Christmas 1993

Dear Jim:

It’s dusk. My indoor garden is laced with tiny Christmas lights, some climbing and some right on the floor. Candles are lit here and there, mostly there, while I peck away at this tabletop word processor. Tiger and Blue are snuggling in my mother’s doll-crib, one of The Bay’s loose-eyed 1993 “Charity Bears” is holding a picture of yours truly at the AIDS Memorial, from the Globe & Mail’s front page last summer, and Barbra Streisand’s Christmas album – which I like to call “Babs Does Bethlehem” – is playing in the background. Life is good in this moment.

Thanks to my friend Alana my living room growing area has been transformed into a holiday season garden. I have come to appreciate a lot of perspective that I’ve been sensing over the last several months. To wake up on the same pillow that I hugged going to sleep, hopefully headache-free, with Tiger sprawled out in front of me, and Blue sitting ever so politely at the foot of the bed, makes many days seem like Christmas. This is not to say that I haven’t occasionally been sorry, even angry, on some mornings as I’ve realized that I hadn’t physically left this world overnight (or whenever a few restful moments became a nap). Through my healing process, however, I’m discovering that I’m ready, even excited, to see “the other side”. Yet, on balance, I’ve been so happy on Earth lately that I’m quite prepared to stick around as long as God wants me here. I didn’t realize I was missing that sense of peace until I had found it! Jesus, waking up his friends at Gethsemane – in modern-day, comedic English, would be translated as “Hello! Helllooo!” (Linking Easter with Christmas is hardly coincidental nor overstated at all!)

Most of this letter started out as a quarterly dispatch to a friend, Nancy. However, as the stories lengthened, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to write individual Christmas letters to my many friends – and there are so many! While I appreciate most of God’s gifts, most of the time, I want a vacation not a vocation! When I was down in the laundry room late last month (which, come to think of it, was the last time I did a laundry!) I was pleasantly surprised by a great idea inspired, I admit with thanks, by one family friend named Richard. When Richard, also known at various times as “Rev” and/or “Dick”, was minister of Valleyfield United Church in the mid-1960s (which I’m pleased to remind anyone born before 1959 were among the very first years of my current earthly journey) the Chaplin home began receiving regular letters from him at Christmas. I believe Richard had a message to share widely yet lacked the time, energy, or both, to write individual letters to the people who had meant so much to him in the preceding year. After all Richard was, and still is, human.

Alas, I digress. I hereby acknowledge the potential benefits of an editor but my therapist JoAnne – for one – would know that I’d probably never agree to anyone’s suggested changes. So there!

As difficult as it may be to believe I have, again, digressed. My life has seemed, to me, to have been on “fast forward” for the last little while and I’ve been reluctant to press the “pause” button. Unfortunately I haven’t pushed “record” much either so this letter is doubling as a long overdue journal entry. I could write a book about the last three weeks alone! The VCR analogy is hypothetical in that I don’t, yet, even own one. Luckily some of my crazy friends do!

The illness, necessary recuperation, treatments, and on-going weight loss – which began in earnest last spring (not surprisingly, I don’t even know this Ernest guy – have changed me so much, for the better I would say confidently, that I now celebrate the faith at my disposal to get through, as yet unknown, pain. (Among the many expressions with which I annoy some souls is the often misunderstood “Pain is inevitable, suffering optional”.) Please be assured that, had anyone tried that line on me as recently as Thanksgiving, and I’ll bet some considered it, the “Butterball” would have been the stuffing! At the moment I’m happy to report that, notwithstanding the mini-stresses of life, I cannot recall a period of deeper and more sustained peace. I know it’s quite possible that the days ahead could be every bit as horrible as these ones are wonderful – but they may not. Ultimately God will provide a balance, even if it isn’t clear in this earthly life.

You’ll know that I’m not completely batty if I tell you that often, nearly always these days, I am aware that I may sound/read like I’m one stick of kindling short of a cord! It took most of the summer to learn how to relax through these episodes, and I’m really glad to still be around to enjoy them. A spirit has awakened me, thank God.

As you may be aware Tiger is still recovering from her lengthy illness. Even as recently as three weeks ago I was afraid I would need to have her put down. Thankfully it was not her time and she has bounced back from death’s threshold (what’s this, life seven now?) When she first became sick in early October I was hosting my mother and father for the weekend (the one before Thanksgiving). This was the first time I’ve had the space, and we’ve all had enough health simultaneously, to be together for a whole weekend in my surroundings. It was a very meaningful weekend for me – and almost too much for Tiger! Within a few days she was at the vet’s with a feeding tube in her gut. She walked around for weeks wearing a girdle-style bandage, but didn’t seem to be getting much better. Then a month, or so, ago she needed quick attention from her vet due to a complication with the tube. I left her at the clinic with a clear understanding that she was not very well and may not last too long. As merry as my way could be, under the circumstances, I went on. (My wish to avoid ending the preceding sentence with a preposition while, at the same time, getting a laugh seems out of reach!)

The following morning, after talking to the vet by telephone and learning that Tiger’s hold on life remained tenuous – yet hopeful – I set out for CITY-TV, where I had made plans to watch the live production of “Lunch Television”. I also hoped to be suitably inspired to spout off about AIDS at “Speaker’s Corner”. I was, and the results were shown on CITY – so friends and perfect strangers alike have informed me. Once “L.T.” had gone off the air, I latched onto a school tour of the CITY-TV studios, libraries, and so on. It was really interesting and I would not hesitate to recommend, to anyone, such a tour as a diversion from days when we perceive the world, with one voice, to be telling us to “Get a life!”

From the corner of Queen and John Streets I rushed over to the new CBC Broadcasting Centre, where I was to sit in on a “live taping” of “Disc Drive”, the afternoon classical music show on CBC Stereo hosted whimsically by Jurgen Gothe who was visiting from his customary Vancouver perch. It was in the audience, at this taping, that I met Judy – a “Gothe-ic” first grade teacher from Ohio. Before the day was out we had watched “Disc Drive” and two tapings of the following night’s “Royal Canadian Air Farce” show. Judy offered to accompany me to the vet’s if there was any possibility that I’d have to put Tiger down. I gratefully accepted the support.

When we arrived at the vet’s and saw, in fact, that Tiger was very much alive – and recovering more quickly than we ever could have imagined – we were so wound up that we decided to have tea at my place and allow Judy to meet Blue. Then we went for lunch and the last time I saw Judy she was driving out of her hotel’s garage and I was getting on the subway with the remnants of a three day headache. It had been an exciting few days, which Judy and I both attribute to God’s grace.

The next morning, empowered by a little prayer and caffeine, I took the streetcar to MCC Toronto. The day would be full of evidence of God’s healing presence in my life, from noticing the sun emerging from beneath the recent cloudiness and rain – and realizing that my headache had lifted – to the Reverend Hawkes admitting to have strayed from his prepared evening message (yes I went to both services in case I’d miss something!), the admission coming well after the power of the Holy Spirit/Higher Power/The Force/God had, for me at least, worked through Brent’s impromptu sermon. I need no other evidence of a living, sustaining God – but such evidence seems to be in greater abundance every day!

Tiger came home, full of life, last week. I hope she’s with me for the long haul. I think she could cope with losing me more easily than I could lose her. What me dramatic?? Such matters as sick cats must seem awfully trivial to people who have things other than AIDS or cancer to deal with at Christmas! I’ll read that again slowly, if need be, then remember that no one’s circumstances are any worse or better. Condition: Life. Prognosis: Terminal. To quote Bette (or was it Joan?), “So???” It’s easier, perhaps, for some of us to appear to be more blunt about these things than it is for the people we’re leaving behind.

I may have mentioned, in previous letters, how very ill my dear friend, Jim, has been of late. He’s now in the terminal stages of AIDS-related lymphoma. Yet I have observed in him a nicely balanced mixture of acceptance and hope. It’s a sense of realism that makes the most out of each “well” moment. I will not claim to know precisely, detail by detail, what he is going through but I think, as he and I (or was it him and I?) discussed during a recent tete a tete at the hospital, our journeys recently have covered much of the same territory. There is, after all, more than one way to get to the same place, the same space, the same peace. I wish I could convince everyone who loves me, and is concerned for me, that I will be okay. It’s the ones left in the departure lounge who will have a tough time. I know that I have a new and exciting understanding of what Terry, Andrew and others have told my soul with their eyes – that they, too, were ready and at peace. I hope they know how much I appreciate seeing that.

As we draw the curtains on another year, here’s hoping for the best in 1994!



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