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More Than Birds

** This essay was originally broadcast on The Sunday Edition with Michael Enright on CBC Radio. February 4, 2018. It is a response to the 2017 BC Coroner’s Report stating that 1422 people died of overdoses last year in our province. There is a link to the audio at the bottom of this post.**

I was unpacking toilet paper and library books when a police officer in a bulletproof vest knocked on my door. I don’t remember his face, but I do remember his heavy black boots in contrast to my bare feet. It was a bright, warm day and he asked me to come outside, into the driveway out of earshot of my daughter, then he informed me that my 21-year-old son had died early that morning.

I have hated our driveway ever since.

The officer wouldn’t tell me how Holden died, he just kept repeating, between my howling questions, that foul play was not suspected. He stood there awkwardly, not knowing what to do with his hands, while I curled like a fetus on the paving stones and felt my life slip sideways, several degrees off its axis. I remember thinking that the wrong person was wearing the bulletproof vest — I should have asked for it before he started talking, that may have prevented the bullet from entering my heart — but of course it was already much too late for that.

Many weeks later, the toxicology screening confirmed that our son died of opioid toxicity, otherwise known as a heroin overdose. To be more precise, an unfortunate mixture of alcohol and heroin. A combination of the two is often enough to slow and eventually stop even the youngest, strongest, and most beautiful of hearts. This is what the coroner explained as I stared out the window at our chestnut tree.

I am now one of the many mothers who have the coroner’s direct line in my contacts.

The coroners in Vancouver are very busy these days. So busy that my son’s body was driven 20 minutes away, to Burnaby General Hospital because the morgue at St. Paul’s was full to capacity.

But what really killed him? This is a harder question to answer, and one I have spent nearly every moment since that day trying to unravel. A grieving mother will never rest; she will not believe you if you tell her “it is what it is.” And she will never agree that he is “in a better place,” because a better place would be in my kitchen eating curry chicken and listening, with obvious irony, to Mariah Carey.

I am left holding one end of a devious thread. A thread that I keep pulling on and following, but like a magician’s trick, there never seems to be an end. Could the occasional beer I drank while I was breastfeeding have pre-disposed him to addiction? Did the fact that Holden’s father and I divorced when he was young leave his tiny psyche fractured? More likely it had to do with the disconnectedness he encountered as the first generation of kids to surf the early wave of the internet. Please tell me it wasn’t the video games. No, it must have been the anxiety and depression he struggled with, combined with the emptiness and pain he chose to numb. Maybe I can blame the destructive and yet highly creative people he surrounded himself with — graffiti artists on the fringes of society. Or, was it just the odds?

I don’t know why my son turned to heroin. I believe he used the first time in a reckless moment of depression when he didn’t care about anything, including himself. I have had similar moments so I cannot judge. I once climbed out the back window of a speeding Mexican taxi to surf on its roof. Dangerous, absolutely, but I did not want to die that night, I was just trying to have fun, trying to be cool, trying to figure myself out. Which seems to be what we are all doing here. By making mistakes and feeling the burn we inch closer to ourselves. And, let’s not forget, some of us are here because of one reckless moment.

If only he could have been as kind to himself as he was to the many people who have contacted me since his death to say, “Holden was the only one who really understood me, he was there for me when I felt completely alone, your son stayed up all night with me, he made me laugh like nobody else, he was the smartest person I’ve ever known, he was my boyfriend (there were quite a few of those), he was my best friend (there were many of those too).”

My son was not a haunted figure sleeping in a doorway. He was not someone you would be scared to pass on a darkened street; in fact, he probably would have smiled at you and tipped his baseball hat your way. When he took his final breath, he was strong and tanned from working hard in the sun. The last time I saw Holden, he told me a crow had eaten his lunch on the job site. So the next morning I made an extra sandwich, one for him and one for the crow, before kissing him goodbye and telling him “no I won’t give you a ride to work, you can get there on your own.”

I wish I had known that birds were not his biggest problem.

If I could, by some form of magic, go back and do things differently I would simply ask my son, “what is really going on here?” And I would wait until I heard what I knew in my heart to be the truth. I would wave off all of the, “nothing’s wrong Mom,” and “I’ve got this Mom,” and, “don’t worry Momz, it’s all good.” I would hold steady through the denial. I might say something like, “I can see you are in trouble. I don’t know what that trouble is but I do know that not talking about trouble makes it bigger. Let’s bring your secrets out into the light where they will shrivel. Let’s break them apart piece by piece so we can bury them instead of you.”

For now, the simplest tasks have become rituals to Holden’s memory. He watches me unpack groceries from his smiling photo on the fridge, I smell him when I take sheets out of the linen closet and he helps me choose which books to borrow from the library. And sometimes, when his sister walks out the front door and down that terrible driveway, I am able to see only her.

http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thesundayedition/the-sunday-edition-february-4-2018-1.4516513/each-one-had-a-story-each-one-had-a-mother-behind-the-overdose-statistics-1.4516552

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Dad’s Journey & The Vinyl Cafe

Dear Stuart,

I wasn’t that surprised when my Dad told me he wanted to ride his bike across Canada.  He’d done it before.  A few times.  Left to right and right to left.  But that was years ago and this was different.  He wanted to touch the outer reaches of our country with his bike tires.  The corner crusts of our sandwich, the ones the kids don’t eat.  The farthest west, north, south and east a person could go, on a road.  “But why Dad, you’ve already done it?” I asked him.  “Because I love Canada” was his answer.  Well, who could argue with that?

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Dad (far right) and crazy cycling friends

My Dad took to biking in his mid forties when, as for a lot of us, running becomes just too painful on the joints. He got on that bike and something magical happened.  The saddle was his happy place.  When Dad was on that skinny seat with the wind in his face and a burning in his thighs he felt content.   Well he never told me that but he must have or he wouldn’t have spent so much of his life in that uncomfortable position.  

But Dad was 80 now and suffering from, among other things, bad arthritis in his knees and hands, scoliosis that made his spine swirl like a snake, macular degeneration in at least one eye and the biggie, Parkinson’s Disease.  His once muscular frame was so diminished and the medications so overwhelming that occasionally when he’d fall asleep at the dinner table he’d look very much like a skinny grieving question mark. 

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Yukon Dan and the open road

So when Dad told me about his scheme to ride his bike top to bottom and side to side, all over Canada, I decided to humour him and see just how far he was prepared to go.  Two of his six kids, my sister Janet and I were available to help him for the first stretch last spring and we set about equipping a van and tent trailer to act as support crew.  We piled in sleeping bags and grizzly bear bangers, pots and pans and bug hats, bike parts and maps.  I checked in with the Guinness people through their elaborate application process.  I explained Dad’s age, his illnesses and the scope of his journey.  They told me Dad didn’t meet their criteria. 

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Green drinks ala Janet keeping Dad strong

British Columbia is way taller than she is wide.  It took Dad, Janet and our dog Mocha three days just to drive from Vancouver up to Dawson in the Yukon.  They had to wait until the ice was off the river to cross and the summer road was cleared of snow to get started but once they got the go ahead Dad began his journey in late May 2013 at the “Top of the World Highway”, the most western road in Canada, where it borders Alaska.  The ‘highway”’ was rough, muddy and rocky, pavement can’t survive the elements there.  Progress was slow but he revelled in it, stopping to take photos of the majestic northern vistas.   He saw wolves, elk, big horn sheep, eagles and other wildlife as he peddled along alone.  Janet would flag him down every few hours and remind him to drink more water.  She’d make him meals on the camp stove and encourage him to eat as much as possible.  The Parkinson’s meds take away his appetite but he needed his strength to accomplish 10+ hours of cycling a day.  Then, as he began to tire, they’d tie a bright pink or green ribbon to a scrubby little  tree by the roadside to mark the spot he’d left off.  His motto was “EFI”.  You’ll have to ask him yourself what that stands for.  They’d shuttle to the nearest pull out or camp spot to bed down for the night and get up to do it all over again the next day.  

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Janet’s new puppy Pelly & Lyla

They hung a left at near Dawson and headed north up the Dempster Highway heading for Canada’s most northerly road at Inuvik.  Thank God there’s no road to Tuktoyaktuk or he’d have that in his sights too. They were turned back at Eagle Plains the Tombstone National Park campground as the road ahead was closed for 13km, when the road was washed out by the heavy melt.  He vowed to come back and complete that stretch later in the summer or Fall once it had a chance to dry out a little.   After three weeks of tough sledding they were closing in on Whitehorse.  My husband, 10 year old daughter and I flew up to take over as support crew.  Janet flew home with a new little puppy she’d picked up in Pelly Crossing, Yukon.  Her name is Pelly and like many northern dogs, her breed undetermined.  

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Just trees, mountains and the open road

After a warm and generous stay in Whitehorse with ‘Cousin Ed’ and his sweet lady Stacey, Dad set off  on the Alaska Highway heading diagonally south east for Alberta.  While he rode we prepared meals, tried to keep him hydrated, did laundry and minor bike maintenance, found places to camp and when available comfy hotel beds for Dad’s weary bones and twisted spine.  We read Robert Service poems by the campfire, swam in vast lakes and hardly saw a soul.  Not a power line, street light or fresh vegetable to be found.  Just endless undulating miles of trees, lakes and spectacular mountains. In Watson Lake we taped the seams of our tent trailer shut to keep out the millions of hungry mosquitoes.  We played cards for hours at the side of the road and read books with bug hats on.  I like to think we made them kind of fetching. 

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Your average day on the Alaska Hiway

Through rain, long dusty gravel construction zones and the unending climbs of the Continental Divide Dad just kept on peddling.  The black bears and grizzlies, wild bison and elk by the roadsides didn’t deter him either; he insisted they weren’t interested in a skinny old man.  They preferred the tender dandelions blooming in the ditches.  He was getting weather worn, bug bitten, skinny and … stronger.  Somewhere in Northern B.C. we had to buy him some suspenders to hold up his bike shorts as he was losing so much weight.  Because the Parkinson’s made it hard for him to swallow he often drank his half a beer at the end of the day through a straw.  He walked with a slow shuffle and his voice faltered to a soft whisper when the PD meds had worn off.  He had trouble doing up buttons and toothpaste tubes.  Simply taking a shower and getting dressed could take more than an hour because his fingers just weren’t cooperating any more.  And through all of this Dad just kept on riding.  Once he was on that bike he wasn’t shaky or weak, he was unstoppable. The disease was left behind.  Dad doesn’t talk much, but I think this was his idea of a good time. Plus, all the exercise helps to keep the ‘Parkies’ as he calls it, at bay. 

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Manly men of the north

My daughter Lyla and I had to head home to Vancouver.  Me to work and her she to finish grade 5.  My husband Cam stayed on as Dad’s wingman for a month.  They did man things like eat beans with bacon for breakfast and grow beards as Dad chalked up the miles.  There was some juggling of medication and a few hospital stops to get Dad checked out and better hydrated.  My husband couldn’t stay forever and we worried about Dad cycling unescorted through the Canadian wilds. He kept assuring us he could do it alone as he’d done before. That’s when his brother Larry from Saskatoon stepped up.  Larry and his wife Shirley had been on many cycling adventures with Dad in the past and they were happy to support for a couple of weeks of their summer vacation.  But they too had to get back to their busy lives leaving Dad on his own.  

“But Dad, how are you going to do it alone, you need so much help?” I asked him over his crackling cel phone.  In his shaky whispered voice he told me his plan. “People are nice, they’ll help”.  People are nice?  That was his fallback position?  He had pie at a rec. centre bridge club, dinner with strangers and a few times a free night’s stay at a roadside hotel.  People are nice.  Especially Canadians, it was working.   He made it almost to Winnipeg before he called it quits that August. He had ridden nearly over 4,000 km’s.  Dad said it was the pain in his back that made the cycling just too unbearable, not the Parkinson’s.  Later we found out that he’d fallen off his bike (not for the first time) west of town and been taken to hospital.  A detail he neglected to mention at the time. I told Dad I was proud of him and that he’d done so much to prove what people with Parkinson’s are capable of.  

Dad was not to be deterred that easily. That Fall (2013) with my brother Kevin from Nelson, BC as his roadie this time, they few back up to Whitehorse.  There was the little matter of the unfinished most northern road, The Dempster to Inuvik.  They rented a camper fit for the outback and headed back to the place he’d been forced to stopped before.  EFI remember.  Dad would ride ‘every f(%$#&*g inch’ of his planned itinerary.  Ah jeez, I told you.   I got the feeling he wanted to do it while he still could, before his once strong body began to shake and curl up like a fiddlehead. He was seized and stuck up to his axels.

BMuWS8yCQAEC9rN.jpg-largeOnce again, after days and days of trying the mud was just too deep and thick to carry on. Then, just north of Eagle Plaines a highway supervisor stopped them with the warning that the ferry just ahead may not be able to continue as truck have been blown over by the winds.

That northern box would remain unchecked, for now. 

Last Spring (2014) he decided to pick up where he’d left off, just west of Winnipeg.  This time he had a fancy new three wheeled bike so he wouldn’t fall over and he brought it to the house one day to show it off.  It was pretty cool.  A sort of reverse tricycle with two wheels in the front and one in the back.  It was a sweet machine.  He could even pull over and take naps without getting off.  After a few practice runs, a few crashes and necessary adjustments Dad was ready to set off again.  He packed his bike in his van and drove from Vancouver to Winnipeg.  This was actually  more frightening a prospect than his cycling.  Dad had been in a feisty debate with the motor vehicle branch about wether or not he could keep his driver’s licence.  His reaction times were slowing and his test results were pending. I think he may have taken off before the final letter arrived.  He abandoned his van in a motel parking lot near the Winnipeg airport.  

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Ready for part 2. Portage la Prairie

The tables had turned, Dad was now the mischievous teenager out there taking risks and getting into trouble and we were the parents waiting and wondering at home. He was still insisting that he could go it alone.  After all he had attached bright green flags to his bike for safety and had some food with him just in case.  Our cousin Laverne from Winnipeg drove him out west of Portage la Prairie and dropped him off on a lonely stretch of road.  She called us later that day to say how worried she was about leaving this tiny little man on the side of the Highway with its endless parade of huge semi trucks zooming by.  We were all worried. He could get squished like a bug.  We would just have to wait and let this thing play out.  I asked him not to nap on his trike on the shoulder of the highway.  He had a way of slumping over like a limp doll that made him look unconscious.  It could be quite frightening for the uninitiated.  There were a few times the police stopped to investigate. Perhaps concerned citizens had called in to report a dead man sitting on a tricycle on the side of the Trans Canada. 

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Cruising Ontario face to the rising sun

Dad was 81 now and during his years as a touring cyclist he’d  built up a large community of like minded (ok, crazy) friends.  It was these friends, the ones who understood his passion, that arrived, one by one, to blow on the embers of his dream.  First, the very enthusiastic Chris pitched in and escorted through the unpopulated and bug infested sector of northern Ontario with its foul weather and fierce headwinds.  Then a bike mechanic friend, Peter and his wife Diana, flew out to spend their two week vacation in southern Ontario zig zagging along with Dad.  They were with him when he reached the southern most point of Canada at Point Pelee.  Tick! Dad was picking up steam. In fact, he was having such a great time admiring the scenery on Pelee Island he decided to go for an extra spin while waiting for the return ferry. 

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Chris Hodgson, Clara Hughes and Dad. Another ‘Big Ride.’

He wanted to touch his wheel to the most southern piece of real estate in our country.  He took a little too long, no doubt stopping to take photos. The ferry crew just couldn’t wait and had closed the gates, strung the chains across the bow and rolled up the plank when Dad came busting through the pay station full speed, green flags flapping, to the cheers of the passengers already on the upper deck.  That may be the first time in history the Pelee Island Ferry returned to the dock to pick up a late passenger.  The crew even threw together a few bucks to make a donation to Dad’s Parkinson’s fund.  Ross Ens came to help our and another old bike buddy Peter Winford, flew out to take a shift from Toronto and rode shotgun through the maritimes before he had to head home as well.  When Dad was interviewed by the local CBC affiliate in PEI the reporter asked him why he was doing what he was doing?  There was a definite twinkle in his eye when he said in his soft voice “it’s important to have a purpose”.  He had help from other biking friends too.  Roy, Ross Ens and Peter Winford all flew out to ride shotgun for a bit. 

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Cape Spear. Made it!!

Fittingly, Dad would take the ferry to Newfoundland alone.  Derek and other kind members of the Parkinson’s Society of Nfld and Labrador met him and welcomed him to the rock. They even took him out for dinner and found him a nice place to stay.  A few days later when Dad arrived at the Cape Spear lighthouse, by police escort, there was a small but enthusiastic crowd clapping and cheering him on.  As far east as you can go and still be in Canada.  The place where Terry Fox had begun his journey.  My sister Janet had called the lighthouse.  Who knew you could call call the Cape Spear lighthouse?  They lowered the flag and presented him with the red maple leaf on the rocky shore of the Atlantic. His long ride was over. 

But a flag, like our country, has four corners.  Dad had quietly and slowly traversed more than 10,000 km’s of our vast land under his own steam.  Bad weather, illnesses and other people’s doubt had not deterred him.  When I told him how proud I was of him and what a great accomplishment he’d achieved he said…”what do you think about next September for the Dempster?”  He will be 82 then.  

Sincerely,

Tara McGuire, North Vancouver, BC

Here is the podcast from The Vinyl Cafe.