Death Mask – Troubled Dreams on the road to Clay & Bone (Part 2)

(For Part 1 of the Death Mask Chronicle, please see:   https://clayandbone.com/2016/12/13/death-mask-troubled-dreams-on-the-road-to-clay-bone/  )

It had been a rough three years, but there was more to come. Ben had just been murdered, I was newly unemployed and preparing to vacate the house which I no longer owned. Ironically, despite tragedy and crippling grief the first thing that loved ones closest to the deceased must do is “make arrangements”. For me this meant writing Ben’s eulogy and assisting with the celebration of life event. Ben was an extremely popular man, as a business owner and lead singer of a local funk band – Big Head Project –  we knew that his memorial would be well attended. The band wanted a venue where they could rock out in Ben’s honour and also accommodate a large crowd. As fate would have it, one of the member’s knew the owner of Richards on Richards and was able to wrangle this nightclub as our venue before it was to shut down forever. (I believe we were the last show on this well-known stage) …the bagpiper piped, the Rabbi prayed, I eulogized, the people grieved and the band rocked. I played a bit of blues harp with the band, and Ben Banky shut down Richards on Richards. Love you Ben.

Life pulls you along and you must follow. My partner C. and I began the search for new accommodation …winter was heavy that year with much snow.  My drinking was also heavy with a new heaviness of heart to go with it. Having lost a couple of key friends who -not surprisingly – loved to drink, I learned how to drink alone if others were unavailable. On a cold January night in 2009 as the snow was falling I decided to make one last fire in my back yard fire pit before we were to vacate the house. I was drinking wine and burning documents. It was nothing for me to finish a bottle and drive to the liquor store for another – which I did – and to fire up a doobie to amplify my inebriation. I was drinking to blackout frequently at this point…which I did that evening…but this time I fell face first into the ashes and embers of the not quite dead fire. I guess that I too was not quite dead, as I awoke quite quickly. One side of my face, from my chin to my nose was burned and scraped in a slight “grill pattern”. My coat was covered in snowflakes and ashes from the fire, and, thanks to my drunkenness, I felt no pain. I went in the house, took off my clothes and crawled into bed next to C. and fell asleep. The next day I told her that I had slipped on the icy steps and damaged my face. It was not the first, nor would it be the last lie told to cover my increasingly damaging & self-destructive behaviour.

As I write this I am sitting in a Starbucks on West Broadway in Vancouver…it is mid afternoon on December 28, 2016. The remains of yesterday’s snowfall are being erased by the rains which have come. To diminish the incessant and glib real estate conversation of the rather loud woman sitting next to me, I’ve donned my headphones & toque & have put my Chillout playlist on loud…it is having little effect. Rain and conversations about real estate…two seemingly unavoidable irritants of living in this town.

There are always several – or more – realities playing out in any one individuals life story. The Death Mask Chronicle is a snapshot and, admittedly, the focus is a little dark. Be assured that joy and growth and love and laughter coexist within this story. Life is, at the very least, dualistic. Where comedy prevailed, tragedy now stepped in. Where I had been Yinning I now Yanged. The seven year period that this story covers (Parts 1 & 2) – between 2005 and 2012 – was notable for the relative difference from what had preceded it. Predictabilty had become chaotic. Weddings became funerals.  The intent of this story is not to garner sympathy. We all must go through some pain on this journey, this is just my shit – yours may arrive earlier or be much deeper…and that will be your story.

The last e-mail that I received from Ben on the day that he died was a reminder that we were on the registration list for the 10th Annual Hornby Island Blues Workshop. It was here that he and I had met ten years prior, and, in honour of this, his widow Linda and our good pal “Big Head” Johnny were determined to attend. At this juncture, my drinking was perhaps even more out of control  than was usual and my participation in the classes was limited by my bleary-eyed hangovers and urge to leave early and continue boozing. Out of this foggy experience though,  I do remember Tempest, a young woman and street performer who stood out for her unique look and brash demeanour. We had some classes together and shared some laughs. She was fun & talented and bright, and, within six months would become Hornby Islands first homicide victim…

If you know Hornby Island, you know that this kind of thing is just not supposed to happen there. Hornby is a small and loving community of gentle souls with a deep well of reverence and compassion. It is a community designed for art & music, spirituality & sustainability, fun & festivals. Sigh. Although I did not know her well, Tempest’s murder, coming less than a year after Ben’s murder – both of whom I met at the Hornby Island Blues Workshop added a further sense of unreality to this already troubled dreamlike state. I started to feel beleaguered and cursed. My ego was placing me in the centre of a  solar system orbited by tragic moons.

But here’s the thing…outlier events happen. Probabilities be damned…randomness occurs. At the time I didn’t quite see it. I was sensitized to tragic events and attached meaning to them. Ten friends and loved ones perished during this death storm and I was drenched in sad significance.

By the end of 2009, my ex-wife Elaine’s early-onset Alzheimers had deteriorated to the point that my 22 year-old son was finding it increasingly challenging to care for her and also devote sufficient time to his University studies. Elaine was now nine years into a disease that was predicted to take her life within eight. Her condition had reached a point where she needed full time care so we, as a family, convened and put a plan in place to try and care for her at home with the assistance a live-in Philippina caregiver – Daisy. I took on the administrative role, contacting the agencies, hiring the caregivers and looking after the necessary paperwork. My son was on the front lines of this illness, living with his mother and managing her house & financial affairs. Daisy took care of Elaine’s day-to-day needs, cooking, cleaning & “keeping an eye on her”, and Elaine’s sister pitched in wherever necessary, for this group we called, “Team Elaine”.

Although these new responsibilities which I had adopted would preclude moving out of town until Elaine had reached a point of requiring institutionalization (I had no way of knowing when this might be), it did not stop my property search – I had agents in the Okanagan, the Sunshine Coast, the Comox Valley, Powell River and the Cowichan Valley and the Gulf Islands constantly feeding me listings. Whenever an interesting property would come to my attention I would go on a road trip – to check out the property and also pursue my other hobby – excessive drinking at my favourite out-of-town pubs.

A new day, a new coffee shop. Since I sold my place and left my job (I’m calling this semi-retirement) I spend a lot of time in coffee shops. I like coffee and I like the buzz of people. It is December 29 and I am parked in Artigiano at 24th and Main. Although I want to finish this story – Death Mask Chronicle Parts 1 & 2 – I am having concerns that it may all seem self-serving and fixated on tragedy & bleak events. Today I feel impatient and desirous of moving into the light, as it were. The light will come in the form of additional Journal stories both here, on Clay and Bone, and on my http://www.shavasana.ca website where I’ll be blogging about lighter subject matter. Until that time though, I must soldier on and complete the task at hand…gruelling despair, demoralization and gut-wrenching tragedy awaits! (and perhaps a little self-deprecating  humour ;)…

One unanticipated downside to selling ones house and renting is – eviction. The landlords decided to sell the house that C. and I were living in in Kerrisdale and we were – once again – in need of moving. This was an indication of the beginning of the real estate insanity that was to grip Vancouver over the next 6 years. After the near collapse of the global economy in ’08 – ’09, the Asians were coming with buckets of cash. The move proved somewhat fortuitous though as we wound up back in Kitsilano – a favourite neighbourhood where I had principally lived since 1992.

Compared to the previous five, 2010 was a relatively benign year…Elaine was continuing her downward slide, and we needed a second caregiver to assist with her full-time care, and to give Daisy a break. Florence stepped in and now we were six. They say it takes a village to raise a child, the same seems to be true during our decline. Elaine was on 26 pills a day and a slew of medical professionals interwove themselves into her caregiving. Thank you Canadian medical system…thank you.

The medical system was also attempting to give me some cautionary advice but I paid no attention – my Doctor was warning me about the consequences of elevated liver enzymes, and politely suggested that I curtail or limit my drinking – but I wasn’t ready to hear. Following a particularly overindulgent (but fun) stag party in Vegas (where I missed my return flight because I’d passed out at the airport), I returned home in an absolutely toxic state and decided to quit drinking – cold turkey – for several days because I needed to clean myself up before I was to drive down to Burning Man Festival the following week. Three days after stopping drinking I suffered an alcohol withdrawal seizure, collapsed and broke my foot.

Now…you’d think that this kind of wake up call would be enough to convince a hard core drinker like myself to hang up the beer mug for good, and, for a time it worked. It was almost a relief that now, after suffering a seizure & a broken limb, I had an undeniable reason to quit drinking. Unlike the previous four or five times that I’d tried to quit, I embraced this new resolve imbued with the sense that I was now facing a do or die situation. I felt confident that, at last, I had the wake up call that I needed and that this time – unlike the other times – there would be no recidivism….but here’s the reality of the situation. I knew myself all too well and built a caveat into my new resolve. This time, if I fell off the wagon, I’d have to go to AA. …a kind of subtle and sneaky second chance to recommence binging and then have the ultimate punishment…AA

2010 was the year that the Arab Spring began, and also the year that the trial of Ben’s murderer took place. Ongoing momentous changes in the middle east of which I was an avid observer, and court proceedings brought against my friends killer for which I was in constant attendance. It’s a sad irony that Ben had actually hired this guy out of compassion…gave him a job because he’d fallen on hard times. I had met the gunman at a previous staff party…we shook hands and exchanged small talk in the kitchen of Ben’s home. Sigh.

Although the exact dates escape me…it was during this time that three children of friends of mine had also been diagnosed with cancer. Ivy and Ryan were stricken with Leukemia, and Nigel had contracted a rare form of cancer, the name of which I can’t recall. Only Ivy would survive. If you’ve been able to stomach reading “Death Mask” thus far I hope you can appreciate the almost relentlessly bleak journey that I (and so many others) were travelling during this time. Personally, I don’t think it gets worse in this life than the death of a child. Although I was – to varying degrees – on the periphery of these tragic paths, as a caring individual, and a father, I suffered alongside my friends. My heart goes out to them still.

My resolve lasted roughly six months before I fell off the wagon…again. It’s a strange process…it’s as if I’d forgotten how bad it was, or, convinced myself that I was miraculously “healed” and that I could now drink again with impunity. It doesn’t work that way. When I fell off the wagon, I went at it hammer and tongs, diving down down down to where I’d left off. But for some reason I’d forgotten my pledge to join AA. No, I needed to punish myself, and others with another round of bad boy behaviour before I would ultimately find redemption. This next round of drinking would find me getting into near scraps – physically and verbally – with good friends, passing out in parks, and driving while intoxicated…here’s a message from that dark time:

Forgiveness…a good thing to give and receive, and the best outcome that one can expect from heartfelt Step 9 work. I was still many months away from its healing power.

By mid 2011 Elaine’s condition had reached a point where she required admittance to an institution. Soon she would need special lifts and harnesses for bathing, and wheelchairs for mobility. Our petite (yet extremely competent and hardworking) Philippina caregivers would not be up for the task – it was time. Not surprisingly, once we managed to get Elaine into a care facility most of the pressures on Team Elaine were eliminated. We all knew she was in good 24/7 hands and our work, beyond visiting, was done.

By the fall of 2011 I had ramped up my out of town property search –  which were thinly disguised drinking trips to “really get to know the community”. I had pretty much decided on the Sunshine Coast  for its beauty, affordability and proximity to Vancouver (my partner C. did not relish the semi-rural life that I was proffering, and had obligations in the city). An ex-coworker of mine who suffered from Crohn’s Disease and had a licence to grow marijuana, but nowhere to grow it approached me with the idea of – legally – growing it for  her. I agreed to this wholeheartedly, and also decided to have a small version of the home distillery that Ben and I had dreamed about. This vision of a booze and pot-fuelled paradise required at least an acre, with outbuildings, which I found in Halfmoon Bay…I offered with subjects, they accepted.

The day that the subjects were to be removed I suffered from the worst case of buyers dissonance that I’d ever experienced. I’ve owned  four houses previously but had never encountered this powerful feeling of dread and remorse before. I was like a deer in the headlights, I couldn’t go through with the deal. Perhaps it was self-preservation. Perhaps some vestigial remnant of my consciousness  was trying to tell me that being an alcoholic, alone on a rural property, with a barn full of pot, and a distillery full of Apple Snake was not going to turn out well. This became a path not taken. It would have been a different life – or perhaps no life at all. Whether I would have drank myself to death or driven off the twisting highway of the Sunshine Coast after some late-night bender I will never know. Saved by visceral feelings. After this, any move out of town will definitely need to be preceded by full sobriety.

For most of us death arrives by telephone. For some it may be first hand – the bedside vigil or the unpleasant discovery – but most will get “the call”. I had experienced so much death over the previous six years, that receiving calls from friends or family at unexpected times had left me a little apprehensive. When my dear friend Kris called one afternoon in September 2011 to let me know that his 22 year-old daughter had fulfilled a decision to end her life, I felt stunned and broken. I had know Z. since she was a small child and loved her and her sister as if they were my own kids. She was bright, talented, and vivacious and always added sparkle to social gatherings. I felt lost and didn’t quite know what to do. After I put the phone down, I left my home and walked the 12 blocks to Kris’s house to give him a hug and, amidst tears,…kiss his hand, and then I went home to stare at the wall. On this earth, it does not get much worse than losing your child. Personally, I can think of nothing worse.

There’s a saying in AA that, “At first it’s fun, then it’s fun with problems, then it’s just problems”…I was reaching the “just problematic” phase. There’s no justification for excessive drinking when your doctor has given you the “liver warning”, you’ve had a seizure, and now, hangovers are laced with sad memories of tragic events. I was co-existing with serious cognitive dissonance. Although I was never one to actively consider suicide it was during this latter phase that the thought occurred to me that, “…all these problems would go away if I were dead”. So I get it. Even now, if I am feeling despondent for more than a day I think, “hmmm…I wouldn’t want the rest of my life to be like this”…fortunately, despondency rarely lasts more than a day – or two – and I have developed the tools and techniques with which to mitigate it.

I am now in the final stretch of this Death Mask Chronicle…it ends on April 25, 2012…the morning that I woke up in my red Van in the parking lot of a bakery in Sechelt, hungover,  having driven there the night before from Pender Harbour…completely wasted… This was the seminal moment  when I was finally able to face the music and enter the AA program. At the end of the day, it wasn’t concern about my own well being but fear that my drinking and driving might actually harm someone else. I didn’t want to be the cause of someone else’s tragedy…I’d already had enough. This thought was the epiphany I needed to “man up” and face responsibility for my behaviour and actions. Whatever it takes…a wake-up call, a moment of fear, an epiphany or the loving guidance of one’s Higher Power…I am grateful…profoundly so. Thanks AA.

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