea and maybe a story for another time.

This morning Bono and the Edge will be performing something on Canada’s Parliament Hill. It’s our 150th, you know. I morbidly mentioned at breakfast the other day that we weren’t around for the 100th, and we won’t be around for the 200th, so THIS IS IT. (No pressure). Us Canadians don’t really go in for a lot of patriotic flag waving. We prefer a quiet smugness with the knowledge that we live in the best place on Earth.

But living in a “the best place on Earth” does NOT mean for one second that we live in a “perfect” place. I understand the desire for protests over celebrating this seemingly arbitrary milestone. Our country’s history is filled with stories of our complicated, one-sided and shameful relationship with indigenous people, and that only now are there the beginnings of some awkward and half-assed attempts at reconciliation. I know our “squeaky clean” image on the world’s stage is convenient fiction, an easy stereotype that we are often too readily eager to let stick. I know there’s still much work to be done.

And yet, I love this damn country. I love the fact that could can just keep going north, if you want to, until you reach the north pole, and you could keep on going and end up in Norway. I love the Group of Seven, and the Rocky Mountains, and the prairie sunsets and summer evenings and cold -40 days where you bundle up and get on with life anyway and you feel pretty good about it especially when you come back inside to a slow cooker that’s been simmering that chili all day long and you get to eat it with your friends all rosy-cheeked. I love universal health care, and kindness, and adventure, and The Tragically Hip and SCTV and West Coast rainforests and even Tim Horton’s and Tilley Hats and the Friendly Giant and tobogganing and Bonhomme and Gimli and the way snow squeaks when it gets below -20 and Leonard Cohen and, and…

I’m happy we have a day where we can reflect and celebrate all this.

I wouldn’t say I have a tradition or a pattern to my Canada Days, but we always end up doing something unabashedly summery. To me, Canada Day always marks the offical beginning of summer, the gateway to the easy season. Growing up, we lived within a short walk or bike ride to a huge park that always had fireworks. So, if we were in town we would often default to a BBQ and then a stroll over to the park in the evening for the show. Those quiet, easy good no celebrations always were the most fun. When we were older, we’d ditch the parents and go with our friends. If we weren’t in the city, we were out at my aunt and uncle’s cottage, and getting to spend time with all my cousins was always a highlight among the docks and rocks of the Canadian Shield.

But we weren’t always close to home on Canada Day.

One Canada Day, growing up, my family planned to be in Ottawa. That was pretty great. We attended the Canada Day concerts on Parliament Hill, met our MP, watched the changing of the guard, waved at Jeanne Sauvé, our governor-general and got heat stroke.

Another great Canada Day away was spent in Banff, and we lined the main street for a parade. The lasting memory for me was a fireworks show at night that rumbled and echoed all through and around the mountains. The Park eventually stopped doing those fireworks shows because they “upset the wildlife” but I was glad to have experienced it when I had the chance.

About 10 years ago, I spent a Canada Day exploring Algonquin Park, north of Toronto, and even hanging out on Canoe Lake for a few hours. For a Tom Thomson fan, this was a lifelong thrill. 

More recently, we’ve gone for part of the day up to a historic fort north of the city (free admission!), or attended one of many “street or market festivals” before heading home or to someone’s place for a BBQ. Summer!

I can’t think of Canada Day without thinking of my late uncle’s conviction that it should never have been called Canada Day in the first place. He said that no other nation on earth calls its national holiday the same name as the country it is celebrating. When I would point out to him that Australia’s national day is called “Australia Day”, he sneered and said that was named after the continent. (And then mumbled something about Australia not being a proper country anyway as he stormed off). Canada Day was always called “Dominion Day” from 1867 until an act of parliament changed it to “Canada Day” in 1982. My cousin (my uncle’s son) had a t-shirt made up that said, “It will always be Dominion Day to me” which my uncle proudly wore, not just on Canada Day, but as part of his regular summer wardrobe rotation. One time, he came home from the grocery store beaming that another man had tapped him on the shoulder, say he liked his shirt and agreed with him 100%. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. Mental illness doesn’t just run in my family, it practically gallops.

I’ll never forget Canada Day, 2002. My then-girlfriend, now my wife, and I were up at my uncle and aunt’s cottage along with all my cousins. For some reason my Mom didn’t go with us that time.  The cottage was a couple of hours out-of-town, and we planned to stay up there with everyone for 3 or 4 days. Canada Day fell on a Monday that year, and we headed out on the Saturday morning. As hoped and expected, we had a great time doing all the cottagey things we loved to do on the Saturday and Sunday. On the Monday we got up, sang O Canada! on the dock and settled in for another day of lounging, boating, swimming, napping, and eating. Then, late in the afternoon, the phone rang. It was my girlfriend’s Mom calling to say that her Mom, my girlfriend’s grandma Helen, wasn’t doing great and maybe we could come back a little early? Helen not been well for a few months, in and out of the hospital, and in fact was in the hospital when we left for the weekend. My girlfriend’s Mom didn’t sound all that panicky, and we even debated about what we should do. We eventually decided that we should go check on things, but I don’t remember a big rush or panic packing up. My cousins and uncle and aunt sent their best wishes along with us as we headed home. I even remember stopping for ice cream before we made it to the hospital, so that can give you a bit of an idea of how worried we were.

As it turned out, it was the best decision to head in when we did, because when we got to the hospital, my girlfriend’s parents and brother (and oddly enough, my Mom!) were already there, and it became clear that Helen was not going to make it through the night. I felt self-conscious because I was still in my cottage clothes, a lime green swimsuit and a tank top. (For God’s sake, I am attending a death of a sudden. Couldn’t I have at least had the sense to put on a shirt with sleeves??) No one seemed to care what I was wearing though. As the evening wore on, more relatives made their way to the hospital, the space around Helen’s bed became crowded. Who knew we’d be seeing both sides of the family that weekend? An impromptu reunion. My girlfriend’s aunt from Toronto even hopped on a plane that afternoon, and there was much talk about whether she would make it home “in time”. [editor’s note: Aunt Lynn did NOT make it home in time, but she did come straight to the hospital from the airport, and they were all glad to see her when she arrived]

I had never been present at a death before. I felt a strange sense of privilege to be included in this most intimate of life’s milestones. It must be similar to being present at someone’s birth? I kept expecting some distant cousin to ask, “Who’s the doofus in the lime shorts?” but no one ever did. When the time came, it was peaceful. Sad, too. But it was a sense of peace that washed over me first. I stepped out into the hallway shortly after it happened to give the immediate family some privacy and alone time. Then, I heard all kinds of bangs and pops and couldn’t make sense of what was happening. Helen’s hospital was across the street from one of the biggest parks in town, (the same park, truth be told, that we would walk or ride our bikes to on many past Canada Days), and it was the fireworks display going off. Of course! It was still Canada Day. My girlfriend joined me in the hallway and we walked to the end where there were big glass windows overlooking the park. We just stood there, side by side, appreciating the incongruity of sadness and joy, grief and celebration, literally death and life happening all at the same time. “Well, my grandma always loved a party,” my girlfriend sighed, and it all sort of seemed to make a bit of sense at that moment. Not a bad send-off, in the end.

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So, is Canada perfect? No, of course not. Nothing created by humans ever is, but I’ll tell you this: I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the world. (Well, okay. I could be convinced to spend time in Ireland, England, Norway, Iceland or Sweden. I wouldn’t say “no” to an extended visit to Hawaii either), but YOU GET MY MEANING. I feel blessed and lucky to call myself Canadian, and that’s all I have to say about that. To say anything else wouldn’t be very Canadian, would it?

Happy Canada Day, everyone! (Or Dominion Day, if you prefer).

 

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