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the diary thing 
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05.22.00
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 sad
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Vv - violinA LONG HIATUS. Longer than I've ever left it before. What can I say -- life and work has been a bit overwhelming lately, on a lot of fronts. Mostly it's work -- the undertakers piece took up a lot of my time, and I've been working on two other big features while I wait for it to be edited. I've been pitching a few pieces as well, while living pretty austere, the result of being utterly broke.

The two are linked of course -- I didn't keep up my pitches, with the result that there were long gaps between stories, and fewer cheques. The result: penury. A few photo jobs filled the gap, but only enough to keep us in food. Last week we were rolling change to pay for groceries. To make matters worse, the national daily lost two of my invoices, nearly a thousand bucks I could have used. It's been quite the couple of weeks. On any given day I could have written a diary entry that would have been little more than whining and self-pity, and I just didn't feel like it. Trust me -- I've done you all a favor by laying low.

STANDING BY THE OVENS at St. James Crematorium, I listen to the funeral director and the guy in charge of the ovens (the cremator? the crematorist? the crematist?) make small talk. There's a bit of a queue today, and caskets sit on shelves and dollys all over the little underground room. Both of the retorts are going full blast, and the name of the occupant of each casket is indicated by what looks like a big, yellow post-it on the lid.

Steven, the funeral director, is focused on one particular casket, an oblong plywood box covered with peeling vinyl upholstery with rope handles. He's appalled -- it's obviously nothing professional; no funeral director would knowingly sell something so slapdash to a family, and beyond the suggestion of amateurism, I think he's actually aesthetically offended. Next to the burnished, gleaming wooden boxes all around us, and even the simple, unfinished plywood coffins that indicate either a parsimonious, principled funeral or a pauper's death, the vinyl-covered box is patently cheap, even tasteless. He shakes his head sadly while the crematorium attendant asks whether the casket we've brought in has zinc handles.

"The zinc just melts in the retort, and when we try to pry it out, it just pulls up the bricks lining the oven. It's a real drag."

Only much later, while I'm on the streetcar mulling over my day, does it occur to me: There were dead bodies in all of those boxes. Within a week of hanging around Steven and Stanley, I've become completely blase about dead bodies, and death in general. Or so I thought.


 
"Every one can master a grief but he that has it."
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- Shakespeare
Much Ado about Nothing

 
It's all very nice to write about death and sadness when, lucky you, you're passing through one of those long, deathless, stretches of life. Just don't think it'll last forever.

THE DECK GARDEN IS UNDER WAY, and nearly every container and pot has been planted. The cold weather has kept us from putting in tomatoes or peppers, and hasn't done any favours to the Italian oregano we planted a couple of weeks ago, but we decided to chance it this weekend, and came back from Roncesvalles with three flats of seedlings. 

We rushed out again and returned in a cab whose trunk was loaded with bags of soil. Lugging them up three flights of stairs, we set to work. K. bought some big metal wastepaper baskets, deep and wide, for the deep roots of the tomatoes. While I transplanted the ivy we propagated from cuttings over the winter, K. started filling the wastebaskets with dirt and lime. An hour or so later, we had a neat row of vegetables in big pots, and a few more ornamental containers. K.'s been on a bit of a flower jag this year, and has abdicated responsibility for the vegetables to me. I planted a nice pot of thyme -- lemon and mother-of-thyme -- and two types of sage. We decided to plant more pot marigolds in small pots and place them around the tomatoes and peppers, both for colour and to attract ladybugs. We had a bit of an aphid plague last year, and anything we can do to fight them off will help. 

A few weeks ago, K. was sitting in bed, a stack of gardening books by her side, storing up inspiration for the work ahead. I think the unseasonably chill May weather frustrated her a bit. Last week it rained for several days in a row, and while that spared us lugging water out to the deck from the tub, it brought dreary skies and cool weather. Every morning, K. would stand at the door leading to the deck, a forlorn look on her face, staring at the damp pots and the plants shivering in the wind.

One book, about the revival of a decrepit,  overgrown estate garden in Cornwall, seemed to excite her most of all, and she's been nipping into a sort of gardening polemic on and off that's provided some further inspiration. I'm not sure if our motley collection of pots and bins, old kitchen sinks and pails, can satisfy her for too many more years before she'll need a real plot of earth, but it's nice to see the deck take shape, from the sad dumping ground of inert soil and dead stalks that emerged from the snow a couple of months ago, the the budding collection of sprouts, seedlings and transplants it is this weekend. By August it should be lovely.

IT'S BEEN QUITE THE WEEK for sad news. A couple of our friends seem to be going through a rocky patch in their marriage, and it's sent a chill through our circle of couples. While they try to work it out, we all exchange e-mails full of sympathy and support and try not to take sides. It's the only thing we're able to talk about, it seems.

And then, just as K. and I tentatively congratulate ourselves on an apparently tranquil time here at home, a trip to the vet confirms our nagging worry: our little cat, Nato, has cancer. Three months, says the vet, maybe six. She's fine right now, maybe a bit less lively, no sign of pain or distress, but it's probably inevitable: a slow decline, barely noticeable, then a few, telling incidents that will be hard to ignore.

We've promised each other not to let her suffer. When she can't function normally, when her basic behaviour seems changed and strained, we'll take her in, together. I still can't believe it -- we walked home from the vet with Nato in her little box, opened the lid for her to leap out, then burst into tears. Hours later, I was bawling again. "You can't mourn the living," K. reminded me, and she's right. Here I am, crying for my little cat while she frisks against my leg and meows for attention. It's breaking my heart, it really is.

So it's all just a waiting game, now. We hope she'll be okay, that the vet was being too pessimistic, that she might have more than six months; a year, maybe, to enjoy her life. But it's all just hope, and hope is, sadly, the cheapest comfort. I've had that little cat since she was a little, undernourished refugee from the pound, and I always thought I'd have years with her. Keebler, twice her age, will probably outlive her, as might some of the plants out on the deck. I can't even think about it without the tears welling up. It's so damned maudlin, but impossible to keep the thoughts from crowding to the front of my mind.

So we try, every moment, to push the thoughts back, to ignore the impulse to imagine those last days; the decision made in low voices; a phone call for an appointment; the last, sleepless night while she snuggles between us in bed; the cold metal table at the vet; the last fading look in her eyes. I can't stand it.

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writing ©2000
Rick McGinnis
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