“The sea is made out of the dreams and wishes of sailors and lost souls.” – Old Maritime Saying
Chapter One – The Color of Mourning
I only wanted to say goodbye.
Do you know what I mean by that?
I sure don’t.
A woman’s last thoughts on this earth really ought to mean something deep and profound but for some mysterious and inexplicable reason, at this moment in time all that I could really think of was the memory of my mother.
I know what you are thinking. You are saying to yourself that it is only natural to think about the woman who brought you into this world at the moment that you are getting prepared to step out of this world. Well, listen – you have to understand that my mother is one of the strangest human beings that I have ever had the pleasure – as well as the undeniable displeasure - of knowing.
And sometimes, not knowing.
My mother always told me that my middle name should have been Hemorrhoid – partly because that was the only true gift that she ever remembers me giving her during my nine months of slowly getting around to finally being born – but mostly because, as she put it, I was the world’s greatest pain in the butt.
“Hemorrhoid isn’t really any kind of a name,” the delivery doctor had argued with my mother, after she had confided her choice of a name for her firstborn child to approximately half of the hospital’s five and a half floors worth of patients and staff in one long lungful of a screaming shout – “JESUS DYING NAIL PALMED CHRIST ALMIGHTY, MARGARET HEMORRHOID SALLY ANNE MACBETH - WILL YOU JUST HURRY THE HELL UP AND GET BORN!”
“That really isn’t a name,” the delivery doctor told her. “It is more along the lines of a medical manifestation.”
“I have an Aunt Hermione,” my mother tartly informed the delivery doctor. “That’s close enough to Hemorrhoid, isn’t it?”
Jazz hands, mom.
Big time jazz hands.
“I want to name the child Hemorrhoid,” my mother had insisted. “I have the right if I want to do so.”
And yes indeed - that was most DEFINITELY a jazz hands, hallelujah and please pass the caramel-coated popcorn moment in my whole entire lifetime.
Thank God and all of the saints in heaven that my mother was a stubborn and staunch Catholic and that the attending priest that she had insisted upon being present for the delivery had somehow managed to talk my mother out of naming me Hemorrhoid about ten minutes before the final push. I think that his argument might have involved a threat of excommunication and quite possibly an unfriending and a permanent block upon the Vatican’s Facebook page.
However he did it, I am eternally grateful to the attending priest.
I mean – just think about it.
Can you actually imagine spending your entire lifetime constantly spell-checking your own first name?
Go ahead – just try and close your eyes and spell out H-E-M-O-R-R-H-O-I-D without having to resort to a discrete peek at a medical dictionary.
I dare you.
I am not quite sure just exactly why I was thinking about my mother’s peculiar choice in birth names at this particular point in time. It wasn’t like I had lost my mother. I actually knew just exactly where I had left her - even though she was certain in her mind that she wasn’t really there where I had left her, at all.
So where exactly was she?
Depending upon the direction of the wind she was somewhere either between forty or sixty years ago in her mind. Either way she was a whole lot younger and a whole lot prettier and waiting for my Dad to come home from the war.
Which war, you ask?
Well, any war, actually.
You name it.
Depending upon the day of the week my mother would tell you that she was waiting for my Dad to come home from World War 1, World War 2, the Korean War, the Vietnam War or even that little British brew-up in the Falklands.
Mind you, my father had never actually served in ANY of these particular wars. He hadn’t even been a member of the Canadian Armed Forces or ANY armed forces at all – unless you count the fact that he filled two sleeves in every dress shirt he ever wore – but he was not a member of any actual army that I have ever heard of.
My mother made that tiny little itsy-bitsy detail up as well. She has always been a bit of a fabulist – which is a high-faluting frou-frou way of saying that she was a stone cold natural liar on any given day of the week – and her deteriorating mental situation at this point in time was giving way to that whole stretch-the-truth tendency of hers.
The mind is a wonderfully talented origamist that way. Whenever it wants to it can fold reality into any number of possible permutations. I do not know everything that there is to know in this life but I do know this – dementia is God’s greatest practical joke on anyone who has ever meant to someday get around to sitting down and finally once and for all writing their own life story down for posterity.
Any publicity rep will tell you – never buy into your own PR.
Now I can hear you thinking that dementia is actually NOT something to be joked about – but I learned a very long time ago that it was better to laugh about something that you cannot do anything about - rather than breaking down and crying. In fact - when it comes right down to it tears are nothing more than slow wet giggles running snail tracks down your cheekbones.
So what was I really waiting for?
I stood on the side of the Lunenburg highway, close to Blue Cove and what the locals refer to as the Lonely Point Lighthouse. The wind was calm and the morning was clear and I could see the distant lighthouse that had given the area its name.
The lighthouse was actually NOT on a point but rather a lonely little spit of an island just beyond the cove. I believe that at one point the island might actually have been connected to the shore by a thin stretch of low-rising land but the vagaries of the tidal shift had gradually erased all memories of the earthen connection.
I stood there alone, bathed in the early morning light of a Nova Scotia morning, holding the wooden white-painted picket-cross gently in my left hand, while leaning upon the handle of a slightly-rusted garden spade.
I probably looked just a little bit like Bram Stoker’s old vampire-hunter Abraham Van Helsing in drag or possibly some sort of a strange roadside born-again penitent reverend mother in a tropical print polyester windbreaker and a pair of tangerine dress slacks.
I wondered yet again if I shouldn’t have worn black.
Black was the color of mourning, wasn’t it?
No, not black.
Black was definitely NOT the color of mourning. Black was a color worn by international spies and by people who did not happen to suffer from the lingering embarrassment of dandruff. Black was worn by old school nuns and by Anglican ministers and by the occasional chain smoking neo-bohemian performance poet.
As far as I was concerned the color of mourning was neon canary yellow.
You do not believe me?
Just give me a minute and I swear to you that I will convert you over from black to yellow thinking.
Besides – Abraham Van Helsing was supposed to be a heroic figure – unless maybe you counted Anthony Hopkins rather dubious portrayal of the fearless over-eating flatulent vampire hunter in Francis Ford Coppola’s over-rated1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula – and who in their right mind would want to count that?
Let me just gather my thoughts for a moment.
That might take a little bit of doing – kind of like the sort of doing that it would take to sit down and re-organize a yarn ball factory after a large herd of kittens had rambled their way through the back stockroom.
What was I really doing?
I must be freaking crazy.
What on earth was I doing out here?
I looked again at the wooden picket-cross I was holding.
I was pretty proud of that picket-cross. I had managed to only bend one single solitary dollar store ten penny nail and to bang my thumb twice hammering those fence pickets together. If you did not count the splinters in the heel of my left hand and the toe that I had stubbed when I had kicked those pickets from out of my garden fence you would almost swear that I actually knew what I was doing.
I wish that I knew what I was doing.
I looked down at the writing that I had written upon the face of the picket-cross.
HAMILTON ARTHUR MACBETH.
The name was neatly written in a black indelible marker. I hadn’t even misspelled his name. That would have been a terrible sin, now wouldn’t it? Misspelling your own dead son’s name?
Now THAT would have been bad form, indeed.
“Now why in the world did you name him after a city?” Mom had asked me repeatedly on the day that I first gave birth to Hamilton in the Halifax IWK Grace Hospital. “And why on earth did you have to pick the name Hamilton? At the very least you could have chosen Halifax or New York or Toronto or somewhere decent. I mean Hamilton isn’t really a city, is it?”
Jazz hands, Mom.
Big time jazz hands.
A battered primer red Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser drove by slowly. A woman gawked out through the fly-spattered car windshield at me, as if she had never seen anyone standing on the side of the road with a picket fence crucifix in their hand before. I caught a glimpse of her wide country face sporting a set of snowplow jaws that looked as if she had chewed on bubble gum and beef jerky and cases of anabolic steroids for the last twenty three years or so. I suppose that she could have been admiring the fit of my brand new tangerine dress slacks and my carefully-playful salmon pink Hello Kitty t-shirt or maybe she could somehow discern that I had actually lost ten whole pounds in the last three weeks – because grief beats the hell out of Weight Watchers.
She could have been thinking anything at all.
Anything was possible when you stop and think about it.
Three weeks ago my life had almost made sense.
Three weeks ago my eighteen year old son Hamilton had still been alive.
I looked out and down at the ocean below me, where Hamilton’s stolen borrowed neon canary Audi had smashed directly through the highway guard rail and had plummeted over the cliff and down into the deep and cold Atlantic Ocean water.
Why had he done it?
I didn’t really know.
It was quick, they told me.
“He couldn’t have felt a thing,” the police officer who had come and knocked at my door informed me. “That water in March is so cold it would have taken his breath away and stopped his heart, quicker than you could say gesundheit.”
The police officer had kept a straight face while he said it all out to me - and I knew that he was just trying to be kind in his own way about a duty that he would rather someone else were doing. I wondered if there was a workshop on delivering bad news in person that police officers had to take before they were allowed out of the police station and onto the city streets.
I wondered if he carried a card with a printed response for a situation like this.
I wondered if that hypothetically printed card actually said “quicker than you could say gesundheit”
I mean, what else could you say at a time like that?
Death often happened this way – quickly, like an unexpected sneeze.
I tried to put myself in his place and to imagine just exactly what I would have said to me if I were him.
Hi, nice lady. My name is Officer Michael Wallace – and no, I was not actually named after the CBS 60 Minute newscaster, Mike Wallace. I have a pair of squinty blue eyes and a badge and a cracked tooth that almost makes my grin look charming if you did not count the coffee breath and that speck of un-chewed lettuce stretched boldly across my yellowing left molar - and oh, by the way, your eighteen year old son Hamilton just stole a neon canary yellow Audi and took it out for a joyride and was hit with a sneezing fit when an unseasonable blackfly flew directly up his right nostril and made him sneeze just before he lost control and rolled that neon canary yellow Audi around that rusty angle iron of a highway corner – right before he ran that Audi down into the ocean where he drowned.
But hey – it was quick.
“Gesundheit,” I said.
I am laughing.
I am crying.
You can do both of those things if you want to – or even if you don’t want to. It is a kind of a black and yellow sort of way of doing things. You can call it a study in contrasts, if you will. Sometimes, you can laugh and cry at the very same time and it is a good thing.
Any other time the act of laughing and crying at the very same time is not so good of a habit to fall into.
A grey winged herring gull sitting upon a weathered pine stump turned and looked directly at me. He was probably wondering if I was speaking to him. He might have even been trying to figure out if he had somehow sneezed without knowing it, thus causing me to say gesundheit. He might even have been worried that he was possibly catching a cold and that he ought to stock up on his Vitamin C and Echinacea.
Or maybe I was just making the whole thing up.
I made my way slowly down the rocky hill, carefully carrying my wooden picket-cross and the spade that I had brought for the digging.
I felt a little bit like some sort of a one-woman protest march or possibly even a solo wildcat strike aimed directly at the Atlantic Ocean.
Way to go, Norma Rae.
Of course, if Hollywood was ever foolish enough to make a movie based upon my life I would NEVER have been played by Sally Fields. Sally was far too playful and too mainstream and too narrow-hipped and well-meaning to accurately portray me. Not to mention, too darn short. No, if there were ever to be a movie made out of my life it would be most likely a modestly-budgeted made-for-television movie and my part would most likely be played by a tenth season Law And Order: SVU Mariska Hargitay.
Yes, Mariska certainly possessed that necessary somber thick-headed exotic gravitas that I always felt I should have possessed in another lifetime or so. Of course, I could have also been played by a Betty Davis or possibly even a pre-Munsters Yvonne De Carlo.
I wasn’t really all that fussy, come to think of it.
And how did you like that choice of words, anyway?
I always did like that word. Gravitas. It sounded to me like something that you would take for an upset stomach or maybe even a case of sea sickness – which was an apt thought, given that I was getting ready to walk into the ocean.
I looked about me at the rocks and the water.
I could smell the ocean waiting patiently below for my grand entrance.
I am ready for my close-up, Mr. Demille.
And don’t you dare tell me that I am misquoting. I am deliberately misquoting, because ANYONE can quote something that somebody else already said before. It takes style to misquote something in your very own way.
I think somebody else said that before.
The rocks were slick from the morning damp and the churning waves that rolled and tossed below me. There were clumps of blue-eyed grass and thickets of alder shooting up amongst the scatter of coastal bric-a-brac. The supple early spring branches of the alder bushes already bore the small fluffy catkins that would eventually fall away and grow into buds that would mature into more branches and more leaves and more simple-minded hopefulness.
There was order here, amongst the seeming randomly strewn chaos. Nature always knew what the hell she was doing.
I wish that I did.
What in the name of blue blazing hell was I doing?
It wasn’t as if anyone was really going to even get so much as a lousy stinking chance to see this stupid little rinky-tink homemade white-painted Red Green picket-cross all the way down here, hidden by the rocks and the waves.
It wasn’t like anyone who actually did somehow manage to see the picket-cross would actually know what the picket-cross was supposed to symbolize in my heart of hearts – and really how many hearts can one person have?
I wasn’t even sure what the picket-cross – built out of those two white-painted pickets that I had kicked out of my bungalow’s garden fence - was supposed to symbolize. It’s not like I was even all that Christian of a person. I don’t go to church – not even at Easter. I have always believed that Sunday mornings were better spent sipping on a tasteful ceramic bucket of hot black coffee and gnawing tastefully upon a box of chocolates approximately the size of an economy-class aircraft carrier, nose-deep in my Kindle, most likely reading a fat spicy romance.
That was just the kind of a person who I was.
I wasn’t holy.
I wasn’t heroic.
I was just myself. About the only remarkable thing about me was my name – Lady Cordelia Macbeth.
Yes – I actually DO go by my second name, Cordelia. I prefer to be called Dee but it actually DOES still say Lady Cordelia Macbeth on my birth certificate and driver’s license and on my Dalhousie University Master of Library Science degree.
The name was given to me by my very own mother who had really wanted to name me Margaret Hemmorhoid Sally Anne Macbeth until – as I already told you - the attending priest had talked her out of it. The name had been her idea, though. Three weeks before going into labor she had spent one entire evening reading three Coles Notes abridgements of Macbeth, Romeo and Juliette and All’s Well That Ends Well as part of a summer self-improvement plan that she had read about in the pages of a Cosmopolitan magazine. She had actually intended to read four of Shakespeare’s plays but apparently she fell asleep halfway through A Midsummers Night’s Dream.
You see, my mother had a theory.
“If I read each of these books aloud during the run of my pregnancy,” my mother had told anyone who ever truly cared to listen. “My child will grow up to have an IQ of 365, one point for every day of the year, give or take the occasional leap year. God has given me the gift of a blessed pregnancy and he has ebbed the flow of my menstrual tide and allowed my egg to seed and flourish - and in return I am going to give him a son who will grow up to one day become the President of Mensa.”
My mother actually wanted to have a son.
That’s not all that unusual, I suppose. What was truly unusual was the way that she constantly reminded me of that very fact throughout my first twenty years upon this earth.
The way that I figured it my Mom was born with a permanent case of penis envy and she was determined to pass it down to me as some sort of what-the-freak legacy of my continuingly embarrassing existence.
“Fine,” she said to the attending priest. “If I cannot name my daughter Hemorrhoid then I will name her Lady Macbeth. Lady is a perfectly good name isn’t it? I had a dog named Lady once and she was perfectly fine until a Mary Kay pink Winnebago motorhome ran her over. And my husband’s last name is Macbeth – so how can that be wrong? That is almost positively biblical, now isn’t it?”
Lady and Macbeth.
Walt Disney and William Shakespeare.
Big time jazz hands.
It was an absolutely perfect name for a child destined to be picked on and left out and teased mercilessly for my first twelve years of education.
My father – who had grown up bearing the last name Macbeth and the first name of Dane, knew all too well just how often other people would make fun of such a name – had insisted upon adding the name Cordelia to the mix.
Way to stick up for your only daughter, Dad.
“If you HAVE to name her after your dead pet dog and that damnable play,” my father had said to my mother. “At the very least let me name her after my favorite great-aunt.”
“Do you mean that great-aunt of yours who smells vaguely of elderberry tea?” Mom had apparently replied. “What kind of a name is THAT for a daughter?”
You see, my mother never really ever cared to listen all that closely to anything that my father had to say.
“You are afraid of life,” Mom often told my father. “I don’t know what I did to deserve a husband like you for all of these years.”
Even on that lonely April morning when my Dad had finally had enough of my Mother’s constantly bullying ways and had quietly packed a red plaid suitcase and stood there silently in front of the two of us at the breakfast table over our morning grapefruit and whole wheat toast and had quietly told her that he finally was leaving.
Ten minutes after he had closed the door behind himself and walked away from out of my life I remember my mother turning and looking at me and calmly wondering aloud – “Gee, I wonder just where your father is going to.”
That’s how she always put it. He was never “her husband”. He was always “my father”.
Even then, Mom just did not get it at all.
Her husband walked out of her life over grapefruit and toast and she simply could not fathom the idea that it might ACTUALLY have meant something.
Remember what I said about origami and the mind?
As for me, I remembered sitting there wearing what I imagine was the single most stupid look on my face that a human being has ever worn. My father’s departure had come at me as such a surprise that I could not believe that it was truly happening. Afterwards I experienced an eerie feeling of quiet disbelief – as if my father had never really gone. On some mornings as I lay in my bedroom and as I listened to my mother shuffling the dishes from out of the dish washer and into the cupboard I remembered feeling as if I had never actually had a father – as if he had never even existed in the first place. Like he was some kind of a weird Oedipal variation-like figment of my over-active and overly-educated imagination.
I had felt that same way when that young police officer had told me that my son Hamilton had been killed in that stupid neon canary yellow Audi. I had been shocked and stunned as if someone had thrown a bucket full of ice water squarely at my face.
I had felt that very same ice water splash at the church and at the funeral and at the cemetery and over the last three weeks as I had sat on my couch staring at reruns of Judge Judy, Doctor Phil and Sesame Street eating cheap dark chocolate and peanut butter sandwiches by the plateful, all washed down with several tall glasses of cold grape Kool-aid after the box of red wine had ran out.
Who said that daytime television wasn’t good for your health?
And how in the hell had I managed to lose ten pounds on a diet like that?
And then just last night I had awoken from one final dream of splashing cold water and I had got up from my bed and I had walked out into the backyard, feeling as if I were sleepwalking while still wide awake.
I had stared up at that moon looking down at me and I had felt something pulling at my heart’s blood. I had deliberately walked into my backyard and over to the garden fence in my pink silk nightgown and I had kicked two wooden pickets from the fence, stubbing three of my toes and tearing one of my toenails down to the quick and ruining a perfectly good pair of pink fuzzy bunny slippers.
Don’t judge me – or my pink fuzzy bunny slippers.
The pink fuzzy bunny slippers had been a gift from one of my students – one of the few honest perks of being a high school librarian. I didn’t get too many apples and I only ever got one single “World’s Best Librarian” coffee mug and I got WAY too many excuses for not returning certain books not to mention the jam-stained and grape pop smeared pages of way too many pulpy new adult novels – but I DID get a pair of fuzzy pink bunny slippers.
You have got to learn to count your blessings.
I returned to my kitchen, and I fumbled through the kitchen drawers until I found my claw hammer and a jar of ten penny nails that I had purchased at the Dollar Store and then I had banged this pathetic picket fence cross together on my dining room table leaving a dent in the pine wood tabletop that would most likely never heal and at that exact moment standing there in the dining room beside the wooden chair that my son would never sit upon again I knew without really knowing at all what I was about to do. I knew exactly what I needed to do to wake myself up from out of the walking dead stupor that I had fallen into since hearing of the death of my only son.
So I had driven out here and now I stood in the early morning light of a Lunenburg Lonely Lighthouse Point dawn – and just try and say that five times fast with a mouthful of dry salted popcorn.
I carefully stepped down the hillside, looking for what I believed to be the perfect spot to place my homemade wooden picket cross.
I could see the lighthouse looming in the distant morning haze looking for all of the world like a giant up-yours gesture to the waves that crashed upon the beach. I could see what looked to me to be a horse that was standing calmly beside the lighthouse, so I guess that someone actually did live in that lighthouse, which was strange, given that nowadays most of the lighthouses along the Nova Scotia coastline were either automated or simply abandoned.
I was watching the hillside and looking for the proper spot rather than looking exactly where I was placing my feet.
Which was right before I fell.
The flattened rock that I had just placed my foot upon skidded out from beneath the sole of my sneaker and then I slid and I skidded some more and the skid turned into a tumble and I tried to catch my footing and instead of catching my footing I wound up performing a sort of an unintentional drunken triple cartwheel down into the Atlantic Ocean.
I am certain that if anyone had been watching it would have looked as if I had deliberately flung myself down into the water.
I could see the headlines even now.
BEREAVED LIBRARIAN MOTHER CLUMSILY FLINGS HERSELF DOWN INTO THE ATLANTIC OCEAN IN A FIT OF STUPID SORROW, THOUGHTFULLY CARRYING ALONG HER VERY OWN HOMEMADE PICKET-CROSS ALTHOUGH NEGLECTING TO LEAVE BEHIND A LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT.
Film at eleven.
Fortunately I had my mouth closed when I hit the water but then I screamed and as a result I spoiled that one single bit of good luck.
I swallowed about half a bathtub full of cold ocean brine.
“Help,” I choked out.
Who did I think was actually going to hear me?
The lighthouse keeper?
The sea gulls?
I stood up out of the water. I was dripping wet. I was going to catch myself a cold if I did not finish what I was doing soon – so I looked around until I found a good spot, safely sheltered from the reach of the tide.
I studied on that spot for a few moments. I wanted it to be perfect. This was the last thing that I was going to do on this earth and I wanted it to be right.
I could see a make-believe memory of Hamilton lying there in that dirt. I could see the roll of his shoulders in the granite that poked up out of the mud. I could see the tousle of his permanently comb-resistant hair in the thickets of unruly grass that were scattered in the mud. I could hear his breathing in the rolling waves.
I pushed the picket-cross down into the mud as best as I could manage. I leaned my weight on it and then when my weight wasn’t enough I used the flat of the garden spade like a hammer and drove the picket-cross further down into the mud until it was seated deeply enough that I felt certain that it could not be dislodged by a casual breeze or perhaps the scuttling of a wayward hermit crab.
I raised the shovel up over my head.
I did not think it at that time – but I was pretty sure that at that moment I looked more than a little bit like Abraham Van Helsing, driving that last stake down into Mina Harker’s heart.
“Damn you!” I swore, knocking the picket-cross down into the mud and biting off those two words like a too-hard molar-breaking chunk of overcooked peanut brittle.
“Damn you!!” I swore again, driving the picket-cross down a little further into the mud.
“DAMN YOU!!!” I shouted just as loudly as I could shout.
Then I leaned upon the cross.
The cross did not budge, so I guess that last shovel bang and damn-you had done the trick.
I would have liked to have sung a hymn but as my mother always told me I could not find the proper key for any song if I were a locksmith – and she was right.
I wept for a while, just a little bit.
I had a lot of practice in weeping over the last three weeks.
Maybe that was how I lost those ten pounds. Maybe I had shed ten pounds of tear drops and maybe I ought to patent this method for losing weight.
I looked around one more time.
What else should I do?
Should I leave a good-bye note?
I didn’t have so much as a single sheet of paper to write on – which was a sad state for a librarian to find herself in – but there you go now don’t you?
I used the blade of the garden spade like a wood gouge and I patiently carved FAREWELL into the mud.
All right – so I had intended to carve FAREWELL when I started out in the first place - but gouging the letters in the mud wasn’t nearly as easy as it sounds like it would be. So I settled for gouging out the word BYE – but I could not for the life of me remember if it should have been spelled BY or BUY.
Where in the hell was Spell-Check when you really needed it the most?
I laid the shovel down for the next grieving mother to use.
And then I turned and I walked calmly out into the deep Atlantic water.
This was the very last thing on earth that I was ever going to do – and I was determined to get it right.
“Goodbye,” I said – only there was no one there to hear me – or at least that was what I thought.