christmas death and dying happy new year

Dear Uma: Should one be interested in having Christmas in a place that looks like a Currier and Ives greeting card, Watson Lake is definitely the place.

Dear Uma:

Should one be interested in having Christmas in a place that looks like a Currier and Ives greeting card, Watson Lake is definitely the place.

The snow hides all imperfections, and piled neatly by the sides of the roads and driveways, or decorating rooftops and tree boughs, makes the town look peaceful and pretty.

Our capital, on the other hand, looks rumpled, scruffy and neglected in the winter. Snow removal is clearly not a priority in this, the busiest of all the Yukon communities, with rutted, slippery sidewalks and icy road surfaces even at critical intersections.

Add pedestrians, vision impaired by parka hoods, intensely focussed on their Christmas shopping list, and you have a driving situation that is dangerous and wearying.

We were in Whitehorse on a fast trip to buy holiday foodstuffs, and the perfect Christmas present; perfect because this year we were determined not to buy gifts but to make a donation to the animal shelter instead.

It was Amisi’s idea and she stood by it, even after being told the gesture would mean no new catnip toy for her under the tree.

Corny as it sounds, it truly felt like it was more a gift for us than the homeless cats and dogs. Afterwards, negotiating the crowded aisles of the grocery store, we felt full of the spirit of Christmas. This seasonal spirit was shared by staff and most of the customers, with courtesy and goodwill being the order of the day.

While we were in the ‘big town’ we made an appointment to have our wills done in the new year.

We’ve been married for five years and should something happen to one, or both of us our earthly belongings would be leaving the relationship. Pete’s stuff goes to his sons and mine would go to your Jason, according to our current wills.

With the addition of Amisi to our household we have been impelled to redo these documents and try to ensure her comfortable lifestyle will continue, along with the ‘survivor,’ whoever that might be. Or, should she be orphaned, we want to be able to pay her way when she goes to live with you. I can’t remember: have I told you Pete and I want you to have our cat if he and I should die at the same time?

Well, now you know.

Talking about wills leads to discussion, quite naturally, and often discussion leads to debate. Debate has a tendency to develop its own separate energy, or at least it does with Pete and I, and what began as a casual conversation about dying and death got so intense that Pete had to pull over to the side of the highway at Morley River so we could conclude the exchange.

Pete insisted we come to some sort of neutral place around the issue of who dies first; otherwise, he said, the whole of the Christmas holiday would be coloured with unspoken but deeply felt feelings and cast a shadow over the celebrations.

What he actually said was, “I am not going to spend the next 10 days with you chewing on this like a dog with a bone. I will die first, OK? I am even giving you permission, should you develop a terminal illness, to put a pillow over my face and make sure I die first, OK?”

I could see his point about the holidays being spoiled, so I pretended to be mollified and agreed that, should I be told I was going to die, I would pillow Pete. Of course, I would do no such thing, and that wasn’t the point anyway. But in the spirit of Christmas I agreed to his wishes and our journey home was a pleasant one.

The talk, by mutual agreement, was limited to safe subjects, and the sight of a marten running across the road with a squirrel in its mouth gave us a good start. Then we chatted about what an excellent job is done by the Department Of Highways; the road was freshly plowed and gravelled, mostly free of snow and ice, and made for a pleasant drive. Then we turned on our iPods and listened to music.

He brought it on himself, Uma; he said he didn’t care which of us went first, with the implication being he would be perfectly fine without me. The whole thing made me feel I may have been childish, but if I was, so was Pete, and that made me think about adulthood and what it really is and if we ever really achieve it.

I don’t believe our culture can boast a lot of adults. A couple of years ago, driving down the Island Highway on Vancouver Island, I saw an enormous lot full of RVs and boats and trucks. The name of the business was Big Boys Toys and I remember thinking at the time how indicative that was of men in our society; they were big boys, and everything in the culture encouraged them to remain so. Women were not a whole lot better, being referred to as ‘girls’, sometimes even by themselves.

Does adulthood mean different things to different people? I used to think I would know when I had achieved adulthood: I would know where I stood on any and all major issues and would be able to declare and defend my position with confidence, I would be certain in relationships, I would know where and how I wanted to live, and I would always know what to wear, when to wear it, and have it in my superbly organized closet.

Now here I am, definitely middle aged and supposedly in the prime of adulthood, and none of the above are any nearer to being mine than they were when I was 20. Oddly, they were all mine when I was 12. Maybe we are only perfect adult human beings just before puberty.

There is no avoiding thoughts of death when one begins to age; it not only stares at us in the mirror through the vision of wrinkles, yellowing teeth and bifocals, but it seems the whole planet is dying.

Every effort not to think about the Earth’s failing health is exacerbated if one listens to the news or reads anything other than magazines with stories of celebrity lifestyles or recipe books. And then there is always news of the deaths or dying of loved ones; those items seem to arrive with a depressing regularity via phone calls and e-mails.

Even people we know professionally, like our doctors, for instance, must now be replaced. Just a few months ago I had to find another dentist because the woman I have gone to for years has been forced to retire due to a diagnosis of some condition that rendered her unable to work. And my eye doctor had a heart attack last year. He survived, but seeing the writing on the wall, I found a younger eye doctor.

Finally, the one I try especially hard not to think about – Andrew. From what he tells me, he is not likely to last much into the new year. It sounds as though he has arrived at the final stage so well-documented by that doyen of death, Elisabeth Kubler Ross. I have a really hard time talking to him, Uma; I want to weep and wail at him, instead of following his gentle lead, talking of everything and everyone as though his departure is not imminent.

Andrew has been such a good and loved presence in my life for a long time and I find it impossible to imagine him gone. What it must be like for you and Jason is something too awful to contemplate and I am struck by your calm and courageous loving. I know when you first told us that Andrew would be moving back home to die, we thought it was the worst plan ever, especially with Juan living there. We thought the situation would be tremendously painful for everyone; how wrong we were. The power of love, combined with willingness, is truly the best part of being human.

It is love, ultimately, that makes all the bad news toothless; we carry on, taking our measures of happiness when they come, and celebrating the good in our lives. Of all the good things we can be grateful for, the love for one another is absolutely the best, and it is in that spirit, my best friend, that I wish you a happy new year.



Heather Bennett is a writer who lives in Watson Lake.