Monday, March 29, 2010

Ode to Cardigan

As I drove away from home on Saturday morning, the sun was brilliant through the windshield and pretty much blinded me until I pulled over to find my sunglasses.  I cracked open the window to enjoy the breeze, and immediately my lungs were infused with cool, pristine spring air that tasted so good that I was able to swallow with it some of the anxiety that had been building in me since the previous evening.  I kept looking at the brochure on the seat beside me, wondering if I was doing the right thing.  It's a scary thing to go to a full-day writing workshop, and to presume to be in the company of people who considered themselves writers.  Yet, that's exactly where I was headed.  All I'd been able to think about the night before was that, in all likelihood, I'd have to write something that day and have to read it aloud to the other participants...and to the facilitator:  renowned author Jake MacDonald - author of tons of stuff, including two books that I love (Houseboat Chronicles and Grizzlyville).  Talk about vulnerability.  I briefly felt like throwing up, but around then the air started to permeate my brain haze, and my nerves relaxed.

It was helpful that the workshop was held at one of my favourite all-time spots here:  a local environmental centre with 640 acres of beautiful outdoor and indoor natural settings designed to promote environmental education, outdoor recreation, and sustainable living initiatives.  I've spent many an hour wandering the trails there, peering into living marshy ponds from the boardwalks spanning their lengths, watching the buffalo herds and prairie dog families.  One evening last fall, Geoff, Matthew and I spread blankets on the lakeshores there, and lay on our backs watching tens of thousands of migrating geese settle into those waters for a night's rest...though how they could sleep surrounded by so many honking geese was a mystery to us.

By the time I arrived on location, a measure of peace had settled onto my shoulders and I was ok again.  We fourteen participants were transported out to an isolated building built along the edges of a lake that still had a thin crust of ice blanketing it; later in the day we would see geese picking their way carefully across that sheet, on their way to finding a nesting spot in the long grasses of the far shore.  The building wasn't large, but it was homey and comfortable: a wood fire poured heat into the room, and a tall, living tree trunk that grew out of the floor and ended somewhere on the other side of the roof gave the impression that it was holding up the centre of the room.  Our work tables were set up to encircle the tree trunk.

Sitting at my table, hands poised on the keyboard of my computer, I wasn't surprised that one of the first exercises was to take ten minutes (monitored by an egg timer) and write down, in a line or two, ten or fifteen memories; the first ones to come to our minds.  Many of us were asked to share a handful of our memory fragments.  A while later, we were instructed to take one of our memories and develop the detail around it - again, in a ten minute block.  Many were asked to read these out loud as well.  Then, after a discussion about "exposition" versus "scene," we were asked to take our memory and change the writing of it in such a way as to create it a scene.  We were given a ten or fifteen minute block to do this.  I was one of the people asked to read my scene aloud - I did so, somewhat emotionally and anxiously.  I was then given feedback on it, by the facilitator and by the other participants: both good and constructive.  The remainder of the day went similarly and, almost to my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I learned a few things, know how I can make a few small improvements to my writing, and was (ultimately) ok with sharing what I wrote.  It was good for me.

Sitting here at a different desk just now, I have afforded myself fifteen minutes (minus the egg timer!) to incorporate (I hope) a couple of the suggestions given to me about the scene I read out loud.  For whatever reason, the first memory that came to me on Saturday was something that happened quite a number of years ago, when my first pet died.  Here's an admittedly unpolished scene reflecting that memory:
It was April 7th, 1994, and I walked into the vet hospital with an easy step, thinking that my feline companion was coming home with me that day.  But instead of being waved by reception to the back where my cat was kennelled, I was asked to wait in a small room adjoining the entrance. It was an examining room, complete with examination table and the requisite posters of cavorting puppies and kittens. Moments later, the doctor came in, and asked me to sit.  He sat in a chair in front of me, so that our knees were inches from touching.  He was a middle-aged, kindly-looking man whose face and upper body were, in my line of sight, perfectly centered in the doorway a few feet behind him; he looked picture-framed, I thought, and I smiled.  Because his eyes were too serious for the occasion, I felt a prickle of apprehension, but dismissed it.  I shouldn’t have.  His lips were moving.
“Ruth,” he was saying, “I’m very sorry to have to tell you this, but I have some unfortunate news for you.”  
He leaned forward and touched my arm with his fingers, then left his hand resting there.  The gentle warmth of the touch mirrored that of his tone.  My prickle of uncertainty crept out again and suddenly I wasn't sure that I wanted to have this conversation. I felt myself cock my head slightly, testing the air; sure enough, the room felt intangibly at odds with my lingering smile. Was Cardi diabetic?  That was a possibility.  Did he need an operation?  I didn't know how I'd come up with the money but I had before and would again.
“I'm so sorry, but sometime during the night, after the last check of the evening, Cardi died.” 
I heard the words, but was bewildered.  What??  I’d arrived moments before cheerfully, and my heart was still light. Cardi was coming home today. I couldn’t absorb what he was saying. I could come up with the money for an operation.  I remember shaking my head and asking if he could repeat what he’d said. It was only after he’d said it again that I could feel my smile fade. 
"Would you like to see Cardi?" he asked. 
"Of course," I said automatically, in a blur. 
When he left, I put my head between my knees, breathing hard, staring at the linoleum.  He was gone just long enough for my sense of well-being to disappear completely; I worked hard to catch up with the change in my outlook.  He brought Cardi in and lay him on the table.  I asked to be alone with him, unable to relieve my eyes until it was just the two of us.
Then the tears came, as they would even many years later when revisiting this moment.  How could this be?  How?  I reached out to touch him, expecting the usual nose butt to greet my hand. When it didn’t come, my hand continued its path to his head, and I touched first the small ripped ear which he’d come home with years before, after a night’s mysterious absence. My hand took its time, traveling down his silky substance.  It noted that his stomach was still rounded with the contentment of a life well lived.  It hesitated when it reached his tail, usually so sensitive and unwelcoming of touch; this time, my hand travelled all the way to its end, perhaps for the first time.  I touched each of his legs in turn, lingering on the one that had been broken when he’d been hit by a car; I could feel the strength of the steel plate that had been imbedded there. Oh, that the steel might yet strengthen his depleted body.
I took his face in my hands, and remembered the first time I’d seen him, eleven years earlier, when the small bundle of fur I’d picked up had nestled into my neck as if rooting for, and finding, its mother.  He was nothing special to look at, I was told that first day:  dark grey, black-striped, eyes that were later duplicated in the amber stone of a ring I still had at home.  Something about him, though, had captured my heart at that first meeting - his burrowing into me had blunted something in the life-sharpened edges of my heart.  I named him Cardigan after a cat I’d read about in a childhood story, and somehow that name predestined him to become the snuggler that he was. Everywhere he had traveled with me since that day, as close and familiar as the features of my own face. From province to province, experience to experience, we journeyed life together.  We understood each other, respected each other, were each other’s companion of choice.
As I ran fingers down his cheeks and scratched the favourite spot under his narrow chin, the absence of a vibrating throat was telltale of today’s end point - the end of our journey.  I knew that I would enter my home later that day in silence, with no approaching footsteps to greet me and no familiar grunt to welcome me home.  Unexpectedly, shockingly, today was the final day.  This was the final caress. This the final good-bye.

* Thank you, Sheldon and Sharla, for your comments and kind words.  They mean a lot!!! 


  1. Great story. You're very descriptive, which adds to the story. I'd buy your book :)

  2. my goodness woman!!! why would you ever doubt your skills as a writer? you have talent!