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On Doing

“What an adventure my life has been!” – Napoleon Bonaparte

One of the crucial questions often posed on ALS sites reads like this: “What would you do while you still could?”

I often think about this. What, indeed? We’re all gifted with time and capability – until suddenly, the gift is withdrawn. A moment missed, an event planned and never carried out, an invitation refused. These are gifts not unwrapped. But there’s no refund for returning them. They’re just gone.

On the day my husband fell, we were anticipating a lovely drive in the early-spring sunshine. He has always enjoyed going to Sandford, seeing which boats were in (or out), meandering along Main Shore Road, parking on Port Maitland wharf across from the breakwater. We’d stop at Edna’s Bakery for tarts and fresh-sliced bread. As his disease advanced, he knew that most of it would be uneaten, except by me, but the scents were delirious! When a man can’t swallow food, his nose must provide a substitute experience. Nothing beats the olfactory “high” of bread straight from the oven.

That drive will never be taken now. A stumble – and everything changes. We’ve been well aware this was coming. ALS destroys mobility, one way or another. Falls, limb dysfunction and atrophy, or both combined. The neurons die and their tiny sparks fade. Anyone with a neurodegenerative disease will recognize this forward lurch toward stillness. For some, it happens quickly. For others, it is a slower part of the process. But inevitably, the critical point arrives.

So the gifts handed to us must be taken out of their boxes as soon as they’re received; appreciated and enjoyed. As the old Nike slogan goes, “Just do it!” Take an extra jaunt into unfamiliar territory. Spend a few nights on the road somewhere. Be open to whatever opportunities arise. Seek out friends of long standing, renew acquaintances, laugh together. Remember those who have always been there, through the darkness and the dawn, and cherish their company. Give yourself and your days to the people who stand to lose most from your absence. Allow them to keep pace with your journey, because you can’t go back again.

David was blessed to discover a companion named Gary from his long-ago childhood in the south of England. He has kept in touch with this man for a few years now. Of all our friends, only a few can know us as we were from the beginning. We scatter like wayward dandelion fluff on the wind. We might end our days without ever seeing or speaking with a single person who climbed trees with us, ran beside us on the beaches of our youth, went to camps and on school outings and off to college together. Swapped stories and traded the exciting secrets of adolescence. It is no surprise that for many older folks, recent memory erodes while recollections from past decades spring clearly to mind. They’ve worn the deepest grooves in our psyches. We speak of the ’40s or ’60s, of classic cars that were new when we first saw them, of old warriors and movie stars, politicians and adventurers – most of them dust now. Most of them unremembered by the young.

What would you do? Take a course in a subject that’s always interested you. Study a new language. Sign up for a cruise or hike to some unknown place. Read more. Learn a skill – garden, make wine, create art. Write or sing or skip down the country lanes of the heart. So what if you skip slowly? That merry girl or lively boy inside your head is going to enjoy it!

When you’re lying in a hospital bed or confined to a wheelchair, surrounded by machinery that gasps and rattles and whooshes as it sustains you, make sure you regret nothing. Do it while you still can! Celebrate wherever you are right now. Unwrap every gift – including the weirdest ones – and toss away the boxes.

Even if something breaks into a thousand fragments, the sunshine will turn those pieces to a glitter on the grass, the jewels of your own history. The mosaic unique to you, which nobody else can assemble.

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!

– Edna St. Vincent Millay

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A Salute to Seafarers

Lobster-Trap Dumping Day
(Sandford 2012)

The moon swims on an indigo sea, a drift
of mist across the horizon’s swell and shift,
star-gleam, wave-play, foam-sigh on breakwater.
I gaze from the wharf and shiver with my daughter
to watch the boats process below our places,
traps bright as candy, ropes, far-looking faces
already out there, already somewhere ahead

on the open ocean. No fanfare here – instead,
just a scatter of women, a quiet man with phone
to capture the moment. We move to the rocks, alone
in the gathering silver. A last boat leaves us there.
Its trail of light is hung on the edge of air
as we turn to go, while moonset drags the sky
with a wrap of cloud. We smile – my daughter and I –
and stumble back to our car in the rising dawn.
When we pause for one last glance, the lights are gone.

Brenda Levy Tate

Living by the ocean, as we do in Nova Scotia, entails both risk and reward. The rhythms of the tides lap our shores and pulse through our bodies, even when we’re far inland. There’s always an awareness of this regular beat, the monotone that never ceases keeping time. Click – high tide – click – low tide – and all the suspensions between: these are the measure of our days and years.

Whether or not our own families include those who fish or otherwise make their living from the waters, we all know people who do. Most of us enjoy their catches and support their efforts by purchasing fish. It is a fair exchange although, sadly, the market prices seem to have little bearing on what the fishermen receive.

And yes, I call them “fishermen” as opposed to “fishers” which, to me, are small and rather mean animals. Furthermore, I admit that in the Bible, the term “fishers of men” is used. That doesn’t make much of a case for “fishers”, though, because “of men” is pretty exclusive too. 

Women participate in the fishery as well. They’re included here. Language that is reshaped by political correctness can sometimes turn rather ugly and, to me, that’s the case with something as ancient and honorable as the fishing culture. When I was a child, catching brook trout, my Dad always used to call me “a good little fisherman” and I was fine with that. It’s just a term. I will continue to use it, because “fisherwomen” sounds so awkward … and besides, the “men” ending is part of “women” too. 

For those unfamiliar with this particular occupation, the first day of the lobster season probably holds little significance. For us, down in Districts 33 and 34 in southwestern N.S., it is a time for both celebration and anxiety. Termed “Dumping Day”, it signifies the placing or dumping of traps in each boat’s assigned grounds. They’re hauled by the thousands – up to 400 per boat, divided into manageable numbers and dumped on more than one trip – then cast into the sea, attached to buoys that mark their locations. The early morning of this day is observed by those on shore, who gather at wharves and other coastal sites to see the boats off. At Yarmouth Light, there’s always a crowd, enhanced by music and photographers and a breakfast for all present. The boats parade past, gleaming in the pre-dawn darkness. Their mast lights float like stars.

On the wharves themselves, closer to the actual departure of the boats, friends and families assemble to watch and bear witness. I prefer this; it allows me to see the action close up. It’s a more personal experience to stand, wave and wish good luck. My camera catches the foam, the crew balanced on the gunwale or standing on deck, the stacked traps, the procession of boats in a line of hope that strings across the horizon. No diamond necklace is as beautiful as this sight. I enjoy reading the inventive and often comical names given to these sturdy Cape Island craft: EZ-Go-n; Full of Bull; Obsession; Knot Too Shore. Then there are boats named for loved ones, usually children or wives. The family’s story rides on the waves. One cannot separate the boat from those whose lives depend on its bounty.

Almost inevitably, there will be some kind of mishap. The boats are heavily-laden and now and then, one will be swamped and come to grief. It is a good first day when this happens only once, or not at all. Sometimes, an engine will fail, or a crew member will be injured. At the very worst, during the several months of the season, a boat will be lost and her hands will perish in the bitter North Atlantic swells. This is the unthinkable; this is the knife-edge that touches every fishing community with its tracery of fear. Every seaside town or village has its own monuments to those whom the ocean has taken: some are visible, others carved on the hearts of the people. The list of surnames often contains considerable repetition – fathers, grandfathers, sons, grandsons, nephews and cousins, all gone from the world but never from remembrance. When we sit down to a lobster dinner, we are partaking of an accumulated heritage. We are also commemorating courage, determination and danger. No fine thing comes without its price.

But another Dumping Day has passed. The boats once more ply the Gulf of Maine and offshore currents, hauling traps, bearing their harvests, returning again and again. I often walk the shorelines here and step past washed blue and orange gloves, bits of wire mesh, rope, buoys. On a rough sea, it’s easy to drop something overboard. Lines and cables break. The evidence floats back to these rocky beaches where it lies unclaimed.

Here’s to a successful and safe fishery from now through to the end of May! Or, in the words of a Yarmouth business whose sign would probably be taken the wrong way in most inland places:

“Have a Good Dump!”

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For further reading:
http://thisfish.info/fishery/15/