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"Boy… have I got pictures!"

June 25, 2012

At breakfast one day last week, our twelve year old announced rather sheepishly that she was a little concerned about an upcoming quiz in health class. Seems the task was to label all the relevant parts of the human reproductive system… both male and female. A quick look down the table revealed a tiny little smile coming to my wife's face as she enquired as to the cause for concern.

"Well," says our daughter, "the female reproductive system is not so difficult, and I've got that one down okay, but the male system has way too many parts." With an involuntary downward glance of puzzlement, I thought, "What do you mean, 'too many parts'?" but instead offered, "I expect you have pictures from which to study."

"Boy… have I got pictures!" burst from her lips. This was followed instantly by a blush and eyes darting back and forth between her parents and then embarrassingly to her own lap. She caught my coffee mid-slurp with that one, and I was lucky to contain my laughter before spewing full length of the table.

It seems like only yesterday when she discovered that the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny were really just her Mama… and Santa Claus, too. That was enough of a traumatic experience… for her and for my wife… and now, she's taking one more huge step up the learning curve of life. Dropping her off at school that morning, I was reminded of the same quiz as set before me so many years ago. Not in Grade 7, I assure you. As I recall, it wasn't before Grade 11. That's quite the shift in program delivery, isn't it? Then again, one of the girls in my class didn't make it to school for the quiz that day… nor any other during the nine months known to me as Grade 11. As I consider that fact, perhaps this earlier-age treatment of the subject is not such a bad idea after all.

I've got pictures, too.

One of them, sitting on my BlackBerry for two weeks now, shows four brothers, standing behind their 85 year old mother. The occasion was to celebrate a birthday of the eldest of the four, who wore a T-shirt proclaiming: "60 years old – one owner – needs parts – make an offer." No offers were forthcoming that day, I'm afraid, but it was, as usual, an opportunity for pleasant nostalgia.

This morning, as I scrolled through the party pictures on my phone, I glanced up on the wall to see another picture. Taken 50 years ago, when I was just five… then with only two brothers… we three stood in the front yard, framed by a VW microbus and the sheet metal shop beside which we lived. Home to eight of us, our 500 square foot house is now long gone, and the sheet metal shop is still there, twice as big. We posed in our Sunday best… I'm sure my best trousers that day used to be my elder brother's best trousers, and suspect that before then, they had belonged to the birthday boy, but it was all we knew. I remember our late father's words even now, "what you need is what you have."

We each wore Mom-knitted cardigan sweaters, they with horses, I with puppies (I wanted horses, too, and was jealous). Topping if off, we wore matching Sunday school fedoras with a plaid pattern, trimmed with tight ribbon bands. I stood straight at attention, striving desperately to be as tall as my brothers. Epic fail, as they say. Albeit only a black and white photo, I've always dreamed in colour. Never content with my lot… always looking for something bigger and better, and eager to grow up fast… so I could be in control and free… free… free at last. MLK didn't have a monopoly on that dream. So young… so much to learn.

Still young even now, I look at the more recent picture, and then again the one from 1962 and wonder how and when my brothers grew so old.

I'm reminded now of a very different picture, this one etched in my mind, I hope forever. In it, six years ago, a close childhood friend was celebrating her 50th birthday with family and friends. She laughed the whole day long and I found this event to be a most fascinating study. Here's a girl who left home at 16, fending for herself by taking what jobs she could find, including waitressing in a not-so-very-safe hotel/strip club, but laughing all the way.

Alone with a baby at 20, and still laughing at life, she found herself some years later married to an abusive, philandering, drug addict, with two more sons of her own plus a troubled step-son. Still, and I've only touched on the highlights here… there's much more… she carried that load and she found reason to laugh. A single parent once again, she raised her boys to be educated, independent, productive members of society.

When we came together for her 50th, I hadn't seen her in many years. She had recently been through a battle with cancer. She and I never spoke of it, but I'd heard that the tumour in her abdomen had approached the size of a large ball. I've always known her as a slender girl, and she is so now. It was difficult for me to imagine a picture of it. Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised but here she was on this day six years ago, making jokes about losing her hair… it had by this time all grown back. She was laughing still, and living and loving life in rich full vibrant colour. A wonderful picture.

She was every bit as beautiful at fifty as she was at eighteen, and I told her so… beauty deepened, not worn, by years of unimaginably hard experience. I told her to look at the people gathered around her for this celebration, and that I hoped she could see in our eyes what we saw in her… a pillar… a strong pillar… a strong, and beautiful… and laughing pillar. What a picture she was! What a beauty! What an inspiration! She owned her life and embraced it with gusto… and of course, with laughter. What I need is what I have.

The next picture that comes to mind has me spending a weekend last month with 'the guys.' Six of us… we'd spent our high school years together, and most of us go back as far as Grade 6 or 7. We had a blast as kids. The parties our parents never knew about. The firewater. The pranks. Road hockey. The laughs. Well, this particular weekend was quite subdued in comparison, but we did laugh. We laughed and we laughed and we laughed. I can't say that I've laughed this hard since leaving high school 36 years ago… unless maybe during our corresponding boys weekend a year ago this Spring. Next year, I'll be wearing Depends, and based on this year's experience, I shouldn't be alone. I'll say no more about that.

Early in 2011, before that weekend of beer and cards and golf, one of the guys had been diagnosed with the 'big C.' Another among us had already been there many years before. The two of them, however, have been best friends since the age of 14 so I expect one has been a reciprocal pillar of support for the other and continues to be so even now. One year, major surgery, a transplanted nerve, concurrent chemo and radiation therapy, and 70 lost pounds later, we find ourselves again gathered for a boys weekend.

With one entire side of his face sunken, sagging down in the neck, and paralysed, my friend has to tape one eye closed before going to sleep. Effectively blind in that eye, his balance is understandably much diminished. Hopefully a temporary state, he also suffers from a neuropathy in his fingers and toes. As he explained it, holding a pair of scissors up in front of him, he lowered his hand first to his side and then held the scissors behind himself, saying, "I know they're still there, but I can't feel them."

He was a very active athlete since I first knew him. Tennis, hockey, golf, soccer, track. You name it. He played it. One story has him racing around the local golf course, Happy Gilmore style, timing how quickly he could complete 18 holes, irrespective of the score. We played junior soccer together on the high school team. We played 5-3-2 and I was the centre midfielder, running up and down the centre swath of mud in flat-soled running shoes. I couldn't afford the proper footwear so you can imagine my challenge on rainy days. I'm sure he doesn't remember it, but out of nowhere just before one of those rainy, muddy games, he just up and gave me a pair of soccer boots. I'll never forget that picture.

True to form, until early in 2011, this fellow was playing hockey 150 times per year. 150 times! Forty years later, he still couldn't sit. This past year must have been absolutely devastating for him… nope! Apparently not. Brutal? You bet! Devastating? Not even close. Fully engaged, his attitude will carry him through this ordeal… or if it doesn't, he'll have done everything he can to beat it… and can ask no more of himself.

He went golfing with us that weekend. I expected him to just ride the cart and heckle. I was wrong. Unable even to feel the club in his hands (ponder that picture for a moment), he still shot 106. I'm told I was at 101, including two mulligans. What does that say? We had to drive him to each shot to prevent exhaustion from setting in but, for me, it was an impressive sight to behold. Could I do what he does? I don't know. I just don't know. Moreover, he held himself together enough to play cards (and drink a few brewskis) until four the next morning.

We live in challenging times, indeed… for some of us, much more so than others. What I need is what I have.

Here's the thing, folks. When I hear people going on and on, ranting and raving about how so-and-so has betrayed, mismanaged, mishandled, or abandoned companies they've invested in, or countries they live in, I want to spit. These people haven't the first clue of what they're talking about, yet they're the first out of the gate to throw darts and tomatoes. Irrespective of the general state of the world, and irrespective of forces outside the control of those entrusted to lead, they cry incessantly for someone else to take responsibility, to rescue them from a fate they see as not of their own doing… and they refuse to look in the mirror for accountability. Life's not fair, I say. Get over it and move on. If you can't handle the roller coaster ride at the Fall Fair, stay in the agriculture building and mingle with the sheep(le) (baa-a-a-a-a) or the chickens (cluck-cluck, cluck-cluck, cluck-cluck). Far too much baa-a-ing cluck-clucking these days, as I see it.

To struggle is to live. I'm grateful for the struggle, and even more grateful to have such a mild version of it. When faced with the perpetual whining of those who seek only to find blame in others, I can only shake my head and turn and walk away.

In place of these whiners, I prefer to turn my thoughts to friends and others who have faced truly life-threatening challenges and continue to face them every day. These are pictures of inspiring people who have chosen to embrace life and who have taken charge of life, laughing where they can or where they must. Sometimes, laughing is all they can do to survive. These people look in the mirror and refuse to back down from their own responsibilities in life. No matter that the cards they hold may not be self-dealt… they play the cards they hold.

What I need… is what I have.

These are the pictures I see. Mama, don't take my Kodachrome away-ay-ay.


With respect,

Kevin Graham

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