Bits o’ book


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Chopin, Polanski and a cab
by: Kenn Chaplin
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“What a great film!” I thought. “No wonder Adrien Brody won the ‘Best Actor’ Oscar.”

As I walked out of the theatre I welcomed the freshness of the night air. I glanced at my watch. It wasn’t quite midnight.

Heading east along Carlton Street, the music of Chopin still ringing inside me, I hugged myself briefly to shake off the late April chill.

Eventually coming to the corner of Sherbourne Street I figured that, at my current pace, the light would be green just as I got to the intersection. I was correct.

A taxi approached, from the left in my field of vision, slowing to a stop precisely when I stepped off the sidewalk. However it moved again and as I frantically tried to get the driver’s attention, my body contorting and folding unusually upon impact, I was knocked to the pavement. Inexplicably my right shoe popped off.

“Owww…oh fuck…oh my God!” I yelled.

The cabbie got out and rushed to my side. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you,” he shouted above me, in an accent I could not readily identify.

“Don’t touch me!” I screamed as I noticed the man reaching down toward me.

A police car’s lights flashed – almost immediately, it seemed to me – and the cruiser sped into the intersection, effectively blocking traffic.

I continued to moan, lying on my side. A cop knelt down and said something like, “It’s okay, Sir. Help is on the way.”

(It should be noted that I was to have several conversations with emergency personnel over the next few minutes and so it is difficult to accurately recall precisely who said what, even whether it was a male or female voice.)

“Can you tell me your name, Sir?” the officer inquired. (I learned, much later, that his name was Constable Kell.)

“Kenn Chaplin,” I replied.

“I need to ask you a few questions”, continued the officer. “Where are you coming from, Sir?”

“The Carlton Cinema”, I said.

“Oh yeah, what did you see?” he asked.

(Clearly this small-talk was more about seeing how lucid I was than any interest the police officer might have had in getting a film review from me.)

“The Pianist”, I replied, immediately feeling some embarrassment – or perhaps it was simply internalized homophobia – in declaring this choice of films to see, however neurotic such insecurities are.

“So you haven’t had anything to drink then?” the constable asked, confirming my suspicions that he was merely trying to establish that I had my wits about me at the time I was struck.

“No,” I moaned.

The shriek of an ambulance, coming from one direction, and a fire-truck, approaching from another, put an end to our conversation.

“Whadda we got?” a paramedic asked from overhead, still trying to tie up a plastic gown with his latex gloves. (This was at the height of the ‘SARS’ crisis in Toronto.)

“Better get a back board”, came the reply from someone else.

“Where does it hurt?” a voice asked.

“My back, my leg, my arm,” I quickly assessed. Frankly I couldn’t think of any place that did not hurt at that point.

“We’re getting a back board,” someone said to another.

“Oh great, CITY-TV is here”, I groaned, as the relative darkness was flooded with a powerful camera light. “Wouldn’t you know?”

“Yep, they’re ‘everywhere’,” someone laughed.

“What’s your name, Sir?” I was asked for what would be the second of many times that night.

“Kenn Chaplin,” I replied.

“Where do you live, Sir?”

I recited my full address.

“Can you tell me what day it is?” I was asked.

“April 29th, 2003. Well I guess it’s the 30th, now,” I replied.

“That’s good. Any allergies?” the questions continued.

“Just sulfa,” I said, adding, “and, just so you know, I have HIV. If you reach into my back pocket my wallet has all my hospital cards and everything else you’ll need, like a list of my medications.” (At the suggestion of one of the nurses who would speak to me over the following days and weeks I now have a Medic Alert bracelet and wallet card.)

“I got it”, someone else said, as I felt the wallet being lifted out.

“Any chance I could go to ‘the General’? That’s where my records are,” I asked.

“Sorry, guy”, was the reply, “‘St. Mike’s’ is the closest trauma unit downtown.”

“Looks like maybe a fracture near the femur”, I heard someone say to a colleague, “and probably the wrist, too.”

“So this is what a broken bone feels like!” I said, including myself in the conversation, feeling a giddiness I suppose comes with shock. “I have always been curious about that!”

“Well now you know!” a voice chuckled from overhead. “Now you know.”

“Okay, Mr. Chaplin, we’re going to try to get you on to the back board. It’s going to hurt but it should stabilize you a bit.”

“On three”, one voice said to another. “One, two, three.”

I groaned, taking in a sharp breath, as the board was pushed under me, my thin frame feeling the straight surface’s hard angles.

“Okay, good”, a paramedic said, panting slightly through his mask. “You’re doing fine. Now we’re going to lift you on to the stretcher.”

I felt my senses flush, the way one’s stomach leaps on a roller coaster, as I was suspended briefly, then laid down on the mattress of the stretcher.

“How’re you doing, Mr. Chaplin?”
Constable Kell asked, having returned – I surmised – after taking a statement from the cabbie.

“Okay, I guess,” was my reply, verbalizing much more succinctly than I was processing my thoughts.

“Mr. Chaplin, can you tell me again what happened?” confirming my still-intact journalistic instincts that the constable was probably reconciling statements from the cab driver and me.

“Well,” I began, “I was crossing on my green light, and the cab stopped on his red, then he kept going and turned right into me. The last thing I saw was the back of his head as he looked in the other direction.”

“We gotta go,” a paramedic said.

“We will talk later, Mr. Chaplin,” shouted Constable Kell.

Sure enough, it was a conversation I would repeat – or perhaps merely conclude – with Constable Kell later at the hospital, although I did not recognize him there.

Following a speedy ambulance ride, it didn’t seem too long before I was hooked up to a pain-killing intravenous (once we got through repeating the same questions and answers at the hospital), which is not to say there was not much moaning and groaning before then!

“So Mr. Chaplin, which direction were you walking when the cab struck you?” the voice questioned me as I peered through a morphine haze.

“Who are you?” I asked him emphatically, thinking the questions to be a bit odd for a nurse or a doctor to be asking.

“I’m Constable Kell”, he chuckled from behind his mask. “I’m the investigating officer. We spoke earlier at the accident scene.”

“Ohhh”, I said, “that explains it,” I said, trying unsuccessfully to moisten my lips with a parched tongue.

© Copyright 2004 Kenn Chaplin. All rights reserved.

________________________________________
Mr. G.’s Eye Exam
by: Kenn Chaplin
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Mr. G. was a lot of things – my math teacher in Grades 4 through 6, principal of that same elementary school, father of a pal my age, member of my church, friend of my parents. He was also my first abuser – verbally; psychologically; physically. What follows is just one example.

In math class one day, grade four I believe, Mr. G. discovered – in his own unique way – that I was near-sighted. He had written a number of math problems on the chalkboard and was now striding up and down the rows of small desks, as was his custom while we worked, the scent of Aqua Velva following closely behind. Occasionally he would gently pat his prickly, “brush-cut” hair.

Walking towards me Mr. G. noticed that I was squinting to see the chalkboard.

“Kenneth”, he said, in his loud, baritone voice, “can you not see the blackboard?”

“Most of it”, I think I replied, hoping to diffuse the panic that had set in to my stomach.

Mr. G. lunged at my desk and, as he often did, grabbed me by a bone in my shoulder and pulled me to my feet.

“Read it!” he shouted, nodding towards the front.

I squinted, which only hastened the arrival of tears to my eyes that his taunts invariably brought out of me.

“I can’t,” I said softly, still thinking it was only worse because of the salty fog I was now trying to see through.

With his hand digging into the crook of my shoulder, a pain I always remember when a migraine hits me these many years later, Mr. G. moved me up the aisle.

“Read it now!” he yelled, as my classmates began to laugh.

“I can’t”, I sobbed, having lost all control of the tears.

The room erupted in laughter.

Mr. G., now playing to his audience as much as anything else, lifted me up by my shirt collar and carried me to the front of the class.

“Try reading it now!” he bellowed, evoking another chorus of laughter from my peers.

By this time I was wiping my eyes and nose on my shirt sleeves and was so shaken that I couldn’t have concentrated on the chalkboard, even if I had been able to see it. The clearer my lack of vision became the angrier Mr. G. seemed to get. If not anger, it was certainly adrenalin.

He pulled me right up to the board now, this time jerking me forward by the arm.

“Can you read any of it now?” he yelled sarcastically, tapping my forehead repeatedly against the board. Of course now I was too close to read anything other than what was directly in front of me. My only response was to continue crying as the class snickered and laughed.

“I think you need glasses”, Mr. G. said, a little quieter, as he quickly wrote a note.

“Take this home with you” he said, pushing the slip of paper into my hand.

Not surprisingly, Mr. G. was to be among the first people who would soon call me “Four Eyes”.

© Copyright 2004 Kenn Chaplin. All rights reserved.

________________________________________
‘Hawaiian Tropic’ Secret
by: Kenn Chaplin
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All I could think about was how sad I was going to feel lying to Mom or Dad about where I had been all afternoon. But lie I must, I told myself, as I rode my bike up the incline driveway of our bungalow.

As my mind involuntarily cast itself back to the events of the afternoon, replaying the horror over and over again, I wished that I had just stayed home or, at least, closer to town.

———————————————————

I was lying naked on a large rock, one of hundreds along both shores. I loved the sense of adventure in daring to be outside with no clothes on. I was out of sight of the gravel road which made its way along the shoreline to where the canal seamlessly became the lake. “I could always cover up when a ship happened along,” I thought.

As I stood up to re-align myself towards the changing afternoon sun, I noticed him, also standing up, also completely naked, on a ridge that overlooked the rocky fields, the roadway, the water and me.

He cupped his hand over his sun-glasses to see me better. His slicked back, black hair glistened. Then he touched himself. My heart raced with feelings that were at once strange and yet oddly familiar. (I had already discovered I liked boys, and had played around with my best friend but, like me, he was just another pubescent boy.)

I sat back down on my boulder, out of the man’s sight again, and pulled on my shorts and running shoes. Then I lifted my bike out of the bushes and began making my way along the bumpy road toward him, my legs still stretching to reach the pedals of this new, adult-sized ‘ten-speed’ I had paid for with earnings from my newspaper route.

I noticed that the man had driven his car – a big, brown, fairly new Pontiac Parisienne, probably a ’71 or ’72 model – off the main road and parked it on a path which snaked its way up the small ridge to where he still stood, still touching himself.

My heart seemingly in my throat, which was parched from the afternoon’s sun-bathing, I walked up the man’s path, noticing a Crucifix – perhaps a Rosary, too – dangling from the car’s rear-view mirror.

“Salut”, he said softly, smiling as he rubbed his hand over a large belly and again touched himself. I could smell the strong scent of tanning oil.

I stood silently, completely unsure of what I should do next.

“Salut”, I replied, hoping that my limited French would help me talk to him.

“Veux-tu…?” he asked, without saying any more, pointing to a large blanket he had stretched over the grass behind his car.

I hesitated, almost panicked really.

He looked as old as my Dad, even older, and he was quite fat. He sat down on the blanket and again spoke softly.

“Viens ‘ci”, he said, patting a spot beside him on the blanket. He pushed aside a brown bottle labeled “Hawaiian Tropic Suntan Oil”.

I set my bike on its side in the mixture of wild wheat, thistles and tall grass.

I awkwardly pulled my shorts down and over my shoes, then peeled my shirt over my head. I stood silently, looking around to see how hidden we were. From this vantage point I could not see the road, and yet I could see the water. He had a good hiding place.

The man didn’t say much but he hummed in an “Ooh-la-la” fashion. My heart was thumping as my instincts raced between boyish curiosity and outright terror. Again he touched himself and then took my hand and placed it on his privates. Mine was like his at this point and he gripped it with a firmness that felt good. He pulled us together, holding me against his slippery, hairy skin, his tanning oil now slithering all over my chest, arms and legs.

Before long I felt a very strange twitch. I turned away from his grasp, thinking I suddenly needed to pee, but it wasn’t piss that came out. The force of this surprise weakened my legs momentarily.

As I recovered my breath the man began talking quickly, almost shouting really, and I didn’t understand what he was saying. His rage, though, was unmistakable. While I quickly pulled my shorts back on he seemed to be asking why I had turned away from him. Obviously he had wanted to see what I had been doing. I didn’t know how to react to his anger. I was frightened, though, and filled with a sense of shame. Then he said something to the effect of not telling anyone that we had met here. The way I felt at that point there was no reason, in my mind, for him to be concerned.

I scraped my shin on a pedal of my bike, hopping on as fast as I could. Tears welled up as I bumped along the road, wishing that I didn’t have a half hour ride across town, along some busy streets, before I would be home. As frightened as I was, though, it seemed like I had better just come up with a fictitious cycling route to describe to Mom and Dad. Somehow I would have to lie when I accounted for my afternoon – and a long, sweaty ride home would, at least, reasonably call for an immediate shower.

© Copyright 2004 Kenn Chaplin. All rights reserved.

________________________________________
Nature or Nurture?
by: Kenn Chaplin
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“Today I’m going to get you to paint the oil tank,” Gammy announced, scurrying around the kitchen with breakfast.

“What oil tank?” I asked as I imagined the ten-storey high water tower with PERTH emblazoned on the side – the tallest structure in town.

“It’s in the wood shed”, Gammy replied. “It’s connected to the oil stove in the music room.”

The ‘music room’ was what would have been the summer kitchen when my grandmother’s century-old brick home was built. It now served as somewhat of a “den”, to use the modern-day term. There was a lumpy, old pull-out couch, with boxes almost hidden behind it, variously labeled “Christmas”, “rummage sale”, and “misc.” Beside the couch sat a small electric radio, in faded yellow plastic casing, from which every day at 12:30 Gammy would hear the names of local people who had died. Next to a south-facing window there was a wooden Singer™ sewing machine table, with a big cast-iron pedal below that would rock back and forth if I leaned on it, moving wheels on each side. Across the doorway, tucked in the corner behind the inside door when it was open, sat a big black piano with yellowed ivory keys and a matching black bench. Between the piano and the narrow, curving staircase that led to Gammy’s bedroom, sat a brown metal stove – a space heater really – with a fat pipe that went up to a chimney.

What I had not realized was that its fuel supply was in a large oil tank in the wood-shed behind. Oh I knew there was a tank in there, alright. I had been in the wood-shed the day before, looking through boxes of old books from Gammy’s days as a school teacher. The shed had one light, a light-bulb which dangled from the ceiling, pulled “on” by a small metal chain with a piece of string knotted on the end. The only wood to be found was in the floor boards, which smelled of mildew and of years without paint, baked in the mid-summer heat under tarred shingles.

“But Gammy,” I said, putting my breakfast dishes on the counter next to the sink, “I don’t have any old clothes to wear for painting! Couldn’t we go to the library or something?”

“Oh don’t worry,” Gammy assured me, no doubt filing the library idea for a rainy day. “I’ve got something for you to put on.”

With that she stepped from the kitchen into the music room, picked up an old dress that lay across the end of the couch, and said, “Here. Put this on over your clothes.”

I was dumbfounded.

The dress was dark brown, with flecks of black, white and blue. It was light, as she passed it to me, the weight of a silk scarf. It smelled like, well, like Gammy with a faint odour of moth-balls too.

“But Gammy, a dress?” I protested. “Boys don’t wear dresses. I’m sure not putting that on!”

“Oh, now don’t be silly,” she said. “Who’s going to see you way back here in the wood shed?” You don’t want your clothes all covered in paint do you?”

This was the first time I ever wore a dress. It would not be the last.


© Copyright 2004 Kenn Chaplin. All rights reserved.

________________________________________
The Green Piano
by: Kenn Chaplin
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The cottage was simple, primitive by modern standards, but my memories of it are as warm as a favourite sweater. “Hillcrest” belonged to my Auntie Dot and Uncle Homer who owned and operated a cluster of weekly housekeeping cottages, near Portland, Ontario on Big Rideau Lake, collectively known as “Homer’s Haven”.

There was the cottage over the boat-house, “Rideau”, named for the lake, and “Cedar Crest” whose living area was just a matter of feet from the water but was nestled in a grove of trees at the very edge of the property. Up the hill a little was “Bay View”, across the well-shaded lawn from “Lakefield” and “Birch View”. Then, in the late 1960s, directly across from the main house, “Bawnvilla” was built specifically so that a faithful customer from Indiana, who was dying of cancer, could visit at a time when all other cottages were spoken for. This rush-job was made easier by the fact that Homer and Dorothy, in addition to their maintenance of this extensive property, both worked full-time at a company which built pre-fabricated homes (and cottages).

Because it was their summer home Hillcrest had a few more comforts than those available in the other cottages. Mind you there wasn’t a shower or bath-tub to be found. We had the lake for that or Homer and Dorothy would take a short drive to their winter home just outside the nearby village of Portland. Hillcrest’s bathroom would more accurately be called a “W.C”, or water closet, the British term for the single-purpose room housing a toilet and sink. In the corner was a water heater.

The kitchen, for most of my visits there, was a well-traveled alleyway from the front door to the bathroom. Later, as I grew older and spent summers working for my aunt and uncle, I was naturally expected to help out with cleanups after meals. What I lacked in speed I made up for in detail as Auntie Dot frequently remarked, “No one can dry a dish like Kenneth Chaplin!”. The kitchen was separated from the dining area by an enamel-covered counter where we would often eat a hasty breakfast or where Auntie Dot would brew her much-loved tea.

Two small bedrooms were off the living room area. Like all the bedrooms in the other cottages their walls were more like room dividers. A common ceiling made privacy possible for the eyes only. Snoring, quite animated in the case of Uncle Homer, and other nocturnal noise-making were shared equally.

If my cousin was in residence I slept on one of the living room sofas, one a fire engine-red, imitation leather, couch and the other a flip-out sofa bed. These were in an L-shape facing an artificial fireplace, good for taking the dampness out of the air if we had to endure a stretch of rainy weather.

Along the wall, between the bedrooms, was the large upright piano. It was painted green, something like the colour of lime JELL-O after it has been whipped with cream, or cream cheese, into a ‘quick ‘n’ easy’ mousse. There was a matching bench which, like our own back home, had storage space underneath for music. Pianos have been a central part of my family’s entertainment for generations and this green one saw a lot of action, whether cousin “Red Jack” was showing us his jazz prowess or Mom was leading a sing-along of Depression and World War Two-era standards. There were a couple of summers in the 1970s when I hardly let a day go by without playing that piano.

It was the year of “The Sting” and Scott Joplin’s music, particularly “The Entertainer”, was very popular. I set out to learn it – and not some simplified version for kids, either. I was determined to learn how to play it as Joplin himself had written it. That took a lot of practice, something many members of my family will remember well, if not always fondly. (I also worked on it at home and at my grandmother’s.) Thanks in no small measure to that green piano I mastered “The Entertainer” that summer (and it became a part of my repertoire for a few more years).

My fingers can still find those opening notes whenever I am near a piano, which is not too often anymore.

I’m not sure what became of that green piano. The winters in a cottage with no insulation surely were not kind to it. I think my cousin Nancy has the one from Dot and Homer’s winter home.


© Copyright 2004 Kenn Chaplin. All rights reserved.

________________________________________
Bixby Loves Me!
by: Kenn Chaplin
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Bixby was the first teddy bear I had ever received as an adult. He wore a t-shirt that read “Bixby loves you” but I threw the shirt out some time ago as it had become discoloured.

I have slept with Bixby every night – except during some, not all, out-of-town trips – for somewhere between twenty and twenty-five years.

Bixby was presented to me by a guy from Philadelphia, whose name escapes me (not a bad thing), when I picked him up at the airport. It was our first-ever face-to-face meeting. We had ‘met’ in the mid-1980s during one of those “976” calls, the telephone forerunner to today’s internet chat rooms. (Just to be absolutely clear, the only cost was for long distance charges. This guy was no prostitute – a pig or a dog, yes, but not a prostitute.)

Our relationship had, to that point, consisted of phone calls and an exchange of greeting cards with pithy, increasingly romantic-sounding, hand-written notes. With all of this in mind, as little as it was, he decided he wanted to fly up and meet me. I made reservations for us at a small guest house in Toronto. (I lived in the Niagara area in those days, roughly the mid-point between the airport he flew to in Buffalo, New York and our ultimate destination – making his chosen port of arrival an inconvenience for me but, as I recall, a cost savings for him.)

He was not quite as he had described himself. His hair colour, for one thing, which he had specifically told me was black, was a moot point as he turned out to be completely bald! He was easily more than double my twenty-something years, something only he liked. To be fair, I think I already knew he was at least in his “early forties” or thereabouts, and my own appearance is not something I have ever led with as my best attributes.

In exchange for picking him up in Buffalo we agreed to a rest stop at my home-town bar where he could meet my friends. A few of them were gay men, in addition to the straight, female sex therapist I shared a house with, as well as a co-worker of mine, Cynthia who I would describe as a hybrid, early 1980s version, of the Grace and Karen characters on Will & Grace.

From there, my driving ability no doubt legally impaired by then, the plan was to take a bus the rest of the way to Toronto.

As we sat in the bar, and I grew increasingly restless to move on to Toronto, my misplaced love became interested in a younger, cuter guy and took it upon himself to invite him up to the big city with us! Showing the self-respect of a gnat I agreed to this manipulation, rather than cutting my losses and getting out while the getting was good.

What stands out for me – keeping in mind that this was half a life ago now – was my Philadelphia suitor and his new catch sleeping in the double bed of our Victorian-style guest house room while I used a cot! Determined to make my displeasure known for as long as possible – and knowing a thing or two about passive-aggressive behaviour – I kicked the bed repeatedly through the night, pretending to be doing so in my sleep, until, unable to bear the situation any longer, I went out just before dawn and called Cynthia.

None too pleased to be awakened all I remember of that conversation is Cynthia convincing me that I owed my two room-mates an apology.

This is just one example of how I have, to quote an 80s “new country” song, always looked for love “in all the wrong places”.

Bixby needs to go in with the next load of laundry but, that aside, he has been a faithful, affectionate friend for the better part of a quarter-century now!

© Copyright 2004 Kenn Chaplin. All rights reserved.

________________________________________Windigo
by: Kenn Chaplin
________________________________________

Ripples lick the rocks
As the pines and birch politely applaud
Gulls catching their petits dejeuners
In the waking lake.

Sky’s amethyst shroud cascades
Toward the western shore
And the water’s silky blue
Becomes the pewter and emerald of armour.

The fleeting storm rumbles to the west and north
Dragging a chair across a distant wooden floor
But our only thunder is from a train
Rolling to market behind its mournful whistle.

The winds shift, the shroud – like a chameleon -
Becomes soft pillows of gray and white.
Simcoe’s armour is but a duvet.
The white top-sheets being turned down toward Windigo.

Once here, and with dusk approaching,
The sheets are smoothed, the pillows fluffed
And the sun sinks past the foot of the bed
Leaving colours of peace and wonder.

No sooner are distant pinks orange, and oranges purple,
Then a star pierces the darkening blue
And the trees begin to sigh, knowing the moon’s glow
Over Windigo will keep watch another night.

© Copyright 1993 Kenn Chaplin. All rights reserved.

January 14, 1994
by Kenn Chaplin

I hadn’t been home from the hospital more than a couple of hours when Jim’s mother phoned.

“Kenn, the nurses’ station just called and they thought we’d better head back.” she nearly shouted.

“Okay, well let’s not wait for a cab. We could probably hail one faster,” I replied.

I met A., and Jim’s dad B., in the lobby. (They were staying in Jim’s apartment a couple of flights down from me.)

It was bitterly cold as we headed out the door and across the parking lot to Sherbourne Street.

Soon enough a cab came along and we climbed into the back seat, A. between B. and me. Holding hands we did not speak much during the five minute drive through the quiet, late night streets. We knew that the call from the hospital was probably the last we would receive.

I cannot recall, these years later, how many visitors were in Jim’s room – one of the small private rooms in the now-demolished Bell Wing at Toronto General Hospital. Many certainly joined us over the next few hours, well into the wee, pre-dawn hours of the morning. Jim’s partner of just about a year, R., was there, our mutual friend and co-op neighbour, B.C., Jim’s two sisters, and, before the night was over probably at least ten other friends.

Jim seemed to hear us, although we could not be certain of that all the time. His breathing had taken on the death rattle, however, and he needed a near-constant flow of oxygen.

“We love you, Jim” someone said softly, to which we each responded with affirmations of our own. He mouthed “I love you” back once in awhile. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. A cassette of lullabies, which Jim had compiled for his ex Terry when he was dying a couple of years earlier, played in a Walkman rigged with speakers set up on the shelf which covered the fluorescent light over the head of Jim’s bed.

I said something, the stupidity of which I have never quite forgiven myself for.

Quite certain that my advanced AIDS would be killing me shortly – remember this was 1994 – I said, “Save me a seat in the smoking section, Jim”. What I would not give to take those few seconds back.

The only reaction I noticed came from one of Jim’s sisters who clucked out a sigh and a ‘tsk tsk’.

The fact that I no longer smoke notwithstanding, I still feel – these thirteen years later – like such a cake-hole for that lame attempt at empathetic humour. Those feelings of shame have prevented me from writing, in narrative form, the events of that night up to now.

I tried to make up for it though when, a day or so later, I crafted the death notice for the Toronto Star (surnames deleted):

______, Jim (William James) – With a smile, in the company of R., family and friends, Jim let go with trust and drifted peacefully to Heaven on Friday, January 14, 1994. Beloved son of A. and B. ______, loving brother of A. and D., favourite uncle of D. and M., Jim was loved by everyone he met and reserved a special place in his heart for each of us. A farewell service will be held Saturday, January 22 at 11:00 a.m. at the St. James Crematorium Chapel, 635 Parliament Street, Toronto. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to The Hospital for Sick Children AIDS Research Fund; the Women and AIDS Program c/o ACT (AIDS Committee of Toronto); and the Canadian Cancer Society. Arrangements under the direction of Basic Funeral Alternatives.

It took me awhile to dig this up but I eventually found it in a letter I used to write semi-annually or so to a former co-worker in Niagara. I noted, to her, that the notice appeared – fittingly enough – on the inside back page of the Star’s Entertainment section.

Later that week, a couple of days before the memorial service, I journalled:

“Was I morbid or vulture-like to be hanging around the hospital all week once it was clear Jim could die at any moment? The fact is I did want to see his death, if it was inevitable, to reinforce my sense of peace with the process. It just so happened that my being there proved to be a gesture of support to R. and Jim’s family and friends. My serenity with Jim’s transition is surely a powerful example of the many options one faces at the time of a loved one’s death. I make no apologies for my physical response to Jim’s passing. I shed tears, I sobbed on my knees at his bed-side, I miss his physical presence, his welcoming home, his beautiful face, gorgeous body, his baritone voice, his masculinity, his femininity, his alert sense of humour, his inquisitive facial expressions, his breathless wonder, his impromptu visits, his poetic story-telling, his laughter, his vulnerability, his deceiving self-assurance, and on and on I could go – and am sure to for a long time to come.”

These many years since I have referred to Jim – when speaking of him to people who did not know him – as “the best friend I never had”, a double entendre meaning that, since elementary school days, I had only had one “best friend” and we had lost touch quite some time ago. I also meant it in the more carnal sense in that, despite my undeniable physical attraction to Jim, the feelings were not mutual and – besides – I was in a position of trust as a mentor of sorts in our “Living with AIDS” support group.

Plus, as I wrote a couple of years ago in this account of the death of another friend, Terry, Jim and I shared some very precious memories:

Monday, March 15, 2004

The assignment for today, at Mount Sinai’s “Narrative Group”, was simply “change”.My first idea was to describe the day I learned that I was HIV-positive but reverse everything, including the results. For some reason I just couldn’t ‘go there’.The change I, instead, wrote about describes the last evening of Terry’s life. (Terry was the former partner of my dear friend, Jim, who succumbed to AIDS-related pneumonia in the spring of 1992. Jim followed in 1994.)Obviously the conversation has been recreated, based solely on twelve-year old memories.
~~~~~
I bounded up the stairwell to Terry’s apartment, almost directly above mine, my legs feeling a little heavy with anticipation of the night ahead. Although not the first “night-shift” I had spent with Terry this was the first one since I moved into the same building mid-month.As I walked in Jim was in the kitchen, talking quietly on the telephone. He waved his greetings, signaled to be quiet – that Terry was sleeping – and then continued to listen to his caller. It was soon obvious that Jim was speaking to our doctor, Pat.

I quickly glanced around. Terry was in bed, which had been moved in to the living room a week or so earlier. Odours in the room seemed to be competing with one another – harsh cleansers, cigarette smoke and shit.”So, do you think you’ll be coming over?” Jim inquired. “Uh huh, uh huh,” he continued, “so I should call you first, right?” he asked. “Okay, well Kenn’s here now so we’ll have his company for the night. Will do,” he continued, mouthing “Hi Kenn” to me, grinning and nodding to the phone receiver. “Thanks Pat,” he concluded. “Bye.”

As Jim hung up the phone his smile fell. He looked at me, heaved a deep sigh, and then grabbed me for a hug as he began to sob. “I’m so glad it’s you that’s here with us tonight,” he said, wiping tears with his sleeve.

“What’s up?” I asked, wondering for a moment what specifically he and Pat had been talking about.

“It’s Terry’s breathing,” Jim said, his voice quivering. “You’ll hear for yourself – it sounds terrible. Pat doesn’t think he’ll even make it through the night,” clutching me.

My mind raced between wondering what I had gotten myself into and a sense that this was a momentous occasion to be with Jim – thoughts too difficult to sort out.

“Have you eaten yet?” I asked, self-conscious that I might be changing the subject too quickly.

“Yes, thanks,” replied Jim. “Terry’s sister brought something over on her way to work.”

We walked into the bedroom, which had been switched into a small den. The television was on quietly.

“We could watch some ‘Ab Fab’ tapes later if you want,” Jim said. Not waiting for a response he shoved a videotape into the VCR, picked up the remote, and sat on the edge of the couch.

Minutes passed. We periodically looked in on Terry. He still slept, his breathing raspy. Little did I know how familiar I would become with that “death rattle” in the coming years.

Jim chuckled out loud at the television. We both did. Sometimes we looked at each other, silently wondering if we should be laughing, then shrugged our shoulders as if to say, “Who knows?”

A couple of hours passed, as we took turns checking on Terry. He was not very responsive, although once or twice a heavy cough would wake him up briefly. That brought us to our feet. Terry would glance around, his head still on the pillows, see us both there, then shut his eyes again.

“I wish I knew what to do,” Jim said, breaking a long silence. We had turned off the television and were now playing a cassette of lullabies that Jim had put together. The music drifted throughout the apartment.

“Well”, I began, “remember that scene in ‘Long Time Companion’,” I said, “where the guy sat with his lover and told him…”

“Let go,” Jim interrupted, nodding, “just let go.”

“Maybe you could have that sort of talk with Terry,” I said. “Maybe he just needs to hear it from you – that you will be okay.”

With that, Jim stood up, asked me for a hug and then walked towards the other room.

“I’ll join you in a few minutes,” I whispered.

The den to myself now, I broke down and sobbed, hours of tension flooding out. I had shut the door but I could hear the muffled tones of Jim’s voice as he talked to Terry. I reached somewhere deep within and prayed for help.

A few minutes later I heard Jim in the kitchen, filling the kettle with water. I opened the door quietly and walked out to join him. Again we hugged; again we cried.

“I don’t know why I’m doing this,” Jim laughed, nodding at the kettle. “I really just want to get some sleep.”

We rolled foam mattresses out on the living room floor, one on either side of Terry’s bed.

As the music continued to play we fell asleep.

Suddenly – it seemed like just a moment later – Jim and I both sat up quickly. The rising sun was streaming into the apartment, telling us that we had been asleep for a few hours. We looked at Terry and then at each other.

He was gone. The change in his breathing had awakened us.

———————-

I met Jim only in the early fall of 1990. Yet it seems, in so many ways, like we shared a life together before his death thirteen years ago now, on that bitterly cold morning of January 14, 1994.

I was standing at Jim’s shoulder when his breathing stopped and, after a respectful few seconds of quiet and tears, I slipped my hand over his eyes to close them. I recalled our special, albeit painful, time of silence – alone, together – the morning, a couple of years before, when Terry died.

© Copyright 2007 Kenn Chaplin. All rights reserved.

________________________________________
God, I’m Scared
by: Kenn Chaplin
________________________________________

Did it take AIDS
to get my own attention?
I’d managed well on my own
in my lonely, self-abusive
little world.
(‘This is managing well?’)

I’ve been able to scratch my own back
for as long as I can remember -
long fingers, narrow shoulders.

Now, as my hand wraps itself
around my other side,
I know I’m even thinner -
and I’m scared.

I see a walking skeleton
as I hobble past
a plate glass window.
No full-length mirrors
in my home right now,
No need for them
from here on in.
And I’m scared.

My shell will fit
in a sheet
of sandwich wrap.
No body-bag required.
And I’m scared.

My spirit plays
with the birds and butterflies
and, reluctantly,
with the hawks and vultures
soaring into the blue,
then dive-bombing
toward Earth.
But it is just play.

Please God,
remind me that it’s just play.
And that recess
will soon be over.

© Copyright 1994 Kenn Chaplin. All rights reserved.

________________________________________
This Place
by: Kenn Chaplin
________________________________________

When I’m in pain
There’s this place I go
It seems I’m there
Before I know

What’s made me move
Inside or out
Makes me scream
With never a shout

I’d like to yell
‘Til my throat is hoarse
But it’s not likely I will
Being so composed of course

It’s a confusing place
But comfortable too
Being at ease in pain
I’ve become accustomed to

It’s not a pain
“Rate it one to ten”
But an ache, a dread
Of what to do when

Pain subsides
Or I get distracted
And start to believe
I’ve over-reacted

My fate unsure
The end unwritten
I could fall in love
Or at least be smitten

But how could I love
When I’ve always questioned
How things could be,
Details not mentioned

A secret between friends
Is safe with me
But this secret pain
Won’t set me free.

© Copyright 2004 Kenn Chaplin . All rights reserved.

________________________________________
A Human Wreck at ‘Wreck Beach’
by: Kenn Chaplin
________________________________________

It was my first visit to the west coast, that summer of 1996, and – given my fragile health – I was determined to make it the trip of a lifetime. I would fly to Vancouver and then take the train across Canada to return home.

My purpose in being out there was to attend the XI International Conference on AIDS. As a “scholarship” recipient, with registration and basic travel expenses covered, I stayed with others on similarly limited budgets in the residences at the University of British Columbia. A more beautiful university campus I have not seen, built on a large, elevated point of land overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the city’s west end.

Campus maps clearly showed several beaches nearby. They did not, however, indicate changes in elevation. So it was that I set out to find “Wreck Beach”, a place of some legend, in Canada anyway, that I knew to be “clothing optional”. I left my room, at the Gage Residence and Conference Centre, in the early morning of my first full day there, skipping breakfast – as was my habit back then – even though it was already close to noon by my jetlagged body clock.

I took my time, walking around the campus to establish some landmarks in my mind, being admittedly wasteful of physical energy which was at a premium. I continued to recover from a serious AIDS-related illness, cryptosporidiosis, a parasite which gives understated meaning to the expression “feeling shitty”.

Crossing NW Marine Drive, loosely wrapping its way around the tip of the campus, I found myself in Pacific Spirit Regional Park which, for what I mistook to be an urban park, did not have a lot of signs. Looking for a path to the ocean, which I could unmistakably hear through the sky-high Douglas fir trees, I came upon a trail I would only later discover had been created by nothing more than rain run-off. It seemed like a path to me. I could forgive the Parks Department for such a primitive trail, given the unspoiled nature evident everywhere the eye could see.

I began my hike downward, stepping over fallen branches, carefully walking around patches of mud, all the while trying to absorb the sheer beauty of the lush plant-life; the unfamiliar songs of the coastal birds. The terrain was becoming progressively steeper and this path I had found did not zigzag across the hillside the way I would have expected. It soon became necessary to grab hold of trees just to keep my footing. I was glad to be wearing comfortable sneakers, although hiking boots would not have been an overly cautious choice to have made. As the grade of the slope increased – calculating such things has never been my strong suit – I began to let myself slide from tree to tree, grabbing on for dear life. Then I fell – still upright, such was the steepness – and began a precipitous plunge. As alarmed as I was, and I cannot overstate my initial sense of panic, I kept my wits about me and watched for obstacles that might injure me. I don’t recall how long this took but I don’t think twenty or thirty seconds would be an exaggeration. Finally I felt my back brush lightly over a patch of rock and I landed in a thicket of ferns, small twigs, coming to a stop with sand kicking up between my legs and spraying my face. I lay there quickly doing a mental checklist of any injuries and, finding none, I stood up only to realize that – somewhere between standing upright and falling upright – I had let go of more than a few trees. To my horror my pants were, uh, soiled.

After quickly forgiving myself, given my health and the excitement of the last few moments, it seemed quite fitting that I should need to wash my clothes on this clothing optional beach even if my very first walk in to the Pacific was to do laundry! I cleaned myself up, using the clothes as I peeled them off, and then tip-toed in to the pounding surf, scrubbing as I went. Now, completely naked and with no dry clothes to wear, I claimed an isolated part of the beach and draped my jeans and shirt across a couple of large rocks. It would be a few more minutes before the sun would come from back behind the trees I had just fallen through. It would be some time more before my clothes were dry. That’s how I got one of the worst sunburns of my life, on parts of me which had not seen the sun for an extended period of time, and how I learned – later from another delegate to the conference (who did not get the whole story of my first day at Wreck Beach) – that vinegar works wonders on taking the sting out of a sunburn!

© Copyright 2004 Kenn Chaplin. All rights reserved.

________________________________________
A Stranger in New York
by: Kenn Chaplin
________________________________________

“Beep-beep-beep-beep-beep.” A garbage truck tipped a dumpster’s contents into the truck’s bin.

Gray light peeked through the curtains.

Behind me, in the next bed, I heard snoring.

“Oh, right,” I remembered, “I’m in New York with my friend David; here at the Hilton.” It was Memorial Day weekend, 2001.

I got up and peered between the drapes. The streetscape below was shrouded in gray, but I suspected it was too early to tell whether that was due to the weather or the hour. I checked my watch. It was 5:10.

“Well I’m up,” I thought “and this is my first full day in New York so I might as well get to it!”

I had read that the best time to go to the Brooklyn Bridge for pictures was at sunrise. I quickly got dressed, left David a note, then set off for the subway. (I remembered that Rockefeller Center Station was just down the street.)

The pink neon of Radio City Music Hall quickened my pace as did every turn of the head where another legendary landmark came into view.

“Oh my God, I am really in New York,” I nearly yelled out loud with excitement.

I got my bearings quickly as I looked around, recalling the previous night’s long walk through the light drizzle to Times Square, down to the library, over to the Chrysler Building, then into Grand Central Station. I could hardly wait to get my films printed. I was particularly interested in seeing how the ones I tried to discreetly take of all the sailors, in town for Fleet Week, turned out!

I ran down the stairs into the subway, bought a weekly Metro Card, then stopped and turned around to ask the station attendant for directions.

“Where in Brooklyn?” was her first response, amplified through the speaker like some announcement at Yankee Stadium.

“Well I want to take the pedestrian path on the bridge back over to this side,” I said.

She pulled out a map, passed it part way through the slot then pointed with her pen.

“Take any train to West Fourth, here,” she circled in the air over the map.

“Any train?” I double-checked.

“Uh huh,” she nodded, “then take either the ‘A’ or ‘C’ train to High Street,” she said, again tracing the route in the air above the map.

Satisfied that I could follow those directions, and not wanting to seem like too much of a tourist, I thanked her, then walked downstairs to the train platform.

It was very quiet. I was the only person waiting.

A train soon rumbled, squealed and banged its way into the station. I walked on, then sat down. Across from me was a woman sleeping, I supposed, her face hidden in her bosom. At the far end of the car a young man listened to music through headphones, tapping his shoes on the seat in front of him.

Changing trains at 4th Street, this turned out to be less than the halfway point of the trip, I began to wonder if walking back to the hotel might not have been an overly ambitious goal. “Oh well,” I thought, “I can always change my mind later.”

Thinking I wanted every possible angle of photograph I went past High Street to Jay. Once off the second train I again asked for directions and was told to follow signs out on the street. It took me a few moments to figure out that most of the signs were for cars, not pedestrians, but I eventually saw the familiar stone arches of the bridge and watched to see how an in-line skater came down to street level.

My head was spinning as my eyes took in the rough edges of Brooklyn. The drumbeats of “NYPD Blue” (coming back from commercials) ran through my mind. Before I knew I was on the bridge, above the traffic, looking toward Manhattan. What I had hoped would be a picture-perfect view was, instead, quite gray and foggy. I was not deterred, snapping pictures wastefully the way a newspaper photographer might – first of those impressive stone arches on the bridge, then of the cityscape ahead. The music in my head had changed to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” as I thought of any number of scenes from Woody Allen’s “Manhattan.”

I asked someone if the only skyscraper I could see, just because it was closest, was the Empire State Building. Chalk that up to being a dumb tourist.

“Naw”, the man scoffed. “Dat dere is just the Woolworth’s headquarters.”

The World Trade Center towers, which I did recognize, were almost completely shrouded in mist and fog. I couldn’t see much above ten storeys.

I followed the signs to City Hall, where I took a few more pictures, walked up Broadway, through Soho, and found myself around some familiar street names or at least streets I had read about like Canal and Bleecker. I snapped a shot at a building as close to 85 Bleecker as I could find, that being my address back home. Another corner caught my fancy Christopher and Gay Streets. Again, I took a picture. I walked up Christopher and found the Oscar Wilde Book Shop. (I had ordered a few things from there back in my “coming out” days so, of course, needed a picture of that.)

Nearby I came upon Christopher Park where a plaque commemorated the Stonewall Riots and where there’s what I would call a living sculpture depicting two men standing and talking, one’s hand on the other’s shoulder, and two women sitting on a park bench, the loving hand of one on the thigh of the other. I took several photos. As I plucked a new cartridge into the camera, a voice called out, “Would you like me to take your picture there?”

“Oh,” I said, glancing around to see the man who was calling, “Sure” I said, “that would be great!” appreciating the karmic return of a favour I had often offered tourists across Canada.

“You’re from out of town?” the man asked rhetorically, as I stood there with a red, white and blue cotton image of “Lady Liberty” covering my chest.

“Yes, Toronto” I replied, handing him my camera. I sat down on the bench beside the concrete lesbians.

“Really?” asked the man, by this time snapping the first of several pictures. “So you’re just out taking a few pictures of the Village, huh?”

“You been to any of the clubs around here yet?” he asked. He paused. “You are gay, right?” He lined up another shot.

“Yep, I’m gay,” I said. “But, no, I haven’t been to any of the bars yet. I just got into town yesterday.”

“Well I’d be glad to show you around,” the guy said.

I began to suspect he was a hustler.

“Oh, that’s fine, thanks. I’ve got a pretty busy weekend planned with friends,” I said.

“Cool” the man said. “Say,” he began, “how much will you give me for doing this?”

The guy seemed high-strung and his fingers were dirty, too, although he was dressed in clean, casual clothes.

Suddenly recalling that – even after all that walking – it was still quite early in the morning, on a holiday weekend with very few people around, my heart sank as I realized the guy was looking for money and was probably a drug addict “player”.

“Oh,” I said, “well,” I paused again, “all I have is this five,” I lied, pulling a bill out of my pocket, hoping that would get rid of him.

“You’ll have to do better than that,” he said, plucking the five from between my fingers, and backing up rather quickly as he took some more pictures.

“No, now come on,” I said, half begging, “please give me my camera!”

It was too late. He turned on his heel and raced up towards Sixth Avenue.

I yelled after him but he was already out of sight.

Thanks to David, and other friends I was with that weekend, I’m often reminded of this incident. All that needs to be said is, “Kenn, let me take your picture!”

© Copyright 2001 Kenn Chaplin. All rights reserved.

________________________________________
‘Coming Out’ – Pride ’01
by: Kenn Chaplin
________________________________________

It’s been about twenty years since the very first reported cases of what we now know as AIDS. In February of that year – 1981 – I “came out” to my family as a gay man after a long inner struggle. I did it in the form of a letter to my parents, carefully crafting what I wanted to say. Mom and Dad phoned me as soon as they had received the letter to reassure me of their abiding love for me. I still remind them, that, even today, many parents don’t respond with such love. Just yesterday I bumped into an old acquaintance from St. Catharines who had been excluded from the recent funeral of his mother because his siblings have disowned him.

The few years that preceded my disclosure had not been among my best. Away from home at college, I was taken under the wings of a very conservative church. I later learned that this had been more upsetting to my solid United Church family than my coming out was to be! In fact my older brother, Craig, had come out to my folks himself four years earlier, but had not included me in his confidence at the time – and who’d blame him?

Self-abuse, reinforced by that Niagara church’s fundamentalist dogma, also was nurtured in the gay bars of Toronto and Buffalo where I lived a double life of self-defined “community”-seeking.

Later there was a minor dust-up with my employer over my coming out – outrage really – in a feature article, about the Human Rights Code debate of that time, in the St. Catharines Standard.

The 1980s brought me freedom within my family, but I was not free inside yet, which was manifested in what I’d later identify as alcoholism – not an uncommon closet in its own right.

I finally stopped drinking in 1988 after I fled to Toronto, this “Emerald City” I could see on a clear day from across the lake in Port Dalhousie.

Gaining early access to AZT had been a lengthy activist community struggle here and so, in 1990, I got tested for HIV because I wanted to avail myself of whatever I could in the event that I was positive. Well I was positive, and no amount of preparation could have softened the impact of finding out. It’s been shown that I had sero-converted the previous May.

My brother, still living in Montreal, had also tested positive a few years earlier so when I began telling my parents by saying that – as far as I had known at the time – I was negative when Craig gave them his news, it didn’t take them long to know what I was about to disclose.

That little meeting with Mom and Dad was in the summer of 1990, a few months before I left full-time work. In 1992, after very routine surgery, my mother contracted necrotizing fasciitis – or “flesh-eating disease”. She very nearly died. This was about a year before Lucien Bouchard’s similar, more publicized, brush with death. The Chaplin family, which today includes two sisters, Lynn and her blended family, an expectant Janice and her husband Randy, and Craig’s partner, Claude, high-tailed it to Ottawa from points east and west to be at what seemed likely to be Mom’s death-bed. Thankfully, after weeks and months in hospital, Mom made an almost complete recovery. No limbs or vital organs were lost.

Mom was on the sofa recuperating only a short while when my father suffered a heart attack. He, too, has recovered and is – for only the first time since then – now awaiting a follow-up to a poor grade on a recent treadmill stress test.

By 1993 my CD-4 count had steadily fallen to just 10. Normal is in the upper three-figures. I was grounded by a bout of cryptosporidium, the same bug which has recently been in the drinking water of North Battleford, Saskatchewan. I began assembling a home hospice care team, of sorts. My specialist casually tells residents on their rounds today that I nearly died. This condition dragged on for the better part of three years.

Aside from weight, I lost many friends – some very close friends – during this time, several of whom lived in my housing co-op. Jim and I lay beside Terry as he slept away to his death. Less than two years later Jim’s family and friends gathered around his hospital bed as he, too, died. These deaths were significant, not just because they were very dear friends, but also because I felt an incredible sense of privilege to be with them in those last moments. I felt a certain, comfort, too, well on the way – so I thought – to my own funeral. Countless more deaths were to follow, however.

I guess I wasn’t done. Neither is Craig, by the way. The year Claude threw him a fortieth birthday party, we also had a big splash for my thirty-sixth – thinking it could well be my last. I’ll be forty-two in October, and Craig turned forty-six last month.

In 1996 I was a delegate to the International AIDS Conference in Vancouver, which opened my eyes to the overwhelming – but not insurmountable – problem of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of our neglected world. (It’s that neglect which has to be overcome!)

The cryptosporidium eventually reversed itself, only to be replaced with intolerable side effects of promising new medications, which I desperately took anyway. For a couple more years I swung between death and life, planning to die but hanging on.

This spiritual crisis – realizing that I did not know when I was going to die, yet being afraid to fully live after so many preparations to do otherwise – led me to problems potentially far worse than alcohol had ever been. Spiritus contra spiritus. Fortunately, after just a few days, I came back from the abyss. That was my wake-up call. I pushed the “Reset” button. (This is the toughest closet I hope I ever have to come out of!)

About a year later, on Pentecost Sunday, 1999, I formally joined TSP. Whether you realize it or not, you are my Toronto family. I’ve walked, even marched, with you who have nurtured and loved and encouraged me just as I am.

In January I radically changed my regimen of medications – not before a lot of apprehension. As of my last test, however, my viral load is “undetectable” for the first time since such testing began. This does not mean that I am now HIV-negative. But I’ve been granted a reprieve for today. Craig’s viral load has been undetectable all along. Coronary troubles are his greatest challenge.

Yesterday was the Pride and Remembrance Run. Thanks to many of you, I raised thirteen hundred dollars. I ran – it’s more commonly considered a jog – all five kilometers!

From using a cane in 1993, with ten T-4 cells, to running five kilometers in 2001! I am really, truly blessed.

Now I guess I’m coming out as a “jock”

Happy Pride Day, Trinity-St. Paul’s, and ‘God bless us every one!’

© Copyright 2001 Kenn Chaplin. All rights reserved.

________________________________________
Prayers Of The People 9/16/01
by: Kenn Chaplin
________________________________________

Weeping, heart-broken God, in the quiet of this sanctuary we cry out – bewildered – with laments of grief and shock to which we cannot put adequate words. Our faith shaken, we long to cling to hope as a frightened child clings to a trust-worthy parent. We seek comfort in numbers. Our human family feels unspeakable pain. In our tears we question where you have been this week. Through those tears we see you – in the firefighters, the paramedics, the police, and in others summoning unusual strength. We pray that your love will surround all who have been touched by terror this week. May such love overcome retribution, reason overtake reaction, and generosity of spirit supplant any racist suspicion and mistrust. We especially think of our Muslim neighbours right now. Loving Hope, cradle us all in your arms and reassure us of the safe refuge which is your love. God of goodwill, embolden us to declare your peace!

Ground Of All Being, we entrust to your comfort the waves upon waves of victims of this week’s calamity – the families and friends of all the dead, the injured, the missing and anyone – not the least of whom may be among us – for whom this tragedy opens tender wounds.

Peacemaker, we remember that Jesus called us to pray for our enemies. We struggle. Some of us don’t feel ready for that yet. Care for us in our anger. Give us the words or, at least, the willingness to pray for the loved ones of whoever was responsible. Oh God, we extend special prayers for the children of this often frightening world. Let us live as examples to them. Bless parents, caregivers and educators of all children at this time. Embolden us to declare your peace!

God of change, help us upset the market stalls of our violent ways – be they in our workplaces, our homes, or in any place or societal institution devoid of love, justice and compassion. We thank you for those Americans who this week called on their President and people of faith to be about peace. What, then, should be the response? How might you have us mete out justice? Guide those in political power to discern your loving will. Be with Prime Minister Chretien and our Parliament as Canada’s position on the world stage is debated. God of many names, embolden us to declare your peace!

Breath of life, we pray for the end of all wars – all self-will run riot – throughout the world. In silence or aloud, we name just some of the places awaiting your peace – (the Balkans, Sudan, Palestine and Israel, Iraq, Northern Ireland, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Indonesia, Angola, Somalia…) Embolden us to declare your peace!

Great Spirit of hope, we thank you for the support of this community. We pray that you will bless those who provide pastoral care – grief counsellors, chaplains in hospitals and extended care homes, nurses, doctors and all pastoral care ministers, including Karen and Hal. Renew their strength, O God.

Let us now pray, together, the ecumenical prayer found in your Order of Service. We pray today with the church in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Panama:
God of Mercy, We ask you to forgive us our sins,
To enlighten our imagination,
So that we can share more equally
The gifts you have left for all of your children,
So that creation may join us in praising your name.*

Amen.

*source of prayer unknown

© Copyright 2004 Kenn Chaplin. All rights reserved.

________________________________________
Oh my aching tummy!
by: Kenn Chaplin
________________________________________

The night of John Kerry’s big acceptance speech I was lying on an emergency room gurney at Toronto General Hospital suffering from the effects of pancreatitis, often one of the tell-tale signs of trouble with long-term anti-retroviral therapy. What should have been a reading of 160 came back as 1600.

Aside from feeling fear of the unknown, upon getting this news, I also wondered if the 1600 figure was an omen – and was it good or bad? (I chose to believe it to be good)- for John Kerry, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue being the address of the White House.

I was admitted that night and eventually, with the aid of an ultrasound the next day, was found to have a “generous” number of stones at the fundus of the gall bladder, which would at least partially explain the pancreatitis.

The night before this happened I lay awake, moaning and groaning in the fetal position, part of me wanting to call an ambulance, but another part of me not wanting to dial 9-1-1 and bring out everyone from the firefighters to the police to the EMTs. It was my AIDS specialist, early the next morning, who sent me to the hospital’s Emergency Department, thinking it would be the fastest way to get lab results. (He had already seen indications of glucose in my urine sample.)

So there I was, hooked up to i.v. bags of Gravol and potassium, wishing I could still be listening to the television, which I had left on in my rush to get to the doctor’s office.

At about 4 a.m. I received word that a room had been found for me and I was taken up thirteen floors to 13 Eaton Wing South.

During my stay I had occasion to be treated by the caring hands of a nurse named Lesley. She stands out in an already outstanding profession.

Lesley is young, her skin fresh, her bouncy hair cut medium length. I overheard an elderly patient down the hall asking if she was a student, working in the hospital for the summer. Her age came through in her energy. She walked quickly from room to room, her sneakers only gently touching the floor as she went. But make no mistake. She is a fully registered nurse and a darn good one at that. What makes her so? In addition to professional competence she has an ability to communicate with her patients, even in the busy atmosphere of stretched patient-nurse ratios. She is the only nurse who touched me – in a gentle, non-invasive, supportive way – be it a light tap of my lower leg or foot or a squeeze of my hand. She never ended a shift without shaking hands, as if to thank me for letting her serve.

Lesley was interested in my history with HIV, as well as my knowledge of the disease and my passion for better, faster HIV care in Africa.

I told her about the former Bell Wing of the hospital – where Jim died.

“I’ve heard about that place and seen a few chairs and things marked up with ‘Bell Wing’ on them,” she said. “What did it look like, exactly?”

“It was along University Avenue, from College Street right down to Sick Kids’ Hospital,” I said, “and it was built in much the same architectural style as the old College Wing.”

That wing is currently being rebuilt, from the inside, with modern, towering research facilities rising as new book-ends to the graceful, classic, institutional old wing where two very famous Canadian doctors, Banting and Best, first discovered insulin).

“The Bell had a lot more private rooms, very small mind you, with little French balconies. Mind you those had not been used for many years,” I said. “A lot of AIDS patients were cared for, and died, there in the ’80s and early ’90s.”

One day Lesley thought it was time I had my i.v. changed from my right arm to my left. She busily got everything she needed and returned to my room where I was sitting in a chair. She pulled a table over, marveled at my “good, straight veins” and made a precise entry with the needle. No fuss, no muss.

Then she told me that this was the first i.v. she had successfully completed!

I was absolutely amazed.

“I hope you’re not mad at me,” she said.

“Mad? Why would I be mad?” I asked.

“Well, for not telling you.”

“I never would have known. You did it so well,” I assured her.

Lesley explained how nurses-in-training use plaster models to learn how to do the procedure but nothing could have prepared her for variables such as elderly patients’ “rolling veins” or some of the difficulties of finding good veins at all so, while she had begun the procedure several times, mine was the first she had completed. (Finding my veins has never been a problem, particularly since effects of long-term antiretroviral therapy, and AIDS itself, have taken away what little body fat I had.)

For the rest of my stay, every time Lesley needed to do something else in caring for me – whether it was making an ice-pack or taking my blood pressure – I teased her by asking whether she had ever done it before.

© Copyright 2004 Kenn Chaplin . All rights reserved.

________________________________________
Grace? Luck? Both? Neither?
by: Kenn Chaplin
________________________________________

I have a ‘love-hate’ relationship with that old hymn Amazing Grace. It seemed like it was the religious music by default at so many otherwise secular funerals I attended at the peak of the AIDS deaths here.

Yet, several years later, it was played on the bag-pipes at my dear old grandmother’s burial and it seemed just right. The Glengarry (Ontario) Scottish Presbyterian had been born in 1904 – the year of the first ‘Model T’ Ford – and had lived to see the year 2000. Standing at her grave, in the shadow of a one room, stone school-house where she had taught decades earlier, the piper’s drone seemed completely appropriate.

But what is ‘grace’ if not a spiritualized version of ‘luck’, albeit God-given? And how does either word apply to me?

Recently, as I watched the celebrations of the sixtieth anniversary of D-Day, I heard an old veteran talking to a reporter about the friends who were buried there in Normandy.

“He was a bright boy,” the man said of one, “a little quiet, but articulate,” describing the ship-mate who had not survived the invasion. “One minute we were together, clamouring on to the beach, and the next he was gone. How I survived I’ll never know. It was just a matter of luck.”

“Well at least he didn’t call it grace”, I thought, as I reflected on the many friends I have lost to AIDS-related illness – several of whom were infected after me.

I have never quite embraced the war analogy to describe HIV, although many who ‘fought’ still died. I was in active combat, seriously ill even, yet I survived.

It’s in the similarities of our surviving where I most closely identify with war veterans. I think I know a little bit about ‘shell shock’ or, at least, its modern-day name ‘post-traumatic stress’. How else could those days of mourning, grieving, helping, mourning, grieving, helping have been managed?

There have been times when I have felt quite insane, and acted my way through it, and others when I acted insane but felt fine. I remember that ‘out of body’ phase, too, when I was so ill with AIDS-defining cryptosporidiosis. The doctor charted (I know because I looked) ‘dissociation’ and ‘aseptic meningitis?’ when I described how – through the blindness of an unforgettable migraine – I was “watching myself from somewhere in the corner of the room like Mary Poppins’ Uncle Albert”. A lumbar puncture was inconclusive.

Owen was there. He’s dead now. We were visiting Jim in the hospital. He’s dead now, too. Joe as well. And Michael. And others. I was treated with kit gloves in my condition.

Yet here I am.

Grace?

No.

Luck?

That seems to be an uncomfortable stretch but if the word works for that D-Day survivor I guess it could work for me.

© Copyright 2004 Kenn Chaplin . All rights reserved.

________________________________________Life-line
by: Kenn Chaplin
________________________________________

It’s what, for this year anyway, I self-critically call “the wet blanket question”.

“Hi Kenn. How was your summer?”

Understandably, it’s the most repeated question on “Welcome Back Sunday” at Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church, the week following the Labour Day weekend holiday. While not the beginning of the Liturgical Year, September at TSP mirrors most of society, in the northern hemisphere certainly, in that it feels like the end of the more care-free summer and the beginning of the autumn and winter seasons with a greater emphasis on going back to school, to work or to what some would call “normal”.

With the organ still blasting a triumphant postlude on September 12, 2004, I dashed out to the entrance hall to pick up my copy of the monthly TSP Times, which had just been published. I was curious, anxious even, to see if my little essay had made it in time for this issue’s deadline.

It had. There it was, covering all of page six, The Separation of Church and State – or ‘Sin’ and Hate.

Quickly I scanned the page. Not a word had been changed, as far as I could tell. I searched for the most difficult phrase, both to write and to read, “sexual abuse in my youth by a stranger”. There it was, the first time I had “come out” to the congregation about this. I folded the newsletter and put it in my pocket, now ready to join everyone else for our special lunch in the gym.

I walked back through the sanctuary, now largely empty and quiet, with just a few people putting things away for safe-keeping. I loved this space with its old wood, the pipes – large and small – of the organ, and the three sections of dark pews fanning out in a semi-circle from the front. Looking up the simple, plain colours of the stained glass window at the rear of the balcony flooded the room with the noonday light. The balcony formed the shape of a horseshoe over the main sanctuary, an appropriate name for this historic, sacred room.

Appreciating the quiet for a moment I soon joined the folks making their way into the gym which was through the double doors on either side of the organ at the front. The gym, an architectural mirror image of the sanctuary – complete with balcony which is now subdivided into small office spaces – is much more brightly lit with a glistening hardwood floor, pale green trim framing a stage and a large kitchen at the opposite end.

Walking in from the hallway I was struck by the din of laughter and conversation, of children playing, and plates and utensils being moved about.

Most people, who I joined in the line-up for sandwiches and the vegetable trays, got the abridged version of my response to “How was your summer?”

“Well,” I said, “it could have been better. I was in hospital for a week, kind of straddling the Civic Holiday weekend, and now I am waiting for surgery.”

When I sat down later with Karen who, together with her husband Hal, provides pastoral care to the congregation as ministers, we spoke openly and with a familiarity of what the summer had been like, a familiarity that was both rich and nurturing.

“So how was your fortieth reunion?” I asked her, knowing she had just returned from this event held for her Nova Scotia nursing class.

“Oh, gosh, we had a ball,” Karen answered, her face lighting up at the chance to speak about the trip. “The staff at the conference centre seemed to wonder who this bunch of crazy old women were,” she laughed.

“That great!” I laughed. “I’m so glad you had a good time.”

“So I hear you and Hal had a good talk earlier in the week?” Karen said.

“A very good talk, yes,” I said. “Thanks for opening the door a little bit last week. You know when you called me last Sunday morning, and woke me up, you caught me being honest,” I said. “I seem to be my most honest when I am awakened.”

“Well, I’ll have to remember that,” Karen teased. “I’m a bit of a night-owl so maybe I’ll call you at 4 a.m. the next time.”

During that phone conversation I had told Karen how my recent hospital stay had, for any number of reasons, brought back memories of all earlier traumas. Everything seemed to make more sense in that context.

“You know,” I said, “when I was in hospital a few weeks ago, completely unexpected, I didn’t have anything with me to wear, much less a phone book. The only two phone numbers I remembered were my Mom’s and this church’s. Now isn’t that pathetic?” I asked rhetorically.

Karen drew in a sharp breath. “I don’t think it’s pathetic at all. That’s a beautiful story!” she said softly, a tear glistening in her eye. “That’s a beautiful story and it says so much.”

© Copyright 2004 Kenn Chaplin . All rights reserved.

________________________________________
Patience With Patients
by: Kenn Chaplin
________________________________________

The shop window’s curtain of wind-chimes sounded like a carillon as I walked into “Amy’s Gifts”. Indeed there had been warnings of gale-force winds on the television weather earlier in the morning. Those stiff winds carried the pungent smells of the nearby fishery across Digby, Nova Scotia.

“Kind of a wild day,” I said as a woman who was probably Amy greeted me while she fiddled with a radio beside the cash register.

“God almighty, the CBC can’t come back fast enough for me!” Amy declared. “Yes the rain and wind is bad today,” she continued, “but it’s whether you like it or not!”

I laughed out loud at her play on words.

“So are you on that bus that just came in?” she asked.

I said I was, although Digby had more than its share of buses at the moment, so I couldn’t be certain that mine was the one she was referring to. The ferry to Saint John, New Brunswick was due to leave in just over an hour and the town was experiencing something of a traffic jam. Earlier concerns that the weather might suspend ferry service were put to rest when we sent our bus driver ahead with the coach.

I began to browse through the store.

“You just let me know if I can help you with anything, dear,” Amy said, looking over her reading glasses. Very thin, with a hint of blue rinse in her graying hair, I guessed Amy to be in her early fifties. Her face was quite wrinkled, perhaps an indication of a life with a few knocks.

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll just roam around for a few minutes.”

There did not seem to be any souvenir scallops, although I’m certain I wouldn’t have recognized Digby’s claim to fame anyway. There was an aisle full of local, colorfully-painted wood carvings, another with moccasins, and still another with nothing but tea pots. I began thumbing my way through a bin of Canadian Maritimes-themed compact discs when the wind-chimes again started to clatter.

A woman rushed in, saying, “I’ve finally made a decision. I’m’ going to relieve you of one set of chimes from the window,” she told Amy.

After pointing out her choice, Amy carefully took the chimes down, then pulled out sheets of tissue paper from a side counter.

“My dear, would you be a nurse by any chance?” she asked the woman.

Looking startled, Deborah (whose tour name-tag also revealed that she was from Washington State) replied, “Why yes. Yes I am.”

“I just had a feeling you was,” said Amy. “You just look like you’ve got the gift.”

Carefully wrapping each chime in its own tissue paper Amy began a monologue, interrupted only by an occasional “Well” or “Is that right?” from Deborah.

“You know I almost died giving birth to my daughter. Yep, my kidneys failed and poor little Jessie nearly didn’t make it into this world. They had to took me overs to Halifax, to a maternity I.C.U., they called it. What a mess! My husband was God knows where on the boat and he had to be found and so he gets into a helicopter, if you please, and flies to Halifax! I think he was likely there before we were.

Anyway Jessie was born, and me with no anesthetic, and they got me settled down but, God, what a fright! You know those kidneys haven’t been the same since. I’ve had more trouble and problems down there. But, thank God, Jessie is alright. She’s nearly twenty-seven now.”

“Twenty-seven?” I thought. “Amy has either been waiting for a nurse to visit her store for a long time or else the saga of Jessie’s birth is all she ever talks about.”

By this time I had picked up a couple of sand dollars to buy and had been patiently waiting for several minutes behind the nurse as Amy talked on and on.

It occurred to me that I probably would not have tolerated such a wait at home in Toronto but, then, this wasn’t Toronto and I was just enjoying a good, long soak in my environment.

© Copyright 2005 Kenn Chaplin . All rights reserved.

3 thoughts on “Bits o’ book

  1. Great.I`ve read it and I would still purchase it.It`s just like going to the library.I use the library but when a book really touches my soul and heart I want to buy it and keep it in my library so I can pick it up time and time again.
    I`m glad you explained why the officer asked what movie you had just seen,I thought to myself what a dumb question to ask a guy that`s just been run over.
    Another question-Why is city TV everywhere?

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