A friend of mine recently made a comment on social media that the more we disassociate ourselves with nature, the less human we become, almost becoming replicas of what we should be. This made me consider how infrequently I actually interact with nature.
I live in a nice home with a furnace and air conditioning. I’m rarely hot or cold. I pay someone to plow my driveway and I only have to rake up things a few times a year. I’ll sit on my deck and look at some trees and squirrels but that’s the extent of my interaction with the wilds of my neighbourhood. I’ll ride my bike but usually only to run an errand or go to the store and rarely do I pedal for the ride itself. I live within ten minutes of two beautiful rivers and I’ll only sit by them every couple of years and I can’t remember the last time I was in them or on them.
This wasn’t always the case. As a kid, my vacations often involved cottages or camping. My dad loved to fish. I never really enjoyed the guts and the worms but I always liked being on the water and have spent a good deal of time in fishing boats and canoes.
When I was twenty, I spent a summer working as a ranch hand on a cattle ranch. I lived in a crummy trailer and seemed to spend sixteen hours a day outside. I was a tree planter one summer, living in a tent six days a week and though I didn’t find it a pleasant experience, there were aspects of it that I still relish. You become an animal in a hurry doing it. You go to the bathroom over logs, you skinny dip with no regard for shyness or nudity and things like rolled cigarettes become currency. And macaroni become poker chips.
As I watch the horror that is the drowning of Houston and neighbouring municipalities, I’m reminded of my own experiences being humbled by nature. And I need to be reminded. There have been several but the worst of it was in December of 2013.
There was an ice storm in Toronto. My father was dying and this was to be his last Christmas and he and his wife, Dawn, wanted to host my mother and brother and my wife and me for Christmas. It was clearly important to him and us and it was a time of significance. But the storm hit and by the 22nd or so it seemed that this dinner was not likely to happen. Their power was out and had been for a few days with no end in sight. I told my mother and brother to stay in Ottawa and my wife and I headed to Toronto on our own. Instead of Christmas gifts, our car/sleigh was filled with firewood and camping equipment and batteries.
My father couldn’t walk any more and he needed dialysis three times a week. He couldn’t get upstairs to his bedroom because the electric lift was low on batteries. He slept by the fire for days in a winter coat in his chair. On Christmas Eve, I drove to his home from my wife’s parents’ home to light a fire so that the house might warm up when he got back from dialysis. To drive up Avenue Road with no lights on anywhere for miles is something I’ll never forget. When he arrived, the house temperature was four degrees. On Christmas Eve.
His electric lift in the front was dead and frozen and I had to bring him in the back door. Up six steps. I could have carried him but he was so full of cancers that every touch hurt and it took forty five minutes to get him into his home. On Christmas Eve.
And I didn’t think he would make it. I thought he would sleep and then die on those stairs. I’m not exaggerating.
We had a glass of wine and I left and Valerie and I returned in the morning. And then, if you believe in these kinds of things, something that felt miraculous happened. The power came on and the heat came on and it didn’t feel like my dad was going to die in the cold anymore. I don’t think I really ever felt more thankful than I did in that very moment.
We ended up having our Christmas dinner in February. Our last. My dad died in April, about ten weeks later.
But I’ll never forget the unrelenting unkindness of nature that week. My dying father, at his most vulnerable, seventy three years old, was forced to suffer in his own home. The hotels were filled and there was nothing to be done about it but ride it out. Of course, his neighbours were saviours regarding food supplies and even though they are strangers to me, I’ll never forget them. And in this personal way, I think about Houston. God, none of us are really in control. We think we are but in the blink of an eye, it can all be gone.
Maybe it’s time for me to go sit by the river and perhaps get a glimpse of the big picture. I might even get a better look if I take my glasses off and close my eyes.