When I Was Your Age
A bear and a rabbit are taking a dump in the forest, when the bear turns to the rabbit and asks, Do you have a problem with poo sticking to your fur? The rabbit says no. So, the bear leans over, and wipes his bum with the rabbit.
Or, as my niece told the joke at my wedding: A bear and a rabbit are taking a dump in the forest, when the bear leans over – and wipes his bum with the rabbit!
Emily still laughs when I remind her of that story: that’s the joke she told at my second wedding to Coco, when Emily was four years old, and a flower girl at the Chateau Frontenac (in the heart of Quebec City) after Coco discovered our first wedding hadn’t actually been valid.
I’m driving Emily to school; we’re listening to Diamond Dogs in the car; I can’t believe my 12-year-old niece is sophisticated enough to enjoy David Bowie, but there you have it: with her pale blue eyeliner, it’s the first time her mother has let Emily wear make-up in public, so why not go all-out, steal the show at that afternoon’s costume contest? Be the coolest kid in the room, and walk out with money that folds: the $20 grand prize, after bobbing for apples.
She’s twelve, and in love with David Bowie. It’s Halloween, 2015, and she’s going to school dressed as Ziggy Stardust, her natural red hair combed back, face painted glam, with an aquamarine suit and red polka dot tie over a dark shirt, and white leather saddle shoes.
Emily is a little worried that, with the lightning bolt on her face, the other kids will think she’s some kind of fucked-up Harry Potter (my words, not hers), but I think she looks fab. Where else can a 12-year-old girl dress up like Bowie, if not Halloween? It’s the one day of the year she can be as creative as an adult, not having to hide how smart and funny she is, just because she’s a kid in a small town, Dryden, Ontario, already burning brighter than everyone else around her.
Apropos of nothing, Emily asks: “Do you and Auntie Coco regret not having kids?”
“Why do you ask?” I take my eyes off the road just long enough to glance over at Emily.
“Well, you always make such a big deal out of Halloween, even more than Christmas or Easter Sunday. Is Halloween your favourite holiday? Do you wish you could still get dressed up and go out asking for candy?” Emily’s watching the first snowfall of the season, out the window of my rental car: there was ice on Eagle River that morning, but not enough to go snowmobiling.
“Everybody loves Halloween, but I gave up going out for candy a long time ago. I was dressed as a Ghostbuster, up to my knees in snow, the last year I went trick-or-treating, as a kid.”
“I wish you and Auntie Coco had kids. Then I could come and visit you in the city. Did you ever think about adopting? My cousin Simon is adopted. He’s Chinese; born in Vancouver.”
I’ve heard this question before, from Coco’s nieces Maddy and Alicia, so I already know the best answer: “Your Auntie Coco and I wanted to have kids, but it just never happened. So we have dogs, and cats. I know it’s not the same; but we also have you and your brother. That’s kids enough, for us. I think I’m more of a dog person, to be honest. The pack instinct, not parental.”
“What would you do without Auntie Coco? Who’d look after you?”
“Well, I guess I’d go off and live in the bush, take the dogs with me. The cats could look after themselves, but I’d become the Pope of the Dogs. You know, like each morning after I feed the dogs, I bless them individually, pat them on the head, give them biscuits, make the sign of the cross, say Go with dog to each and every one. Just like that: Pope of the Dogs, yeah. If I had to, I could live like that for the rest of my life, without Auntie Coco. Just me and maybe a dozen dogs, out in the forest, living in a log cabin, boosting supplies, uh, purchasing supplies once a month from No Frills, or Wal-Mart. But carrying a samurai sword, underneath my poncho.”
“I see you’ve thought about this scenario quite a lot,” Emily comments.
“Your Auntie Coco and I have talked things over, yeah.”
“If you had kids, they could look after you. You wouldn’t have to live out in the bush.”
“Ah, I am my own kid. Besides, I’ll always have you, and your brother.”
I looked at the dashboard clock: “What time are you supposed to be at school, anyway? Eight-thirty? Do we have time to swing by Tim Hortons for breakfast?”
“No; school starts at eight o’clock; I brought you a thermos.”
She’s so organized, type A like her mother, I try to make her laugh, to break the tension.
“Eight o’clock?! We started at nine! But I guess that means you finish at two, rather than three. What time do you want me to pick you up this afternoon?”
“We finish at three o’clock. What time did you finish school, when you were a kid?”
“We finished at two o’clock. But we only got an hour and a half for lunch. You must get two hours, if they keep you in school until three o’clock.”
“We get an hour for lunch.”
“Then how long are your recesses? Half an hour?”
“Fifteen minutes, twice a day. We stay inside, sitting at our desks, if it’s raining.”
“You only get two recesses?! We got four recesses each day. But you must go to school only three days a week, if they give you only two recesses a day.”
“We go to school five days a week. How many days a week did you go to school?”
“Four days a week, but we had to start the school year early, in the middle of September. You must go back after Thanksgiving, if you have to go to school five days a week.”
“We start the Monday after Labour Day, and finish the school year at the end of June.”
“The end of June?! We finished the school year in the middle of May! How long is your Christmas break? Two months? We only got a month for Christmas, a month for March break, a week for Easter, and thirty-five professional activity days between October and April. Halloween was a week, Valentine’s Day was a week, your birthday was another week. Gym class was three hours an afternoon; spelling and math and science and French were fifteen-minute periods, twice a month. If it was your dad’s birthday, you didn’t have to go to school; if it was your mom’s, you got to stay home. If it was raining, we went swimming. If it was snowing, we played King of the Hill out beside the garbage dumpsters. When I was your age, we lived, man: nobody ever fell off a swing, and got taken home: we smashed up our bikes, jumping off roofs, and skinned our knees sliding down concrete driveways over loose gravel at twilight, all summer long.”
Emily laughs: “Did you even go to school?” she asks me.
“Why? Does it sound like I didn’t?”
“Well, I never went to university, but I’m so old, so very old, I remember where I was when the space shuttle Challenger blew up on live TV: at least I went to high school, before moving to Toronto.”
“You were in high school when the space shuttle blew up? I’ve seen that video. Were you watching it live on the computer? That would have been super-scary. Just how old are you?”
“I’m forty-four years old; your mom will be forty-one, next month, so I’m three years older than her, but not much wiser.”
“That’s old. My dad just turned forty.”
“Well, take a guess how old David Bowie is.”
“I dunno: thirty? He’s definitely younger than you are.”
“Ha! That shows how much you know! Bowie is going to be almost seventy, in January. Tell you what, if Bowie ever goes out on tour again, and comes to Toronto, I’ll fly you and your mother down from Winnipeg to Toronto, and we’ll see him at the Skydome, front-row tickets for you and me and your mom and Auntie Coco, damn the cost, whatever it takes.”
“That would be awesome! Thank you, Uncle!”
“No problem: I think it would be a lot of fun to see David Bowie perform live.”
“But, you gotta promise me, no crying in public.”
Emily prefers the David Bowie version, but everyone knows the 1994 MTV Unplugged performance by Kurt Cobain is the purest version of “The Man Who Sold The World”. Even if you didn’t listen to Nirvana in the 1990s, you’ve heard Kurt Cobain’s version of the song on the radio more often than Bowie’s original cut, forget about YouTube and Spotify.
Until recently, I never really understood the lyrics. But “The Man Who Sold The World” makes me weep, to picture climbing a staircase, and seeing my Grandfather Grogan on the steps, waiting to shake my hand: no kidding, I’d pay a hundred thousand dollars to see my grandfather again; a million dollars to go flying with him, for just one afternoon.
(My grandfather was a flight instructor during World War II, based in Gimli, Manitoba. Gimli, Manitoba, is a real place, straight north of Winnipeg, less than four hours from Manawiki, Manitoba, where my mother’s father, Grandfather Charlie Harper, rests under a weathered stone angel, wings spread like the RCAF insignia on my Grandfather Grogan’s leather bomber jacket. How’s that for symmetry? You can’t make this stuff up; you can just write it down, try to make sense of it, years after the fact.)
Until recently, I never really understood what the expression MIA/POW meant, either. So I may have used it inappropriately, in these pages. If so, I apologize for joking around: I cringe to think the night Andy Bickle was murdered, Duke, Booger and I probably horsed around referring to him as being MIA/POW…at least, until they recovered his body.
“Look, I already told you, I wasn’t crying: I teared up when Guy Lafleur scored his final two goals at the Montreal Forum, as a New York Ranger; and I got misty when they brought out Muhammad Ali to light the Olympic Torch, in 1996; but other than that, I don’t cry for sad songs on the radio: I had a peanut stuck in the corner of my eye.”
“OK: as long as you’re not having a nervous breakdown…”
“Ha-ha: give me a break. Can’t a guy listen to the soundtrack of his life, without getting a little sentimental? You still brush your teeth with your Justin Bieber toothbrush, and I don’t tease you about that. I can’t help it if I hear music, and have a strong reaction.”
“You identify with ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ because it reminds you of your grandfather? And that’s why you were crying last night?”
“…yes?” I hope that’s the right answer, but she’s pretty savvy for her age.
She gives me a look, makes me think, maybe I don’t understand the lyrics to “The Man Who Sold The World”. But she’s not going to make me feel like an idiot, explaining “The Man Who Sold The World” to her confused old uncle, trying to relive his youth: neither those, nor the lyrics to “Hotel California”, are explained to me by Emily that morning in the car, thank God.
(I once made the mistake of explaining the lyrics to “Hotel California” to my wife: that didn’t go over too well, let me tell you. But Coco still doesn’t know what Wal-Mart is, either, let alone No Frills, or Zellers: and forget about Canada’s Wonderland, or Popeye’s Chicken.)
“Did you cry the day Kurt Cobain died?”
“How do you know about Kurt Cobain? That was over twenty years ago.”
“He’s famous,” Emily shrugs, “I read about Nirvana on Wikipedia.”
“Well, I was never really a fan of Kurt Cobain. But Auntie Coco still talks about Freddie Mercury, from time to time. She can’t believe it’s been twenty years since he passed away. Coco says she was devastated, the day the world lost Freddie Mercury.”
“Yeah, that would have been a tough day. I hope nothing like that ever happens to me.”
I thought of Kimiko Oyakawa, and Grubby Dave Leibowietz crashing through the ice on his snowmobile, drowning in front of a crowd, a crowd of bored onlookers, 30 years earlier: that night has haunted me since I was fourteen years old. It was the first time I noticed the ugliness of the people all around me, death in a small town: when I was twelve years old, my hometown was an ideal community, but then I grew up overnight, with the death of Grubby Dave.
“No, Emily, I don’t think you’ll ever experience a day quite like that.”
As we pull into Dryden from Eagle River, it always amazes me how if you meet enough people in this world, you’ll keep running into strangers who insist they remember you, but really they only remember one thing about you, and usually that one thing is something you don’t even remember about yourself, a joke you made at a party, or an off-colour comment you posted to an on-line forum; a jacket you wore to school one year, or a story you made up out of the blue, just shooting the shit with a group of acquaintances. And that one thing, that one thing about yourself that you don’t even remember, for some people, it sticks with you for the rest of your life.
I try to be a good uncle to my niece and nephew, support them any way I can, but I worry they’ll remember me for something I wanted to forget about myself, something I’ve worked hard to forget, something I’ve already forgotten, something I didn’t write down, couldn’t write down.
Outside the school, Emily spots a group of her friends: the Spiders from Mars, I presume.
I’ve only got one moment left to make an impact: “Hey, Emily: I love you,” I tell her.
Usually Emily would just say, “That’s nice” but that morning she replied “I love you too, Uncle,” and gave me a big hug, before jumping out of the car, and slamming the door.
“Don’t forget: Bowie for Christmas, I promise. After the holidays, I’ll get us tickets to see him live at the Skydome, or Air Canada Centre, next time he’s in Toronto. It’ll be great! That will be your Christmas gift, birthday gift, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Canada Day, Halloween, and high school graduation all rolled into one!” I shout out the window, “You and me, kid!”
But Ziggy Stardust is already halfway across the parking lot, gone, out of my reach.